Shining the Light on Art
The city of North Adams is a platform for art of all types
Victoria Palermo’s “The Bus Stand” on Main Street
Photos by Jake Borden
In the relationship between North Adams and MASS MoCA, the city is more than merely a canvas; it’s a collaborator in creating unexpected art installations that exist like multi-dimensional tattoos on the urban body.
The museum has overseen numerous public-art projects in the city, including the “Harmonic Bridge,” two 16-foot-long resonating tubes under the Route 2 overpass, as well as Don Gummer’s “Primary Separation” in front of the Northern Berkshire District Court courthouse, Victoria Palermo’s vividly colored glass “The Bus Stand” on Main Street, and Walter Fähndrich’s sundown-triggered sound art, “Music for a Quarry,” at Natural Bridge State Park.
These are joined this summer by two more sound-art projects: a giant musical instrument called “Corrugarou” on the corner of Route 8 and Main Street, created by Klaas Hübner and Andrew Schrock of art collective New Orleans Airlift; and Craig Colorusso’s solar-powered “Sun-Boxes,” which function as anchors for an outdoor market and other pop-up spaces in the city’s downtown.
What MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson appreciates the most about much of the public art around North Adams is the unexpected quality, especially in regard to the sound art. He believes it can give an area a welcoming feel, and even add some alluring mystery to the day.
(Photo on left: "Corrugarou" sound sculpture by New Orleans Airlift, on the northwest corner of Main Street and Marshall Street.)
“You take a space that might be inhospitable and try to make it a more interesting place to be in,” Thompson says. “Many people don’t notice it, but for those who are paying attention, there’s a moment of wonder.”
Another important public installation is Luftwerk’s inspiring light piece “Cloudlands,” created in the wake of the demolished St. Francis of Assisi Church. Thompson describes the loss as “a punch in the gut. My office is up on the fourth floor of Building 10 and I look right out on the thing and, oh, did that hurt when that church came down. You don’t understand how important those steeples are to the skyline to North Adams and also to the history and the feeling of the place.”
The museum considered ways to recreate the steeples with light or lasers, which led MASS MoCA deputy director Larry Smallwood to suggest Luftwerk. “The first thing that we talked about was light,” says City Council president Benjamin Lamb. “Sound was the second piece that we came up with. And the other thing was integrating the steeples. When you think of that main street of North Adams, the steeples do have this prominent presence.”
Luftwerk, comprised of Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero, proposed using Morse code in the work as a language by which the four church steeples and MASS MoCA’s clock tower could communicate with each other using beacons of light. Then they came upon a description of the North Adams area, often referred to as “Cloudland,” by Henry David Thoreau.
“For the regular viewer, they won’t read the message unless they are really good at reading Morse signaling, which is not too common anymore,” says Bachmaier, “but it gives the piece an underlying association, so when you look up, you see the church towers blinking and flashing in the night sky, and hopefully it inspires people to celebrate the beautiful Thoreau poem [sic] and how he was inspired by the beauty of the nature that is surrounding North Adams.”
Each steeple is connected to a wireless Internet box that controls the timing of the lightshow, which refreshes every half-hour. The lights and mechanism are placed on belts at the top of the steeples to protect the masonry. Thoreau’s excerpt takes about 25 minutes and is shown nightly from dusk to midnight through September 5.
The stone inscription known as “Cloudland” contains excerpts from A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers by Thoreau, written when the author summited and spent a night on Mount Greylock in July 1844:
As the light increased
I discovered around me an ocean of mist,
which by chance reached up to exactly the base of the tower,
and shut out every vestige of the earth,
while I was left floating on this fragment
of the wreck of the world,
on my carved plank, in cloudland;
a situation which required
no aid from the imagination
to render it impressive.
“Sometimes the lights radiate as a chorus in unison, all the church steeples and the MASS MoCA clocktower are blinking in unison, and at other times they talk to one another,” Thompson says. “One blinks a verse or a line to that Henry David Thoreau poem and then another will respond and then they’ll all come in and all blink together. It’s a beautiful symbol for those who know the background story.”
There are plans to widen the map of art in public spaces, which means using the landscape and hardscape in new ways. The museum has opened up its service entrance as part of a new bike trail that runs through campus. The trail continues through a tunnel under Building 6 and, later this summer, will extend across a bridge over the Hoosic River. This will help make the museum campus more porous and part of the city as well as tie together outdoor art already available free to the public, such as Michael Oatman’s “All Utopias Fell” and Franz West’s sculptures, as part of the city’s pedestrian footpath.
Thompson hopes it will be become something akin to a public park and views the new pathway as an elbow connecting two planned bike paths—one to Adams, one to Williamstown.
(Photo left above: Don Gummer's "Primary Separation," which stands in front of North Adams Court House on Marshall Street.)
Public-art interactions in North Adams highlight how a major art institution and the city can transform a landscape and its historic buildings. The city’s economy benefits as well, which is the aim of the North Adams Exchange—a collaborative created last year between the city, businesses, citizens, and the museum—to increase downtown visitation, especially during the summer months. The particular brand of contemporary artwork that North Adams invites makes this latest installation a singularly unique and slightly wacky one that stands out from the rest.
“It’s completely feathered together, this is a 100-percent joint effort. It’s not them doing it and us along for the ride,” Lamb says. “You can tour the art through town. It’s like breadcrumbs along a trail and it leads through the entire city, which I think is a cool piece to this whole image that we’ve developed over time—an artistic infrastructure.”