[Originally published in SFAQ, Issue 15, February – April 2014. View the PDF here.]
Given two months to create an entirely new body of work for “Beatnik Meteors,” di Rosa’s inaugural exhibition under new curator Amy Owen, artists Lisa Rybovich Crallé, Christopher Füllemann and Bailey Hikawa approached the challenge with gusto. When the show opened in November 2013, an entire landscape of sculptural pieces dotted the di Rosa’s Gatehouse Gallery, collectively titled Talk My Language. From monumental canvas-wrapped wooden armatures to backpack-like constructions, the three artists produced a variety of incredibly tactile, brightly colored, interactive objects.
From the beginning of their collaboration, the end goal was to invite a small group of performers to activate the objects through loosely choreographed movements. During the opening reception for “Beatnik Meteors,” the performers, outfitted in an assortment of studio materials styled by Esra Canoğullari, caressed, draped themselves against and variously responded to the sculptures, using them as props in both senses of the word.The fluent and visually stirring outcome of Talk My Language makes it dif- ficult to believe it was the group’s first collaboration.
During our interview just one month later, the artists referred to “my studio” and “our studio” interchangeably, seamlessly moving between their individual and collec- tive identities. Their adjoining spaces in a cavernous West Oakland warehouse were perfectly suited to the large-scale realization of their shared interest in (according to Füllemann) “painting slash sculpture that wants to be performance.”
“Being more than one person is amazing,” he asserted.“The beauty of the collabora- tion is that you can make something that you wouldn’t be able to make yourself.” Be- ginning with 2D sketches and small sculptural models, their working process was part show, part tell.According to Crallé,“A lot of it was trial by error. It was very verbal, but also a lot of physically manipulating things.”
The artists struck a balance between careful planning, intuitive gesture and group deci- sion-making.They borrowed materials from their individual repertoires and learned to treat surfaces in new ways. Working from a portfolio of source images, they rotated through their studios at a frenzied pace. Crallé pointed to a large scrap pile in one half of her studio: the residue of rejected elements, failed experiments and entire sculp- tures that didn’t make the cut.
While performative possibilities constantly at the back of their minds, Hikawa noted their main priority was always the formal object before them. Füllemann elaborated, “You can tell the sculpture has this desire to be activated.We didn’t want it to be obvious by making objects for performances.”
Though a few of the performers came from Craigslist and SF Casting, most were known to Crallé, Füllemann and Hikawa prior to “Beatnik Meteors.” They encouraged the performers – many artists with their own practices – to respond to the sculptures in their own terms.“The direction we gave left room for the performers to create their own structure or their own rules within the framework,” Hikawa said.
One group of three young women rolled languidly across the floor. Another performer systematically tapped golf tees into a wall.Without a starting or ending time, the per- formances appeared to the crowd as inherent elements of the installation – confusing and mesmerizing elements that challenged the audience to reevaluate their own rela- tionship to the sculptures throughout the space.
Crallé reveled in the uncertainty it created,“I got great feedback from somebody at the opening… seeing people acting so weird but also naturally, doing regular movements, but doing them at a sculpture or with a sculpture was so strange that it released something for him.” Instead of obeying the agreed-upon protocols for engaging with artwork, the performers wrote their own rules.
Will they continue to collaborate? “Why not?” answered Füllemann. For Crallé, their partnership changed the way she relates to her own work – she looks forward to returning to the fruitful group dynamic on occasion. And for Hikawa the experience of “boundary crossover in real life” brought up exciting questions of remix culture, ownership and ego.
Talk My Language is a cohesive body of work even without performers present, but by ceding their proprietary rights to outside activators, Crallé, Füllemann and Hikawa create truly collaborative works in which audience, performer, artist and artwork are all actors within a new and dynamic environment for artistic engagement.