Proficiencies for Living in Ruins (October – December, 2018) at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, in partnership with Institute for Contemporary Art, Baltimore.
November, 2018 – conversation between Melissa Webb and Amy Boone-McCreesh
Proficiencies for Living in Ruins was a large-scale, site-specific installation by Baltimore-based fiber artist Melissa Webb, Proficiencies for Living in Ruins represents a partnership between the artist, the Institute for Contemporary Art, Baltimore, and Lovely Lane United Methodist Church. Situated inside the dramatic architecture of a currently unused chapel in historic Lovely Lane UMC, this interactive environment explores the human endeavor to operate within a society which has distanced itself from nature in an ever-expanding manner. Utilizing an accumulation of handmade, and manipulated found materials, Webb imagines a future where, in the face of deteriorating environmental and societal stability, humankind and the natural world learn new ways to thrive in symbiosis. Viewers are encouraged to consider their bodies in relation to objects and people within the space — alternately obscuring and revealing, isolating and conspiring.
During the run of the exhibition, several artists working in the areas of sound, music, and performance art reacted to the installation through the presentation of new, site responsive works by Baltimore-based artists Carrie Fucile, Stephanie Barber, and Tom Boram.
In addition to being an artist you also serve as Exhibitions Manager and curator of School 33, an art center with three gallery spaces and a studio residency program run by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts (BOPA). How do you manage this full time job where you are giving a lot of your energy to other artists vs. your own studio practice?
The job is very rewarding, but I won’t say it’s been easy – it did take some time to work up to that point. I consciously took a full year break from my studio practice when I first took my position at BOPA in October of 2014. The job has required not just my work at School 33, but also the curation and facilitation of exhibitions for the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower Galleries and the Top of the World Observation-Level Gallery at Baltimore’s World Trade Center, in addition to managing large scale temporary public art projects for Artscape and Light City Baltimore. I kept my studio space in Woodberry, but just allowed myself that period to adjust to the new demands on my time. After that first year at School 33 / BOPA I got back into my practice slowly, and on my own terms.
So it was one year off, and then another year to amp back up. That first year back in the studio was so valuable though – before the break I had consistent opportunities coming my way and had been very deadline-driven, so it was really great to have time when I could concentrate on my process of making, experimenting, and rediscovering my studio practice.
I’d mounted a number of installations which incorporated costume and performance-based work as well as audience participation, and eventually moved away from the performance aspect while keeping the participatory or interactive aspect. When I got my practice kick started again I was weaving and making wall mounted fiber pieces, assembling grids out of sticks – using them as a substructure for embellishment.
Over time I learned how to switch off the brain-space my job took up after work hours and focus on my own artwork. I started having so much fun in the studio, workshopping new ideas and setting bigger goals – At a certain point something clicked and I felt ready to show again.
Out of necessity and for my sanity it became a big priority to adjust my thinking with respect to my professional and personal work / life balance. One aspect of this was considering my identity as an artist, and as an arts professional and how they intersect or diverge. I was meeting all of these new people through work, and because I had hadn’t mounted a project or shown my own work for a couple of years, there were a number of people who didn’t know what I had been doing creatively before we met. I was the curator and the administrator, not the artist – but that didn’t work for me! I had to make a very concerted effort to move out of a place where people defined me quite differently than I defined myself.
Can you talk about the location choice of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church?
Once I determined the scale I wanted to work on, I engaged with the Institute for Contemporary Art, Baltimore (ICA), an all volunteer group of Baltimore artists who offer support to other artists, working with them to mount solo exhibitions – much of the time in their North Avenue gallery, but sometimes in site-specific locations. They have been incredible- a crucial part of this process. I knew that this piece was going to be big and very time consuming, and that I would require help with advertising, staffing, grant sponsorship, emotional support, etc. After brainstorming with ICA about several different types of spaces- considering types of architecture, ceiling height, accessibility, staffing, available time for setup, run, and breakdown, etc. I was thinking that whatever space we ended up with would be an exciting step in the process, and that I’d allow myself and the work to adapt and respond to whatever type of space it was, both formally and conceptually. We started feeling around for possible options, and a solid year into my work on Proficiencies for Living in Ruins, we found Lovely Lane.
Lou Joseph, the director of ICA Baltimore and I went to a meeting of the non-profit organization Art in Sacred Spaces – a program that works with communities in Detroit, Atlanta, and Baltimore to pair artists-mostly dancers, theaters groups, etc. with houses of worship with extra space. The participating spaces are generally looking to invite community into, and enliven their spaces while at the same time generating new sources of income. At the meeting there were folks there representing maybe six churches from Baltimore. That’s when I first met Lena Leone- she’s the Administrative Assistant at Lovely Lane – though this is definitely not an adequate job title for her because she’s amazing and literally does everything. I ended up running into her again through a mutual friend and arranged a visit. I fell in love the second I walked into the chapel, which is a space that is currently completely unused. Lena, sexton Ivan Reyes, the trustees, and their pastor, Reverend Deb Scott – aka ‘Rev Deb’ – have been so supportive, generous, and excited throughout the whole process – I was in here for five weeks before the two month run and they have been nothing but accommodating.
How did you choose your materials and make other formal decisions about the work?
PLR was born, unbeknownst to me at the time, when I was walking around Clifton Park and found this 70’s lamp shade- the kind that you hang from a hook and a chain from the ceiling – the metal was all rusty and I was kind of into rusty things, plus it seemed like a good structure to build off of, so I brought it to my studio. I hung it up and started attaching stuff to it – like leafy flowery bits, things that were similar to what I was already doing with the wall work. My friend Maggie Villegas came over to my studio one day and ended up sticking her head inside of it – the second that happened a lightbulb went off for me. I was being so adamant about not making costumes anymore, and here I was with what was apparently a wearable sculpture.
I decided to make a bunch more of these things, thinking of them as interactive objects that people could put their heads inside of – and at some point I visualized a structure that multiple people could enter, full body. At first I saw it in my mind as being in a huge space – something the size of a block long empty warehouse building, or say, MASS MoCA – with a forest of the plant-like lamp shade structures dangling in the foreground – where once you work your way through them there’s this gazebo off in the distance – a sort of mirage, like the island with the palm tree in the open ocean, or the oasis in the desert.
I got to that idea through an intuitive process, fleshing it out more as I went along- but overall this piece was actually more predetermined than I tend to work. One thing I folded in to compensate for the fact that I was working toward this really huge, at times overwhelming goal, was to use the processes I was developing as literal structures for improvisation. Each one of these “plantaliers” (my cute little working name for them – I also call them “the Victorian ladies”) have a different logic, so I was able to reinvent my approach as I moved from structure to structure, working on them one at a time or on several at once.
Things changed a lot from when I initially started considering the chapel. I originally wanted to create a cabled, tent-like structure that attached to the ceiling that the lampshade forms would attach to, dangling down to assorted human heights. I kept this idea in my head for many months, but as we eventually discovered, everything was cast plaster – really old plaster with a good amount of water damage, so nothing could be drilled into or hold weight. One of the trustees suggested going above the dome and dropping cables down through the grid surrounding the chandelier, but when we went up above the dome to explore that option there was an obstruction there. It also started sinking in just how scary and dangerous it was going to be to get up on a lift to install – the ceiling is 45’ high! I tried to dial it down a little – I had this idea where a sort of web-like grid would wrap around the arches above the balcony and sweep down to attach to the gazebo, which would have had to be weighted. That idea only lasted a few weeks- there was always something that didn’t feel right about both of these ideas, not just safety-wise, but also from a visual and metaphorical standpoint.
I had this series of studio visits – and in one of them, with Susie Brandt, she pointed out that I was preparing to put in all this work and money on a structure that would be so specific to this particular space – one that I could never utilize again, and also where there could be some pretty major last minute issues during install. When you talk in practical language to me like that, you’ve got me… so the free-standing structure idea was born. At first I was put off by having to make cement bases, which I have done before – it is hard work and storage and transportation is difficult, but it ended up being totally worth it for so many reasons. The shape of the steel structures echo the the chapel’s arches. They also take up a lot of physical space, grounding the work and creating something that people would naturally negotiate around and through. They look large in the space, but they are really only 12’ – I could potentially show the piece in components, or in its entirety in a large gallery or museum.
Can you talk about the concept or idea behind the show? Or, what was your intention VS. what it has become?
I wanted to create an interactive environment where people can decide how much of themselves to obscure or reveal, with some of the forms being heavily adorned, and some more loose or transparent. I pictured people talking to each other from inside the structures. Some might isolate themselves inside, while others would relate, or attempt to relate, to other people in the structures nearby. For me it’s about how humans communicate and collaborate, but also about our fraught relationship with nature – our tendency to push it away, to contain it – which of course lessens our interaction with it. Nature becomes so separate from us, which has always felt very wrong to me. It’s the reason why we are allowing for the planet’s destruction- when we separate we dissociate.
I think I’ve often, consciously or unconsciously, looked at my work as a way for me and my friends and others to escape from, or create our own temporary reality. This piece feels different, feels like anything but an escapist endeavor. Instead, for me, it’s like a projection of what the future could bring. Some kind of hopefulness, maybe a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure in this fucked up world. This thought was how I came up with the title, Proficiencies for Living in Ruins. How do we learn to put aside the shit we’re dealing with, individually and collectively, to find a symbiosis between each other and nature? To be able to survive within the uncertainty and instability of the world that is unfolding in front of us?
What made you want to collaborate with other artists on this piece? Or invite them to create moments within your work?
I wanted people from different disciplines to activate the space and attract different types of audiences. In another studio visit with Jackie Milad – who has witnessed the progression of my work for many years – we were talking about my intentional movement away from integrating garments and performers with my work. She observed that with PLR I was basically saying, “ok – I’ve made this – I’ve set the stage – I’ve got your set, I’ve got your lights, etc. Now, get in there and go play – I’ll back away and watch.” It was so great to hear somebody who knows my work say that out loud.
This format also fit really well into the whole concept of responding to the architectural space of the church as a place for people to gather. I went to Catholic school and church as a kid, but as an adult I am decidedly secular and non-dogmatic. That said, during my time at Lovely Lane I have really identified with Methodists’ use of the word ‘fellowship’ as a verb. Fellowship refers to a community of interest, activity, or experience – a company of equals. It really ended up playing into the work.
Organizing the performances happened very naturally as far as the who, when, and what. I engaged three artists whose work I respect a lot, who’s practices blend the sonic and the visual, and with whom I share some commonalities from a conceptual or thematic standpoint. I wanted each of them to react in a genuine way to the environment- to create work that was both a collaboration with the installation, and something meaningful for each of them with respect to their own body of work. Each of these artists put so much work and thought and intention into their pieces. PLF would not have been the same without them – I discovered so much about the work through their responses to it. I am so lucky to have been able to work with them in this way.
The first performative reaction by Carrie Fucile was called Proficiencies for Living in Ruins: Reconciliation, was like a lonely solo ceremony or meditation. The sound element featured church bells rung by several people up in the balcony – her students – as she moved about the space below. Carrie has a really unique way of combining sound creation, movement, and the manipulation of objects in her performances. The results are very measured and contemplative. Someone on social media after the performance said it was like watching the last woman on earth attempt to occupy herself by creating her own ritual – both of us felt like that comment captured a lot about the piece.
The second performance, entitled Proficiencies for Living in Ruins: Contemplative Opera was written and organized Stephanie Barber. The piece featured just under 30 performers and was part of Spaghetti Dinner – A Fundraiser for Proficiencies for Living in Ruins, which ICA and I organized to raise money for documentation and rental expenses.
Stephanie and I share a lot of conceptual interests – she also explores humans’ relationship to nature so much in her own work. Case in point maybe is her recent film, In The Jungle, and her photo and text-based series, Nature As A Metaphor For Economic, Emotional And Existential Horror. Each of the performers, aka the “Chorus of Contemplators”, were asked to sing a series of phrases in the installation in groups, allowing the melodies to change over the course of an hour. They were all such awesome and talented people – of all ages and disciplines – performance artists and visual artists and filmmakers and musicians and writers and poets and on and on – all came dressed in green. Each of them, individually, and together in their groups, really went for it and relished the moment… it was so beautiful. My parents came to the performance, and my mother had this huge smile on her face the whole time. She told me after how much she enjoyed seeing each of the performers, all adults, finding their inner child.
A chorus of contemplators will fill the chapel with song, improvising harmonies and counterpoint to melodic lines about the botanicality of art, humans and our changing planet.
The third and final performance, created and performed by Tom Boram, was entitled Proficiencies for Living in Ruins: Green Frequencies. Tom – who is an experimental musician and visual artist, utilized the gorgeous pipe organ in the chapel, which has been in the church since Lovely Lane was completed in 1884, but still plays like a dream. Tom pre-recorded himself playing the organ, manipulated it, and programmed LEDs that hung inside several of the plantolier forms to dim and change in response to the sound, which he had playing while simultaneously playing the organ live. The LEDs projected a beautiful, huge, contrasty shadow through the forms, onto the dome above as he played. The audience sat captivated in the dark. Some people told us afterward that it was a genuinely spiritual experience for them.
“Proficiencies for Living in Ruins: Green Frequencies” is a performance of pipe organ and computer, light and shadow, intended to consider the sensual qualities of green as radiant energy – resonating around 550 terahertz. The year 1983 saw the release of both the Misfits’ Earth AD and the soundtrack to the environmentalist art film Koyaanisqatsi, composed by Philip Glass. The most important tracks from each of these albums are, respectively, “Green Hell” and the main theme, “Koyaanisqatsi.” These two tracks share a common theme of humans living on an Earth they’ve poisoned. However, they both suggest a new growth pattern arising from a perspective that this contrived hell on Earth is still definitely green. A lyric from “Green Hell” asserts that within this greenness we can seek the “Genie of Death” – aka nature – finding each other anew in the pall of technology.
I really feel like these performances have added so much and connected a lot of dots for me as far as the meaning and interpretation of the piece – it made things very real, took things far beyond the the installation itself and how people experienced it. This is performance art for me – I see it as real life – it’s the here and now – experiencing, interacting, responding. I could get really gushy here. I am so incredibly thankful to Carrie and Stephanie and Tom for all they gave to this project.
How do you hope people will interact with the space – what do you hope they will take away? Or, how have people reacted so far?
One thing that was a bit tough during the run of the show was finding the time and place to have meaningful dialogue with people about the work. I’m hope to continue discussing this piece with anyone who wants to express their observations and interpretations and how it made them feel to be in the space. The opening was pretty chaotic – there were close to 300 people here during the course of three hours. I had been, as I tend to be, withholding in advance of the show – providing teasers, but never revealing the entirety of the piece, so people didn’t really know what they were walking into. When folks came in at first I think they were overwhelmed by the space – not just the installation, but the church itself. So many people drive by Lovely Lane daily but have never been inside. People gravitated toward the materials and wanted to know where they came from, what I made by hand vs what was found and manipulated – a lot of people asked if I ‘made’ or ‘wove’ or ‘crocheted’ everything myself. I always say that there are many processes at work in the piece. There’s wool and cotton that I spun and / or dyed or crocheted myself, but then there’s doilies that I bought on eBay and took apart. There are things I’ve been holding on to for up to 25 years that I’ve made or collected, and stuff I bought and manipulated just a few months before install.
People also just want to play in the space, especially kids. It’s amazing to see a really shy kid come in, ducking behind their parents, but then you see the shyness peel away and they just run around and put their heads inside all of the forms and hang out in the gazebo. Adults maybe have a more reserved, but similar reaction. There’s also the touch factor – people don’t know if they’re allowed to touch things in the space, since of course they have been told all their lives not to touch the art. I had a class of college students come in, and we were discussing this and I told them, “It’s kind of like taking care of a plant. You don’t want to yank its leaves off, or maybe it’s one of those plants that is injured when you transmit the oils from your skin… just be nurturing with it”. The components are resilient, but it’s amazing how respectful people have been of the work for the most part. There was zero sustained damage.
You seem to be attracted to using the color green a lot, not only in this show but in many things I see surrounding you. Can you talk about that?
As far as the work goes, I keep coming back to nature. I incorporated the color green, and natural imagery into my work in college, and I just keep revisiting that every once in a while. Also I just love green. It gives me a pleasurable feeling, for lack of a better description. When I was in high school, I liked blue because I was into the ocean and sea life. I drew a lot of seaweed and bubbles and clown fish. Then green came along and bumped blue.
Can you talk about the people who helped you on this show?
Yes. I could not have pulled this off without help from a pretty significant list of dear friends and colleagues. A lot of the structural work was done at Morgan State with my friend Brian Stansbury, who I’ve been friends with for about twenty years. He was absolutely indispensable to this project. He built the molds for casting the cement – it was six pours, and between each one he cleaned and re-siliconed them. I bought a steel roller and we rolled all of the metal rods for the tall grass-like structures together – he figured out the measurements in Rhino. He welded everything that needed to be welded. The top of the gazebo started out as an image of a Victorian lotus lampshade, which he scanned into Rhino to create a template. Each template component was then cut out of plywood on a CNC router that we used to build jigs – we would bend the pencil rod over these to form the shapes and weld them.
Scott Pennington, my longtime partner, was immensely helpful in building the the little brown stools that folks can sit or stand on. He also designed and fabricated the lighting mounts. We weren’t permitted to drill into anything, so he figured out a way to create a secure stand for the lights that completely integrates into the space and looks like part of the architecture. He also spent lots of time over the course of the build strategizing with me, and assisting during installation.
My studio assistant, Megan Koeppel, and my intern, Mia Dexter, both worked with me for months, hand stitching and making oodles of tendrils on my industrial serger. They were both instrumental during install as well, and kept me company, kept me laughing, and listened to lots of podcasts with me. Glenn Shrum and Adam Davies lent me lighting elements for the show, and Glenn, who teaches lighting design at Parsons, helped me focus the lights. My good buddy Joe Macleod assisted in many ways during the build and the installation of the piece.
I owe a lot to the members of ICA Baltimore – Lou Joseph, Mary Anne Arntzen, Cindy Cheng, Allison Gulick, Joe Letourneau, Jackie Milad, James Mayhew, and Amber Eve Anderson, all of whom spent lots of time helping with load in, providing staffing for open hours, making spaghetti, and for supporting me and having my back.
The staff of Lovely Lane UMC – Lena Leone, Rev. Deb Scott, Ivan Reyes, and the church trustees, especially John Strawbridge and Duncan Hodge, were incredibly supportive and welcomed me into and entrusted me with their beautiful and historic sacred space.
Liz Donadio, Joe Hyde, Theresa Keil, Ryan Stevenson, and Eboni Sellers all photographed the work. Rachel Amos shot footage of several of the events and is doing the editing. The William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund supplied ICA with a micro-grant to pay for the space. Dylan Beatty, Kelley Bell, Susie Brandt, George Ciscle, Marcus Civin, Theresa Columbus, Annet Couwenberg, Elliot Doughtie, Katie Duffy, Erin Fostel, and Amy Eva Raehse provided considerate critique and insights, volunteered time, and / or shared trusted resources. I owe a lot of thanks to everyone who came and supported – friends, family, colleagues et. al who donated and attended Spaghetti Dinner, and everyone who helped with that event, including musicians John Lemonds and Jeff Holland.