PHOTO COURTESY OF BPAC
After viewing Shiver, artist Colleen Ludwig’s marvelous sensory-engaging sculptural installation now up at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC), two thoughts keep rattling around in my head. The first is that conceptually dense artworks like this often act as Rorschach inkblots upon which viewers—even artists—project all manners of subjective meaning. Second, there can be a gaping chasm between artistic intent and audience perception. These conditions may be perfectly natural, even inherent in much contemporary art.
Shiver essentially comprises three structurally supported fabric walls and a ceiling that form a ten-by-twelve-feet room, standing ten feet tall. As you enter the second floor gallery of the BPAC, you find yourself facingShiver’s backside, a boxlike framework constructed of stainless steel square tubing. This framework acts as an exoskeleton enclosing and supporting stretched fabric cinched with elastic lacing and ball buttons. The frame is also outfitted with a sophisticated array of circuits, wires, water filters, and tubing—all very high tech and industrial. Viewing this side first is like pulling the curtain back on the lowly “wizard” before actually meeting the great and powerful Oz. Because it’s when you walk around and enter Shiver’s enigmatic interior, that the wizardry begins.
Inside, corner-recessed fluorescent lighting illuminates taut white fabric, mimicking the clinical vibe of Stanley Kubrick’s Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange. A polished black ceiling with a grid-matrix of thirty-five infrared sensors contributes to the faintly ominous sci-fi atmosphere. What happens next is a different experience for everyone.
In her artist’s statement (not on view), Ludwig declares her interest in “making immersive environments … so intense as to be physically felt.” Shiver comes close to this goal. As participants move around, the installation’s sleek walls intermittently weep rivulets of water that wind their way from top to bottom where they channel off to a concealed reservoir. These watercourses are spaced at roughly six-inch intervals in clusters of three to seven streams, which perplexingly appear to travel horizontally along the wall.
The ceiling sensors emit a pleasantly gentle percussive rhythm of clicks that viewers quickly realize are in response to their movements. It gradually becomes clear that the water rivulets also interact with the sculpture’s inhabitants. Move toward a wall and streams cascade down. Sweep around the perimeter and the rivulets follow—or do they lead? You begin to experience a sense of intimacy with the work, as if the space is sentient, responding to and anticipating your actions. Even when you understand the mechanics operating here, the sensation of a living biological response is palpable.
Ludwig, a Buffalo native and City Honors graduate, now assistant professor at Oakland University, led a research team—funded by a grant from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—to develop Shiver. This in itself is somewhat remarkable: it’s technological research for which the purpose is not to produce next year’s fashionable widget, but simply to advance knowledge. The result is a highly sophisticated system, harnessed to produce a deceptively simple minimalist effect—“less is more” turned on its head. There is something intellectually satisfying and emotionally compelling in this.
In an address presented to the International Society for Electronic Artists Conference, Ludwig delved deeply into the impetus for the work, and the myriad associative connotations she finds in it. She sees the walls as a metaphor for skin, which seems right; the smooth inside surface functions like a membrane, while the outside acts as a metaphor for the brain and nervous system. Shiver is like an organism turned inside out in which viewers become enveloped.
However, Ludwig asserts that Shiver is intended to heighten viewer consciousness of our own epidermal casing. She wants participants “to experience their skin as a mediating border between viscera and atmosphere,” and to become more aware of its “extended boundaries.” She intends “to restate the value of skin as a sensor that gauges conditions and acts as a harbinger for intuitive knowing.” Extended metaphor aside, here’s where those rattling thoughts mentioned earlier become relevant. Rather than heightened skinsensing, Shiver’s effect is one of being sensed. It’s those dribbling walls that seem to be doing all the intuitive knowing here, not us.
The artist’s interest in the physiological and psychological nature of our personal hide leads to the inclusion of several framed blow-ups of textbook illustrations dealing with sensitivity points on the body. These are innocuous enough, but seem disconnected from the main installation. While Ludwig’s focus on skin obviously served her well as a launching pad for serious artistic navel-gazing, it seems unlikely that those who experience Shiver will gain any insight into their own skin, consciously or unconsciously. That’s the interpretive chasm mentioned earlier.
“Shiver” is itself a great word, evoking a variety of associations. Ludwig says it refers to how, due to the fabric’s “surface tension and capillary action, the [water] flows bulge and contract slightly, giving them a shivering effect.” Better to let audiences create their own meaning. It’s a metaphorical stretch to see a bulging water trail and think “shiver.” A more apt metaphor—though admittedly not much of a title—is sweat. Or tears. Or some sort of biological excretion like a mother’s breast responding to the proximity of a baby.
This brings us to that other rattling thought: Shiver is a complex and layered work, an engaging technological inkblot, on which viewers— Ludwig and me included—project highly individual interpretations. And that’s a pretty great thing. Art today too often lacks the power to truly stoke the imagination.
Visit the museum when it’s not busy, and spend a while experiencing Shiver. It’s the sort of work that favors extended contemplative exposure.
Bruce Adams is an artist, arts activist, educator, writer, and Spree’s art critic.