Note: a shorter version of this article, Cloud Sourced, was first published in Swerve (Calgary Herald) on August 29, 2014. Thank you to Bruce Weir and Tom Babin for agreeing to publish the story, and editing it sensitively for print. Thank you also to Clare M. Duckett for her edit on the first edition, which appears below. Biggest thanks to Wayne Garrett, for co-creating the experiences, ideas, and content that this essay draws upon. I couldn’t imagine a better adventure buddy!
By Caitlind r.c. Brown
In 2012, Nuit Blanche Calgary triggered a phenomenon that would sweep us off our feet and into an international world of Light Art, creating both unbelievable opportunities and unexpected chaos. Two years later, Wayne and I are still chasing CLOUD around the world, and in each new place she settles, our eyes are opened to a different community, culture, and style of collaboration. Tonight, a new crop of artists prepares for Calgary’s second Nuit Blanche (September 20th 2014, 7 pm – 1 am) and we anticipate the event with keen expectations, reflecting on the one-night-only contemporary art festival that threw us head over heals into the cosmos.
Before we even considered the light bulb, CLOUD was a study of light – its magical ability to create ephemeral space, its resonance in the darkness, and its societal importance. On a physiological level, human beings are drawn to light as moths to a flame. While the sun is an origin of all life on earth, artificial light couldn’t exist without the innovations of man. As a people-made entity, it is evidence of civilization, a source of clarity at night, and a beacon of safety. We use artificial light in cities as a language (green means go), to the point where it is now socially intuitive. The value of artificial light is especially pronounced in places where electric light has been lost, or never existed at all.
At the I Light Symposium in Singapore, we met Professor Toby Cumberbatch, the head of a team of engineers from Cooper Union University (New York City). Together with his students, Toby is developing SociaLite, a portable lamp project intended to bring electric light to the remotest regions of rural Ghana. In these places, after sunset, the only available light is generated by kerosene. Due to their position near the equator, Ghanaians experience 12-hours of darkness each day, making post-sunset education, socializing, and personal safety exponentially more difficult and contributing to a cycle of poverty. Toby’s team is working to introduce sustainable, people-powered systems for generating artificial light – a fascinating project you can read more about here.
Inversely, over-lighting our cities is also problematic, confusing the migration patterns of birds and over-saturating our visual environments with neon signs and flashing billboards. Metropolitan people can only dream of country skies when light pollution blocks the stars from view.
Of course, when Wayne Garrett and I built CLOUD, we did not intend to spend the next two years thinking about the social effects of light on people. CLOUD was a community project, constructed with the help of friends and the kindness of strangers. Drawing from cartoon aesthetics and the vast Alberta skies, the sculpture was constructed from 1500 lbs of steel and 6000 incandescent light bulbs (new and burnt out).
We used light bulbs as a surface skin for the sculpture, firstly for their ability to diffuse light, and then for their everyday, mundane status, their connection to electrical clouds, and their potential to be recycled and re-appropriated from a variety of households (burnt out) to create a varied, thundery aesthetic. After planning for almost a year, we worked feverishly with our team of friends to finish the sculpture in time for Nuit Blanche Calgary – an 8-hour exhibition – crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.
CLOUD was our first truly public work and a calculated experiment, requiring the audience to surrender their inhibitions, unlearning the “Please Do Not Touch” policy of traditional gallery spaces. People are necessary to complete the piece. By standing beneath the raincloud, pulling its chains, viewers cause lightning to flicker on the surface of the sculpture, unwittingly staging an electrical storm for the audience beyond the periphery of the rainfall. Without people, CLOUD is only half complete.
Perhaps it was an unconscious hunger for interactive art, or maybe audiences were under the influence of The Candahar, (a portable Irish pub and neighbouring installation at Nuit Blanche), but Calgarians embraced CLOUD with reckless abandon. There was not a moment during Nuit Blanche when the space beneath CLOUD was empty. Wayne and I spent most of the night with sweaty palms, greeting friends and trying not to panic every time the sculpture flexed beneath the movement of the crowds. We have never been so glad for the re-assurance of engineer-stamped drawings.
The turning point we encountered after Nuit Blanche was fast and violent. Buoyed by the photogenic qualities of the piece in combination with the sculpture’s novel use of light bulbs, the blogosphere took hold of CLOUD like a tidal wave, sending images of the sculpture splashing all over the globe.
Overnight, CLOUD became what our friends facetiously referred to as “internet famous”, an equally impressive and shameful testament to the plugged-in-ness of Calgarians. Three months later we were in Moscow, building a second edition of the sculpture for Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
We speculate that CLOUD has become her own entity, and we’re merely scrambling after her from Russia, to the Czech Republic, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, Portugal, and beyond. Of course, this has its downsides (everything from perpetual jet-lag to suspiciously familiar commercial CLOUD “look-alikes” in Las Vegas, San Francisco, etc), and we’ve worked to responsibly counter-act these situations. But the real magic of CLOUD lies in her value as an icon of hope, optimism, and collective action, epitomized by viewers standing together beneath the sculpture, staring upwards with glittering eyes and spontaneous smiles, enthusiastically tugging at pull-chains. A Canadian ambassador in Moscow called CLOUD “a happiness machine”. A Calgary mom later told me that Nuit Blanche was the first time she’d seen her three children, each affected by severe Asperger’s Syndrome, gladly interacting with strangers.
Within professional art circles, interactive art is sometimes criticized for being too appealing, accessible, and so caught up in notions of entertainment that it neglects the meat of a concept. This can be the case, but interactive work also provides a tangible, real-world, interpersonal connection, building relationships and consequences that touch people deeply because they are permitted to touch it. The first Nuit Blanche Calgary championed works of this sort (whether BGL’s Carrousel or Sophie Farewell’s However you do it… Consider the stars). As CLOUD travels, the vocabulary of this conversation broadens, and CLOUD’s interactive elements become an international gauge of cultural similarities and differences. Inevitably, this conversation becomes political: by working together (or not working together) what do people reveal about themselves as a group? How does temporary public art affect the social dynamic of spaces?
Above images: CLOUD at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, Russia
Above images: CLOUD at Signal Festival in Prague, Czech Republic
Above images: CLOUD at GLOW Forum of Light and Architecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Above images: CLOUD at i Light Marina Bay in Singapore
Above images: CLOUD at Lumina Festival in Cascais, Portugal
Above images: CLOUD at Light in Jerusalem, Israel
In Jerusalem, we were generously welcomed into a tight-knit community while we installed CLOUD onsite. We shared a small public plaza near the Tower of David, with a tailor, a Mosque, and a variety of neighbourhood kids (who we later found out kept visiting because we had overtaken their soccer field). A majority of locals were kind and encouraging, offering us cardamom coffee and conversation, glad to have another reason for tourists to visit their shops on the quiet street. But one shopkeeper in particular was incensed by the sculpture, calling it a “scratch on the face of the city”, and threatening to smash it with stones. It quickly became evident that he viewed CLOUD as a symbol of occupation. It had never even occurred to us that this type of complex traditionalism might exist. Now we know better; this is the nature of public space in historic places.
During our two months in Moscow, we encountered a completely different cultural environment. We arrived in the heart of winter, at the pinnacle of the Free Pussy Riot movement, and spent our first several weeks feeling disoriented, cold, and lonely. Who knew that it is considered suspicious to smile on the Moscow Metro, while staring intensely at strangers is entirely appropriate?
CLOUD was presented in an indoor gallery, and tickets to the exhibition were expensive – almost $30 per entry. The disparity of wealth in Russia is huge and most people don’t earn much money. While the mood of the exhibition was intended to resemble a ticketed theatre event, this exclusivity made us yearn for free, outdoor, public art spaces, where work can be shared between all demographics of people.
On the upside, the exhibition was excellently curated, showcasing a variety of interactive installations from brilliant artists, including Karina Smigla-Bobinski, Jason Hackenwerth, Bompas & Parr, and others. Thanks to the smallness of the art world and the insatiable kindness of Shriya Malhotra, we eventually met a community of local people, staying everywhere from a crumbling communist apartment block, to the palatial Indian Embassy formerly owned by the Smirnoff Family. We left Russia with a new understanding of Eastern Europe, and a renewed love for shared spaces.
Getting CLOUD out of Russia was quite an ordeal, requiring complicated Customs paperwork (only available in Cyrillic) and thinly veiled palm-greasing. In contrast to Moscow, the next exhibition site was an outdoor (and free!) installation space along the banks of the beautiful Vltava River in Prague, complete with a spirited crowd of Pilsner-lubricated Czech people and a curious audience of swans. A few months ago, we returned to build our third and final CLOUD in Prague, where we hope it can stay forever…
In different places, CLOUD has been celebrated, embraced, cursed, and enthusiastically abused, but she has also opened doors and windows into the unconscious minds of cities. As Calgary’s second Nuit Blanche draws near (7 pm – 1 am tonight!) we turn our thoughts to the value of temporary public art and its effect on urban spaces. Nuit Blanche is not just about showcasing contemporary public artworks, but about unifying a critical mass of people using art as a catalyst for renewed vision of the world. By transforming places for short periods of time, public art incites playful re-imagination of communal spaces, challenging their function, and exciting potential for ongoing change and re-growth. Art creates an access point for the city; the city creates an access point for art.
While this conversation expands far beyond Wayne Garrett and me, Nuit Blanche Calgary was our slingshot, and we feel huge gratitude to the festival for catapulting CLOUD into the stratosphere. We’ve spent the last two years battling the learning curve, and subsequently educating ourselves tremendously. The lessons we’ve learned have come in handy for other projects, locally and abroad (CLOUD CEILING, SOLAR FLARE, NEW MOON, BELLWETHER, WRECK CITY, and PHANTOM WING). As we transition towards new works, we reflect not just on light, interactivity, and alternative art spaces, but on our home city as an origin for fresh perspectives, curiosity, wonder, and hope. We send our best to the artists preparing work for this evening – particularly local magic-makers Wednesday Lupypciw and Sarah Smalik. What fresh works will come to light? There’s only one night to find out.
Caitlind r.c. Brown is a Calgary-based artist, curator, and collaborator. Alongside her practice with Wayne Garrett, she co-curates pre-demolition projects including WRECK CITY, PHANTOM WING, and The House Project.