Spongespace project revels in curiosity

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Audio clip: Songespace Collaboration

Photo credits: Sarah Kaufman (1-3); Myeongsoo Kim (4-8)

Hope Ginsburg, assistant professor of art foundation at Virginia Commonwealth University, brims with curiosity, revealing a keen enthusiasm for just about any topic that presents itself. Her idea of art, unsurprisingly, is wide-ranging and welcoming. She seems to see possibilities around ever corner.

Earlier this year, Ginsburg applied her natural inquisitiveness to the design of an inventive art exhibition called "spongespace," which ran from Jan. 25 to Feb. 23 at Solvent Space, the experimental exhibition space in the Plant Zero arts complex. This was Ginsburg's third "Sponge" project – the first two were held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she did her graduate study.

The exhibition featured an elaborate art installation and a series of "immersive" workshops, in which an eccentric collection of topics was knit together to reveal a series of unexpected relationships. The result was an animated, lively exhibition that was forever growing and changing during its month-long run.

The three "spongespace" workshops, each of which carried a different theme and program, were central to the exhibition's mission. The workshops included hands-on projects, expert speakers, projected films, the design of a headquarters and the assembly of a Sponge Reader. In keeping with the model of sponge reproduction, the workshops concluded when each participant conducted an immersive experience for the rest of the group.

Ginsburg said she was thrilled with the workshops, which included both engaged participants and entertaining speakers, representing the worlds of art and science. She said people willing to sacrifice their weekends to participate in the workshops tended to be those with a robust interest in the unfamiliar – "spongy people are drawn to the Sponge process," she said.

"There was some great bonding of the groups," Ginsburg said. "It was fun to see the Sponge model work. It has its own momentum. It sort of takes off and people get really into it."

Among the participants was Althea Georgelas, a graduate student in kinetic imaging at VCU, and Matt Spahr, an adjunct faculty member and the woodshop coordinator for art foundation. Each exemplified the role of the workshop attendee in the Sponge model.

Georgelas created a sound piece at the workshop that reflected the sounds of "spongespace," using "found sound" recorded by Georgelas and her fellow workshop participants. She also led the group on a tour of some nearby power lines – a longtime interest of hers. Spahr, a surfer, gave a presentation on water, waves and surfing, and also made a wooden surfboard on a roller that can be balanced on dry land with a certain amount of effort and skill. Both the sound piece and the surfboard will become part of the ongoing sponge exhibit that Ginsburg is compiling.

"This is a collaborative process and the Sponge model is continuously expanding," Ginsburg said. "That's an important part of the project."

Georgelas said she enjoyed the interaction with fellow participants in the workshop and the far-reaching discussions, such as the conversation sparked by sound artist Stephen Vitiello, assistant professor of kinetic imaging at VCU; fish neurobiologist Michael Fine, Ph.D., professor of biology at VCU; and oceanographic robotics engineer Brian Bingham, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering and a visiting scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"That was very cool to watch," Georgelas said. "They have three different specialties, but they really related to each other well and they found a lot of connections in their work. It was exciting to see how interested they were in each other's work."

Georgelas said Ginsburg's energy was infectious, and the workshop itself would have an impact on her artistic pursuits, reminding her to follow inspiration and interest wherever it leads her and to avoid concerns about whether something fit into one artistic category or another. Georgelas said variations of the word "sponge," which were ubiquitous in Ginsburg's exhibit, have even entered her personal lexicon.

"Art is very much Hope's life, and this showed me that you shouldn't have to separate one from the other," Georgelas said. "I learned a lot about being open to things."

The "spongespace"installation itself was designed to feel immersive and sensorial. Visitors were treated to an interpretation of the sea sponge's sea floor habitat. Solvent Space's large main room featured two vibrant wall paintings that ran the length of the gallery. The paintings, which were designed by VCU graduate student Leah Beeferman, depicted the flow of water through two asconoid sea sponges. Vitiello designed a soundscape for the exhibit that was inspired by undersea sonar navigation. There was also a projection screen, showing an underwater documentary, and a seating area in the gallery.

In addition, the large, back room of the gallery housed a fully operational wool felt-making studio, and, on a second-floor balcony space, a slide show played images taken by artist Dana Sherwood of an Indonesian reef at low tide.

The VCU School of the Arts and its Department of Painting and Printmaking operates Solvent Space, which is located at the corner of Hull and Fourth streets in Richmond, in cooperation with Plant Zero.

For more information about the "spongespace" experience, visit: http://www.spongespace.net.