“They both had such distinct approaches—and I was working with some of my favorite collaborators—so I was able to work along parallel tracks, rather than find myself in a miasmic tangle.”
Whether we’re featuring her work as a Dig contributor or ogling it on Instagram and IRL, Allison Tanenhaus is one of our favorite Hub creatives. Always adventuring down new paths while still cranking out the cat images she is adored for, she makes us think and say wow at the same time.
And speaking about multitasking, this month Tanenhaus has two spectacles in play—FREQUENCIES, which plays from 5pm to 10pm every night through Feb 28 at the Harvard Ed Portal in Allston, and bent/haus, which is at Boston Cyberarts Gallery in JP through the 20th.
We threw some Qs at Tanenhaus about these current collaborations and in the process also learned about what’s coming next. Check it out …
Two shows at once!?! Is this a feast or famine sort of thing?
I always have like…five projects cookin’ at the same time, but they include anything from album art to interior design murals, music videos to branding. So typically a bit smaller scale, at least individually. Two big public art and gallery opportunities converging like this is definitely unusual! But I don’t ever really have downtime when it comes to creating, even if that’s not externally apparent.
On the real though, what the hell was it like to prepare simultaneously? What was the line you drew between them, if any?
Public art and gallery work occupy different parts of my brain—for better or worse. I knew the exhibition dates for both projects would overlap, but somehow it didn’t hit me until very late in the game that this also meant I’d need to *prepare* for both at the same time. And that no matter how different they were, that still meant a lot of straight-up work. Which was pretty overwhelming at times.
Fortunately, they both had such distinct approaches—and I was working with some of my favorite collaborators, who have very clear visions and processes—so I was able to work along parallel tracks, rather than find myself in a miasmic tangle.
For FREQUENCIES, the Harvard Ed Portal (special shout-outs to Eve Alpern and Philana J. Brown!) provided great support in terms of marketing, production, and event deadlines, which was really helpful on a structural level. And Maria Finkelmeier and her team at MF Dynamics are such nimble pros, and fortunately had experience with the projection fabric that they installed in the front windows, which is what made this type of large-scale, street-facing project even possible!
Plus Maria and I just vibe on a wonderfully cohesive level. There’s so much back and forth to our work together, but it’s rooted in trust that we each know how to do our very best when it comes to our special disciplines. We started working together right at the start of the pandemic by creating mini music videos to stay creatively active from a distance, purely for fun. So our foundation is play, which has been a consistent (and really lovely) through line in the work we produce together.
For this project, there was also a layer of community participation that was instrumental in informing our direction. Maria first spun the crowdsourced audio material into original musical compositions. And then I listened to those, made and selected glitch remixes of the crowdsourced visual material, and matched all that to Maria’s rhythms, melodies, and tonal structures. In all, we created eight original music videos, specially designed to make a big impact in a public space. So the process was methodical in terms of the tag-teaming steps we took, but also very organic in how we interpreted the materials we were exploring at each stage.
For the bent/haus show, we had a very different outlook. While some of the art could be appreciated through the windows from the street, this was really structured to be an in situ gallery experience. Compared to the giant windows of the Ed Portal, each installation was made to be examined up close to take in tiny details, even down to your individual angles of viewing, which affect your perception of the pieces (many based in analog forms of optical illusions).
Ben and I have created several projects before, but one of our favorite pieces in the show—”Phantasmagoria”—is an all new construction he devised. He and some friends dumpster dived (dumpster dove?) for Styrofoam packing material, which he then assembled on the spot in the gallery. He projection-mapped the resulting composition, and then we projected some of my glitch art (including my remixes of new footage he shot of crystals on a mirror, spinning on a turntable) onto that. It’s a really unusual video-sculpture hybrid, and I think the juxtaposition of the “garbage” material in an elevated gallery setting packs a punch that wouldn’t be as impactful outdoors. Not to mention, winter weather wouldn’t be kind to it. (Then again, doesn’t Styrofoam last forever?!)
Another point of distinction is that my work with Ben is very rooted in abstraction. It’s what makes our techniques merge so well—his engineered builds are very structural and defined, while the art of mine that we pair with it is a lot more fluid and intangible. It’s what allows it all to come together as one new unique entity, rather than force-fitting competing elements. Yes, we create art independently, but when it comes together, there’s a special magic to it, and that harmony is essential to bringing it to life.
FREQUENCIES seems amazingly collaborative. Is that project similar to other things you’ve done? We know you best for your graphics and illustrations. Of course that stuff is coming into play here, but approach wise, is this something new for you?
Collaboration was the crux of this project, for sure! The nature of my glitch art practice is tied to reprocessing, but FREQUENCIES sorta kicked it up a notch in that I went really really abstract for some pieces, but mostly tried to retain recognizable elements from the source material. Since it was so community-based, I wanted it to be something where the people who contributed could see it and recognize their part in it. Or community members could swing by and—even if they hadn’t provided materials—could pick out locations or other familiar elements from their day-to-day. So it’s a lot more representational and “real” in output than most of my other work, though this was by design.
I was slightly apprehensive about how I’d pull it all together, but the material provided was really rich and varied—from pet store footage to jaunts in the park, skateboard stunts to band practices. There’s a wild turkey in a backyard, preschoolers running around a daycare center, some incredible drone skylines thanks to Artisan’s Asylum, and heartfelt home-life footage from Brighton High School students. Even if narratively this wasn’t necessarily familiar to me and what I usually work with, I was able to find characters, movements, patterns, colors, and contrasts that really resonated with me and moved things along in a fulfilling manner.
Also cats. We associate you with cats. How present are cats in your current shows? How about in your process?
Much of my work is done with my darling kitty nestled near me, so in a way, cats are omnipresent in my process! In these particular shows, though, they’ve taken a bit of a backseat (but still pop up). For FREQUENCIES, I was psyched that in the pet store footage, a cat was just strolling down an aisle! So that definitely made the cut.
For bent/haus, one of the pieces is a giant mounted TV that plays a selection of music videos I’ve made over the years (mostly for other musicians, but there are a few lil audio experiments of my own tucked in there). It’s sort of a video jukebox that sets the tone for the space—mostly psychedelic electronic and instrumental songs, though there are a couple groovy pop tunes thrown in. One of the tracks is Jordan Nelson’s “Neon Marley,” which is an electrified ode to his family cat. Stick around the gallery long enough and it’ll come up. You’ll recognize it immediately—it’s the one with the meows.
Please also tell us a little bit about this house of mirrors you have going on at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery. It looks amazing. We’ll be there before it’s over.
That’s Glitchfield, one of my favorite (and first!) collabs with Ben K. Foley (my partner in bent/haus). It’s an open-topped cube of one-sided mirrors, where you can see in from the outside, but it infinitely reflects on itself on the inside. We projected some of my most bold and kaleidoscopic glitch art into it, which makes the landscape look endlessly trippy as it reflects and multiplies itself, essentially erasing any edges or boundaries. Playful transcendence is what we’re aiming for; it’s an immersive trip for kids and adults equally.
And finally, what does one do following this kind of remarkable double-feature run?
From March through April, GlitchKraft—the Emerson Contemporary show where Ben and I debuted Glitchfield in 2019—is traveling to SNHU’s McIninch Gallery for a second run. Ben and I are also revisiting Mistery Machine (our heat-mediation public art installation where we projected my abstract glitch art onto his custom mist structure, coupled with live electronic music) this summer.
I also have several music video, visualizer, and album art commissions waiting in the wings. Oh, and I’m a member of the electronic music group The Square Root of Negative Two (featuring synth legends Robin Amos and Blaik Ripton). I’m on visuals, so I’ve gotta cook up a lot of material for some live and streaming gigs we have coming up in the spring. I’m also really keen to dig deeper into making electronic music myself, but at some point I should probably take a breather.