A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall: An Intersection of Art and Science
April 21 through June 15, 2023
Curated by Lara Pan
By BRADLEY WESTER, May 2023
Some big art ideas are currently on view in the small town of Jamestown on Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay, just a suspension span away from Newport on Aquidneck Island. They are the largest of thirty-plus islands that form the archipelago that makes up 40% of the smallest state in the U.S.
The Jamestown Arts Center has become one of Rhode Island’s premier art spaces, acting more and more like a kunsthalle, bringing in international curators and artists to mount challenging vanguard exhibitions—not what one might expect from a modest multidisciplinary community membership arts facility in a beautifully renovated 5000-square-foot boat repair shop. This depth of artistic engagement is due in no small part to Karen Conway, Exhibitions Director, and the exhibitions committee.
This time, international curator, writer, and researcher Lara Pan is at the helm with her A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall exhibition, an “intersection of art and science,” which includes eleven artists from nine countries, with one living in Rhode Island.
Pan’s research focuses on different aspects of art, science, and technology. From her exhibition notes: “Artists in this project are exploring various realms related to ecological disaster—the loss of known life forms, the progress of AI, global pandemic, and survival after ecological catastrophe—in a singular way that uses science to create art and art to explain science.”
The title, taken from the 1962 anthem of the same name by Bob Dylan, performed only a few miles away in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival, suggests that we, the viewer, are to be roused. It’s easy to replace Dylan’s Cold War, mid-Vietnam War, and Cuban Missile Crisis dystopia for our present-day military conflicts, late-stage climate crisis, and unprecedented technological advancements that promise our salvation or rapid annihilation.
Structured like a medieval question-and-answer refrain ballad, Dylan, the songwriter-as-parent, asks his returning world-weary “blue-eyed son” a different question in each of five verses: Where have you been? What did you see? What did you hear? What/who did you meet? And what will you do now? The terrible beauty in the child’s poetic and symbolist answers describes the abject, violent, and ruined world he’s inherited.
But it is the last question in the Dylan song that resonates and is perhaps the question Lara Pan’s curatorial project asks of us:
“And what will you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what will you do now, my darling young one?”
The last lines of the boy’s answer:
“I’m a-going back out’ fore the rain starts a-falling
And I’ll tell it, and speak it, and think it, and breathe it
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it
In the exhibition, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, eleven prodigal sons and daughters are returning from their parts of the world. And each is ’telling it, speaking it, breathing it, and reflecting it from the mountain so all souls can see!’ So the question now is, are we souls listening? Are we seeing?
The Jamestown Arts Center’s immense, primary boat-hanger space is darkened to accommodate wall monitors and projections, as six of the nine artists use video/digital technology as their medium. The non-video art objects here, if not self-illuminated, are dimly lit. This, with the scale of the room, its high ceilings, and a substantial central projection by Matthew Emmett, who visually explores the intersection of mass production, food-born contagion, and epidemics, creates an ominous atmosphere that is almost church-like. The exhibition extends to the art center’s smaller interior spaces, exterior mural wall (Vargas-Suarez Universal), and sculpture platform (Anne Katrine Senstad).
But the works in this show only hint at the diversity of these artists’ practices. Their resumes read like members of a United Nations conference on multilateral, global solutions. Precisely the kind of world-making these artists participate in. They are visual artists, but some also go by the name architect, philosopher, composer, designer, mathematician, biologist, physicist, community activist, ritual magician, and educator.
Lara Pan has described her curatorial practice as collaborative. She likes an element of surprise. In this case, two of the artists created works exclusively for this exhibition in Jamestown. The approach generates a freshness, as though the exhibit is a living organism, the whole larger than the sum of its parts.
Bradley Wester (BW): I imagine some curators have a thesis and then look for artists to illustrate that thesis. Your process seems to be more organic and dynamic than that. How can you trust an artist to make work specifically for an exhibition, for example, without knowing how the piece will fit into your larger picture? Can you expand on this collaborative way of working?
Lara Pan (LP): I believe that the idea of the exhibition partially started when I saw the work and the research of two dear artist friends Oswaldo Macia (who unfortunately couldn’t be a part of the exhibition because of his busy schedule, but had the generosity to share some of his research that was very inspiring) and Saša Spačal, whose work I have followed for several years and I am a big fan of her art methods and research. So it was not left to chance because I do have a varied history with these artists. Also, I was aware of other artists’ works in the exhibition, but I really enjoyed a collaborative aspect that was more experimental with Mathew Emmett and Rafael Attias.
BW: In the last year or more, humans’ relation to technology, specifically the advancements in Artificial Intelligence, seems to be teetering on a precipice. There is hope it might help us solve the problems of our time—climate change, the energy crisis, conflicts, disease, and extinctions—all subjects of your exhibition. And yet there is fear that AI will hasten our demise faster than any previously mentioned. On the title wall of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, we are greeted with a video piece by Carla Gannis, herself on the cutting edge of AI and VR (Virtual Reality) for some time. Am I right to describe her work as both foreboding and hopeful? The humor helps.
LP: Carla Gannis is an extraordinary trans-media artist, educator, and thinker, but before all this, she was one of the first people I met when I moved to New York—an old friend. I am always excited to see how she plays with new technologies, referencing art history, and implementing conceptual elements that have humor, a feminist approach, and storytelling. I love her encrypted sense of humor with a prophetic aspect implied. And yes, there is sometimes overlapping imagery with Hito Steyerl and her dystopian universe, especially in the piece you mention, “Until The End of the Universe.”
BW: There is a tension of scale throughout the exhibit. I don’t mean the size of the works themselves or the square feet of the gallery, but rather the breadth of concerns from rising tides to nuclear disaster to post-human interspecies collaboration. And then there is the formal micro-macro spatiality, from human cellular and atomic space to the actual and metaphorical vastness of far-off galaxies. How do you explain art’s ability to travel these distances?
LP: Interesting how you talk about space… it makes me think of time travel. I like to think certain artworks produce an energy that can blur the notion of time. For example, a work made today can be relevant to the future as much as it lives in the present. As you mentioned, I do consider this exhibition a living organism, with individual works creating their own ecosystem both in terms of formal and conceptual space.
BW: Despite the heady global issues this exhibition covers, I am initially attracted to each work because it is visually and formally arresting. From this entry point, I’m allowed to dive deeper into the layered meanings of each piece or go further still and investigate each artist’s practice. Often political work can have the opposite effect, making the viewer feel alienated and/or dependent on a lengthy wall text. Can you expand on how your artists avoid this trap and operate with such openness in a world that most certainly calls for urgent action?
LP: I understand your question—some artists and curators can easily fall into that trap. I would maybe replace the word openness with “ambiguity.” Maybe the ambiguity comes from each of their interdisciplinary research. Most of the artists are practicing in various scientific and technological areas at once. Moreover, I select works that can stand on their own both visually and conceptually. I firmly believe art doesn’t need to be over-explained.
BW: It is notable the range of research and interests explored by your artists: Carla Gannis, who we talked about above, Saša Spačal, a post-media artist working at the intersection of living systems research and sound art; Hana Usui with her Fukushima series about the catastrophic tsunami and triple nuclear plant meltdown; Vargas-Suarez Universal, whose work is inspired by aerospace architecture with interest in the multifarious and nefarious use of satellite surveillance technologies; Otavio Schipper, who deals with the perception of time and the cultural memory in his exquisite micro-macro video Golem; Anita Glesta, whose videos and plexi-prints are from her larger public social engagement works that confront our physical bodies with the rising tides; David Nez who works more traditionally on paper and canvas to investigate the notion of progress and the longing for a future that may never occur; Rafael Attias who taught an interdisciplinary class at RISD called “Data Narratives” and whose video was made especially for this exhibit and appears to be in deep conversation with Matthew Emmett’s central large projected video; Anne Katrine Senstad’s unique application of color and light, held in an acrylic tower called Babel that reflects in on itself like the kaleidoscope of humankind; and Olivier Perriquet, another researcher of artificial intelligence, converges his science and math backgrounds and experimental filmmaking with his affecting floor video of the tracking of whales in a basin in Canada.
I’m fascinated by how you encountered this diverse work by artists from places as far-flung as Rhode Island to Japan, Norway to Slovenia, Oregon to Brazil. How do you encounter working artists so varied, and what triggers the desire to work together? Notably, these are mature artists, well established in their work with experience that shows. This is not a show about discovering the latest ‘hot young things.’ But surely you have young emerging artists on your radar, yes?
LP: Thank you for your nice words. I can say I follow everything including the hot young things! I am very selective in my choices of hot young things, and I do follow and work sometimes with very young artists. I would even love to mention a few whom I really love what they do and some of them I met before they graduated, and they now have exemplary careers. One of them is Tyler Ballon, who I met when he was 20 years old. I recently met another very young talented artist to watch in France, Leonard Martin and I should say that I am an admirer of the work of Chino Amobi, Emily Ludwig Shaffer, and Sally J. Han whom I discovered in a Newport exhibition. To answer your question backwards, what triggers the desire to work with an artist could be the similarities of our ideas or complete opposition in approach or philosophies. I think I enjoy being stubborn and challenging myself to work with more complex personalities.
BW: So, Lara, what’s next?
LP: Next is a dream collaboration with an American avant-garde artist/writer/performer, Constance DeJong. It’s a shared project with my dear colleague, a fantastic curator and writer, Dr. Karen Di Franco at Chelsea Space in London. The date is not fixed yet, sometime this coming Fall. WM
Bradley Wester (New York/Rhode Island) is a visual artist and writer. His work has been exhibited extensively in New York and other parts of the U.S. and Europe. Wester is a contributing writer for Filthy Dreams. His story “Brothers Katrina,” won the 2016 Fresher Writing Prize (UK) for Creative Nonfiction.view all articles from this author