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From the Ground Up: Assocreation takes to the streets

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Melanie Kruvelis, Senior Editorial Page Editor
Published November 29, 2012

“Michigan is like a slab of raw meat,” Roland Graf said.

“You know, I never considered working with cars until I came here,” Graf said, moving a handheld spotlight over the insulation board. “Never even thought of it before I came to the Motor City.”

A pixelated silhouette made of tiny solar cars stands in front of us. As Graf shines the light over the cars, you can hear a thousand little wheels start to spin. If you close your eyes — just for a second — the revved up solar engines sound like waves crashing on a shore. Or at least, something a little more thunderous than a bunch of toy cars in a North Campus studio.

“Rolling Shadows — Energy Plan for the Western Wo/man,” finished its run at Ann Arbor’s Gallery Project in October. For Graf, an assistant professor at the Stamps School of Art & Design, “Rolling Shadows” represents not only some of his first work on wheels, but the early stages of his work in Michigan. After years working at the Vienna Institute of Technology, the Austrian artist-turned-professor accepted a job at the University in 2011. And while any cross-continental move is difficult, Graf faced a particularly difficult challenge when he left Vienna: keeping his European artist collective alive.

“It’s like being in a long-distance relationship,” Graf said, rolling his water bottle around on the table. “Except there’s four people I’ve got to Skype every week — not just one.”

For the past 15 years, Graf has been a member of Assocreation, an Austrian-based artist collective that specializes in public, absolutely hands-on projects. The group began working together in 1997, creating massive public installations across Europe and North America. Together, the five artists that currently make up Assocreation work anonymously, spending months planning their elaborate, street-oriented creations.

Well, maybe not elaborate — the pieces are simple, cleanly designed. But whether it’s hundreds of bike-riders powering a balloon moonrise, or a two-city sidewalk that uses pistons to send footsteps from one side to the other, it’s clear — a good deal of technical tender, love and care goes into each production.

Take the sister city sidewalk project. In 1999, Assocreation began a series of multi-metropolis installations. The idea behind the exhibition, titled “Bump,” was simple. Step down on a wooden boardwalk in Linz, Austria. Then, some 270 miles away in Budapest, Hungary — whoosh! — a corresponding sidewalk would lift up, giving the pedestrians a little push upward. And just like that, a simple walk to work turns into a shared experience with a stranger, hundreds of miles away.

Graf admits the technical side of the “Bump” installation was difficult. But if you ask him, the nuts and bolts aren’t really what matters. Or even what are most impressive.

“There was a lot of technical mechanics involved in ‘Bump,’ ” Graf explained between sips of water. “There were heavy steel pieces, robust pistons powering the jolting effect, not to mention online coordinating."

He stresses the biggest challenge. “We wanted to create a piece that could withstand street life for weeks. A piece that could interact with the public.”

Graf paused. “You can go to a museum, and you can put something on the wall and it will stay, you know? The curators can keep it in pristine condition.

“But putting art on the streets — where people can step on it, drive on it, get their crumbs all over it — that’s what gives your pieces life.”

So, what are we supposed to do?

Upon encountering a street installation, Graf said public reaction almost always looks identical. Whether it’s a piece in Istanbul or Grand Rapids, pedestrians bring up the same three questions. Call it the three stages of disbelief.

“First, they ask us, ‘What does this mean?’ ” Graf said.