Light Cycle was produced at the Visual Arts Center of Alaska (VAC)1 in January 1986. I was invited by John Ploof, manager of their Mixed Media studio at the time, as part of the Center’s Visiting Artist Program.
I conceived and directed Light Cycle as a performance production about how the days get longer, executed by artists at the center and myself. It was designed to be performed outside in the dark, recorded by video, to become a short film. We produced a small photo story publication after the performance, because the video done at the time was compromised by the low light conditions and is now lost. The following two page spreads are a variant layout of the original six-page publication, which was possible only due to the foresight and skill of Al Sanders, a photographer at the Center, who took stills of the performance as it progressed.2
We had twelve figures for the twelve months of the year. My costume design allowed that people of various statures would all be seven feet high. The mask heads were approximately two feet long and made of laminate-cast high-shrinkage bleached linen paper mounted on a wooden frame and lit by a flashlight mounted inside. Each artist participant cast their own cone head, according to a simple fabric mold filled with sand I had designed, and detailed it as they wished. The boat for the performance was about twelve feet long and made of cast overbeaten bleached linen with no reinforcement. It was coated with linseed oil after the paper dried as an insurance against the river water. I designed the paper boat and cast it with the assistance of John Ploof.
The performance recorded the twelve figures/months waking in the snow on a hillside, rising, descending in a long winding line down the hill to a light hold, freeing the light-filled boat, bearing it to the river, and releasing it to float away. The light hold was a concrete garage-like building with one side open. We put the boat in it and screened the opening with panels of paper. The twelve entered through the seams in the panels, turned, and then each lit a small flashlight equipped with a razor blade and slit the paper screen. In the dark, it made it appear that they had cut the screen with light. The boat had been previously filled with large flashlights to make it appear to be its own source of light.
When the video of the Light Cycle performance failed, I added the element of burning the light vessel. So, John Ploof and the team organized to re-enact parts of the performance and burned the boat for me as I had already returned home. Al Sanders recorded their efforts and the boat’s demise with color slides, which are currently in the collection of The Anchorage Museum as part of their archives from VAC. Overbeaten linen paper is hard to burn. Ploof recalled recently, “We were concerned that it would ignite and then go out. But a small flame on crumpled paper (inside the boat) really took off.”3 I think this may have been due to our having earlier coated it with linseed oil. John also wrote that although he had initially hoped a local museum would take the boat, “the process of burning it was a better solution that underscored the ephemerality of the piece. Still, it was really difficult for us to burn it.” Like the boat, the Visual Arts Center of Alaska no longer exists, but the vitality of all its artists and its impact on art in Alaska continues today. The energy of the place and of the artists there made this piece possible.
1. The Visual Arts Center of Alaska was founded in 1970 to foster the growth of contemporary arts in Alaska. It provided studios, equipment, and gallery space for resident artists, mounted annual exhibitions, and hosted workshops for the public. According to local sources, in 1992, VAC was forced to close due to budgetary constraints and the decline of federal and state funding after a controversial exhibition it mounted on the issue of rising censorship in the arts.
2. Special thanks are due to Al Sanders for providing high-resolution scans of his original negatives to make possible the documentation in this article. We are the beneficiaries of Al’s save-everything archival philosophy.
3. John Ploof, email message to the author, December 16, 2019. John Ploof is a socially engaged artist whose work blurs the line between art and everyday life. He is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the author and co-editor of three books that explore links between art and contemporary social issues.
In this uncompromising country, the stories, not the essentially fragile physical artifacts, survive. Many peoples, many stories have crossed, continue to cross Alaska, always seeking some way or another to make sense of her phenomena. They never do.
Nevertheless, stories preoccupy the mind and are recreated and kept alive by telling and enacting because they give the illusion of possession and understanding.
Stories do not take up space although they can transform it. There is always room for one more story.