After visiting the “New Gilded Age: A Theatrical Installation by B. Lynch” exhibition that’s on view through February 5 at the Iris and B. Cantor Art Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts (and which is reviewed in our January/February 2021 issue), Artscope managing editor Brian Goslow exchanged email questions with gallery director Meredith Fluke and multi-media artist and puppeteer Bridget “B.” Lynch about how the exhibition came together, how they adapted to the challenges of a semester where the Holy Cross campus opened, and then soon shut down, turning the show into a by appointment only exhibition, and how in the process, explored numerous new ways to present an exhibition that normally would serve as a backdrop to the college’s art programs.
MEREDITH FLUKE, DIRECTOR, CANTOR GALLERY AT THE COLLEGE OF THE HOLY CROSS
EXHIBITIONS AT THE CANTOR ALWAYS HAVE A MAJOR EDUCATION COMPONENT WITH PARTICIPATING ARTISTS GIVING A SERIES OF LECTURES, GALLERY TALKS AND TOURS OF THEIR SHOWS TO STUDENTS AND VISITORS; YOU AND THE GALLERY HAVE DONE A GREAT JOB OF SHIFTING THOSE PRESENTATIONS ONLINE. TAKE ME THROUGH THE PROCESS OF WORKING TOGETHER WITH BRIDGET TO MAKE THAT HAPPEN AND ALLOW, IN A NON-TRADITIONAL WAY, THE SHOW TO GO ON.
MEREDITH FLUKE: In the summer, we were expecting the students to return to campus for fall semester, and so had imagined the primary viewing experience for New Gilded Age to be in person. With the pivot to online learning in August, we made the decision to mount the show regardless, and to create an accompanying, integral online exhibition. Due to nature of Bridget’s work, I did not feel that the exhibition should be entirely online — rather, we needed to situate the figures in context, and give them space and lighting in order to create the videos and photographs that we needed. We were lucky that Bridget was such a visionary partner with which to conceptualize both the gallery and online components, and that there are so many talented people on campus — the videographer, film editor, web and graphic designers, etc. — that were willing to create online components that could serve as a true resource for our visitors and the Holy Cross community.
WHAT WAS YOUR EXPECTATION AND IMPRESSION OF THE SHOW AS IT WAS COMING IN AND HOW DID IT CHANGE ONCE IT WAS INSTALLED?
I had done a studio visit with Bridget last year when I first arrived at Holy Cross, and my first impression was that the work was magical, and ripe with possibilities for thought-provoking conversations. I was particularly interested in Bridget as an artist who sets rigorous rules for her work, and then allows the world to build itself. As we installed the pieces, though, I was very surprised by the affective quality of the figures, as though they took on more complex and more human capacity when we put them into their vignettes.
HOW HAS YOUR VIEW OF IT CHANGED AFTER LIVING WITH IT FOR THREE MONTHS?
For me the most important aspect of living with a show is the opportunity to talk to various visitors about it. I have noticed that everyone becomes attached to the various characters of New Gilded Age — perhaps they identify personally with the social situation and attachments of a particular character, or perhaps sustained observation increases the character’s intrigue — this is especially true if you watch the films many times. Since the world has been built by Bridget over many years, it’s difficult to take in all the complexities and nuances at once. I believe that knowledge of the world is cumulative, and that viewers create understanding through sustained engagement.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM THIS PROCESS THAT WILL BE BENEFICIAL IN THE EXHIBITIONS AT THE CANTOR THAT FOLLOW? HAS THE MORE UNIVERSAL PRESENTATION ONLINE HELPED DRAW MORE ATTENTION TO THE SHOW?
I have enjoyed working on virtual programs, and am especially interested in exploring their capacity to reach larger audiences, and to be a resource that can be encountered casually, repeatedly, asynchronously. As we move forward, I am thinking about how virtual presentations can capitalize on those strengths and become something that has different, though related, goals from that of in-person exhibitions. Like many art lovers, I am very devoted to the physical object, and will likely always consider online programs as only a piece of the larger puzzle.
ARE THERE ANY PROGRAMS TIED TO THE SHOW SCHEDULED FOR THE START OF THE SECOND SEMESTER?
I’ve been thinking about it, though it is difficult to determine what February will look like in terms of state and campus Covid regulations! It was hard not to have an opening celebration — it’s built into our expectation of what the arc of an exhibition looks like. It was particularly difficult to not have the opportunity to thank the many people who contributed to the in-person and online presentations. I hope to have one more opportunity to celebrate Bridget’s accomplishments, and perhaps to hear about her experience of this show over the five months.
DURING THE OCTOBER TALK, YOU THANKED THE ADMINISTRATION FOR ITS SUPPORT DURING THIS PERIOD OF TIME AND IN DOING SO SHOWED ITS DEDICATION TO THE GALLERY AND ARTS PROGRAM AT HOLY CROSS. HOW HAS IT MADE YOUR JOB EASIER OVER THE PAST SEMESTER?
It has been essential to have the support of the administration, I am grateful that they agreed to devote resources to this exhibition — both the online and in-person iterations — despite the fact that students are not in person, and regulations for cultural institutions have been in flux. Many of my colleagues in academic museums and galleries have remained closed through the pandemic. It has been important to me that we keep our program visible and active, and Bridget’s work has the added benefit of being both relevant and restorative.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING ON THE CONCEPT OF THE REDS AND GREYS AND WHERE DID THE IDEA ORIGINATE?
I got started in 2012 when I made the first figurine, the Red Vizier Horseman. But it was around a year later I understood that inequity of power and wealth between the factions of Red and Grey was the driving force. As the project has grown I have used my delight in details of their material objects to express the philosophical underpinnings of the project. This time-bending sci-fi world exists improbably, where somehow the gorgeously attired Reds live in the 18th century while at the same time the Greys appear to occupy a nebulous but future time and space of ceaseless work. Each have their talismans. Vaneeta gazes adoringly at herself in the mirror and Lily, the cleaning lady, totes her pail and rag and is almost invisible when at the palace.
HAD YOU HAD ANY PAST EXPERIENCE WITH PUPPETRY?
I studied traditional Japanese puppetry, Bunraku, while I was a student in Japan as an undergrad. Several of my projects have had performative objects, but the Reds and Greys have pushed me forward. I have reveled in being the “puppet master” as I create my fantasy world.
LEAVING THE GALLERY, I REALIZED HOW FEW ARTISTS GET TO BRING AN IDEA TO FRUITION IN THE PUPPETRY/CHARACTER FORMAT THAT YOU WORK WITH (WHAT I FIRST THOUGHT OF IS HOW, AT SOME POINT IN TIME, THE CREATOR OF STAR WARS HAD A SIMILAR VISION AND ONLY A FEW TRULY UNDERSTAND WHAT AN EXTENDED ENDEAVOR SOMETHING LIKE THIS IS LIKE). IN A SINGULAR FORMAT, YOU EITHER GET THE CHARACTERS OR YOU DON’T; HAVING THE OUTLET OF VIDEO HAS GIVEN YOU THE ABILITY TO BRING THEM TO LIFE AND GIVE THEM THE FEATURES THAT OTHERWISE MIGHT ONLY EXIST CLEARLY IN YOUR MIND. WHEN DID YOU START WORKING ON BRINGING YOUR CHARACTERS TO LIFE IN VIDEO FORM?
That is an excellent comment regarding how video allows layers of interaction and meaning that a single work does not. From the very start of the project I knew I would want to explore them eventually in video form. But I needed enough characters and in-my-head back-story for the video component to be viable. The Red Baiter series videos were made in 2019 and 2020. I had created a series of digitally composed photographs starting in 2017 using my large-scale cut-out figures against especially indicative architectural backgrounds. These manipulated photos opened the mental door for me to explore video using 2D and 3D representations of the characters.
Although I have made video for many years, Red Baiters is something different for me. The characters have insisted, or so it seems, on their own agency. I work rather intuitively with a shot list but not a script. The sound is very important to my process. Often, I compose and lay down the soundtrack before I insert the video element. Since they lack dialog the sound sets the emotional journey of the short video.
THERE MUST HAVE BEEN HOURS UPON HOURS OF TESTING WHAT WORKED AND WHAT DIDN’T. HOW DO YOU BRING YOUR CHARACTERS ALIVE FOR YOU AND FOR YOUR AUDIENCES? DO YOU HAVE PEOPLE YOU TRUST LOOK AT THEM BEFORE SHARING THEM TO THE WORLD AT LARGE?
Yes, it is a slow process both figuring out who is an archetype character that I wish to make and how best to expound them in body language and facial expression. I usually draw several versions. My family have been both extremely supportive and honestly critical if something doesn’t work for them. I find this helpful and I learn what is important for me to convey. The videos are very layered and painstaking. I often spend three or four hours on 10 seconds of video, and then I might throw it all out.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE PIECES WAS “FISHERMAN ON THE LONELY SEA” – I WAS IN LOVE WITH IT BEFORE I EVEN ENTERED THE GALLERY, SEEING IT THROUGH THE WINDOW. TELL ME ABOUT THE CREATION OF THE FISHERMAN AND HIS BOAT AND HOW YOU CREATED THE OCEAN IT WAS FLOATING ABOVE.
I am very fond of the Fisherman. He is one of the few Greys with autonomy. He is working, to be sure. But he escapes to the sea where he is the master of his fate. The use of blue theatrical gels over the lights creates a mood. The airy blue tulle fabric was bunched and draped to suggest water. The underwater blue-light sea cucumber (or whatever it is) adds to the mystery. The boat is made of varnished paper over a bent wooden frame (sticks from my back yard).
I have rules for the project concerning materials for the small figurines and their objects. Paper, wire and paint with some wood is allowable. I didn’t want anything to be too perfect. These materials aren’t as “plastic” as clays, hence the strong evidence of my hand, which I think gives them more emotional heft.
WHO ARE “BAITER” AND “HAULER” AND HOW DID THEY GET THE UNIQUE UNIFORMS THEY WEAR AND HOW YOU DECIDED TO PLACE THEM SO THAT THEY “REAPPEARED” ON THE SCREEN BEHIND THEM.
When imagining the world of the Greys I decided that not only would they necessarily need to be more numerous but also because of their social position in my imagined world, their clothes would be almost a uniform. Each Grey would have the signifier of their job. The men wear a tin pot on their head and the women wear a long black skirt (except for Saltimbanque). They share a uni-sex jacket. So, the Hauler wears a heavy yellow belt so he can attach himself to his jitney, as a human-powered taxi for the Reds. Lily the cleaning lady is undercover for in the palace because she is beneath notice.
These two characters have plenty of scope to unearth the secrets of the Reds. But it is a dangerous game to be part of the Baiters resistance faction. Making the various characters again and again in different media expands my comprehension of them. The video makes them almost mythic as their original 10-inch size becomes larger than life-size.
“VANEETA” ALSO COMES “ALIVE” IN YOUR VIDEO; SHE’S CALLED “A WOMAN OF WEALTH” BUT SHE SEEMS QUITE LONELY. IN YOUR OCTOBER TALK, YOU TALKED ABOUT HOW SHE HOLDS A MIRROR THAT YOU SEE AS A REFLECTION OF SOCIETY. HOW HAS SHE DEVELOPED OVER THE YEARS?
As the project developed I understood that the Reds primarily enjoyed posing. They are self-absorbed and their self-worth arises from their possessions. Vaneeta is the embodiment of self-regard. She is in a bubble of her own. Her vision of how society functions is reflected in the mirror, everything is interpreted through her lens. I think it is a metaphor for many of us, as the internet functions as a mirror. Our on-line choices are self-affirming. But Vaneeta is meant as an archetype character. She has wealth and feels beautiful and privileged; her narcissism precludes genuine relationships with both Reds and Greys.
DO YOU LOOK AT ANY OF THESE CHARACTERS AND CLEARLY SEE THEM CONTAINING YOUR OWN EMOTIONS AND FEELINGS?
Spot-on! I’ve created these characters to investigate being human. I can experience good, bad, violence, talent, hard work and leisure all through my characters. I think most humans are capable of many ways of feeling. Although my personal political and ethical choices aren’t in sympathy with all of the characters, having them enact their little dramas allows me to postulate their motivations and gives me creative permission to walk in their shoes. It is a kaleidoscope; new images keep coalescing.
WHAT ARE THE ORIGINS OF THE ARCHITECTURAL BACKDROPS TO YOUR VIDEOS AND INSTALLATIONS?
I love traveling and since the beginning of the Reds and Greys I have been collecting photos that reflect their habitats. Vienna, Augsburg and Madrid all have luscious Baroque buildings. Stockholm’s tiny alleys, MASS MoCA’s abandoned industrial buildings, and the graffiti covered watchtowers on Gooseberry Island all suggest the make-do atmosphere of the Greys.
HOW HAS HAVING YOUR WORK COME “ALIVE” IN VIDEO FORM HELPED YOU IN SEEKING FUTURE VENUES TO PRESENT YOUR WORK? COULD YOU SEE EVER PRESENTING IT WITHOUT VIDEO ACCOMPANIMENT AGAIN?
The video world of the Reds and Greys is more fully realized as a stand-alone piece, so it is easier to explain the project to a new curator. I think it is now such an integral part of my project I would be loathe not to include it.
WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON FOR THE REDS, THE GREYS AND B. LYNCH IN 2021?
In January/February the art museum of Northern Illinois University will be presenting my Grey Days video as part of Storied References. Later in the year, I have a solo exhibition, “Pull Back the Curtain,” at the Brattleboro Art Museum. I have some new ideas to try out for the world of Reds and Greys; and my website www.blynchart.com is regularly updated.
(“New Gilded Age: A Theatrical Installation by B. Lynch” remains on view through February 5 at the Iris and B. Cantor Art Gallery, College of the Holy Cross, O’Kane Hall, One College Street, Worcester, Massachusetts. Gallery visits are by appointment only Tuesday through Friday from noon–5 p.m. with limited Saturday availability. To book an entry time, email email@example.com or call (508) 793-3356. Masks and social distancing practices are required. For more information or to visit the exhibition virtually, visit holycross.edu/iris-and-b-gerald-cantor-art-gallery.)