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Virtual Reality and Cutting Edge Interactivity at Loyola’s Julio Gallery

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BmoreArt’s Picks: February 13-19

Loyola University holds a mirror to itself in Unrested, an exhibition from artists-in-residence strikeWare that examines the institution’s history. The artist collective—composed of Mollye Bendell, Christopher Kojzar, and JLS Gangwisch—utilize innovative, leading-edge forms of interactivity and virtual reality to immerse visitors into the multimedia exhibition.

I had the opportunity to view the show and meet with strikeWare to talk about Unrested—an examination of institutional legacies and how they continue to affect communities on and off campus to this day.

 

Gangwisch was excited to recount the group’s background story. Kojzar and Gangwisch first met at Creative Alliance, where they quickly started helping each other with various projects, as they discovered they had very complementary skill sets. By way of coincidence, they enrolled at UMBC’s Intermedia and Digital Arts MFA program at the same time. It was there they met Bendell and were all brought together by the instinctive bonding that happens between graduate students. 

Of the program Kojzar said, “At IMDA there’s an ask for intellectual curiosity when you’re developing a thread in your work. We’re required to do a written thesis, which I don’t think many art schools are conditioning their students to do. And for better or for worse—sometimes both—it gives you a different platform to speak and think about artwork. It was hugely transformational. They have a lot to offer and they’ve been growing in a way that’s really visionary. I think there’s very few programs that offer the same opportunities in this area, or maybe even nationally.”

Bendell and Gangwisch share the same sentiment, with Gangwisch eagerly sharing how transformational the experience was in his artistic practice and the unwavering support he continues to receive from faculty members to this day. After their graduation in 2018, Gangwisch brought about the idea of forming an artist collective and after much discussion, strikeWare was formed.

 

The collective has been working together for four and a half years with a synergy that Bendell notes is akin to being a band. “When we work as a collective it’s quite project-driven. We’ll have something that makes sense for all three of our skill sets to really sink our teeth into.” Their current exhibition, Unrested, came about after Megan Rook-Koepsel, Director of Loyola University’s Julio Fine Arts Gallery, offered them an artistic residency.

The resulting exhibition—which looks into the history of Jesuit slaveholding and its ongoing impact on Maryland communities—developed in dialogue with Loyola’s ongoing efforts to acknowledge and reckon with its racist past. 

“There’s a ton of research that’s already been done from faculty, staff, and students across the board of all Jesuit universities in Maryland,” explained Kojzar. “These projects have been years in the making. Our involvement is adjacent to what’s been going on for these projects as we’re looking at it from an outside perspective.”

“We were looking at things from a very distinct historical perspective. There’s not many visuals that come along with that. It’s a lot of writing-based materials so when visuals do pop up, it makes the art happen in a very intuitive method,” said Kojzar. “The critique might—if there’s any critique at all—be of the institution. I think it happens quite organically. It’s not like we’re in the back of the room saying, Oh, what’s Loyola doing, exposing their history or their historical narrative? It’s more of a call and response.” 

detail from “1954, 1969, 1971” by strikeWare at Loyola University
detail from “1954, 1969, 1971” by strikeWare at Loyola University
Unrested serves as a look back on history through a contemporary lens, blurring the line between past and future, physical and ephemeral.
Adriana Vélez

Unrested serves as a look back on history through a contemporary lens, blurring the line between past and future, physical and ephemeral. The combination of artwork and augmented reality immerses visitors into the space, rooting them in the current moment.

When asked about how they combine historical archives with new mediums, Gangwisch shared, “I have a history as a filmmaker, so that’s how I approach time in general, or any of my art making. It’s all coming from a place of putting image to story and with the new media tech, also wanting to learn how to make new things in new ways. And I’m very excited by new technologies so I try to employ the documentary practices that I was trained in in my first career.”

“The field of new media art or digital art is always getting more broad and amorphous and less concrete,” added Kojzar. “When it comes to new media, the way that I approach it is as a tool set. With archives, I guess there’s a story that happens there, much in the same way JLS [Gangwisch] is talking about with documentary filmmaking. There’s a story that’s being brought to light. When creating new artwork, I’m thinking of creating things in iteration or as project-based series. So what can expand on one iteration to be something else? Or how can it be reformulated for another space or time?”

Time and space play a key role in Unrested, as the exhibition is inherently tied to its locality. The artworks represent points in time with their titles being a specific year that most closely relates to whatever is happening in the piece. For example, “1954, 1969, 1971” is an interactive triptych consisting of three hanging metalwork frames and an augmented reality component. The artwork references Loyola’s stained glass windows while exploring what kinds of heroes its students would elevate in the modern day.

When viewed through the tablet, visitors can see a sunbeam shining through the frames, creating an array of colors through augmented reality that simulates the visuals of stained glass.

Each frame depicts a carefully selected yearbook photo and is named after the year the book came out. The leftmost frame references a picture of the Loyola’s Peace Club, which was formed to protest the Vietnam War, holding peace signs and excited about the possibility of never having a war again. The middle image is a depiction of camaraderie between two students on the university’s swim team. The rightmost frame depicts the first image Bendell found in the yearbooks that featured a Black student. The photo is of an interracial couple, gazing at each other.

“It was presented in a way that I thought was a little condescending,” she said. “Sort of like, Ooh, things are changing. But to me, the real story is the way these two are looking at each other, you know? There’s an obvious bond that they share there, and that’s something that’s aspirational to me.” 

Throughout the exhibition as well, strikeWare weave a narrative that speaks on the interconnectedness of our past, our future, and how we in the present are playing an active role. 

The piece “1850”, a multimedia installation composed of bricks and quilt, touches on the repetitive and cyclical nature of time. It is formed by a circular arrangement of bricks with the text “Dear Ancestor” and “Dear Future Self” superimposed.

In the center, a stacked pillar of bricks serve as the resting place for a folded quilt. This piece, Kojzar explained, “was to honor my great-great grandmother. It brings in the personal nature of where we stand today, where I stand, where she once stood, and how her history is only kept through the continuance of family. It is [about the] passing on to generations in the future.”

Gangwisch then points out another piece that explores the concept of cycles and repetition. “A Loyola historian did an internal history of Loyola and wrote a lot about the evolution of the seals and school colors. It was one of the most compelling essays in Untold Truths: Exposing Slavery and Its Legacies at Loyola University Maryland [a book of research led by Loyola undergrads, which the university will formally launch April 15] to me, about how the green and gray school colors are looking towards the Irish heritage and the Confederate heritage. Only a very select minority of Jesuit schools still use the gray, and there’s even a line from that professor in the eighties about how we don’t talk about that anymore.”

“1986, 1922, 2023” is an immersive installation in which visitors listen to an audio of this same essay. “The tape loops in those large wooden cassettes,” Gangwisch goes on to describe. “We have artificial intelligence generated voices reading letters from the student text and the author text, and then microphones from the space record over the tape loop and destroy the tape loop as time moves on to lose that information, or rewrite that information.” 

These different artistic skill sets and perspectives prevalent in each member of strikeWare are part of what make Unrested a compelling and well-rounded examination of history. Their shared experiences and personal backgrounds allow them to continue where one left off in the ongoing narrative woven through the exhibition. Visitors will leave Unrested having received an education that ties them to the place on which they’re standing, the people that came before them, and those who come after.

 

A reception and artist talk for Unrested will be held on Thursday, February 15th at 5PM.

strikeWare will be teaching a Masterclass with Maryland Centers for Creative Classrooms, and a one-day showcase event at the BMA on May 2nd, with details to come

 

Images courtesy of strikeware, header image of “1850,” a multimedia installation composed of bricks and quilt

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