Begun in 2013 as a way to showcase VCCA Fellows' work and demonstrate exactly what VCCA does, The Commission presents a major site-specific collaborative work by at least two artists from the three disciplines (literature, visual art, musical composition) VCCA fosters.
The first Commission, Bright Shiny Me (2013), brought together visual artist Maja Spasova (London, Berlin) and composer Luis Hilario Arévalo (Mexico City). The 40 foot-square piece was made up of 1,600 mirrors secured to metal spikes. Loudspeakers produced a low frequency sound similar to a heartbeat, created by Arévalo, which caused the mirrors to move fracturing and reflecting light.
Coming to Know What We’ve Always Known, The Commission 2014 took inspiration from the glorious natural surroundings of Central Virginia. Created by visual artist Georgia June Goldberg (Ross, CA) and poet Sally Dawidoff (Berkeley, CA), the piece combined 150 saplings painted bright green that were planted across the landscape like living trees. As the viewer walked through the installation, motion sensors at the base of each tree activated hidden speakers so that Dawidoff could be heard reading her poem.
In 2015, visual artist Brice Brown (New York, NY) and composer, Alan Shockley (Lakewood, CA) won The Commission commission with their Glass and Bridle, Pomegranate and Pears: On the Viability and Transience of a Free and Perfect Union. A site-specific work combining sound, performance, sculpture, printing and painting, Glass and Bridle, Pomegranate and Pears: On the Viability and Transience of a Free and Perfect Union draws on themes related to the history of nearby Free Union, Virginia, namely its founding by a freed blacksmith slave named Nick.
Modular units organized the space like a kind of maze through which The Commission guests could wander while experiencing a shifting sonic and visual landscape. Each of these modular units was composed of two 4’ x 8’ wood frames that were connected at a 45° angle. The surfaces of the frames were charred in the Shou-sugi-ban style, giving them a luminous black color. Hanging from the center of the frames were printed/hand-painted textiles featuring imagery derived from The Batsford Colour Book of Roses as well as 19th-century etchings of alchemical processes. These images created a landscape within a landscape, and referenced the transformation from one state of being to another—from potential to fully realized form—inherent in the blacksmithing process. In the middle of this maze was a special 4-panel unit containing a live sound performance.
Contained within each modular structure, an mp3 speaker played an independent piece of music, which, when combined with all the other pieces of music in each pod, created an overlapping sonic composition for the viewer. The individual musical works featured electronically manipulated sounds with various source materials connected to the story of Free Union. Sounds of a blacksmith’s shop and of local birds and insects, the sounds of wind and water all figured prominently. Several of the sound modules projected works created by reductively processing and fragmenting material from a handful of American shape note hymns. The original hymns are ones that would’ve been part of life in Free Union at its founding, but the new compositions were much more spacious, empty and still.
The live performance featured Shockley playing a Native American bass flute, a lap steel guitar, and various melodicas and small instruments, along with a laptop computer running Max/MSP for the live electronic manipulation of the sounds generated by all of these instruments. This performance worked with the very same source materials as all of the other sound components, making for a non-discursive, interactive sonic environment, which, with many of its sounds coming from nature made for a sound world that is always part inside, part outside, part music, and part natural environment.
The title of the installation references the tradition of still life painting, where titles are often formed of simple lists of the objects depicted. Its length is characteristic of 18th century titles (the era from which some of the musical materials were drawn), and also referenced the organic images that inform the sound modules’ fabric walls. The title also links with the story and background of the town of Free Union, as well as the ephemeral and collaborative nature of the installation.
Part vernissage, part rollicking good time, VCCA’s The Commission is a major event on the art and social scenes of central Virginia and beyond. This year the event will be held at the timeless and beautiful Pharsalia.
An 1814 plantation built by Thomas Massie for his son William as a wedding present, Pharsalia is located in the fertile Tye River Valley and sits on the shoulder of DePriest Mountain in Nelson County, Virginia. At its height, Pharsalia’s working farm was part of a family owned tract in excess of 10,000 acres. Crops and products produced at Pharsalia included wheat, hops, tobacco, potatoes, apples, cranberries, and smoked and cured bacon and hams. In addition to the original family smokehouse still on the site today, a large commercial smokehouse was operated for the commercial exportation of specialty hams by bateaux. The smokehouse from William Massie’s father’s home, Level Green, also graces Pharsalia today. It was disassembled and moved to the property in early 2000 for complete renovation.
Nearby Massie’s Mill and Tyro Mill were large mills built and operated by the Massie family for the commercial production and exportation of fine wheat flours to Europe and Northern and Western American markets. Still in private hands, Pharsalia is quite simply one of the most beautiful properties in Virginia.