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Julia Schilling is an artist living and working in Milwaukee. Her artwork often revolves around themes of mapping, visual language, and [mis]translation.

Sketch by Dave Tesch

We live in a demanding landscape. By this I refer not to climate or terrain but rather the words and images mankind has slapped all over it. We are in a living map, surrounded by a sea of efficient directions and polite orders. The urban landscape is chock full of billboards, road signs, flashing lights, and cleverly applied ads, all instantaneously understood by people whizzing by in their cars. What products can you own, what goals can you reach, what road will get you there, what destination awaits you, what things do we need that we didn’t even know existed but can no longer live without? It is to see the world through wish-list eyes, for things and place alike. We are in a constant state of ‘going’ from one destination to another and if you stop and gaze idly around you, people are apt to ask you if you’re lost, and if not, if you wouldn’t mind picking up the pace.
But what does this obvious cultural commentary have to do with art?

More than anything the ‘art experience’ involves stopping or pausing in order to look, listen, etc. And this pause, however momentary, happens in a particular way in a thing called installation art.

The heart of installation art is placement. Installation art sets itself apart from painting or sculpture in that it uses the oddity or abnormality of placement as a specific means to give pause. Instead of the standard eye level height of 60 inches on center, you are inclined to look elsewhere. There’s an attachment to something preexisting and you are meant to be made aware of this. So the question: “Why is this on the floor?” is part of the point -- if it had nothing to do with the floor, it would not be on the floor. Like a symbiotic relationship there are two unlike species coexisting; 1)Logical place and 2)illogical art. Installation art is most effective, say, when it is like the bee pollinating the marigold. Not necessarily beneficial in the eyes of every viewer, an installation piece can also be a harmless joyriding lamprey on the thick-skinned shark belly of place, or it can read as a parasitical tape worm in the bowels of an otherwise functional system. Often these roles are arguable even when referencing the same installation. Words like ‘beneficial’ and ‘complimentary’ are disputable and overshadowed by what does or does not qualify as something that will gum up the works.

Signs can only work in a place. That is how they direct you where to go or what you are supposed to (not)do: WALK or DON’T WALK or NO LOITERING. For example, a book of road signs would be useless to a traveler because it does not place them in relation to place, which is why you need a map instead (Milwaukee is 30 more miles from where?) Public places let inhabitants know how they should behave. Signs are used to direct masses through the realm of public space. Signs tell you when to cross the street and where the line starts. Lack of direction can cause frustration. Installation art exists in this odd place between subjective art space and directive public space. Installation art uses non-art placement as a means for pause but lacks instant understanding that is associated with the urban environment. Indeed, installation art often comes off as more misfit signage than art for it is not uncommon to hear questions like, “Is that supposed to be art?” or the merciless “What is that going to be?” in hearing range of a newly completed art installation.

But what is installation art’s greatest fault/misinterpretation is also its greatest asset. It is exactly this alternate form of direction-giving that is my favorite part about installation art. It is a stop sign of a (usually)subtler quality which a person doesn’t have to react with “OK!” but a considerably less trained, “Why, for what?” I see installation art as a little opportunity for pause, a little glitch in something you are used to seeing. It is an odd request or allowance of SOME LOITERING PERMITTED. As an artist I say to you, “It’s ok to look here, I already got permission for you. Take a cursory glance, a double take, or gawk away. Unite in praise, furrowed brows, doubt, or scowls, that’s what its there for and you don’t have to look at it forever.”

For the pause can be a valuable thing.

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