Scene in South Bend: The Birdsell Project
Erin McAuliffe | Monday, January 25, 2016
Friday night, after circumnavigating the Commerce Center in search of a fire escape (the noted entrance on the Birdsell Project’s event Facebook page), I arrived at the student art reception in a panicked manner akin to the premise of the work — a response to space.
I descended cement steps into a small room where I was handed a pamphlet and assured that this was indeed a function sponsored by Notre Dame’s Teaching Beyond the Classroom grant, funded by Earl and Darielle Linehan, and not a cult gathering. Straight but disjointed hallways past shower rooms in the retired gym facility spit us out into a corridor with a window open to an installation of mirrors. Alas, our destination proved a journey as well.
The set-up was a sprawling maze in the basement of the Commerce Center — a power plant turned health club. While the space now houses numerous businesses, the basement was left untouched. Myles Robertson and Nalani Stolz started the Birdsell Project “to revitalize once abandoned spaces by opening them to artists and the community.”
“I would go and scope out these abandoned spaces whenever I got the chance and kind of imagine things, but it never really seemed like a reality,” Stolz said.
Eventually the dream came to fruition: In 2014, the pair started their project out of the Birdsell Mansion outside downtown South Bend, which hosted album releases, art installations and a student thesis entitled “Get Off” last year. As the mansion proved a hard building to climate regulate, the Commerce Center proved a promising winter alternative.
“When Myles and I heard the space may be a viable option for us to use we contacted Matthews, LLC about possible collaborations,” Stolz said. “Viable because it has the remains of a former power plant and health club which makes it a unique space for the viewer, but one that is hard to lease or use for much more than storage. Creating site-specific installations in the space presented a unique way to occupy the basement. Matthews, LLC was receptive to the idea and has allowed us to use the space for a number of projects and events.”
The discourse of “Can I touch this? — Don’t touch that! — It’s interactive” abounded at the exhibit on Friday. Some works enticed the viewer to engage: touching and immersing oneself in the work. Turrets held installations that allowed one to walk in and explore intimately, lights were assembled to encourage adjustment and mirrors hung in pieces — selectively twisting perspective. A specific example of audience integration was a piece that featured three females assembled out of mixed media and hung on a mirror. Viewers inevitably entered the work and were prompted to consider today’s standards of beauty and self-identity.
The overall atmosphere at the event buzzed with chatter and hummed along to South Bend musician Eta Carinae and Matt Teter’s electronic, lulling and jazz-inspired sound. There was an ever-present shuddering of “sorta creepy” mingled with harmonious “oohs.”
The space featured an array of rooms that existed on two sides of the center: a carpeted section featuring diagonal wooden beams that resembled a 1980s “Twin Peaks”-esque sauna (fitting the retired health center vibes) and a more desolate cement-based section (fitting the abandoned basement schema). Students were introduced to the space and its history in October. They worked onsite for three weeks leading up to their final critique.
Notre Dame sophomore Christina Allende reflected on her experience with the Teaching Beyond the Classroom initiative at the Commerce Center.
“Like with any subject, working outside of the classroom is vital to reach a better understanding — especially when it involves one’s creative process. We first saw the Commerce Center basement together as class and each chose a space we wanted to work in.
“I loved working on-site; being somewhere unfamiliar pushed me to be a little more adventurous. Most of us as students had never shown our work in the South Bend community, beyond campus borders.
“Essentially, our assignment was to respond to the space. It was quite open-ended, leaving us with the choices of concept, content, medium and style,” Allende said.
Issues like racism, beauty standards, police brutality, decay and fronting on social media were addressed. As the uniting aspect of the project existed more in process than message, students addressed all different aspects of society in their works. Some attendees found it all a bit hard to digest: met with all these issues in a space where no end is in sight felt overwhelming to some. However, it was this aspect that allowed me to fully immerse in the mindset and physicality of the project. Hit from all angles mentally and physically, I was left exhausted but introspective: external flooding of the senses and emotions forced me to sort and muse on things internally.
As there is the ever-present notion of the “Notre Dame bubble” and separation between South Bend and the student body, the project proved itself a great integration tool. This project specifically got students off campus, out of the classroom and into a place that encouraged them to push convention and spark creativity in freedom of expression.
Mark Welch, concurrent assistant professional specialist, worked with a Drawing I class at the Commerce Center last semester and spoke to the advantages of the collaboration.
“We take a very traditional, academic approach in the first part of the semester, really focusing on learning to see and to translate three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional surface,” Welch said. “That takes a lot of focus and there’s not a lot of freedom in those kinds of exercises. Transitioning to a more conceptual, experimental and contemporary approach takes a real leap of faith and a lot of trust. The students weren’t intimidated at all, though. They really rose to the occasion. Talking with the rest of the faculty who participated, there was a universal sense of pride in the students’ work.”
One of Welch’s Drawing I classes had the opportunity to partner with the Birdsell Project on a smaller scale in the Birdsell Mansion last spring.
“Students worked side-by-side with professional artists to research and respond to the history of that space and its former occupants,” Welch said. “That work was incorporated into a wider exhibition at the mansion entitled ‘Discord.’ So, we were able to showcase the work in that context.”
However, Friday’s event gave rise to a much larger body of work, involved more participants and saw more visitors.
“[Last semester] we didn’t have this kind of student-community interaction. Community participation was an expressly stated goal of this project and that’s the point of the Teaching Beyond the Classroom grant.
“I was really pleased and surprised with the turnout. We kind of lost count, but there were easily more than 300 guests in the course of the evening and probably 65 to 70 percent were students. It was great to see so many students off campus for an event like this and to see them interacting with the South Bend community. It was a very diverse crowd on pretty much every dimension. The Birdsell Project has a strong and dedicated following. Couple that with 50-plus students and their friends, and maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised to get such great numbers,” Welch said.
On the impact of the collaboration and the opportunities for students of any major to immerse more fully in the department of art, art history and design with the addition of the studio art minor, Welch predicts positive outcomes.
“Who knows, with this many students seeing the end product, maybe it will prompt someone in attendance to say, ‘Hey, this looks like something I’d like to be a part of.’”
The exhibit is open one final time at the Commerce Center (401 E Colfax Ave.) this Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.