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In the once empty halls and parlors of the old Morton House, a village is growing. A community of artists are crafting their installations inside the stripped down spaces, even as Rockford Construction continues redevelopment work on the upper floors. Layers of a thriving history have been peeled away from the basement, rooms of the old hotel and bank, and artists from around the world are adding their own new layers in preparation for ArtPrize.
A perennial favorite for both jurors and popular audiences, SiTE:LAB has found perhaps its best home yet in the old Morton, fittingly donated as a venue by Rockford Construction, which has worked ArtPrize into the building’s busy redevelopment schedule. Soon to join downtown’s growing community as mixed-use housing and retail space, The Morton is suspended in transition. The basement, first and second floors of the historic building have been stripped by Rockford’s initial demolition work, leaving raw, one-of-a-kind spaces for SiTE:LAB’s artists to fill with their own visions. The carefully curated selection encompasses artists from around the world, showcasing the kind of unique installations audiences have come to expect from SiTE:LAB. From kinesthetic works with audio, video and light to salvaged prehistoric animals, this year’s SiTE:LAB does not disappoint.
Due to the building’s accessibility challenges, numbered wayfinding signage will guide visitors through the venue’s basement, first and second floors. The SiTE:LAB lounge, past the foyer on the main floor, will display video previews of installations on upper floors, which aren’t accessible by elevator. This space will also host special events throughout ArtPrize season.
In the main entrance foyer, Brooklyn artist Julie Schenkelberg is still busy working on what is likely to become one of the season’s main attractions. Shortlisted last year for the juried 3D category, Schenkelberg has been crafting her multi-media, 3D installation inside the foyer for over a month now. All the materials in her piece, ranging from discarded doors to stacks of chipped formal dinnerware, have been sourced locally. Many materials came from Rockford’s demolition work on The Morton itself, including an antique grand piano found abandoned on one of the floors above.
“Some artists come in and set up all in one 18 hour session,” says SiTE:LAB event coordinator Michael Peoples. “[but] Julie lives with her piece.”
Soft spoken and unassuming, in stark contrast to the dramatic, sprawling work she’s crafted to take over the entire foyer, Schenkelberg regards her installation, titled “Symptomatic Constant,” as an organic work.
“It’s about domestic distress, and industrial structures,” she explains. “It alludes to shipwreck. It even has a sail we found on the beach in Muskegon.”
Past the foyer, returning SiTE:LAB artist group Dance in the Annex (DITA) will be showcasing their choreography in the SiTE:LAB lounge through video projected onto two adjacent walls and the domed ceiling above it. Their work, which was choreographed for and filmed inside The Morton, will be accompanied by two live performances, one during the ArtPrize 2014 Opening Event & Rapidian Fundraiser on September 23, and another on September 26.
In the basement, the combination of an audio installation crafted from boom boxes and a fully functional skate park will immerse audiences in a multi-sensory experience. Artist Christopher Fachini will be live DJing his work, “Chung King House of Metal,” during peak visiting hours, and SiTE:LAB + Premiere Skate Park, a collaboration between the two organizations, will be highlighting their underground skatepark with video and light. Live demos will be performed periodically throughout ArtPrize. The park will not be open to public use.
The basement vault - perhaps the most dramatic of The Morton’s spaces - will be home to an installation by Berlin artist Lisa Mueller. Her work, “Crossed Situation,” is a time-based work in the strongest way. Mueller will be interacting with the building and visitors through storytelling, movements and encounters, recording these interactions in photo and video, and compiling additional footage to the video which will play in the vault. A progressive installation, the video will grow in length as the ArtPrize season progresses.
Tucked away in the basement’s far corner, another Brooklyn artist, Katie Bell, is working on a salvaged material multi-media installation titled “Hold Still.” Inspired by abstract painting, Bell’s work is both spontaneous and meditated, and without doubt a labor of love. Her parents, Kurt and Sarah Bell, a construction contractor and interior designer respectively, have been helping Katie Bell source salvaged materials for her installation for four months. They’re on site with her as well, helping her to assemble the work.
In her view, Katie Bell is in exactly the right time at the right place.
“I look at this building, and it’s like, the piece is done already. It’s so romantic. So much history has happened here, and now we’re here, creating things, and then we’ll be gone in a month," she says. "It’s a hundred years of layers of moments of life that have happened here, and we’re caught in this one unique moment. It’s just like the title of my piece - it’s like we’re frozen in flight.”
Working alongside the other artists in The Morton’s transitional space has been a one-of-a-kind experience, Bell notes. As they were sharing tools and tips of the trade, she and Schenkelberg discovered their Brooklyn studios are within a few hundred feet of one another.
“But we never met until this week,” she says. “It’s crazy. It sounds cheesy, but it’s just…serendipitous.”
The space is without a doubt the perfect fit for Bell, and the other SiTE:LAB artists, but it’s about more than just the authenticity of the raw space.
“What I love about projects like this is that you always come away with a new community of friends,” says Bell. “To work in a space like this, next to so many great artists, it encourages collaboration. Swapping tools, giving feedback - it becomes like a village. It’s a very unique experience.”
On the first floor, salvage artist Scott Hocking is preparing a prehistoric installations of mythical proportions. Huge figurines, materials and props from defunct amusement parks comprise Scott’s media, giving the room an eerie sense of time distortion.
A host of other artists continue crafting their installations on the first and second floors, ranging from the complex to the outright bizarre. A pair of sister athletes from Miami sculpt a performance-based work in the old Morton Hotel’s Florentine room, or “ladies’ parlor.” Roller skates are likely to make an appearance in their work, but the exact nature of it will remain a surprise until ArtPrize opens. Another group, called Present Company, is creating a line drawing in space made from bungee cords.
“We definitely work to identify types of art that wouldn’t get to be a part of ArtPrize otherwise,” says Tom Clinton, SiTE:LAB co-founder and Executive Director of the Community Media Center. “Larger installations, site-specific pieces which must be crafted in to the building itself [are] works which present operational obstacles [that] typically don’t get a shot at most of the other popular venues. SiTE:LAB removes these obstacles by choosing transient venues, like this one. We offer an alternative for artists whose work just won’t fit in the standard white box space. We curate artists who want to respond to a specific location. Rockford Construction’s willingness to let us experiment in this space has been a huge boon, and it’s been a pleasure working with them.”
The Morton, by all accounts, is a location SiTE:LAB artists have responded to eagerly.
“Creating is something you pass on to other people,” says Katie Bell of her work in The Morton. “It takes a village to build something really important, and we have this chance - this one short moment in time - to do it.”
See these works, including live performances by DITA and other artists, at the ArtPrize Opening Event this Tuesday, September 23, and throughout the ArtPrize season.
Poet, nerd, chronic creative, boomerang West Michigander and communications consultant. An adjunct @ KCAD, Marjorie smokes after yoga and spends too much money at Martha's Vineyard and the farmer's market. When not buried in projects (which isn't often enough), Marjorie publishes on Medium and Tumblr.
Reports on: business, art, food, feminism, development, social justice