Chapter 7. Mixed-Media Storytelling Installation: Embody

Brigid McAuliffe and Bryce Merrill

Brigid McAuliffe is a new-media artist and documentarian, photographer, and musician. She has exhibited her work in the United States, South American, and Europe. She is currently working on a cooperative art project with US and Iranian artists (IRUS). She is also collaborating on a multimedia, immersive installation on “ecological memory” at the Denver Art Museum. Her additional work is a visual and audio-based life history project, focusing on generations of women in the performing arts. She is also an accordionist with Bela Karoli, an internationally renowned music group.
 
Bryce Merrill is Assistant Professor of sociology at Indiana University, South Bend, where he teaches qualitative research methods, social theory, and social psychology. He has published numerous articles in academic and public media outlets on topics ranging from home music recording to narrative methods to industrial pollution and community. He is currently serving on the Publications Committee for the journal Symbolic Interaction and is co-editing a book on the sociology of music to be published in early 2010. His work now is an ethnography of volunteer organizers of a summer camp for young girls aspiring to be rock musicians.


Embody is a mixed-media—new and traditional—gallery installation inspired by oral histories of dance. Audio and video from interviews with women who perform percussive dance—jazz tap, Spanish flamenco, Mexican folkloric, Fancy Shawl, and West African dances—are projected onto four gallery walls and through panels of embroidered cloth. Looped with this video footage are animated thread drawings of silhouettes of the dancers. A live cinema and flamenco performance also accompanies the show. Created as part of a residency at an art organization where artists work with children from secondary schools that lack substantial opportunities for artistic engagement. The installation includes photographic “flip books” created by a group of middle-school girls.


The first author of this chapter, Brigid McAuliffe, a new-media artist, directed Embody.1 My work lies at the confluence of art, technology, and interpretive social research. I am inspired by ethnographic techniques that encourage a grounded understanding of people’s lived experiences. I commonly employ interviewing and participant observation to create a foundation for aesthetically engaging works. I value technology less for its intrinsic or novel qualities, and more for the ways it can enable captivating representational forms. Technology and ethnographic methods are merely tools I use to portray social worlds with empathetic, creative, and aesthetic sensibilities.


Embody is a community-focused and produced artwork. It was created at PlatteForum, an arts organization and venue in Denver, Colorado. According to its mission, “PlatteForum gives hope and direction to underserved youth who collaborate with master artists from around the world. This experience transforms the lives of the youth, the artists and the community” (http://platteforum.org). Seven girls from Clear Lake Middle School, along with their art teacher, joined me in creating the work. The girls interviewed, filmed, and photographed the dancers, and spent time with each dancer learning a few steps and dancing. Volunteers from the community and PlatteForum employees also contributed to the project in a number of creative and logistical ways. The dancers featured in the work are also from the community: Amanda Bishop, Spanish flamenco; Jeanette Trujillo and dancers from Fiesta Colorado, Mexican Folkloric and Spanish classical; Cathy Phelps and dancers from Baba Joda and Friends, West African dances; A.J. No Braid and daughter, Lara, American Indian intertribal dances; and Jan Sherman and dancers from Jan’s Happy Tappers, jazz tap. Embody tells their stories with their help and that of their community.


The work engages in a multi-sensory fashion with questions of cultural identity, gendered bodies and memories, and generational empowerment. The dancers weave together stories of their social and artistic lives, and, with a collaborative community, I cast these tales into aesthetic auditory and visual shapes. Part of the process of making Embody a public artwork inspired by qualitative research and some of the challenges for doing so are considered here. However, the visual record of the artwork that accompanies this chapter is the focal point.