It was an ambush of aesthetics—a hijacking of the moment. And, admittedly, it was pretty cool.
Minutes ago, whole groups were quietly sauntering their way through a west-side art exhibit during the monthly Gallery Stroll. Now they are standing outside, eyes gazing at a large white tarp stretched across an old loading dock. This makeshift screen displays all manner of brazen, king-size imagery: a woman wielding cans of spray paint, ancient looking icons, and modern art shadow-play that recalls funhouse themes.
Yards from the dock is a blond man, noodling with a slide projector in the back of his beat-up Ford pickup. Like a gene-splicer on his weekend night out, he’s dressed in a white lab coat. So are others belonging to this mad-art posse, who wait in the wings, surveying the effects of their impromptu experiment.
But it wouldn’t be half as exciting without a soundtrack. So naturally, a free-form electric jazz combo has been enlisted as well. And as they blare away in accomplice to this brazen scene, the gathering crowd can only wonder: “What the hell is going on?”
A lot, as it turns out. The members of Borrowed Walls wouldn’t have it any other way. Long before arriving at this west-side location, they hit four other places, including a wall near the Red Rock brew pub. And long before that, they blended photographs and sculpture for an exhibit in a deserted building. Then, last November, they mixed video art with music and open-mic poetry. Their productions might not always work in the most compelling ways, but they are tactile in a manner that simple art exhibits are not. Like a small, clandestine cell of urban art guerrillas, Borrowed Walls holds art hostage in a way that demands a ransom from your attention.
Formed out of the kind of discussions that keep artists up all hours of the night, and bonded by a conviction that art must be forever evolving, this team of five doesn’t want anyone’s grant money. They don’t need galleries. They’d rather have the thrill of new locations, or the challenge of untested art combinations. It’s about taking art out of its usual contexts and environments. And, if the spirit of a project warrants, it’s about shaking some reaction.
“When more ideas come out of a show than went into it, then we know we’re succeeding at a certain level,” says Tamrika Khvtisiashvili, a video artist with Borrowed Walls.
The remaining four members of Borrowed Walls—glass artist Eli Powell, woodworker Phil Sherburne, painter Jon Bean, and photographer Angela Brown—tend to agree. Since they utilize only revolving locations for their multi-media shows, it makes sense that their interview is mobile. Smoking cigarettes, they answer questions while strolling downtown Salt Lake City sidewalks.
Arguments arise constantly when new ideas for shows are kicked about, but they soon settle into common ground. Borrowed Walls may be the only group in town that hosts benefits to raise money for its own larger, non-benefit shows.
“We’re not about shock art. We’re not about making waves just to make waves,” Sherburne says. “We’re trying to bring art alive by combining different arts—things that might never come together in a formal setting. What we do might be similar to a rave, but it has more substance than that.”
Khvtisiashvili interjects, noting that what the group does changes the way art is fundamentally perceived by an audience. There’s a theatrical quality about staging art as an event of disparate elements. Galleries, on the other hand, tend toward more static elements, where paintings, etchings and sculpture remain isolated and predictable. It’s a bit like watching a film for the second time: You know what’s going to happen.
“This is about setting people into action, and getting artists to do things they wouldn’t do if they’ve reached a dead-end in their own work,” she says.
Borrowed Walls is already looking beyond Salt Lake Valley for collaborators by posting notices on the Internet. Tentative connections have been made with artists in San Francisco for future projects.
For now, though, the group is happy with pushing the hometown envelope. As projects become more grand in scale, however, their vision becomes a little more cohesive. It’s a double-edged sword, explains Powell, the glass artist. Especially when a project is so all-encompassing in size that you need a city permit to borrow a public park.
“Going through those motions inherently makes it a more focused affair,” Powell says. “For this one we’re really going out of our way.”
Indeed they are. Words in Transit, the latest installment in the Borrowed Walls saga, will incorporate a video installation by Khvtisiashvili, members of the University of Utah’s modern dance troupe, music by the Iceburn Collective, and poetry from just about every verse-smith in the valley, including the award-winning Yale Younger Poet Craig Arnold. In fact, the only thing missing this time around is the kitchen sink. And even that might be thrown in at the last minute. “It’s ambitious,” Powell admits. “The goal is to have enough similar ideas expressed through all these distinct media.”
The only drawback is the scale, which subtracts from the element of surprise. That’s what made their Gallery Stroll slide-show sabotage at the west-side docks such a delight. But those have risks as well.
“It’s always been in the back of our minds that someone could be unhappy about us doing something unannounced,” says Bean, the group’s painter.
Sherburne concurs. “We say that because we don’t want to get shut down in the middle of a show,” he says.
So far, so good. And as the group hones its organizational skills, the artists are generating better ideas for themes. A prospective project built around “childhood fears” is already in the works. All manner of props flood their collective mind: monsters under the bed, night lights, bogey men.
“We knew we hit a nerve when someone brought that subject up,” says Brown, the photographer. “People either stumbled over it, or joked about it.”
Sherburne chimes in once more, nearing the end of his cigarette and the walk through the city. “We haven’t run out of ideas yet, so we don’t need to repeat anything,” he says. “We could create an environment where fears are instantly confronted.”
Be afraid. Be very afraid.