To push the boundaries of a routine “dinner and a movie” into the realm of art, no need to book a table. The most avant garde dinner party in town has been laid out for you at the Richmond Art Gallery on Friday.
“Spring Table” is a mixed media installation by Caitlin Pickall, an artist-in-residence at Spokane’s Laboratory. Pickall’s artwork is a communal audio visual experience centered around a blank white table with place settings and chairs beckoning viewers to take a seat. With each seating, a chain reaction begins.
Pickall has rigged all the chairs with sensors that she has constructed and programmed to activate different sounds and video elements when triggered. Depending on who sits where and when, the plates and glasses transform with every new visitor’s arrival.
Herbs may start to grow and multiply on the table. The plates may turn bright red and begin to bob in a choppy, blue ocean. Plates and glasses may appear to spin like kaleidoscopes. Or visitors may get the odd feeling they are looking up at towering trees when in fact they are staring down at their plates.
Foods will suddenly appear on plates, according to different themes. One plate serves up only raw ingredients; another produces institutional food only. Still another is populated with poisonous ingredients only.
The more people who exercise their agency by sitting at the table, the more visual elements that will be activated. “There are some things that play across the whole table, such as videos and some color blocks,” Pickall said. “But individual pieces of visuals and sounds come on as more people sit down.”
Although there are a lot of different moods within the piece, the overall feeling is one of wonderment. And power.
“The piece is about the space being transformed, and the people in the space being agents of that transformation,” Pickall said. “Humans have to be here for the piece to operate.”
Among her inspirations for “Spring Table” is the 1974 installation by Judy Chicago called “The Dinner Party,” now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum. Widely known as the first epic feminist artwork, the piece includes 39 plates representing women in history. The exhibit highlights how women contributed significantly to the development of culture and civilization, and yet their efforts were typically trivialized.
It’s not Chicago’s feminist message that inspired Pickall. It’s not even any particular obsession with food, which for Pickall is just a metaphor. It’s the idea of actors being denied agency, but finding ways to exercise it regardless. Using her expertise in software and coding, Pickall seeks to create objects and environments that are set off or changed by human interactions in all her artworks.
“In ‘The Dinner Party,’ Chicago did a lot of handcrafting of the plates and the place mats and napkins,” Pickall said. “She was integrating handcraft and traditional women’s work into the piece and calling it fine art, so I was also kind of inspired by that.”
Pickall is the master of her own crafts, modern and traditional. She built the electronic sensors that are tripped by sitting on them. She wrote the code that operates the software she customized. She programmed the projector to light up images onto precise plates and glasses from an origin point in the ceiling.
She even built all the chairs herself. Whether adorned with bells or growing plants, each chair tells a different story harking back to food.
“This chair is laser cut with patterns from countries along the spice route,” Pickall said. “The Portuguese exploration and the mad rush to the East in the attempt to colonize was also driven by the incredible value of these spices, which were new to Europeans and super exotic and expensive.”
Pickall is a former filmmaker with Gracie Films (of “The Simpsons” fame) who returned to school a couple of years ago to pursue a master’s degree in design and technology at the Parsons School of Design in Paris.
“I loved working on great stories, but I wanted to do something more abstract, more personal,” Pickall said. “What excites me is exploring new technology, playing with it, seeing what are the possibilities for creating new interactions or new uses for artistic means.”
After sitting at Pickall’s table, my belly was still empty. But my mind was full.