Art that makes we want to be a better artist, or, we should all be this good, all the time.

Merce Cunningham passed away earlier this month,  and I found myself feeling very sad.  I had never met him, I’m not a dancer, nor do I follow contemporary dance – the sadness, I think came from the simple fact that a photo of his piece, Antic Meet was the most recent piece to completely and totally blow my mind.

I was in the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in June and was wandering through the display cases holding letters, album covers, catalogues and other ephemera, and suddenly, there it was.


Antic Meet / Ett Nummer was first performed in 1958 at the American Dance Festival, Connecticut College.  In the piece, which was accompanied by  John Cage’s Concert for piano and orchestra, Sometimes: Solo for Piano, and Fontana Mix, Cunningham and others wore chairs strapped to their backs.  The photos documented a series of gestures with the chairs, of Cunningham bending over, sitting and leaping.  The costumes, which were designed by Robert Rauschenberg, perfectly illustrated the relationship between the body of the performer and the utility of the object.

During my residency at CAMPER I have been working on what I call a mobile performance device, which is an umbrella that generates sound in response to body capacitance.  It has been a difficult piece to do – a number of similar projects have happened in the past decade, so a lot of my time has been spent working on Arduino code and trying to figure out why, in spite of the similarities between these pieces and my own, and I completely and totally compelled to continue with it.  

Here is a sampling of some of the projects that use umbrellas as a starting point:

Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Katherine Moriwaki's  UMBRELLA.NET is a series of umbrellas that form ad hoc networks in public spaces.  The umbrellas emit light in response to network activity and their proximity with other umbrellas the network, examining how "how shared, yet disconnected activities can be harnessed into collective experiences."

Joo Youn Paek's  Polite Umbrella uses a simple drawstring to reduce the size of  the umbrella's perimeter, reflecting both the agency of the user-performer and forming a dome-shaped sculptural beacon.

Mark Shepard's  CCD-Me-Not Umbrella  is an umbrella housing infrared LEDs, whose light is detectable only by CCD surveillance cameras.  When the umbrellas are activated, the light forms a visual barrier that interferes with the detection system.

Sang-Kyun Park's Light Drops is an umbrella that generates light in response to rain.  The umbrellas are constructed from responsive fabric that generates electricity when it is hit by raindrops, which in turn power a network of LEDs lining the inside of the umbrella.  The more rain that hits the umbrella, the more light that is generated. 

Electric Umbrella by sockmaster, distributed via instructables.com.  

I think the answer may lie with how one thinks about one’s work, and the lessons I’ve learned from the SOUNDBIKE. The piece was conceived in 2004, and finished in 2005, and I had many conversations with David McCallum as I was developing it.  David was working on what would end up being WarBike, and had figured out a way for pD to work from a PDA.  It was weird to talk with someone who was doing a piece that on one hand was very different, but was also very similar, but David was helpful and generous, and in 2007 we showed our respective pieces at InterAccess, side by side.

Shortly after the piece was completed, it was included in a show in Cambridge, and then ended up at Art Basel Miami Beach.  The piece was extremely popular and it ended up in design, technology and gear type blogs almost instantaneously.  I found this extremely unnerving – I was often described as an inventor, a designer and a project developer, and the soundbikes, which I considered a device to facilitate a performance, were described as almost a product.

From that experience, I decided to create work that examined the relationship between the object, the performance and the audience – the Freestyle SoundKit was cheap, easy-to-replicate, and wholly unpredictable, Give it Up was literally a framework, and Freestyle SoundHack was a performance where I gave up the SoundKit.  (more info is at jessicathompson.ca)

So with this umbrella, on one hand, I’m treading down well-worn territory, and on the other, I’m obsessed with the performative situations that can emerge from such a device. There is tension here, between object and experience, gesture and performance, and artwork and commodity.  Instead of focusing on the useful, the intuitive or the applicable, what can we learn from the awkward, the complicated and the uncomfortable?

Below are three other artworks that I’ve been thinking about lately in the context of this piece:


Rebecca Horn

Finger Gloves  (1972)

Rebecca Horn’s Finger Gloves were two glove like devices that extended the artist’s fingers to reach the floor.  The finger-gloves were used to facilitate performances small-scale performances in which the artist used the devices to perform a series of actions.  The artist describes the work as an “instrument to extend manual sensibility:

The finger-gloves are light – I can move them without any effort – feel, touch, grasp anything, but keeping a certain distance from the objects.  The lever-action of the lengthened fingers intensifies the various sense data of the hand.  The manual activity is experienced in a new operational mode: I feel myself grasping, I control the distance between me and the objects.

Vergine, Lea. (2000)  Body Art and Performance: The Body as Language.  Milan: Skia p. 115



Danel Buren 

Seven Ballets in Manhattan (1975)

Daniel Buren’s Seven Ballets in Manhattan was a series of choreographed actions that took place in various neighbourhoods between May 27 and June 2, 1975. In the piece, five people walked through the different neighbourhoods carrying signs painted in vertical stripes in different colours.  The configurations of dancers and signs were choreographed in advance by the artist.  The vertical stripes, a repeated motif in Buren’s work, reflected the surrounding architecture while at the same time reducing architecture into neutral patterns.

Allora & Calzadilla’s

Chalk (2002)

In Chalk, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla placed large, human-scale pieces of chalk in a public plaza outside the Parliament buildings and president’s mansion in Lima, Peru. Passersby could use the chalk to draw, write, or mark territory.  As the day wore on, protesters used the chalk to express themselves politically.  What is interesting to me about Allora & Calzadilla’s piece is the way in which the scale of the object informs the action taken with the object, which remains in spite of the inevitable destruction of the pieces.  The large pieces of chalk, which are heavier and more fragile than the smaller pieces, became fragmented very quickly, and participants, started to use the smaller pieces to draw and write. In spite of this, the lines, text and images created still reflected the size of the chalk, and of the bodies making them.

This post marks the end of my participation in M:ST 4.5 and CAMPER.

Thank so much to Nicole Burisch and Keltie Duncan from M:ST, Renato Vitic, Suzanne Piechotta, and Byron Rich from TRUCK.


What Bike Hacks teach me about cities

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Bike Hack + Soundride was first performed in Cambridge. We started at Art Interactive, and rode off in the drizzling rain, through the streets, and onto the Harvard campus, where Parents’ Day was in full swing. We split up, and then spent the next 15 minutes whizzing, loudly, around well dressed students, parents, professors, and grandparents.

In Cambridge, like Boston, you have to engage in extremely defensive cycling. For example, you don’t stop at intersections unless you can absolutely not help it. If you do, a car will cut you off. Critical Masses are less a celebration of cycling culture and more (at least they were in 2005) a defiant stand against the cops.

In Toronto, you can generally expect not to get cut off at intersections, and when I did the Bike Hack at InterAccess during the 2007 Nuit Blanche, we were the envy of most of the revelers trapped on Queen West. The festival had decided that year to host events throughout the gallery district, which caused mayhem for blocks. Cars full of excited visitors attempted to get to the spaces. The streetcars were like landlocked whales. And we, led by a guy in a mask that arrived to “guide us through” (I heart relational art) clattered along the street, between the cars, and around to Kensington Market.

In Copenhagen, cycling is a way of life and as a Toronto-based, living-in-Buffalo commuter cyclist, I kind of suck by comparison. The area where I am the most inept is when I am being passed. In Toronto, we ring, we give room, and we pass. Ring, Room, Pass. In Copenhagen, they pass you so closely, that they brush you. This would automatically set me into absolute, wheel wiggling, bell ringing alarm every time it happened. I was concerned when I did the Bike Hack that it wouldn’t really be well received – if everyone cycles, would playing cards, mikes and amps not be kind of ordinary? It turns out that it was very well received, which was good, and we attracted a lot of attention from confused passersby. A short video of that performance is here:

In Sibiu, Romania, cycling is perceived in completely the opposite way. Cycling is what you do when you don’t have a car, and if you don’t have a car, you must be hovering near the poverty line. I did the Bike Hack as part of a residency at artlabs, and I was laughed at, from cars, as I rode around the city. There is no biking for the sake of the planet, there are no beautiful people biking along in nice outfits, and I seriously got laughed at, more than once. This being said, the cyclists that do ride, do so with absolute conviction. When we took to the streets after the workshop, it was almost as if we were engaging in an act of political activism. It was awesome.

In Calgary, cycling is interesting. There were a few things I didn’t get at the beginning, and I was lucky enough to get few observations/survival tips, which I will share, for the sake of fellow visitors, who may be used to doing things slightly differently:

1. Bikes and pedestrians share the trails. I have never seen more people running, or walking along shared trails at all times of the day in my life. There is a speed limit for cyclists of 10 km per hour, which seems painfully slow, but at the same time, given the number of people around, is probably quite necessary. Everyone seems to work together, more or less, and parts of the trail are less crowded than other parts.

2. A lot of cyclists ride on the sidewalk, and sometimes you get honked at when you’re not on the sidewalk. This was weird for me, as I almost never ride on the sidewalk unless I’m about to park, or someone is threatening to run me over. Motorists here seem genuinely surprised to see a cyclist, especially on bridges and overpasses, which I like to ride on because a) going into downtown is downhill and fast; b) the sidewalks are full of pedestrians, so riding around them while going downhill seems inconsiderate and dangerous; and c) I like riding down hills.

3. You have to really be careful not to get doored. Motorists who park just don’t seem to look before they open their doors. In Toronto, this is also a problem, which is made worse by the fact that we have more cyclists, we have bike lanes, and many people get doored by people who park illegally in the bike lanes. On the upside, we have a Cyclists’ Union.

Tonight’s Bike Hack + Soundride was fantastic – the Good Life Bike Shop was packed, and in spite of the persistent drizzle, we took off for a short ride through Chinatown. There were lots and lots of photos being taken and there will be video somewhere on the Fast Forward website in the next few days. Thanks to all who attended – see you @ Critical Mass tomorrow.

I also wanted to send a big thank you to the folks at the Good Life Bike Shop, who, in addition to hosting noisy, chaotic workshops, has been signing out the SOUNDBIKE all month. Everyone is really nice, and they have a ton of workshops. For more info, visit them online.


BetaTest | Virtual Cocktail | Bike Hack

When Justin and I met three (four) weeks ago we discussed using our blog posts to engage in some sort of Dialogue, with the idea that one of us would post, the other would respond, and so it would go.  Justin and I met each other sometime in the early 2000’s, most likely through Powell, Director of p|m Gallery in Toronto, so we both kind of figured that between our shared interests, our mutual acquaintances and our tendency to be a bit chatty, that it wouldn’t be a problem.  But, I dropped the ball, and this post is an attempt to fill you in on what I have been up to this past month in Calgary.

I was brought here by both M:ST and Truck Gallery, to show SOUNDBIKE and Bike Hack + SoundRide, (described by the deservedly-smug Keltie, who, on her first try, could solder more neatly than I can) but also to take part in CAMPER, the Contemporary Art Mobile Public Exhibition Rig, hosted by TRUCK and taking place, literally in a camper.  I’ve soldered and programmed, reprogrammed and chatted, made runs to HWV Tech (best electronic supplier ever! just up the street!) and instigated a few things.

The advantage to being in a place for a month is the opportunities to make meaningful connections with the community.  By “meaningful connections” I mean (in my own too-many-years-in-arts-administratrivy) way, that you can actually get to know people, hang out, learn things and also share things.  I’ve been very lucky to have had the opportunity to show my work all over, but usually, I arrive, install or perform, and then have to leave.  And while most local artists I meet are very welcoming, you do feel a bit like an alien, you’re a part of things because you’re part of whatever thing goes on, but really, your kind of not – people ask you questions, you try to meet  people, but ultimately time constraints get in the way.

So when I was asked to make a residency proposal, I decided to use CAMPER as a platform in which I could facilitate collaborative events involving local artists.  Here is what we have been up to:

BetaTest (Open Lab + Potluck)

July 11, 2009

BetaTest was a public event where I invited other media artists to present completed works or works-in-progress.  The event featured presentations by Leah Rodgers, (on the newly-formed Dorkbot-Calgary and her awesome DeVoweler project) Ken Buera, (on his performance based videos using surveillance cameras) Byron Rich (on way too many projects to count) and myself. (on my mobile performance device, an  umbrella that emits sound in response to the actions of the user)

Virtual Cocktail (Calgary and Toronto)

July 17, 2009, hosted by Emmedia

July 29, 2009, hosted by The New Gallery (12 noon! Come!)

William Huffman and I have been having what we call “Virtual Cocktails” for about a year.   William is arts administrator, curator, educator and writer is currently the Associate Director of the Toronto Arts Council. The setup isn’t that elaborate (Skype + webcam + speakers + alcohol) but they are a lot of fun, and a great way for people from different areas to meet each other.  Our first cocktail, which was sometime in early 2007, brought together William, myself, Cheryl Rondeau, Marie Legault and Rene Rivoire.  William, Cheryl, and Marie were in Toronto, I was in Buffalo, and Rene was in Marseilles, France. 

When I arrived in Calgary, one of the things that struck me right away was the degree to which the artist-run-centres here collaborate with each other.   Staff members often serve on boards of other galleries.  They co-produce residencies.  They borrow gear.  They share staff members. They scheme about buying buildings.  Toronto ARC’s also collaborate, but I wasn’t sure to what extent, and I’m not always in the loop.  So I thought that since William spent quite a few years working at A Space, that perhaps it would be interesting to have an informal dialogue on the state of artist-run-culture in the two cities.  The first cocktail was interesting and enlightening for all of us, I think – we discussed HR practices, board structure, disaster plans and some of the similarities and differences of the state of arts funding in our cities. 

Tomorrow, we’re continuing the discussion at noon at The New Gallery, and at the TAC in Toronto.  After all, it will be cocktail hour somewhere.

Bike Hack + Soundride

Workshop 1: July 25, 2009

Workshop 2: July 30, 2009 (7 PM! Come!)

Critical Mass Infiltration: July 31, 2009

Bike Hack + Soundride was first performed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as part of Glowlab Open Lab.  This show was also the first exhibition of the SOUNDBIKE.  In the performance, I invite members of the public to make simple bike-mounted microphones, which are connected to small amplifiers and attached to your bike.  We then ride through the city en masse, we become a very loud mobile sound piece, which changes according to the number of riders, our speed and our location.  I’ll write more about this after tomorrow, but if you’re near the Good Life Bike Shop @ Eau Claire tomorrow, feel free to join us.

Fun, Sun and a Soldering Iron

Jessica Thompson's Bike Hack + Soundride

Last Saturday, TRUCK TR:AFICC Resident Jessica Thompson gave the first of two Bike Hack + Soundride workshops outside of CAMPER's temporary Eau Claire home. It was the perfect day to hang around outside and tinker with electronics, not only weather-wise, beautiful as it was, but also because it was right in the thick of Folk Fest. What better time to draw attention to yourself with noisy bikes?

For those that haven't already seen the info floating around in cyberland, Bike Hack is a workshop in building bicycle-mounted noisemakers out of handmade contact microphones stuck to playing cards. The cards then go into the spokes of your bike and are hooked into a small guitar amp mounted on the bike frame. Simple and genius, the resulting Soundride is a fun and dynamic way to engage crowds of hippies as a smug-performative-art-participant-and-environmental-champion. Or perhaps I'll just speak for myself.

Jessica started off with a demo in soldering, something I personally had never done but something which turned out to be much easier and more straightforward than I would have thought. It probably had a lot to do with Jessica's easy and clear instruction since she was able to warn me about the dangers that come with soldering without making me too nervous to try it. There isn't much soldering to do though, so even if I had been nervous about it, the step up to the plate was a small one. It was small enough, in fact, that the hard-work to ego-boost ratio weighed heavily on the ego boost side. I'm starting to see where my smugness was born.

Finally, once the contact mic was all mounted up it was an easy road to the Soundride; all there was left to do was to tape the mic to a playing card (Jack of hearts for me) and string that, along with the amp, to my bike frame with a series of bright yellow zip ties. After that, we were off on the ride sounding like a traveling bee hive. The small amps actually pack a surprising punch, they were much louder than their size led me to believe they could be.

The Soundride itself kept to the bike trails just behind Eau Claire and drew many amused (and confused) looks from people out enjoying the day. It left me feeling excited to do this workshop again on Thursday night with
Ride On!, and to take my noisemakered bicycle out to the Critical Mass ride on Friday. I'm looking forward to a few of the bikes shouting louder than the cars. There will be no curbing my smugness then.

Bike Hack + Soundride
Thursday, July 30th at 7 PM
Good Life Community Bike Shop, Eau Claire Market
Call (403) 837-6678 to register


Rain, Rain go Away...

Well, for those of you in Calgary the past few days, you're well aware that it has been raining pretty much around the clock. Not exactly the best weather for a bike ride. I did however get to go out on a tour of The Tender Mountain Clan's favorite street art spots before the rain last Saturday. Here are some pics from the tour:

The tour included wildflowers, community gardens, back alleyways, identification of both illegal and legal graffiti, tags, murals, dumpster diving, flyers, leaflets, posters, some relaxing in a field, and some good conversation. I was at first apprehensive about a tour of local street art spots as I really wanted to avoid the topic of what is and isn't art or what could be and what couldn't be art. That topic is so boring I can't even begin to talk about it, much less write about it. Luckily, once we were on our third stop somewhere in a back alley of Sunnyside, it was obviously not going to be brought up. Breaks at community gardens, where people were busy tending to their crops as well as personal anecdotes from our tour guide about specific neighbourhoods, kept the conversation enjoyable and creative. We stopped to appreciate everything from junk piles to well manicured yards. It seemed as though our group was mostly interested in seeing the city from a different perspective with different people.

On a bit of a side note, I've been spending more time with cycling people than art people lately and I must admit, I am rather happy avoiding artists altogether. Don't get me wrong, bike people have their issues (just try to walk into a LBS and ask for help without feeling like a total fool afterward) but they are no worse than record store people or electronic store people or comic book people or coffee people that prefer to be called barristas. I've actually been impressed by how cyclists come out to events just to be around people and just for the community. There is no "networking," no "making connections," no guilt involved if you decide to not go, no attempt to be "seen," or to "make an appearance," or to "be professional." When the Movement Movement ran the Glenbow Museum with M:ST 4 back in October 2008, I was excited to see so many people who were there to run... not just participate in an artwork as a "collaborator" but to actually RUN. It was the people running that made it interesting for me... by that I mean NOT the artists running but the people running.

The act of doing, in that case running and in this case cycling, allowed for a subtle shift in perception that was less pretentious. The motivation for looking and experiencing was different, if not prior to the ride then definitely during and after the ride. It sounds like a simple shift and in fact it is... I guess my point is just that some art is better experienced in the periphery of vision... at that point just before it's washed away by something else.

True Love is Riding Bikes
Guided bike tours/self-guided map
Saturday, July 18 2009, meet at 1:30PM
Leaving from The Good Life Community Bike Shop


Stretching is required

With a little confusion about the official start date for Ride On! (was it the 4th of July or was it the 6th)... either way, this first post is a little late. I met with Jessica Thompson for some drinks and food amid the Stampede crowds to talk about what we thought we might post, what we might cover, and if we plan to use any kind of format (we are both going to be blogging for M:ST throughout the month). After our meeting, we both said we'd post that night or early the next day... and neither of us did.

I did however find myself at the Flying Lotus show at the Hifi on the 8th.

Flying Lotus - GNG BNG from Ryan Paterson on Vimeo.

This video is pretty great and seems kinda relevant (kinda). I think that Flying Lotus will be the soundtrack to most of my posts for the month. Plus, I ran into the Tender Mountain Clan at the end of the show... so I think that they would agree (and it means I wasn't procrastinating).

First post done.
Next: True Love is Riding Bikes, the TMC report.


M:ST 4.5: Ride On!, it's on.

During the month of July 2009, M:ST presents Ride On!, a series of bicycle-based artworks appearing throughout locations in Calgary. Presented in conjunction with TRUCK’s new TR:AFFIC residency program and The Good Life Community Bike Shop, Ride On! invites you to interact with the work of various artists through hands-on workshops, art installations, and participatory bike rides.

Currently, TR:AFFIC resident Jessica Thompson's SOUNDBIKE is available for sign out now through the end of July at Good Life. The bike laughs the faster you go! Also check out her Bike Hack + Soundride workshop on July 30th, 7 PM at Good Life. Create soundmaker devices for your bike and take them out en masse for a group bicycle exclaimation! Take your noise makers to the Critical Mass ride the next day, meeting 5:30 PM on July 31st in the Eau Claire plaza.

Marc Dulude's video The Invisible Bike is showing at Good Life along with a polaroid installation courtesy of Calgary's Tender Mountain Clan.

Speaking of the TMC, they will be leading guided bike tours of their favorite street art spots in Calgary's core. The tours leave from Good Life tomorrow, Saturday July 11th, and Saturday July 18th at 1:30 PM each day.
Find a map of more street art routes available at Good Life for a self-guided adventure anytime.

Between July 28st and 31st, visit Lethbridge artist Kelly Jaclynn Andres at Eau Claire and around town with her Urban Habitat Lab. Sign up for her urban sustainability workshops conducted out of the lab by calling the M:ST Office, (403) 837-6678. Sign out Kelly's Songbike, a tandem bicycle that records the auditory environment of your trip.

Stay tuned here for more event details and commentary on the multitude of bicycle-based art reactions and interactions by M:ST guest artists and special friends.

See you out there!

Keltie Duncan
M:ST Summer Programming Coordinator