Fractures and Flight:
An Interview with David Colagiovanni
An artist whose engaging output spans gallery installation, new media, internet art, and video, David Colagiovanni’s work is a studied investigation into the bodily and spatial forces which tether us to the ground and which threaten to unmoor us. In the recent “Music for New Mexico,” Colagiovanni destroyed—or at least dented—a series of porcelain, glass, and metal bells by letting them plummet to a cratered surface somewhere in New Mexico. The result? A looped video sequence that plays with the film’s speed. As it picks up its pace, it suggests first a tolling, elegiac mourning for lost place, then a frenzied postmodern testament to place that is inseparable from YouTube documentation and an Internet audience, and finally a fractured unknowability of place that pays respect to the recalcitrant New Mexico landscape. The carnage is enrapturing as the bells implode, boom, violently fly off screen, squeak, gracefully toll, and turn to grainy powder.
Colagiovanni is the Artist in Residence at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at UNC Chapel Hill, where he regularly stretches the aesthetic possibilities of the planetarium with his work. He earned a master of fine arts from UNC Chapel Hill; earned a bachelor’s in studio art, sculpture, and performance from the University of Maine; and studied painting and drawing at Lorenzo De Medici in Florence and at Savannah College of Art and Design. For more on his work, see his website.
I try to make works that allow the viewer to stop or slow down for a bit. I’d like to allow them a moment to breathe.” –David Colagiovanni
CAMERON TURNER: You just got back from a new collaborative project in Youngsville, North Carolina, where, as in your similar 2010 project with fellow artist Melissa Haviland, “Music for New Mexico,” you shattered a lot of porcelain: dropping entire table settings of fine china from high up in the air and recording the results in exquisite detail with a RED camera at 100 frames per second. When and why did you first become interested in breaking things?
DAVID COLAGIOVANNI: Last summer Melissa and I traveled to Maine with a couple of teacups and the RED camera. We thought we would be able to catch a still of the moment a teacup splits apart when it breaks. Since the RED can record at 100 frames per second, we thought we’d be able to pull a still from the video, which we did. The downside to over-cranking a video camera is that you can’t record sound, so on one of the takes we recorded sound on an iPhone using the voice memo app. When we came home, we were looking through the videos and pulling out stills and synced the audio we recorded with the iPhone. We started editing and realized that the project was just as much about the sound as it was the image. The work began and progressed from there. We were lucky enough to have the RED camera provided to us by the Renci Center to take on our road trip to Carson, New Mexico a few weeks later. In Carson, we shot the first two works in “Music for New Mexico–Brass and Bells” and the first section of the work “Music for Teacups–Corelle.” We premiered these at the Southwest Film Center in Albuquerque later that fall in an AV Fest put together by Basement Films. We’ve recorded a few hundred teacups, gravy boats, creamers, and bells breaking since.
When we broke the first teacup in Maine, all we could talk about was breaking a whole set of china at the same time; and, with months of planning behind us and a generous Baker grant from Ohio University, we pulled it off this July, breaking seven full sets of china in rural Youngsville, N.C., on a former student’s horse farm.
TURNER: Where’d you grow up, and how does your early background as an artist inform your current work?
COLAGIOVANNI: I grew up in Massachusetts and lived for a while in Maine, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, and, most recently, Ohio. I’ve also road-tripped across the country about five times, visiting most states and seeing some of our country’s cherished landmarks (House on a Rock, Carhenge, Cadillac Ranch, The Corn Palace, etc.). I’m not sure if any one place has influenced me more than another, but I’ve gathered lots of inspiration and met some wonderful people along the way.
TURNER: You’ve described how one of your current goals as an artist is to make video more spatial, visceral, and bodily, which is evident in your innovative, immersive work at the Morehead dome. I love this idea, since planetariums often symbolize both a “magic lantern” escape from physical reality as well as a more thorough understanding of that reality when an audience witnesses the cosmos’s bigger picture. You’ve mentioned that your work is preoccupied with flight and escape; I’m wondering how you’ve engaged or played with the planetarium’s more didactic, educational, or grounding roles in your art at Morehead, if at all.
COLAGIOVANNI: The planetarium has amazing spatial potential. It’s also a space that transports us to the stars and other planets, a magic lantern (as you say), a time-machine, an education device, and much more. I am constantly thinking about its uses and history when I create an experience for the dome. My initial interest in working with the Morehead Planetarium comes from its history as an astronaut training simulator for the Apollo missions. From 1960 to 1975, The Morehead Planetarium was used to train American astronauts on celestial recognition. The training they did here allowed them to properly orient their spacecraft and successfully complete missions in the event of an automatic guidance or navigation systems failure. If you sit in the planetarium and look up at the dome, you are experiencing the same space as every astronaut who ever walked on the moon—an inspirational thought given that the Morehead serves about 90,000 school children per year and has had over 5 million people visit since it opened. My first work for the dome, “Charting Course for the Unknown,” is an homage to the Apollo astronauts and the surface of the planetarium. Like an early astronaut simulation, it describes a space that has yet to be fully explored.
In my earlier work with flight, I tell the stories of people who performed amazing and oblique acts of flight, in hopes that these become a memory or idea for the viewer. In the planetarium works, I want to transfer that feeling of floatation and freedom to the viewer more physically and bodily.
TURNER: In an interview from the 1970s, the land artist Robert Smithson notes that, “Photography squares everything. Every kind of random view is caught in a rectangular format so that the romantic idea of going to the beyond, of the infinite, is checked by this so that things become measured.” Do you feel like working with dome geometry circumvents this “squaring” problem, or have you encountered similar representational limits at Morehead?
COLAGIOVANNI: I don’t think it circumvents the squaring problem as much as it presents another, related spatial enigma. In its pure state, the dome is an amazing visual and auditory space. Imagine seeing a nature documentary at an IMAX theater. Let’s say the film is on the Grand Canyon. The scene starts floating above a flat landscape; and, as you approach the canyon, the view shifts down; and you’re hanging over the edge; and you grab tighter to your seat and perhaps lose your stomach as you fly to the bottom of the canyon. This is based on your perceived and physical location in space, what I refer to as “your body’s anchor.” The anchor is what grounds you so that, when you experience virtual space, you feel it as real.
There are things that can be achieved in a dome that are not possible on a traditional, rectangular screen or even the larger, curved rectangular screen of an IMAX theater. For instance, in the dome, the viewer could be looking straight up and feel like they are falling towards the ground. All this depends on how you set them up and where you first bring them visually. One of the most popular dome tricks is called a tunnel. The viewer is brought through a tunnel visually; and then, as they get through it, their view is widened until it becomes really expansive, really quickly, resulting in a feeling of floatation or loss of gravity. Another popular effect involves spinning, where the viewer is the anchor point and objects on the dome spin in a non-symmetrical orbit causing viewers to stick to their chairs and perceive a g-force.
When I started working with the Morehead, there was a lot of trial and error. Most shows for the dome are made with 3-D animation. For my show, I wanted to work with recorded video, so there was a lot of translation that had to occur to attempt some of these effects. For at least three months, one of Morehead’s dome show producers, Peter Althoff, and I spent a lot of time in the test dome, looking at short samples of the videos I was working on while he showed me how they would achieve certain effects using their process. This built a good theory and background for which I would record and edit my videos.
TURNER: What artists have influenced your current practice, especially your approach to place and space in your work?
COLAGIOVANNI: By far my biggest influences come from the people I work with. I’m a member of Team Lump, an artist collective out of Raleigh, North Carolina that works collaboratively and with a lot of cardboard. We recently put together a show called “Drop City” with another artist group from New Orleans, called The Front. In my planetarium works, I’ve been lucky to work with the composer and sound designer Thom Canova who is really thoughtful and experimental with sound. We are in-production on our second full-dome work now. Like we talked about earlier, I’ve been working with Melissa Haviland on the recent group of teacups, bells, and dinner music videos.
I’ve also been interviewing artists on video for the Nasher Museum of Art for four years. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview my good friend David McConnell while he was recording a work of sound art in a beautiful studio in Asheville, North Carolina. Being in the studio with him and plugging things into a patch bay, working with vintage microphones and gear, and learning about it has been a big influence on my current practice.
In terms of artists you may be familiar with, I’m a fan of Alan Kaprow, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Dick Higgins, Olafur Eliasson, Pipploti Rist, Hamish Fulton, On Kawara, Christian Marclay, John Cage, Mark Dion…. The list is kind of endless and evolving, but most of these artists work with space/place and time in interesting ways.
TURNER: In such an image-saturated culture, how do you envision your work breaking through the visual anesthesia and connecting with your audience?
COLAGIOVANNI: I try to make works that allow the viewer to stop or slow down for a bit. I’d like to allow them a moment to breathe.
Cameron Turner, Interviews Editor