Conceptual artist Alicia Eggert uses words as found objects in her sculptural art — a body of work that serves as an ongoing investigation of time. Here, she tells us about taking her neon piece “You are (on) an island” to various locations in the world, shares how childhood experiences in South Africa sparked her fascination with time, and reveals how she thinks each person experiences time uniquely.
You live and work in Maine, but you recently toured a piece — which involves rather delicate neon sculpture — around the UK. How did this come about?
My collaborator Mike Fleming and I originally made “You are (on) an island (2011)” for an art festival called Sacred and Profane. The festival takes place on Peaks Island, which is off the coast of Portland, Maine. Every fall, on a weekend in October closest to the harvest moon, visitors take a ferry to the island to explore an abandoned World War II army battery, which artists completely take over with installations and performances. The battery doesn’t have any electricity, and people have to walk around and explore the dark, cavernous rooms by candlelight. So when Mike and I were brainstorming ideas for an installation, we started talking about using neon, and filling a whole room with light. We came up with the statement: “You are on an island” – with the word “on” blinking on and off, so it sometimes says, “You are an island.” We worked with Pat Boulduc of Beacon Neon to fabricate the text, and we installed the sign on construction scaffolding in the middle of a room that was completely flooded with water. It was pretty breathtaking.
We later posted documentation of the piece online, and an artist named Richard Wheater, who runs a gallery and workspace called Neon Workshops, in Wakefield, got wind of it. He wrote me an email out of the blue saying he thought it would be perfect for the UK, and he wanted us to bring it there.
But instead of just shipping the neon over and putting it on display in his gallery, Richard suggested that we take the sign on a guerilla sculpture tour, mount it on the back of a truck and drive it around Yorkshire, and take people by surprise on their daily commute to or from work. But neither of us had the money to pay for any of that, so we launched a Kickstarter campaign, and raised over $12,000. We shipped the neon to the UK in December and flew over in January to go on tour for two weeks.
Isn’t neon incredibly fragile, though? How did you manage to move it around?
Yes, it’s made out of glass tubes that are pumped, in this case, full of argon and a little bit of mercury. When the gas is electrified, it glows bright blue.
When we arrived in the UK we rented a flatbed truck, and spent the first few days erecting the sculpture’s wooden structure on the truck. We couldn’t always leave the glass letters attached to the structure, especially when we were driving long distances at 70 miles an hour on the motorway. So the neon was mounted to rails that could be lifted up and attached to the framework, but then brought back down to travel on foam in the truck bed when we were on motorways.
Our daily routine started with a trip to Neon Workshops, where we’d load the neon onto the truck. We would then drive to a certain location, unload a ladder and tools, lift the rails up onto the structure and attach them, and then wire everything up to a little generator. We’d try to do all that by dusk so we could get some really great sunset shots — also because you couldn’t see the neon very well during the day. We would then drive short distances around that area, and make photographs and videos in different locations. And then at the end of every day we would have to take the glass back down, drive back to Neon Workshops, store it in the gallery where we knew it would be safe, and then go to bed. It was quite a rigorous routine. But over the course of two weeks we drove all over West Yorkshire, drawing a circle around Wakefield, our home base. And we made a short weekend trip over to North Wales.
We were surprised by how many CCTV cameras there are in the UK. There’s definitely way more CCTV there, and a lot of police vans. And since we were doing the project without permission, we were unsure of what we could get away with and what we couldn’t. But whenever we did encounter a police van or a policeman, they normally just seemed curious, but didn’t even stop to ask any questions. By the end of the trip, we were driving right up onto traffic islands and down pedestrian shopping streets.
How did the public respond?
A lot of people asked us what it was and what are we doing. We would explain by saying, “This is art,” basically. We would hand out postcards featuring an image of the sign, and explain that we were invited to the UK to do this project by a gallery in Wakefield. A lot of people would say things like, “Oh, man. You have to go to this part of Scotland. It’s really beautiful. It would make a great photograph.”
One time we were parked in the Bull Ring, in Wakefield, when a family walked by, and I could hear a little girl say, “We’re not on an island, are we?” I actually heard quite a few people ask that same question, which really surprised me. I realized that people in the UK don’t feel like they live on an island because they don’t feel isolated. If anything, it feels like it’s in the center of the world.
I think people who live there forget that it’s an island because they think of it as much bigger than it actually is.
Exactly. I’ve taken the same sculpture to Australia, and the response there was very different. People would see the sign and say, “Yes. This is perfect for us because we feel so isolated down here. And even though Australia is a continent, we feel like we’re on an island, and this sign describes exactly how it feels to live here.”
It was really surprising to me to see how people responded to the statement very differently in the UK than they did in Australia, or in Maine where it was first on display. As artists, we can’t really have expectations about how people will respond to work. I’m often intrigued by how everyone’s response to the same thing can be very different.
Video above: “The length of now”.
Video below: “Now”: This kinetic sculpture’s red acrylic line segments align to spell the word “NOW” approximately once every second. Made with help from Alexander Reben. Video by David Meiklejohn.
How did you get your start as an artist, and how you came to play with the themes of time and language?
My background is in architectural design, but I took a sculpture class during my very last semester of college, which introduced me to conceptual art. I literally cried to the professor at the end of the semester because I felt like I had just wasted four years of school studying the wrong thing. But I went to work at an architectural firm in New York for a few years after graduating, and I eventually went back to graduate school for sculpture.
I’ve always been very intrigued by time. I can’t really explain why. I think it’s just because it rules our lives in so many ways, but at the same time it’s so hard to define. It’s not a tangible thing, even though we see the tangible effects of time. We have very few words that we use to explain it, and words like “now” are very ambiguous.
When I was a kid, I lived in South Africa for a few years because my parents were missionaries there during apartheid. South Africans had three different ways they used the word “now.” A simple “now” was a really casual reference to the present; it lacked any sense of urgency. “Just now” was even more casual. It’s like, “Oh, I’ll get around to it.” And then “now now” was a more urgent expression, meaning “This is happening right at this very moment.”
I think I’ve always had an interest in how people regard and refer to the passing of time, and how the language we use to describe time also structures our understanding of it. Time is different, not just culturally, but for every single person. I really believe each person lives in a different time universe.
I think of words as found objects, and I play with their forms in the same way Duchamp played with urinals and bicycle wheels. I began by giving words like “now” a physical form, and asking questions like, “How long is now?” For instance, I wrote the word “now” with a piece of string and then pulled it taut into a line, so I could measure the length of now. That led to other projects that allow language to change over time. And projects like “You are (on) an island” demonstrate how one word, or the absence of it, can contain a whole world of meaning.
Would you consider doing something similar in the United States?
Definitely. But the ability to tell people in the UK we were invited there was really empowering. It would be very different if we were to just decide to take the sculpture on tour in New York City, without receiving an invitation first. So I’m waiting to see what happens next, because I feel there are many places, many islands, the sculpture could travel to. But I would really like to receive an invitation.
Does the location partly dictate the shape of the piece?
In some ways, yes and, in some ways, no. I really like to make work that I feel is universal. The initial idea was inspired by an island in Maine, but the phrase “You are an island” applies to everyone, because no one can really know what it feels like to be another person. Mike and I have also had discussions about whether or not it needs to be shown on legitimate “islands,” or if every land mass is an island — and if you zoom out far enough, the Earth is kind of an island in the solar system; and our solar system is an island in the universe.
Video above: “Pulse Machine”: This electromechanical sculpture was “born” in Nashville, Tennessee on 2 June 2012, at 6:18 PM. The sculpture will die once the counter reaches zero. Made in collaboration with Alexander Reben. Video by David Meiklejohn.
Tell me about other work you’ve made about time.
I’ve made quite a few things to illustrate the concept of “now.” “NOW (2012)” is a kinetic sculpture whose red acrylic line segments align to spell the word NOW approximately once every second. The lines that create it slow down ever so slightly as the word forms, but just like time itself, they never quite come to a complete stop.
I’ve also made a sculpture with a human lifespan, called “Pulse Machine (2012).” It was made in collaboration with an engineer named Alexander Reben. We programmed the sculpture to have the lifespan of a baby born in Tennessee in 2012 — which, if you average the male and female life expectancy rates together, it about 78 years. Surprisingly, that’s actually a little bit lower than the national average in the US.
The sculpture is made up of two parts. A kick-drum sits on the floor, beating a heartbeat rhythm, and a mechanical counter hangs on the wall nearby. The drum beats the sculpture’s pulse, and the mechanical counter uses flip digit numerals to count down the number of heartbeats remaining in the sculpture’s lifetime. And there’s a battery-operated internal clock that keeps track of the passing time even when the sculpture’s unplugged.
Every time you plug the sculpture back in, it goes through a series of steps to determine how much time has elapsed, and the numbers reset themselves to catch up to the present time. The sculpture will “die” when the counter reaches zero.
Creating art means creating objects that, if people deem them important, will be saved for posterity after you die. But a lot of the work that I like to make, which is new media art and kinetic art, has moving parts and electronics that need maintenance, like a car. Even if you diligently maintain it, it probably won’t be able to run forever. So I was excited to make a work of art that’s intended to die, as a way of challenging our desire for things to last forever.
Video above: “Eternity”: A wall-mounted sculpture made in collaboration with Mike Fleming. It employs 30 electric clock movements and 36 hour and minute hands. Once every 12 hours, the hands align to spell the word ETERNITY. This video shows the piece 45 minutes before and after ETERNITY at 300 times the actual speed. Video by Mike Fleming.
So you’re a conceptual kinetic artist.
Maybe, although I don’t only make things that are kinetic. The kinetic aspect comes from my interest in time. I like to allow the artwork to change in the same way that everything else in the world is changing all the time.
I’m constantly figuring out what I’m interested in. But I’ve realized that in order to be making, I need to be learning. I’m not the kind of artist who can go to my studio and sit there by myself and expect ideas to come into my imagination out of the blue. I get my inspiration out in the world, from other people. I’m inspired by other artists, and as a professor I’m inspired by my students and other disciplines. And I have a feeling my work will evolve as I keep absorbing new information and discovering new technologies.
How’s it been to be a TED Fellow so far?
Oh, man. The conference was probably the most inspiring experience of my life to date — not just the talks, but meeting the people that were there to attend the talks as well. So many great minds were gathered in one place. I feel like I went to the future and I got a glimpse of what it might be like, and I got to meet the people who have the potential to shape it.
In that environment, I really had this feeling that anything is possible, and that we can all work together to solve the world’s problems. When I got home, I realized that, on a day-to-day basis, people don’t feel that same sense of empowerment. So it’s hard to maintain that level of inspiration. But the TED Fellows network is incredible. There are TED Fellows all over the world, doing great things in every imaginable discipline. And the opportunity to form relationships and learn from so many brilliant people is the best gift the Fellows program could have ever given me.