Since I started this blog about three years ago, this is the longest writing hiatus I have ever taken. But I certainly have a few good reasons for it. Over the past month I have been working on the following:
1. Writing freelance for the Wisconsin Gazette (!)
2. Volunteering with United Way of Greater Milwaukee to help them write their blog (!)
3. Finishing up a volunteer project at the Portrait Society (!)
4. And, working a ton of hours at various day jobs, which is not exciting, but is inevitable during the holiday retail season
Yesterday, however, I finally had some time to do what I love to do best, which is look at weird art and write about it on here.
I heard about a show through an acquaintance at a place called the Synchrotron Radiation Center in Stoughton, WI. If you're thinking that this sounds like an atypical place to hold an art exhibition, you are right. If you are also thinking that you have no idea what this means, then you are thinking the same thing as a lot of people, so don't worry.
To the best of my knowledge, from 1986 until recently, the Radiation Center was used as a research lab for the UW-Madison Science Department and scientists from around the world to study light sources such as infrared, ultraviolet, and soft X-ray light. Some of this research contributed to the study of cancer and alzheimer's. The center housed a state-of-the art, infrared "beamline" called the "InfraRed ENvironmental Imaging Beamline" (IRENI) that was a giant system of magnets used to bend light particles.
Notice how I am speaking in the past-tense. According to a few articles, the center was closed in 2014 due to a lack of funding for scientific programs in the UW schools, which unfortunately mirrors a nationwide trend of divestment in technology and science.
The exhibition was organized by Kristof Wickman and Evan Gruzis, two professors in the UW-Madison art department, as a part of a group called Condensed Matter Community. According to Gruzis, when they heard the Radiation Center was closing, they seized the opportunity to collaborate with the science department, and by jumping through some bureaucratic loopholes, managed to pull it off. They chose artists based on their capacity to blend the lines between science and art, technology and aesthetics, and light and illusion.
On the night of the opening, the various levels of amalgamation created an intentional dilemma: The attendees of the exhibition had to use maps to navigate the space, an absolute necessity considering that many people, myself included, were not sure exactly what was "art" and what was a remnant or relic of the decomissioned factory.
Some of the most memorable pieces were Come.2, a giant spotlight in the parking lot by Paul Druecke, which cut a guiding beam of light into the foggy sky, Untitled, a glowing disc by Michelle Grabner, smartly situated on a garish gold and orange background, and Untitled, Curtain, an iredescent, hanging tapestry by Jose Lerma that forced the viewer to chase an elusive, glowing beam of light around the canvas.
The backdrop for these pieces was the spooky, disjointed remains of arcane labels and objects; heirlooms of a golden age of science: "Do not run into with forklift." Something called an "Aladdin Electron Gun." Diagrams of the research floor's original layout. Chalkboards etched with indecipherable drawings. Mysterious caverns that glowed orange. These elements were readily understood by the scientists in attendance, many of them former users of the lab, while the artists, conversely, contemplated the connection between the art works and the space.
In this exhibition, the union of two seemingly "unrelated" topics revealed that they really aren't that different at all. The goal was to host two underdogs under one roof in a sort of grim funeral for the appreciation of art, science, and technology in education. Milwaukee, in fact, will see one of its UW galleries close within the next year, also due to a lack of funding, with barely a finger lifted to save it. This is no different than the closing of Radiation Center: Milwaukee's art students will now lack an easily accessible place to study art with guided educational supervision, which will ultimately contribute to the decline of the department as a whole.
Gruzis and Wickman also used this exhibition as an opportunity to create a dialogue about "spaces" to exhibit art. On the one side, it's cool to show art in a decomissioned particle accelerator. In this context, the art was enhanced by its surroundings, and vice versa. In no way should artists be discouraged from seeking out these nontraditional spaces. But should we really have to jump through so many hoops just to show some damn art? Shouldn't we just be able to have spaces for art without having to fight for them? It seems it is becoming a trend for artists to seize every discarded space deemed obsolete by society in order to show their work.
Similarly, science will also have to fight a battle if its research centers continue to close their doors within the educational system. Science, if at all possible, may be even more disadvantaged than art in this context, since science can't just plop itself down in the middle of the street and say, "Hey it's okay, it's just science." Science can be dangerous, and it needs specialized equipment and spaces - spaces like the Synchrotron Radiation Center - to conduct important research that is vital to our lives.
The goal for us now- as scientists, artists, or whatevers- is to unite somewhere between the particles of our flayed interests; to put our differences aside and remember that we all need to fight the democratic fight for education, our one common denominator.