Public Art

Among the great treasures of Seattle is sculpture, instrument inventor, composer, etc Trimpin. As with any installation artist, unless you are a jet setter, it is hard to see much of his work in person and in his case in particular it is quite difficult to gather much of a sense of the scope of his work.  This is because there are no catalogs, no recordings and little documentation in general of his work. That is until the release of a new documentary film Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, which is now making the rounds of the festival circuit.  Happily for me the Seattle International Film Festival is one of those festivals an they are showing the film several times throughout its three week run. 

I made the trek into Seattle Saturday May 23rd to catch the film, only realizing that morning that this coincided with Folk Life the epic four day free music festival in Seattle Center.  Seattle Center also houses the SIFF Theater where the film was being shown and the combination of Folk Life and SIFF meant it was going to be crazy. So I left extra early to insure that I’d make it there in time to get a good seat.  A backup on the freeway on the exit to the Seattle Center had me plenty concerned that it was going to be exceedingly difficult but it turned out to be the result of an accident at the exit ramp.  I was able to park right in a garage right across from the SIFF theater (at a fairly high parking cost) and was almost two hours early.  That was fine as Folk Life was a fine distraction and I also wanted to get lunch before the film.  This I did and I walked through Folk Life a bit which is always entertaining. You see they allow anyone to busk almost anywhere during the festival and as you walk around all varieties of sound intermingle and compete with each other and the sounds of thousands of people engaged in conversations, transactions and the like. Always sonically rewarding. I didn’t spend too much time there, I wanted to be certain of a good seat (they give precedence to SIFF members so sometimes the number of good seats for non-members is nearly non-existent (and yes I suppose I should be a member, but I find film festivals almost the worst way to see a film so I usually only see a couple per SIFF). 

I only waited around for about a half an hour before being let in, though I was in the wrong spot for a while and thus was not as far to the front of the line as I should have been. I got a good seat though, in the middle fourth row back. SIFF Cinema is not a huge screen so that is not too far forward. One or two rows back is probably the best seats in the house but this was within the good range.  The festival organizer introduced the festival and the film to us and then director, Peter Esmonde took the stage.  He only gave a few words before the film primarily admonishing us to listen as well as watch and to thank a lot of people. The lights dimmed, we were treated to about 7 minutes of trailers and finally the film.

Trimpin's perpetual motion machine

The film mainly devoted time to exploring the creative process and followed Trimpin through junkyards (shout out to the late, lamented Boeing Surplus!), galleries, concert halls and his workshop/studio.  It worked in historical material in service to this goal in that he mostly spoke of his upbringing in the Black Forest region of Germany in terms of musical, mechanical and important events that later influence his work and process. Woven throughout the film was the development process and finally a performance of a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet called 4 Cast: Unpredictable. Watching him work was among the best aspects of the film, observing him work out this completely original ideas of turning junk into machines that made sound. One moment that I particularly loved was the accidental discovery of this beautifully haunting glass armonica as he was polishing with a rag the glass tube from a television set. He had this hung and was using them as sound projectors for reed instruments that were in the tube like next of the glass.  As he was polishing one of these he pulled the rag out and it generated a sustained tone like running your finger on a wine glass. He was immediately captivated and iteratively worked out exactly how to replicate it. Then he tried running his finger on it ala a wine glass to similar though a bit duller results. Finally he dug around the copious piles of stuff in his studio and pulling out a bow proceeded to bow the glass device to beautiful results.  This is a a highly creative mind at play and discovering something that who knows how he’ll apply?  They showed the finished installation with the TV tubes and it did not utilize this effect.


4 Cast: Unpredictable

4 Cast: Unpredictable


The film also spent time covering Trimpin’s lack of interest in many of the trappings (or traps?) of the art world: he has no representation, or an agent nor as I alluded to earlier has he spent much effort on documentation.  He wants to do his work and move on to the next thing.  But his installations are permanent, durable, completely hand made and interactive. Getting to see a bunch of these, which you’d have to travel all over to see was fantastic.  As was the bits we got to see of this performance with Kronos which only happened once and has not been documented beyond this film. (though see the pictures here an some video footage here).  The first Trimpin piece I ever saw was the huge fountain of guitars in the EMP and the process behind putting this together was also covered in the film.  Trimpin, who tells a good anecdote, detailed his meeting with EMP founder and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as not a traditional public art pitch. The guitars at the top of this mammoth fountain of guitars would play music via these robotic devices that Trimpin constructed and Paul Allen inquired who would get up there to tune these guitars. Trimpin, flustered on the spot replied that they’d tune themselves.  Paul Allen, who heretofore had failed to even look him in the eye, looked up from his dossiers and uttered an awed “Wow”.




Trimpin had come to Seattle from his clearly beloved Black Forest because he said he had better junk.  The stuff you can find in Boeing Surplus and the other junkyards that feature castoffs from Seattle’s aerospace, shipyards and other high tech industries certainly provide that (though sadly most of these resources are now gone).  His experiences in the Black Forest, home of the cuckoo clock industry and where every beerhall, shop and coffee house would have a unique music making devices (usually based on music box type technologies) clearly set him on this track.  The bespoke nature of those instruments, their mechanical nature with their exposed mechanisms and memories etched in physical objects clearly directly anticipate his sculptures. But his move from the pure pragmatic aspects of those machines, to the abstractions of his, plus his embrace of the Cagean notions of sound as music makes his the tremendous artworks that they are.  These machines are really compositions that play themselves, or are instruments that the audience is vital for it to actually sound.  Trimpin heard the great player piano composer Nancarrow on the radio and his world opened up.



He hadn’t heard music of that density and complexity, music that was acoustic and yet required mechanical means to exist.  It was like the music machines of Bavaria being put to use on modern, creative and wholly originally music.  Trimpin eventually would meet Nancarrow and work with him, transcribing Nancarrows deteriorating piano rolls into midi and saving the music for all of us.  Kyle Gann’s great article for American Mavericks series on builder composers covers this territory a lot better then I can.  It is important to note that Trimpin’s restless imagination never stayed stuck with antiquated technology, an issue that actually hindered Nancarrow from realizing some of his more ambitious later projects.  The film showed him working with mechanical and pneumatic instruments, reading punch cards and the like in his earlier works. But his later works are all controlled by Apple laptops, use Midi and custom control software and his assistants include computer programmers, roboticists along with sculptures and machinists.

This film is right up there with Rivers & Tides as one of the best art documentaries that I have seen. In many cases it is because of the subject matter, Trimpin, like Goldsworthy, is about process and there is an ephemerality to their work that lends itself to film.  But beyond that it is the artistry of the filmmakers to not try to force their own narrative, to create a “story” but to focus explicit on the creative process.  This film was being projected right off of a dvd which is fully setup with menus and extras and everything. I think that after its time on the festival circuit it will certainly be made available on dvd. I urge you to see it if it plays near you, but otherwise definitely plan on picking up this dvd.

After the film there was a brief Q&A with the filmmaker and Trimpin moderated by the SIFF organizer. I folded in bits from that into the above but the most interesting questions were on his reluctance of documentation.  To which Trimpin replied it was the issue of reproduction, that since his sculptures acoustically generated the sounds they were inherently spatial and that stereophonic recording couldn’t capture that. Once 5.1 systems were everyday he said he felt that a better reproductions could be made.  He was then asked why he allowed the film to be made which didn’t really get a direct answer but they talked about the rules they put in place for the project. These namely involved the lack of forcing any sort of agenda from the filmmaker on Trimpin. He’d be allowed to film and tape whatever but nothing would be done to accommodate that and there would be no artificial scenes, retakes and the like.  This I think was pretty essential to the film.  

Anyway they wrapped this up fairly shortly and told us there would be a reception and panel discussion at 4pm the Lawrimore Project a local gallery about 5 miles away.  They also mentioned that they’d be showing outtakes from the film and had some of his scores there to view.  Well all of the sudden my plans of wandering around Folk Life for the rest of the afternoon changed and I had to make my way to this. Christopher DeLaurenti local musician, writer of whom I’ve written before gave me directions to this rather out of the way gallery and I was off.  Took some time to make my way across town but made it I did about ten minutes or so before the panel discussion.  I acquired a much needed pale ale (it was very hot on this May weekend) and checked out the art hanging in the gallery.  Their current exhibition is on Scores a top near and dear to my heart. There were some interesting things hanging but I’d need more time with them to say much.


Left to Right: Charles Amirkhanian, Trimpin, Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray and  Scott Lawrimore

Trimpin, Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray and Scott Lawrimore


The panel was made up of Charles Amirkhanian,  composer and producer of Other Minds fame, the aforementioned Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray a Curator at the EMP, Beth Sellars – Curator, Suyama Space who put on many a Trimpin exhibition and of course Trimpin himself.  It was moderated by Scott Lawrimore of the Lawrimore Project. The panel was quite interesting, it began with discussion on the relationship between Trimpin’s art and composition with digressions into Nancarrow, Cage Antheil and the like.  As I’ve mentioned before Trimpin tells a good anecdote and we got several of those. He talked about seeing a concert (I’ve spaced on the composers name) in Amsterdam which featured multiple orchestras on barges in the canals, bells from the churches and sounds basically coming from all over the city. The density of sounds and the extreme spatialization of them highly impressed Trimpin. But it was hearing Nancarrow on the radio that he felt that that density, complexity and layered structure could be captured in a more finite system. This was instrumental on Trimpin’s moving into the more abstract musics that his sculptures would make.  He also talked of attending a music conference (In Denver IIRC) with Cage and others where he finally got to really talk with other composers (which he said just didn’t happen).

There was really too much covered in the panel to really go into, but one thing that brought up some serious regret was talking about the Year of Trimpin in 2005. This year+ long showing of Trimpins works in 11 galleries all around the NW (extending as far as Montana) was probably the best opportunity to see a lot of his works. Something I missed back in the day. After much discussion it was opened up to audience questions and proving the rule that in open Q&A you are always going to get some idiotic question the very first one was asked about how much he was influenced by urban culture. Specifically how much “crunk, beatboxing, rapping” and the like influenced his work. Anyone who had seen the film knew that he followed his own muse and while his stuff is not disconnected to the world around him there is no Crunk involved.  The second aspect of this dude’s question though on engagement with the world was taken into an interesting direction and Trimpin talked about the political nature of his works. In this regard many of his works are political but not always overtly so. As always I find that a lot more effective then in your face political art which has small impact and even less longevity.  One of Trimpins more overtly political projects involved 24 bobbing chickens used as a random number generator to create new random speeches using words culled from 8 years of GW Bush’s Saturday radio addresses.  Chris DeLaurenti pointed out three urban/political connections in Trimpins work: reuse/repurposing of the detritus of modern society, the non-commercial aspect of it which, as Kyle Gann has pointed out, is inherently a political act and the inherent accessibility of his art some of which demands interaction with the audience to work at all.

Overall a great panel with tons of good information. After this they showed some outtakes from the film in one room while there was a reception with food and drink in another.  The later attracted the MFA’s in throngs but it was the scores hung on the wall that got my attention. I couldn’t find many images of them on the net (the best at this Henry Gallery page) but they were fascinating.  A mixture of subverted traditional notation, midi/mechanical notation, colors, images all colleged together some in an almost Rauschenberg level of complexity. Real artworks as well as being scores.  To this graphical score geek I was entranced by these.

But I did also watch all of the outtakes (which were clearly “bonus features” on the dvd) the most interesting was of a visit to the Instrumentarium where Harry Partch’s instruments are stored.  There was a great segment of Trimpin in the back room of the museum with the curator as he played and demonstrated all of Partch’s unique creations. Trimpin was clearly enthralled and like a kid in a candy store.

Anyway this was a great afternoon of art and film and talking with interesting people about interesting things. I learned a lot and was highly inspired by a lot of what I saw and heard.  I definitely want to see more of Trimpin’s art and will seek it out whenever I travel.

See all of my pictures from the panel here.

Further explorations:
1) Trimpin: The Sound of Inventionmovie blogimdb page, SIFF Page
2) Trimpin on Wikipedia
3) Trimpin page at Other Minds
4) American Mavericks series on builder composers, Kyle Gann
5) Trimpin installation at the EMP
6) Trimpin installation at SeaTac
9) Kronos Quartet
10) Trimpin on Youtube
11) Conlon Nancarrow on Wikipedia
12) Lawrimore Project
13) Christopher DeLaurenti
14) Other Minds
15)  EMP
16) Instrumentarium

Richard Serras Wrights Triangle (1978)

Richard Serra, Wright's Triangle (1978)

When I drove up to Vancouver a couple of weeks back for the Ives Ensemble performance I turned out to have left home too early.  I wasn’t going to be able to check into my hotel into 4pm and it was looking like I’d arrive around 2:30.  I realized this right as I was nearing Bellingham, which is less than a half an hour to the US/Canada Border.  Western Washington University is located in Bellingham and this university was very familiar to me as it was the closest University to where I grew up. I was involved in debate in high school which required a lot of research and the WWU library was a frequent destination. Additionally I attended an intensive debate camp there for several summers.  So I knew that they had extensive public art there and I’d just read on  a “best PNW art” that the Richard Serra there was one of his first major commissions. I recall a number of occasions during debate camp that we’d lie on the bricks inside the double triangles of this large sculpture, escaping the other students for some time.  Since that time I’ve become rather taken with Serra’s art after seeing his new piece at Seattle’s Olympic Sclupture Park and seeing his episode in the Art:21 series. This confluence of events caused me to amend my plans and spend a couple of hours with WWU’s public art.

Nancy Holt , Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78)

Nancy Holt , Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78)

It was a perfect late winter day for rambling around a university campus looking and photographing art – clear, sunny and crisp. I drove up to the campus visitor’s center where I was able to pick up a nice guide to their public art (which you can check out online) and purchase a two hour parking permit. I parked in a centrally located lot and set out on the South Campus walking tour.  One of the great features of public art is that unlike most galleries you are free to photograph it.  There has been a few recent cases of artists or institutions trying to secure some sort of control over this but it is a fools game. In the main most public art is installed by the public, for the public and its imagine also belongs to the public.  One of the major attractions to me of public art is that a given piece can succeed as a subject, a framing device,  for its textural properties and so on, far beyond its qualities in and of itself.  As I wandered around Western checking out the various pieces I’d attempted to document them as a piece of art but to also investigate their various properties as a subject for photography. The most enjoyable pieces of course succeed in both aspects and likewise the least enjoyable fail at both.  Nancy Holt’s Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings is one of those that I both enjoyed in and of itself, its form of interlocking rings evoking such structures as Stonehenge while its external form and rough stonework ancient burial structures such as those at Brú na Bóinne in Ireland.

Robert Morris  Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham), (1971, Installed 1974)

Robert Morris, Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham), (1971, Installed 1974)

Right nearby Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings was Robert Morris’s Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham) which was basically an enclosed square of stone from which steam was supposed to emanate.  While it is unfair to judge it not in operation I think that it raises questions of its implications in this state.  This is another factor to be included along with those listed by the artist: “Chance and environmental factors such as sunshine, wind, and fog affect the forms of the artist’s material of steam.”  From a distance though the piece does open up, almost looking like a gray Jackson Pollock lying amongst the grass. See the online guide for an image of it in full steam.  These first few pieces were located on the outskirts of the central campus area but now my walking tour turned toward the center of campus were there are several sections with a pretty high density of artworks.  I didn’t spend too much time with Bruce Naumann’s Stadium Piece as its evocation of the seating area of a sports stadium didn’t do much for me (but see the picture of it at night in Westerns online guide) but not too far away were Beverly Pepper’s Normanno Wedge (1980) and Normanno Column, (1979-80) which I found a lot more appealing. While not startling one as a reinvention of public art, these fit beautifully into the campus environment and their concern with more elemental forms contrasts nicely with the trees that would have once filled this valley and as an abstraction of the totem poles of the regions original inhabitants.

Lloyd Hamrol, Log Ramps, (1974; reconstructed 1983 and 1995)

Lloyd Hamrol, Log Ramps, (1974; reconstructed 1983 and 1995)

Most of these pieces that I’ve encountered so far are all ones I was fairly familiar with, though it was nice to reacquaint myself with them from my current context.  While I was somewhat interested in art as a teen my appreciation and knowledge has certainly grown over the years.  In-between the two Pepper pieces was a new installation, Tom Otterness Feats of Strength (1999) which I had not previously experienced. This charming piece of art was a dozen or so cartoony figures engaged with various rocks in in various contexts in an open plaza.  The tiny-ness of the figures contrasted with the obvious weight and scale of the rocks directly demonstrates the strength and the whimsy belies a metaphor of man’s interaction with the bones of our planet.  The plaza where these figures were located was a bit off of the main drag and seemed to accumulate students talking on cell phones who no longer even see the art.  Just around the corner from this area is Lloyd Hamrol’s, Log Ramps, another familiar piece that honestly I’ve never been overly taken with.  it is four large triangles forming an open pyramid, made up of rough hewn logs painted a uniform dark brown.  While the logs may evoke the PNW’s copious forests and timber industries and the simple forms perhaps the betrayal of nature this has never been a piece that has said much to me. On this day a student was perched on one side of it reading a book and talking on his cell phone.  Another feature of public art (I think of all of the people sitting in the shade of the Calder in the Olympic Sculpture Park) and one that this piece has certainly provided ample opportunities for.
Richard Serra, Wrights Triangle (1978)

Richard Serra, Wright's Triangle (1978)

Just around the corner from Log Ramps is the Serra that original inspired this visit.  A piece I am quite familiar with, this time I was looking at it as a thing in and of itself and not as a structure located at this confluence of campus paths. It feels almost constrained in-between the buildings here, almost serving the traffic flow purpose of an island in a residential street.  The openings at each corner are easy to slip into, but not mammoth and on the inside of the sculpture there is a double wall on one edge of the triangle.  The wall serves as canvas to the sun as pictured above and also (also) the the graffiti of the students which you can see only as a faint residue.  The paths were aswarm with students as I reached this point, out on a nice day at the end of classes or moving between the northern and southern sections of campus but inside I was alone and cut off from their activity.  This triangular sculpture isn’t one of the epically huge Serra’s but it fits right into its space and is definitely one of the highlights of Westerns collections.
Alice Aycock, The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling (1987)
Alice Aycock, The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling (1987)

Taking the path to the west from Wright’s Triangle,  you come to the unwieldy named The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling by Alice Aycock. Another piece I was heretofore unfamiliar with, I liked this one a lot. A strangely shaped and compared to most sculptures, quite flat cement object embedded in the ground. It evokes a fountain and it indeed seems to be able to sculpt water and yet it isn’t a fountain. The cryptic symbols and patterns on its surface provide much to ponder and also are brilliant subjects for carefully cropped photos. Near this piece was Meg Webster’s, Untitled (1990) which I can’t recall having seen before, but considering that it was a depression in the ground overgrown with vines, I perhaps may have just never noticed it. I wasn’t overly impressed on this occasion, an example of a piece that fails as an object and as a subject, you’ll have to turn to the online guide for an image of it.

Isamu Noguchi, Skyviewing Sculpture, 1969

Isamu Noguchi, Skyviewing Sculpture (1969)

Backtracking to the Serra, I then took the main path to the campus’s Red Square which contains Isamu Noguchi’s  Skyviewing Sculpture. One of the earliest additions to the collections and one of the most visible being located in the central square this is certainly one which I’ve known and liked for a long time.  I’ve always been rather attracted to geometric solids and platonic ideals constantly drawing spheres, hypercubes and other shapes in my youth. I particularly enjoyed cutout solids like this and I certainly recall appreciating the elegance of this piece even as a surly teen.  Likewise this is another great subject for photography as it casts great shadows and has many pleasant edges and features for unique framing’s. Like Noguchi I also enjoy circular windows and their framing potential. Around red square and environs are several other pieces two of which again evoke totem poles; Scepter, the third sculpture installed on campus from WWW alum Steve Tibbetts and Norman Warsinske’s Totem, the second piece in Westerns collection.   Against a wall that leads away from red square is another Norman Warsinske piece, the mandala like Wall Relief.  In a secluded square, past Totem is the large rusted steel India, installed in 1976 by sculpture Anthony Caro. This piece is like a pile of steel, haphazardly stacked, perhaps as a discard or in the process of clearing a space. Later someone, perhaps an exploring kid or a bored night watchmen, stacks them up a bit, then losing interest they remain that way to rust away.  The connection to India is not immediately clear, though the guidebook indicates that it is a reference to the layered nature of much of the architecture on the sub-continent. This is one of those pieces that really revel in its dimensionality and offers unique perspectives from all angles. In the waning light of my visit, its angles and shadows added an extra element.

Anthony Caro India (1976)

Anthony Caro India (1976)

The tour is now on its northern extents and the pieces are a bit more spread out.  On the edge of a secluded field a ways past India is the sculpture that sticks out most in my mind from my youth. Richard Beyer’s The Man Who Used to Hunt Cougars for Bounty (1972).  This stone sculpture of a man with what looks like a large bear in in his lap has his head thrown back in emotion was know colloquially as “man fucks bear”.  Just look at it. Walking across the field one encounters a large metal box that one can walk through, Donald Judd’s Untitled (1982).  A metal box with dividers inside it that angle as one walks through it so that it either narrows or widens depending on your entry.  A bit of a walk from here on the far northern end of the tour is Robert Maki’s Curve/Diagonal (1976-79).  This curved sheet metal piece works beautifully with the shadows and light and while I only saw it in the late, late afternoon, it clearly would change aspects throughout the day.

Mark di Suvero, For Handel (1975)

Mark di Suvero, For Handel (1975)

As I began to loop back to where I had parked I walked past Western’s largest and probably most iconic sculpture, Mark di Suvero’s For Handel. This large red knotted steel girders perhaps evokes all that people disdain in perceived excesses of modern art and in and of itself I find this piece rather empty. However it interacts in the space that it has been place in quite a few interesting way. The play of the sunlight upon it and shadows its casts, its framing aspects of the buildings that surround it and most strikingly its bright primal colors against a stark blue sky. Apart from this it is a great subject for photography with all of its various angles, shapes and framing elements. di Suvero’s love of music and the placement of this piece near the music hall gave this piece its rather hard to fathom dedication to Handel. I was now running seriously behind time and would have to hustle to get up to Vancouver for the concert. Still I spent a few minutes with the remaining pieces that lined my path back to my car. There were two pieces installed just inside the library entrance, Scott Burton’s Two-Part Chairs, Right Angle Version (a Pair) a rather uninspiring (and uncomfortable looking) pair of rough hewn granite chairs.  Just up the libraries stairs from these was the much more interesting clock like Mindseye by Mark di Suvero working in a much smaller scale then his epic Handel. Back outside and walking behind the library was Mia Westerlund Roosen’s Flank II (1978). This piece is basically two triangular prisms made of concrete enclosed in a copper casing stacked on each other.  The effects of time on the piece are by far the most interesting aspects of the piece as its form and placement don’t do much for me.

The light was definitely well faded at this point and I was about an hour past the time on my parking permit so I made my way out of Western at a pretty fast clip. I did swing by  James FitzGerald’s Rain Forest, which was WWU’s first sculpture which was deep in the shadows and my photos didn’t come out. There is a good picture of this fountain (actually running as well which it wasn’t on this day) in the online guide. After this I quickly left campus and made my way up to Vancouver for the show. I made it with about five minutes to spare.  There were I think four pieces in Westerns vast collection that I didn’t see, these were all out in more far flung locations which would have cost me too much time to have seen. Another reason to return to this magnificent collection. You can see all of my photos I’ve uploaded from the collection in my WWU Public Art group on Flickr.

By the arts building is a little patio bordered by a small cove of trees.  This area had numerous instances of  student art, my favorite of which was this Andys Goldsworthy like piece in the trees.

By the arts building is a little patio with kiln's on it, surrounded by a small cove of trees. This area had numerous instances of student art, my favorite of which was this Andy's Goldsworthy-like piece in the trees.

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