Artists Use Contemporary Art For Playful Appreciation Of The Area’s Past
Throughout the month of November, PLACE No. 1 was “Lake Charles’ pop-up contemporary art museum.”
For 26 days, the former downtown Social Security building housed the sort of large-scale, multi-media installations of experimental art that are often seen in large cities around the world.
As they entered, guests were given a little booklet about the exhibit. Some of the texts bore some relation to the exhibits in the six galleries that made up PLACE No. 1; with other texts, the relation wasn’t so clear.
For instance, the booths in the first gallery, which were once used for the interviewing of Social Security clients, were said in the booklet to be “pivotal to the company running smoothly and efficiently as possible.” But other texts about the room said “bullfrogs never peep” twice — a very funny (if perhaps not very practical) pointer.
In Gallery No. 1, guests could sit down in the former intake booths and put on a set of headphones to get “instructions” for each of the six galleries in the exhibit. These instructions, says curator Victoria Bradford, were “a little obscure; a little poetic. You have to use your imagination. We invite you into this playground [we have created].”
To take an example, the instructions for Gallery No. 1 that I heard over my headphones seemed like a discourse on the behavior of ghosts.
All over the exhibit space were remnants of the Social Security operation that had once been centered there. For instance, Gallery No. 1 still had the Social Security’s “Now Serving” machine on the wall.
Gallery No. 2 featured a massive cement floor divided into squares. (The squares were created by adhesive that was left behind when the old carpet was pulled up.) Guests were invited to use rolls of blue tape to “draw” designs on the floor. Some guests’ designs had become quite large and elaborate; many designs overlapped. There was plenty to look at.
This huge room contained the LOW GALLERY. Tiny art works were “plugged into” the old low electrical outlets that ran all around the big room. Some of these were little signs left over from Social Security; other designs, such as photos of the building, were obviously created by artists. One notice read “Arms & Weapons prohibited.”
Gallery No. 4 — “The Thumb Room” — featured a large video installation that will be described below. There were also piles of squares that had been cut out of the building’s original carpeting. These could be used to sit or stand on so as to rest or get unusual vantage points on the videos.
In Gallery No. 5 — “The Kumquat Room” — each guest was given an “answer” that was printed on a piece of paper. Then guests could search around the room for a question that seemed to go with their answer.
Questions were all written with old-fashioned label makers and attached to the many old wooden cubby holes in the Kumquat Room. Some of the labels were obviously old leftovers from the building (for example, a label that reads “Guide to SSI for groups”).
With Gallery No. 5, the texts in the booklet were quite helpful. The text told guests exactly how to find an “answer” and then a corresponding “question.”
The last gallery in the exhibit, Gallery No. 6, or “The Beet Room,” more or less required assistance from someone working at the gallery. A guest in the Beet Room could stand in front of a small metal device in one door and have his image transmitted by video camera onto the wall in the adjacent Raisin Room. The guest standing in front of the camera in the door could jump up and down or wave at others watching in the Raisin Room. However, it was impossible for anyone in the Beet Room to see how those in the Raisin Room were reacting.
‘It’s Just Fun’
All this description will only give readers a rough idea of what there was to see and do in the large, multi-faceted exhibit. Although the space was enormous, in terms of overall design, the display was almost minimalist; there was no sense of things being crowded or busy.
The main thing, as far as guests were concerned, was that there was plenty to see and plenty to do, yet not such a high level of activity that things became overwhelming.
The end result was that, as the wife of a prominent local banker told Bradford, “it’s just fun.”
‘Art Isn’t Just Painting On A Wall’
Even for people who are convinced they don’t like contemporary or experimental art, PLACE No. 1 was such a pleasant and user-friendly experience that it’s hard to imagine a patron coming away from it disgruntled. It’s interesting to look into the thought and planning that went into an exhibit designed in such a way that contemporary art was very unlikely to alienate viewers.
“Art is not just painting on a wall,” says Bradford. “It’s experiences. It’s ways of thinking. Often art isn’t complete until the viewer becomes part of it.”
As a viewer who reacts to and comments about the art on display, “you’re completing our [the artists’ and curator’s] story … You share your reactions.”
In PLACE No. 1, there was always at least one person on hand to react to comments of patrons. “Viewers want to know what the artists were thinking,” said Bradford. They often ask, “how long did that take [to do]?”
It’s not as if viewers could make an incorrect comment about the art in PLACE No. 1. “It’s not the kind of art that comes with a built-in meaning,” says Bradford.
One of the participating artists, Chicago-based dancer Jessica Cornish, echoed Bradford’s sentiment that the art in PLACE No. 1 didn’t grow out of rigidly fixed, traditional concepts of what art is. “I don’t try to translate art too much,” said Cornish. “It may be affecting me unconsciously over time” so that it might, at some future point, take on more precise meanings or descriptions.
Taking The Space As It Is
For the PLACE No. 1 project, artists tried to discover just what history and culture and art the space being used previously contained while altering the space as little as possible.
The structure was used to bolster the art; for instance, said Bradford, the “dropped ceilings became a huge asset.”
The art that resulted expressed the “history of a place,” even taking into account “what was on the land before the building.” The subtitle of PLACE No. 1 was “Underneath is a Landscape.” Once an attentive person looks underneath the surface of a place we’re told is not interesting (such as a Social Security building), he begins to notice all sorts of interesting-looking things. The “landscape” lurking “underneath” a mundane business building can stimulate the imagination more than what is seen at the popular places of shopping, entertainment and eating that we are taught are the places of interest.
The art in PLACE No. 1 made use of thousands and thousands of artifacts of forgotten bureaucracy; the art, says Bradford, also expressed “the oversaturation of things” in an age when things change so quickly that a major office building can find itself sitting empty after just a few decades or years of use — possibly because its successor has been created in the midst of urban sprawl on the edge of town somewhere.
An example of the kind of art that resulted was the exhibit titled “Start/Stop/Start.” Three large screens were placed next to each other. In the first screen, one saw a film of artist and dancer Cornish performing the beginning of a particular dance sequence. In the second screen — “Stop” — she brought the move to an apparent conclusion. But in the third screen — “Start” — she again performed what was meant to be an opening sequence of dance.
It turns out the piece referred to a procedure that was frequently used in the old Social Security Building: that of starting payments; stopping them for a while; then starting them again. The booklet for the exhibit quoted the original Social Security language: “For example, if you started collecting at 62 and are now at your full retirement age, i.e., 66, you can suspend benefits until 70 and then start collecting 32 percent higher benefits for the rest of your life. This benefit collection strategy can be called Start Stop Start.”
Art work such as “Start/Stop/Start,” says Bradford, is about “taking obsolete and mundane issues and technologies from the space and transforming them into enriched forms.” Cornish describes the process as “the art of doing something with a place you would not ever do something with.”
The artists worked with “things that were there already,” says Bradford; they made an “adaptive use of what’s there.”
The PLACE No. 1 project is taking place under the auspices of Free Swim, a brainchild of Bradford.
Free Swim isn’t yet an organization or a group or any sort of organized entity.
“It’s an idea about community and access and engagement” — about “moving people [with art] and getting them to exchange ideas,” says Bradford. And of course, it’s also about the relation of art to all these things.
As for the name Free Swim, Bradford wanted to “create a metaphor around water.” Perhaps there’s a connection between water and the movements that take place in, and the fluid nature of, communication and cultural exchange in a community.
With both Free Swim and PLACE, Bradford and the artists she works with wish to “get people out and get them engaged with each other.” When that happens, she says, “you start bridging gaps.
“I think art can do that. I think it’s an opportunity.”
As the PLACE project proceeds, and Free Swim artists move into another unused local building to begin its artistic transformation, some of the things they’ll keep in mind are the notion of vacancy “in all its components” as well as the significance of “spaces that are underutilized.”
Bradford felt that it was important that PLACE No. 1 bring contemporary art — meaning the sort of art that is being made at this time — to the area.
She hopes to eventually use Free Swim as the means of providing a residency program for both local artists and artists from out of town to work on more projects such as PLACE No. 1.
Right now, she plans a PLACE No. 2 project (in a different building) in May, 2015, and a PLACE No. 3 in August.
‘There’s This Thing I Can Do’
Unlike many, Bradford has the ability to direct her art in such a way that it develops into a transition to a viable career. She seems to do this almost by force of will.
“What on earth can I do here?” she asks rhetorically. “There’s not a job for me here. But there’s this thing I could do, if the community latched onto it.”
Bradford thinks much of what has been done in the PLACE project bears some relation to the upcoming business boom.
“We’re going to be changing … Art can be a mediator to allow us to consider the past and to realize that although those things will always have value, they can be transformed into something new.”
With new editions of PLACE set for May and August 2015, residents will have chances to see whether they want to welcome the sort of innovative art experiences that usually aren’t available in mid-sized Texas oil towns.
Residents can see whether they want to embrace a kind of art that doesn’t just recover the area’s past, but also has fun with it.
PLACE isn’t a traditional gallery where citizens stand quietly and look at static images of local structures that were made decades ago. It’s a new, stimulating and enjoyable appreciation of the cultural values of the past. As Bradford puts it, “It’s a playground, really.”
Also working with Bradford for PLACE No. 1 was a second guest artist Tracy LeMieux, of McNeese State University.
Watch the “Up Front” column in this magazine for upcoming news about PLACE No. 2.
PLACE No. 1 was supported by a field of interest fund at the Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana, the American Press Foundation, the Stream Family Limited Partnership, the SWLA Economic Development Alliance Foundation and various other individuals and groups.
You can follow Free Swim on Facebook.