inMotion: Memories of Invented Play

Yesterday we sat down with Amy Archambault, the BCA’s Summer 2015 Public Art Resident, on the eve of the opening of her first interactive public art work, inMotion: Memories of Invented Play, and chatted about how she’s successfully transitioning from the unconventional artist/builder to public artist.  

inMotion: Memories of Invented Play  on the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) plaza through October 18. All images courtesy of the artist.

inMotion: Memories of Invented Play on the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) plaza through October 18. All images courtesy of the artist.

KG: This piece here, “inMotion: Memories of Invented Play”, is technically your second piece in the public realm. The first one, “Traverse”, was the recently installed on Georges Island as part of the Isles Art Initiative.

AA: Yes, and it’s my first interactive one. And that’s a whole different animal too!

I had always been doing gallery shows and the work always came from this background of my athletic culture, this DIY constructive practice and play. I had a show in Beverly a couple years back, "Live-work". It was interactive in a gallery setting and it dealt with exercise and architecture and how you fuse participant’s gestures and physical presence into a space. That was a new experience because in a gallery, people don’t really feel like they can touch art and so the level of interaction was very different than I expected. I loved it. I hated it.

KG: They were encouraged to touch it, right?

AA: Yes, they were but there was still that ‘let’s look at it because I’m in a gallery’ mentality. And then I was asked to do the Isles Arts Initiative project, and I responded to that more as site-specific. I could still have that artistic, abstract, people-will-look-at-it, I-don’t-have-to-worry-about-engineering-it-for-safety experience. That was a good transition into public art because it was in the public, but not interactive. And then, I accepted this project at the same time, which has been a rush!

It’s very strange working on something that people are going to use because I kind of haphazardly put materials together sometimes. Even though there’s craft involved in terms of my assembly and materials used, they’re not always for outdoor use nor safe/functional. So immediately, I came to bicycles as the ‘prop’ if you will.

KG: Your gallery work does seem like it’s a little precariously put together. You draw from your childhood memories of building rickety things. To go from that sense of wanting to make something that may or may not be safe to having to make something that is safe, what’s that leap like?

AA: Its hard because you’re trying to make something from the memory of a child in terms of how it’s going to visually come together and in terms of materials. But then you have the knowledge and the skills to engineer it to make it safe and functional. So you have to step outside the work for a little bit and enter as the artist/maker, a more spontaneous place and not so much from what drives the final product. At the end of the day when your audience is viewing the work, I am not sure they notice this mental play that occurs in my studio.

KG: The playful elements like the precise color blocks and the tennis balls stuck on things bring it back to your aesthetic.

AA: I can still go crazy with materials so I think that’s always there to ground the work in a specific place in time.

KG: As you’re making these installations you must be getting better as a builder and engineer. Can you still call yourself “the unconventional engineer"?

AA: I used that term more in my earlier work, and I think I’m starting to move away from it. I try to make things look precarious when they’re not functional because I’m really interested in that aesthetic and chaos. I like the idea of implied action as well as actual activity. It’s hard to be “the unconventional engineer” because now I’m learning better methods and practices. My father-in-law is a contractor; my husband’s an engineer. So it’s all kind of coming into the work now, even my own household renovations.

KG: Do you have a sense of where that building mastery is taking you in the future?

AA: All the signs are pointing to more interactive pieces! People are responding really well to them and at the same time I’m pushing materials and learning more about this practice.

Now I am forced to make models before they turn into the piece. I used to assemble more on the fly – so now I’m actually making models, thinking about assembly and all the troubleshooting that goes into process.

KG: The earlier interior work is supported by or responding to the architecture. Things are tethered to, or supported by; they’re hinged, weighted, falling. This work as far as I can tell is…

AA: Freestanding! I actually prefer to graft onto the space or the site. A lot of times I’m not allowed to so things end up freestanding. Even in Beverly, that work was freestanding. It touched the walls. If I had the go-ahead, I would totally attach to floors, ceilings and surrounding obstructions! With this site, I was primarily responding to the shape of the floor plan and I think that was crucial in terms of egress and safety.

KG:  I know this wasn’t your original proposal site but what did you respond to about this spot? And how close is to your original vision?

AA: I knew the location of the garden and large tree. I knew I wanted to put it up against the garden and position the work into that corner. But I would have loved to expand/bridge into the garden!

The proposal was originally for over there [points to the front of Cyclorama]. I wanted to bridge over the entry way and do some neat things, but we just couldn’t do it because of the space and the constraints. But it’s pretty in line with my vision. Well, I shouldn’t say that. I actually had a multiple-tiered structure on the original proposal with staircases and neat passages!

KG:  Yikes, multi-tiers…building permits!

AA: Right. I had never come up against any of that. Just getting insurance for the project and figuring out that whole process was intensely complicated!

KG: It is! And there are more and more artists doing it successfully. Are you looking at any of them or other interactive projects for reference?

AA: Honestly, the Lawn on D was the first thing I’ve seen with people interacting with art and play and that excited me. I loved Anne Hamilton’s work, “Event of a Thread”, in the way that it existed in the space and how people responded to that. In grad school, I looked at Barney’s early work, Drawing Restraint. But I used to be a painter so, honestly, I come from the world of Jessica Stockholder. I also gravitate to the work of Phoebe Washburn and Oscar Tauzon. Definitely mixed materials, lumber, hardware, found accessories …

KG: And color?

AA: Yes, color!

KG: Color is really important in your work and it comes through that you were a painter.

AA: The structures feel like that for me. When I document them, they particularly live as these two-dimensional products; line, color, composition, texture.

KG: Why’d you give up painting?

AA: Grad school! No, well actually, I was making paintings that were becoming these weird hybrids and attaching materials to them and the physicality just wasn’t there for me as an oil painter anymore. There was some sort of disconnect.

KG: We spoke earlier and I learned that you played Division I lacrosse, you coached lacrosse and you’re still very athletic. What’s the relationship between your art making and your athleticism? Your body and what you’re making?

AA: I used to think nothing. Actually, I was often discouraged to merge the two. I think the visual aspect of watching somebody physically move through space and use athletic props while doing so; in this, the person becomes just as much of an angle as the bicycle and it’s fusing those two elements together that’s really important.

KG: Speaking of the bodies fusing with the bikes, is this the same piece when there’s no one on it as when there are people engaged with it? We’re looking at it without anyone on it.

AA: It’s definitely a different piece. I’m looking forward to seeing bodies on it. People camouflage into the space in a sense, but they also activate it and bring it to life. I was just watching a little girl twisting things, getting all involved in it and it was really gratifying.

KG: Is this your first time using bikes and why did you incorporate that element?

AA: Yeah. I was looking at Danny Macaskill Red Bull videos that were composed beautifully where he’s integrated into the landscape and they were very neat. He’s cycling through a lost city/ruin in Argentina. I loved seeing the bicycle, his body and the structural surrounds collapse into one frame. That’s what made me draw this work up. It just felt natural to use bicycles. It’s Boston. Every time I came by there were pedicabs going by, cyclists, messengers, etc. I thought it would generate a positive response from the community

KG: It reminds me of the Allora and Calzadilla video “Returning a Sound” that follows the artist on his moped outfitted with a trumpet. Which leads me back to the instructional video in “Live-work”. Was that intentional to show people how to use the work or was the video a comment on instructional videos?

AA: It was more instructional and showing people how to use it. After that piece, I decided that I didn’t need the video. Once people interact with it they do exactly what’s in the video. It felt redundant to me.

KG: Do you ever use signage to get people to engage with you work? How do you feel about signage?

AA: I don’t like it. I don’t want to use it but I fear that sometimes I have to. This will be the first piece without it. In a gallery setting, there seems to be more of a need for using signage. Here I think people will automatically engage.While building it over the past two weeks, I’ve had guys jump on the bikes already. One lady was walking by with her nurse doing physical therapy and I overheard her say to her nurse, “Yeah, I’m going to come here and do my physical therapy. I can sit and pedal.” So people are ready to get on it I think!

KG: You don’t see a whole lot of women working in public art (or getting recognized for it) in Boston so this is really refreshing to see you getting your first chance at interactive work in such a public space. I applaud the BCA for choosing you. I touched on this before with role models. Would you care to comment on women in public art?

AA: I feel very new to all this. I just entered the Boston art scene last fall. Listening to the Play in Public Art panel the other night was eye opening especially the discussion about how architects are applying for public art projects. The discussion was interesting in terms of proposal writing and how architects may have the upper hand in their ability and knowledge to engineer something/present something and how, because of this, the artists get left behind in the proposal process. But I don’t know too much about women’s roles in public art specifically, so the discussion is interesting to hear.

KG: You talk about adrenalin and putting yourself in situations you’ve never been in before. What’s that about?

AA: I don’t know why I do it! I’m going to drive my family and friends crazy with all the stress, but I like the challenge. That’s the athlete in me. I’m competitive. I like to try new things. It scares the living daylights out of me sometimes, but it tends to work out in the end and that’s a good thing. But I think the process of making the piece, installing the piece; everything wrapped around getting the work out there is fascinating to me, and fun.

KG: It’s a unique set of skills and that’s what helps people move from interior, white-cube work to the public realm. It’s being a little fearless, being a good project manager and in your case thinking about how big the work is, what kind of truck it fits in and if that truck can fit on the ferry.

AA: It’s true.

KG: Is there anything else you want people to know?

AA: It’s been a journey. I really like coordinating with everybody. I’m definitely an extrovert as an artist and that whole team idea is important to me so working with Galen [of Landry’s Bicycles], working with the BCA, working with the bike fabrication / powder coating business, there’ve been a lot of pieces which is scary because as an artist you’re building things in your studio, under your control, it’s done, it’s in your studio.

The BCA gave me an intern. The College of the Holy Cross let me build this piece in their studio space because this would never fit in mine. There have been some very helpful things that have all come together. So this has been very different but it’s been fun and a good challenge!

KG: That’s like my response to one of the questions at the panel. Successful public artists have an entire community around them. You need partners.

AA: You do! You need the partners, funding, community…everything. You can’t do it alone!

inMotion: Memories of Invented Play opens tonight, July 23, with a reception from 6-8pm at the BCA Plaza and runs through October 18. This project commissioned by the Boston Center for the Arts was funded in part by Fund for the Arts, a public art program of the New England Foundation for the Arts. Archambault’s work on Boston’s Georges Island is part of IAI’s Cove exhibition that runs through August.

When Archambault’s not building complex and energetic installations incorporating both the material and the visual languages of athletic culture, childhood play and the "home improvement" / constructive domain, she’s working on her own home renovation. See her website for more information and follow her on Twitter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Archambault’s aim in the work is “to enliven the BCA’s thriving plaza while exploring imagination, memory and the relationship between functionality, design and play”. Sure enough, as we spoke a duo on a low-riding moped drove up on site and enthusiastically exclaimed, "Excuse me, what are you building here?”  After a quick chat with the artist they promised to bring their son back and play. Mission accomplished, plaza activated.