INTERVIEW: Steve LaBerge

Steve LaBerge, far left

Steve LaBerge, far left

If you’ve been to or walked by Alma Mater, you’ve seen what they call, The Slug. At night, it’s colorful and lit up, but its daytime presence is definitely not unassuming. With its glossy, yet textured exterior, and polk-a-dotted tentacles, the stools that live underneath this creature makes for a very curious spectator. And those who brave the interaction with the Slug, more often than not come out with some very rewarding and Instagram-worthy evidence. Its creator: Tacoma artist, Steve LaBerge.

Beginning June 10th, Alma Mater will house another one of Steve’s projects, called the TVs, which will also be an interactive piece created with twenty local artists. We’ve sat down with Steve to learn more about him and his work.

J: So your installation, the Slug, has quickly become, not only an icon of Alma Mater, but a landmark and connection in Tacoma’s community overall. Has this project been the most widely received of yours thus far?S: Without question the Slug is the art piece of mine that has had the most exposure. The installation was initially titled, C5, and it got labeled ‘the Slug’ here at Alma Mater, and so that’s how it’s most often referred to.

The genesis of my art projects is my interest in bringing art to Burning Man. Once I started bringing art to Burning Man I realized that  I can bring almost anything there and it’d be exciting for people.

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The first year, my piece for Burning Man was a simple one. The second year got a little more complicated. I think it was the fourth year that I brought the biggest piece, which wasn’t the best looking. But what it was, was four reclining loveseats with a bowling ball suspended on a track above them, where the people in these loveseats could control the bowling ball. It was a big project, it involved putting together a kickstarter, and getting a lot of people to help. At one point I had twenty people in my backyard working on putting it together.

J: Crazy! So how long have you been creating pieces like this?
S: Since 2010, so not that long, and that’s generally one art piece a year for Burning Man. There was a Venetian Gondola on wheels, the object we call ‘the Crawlrus’,  a variety of arches, and the bowling ball piece.. Since that bowling ball piece needed so many people to put it together and to transport it, I wanted something I could just do myself the next time, hence the Slug.

When I brought the Slug to Burning Man, it didn’t need to be watched or maintained there. When I brought it back home, I had it in my driveway for a while. I kind of figured it would eventually be transformed into something else or brought to the landfill.  I could pull the lights and electronics out and reuse those parts but the rest of it didn’t seem like it had long-term appeal anywhere but Burning Man. When I had the invitation to bring it here, it made me so happy because it’s really cool and works really well.

‘C5’, also known as ‘The Slug’

‘C5’, also known as ‘The Slug’

J: It’s very successful here and everyone loves it.
S: Yeah, for the first couple months, I’d come by two or three times a week as it started getting dark to make sure the lights were working, and more often than not I’d see people sitting in it and enjoying it.

J: So did you start making art specifically for Burning Man, or have you been doing this for longer?
S: We’re all crafty as kids, and I hung onto that. You know, I saw myself as a husband and parent, and as a business person I have my job because a career is just part of our American values, but then I saw myself as a creative person too. I always wanted to feel like I had some kind of project going on that was creative throughout my life. It’s an outlet that we know is good for us. I started with ceramics, not in a big way, just enough to dabble. I can’t draw worth a damn.

J: Me neither, I’m trying to practice and become more confident.
S: It’s hard work. I’m working on a project for next year, and I have to draw some things, and I just don’t want to do it because I know it’s going to be really hard and frustrating. But another thing I can do is cut things out of magazines and glue them. Before I did the Slug, I was successful at drawing the upside down canoe portion of the Slug, but I needed to put people in it so I just cut them out of magazines, ran them through the copy machines, got them the right size, cut their heads off, and put them in there.

J: Well, that’s definitely creative on its own. In the We Art Tacoma podcast interview with you, you mention you did not identify as an artist until you brought an installation to Burning Man eight years ago. What was your hesitancy then, and how do you feel about it now?
S: I guess I’m kind of judgemental. If you’re going to say that you’re an artist, then there should be a body of art work as evidence that you are. It wasn’t until I produced pieces for Burning man that I had this evidence. When you take an art piece to Burning Man you register it beforehand under the label of ‘artist’, and then there are seventy thousand people who look at what you made because it’s art.  At this point you just can’t deny that you are, in fact, an artist. Because I grew up in the Midwest, I want to be a little humble, you know it’s part of my package, and so my package default says ‘no I’m not really an artist’. This stance sometimes offended people. So it took me a little bit to realize that I am an artist, that I have a body of work. Not a lot, one piece of year, but it is a body of work. And I work with other people who are definitely artists, especially because they make their living that way.

J: So now are you comfortable in that identity?
S: Totally, I’m excited about it. I always feel a little self conscious, that I wish there was a little more, and don’t want to be grand about it.

J: I think that’s healthy! Something I really like about your work and an important element of the Slug is its engagement with people, and your upcoming installation here, the TVs, is also interactive in an entirely different way; you’ve even encouraged engagement with other artists from the project's inception. Is interaction and tangibility intentional in all of your work?
S: You nailed it! Yeah, it started with Burning Man, in that you see pictures, where art pieces are big and interesting, separated by quite a distance, sometimes even by a hundred yards, and my goal is to have a piece that motivates a person at Burning Man to get off of their bike and interact with a piece. Ideally the interaction is good enough that people get involved physically with the piece so that they become part of the art for the next viewer who comes by.  That’s amazing.

The original piece that I brought to Burning Man was a reclining loveseat with a grid of LEDs up above it. So people would sit in it, and they would have to recline back to look at the show going on. But when you’re riding your bike by, you don’t just see a sofa with something above it, you see a sofa with two or three people in it and they’re just staring at something above them which is much more exciting, and then you see yourself in that too. With the Slug, I think how it’s going to make us all laugh, to see a line of people just sitting with their heads in there, and sometimes willing to sit there for a while because they got a light show going on inside. So all of the sudden the piece is not just an upside down canoe with tentacles, it is actually the people and the canoe with tentacles too.

J: I cannot tell you how many images of people in the Slug there are, I’ve asked and collected more than a handful of them for our social media announcement of this interview and your TVs installation.
S: I love looking through all of those. An aspect of my project is to build community, and something you do, which is so appropriate to your position, is when you ask for permission, you’re building community and connection.

J: Yeah, a big part of my job has been trying to engage with people of the community and local artists as much as I can and share their projects, which is great because I am not necessarily the most extroverted of people.
S: There’s been a discussion with me and my wife, because clearly I was the introvert, and clearly she’s the extrovert. However, as I have taken on this persona, the artist, I have enjoyed it, it’s pretty fun and it does give me energy. Some of the projects in the past have been less fun because there’s an obligation with the project. Doing the kickstarter is one such example. I felt a real obligation to those people who contributed their money, and that’s a hard one to meet because how do you measure whether the project met the funders’ expectations? How does the project  involve them and what do they get out of it?

With respect to the TV project, twenty artists signed up to contribute their time to work on a tv. I know some artists didn’t sign up because they had an obligation to themselves to make money doing their art, and that’s just so appropriate. One person called me out saying that I was doing this project and not paying the artists, that the artists must get paid. So I’ve been trying to make up for it, and I feel like I have, in that we’ve had some great parties and everybody’s been invited to be involved and it’s worked out well on that level.

J: I think it’s complicated, it’s not just one or the other.
S: It is complicated. It’s also about building community. We’re all meeting people. I’m meeting people. I think people are getting together that hadn’t before, although a number of these people clearly already know each other, but I didn’t know many of them. We live in this awesome house, and it’s fun to share it with others through our TV dinner gatherings with contributing artists. Some people have looked at our house all their lives and have never been there, and some people have just moved here and think of what a cool house it is in Tacoma.

J: Can you give a statement about the TVs and what inspired you to pursue this project?
S: Yeah, of course. Why did I do this? It started with me wanting to do a fiberglass casting, which I had never done before: when you take an object, you cover a portion of it in fiberglass, and then pull the fiberglass away so you have a negative and can do unlimited repeats. Forty years ago, I did this of a television with plaster paris, put clay into it, and fired it in a kiln. I did this about five or six times with my roommate’s tv, unfortunately it ruined his tv, but the piece of art that came out of it was really cool and very organic. It looked like a tv, but a tv that had deteriorated.

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I have four of these in my house, three in the living room as a series and one in the kitchen, and they’re all different because of what the clay did. I knew that if I used fiberglass they’d all look a little different and organic, and would allow LEDs to show patterns through the tvs. And all put together, they could represent one very lofi screen where the pixels are four inches apart. So I kind of got into that idea, twenty tvs… It seemed like a lot of work, but maybe if I had someone else embellish the tvs, it could become very exciting and interesting, and create a community for me instead of it being a lonely project. In fact, it could just be a lot of fun working with people I knew and didn’t know.

And then, when I was putting the idea together, I was also maintaining the Slug while thinking about the TVs going to Burning Man, and I thought it’d be great if they could be in a public space beforehand to work the bugs out, and wouldn't it be even better if they had a home, just like the Slug has its home, after Burning Man. When I saw Jason (executive director at Alma Mater) one day and proposed the idea, it was met with enthusiasm, and another time I remember Aaron (program director at Alma Mater) saying ‘this is what I’m telling you about, this is what we really need here’.

J: From previous interviews, it seems that the TVs project was a way for multiple artists to express their personal relationship to television, what’s yours?
S: TV was a big deal in my life, and it wasn’t really even my choice. It was just I would come home from school and watch Gilligan's Island on tv, every single day. And I think about how that, as an example of tv in general, influenced me. You could put these little things together, like I saw problems and solutions happen with a group of people in a half an hour of time. So I’m thinking, what does that mean, is that how I run my life- if I recognize a problem maybe I will have it resolved in half an hour?

J: Right, like does it cause a skewed perception of how life works?
S: Yeah, or maybe I have a superpower? Maybe I have the benefit of knowing it will be done in half an hour, good or bad, I don’t know. And then I started talking to people about this, and they would say ‘oh yeah, I watched it Gilligan’s Island too every day’. And I realized that we actually kind of lived on this island together, all of us. I mean, probably aspects of our dreams when we were ten years old were about Gilligan’s Island. I think it’s a good example of a whole community or nation that had this experience together and have this in common. It’s easy to realize tvs have a powerful message, there is a lot out there that we’ve collectively absorbed.

J: Do you have a strong opinion on tv? Has it changed for you, as technology has brought us different forms of television, from broadcast to Netflix?
S: I have a feeling that it is really gone in the format that I’ve experienced it, and I don’t really have an opinion of it, but it’s probably a good thing. So I don’t want to say I have a strong opinion, but if I look at how I viewed my children’s life with tv (they’re 22 and 27 now), you can guess what they were growing up with... Well, I remember one person asking me whether my children were going to church and getting a spiritual experience, and I said ‘well, they watch the Simpsons’. I felt like the Simpsons was pretty good as far as getting good exposure about what the world’s about with a smile on your face and a sense of humor. So I felt like tv was okay, but I think like a lot of parents felt like there was more to experience by interacting with people and being outside. It doesn’t mean that I felt great about parking this kid in front of the Lion King over and over again just to give us a break from parenting. And whether that’s appropriate or not- I can’t imagine that it’s all that appropriate- but it seemed to work out okay.

J: Yeah, but who’s to say what is the best way to live our realities?
S: Yeah! So in order to find the twenty artists, I left this box in the lobby of Alma Mater with a questionnaire. So question one was, ‘Did you watch tv? If yes, go to A, if no, go to B.’ And A says, ‘Because you watch tv, you have special insight into the whole subject of tv. If you identify as an artist, maybe you want to contribute to this project. Please put your name in the box.’ And B says, ‘Because you didn’t watch tv, you have special insight into the whole subject of tv. If you identify as an artist, please put your name in the box’.

Some people wrote ‘no tv as a kid, homeschooled, complete unawareness of pop culture’. And I remember meeting people like that when I first went to college and feeling kind of sorry for them because there we were, around a keg of beer, singing theme songs, and they were left out- missed out on pop culture. On the other side, you go into another situation with these people, and they have huge advantages because they’ve been doing creative activities in the time that we were all sitting there absorbing crap.  But who’s to say, it is pop culture, it’s easy, it’s what we do.

J: I like that answer. I think any extreme is false in a way because pop is so permeated into our culture at this point. Changing directions, I’d like to talk more about your relationship to your work and the materiality of it, with its heavy emphasis on LEDs and fiberglass- all very technical and laborious. We all get to see and interact with the result of your work, but I’m curious to know more about the process. How does the technical remove contribute to your work and experience of it? Do you program all of your LEDs?
S: Starting out, we had clothes that had LED pixels in them, and as far as programming goes, my friend from Burning Man, Damon,  created a program that’s online and I would put a map of a sport coat into this program, and he would add animations that he’s created. For the TVs, it’s a big grid that became a great platform for Damon’s animations to run across.

Originally, we had these LEDs that were very obvious and defined through the clothing, and wanted to try fiberglass to create a more diffuse light from the LEDs. I could have used something cheaper like bubble wrap or plastic wrap, but it wouldn’t be very durable. I repaired surfboards in the past, so I had some background with fiberglass, but not very much, which is why I like to say what I make is organic rather than very finished. Another thing I liked was when the fiberglass surface wasn’t quite perfect, the light reflected and moved in an imperfect way, which I think works well with these LEDs.

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J: You exhibit your work at Burning Man, your home, and at Alma Mater, all of which are not a traditional gallery experience. Do you feel like there is any significance to that or is it just incidental?
S: I think galleries are a tough deal. For one, there has to be a gallery that invites the size and scope of what you do. If I were a painter, maybe I’d be able to pull it off. The objects that I make are big and interactive and don’t necessarily lend themselves to a gallery space. I’m interested in doing a gallery show in the future. My family visited Meow Wolf last year. If you haven’t heard of it you ought to look it up. It’s an artist collective in Santa Fe and they created this museum of artifacts related to a story. You walk through this thing, and it’s very experiential and hands on. Some of the walls make music when you touch them, and it’s visually exciting as well. It has a deep story that unfolds as you look for it. Your grandparents could go there, your three year old nephew could go there, because it’s such a cool deal. So I’d like to work with that concept in a gallery space, and kind of feeling out where that opportunity might be, hopefully in Tacoma.

J: Any other art(ists) you’re really into?
S: I probably do… Oh! Yeah I do, this would be a couple years ago when I went to Prague and saw David Cerny’s work. His stuff is amazing and fun, and every piece makes you laugh. He’s somewhat political, but a lot of his material isn’t. His pieces are all over Prague. Sizable public pieces, some of it’s large fiberglass, some of it’s bronze. Everything he does will make you smile.

Steve’s TVs installation will be installed over this weekend, and will be open for the public to interact with starting June 10th!

Follow Steve on IG: @atacomite