Picture This: October Breezes
October 13, 2016
It's fall in Washington, D.C. The days are cooler, the nights cold, and the wind picks up and deposits leaves to the ground. This painting by Albert P. Lucas reminds me of the weeks that lie ahead for me. With eighty trees hanging over my house, raking those leaves in a stiff breeze has often been a study in futility. But each year I do it. And, given the frenetic quality of my normal day, I use the time to push myself a little closer to nature.
A Pocket-Sized WONDER in Virtual Reality
October 4, 2016
Last spring, I paid a solo visit to the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, home to one of the largest collections of 13th-century stained glass in the world. I sat down on a bench and spent the better part of an hour observing the morning light as it traveled across the eastern windows, turning the narrow chapel into a blazing jewel box. It was a transporting, magical experience. Then I walked downstairs to the gift shop, and—typical tourist—bought a postcard.
I use my Sainte-Chapelle postcard as a bookmark. Every time I open my book and see it, I think to myself, "How beautiful! I wish I could be there again." I expect this is why postcards are a classic museum souvenir—they jog warm memories of places we've left behind. But wouldn't it be sweet if we could step inside a postcard and look around that faraway museum one more time, even if just for a moment?
How could we capture the experience of WONDER and bottle it, before it was no more than a memory? Could we use technology to give people more to hold onto than just a postcard?
—Sara Snyder, Chief, Media & Technology Office
That yearning to revisit a special place at a moment in time is what led my colleagues in SAAM's Media and Technology Office to create our new virtual reality app, "Renwick Gallery WONDER 360." The WONDER exhibition was the most popular show in the Renwick Gallery's history, an extraordinary collection of site-specific, gallery-sized installations made from an array of unexpected materials. And though the artists of Sainte-Chapelle are separated by more than 700 years from the artists in WONDER, I can say I felt the same deep level of emotion when confronted by Gabriel Dawe’s soaring rainbows and John Grade’s epic hemlock that I felt when surrounded by the stained glass in that Gothic chapel. WONDER was a transporting, magical exhibition. It was also temporary.
Like many, many others, I took my share of Instagram photos of WONDER, and kept a glossy souvenir booklet (in lieu of a postcard). But as the exhibition's closing date drew nearer, my colleagues and I became more anxious: how could we capture the experience of WONDER and bottle it, before it was no more than a memory? Could we use technology to give people more to hold onto than just a postcard?
As it happens, the year that WONDER opened to the public was also the year VR became a mainstream concept. Throughout 2015 and 2016, the technology to support 360-degree panoramic capture got better and cheaper, month by month. In March of 2016, Media and Technology producer Carlos Parada attended the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, where there was a huge Virtual Reality presence. This provided the perfect environment to learn about the technology and network with developers. At SXSW, Carlos connected with a startup company, InstaVR, and saw the opportunity we were looking for: a system that would allow us to create an experience, in-house, to make people feel like were inside the gallery. This was very important for WONDER, a show in which the immersive installations needed to be experienced, not just seen.
So with only a few months left before the show's closing, Carlos designed the interactive app. With several hundred dollars’ worth of new equipment and software—plus a whole lot of patience and perseverance—he managed to take hundreds of photographs of the entirety of the WONDER exhibition from a variety of vantage points in super high-resolution, stitching them into virtually seamless 360-degree files. Working together with InstaVR, we rolled the 360 panoramas, along with a number of artist videos, into native mobile apps for both the iTunes App store and Google Play.
We've launched "Renwick Gallery WONDER 360" as our first major experiment with producing immersive VR experiences. I hope you'll download it, and please let us know what you think by rating it in the app store! This is just our first pass at VR, and we're excited to keep on exploring the potential of this emerging technology to enhance and expand the variety of ways that art lovers can interact with their favorite museums. And since the app can be downloaded for free, you can step back in time and be transported into the WONDER exhibition for even less than the cost of a postcard. How WONDER-ful is that?
Luce Unplugged: 5 Questions with Danke Shane
October 3, 2016
Danke Shane's debut D.C. show premieres this Thursday, October 6, in the Luce Foundation Center as a part of Luce Unplugged, our free, monthly concert series. In partnership with D.C. Music Download, we highlight musical acts within the District that create unique and innovative sound. With a new album releasing this winter, we sat down with Andrew Burke from Danke Shane to learn more about the launch of his musical career.
Eye Level: When did you begin making music? What inspired you to start?
Danke Shane: It took off when I started making home recordings when I was about twelve. My family bought a Mac computer with Garageband on it; and I became obsessed with it. I'd been wanting to play in a band since I saw School of Rock. But none of my friends could really play music at the time. So being able to record all of the instruments myself and layer them was really exciting. That's something interesting about my generation; a lot of us grew up with recording equipment of some sort at our disposal. This has affected not just our ability to record and share music but, more fundamentally, how people my age learned to approach songwriting.
EL: How did you think of your band's name, Danke Shane?
DS: The name Danke Shane is a reference to one of my favorite movies, Ferris Beuller's Day Off—specifically to one aspect of that movie, when Wayne Newton's song,"Danke Schöen" randomly appears throughout the whole film. Ferris and his sister hum it to themselves a few times in different scenes and then, at the end, he gets up on a float and starts singing it. It's such a random choice! Why did John Hughes make that song a focal point? But even though it seems out of place in the movie, it somehow feels so perfect, funny, and cool. Stuff that is strange on the surface but feels really good is something I love in all types of art. So it's an homage to that in general. Then I just changed the spelling to make it Google-able and to connect it more to the American pronunciation you hear in the song.
EL: Could you briefly describe your music-making process?
DS: I don't think I've had a consistent process in a long time. But one thing I believe is that ultimately making music or doing anything creative is a meditative process, which sounds really contrite and cheesy. But it's true. Once you get to a certain point with a song, you can break your work down into a process; but to get the nucleus of something going is really random and difficult.
EL: Do you collaborate with other musicians in D.C.?
DS: I'm still fairly new to D.C., so I haven't had a lot of time to do much collaboration. But there are really cool artists from the area who I've seen or listened to, so it's something I'd love to do. And I brought in several people from around D.C. to record parts for the EP I just finished.
EL: Who are your major influences for your music?
DS: I have to figure out a way to answer this question because I really don't know. I tend to see points of influence more as individual songs or albums rather than a band in general. So, for example, I remember really well when Sufjan Steven's "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" came out. Listening to it with my friends I thought it was unbelievable. But then, I haven't necessarily kept up with most of his newer stuff. I really got into Fantasma by Cornelius when I was quite young. I felt like it had a big impact on me; but I wouldn't say the same thing about his other albums. One of my all-time favorite recordings is John Coltrane doing "My Favorite Things." But, again, I don't really listen to him very often. I remember some of my first favorite CDs were film soundtracks and genre compilations, so maybe that's where it comes from.
Hear Danke Shane play Thursday, October 6 at 6 p.m. after a staff-led talk on the Industrial Waste Teapot selected by Andrew. Check out more details on Luce's Facebook page and access Danke Shane's tunes here. See you Thursday!
Teaching the African American Experience through Art
September 29, 2016
On October 13, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will host "Art and the African American Experience," an evening for teachers presented in celebration of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Led by educators at SAAM, Teaching for Change, and the Anacostia Community Museum, participants will explore ways of thoughtfully addressing race and the African American experience through art in their teaching. The event is free with registration, and includes teaching resources and a standing reception.
Eye Level spoke with two of SAAM's collaborators in planning the evening, Linda Maxwell, Education Program Coordinator at the Anacostia Community Museum, and Sandhya Rajan, Professional Development Specialist at Teaching for Change, to get an advance look at what to expect at the event.
Eye Level: Could you tell us how you will be contributing to this evening?
Linda Maxwell: I will be exploring the artwork by William H. Johnson, entitled Marian Anderson. We will be looking at the life of Marian Anderson through Johnson's eyes with a hands-on activity using graphic organizers and primary resources. I hope educators will be inspired to integrate art and history in their classrooms in different ways to engage a variety of learners.
Sandhya Rajan: Teaching for Change will model a lesson called Expanding the Narrative: Meet and Greet the Harlem Renaissance. This lesson is designed to allow participants to look beyond the traditional narrative of the Harlem Renaissance by taking on the roles of historical figures. We are excited to share a lesson that allows students to learn more than just a few names and stories from that time period.
EL: Why did you decide to participate in the event?
SR: We are thrilled to participate in this event for teachers focused on exploring the historic, political, and social roots of issues of race through American art. We are committed to share lessons and curricula that challenge and transcend the textbook narratives.
LM: I decided to participate because I love art, history, and the ability to share with other like-minded educators ways to engage students.
EL: How do you think artwork can play a role in addressing historical and contemporary African American experience with students?
LM: Artwork, when used appropriately as a tool to engage students about the African American experience, is highly effective because it enables students to actually understand history better by visualizing the concept. This helps them to better process the information.
SR: We agree with our colleague Lynda Tredway who said, "In a media-driven age, visual images provide access to important events and political struggles that may be more engaging to students than written text. At the same time, these images can offer an avenue for the development of critical literacy."
EL: For teachers who can't attend the evening, what's one thing you'd want them to know about teaching issues of race in the classroom?
LM: For the teachers who cannot attend, I hope they continue to seek out opportunities to bring the important discussion of race in the classroom and their communities by pursuing training, mentors and institutions that will support their efforts.
SR: We emphasize in our work that race and racism are central to all of U.S. history. Textbooks often leave students thinking that racism was only in the South or an issue during certain eras (like slavery or the Civil Rights Movement). However, racism has shaped all of the U.S. (North and South) and all historical periods through the present.
The October 13 event is free with registration.
A Humorous Streak to The Art of Romaine Brooks
September 28, 2016
Joe Lucchesi, the consulting curator for SAAM's exhibition, The Art of Romaine Brooks, is Associate Professor of Art History and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program Coordinator at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Joe gives us a look at the humor and wit of Romaine Brooks. He will be leading a tour of the show on Thursday, September 29 at 6 p.m. The Art of Romaine Brooks is on view until October 2, 2016.
Most commentaries on Romaine Brooks' work focus on its seriousness. This is hardly surprising, since there is a quiet weightiness to her work that is palpable in person and pervades the mood of the galleries when walking through SAAM's current exhibition, The Art of Romaine Brooks. Her carefully modulated palette of subtle grays and neutral tonalities lends to this muted emotional tenor while her sitters, placed alone in spare planar spaces, carry themselves with a psychological gravity that verges on isolation. These formal choices can initially give the appearance of works wreathed in melancholy. Beyond that, Brooks produced much of the work within a historic context of emerging lesbian subcultures in a homophobic culture of early 20th century Europe. And the artist herself titled her autobiography No Pleasant Memories. But this consistent characterization of Brooks' artwork (and the artist herself) as moody, somber, or even gloomy can obscure notes of humor and wit shot through many of the portraits and drawings. Brooks' incisive wit and somewhat sardonic observations bring richness to the works' emotional texture and sharpen the overall insights her works have to offer.
Brooks' humorous undertones emerge most often through deadpan juxtapositions that seem to offer sly satiric commentary on some aspect of her sitters. For example, in her portrait of Madam Errazuris, the influential interior designer appears nearly engulfed by her ostentatious outfit with its giant ostrich plumes and voluminous cloak. But she gazes confidently and somewhat condescendingly out of the picture, in command of both her outsized fashions and the viewer's attention. Or in Una, Lady Troubridge, the sitter's prized dachshunds in the artist's play on the traditional portrait with hunting dogs threaten to shift the painting's tone into a mocking observation of her aristocratic pretention. That note of stinging humor is there, yet the dogs also enhance Troubridge's sense of calm and control, and her level engagement with the viewer.
Similarly, Brooks' pairing of La Barrone Emile Erlanger and an ocelot brings distinct undercurrents of sensuality and exoticism to what initially appears to be a motif intended to underscore and mimic her static, aloof attitude. In Chasseresse, the artist uses the animal-figure juxtaposition to different erotic ends. The mountain goat's inclusion seems to amplify the icy, mythological dignity of the female protagonist, with her placid expression and neutral gaze. But a shrewd, playful eroticism infuses the scene when one notices the goat's carefully strategic placement opposite her midsection, its pink tongue barely protruding toward her bare knee while her forearm grazes the animal's face.
Even Brooks' drawings have some of these same elements of mordant humor. Although they're steeped in weighty emotional themes of imprisonment, struggle, and exile consistent with the artist's autobiography manuscript, in writing about the drawings she noted that they were "...inspired by laughter, philosophy, sadness, or death..." A drawing like Primitive Coquetry (La Coquetterie Primitive) captures this unique balance of humor and horror, with its lumpish, animal-like figure standing absurdly upright on its wide feet in a cheesecake pose, smiling coyly over its shoulder at the viewer. Or the The Organ Grinder (L'Orgue de Barbarie), in which a wispy, meandering yet vibrant line transforms into a whimsical figure casting a world-weary look heavenward. Within what Brooks called the "inevitable encircling line" of her drawings, these subtle notes of humorous fantasy add depth to the psychological perspectives they offer. The artist's wry quips and visual puns thread the exhibition and fill the galleries with echoes of Brooks' knowing laughter.