Wide open spaces: Tristan Sharps' art occupies abandoned buildings

by Kavita Shah / Beacon Staff • November 5, 2014

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Tristan Sharps does not display his visual art in galleries. He does not screen his films in theaters, direct plays on a stage, or build installation pieces for museums. Sharps inhabits abandoned spaces with dynamic multimedia work, resulting in an audience-centered, interactive approach to contemporary art.

  From Nov. 2-9, Sharps is spending a weeklong artist residency at Emerson to gather inspiration and creative support for his next piece. He said his visit entails touring various sites in Boston, meeting with faculty and staff to seek potential collaboration, and developing new technology that could help viewers navigate an upcoming piece that revolves around surveillance and misuse of data. Additionally, Sharps gave a talk about his work in Paramount Studio 7 on Wednesday, Nov. 5 and is the featured guest of ArtsEmerson’s Brown Bag Lunch on Friday, Nov. 7.

Sharps is the founder and artistic director of the UK-based production company dreamthinkspeak. He is internationally recognized as a forerunner in interweaving theater, film, and installation pieces against the backdrop of various architectural landscapes across the globe.

Junior Jackson Marchant attended Sharps’ talk through his interactive media class. Marchant, a visual and media arts major, works with creating virtual reality landscapes, and said that Sharps’ insight into crafting interactive experiences easily applied to his interests.

“It’s very immersive, like an analog variant of what I do,” said Marchant. “He takes more of a fundamental approach to storytelling than Emerson’s VMA department offers.”

Sharps said that in creating a project in Boston, he hopes to create a labyrinth of interlocking site-responsive pieces that span the city, both outdoors and indoors. He said he sees Boston as a city in the process of reinventing itself and undergoing transition.

 “Cities in development are always interesting in that they’re not either here nor there, but in that period between the two,” he said. “It’s often the most fertile period for a city. Boston feels like rich soil for inspiration.”

 Rob Orchard, Emerson’s executive director for the arts, said he initiated the plans for Sharps’ artist residency. Orchard said he attended one of Sharps’ productions, Before I Sleep, in Brighton in 2010 and was immediately fascinated by the nature of the work. This inspired him to invite Sharps to Emerson to get to know the college because of its similar emphasis on various artistic disciplines.

 “His work connects creativity, imagination, communications, and marketing,” said Orchard. “We want to see if we might be able to build a coalition of active interest and support here at the college.”

Orchard said that one idea for Sharps’ visit is to plan a workshop where students can refine his ideas further and create a public event that involves creative contributions from across Emerson. He added that there isn’t a formula for what he seeks from artist residencies; rather, he is looking to forge a genuine connection between students and an established artist.

Senior Erica Blumrosen, one of the student creative producers assigned to manage Sharps’ residency, said Sharps finds unique ways to portray various themes within a specific place. In Before I Sleep, for instance, Sharps explores deforestation by juxtaposing the image of a fully-grown, majestic cherry tree at the end of a hallway with an adjacent room filled entirely with stumps. In another wing of the site, actors performed a deconstructed version of a Russian play called “The Cherry Orchard.”

“The way he creates theater is different from the way we generally look at creating theater,” said Blumrosen, a performing arts major. “He’s gearing his work toward the immersive art.”

Sharps said he pursued directing and acting, but was unhappy with both professions. His interests never fit neatly into one artistic medium, he said, so he looked for inspiration from his past, and set out to find an accessible way of conveying his interest in spatial experiences.

Sharps said he was an only child and spent the majority of his childhood living in studio apartments throughout the UK with his mother.

“That lack of space when I was young was a very wonderful fire under me,” he said. “I didn’t have that much space to move around in physically, but I had a vast amount of space in my head, in my imagination.”

 Sharps said his lust for large, maze-like spaces arose from the desire to make up for lost time. He said he spent his youth wandering art galleries and back corridors of theaters, fascinated more by the spatial experience than the visual art itself.

 “I became very convinced that we should be using all these other areas of the theater and not the actual theater itself,” he said. “For the first time I was flexing muscles I hadn’t thought were there, ones that had to do with responding to space on an architectural level.”

Sharps said that while his line of work presents financial and implementation challenges, he would not get the same sort of fulfillment from what he called the “two-dimensional nature” of theater. He said he encourages young artists not to be deflected from their desired niches, even if they defy traditional expectations.

“Don’t look at what the landscape of art is and think, ‘How can I fit into that landscape,’” Sharps said. “If you don’t see yourself and your work in that landscape, change the landscape.”