Practicing Patience in Your Art Practice
This summer I created an immersive installation on Governors Island as a 4heads PORTAL House resident that proved to be a seismic shift in my practice.
Apropos of the type of work I’ve been creating since 2018, the work I INTENDED to create on Governors Island was a collection of 1:8 scale dioramas. I had planned to construct several separate pieces each populated by a community of 11” tall bat/human hybrids that would explore connections between viruses (foreign bodies), community, and colonization.
Below is a concept sketch of some initial ideas of how I might activate the space I was given. I included this sketch in my application package.
What actually happened was SO MUCH MORE.
First, a little background…
My interest in Myotis lucifugus – one of the most common bat species in North America (and one of three bat species found on Governors Island) – began while I was researching extinct species for a piece I made in 2012. I learned that starting in 2007, colonies of bats were being decimated by White-nose Syndrome, a fungus believed to be introduced into North American caves through human spelunkers (cave explorers).
WNS is a highly contagious and affects bats by rousing them from hibernation outside of their feeding season. This abnormal activity burns through the bats’ stores of fat, leading to shocking numbers of bats starving to death (70 – 100% of the colony). I began imagining an installation of hundreds of bats in various stages of infection. What types of things might they be doing to pass the time once they awoke, unaware of their pending doom?
With the understanding that the residency was relatively short with limited access to tools (i.e., what I was able to bring to the island on foot), I limited myself to foam core, mixed media collage, textiles, paint, and glue.
Working with these humble materials I realized about 4 weeks into my timeline that sticking to my initial plan wasn’t going to give me enough “stage”. I had a lot of narratives I wanted to explore and my original idea was not going to be the right vehicle. It became clear that I needed to flip how the viewer experienced my work.
Instead of creating a series of smaller works that the viewer would walk around, I needed to create one large, walk-in diorama; the viewer would stand in the center, and the piece would be happening around them.
I discovered that my characteristic studio practice (a satirical fusion of fact, fiction, art history, pop-culture, current politics, and in this case the site-specific military base history of Governors Island) is, indeed, scalable.
I was able to realize a full-room installation that featured wall murals, foam core architectural support structures, many, many small accessories (cell phones, signs, assault weapons, climbing harnesses, etc), and 385 bat/human figures.
Special credit to mikiodo media, who captured the following wonderful images and many more.
Some bats were still hibernating:
Some bats were “woke” and doing various activities:
Some bats had expired and littered the floor where they were eventually sent off to the restricted zone (the interior of the fireplace):
For those of you who like video “tours”, this private link is for you (it’s my first iMovie, and I’m a bit chuffed about it ;-))
Yes, it’s true, I had way too much fun. This residency was a gift, and one that I chose to make the most of. I’m not ashamed to admit that I worked right up to the last minute before we opened for public viewing, getting all the details just right.
For a first residency, it was a great experience with many valuable takeaways:
- Don’t give up on unfinished projects. Sometimes the time just isn’t right (see “fun fact” below).
- The practice of taking advantage is not passive. It’s in the wording: advantage needs to be actively taken!
- Intense focus must be devoted to the vision. Admittedly this was made easier by the fact that I had very poor internet connection on the island.
- Rest and relationships may suffer (mildly). For the last 7 weeks of the residency I worked in my space every single day.
- Let go of extraneous details but keep the core narrative. I had to be willing to continually reevaluate how much I could get done and make changes to my plan on the fly.
- Give yourself up to the last second. I worked finishing small details right up to the minute before we opened for the final viewing exhibition.
- Document obsessively during creation, and especially at the end. 4heads hired a pro-photographer to document, but I also doubled down and hired my own. With only a few days to capture images before the teardown, I wanted insurance of good images. (BTW, both mikiodo.com turned out great)
Will I be applying to more residencies? Yes, please!
Fun Fact: I started this installation ten years ago (TEN YEARS!!!). I worked on and off creating bags of small, wired figures for 18 months. Then, unexpectedly, my husband got a job in Manhattan and we moved from the west coast of Canada, to the east coast of the U.S.A.
Long story short, I realized that spending two years working on one large installation piece without having an exhibition space AND not being known in the community seemed ill-advised. So, I packed up the bats and shifted my studio practice to making smaller pieces, getting into group shows, and building my community and connections (definitely the right choice ).
During the pandemic I thought about the bats often, particularly when I heard that — in an ironic twist of nature – the coronavirus had potentially been transmitted to humans by bats. In late 2021 I applied to an opportunity proposing an installation with the bats. I received the rejection in early 2022. A week later, one of the founders of 4heads reached out and asked if I’d like to submit a proposal for a 14-week residency on Governors Island. Did I have a project in mind? OH, YES. Did I ever!