Can You Skype Art?
Courtesy of susan robb and cornish college of the arts
Susan Robb disappears, Wizard of Oz–style, behind a curtained doorway into some back chamber in the gallery. The audience sits in folding chairs facing a large projection of a computer desktop on the wall. From her hidden perch, but where you can still hear her laugh, Robb is on her computer linked up to the wall projection, signing on to Skype. She's made an appointment with another artist, and both their faces pop up on the wall. They will make art for one hour, one instructing the other.
When they hang up, Robb emerges carrying the sculptures she hand-built, which she says she guesses are "by" the other artist. Meanwhile, the other artists mail the sculptures that Robb instructed them to make to the gallery. Both sets of objects are placed on pedestals. On the walls, videos of the past Skype calls play on monitors with headphones. Performances are on select Saturdays; blank monitors and empty pedestals await what's yet to be made as the show progresses through December 15, so the gallery—at Cornish College of the Arts—is slowly filling up over the run.
In viewing the past performances, you can swivel around to see the sculptures: physical conglomerations of those interactions with their on-the-spot decisions, in-jokes, mistranslations, happy accidents. The art is at the intersection of the objects and performances, in the languages exchanged between people trying to understand each other and the materials at hand (but not directly at hand).
There's a built-in element of revelation to watching an artist work—or the promise of it, which Robb and company play with. Does it change the way you see a hole in a pink Styrofoam sculpture if you know that the artist wanted the hole to be created by someone in an angry mood who had just downed a tiny bottle of vodka and used a cartoon knife? That she then wanted a "tasteful" sprinkle of ground glass added?
Robb had two separate Skype dates on the first Saturday in November. One was a pair of local artists calling from across town, Max Kraushaar and Graham Downing, and the other was Claire Sherwood, piped in from Albany, New York. Where Sherwood was serious, Kraushaar and Downing were funny. Sherwood-Robb produced a bird hiding in some reedy things, hauntingly lit from below by a fluorescent tube. Kraushaar-Downing-Robb produced a blingy (but "tasteful") stabbed Styrofoam sculpture with an oversize gold chain dangling from its hole, and another sculpture involving a red hoodie wrapped and bound around an interior sculpture, to which Robb whispered a secret.
The materials come from the crowd. Anyone can bring anything, and donors are credited at the start of the Skype calls, when the artists demonstrate to each other what's available so they can begin to devise plans for making. It's a little like those radio shows people call looking for a delicious use of the weird contents of their refrigerators. But those hosts don't ever taste the dishes. Robb receives "her" past sculptures in the mail, and sometimes the materials are not as they seemed on-screen. The finished sculptures pose the question: Can you make art on Skype?
With the help and hindrance of technology, and working within social interactions, Robb is building a cumulative exhibition that contains aspects of inventing, arranging, improvising, composting, and listening. For years, she's made sexy objects that manage warmly to explore and create technologies and ecologies (from Second Life to mechanical processors of human shit that methane-power a campfire in a gallery). Here the humor, generosity, and instinct that goes into the objects is the object.