Art and People (VR)
Throughout his career Brian Tolle's art has employed a broad range of mediums to invoke the experience of its place in the world and open dialogue between history and context. Last month his forty foot tall sculpture, 'Eureka'—originally realized in Ghent, Belgium for Jan Hoet’s groundbreaking exhibition, 'Over The Edges' back in 2000—was re-presented within the historic building where the first president of the United States was inaugurated in order to explore a new narrative: Manhattan as a seat of power across multiple eras of colonialism and the open question of how American democracy is to evolve past the entrenched position in which it currently finds itself.
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Last month C24 Gallery invited Eazel to the opening reception at Federal Hall for Brian Tolle's Eureka—a one ton, forty foot tall sculpture of the rippling façade of a 17th century Dutch canal house. The work was to be re-presented within the historic building that hosted President Washington’s 1789 inauguration in partnership with the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, the New York State Archives, and the National Park Service.
‘Re-presented’ as earlier in 2018 Eureka had been featured as part of Tolle’s inaugural solo exhibition, Bent at C24, premiering in the United States after a long journey from its origin in Ghent, Belgium where Tolle initially realized the sculpture back in 2000 for Jan Hoet’s prolific city-wide exhibition, Over the Edges. It was curator Bonnie Levinson who had made the connection between Tolle’s statement about the contemporary in relation to the historical, Manhattan as a seat of power across multiple eras of colonialism, and the open question currently facing the American public of how its democracy is to evolve past the entrenched position in which it currently finds itself.
Upon entering into the historic building we proceed toward the rotunda encircled by Corinthian columns—the texture of Tolle’s towering sculpture coming into view in the distance ahead. Drawing closer to the reception of a few dozen people we look up toward the domed ceiling high overhead—theatrical lighting set for the occasion cascading over the sculpture. We greet familiar faces, walking through the crowd, around Eureka, drawing closer to it, pulling back, and then closer again—our eyes focusing and refocusing as they dither between entertaining and rejecting the impression the work gives of wavelike gestures running perpendicular to the ground.
Ducking into an anteroom off the rotunda we find the other headliner—the Flushing Remonstrance—presented to the Manhattan public for the first time in thirty years. On display for just a week under twenty-four hour armed guard, the historic 1657 petition by inhabitants of the town of Flushing to then Director-General of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant was a historic call for “liberty of conscience” that served as the precursor to the religious freedom that was to be enshrined over a century later in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights written here in Federal Hall. Sensing the reception beginning to quiet down in the background we step back out toward the rotunda where people are gathering around Tolle as he prepares to speak.
His speech is part gracious bow to the various partners that made the exhibition possible, part optimistic outlook for art as a vehicle for critical discourse about the future of our constitutional republic. And two weeks later we find ourselves sitting with Brian at the edge of the rotunda a few yards to the left—across from Eureka—discussing this very subject before delving deeper into a conversation about his artistic career and practice.
Eazel: Brian, it’s great to be back with you here in front of Eureka. Before we get into the story of the work perhaps you can start us off by speaking broadly to your oeuvre.
Brian Tolle (BT): It’s good to see you again. Regarding my oeuvre I’ll mention that I treat every circumstance as a unique experience. That is, I think consistency is overrated, and I’m not interested in developing a signature style. By allowing myself to be inconsistent I am able to stay true to what I believe while exploring different modes of expression. In doing so I have created a body of work which very few people know comprehensively. Broadly speaking, I believe it’s the artist’s mind that ultimately ties together his or her oeuvre into a coherent conceptual string—that is, how their sensibilities reflected in their art evolve over time.
Eazel: Your artistic practice would seem to entail a considerable amount of planning and resources—both human, as well as financial. How do you manage these elements in your creative process?
BT: I find that it’s important to remain open to randomness—both as it relates to the technical uncertainties entailed in working with the material aspects of a given project, as well as the process of managing teams and aligning with stakeholders. In being open to the unpredictable nature of pulling together the various resources you mention I find that I learn from everybody that comes into the picture—whether they’re behind my vision or not, experts in their field or not. I believe that operating from a position of ‘the artist knows best’ shuts down an additional resource of useful information for evolving a concept. You never know where a good idea is going to come from, and you never know what’s going to further develop the concept you’re working on.
To your note about the human aspect of these projects, my artist friends are always asking me how I am able to put up with the various community boards, stakeholders, and politicians with whom I’ll have to align in order to execute a given project, and the truth of the matter is that my first degree was in political science—so I am well aware of how to problem-solve in meetings, as well as how to practically deal with public feedback. Conflicting opinions don’t discourage me. I see them as an additional source of information—a broader context for the idea I’m developing at the time. The worst thing you can do as an artist is become defensive. If you become defensive and strident you might be shutting yourself down at a point when you need to be open.
Eazel: Talk to us about how research informs your artistic process.
BT: Everything I do requires research. This is true for any kind of project I take on—whether it’s an artwork for a gallery, a museum installation, or a public project. It always begins with an enrichment phase where I become immersed in a given subject. I think of it as a fortification process whereby I’m consolidating my relationship with the subject so that I can feel confident that were a good idea to pass me by, I would be able to recognize it immediately. So research could be experiencing a place, getting to know certain people, eating a new kind of food, or just burying myself in the library. It’s during this enrichment phase when I come to terms with my subject and discover my vision for a particular work. Once I’m ready to execute on this vision I move forward into a developmental phase where I submit to the randomness of problem-solving, opening up to something of an iterative process of finding the best solutions to realize my vision. So while I would say that the research and development—the enrichment phase—is what takes the most time, when I’m articulating my vision in response to an RFP, for example, what I’m presenting is really just a guess about how I will actually realize it. I can never foresee what the execution of a vision will look like until I start developing the concept out in the real world of material resources and the interests of partners and stakeholders.
Eazel: You seem to be motivated by an interest in history. How does your process reconcile the historical with the contemporary?
BT: Indeed. I have always been interested in American history in particular. The first works that I did back in the 90s were about American history. I find it interesting that with this exhibition we’re going back even further. In exploring the various eras of colonialism in America I have become interested in how aspects of cultures survive from one period to the next. Speaking more generally, I view history as a social construct that is commonly being misrepresented as something that is static and unchanging. I believe history is subjective and in constant flux. Eureka is saying something about this. After all, there’s a reason why the British didn’t celebrate the Dutch: They conquered them. But this doesn’t mean aspects of Dutch culture didn’t make their way into the culture of the British colonies. I’ll make it clear, however, that when my art invokes aspects of history I’m not trying to right a wrong, or suggest that certain aspects of history have been neglected. I’m just contemporizing relevant aspects of the past to create new meaning.
I should also mention that this exhibition and the connection between my art and the history of Federal Hall and the Flushing Remonstrance wasn’t my idea. Bonnie Levinson—the art consultant and curator for Federal Hall—deserves the credit for this beautiful articulation of contemporary art, political history, and the varied architecture and artefacts on view. Because of her work with Federal Hall, which is connected to the Archives Partnership Trust, she was able to request and obtain the 1657 Flushing Remonstrance—a document written by English settlers in Flushing Queens petitioning Peter Stuyvesant, then governor of the Dutch colony, to give religious freedom to their fellow citizens: the Quakers, the Jews, and the Muslims (referred to in the document as ‘Arabs’). Stuyvesant initially shot it down, defending the monopoly of the Dutch Reformed Church over other organized religions, however these citizens didn’t stop. They went to the Dutch East India company and petitioned the stockholders and board members, eventually getting them to agree—setting the precedent for the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights 100 years later.
Speaking more specifically to my work and how I view the contemporary in relation to the historical in the context of the current conversation in the art world around technology and new media, I’ll mention that the fact that it took state-of-the-art technology nearly twenty years ago to express something that was previously inexpressible—and that what you see before you today still engages its viewer in much the same way that it did when it was first realized—that, to me, is interesting.
Eazel: Was it your intention for Eureka to invoke the interstitial space in the mind of the viewer between reality and illusion?
BT: Well, once I settled on the underlying concept and began to develop my vision for Eureka I was actually dead set against creating some kind of optical illusion. While I wanted to invoke the viewer’s perception I also wanted to stay clear of novelty. From the beginning the work was about presenting a direct representation of the concept I was developing. Nevertheless, as the piece was originally positioned at the edge of an embankment—about a hundred feet of water separating the park directly across from it on the other side of the canal from where the work was commonly viewed—it was difficult for the viewer to scrutinize its surface to really understand what it was. I’d say it was my intention to invite the viewer to question what they were seeing.
Eazel: Brian, thanks so much for sharing your process with us. In closing, perhaps you can tell us the story of how Eureka came to be.
BT: Well, Eureka was originally commissioned by the renowned curator, Jan Hoet, founder of S.M.A.K. in Ghent, Belgium—who I think was one of the most influential curators of his time. Jan first established his international reputation as a curator when in 1986 he created the Chambres d'Amis—an innovative exhibition in Ghent wherein 50 American and European artists were invited to create artworks for 50 private homes of collectors in Ghent, which were then opened to the public for several weeks—effectively breaking down the walls of the art world, so to speak.
In 2000 he further developed this concept of art and the relationship between the public sphere and private life when he organized Over the Edges—a city-wide exhibition in Ghent consisting of 55 public artworks—operating on the premise that the artist should be better able than anyone to accentuate the structure and richness of a city. Jan commissioned me to create a piece, so we met to further develop a concept that I had at this pub in Ghent—Café 't Galgenhuisje—which was built into the corner of a building that once served as the public site for the gallows where convicts were publicly shamed and executed. We would drink beer and discuss the history of Ghent and at one point our conversation turned toward the subject of the gallows. We contemplated how many people had been executed at this site, and I considered what—upon being hung, in the middle of the city—the last image registered on a person’s retina could have been before they would slip into oblivion. So I started thinking about how perception relates to the architecture of a city.
As I began my research I noticed that the grand canal passing through the center of the city featured this beautiful arrangement of façades from different architectural movements—Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic Revival. It struck me as curious how many architectural styles were represented, only to find out after doing some research that in the nineteenth century as Belgium was establishing itself as an independent state the new government actually collected façades throughout the city that best represented various historical periods and had them reinstalled alongside the canal. So then I started thinking about the façade as the subject. It’s worth mentioning that Flemish architecture ultimately served as the template for the Dutch architecture you see throughout Amsterdam. You have to keep in mind that the Flemish had a great deal of influence over the lowlander Dutch, and that when the Dutch developed the architecture that’s commonly associated with Amsterdam, they were just further developing the Flemish style.
Initially thinking I would work with one of the grand façades as my subject I instead turned my attention to this derelict and empty house that piqued my curiosity. Simpler and more typical of the Flemish style, I would end up spending a considerable amount of time studying it over the course of my stays in Ghent. I noticed tour boats would regularly skip over it en route to the grand façades further along the canal; and at one point, as I was standing at the edge of the canal watching the boats navigate past it, I noticed the reflection of the house's façade rippling in their wake—the building’s distorted image conjuring ideas about what history as a social construct is really about. I thought about the common perception of history as this static record of the past, and what an illusion this is—how illusion, after all, is perception. I considered what a building that behaved like water would look like—not the illusion of a building behaving like water, but rather, a building actually behaving like water.
In figuring out how to execute the concept while staying true to my decision to avoid any form of illusion I realized I would need to enlist digital expertise. So I teamed up with colleagues at The New School where I had taught and we partnered with The Digital Atelier—a subsidiary of the nonprofit Johnson Atelier—which had acquired one of the largest CNC routers at the time. Working digitally we were able to use software developed for 2D cinematic effects to produce a surface over which we would run virtual boats to recreate the rippling of the canal water. We then reflected a photograph that we had taken of the brick façade in Ghent onto this distorted surface. By virtually extruding the brick texture of the photograph from the model of the canal surface we were able to output a 3D model for a computer-controlled milling machine to carve into Styrofoam at The Digital Atelier.
I’ll spare the reader of the series of technical problems we encountered and the various creative solutions we developed along the way; eventually we were able to go back to The Digital Atelier with the structure and model we needed, although in spite of their offering of technology being the state-of-the-art, the one thing they couldn’t do was was print color onto the model—so we had to hire scenic painters to create the realistic quality that the work was to convey.
After the show closed the piece lingered and the city of Ghent tried to purchase it. Ironically, the building that inspired it—over which it was installed for Over the Edges—would be designated as a historically significant building after Eureka had drawn the public’s attention to it. So we ended up having to move it. It was placed in storage where it was nearly destroyed, so that by the time we got it back it required a lot of work to restore it to the condition you see here today.
For further information about Brian Tolle's recent installation at Federal Hall, New York : http://www.c24gallery.com/news-item/brian-tolle-eureka
Brian Tolle’s Eureka in Federal Hall, New York
June 27 to September 8, 2018