Walking into “North,” a new installation by composer Mary Ellen Childs at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, is like entering a vortex through time and dimension. Surrounded by a video landscape that’s projected onto sculpturally textured walls on three sides and onto a series of three abstract paintings by Lindsy Halleckson on the fourth side of the room, you’re invited to get comfy. A faint smell fills the air. It’s not floral, but subtly cold. Cushions, bean bags and lounge chairs are placed around the floor to sit. As images of the arctic region surround you, a contemporary orchestral score played through multiple speakers, performed by the new music ensemble Zeitgeist, transports you out of yourself.
There are 12 sections in “North,” but the piece isn’t linear. Rather, there are ebbs and flows of dynamic music and visuals, where ice, lava, water and sky become characters in the drama. The piece recognizes the awe and majesty of nature and portrays — through sensory channels — the existential threat of climate change.
Childs travelled to the Arctic Circle as part of an expedition for the project, taking video footage around the territory of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, which is 10 degrees from the North Pole. Artist Halleckson was also on the expedition.
“We found out we were both interested in this trip and had applied,” Childs says. “We sort of said, Gee, if we both get to go at the same time, let’s think about what we can do together.” Besides the three paintings Halleckson created for North, the visual artist also contributed some of the video footage. Tamara Ober and Caitlin Hammel both worked on editing the multi-channel video project, with Ober contributed additional footage of dripping icicles taken around the North Shore area of Minnesota.
Childs took video and still images with cameras as well as her iPhone, and recorded sound with a handheld stereo recorder. “I did a fair amount of recording of sound— none that I ended up using in the piece,” she says. “Everything in the piece is completely acoustic. It’s all made by Zeitgeist.”
Childs was interested in pushing the instruments to create new sounds. “It doesn’t sound like a chamber ensemble in a concert hall,’ Childs says. With a bit of magic in post production— including adding reverb, enhancing the bass, and certain overdubbing for added layers, the score sounds ethereal and acutely vivid. In one particularly thrilling section, the video depicts the stars and moon rise over the frigid landscape, all while layered tracks created by clarinetist Pat O’Keefe sing together in haunting harmony.
“North,” is part of Zeitgeist’s “Decade Five” project, a series of five major commissions of renowned American composers. According to Heather Barringer, co-artistic director of Zeitgeist, the project involves commissioning new works of the caliber of previous commissions Zeitgeist has spearheaded by influential composers. Since its founding, Zeitgeist has supported and performed major new works by Terry Riley, John Cage, Chinary Ung, Jin Hi Kim, Frederic Rzewski and Paul Dresher. With Decade Five, the ensemble is endeavoring to commission five major works that will have the same type of contribution as those famous composers.
Other composers in the “Decade Five” initiative include Scott Miller, who collaborated with the group to create a work that stretched the boundaries of what technology could do, and a new piece by George Lewis, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center.
“North” was initially envisioned as a piece of music that would be performed in a concert setting with video elements. As the project evolved, both the composer and Zeitgeist realized the best setting would be in a gallery, where people could come and go.
“When Mary Ellen and I came upon the realization that this was an installation, the next words out of my mouth were the Anderson Center,” Barringer says. Having performed at the Center numerous times in the past, the ensemble has an established relationship with the organization— both with its past leadership and current artistic director Stephanie Rogers and program director Adam Wiltgen. “Stephanie was interested in producing work that was risky and new,” Barringer says. “Their programming is growing in some really rich ways.”
The installation takes place in a new gallery at the Anderson Center. The building has two other gallery spaces — the Main Gallery, which features rotating exhibitions, and the Permanent Gallery, filled with prints by artists like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Jasper Johns, and others. There’s also a sculpture park, a performance space, artist studios and other areas for classes and art making. The new Untitled Gallery on the lower floor has high ceilings and no windows, making it an ideal setting for Mary Ellen Childs’ video and sound installation.
“We’re partway through a major master planning and capital process that’s really aiming for highest and best use of our buildings to support our mission,” Rogers says. “This is a really good use of square footage in that space, and it’s such a step up in terms of the quality of display spaces for visual artworks, and also the flexibility to do things we never could have done before.”
The immersive nature of the exhibition recalls other recent presentations in Minnesota that exist in a category somewhere between performance and exhibition, with a focus on sensorial experience. Rosy Simas’ work offers one example. Simas’ “yödoishëndahgwa’geh (a place for rest),” presented at the Northrup King Building and All My Relations Gallery, similarly enveloped visitors with sound and visuals, and her more recent “she who lives on the road to war” blurred lines between visual and performance art. At the Walker Art Center’s “Out There” series, meanwhile, Andrew Schneider layered philosophical text, recorded voices, a soundscape and a light installation to create an experiential work.
To have such high caliber artists creating a premiere work outside of the metro area is part of what makes the Anderson Center special.
“Small towns deserve access to really high-quality arts,” Rogers says. “There are a lot of barriers to access for so many different reasons, but geographic barriers are a real barrier for a lot of people. It’s personally important to me that folks in southeastern Minnesota can see really groundbreaking art because it’s something I didn’t have access to when I was a kid growing up in rural Missouri.”
“North” runs Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. through 4 p.m. through April 22 at the Anderson Center (free).
Additionally, Zeitgeist will perform live along with the Cleveland-based No Exit Ensemble this Thursday in conjunction with “North.” Zeitgeist will perform Frederick Shefsky and Alvin Lucier, while No Exit will perform music by Minnesota composer Philip Blackburn. The concert is in the Tower View Barn at the Anderson Center in Red Wing on Thursday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. ( $10). More information about North can be found here, and information about the live performance on Feb 16 can be found here.