Dec. 11 2013 02:14 PM

San Diego art collective's participatory works creatively engage the public


Amid all the hubbub on opening night of La Jolla Playhouse's provocative WithOut Walls Festival in October, Collective Magpie quietly captivated an audience by constructing a sculptural wall composed of hundreds of handmade geometric paper birds, many created onsite by festivalgoers. 

"What was really fascinating about this project was how interested people were in doing everything and participating in every part of the process," says Collective Magpie's MR Barnadas. "It took about 15 minutes to put together just one bird and there was a lot of competition that night, so we were surprised by how many people were interested."

Barnadas and Tae Hwang consider themselves just two-thirds of Collective Magpie. The last third of the collaborative-art project is the participant. Not only do the artists operate in the realm of site-specific work; their projects are all audience-specific, too—carefully planned, orchestrated and executed with participants in mind.

Collective Magpie's first-ever project involving audience participation was in 2008 at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The duo created a 40-by-6-foot "Giant Paint by Numbers" mural and asked the footwear museum's guests to follow the directions and finish the piece. In just one night, more than 20,000 people helped paint the mural. The overwhelmingly positive response hooked them on the emerging genre of participatory art.

"The thing is, with all the projects we do, there's no policing," Barnadas says, her enthusiasm for the project so intense that she doesn't notice that the sleeve of the sweater on the back of her chair has fallen into the orange glow of the nearby space heater.

"We do give them the basic infrastructure," Hwang adds, swiftly sweeping the sleeve out of harm's way.

"And it's always fascinating to see what people do and how they respond to things," Barandas finishes, laughing as she thanks Hwang for saving her sweater.

Nearly 18 years ago, Barnadas and Hwang submitted a strange job application to the Chicago art school they were attending, suggesting they both be hired as director of student galleries and split the salary. The school hired the duo, and the experience launched their unique collaboration. Currently, they're the only two people ever to be accepted into UCSD's MFA program as a collective rather than an individual.

"It's a tricky thing because the university has its protocol for authorship and individual accountability for grades and academic progress," Barnadas says. "So, it's been a continuous challenge to not sacrifice the fact that we absolutely share authorship."

The aesthetic of Collective Magpie's work is ethereal and ephemeral, their pieces purposefully made delicate because of the temporary and mobile nature of their art. They're interested in traveling to myriad places and putting themselves in front of diverse crowds, briefly interjecting their interactive work into a space then moving on to a new and different set of circumstances.

Tae Hwang (left) and MR Barnadas, the duo behind 
Collective Magpie

The nomadic art collective's projects have taken them to places like Arcosanti, the famed experimental community in Arizona, where they worked with the so-called Arconauts to construct a temporary monument made of balloons, plastic and LEDs. In 2009, they traveled to Tucson, Ariz., for the city's popular All Souls Procession parade and festival, where they collaborated with architects and a pyrotechnic circus on a piece that involved a large-scale chrysalis-shaped weather-balloon-and-paper sculpture stuffed with hundreds of handmade paper kites (many constructed at public workshops in Tucson). The sculpture was hoisted 200 feet into the air, where aerialists did a performance that ended in the eventual rupture of the structure and release of the kites.

A recurring theme in Collective Magpie's work is their determination to use everyday materials such as paper, balloons or repurposed plastics, no matter how large or complicated the resulting structure.

"The work we do exists in everyday; it's not only in galleries or museums," explains Hwang.

"So, if we're asking people to participate and make and build things, it's important that they feel comfortable with the material they're working with," Barnadas adds.

Collective Magpie's body of work is further defined by the forms they construct, which are often inspired by shapes, structures and even mathematical equations found in natural systems. They do a series of recurring urban interventions, for example, that involve building sculptures mimicking nucleation, the process by which crystals are formed. The sculptures, made of drinking straws and strings and built with help from invited participants, have been installed in the streets of San Diego and Tijuana.

"I think their work raises interesting questions across the fields of participatory-art practices and both scientific and artistic conventions of representation," says David White, the curator and owner of the experimental Agitprop gallery, which has hosted workshops and exhibitions by Collective Magpie.

There are artists who borrow from the science world and, likewise, scientists who borrow from the art world, both with the hope of making art and science more accessible, White explains. Collective Magpie, he says, better achieves that goal by inviting hands-on participation.

In August, Collective Magpie traveled to the Chicago wedding of a couple who'd invited them to create a work of art with guests' help. They constructed a large dome from hundreds of folded index cards and asked the nearly 300 guests for their definitions of a wedding and marriage.

Collective Magpie's "Migration: After Flight" 
installation at the WithOut Walls Festival
Photo by Lyndsay Bloom

The duo will repurpose the dome and use what they learned from attendees for "The Labor of Love," an immersive installation that opens at A Ship in the Woods (1660 Lugano Lane, just east of Solana Beach) from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13. The show is part of HELM, a series of exhibitions curated by art historian Lara Bullock. The series will feature various artists and run through the end of February, just a month before A Ship in the Woods is scheduled to be demolished.

The venue—a house in an affluent neighborhood—provides the perfect context for the piece, which follows the movement of a married couple from wedding to home. Attendees will navigate through the installation and be asked to think about the index cards as all the little bits and pieces that merge when two people enter into marriage.

"We wanted to take the notions around weddings and marriage and translate it into something you can touch and feel," explains Barnadas.

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