Ten Thoughts on Shelter  (2017)

Written for the Art Gallery of Alberta

Zachary Ayotte

As an artist, I am always curious about what information we get from surfaces. A photograph often suggests depth but it is a flat surface. Through this process of flattening we limit access to information. We conceal. I often wonder what we gain from flattening and what we exclude.

Ideas of watching and being watched are ever present in our culture today. Discussions about what personal representation looks and feels like, what information is included and excluded in images we ingest, what power there is in inhabiting a space that is under surveillance; these became the bridge between the unique process of the project and the work that would finally inhabit the space. This focal point of looking and being looked at became the starting point for Shelter.

With that in mind, my part of the project began with a single eye. Blinking. Watching. Filtered by a red gel, not unlike the ones that would occupy the neighbouring room.

You are watching us.

We are watching you.

In a space about looking. About experiencing.

A public space.

But also a private space.

In its infancy, the room was most obviously under construction. People would think they were interrupting when they entered the room. We would insist that they come in and sometimes they stayed and engaged, sometimes they moved through quickly, like they were touring a home while the owners were still in it.

After a variety of different experiences with viewers, I came to the decision that the two most important things one can enter a gallery with are openness and self-awareness.

A gallery is unintentionally (or maybe intentionally) confrontational. It presents something and says, “What do you feel? What do you think?” Publicly expressing an opinion can be nerve-racking at the best of times for many of us. That feeling can be amplified when you assume there is a right answer and a wrong answer. Or when you consider what that answer might say about you. The result of that pressure can be to tighten up. To be distracted by the pressure of the moment in a way that negates openness. I think this is a common reaction.

Of course you can't recognize any of these feelings without self-awareness. To recognize why we respond to something a certain way, allows us to start to unpack the complexity of the relationship between a work of art and a viewer.

To me, the most rewarding interactions I got to witness were when people were willing to stay with the work and spend time in the room. When one goes to a movie, there is a clear beginning and a clear ending. The amount of time one is supposed to spend with the film is neatly outlined. In a gallery space, time is more ambiguous. As a result, I think we sometimes forget the important role that time plays on an interaction. How we feel when we first enter a room may not be how we feel after we've been there for a few minutes. Glancing at a painting will yield different results than actually sitting with it. I wanted people to spend time with the work. This made witnessing the moments where people lingered a real treasure.

My favourite part of making the work in the space was the beginning. For the first three weeks I was building the structure that would eventually occupy the east side of the gallery. As each piece went up, the room changed.

I knew what I wanted the structure to look like. I had mapped it out as best I could and had measured everything to scale. The actual construction of this portion of the piece felt methodical. It was nice to be in the space and simply actualize what I had pictured.

There was a moment, after we had been in the space for two weeks or so, when I realized it could all go wrong. I had done a few tests prior to being in the space but I hadn't fully built the work. In spite of that, I hadn't considered the possibility of failure. My part of the project hinged on the construction of this structure. If it didn't work, the work that would follow would be incomplete. This hurdle, that what you might be trying to make might not work, is one that is common when making anything. What is less common is having to overcome that hurdle while the public is watching.

In physics there is something called the Observer Effect which, in its simplest form, states that the act of observing something changes the nature of what is being observed. I do not believe the observer effect is typically used to discuss social and psychological behaviour but I could not help but think of it while I was in the room.

The gels that form the structure hanging in the east side of the gallery reflect light across the floor and walls. The patterns look like light reflections bouncing off water. I think the subtle (and at times not so subtle) movement of the gels helps to give the room that feeling of fluidity. The movement of the gels is a product of airflow in the room. This movement is perhaps one of the aspects of the project that I am the most satisfied with partially because I didn't know it would happen in quite the way that it did. In discovering the effect of light on the swaying gels, two things were actualized. The first was that the invisible became visible. Air flow, indeed air itself, is invisible. We can only see it by seeing what it affects. The movement of the gels in response to the airflow of the room has the benefit of transforming wind into light. The ripples on the wall shift and change depending on the movement of air through the room. They are, in a way, an extension of the circulation of air.

The second thing that the gels helped to realize was the desire to include the public, or more accurately acknowledge the participation of the public, in the project. The circulation of air in the room is affected by a few things, the three most prominent being the air conditioning, the movement of bodies through the space and the opening and closing of the doors on either end of the room. Two of those three are the direct result of people moving through the space. The way the gels behave is a result of the presence of people, bringing some concreteness to the observer effect.

As the weeks progressed, I started to consider the nature of collaboration. For the first few weeks, Jason and Ben (nulle part) worked largely in the West room and I worked primarily in the East room. We had worked together prior to the opening of the show but now felt a bit more like neighbours than collaborators. I think they had a similar feeling.

I started spending more time on their side of the space and they moved some of their equipment over to my side. The results were fascinating. They ended up removing almost all of the percussion from the piece. The work became lighter. More ambient. It started to shape how I was thinking about photos in the space.

Collaboration is interesting when you are dealing with two different mediums because it is not entirely necessary that you work together. Were we both musicians or both photographers it might be different. Our works complement each other rather than compete. I think it took us a little time to realize what collaboration would look like for us.

I had initially planned for the building of the structure to take two weeks, photography to take two weeks and editing to take two weeks. Once the structure was done, though, I needed some time. I came into the space just to sit and observe. I also came to make little touch ups and changes and simply to see what happened to the structure over time.

During this week, the gels began to feel like a space that flowed back and forth between being one of two things: a sanctuary or a prison. It was at this time that I decided to add the stool. It started to become obvious that we were making something weightless. The project was composed primarily of light and sound. No part of it touched the ground and it could basically be shut off with the flip of a switch. It needed something to ground it.

I also wanted people to know that they could go inside the structure. My hope all along was that people would see it from both sides. I had initially considered adding a chair of some sort but I didn't want to dictate which way someone should face when they sat in the space. A stool seemed like the right answer. I wanted to find a stool that would walk the line between sanctuary and prison. Not too domestic but not too cold and clinical either.

The stool was an invitation but also a suggestion. It invites people into the space but it also suggests the presence/absence of a body. For me it became an echo of a body.

At some point shortly before I started taking photos in the space, I started thinking about Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. The panopticon is a penitentiary designed so that all inmates can be observed by a single guard without knowing when they are or aren't being watched. The design of the prison – a round room with cells all along the perimeter and a single guard tower at its centre - depends on the separation of each prisoner from the others and the intentional use of lighting to clearly display the inmates and to backlight (and thus obscure) the guard, who stands watch in a central tower. Never knowing if they are being watched and unable to communicate with other inmates, the prisoners operate under the assumption that the guard may be watching them at any moment. As a result, they behave as if they are under observation even when they are not. The assumption of observation enforces obedience.

I realized that I had in some ways built an inverse panopticon. One cell at the centre of the room with space all around for “guards” and lighting that illuminated the centre of the room.

Like most of us, I have a number of lenses through which I see the world. One of them is that of a gay man living in Alberta. I think if you are being technical I am considered a sexual minority. I once read an article that described sexual minorities as invisible minorities, presumably because we don't wear our sexual preference on our skin. The more I thought about that term, the more I was bothered by it. Invisible minority. Like a photograph, this term flattens. It reduces people to surfaces. But we tend to project onto surfaces. When reading a body we often become interested in what is inside the body. Who the body is. What the body does. We often think less about what is in front of the body. What exists in the space between us and what we look at.

The first question I was asked when the projection of the eye went up was “Whose eye is that?” to which I responded, “I'm not going to tell you because it doesn't matter.” In truth the answer is, it's nobody's eye. It's a projection of an eye. Of course that answer always proves unsatisfying because when we are responding to a medium that is directly drawn from the real world. We want backstory. I am more concerned with front story: What happens between a surface and the viewer?

One last thought on invisibility. The suggestion that sexual identity is invisible denies the ways that we make the invisible visible. A look that lasts too long: a gesture, a touch. To suggest invisibility is to suggest that those things should not be seen and should not be witnessed.

I often feel disconnected from my body. I think it is part of the reason that I am drawn to photographing them. It allows me to understand the importance of bodies occupying spaces. Of bodies existing in spaces. But also of allowing desires to inhabit spaces. To allow perspectives to inhabit spaces.

I purposely made a series of projections that are incongruent with Nulle Part's composition. Every 6.2 hours my projections and their composition will sync up but otherwise they will be free to loop at their own pace like two left hand turn signals that share a fleeting moment at an intersection.

I wanted to encourage people to spend time in the room and I wanted to create the possibility that viewing the work at different times would yield different results. I wanted to encourage the possibility of having a different experience each time someone entered the room.

When making work, regardless of my other intentions, I am always looking for a balance between two feelings: desire and discomfort. I always want people to want to take a step forward and once they do, wonder if they made the right choice. For me, the juxtaposition of those two feelings allows an exploration of what exists between surfaces and asks us to consider what the surface itself tells us in any given moment and about ourselves.

©Zachary Ayotte