COUNTDOWN TO MEMORY #11: Giving Artist Talks

artist talks - Pyragraph

T-Minus 11! This post is part of an 18-post countdown to Amy Stacey Curtis’ next and final solo biennial in Maine mill space. After MEMORY, her upcoming biennial, she will have completed nine solo biennials over 18 years, with 81 massive interactive works, all told. She’s been unloading her process on Pyragraph as we countdown to MEMORY. Read the series here.


After my first solo biennial exhibit of interactive installation (EXPERIENCE, 2000), I started giving artist talks—as many as I could. This wasn’t about notoriety. My first biennial’s nine large-scale installations felt “incomplete.”

Two hundred fifty participants came (all supportive friends and family), 150 attending the first day of the exhibit. The remaining audience was spread over a six-week period, with whole days where no one entered my just-cleared-and-cleaned, 25,000-square-foot mill space. This first work felt static as a result—not enough people, not enough participation.

One of EXPERIENCE’s nine works, channel I, was 1,200 plotter-paper cores stagger-stacked on a 12-foot-wide pedestal. My audience was instructed to view the cardboard tubes from far away, inches away, moving side to side, up and down… The participants’ perception of a sphere of light that resulted changed with their distance and movement (the sphere would follow each viewer like the moon, and get smaller and smaller as the installation was approached).

Once I hear my first “oooooooooh,” “aaaaaaaaah,” or laugh, everything’s alright.

While there was no participation, the tubes were just tubes.

I was also giving artist talks to gain more art assistance; the scale of what I was doing requiring extra hands. When I asked for help, 30 of my closest family and friends pitched in when they could. But, I knew I shouldn’t rely solely on their assistance to help me with each of my subsequent exhibits, each a 22-month task I had given myself. It would be too big a risk, and I would tucker my friends and family out.

(This being said, several friends and family made a point to help at each one.)

So, I “invited myself” to give free talks about my solo-biennial project to any universities, colleges, artist groups and organizations that would have me. I spoke in people’s homes. I carried a little black book of installation shots in my bag, just in case someone asked me what I do. Pictures made things easier.

If I got to talking to someone I’d just met, and they asked, “What do you do?” I’d respond, “How much time do you have?” If “one minute,” I’d explain my work verbally. Any amount longer and I’d incorporate my mini-talk-in-my-bag photos. If I was at a group-exhibit opening, I only revealed my book if my work was in the exhibit. Otherwise, it’d be rude.

At each formal lecture, I put a business card in each chair, and passed around a clipboard so people could sign up to receive notice about my upcoming biennials (“please put a star next to your name if you want to art assist”).

I gave 20 artist talks between my first solo biennial and my second (for a gain of ~100 new participants), then another 20 talks before my third biennial (for ~450 participants more). And, 30 friend-and-family assistants helping from time to time had become 60 friends, family, artists, students, patrons and local strangers helping from time to time.

Today, more apt to be invited to speak, I still pass out cards and pass around my clipboard, unless the audience is large (~200 people). If many faces, I put a stack of my cards on the podium, asking attendees to write me from my website, and to come to the podium to sign up for assistance.

Just after the talk, I dangle myself like bait on a hook in front of the podium with my clipboard, willing people with my mind to come to me.

From these large audiences, people rarely write. People are busy. But, that’s okay. It’s the activators I really want, the people with intention who are going to come, who are going to activate, who are going to help me make this work I want to make, the 1-10 people that take the time after I speak to come up to the podium, to give me their addresses, and to draw stars next to their names.

After ~250 talks, I’m still nervous just before I speak. My stomach continues to pull while I get through my first bits. Once I hear my first “oooooooooh,” “aaaaaaaaah,” or laugh, everything’s alright.

About Amy Stacey Curtis

In 1998, artist and writer Amy Stacey Curtis began an 18-year commitment to interactive installation art, nine solo-biennial exhibits from 2000 to 2016. In the end, Amy will have installed 81 large-in-scope, participatory works in the vast mills of eight or nine Maine towns. Each solo-biennial exhibit is a 22-month process, each exhibit exploring a different theme while requiring her audience to perpetuate its nine unique installations. As part of each biennial process, Amy scrubs by hand its respective mill; the spaces averaging 25,000 square feet.

The Maine Arts Commission’s 2005 Individual Artist Fellow for Visual Art, and recipient of numerous grants including those from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Amy committed to this ambitious and ephemeral project to convey that everyone and everything affects everyone and everything, no matter how small or fleeting the impact. MEMORY, Amy’s last solo biennial, will be open for participation September 17-October 28, 2016 in a Maine mill to be announced. MEMORY will be worth the trip from wherever you are.

Amy (and the thousands of objects she stores to mount her massive exhibits) lives with her husband Bill in Lyman, Maine.

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