BAM/PFA’s Fluorescent Green Past

Bay Area art collective Will Brown is plotting a glowing, green installation at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive that reimagines a moment in its history.

On June 12, a green light will emanate from 2626 Bancroft Way, the building that formerly housed the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The light, which will be caught in the air by floating fog, will be the last beacon of life to emerge from the building. The same green light will emanate from beneath a 1974 Toyota Corolla, parked outside the museum and filled with archival materials from throughout BAM/PFA’s history, as if some kooky curator had been building a home inside of it. The green light will also illuminate the pages of a leather-bound book placed on a table in the Morrison Reading Room in UC Berkeley’s Doe Library. The one-of-a kind tome will hold textual ephemera from the planning of a historic Dan Flavin installation at BAM/PFA called “untitled (for Gretchen, a colorful and fond match)” and a recent reconstruction of the piece for MATRIX 259 — made up of the aforementioned mysterious art installations — by the San Francisco art collective, Will Brown.

The original piece first appeared in 1978 in the show Dan Flavin: Drawings, Diagrams, Prints and Installations in Fluorescent Light. It was a site-specific stairway installation made up of 28 green fluorescent light bulbs hung horizontally from the ceiling to create a disorienting green glow. The installation stayed up after the exhibit closed, until it was taken down sometime in the 1980s. During its residency, one could see a constant green shaft of light emanating from a skylight in the museum’s roof, caught in the air by the steam coming out of an elevator shaft.

The story of Flavin’s piece, which has amassed its own mythology over the years, is the type of little-known historical narrative to which Will Brown is often drawn. The collective’s members, David Kasprzak, Jordan Stein, and Lindsey White, are prone to highlighting the subjectivity of art history and subverting traditional notions of what counts as a piece of art, an exhibition, or a gallery space.

In Will Brown’s former gallery in the Mission District of San Francisco, the collective once presented a retrospective for the performance artist James Lee Byars, who rode in a taxi past the Guggenheim Museum at 100 mph for one of his pieces. The 2013 show was called The Ghost of James Lee Byars, and consisted of an entirely empty pitch-black room. “Like a crypt, the exhibition contains the remains of every proposal, every un-photographed action, every ‘perfect’ sculpture, every speeding taxi, and, given the title, perhaps even the artist himself,” reads the exhibition statement.

Like the Byars homage, Will Brown’s tribute to Flavin calls attention to the intangible aspects of art — in this case, the emerald aura that glows residually within the memory of the institution even after the fluorescent lights have been turned off. In a similar way, the site of the installation is also intangible. The work takes place within the glow emitted from the building’s roof, in the imaginations of pedestrians who encounter the car out front, and within the correspondences published in the artist book. Rather than being made up of the objects presented, the installation is the narrative constructed within the mind of the viewer who is challenged to piece them all together. In a recent interview, members of the Will Brown collective said that they’re unsure whether they would even refer to any of those objects as works of art. Rather, the medium they’re experimenting with is the exhibition itself.

MATRIX 259 will also feature a fictionalization of Flavin’s life in the form of a play written by acclaimed writer Kevin Killian called A New Light on RiboFlavin. The play was newly commissioned for the exhibit, and the members of Will Brown will be part of the cast. The free performance will take place on the night of June 12, during the reception from 6­–8 p.m. The actors will begin in the sculpture garden outside of BAM/PFA and move around the exterior of the building as the story progresses — like ghosts haunting the empty structure, recalling a past that never was. The production will underline Will Brown’s efforts to exploit BAM/PFA’s state of transition, employing the institution’s current lack of a physical site to emancipate the concept of the exhibition from the confines of what is typically valued as art.


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