COUNTDOWN TO MEMORY #8: The Unforeseen and Unplanned

unforeseen problems - Pyragraph

T-Minus 8! 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.


As much as I plan toward my interactive solo biennials—with each month, week, day and hour of a 22-month process pre-scheduled and -structured—the unforeseen and unplanned inevitably happens. Unexpected things take place behind the scenes, before and between the audience’s participation with my work (which has its own elements of the unforeseen and unplanned), things that require me to stay flexible.

I want to share three things that at some point during my 18 years didn’t go as I saw them going, three things that didn’t go as planned. I’m probably jinxing myself by writing this, but I hope I’ve had my “things” for my ninth and final solo biennial.

Thing 1:

While I was installing 4,900 vials for succession III (one of nine installations at EXPERIENCE, my first solo biennial, 2000), there was a man who liked to watch me work and to talk.

I had attracted people like this my whole life, strangers who told me everything, while I quietly took in their words, even if I got uncomfortable.

I was trying to say: “Don’t move. Carefully. Slowly. Step backward. Please.”

He always smoked a cigarette, or two, flicking his ashes on the oil-soaked floor of Lewiston, Maine’s Bates Mill, near whatever installation I was working on. I listened politely during each visit, lasting any where from 10 to 30 minutes, figuring I would sweep one more time anyway. And, if the mill hadn’t caught fire yet (he’d probably been taking his breaks here for years), it probably wouldn’t. I promised myself I would ask him to “please stop smoking” in my exhibit space, just before the last use of my broom. I didn’t have the courage, at the time, to ask him to stop doing it now. I would’ve today.

Halfway through installing the vials (70 rows of 70 vials in a precise grid, not attached to my platform, filled to the exact top with water and ink, progressing mathematically from black to clear, months of labor), he stepped forward, far closer than his usual five-foot distance between himself and me and my work. He came right up to the edge of my platform.

His toes were two inches from the end of the precarious straight edge I’d placed to straighten the very first row of ink-water-filled vials. This straight edge was still against the very first row, the first row now adjacent to ~35 further rows. If he nudged the wood, just a little, this installation would no longer be part of my exhibit.

In the seconds that followed, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t get words out. I was trying to say: “Don’t move. Carefully. Slowly. Step backward. Please.” But these words were stuck above my tongue, mingled in my brain and my stomach with panic and fear and anger.

He might as well have been preparing to step on my newborn baby.

With gushes of outward air: “Could you please step back!? These vials are not attached to my platform.” And, just as I said “not attached,“ he stepped OVER my straight edge to leave. He didn’t hit my wood, but I couldn’t believe he had just taken this chance. Why didn’t he just back up?! Maybe he wasn’t thinking. Maybe he did it to prove he could. Or maybe he was an asshole.

This is how I learned to section off my work areas with danger tape and “DO NOT ENTER. INSTALLATION IN PROGRESS.” signs.

Thing 2:

My second solo biennial (MOVEMENT, 2002), had been open to the public for two weeks. One more week to go.

I had gotten used to one or two random people coming in each day, people who didn’t know about the exhibit beforehand. My biennial existed throughout the entire second floor of the Old Sebago Shoe Mill in Westbrook, Maine, and these people, who had a business downstairs or were out on their daily walk, noticed the sign I put on the door to assure friends and family they were in the right place. I called these people “walk-ins.” And when each asked, “What’s this?” I recited: “This is an interactive art exhibit. If you choose to enter, you are asked to first read…”

A man came up the stairs in uniform, whom I immediately greeted. There was no one else in the space, and my “hello” reverberated off the back wall.

“What’s this?”

“This is an interactive art exhibit. If you…”

“This shouldn’t be here.

“What do you mean?” I was no longer smiling. He certainly hadn’t smiled yet.

He was angry. “I’m the fire marshal. The owner didn’t get permission to do ANYTHING in this second-floor space. In fact, the owner just got done telling me there was nothing going on on this floor. Whatever this is, it has to come down now.”

I was shocked and horrified. The owner said he gave my information packet to the code officer and fire marshal, and they “didn’t have a problem.” I took in a deep breath. I thought to myself: “Self, you have one shot at this. Be cool. He’s doing his job.”

I said: “I didn’t know the owner didn’t get permission from you. Is there any way this can remain installed one week longer? This is 22 months of work, it’s been open two weeks and has one week left.”

He paused a long time, his hands on his hips (I don’t remember where my hands were), each moment his eyes were set upon mine. He took in his own deep breath, turned, and began to take a long scan of the space: “Well, let me take a look.”

Lucky. Lucky. Lucky.

The sound of the tiles hitting the road was incredible.

We took a 15-minute walk through my exhibit, as he pointed out things that needed to change in order for it to stay open. Back then, I couldn’t afford to build walls with drywall and wood. I used sheet plastic hung floor to ceiling. I knew to hang my plastic away from sprinkler heads, but he didn’t like how the plastic hid exits from view once inside the main space. “Even though most people remember where they come in, you have to add exit signs to make the exits more obvious. You need 1 for every 100 feet.”

He also pointed out an extension cord I’d taped rigorously to the floor to minimize tripping. “This tape and this extension cord has to come up now. If you’re going to use an extension cord for a short amount of time, it has to be a certain type, installed a certain way…”

With each instruction, I was more and more at ease. And how helpful to be learning all this for my future biennials.

After it seemed he had expressed all that would need to be altered (it was in the end just these two things), I asked: “If I remove all the tape and cord now, and install the exit signs within two hours, may I keep my exhibit up until its scheduled closing next week?”

“Yes. But you have to do just that. If I come back here in two hours, and you haven’t done what you just said, everything is coming down.”

I thanked him, and was pulling up tape even as he descended the stairs.

This is how I learned to make sure each owner contacts the appropriate officials for permissions, or to do this myself.

Thing 3:

When my two tons of slate tiles for place (one of nine installations at SPACE, my seventh solo biennial, 2012) arrived, I was anxious to inspect the boxes and start painting. Most large-material deliveries are lowered via lift gate next to our mailbox on Clarks Woods Road in Lyman, Maine. The 18-wheelers don’t fit down our long driveway. I always have the freight company let me know when to expect the truck, so I can meet the driver at our mailbox.

When the driver for my tiles lifted the back, I saw the tiles had been packed on two pallets. Rather than put one ton on one pallet, and one ton on the other (4 pallets would have been smarter), there was more than 75% of the tiles on one pallet, and less than 25% on the other. I said to the driver, “I don’t think you should use the lift gate. That’s a lot of weight.”

“It will be okay. I’ve done this before.”

He rolled the pallet and jack to the edge of the lift gate, and it just kept going. The sound of the tiles hitting the road was incredible. And it was clear that most of them had broken.

When the ton of replacement tiles arrived with a new driver, weeks later, again all on one pallet, I said to the driver, “Please don’t use your lift gate. That’s a lot of weight. The last driver couldn’t control it. I prefer to unload your truck. It will only take me five minutes.” (My husband Bill was with me to help.)

Imagine a man with a condescending stance, tone and face, looking down at you from inside the end of an 18-wheeler. The power.

He raised his voice: “Ma’am, I’ve been doing this 20 years.”

“That may be, but I don’t have time for these to break again. It was a big effort to go through them last time, and to get replacements. I don’t want to do this again. Not to mention the money your freight company lost by breaking them.”

He was angrier now and more condescending. “I know how to work a jack, lady.”

“I don’t want you to do it.”

He rolled the pallet and jack to the edge of the lift gate, and it just kept going. The sound of the tiles hitting the road was incredible. And it was clear that most of them had broken.

This is how I learned that sometimes it doesn’t matter how brave and assertive you are.

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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