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Laboratory Spokane summer residents readying projects

Laboratory executive director Alan Chatham poses with artist Carrie Wang, volunteer Taylor Weech and artist Karen Mobley. The Laboratory’s summer session is being supported by a Spokane Arts Grant Award. (Don and Julia Photography)
Laboratory executive director Alan Chatham poses with artist Carrie Wang, volunteer Taylor Weech and artist Karen Mobley. The Laboratory’s summer session is being supported by a Spokane Arts Grant Award. (Don and Julia Photography)

For some, exploring the Inland Northwest this summer means trail maps and hiking boots. For others, it’s taking in the Symphony at Arbor Crest Wine Cellars and the roaring river views downtown.

For four interactive artists knee-deep in their summer residencies at Laboratory Spokane, local explorations are an entirely different matter. It takes them to unexpected places with the goal of having others hop on for the ride.

Interactive art installations in the works range from “analog art interventions” along nature trails to mini-dollhouse replications of some of Spokane’s saddest “zombie” properties.

The four interactive artists living and working at Laboratory this summer are local painter, poet and arts advocate Karen Mobley; New York University graduate student and multi-media artist Carrie Sijia Wang; multi-disciplinary artist Kelley O’Brien and professor at Ohio’s Oberlin University; and local installation artist and low-income housing advocate Julie Gautier-Downes. All four artists’ works are united under the theme of exploring the Inland Northwest. And, as residents of the interactive arts nonprofit, they all seek to involve spectators.

During June, Mobley is performing “analog art interventions” around Spokane County. The “analog” part refers to her non-digital processes and “old-fashioned” materials of watercolor, charcoal and pencil. The interventions are simply Mobley showing up in unlikely places where art is not typically created.

So far, unwitting spectators have run into Mobley drawing and painting at Turnbull Wildlife Refuge, Liberty Park, the Sandifur Bridge and on the grounds of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. Very few take her up on her offer to draw and create alongside her. But the impact is there. Heads turn. Eyebrows raise.

“Some people are curious; others ignore me altogether,” Mobley said.

Mobley’s art intervention also is to display her works in surprising spots. To display her sketches and drawings along trails and other wall-less spaces, she fashiones plexiglass frames with zip ties to affix the frames on either side of trees and poles so they “hug” the trunks with no harm done.

“I call the frames ‘tree sandwiches,’ ” Mobley said. “On the trails, I don’t want to alarm people with art. I just hope they come across a hidden surprise that delights them.”

The goal of interactive art is to involve observers. This can be accomplished by letting visitors walk in or around installations or to ask spectators to become part of the work. The New York-based Wang used the latter approach. She held her show, “Postcards from Spokane,” on Tuesday at the downtown public library.

Spectators were asked to read fictional postcard narratives into a microphone so that a speech recognition system could then connect particular words to more than 100 real vintage postcards from the library’s collection. The idealized, pastel images of Spokane’s past glory and dreamlike scenery flashed on three screens as the visitors read aloud.

“I’d never been to Spokane before this residency, but I feel a lot of nostalgia here when I walk downtown,” Wang said. “Postcards are a representation of what locals want to idealize about their town … so that past glory of Spokane is what I feel when I walk around, and it’s what inspired me.”

Another place-inspired project coming out of Laboratory this summer will be based on Cleveland artist O’Brien’s trips walking the border between Washington and Idaho. Also a newbie to Spokane, O’Brien became interested in the concept of borders. She spent days thrashing through streams and woods, hiking through Liberty Lake Regional Park, one foot on the Idaho side, one foot on the Washington side. She collected video, photos and sound recordings and plans to hang large scale drawings of her impressions in the Richmond Art Gallery.

Visitors to the gallery will also experience the different qualities of sunlight shining in Coeur d’Alene and Spokane at the same time. O’Brien will use real-time light data from both cities to program the lighting in the gallery, splitting the room down the middle. The differences will be there, but as subtle as the borders themselves.

“Borders are sort of an intangible political boundary as opposed to an actual boundary,” O’Brien said. “I think the poetic nature of the nuances, their subtleties, is important.”

Finally, for her contribution to the Inland Northwest theme, Gautier-Downes delves deeper into her obsession with abandoned places. Last summer, her life-sized installations of deserted bedrooms and crumbling dens graced the Chase Gallery. Since then, she has shrunk her haunting narratives of displacement into miniature dioramas of whole houses.

For her new series, she is working with the city of Spokane and Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP) to research distressed houses that she will then turn into mini-dioramas. Her work will explore the challenges that low income people in Spokane face in securing housing. She is still working out when and how to display her finished pieces but is excited about the project.

“My work is usually more fictional and based on my own kind of creations, so for this I’m interested in thinking more about the actual place, the Inland Northwest,” Gautier-Downes said. “Forcing people to look at the problem, but also to listen to similar stories that come from the people who see the show.”

Laboratory executive director Alan Chatham, all four summer resident artists are furthering his goal to highlight and support interactive arts.

“A big thing I’m really trying to do is to expand people’s experience with art, trying to step away from traditional gallery show where you say, ‘Here are the objects you can look at,’ ” Chatham said. “There are countless ways to explore a region. And countless ways to explore art.”