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      PEMcast | February 15, 2016

      PEMcast 6: Getting Outside

      Dinah Cardin

      Written by

      Dinah Cardin


      In this episode, Chip and Dinah celebrate public art initiatives.

      Three artists and three exhibitions take us outdoors beyond museum walls, including Theo Jansen on a nearby beach with a huge crowd and his Strandbeests.

      PEMcast 6: Getting Outside

      [background music]

      Greg Cook: I think for me also, I'm looking for something about what is the point of this existence? [laughs] Why are we here? In some way, life is so hard and long.

      Dinah Cardin: This is Greg Cook.

      Chip Van Dyke: In 2014, Greg tried to address this existential angst by organizing a parade in Beverly, Massachusetts.

      Greg: I just wanted more, but there wasn't enough wonder and magic in my life, and so I thought I'd start making wonder and magic.

      Chip: He called it The Saddest Parade in the World, and I believe, Dinah, you were there.

      Dinah: I was there. I participated in the saddest parade in the world.

      Chip: What did you think of that?

      Dinah: There's something about when you let yourself get that sad, when you see pouty little kids holding signs with teardrops on them and people wearing floats. Like this guy I know had a house around his middle, and he was frowning and walking, and he was supposed to be the heaviness of the housing crash. It was completely cathartic.

      Greg: I was struggling with things, troubles in my life, family illnesses, jobs, places I worked going into business.

      Chip: In addition to leading the saddest parade, Greg is also a reporter for the ARTery, WBUR's art blog. At the end of last year, he wrote, "The most exciting thing about art around Boston in 2015 was how it broke out of the museum walls and took to the streets."

      He cites Amanda Parer's "Intrude," that was the giant glowing bunnies on the Boston Convention Center's lawn on D. There was Janet Echelman's, "As If It Were Already Here," the massive colorful netting flying over the Rose Kennedy Greenway, how could you miss that?

      There were Theo Jansen's Strandbeests, which PEM took to Crane Beach, Boston City Hall, and MIT.

      Greg: The Strandbeest is one of those magical moments where it just shows up, this apparition. It's not rooted in this long tradition, it's this guy who's figured out something that's just amazing and surprising and unexpected. I think for a lot of people, there's still a feeling of the museum is intimidating.

      There's something thrilling about being there with something that's happening. There's a desire to break outside of the conventions, and partly that's museums wanting to do that too, and do something that's more fun, more like a party, something that's more spectacular and magical.

      There's something also about that moment, of being in the moment itself with the thing.


      George Hicks: This long stretch of beach is one of the most popular north of Boston. On this morning, the sky is gray, but the traffic has been backed up for miles unusual even on an August weekend.

      How'd you get here today?

      Male Visitor: Bike.

      George: Smart.

      Male Visitor: I passed all of the traffic.


      George: We've all come to see the Strandbeests.


      Chip: Welcome to the "PEMcast, Conversations and Stories for the Culturally Curious." This is episode six. My name is Chip Van Dyke.

      Dinah: I'm Dinah Cardin.

      Chip: The clip you heard after Greg Cook was George Hicks, another BUR reporter. He was with us last August when the Strandbeest took over Crane Beach in Ipswich. We'll return to that story later in the episode.

      We're releasing this show in the dead of winter, and there's probably no better time to be listening to stories about the outdoors.

      Dinah: Yes. We're playing on your pent-up sensibilities as you're dreaming of getting outside. All of these stories are about art in the outdoors.

      Chip: We'll talk to PEM's maker-in-residence, David Jansen Robert, about talking trees.

      Dinah: Take you right outside PEM's doors with sculpture Patrick Dougherty and his single sculpting material, sticks.

      Chip: Step outside with us and let us magically whisk you away to last spring when Patrick Dougherty's stickwork sculpture was being built on the lawn of PEM's Crown and Shield Bentley House. Just a short walk from the museum.

      Patrick Dougherty: Well, I always think that sticks give me good ideas, and sticks are a very imaginative object. If you watch kids play with them, they know that they're a weapon, a tool, a piece of a wall. Lay three sticks out, you have the living room there. It's an object that we imagine around.

      Dinah: With his southern drawl and strong arms, Patrick Dougherty has twisted and bent hundreds of thousands of sticks to build more than 260 of these sculptures.

      Female Visitor: I've been walking by. I walk home, so I've been watching the progress. It's so cool. It reminded me you see those birds that weave in and out, and it was really cool watching them do it, and they just know where to go.

      Dinah: What do you think it looks like?

      Margo: It looks like a house.

      Female Visitor: I think that one would be good for you, Margo. The lower one.

      Patrick: Luckily for us, there's been a huge amount of viewing because of its placement on the corner. We've had people walk by and check on us every day who live here, and then we've got rafts of people that are coming to the museum and also just coming to visit Salem, and all of them have been able to see it as well as all those people are passing by in their car.

      Chip: I learned from Patrick that he always works with local volunteers, not only because these projects are so large, but because it gives him the opportunity to speak to the community, to talk with them, to work alongside them, and get to better know the community. Ultimately, that influences the work.

      Male Volunteer: I just loved being outside and working with Patrick. It was so cool to see it all come to fruition.

      Dinah: How did you become a volunteer?

      Female Volunteer: I saw the original posting on the Peabody Essex's Facebook page. I had known of his work before. Of course, after that, it was fresh in my mind, and I jumped at the opportunity. [laughs]

      First day I was here, I was up on the scaffolding. I came in late, and I said, "I'm late, but I have extra enthusiasm." He said, "Are you afraid of heights?" I said, "Nope," so he said, "Grab some sticks." I headed on up and spent the rest of the day up in the tree branches, which was awesome.

      Dinah: Is it a specific type of branch? Are they using all different types of wood, do you know?

      Patrick: We've used Norway maple, which I think is pretty good. We happened to find some beech saplings in somebody's yard. They were extremely white. Somebody also brought us a little bit of sweet pepper bush.

      Dinah: People have literally brought you materials out of their yards since you started?

      Patrick: We organized an effort to gain material, and then some of that came from people's yards, what they knew that they need clearing.

      [yardwok sounds]

      Patrick: I feel like that was good, what you were working on over there.

      Dinah: It's still a little thin. I'm going to get back in after he's finished mudding it.

      Patrick: OK, that'll work out fine.

      Dinah: How do you know when it's done?

      Patrick: It is getting done. We've got a few edges that we could improve, but we are not going to make it more than 5 percent improvement from here out. Not even that much.

      I make a ground plan for it, maybe a little drawing about how it would sit at space and the scale that it needed to be. Then, about one or two days in, I throw the plant over my shoulder and start just reacting to the space.

      Dinah: Did it turn out to be what you thought it was going to be?

      Patrick: I think it did. I think that it looks a great deal like I had imagined. It does develop along a line of inquiry that we had about this shoemaker's building that you all have. The gable end of it looks so cute to me.

      It seemed to me that building something that wasn't just amorphous, but that it had an impression of architecture or the shadow life of architecture built into it might be interesting.

      Dinah: Are you ever afraid you'll get it wrong?

      Patrick: A person can't be that worried about whether something is good or not before they start, and they can't worry about art history. They simply have to be reactive, and trust themselves to solve the problems of the moment.

      Margo: It reminded me of, in those Russian fairy tales, there are these houses of the witches...

      Dinah: With windows. The early settlers, when they built their thatched-roof houses.

      Margo: Bird houses for very large birds. [laughs]

      Dinah: What do you think?

      Chip: I've been trying to figure out. It made me think of something walking up and I couldn't place it, and now I can't...

      Dinah: Can you?

      Female Visitor: Like a fallen old church with the circles at the top and the way that the peaks are in a bird's nest, of course. [laughs]

      Patrick: We've decided that the title of this piece is What the Birds Know. Somewhere down deep in their mind is a set of circumstances that lets them build beautiful objects, objects that are amazing to humans because they are so complex.

      It's my conviction that we've got a hunting and gathering past to shadow life of our early beginnings imprinted in our brains, and that we know how to make things that simple shelter like a bird nest. To a degree, I see that the volunteers have some of the same inklings, but it takes a bit of time for them to relax and allow their inherent knowhow to emerge.

      This has been a great opportunity to work here and to build a sculpture that, hopefully, people respond to.

      Dinah: What the Birds Know is on view outside PEM's historic Crowninshield-Bentley House across from the museum.

      [background music]

      Dinah: The sculpture will be there through the end of 2016, or until nature takes its course.

      Chip: We now switch from sticks to water by heading to Ipswich and popular Crane beach, where thousands of people ventured in August to catch a peek at the Strandbeests in action. George Hicks from WBUR reports.

      George: The highly articulated legs are incredibly complex. The feet look like hooves, and they make a curious squeaking sound.

      Male Visitor: Insects and horses, it's all I see. I think it's something about the connection of the legs.

      Female Visitor: The legs, they move in such a way that it looks alive.

      Female Visitor: It does remind me of a beast thing.

      Female Visitor: Just like a creature.

      Female Visitor: The way that it moves with the wind, it's crazy that it actually functions properly.

      George: Here at the water's edge, the Strandbeests are now being propelled by their handlers. Do you guys call yourselves handlers or wranglers?

      Interpreter-operator: Interpreter-operators, which I've taken to mean that we are here to interpret the demands of the Strandbeests.

      Female Visitor: I love that this one has a gimpy leg and it keeps getting stuck. I feel for that.

      George: Do you think they're creepy or cool?

      Female Visitor: I think they're cool. It might be creepy if there were a whole fleet of them.

      George: The artist has said that he would like to just populate a stretch of beach with them and let them live there.

      Female Visitor: Live there?

      George: Yeah.

      Female Visitor: I would go to that beach. Yeah.


      Theo: I'm Theo Jansen and I make new forms of life on the beaches. I'm almost born on the beach, so I have a strong relation with the sea and the sand.

      Beaches turn out to be very flat and very hard, especially when it just low tide. Beach animals have to walk on very flat surfaces, so the beaches seem to be the best environment to survive for Strandbeests.

      Dinah: David Yann Robert was PEM's maker-in-residence last spring. David is in love with trees.

      David Yann Robert: This is a big one. It's beautiful.

      Dinah: What are we doing?

      David: We're sitting on the ground with our backs to this beautiful tree. We're looking up, being amazed by it or hanging out with it. [laughs]

      Chip: David's work was featured in Branching Out, a recent exhibition in PEM's Art and Nature Center. His video installation depicted colorful digital compositions influenced by electrical impulses found deep inside trees. Are you still with me?

      David: What I'm doing is I'm eavesdropping on a sycamore maple tree. There's a tiny Teflon-coated needle electrode that's normally used in neuromedicine. To get it in the tree, I have to pre-drill a tiny, tiny hole with the smallest drill bit possible. Then the electrode needle is inserted. Then the other lead goes into the ground.

      Essentially, I read the signal directly from the tree into the circuit board, which then brings the signal into the computer over USB.

      Chip: When I visited David Yann Robert out by his sycamore maple, there were wires all over the place, and David was moving quickly between the tree and the computer, making adjustments and checking on the general well-being of the tree. Two tiny speakers on a nearby brick wall were translating the tree's every word into haunting, alien soundscapes.

      [haunting sounds]

      David: Trees can communicate with each other, and pass messages to each other through the air and also under the ground.

      An airborne virus will hit the edge of a forest, and the trees on the edge of the forest who aren't prepared for it will just go down. As they're dying, they send an SOS signal out through the forest. The other trees that receive the signal get a chance to respond and build up an immune response, basically.

      [haunting sounds]

      David: I knew that I had done something that was worthy of someone's attention when I saw children going up to the tree and hugging it to see if it would sound different. It's inspiring.

      Dinah: Does it sound like music?

      Kid: Yep.

      Dinah: What do you think it's saying to you?

      Kid: I think it's saying, "Hi."

      [haunting sounds]

      David: This is day two of eavesdropping on the tree. There are far more questions than there are answers at this point. This is one of the first times that I've ever done this in the springtime when a tree is budding.

      It actually changes a bunch during sunrise and sunset, which makes sense because it's almost like the tree is dormant when there's no sun, and then when the sun starts to hit it early in the morning, it changes. It wakes up in a way.

      Chip: David has been around the world, tapping trees and exploring their inner voices. Through this practice, he's questioning our conventional understanding of consciousness.

      David: My personal interest as an artist is exploring consciousness as a spectrum. I feel that we've been short-sighted in defining sentience, intelligence, and consciousness as something that's exclusive to human beings.

      If we have such a narrow definition of what consciousness and sentience is and what life is, then we'll never be able to actually identify intelligence in other forms besides ourselves.

      Let's say we one day end up encountering extraterrestrial or alien life. Intelligence is not just having a brain.

      [background music]

      David: It's being able to adapt to your environment, to solve problems, to communicate, to learn, to have memory. Trees have all of that.

      Chip: You can see photos of this tree tapping and other images and content related to all the stories in this episode on our blog -- Connected.

      That's our show. Thanks for listening. If you have questions, comments, or stories to share, please write to us at our email address,, and find us on iTunes, SoundCloud, and on any podcast app.

      Dinah: Our engineer on the PEMcast is Corbett Sparks.

      Chip: Music for this episode is by Chuzausen and Olympic Smoker. You can find links to both of these artists on the post for this episode at

      Dinah: Special thanks to George Hicks, Andrea Shea, and Greg Cook of WBUR.

      Chip: To Greg's three-year-old son, who hung out with us for his dad's interview. What was his name?

      Ulysses: Ulysses Starbuck Percival Cook.

      Greg: Ulysses Starbuck Percival Cook. Very maritime, huh, Ulysses?

      Dinah: Yes, very maritime. Fittingly, this spring, along with the Somerville Arts Council, Greg Cook is planning to host the Tiny Tall Ships Festival, complete with pirate ships, whaling boats, sea monsters, and mermaids floating in water-filled kiddie swimming pools. Rock on, Greg.

      Chip: Somerville, huh?

      Dinah: Yeah, it's great.


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