By Cynthia Close
When Los Angeles-based Poetic Kinetics founder Patrick Shearn mentioned the sight of thousands of starlings swooping and swirling in unison in giant waves across the sky as one of his early inspirations I immediately understood this artists desire to use his profound technical skills to serve as a reminder of nature’s awesome power. Murmuration, a deliciously alliterative word, is the perfect metaphor for Shearn’s site-specific work like Liquid Shard (2016) the west coast precursor to Silver Current (2019), a billowing network of shimmering silvery filaments floating on the wind over historic Custom House Square in New Bedford, Massachusetts from now through September 2019.
This immersive installation is the keystone element in the kickoff of Summer Winds, a season long series of exhibitions and programming under the auspices of the newly formed Massachusetts Design Art and Technology Institute (DATMA), a non-collecting museum bringing international artists and performers creating wind related work throughout the public parks and along the waterfront of downtown New Bedford. During the 19th century, this city, perched on the south coast of Massachusetts, was one of the most important whaling ports in the world. Still known for its fishing fleet and seafood production based economy, the city has suffered along with the embattled local fishing industry as it responds to the pressures of an eroding environment, government regulation, and international competition. As a coastal city it must confront the effects of climate change and come-up with solutions or consign itself to eventual extinction.
Big problems require innovative approaches to overcome the pervasive cynicism of our time. Rhode Island School of Design’s former president, the energetic, forward thinking Roger Mandle has a long history of employing art and artists in finding solutions to some of the most perplexing problems of the day. Mandle brings his 40 years of museum development experience to the founding of DATMA, an organization intended to promote technology while creatively using art as a catalyst for positive change. As long-time residents of the South Coast, Mandle and his wife Gayle have a vested interest and deep commitment to the success of the project. In a conversation while sitting on his deck just prior to the launch of Summer Winds Mandle reminds me, “Trade routes are now electronic” harkening back to New Bedford’s historical importance as a coastal port, while alluding to DATMA’s plans for positioning the city’s future. Mandle elaborates, “Today’s winds no longer push sails of whaling ships, but they will now drive wind turbines set sail for a new course by working with investors to create a wind energy industry that will invigorate the New Bedford area and produce masses of inexpensive, and environmentally pure, renewable energy for the region and beyond.” As of this writing, the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal is the first hub in the country designed for the deployment of offshore wind farms. Massachusetts leads the way in its commitment to the development of renewable offshore wind energy.
Technological change is a double-edged sword, inspiring fear in some and representing hope to others. Like a soothing panacea in these fraught times, Patrick Shearn has relied on certain aspects of technology-infused art to create a unique balancing act all his own. Initially a product of the Hollywood film industry, Shearn cut his artistic teeth as a mechanical designer and puppeteer for the creatures in the 1993 feature film Jurassic Park. Even as a kid, he found pleasure “in making monsters” especially when it required the hands-on physical knowledge of how materials worked. As technology changed the way special effects in film were created, Shearn, “found the digital thing tedious.” But coming from the film industry where problem solving was part of the deal, Shearn says, “you never say ‘no’.” So, he decided to combine his love of movement and his playful approach to engaging others, with technology, to create high concept artistic experience–all under the banner of Poetic Kinetics, the company he started in 2008.
For 20 consecutive years Shearn has taken his ‘can do’ aesthetic to Burning Man, the annual, communal, international gathering of thousands of creative people in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. His wildly popular interactive Astronaut sculpture Overview Effect appeared in an updated version at Coachella 2019 where for 7 years Poetic Kinetics has created the most instagrammable installations at the fest. This Astronaut’s stated mission is to “share the story of the journey [across the universe] and to impart newfound wisdom: that all life must come together–across species, races, borders and continents–to protect the special planet we all call home.”
Liquid Shard was realized in a guerrilla style invasion of Pershing Square, a former economic ‘dead zone’ in downtown Los Angeles. Shearn had secured a temporary permit for the piece but the mayor’s office was kept in the dark. There was a press blackout so it was a brilliant surprise party for the city when the undulating canopy of holographic patterns appeared overnight like magic waving over 110 feet in the air attracting awestruck crowds below and over 25 million Internet “views” in 2 days. Intrigued when he heard about the success of Liquid Shard, Roger Mandle suggested that DATMA invite Shearn to bring his skynet concept to New Bedford’s beleaguered city center to inaugurate Summer Winds. Custom House Square presented particular installation challenges. Although the entire piece of high tech fish-netting only weighed 250 pounds, having to rely on the existing historically significant infrastructure for support was a concern and the trees surrounding the park were problematic. Shearn, who is responsible for all of Poetic Kinetics design work, modestly revealed, “All the artistry is in the rigging–not getting caught on trees–still giving it freedom to be alive.” New Bedford’s mayor and city officials enthusiastically supported the artist and his crew by installing a pole in the center of the park, solving the inherent difficulties of navigating the site.
Shearn shares Mandle’s enthusiasm for bringing art to the people, taking it out of the art-world comfort zone of museums and galleries. Mandle believes, “All great art changes the way you see things and the way you experience the world.” Based on public response, Patrick Shearn and his Poetic Kinetics has played a vital role in fulfilling that belief.