“Every time we looked at it, it grew in our minds,” Bartram says. They held an open call for artists in January and received more than 125 submissions from artists eager to participate. “We went through them for two weeks, and we chose 45 projects,” he says. “That’s when we knew exactly how much space we’re using, how much space they’re going to let us use, these are the artists we want in, those are the kind of projects we are going to facilitate, etc. And I think that’s really when it was like: This is Force Field.”
That this is a pretty rare one, considering the scope. Force Field isn’t the side arm of some giant corporation hiring artists to run their event—rather, it’s the huge coming together of independent visionaries, the Philly art community and a nonprofit supporter. It’s two patient, big-thinking creators taking the time to build something from scratch, and it’s a local company making sure they’ve got three floors of warehouse space to do it in.
Bartram is a woodworker by trade, a furniture maker who, for his artwork, crafts large, thoughtful, understated sculptures. Minimalist design principals and industry influence his clean, balanced, angular work: Full of iconographic objects and not much color, he shapes a narrative about mass production and man’s manipulation of nature (without being bossy or political). His creations are organized in such a way as to play with your perception of space. One recent untitled piece features a small pyramid sitting near an ancient-looking clay cup paired with a ramen cube, the chicken-flavor packet sitting under what looks like a chunk of asphalt. Mini Roman pillars cast a large shadow alongside a sort of conceptual space station. It’s mysterious and expertly fashioned.
Still, he says, most of the artists whose work will be on display at Force Field—even those like him who are used to creating large-scale installations—have never thought on this large a scale before. “When a lot of folks came to the tours, or maybe their second visit, they saw the space and were just so overwhelmed—a lot of, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ And I’d say, no, no, really: You have 3,000 square feet. So it’s like, you know, you’re gonna have to do something.”
The artists, in turn, have been eager to step up to that challenge.
Eun Hye Kang, whose string-based installations are delicate and utterly hypnotizing, moved to Philadelphia from Korea in the early 2000s and considers the city to be her American starting point. She’s excited to create a unique piece of the Force Field experience: “Although the space was rough and empty,” she says, “I could feel abstract movements in the space and get some inspiration from that.”
For installation and performance artist Derek Martin, who is still recovering from a 20-foot fall from a ladder while installing his work for a solo show in January, Force Field is almost a life-affirming milestone. He thanks his partner, Philadelphia-based installation artist and photographer Louise O’Rourke, for keeping him going, despite being unable to visit. “From the photographs,” he says, “this space is exactly what I yearn for in working on a project. I literally live for these moments and showing in large unconventional spaces.”
Local sculptor and installation artist Joanna Platt has always loved exploring old factories and says that’s part of why she wanted to be part of it: “To have the chance to see what such a neighborhood landmark looks like from the inside. Jo Mar doesn’t disappoint.”
The Force Field creative process has also led to new collaborations between artists who otherwise may not have even known each other. One such interaction is happening between Philly artist Lewis Colburn and Brooklyn artists Tyler Henry and Alex Burkat, who both wanted to use the same space: a big room near the facility’s boiler, with a raised stairway in the middle. Since meeting, they are working together to share the space. “They’ll be projecting video up on the walkway, but viewers will also be able to use the walkway to look down on my installation,” Colburn says. “So, the walkway is a really fortunate feature of the architecture for both of us—and I think that’s a great example of why it’s exciting to show work in a space like the Jo Mar buildings.”
Then there’s Joe Patitucci, the founder and director of Data Garden, whom Eads and Bartram brought on board as Force Field’s music and multimedia curator. The Saturday night music schedule he’s assembled, which starts at 7:30 p.m., is out to pull together the whole weekend with one big dance party. Headlining the show will be King Britt, who’ll perform a live techno set that incorporates music and bio-feedback from living plants. This sort of “plant sonification” is Data Garden’s speciality; though Patitucci says it can’t really be described, only experienced, he says the show will “activate the energy fields around plants and around each other to create an environment where we can all connect and dance together.”
Also playing Saturday night: EDM performers Alex Burkat and Telequanta, the haunting Hiro Kone and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Todd. Plant-generated visuals will be provided by NoCarrier and Enso. A special sunset rooftop concert will feature electronic artist Ben Warfield—whose album Songs of Light and Dust is literally plantable; a music-download URL is printed on the back of some biodegradable seed-paper that you can plant in the ground—along with Philadelphia-based harpist Mary Lattimore and well-known producer and synth player Jeff Zeigler.
Sitting in her office in MaKen Studios South, Kenny, the buildings’ project manager, muses that she always thinks of the edifice as a beast that doesn’t want to be tamed. “It leaks sugar, because it used to be a candy factory, for example,” she says. “Just things like that. The canvas here is not that easy.”
That’s as true for the Force Field event as it is for MaKen’s building renovation itself.
Eads says making it work has been all about the trust between the people involved—and their shared never-fail attitude.
“Originally, we sort of believed we would be getting grant money and funding from other sources,” he says. “That hasn’t happened. [But] because we had the mindset of ‘Let’s just do it, no matter what’… we didn’t go back and scale back the project; we just said, ‘Now we have to figure out what we have to do.’”
It was a complex project to manage. But Eads is used to juggling simultaneous logistical headaches: He grew up on a ranch in West Texas. “It was constantly things being thrown at you,” he says. “Like, you know, if a windmill breaks that day, you need water for your cattle now. Or they die. And so, you need to fix the windmill with everything in the back of your truck in an hour. This was every day for me—long before I started creating art.”
Spending a year pulling together one weekend of art, he says, may have seemed like a risky endeavor to others. But not to him. “Worst case scenario,” he says, “the flop, the fail—it would still be pretty awesome. It’s going to be an epic thing.” n
Sat., June 21: noon–2am. Sun., June 22: noon–6pm. MaKen Studios, 3401–3525 I Street. Tickets: $12 advance, $15 at the door. Free parking available. More info: force-field-project.ticketleap.com/ffp/