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Peterborough

Making a statement

Peterborough artist explores the line between objectifying and empowering

  • Rachelle Beaudoin's electronic chastity belt was created for a performance called "That Obscure Object of Desire" in 2007. <br/>Courtesy Photo
  • Rachelle Beaudoin looks on as Sam Faller views Beaudoin's "Peterborough Picture Show" at the 2012 Thing in the Spring festival.<br/>Photo by Steven Roberge
  • Rachelle Beaudoin, left, and an unknown woman share a back-to-back massage, using one of Beaudoin's altered backpacks, on a sidewalk in New York City.<br/>Photo by Jeanne Jo
  • Rachelle Beaudoin sings with Felix Seidel, using Beaudoin's karaoke backpack, during Peterborough's Thing in the Spring festival in 2011.<br/>Photo by Steven Roberge
  • Rachelle Beaudoin, left, and an unknown woman share a back-to-back massage, using one of Beaudoin's altered backpacks, on a sidewalk in New York City.<br/>Photo by Jeanne Jo
  • Rachelle Beaudoin sings with Felix Seidel, using Beaudoin's karaoke backpack, during Peterborough's Thing in the Spring festival in 2011.<br/>Photo by Steven Roberge

On her website, Peterborough artist Rachelle Beaudoin describes herself as “a new media artist who uses video, wearables and performance to explore feminine iconography, role modeling and ‘raunch’ culture.”

That’s a serious sounding mission, which Beaudoin says she accomplishes with a healthy dose of humor and face-to-face interaction with people who may not think of themselves as an audience.

For example, in 2011 Beaudoin wandered through downtown Peterborough during the Thing in the Spring event, wearing a backpack she had altered to hold a karaoke machine, asking people to sing duets with her.

“That piece was what I’d call participatory art,” Beaudoin said last week, shortly after returning from a 10-week visit to an artist colony at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass, Colo., where she worked on a number of video projects. “It’s about the social interaction that takes place. People were going to the shows. But didn’t know they’d be asked to participate. People were a little bit shy, but there were more who did it than you might expect.”

Another project a few years ago also drew a lot of attention and is featured on her website, www.rachellebeaudoin.com. In 2007, Beaudoin roamed the streets of Providence, R.I., wearing her custom-made “butt shorts” — the kind of tight shorts with a slogan running across the back that are popular with some teenage girls. But Beaudoin’s slogans, none of which are appropriate for printing in a family newspaper, are quite explicit.

“It was meant as an experiment, and that piece is still relevant today,” Beaudoin said. “Wearing those clothes can be just inviting yourself to become an object. I’m wondering where the line is between empowering girls and objectifying them.”

Next year, Beaudoin’s most recent project, “Positive Affirmation Underwear,” will be the focus of a two-month artist-in-residence program that she will be heading up in Vienna, Austria. Beaudoin, who is a lecturer in visual arts at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., has received a Fulbright Grant to serve as an artist-in-residence at Quartier 21, a center for contemporary art. She’ll be working with an all-women and transgendered group of people, who specialize in do-it-yourself projects, to develop a wearable technology art piece.

The focus of the residency will be to expand on Beaudoin’s ideas for using electronic circuitry in clothing. She’s already designed several such garments, including underwear that will talk to the wearer.

“For example, when you close the bra, a circuit will play a prerecorded affirmation, like “You are beautiful” or “You are genuine,” Beaudoin said. “It’s about taking back the private space of the body. Instead of the types provided by Victoria’s Secret, you can provide your own messages.”

Beaudoin said the garments are intended to be functional but also thought-provoking.

“The wearable stuff is on the fine line between function and art,” Beaudoin said. “There’s an element of humor, too. These aren’t things I want to mass produce. I’m trying to create a metaphor.”

Beaudoin’s interest in merging clothing and art was piqued when she was studying digital media at Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2007.

“I took a textiles class there,” she said. “I just start by thinking about projects, then I study the technology. I’ve learned a lot about sensor technology and how to build simple circuits.”

Beaudoin has used that knowledge in a number of projects in addition to the affirmation underwear. One of the tamer pieces is a “sonic hug hoodie,” which plays music when someone gives a hug to the wearer.

A bit more exotic is what Beaudoin calls an “electronic chastity belt” — an undergarment that emits a non-lethal shock to anyone who touches it.

“An early version used electric fencing,” Beaudoin said. “Another just uses embroidery thread.”

She said she wore the belt in a performance for classmates at RISD where she invited members of the audience to try to take it off.

“There’s a short video of the class,” she said. “One guy worked to unbuckle it. He kept getting these little shocks.”

Beaudoin, 31, lives in Peterborough with her husband, Steven Roberge. She graduated from Holy Cross, where she now teaches, in 2004. In addition to her work with textiles, Beaudoin said to look for her at this year’s ‘Thing in the Spring.”

She may adapt a weighted vest that she built during her Colorado visit, to which she attached cameras, a phone, toilet paper, hats, gloves — everything needed to survive a winter outing.

“I was originally thinking of it as a workout vest,” she said. “I also did a workout based on trees, so I may do something in Putnam Park. We’ll see what happens.”

Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or danderson@ledgertranscript.com. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.

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