Adam Kelly awaits the arrival of his breakfast at a cafe near his north end home. All around him, tables are occupied by groups of friends. Voices and laughter erupt often from one crowd, causing everyone else at the closely neighbouring tables to turn in curiosity, surprise or annoyance.
It's a common enough occurrence. But it's also one that illustrates the idea of interaction that Kelly will address in his work as the first-ever artist-in-residence at the new waterfront campus of the Nova Scotia Community College in Dartmouth.
From now through next May, the artist (who works with found and salvaged objects, especially electronics) will assemble his site-specific piece right on campus. At this early point in the residency, Kelly, who received his BFA from NSCAD University and, just last December, an Electronic Engineering Technician diploma from NSCC, is still working out the exact nature and scope of the project.
He knows it will be an "LED dot matrix display panel. Whether it's going to be a relief or a sculpture on the wall outside or inside I'm not too sure yet; whether it's going to be one or many of them."
The piece will emit "a non-repetitive emerging pattern that will change based on environmental conditions. So there'll be a variety of sensors that will measure ambient light or perhaps something quite simple: the movement of passersby will affect it in some way, or the temperature will affect the colour—if there is colour." Or another possibility is that "people's distance from the object could determine how bright the LED could be."
In the end, the possibilities are endless, a point at the heart of the commission, which Kelly won after responding to an open call for submissions. He underwent a rigorous evaluation process that involved making a presentation to a board of 20 people, which Kelly says he found "incredibly intimidating." It was supposed to take place in the atrium, where he would've stood in front of the seated evaluators, but the room's lights weren't working, so the meeting was moved—much to Kelly's relief—to the boardroom, where he sat at the table with everyone else. An interview "with about a dozen people bombarding me with questions" followed, once he made the shortlist. The commission was announced in June.
"I guess I'm a modest person in general, so I don't want to be an obtrusive thing," Kelly says. "There are five floors to the place and each floor is devoted to a different school . I'm interested in maybe having identical pieces on every single floor that would, in a very impractical way, measure the movement or activity on a different floor." So, in this scenario, students of one school, on one floor, would observe the activity of another, as indicated by the LED display. And in turn they would cause a distinct pattern on another floor that could be observed by others.
The residency and Kelly's time as a student at NSCC's Leeds campus both fit perfectly with his work as an artist. "My art practice is more about objects and the way people interact with them and value them. I came upon electronics because it seems like they're the objects or artifacts that people value the least—the moment it's inefficient or impractical it gets chucked."
Prior to formally studying electronics, Kelly scavenged (he was an early member of the Halifax Scavenger Society) for appliances and took them apart, following his intuition as he went. Kelly describes his approach to making art as "taking electronics that would otherwise go to waste and somehow re-purposing them."
In the spirit of re-purposing, Kelly has re-imagined his gallery as a repair shop, where people bring in a wide variety of busted electronics such as photocopiers, printers, VCRs and tape decks for him to try fixing. It's moved him to create "these robots that have no purpose on their own besides just being a robot and they're very inefficient." Kelly's work runs counter to consumerism, especially the rapid slide of electronics nowadays into obsolescence.
The residency is, in part, programmed to commemorate former premier John Hamm and past NSCC president Ray Ivany, two of the main drivers behind the new waterfront campus. "During the interview they asked me how this does that—you know, it's not a sculpture of them high-fiving or anything like that—and I was very frank with them: I said, "Maybe where this fails the most is that it's not thanking them directly or commemorating them in any way, but, for one, it's reflecting and respecting the way the building's been made.'" For example, taking advantage of all the natural light and sustainable practices built into the new space, Kelly will use solar energy to power his installation.
And what of the potential odd looks from the students? The artist is used to that, going back to his first day as an NSCC student when his class sat in a circle and shared why they were taking the program. "It came around to me and I said, "Well, I have a degree from NSCAD and I'm interested in electronics and I'm taking this to get knowledge and skills for my art practice.' And there was a really long and awkward pause. I wanted to be honest but it wasn't the easiest thing to do."
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