Thursday, August 27, 2009 - Arts & Living


The sounds of Narragansett Bay and the Providence canals greeted visitors to the Mobile Art Project last week at locations throughout South County and Providence. Pictured above, listening in the storage space of a 16-foot Penske truck parked at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston, are (front, from left) Viera Levitt of Wakefield, curator of the project, and visitor Doug Haughley of North Providence along with (back from left) Hera Gallery director Islay Taylor, who was assistant director of the project, and Hera Gallery member and project volunteer Barbara Pagh. (Photo by Selena Millard)
Going mobile

By Doug Norris/Features Editor

Itís the last stop for the first wave of the Mobile Art Project. A 16-foot Penske moving truck is wedged into an upper corner of the crowded Peace Dale Library parking lot. The back of the truck is open, with steps leading up to a mostly empty dark box inside. In the surrounding glare of harsh August sunlight, sound coming from the truckís shadow plays seemingly random noises of sloshing, gurgling water, along with ambient and underwater audio that conveys vivid images to the mindís eye.

A sign on the outside of the truck reads: “Welcome. Please come inside for an art experience.”

But even here, next to a place filled with books that spark the imagination, many library visitors skirt the edge of the strange vehicle, trying to avoid getting sucked into its black hole. To the Mobile Art Project organizers, this part of the process has been an eye-opener.

“Overall, I think it has been very successful,” said Viera Levitt of Wakefield – who coordinated the project in conjunction with Hera Gallery – as she pointed to thick stacks of public responses on clipboards, most of which described their “art experience” in favorable terms. “But some people just don’t want to be challenged. It’s not about art. It’s about a basic level of curiosity.”

Emanating from speakers inside the truck, an osprey cries. A foghorn blows. A gondolier chants. Marvin Gaye sings. Most of the sounds are familiar. Others need explanation. A strange sequence of clicking turns out to be a kind of shrimp language. Who knew shrimp did percussion?

The audio sequence is a 9-minute loop, titled “Aqua Alta” and created by Warwick artist China Blue, who recorded around and under the waters of Narragansett Bay and the Providence canals with special seismic microphones and hydrophone arrays. Chosen as the first artist to represent the Mobile Art Project, Blue designed the installation as a way to bring attention to global warming. In an artist’s statement, she said her piece “echoes the ebb and flow of water on our planet. The same water that washes the canals of Venice, breaks at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, and runs through the canals of Providence. It rises up and it rains down.”

From Aug. 14-18, the Mobile Art Project truck parked at a variety of locations in South County and Providence. It appeared at the Kingston Train Station, the Towers in Narragansett, the parking lot outside Belmont Market in Wakefield, the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston, the South Kingstown Center for Senior Services in Peace Dale and on Empire Street in Providence as part of the 2009 FOO Fest, among other locations. In every place, the audience was different.

Many people who took the plunge were impressed with the installation. In one of the surveys, a patron wrote: “We used to see art every day in the architecture around us. Now we mostly see block buildings with no character. We need creativity as a daily event we can all share.”

Another added: “Not your average Belmont parking lot experience.”

“At some places people had a single-minded focus,” said Hera Gallery member Alexandra Broches of Wakefield. “They were just there to shop or go to the beach or catch the train. But almost everyone who spent some time in the truck told us that they enjoyed themselves. They found it interesting, unusual and even peaceful.”

The truck, fitted with temporary benches, speakers and blue foil on the roof – suggesting a watery immersion – subverts the traditional gallery visit, since in this case the patron inside becomes part of the art, on stage as passersby look on and decide whether they want to get closer to the sound. “I love how you can sit here facing the audience and be in a completely different world,” wrote one visitor. “No one is aware that there’s art going on right here. Very neat.”

Levitt said that teachers, in particular, seemed inspired by the project. Several requested that the truck visit their school. The Mobile Art Project, funded in part by the R.I. State Council on the Arts and the Puffin Foundation of New Jersey, will return with “Aqua Alta” in October. Potential stops include The Prout School, Wakefield Elementary School, the Community College of Rhode Island Knight Campus in Warwick and the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus.

“The idea is to bring this to places where people don’t normally expect to see art,” Levitt said. “Some people can’t travel to see art, and some people won’t. But we can bring it to them and see what happens.”

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