Taking Part

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011-Sunday, March 6th, 2011

Curator: Brigette Thomas | Assistant Curator: Sheena Varghese

Michael Lease, Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On, detail from installation C-prints, variable sizes
Heather Freeman, “Flamingo” (right image detail of embedded video loop) from the series Personal Demons, digital print on cotton with LCD TV, 100″ x 48″

Taking Part is an exhibit of participatory art by six artists who employ a range of approaches. While all of the artists incorporate input from the public, some request input from their non-artist collaborators before the work is finalized, while others incorporate participation during the exhibition. However, for all the projects the artist’s involvement remains essential to the final outcome.

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Michael Lease, details from Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On

Participatory art has its beginnings in the first half of the twentieth century with the performative and often political projects of the Dada artists, but reached its peak in the 1960s with artists such as Alan Kaprow, who coined the term Happenings, and Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono, who were part of the Fluxus network which embraced performance, mail art, sound art and video. The artists in this exhibition look back to those early days of participatory art, but also take cues from relational aesthetics and conversational art of the 1980’s and 90’s, which focused on the social rather than political. In his book, Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriauld defines Relational Art as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” He speaks of inter-human encounters and familiarity, of the exhibition as catalyst for immediate discussion, unlike more privately consumed media such as television and film. Likewise, the artists in this exhibition each strive to transgress the boundaries between artist and viewer, the academic and the vernacular, and the public and private realms through the involvement of participants and the active engagement of the viewer.

While the works Taking Part range from handwritten postcards to interactive digital media, each artist is deeply involved with the traditions of portraiture and biography as ever-changing genres. Ultimately, these works identify participation as an integral aspect of all art, for both the viewer and the artist, though it is most visible in art of the last century. In Send Me the Pillow that you Dream On, Michael Lease relies on common experiences shared by many Americans. This project involves over 40 participants who were asked to send the artist four images – a class picture between the ages of 15 and 17, a current picture, a picture of their pillow, and a view out a window in their home. The resulting collection of images serves as a portrait of an individual – their past and present appearance, their intimate lives, and their environment. The photographs’ accessibility instantly creates a bond between viewer and art, with the viewer easily placing him/herself within the project, as a participant by virtue of recognition. Lease’s interest in shared experience and the vernacular reveals the artist’s fascination with the day-to-day lives of others, but more importantly, stems from his desire to orchestrate a communal experience. The participants in this project are all friends, family and acquaintances of the artist, thus this collective portrait also serves as view into the life of the artist.

The key elements in Lease’s work – portraiture, a sense of place and common experience – are also present throughout the exhibition. With Status Symbols Lori Hepner creates a body of abstract, photographically produced portraits based on the subject’s opinion rather than physical appearance. A custom-designed machine generates each of these portraits by converting the Twitter feeds into binary codes that produce a series of blinking LEDs; these then spin, creating a series of colorful concentric rings. The tweets were either gleaned from popular Twitter feeds or the result of an interactive project, wherein the participants were consciously tweeting as participants in the piece. Some of online interactions were created–as they will be at ATHICA–during a 2009 Brooklyn Museum of Art event that included Status Symbols. The portraits themselves are a result of the ability of individuals to create their own identity over the internet, both consciously and unconsciously. While the individual remains in control, the virtual identity is often greatly abstracted from their daily existence. During the exhibition, the sculptural device that Hepner uses to create her photographic portraits will be on display, with its connectivity to the internet allowing gallery visitors to tweet their own digital portrait in the gallery.

Heather Freeman’s Personal Demons is also created using digital media, but her final products are in a more traditional form than Hepner’s abstractions. Freeman’s fantastical prints and videos feature hybrid creatures and timeless architectural elements that are inspired by images of saints and martyrs, and resemble the phantasmagorical creatures of Hieronymous Bosch more than binary code. The text in each work is a participant’s response to the artist’s concise prompt — “describe your personal demon.” From this response Freeman builds a portrait that relies as much on centuries old sciences such as animism and humoral theory as it does on the new technology used for its creation.

In Where are you going? Where are you from? Rosemary Jesionowski explores the ties between identity and place. Her work combines pinhole photography with mail art, a genre that began in the 1960’s as a subversion of highbrow art and was a forbearer of participatory art practice. The participants in her project–a group that started with friends and family and later expanded to the public–were presented with a postcard that carried a question from the artist about a place and memory they recalled. Our exhibit will feature 40 individual postcards–a small fraction of the 3,000 the artist distributed, of which 300 were returned. Rather than exploiting the quick and easy nature of the digital media and the internet, Jesionowski deepens her exploration of place and travel by using postcards, a throwback to the works of mail artists such as pioneer Ray Johnson, but also a commentary on the lack of physical place in the cyber world. Her postcards also strike a note of nostalgia; nostalgia for vacations and souvenirs, nostalgia for love letters and pen pals and for life before Second Life.

Hope Hilton also explores place and common experience in Walk with Me: Athens, a new work in herWalk with Me Series that includes Walk with Me: San Francisco and Walk with Me: Georgia (which took place in Decatur, GA in 2008). This work also eschews the digital in favor of handwritten descriptions of the participants’ favorite walks. The artist will provide her own walk and encourages participants to go on the walks that have been presented. Hilton’s walks provide participants with a chance to share their experience of Athens with others, and to take a turn walking through someone else’s vision of the city. She will be walking with participants a half an hour prior to the opening (details TBA).

Brian Hitselberger’s elegant conceptual project Psalm takes an intimate conversation and turns it into a universal statement. A simple handwritten phrase “Everything I’ve ever done has been for you,” appears in both the artist’s handwriting and his father’s, giving the viewer the feeling that they are participating in a deeply personal conversation between these two men. However, the phrase also serves to highlight the relationship between viewers and their own loved ones, and the larger issue of the relationship between artist and viewer. This overtly sweet interaction between father and son carries great philosophical weight. Though the participants in the making of this work are only the artist and his father, the viewer is invited to join the conversation by taking an individual copy of the work home.

Overall, the experience of Taking Part will serve as a wake-up call and poignant reminder to viewers of their own part in creating records of their existence through various media, as they move through their lives in our uniquely changing era of communications.

This exhibit subsequently inspired a participant in one of the exhibit affiliated events to create an ongoing participatory project based on questionnaires: Please see the Edgerton website for more info and/or to contribute by answering his questionnaire. 


Participating Artists

Featured Artist: Michael Lease

Heather Freeman (Charlotte, NC), Lori Hepner (Pittsburgh, PA),  Hope Hilton (Winterville, GA), Brian Hitselberger (Athens, GA), Rosemary Kate Jesionowski (Richmond, VA)