Mar 20, 2019

Spaceness is an art festival that solicits work based around the theme of time, space, and the unknown. It was founded in 2015 by Portland artists Alison Jean Cole and Julia Barbee, and takes place every year in the dark, drizzly days of late winter at the Sou’Wester, a criminally charming lodge and vintage camper resort on the Washington coast. We’ve been heading out to Seaview for the occasion for the past few years, and sat down after this year’s festival with Cole and artists Katie Bernstein and John Gnorski to talk Spacenesses past, present, and future.

SCR: Tell me a little bit about how Spaceness got started.

AJC: In 2014, Julia Barbee and I were making a time travel suit for an art show in Berlin that we were not invited to be part of. Our idea was that, to preserve a human body for deep space travel, you would want to put the person in a diabetic coma by filling their whole body with sugar, and that a sugar suit would protect their body during a deep freeze, so that they could travel for a long time. This was all based on the way that frogs protect themselves from freezing in the winter. It got us talking about bad scientific ideas and the “spaceness” of things -- like, it’s not accurate, but it’s fun to not have to be right. Julia had been talking to Thandi at the Sou’Wester about starting some kind of art festival, and we thought the Spaceness theme would be fun, because it doesn’t matter who you are on Earth -- time, space, and the unknown are all universally experienced, questioned, and plundered. Thandi said we could only do it at a bad time of year when she didn’t have anything else going on, which is how we ended up holding the festival in late February.

KB: And it’s become this really wonderful transition into spring. You look forward to it all winter, and if you’re an artist, it gives you a project to work toward. It’s a big, beautiful, cosmic festival that leads you into spring. Something to look forward to on one of the worst weekends, weather-wise, of the year. In the dark days.

SCR: This is the fifth year of Spaceness. What have you been able to accomplish? What have you seen grow and change over the course of producing the festival?

AJC: There’s something a little bit utopian about Spaceness. And that’s not a word I’ve ever used to describe it, but I just see a lot of utopian behaviors from the people at the festival. There’s a lot of sharing, there’s a lot of openness. It’s just very lovely when you allow people to stop living in capitalism or in white box art experiences. It’s liberating. The coolest thing about Spaceness’s growth is that a lot of artists return each year, and they’ve been able to develop their projects from a very rough idea into a really serious body of work.


SCR: John and Katie, what has Spaceness meant for you as artists?

KB: It gave us this constraint to think about a conceptual project, which was just “the unknown,” and mythologies and creating mythologies. Our first year, Earth Babies were born.

JG: It started as a purely music-based, performance project. We had just stopped playing in our old band, we were looking for a collaborative project that we could do just the two of us, and we were inspired to do something that could be relevant to Spaceness and also live outside the world of the festival.

KB: We also wanted to do something very different from our other musical project -- that allowed for more exploration and imagination, that wasn’t so serious and emotional, personal. We wrote songs (for Earth Babies) through the lens of other people, and it was really freeing for us to live in and create music for this whole other world.

JG: The second year we made the Healing Machine, which was a kinetic sound sculpture that we built in the woods -- which was personally liberating because people actually got to engage with in a really enjoyable way. One of the great things about Spaceness is that it’s not a formal, gallery-like setting, and people treat the work in a more open manner than they do in a white cube. You’re in this unique and interesting zone, and the area is kind of surreal on its own, and all disbelief is suspended and people are ready to experience some weirdness.

KB: There’s a lot of room for not knowing. In a gallery space, people are trying to understand things, but Spaceness is this embrace of the unknown. The Healing Machine had a lot of chimes and bells, and all these natural elements, and you’d walk by and hear people interacting with it. It was a personal sanctuary that people could experience on their own. There was a space for people to write their wishes for healing for themselves or for the universe, which was really touching in a way that I didn’t expect. This sort of world-building within certain limitations allows for so many directions to explore.

JG: Each year we expand, and we gain more knowledge and try to transmit and present it. This year was going deep into Henrietta Hopler, who was a researcher, the only person we know of who has done any serious research into Earth Babies. And this is a continuous project -- this was conceived as the initial prototype of the archive.

KB: Yeah, we’re hoping to expand it and build it into a mobile museum.

JG: Basically, we have Spaceness to credit for a future lifetime of work.

SCR: Something else I noticed was that the work is highly produced but not super precious -- a lot of the work is interactive, it’s meant to be handled, and not necessarily in a delicate way. Like Lisa Ward’s payphone project, or even the Hopler archive, which certainly has delicate elements but is constructed like a sturdy National Park exhibit.

JG: It’s basically a two-and-a-half day event, and people put a lot of effort and thought and love into the work, but everything is kind of lo-fi because of the natural constraints of the whole situation. It’s is part of the magic, because people’s interactions lead pieces. All the materials are kind of inert, and we build things as best we can, and then people bring so much energy to them to activate them.

AJC: The constraints of the festival definitely have an impact on the art that comes, but everything is good and sturdy, and we talk very often and very clearly with the artists about the elements, and we talk about wind, and mud, and cold, and wet. Having artists think about being somewhat miserable yields a much better product, because the art can survive almost anything.

KB: It’s really cool to see what people will do with this open-ended idea. Anke Schüttler did this emotionally heart-wrenching piece where folks were given recordings of notes to sing, and head-lamps, and it was all sort of choreographed, but it was based on her dead father’s medical charts, which she had transcribed into musical notes. It was incredibly beautiful and touching, and I think even she was surprised at how moving it was. So there are a lot of magical moments like that that aren’t necessarily attached to any kind of sci-fi culture, but definitely related to the unknown.

AJC: Sarah Brahim’s performance last year about her place in American culture, identifying with her birth culture and trying to make sense of what space she’s supposed to fill, especially after the election… There are some other, more serious pieces that come to Spaceness as well. And some of them are lovely, and some of them are downright upsetting.

SCR: What’s next for Spaceness?

AJC: The Sou’Wester is going to take over the administration of it. Thandi really wants Spaceness to keep going, and I’ve offered my assistance to keep running the artist part of it. I personally want to work on projects closer to home, within Portland.

KB: There’s a lot of work going on in Portland -- bringing work outside of the museum, outside of the gallery. All ages, free art that’s more accessible. It’s really important to us that all Earth Babies performances be all ages and free, which has always been one of the best things about Spaceness.

JG: As an artist that’s applied for residencies and grants, dipped a toe in that world, it’s so nice to just make a piece, completely divorced from that whole shitty hierarchy. Just to see people from all ages and all backgrounds get into a piece without that context. It’s way more enjoyable.

KB: And kids always dance way hard to Earth Babies, which is always really fun because adults NEVER dance that hard to our music.