Julia Christensen: Waiting for a Break at SPACES & Public Square
Julia Christensen’s latest art project “Waiting for a Break”, like much of her work, is dependent on technology. The crux of this interdisciplinary piece is live video feeds of views of Lake Erie, strategically set at different points along the shores of our Great Lake, giving the viewer a real-time look at the current state of the ice cover. The project aims to increase attention to the health of the lake, climatologically, and hopefully also spurring public action to protect this increasingly threatened resource. The title, “Waiting for a Break” refers to the moment when the ice finally breaks in the spring – which will presumably be captured in all its dramatic glory by these cameras. I had a chance to preview the piece with the Oberlin-based artist back in December for the most recent print version of CAN – at that point she had not completely envisioned what the gallery component of the exhibit (or her Public Square installation) would entail, so I was excited to see the completed project.
For SPACES, Christensen’s work fills the entire rear gallery. It includes a set of 8 framed photographs, a small ‘research station’ desk – complete with books, maps, and a computer monitor, as well as several projected videos on the opposite walls. As you enter, you first encounter the photographs (8 screen-shots of the feeds), but I am immediately drawn across the darkened room to the video projections. What I assumed at first to be the different feeds projected real-time on the walls, was clearly not – as many of the views were at night-time. A bit confused at first, I had to look at the accompanying brochure to determine that these were actually time-lapsed views of the feeds, showing compressed video over different lengths of time: 24-hour footage over nine days, three weeks, and seven days. I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed – I had hoped to be able to sit inside a dark room and watch the ice slowly move, or maybe a bird pass by. I found the time-lapse footage to be a bit disorienting – and while I understand the desire to show the changes over time, the effect is not altogether successful. Perhaps at the end of the project, a time-lapse video could better illustrate the dramatic change from winter to spring.
It was then that I realized the real-time feeds were only being shown on the computer monitor on the desk in the room. This single monitor switches between the six networked surveillance cameras – and as the only place in the room to watch them, I stood there for awhile to see the current state of the ice. None of the six cameras are actually in the Cleveland area, but are rather on the Erie Islands and in Northwest Ohio – giving the viewer the ability to see what’s happening over a hundred miles away.
As I perused the detailed maps on the wall, I was hoping to see the locations of the cameras marked – it seems that maybe one was (see above), but it wasn’t clear.
The books on the table vary from a children’s book about the Great Lakes to “The Women’s Great Lakes Reader”.
But my favorite is a book that Christensen showed me in her Oberlin studio back in December – “The Ice of Lake Erie Around South Bass Island 1936-1964”. This delightful book recounts daily observations of the ice by two scientists ensconced on South Bass Island over fifty years ago.
Here is a typical page (above) – each entry includes a few sentences about the state of the ice that day, described with charming conciseness. As you can see, on March 30th, 1944 there was no visible ice and boats were moving freely. This is about as analog as observations of ice can get – and yet, even without illustrations, I find it so compelling.
What I don’t find compelling is seeing something like this screen (above). In cooperation with LAND Studios, Christensen installed a screen on Public Square (in the Southwest quadrant, not far from the entrance to Terminal Tower) – in hopes that passers-by watch the real-time video feeds of the lake, and maybe even look forward to seeing how different it looks each day as spring approaches. But as I walked up to the screen, even from pretty far away I could see it wasn’t working – that pervasive image of a desktop is immediately recognizable.
I completely understand that dealing with technology can be difficult and unpredictable – I can only imagine how difficult. And while I was disappointed to see a broken screen, I was quickly humbled as I sat on a nearby bench and accessed the Waiting for a Break Website. Almost instantly I am looking at real-time views from a camera at South Bass Island – nearly 90 miles away – right there on my phone. So maybe I prefer the detailed descriptions in that old book, but as I sat marveling at the technology that made this moment possible, I was delighted to see a bird flying by Perry Monument’s on Put-In-Bay. I will definitely be checking the feeds regularly, because like Christensen, I too am waiting for that break.
Waiting for a Break will be on view at SPACES through March 23, 2018. For more info, click here.