Unveiling Building 6
MASS MoCA doubles in size and amps up its art and music
MoCA director Joseph Thompson inside Laurie Anderson’s virtual world, here unfinished.
Photos by Matt Petricone (above photo by Eric Korenman)
The juxtaposition of Laurie Anderson and Gunnar Schonbeck, their creations side by side yet worlds apart, punctuates the importance of the performing arts at MASS MoCA. With a shared purpose of interacting with individuals, their exhibitions are found along the museum’s main circulation route through which visitors pass—and participate. And so the unveiling of their spaces on May 28, part of the grand opening of the new Building 6, not only marks the doubling of the museum’s exhibition footprint; it also reveals the urbanist campus in a way it never has been experienced before.
With the added space, MASS MoCA becomes the largest museum of contemporary art in America—this three-story building alone embodies some 130,000 square feet of space. A structural highlight of the triangular-shaped structure is its double-height wall of west-facing windows that look out beyond the 16 acres, to the surrounding mountains. In all, the museum now totals 250,000 square feet, the expansion funded by $25.4 million from the state and $40 million in private donations.
The new arena will feature works by proto-Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, French-born sculptor Louise Bourgeois, light and space artist James Turrell, and conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. Along with Anderson and Schonbeck, most have had long-term relationships or repeat engagements with MASS MoCA. Bang on a Can’s Mark Stewart, who helped bring Schonbeck’s instrument creations to MASS MoCA, became involved with the museum 16 years ago. Anderson’s first residency at MASS MoCA also was around that same time.
“MASS MoCA has been deeply serious about its commitment to the performing and visual arts, and this building will dramatize it,” says museum director Joseph Thompson of the new path that brings visitors through both Schonbeck’s “instrumentarium” and a 10,000-square-foot installation of Anderson’s audio/video production studio that will include the avant-garde artist’s costume and prop archive—and virtual-reality experiences. “I can’t think of another museum with an artist’s workspace as part of the museum experience. People can go in and sample her work with headphones,” adds Thompson.
One such virtual experience: You sit in a chair and, with special goggles, are transported into an airplane flying at 35,000 feet. Slowly the plane comes apart. You are suspended, flying in midair with parts of airplane floating by—a chair, flight recorder, someone’s glasses or wallet, suitcase. If you reach up and try to touch one, you’ll “catch” a story connected to that object, told by Anderson, whispered in your ear.
In another space, you step into a room surrounded by black walls painted with white graffiti. You put on goggles and that visual setting is duplicated in virtual reality, and you move through infinitely multiplying walls, again exploring Anderson’s narratives (photo at top.)
“It’s dance-like to watch when people are interacting in this virtual world,” says Thompson. It’s also a powerful psychological space for an artist who, for her entire career, has been a gymnastic user of technology, all for the single purpose of telling stories in a direct and unmediated way. Anderson’s rather freewheeling spaces can accept all kinds of changing programs, and she plans to do just that over time. The space also will include an exhibition of ten larger-than-life drawings of “Lolabelle in the Bardo” (photo above left.)
Located next to Anderson’s virtual landscapes is Schonbeck’s instrumentarium, akin to a high-school music room, except its shelves are filled with handmade soundmakers waiting for people to play them. Stewart, a conservatory-trained musician like Schonbeck, is devoted to the preservation of this legacy; he considers Schonbeck a pioneer whose instruments include a nine-foot-long banjo, the marimba is 6' tall, and drums made from aircraft fuselages. Over a period of 50 years, Schonbeck crafted an assembly of more than 1,000 instruments, and over the last five years, visiting musicians to MASS MoCA, including Stewart and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, have used some of them in performances and projects. “The single most special thing about Gunnar is his commitment to giving everybody to themselves,” says Stewart. “These instruments allow people to be musical, even if they never thought they could be in their whole lives.”
Schonbeck gave “No Experience Required” concerts in Bennington, bringing visitors together with his musical inventions. After he died in 2005, the concerts languished, says Stewart. His collection needed a large home, it needed upkeep, and it needed people to play the multitude of pieces. They were moved, and stored, for six years at MASS MoCA, and Stewart has been dreaming ever since of their unveiling. He and several others began reassembling the pieces last September. “This is their re-entrance into the world,” says Stewart. “Every day I feel his spirit.”
“Gunnar was a local hero and legend in our own backyard at Bennington College,” adds Thompson. “The sheer joyfulness and interest in his instruments, it felt very much a part of the DNA and soul of MASS MoCA.”
The exhibition also is named “No Experience Required,” and represents the next step for Schonbeck—a place where the doors are open every day for anyone to partake. “People are going to come here, play this thing, and walk away and say, ‘I didn’t know I could get down. I think I’m going to have to get down again,’” says Stewart.
He’s planning a special performance on opening day: A piece he composed, a variation on Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, will be played by himself, Schonbeck’s family and former students, and members of the MASS MoCA community. One by one, band members will be replaced by spectators, and by the end of the piece, the audience will be performing.
“The word ‘launch.’ I don’t know if people use it and mean it, but we are launching,” says Stewart. “The voyage is beginning. That’s the most thrilling part of it all. What’s really ahead is what’s ahead. That’s the thing that’s going to knock our socks off.”
DOUBLE THE SIZE Building 6 sits at the western perimeter of MASS MoCA’s campus of former mill buildings and courtyards, its triangular footprint shaped by the confluence of the north and south forks of the Hoosic River. Cambridge-based Bruner/Cott & Associates balanced the industrial beauty with current structural requirements and the need for specialized galleries and materials.
Photo a bit above on left; Barbara Ernst Prey’s nine-foot-by-16-foot “Building 6 Portrait: Interior.” Photo a bit abobe on right; Spencer Finch’s “Cosmic Latte.”