It might well be that greyer skies, earlier nights and cooler climes are wont to lull one rather readily into tendencies for nostalgia-tinged readings of everything. That is, it might be in part thanks to the modes and moods of the season at hand that this viewer found The Raft, a collaborative video installation by Rico Gatson and Chris Larson, currently on view at the Pierogi Boiler, to be such an unexpectedly moving, particularly transfixing trip down memory lane—or down a river, as it were, of the same name.
Straightforwardly, even relatively simply conceived, executed and presented, The Raft is an enveloping polyptych of video projections that immerses viewers in its imagery, music and mixedly emotive content without—and this seems quite crucial—overwhelming them. A projection whose fulcrum-like function makes it, in effect, the exhibit’s primary, centerpiece-like one shows Gatson and Larson from above, sitting amid a couple turntables, some crates and scores upon scores of records. One of the artists chooses a record and plays it while the other waits his turn before doing the same, and so on as such for a three-hour stretch. They sit, they sip drinks, they shuffle about here and there—on occasion to tool around with or reposition a camera—but for the most part they play records while grooving along with the tunes only just barely, in general by gently bopping their heads. All this action, so to speak, and its related apparatuses drift back and forth, meanwhile, literally and metaphorically—for the artists’ musical choices, too, in a genre-related sense, are absolutely vacillatory—atop a 100-square-feet wooden ‘raft’ of sorts, one on wheels that is consistently tugged from one side to the other of Larson’s spacious studio in St. Paul, Minnesota. Variably profile-focalized, variably zoomed-in cameras stand to either side of the artists, and what they capture provides the projected matter for the centerpiece’s lateral visuals. The fourth projection, then, shows some migratory foliage and stellarly glistening sparkles of sunlight undulating, at once delicately and energetically, atop a swath of water in the Mississippi River—which is in the general environs of the piece’s locus of creation.
All the projections are basically wall-to-wall huge and set a bit high, such that viewers are more or less forced to look up and around from one to another to make sense of things, piece visuals together, see what changes and what doesn’t, and so on. In a sense, it’s all a grandly visio-musicalized arrangement of musical arrangements, and since the projections activate a considerable stratum of the Boiler’s prodigious space, they truly serve to engage and engulf it with their visuals and sound. And yet, since all the images and implements sway back and forth in so many ways—the raft itself, the artists’ active modes as alternating DJs, their grooving and bopping, the flow from one kind of music to another, the leaves and shimmering sunrays atop the water—viewers aren’t likely to feel as though they’re inundated by or drowning in the same, but rather calmly floating, wading and swaying, harmoniously adrift therewith. Here, in a way, is where The Raft becomes not only something quite unlike what it initially seems, but also something much more empathically transcendent than one might expect from its billing. While it might well bear some of its alleged relevance to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in certain ways, and while it certainly does evidence how important music is to Gatson and Larson as artists and friends, it also creates a most effective atmosphere for viewers to feel transported in space and time. Visuals take them away, setting them asway, while the music—ranging from folksy fare to hip-hop, from jazz to rock and roll, from tunes of six or so decades ago to much more recent recordings—will resonate with everyone a little bit differently. If your preferences don’t range as far as the artists’, much of the music will have you recollecting other times and places all the same. By the same token, if your tastes are anything as varied as theirs, you might not know how to pull yourself away. Depending also on how easily you emote, you might want to have some tissues handy.
Without doubt, there are plenty of ways in which The Raft could inform a great many sociocultural and political discourses. Much like the music it contains and enlivens, the piece ineluctably opens itself up to rich conversations about history, economics, creative antecedents, race. And without doubt, the installation itself could perhaps be a bit further fleshed out to be even more absorbing—the raft itself could been on site, maybe rotating like a huge Lazy Susan, or the artists could explore ways for viewers to somehow interact with the musical choices or video feeds in some way. The Raft as it stands, or floats, doesn’t necessarily need such additional critical, interactive or physical padding, but a further iteration of the piece—museums, cultural institutions, public art venues, take note— could likely benefit artists, viewers and exhibitors alike by truly opening itself up beyond the limiting confines, as it were, of a creative duo collaborating in a studio. All that aside, The Raft is quite a treat as it is: a sparkling gem of an almost placeless place in which to spend a bit of timeless time, listening to music and sitting adrift in thought while taking a pleasant trip—downriver—along memory lane. And now a certain Nas track comes to mind.