“Michigan is like a slab of raw meat,” Roland Graf said.
“You know, I never considered working with cars until I came here,” Graf said, moving a handheld spotlight over the insulation board. “Never even thought of it before I came to the Motor City.”
A pixelated silhouette made of tiny solar cars stands in front of us. As Graf shines the light over the cars, you can hear a thousand little wheels start to spin. If you close your eyes — just for a second — the revved up solar engines sound like waves crashing on a shore. Or at least, something a little more thunderous than a bunch of toy cars in a North Campus studio.
“Rolling Shadows — Energy Plan for the Western Wo/man,” finished its run at Ann Arbor’s Gallery Project in October. For Graf, an assistant professor at the Stamps School of Art & Design, “Rolling Shadows” represents not only some of his first work on wheels, but the early stages of his work in Michigan. After years working at the Vienna Institute of Technology, the Austrian artist-turned-professor accepted a job at the University in 2011. And while any cross-continental move is difficult, Graf faced a particularly difficult challenge when he left Vienna: keeping his European artist collective alive.
“It’s like being in a long-distance relationship,” Graf said, rolling his water bottle around on the table. “Except there’s four people I’ve got to Skype every week — not just one.”
For the past 15 years, Graf has been a member of Assocreation, an Austrian-based artist collective that specializes in public, absolutely hands-on projects. The group began working together in 1997, creating massive public installations across Europe and North America. Together, the five artists that currently make up Assocreation work anonymously, spending months planning their elaborate, street-oriented creations.
Well, maybe not elaborate — the pieces are simple, cleanly designed. But whether it’s hundreds of bike-riders powering a balloon moonrise, or a two-city sidewalk that uses pistons to send footsteps from one side to the other, it’s clear — a good deal of technical tender, love and care goes into each production.
Take the sister city sidewalk project. In 1999, Assocreation began a series of multi-metropolis installations. The idea behind the exhibition, titled “Bump,” was simple. Step down on a wooden boardwalk in Linz, Austria. Then, some 270 miles away in Budapest, Hungary — whoosh! — a corresponding sidewalk would lift up, giving the pedestrians a little push upward. And just like that, a simple walk to work turns into a shared experience with a stranger, hundreds of miles away.
Graf admits the technical side of the “Bump” installation was difficult. But if you ask him, the nuts and bolts aren’t really what matters. Or even what are most impressive.
“There was a lot of technical mechanics involved in ‘Bump,’ ” Graf explained between sips of water. “There were heavy steel pieces, robust pistons powering the jolting effect, not to mention online coordinating."
He stresses the biggest challenge. “We wanted to create a piece that could withstand street life for weeks. A piece that could interact with the public.”
Graf paused. “You can go to a museum, and you can put something on the wall and it will stay, you know? The curators can keep it in pristine condition.
“But putting art on the streets — where people can step on it, drive on it, get their crumbs all over it — that’s what gives your pieces life.”
So, what are we supposed to do?
Upon encountering a street installation, Graf said public reaction almost always looks identical. Whether it’s a piece in Istanbul or Grand Rapids, pedestrians bring up the same three questions. Call it the three stages of disbelief.
“First, they ask us, ‘What does this mean?’ ” Graf said. “Then they ask, ‘Well, who’s paying for all of it?’ ”
“And then the final question — ‘It’s not from our tax dollars, is it?’ ”
Graf promised that the taxpayer can relax — each project is paid out of Assocreation’s pocket.
“I used to get sort of annoyed with these questions,” he said. “We’d be up, tying together several hundred broom heads in the freezing dark, trying to make sure we stayed anonymous. And people would keep poking around, asking us where the money came from.”
With a laugh, Graf said he developed a thicker skin. “Whenever we’re setting up a project, we just turn the questions onto the viewer, and ask them — well, what do you think this is? What do you think it means?”
“At the end of the day, it’s not our understanding or reaction that really matters,” Graf added. “It’s what the people do with it.”
Videos of Assocreation’s projects in action highlight this sort of disbelief — even shock — felt by viewers. In footage from 2007’s “Red Carpet,” passersby react to a 12-foot pseudo-carpet made out of hundreds of upright broom heads. Outside the Royal Palace of Brussels, pedestrians jump, laugh and scurry across the bristled rug.
And sometimes passersby have no idea what they’re supposed to do. Maybe it’s because these projects are out of the museum’s womb, or maybe it’s just the sort of unapologetic, unexplained presence of these pieces. Something about them bewilders viewers, turns them into little kids — poking the rug, asking whether they can walk over it. Some do a double-take, and awkwardly tip-toe over the carpet before someone “catches” them.
How people react to the installation doesn’t really matter to Graf and the rest of Assocreation. Just as long as they do.
“We don’t go into projects expecting X reaction, or Y response,” Graf said. “All we’re trying to get people to do is notice.”
He cleared his throat. “Every day, we watch people walk down the street, barely touching anything, like they don’t even know where they are. We just want to show people that location does matter. Public interaction does matter.”
“And it all starts on the ground,” he added.
The heart and soul of Assocreation’s work? Concrete.
Or boardwalks. Floors covered in human hair. Any ground, really. Where most art asks you to stand back, turn off the flash and please, no touching, Assocreation demands you to walk all over them. Jump if you have to. Even “Public Hanging,” a piece that puts participants in business suits and hoists them off the ground via meat hooks — forces people back down to earth.
“At first, their reaction is really funny,” Graf said. “People swim through the air, enjoying this sort of freedom they have. But then the suit becomes a straitjacket.”
Participants often lose feeling in their arms and legs.
"And once again, they become slaves to gravity.”
This fascination with the floor, Graf explained, comes from observing street life from across the world. The members of Assocreation may have different backgrounds and personalities — vastly different, if you ask Graf — but what unites them is this passion for the ground as a working material.
“We can be inspired by anything on the street,” Graf said. “A wobbly pavement or sunlight reflected on the street.”
He paused: “Even now, as I’m thousands of miles away from the rest of Assocreation, we’re still connected by this obsession with street life, and how people behave with the ground.”
It only takes a quick glance through Assocreation’s portfolio to see this attachment to terra firma. There’s “Pink Prints,” where the crowd covers their shoes with in-your-face pink paint, and walks over shirts scattered across the ground. Then there’s “Airlines,” where an Assocreation member drags a bag of chalk through the streets, weaving lines around pedestrians and buildings. Even “Fieldwork,” one of Assocreation’s museum pieces, encourages viewers to walk all over pounds and pounds of hair, turning split ends into a tightly woven wig carpet.
“We want people to think about what they’re stepping on with each footstep,” Graf said. “Each step is an interaction with the ground and the world around us.”
For Graf, the feet and hands-on nature of Assocreation’s work highlights the upside to public art.
“Sure, you’re opening yourself up to vandalism,” he said. “But the flip-side to that is the possibility to create something beautiful; creating interactions more beautiful and complex than you imagined.”
For 15 years, Graf and his colleagues observed street-level interactions all across Europe and transformed them into literal works of art. Every plaza was a breeding ground for new ideas. Every public square told a story.
But then Graf took the job at the University, and moved his family to Michigan. And just like that, the pedestrian-driven streets of Europe were left behind — traded in for strip malls and red lights. The street culture that drove Graf to art was replaced with a new kind of street culture — SUVs, minivans and the occasional bumper sticker.
Which brought him to the question: What the hell am I supposed to do now?
The wild (mid)west
Graf chewed on the end of his pen. “I’ve traveled a lot in my life, and I’ve lived in different countries — Austria, France, Brazil.”
He paused: “But I’ve never been to a place as wild and raw like Michigan.”
It has been a little over a year since Graf uprooted his life and hopped to the other side of the Atlantic. Though he enjoys his work at the University, Graf is the first to admit — it’s not easy being an artist in the Midwest. Especially one that lives for pedestrian life.
“I had plans when I came here,” Graf said. “But from the beginning, there were just so many things that didn’t make sense to me.”
For instance, cars.
“The connection to the street here is completely different. Of course, Ann Arbor is a nice small town, and it’s more walkable than others.
“But it’s still car-driven,” Graf continued. “Several times I was nearly killed by cars while pushing my daughter in her stroller.”
This wasn’t the case back in Austria. “In Europe, we could open our studio doors and bring people in off the street,” Graf explained.
Even Europe’s mass transit was an artistic goldmine, Graf added, with thousands of people rushing on and off metros every minute.
“I still get shocked driving around Michigan,” Graf said. “I’ve never lived in a place where you can adopt a street.”
But with time, these automotive affections became a vehicle of inspiration for Graf.
“The intimate relationship Americans have with their cars inspired me. It pushed me to incorporate completely new elements in my art, like the solar toy cars,” he explained.
Still, after a year in Michigan, Graf doesn’t really know if the Midwest is best for artists.
Graf looked at the ceiling and laughs. “Well, maybe if you can afford to leave enough.”
“Now, don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “This is a great university, with smart, inspiring people. But you’re trading this with an environment that doesn’t reflect the world outside these doors.”
“You have to make an effort to stay in touch with the real world,” Graf said. “You have to try to connect with street life, no matter what that looks like.”
“And above all else, you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground.”