Professor relishes Rauschenberg Residency experience

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Hope Ginsburg has admired painter and activist Robert Rauschenberg most of her life. As a child, she hung postcards of his work on her bedroom walls.

So when Ginsburg, an associate professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, received an email last summer telling her someone anonymously nominated her to participate in the Rauschenberg Residency at Captiva Island, Florida, she was stunned and thrilled.

“I just got an email out of the blue with this invitation — and it’s a pretty spectacular invitation,” Ginsburg said. “They consistently relay to the artist that it’s a no-pressure residency. And that it’s flanked by bodies of water. If you want to sit and stare at the water all day, that is good by them.”

The month-long residency is open to artists of all disciplines and takes place seven times each year. Ginsburg’s residency took place May 18 through June 14 this summer, so she had nearly a year to wait — and prepare.

She ruminated, she said, on what she might do at the compound. Her past work with sponges — an interest she’s held since grad school — led her to think of scuba diving, which she learned in 2011 specifically so she could witness living sea sponges in a preserved reef habitat.

But before her trip even started, the staff at the facility told her the man-made reefs in the area were better suited to fishing than diving. They suggested she go to the Florida Keys. As long as the trip is for their work, artists are allowed to leave during their residency.

“They give you a generous stipend,” Ginsburg said, “so there is … support in terms of artist staff and in terms of a budget, so these projects are doable. The idea that I would go diving in search of footage for a video project that I am working on ... that was not out of the question. In fact, I went on a two-night trip to the Keys to dive in two different locations and gather footage.”

The main studio at the Rauschenberg Residency at Captiva Island, Florida.
The main studio at the Rauschenberg Residency at Captiva Island, Florida.

To land at Rauschenberg’s compound and work in his studios was a profound experience for Ginsburg. Rauschenberg was a radical practitioner who shunned abstract expressionism at a time when that was the reigning strategy. Ginsburg thinks of him as a pioneer and activist. Toward the end of his career, he started a foundation for global initiatives, which after his death concentrated more on supporting artists with programs such as the residency. While always an admirer, Ginsburg didn’t realize until she was at his compound how much of an influence Rauschenberg’s work had had on her.

“I had this feeling seeing the work again, that he was kind of an early influence and that I just absorbed this, some of these collaging impulses or just this sort of like liberating promise of the way he worked as a young person,” she said. (The absorption metaphor is on target, since Ginsburg’s noted love of sponges started when she mentioned to a professor that she had come to grad school to be a “sponge.” What began as a metaphor flourished as she learned more about the creatures.)

Because of her previous work with sponges — the VCU School of the Arts Anderson Gallery has a dedicated space for her Sponge HQ —the first thing Ginsburg did in Florida was visit Tarpon Springs to see a Greek sponge-diving village and visit a 1950s-era museum of the history of sponge diving. The trip had an unintended outcome.

“I went to go visit the sponges to ask them if they needed me, and they sort of told me, ‘We’re good. You’ve paid a lot of attention to us. We don’t need you right now,’" she said wryly. “That was this little pilgrimage to visit the sponges, but then put them to rest for the rest of the residency, because I wanted to move on to new territory.”

Still, the sponge-inspired scuba diving influenced her work at the compound. She bought a wetsuit and set out in the studio and on the beach pursuing an image she had in her head of people meditating in dive gear.

Meditating scuba divers from Ginsburg's work during her residency.
Meditating scuba divers from Ginsburg's work during her residency.

She calls it mediated meditation: “this sort of very curious way of breathing on land. And so I just started to do some shooting around that to see what that looked like, and I had the idea that was an image worth pursuing.”

The breathing on land piece involved eight people in scuba gear group-meditating indoors and on the beach. She shot large-format photography and digital stills, and she recorded audio.

Ginsburg said the idea of people meditating with scuba gear is idiosyncratic and the result is not only absurd but sinister – in the experience, the images and the amplified sounds produced through the masks.

“You’re so conscious of your breathing, and you’re just uncomfortable enough that you stay very much focused,” she said.

Ginsburg said she couldn’t help but get work done at the residency’s compound. Each artist felt supported and had equal and abundant resources, bringing out the best in everyone.

“The whole thing was pretty humbling,” she said. “I think everybody was humbled by this and I think everybody wanted to do right by that. It felt like getting to know him.”


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