Static electricity attracted Oakland artist Anja Leonora Ulfeldt partly because people don’t love it. No one wants static in their laundry hamper or winter hairdo, and the simple electric force can build up and destroy computers or — in super-rare cases — cause gas station fires.
The five interactive sculptures currently on display at three-month-old gallery Satellite 66 were built during Ulfeldt’s residency at the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s not-just-for-kids museum of science, art and human perception. Visitors to the show will turn small cranks on each piece, generating static electricity to ring chimes, illuminate tiny lights or make feathers float. Like exhibits at the Exploratorium, Ulfeldt’s pieces elicit surprise and delight in one’s ability to participate in a phenomenon inaccessible without the help of a device.
Ulfeldt’s focus on static electricity encourages the viewer to linger closely, to delve into various expressions of just one natural force. Participants are also pushed closer to the pieces by necessity in Satellite 66’s intimate gallery space. Part of a larger movement in business and the arts to revitalize the Central Market Corridor, tiny Satellite 66 shares an address with sister gallery the Maltese Embassy on a gritty stretch of Sixth Street between the Baldwin House Hotel and the San Francisco Barber College. The space may gain some foot traffic if the neighborhood becomes more of a destination for art seekers. Satellite 66 will likely draw those with an interest in both art and technology — the gallery specializes in the intersection between the two.
While our growing dependence on smartphones is a topic of frequent discussion, casual conversation doesn’t often turn to our longer-lived attachment to less flashy appliances like refrigerators. Yet we’re totally inconvenienced by the failure of these basic mechanical aids, too. In order to maintain our normal way of life and avoid the feeling of helplessness associated with a power outage, we need our bedroom lights as much as we need our computers. By mimicking human behavior with simple machines, Ulfeldt intends to investigate our relationship with technology defined more broadly than the newest updates to iPhone and Kindle.
In Everything You Touch, static generated by the hand crank causes bunches of feathers mounted on top of the device to spread their thin plumes delicately and gracefully. Because the feathers are charged with static, they also reach out for your complicit fingers with what feels like silent desperation. The organic and unpredictable movement of a lone feather in Animated Life #5 feels human, and the little wisp’s manipulation by a sleek, precise machine is on display inside a cold, transparent tube. Silly enough, I found myself wishing I could help the feather escape. Whether you see them as tortured or whimsical, the most basic movements of these feathers are totally dependent on power generated by the circuit.
Ulfeldt’s intent to bring non-living objects temporarily to life gives the work a distinct melancholy. The feathers move only when the crank turns, and their human-like quality suggests that we’re plugged in, too — but this doesn’t feel like a dogmatic condemnation of human frailty in the face of machines. The structures are beautiful, and there’s simple pleasure in using an invisible force to make a feather curl, float and undulate. While tempered with a dose of gloominess, the work is ultimately a celebration of science and a small static-y window into a deep history of technological advancement.
Anja Leonora Ulfeldt runs through November 12, 2011 at Satellite 66, 66 Sixth Street in San Francisco. For more information visit satellite66.org.