Unburdening a Load

How I Repurposed an Orange County Museum of Art Installation by Chris Burden and Got Myself on Academic Probation as an MFA at UCIrvine

In the summer between my first and second years at the University of California, Irvine, I took a job at the Orange County Museum of Art as a preparator. My first assignment was to deinstall the Chris Burden piece A Tale of Two Cities. The piece filled an entire gallery and consisted of thousands of toy tanks, planes, boats, jeeps, robots and soldiers engaged in an epic battle across a desert wasteland. We, the crew, spent the first week extracting, cleaning, cataloging, and packaging all of the individual toys which were then stored in the museum vault. The next week was spent dismantling the “desert wasteland” which was composed of several pallets of garden-supply flagstones and sixteen tons of sand. All of this was to be discarded.

Preparators are generally artists and always underpaid, so when a show closes it’s a scavengers free-for-all to claim materials before they are scrapped. The stones were divided up between those who owned homes to landscape their yards. But nobody wanted the sand. Technically, the museum was responsible for the disposal of the sand, but this would require the time and energy of one of the staff members and its weight was too great for the dumpster. Instead, a rudimentary pen was assembled in the back corner of the parking lot and with wheel barrows and buckets we trucked the sand out of the museum and into the newly constructed enclosure where it would remain indefinitely. This was just the tip of the iceberg, though. Every week of that summer we filled the dumpsters to capacity with MDF pedestals, acrylic vitrines, crates, dry wall, paint supplies, cardboard, plastic and packing materials. Nothing was conserved, nothing was recycled, save what we, the crew, scuttled home.

I returned to school after my summer of sand with a deadline looming: my second year show and subsequent review. It was 2008 and the shit was hitting the fan. The economy was crumbling, gas prices were rising faster than the ocean levels and global temperatures were hotter than public outrage.

And there I was pursuing an MFA in a Studio Arts program at a major university. The cultural landscape was shifting and this now seemed like the most absurd thing to be doing. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to be an artist anymore. I didn’t want to make art and I certainly didn’t want to work in the art world, yet this was my career trajectory, the pinnacle being institutional acquisition and canonization, or, failing that, full-time museum employment. But after years of working the back end of museums and galleries, I found the art world to be as unsavory and irresponsible, albeit on a smaller scale, than any other industry. I didn’t want to make and care for select objects collecting dust in climate-controlled vaults nor did I want to contribute to the growing mountains of trash. Many of my peers were making work that was “ecological” and “political”. But this was only ecological or political in representation, in content not form. They were failing to take into account the material means by which their work was created. I was in a bind: how does one create art without contributing to our political and ecological miasma? I didn’t want to make work that was about a political situation. I wanted to make work that was a political situation. The turning point for me was at a performance art review.

This event was held at a popular venue in Los Angeles and featured dozens of artists strutting their stuff. The work ranged from an artist who was bricking a wall with Band-Aids to another bathing in while simultaneously imbibing an aquarium filled with red wine. I was attending this performance review to see two of my friends Learning to Throw a Chair. That was the title of their piece and the activity in which they were engaged. They stood approximately 12 feet apart in the center of the gallery and threw a chair back and forth to one another for several hours. It was electrifying. I felt frightened for them for improperly catching the chair would mean being skewered by one of its steel legs. I also felt frightened for myself and other audience members for a slip on either end would send the chair spinning into the crowd. Nothing was expended here but energy. It was beautiful and simple and used materials readily available without cost. Rather than snickers, it prompted a joy-in-the-face-of-death laughter from the audience. My friends were creating an exquisite moment by “merely” moving an object from one place to another.

I returned to school and took stock of things. My preferred method for doing this is to take long walks. On one such peregrination I found myself behind the Drama theater. Stacked against their dumpster were lengths of pressure-treated 2x6s and sheets of plywood ripped into various geometric shapes. These were clearly dismantled stage risers and props. I would later learn that these materials were used in the production of Last Days of Judas Iscariot. I fetched a friend and a cart and we stashed this supply in the wood shop.

I wanted to convey the same immediacy and urgency as I experienced viewing Learning to Throw A Chair. But, I’m painfully shy. So performance was out. I wanted to repurpose scavenged materials, specifically the salvaged lumber from Judas Iscariot, but I didn’t want to fall into the tired tropes of bricolage or assemblage. So sculpture was out. What I needed to convey was a sense of time. And what better, albeit clichéd, material than sand? And I knew where I could find 16 tons of it.

I began designing the Sandblaster, as I came to call it. My first prototype was quite small and trough-like, to be situated at waist-height. What I wanted to achieve was a slow trickle of sand that would last the entire duration of the second year show, 3 weeks, so that, when the show opened, I would start the timer and sand would spill-forth until the close of the exhibition. I experimented with a small batch of sand and found that, due to its irregular consistency, I couldn’t accurately control the flow rate at such a small scale and for such a long duration. I accepted the impossibility of this approach and opted instead for a daily timer. This would require me to arrive at the gallery as it opened every day and reload the timer with sand. But I still had to reconcile the fact that watching sand slowly pour on the ground was not very engaging. I needed to make it more dynamic.

My father is an amateur musician. Every few years he acquires a new keyboard and gives away the old one. I had in my possession one such keyboard, a gargantuan Yamaha with hundreds of buttons and effects. I never played it yet I carried it with me from city to city, move after move. It was perfect. I would position it under the falling sand to produce a tone. Not only would its incorporation into the project add the missing dynamism, it would free up some space in my studio, too.

Meetings ensued regarding the details of the upcoming exhibition. At one of the early gatherings I informed my classmates of my intentions. Several had reservations and one of the more vocal students adamantly refused to allow it in the show stating that the noise it created would interfere with visitors appreciation of the art on the walls. Debate ensued and when an impasse was evident, I politely withdrew my proposal and instead opted to situate the piece outside the gallery. This worked to my advantage as I could now fabricate the Sandblaster at a much larger scale, add an amplifier and really crank the volume. I redesigned the structure, departing from the horizontal trough by going vertical with an hourglass shape, it’s height just over eight feet. The final touch was the green paint, a donation from the University Gallery, a left over from a previous show.

I installed the Sandblaster in the Studio Art courtyard at UCIrvine over the course of three days in March. I loaded the Sandblaster with approximately one ton of sand and at “magic hour” on each of these days, I pulled the plug in the cradle and released the sand. Through trial and error experiments, I managed to construct the cradle of the Sandblaster so that its flow rate was roughly an hour. Over the course of that hour, the weight of the sand began to play a chord which progressed in volume and complexity as the pile grew. Once the cradle was emptied of sand, I would slowly fade out the volume on the amplifier and bring the performance to a close.

At the outset, I created a Craigslist post offering one ton of free sand with delivery and lumber, wholly ready to assemble a sandbox in someone’s backyard. The first response was better than I imagined: the Child Development Center on Jamboree Road in Irvine, a school for children with autism and other learning disabilities, wanted the sand, and more, if more was available. I went to the school and met with the director. She showed me their sandbox, which was not only scant but filled with crushed gravel, most often used for driveways and walkways and not well-suited for play.

At the end of the three days of performance, the Sandblaster was dismantled and the sand was delivered to the Child Development Center. A friend and I made multiple trips to the museum that day loading his truck with sand and shuttling it to the Center until the sandbox was topped off. Returning to school, I distributed the lumber among undergrads in the wood shop for use in their projects, much of which was recycled into their Senior Exhibition a few months later. I cleaned the keyboard with compressed air and donated it to a local Goodwill.

The response to this piece was polarizing. Many of my peers attended and stayed through each of the three sessions. Yet a handful refused to acknowledge its presence even though it demanded attention and was situated in the center of the main thoroughfare. Classes were still in progress when I would launch the Sandblaster. The sound was so pervasive that it was impossible to ignore the activity occurring outside. Many of the faculty brought their students out to watch and listen to the performance and a few later thanked me for livening up the art quad and providing a teaching moment on the power and potential of public art. A few teachers grumbled about the disruption, but only one stormed out of his classroom, demanding an end to the noise. He was quickly dispatched by his colleagues in attendance.

The most extreme reaction to Unburdening a Load came from my review board: Bruce Yonemoto, Kevin Appel, Monica Majoli and Julie Carson. I was promptly placed on academic probation. Their reasoning was first, that the piece was not displayed inside the gallery and therefore did not meet the requirement of participation in an exhibition, and second, that in the end, I did not produce a tangible object.

The Child Development Center contacted me several weeks later to inform me of the significant changes occurring at their school. Previously, students wanted to stay inside during recess and play video games. Now they were rushing outside to play in the sandbox. The sand was much more comfortable and inviting than the gravel and had the added effect of renewing interest in all of the playground activities.