Altering Perceptions

Essay by Sharon Corwin for Currents 1 Exhibition Catalog, Colby College Art Museum, 2005

Julianne Swartz uses commonplace materials and simple technologies to create complex aesthetic situations. Her work challenges our preconceptions and expectations about art and asks us to see the world in new ways. Swartz's sculptures and installations are often purposefully low-tech in a high-tech world. Her materials, in fact, can seem quite mundane-scrap wood, PVC pipes, Plexiglas, Mylar, vinyl, mirrors-and far from the traditionally valorized materials of high art. Yet the seeming simplicity of Swartz's materials and technologies often belie a much deeper project. Swartz also frequently uses intangible materials in her art-primarily light and sound. It is just this immateriality that interests her. "Light," she explains, "is one of my primary materials because it instills presence without physicality."1 Light and sound function for Swartz as materials to be refracted, distorted, and manipulated. By exploring thresholds of perception, her work often functions in a liminal field-in between the perceptible and the immaterial. In so doing, Swartz transforms the ordinary into the magical, the unremarkable into the fascinating.

When Swartz uses a more high-tech medium in her art-fiber optics, for example, as in her sculpture Excavation-she exposes its mechanism: a visible battery, live wires, a fiber-optic cable. In her art, we see the functioning of technology; Swartz, in effect, opens up the machine in order to show us its inner workings. Her sculptural machines encourage us to question how we conceive of our relationship to technology today. In this digital age, we often take for granted the functioning of our technological world, rarely comprehending or questioning how its operations and communications take place-computers and telephones, for example, allow split-second transmissions with little evidence of how they work. By simplifying and exposing technical functions, Swartz demystifies such processes, making them visible and ultimately more comprehensible. For instance, in Can You Hear Me?, commissioned by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in the summer of 2004, communication technology was reduced to its most rudimentary mode-a yellow PVC pipe carried the voices of participants through this simple acoustical conduit from the street to a room inside the Sunshine Hotel. The piece's location next to a pay phone on the street further highlighted the elementary nature of this primitive mode of communication.

Swartz's periscope sculptures, three of which are on view in currents, focus the viewer's perception but often play with or subvert their expectations. Swartz's lenses reverse images, blur scenes, distort scale, or merge reflections. Upon looking into one of her periscopes, the viewer encounters an initially confounding view-one that reflects multiple perspectives of the viewer rather than something at the other end. The effects constructed by means of lenses and mirrors are at once disorienting and reorienting, forcing viewers ultimately to readjust their relationship to what is observed: the top of one's head in Higher View or one's position in the gallery in You Are Here. In In-Fill-Trait, one's profile is partially superimposed over a frontal reflection of one's face; when two people look into the different portals of the sculpture, a hybrid face is reflected.

An important progenitor for Swartz's artistic exploration of the optical prospects of mirrors can be found in the work of the Minimalist and Earthworks artist Robert Smithson. In 1965, Smithson created a sculpture of mirrors, Enantiomorphic Chambers, in which two mirrors positioned in steel supports on the wall upset perceptual expectations. When the viewer enters Smithson's "chambers," the viewer's reflection is denied through the oblique angle of the mirrors. A similar disorientation of visual preconception is evident in Swartz's use of mirrors and lenses. But whereas Smithson's Enantiomorphic Chambers are ultimately an act of negation, Swartz's work functions through augmentation-the adding of multiple, and at times divergent, views.

The perceptual and physical engagement of the viewer is a key element in Swartz's artistic project. The periscopes, like Swartz's lens pieces, rely on the viewer to complete them. In these interactive sculptures, or "participatory scopes" as Swartz calls them, the viewer becomes a part of the work with their reflection incorporated into the piece. The viewer sees, in this sense, the act of seeing while their position in space is observed from a detached perspective. This simultaneous activation and objectification of the viewer is fundamental to Swartz's work.

Can You Hear Me?, constructed in New York City's Bowery, demanded partic-ipation in order to function. The work, however, extended beyond a reflection of the participants' positions in the environment to a consideration of their social role in the world. Can You Hear Me?, like much of Swartz's art, was about communication. This rudimentary communication device connected the lobby of the Sunshine Hotel, one of the last remaining "flop houses" in a neighborhood once famously filled with them, to street level, where those who passed by could talk to those in the hotel's lobby and vice versa. The piece also incorporated a mirror system that reflected a small and inverted image of each person's face for the other. The work allowed vision and conversation between urban sites not usually connected, questioning what we normally see and whom we normally communicate with in the city. "I feel like these men [in the hotel] are powerless in the gentrification of their neighborhood," Swartz explains. "I wanted to make a piece that would allow them to be seen and heard-at their discretion-amplify their voices literally and metaphorically."2 By traversing such boundaries that define our social spaces, Can You Hear Me? asked for communication between the socially regulated spaces of the city-between social groups, between the public and the private.

Many of Swartz's installations are site-specific, engaging the existing architecture for which the work is conceived. In particular, she is interested in uncovering places that are often kept from the public's view: the pristine environment of the museum or the gallery-the paradigmatic "white cube"-is excavated and undone in her work. Swartz often penetrates the museum's boundaries-puncturing the skin of the gallery wall and revealing areas that are usually off-limits. Storage rooms, utility sheds, basements, and interiors of walls have been variously engaged. For Un-Time Structure at the Colby College Museum of Art, Swartz excavated a space in the ceiling of the museum's Davis Gallery. Swartz's installation exposes the inner workings of the gallery's usually hermetic architecture-the electrical systems, support beams, insulation, and duct work.

Like Un-Time Structure, Swartz's Excavation breaks down the structural limits of the museum-literally excavating, as the title suggests, a wall in the gallery. A circuit of thin Plexiglas tubing carries a sinuous 50-foot line of fiber optic cable across the gallery, transmitting an LED signal from the battery at one end of the sculpture to its terminus in the east wall of the Davis Gallery. A small hole has been cleaved into the wall, breaching the gallery's envelope. Behind this rupture, the work reveals a "secret," as Swartz calls it-a mysterious event created through her intervention-in this case, light refracted into the colors of the spectrum. Swartz's excavations, in this manner, transform once neutral and concealed spaces into newly perceived, magical environments.

For her work in the 2004 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Somewhere Harmony, Swartz uncovered a similarly overlooked space in the museum - an engineer's cabinet in the fourth-floor stairwell. In this previously unremarkable cabinet, Swartz installed the sonic source of the piece-an eight-track composition recorded by the artist of more than 64 voices singing, humming, and speaking the lyrics to the song "Over the Rainbow." These sounds were piped through a system of clear Plexiglas tubes that traversed the museum's six-story stairwell. Swartz's composition from Somewhere Harmony, which is included in the exhibition at Colby, is a hypnotic, cacophonous, and ethereal expression of hope and nostalgia.

Swartz's use of immaterial elements is also evident in Spectrum. In this sculpture of magnets, wires, plastic, thread, and washers, Swartz animates the magnetic forces that exist in the spaces between the sculptural elements. The formal character of the piece is the direct result of the attraction exerted by the magnetic pull of the multicolored threads and washers. By animating this tension, the sculpture displays the strength of an intangible force while suggesting the fragility of a delicate equilibrium.

In a similar way, Un-Time Structure animates the immaterial, giving time an audible presence. With its exposed wiring, electrical boards, and speakers, the sculpture makes visible the workings of this time machine; it does not, however, mark time other than to express its passing through a series of audible ticks. Although resolutely mechanical in its materials, the piece also invokes natural phenomena-the rhythmic chirp of crickets, or the pulse of a heartbeat-through metronomic clicks. Un-Time Structure emanates distinct beats from different places on the sculpture. The viewer's auditory perception of the work is dependent on their position in relation to it; visual perception is similarly variegated as the viewer circumnavigates the piece and observes it from multiple perspectives. Swartz adds another level of perception in her inclusion of the 12 "spectators"-her term for the anthropomorphic Plexiglas tubes with optical lenses that surround the scaffolding of the structure-which offer their lenses as eyes through which to view the piece. Peering through these visual surrogates, the viewer is given views of the structure that are alternately inverted, blurred, minimized, and doubled. The "spectators" do not, in this sense, necessarily aid in the viewers' ability to see the piece, but rather augment their perception of it by offering different and unexpected views. Refusing a fixed and constant view, Swartz's art explores a variable and ever-changing world.

Swartz's currents exhibition also features a site-specific work, Line In/Line Out, commissioned especially for the Colby College Museum of Art. The work hails potential museum visitors and leads them into the museum along a vinyl line drawing that festoons the museum's entrance, then follows an axis from the lobby into the Davis Gallery. Once in the museum, the line connects with an embedded lens in a wall erected at the gallery entrance. Looking through this lens, the viewer can perceive the rest of Swartz's exhibition on view behind the entry wall. This view, however, is far from clear: the artist's lens offers an inverted and distorted reflection of the gallery and a magical introduction to the work installed within. At the same time, the sinuous, bright pink line of the piece snakes its way through the architecture of the museum-through walls, ceiling panels, light fixtures, and doorways-leading the eye over aspects of the building often overlooked. As Swartz's line enters the lobby, its relationship to Sol LeWitt's mural Study for Wall Drawing #803-wavy color bands with a grey, red, yellow, and blue border, which occupies the adjacent lobby wall, is highlighted. The color of Swartz's line echoes and amplifies LeWitt's tableau of brightly colored waves, while her choice of material-a shiny pink vinyl-serves to challenge the dichotomy between the so-called "high" and the "low". The purposefully "low" quality of Swartz's vinyl line draws our attention to the traditional hierarchy of materials in the arts and challenges our notions of what art can be, much as LeWitt's work challenges certain notions of authorship and originality.

Standing in the Davis Gallery, the viewer is offered another view through Line In/Line Out's double-sided lens. From this vantage point, one is able to trace the line out of the gallery, through the lobby, and into the courtyard. The scene observed through the lens functions as a movable, living landscape. By framing the courtyard and the vista beyond, Swartz has created a particular type of "landscape"-one that exists in real time, incorporating movement, atmospheric and seasonal change, and an ever-changing cast of characters depending on who happens to be walking by this spot at this moment. Swartz's work, by means of interactivity and chance, takes place over time and constantly changes depending on the vantage point of the viewer and the conditions of the site. Following one of the major themes in her art, Line In/Line Out deconstructs and ultimately reconstructs our perception of the spaces of the Davis Gallery, the lobby, the entryway, and the courtyard and landscape beyond.

By excavating such spaces, Swartz's art explores the institution of the museum itself-namely, what is visible and invisible, privileged and disregarded, public and private in its highly constructed spaces. By breaking down institutional boundaries, Julianne Swartz highlights such dichotomies and transforms our experience to one that acknowledges the space itself and its values. Her work asks us to slow down, to perceive things in the environment previously unnoticed, and to see our surroundings from a new perspective that potentially alters our relationship to the world around us.

  1. Julianne Swartz in conversation with the author, October 28, 2004.
  2. Ibid.