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On the Road to FreshGrass

In 2011 MASS MoCA decided to celebrate the onset of fall in the Berkshire hills of northwestern Massachusetts with some bluegrass and roots music. The first year was a small affair – two days, nine bands, and one courtyard stage. It caught on.

Now in its third year, FreshGrass is gearing up for a weekend of killer afternoon and after-dark programming, featuring 25 traditional and cutting-edge bluegrass bands performing on three stages, industry and instrument workshops, and plenty of pop-up performances, on September 20-22.

Legendary local brewery The People’s Pint is busy brewing FreshGrass IPA just for the occasion. The stage in our concert meadow is assembled. Food trucks are lined up, and late night hoedowns, fueled by MASS MoCA’s high-octane moonshine slushies, are in the works.

Tease your ear buds with intimate performances by FreshGrass 2013 artists, produced for the festival by the creative collective, Mason Jar Music.

Posted September 17, 2013 by MASS MoCA
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To Stand in Awe.

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Photo courtesy of Megan and Murray McMillan.

“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”- Albert Einstein

Over the last two weeks, Providence, Rhode Island-based artists Megan and Murray McMillan have been in residence at MASS MoCA creating elements for a new work that explores the complexity of the idea of wonder. Once finished, the new work will be installed as part of a 2015 MASS MoCA group exhibition, exploring what it feels like to stand in awe of something, and how one goes about attaching meaning to that experience.

Since 2002, the McMillans have been crafting elaborate sculptural sets and then directing performers in the activation of – and interaction with – the sets. The performances are filmed; the footage is then edited and installed, along with elements of the original sets, to create an immersive video and sculptural experience.

About a year ago, MASS MoCA curator Denise Markonish invited the McMillans to come to the museum, explore the campus, and make a proposal for a new piece to be created and installed on site. At the time, Markonish, along with artist Sean Foley (who exhibited at MASS MoCA in 2010), were preparing the group exhibition exploring wonder and awe. The McMillans’ work has often centered on these ideas, making it an ideal match for the exhibition.

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During their visit and tour, the McMillans immediately identified the former Boiler House as a site of interest for their video. They were taken with it not only for its complicated and beautiful former industrial structure, but also for the conceptual idea of shifts in sustainable energy – from coal, which once heated the factory, to greener methods such as solar power and wind turbines — it represents.

Many months after their initial visit, the McMillans and their studio assistants arrived at MASS MoCA with nine wooden boulders. With MASS MoCA’s dynamic Art Fabrication and Installation department, led by Preparator and Supervisor Derek Parker, the boulders were craned into the more than 2-story high coal bin, through the Boiler House roof, and attached to cranks that allowed the boulders to be lifted through the space by a series of performers. The MASS MoCA team also built a tea house that nestled into the space at the top of the coal bin.

A 50-foot camera track installed on the side of the coal bin and out of the roof of the building captured a single vertical shot of a central boulder carrying performer Thea Ulrich. The vertical movement of the camera allows a narrative to unfold, similar to that of Japanese landscape scrolls. As the boulder travels upwards, portraying a travelers journey, Ulrich exits to the Japanese tea house, and then to a platform, overlooking all of MASS MoCA and the rolling mountain landscape that surrounds the museum.

With their residency completed, the McMillans have returned to Providence to edit the footage and develop the final installation for their 2015 exhibition.

The McMillans’ work is just one of the hundreds of new performing and visual artworks created on the MASS MoCA campus through the fabrication and performance residency programs. Friend, follow, and subscribe to receive updates on MASS MoCA projects and all the other fun MASS MoCA happenings.

Posted September 10, 2013 by MASS MoCA
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Instructions for Making a White Box Gallery

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When I joined MASS MoCA I had an idea I’d be involved in projects of great scale; the museum has an interesting penchant for being the genesis for many of the artworks shown in its galleries. It’s a non-collecting institution, focused primarily on providing a platform for emerging artists and performers, constantly reaching to the limits of its abilities and housed in a massive city industrial mill complex. Tack on a few sleepless nights and you have a pretty aggressively dynamic environment.

Some would say that the MASS MoCA concept short-circuits the traditional role of the museum. However, I haven’t had much time to ponder such things since working here. Frankly, having a “little spark” to life keeps things interesting. Wild, forward-thinking projects, undertaken with teams of extremely dedicated and talented individuals on shoestring budgets… feels like a front-row seat in the trenches of our ever-evolving culture war… albeit in the middle of the “woods”. But the museum has grown and matured over the past 14 years. Things are changing as we move into our teens. Retaining its youthful vitality, it’s an institution working with more and more creative people while also developing a little more depth at its core. MASS MoCA is becoming more and more a “think tank” for the arts, and what a contemporary art museum can be if it’s open to collaboration.

So, when someone came up with the idea of taking an 10,000 square foot, concrete water tank, used to filter sediment from the untamed waters of the Hoosic River, and turning it into an exhibition space… I thought… well, that’s a good idea!

But hold on… how about a little back story, you say?

There once was a sculpture that lived in the front yard of an interesting husband and wife who were fearless collectors:

It was a striking contemporary sculpture by an artist recognized by the nation of France as an official National Treasure (as he was German, one would have to assume that the French thought he was a good artist).

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Oddly enough, the sculpture was misunderstood (a recurring theme in history), and neighbors of this interesting pair of collectors thought the sculpture to be an abomination; indeed they disliked the sculpture to such a great extent that they made the couple remove the sculpture from their yard by act of law on the pretext of historical preservation, or building code, or some other made-up reason.

Dismayed by the turn of events, and weary of the fight with neighbors, the couple (Andy and Christine Hall) called Joe Thompson at MASS MoCA to see if the museum might be interested in showing the sculpture; MASS MoCA was indeed very interested! And so in 2007 there was a fabulous exhibition of the Anselm Keifer sculpture Étroits sont les Vaisseaux, 2002, accompanied by several of the artist’s magnificent paintings, also generously lent from the Halls.

It was a great success, drawing interest and patrons from far and wide. It was such a positive experience, in fact, that in the wake of our recent experience with the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing Retrospective (a 25-year temporary exhibition) the thought of creating a more lasting representation of the Anselm Kiefer works of The Hall Collection at MASS MoCA took root. And the search for a space was on…

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After several feasibility studies of potential spaces, interest eventually focused upon the defunct water tank located at the southern extreme of the campus. The Hall Art Foundation’s Alex Haviland, who helps oversee the Halls’ collection, became convinced that this daunting structure could be converted.

The water tank once stood embedded in a five-story building but was left exposed after the exterior structure was raised. As Joe put it, “We saved it, not quite knowing what it might one day be used for, but sensing that the beautifully austere structure would one day find a new purpose.” Our structural engineer believed that the tank was likely cast within the building in the early 1920’s, the concrete and hand-laid stone foundation carted in wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow. He dated the concrete casting from the horizontal board marks still evident in the tank. These forms were assembled from lumber, predating the invention of plywood.

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One of the issues was the elaborate structure which keeps the 20-inch thick tank walls from bursting outward when filled with water. This veritable maze of interior walls, columns, and purlins would need to be removed to make way for the exhibition. In order to do this, a massive concrete cutting claw was brought in to chew the concrete in to pieces that could be trucked away.

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The claw could grasp and crush while at the same time have a jackhammer-like ability that would pulverize the water-cured concrete to a powder, exposing the steel rebar which would then be burned away with torches. It was a labor-intensive, and machine-intensive, process.

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Once essentially eviscerated of the interior walls, ramps, purlins, and other non-essential architecture, and the entrances cut, the interior floor was poured. As the previous use was a water tank, the floor had an exceptionally steep pitch from one end to the other for drainage. The entire building was loaded with flow-able fill, and then a concrete floor (dyed to match the walls) was poured in the building. Above you can see the insulating curing blankets used to protect the floor from cold-weather conditions. Another interesting aspect of the project is that the sculpture, Étroits sont les Vaisseaux, 2002, was dropped into the shell of the tank and covered with a protective platform, and then the building’s upper walls and roof were installed around it…solving the ship-in-the bottle problem and making for more efficient craning.

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After the concrete is poured, the steel structure of the pre-engineered building was installed.

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The purlins.

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The insulation and exterior panels.

This space is much more pristine, white, and classical in feeling than MASS MoCA’s typically warm masonry and wood-framed galleries. And while MASS MoCA is rather well-known for its beautifully side-lit galleries, this one will feature an amazing skylight, which is a first for MASS MoCA. It should make for an interesting and refreshing juxtaposition. We rather like the idea of MASS MoCA becoming a museum and performing arts space that also houses a collection of distinct curatorial points of view and long-term art “milestones” within our roster of changing exhibitions: LeWitt, Kiefer, and the Clark. The design of the building was worked out collaboratively between the Hall Art Foundation, which funded most of the work; the artist; his installation designer, Bill Katz; and local architects from the multidisciplinary design consulting firm, Guntlow & Associates, Inc. There will also be quite a bit of exterior landscape work done, opening up our “Speed Way” for future outdoor sculptural installations.

And now for the installation of artwork inside the building … you’ll have to come visit beginning September 27th. Stay tuned.

Blog by Dante Birch, Director of Exhibition Planning

Posted August 30, 2013 by MASS MoCA
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The Installation of Marko Remec’s Totally Totem at MASS MoCA

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All photos by Jane Burns

New York-based conceptual sculptor Marko Remec has created five contemporary totems by adhering ready-made objects such as mops, brooms, and mirrors to utility poles and our iconic water tower. These modern-day totems play with the tensions between the built and natural worlds while hinting at some of the uglier aspects of urban and suburban living.

We spoke with Remec about his work and the process of installing Totally Totem on MASS MoCA’s campus.

Tell us about the conception of Totally Totem.

The Totem series originated from a site visit to MASS MoCA. My departure point was a set of telephone poles left over from a previous installation that I saw in one of the undeveloped buildings on campus. I had for years been fascinated by totem poles and had already gathered several large logs in my studio in anticipation of such a project. In addition, I had recently replaced some rearview mirrors on my Jeep, so I was experimenting with the old ones. When I saw that pile of poles, after having just walked around the museum’s outdoor spaces, the idea for what became Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (Circle Totem) very quickly gelled. I sketched this out for the museum and was encouraged to develop the work further. Once I had the idea of using mirrors and poles, the other works like Tall Totem and Fat Totem seemed the natural next step.

What are the formal concerns of reflectivity? Scale and iteration seem to be thematic in these works. How does that figure in your practice?

My practice is more on the conceptual level. Reflectivity is what a mirror does, and it provides a very accessible initial layer to a viewer. I am keying off of the attributes of what the mirror does. Safety turns into paranoia through massive iteration of reflection. When up close to so many mirrors, the overpowering opportunity for self-reflection references today’s rampant narcissism.

Why MASS MoCA?

Aside from it being the largest contemporary art museum in the world? It is kind of a homecoming. I went to college nearby. My first studio art teacher at Williams was very involved in the founding of MASS MoCA. Many artists I respect and follow have shown their work here. And most importantly, Joe [Thompson, MASS MoCA’s Director] is somewhat of a maverick in the museum world who delights in introducing new artists.

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Tell us about the installation process of Totally Totem?

I had five works to install that were all constructed on site. First, field work is challenging as you are out of the comfort zone of your studio. Second, you are working outdoors and have to deal with the weather. For the most part, I was able to make the first four pieces with the help of one of the museum’s installation staff. I thought this left plenty of time for the largest and most complicated work, Fat Totem, which covers the museum’s water tower (35 foot high and 45 foot in diameter). This last work was going to be difficult, and I needed the assistance of the installation team. It has almost 24,000 individual components to support and hold the 442 convex mirrors, each almost three feet wide. We used almost a mile of wire! There were some procurement issues, and a critical component we needed to mount the mirrors did not arrive at the museum until four days before the show opened. At this point, my only comfort was Joe telling me late Monday, “This is no problem; if this was Wednesday, then I would be worried.” It is a testament to Richard Criddle MASS MoCA’s Director of Fabrication and Installation, and his crew, that the work got done. We had the entire six-man team working overtime, including a number of walk-ons (Joe and Larry Smallwood [MASS MoCA’s Deputy Director] both put in their time). On top of that, it rained miserably almost that entire week. In the end, it got finished. I guess I shouldn’t have worried.

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What is one interesting thing you learned about MASS MoCA?

MASS MoCA is almost like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when the government stores the Ark of the Covenant for safekeeping, and then the camera pans back and you see it is in this immense space with all these other presumably amazing objects. There is a lot of intriguing stuff there.

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Posted August 21, 2013 by MASS MoCA
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Made at MASS MoCA

Another successful summer of contemporary music has come and gone with the 12th annual Bang on a Can residency. Each year the faculty and fellows sweep into town, filling our museum and North Adams with music that is sometimes just minutes old.

One of the most remarkable parts of this residency is the opportunity for us to observe the musicians at work – stopping, starting over, asking questions, and uttering one of our favorite phrases, “Let’s try something different…”. It’s one thing to be surrounded by new art; it’s another to see art as it is being made.

Operating in spaces that have been manufacturing since the colonial period, MASS MoCA continues the long-standing North Adams tradition of innovation and production with our performing arts residency program. For over a decade, we’ve opened our spaces and fostered the work of over 50 artists-in-residence such as Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Liz Lerman, David Byrne, and Shirin Neshat.

In the following video Lee Sher and Saar Harari, founders of LeeSaar the Company and the choreographers behind grass and jackals, speak about their residency at MASS MoCA this past February. Grass and jackals premiered earlier this month at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina.

Posted August 13, 2013 by MASS MoCA
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Who was John Henry?

The performing arts staff at MASS MoCA have been counting down the hours until tonight’s performance of Steel Hammer by comparing our own notes on the different versions of the John Henry story.

Composer and Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe did us all one better by seamlessly weaving together every interpretation she could find into one moving and provocative piece; and tonight the Bang on a Can All-Stars will perform the Pulitzer finalist and bring to life the story, or stories, of the steel driving man and his wife Polly Ann, or Mary Ann, or Julie Ann, or Sally Ann…

Julia Wolfe took a moment from rehearsal to describe the piece and her time at MASS MoCA.

Posted July 29, 2013 by MASS MoCA
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