As if you’re standing knee-deep in water

Anybody who has a smartphone or an iPad can view it

Article and image by Bill Hornbostel

Artists Amy Shackleton and Julian Brown, a painter and a graphic designer, are collaborating on a new installation exhibit in the Art Gallery of Northumberland, Playing with Fire and Ice, that combines a mural with augmented reality.

Shackleton describes her part of the work. “This is an almost fifty-foot mural that is exploring the current effects of climate change across Canada,” she states. “It’s combining imagery from our travels to different regions of Canada. So, I have the Athabaskan glacier from Alberta, there’s burned forests from Kootenay National Park in BC, there’s sea ice from Iqaluit, and there’s architecture from Cobourg.”

“It’s bringing all these things together to remind people that climate change is happening in our own backyard, and have a call for action for the future,” says Shackleton.

Brown describes the augmented reality part of the exhibition. “There will be an interactive element that people can use their phone, scan the code and follow the steps, and you can digitally see the space through your phone – the flooded water, and some more icebergs and pieces that will be floating in the gallery, filling it. And that will go further to hammer home the message.”

“It’s combining the effects of climate change that we’ve noticed across Canada; we’ve actually travelled to every province and territory,” says Shackleton. “My work over the last ten years has done that and thought about ways that we can work with nature instead of against it, and look at more of a sustainable way, and more sustainable architecture across Canada.”

One of Shackleton’s most recent large projects is The Great Canadian LEEDscape, which featured images of LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design]-certified buildings in every province and territory of Canada. Shackleton compares that series with her new mural: “It was a little bit more of an optimistic piece; this one has a more of an apocalyptic tone, because I’m realizing that this is a really important thing to discuss.”

“My work has shifted to combine nature in the city in a more of a dramatic way, where nature is perhaps overtaking the city,” says Shackleton. “Nature’s powerful, and we can’t ignore that. This mural is showing you that, and it’s taking rising waters and burnt forests and melting glaciers, and it’s bringing it together in a single piece, it’s bringing all these elements to Cobourg.”

Unmistakeable in the centre of the mural is Victoria Hall, partially submerged beneath the rising waters. “The installation itself with the digital element is also going to be as if you’re standing knee-deep in water in this in this room with digital floating icebergs around to fully immerse you in the environment and hit home what’s going on in the world.”

The mural in Victoria Hall marks a departure from the smaller canvas-based work that Shackleton has previously done. “My studio practice involves spinning canvases on my wall easel, so I use squeeze bottles, primarily. I don’t use any paint brushes in my studio work. And I spin the canvas to direct the flow of paint. With that technique, I’m able to achieve straight lines, curved lines, more spontaneous elements using a water spritzer. And I’m creating and building these urban landscapes, so it’s the same subject matter that you see here. But it is all done with drips.”

“Transitioning to mural work is quite a jump, because I’m unable to spin the wall,” continues Shackleton. “I had to make some alterations in my practice to make that transition, and it’s been really exciting! It’s limiting in the fact that I can’t spin to get the lines to go where I want them to go, but at the same time it’s really freeing because I can’t get the lines to go exactly perfectly where I want them to go, so as a result I’m getting these really interesting drippy elements that I maybe wouldn’t get in my studio when I want to have a little bit more of a tight, calculated process.”

Amy Shackleton at work (screen capture from video)

Shackleton adds, “It’s similar in the way that I that I work is in layers, but with the mural versus the studio work, I’m building them up in a different way. It’s quite exciting!”

Shackleton also talks about being new to the process of creating murals. “This is only my second mural,” she explains. “I’ve created a mural at the Oshawa Centre Mall. It’s still there, it is a temporary mural, so it will be demolished at one point,” she says. “I was invited by the Robert McLaughlin Gallery to create that mural commission for the Oshawa Centre in front of a storefront that’s vacant; as soon as that store gets rented out, then the mural will come down. But it really beautifies the space in the meantime, instead of being construction site.”

Brown and Shackleton met while studying at York University. “My focus was on video and animation work,” says Brown. “For the last ten years, I’ve been running my own studio business, doing video and online social media work for companies and organizations.”

“The logical extension of video work on our screens, of course, is this augmented reality and virtual reality where you’re bringing those elements into like an immersive experience,” says Brown.

Brown talks a bit about the evolution of augmented reality. “The most popular example is the Pokemon GO game that was wildly popular five years ago, and the idea that you can be out in the real world with your phone and see these digital elements are better integrated into the scene.”

“The example in the gallery that we’re doing here is more along the lines of something that the IKEA company did, where you can get their catalog and, using your phone, you can place furniture in your room to see if it’s going to be the correct size, and general color and all that,” continues Brown. “That technology is a little more is a little more related to how we’re placing the digital elements within the gallery space.”

Brown talks about his collaboration with Shackleton. “Over the years, we’ve collaborated more and more and realized how our skill sets complement each other. The first example was at a exhibition of her work; we had a relatively simple setup where you hold your phone up, and in place of the painting you’re looking at, when you look through your phone, you see a little video about that painting. “

“In some cases,” continues Brown, “it was a time-lapse of her interesting process of creating it, and in other cases was showing how her work is made up of multiple photographs. It’s always a collage of multiple locations, all stitched together in Photoshop, and she creates that first on the computer, so it was showing that in a video format and pulling out the photos and letting you see that.”

“Then we got talking more and more about the possibilities and realizing that if we could work on something where the digital aspect became more than just a sort of technical support, it becomes part of the piece in its own right, it becomes part of the artwork,” says Brown. “I think that is something that all galleries and museums are getting into right now, how the digital art world can compliment that traditional presentation of art. That vanguard, that edge, really interests me, and I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to be able to do it with Amy.”

With COVID restrictions in place, no communal, gallery-owned devices can be used but as Brown says, “anybody who has a smartphone or an iPad can view it.” He adds, “It works through Facebook and Instagram, a platform called Spark, so anybody with those two apps can do it.”

Playing with Fire and Ice is on at the Art Gallery of Northumberland, from March 22 through June 20, 2021.

As of this interview, Shackleton’s mural was still a work-in-progress and will be finished on April 2, so visitors to the gallery can also have an opportunity to see the artist at work.

For more information about Amy Shackleton and her work, you may visit her website, amyshackleton.com, or follow her on Facebook (@AmyShackletonArt), Twitter (@shackletonart), Instagram (@amyshackletonart), and YouTube (youtube.com/channel/UCtM4jnC-mc_VJjsB3nIAQxg). Included on her social media profiles are time-lapse videos of her at work on Playing with Fire and Ice as well as in her studio with her spinning wall-easel.

For more information about the Art Gallery of Northumberland or to book a time to visit, you may visit their Web site, artgalleryofnorthumberland.com, or call 905-372-0333. You may also follow the AGN on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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