The Gentle Oraclebird – a post-project review

Earlier this year, I was invited by my friend Lisa to bring an installation work to a gallery in Columbus she worked with, 934 Gallery. I immediately agreed, and we spent the next couple months talking about ideas that would be possible to install in a fairly short period of time.

My decision to embark on this as a solo project had several factors – I would not have the time to fundraise enough money to bring a crew in, even on a volunteer basis(I still feed and house my volunteers), I did not feel like I would have the mental and emotional capacity to run a crew given my tight schedule…and life, and I wanted to see if I could do it. In addition, the amount of build would be significantly limited by time and transport options, so it would have to be a “small” installation(by my usual standards).

My interest in divination, and especially at the intersection of science fiction and new human rituals, comes from a lifetime of passing through or being adjacent to religious spaces(Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu…there have been quite a lot!), but also from more recent influences like my friends Pam Wishbow and Stasia Burrington, who have built compelling new divination concepts, and/or evolved older ones in new and interesting ways. The specific cultural tradition that I feel the Gentle Oraclebird board draws a direct lineage to is the Chinese tradition of kau cim, something that I’ve been lucky to have experienced since I was a child.

I knew I wanted to build a project that explored new human rituals, and I was leaning towards doing something gentle, and kind and …soft. A lot of my previous work is meant to be a bit unsettling, even if there have been recurring themes like human tenacity and generosity.

A lot of the initial ideas that grew into the specific aesthetic and concept of this installation came during a retreat that I help run on Quadra Island, Wayward. During the first week, I built this small oracleboard, that is read by tossing stones. I picked up that piece of red-brown driftwood from the beach, and basically planned the entire aesthetic of the piece around that. During the second week, I began work on an Oraclebird deck of cards that I already knew I would try to integrate into an installation.

When I got home, I began thinking of how I might want to expand that small wooden oracleboard into something larger and invitingly interactive.

Ultimately, I went for a fairly literal interpretation, and essentially enlarging it. I spent a lot of this time thinking of how to break people out of the art-audience model and into art-participant mode. There is basically no barrier at all at events like Burning Man(which is why it was actually a huge relief here to build art that wouldn’t have to account for assholes climbing on, and trying to actively destroy, your art), but in a gallery setting, visitors have simply been trained to not touch the art. In this case, I WANT visitors to interact with the divination pit, by throwing the ball into the bowls and matching them up with their fortunes.

Here are my first working sketches of the Gentle Oraclebird “divination pit”. I made these in early August. At this point, I was already quite certain that it would be a floor installation, and that I would build a “pit” inset into a raised wooden floor. I had also decided that I would be using the Oraclebird fortune cards, and that they would be mounted in wall boxes.

Most of my work from this point forward was finishing the card deck, which would be the fortunes, which is probably the most integral part of the installation. I wrote all of the fortunes while thinking of what I wanted this installation to be, which was a kind and supportive sort of new divination system. Like I was joking about on Twitter – therapists tend to say that I am emotionally closed off, but I’m trying to build a love letter to my friends with 400 linear feet of lumber over here.

I also wanted to include some people that would not be able to make it to the show, so I built an Oraclebird twitter bot! The build process for that bot, as well as a list of all the card fortunes, are in an earlier blog post. If you were a person that followed a lot of my work(and has a good memory), you might have noticed a small glimmer of the Oraclebird(Gentle the Oracle evolves into becoming the Gentle Oraclebird once her story passes through time and becomes a bit more mythologized) as well – she appears here and here.

The work that I did before heading to Columbus was mostly the interior of the divination pit, which would break apart for easy shipping. These boxes are constructed pretty simply, with bought bamboo wooden food bowls as the “divination bowls” and then mounted in 1’x1′ boxes I built myself. As a side note, Rustoleum’s gold spray paint is very nice and reflective.

All of the things you see above were shipped to Columbus, costing about $200+ via regular USPS. It costs more to do so via gallery shipping services. Below are smaller saleable art pieces that I also made for the installation. Since I didn’t have the time to fundraise or do any grantwriting for this installation, I knew I would have to try and recoup some of my costs by making some affordable art pieces and merchandise.

When I arrived at Columbus, I was met with a surprise! I had thought that I would be building in the gallery’s “installation room” and was told that I would actually have the entire gallery! This was both nervewracking and exciting but I was definitely not going to turn down the chance to build a second installation! But, of course, I had to build the work I was already there to do. That was at least, going exactly as expected, which is to say that I loaded 400 linear feet of lumber into a rented Toyota Camry and the room that I was building in was definitely not built with consistent dimensions(this was expected, and totally fine). As you can see, I decided on a simpler “boardwalk” style for the platform surrounding the divination pit. The structure itself is very minimal, although if I was building somewhere that was not a gallery setting, I would reinforce it all a bit more.

Meanwhile, I spent a couple hours mulling over ideas for the other installation in my head. It went in many ridiculous directions, which I will not bore you with. Instead of putting things down on paper, which makes me commit to them in some regard, I actually just…think…and I only start planning on paper once I’m pretty sure I’m going to go forward with an idea. In this case, I’d been thinking about labyrinths for a bit.

The last time I was in New York, I walked a labyrinth in Battery Park with a friend, and they explained the whole concept of labyrinths – which are not mazes, but rather a unicursal pattern often used for private meditation. Since the Oraclebird show is about adaptation of ritual, I decided that I wanted to  build a labyrinth, of sorts, on a large wall of the gallery. Instead of walking, because we are constrained by gravity, it is meant to be followed with…eyes. The path will be mostly unambiguous, although there would be small alcoves that contain fortune cards that reflect the ones in the primary Oraclebird installation, as well as vintage fortune cards.

The Oraclebird’s Labyrinth would be meant as a personal space built to store her most treasured moments to meditate on. In this way, the entire installation would explore both outward ritual meant to serve a community(the divination pit) and inward ritual, to serve self. I wasn’t expecting to do this, but it very much corresponds with the belief that you simply have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. Thus, I decided to live this by ordering whatever fancy delivery food I wanted to to keep my mood up over three long solo build days.

From this point onwards, I’m working on both installations simultaneously, which is actually how I enjoy working. I also meet a great cat named Bepis.

The rest of the build is fairly uneventful. I realize that the heavy croquet ball I bought for the divination pit was far too cringingly loud, so I replaced it with a weird little twig ball I got at Target, which is actually more aesthetically perfect. I’m not sure you can see the blue grid lines in the picture, but the labyrinth installation was built by painstakingly drawing a grid on the wall first…but after that, things got easier(lots of fiddly little cuts of wood getting measured to fit, but that is something I’m not bad at).

I had brought vintage postcards, pictures, and fortunes to create a collage of the Oraclebird’s life on one wall of the divination pit installation, but I moved them to the labyrinth instead. The labyrinth became a way to plot out and store the Oraclebird’s life and fondest memories, which felt really perfect for the tone of this work. All paths lead home.

On the last day, it rained. I still had a lot of wood to cut, and the shop was next door and…that sucked. It was fine, though!

Overall, the build went very well! I am very grateful for Lisa and Abby and the gallery for giving me space to explore and build. I finished the installation on the day before opening, which was earlier than I expected.

Here are some pictures of the Oraclebird’s Divination Pit and the Oraclebird’s Labyrinth.

I made a hand drawn paper map for visitors to the installation, to give them directions for the installations, and for the practical need to include prices somewhere! Once a zinester, always a zinester. Here are some pictures of that map, as well as the other parts of the installation. I basically expanded out the work I meant to have in just the installation room to some other walls. It was actually really nice to give my art so much room to be experienced, even if I do like my usual sort of cramped style.

Throughout opening night, I watched as people played with the divination pit and walked away with their own fortunes. Many people told me that their fortunes were “surprisingly accurate” which was really wonderful to hear! Several people told me that the fortune they received was exactly what they needed to hear. In one delightful incident, a man wanted to roll the twig ball twice to see if he would get a different fortune, but got the same one twice.

I am very pleased with how this installation turned out, although I will admit that I really love my labyrinth the most…because designing and building it in less than three days feels like a really good accomplishment. But overall, I set out to tell a story about new rituals and kind fortunes, and I did it. I am forever grateful to Lisa and Abby at 934 Gallery, especially Lisa, my longtime friend and host, who gave me a ridiculously comfortable bed to sleep in and a very nice cat to cuddle. I am also endlessly grateful to all my Patreon subscribers who give me a financial cushion to be able to experiment with work like this.

And now, I nap.

 

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