As the new curator of the David Winton Bell Gallery, I have spent much of my recent free time familiarizing myself with the Bell Gallery’s collection and exhibition history. This has proven a particularly fruitful moment to do so, as we just launched our new online searchable collections database (check it out, in all its glory, here). Poking around the Gallery’s new public interface, as well as the back channels of it’s database and physical store rooms, I’ve come across an array of exciting and surprising objects; such as this incredible 1967 Lee Bontecou print that we had never exhibited before. That’s changed with the opening of a small exhibition of Collection Highlights that will run through January 12th, 2014. More on that here.
I’ve also found catalogues for pioneeringly interdisciplinary exhibitions, which reinforce why I was so eager to work at the Bell Gallery in the first place: being able to take advantage of the University’s many departments and incredible knowledge resources. Of all of these shows, Space Window: Man in Space and Space in Art, from 1977, is particularly close to my heart. My background and training are in public art. Prior to working at the Bell Gallery, I helped produce a number of large-scale public projects in New York City and elsewhere. Two of these, Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures (2011) and Tom Sachs’ Space Program: Mars (2012), presented back to back by Creative Time, explored the abstraction of outer space (albeit in very different ways). So, you can imagine my excitement when I came across the Space Window catalog.
The show was mounted in collaboration with the Rhode Island School of Design and explored the shared interests among artists and scientists in imagining “various visions of the universe.” It included early work by Elizabeth Murray and Jeff Koons that cartoonishly depict planetary movements and extraterrestrial topographies, in dialogue with celestial mappings by artists more often associated with spatial practices, such as Denis Oppenheim and Charles Ross. These works were presented alongside scientific renderings of the cosmos (many of which are as abstract as the universes imagined by artists), satellite images of moons and distant planets, and artifacts of actual space travel such as astronaut suits and space food. Moreover, the accompanying public programming, a series of “orbiting lectures and performances” included astronauts, planetary geologists, earthwork artists, and the Talking Heads!
Space Window opened on September 16th 1977, just following the launch of the Voyager space probes into deep space. The two Voyagers each carried with them Golden Records—disks imprinted with images of life on earth and recordings of human languages and music—that it was hoped would explain human civilization to any aliens who might find them. The Golden Record naively presents the kind of worldview Trevor Paglen describes as “one big happy family.” Like the Golden Record, there are elements of such passivism in Space Window. However the project’s emphasis on the potential for collaborative research practices between the arts and sciences is what stands out most. As two of the curators, Eve Vaterlaus and Joan Waltemath, noted, “we present the work of the scientist and artist alike, not to illustrate their differences, but to demonstrate that the search for greater knowledge is common to both. We aim to broaden the channels of communication between the two.” Forty years later, this goal couldn’t be more relevant as collaborations such as RISD and Brown’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) programs, and the Creative Arts Council seek to increase dialogue between artists and scientists for the benefit of research in both fields; and as the arts at universities struggle to articulate the terms of their own research, within the constraints of the publication paradigm that dominates most academic institutions.
Space Window explored the potential for art and artists to produce what Harold Bloom called “creative misreadings.” These (occasionally deliberate) misinterpretations of source material open up new avenues of understanding and research. The curators and participating artists and scientists of Space Windows understood and exploited this potentiality. At the Bell Gallery, we hope to continue this tradition of allowing the arts to produce creative misreadings across the campus and the city of Providence at large in 2014.
– Alexis Lowry Murray
Note: All images are from the catalogue Space Window: Man in Space and Space in Art. Providence: The David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, 1977.