We started this blog in 2012 to track the development of one artwork: CLOUD. It has since expanded to document our arts practice as it unfolds across time, encompassing situations, sculptures, collaborative works, experiments, commentary, conversations, and more. For a brief moment, nine years after the conception of CLOUD, we return to the sculpture to share some archives of our little electrical cloud, as it drifts across time + place.
CLOUD was first developed for Nuit Blanche Calgary – a version of the international all-night art festival located in our home city of Calgary/Mohkinstsis, on the traditional territories of the people of Treaty 7 in Southern Alberta, Canada. We were invited by curator Wayne Baerwaldt to create a performance artwork. CLOUD was a subversion of his directive, a performative object intended to facilitate inter/action between members of the audience. Viewers stood on the wooden platform beneath the sculpture, caught in the spotlight of its glow, and ‘performed’ by igniting tiny electrical storms on the surface of the piece. Drawing a parallel between cloud/rain and light bulb/chain, CLOUD is a manifestation of visual wordplay.
This first ‘sleepless night’ of CLOUD revealed an unseen potential – singular visitors, turning solo bulbs on and off, render an entirely different performance than a collective audience working in unison, as seen in the video below.
The first edition of CLOUD was commissioned by Nuit Blanche Calgary through Alberta University of the Arts (Caitlind’s alma mater) in 2012. The following year, a second edition of the sculpture was created in Moscow, Russia, commissioned by Garage Museum of Contemporary Art for Art Experiment 2013. The second edition of CLOUD has travelled extensively – with great thanks to Signal Festival, the first light festival where CLOUD appeared.
(You can read more about how this evolution of places unfolded by scrolling back through this blog – we have endeavored to be altogether too transparent. Suffice it to say, our early travels were a learning curve for which we were utterly unprepared).
CLOUD is deceptively simple. A steel subframe supports a “skin” of 6000 incandescent light bulbs, many of which are burnt out. Beneath this skin, approximately 200 LED light bulbs illuminate the sculpture, connected to pull chains. When viewers interact with the piece, they are simply clicking switches on and off. However, the accumulation of this collective action implicates something more subtle and complex: the willingness of individuals to work in harmony or chaos, to enact collaborative change or maintain isolated interactions. CLOUD is more about the people beneath the sculpture than it is about the form of a miniature raincloud. We’ve come to think of CLOUD as a barometer of social interaction.
Contrary to expectation, interactions with CLOUD are not uniform everywhere. The exchange between viewer and artwork is dependent on a number of factors, wrapped up in the social contracts of a place, event, or even the particular directive offered by a pull chain light switch. The ubiquity of incandescent light bulbs and pull chain switches in different countries impacts how viewers read their role in the artwork. For example, in Singapore, where pull chain switches are “a thing from American movies,” interactions were different than in Eindhoven, Netherlands, the historic home of the Philips corporation.
A third edition of CLOUD was commissioned in 2014 by Signal Festival for Czech the Light touring exhibition, before being acquired by ZIBA (a former museum of Contemporary Glass Art initially intended to open in Prague). This third and final edition of CLOUD is in ZIBA’s touring collection.
Whether by design or popular demand, CLOUD is an artwork we’ve returned to again and again since 2012, even as we’ve built our practice and developed new areas of research and exploration. Somehow, the sculpture still ignites a curiosity in people – they are drawn to CLOUD, magnetized, attracted by novel materials and sparkling wonderment. A Canadian diplomat in Russian called CLOUD “a happiness machine.”
CLOUD at Gent Lichtfestival in Ghent, Belgium (2015)
For its part, CLOUD changes dramatically with every context, highlighting different architecture or iconic sites, and mirroring the collective mood – whether calm, frantic, playful, poetic, jubilant, shy, hopeful, or hysterical. The piece drifts across the continents like a literal cloud, slipping across borders and touching down gently in different places, inviting collaborative moments of touch.
The type of touching used with CLOUD varies from place to place, responding to the context of presentation and the size of audience. When CLOUD appears in a gallery, participants are gentler and more purposeful. The audience also tends to be smaller, more intimate, sometimes restricted by architecture and access.
CLOUD at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Canada (2017)
When CLOUD appears at a public festival, smaller audiences are gentle, but as the night wears on and viewership grows, interactors become livelier, more daring. While their vigour often translates into next-day repairs (a Sisyphean task), CLOUD was designed to create shared social space where touching is appropriate, even invited. In a time before the experience economy had reached its current resounding popularity, the invitation to ‘touch the art’ was evocative, more radical than now.
Over time, we’ve increasingly examined the role of CLOUD in civic spectacle, the commodification of experience, and the complex impacts of these contexts on various cities. Do these events (which sometimes unfold without curators or theoretical texts) support critical discourse, audience agency, and a re-examination of the public’s role in shaping democratic places? Is collective experimentation possible and promoted? Are audiences empowered to re-examine familiar contexts through the lens of art in the public realm? Or do many light festivals fall into the trap of sharing Art Lite rather than Light Art?
There is an argument to be made for the role of public festivals “bringing art to the people,” offering institutional critique, penetrating classist cultural hierarchies, and offering accessible art to the masses. After all, gallery-going audiences certainly don’t deserve art more than other citizens. Many Light Festivals are municipally funded and free to attend. A considerable number are less commercialized or donor-driven than some of their institutional museum or gallery counterparts.
However, in an era characterized by rampant consumer culture, congenital selfies, and prolific social media, where the attention of each viewer at an event is constantly pulled in as many directions as CLOUD’s chains, we’ve come to relish contexts where CLOUD is given space to be seen, and engaged with, as art (rather than merely entertainment*).
*here we are not singling out any particular festival or event. We are simply sharing an observation and critiquing our own role in a pressing problem of contemporary society. We maintain confidence that there are solutions to the problem which could be explored by event organizers, with structural consideration and curatorial care well within reach for any of the highly skilled teams we’ve met over the years. Many are already confronting concerns over viewer experience and the considerable challenge of contextualizing artworks for huge audiences at popular festivals.
Indeed, much of our work since 2014 has been responding against CLOUD, in some capacity, whether through explorations of darkness, pithy commentaries on spectacle itself, or through more nuanced works unfolding slowly over time. Despite this, we maintain a soft-spot for CLOUD, and we’ve certainly benefited immeasurably from our relationship with public festivals (for which we are profoundly grateful). Our favourite sites for CLOUD have occured when the sculpture is well-placed, curated into a collection of related artworks, carefully communicated, and contextualized so that the audience’s curiosity is rewarded.
CLOUD maintenance in the snow in Colorado
Despite necessary and ongoing self-reflection, there is still something about CLOUD. The sculpture maintains some element of its early magic, its propensity for sharing surprise and delight, magnified between strangers. Seeing the piece in real life is far different than viewing photos on the internet. CLOUD has a presence. We’re glad to share the experience of CLOUD freely with the broadest possible demographic of people. The work is only complete when participants stand beneath the sculpture, pulling on its chains and gazing up in unmitigated delight.
The story of CLOUD is incomplete without mentioning COVID-19. For over a year of the pandemic, CLOUD was tucked away in storage (with thanks to our colleagues at Lumen in Art in the Netherlands). The sculpture visited Cologne, Germany in March 2020, immediately before the global situation shifted and we entered into a crisis of illness and isolation. Together with our community, we debated the future of touch in art – a subject deeply relevant to CLOUD and other participatory artworks like it. This was not the most pressing topic of the pandemic, but it did mirror conversations around individual versus collective actions, social responsibility, equity of access, globalization, travel, privilege, and togetherness. CLOUD went into hibernation.
Festivals and exhibitions began requesting CLOUD again in mid-2021. For us, this was a hopeful sign – literal light at the end of the tunnel. While this moment is uncertain, it’s clear that communities are ready to re-engage, to find ways to gather in public and share experiences together. It feels special that CLOUD can assist in this transitional moment.
Nine years since CLOUD first appeared at Nuit Blanche Calgary, this little rain cloud continues to capture the imagination of audiences around the world. As artists, we sometimes debate retiring the piece; our practice has moved on in multiple directions, and the bulk of our energy is directed into new artworks, nourishing experimentation, site-specificity, collaboration, institutional critique, and relational contexts. But even we see that CLOUD still lights up the eyes of viewers everywhere it visits, transcending language barriers and geographic boundaries to share a brief moment of collective light. Who are we to halt the strange and remarkably ongoing momentum of this interactive sculpture? An artist friend once said, “genuine moments of wonder are few and far between.” Despite its 9 years, CLOUD still inspires dazzling, and very genuine, wonder. That, at least, has stood the test of time.
To see a complete list of CLOUD locations, visit this link. All photos not credited to outside photographers were captured by Caitlind r.c. Brown & Wayne Garrett. CLOUD, photographs, and the contents of this blog are copyrighted. All image requests should be directed here.
This post was no doubt influenced by almost a decade of reading about participatory art, interactive contexts, and spectacle, with conscious and unconscious thanks owed to Guy Debord, Claire Bishop, Nicolas Bourriaud, Allan Kaprow, and more, as well as many fellow artists, curators, and colleagues in art spaces ranging from The Banff Centre to our living room. Our gratitude.
CREDITS: CLOUD First Edition
Artists & Designers: Caitlind r.c. Brown & Wayne Garrett
Nuit Blanche Curator and Staff: Wayne Baerwaldt, Tatiana Mellema, Kris Weinmann, Ann Thrale, Lewis Liski
CLOUD Sponsors: Alberta University of the Arts, The Nuit Blanche Foundation, The City of Calgary, Calgary Arts Development Authority, Calgary Public Arts, Calgary 2012, and The Awesome Foundation
Engineer: Colin Pollard
CLOUD Engineer Mentors: Jason Dyck and Evan Gillespie
CLOUD Base Carpenter: Lane Shordee
CLOUD Welders: Patrick Southgate and Wayne Garrett, with assistance from Jason Hussey
Metal Shop Technicians: Jason Hussey and Hyla Stuijfzand
CLOUD Volunteers and other contributors: Clare, Svea, Brendan, Andrew C., Andrew F., Keith, Mike, Karilynn, Court, Lowell, Evan, Daniel, Ivan, Eric, Pamela, Ryan, Rachael, Angela, Jack, Dana, Kathleen, Matt, Charles, Kate, and Aiofe.
Special Thanks: Mom + Dad, Wayne Baerwaldt, Tatiana Mellema, Ann Thrale, Kris Weinmann, Lewis Liski, Christina Mayder, Larry McDowell, Pamela Norrish, the rest of the Nuit Blanche Calgary artists, the Board of Nuit Blanche Calgary, Jasmine Antonick from Beakerhead, Rod from the Glenbow, Tim from Fort Calgary, Tony from the City of Edmonton, Paul from Think Green Solutions, Lauren Simms, Jason Hussey, journalists who covered CLOUD, publications that spread the word during the Light Bulb Drive, and all the individuals who contributed burnt out incandescent light bulbs.
CREDITS: CLOUD Second Edition
Art Experiment Curators: Brittany Stewart, Evgenia Mikhina, & Alexandra Romantsova
Art Experiment Project Manager: Alexandra Romantsova
Art Experiment Technical Coordinator: Dmitry Nakoryakov
CLOUD Liason and Translator: Aleksey Misnik
Art Experiment Head Technician: Yuriy
CLOUD Sponsors: Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Alberta Foundation for the Arts (Cultural Relations Grant), Canada Council for the Arts (Travel Grants)
CLOUD Welders: Wayne Garrett and Dmitry
CLOUD Volunteers: Yuriy Bashan, Alexandr, Anastasia, & Shriya
Special Thanks: Shriya & the Malhotra Family, The Garage Staff & Team, Our Parents, Stephen Hunt, Aunt Betty, Grama & Papa, all the assistants who make CLOUD possible.