My beginnings with portable projects emerged from my desire to integrate my practice more fully in the world, to get out of the studio, away from the plastic arts, to circulate in the broader public sphere. The prompt came when I began to work with moving pictures and sound. Similarly, portable projects offered opportunities to interact creatively with other artists and collaborators. For example, I have often collaborated with Daniel H. Dugas since 1990. The nature and level of our collaborations vary in concert with our individual artistic practices; sometimes, one of us has a project and the other is a contributor, and other times, vice versa. For me, it was important to instigate projects in public spaces that were meaningful for my own art process, as well as for the audiences I hoped to attract.
In one of my earlier attempts to move works into the public realm, I collaborated with Daniel to produce a videotaped poetry reading at the base of the staircase outside of the busy Western Station in Chicago, Illinois. It was 1992, and we were both Master students in the Time Arts program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We wanted to add audio/visual texture to the presentation of a body of poetry we had written. Under the roar of the elevated trains and city traffic, the words were inaudible to passersby. The recording was never screened, but the performance, rooted in oral tradition, served the purpose of satisfying an urgency to express some societal concerns publicly.
Nomadic living conditions have also played a role in how MPB and other portable projects developed. With my family and undergraduate peers in western Canada and Daniel’s in the east, our partnership has always involved travelling back and forth across the country. Instead of waiting out the time to re-establish ourselves in a new community, or waiting for permission to have our work curated and exhibited by others, we began creating our own galleries. Within these galleries and expanded public projects, we have also featured other artists and involved many audience/participants in the completion of the works.
I first came with the idea of the MediaPackBoard in 2000 and was able to develop it in 2005. It followed from the earlier mobile TRUNK© gallery (1996–2001) and LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: We are Getting Closer (2002). Originally, I wanted to create a jacket with a thin rectangular screen embedded in the back. A performer would step onto a train or bus wearing the jacket, and turn her/his back toward the seated commuters. A program of short artists’ videos would play. After a few stops, the MPB carrier would hop off and board a new train or bus to introduce the works to another audience. The idea was to offer artists opportunities to perform, to screen work, and to present the gift of an unexpected experience to commuters during rush hour.
The MPB that saw the light of day looked quite different than earlier proposed models. It emerged not as a media jacket, but as a media backpack, mainly owing to the availability of necessary components at the time of assembly. Not wanting to give up on the idea, I made do with available market resources and developed the MPB unit that has been used to screen works and to carry out projects since its 2005 launch. At times, I have been tempted to alter the MPB with newer, smaller, lighter technological components, but basically it already works well. There have even been a few occasions when I was relocating, that I have wanted to give the MPB away to an artist-run centre or to a group of artists to use, mimic or alter to make similar devices for other purposes. In the future, I might build another lighter-weight, portable screening/performance device, but for now, it seems that the MPB should remain as is, a reflection of the technology available to me at the time when it came about. The MPB resembles a common, utilitarian backpack, which makes it impossible for the carrier to see the video program or live action as it plays on the monitor. My reasoning for this design becomes evident when one understands how the MPB is used.
The MPB always goes out with two or three people: the carrier, a documenting artist carrying additional cameras, and if possible, a third “public relations” person. Between all of them, it is possible to keep an eye on whether the program is running, and if the live camera feed is functioning well. The carrier can also occasionally check what is playing on the monitor by looking through the camcorder viewfinder or at the portable DVD player if a pre-recorded program is running. In terms of the backpack model, it is important to remember that optimum viewing conditions for the TV monitor occur after dark. There are a lot of conversations and sub-conversations that take place when encountering strangers at street level. Thus it is more important for the carrier to maintain a lively conversation with an individual, or multiple audience members, than to monitor the screen. If someone wants to talk, the carrier must be ready to engage in that conversation while staying aware of what is happening nearby. Because the MPB is on the carrier’s back, it offers a viewer the chance to view the screen up close or from across the street; one can observe the action without getting too involved, if that is what is desired, thereby rendering the presentation more formal.
In essence, MPB joins a trajectory of similar projects from other places and other times that engage art in everyday life. The MPB and TRUNK©, came about amid other socially engaged projects that began in the 1990s. In his book, Relational Aesthetics, theorist Nicolas Bourriaud attempts to encapsulate this moment, “What these artists have in common is the modelling of a professional activity, with the relational world issuing therefrom, as a device of artistic production.” While Bourriaud goes further, criticizing the form that many projects took, he acknowledges the value of projects that reach beyond parody and toward repairing the social fabric, “Through little services rendered, the artists fill in the cracks in the social bond.” Through intention, and in the manner of involving the audience, MPB fits into Bourriaud’s latter category. In the beginning, I would joke that participant engagement with the MPB was akin to food preparation demonstrations in the grocery store; someone could observe from a distance and continue on her/his way, or step in to make a comment and take part. The intention, however, is quite different. In the grocery store, products are demonstrated to encourage consumption. When an artist presents a program of video works or records and posts conversations via the MPB, she/he is also asking the “customer” to critically engage the idea(s) that are shared during the interaction. When someone steps out of their comfort zone to ask what is happening, or to listen or discuss a topic in the presence of the camera and monitor, she/he becomes an active participant in that electronic media-assisted presentation.
In 2005 if you encountered a camera and monitor on the street, the experience and the recorded content was most likely intended for commercial broadcast, often as content for news programming. Under these circumstances, participants were pressured to speak quickly, and to answer very directed questions. In contrast, the people who step up to participate with the MPB are given the chance to speak their minds, to express themselves in diverse ways resulting from the interactions. During MPB outings, there is always an effort to keep the encounters direct and personal. If participants are asked to discuss a specific question, the MPB carrier is required to listen carefully and discuss the topic openly, or, in other words, to participate in real subjective conversations. Another major difference between MPB projects and the content of market-driven broadcasts relates to the fact that the participating audiences are informed that any material captured with the camera might go up on the website. Subsequently, recorded participants are invited to view the website and, if they are not comfortable with what they see and hear, they can send an email request to me asking that the material be taken down. Happily, this has only happened once in seven years of programming.
I am well aware that the degree to which an artist or a project might affect cultural change remains a subjective and debatable topic. My belief is that interaction with public audiences can bring purpose to the creative process by encouraging the involvement of all potential participants at their desired level of participation. The character of these interactions is always in flux, as each instance of exchange depends upon the audience that might be present and their willingness to make the transition from spectator to participant. So while some artworks are more suitable for presentation within the confines of a gallery, portable units, such as the MediaPackBoard, will always find their place in the cultural landscape.
- Valerie LeBlanc, “History MediaPackBoard,” accessed January 2, 2014, http://valerie.basicbruegel.com/mediapackboard/history/ ↵
- “Location, Location, Location: We are Getting Closer,” accessed January 2, 2014, http://www.wearegettingcloser.com/project.htm ↵
- Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (1998), trans. Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods with the participation of Mathieu Copeland (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002), 35. ↵
- Bourriaud, 36. ↵