Rebecca Makus, Peter A. Torpey, and Elly Jessop Nattinger
by Muriel Vega
Rebecca Makus, Peter A. Torpey, and Elly Jessop Nattinger met in Boston about five years ago under a project in the MIT media lab. Despite being spread out across the country, with Makus in Atlanta, Torpey in Boston, and Nattinger in Mountain View, CA, technology has kept them connected in both artistic collaboration and inspiration.
For FLUX: Grant Park, the team dived deep into the history and magic of the park, the oldest in the city. They gathered old maps, history books, and factoids like the old lake that used to reside here and the fact that one of the very first electric lamps in Atlanta was installed by Thomas Edison there. They wanted to identify the arc of its growth. “You can see all of these cracks and seams and scars and wrinkles and moles and evidence of a whole lived life,” says Makus.
And after identifying those characteristics, they will build “tool boxes” for each day of the temporary installation that reflect those magical and historical elements of the park. Each day, they will construct, document, and remove the installation based on 1-2 tool boxes, moving around the park and responding to different stimuli without previous preparation. One of the elements can be as basic as paper or “campfire” to symbolize the birth of light to as technical as LED lights and coin cell batteries.
“What would it mean to say we’re going to have this very limited palette and we’re going to walk into a space and we’re just going to respond to that space in the moment, in the day,” says Makus. “The materials that we take into this space are informed by the history of the park, some of it’s just emotional or psychological response like the way a material feels in contrast to the way the park feels.”
Makus, Torpey and Nattinger share more about the creative process behind building a temporary installation based on the park’s ecosystem and magic, how technology nurtures their collaboration as artists, and how they hope the community will interact with it.
Muriel: How did The Toolbox come together as a concept for you?
Rebecca: We all come from a theater background. We all had ongoing independently interest in the aspect of theater that is more focused on the phenomenological experience of watching performance. In 2014, in Dallas, we were all up really late, exhausted and hallucinating a little bit from tiredness, and just started talking about what we would do if we were going to do our own thing as opposed to working on something with a larger group. Something outside the theatrical vain like what would we do in an installation approach.
Elly: That piece was basically an interactive space designed for performance and audience members to be able to come in and have it respond with sound and light to their behaviors. I think a lot of that work led to what we started to think about with the Grant Park experience. One of the parts that is really interesting for us is figuring out how does our work fit into a particular space? How does it behave? How does it response? We started to get this idea of making a ritual of making an experience, making an installation that was designed for basically that day. What would it feel like if the process of putting it together was part of the whole experience?
Peter: This piece is called The Toolbox, and the idea is that instead of going in and creating a space or creating an experience that exists in advance of the audience coming in, as Elly mentioned, we create a toolbox instead. We have an idea then of what we are going to do, but the work itself is the creation of the work as well as the experience of the visitors to the work. And that is quite a bit difference from anything that we’ve done before.
Rebecca: One of the ways we framed it in the application was talking about the way that Andy Goldsworthy, the artist, approaches work where he goes into the country outside his home in Scotland and just makes a sculpture out of the elements that he finds there every day. He photographs it and documents it and then it disappears. It just erodes. So we were interested in responding to a space in that kind of way except using our medium which is electronics and responsive media of different forms. The materials are informed by the physiological and psychological material responses that we have to the park, that were in part informed by its history, and part informed by our own experiences there walking around.
Muriel: What attracted you to lighting design and, in some ways, the absence of light?
Rebecca: I actually had a pretty serious eye condition as a child that left some lasting damage in my eyes. Even now, I have slightly compromised vision. It just gives me sort of a heightened sense of awareness of what it means to see and what it means to experience seeing.
Light is one of those things that because we are in it all of the time, you just don’t notice it. Like a fish in the ocean doesn’t notice the water, you’re just in it. It’s very rare for people to experience complete absences of light, and when they do, they lose the ability even to stand. They fall over because their entire internal equilibrium is destroyed or is unsettled. I was really taken with how powerful a medium it was, and I would just walk around looking at buildings, looking at the sky, just blown away at this whole landscape that I had never noticed before. That was my beginning in terms of like where I am now.
Muriel: What is unique about this project in your work and what impact has it had on you as an artist?
Peter: I always feel inspired when I have constraints, like the constraints of The Toolbox or the constraints of a limited period of time. Another thing is just going into a space, [as we’ve only seen the space once before], and there is an uncertainty about that and how to respond to it in that time that you can’t account for everything. Having the toolbox as a methodology lets us respond to it very quickly instead of going in with a well-crafted idea. Another thing for me, and this we started exploring in some of our other work that hadn’t been a part of my work prior to our collaborations, is this idea of material. Using technology in a seamless way has been part of my work, but not really using it as a material.
The different types of tactile or femoral or phenomenological responses that we have to objects and textures in the world and using technology in that way has been insightful for me.
Rebecca: At our last project, audiences came and went, but the other performers in the festival were engaging with it every single day. Watching their transformation over time was the most beautiful thing. People had these moments of sheer child-like joy and enthusiasm. There was one moment where our artistic director just ran through the string part of the installation. She ran through it screaming waving her arms to trigger the effect that we call storm, which you had to accumulate a certain amount of response within the sensors to trigger.
It was a beautiful thing to watch. If we could just get that moment, that feeling every time with every person. It is an impossible goal, but I still feel like that is what I set for myself in terms of what I am aiming towards. That really human joyful experience.
Muriel: Is technology just part of the toolbox or does it symbolize a deeper concept in your installation?
Peter: I think the technology is just part of the toolbox. It’s one of multiple materials that we have. It’s really about the response to it. One thing that kept coming up when we were talking about the different types of toolboxes and the progression across days, is a notion of a story in place. How do we either capture that or tell that, reveal that, and let people create their own stories as they are going through there.
Being able to take something away from the experience and also leave something behind of their journey through the park. So a lot of the toolboxes have that kind of element. You can deposit something. You can take something with you. Sometimes that’s physical and sometimes that experiential.
Muriel: How has technology informed your collaboration as a team and as artists?
Elly: I think what’s been hugely impactful is because we are in three different places any of our development of a concept or grant writing or let’s describe what it is we are doing is all a shared Google Doc. I think that putting together our concepts is probably way more seamless than if we were all like sitting over Rebecca’s shoulders being like, “no actually, how about this phrase instead?” We’re just all shaping that verbal description or those slides or being able to work on it as three parts of one line.
Peter: Generally when we are working together on our remote meetings, all three of us are talking and typing at the same time, and you really get to see people’s thoughts as they are happening.
Rebecca: We work collaboratively. We actually swap hats around a lot. When we actually get into the park, and we start building, that’s the place where you might see more division or specialization; but in 95 percent of the process, it’s just three brains working as one working in one document. We’re all the same.
Muriel: How did you arrive in Atlanta, and what’s different about working as an artist here than other cities?
Rebecca: Our collaboration and the way we work together as a team has really grown here in this city in the relationships that we’ve built here. Although they’re far away, to me it feels like they are here. We’ve gotten so used to working in this method that it doesn’t even feel false or weird anymore.
Elly: I think one of the things that really stands out is Atlanta had so many interesting resources and opportunities when we are looking at where our work fits.
Muriel: What are a few ways (the more unexpected, the better!) the Atlanta community can support local artists?
Rebecca: Showing up! We are interested in having people participate by watching or helping us build and becoming part of it. Thursday in particular, is a time when we want people to come together with us in the space and help us make it. We’re picking a fairly small footprint of space, and we’re going to fill it.
About Muriel Vega
Muriel Vega is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes mostly about technology and its intersection with food, arts, and culture. She also co-edits CommonCreative ATL, a local arts magazine that celebrates the city’s creativity. Follow her on Twitter @murielvega.