Mash-ups of art, science and technology rarely deliver on their promise, the challenge of combining such different fields being simply too much for most people to handle. So finding five good examples in a single show at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis is an occasion to celebrate.
“Art(ists) on the Verge 5,” which runs through April 20, showcases the results of a yearlong mentorship program for young artists whose ideas are ambitious, experimental and involve a fair amount of technological sophistication. They employ everything from computers, electricity and recording equipment to carpentry, cardboard and felt. Their inspirations are complex, ranging from the entwined history of sugar and slavery to communication among plants and people.
Fortunately, their A-list mentors — Ta-Coumba Aiken, Christine Baeumler, Chris Larson, Abinadi Meza, Sarah Peters and Diane Willow — are among the Twin Cities’ most accomplished artists, with legendary problem-solving skills and deep reservoirs of technical expertise. In partnership with the Soap Factory, the five-year-old Verge program is co-directed by Steve Dietz, the visionary behind the Northern Lights.mn summer festival, and Piotr Szyhalski, an electronics whiz and Minneapolis College of Art and Design professor.
Everything in the show has an engaging, interactive element. Some of the artists’ ideas are still sketchy and the projects a bit raw, but the unfinished quality is inviting and fun.
Aside from a few office niches, the Soap’s drafty, century-old warehouse is unheated. Dress accordingly.
Poetry, history and science fiction
Aaron Marx’s installation, “Builders of the Universe,” takes its title from a book compiled by Albert Einstein of texts about scientific discoveries by astronomers, physicists and other architects of thought. In his installation, Marx uses motion-activated light to create ever-shifting images of leaves, cracked mirrors and shadows cast by an overhead sculpture composed of hundreds of angled cardboard shapes. Though inspired by science, “Builders” reads as a poetic meditation on those resolutely modern concepts: uncertainty and impermanence.
Delving into the history and politics of sugar, Katie Hargrave examines slavery, abolitionist texts, labor protests in Minnesota’s Red River Valley and the 1960s pop music hit “Sugar, Sugar.” There’s a veritable dissertation behind her installation, which includes, among other things, a dinner table covered by a hand-embroidered, sugar-themed tablecloth, a neon sign, a film clip, news stories, audio interviews and turntables spinning screechy, fast-deteriorating LP records made of sugar. Besides concocting this elaborate environment, she staged dinner parties at which participants discussed sugar-themed topics. It’s a world of sugar infused with “moments of bitterness,” as she notes.
Some years back, England’s Prince Charles was widely mocked for talking to plants. Now, according to Alison Hiltner, scientists are following suit, studying how plants communicate through their roots via high-frequency acoustic vibrations when under stress. She illustrates the concept via clumps of white, root-like tendrils that dangle from the gallery’s ceiling and jitter when they touch the floor. Apparently animated by low-voltage electrical currents, the stringy tendrils are spooky enough to make visitors pause before stepping into Hiltner’s buzzing, twittering, sci-fi forest.
Handmade and high-tech
Old-fashioned craft meets high tech in the installations of Peter Sowinski and Emily Stover. Using technology and audience participation, Sowinski tries to bring relevance and modernity to one of art’s oldest motifs, the still life. He employs three components: a set of 28 abstract sculptures he made from raw or polished wood, metal or other material; a display stand; and a video screen. When visitors make their own still lifes by placing some of his sculptures on the stand, their movements and arrangements prompt a concealed computer to project images of different objects — cups, vases, fruit, a skinned rabbit — onto the video screen.
Stover’s “General Delivery” project is an elaborate, gamelike riff on communication in which visitors write notes on cards, deposit them in a box, don hooded capes and seek out stations around the gallery where, with the touch of a device attached to the capes, their messages are projected onto the walls. Or so it works in theory. There weren’t enough potential players around to test the game, or its electronics, during a recent visit, but Stover’s explanatory graphics are exemplary, and her felt capes are really cute and beautifully made. Plus they’re warm and cuddly, which can be a comfort on a chilly spring day in an unheated gallery.