MacDowell Downtown: The intersection of words, visual arts, electronic media

Artist and poet Johannes Heldén will present digital art Friday at Peterborough's Bass Hall, as part of the MacDowell Downtown series.

Artist and poet Johannes Heldén will present digital art Friday at Peterborough's Bass Hall, as part of the MacDowell Downtown series.

In our digital age, new media art is challenging traditional notions of artistic expression and blurring the lines between artist and audience. The latest edition of MacDowell Downtown will showcase this exciting evolution, Friday night at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture, with what Johannes Heldén calls “interactive poetry.”

Heldén, who is currently in residence at The MacDowell Colony, will present new digital art that explores intersections of poetry, visual art and electronic media. His investigation of various disciplines has resulted in installations and exhibitions in Norway, his native Sweden, Scotland, The Netherlands and The United Kingdom, among others.

Trained as a visual artist, Heldén received his master’s degree from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2004, where he first started incorporating text into visual arts. He said that grew naturally from writing poetry while he studied — a practice that led to his publishing eight books of poetry.

“These two things kept happening at the same time,” said the resident of Stockholm, “and kept meeting…. At first I kept trying to keep them separate. But as the years go on, I realize, I really need to listen more closely and decide that when the text should be part of a project, to include it.”

One example of Heldén including text in that process is a piece entitled “Elect,” an interactive digital video. The web-based version opens with a solitary tree that slowly appears as a mist clears, accompanied by blurred lines of text and birds flying in and out of its branches. Once a few words appear below the frame, it becomes clear the viewer must do something, take an action, to advance the revelation of the poem. Clicking on various parts of the image eventually reveals a complete poem.

Calling it “interactive poetry” that enables the viewer to make discoveries along the way, Heldén said the next step in the piece’s evolution is to create a three-dimensional installation using a sculpture of the tree mounted before a screen or large touchpad. The viewer would use a wireless mouse or the touchpad to interact with it.

While at the MacDowell Colony, Heldén is working on digital art for a literature festival in Norway as well as an LP of electronic music. He is also intrigued by the nearly completed expansion to Savidge Library at the colony and plans to photograph it for a future project on nature’s relationship with civilization. Describing the building’s large windows, he explains that “nature is almost rolling inside the building. I like the atmosphere in libraries and felt like I wanted to explore it.… I like the contrast between the old and new as well.”

This past November, Heldén exhibited a three-dimensional interactive piece called “Natural History” at “Remediating the Social,” an exhibition at the Edinburgh College of Art that culminated a three-year European project exploring electronic literature. His installation was a group of sculptures of islands mounted vertically on a nautical chart that served as a screen upon which phrases were triggered by the viewer.

“Sometimes the text comes first, sometimes the other art comes first,” he said, explaining his creative process. Heldén traces his fascination with writing and literature back to his childhood in Katrineholm when he would read English-language science fiction with a dictionary at his side, in essence, teaching himself the language along the way.

“I didn’t draw all the time, but I did read all the time, so story is always important,” he said. “I’m interested in telling a story, but not in a traditional way.”

Heldén’s work includes sculptures he calls “collages in separate layers” involving books separated from small sculptures by acrylic sheets, and books with altered covers he arranges on shelves so the text on their spines tell a story.

Pushing the boundaries of digital art, he has also been collaborating with a friend back in Stockholm who writes computer code. The idea is to create a program that analyzes Heldén’s written and musical work and then emulates his process.

“It’s meant to replace me totally,” he said, only partially joking. “It would be weird if it worked perfectly…. It should be a failure of course, it couldn’t be anything else. But hopefully it’s a good failure.”

The public is welcome to discover for themselves the extent of Heldén’s digital art and what he means when he says, “I’m looking to mix three-dimensional stuff with digital content.” He’ll present a selection of works and read some of his poetry accompanied by music on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Bass Hall at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture.

MacDowell Downtown, a series of free presentations by MacDowell Colony artists, is presented the first Friday of each month from March to November. Doors open at 7 p.m.; refreshments are served. For more information, visit www.macdowellcolony.

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