EXHIBITION VISIT- LIZ DONADIO & SHANNON COLLIS

Singular Space at ICA Baltimore, January 5-26, 2019

Liz Donadio & Shannon Collis

By Amy Boone-McCreesh

This January at the ICA Gallery in Baltimore, Liz Donadio and Shannon Collis created a beautiful and haunting exhibition inspired by Forum Fountain in Baltimore. The Immersive space, created with projections, geometric sculptures, sounds, and video became a new monument to the Baltimore landmark. At the end of the exhibition I sat down with the two to talk about the process of working together and the significance of forgotten and overlooked spaces in their work.

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A: Can you share how you started working together and how this show came to be?

L: Shannon and I started working together in 2016 for an installation called Concrete/Complex which documented the last days of McKeldin Fountain in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. We both loved McKeldin Fountain as an example of Brutalist sculpture and public space in the city. When we heard it was being demolished, it just clicked that we should archive and document the site in some way.

There was just a short period of time to document; we started in September of 2016 and it was fully removed in November. Concrete/Complex was installed at Current Space in the Summer of 2017 and used sculpture, multiple projections, and sound to make an immersive, physical experience. And after that show we wanted to continue the process of documenting public space because we’d enjoyed it so much.

S: Following that, it was a matter of choosing the next site to work with. We both have an interest in public art and architecture—spaces where people come to meet, spaces that have an interesting history—and how they came to be. We talked about making immersive work together because we were interested in the different possibilities of interaction.

L: We were especially excited about working with ICA to use their space as a blank canvas. We use the walls, corners, and architecture of the gallery. It’s a big space and has a lot of possibilities. Also, ICA as an organization is so great to work with and they gave us a lot of freedom that we really appreciated.

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This piece is inspired by and sometimes actually depicts Forum Fountain here in Baltimore, can you discuss this decision and inspiration?

S: Forum Fountain is located behind Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in East Baltimore. We found it through researching the 1% for Art Program in Baltimore, a law that designates at least 1% of municipal construction costs to the funding of public artwork, beginning in the mid-sixties. We selected the fountain as a subject because of its similarity to McKeldin; both were meant to be meditative, public spaces. The artist and architect Miles Stafford Rolph designed it with the idea that students would gather there, dangle their feet in the water, and play games.

L: But now, it’s not an active fountain and isn’t used for its original intention. It has faced a certain amount of neglect and disrepair since it was built in 1975.

S: I had never seen it before, and I think a lot of people in Baltimore aren’t aware it’s there. Both McKeldin and Forum Fountain are very similar in their Brutalist style, as well as the way in which they’re designed with multiple levels and flat concrete planes. When we first visited, it was before the raw concrete was painted and we were just hooked. It led us to focus on this ‘singular’ site.

L: Our documentation spanned from 2017-2018 and we visited over changes in season and at different times of the day. Although there were traces of people in the space, it was usually pretty empty. And then at one point after we first started our process the original concrete was painted bright yellow, purple, and white, which are the school’s colors. So this thing suddenly happened that even more so shifted the original intent of the sculpture. And so questions arose like, how do we preserve public spaces and how do we do it in a way that keeps them alive and active? This was a way for the school to do that, to clean it up and paint it. For us, we like to do that through our process of documentation and making a connection to place through art.

S: We share a mutual interest in the style of Brutalism and its aesthetics and philosophies. That’s another contextual element that draws us into this type of architecture, as well as the love/hate relationship people have with it. I guess that’s also what inspires us to find these sites—we want to document them and talk about their past, and maybe their possible futures.

The space has moments that feel real and public, but also something illusionary- Is it important to you that visitors to the show feel the specifics of this Baltimore landmark?

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S: The installation has levels of focus where you can see the concrete, the sidewalk; some site-specific elements are abstracted to form something new. I think it’s important that people get a feel for the site itself, which comes through in the layering of the visual and sonic material. We like the idea of a palimpsest where something is altered but traces of its earlier form remain. So every time we visited Forum Fountain we added to our documentation and built upon it layer by layer. Ultimately, we created a new space.

How was your process of working together to create one unified exhibition? Was there a clear definition of workload or was it more organic?

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L: Our collaborative process goes back and forth from splitting up individual tasks to working together directly. It usually works out so that what each of us is specifically interested in is what we’ll put focus on. We always go together to document, and that is an important time to conceptualize and form ideas in the moment.

We schedule meetings with each other, make timelines, and have a shared calendar to keep track of things. We need that for ourselves, but also as a team. And that’s another good thing about working with somebody–you have someone on the other side. I have to do it because Shannon’s waiting!

S: The work doesn’t really come to life until the installation. That’s both very nerve-wracking and also exciting. We were in the gallery for almost three weeks and really had time to make many decisions and move things around.

L: That’s when the art happens, really.

S: In terms of working together, I think we have similar and complementary strengths. Working with someone you trust throughout the process is huge. We just aligned. I don’t think that can happen in every collaboration, but we seemed to know where we wanted to go. It’s been a really fun experience. We have our own practices outside of this project, but this collaboration has a different kind of energy. We’re excited to continue, for sure.

L: And the way things happen when you’re working with somebody is that you come across things that wouldn’t ordinarily happen. For example, this show would look completely different if it was just one of us putting it together.

S: I like that part because it opens the work up to different outcomes. You ask yourself new kinds of questions and move the work to unexpected places—that’s where collaboration gets really exciting. We learn from each other, too. I’ve learned a lot about the photographic process and how composition, light, and framing change an image.    

L: I agree, I’ve been learning so much about sound and how it moves through a space and can be almost physical. I feel like on this second time collaborating it’s been more seamless.

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How did you create or record the sound for the show?

S: The sound is a combination of field recordings and digital and analog synthesis. The audio is layered in the same way as the video in that some of the sound is very much directly taken from the environment and some of it is inspired by the place. It was very quiet all the time. It felt slow. There was an underpass walkway going between the school’s courtyard and the main street and the echo of traffic noise was very present. That’s what we wanted to get an essence of, which we did by layering both recorded audio and sounds I developed in the studio. The meditative aspect is the drone of traffic, the breathiness of the wind—they were all things we wanted to capture and permeate throughout the installation.

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How would each of you like visitors to feel when they leave the show? What do you hope they may be able to take away?

L: We’d like to introduce, or reintroduce, visitors to Forum Fountain, and to inspire thoughts about Baltimore’s public sites and their lifespan. There are so many of these monumental public art pieces that melt into the background of our everyday lives.

S: We would like visitors to pause in and around similar sites in the city. I hope this encourages a slowing down and an awareness of the world. We’re putting things into focus—like the concrete, the architectural structures, and the sonic environment. If you have that strategy of listening and looking, you notice what’s around you—even if it’s just for a moment. Making these projects has definitely inspired us to observe more closely.

L: We’ve both been in Baltimore a long time, but we didn’t grow up here. So one of the interesting things about McKeldin was that it was more publicly known…

S: …it was part of peoples’ history.

L: When people came in to the Concrete/Complex installation, we got responses like, “oh yeah I remember playing in there as a kid!” or “I used to spend so much time there!” So it became a memorialization of that experience for them. However, Forum Fountain is not as well known. Singular Space is in a way, more of an introduction.

S: Exactly. Documenting McKeldin felt timely, we captured it in image and sound and now it’s gone. Forum Fountain’s future is unknown, so by making work about it, we’re actively pointing to it. There are different ways to experience the installation and I’m curious how people will experience it on their own. I think a lot about this idea of immersive space and walking into and through something. Your body is in control of what you see.

We were trying to move away from the space of a flat screen, so we changed the way we shot video and incorporated sculptural forms and multichannel sound. Using a drone was a new addition to our practice as well as 5.1 surround and larger sculptural forms in the round. Bringing the listener or participant to a place where they can have a fully dimensional, sensory experience that can’t be pulled apart as easily.

I know that every time I finish an installation, I learn so much about my own work or where I want to go next. Now that the show has been up for a little while and you have both had some time to process, is there anything you learned from this installation or anything you will take with you as you continue your studio practices?

L: The monumental scale is one thing, being able to work in this space is so lucky for us and we’re so grateful to have the access and the time for install; the freedom and realization of being able to make something huge. Just knowing that’s possible. As much as we prepared, we didn’t really know how things would come together. Something I’m going to take away from this experience is not to be restricted by size and scale.

S: I think we learn something new every time, but we also take an amount of risk as well. There were a lot of unknowns and much of that came from the shift in scale and the change in subject matter. But it gives us confidence to go to the next step. We learned a lot about movement and flow in space in this process. I think every time we build something site-specific, we try to understand how people will experience it. We’re getting more of a handle on that.

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L: There’s also specific technical stuff like figuring out what the software can handle. We’re using projection-mapping software from an artistic standpoint, so we’re building from it and playing with it, and using it as an artist’s tool.

S: It’s very similar to material making. Some might think with software and technology that you can just turn it on and it works. But with each iteration we expand our knowledge and the process comes more quickly. We like to challenge the physical and technical limits of our craft.  

What do you have coming up that you would like to promote?

L: I was a resident artist at VisArts in Rockville, MD for the summer of 2018 and worked on a project using analog and digital process to document the ecology and landscape of Rock Creek. An exhibition of the work that culminated is up now at VisArts. It’s called Of a river or a road and will be there until March 10th.

S: I have a exhibition at Grizzly Grizzly, an artist collective in Philadelphia opening March 1st, which features work from a recent residency I attended at Bogong Centre for Sound Culture, where I gathered audio field recordings and video footage from the Australian Alpine region.

Together, we’re collaborating on an Art / Sound / Now performance at the Walters Art Museum that will happen this summer. We will be collecting sounds and images from around the museum to use in a live audiovisual performance.