Ideal Bounds

And so, dear friends, it has been a while and there is much to report! Though this blog has been quiet, much activity has been teeming below the surface in the cybernetic-studio-hive-space. Since we last spoke, I have been busily repairing and rebuilding two hundred and twenty-five of your contributed bees with discarded jewelry, electronics and computer parts. This brings the running total of taxidermied bees up to three hundred! Bee Taxidermy_Ruth Marsh_2 Bee Taxidermy_Ruth Marsh_2 BTR_H34_01_X1_0179   IMG_1044

 

An important progression in the narrative of this work has been to begin to incorporate stop motion animation into my studio practice. This approach is a natural departure from taxidermy as it not only restores the broken bees to physical wholeness, in a manner of speaking, it brings them back to life! With this in mind, each of the newest bees have been carefully built with articulating limbs and antenae so that they can be used as stop motion puppets in the animation process.

Photo Credit: Christina Arsenault http://christinaarsenault.tumblr.com

Photo Credit: Christina Arsenault
http://christinaarsenault.tumblr.com

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Over the course of the last several months I have created a short video work called Ideal Bounds which features these bees in a technologically altered beehive. It has been a great honour and pleasure to join forces with Bretten Hannam who was the editor and data technician for this project and Mike Fong who created a beautiful soundtrack of original music. If you are interested in seeing any of this work in person you can take it in as an exhibition titled Ideal Bounds which is currently showing at Struts Gallery and Faucet Media Arts Centre in Sackville New Brunswick. This exhibition includes three hundred bees, the stop motion animation and the video work: Bee taxidermy: A How to Guide. This work will be available for viewing at Struts until April 08. Here are some images of the installed work and opening reception which took place last Friday on March 11. http://www.strutsgallery.ca

 

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Ideal Bounds will be traveling to The New Gallery in Calgary, Alberta in May. If you happen to be in the area, you can see it between May 21 and June 25. http://www.thenewgallery.org

 

There are more locations and dates in the works which I am hoping to be able to announce to you soon!

 

I am still accepting submissions of your found dead bees. To review: If you find a bee and would like to contribute it to this project, please send me a message through the May I Have Your Bees Please, Facebook, community page. Once I receive your mailing address, I will send you a bee-kit in the mail which includes: a small container (for the bee), a set of instructions, a small gift (for your trouble) and return postage. I am still gratefully receiving bees in the manner from within Canada and currently have about two hundred which are waiting to be processed.

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Here is a revised artist’s statement for this recent work.

 

Ideal Bounds imagines a hypothetical near-future where the world’s bees have succumbed to colony collapse disorder. This wry, dystopian musing plays with signifiers one finds in present-day museum exhibits depicting species which have become extinct due to human causes. Ruth Marsh has been creating the multi-disciplinary, community engaged series of works which make up Ideal Bounds, since 2011. Contributions of found, dead bees are mailed to Marsh’s Halifax studio from individuals across Canada. The bees are preserved and meticulously repaired using discarded technology. The newly restored bees are then given life, frame-by-frame, through the process of stop motion animation. The hundreds of mended and refurbished bees line shelves in the gallery space, each in its own small, glass case. Viewers are further invited to engage with this grotesque narrative by taking in the DIY instructional video Bee Taxidermy: A How To Guide which demonstrates the step-by-step process of restoring one’s own bee. On an opposite wall, the stop-motion work, Reanimate, presents a vision of a cybernetically altered hive populated by bee automatons. This work plays with themes of environmental loss through practical, labour intensive and repetitive explorations of radical transformation: life to death, reality to memory and the surrealistic degradation of information that occurs with each successive change of state. What is left after each phase gains more and more the uncanny strangeness of a close yet unfaithful copy and what is created in the end is something else altogether: an irrevocably altered, transubstantiated other.

Fortress of Solitude

As I sit down to write a blog post about the importance of creating a positive, low distraction, working environment for oneself as an artist, I am immediately encountering certain challenges and ironies. I set up my laptop at my worktable and am about to sit down when Zig the cat (Zig lives in my studio space and over the years has become an important part of my process), steals my place. I try to kindly explain to him that I am about to do some work and gently push him to the floor. He does not take kindly to this, choosing to deposit his frustration in the nearby litter-box all the while maintaining, might I say, an unnerving amount of intense, unwavering eye contact. I clean the litter-box, take the garbage outside, wash my hands and again, attempt to sit down and work. Zig, seeing this, chooses to knock over a stack of records while simultaneously unplugging my laptop. Zig is encouraged to go outside through an open, ground level window. Perfect, now I can work. Except, I need tea. Great, I have tea but now I have to pee. Ok, perfect, but I realize that I must have candy. Candy acquired, I go to sit down again and realize that the whole process would be less distracting if I was to put on headphones. I put on headphones,…ok,…I think you see what I mean.

 

All of the above distractions are happening on a normal day in what I would describe as an ideal environment within which to get work done. Creating this environment has actually come at the end of a semi-long process. It’s this process that I’d actually like to write about and not the cat specifically, promise.

Since leaving NSCAD, I have always had a dedicated workspace of one kind or another. Sometimes my workspace is a separate room within a living space, sometimes it has been a dedicated space outside of the home. This space has always been a sacred space of sorts, in that it has always been uniquely dedicated to making work and it has always been accessible twenty-four, seven. Lately, it has occurred to me that some very specific conditions have to exist for me to be able to do any quality work and I’ve given myself permission to become bull-headedly, single minded about this.

The space has to be organized (obviously, “organized” is up for wild interpretation) and clean (I understand the irony of “clean” coming from a person who works almost exclusively in the media of broken electronics and dead bugs). Everything has its place and there must be enough floor space to be able to comfortable walk around, or roll as the case may be.

At certain points (hours, days, years) I must be left completely alone with no distractions. I have the same rule for my studio space that most vampire societies have. You may absolutely come and visit me but in order to enter, you must be invited.

The space has to have good energy, or if it has bad energy, it can only be my own. Having spent week long periods working on projects while sobbing and listening to the soundtrack from the movie Vanilla Sky over and over again, I can definitely attest to the healing power that continuing to work on any project of any kind can have over a broken heart. Also, the idea that my personal life and my art life are correlated but not contingent is of great comfort to me. For example, I’ve also shed my fair share of tears in the walk-in fridges of the food service industry over one sad time or another but it has in no way prevented me from making a hell of a god-damned, good sandwich. Similarly, so long as I can see and use my hands, I can produce a very respectable drawing while at the same time wetly lamenting the temporality of love.

Though the specifics of this process are, I’m sure, very different for every artist, I imagine there are certain aspects that we all have in common. Space, however you may choose to define it, is key. This may mean that you create a psychic space for your work where you prioritize the energy you dedicate to it over many other things. Depending on the nature of your work, you may also require a physical space, for most of us it’s a combination of the two.

Making these rules has come through trial and error. Any violation of said conditions has definitely come at my peril. I currently live in a space that is definitely more studio than apartment and is only inhabited by me and two, small, feline, assistants. I realize now that the tone of this post may (quite fairly) make me seem hermit-like and standoffish. I certainly don’t mean to imply that I don’t like visitors. In fact, I’d love it if you visited me, just call ahead, and oh-my-god, please bring cake!

The Pleasure Principle

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If I’m going to be completely honest, one of the things that I think sustains my practice more than any other element is the direct bodily pleasure I derive from the hands on, day-to-day grind of making art. It’s the enjoyment that I receive directly from putting pencil to paper, paint to board or glue and wire to bee (as the case may be) that shapes the look and structure of the works I choose to produce, at least in part. To put it simply, it just feels good.

When sitting down to plan a work, after I’ve considered the imagery and composition and other more cerebral elements of the message, consciously or unconsciously part of me considers how best to drag out the time it takes to make it simply because I love doing it so damn much. “Hmmm, this piece could realistically only take me a couple of hours, what can I do to make the whole process as tedious and painful as possible? I mean, my wrists have been feeling fine lately. What can I do to bring on that special carpal tunnel burn?” Is this a masochistic impulse? Yes, probably. But there’s more to it than that.

 Sure, there’s definitely an element of insecurity; as though the hours spent making something will justify it as a worthy work. But I think the greater part of it is seeing practice as a meditation. The act of putting pencil to paper (or what have you) thousands upon thousands of times creates a kind of useful cathartic trance. It separates my mind from the mundanity of every day life in a way that feels transcendent. It creates a space devoid of language that is simply blissful to exist in. I’ll work in this state for hours before my tired body reminds me to reconnect to the physical world with boring reminders to drink some water, enjoy a cigarette or use the washroom.

 When compared to more collaborative media like film and music, visual art can be a solitary, sometimes very lonely pursuit. This reality seems to put it at odds with it being, at least for me, about connection with others. Making very elaborate, labour intensive work feels like a way of honouring my audience, like a kind of social contract: “Please spend some time looking at my drawing because I spent a long time making it. And, hey, I really like you a lot and want to have made something that makes you feel good or bad or strange, or really anything at all will do. Just wanna connect with you somehow, k? Thanks.”

 I also like to think that incorporating an element of mystery in a work, whether it be bigness or smallness or intricacy will insert another level of possible engagement for a viewer. “Hey, what’s going on with this? How was this made and of what?” I hope these added intricacies will create an impalpable richness that makes the work more interesting to look at and therefore create more possibility for the viewer. Admittedly, it could also be that I am an overbearing, megalomaniacal, control freak, so there’s that. 10469839_10152263956233375_4519073386508497040_n

After a certain level of training and practice it makes sense to me that if one is going to sustain a lifelong practice one should be allowed to play to one’s strengths. I’m not very spontaneous but I am patient; it just makes sense to me to work this way. Everyday practice creates balance and purpose in my life and helps me to maintain my sanity. It’s somehow a great comfort to know that I will run out time before I run out of ideas.

So what do you think, dear reader? What are your thoughts on the daily grind of making work? How does this stuff work for you? This friendly neurotic welcomes your input, thoughts and opinions. Ring my bell, comment or send me an email (ruthvmarsh@hotmail.com).

Hive

I think we all, as creative people have our dream projects that given the opportunity, we simply must make. Hive is and was one of those projects for me. As I’ve mentioned before, art-making, at its core for me is creating an opportunity for others to see the world in a different way. Providing a situation of right-brain-strangeness and the subsequent dialogue about this strangeness is definitely one of the things that gives me the most pleasure in life.

Hive has been an idea at the back of my mind for the past four or five years. It would provide an all encompassing, overwhelming, full sensory experience for a broad public audience. The basic idea consisted of creating a large-scale installation where visitors would be given the opportunity to experience the darkness, warmth, sound, sights, smells and vibrations of a living beehive. As one small person with a lot of creative scope but with limited skills in the audio-visual world of sound and video projections this project had been just outside of my grasp but always on my mind.

Fast forward to last Winter when I had the great pleasure of getting to know Jeff Wheaton. The art world is a very small place, compound that reality a few times by the fact that Halifax is a tiny place and another few times by the fact that artists whose work obsesses particularly on bees are almost certainly bound to cross paths and there you have it, an inevitable collaboration! Jeff was the filmmaker in residence with the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative. The film that he was creating for the residency was, non-coincidentally, also called Hive. This film is a gorgeous, gorgeous creation and features my bee taxidermy as part of the storyline. I strongly encourage you to check it out, but I digress. Turns out that Jeff and I had both been tapping into the bee ether and both wanted to make a large scale installation along similar lines and so we decided to join forces and create a piece for Nocturne Art at Night, 2013.

Through a lot of brainstorming over the next months we slowly came up with a workable concept for Hive.  The idea of a full sensory experience was at the core of each of our ideas, it was just exactly how this would take physical form that needed a little bit of smoothing out. As the naive dreamer I would wildly shoot out my ideas and Jeff , who knew what equipment and tools we would actually need to achieve our goals, would accurately point out that we “…weren’t Cirque de Soleil”.  In very short order we agreed on the idea that became Hive.  A large yurt, 28’ in diameter would make up the shell of our hive. We would then build a large cylinder that would occupy the centre of the inside of the yurt.  This cylinder would be constructed of organic cotton and wouId be fully impregnated with beeswax which, turns out, is a great surface to back-project video! Inside the cylinder three projectors would play original footage from Jeff’s backyard beehives (Did I mention that Jeff is an award winning cinematographer?) while several large speakers would pump out sound that was also recorded directly from these hives. The rest of the yurt would be blacked out so that the viewer’s full attention would be drawn to the centre and, we hoped, they would become lost in the experience.

So this is exactly what we ended up making and it existed as an installation for six hours on the night of October 19th, 2013 in the Atlantic Filmmaker’s Cooperative parking lot at 5663 Cornwallis Street in North End Halifax. Jeff and I both donned beekeeping outfits and were present to “tend” our hive and field questions about it for the duration of the installation. Hundreds of people came out to see our strange beehive and we had many rewarding conversations with many of the hive’s temporary inhabitants.

A huge shout out of thanks to Martha Cooley and the staff, board and volunteers at the Atlantic Filmmaker’s Cooperative who made this project possible through providing a venue, equipment, technical expertise and support.

I hope to recreate this project in a gallery setting or at a festival again soon. Ill keep you posted about this, oh yes!

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Arial view from my balcony.The long suffering Tim Tracey helps me to cover a piece of organic cotton measuring twelve by thirty feel with hot wax and then iron that wax into the surface.

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Testing out our project before the actual installation. There’s Jeff for scale.

 

Installation Shot, Nocturne: Art At Night
Photo credit: Kylee Nunn

Corpus Melliferous: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Draw Pictures

After spending four years in various and sundry drawing courses at NSCAD I had developed somewhat of a complex about my drawing. “Your drawing could use some work.” and “Your drawing isn’t strong.” were repeated themes in all of my drawing courses. I don’t mean to call for sympathy in admitting this; I acknowledged that my instructors were quite correct; my drawings had always lacked a certain level of technical accuracy. The drawings themselves weren’t bad but my “drawing”: my technical ability to reproduce things as I saw them was definitely lacking.  So as much I understood this difference and as much as I was able to improve my skills, my drawing ability remained something to be desired. I lost confidence and I stopped enjoying making drawings and, for the most part, I stopped making drawings altogether.


In an advanced painting course, some time close to graduation, I learned that there are ways around this shortcoming; I had options! After all, Mary Fucking Pratt (I believe that is her real middle name.) uses an overhead projector to block in her incredible paintings and Chuck God-Damned Close does incredible work using grids! But still, dear reader, I was ashamed! *melodramatic weeping* What was I to do?!

For years I avoided drawing, making only the most rudimentary sketches to plan the compositions of my paintings. I would use grids to block in images from photos for my paintings and hoped there would be no follow-up questions. I felt that I was “getting away with it” but companion to this feeling is the surety that eventually, my proverbial “jig” would be “up”.  And, deep down, I somehow felt cheated; like the robot who couldn’t love, I was the somewhat anticlimactic artist version: I was the painter who couldn’t actually draw all that well.

So, fast-forward a few years to the Fall of 2010. I decided to rent a studio space outside of my apartment and dedicate its use to, among several other things, facing down my drawing demon and befriending it. I wanted to feel comfortable drawing; I wanted to love drawing for itself. I wanted to be like Richard Gere at the end of An officer and a Gentleman and carry the blushing, Debra Winger of drawing out of that damned factory and  “away from all of this.” I had a plan too. I was going to embrace the aspects of creating images by hand that I really enjoyed and push them to their furthest logical conclusion. I love making large work, I love dense texture and I love brain-numbing repetition and, dear reader, as you already know, I dearly love bees.

Of note: my studio space was VERY small, roughly the size of a standard prison cell (I’m not even kidding). It had no windows. As I began to spend more and more time in this claustrophobic space, I descended into a kind of useful madness. I was alone in a very tiny room with no distractions and nothing but my work, how glorious! Things made sense that hadn’t made sense before and I was able to comfortably move slightly away from straight representation and make some visual connections that were slightly more surreal. This break allowed me the comfort to dig in and have fun with brain numbing repetition of form and desperately tedious texture work.

I began experimenting with making large, surreal, bee works on paper. I became deeply fascinated with the only obvious thing that humans and bees had in common physiologically: we both have hair! The drawings were made as large as I could manage given the size of the space. Since the longest wall was eight feet long, my drawings measured five feet high (the height of a roll of paper) by eight feet long. I worked on them standing, crouching and sitting cross-legged on the floor. I worked on them eight hours at a time; I developed carpal tunnel; I loved the hell out of it! Each drawing ended up taking about a hundred and fifty hours to complete and, miraculously, I liked how they looked so much that I stopped painting and really dug in to drawing.

These drawings are still an ongoing series called Corpus Melliferous. So far I’ve shown them at Artists’ Quarter Gallery and Studios (remind me to post some time about putting on an exhibition by oneself), The Hub, and The Confederation Centre of the Arts. I’m hoping to find a venue to show more work from this series soon so you can see them in real life but until then here are the most recent pieces. Photo documented by the incredible Christina Arsenault.

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