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Georgie Friedman: The Journey Up To “Hurricane Lost”

georgie sphere with swirling clouds

An edited and shortened transcription of Virtual Artist Talk with Georgie Friedman; photos provided by Friedman.

Tonight, I want to give a brief overview of some of my past projects, specifically some that have led up to this exhibit (Hurricane Lost). Also, when we did the Virtual Opening video walk-through, a lot of people asked about process, so I’ll cover a fair amount of that as well.

The first piece I’d like to start with is from 2009, Spiraling Water. It’s one of the first material-and-metal pieces that I made. It’s six feet tall at its lowest point and goes up to eight feet tall. As you walk around the form, it changes shape based on your perspective. For this piece, I was thinking about whirlpools, glacial moulins, and things like that. The audio was directed into the center of the spiral so there was a natural audio shift as people moved within it. This was a three-channel, rear projection piece, meaning three projectors were aimed at the piece from outside of it. I really like to make rear projection pieces so when you are inside of the piece you aren’t distracted by your shadow.

After that piece, I kept thinking more about how to surround people with video. In 2010, I made Dark Swell. It’s sixteen feet wide in the front, nine feet tall, eleven feet deep, and it’s only five feet tall in the back, creating a forced perspective. It was a two-channel installation and I created hand-made mirror projection systems so I could bend the video around the piece in a small area. With this one, and most of the ones going forward, I used a fabric that is ten feet wide, so I can avoid having seams in the piece itself. For this piece I created a sixteen-layer audio track. For the video, I actually just filmed the ocean surface but clearly, I upped the color and the contrast. I also really like bending and distorting the imagery, and letting the physics of light bend around the form. That’s why I really like projecting on non-flat, non-rectangular surfaces: I get to see what the light, projection, and video does itself.

As far as content, I was thinking about the psychological aspects of tsunamis, undertows, and the of the power of the ocean. This was an interesting one: some people found it uncomfortable and wanted to get out of it as quickly as possible, while others found it comforting and womb-like, and wanted to stay in longer.

This is Slippery Slope, an architectural projection. Union College invited me to do a site-specific piece, and I really responded to the stairs’ architecture. It seemed like a type of space that most people might ignore, but I liked the shape of it. I researched and found a nature preserve nearby and filmed a waterfall there. I was thinking about people going under the waterfall-stairs, but a fun little surprise happened during installation, and that was seeing people walking on top of it too. For this project, I wanted to relink the architecture back to its natural surroundings and encourage people to think about how we’re in both of these environments, though we often think of them as separate. It’s meant to be seen at night, but I wanted to share the daytime footage just to show you what that would look like too – though, giant glass atriums are kind of the enemy of projection.

This is Contained Lightning (2014), it’s a public art piece that I made for Art on the Marquee. I actually filmed real electrical streams and sparks from the Van de Graaff generator and Tesla coils down at the Science Museum. I took out all the backgrounds, layered them, and programed the base lights so it made it look like they were responding to the electricity. I was thinking about turning the marquee into a giant lightning rod, with the electricity trapped within its borders.

Thinking about storms, and moving on to my work about hurricanes, I really started thinking about hurricanes after Katrina and Rita hit New Orleans. I used to live down there, but left before they hit, however I have a lot of friends and family in and around the gulf coast. I find hurricanes both fascinatingly beautiful and terrifying. For example, Katrina’s eye wall was 10 miles high. To try to help you visualize that, 10 miles from Boston is basically I-495 in most directions. If you think of Boston to any one of those points, that’s how tall the eye wall was, which I think is almost unfathomable. It’s just huge.

As I was thinking about hurricanes, I was doing little sketches to better understand the wind patterns and cloud formations. I didn’t have any plans at the moment for them, they were just sketches. But out of those drawings arose an idea for a new video installation in which I wanted to make a hurricane that was a kinetic sculpture… a hurricane that moved in the wind… it conceptually made sense.

When I was thinking about this, hurricane Sandy was the most recent hurricane to have affected the East Coast. I created simplified drawing of its cloud patterns and had that cut out of a 60” by 90” sheet polycarbonate. The sections pull out like puzzle pieces. I treated the surface so I would be able to project on it and balanced them all. It has a ten-foot spinning diameter and the longest piece is 7’ by 4’. The projection is fast water that I filmed off of the Atlantic shore. I really wanted to reference the interconnectivity of the clouds, the ocean, flooding, and how hurricanes pull their strength from the warm water. In this projection, it’s just straight water footage, I didn’t alter it, whereas in my future hurricane-based pieces, I do. For this one, I was thinking about simplifying the complex wind and cloud formations to theses flattened shapes to create a highly aestheticized version of the hurricane that simultaneously is a separation from, yet recognition of, it’s actual strength and power.

Switching gears a little bit, but still thinking about the power of nature, I received an artist traveling fellowship to Antarctica. In my exhibit Fragments of Antarctica, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, I created a three-channel projection on the 65-foot curved balcony (Edge of the Current: Antarctic Sound). For the projection, it’s water I filmed in the Antarctic Sound, and I wanted to create a one-story-high, sea level water line in the museum. This is another piece that kind of pushes that uncomfortability factor.

The kinetic sculpture installation, I called “Below Churning Ice.” They reference the tops and bottoms of icebergs. They’re all balanced from single points, and I had to figure out all the balance points physically, by hand. With the title, I wanted people to think about themselves in relation to the sculptures and being underneath them. What would it mean to be underneath the icebergs?

Working on these sculptures, reminded me of something one of my undergrad professors said. It was something along the lines of, “You have the work you’re making now, and you know what you’ve made in the past, but sometimes there are things you’re making that don’t make very much sense right now… Instead of discarding them, or telling yourself not to work on it, just see where they go.”

For me, that’s where the balancing and making the kinetic sculptures came from. When I started thinking about mobiles, balancing, and the physics of it all, I was just interested in it and playing around in my studio. I came to really like the idea of working with physics of nature to talk about natural properties. It makes sense – trying to balance it all.

So, what I’d like to share is this idea of giving yourself room in your own art practice, in your own life, to play and experiment, because maybe it will lead to something new… you just don’t know it yet.

Coming back to hurricanes, I started thinking more about the verticalness and the physicalness of them: their eye walls and the eye-wall hot towers. Thinking about the eye, its conical form and the rain bands that circle around it, I made this installation called Eye of the Storm (2015). The eye is a 20-foot diameter at the top down to a 10-foot diameter at the bottom. I made it to be about a one-foot to one-mile scale. From testing in my studio, projecting clouds on the forms didn’t activate it how I wanted; I needed something with more motion to get the feeling I wanted to achieve. This footage is actually water that I’ve added many layers of effects to. I’m not trying to literally create a hurricane – I can’t do that – but I want to create emotional and metaphoric allusions with the visuals.

In 2019, when Leonie first approached me about exhibiting at Emerson, I knew I wanted to create another hurricane installation. One of the hurricanes that stood out to me at the time was Hurricane Lorenzo. Many of you are probably like, “I don’t remember hearing anything about Hurricane Lorenzo.” It’s the largest hurricane to date that’s been east of the 45th meridian west. It came from Africa and headed toward the UK. The hurricane was huge, with immense strength, and broke a ton of hurricane records for that region. Those waters aren’t usually warm enough to give a hurricane strength. Though it’s not one that caused grand devastation, it was really interesting to me because it was a giant storm that was where it wasn’t supposed to be, and I wonder if it’s an indicator of warming oceans or just a fluke.

When I started drafting its shape into the floor plan of the gallery, I was thinking about the eye and the rain bands. I started doing some sketches of different ways it could work in the gallery. I was thinking about various paths, ways of intersecting the architecture, and how people could move within it. I built a scale model to help me think about these spatial relationships. It’s a 1 to 24 scale model. Starting with curving and laying out plain wire, I wanted to visualize how, from a bird’s eye view, the hurricane could cut through the gallery space. Then I added the vertical dimensions for the projection surfaces and had my scale-model people move through the gallery.

I went through many variations, trying different layouts and possible perspectives. I ended up going for a “less is more” approach. Instead of closing in the space with big pieces, I decided that I’d emphasize the length of the space, so that it would feel more spacious and distant. The big window space, above the gallery entrance, is another architectural feature I wanted to take advantage of. I wanted to plan for visual connections in this space at different heights, so this top piece would actually be higher than the spiral-eye, and a background for it at certain angles, but would also visually connect down to the piece near the floor that crosses between the two rooms.

To make this hurricane installation different from Eye of the Storm, and to give myself a new challenge, I wanted the eye to spin. At first, I was thinking of making it tight and interlocking to create an overwhelming feeling. However, there were a couple of practical issues. First, if it’s too tight then you can’t get the angles need for full projection coverage and people can’t navigate it easily. Also, if the center is too small, then people won’t be able to have enough distance to be able to take it in. I’ve found that you need at least five or six feet to be able to perceive something that is somewhat large. I scrapped those designs and started creating more open spirals. My final solution was to simplify it into a spiral and an arc, to still create a continuous feel from certain angles, but allowing much more room for viewers.

Once the designing is done, I have to be able to communicate my metal specifications to the metal smiths. I have to give them information in arc radiuses, arc lengths, and degrees, so while working, I needed to make sure I was creating actual arcs and not just making up irregular curves.

Now we have to talk about balance. The eye is made of two different pieces that are totally different shapes, sizes, and heights. This means that it’s natural balance point would be off-center. What was funny, is my spiral model kept knocking down my little dude when it spun, so I realized that I would have to disregard its true balance point, and balance it from the center and use counterweights. It will still feel like it’s spiraling into itself, but there’d be a safe six-foot center in the middle.

To get the spiral to hang, and stay in its correct spatial layout, I had to think about different frame shapes that could accommodate each piece’s balance points and support their weight: shapes like crossed squares, circles, octagons. I deiced on a hexagon because it provided the most connection points for the sculptures, with the least amount of metal, to help decrease the overall weight. I designed it with tension wires coming in from the sides, to keep the sides up, and help distribute the weight from the center.

This is a quick projection test on my model from May of 2020 – so about nine months ago. I like to project on the models to test ideas, and it was also to help Leonie, the curator, get a sense of what I was proposing. The forms and the layout have changed a lot since then, but considering that this was a little model that I did a while ago, I think it looks pretty close to the final!

Come visit “Georgie Friedman: Hurricane Lost” in the Emerson Contemporary Media Art Gallery until April 4, 2021.