Water Stories: Visual Poetics and Collective Voices:  Anchorage Museum

“Ferry” by Jen Stever Ruckle, 2022. Image credit: Andrea Wollensak

Andrea Wollensak, Professor of Art at Connecticut College in New London is both humble and unwavering about her residency at the Anchorage Museum: “As climate change alters our experiences of the land around us, this project invites the public to consider the role of water in their lives. This multi-pronged project amplifies community voices and draws the poets voice in an interactive audio reactive system.” The voices amplified in her multimedia installation, Water Stories: Visual Poetics and Collective Voices belong to Alaskan poets, Erin Coughlin Hollowell and Jen Stever Ruckle; Mexican-born artist, writer, and researcher, Indra Arriaga Delgado; and contributing community members. Wollensak is a visitor in the Alaskan city and community engagement is her medium. The essential question: What does water mean? In Anchorage, it means livelihoods from oil, fishing, and logging that conflict with the need to protect our shorelines. Curator S. Hollis Mickey and Anchorage Museum director, Julie Decker invited Andrea Wollensak, creator and collaborator of Reading the Wrack Lines, to “extend and reimagine the work in an Alaskan context” in a 2021 yearlong residency.

Andrea Wollensak

In Andrea Wollensak’s 2021 Reading the Wrack Lines, “an environmental literacy and educational outreach” to “increase environmental literacy,” images and text were projected onto the University of Connecticut Avery Point Lighthouse. Her 2019 Open Waters collaborative and interdisciplinary installation was on view at the Burchfield Penney Arts Center in Buffalo, New York and at the Granoff Center Gallery on the Brown University campus. It focused on the impact of environmental and political changes on the Arctic. Her digital and collaborative site-specific work has won awards and grants in Iceland, Connecticut, Sweden, and Banff.

What does visual poetics mean?

According to Wollensak, “visual poetics is a term I’ve used to define past projects. Visual poetics in digital media combines visual work with poetry, it’s intermedial, and performative. Text forms and place-based imagery build the visual. Bringing these ideas together creates an inextricable merging of visual and verbal by employing software built as a system that draws the voice in an interactive live performance.”

“Aisling” by Erin Coughlin Hollowell, 2022. Image credit: Andrea Wollensak

Process

Water, climate control, and place are central to Wollensak’s work, and she never presumes to take centerstage. Her projects depend on collaboration with community partners who help her shape a narrative that focuses on environments impacted by climate change. For her work in Alaska, Mickey suggested two local poets, Erin Couhglin Hollowell and Jen Stever Ruckle. An organic seed for the multi-media installation took root from conversations Wollensak had with the museum and the poets about water and the shoreline around Anchorage. The ideas germinated, and the two poets sent her ten poems to begin designing the work. With their poetry in mind, she filmed spruce trees near Potter Marsh and the shoreline outside of Anchorage, while audio engineer Brett Terry curated sound recordings from the museum’s collection.

Collaboration

Wollensak’s frequent collaborators Bridget Baird (programmer) Brett Terry (sound artist) developed interactive generative art using Processing software to incorporate the poetic texts, site-specific video, and sound recordings. Delgado collected reflections from the Anchorage community that will be broadcast on Out North Radio as a part of the Collective Voices audio project. Oral storytelling has a long history in Delgado’s home state of Veracruz as well as her adopted home of Alaska. Public art and social justice underline her work so it seems natural to include Delgado who has been in Alaska since 2003.

Amplified Poetics
In October of 2021, Wollensak met online four different times with the museum’s Teen Climate Communicators, an Anchorage Museum after-school program. The high school students, who meet weekly, heard from UConn environmental science faculty members and held discussions about the impact of climate change on Alaska. In March of 2022, she met them in person and prompted them to write creative responses for the Water Stories installation. 

To provide a wide scope of voices for the audio component of the installation, Wollensak and Delgado invited community members to pen or record their reflections about water in their lives. A toddler shared the importance of filling her red bucket with water from the river while an elder reminisced about fishing with his grandfather.

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Binocularby Erin Coughlin Hollowell, 2022. Image credit: Andrea Wollensak

Visit

Water Stories will open November 4 2022 at 6:00 PM as a live interactive poetry reading event and will be projected on the façade of the museum throughout November nightly from 6:00 – 10:00 PM as the culmination of the yearlong project. Listen closely and you will hear barnacles clicking, glaciers calving, and underwater hydrophone recordings from Potters Marsh and the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. Images of the Alaskan coastline, overlapping phrases, and key words from Ruckle’s Swan Lake Fire and Hollowell’s Aisling, layered by audio-reactive digitally-rendered shapes that resemble ocean-worn stones, snowflakes, and shards of ice will be projected across the second floor of the museum. In the dark of the approaching winter, visitors will be immersed in the multi-media experience.

Inside the museum’s auditorium, on opening night at 6:30 PM, join an evening of poetry expressed through sound and projection. Accompanied by an interactive video, the two poets, and the high school students will share what water means in their lives. Jen Stever Ruckle will read Swan Lake Fire, Ferry, Potter Marsh 1, Potter March 2, and Cha’atanhtnu, while Erin Coughlin Hollowell will read Aisling, Wrack Line, Instruction for compass truing, Choreographic, and Binocular. Ongoing throughout November, museum visitors can don a pair of headphones to hear twenty community voices share their personal reflections.

“Swan Lake Fire” by Jen Stever Ruckle, 2022. Image credit: Andrea Wollensak

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