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      PEMcast | September 28, 2018

      PEMcast 12: Immersive experiences | Part 3

      Dinah Cardin

      Written by

      Dinah Cardin


      For this episode of the PEMcast, we wrap up our series on immersive experiences and revisit an old friend, the visual artist Charles Sandison.

      You may remember Sandison from his 2010 immersive installation in PEM’s East India Marine Hall.

      Chip Van Dyke and Charles Sandison in 2010 in East India Marine Gallery. © 2010 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver/PEM.
      Chip Van Dyke and Charles Sandison in 2010 in East India Marine Gallery. © 2010 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver/PEM.

      Internationally renowned for his animated digital projections, Sandison installed this site-specific artwork especially created for this oldest part of the museum. He activated the words of 18th-century ship captains' logs to create an immersive environment drawing on the trade routes, politics, competition and voices that led to the founding of the museum and the origins of PEM's remarkable collection.

      FreePort [No. 001]: Charles Sandison. © 2011 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver/PEM.

      Organized by PEM's Curator of the Present Tense, Trevor Smith, this installation marked the first in a series of contemporary art interventions, all part of an initiative called FreePort.

      FreePort [No. 001]: Charles Sandison. © 2011 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver/PEM.

      We recently caught up with Sandison to discuss how he began this digital work, the 2010 installation and his anticipation to return to PEM in 2019 for our expansion's grand opening. Back in 2010, Sandison was given “carte blanche” by PEM’s staff to investigate old handwritten ship captain logs to feed into his computer. He then used weather patterns and the movement of birds to influence how these images moved. In those days, he often had to wait for technology to catch up, and so he built his own computers. Sandison talks about the day he began learning to write code. He could push the artwork so far that the images trailed off the walls and you couldn’t tell where it started and ended. “It could be a figment of your imagination,” he says.

      FreePort [No. 001]: Charles Sandison. © 2011 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver/PEM.

      Salem’s ship captains were the “early pioneers,” says Sandison, returning from the East Indies to share their new found knowledge. That was the basis for what became PEM. “Now I’ve got this wonderful opportunity to engage with where the museum is going,” he says.

      FreePort [No. 001]: Charles Sandison. © 2011 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver/PEM.

      For the new installation, he will revisit some of the same material, but will not reproduce the 2010 experience “molecule for molecule and atom for atom,” he says. With some new staff, new buildings and different pieces of artwork on view, the museum has a whole different tone and hue than it did in 2010, says Sandison. Like PEM, Sandison's work evolves over time. Unlike a classical painting, it is not fixed, but benefits from tweaks, updates and the opportunity to remain relevant.

      You can hear the PEMcast on iTunes, Soundcloud and pretty much anywhere you listen to podcasts. Producers for this episode are Melissa Woods, Dinah Cardin and Chip Van Dyke. Corbett Sparks is our audio engineer.

      PEMcast 12: Immersive Part 3

      Chip Van Dyke: Welcome to the "PEMcast", conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I'm Chip Van Dyke.

      Dinah Cardin: And I'm Dinah Cardin. Today we wrap up our series of episodes on immersions with the focus on one person, digital artist, Charles Sandison.

      Chip: For those unfamiliar with Sandison's work, he is most well-known for his projected swarms of data-driven imagery. Using his knowledge of coding, he breathes life into words and images, then they are projected across every available surface, climbing and dancing over everything, including you, the viewer.

      Dinah: In 2009, Charles began a site-specific installation in PEM's historic East India Marine Hall. For almost a year, his installation called "Figurehead" illuminated the historic hall with selections from PEM's own collection of handwritten 18th century ship logs.

      Chip: If you missed it back then, don't worry because Figurehead is returning to East India Marine Hall.

      Dinah: At the time of this taping, Sandison is working with PEM to bring figurehead back for summer 2019, which is also when the museum's new wing opens to the public.

      Chip: Recently, we had the opportunity to get Sandison into our PEMcast sound booth to talk about his work and how it all began.

      [background music]

      Charles Sandison: My name's Charles Sandison. I'm a visual artist who's currently living in Finland. I've been in Finland for about 20 years. Originally, I'm from Scotland. I remember a long time ago when I was in art school studying photography, and we would have fairly vigorous and frequent critiques.

      We'd each put our efforts on the studio wall, and we would then spend 10 hours talking about one very moodily lit black and white photograph of a cup or something and really, learn to talk about it. I had a little bit of an epiphany in that moment half asleep. I could hear the people's voices. I became slightly dislocated from the situation I was in.

      I realized that the photograph wasn't important. It was more of the experience of being surrounded by people and voices and information, and I thought how can I create an artwork that somehow does something similar.

      Later on in life, I discovered the joys of writing computer code. I could stand in the hall with a laptop and projectors and as quickly as I can think I can pull in data and information, streams of knowledge. I tried to push the artwork so far out onto the edges that you don't know where it starts or where it ends. It's still the room but then again it might even be a figment of your imagination.

      It became more apparent that through using architecture and space and rooms, I could create immersive spaces. At the early stage of my career, I was mainly showing in white cubes, white boxes. It's a great honor and a privilege to be invited to show you work anywhere, but after a while I got a little bit bored with the white boxes.

      It wasn't really bringing anything new to my work. I began to look for places where an audience turns around a corner and they experience something that they didn't quite imagine would be there.

      For me I just walked into the East Indian Marine Hall and said, "OK, just don't touch anything." It was made for me. The Peabody Essex Museum has some really cool stuff. I think it's one of the oldest museums in the United States, so there's a lot of material. The curators, conservatives introduced me to all the different aspects of the permanent collection.

      I was given basically carte blanche to investigate objects. There's these incredible ships logs written by ship's captains who were the early pioneers, financial and navigational pioneers following the routes to the East Indies and who would have got back from their trips and gave a presentation in the East India Marine Hall and explain what they saw and how they got there, a fact and knowledge sharing process.

      These ships logs were the basis of that information. I was taking the handwritten reports, daily record of the ship's captains, and feeding them through the computer so words came alive. I programmed them with the behavior movement patterns of birds and of weather, like wind, one being data sets from over the last couple of years and another level being historical.

      I was very interested in mixing disparate bits of information to see what is revealed. There was back in 2010 a lot has changed since then. Peabody Essex Museum got in touch with me and feel that the possibility of coming back and recreating the artwork. The aim is not to reproduce exactly the artwork as it was, molecule for molecule, atom for atom.

      It's the same institution that I left, but it's different. There's doors and walls that never existed before when I was here last time seems to be a whole new building sprouting up immediately next to the East India Marine Hall.

      The choice to accept the invitation back in 2010, there was a lot to do with the history of the museum where it was coming from and now I've got this wonderful opportunity to engage with where the museum is going to. One of the reasons why I like the medium that I work is I like the fact that it's not fixed and it's not permanent.

      We have the vernissage which means after something, the painting gets its final coat of varnish. That's it. It can't be changed again, but with the tools that I work with, it just doesn't quite work that way. So rather than trying to bend them to fit a classical interpretation of art and art making, I try to be honest to what these tools and mediums, how they change the nature of an artwork in the 21st century.

      I always remember some line Johnny Mitchell said, "Nobody asks a painter to come back and repeat the painting," but we're in new territory here.

      Dinah: That's our show, thanks for listening.

      Chip: Charles Sandison's newly re-imagined Figurehead opens June 2019 in PEM's East India Marine Hall. This is in conjunction with the grand opening of PEM's newest expansion. We hope you come see it and experience it for yourself. Music for this episode is by Bibio, courtesy of Warp Records.

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      Past Exhibition

      FreePort [No. 001]: Charles Sandison

      October 2, 2010 to April 24, 2011