Over the next four months the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive is the site of a grand experiment optimistically titled The Possible. Rather than showcasing finished objects and artifacts, the building is hosting a series of interdisciplinary encounters involving nearly 100 artists and museumgoers organized by Oakland illustrator and renegade impresario David Wilson.
Built around interactive Sunday workshops featuring a dye lab, print shop, ceramics studio, and recording facility, The Possible sprawls through five galleries and, weather permitting, the museum’s sculpture garden, turning the institution into a beehive of activity that runs through May 25. Families are encouraged to attend the Kids Club gallery, which is designed to involve children in the creative process.
In preparing for the building’s closure at the end of the year, BAM seems to be stretching conventional notions of what an art museum is beyond recognition. As works are completed they’ll end up as part of The Possible’s installation.
“It is the antithesis of a typical museum, with different things happening every day, even every minute,” says BAM/PFA Director Lawrence Rinder. “It’s a wonderful challenge to this institution and how we do things on every level, even how we say what The Possible is. It’s only been up a week now and goodness know how the next four months will unfold. We’ll learn a lot about what’s possible and what’s not possible for a museum to do.”
This Sunday’s workshop, which runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., gives a good sense of what The Possible involves. The public can join in braiding additional rings on artist Fritz Haeg’s already expansive rug, work with clay in the ceramics studio, or join a song session led by Berkeley Carnatic vocalist Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, the founder of the Sangati Center (which presents regular South Indian classical recitals at the Subterranean Art House downtown).
“Each Sunday there’s a different combination of offerings,” says Wilson, who’s been convening interdisciplinary gatherings at outdoor locales since he settled in Oakland a decade ago. “This Sunday we’re lucky to have first in a series of song sessions, what Gautam is calling Bhajana, an informal Carnatic gathering and exchange of music. That will set a wonderful tone for the day, starting at 11 a.m. on the giant rug that Fritz has installed. It’s now 28 feet in diameter, and ever expanding, giving the gallery an intimate living room feel.”
Ganeshan and Wilson have worked together in numerous settings over the past few years, but never under the auspices of an institution. Their first collaboration came to an abrupt conclusion when the police arrived to break up an off-the-grid multimedia gathering in the Marin Headlands. An inauspicious start, perhaps, but Wilson’s gift for bringing together disparate creative figures has dovetailed beautifully with Ganeshan commitment to bringing Carnatic music to new audiences.
“Gautam and his group of musicians offered an incredible presence for that Headlands event,” Wilson recalls. “It was broken up by the police, but this very gentle renegade performance turned into a house concert. Having that kind of adventure right off the bat we developed a tight bond, and I’ve invited him to each project since then, and it always works out.”
Deepa Natarajan, the UC Botanical Garden’s public education program coordinator (who happens to be Ganeshan’s wife) is also involved in The Possible through her work at Fibershed, which is supplying California-grown indigo for the textile lab’s dye station. Founded by Rebecca Burgess, who’s also deeply involved in The Possible, Fibershed supports the development of local, sustainable textile culture. Other artists and artisans participating in the project include Jana Blankenship, Sarah Cahill, Anna Halprin, Alexander Kori Girard, Meara O’Reilly, Brion Nuda Rosch, Rowena Sartin, Amy Trachtenberg, and Yoshiko Wada, with new participants added throughout the exhibition.
“Part of David’s art practice has been convening groups of creative people–musicians, designers, painters, dancers—at gatherings that often happen at natural sites like Angel Island or the Headlands,” says Rinder, who started talking with Wilson about curating a project at the Museum about two years ago. “I’ve attended several of his events and been very inspired by his ability to get some of the most creative people around to engage in very genuine way, to coordinate very complex events in a seemingly effortless way, so that artists do their best work in a stress free way.”
While it might sound like the museum staff is turning over the premises to the artists, part of The Possible involves selecting objects created in the workshops for display. Gallery 3 features a display case built by Kori Girard that “although empty is a beautiful thing itself,” Rinder says. “It’s not just an empty display, it’s sculptural, so there’s no before and after. We’re always in the creative space if we choose to see it that way. That blank space is itself a beautiful thing.”
Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express. He lives in West Berkeley.
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