COUNTDOWN TO MEMORY #12: Please Read Before You Proceed

Artist studio - Pyragraph

T-Minus 12! 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.

My solo biennials (nine exhibits in nine empty Maine mill spaces, an 18-year, interactive installation art project I started in 1998) are for me as much about letting go as they are about control. I think my audience notices the control more than the letting go though.

Thousands of things are precisely placed. Each mill floor, column, sill has been uber-cleaned of all specks. And the first thing the audience sees: Please Read Before You Proceed.

Participants read brief signage under these words before being “allowed” to proceed to the first installation. That’s right, I stop them if they try to walk past without first reading.

This text, repeated nine times so traffic doesn’t bottleneck, welcomes. And it explains the audience is literally part of each installation and the exhibit as a whole.

Next, the signage conveys they “must” read more.

My welcome signage also barks that small children “must” be attached to adults at all times.

At each of my nine solo biennials, each with nine unique installations (81 installations total), each work is accompanied by a how-to, an as-succinct-as-I-can-make-it text participants must ingest before approach. These instructions are crucial to my work. Without this guidance, my audience wouldn’t know what it is I’m asking them to do to activate, perpetuate and complete my concepts.

My installations are literally incomplete without audience, static.

For example, with inversion II, one of nine installations at my eighth solo biennial (MATTER, 2014), I installed 1520 spruce 4×4 posts in a 13-foot-diameter convex form. The instruction signage for this installation—brief, required reading several feet before the wood—explained to participants that they should use the floor chart provided to transfer the wood, transforming the installation through this process into a concave form. Once this concave form was generated, the installation was complete. Each participant was instructed to move up to nine posts from the original form to the final form.

If there was no audience, this installation would just be 1520, spruce, 4×4 posts in a 13-foot-diameter convex form.

The “control” is in an effort to get the audience to see this installation through as I’ve conceived it. To indeed transfer the posts as instructed, each post stenciled “A,” to be moved to a spot marked “A” upon the floor chart, to move each post stenciled “B,” to be moved to a spot marked “B.” Asking people to just move up to nine posts is only about making sure there will be enough for most of my anticipated audience to move posts, also knowing after 17 years of these exhibits, that many will opt to move one or a few (I expected ~900 to participate).

But the control of the audience doesn’t start or finish here. Each of the nine, identical, Please Read Before You Proceed welcome signs, explains that the installations are numbered, big numbers on their instruction signage, conveying the order in which I want participants to experience the work.

I see each exhibit as having a certain beginning and end. To veer would be like skipping about a story—starting in the middle, then flipping toward the beginning, then jumping to the last pages of the book.

These numbers also convey a “safe audience path,” to appease each town’s code officer and fire marshal, who along with the mill owner, has given me permission to use the space, so long as I do this, and this and this and this and this.

My welcome signage also barks that small children “must” be attached to adults at all times.

All of this potentially off-putting language (please do this, please don’t to that) stems from my first biennial where I didn’t have this guidance, and people walked by works without seeing them, or walked too close to works, or touched works I didn’t want them to, or walked into works, or kicked works, or knocked works over….

Most participants tolerate my signage, they “go with it.” Many have told me they appreciate it, that there’s no doubt about what it is they’re meant to do. Some have told me they like my signage, how it stops them in the middle of their busy-busy daily lives, gives them chances to slow, pause and be present.

Most of my repeat audience has come to expect my heavy-artist hand, appropriate somehow, given how structured and perfectly-arranged everything seems.

However, for one to three participants at each solo biennial (well, those I know about), my welcome signage and instructions are “too much,” “unnecessary,” “obsessive” and “bossy.”

And, they all start their complaints to me in the same way: “I don’t like your signs.” I’m sure there are others, who don’t like my signs, but opt not to approach me to tell me so a foot from my mouth.

A few of these one or three people: “I don’t like being told what to do.” A few huff and leave partway through. Some don’t come back. Some keep coming, each time complaining they don’t like the signs. I assume they keep returning to subsequent biennials because they wonder: Will Amy stop telling me what to do?

I continue to use the signage and instruction, to protect my audience, to protect my work, and to protect my vision.

The day of each solo biennial’s opening, there’s this charged moment.

It’s the moment right as the exhibit begins, the moment control and letting go shift from one to the other. This moment is palpable, tactile, as if I could have one foot in the space that is before this moment, and one foot in the after.

Before the doors open, I have complete autonomy. Everything’s in its place. Everything’s quiet. Everything’s about to begin. Twenty-two months have lead up to this moment, this moment before I give everything over to my audience. And anything can happen.

And I do at first worry about what will happen, to everything. Then I have the moment of surrender, when I begin to just worry about a few things that could go wrong. Then one or two things. Which is pretty good for me. As surrender-y as I’m going to get. Until the solo biennial’s finally over. And taken down.

I try my best to surrender to all I possibly can, to whatever might come. I’ve done all I can to make my intentions with each installation clear. I do my best to let go.

Until somewhat recently, I was putting a lot of thought and efforts and worry into what was going to happen next. What was going to happen when my 18-year project was complete?

Even though there’s always an element of luck, chance, art-god alignment, I, with the help of a lot of support (volunteers, money raised, etc.) made my mill exhibits happen.

I can’t control whether or not museums and other non-profit venues will present my post-biennial ideas, the way I’ve controlled whether or not I’ve mounted installations in these mills. I can’t make museum exhibits happen. Yes. Of course I’ll touch base with the curators and directors with whom I’ve corresponded over the years. Yes. Of course I’ll send them my ideas. Yes. Of course I’ll travel to these places to finally meet with these people in person…I’ll do what you as an artist are supposed to do.

But, there’s no guarantee the staff at these venues will be interested in my work beyond this 18-year project, interested enough to take on one of my future projects, or at least to try.

Would I be able to continue to make installation? And what would I be if I couldn’t?

But while working on this ninth of nine solo biennials, I’ve finally been able to surrender, to let go.

Yes. When my biennials are done, I’ll begin to make my next work and do those things an artist must do if she wants to share it in the way she wants. But if my next goals don’t work out, I know it will not be the end of me. I will open myself to whatever it is I’m meant to do next. Whatever this is.

Installation art - Pyragraph
This is an in-progress shot of inversion II, 1 of my 9 installations at MATTER in 2014.

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