"Electric Pilgrims" illuminates local neighborhood

by Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff • October 21, 2015

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“Craneology” by Andrew Neumann ‘81.
Courtesy of Raber Umphenour
“Craneology” by Andrew Neumann ‘81.
Courtesy of Raber Umphenour

A building perpetually burns—a giant eye constantly stares.

It sounds like an Orwellian dystopia, but no worries; all was well last Saturday night at “Electric Pilgrims,” an outdoor art installation featuring a variety of video projections. Hosted by the school of the arts at Emerson, the temporary Fort Point exhibition included over 20 videos at 12 simultaneous stations, with most projecting onto screens and the brick walls of nearby condominiums. One small work found its home on a mailbox; another on an enormous black balloon. Even Rob Sabal, interim dean of the school of the arts, had a piece on the main screen, highlighting kinetic views from a train window.

The event launched the Urban Arts Program, an initiative to further Emerson’s public visual arts presence. It took place on Channel Center Street in front of Midway Studios as part of Fort Point Arts Community’s 36th annual open studios. Over 200 attended.

Joseph Ketner, the Henry and Lois Foster chair in contemporary art theory and practice and distinguished curator-in-residence, assembled the exhibition. A video work made by his friend Van McElwee, a professor of electronic and photographic media at Webster University, was his initial inspiration, Ketner said. That piece, called “Electric Pilgrims: Everyone is Everywhere,” was the first projection on the event’s main screen. It features ghostly silhouettes superimposed onto images of nature and urban life.

“As soon as I saw a still image of the piece, I had this vision of the whole city block filled with projections of a variety of sorts, a multimedia light sound experience,” Ketner said. “I really began to appreciate the effect that a dramatic projection event in a public space can have in transforming the lived experience of people who happen to be there.”

Ketner’s curatorial and commission efforts so far at the college include the four-story LED Paramount Urban Screen facing Washington Street, the 300-foot artwork stretched across the Little Building scaffold, and two murals in the Walker Building.

He said “Electric Pilgrims” was originally supposed to be installed in Boylston Place, but after the college began construction in the alley, he had to find a new location.

“I already put together 20 projections, and we had a project without a home,” Ketner said. “Fort Point Arts Community was doing their annual open studio about the same time.”

James Manning, who assists Ketner, was the production manager and crew runner for “Electric Pilgrims.” He said having the installation outside of a typical gallery setting was crucial, especially because of its large scale.

“Having it outdoors and playing with the architecture of the buildings, integrating with the whole landscape of the buildings, having it as part of the open studios event—it was like a built-in attraction,” Manning said.

Andrew Neumann, Emerson class of ‘81, showed his piece “Craneology” on the main screen. The video consists of time-lapse images of cranes, moving about like living organisms as the weather whizzes past. It employs a kaleidoscopic geometry in its editing, emphasizing the strong angular shape of the monstrous machines. 

Neumann said he’s filmed the ongoing project out of his apartment window over the past three years, and he describes it as a diary of the redevelopment in Fort Point. The neighborhood, along with the rest of the South Boston Waterfront, has experienced rapid gentrification in the last decade due to a huge influx of new residential units and office towers.

“You never see the buildings being built [in “Craneology”], all you’re seeing is the machines that are doing all the work,” Neumann said. “There’s basically guys sitting up there, 10, 12 hours a day, just lifting steel.”

Manning had a piece called “8-Bit Breakdown,” the only non-projected work at the event. It consisted of a dozen old CRT televisions, taken from the Emerson IT department after it discarded them. Most showed distorted images of retro video games, but a few were actually hooked up to ‘80s era consoles. A table in front of the TVs showcased a plethora of cartridges and game systems. The interactive piece attracted a large mass of showgoers. 

Manning, who grew up playing Atari, said he still appreciates primitive games because they force players to use their imagination, and he noted most of the younger audience members had never encountered such an old system before.

“People my age said, ‘I totally remember Frogger back in the day, I was totally an expert at Breakout!’ But there were also kids that were fascinated by it,” Manning said. “They wanted to touch the tube screens like a touch screen. One kid was waving the Atari controller around, he was trying to use it like a Wii.”

Manning said he and Ketner plan to integrate the student body into the Urban Arts Program in the future.

“We want to be able to do more on the actual campus, particularly at the Paramount Theater with the screen we have there,” Manning said. “It’ll be a great experience for students not only to see work from their faculty, but also to be exposed to artists from the region and internationally, and to see what professors are doing with this technology.”