Vision Request
By Jennifer Dudley and Sarrita Hunn

We had all been well advised that Southern California’s high desert nights could get pretty chilly and yet we managed to arrive at the installation site completely underdressed. There were five of us left on that Sunday evening in May, the last night of our weeklong excursion at Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West, and neither the swiftly dropping temperature, nor the on-setting fatigue and dehydration could sway us from our task at hand. We worked with hive-minded mentality to assemble and lift fellow artist Robert Wechsler’s enormous helium-filled, computer-controlled blinking space invader a quarter of a mile into the night sky. Fighting fierce winds, a minefield of sharp cacti, a corrupt circuit board, and the occasional exhaustion-induced hallucination, we worked steadily through the night. As the flickering lights of distant neighbors playing their parts as asteroids, the monster rose twirling in the wind and we found ourselves standing in a live-action Atari abstraction. When dawn crept into the sky, we realized that Wechsler’s project was the coda for our weeklong collaboration.

The week prior, eighteen Skowhegan 2006 alumni had traveled from Berlin, New York, Los Angeles, and various locations in between to A-Z West, Zittel’s testing grounds for “A-Z designs for living” since 2000. These 25 acres are located in the hypnotically beautiful but severe high desert near Joshua Tree National Park. Isolated in this harsh environment, we spent the week of May 14 –20th, 2007 working on and installing various projects. The week culminated in Vision Request, a daylong exhibition of individual projects and the twilight performance of our collective effort, Play of Light and Shadows.

Andrea Zittel, a Skowhegan 2006 resident faculty member, initially invited us to A-Z West after viewing the collaborative performance we staged during that summer session. What began with a casual observation from fellow participant Ben Kinsley on the stage-like quality of the lakeshore in front of the dining hall eventually grew into the Skowhegan campus-wide collaborative performance, A Sea-some Medley.

Structured as a play in three acts, A Sea-some Medley blended four iconic maritime tales: Moby Dick, Titanic, The Odyssey and Apocalypse Now; and the audience, composed of Lake Wesserunsett community members, watched the play aboard boats anchored near the lake’s shore. Working with the conventions of orchestral accompaniment and scripted dialogue, and theatrical devices such as narration and Greek chorus, the play began at twilight with the light-hearted and guileless ease of a summer camp production. Using picnic tables as stage sets, oversized cardboard props, and the rustic melodies of a jug band orchestra, the play mirrored its idyllic setting. But as the electric blue of dusk slowly shifted to black, the production also transformed into something much less arcadian. In the third act, the principal character (played by the inimitable Daniel Bozhkov, Skowhegan’s resident fresco instructor) attempted Homeric revenge that sardonically swelled into a massive murder spree, killing all on stage including the narrator and the orchestra. The jug band’s music was replaced by the thundering sounds of helicopters as stage lights, smoke machines, and an ensuing battle scene transformed the calm lakeside into a war zone.

A Sea-some Medley was born of our Skowhegan experience and was a medley, in fact, of our collective efforts and artistic interests. It responded to the open and supportive setting with ingenuousness, but also wrestled with darker internal and external issues with an alternating mix of sobriety and arch humor. Many of the artists involved had never participated in a collaborative performance and contributed their individual voices in varying degrees of boldness. This type of playful experimentation and risk-taking allowed for moments of artistic reevaluation and informed many of the participant’s more introverted artistic activity.

Just as A Sea-some Medley drew inspiration from the environment in which it was created, we conceived Vision Request as a new environment within which participant artists could respond to the varied histories and associations of the desert region and draw from the precedent of A-Z West. The austere landscape of A-Z West is dotted with many of Zittel’s projects including more than a dozen A-Z Wagon Stations, compact and portable metal structures meant to “house possessions and provide a membrane against the elements”, providing the dweller with the freedom of adaptability. Each Wagon Station, save for an original prototype, has been individually customized by another artist. Although some of the customizations are less focused on functionality, many of the units are employed on a quasi-regular basis. However, none of the units were occupied during our visit and the effect was of a small and recently deserted settlement. As we explored the land we discovered artworks from the previous public projects that A-Z West has hosted, some more hidden than others and in various states of composure. Our perception of physical isolation was heightened by these remote installations, as was the uncanny feeling of recent desertion. The almost post-apocalyptic awareness of solitude served to strengthen our community and allowed our group to reengage with one another with the enthusiasm and candid intimacy that we had felt nine months previously. Zittel’s incredible generosity, in not only hosting our event, but also in opening up her home and studio fostered this creative reunion, and her advice and assistance helped guide us through the week’s developments.

Our group’s cooperative efforts began in the event’s planning stages and a collective journey was embedded in the physical traveling. We arrived at the location ready to build, install, film, perform, photograph, or respond in some as yet unknown way. Some worked on ideas to be completed later, or as part of an ongoing body of work, and 14 individual projects were included in the Vision Request exhibition.

Many artists highlighted the unsettled, extreme environment with pieces that playfully attempted to beautify, improve, or develop the land; Elena Bajo gardened with plastic flowers, tinfoil, mirrors, and string; Andrew Ross built an anthropomorphic billboard; Katie Cretys created a sunscreen application service station disguised as a miniature landscape, and Montana Torrey installed a fluorescent orange portable painting that served a duel purpose as a safety barrier against possible rock slides. Also incorporating portability, Sarrita Hunn and Mark Taber interjected bold black linear sculptures on specific installation sites, influencing the viewer’s perception and awareness of the surrounding space. Using the landscape as a foil, Adam Shecter projected his jewel-toned animation loop, Motion Study For Monster, on a natural rock screen with a battery-powered Super-8 projector. Both Katja Mater and Take Etani created pieces that required group participation with the environment. Mater’s long-exposure photographs transformed a group of fluorescent-clad dancers into a hallucinatory wash of color, in effect painting on the horizon, while Etani served tea and snacks to all who journeyed to his Hard Rock Tea House high in the hills.

Other artists worked more directly with historic, symbolic, and cultural associations of the land. Yvonne Lung spent three long days laying miniature rail tracks made of unfired porcelain to reenact the 1860's construction of the Transcontinental Railroad with Porcelain? Not A Chinaman’s Chance. Lung’s pointed reference to the Chinese role in the actualization of Manifest Destiny was double-sided, as the ceramic medium was intended to break apart and be consumed by the desert. Jennifer Dudley’s two side-by-side unmarked graves, A Burying Place for All Strangers, invoked the unrecorded history of the Pioneering West and the tall-tales and legends that were fabricated as a result. Colleen Asper responded to more cinematic desert associations with Remains, a graphic and oddly seductive staging of fake blood and gore worthy of any cult horror film.

Afternoon visitors to Vision Request hiked deep into the rocky gorge behind the A-Z West compound to view works installed along the way. The return path led back to a natural rock-walled amphitheater that served as a stage for the evening’s collaborative performance, Play of Light and Shadows, which capitalized on the ritual associated with just such a pilgrimage.
Using séance as a point of departure, participants of Play of Light and Shadows ‘conjured’ various spirits using traditional and modified shadow puppet techniques. Teams of puppeteers, each armed with a flashlight and a stack of recognizable and abstract cardboard shapes, began shadow plays in regular intervals. These plays-within-a-play were each contained within a single beam of light, each climbing higher than the next until the entire rock wall was illuminated with ghostly animation.

While A Sea-some Medley and Vision Request were created by the same core group of people, the similarities do not lay in theme or subject matter. Instead, the similarities lay in the context in which they were created. We came together- more than just geographically removed from our accustomed art practices- as a temporary community in which the individual was supported and the collaborative explored. This license to take risks, experiment, play, and redefine boundaries was a freedom we allowed ourselves within the generous environment of Skowhegan. The artists who participated in Vision Request were seeking another space that would allow that same freedom, and they found it in the middle of the high desert.

Documentation of Vision Request can be found at www.visionrequest.com

Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture Newsletter Fall 2007