At dusk on Sept. 12, the Museum District will welcome its loudest and perhaps boldest new feature when the Burchfield Penney Art Center opens a permanent outdoor sound and video installation it is calling “The Front Yard.”
The Burchfield Penney will break ground today on the ambitious installation, which will transform the zinc-plated facade of the museum into a year-round video projection screen at night and its small front lawn into a constantly shifting sound installation in the daytime hours.
Local video artist Brian Milbrand and architect Brad Wales pitched the approximately $435,000 project to the museum in November and worked with staffers and students from SUNY Buffalo State and the University at Buffalo to design and implement it. The Burchfield Penney is calling it “the world’s first permanent environmentally responsive, outdoor audio and video environment.”
It will feature three 24-foot steel and glass towers designed by a team led by Brazilian-born UB architecture student Isabel Brito and overseen by Wales. Each of the towers contains a 7,500-lumen video projector that will send an ever-changing series of images onto the building’s curved face along Elmwood Avenue. During the day, eight military-grade speakers will create a soundscape featuring sounds gathered from the places where the painter Charles Burchfield worked overlaid with spoken excerpts from his writings. The sound installation will also feature works by composers and sound artists David Felder, Lejaren Hiller, Cort Lippe, Harald Bode and others.
The complex installation will respond to changes in the weather and include projections of live events happening inside the Burchfield Penney or in other global art centers as well as curated videos from artists with ties to Western New York. Each morning and evening, it will play an ever-evolving series of sounds and images based on that day’s sunrise and sunset, drawing material from cameras and weather sensors installed on the museum’s roof and elsewhere in the vicinity.
The towers themselves, built to withstand hot summers and frigid winters, will have Burchfield paintings engraved on their sides – an attempt to link the work of the museum’s namesake to its progressive commitment to sound and video art. It will also take its main motivation – a concern with the changing of the seasons so central to life in Western New York – directly from Burchfield’s work.
“It will always be different because the weather’s always changing,” said Milbrand, who has been creating complex environmental video installations for years. “To have it be the same thing repeating over and over and over, it gets really boring quickly, so I wanted to make something that every time you went to it would be different.”
To that end, the series of images that will be projected onto the building will include work by dozens of artists with connections to Western New York, ranging from video pioneers like of UB professor Tony Conrad and the late Paul Sharits to new work by Milbrand, Dorothea Braemer, Jax Deluca and other active local artists. Artists will be able to upload new work on a daily basis, which will then be screened nightly.
For Burchfield Penney Director Anthony Bannon – who, as a filmmaker and writer for The Buffalo News, was a prime actor during Buffalo’s heyday as a laboratory for video and sound art in the 1970s – the project is a way to bring Western New York’s important role in the art world to the fore. The Burchfield Penney has consulted with video art pioneers like Steina and Woody Vasulka.
“The consultation has been wide, it’s been Buffalo-based, and it’s been with superstars around the world, people who come from here to fulfill a legacy that begins here,” said Bannon. He went on to compare the energy of Buffalo’s arts community today to the sense of community during its heyday as a destination for experimental film and video artists in the 1970s. “It was a phenomenal sense of community that is palpable in this town right now. This, I think, is going to be a big part of it, particularly because it’s so accessible.”
“I didn’t even realize that Buffalo had a media arts scene until college. I went to college and I started to see all these videos, and it was really mind-blowing to me,” he said. “To have this projected on the front of the building, I hope it does share the rich Western New York history with the community, and people can start to see and understand what Western New York has really contributed to the art world.”
The new installation will join a landscape in and around Buffalo’s Museum District that has evolved rapidly in the past several years. It will compete for attention with Nancy Rubins’ explosion of canoes and Leo Villareal’s blinking nighttime installation across the street at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, but will also give Buffalonians another reason to visit the Museum District when the actual museums are closed.
Burchfield Penney Associate Director Don Metz praised the Buffalo’s arts and philanthropic community for its assistance with the project, which was carried off in far less time than such installations ordinarily take.
“I find it extraordinary that the community can come together and do this in nine months,” Metz said.
Resources for the project were donated by Rick Smith of Rigidized Metals and Silo City as well as the LP Ciminelli construction company. M&T Bank provided the lead sponsorship, and the rest of the money has been raised in full.
“This is not a tiny effort, but we’re doing it for what amounts to a tiny amount of money,” Bannon said.
For Scott Propeack, the Burchfield Penney’s chief curator and associate director, the project will expose more people to the growing energy of the region’s art world. That concern with public access to the arts, echoed loudly by Bannon, Metz and Milbrand, seemed to be a primary motivation for doing the project in the first place.
“I think that society’s a bit more disparate than it used to be,” Propeack said, “so creating more locations where people come together and have conversations around art is essential.”