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LAUNCH PAD // Signal Culture (Owego, New York)

There is often a separation between historians and makers, even in academia. We wanted to bring together passionate makers, thinkers, writers, and builders, to give them opportunities to meet, learn from one another, and potentially collaborate.

What is the road between a first idea and the launch of a new residency program? In LAUNCH PAD we are checking in with Emerging Program Institute alums and Emerging Program Members to hear about the challenges, triumphs, and many surprises on the road to launching a residency.

Signal Culture was launched in 2012 by Jason Bernagozzi, Debora Bernagozzi & Hank Rudolph as a residency for experimental media art where innovative artists, toolmakers, curators, critics, and art historians could connect and make new work. For this LAUNCH PAD, we spoke with Debora Bernagozzi on the first year of Signal Culture - from building off the history of the wobbulator, to supportive mayors, and much in between. 

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AAC:  You launched Signal Culture as a hub for experimental media art. Where did this idea begin and how did you see the program in relation to other residencies?

Debora: When I was an undergrad in 1998, I attended the International Student Residency at the Experimental Television Center (ETC), and it changed both my artwork and my life. The studio had new digital tools and older, handmade analog tools, but the most important thing was that these tools worked in real time. You turned a knob or moved a lever and saw instant change. This improvisational, physical approach to working with media as electronic signals, not just something you changed by clicking a mouse then waiting for a render, was a revelation. I went back another year as a student, then had repeated individual artist residencies there, eventually introducing my now husband, Jason Bernagozzi, to media art through ETC. Jason and I also did individual residencies through Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo, NY and a 3 week combined residency in Malaysia, each time amazed what a lasting impact these experiences had on us.

In 2011 ETC ended their residency program after over 40 years. This left a huge hole in the media arts community. About a year later Jason and I began to conceive of how to provide that sort of transformative opportunity we’d had to others. We immediately got in touch with Hank Rudolph, who had been the Arts Coordinator, both training artists on the equipment and managing/maintaining the studio at ETC since 1984. We knew there was literally nobody else in the world more suited to working with us on this, and were relieved when he came onboard as our other co-founder.

While we are heavily indebted to ETC, we did not want to create ETC Part 2.  Whereas ETC had a single artist resident (or team) for 5 days, Signal Culture has building community as part of its mission. We were inspired by older models of media practice. Back in the 70s, having access to a portable camera or the machines with which to edit or do image processing, was beyond the financial reach and technical expertise of most people, so artists often worked together in collectives or community centers.

Today, people often create media in isolation on their phones or laptops. We’d also noticed that there is often a separation between historians and makers, even in academia. We wanted to bring together passionate makers, thinkers, writers, and builders, to give them opportunities to meet, learn from one another, and potentially collaborate. At Signal Culture, artist residencies typically last a week, and running concurrently we alternate between researcher and toolmaker residencies, which have lasted up to 3 weeks. My husband and I live downstairs and share a kitchen and dining room with the residents. We don’t have any paid staff yet, so this enables us to be there as tech support, housekeeping, and members of this community we’re building. We typically have Saturday evening dinners with local media arts people, and every 3 months we have a lunch attended by people from all around the region - from Buffalo to New York City. We also are producing exhibitions to bring Signal Culture residents’ work to people around the world.

Many residencies that are open to media artists don’t provide any equipment, just space, or if they are in media arts centers tend to be production focused facilities. In those situations, artists have a defined project, they need access to specialised equipment or tech help, and they go get the job done. At Signal Culture, we encourage people to experiment, play, and be in dialogue with the tools. Residents engage in a process of discovery and can be as physical and responsive with their media making as someone would be who is drawing or sculpting.

AAC: In your first year you hosted over 40 artists, researchers and toolmakers in residence from around the world. Tell us more about bringing together this first group of artists. What were the unexpected outcomes or challenges?

Debora: We decided that the first round of residencies from January through August 2014 would be by invitation. We chose people who had excellent work, with varying levels of experience working with this type of equipment. We found that generally when artists had a high level of craft and solid thinking behind their work, they were able to excel in our studio environment regardless of experience in the medium. We’ve been thrilled to see the interactions between the artists and the researchers or toolmakers, as close friendships have formed and we’ve already seen a collaboration.

We’ve since had 2 rounds of calls for artists and researchers and a first call for toolmakers. We’ve had a great response already, with only 27% of artist applicants getting spots this round. We’ve already had people from 6 other countries!

We’ve been amazed at what an impact these residencies are already having on people’s careers. Jax Deluca and Kyle Marler, our very first residents, began their FLATSITTER collaboration at Signal Culture a little over a year ago and have already had international exhibition opportunities and have received grants from work produced here. Several artists have changed their home studio practice to incorporate real time media equipment into their spaces. Others have overcome years of opposition to start working with a software or hardware they’d thought uninteresting.

Our most surprising and challenging issue is that we expected to start off with a very modest artist studio, heavily consisting of equipment loaned by the founders. In fact, friends, local folks, and people we’ve never met from all over are so excited about what we’re doing that we have been donated huge amounts of really amazing equipment. Some of it is new. Some of it has been sitting unused for decades. We have to figure out storage, inventory, how to use it, what works, if things need to be cleaned and repaired or just used for parts. What do we incorporate into the artist studio? What do we want to include in a future mini-studio in the toolmaker area? We could easily outgrow our facility if we don’t manage this intake in a very organized way. It’s a great problem to have and our artist studio is really amazing!

AAC: Signal Culture is the recipient of a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation 3-year SEED Grant. How did this opportunity come about and how has it influenced the program?

Debora: In late 2013 we had the amazing experience of opening up an email find out that we’d be getting $30,000 over the course of 3 years. The grant was given based on anonymous nominations and came as a complete surprise to us. We had been looking for a space for the residency for about a year and a half when we found out about this grant, and it was a game changer. Unlike residencies where there is a property and the residency program is designed to utilize the space, we were 3 people with a great idea, no space, and no money except what we’d raised in a crowdfunding campaign. We’d looked all over the region, having issues with zoning boards being very confused by this business model, rents being astronomically high, places not having enough outlets, places not being big enough to have more than one resident, et cetera. We were feeling very discouraged about actually being able to find a space to host our residency when we got word of the SEED grant. Knowing that we had guaranteed income for 3 years enabled us to feel confident enough to look at a price level a little higher than we had previously felt comfortable and we soon put down a deposit on our truly wonderful space.

I love the Rauschenberg Foundation! Their staff took time to come for a site visit last year, and they also brought representatives of all the SEED grantee organizations for an amazing summit at Rauschenberg’s estate at Captiva Island, Florida.

AAC: You just announced your first toolmaker in residence. Tell us more!

Debora: Our toolmakers are people who make the things that experimental media artists use to make work. These may be tools they use only in their own artworks or tools that will be distributed. Tools can be physical machines built from scratch, software, hacked versions of existing devices that may or may not have had any relationship to media art, or interface design. We give toolmakers their own workshop studio space, with a lot of parts available.

We were influenced to add this group through our experiences talking with Dave Jones. Dave built a lot of the incredible machines that were at the Experimental Television Center and lives in Owego. He has been a toolmaker for over 40 years, having designed and built interfaces for Gary Hill’s important works like “Tall Ships” and “Withershins”. We’d heard stories of how in the early ‘80s when a lot of artists lived in the area, they would meet at toolmaker Dave Jones’ house for the Tuesday Afternoon Club, where they would build equipment together that they would use in their own artmaking.

We’d also seen the results of artists and engineers collaborating, such as Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe creating a machine called the wobbulator, that uses sound waves to cause magnetic shaping of an image on a tv screen. Other important machines such as the Rutt/Etra, and the Sandin Image Processor were designed by artists. We wanted to give encouragement this type of development, especially with more people feeling empowered through the DIY/ maker movement to try designing and building their own tools.

AAC: How has Signal Culture been received by the local community?

Debora: We’re located in Owego, in the Southern Tier of New York, a village of less than 4,000 people bordering the Susquehanna River. We were actually warmly welcomed before we even arrived. When we told the Executive Director of the Tioga County Council on the Arts that we were considering Owego, she gave us a list of local funders, offered to introduce us to people, and announced on their Facebook page that we were looking for a space - then the Mayor shared that on his Facebook page!

I’ve become involved in the community through work in the Owego Rotary and that has been a great opportunity to get to know people through weekly lunches and volunteer events that I likely would never have met. We are in the village and our residents walk to buy groceries, go to restaurants and bars, browse the bookshop and antique shops, and take strolls past the historic homes or along the river. We have participated in the First Friday Artwalks and are looking for other ways to bring art made at Signal Culture into the community. A typical response from local community members is that they may not understand this kind of art, they are really excited and proud that we are drawing people from around the world to Owego.

AAC: Having been through the process of launching a residency program, what is the one piece of advice you would give other new residency leaders?

Debora: I would say to take time to step back periodically and look at your program through an outsider’s eyes. It’s so easy to get so caught up in the money and staff you don’t have, the projects you don’t have time to do, the equipment you need, the actual things involved in running the residency that you don’t see just how much you have accomplished. I love reading the residents’ comments in our guest books or telling new people about Signal Culture and feeling pretty amazed at how much can be accomplished in such a short time when a community comes together.

For more information on Signal Culture, visit: www.artistcommunities.org/residencies/signal-culture