The performing arts staff at MASS MoCA have been counting down the hours until tonightâs 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 AnnâŠ
Julia Wolfe took a moment from rehearsal to describe the piece and her time at MASS MoCA.
Photo courtesy The Berkshire Eagle / Photographer Ben GarverGovernor Cellucci slipped away from the crowd at MASS MoCA’s fifth anniversary gala to explore Bruce Nauman’s work, “Green Light Corridor”.Â Â Â
These thoughts on Â Massachusetts Governor Argeo Paul Cellucci were penned by MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson. Â
Governor Cellucci passed away last weekend.
Paul Cellucci was a great friend to MASS MoCA, and, with his wife Jan, a secret supporter of contemporary art in general. Nobody in North Adams will ever forget that it was Paul who finally delivered the check for MASS MoCAâs first major construction work in 1996. But at the same time, only a few know that when Paul liquidated his various campaign funds, he and Jan distributed a very generous gift to MASS MoCA, at a time we sorely needed it.
When Governor Cellucci was named Ambassador to Canada, and he and Jan moved into the US Embassy, Paul had visions of decorating the Ambassadorâs residence with beautiful Hudson River School and American Impressionist paintings. Jan thought otherwise, and suggested they invite living artists â specifically those from MASS MoCA’s inaugural exhibition â to loan work to the Embassy. Jan curated a great show. Paul later confessed to Jennifer and me that at first he was somewhat reluctantâŠheâd been dreaming of living with great American landscapes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But after the new art was up â the artists were all very generous â he came to love it, and said it sparked all kinds of unexpected and meaningful conversations with visiting dignitaries, not the least of which was the opportunity to extol MASS MoCA, and the hometown of his friend and future governor, Jane Swift.
Paul had an open, flexible, generous mind that absorbed the world in all its complexity: we were saddened by his death, and send our heartfelt sympathy to his family and those lucky enough to have known him even better than we did.
âThe light box is called the ‘Background Story,’ and once patrons and the public understand the back story in terms of the works’ original creation in China and then our efforts in bringing them to the United States and displaying them at MASS MoCA, I think that makes it all the more amazing.â –Richard Criddle
Richard Criddle, MASS MoCA Director of Fabrication and Art Installation, calls the feat of installing Xu Bing: Phoenix “one of the biggest, most ambitious things that we’ve ever done at MASS MoCA.â It’s impossible to look at Xu Bing’s art without wondering what superhuman forces could lift two 12-ton phoenixes and suspend them in midair, assemble thousands of cigarettes into the shape of a tiger-skin rug, and turn plants and shadows into a Chinese landscape âpainting.â (âBecause I have a voice out of Harry Potter, sometimes they also expect me to have a magic wand,â Criddle says.) Here, he describes the shipment and installation of Xu Bing’s amazing phoenixes.
Slow boat from China
It’s often said that the art was transported via âthe slow boat from China.â The shipping company had a website where we could track its progress. (It rather reminded me of going back to England. On the plane, whenever I go back, it always seems to take forever for that little plane on the video screen on the seat in front to get anywhere near the old country.) We were patiently keeping an eye on where the boat was. It chugged slowly across the Pacific, and then it came down through the Panama Canal and into the Gulf of Mexico. It first docked at Corpus Christi in Texas. Then it had to chug around the peninsula of Florida and up the East Coast.
Photo: Dante Birch
The boat ultimately arrived in Philadelphia. It docked there because the crates into which the phoenixes were packed do not conform to containerized standard dimensions. There are very few ports left in the country that can deal with non-containerized sea cargo. Those crates then had to clear customs. MASS MoCA employed a shipping broker to expedite that process. We also hired a trucking company based in New Jersey, which seemed to take its time making its way to MASS MoCA. (I put that as politely as I can.)Â When something like thatâon top of shipping issues and even weather issuesâis outside of your control, the frustration really builds up. Once we finally got the art here and started to wrangle with the various components, it was incredibly hard work and a challenge and a test, but that was welcomed after a protracted period of frustration.
Photo: Dante Birch
Making an entrance
When the trucks did arrive on site, we had to negotiate the back gate and then get them over the steel bridge and into Courtyard D. Once in the courtyard, two fork trucks would come in from either side at the center of these huge crates and lift them up in the air, and then the truck would drive out from underneath. We would then lower the crates back down to the ground and, with those same fork trucks, maneuver them to be aligned with our big cargo door, which is on the second floor. That door is about 12 feet high and just under 24 feet wide. Just about all of these crates had to come longways into the building; because the smallest of them were about 30 feet long, they couldn’t fit sideways. We engaged a crane operator and a professional crew of riggers. (They’re the people who give directions to the crane operator and make sure that all of the slings and lifting equipment are securely and properly attached to the crates.)
Photo: Dante Birch
The crates were lifted up, and swung, and pushed into the building. They were then placed onto dollies. (We actually killed a lot of our furniture dollies. They were flattened by the weight. I need to replace some wheels.) The crates are big plywood boxes that are reinforced with bolted and welded channel iron around them. If it werenât for that iron superstructure around the crates, theyâd basically fall apart. Inside of the crates are a whole variety of different forms of jigs and structures that hold the various components of the phoenixes in position. They filled up Building 5 fast. You think, It’s two stories high and the size of an American football field, but it fills up quickly when a âsmallâ crate is 32 feet long and 5 feet wide and 4 feet high. The crates were then pushed and maneuvered around the room, often using the fork lift trucks that we had up in the gallery. We took the forks off of the fork trucks and brought them up in the elevator. (Those fork trucks are carefully selected to be within the elevator’s weight capacity.)Â In that particular gallery, because it has a concrete floor, we could buzz around all over the place. Just like any other project, moving the first couple of crates around was sort of a rehearsal, getting the hang of it. We really got quite nifty at moving things around as time went on.
Photo: Jane Burns
Two of these enormous crates containing tail sections only arrived at 8 o’clock the morning before the exhibition opened, and they still had to be craned into the building and then unpacked. Some of these crates, to purely pluck the lid off, require two chain falls to be put up into the ceiling.Â (Chain falls are ratchet-operated chain hoists.) Think of the crates as enormous shoeboxes; to take the lid off of a 32-foot-long shoebox, you have to have two chain falls up in the air to lift the lid off, and then you need to move the crate out from underneath the lifted lid in order to get what’s inside.
We had to buy chain falls in bulk. It’s quite strange, really, because for previous exhibitions and installations here, we’ve gotten by with four chain falls that I use over and over again. All of a sudden I’m buying ten times that many: 40 chain falls for a single job. It seemed quite bizarre. Most of them are one-ton chain falls that we bought especially for this project, but we also utilized three or four heavier-grade chain falls that support the main body sections because one ton wasn’t enough. Take, for instance, the body of a phoenix that’s made from a salvaged cement mixing drum; a one-ton chain fall wouldn’t pick that up, so we had to use a three- or four-ton chain fall. The phoenixes are now supported from the ceiling by 43 chain falls.
There are currently 43 pieces of walled, 21-foot-long, 3/16thÂ of an inch thick square, steel tubing up in the ceiling above the beams that makes a sort of grid supporting the phoenixes. We basically took the rigging diagrams from China that we were supplied with, laid the points out on the floor, and then used a laser plumb bob to project those points up onto the ceiling. We hung all of the rigging points prior to the phoenixes’ arrival, working with a consulting engineer to make sure the loads were properly dispersed and that we remained within the building’s structural capacities. We had plenty of time to get this right because we were standing around waiting for trucks, so we did a tremendous amount of advance preparation. All of those rigging points were checked by MASS MoCA’s structural engineer, so we were about as ready as possible when they finally got here, but then it was a bit of a mad dash and a scramble until the end.
Every instruction, in terms of the assembly of the phoenixes, was given by Xu Bing’s brother who had put the pieces together before. His instructions were in Chinese, which were translated into English by Xu Bing’s assistant and translator, Jesse Coffino. That indirect communication added another dimension of time to everything. In the heat of the moment, while carrying out complicated rigging operations, it was often quite hard to understand exactly what was required. My Chinese is nonexistent, and we were all under a lot of pressure to try and get the job done. If you just think of what a gargantuan project it is, and you add all of those aspects that I’ve explained were outside of our control, and then you add a further layer of complexity in terms of just understanding one another, once you’ve grasped all that, it’s really more remarkable.
Photo: Jane Burns
The major bolting was done in midair. We would lift the pieces up into position, and then one or two scissor lifts would drive into position. Guys in the scissor lifts would have the appropriate wrenches and bolts. The steel and nylon fabric tail sections of the phoenix were bolted on the ground prior to raising them up in the air. Bolting the tail sections was one of the final steps to completing the phoenixes. I’m really glad we stopped with an easy part. (Compared to a lot of what we did on this project, that was definitely in the easy category.) The tails are probably 35 feet long by the time they’re assembled. Some tail pieces are not that heavy and can be picked up by four or five people and moved around manually. Some of the other tail sections that are made out of a whole variety of found objects and fabricated steel needed to be picked up with chain falls or moved with a fork truck. Also, all of the LED lights that illuminate the phoenixes had to be plugged in sequentially. I’m absolutely amazed that the LED lights work, and that they survived all of the handling, engineering, and transport. They all plug in, and we managed to get it lit up like Christmas just before Christmas.
Photo: Jane Burns
We opened the entire show at 2:00pm on December 22, the day after the final tail sections arrived. We came back to work on Christmas Eve to move out the remaining crates and get them into storage. We just about finished it by Christmas. I’d call that making it by the skin of your teeth.
Photo: Keifer Gammel
Â Text transcribed and edited by Maro Elliott, MASS MoCA Development Assistant
MASS MoCA Urges Locals to Rent Spare Rooms During Solid Sound Festival
Â Â Â (North Adams, Mass.)Â — With the closest and most convenient accommodations approaching full capacity for the MASS MoCA/Wilco Solid Sound Festival on the weekend of June 21-23,Â MASS MoCA isÂ urging those who wish to rent rooms (especially those in convenient proximity to the museum) to pre-register with the listing service Airbnb.com.Â The listing service specializes in short-term house, apartment, and âspare roomâ rentals.
âThis is an opportunity for locals to pick up a little extra spending money, or for local churches, youth groups, and other civic organizations to utilize their membersâ homes as a way of raising funds,â said Jodi Joseph, MASS MoCA spokesperson.Â The process is simple.Â Register on-line at AirBnB.com through a questionnaire, detailing your lodging accommodations.Â Be specific and provide photos when possible.Â Joseph continues, âAs our regional motels, inns, and campsites begin to fill up in the coming weeks and months, we will soon be pointing Solid Sound patrons to AirBnB.com as a convenient, centralized way to find alternative lodging within our region.Â Rooms within easy walking, biking or driving distance to MASS MoCA will no doubt be extremely popular.â
Because it takes a few days to get listed and approved on AirBnB.com,Â museum officials urge those who are interested to start now, so your listing will appear when the Solid Sound website begins directing potential festival-goersÂ to the AirBnB.com website.Â Â There is no fee for your listing; however, AirBnB (not MASS MoCA or Wilco) collects a small percentage of the rental fee for processing the transaction, should your room, house, or apartment be rented.
Joseph Thompson, MASS MoCAâs Director, added, âObviously this is a way for our neighbors with extra room in their houses and apartments to reap a little direct economic dividend from the Solid Sound weekend, but it will also help keep more of our Solid Sound patrons ensconced in our region.Â Nothing against our more distant friends, but weâd love as many people as possible to be able to enjoy our hometown and Berkshire hospitality, and to utilize the services of local merchants; the way to do that is to keep as many people as possible as close to home as possible.Â We offer bicycle racks within 100â of our front door, plus a shuttle bus loop, opening up lots of ways to eliminate driving and parking hassles for those who find lodging nearby.â
Â A second festival, FreshGrass, focused on bluegrass music, is planned for September 20-22.Â âWe expect to use AirBnB for FreshGrass in September as well, so once your lodging offerings are listed, you will be good to go for that event too,â noted Joseph.Â For civic organizations, church groups, sports clubs, and other not-for-profits with active members or congregations, this could be a great way to raise additional funds for local activities.
Â MASS MoCA, the largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts in the United States, is located off Marshall Street in North Adams on a 13-acre campus of renovated 19th-century factory buildings. MASS MoCA is an independent 501(c)(3) whose operations and programmingÂ areÂ funded through admissionsÂ and commercial leaseÂ revenue, corporate and foundation grants, and individual philanthropy.Â Except for an initial construction grant from the Commonwealth, and competitive program and operations grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, MASS MoCA is privately funded: 90% of annual operating revenues are from earned revenues, membership support, and private gifts and grants.
Jeff Mangum delights the crowd in MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center. Photo / Jane Burns / MASS MoCA
It seems like everyone has the same question for Jeff Mangum, the elusive artist behind theÂ legendary late-â90s band Neutral Milk Hotel: Has he written any songs in the past 15 years? Last night, at Mangumâs sold-out concert at MASS MoCA â an art museum in North Adams, Mass. â an audience member yelled for a ânew one.â And Mangum replied: Â âYouâll never hear those.â
Fans also ask, Why play little towns like Poughkeepsie and North Adams? Whatâs Ruston, La. like? (Weâve always wondered about Mangumâs hometown.) And, most of all: Why, after all these years hiding out, is Mangum touring again?
MASS MoCA, located in rural westernÂ Massachusetts, is currently hosting a show on contemporary Canadian art. We could go on about the parallels between the super-self-conscious rustic art on display and the manic imagery and identity crises found in Mangumâs music, but weâll save the dissertation.
The Music Tapes, featuring onetime Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster, played a delightful opening show. They messed around with a seven-foot metronome and a singing TV, creating a huge sound out of horns, organ and banjo. Koster, sporting a dopey winter hat and scarf, strummed a banjo and sang âPointing hands, pointing hands, somehow we all played in musical bands that toured through the landsâ punctuated by booms of baritone horn, crashing cymbals and bonging bells.
Meanwhile, Mangumâs set could have been pulled from a concert in 1998, the year Neutral Milk Hotel released âIn the Aeroplane Over the Sea,â their last album. He sang his joyous songs like they were fresh, with a truly impressive amount of energy behind his vocals. He filled the entire room with his voice during âKing of Carrot Flowers.â It was a wonder there was any space left for air to circulate.
He performed âOh, Comelyâ with the vocal fury and staggering changes in volume and pace that youâll find on bootlegs of Mangumâs solo shows from the â90s. âYour father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies, while you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park,â he sang with every tooth in his mouth bared against the backdrop of his beard.
âPlay a new one!â someone in the audience yelled. âYouâll never hear those songs,â Mangum replied. The room went silent. âWhat?â he smiled. âItâs not that they donât exist âŠâ He then continued with the concert, leaving everyone yearning for something new.
Throughout the show, Mangum asked the audience to sing along. But because it was a small room, and Mangum accompanied himself with only a guitar, the audience often drowned out the singer, especially on songs like âIn the Aeroplane Over the Seaâ and âTwo Headed Boy, Pt. 2? â the ones everyone knows. As misanthropic as Mangum sometimes seems (no cameras were allowed at the show, and no interviews were granted during the entire tour), he sounded truly ecstatic last night.
Mangum told the crowd that he âdidnât know what to expectâ on his first tour in 15 years. âBut Iâm very touched by everyone who has come to hear me play.â As the college kids in the audience sang along with him, he smiled like he was grateful for the attention.
And maybe thatâs the answer to one of the questions. Maybe Mangum is touring because he misses hearing his words sung back to him. It must be awesome to see how much people become absorbed in his dream-flow storytelling. Not to mention that heâs become an underground legend in the 15 years since his masterpiece was released. But one last question: Why wonât he sing us those new ones?