Robin Bisio and Ethan Turpin are sitting in the sunroom of Bisio’s light-filled Mesa home, hunched over steaming cups of tea and talking excitedly about their latest collaboration, a multi-projection public installation set to debut at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse on Friday, April 13. “If you had been in this room a few months ago, you would have been swallowed up by laminated art book pages and storyboards,” laughed Bisio.
“It’s true,” agreed Turpin. “We were literally drowning in images of Michelangelo’s ‘The Flood.’”
Last January, on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, dance filmmaker and environmental activist Bisio experienced what she described as an artistic call to arms. “I saw an urgent need for renewal and the cleansing of energy,” she remembered, “and a strong desire to move toward public art as a way to reconnect humanity.” Around the same time, Turpin was on the heels of wrapping up a commission for the World Animal Protection organization (he produced a video depicting the effects of water pollution through a series of floating plastic imagery). By the time the two of them sat down to discuss their next collaboration, themes of humanity and the environment were swirling all around them. “Sometimes I think I’m the only person who really knows and understands what I’m trying to create, but Ethan got it right away,” Bisio stressed. Next up, the search for a producer who would be sensitive to their artistic vision while toeing the line of bureaucracy to ensure their large-scale installation could be awarded an epic location. Enter Lamara Heartwell, arts advocate and Santa Barbara Dance Tribe founder, whom Turpin and Bisio describe as their “environmental steward.” Through her perseverance, the trio formed an alliance with the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts & Culture and secured the use of the courthouse’s striking exterior curvatures to frame their site-specific projections.
Inspired by the grandiosity and mysticism of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, Bisio sought to galvanize individual responsibility for the earth’s most fundamental resources through a kinetic portrayal of one of its most famous murals, “The Deluge” (aka “The Flood”) by Michelangelo. “This is a feminine retelling of the story of water and creation,” said Bisio. “Our entanglements in our consumerism culture have finally caught up with us, and I wanted to demonstrate the alarming results.” Using five dancers (both Heartwell and Turpin make poignant appearances) to choreograph a series of underwater movements in a pool of actively drifting plastic, Bisio aimed to curate a moveable fresco of ominous beauty with subtle layers of redemption. “Saving the ocean is an epic pursuit, so I pulled from a mythical base,” she explained. “But I also wanted to offer a message of unmistakable hope.”
As the project’s cinematographer, Turpin described the painstaking process of collecting, cleaning, and carefully drying each piece of plastic used in his shots. “Composing with plastic offers a whole new realm of artistic possibility, and I admit I became a little bit obsessed with my medium,” he laughed. Asked what the most daunting aspect of shooting a multicomponent underwater film might be, the collaborators answer in unison: “the unpredictability.” Added Bisio, “We made really detailed plans and then found that the unrehearsed aspects worked in the most awkwardly beautiful way.”
Over the span of two evenings, audiences will be treated to nine distinctive projections on a continuous loop beneath the courthouse’s archway, against the clock tower, and on a screen positioned across the Sunken Gardens. “They’ll work together as one architectural composition with a serendipitous relationship,” explained Turpin. The installation will also include live bass, saw, and voice accompaniment by composer Jim Connolly. The three collaborators are quick to point out that their installation is about using imagery to offer a sobering glimpse of our oceans’ current state; what we might do about it is entirely up to us. “Those conversations are for the individual to have on their own,” Bisio stressed. “This is about showing, not telling.”
Entangled Waters, a multi-projection public installation, shows Friday-Saturday, April 13-14, 8-10:30 p.m., at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse (1100 Anacapa St.).