Melissa McGill, Artist

10.9.14 Beacon, NY

I heard it from a distance. A clapping sound. It stopped — there was silence. Then I heard the clapping again. It stopped. And suddenly the sounds of nature emerged. It was breathtaking.

Interview & Photos: Kate Orne

UD:  It's interesting that you're not only an artist; you're also a photo editor.

MM:  In essence, that work helps support my own art projects like Palmas and Constellation. It gives me independence. I do creative consulting and photo editing for photographers. I feel really fortunate to work with amazingly talented photographers and great photo agents in NYC, LA and beyond…

My main goal here is to help photographers find the strongest "voice" in their work and present it in the clearest way possible. I think I'm the only creative consultant who comes from an art background, doing this kind of work. Most others come from the advertising world like magazines. I really love supporting their creative vision.

McGill's Palmas

Isabel del Dia at Russel Wright's Manitoga

UD:  So the new art is more about public onsite installations instead of galleries?

MM:  Yes, for many years I have shown my work within galleries in the US and abroad. That is where my history is, and I look forward to continuing to work in all kinds of contexts! But as you've noted, my current work reaches out to a more public audience. These new projects by their very nature are more open to the community at large.

McGill's Campo Box (Santa Maria Formosa)

The artist working on her next project Constellation

In her studio

UD:  What changed from presenting in galleries to going out in public?

MM:  When we moved here, and I was immersed in this landscape, I was inspired. I became more and more interested in what art can do in the community. And I had a few art experiences that really influenced me….

Two in particular, seem to stand out for me at this time of transition in the work. The Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim, which was called, What is Progress? That had an enormous impact on me — that show was a tremendous experience.

I grew up going to the Guggenheim; I'm from New York. But that was the best use of the Guggenheim I've ever experienced; the way that particular project invited interaction between people to create a collective experience — progressing up the spiral ramp, talking with strangers as you go and sharing this experience together— it was incredible. 

The other big influence was seeing Robert Irwin speak at Parsons and hearing him talk about his career, which started out in painting and became more and more about perception. He said, "We know the sky's blueness even before we know it as "blue", let alone as "sky".

I then started working on my own projects that invited the viewer to participate, which led to Palmas and the upcoming Constellation project.

McGill and her geraniums.

UD:  So can you tell us about Palmas and describe how it was "birthed"?

MM:  Palmas is a project that is inspired by the rhythmic clapping in flamenco, which is essentially the heartbeat of flamenco. Many people don't pay attention to it because it's going on behind the exciting dancing and the guitars.

My project focuses on the accents and pauses and space created in flamenco clapping. I felt very connected to that part of the performance.

One time, many years ago, I was making a presentation on my work and was paired with an ornithologist from Cornell University, who was talking about the communication between finches. She explained that there is just as much information in the pauses as there are in the chirping sounds. John Cage also talks about these silences…I love that.

Palmas started 11 years ago when I was on an artist's residency in Andalusia, Spain. I traveled to Seville, Cordoba and Granada, and I sought out any opportunity I could to see true flamenco. I stayed out until four o' clock in the morning, drinking Tinto de Verano. [laughs] I was trying to capture the essence of the Palmas in ink drawings, but they were not very good. As the years went by, I often thought about of this idea of Palmas as a work that could be experienced.

Not long after that trip to Spain, I invited Arturo Martinez, a professional Palmero and flamenco guitar player, to come to the studio to work with Paul Geluso, my sound engineer and me. I had this video from the 60's of Carmen Amaya, who's probably one of the best flamenco performers that ever lived. I showed Arturo the video and he put headphones to listen to the "Bulerias". We recorded him doing improvised rhythmic clapping along with the video. But we can't hear the song that they're doing through the headphones; we just heard his palmas.

McGill in Russel Wright's former studio during her residency at Manitoga

So when Allison Cross, the founder of the Artist Residency Program at Russel Wright's Manitoga, in Garrison, New York invited me to be the first Artist-In-Residence, I knew what I wanted to do. Well, Russell Wright was the first Artist-in-Residence, but I am the first one in this current program. [Laughs]

Immediately, I proposed the idea of doing a surround sound installation using this recording with Arturo. I also wanted to do a live performance project— which I had never done before. And she, being the fantastic supportive person she is, said, "Okay, let's go for it. " The Palmas project had been simmering in my mind for several years, and the Manitoga setting was an unbelievably perfect match. The natural amphitheater of the quarry pond is such a perfect and inspiring setting for this.

I had the great privilege to work with an exhilarating group of flamenco performers to create a live performance project on site. A custom made stage was built into the pond, along with custom acoustic platforms around the pond's edges, so the dancer's footwork was amplified, and they could perform in the landscape. The performance was designed so that the sound reflected off the water and rock faces. Call and response patterns were featured between the performers and also between the performers and the natural environment.

One of many sensual moments of the Flamenco

UD:  Describe the experience of Palmas, the surround sound installation.

MM:  You will hear the rhythmic clapping, and it will stop. Then suddenly you will hear natural sounds of frogs or birds, the wind rustling in the trees. You might hear the waterfall when it's flowing. A distant freight train goes by on the other side of the river. And you will hear the rustling of squirrels going through the trees. You hear all these sounds, but you will hear them more with Palmas. Because the clapping frames the space so when the clapping stops, you're suddenly paying more attention.

Barbara Martinez and Sol "La Argentinita" at the quarry pond listening to Palmas

UD:  That "framing of sound" is a powerful experience since we have so much noise that goes on in our minds.

MM: Precisely, and you're also invited to see things differently as you experience Palmas. You turn your head this way and that way as the sounds are coming from different directions. Then you suddenly notice that the water dripping from the moss seems to be in sync with Palmas. You see the dragonflies flying around the pond's surface, and they look they are dancing. Then there's a little inchworm that's crawling, and it looks like it is wiggling to the beat.

But the thing I love most about Palmas is this unifying thing that happens with nature, which I could not have predicted. That's the beautiful thing that happens when you really work in the site; you work with what's happening there already, and it comes together and becomes something new.

And many visitors to Manitoga have told me that they have seen this site differently with Palmas even if they've been there many times. I have learned so much about Russel Wright's vision, and it's very inspired by his ideas, about working in the landscape WITH the landscape.

Sol "La Argentinita" at the cliffs of Russel Wright's quarry pond.

UD:  He was very much a naturalist.

MM:  Yes, this site was a devastated landscape, a former quarry when he bought the property. He brought it back to life. He created the pond; he chose where the house would be, and he made all these wonderful paths through the landscape. Palmas invites you to explore; you are part of it. It invites you to wander around the paths to have a new experience in this beautiful historical place.