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Lights, Sound, Action!



Published March 29, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

Go to any art opening and you'll find plenty of viewers chatting about the artwork. But it's not often the art talks back. At Burlington's Firehouse Gallery this month and next, a unique exhibit puts a new spin on "interactive." In fact, in addition to its artistic and technical sophistication, "Another Side of In" is arguably the most fun show the Firehouse has ever hosted.

The exhibit consists of 21 Lexan plastic sculptures -- wall-hung, abstract torso shapes painted with reflective pigment -- and hidden audio elements that respond to movement. The artwork envelops viewers with luxurious layers of sensation -- light, color, suggestive shapes, sound -- and invites you to manipulate it. In fact, you can't not affect this installation as you move around the gallery, and that subtle degree of control is universally appealing. That's why it's just as entertaining to watch other people interact with the sculptures as it is to do so yourself.

Marjorie Minkin's works aren't talking, exactly -- not with words. But approach one of them and it will greet you with a very unusual sound; draw closer and it gets louder. The sounds paired with each of these sculptures were created by Minkin's son Mike Gordon -- yes, that Mike Gordon. The former Phish bassist didn't draw on the late, great band's jams for his part of the collaboration, however. Rather, these sonic components -- which range from soothing drones to percussive riffs to hair-raising screeches -- are motifs extracted from Gordon's 2003 album Inside In, which was in turn adapted from the soundtrack from his 2000 film, Outside Out. Detect a pattern?

Patter is more like it. A playful way with words is just one aspect of Gordon's creativity. Though he's still best known for that long strange swim with Phish, Gordon's multimedia output includes a book of quirky short stories, films, other soundtracks and a couple of albums with guitarist Leo Kottke. "I've always been a project-oriented guy," he says. "I'm a first-born."

This latest project was a long time coming. "We've talked about doing something together for the last 15 years," says Gordon, noting that his mother's artistry has inspired him since he was a child. After writing Inside In, he thought, the time was right. But advances in technology provided a tipping point for this collaboration as well; the complicated armature behind each of Minkin's sculptures includes an mp3 player and an ultrasonic range finder -- that is, says Gordon, a "proximity detector" -- which senses when someone is approaching. New York-based electronics designer Eric Singer, known for his robotics and software for art projects, created this set-up.

Gordon and other flesh-and-blood musicians made the original sounds, of course, but what emanates from Minkin's sculptures is not music, per se. Gordon and his sound engineer Jared Slomoff selected sound samples from Inside In and digitally edited them in repeating patterns that used to be known as "tape loops." Minkin then listened to one sound at a time in her studio as she created her visual art. "These are my personal responses to what I heard," she says.

Though she often listens to music while making art, Minkin says this is the first time she literally tried to interpret sound. Perhaps she was aided by her gift of synesthesia -- "I do visualize colors when I'm hearing sounds," she says. "I also see colors when I hear words, or names. I always assumed everyone did."

Not, unfortunately. But Gordon and Minkin have certainly made sensory cross-pollination accessible to the rest of us with "Another Side of In." The exhibit also represents a happy marriage of art and science, and not only because of the electronics.

Lexan, a "space-age" polycarbonate plastic, has enabled Minkin to "express the ephemeral qualities of light found in the natural world," as her artist's statement puts it. Lightweight, shatterproof and unbreakable, the stuff has many uses in architecture, eyeglasses, bulletproof vests and more -- Minkin notes, "It's everywhere in our lives." In her studio, she heats up sheets of the clear plastic and molds them into shapes that loosely resemble torsos with topographical surfaces. Though the process she's developed is a secret, Minkin reveals that an engineer's heating gun and potholders are involved.

After the plastic has cooled and dried, she paints it with translucent gels and Golden brand "interference paints that refract color as you move around them," Minkin explains. The sculptures at the Firehouse appear to have several layers of the plastic, inexplicably held together, with space in between them. The colors are gorgeous, from deep plum to electric blue-green to creamy white, and are often iridescent or "metallic," like the paint used on cars. The glittering paint and the rippled plastic reflect and refract light, making the sculptures appear to wink, playfully or seductively.

Minkin -- who made backdrops for Phish in the old days -- still makes paintings on canvas as well as giclée prints. But she says working with the plastic is liberating. "I liked that concept of trying to layer, seeing things beneath," she says. She gives her son credit for the additional layers of "Another Side of In" -- the sound and, particularly, the interactivity. "I didn't realize how effective that would be until I saw it," Minkin admits. "Mike also wanted the sound in the piece, not just emanating from speakers somewhere."

Gordon says that the sensors detect movement in a "gradient of proximity," roughly 2 to 5 feet away. Each piece is a little different, contributing to its unpredictability. No one anticipated, though, that the sculptures would begin to hold their own conversations. "They ping against each other," Gordon explains. One night he was walking past the closed gallery and decided to eavesdrop. "I put my ear to the window and heard them cross-talking," Gordon says with a satisfied smile. Even from the outside, apparently, "Another Side of In" has something to say.