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Art Outside-in on the Bluff 

The second annual Outer Roominations

click to enlarge Visitors swing on Gretchen Schuster's love seat and love letter-writing station.

Photo by L.L. Kessner

Visitors swing on Gretchen Schuster's love seat and love letter-writing station.

It was raining lightly and a little windy when I arrived with a friend at Outer Roominations for the third and final day of this year's site-specific installation and performance festival on the Bluff in Loleta. The weather didn't detract from the playful and enthusiastic atmosphere of the event, for which more than 30 local artists labored to construct immersive, intentionally ephemeral artworks and appreciate the wild outdoors of Humboldt County.

This was Outer Roominations' second year on the Bluff and Leslie Castellano states the first event was birthed from conversations between the organizers about a need to find creative ways for people to safely come together, even with the continuing pandemic. Presented by Synapsis, a Dreamaker project of the Ink People, with a grant from the McLean Foundation, "Outer Roominations invites people to wonder about the world and to see what might be possible in their environments and in their communities differently," explains Castellano. "There is a window or door or room to enter into a shared space where the everyday meets with the fantastic. Through the event, we also celebrate and pay artists for their contributions, valuing their labor and knowing that art and culture invite new opportunities for sensing and being together in the world."

My friend and I slipped and slid a little in our boots, and I reflected on the feat of carving trails and little rooms into this rugged landscape. Outer Roominations was not a gallery display strategy transported outside, but rather an activation through art of a natural context with its own very large personality. The walking paths directed event-goers so some installations felt as though they existed in their own private spaces. In contrast with the bombastic spectacle of many art installations of the moment, Outer Roominations felt intimate, sometimes subtle and even contemplative. Since the artworks were only intended to be in the landscape for the weekend, many were not built for the elements. The inevitably of their disintegration, should they be left just a little longer, made them operate on my mind like vanitas still lifes. I was aware of their fragility and that the landscape was in charge.

Many participating artists landed on similar solutions for working with the environment: material dangling from branches, assemblages of found objects and objects d'art, and DIY craft constructions, which resulted in a fairly unified aesthetic throughout. There were exceptions, however. One visual standout was a metal sphere by Lucas Thornton that, despite being a direct analog to steel garden balls one can order from Home Depot, somehow transformed its surroundings into an other-worldly, vaguely mystical fairy or crop circle. Sitting in this context, in a natural ring of slightly taller grass and wildflowers in a field, it became a fragment of some mysterious, future technology.

Installation art aims to put the viewer within the work, which was surely happening at Outer Roominations. For me, though, the overall effect was closer to the intentions of some minimalist works, specifically the plain cubes in museums that many people love to hate. Those works, more playful than is sometimes acknowledged, make the movement of the viewers around them the art. Many of the works in Outer Roominations pointed my attention in a similar way to what was going on around them. Not being in the neutral, white cube of the gallery, the action around the objects was not just that of the viewers; it was the action of the environment. Land art in general does this but much of it draws attention to space, whereas here I attended to the living land and plants and weather.

On our way out of the event space, I wandered up to a tree with a sign that invited me to enjoy a ride on a swinging loveseat and to write a love letter. The love seat, hanging with ratchet straps from a sturdy branch, was wrapped tightly in plastic tarps to protect it from the rain, which had recently subsided. I realized I'd never actually written a love letter and considered. I've found I tend to benefit whenever I un-coolly set aside my reservations and just do what is suggested. So, I took this opportunity to sit on a wooden stool I found behind a tree (definitely not there for this purpose) and write a sincere, open and very real love letter. In doing so, I thought of things that would almost certainly not have been on my mind that afternoon. And the experience was nothing short of cathartic.

I imagine nearly all the installations at Outer Roominations held the potential to lead a viewer/participant into a similarly profound, personal and otherwise unprompted experience. And that, to me, is what the whole thing is about. As I finished up my letter, the artist Gretchen Schuster, who'd created the installation, strode down to the trail to remove the rain shield from her love seat. My friend and I and two other visitors, strangers to us, then took turns swinging and pushing one another through the air on the suspended sofa.

L.L. Kessner is an Arcata-based artist and writer.

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