By Aileen Farshi
Dana Haugaard is an Atlanta-based artist whose practice focuses on sound and sensation. Dana received his graduate co-degree of Art History and Visual Art from Emory University and then moved on to earn his MFA in Sculpture from the University of Iowa. Over the years Dana has developed his sculptural work by incorporating elements to stir both mental and physical sensations within his audience. Haugaard is a current artist in residence of Atlanta Contemporary. During a studio visit, we discussed with Dana the growth of his work from figurative sculpture to multilayered visceral experiences that he now creates.
Can you describe your early work post-graduate school?
During my last year of graduate school, I began making work that used vibrations and sensations as a means to activate the human body. I was creating embodied situations where the viewer’s presence activated the space and vice versa creating spaces that activated the viewer’s body. To achieve this effect, I began installing mirrors in unexpected places so that as the viewer approached the mirror to take a look at themselves, the mirror would vibrate to the point of creating a distorted reflection, causing a disturbance within the observer as their eyes attempted to adjust.
Shortly after graduating I participated in an artist residency at ACRE located in southwestern Wisconsin. The program hosts a wide range of disciplines from woodworking studios to electronic and digital computer programing. It was during this time that I had the idea to incorporate sound into my installations. As I experimented with various computer programs and giant speakers, I soon realized that my work didn’t need these sophisticated tools to generate the sound vibrations and frequencies I was searching for. I discovered that using mechanical motors to create low-frequency sound waves would affect the human body by jumbling a person’s guts and shaking the inside of their head. For me, this was a time of really discovering sound as a medium. Since then I’ve been focusing on how sound affects your body and your perception of yourself in a space by constantly finding ways to weave sound, vibration, and mirrors into my work.
You earned your MFA in sculpture, but tell me what led you to experiment with sound and sensation?
Up until my first semester in graduate school I had been classically trained in sculpture. Although I technically could sculpt, I would say that I was never all that good. At the time I was using body casting and presenting casts of bodies in ways to challenge the audience to consider their physical response to the presented forms. I consider the most successful pieces of the sculptures I created were casts I made of my belly. They’re funny and, because everyone has a belly that they’re not always happy with, the body casts were a way to engage with an audience. When someone walked up to the belly cast, they couldn’t help but be immediately aware of their own physicality. This stirring of sensation from within my audience is what I aimed to conjure in future pieces.
Soon after putting out this type of work I realized that the duration of time was too long for the viewer to associate their physicality with the work presented, if at all. I decided to cut out that time and create an environment that would immediately activate your body. I did this with my 2009 work White Box, With Light, a small suspended light box with 12 fluorescent light fixtures. On one side of the light box was a bright Kelvin daylight-balanced bulb and on the opposite side were the lowest Kelvin temperature bulbs which are a warm orange. As you moved from one side to the other both your perception and perspective changed. It was a weird physical response as if your eyes and brain fought to correct the white balance of the space. The moment of discomfort where your body had to reconfigure how it was taking in its environment was what I was going after.
How do you conceive the ideas for your work?
It has been a process of trial and error, mainly through experimentation of cause and effect between sound vibrations and the materials that I’ve used. I attempt to think of new ways to create a disruptive and disorienting experience. What first began with using crude motors to vibrate mirrors in This Is You, Here, I then moved into using microphones with speakers in No Here More Than Here to give the power of disruption over to the audience. By interacting with the work, the viewer gained control in disrupting the environment.
Your work often requires structural or audio engineering. How much research is involved in the construction of the work?
I tend to have a better sense of physically building objects compared to building models within a computer program. I worked as a maintenance guy at a museum for a long time and then as a freelance builder in fabrication. Working with my hands is something I feel very comfortable with. If I try to create a sound using a computer program and find it’s not working, I will look for a way to create that sound more practically. I have discovered it works more effectively and becomes a more engaging experience because it is a physical thing generating sound. It is a much more human experience that is touching you through the sound.
Your installations are interactive and often involve audience participation. Why is the relationship between your work and the viewer important to you?
An art installation isn’t really much of anything unless there is a viewer to engage with it. Without someone being present with the work, you’re literally left with an empty room. For example, with my mirror installations, the most interesting part of the entire situation is the viewer’s body and the moment that they engage with the artwork. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter, it does nothing. It is nothing unless there is someone there to engage with it.
Line work is a recurring theme whether physically painted onto the piece or the structural shape of an installation. Can you tell me more about that?
The concentric circles are what I consider paintings, but I think that they are also very sculptural. My larger installations are quite expensive to construct and usually after completing a large work I’m left with scrap materials. I thought about how sound works and how it exists in space. I visualized those ideas and began to consider how I could transform these scrap materials into what analog approximation of sounds and vibrations would look like. Rather than putting sound in a space, I am using these tiny versions of what sound might look like. Painted on the acrylic mirrors are basically two different frequencies interacting together to create a pattern. They are layered sine waves that create their own rhythmic pattern as each set of concentric circle disrupts the other.
In your show at Whitespace the viewer walked into an unassuming space and then instantly felt a full body awareness of their surroundings. However, it wasn’t an uncomfortable or invasive experience.
Sometimes being uncomfortable is important, but it wasn’t the objective in the work at Whitespace. When the viewer walked in they would see contrasting warm and cool lighting on either side of the room. It was a subtle shift in the spatial relationship between the two areas.
The sound playing was a muffled recording of a conversation between both of my parents. It wasn’t important to translate exactly what was being discussed, but more to illustrate the tonal patterns of hearing your parents’ voices in the next room. It activated a sense of nostalgia and reassuring fond memories of childhood. This work really incorporated everything from low-frequency channel sounds, the disruption in lighting, and the mirror image to affect the mind and deep within the body. You could say that the show was a collection of my “greatest hits” if you will.
Most recently you’ve been an artist in residence at Atlanta Contemporary. What have you gained from your experience there?
It is like a dream to have a studio here. I’m always surrounded by interesting people and that creates an accountability within me to keep showing up to my work. In the beginning, I needed that accountability and to be in the presence of like-minded artists who are working hard each day on their craft. There is rarely a day that I come into the studio and don’t run into another fellow artist. It is both an energizing and motivating environment.
Also, at Atlanta Contemporary I’ve had access to a curatorial presence. The curator, Daniel Fuller, and I talk often about my work, and I have the privilege of having another set of eyes to help me critique my process. It is through these valuable interactions that allow me the opportunity to advance forward.
As you look to the future what is next for you?
I’m most excited to be participating in an upcoming exhibition at The Zuckerman Museum called Louder Than Words that will run from February 2nd to May 5th, 2019 (http://arts.kennesaw.edu/zuckerman/exhibitions/upcoming_exhibitions.php). The work is going to differ from much of my previous installations. I’m pushing myself to incorporate sound installations with video and, structurally, it will also be something very new from my past work. Right now I’m contemplating memories, our past, nostalgia and how these ideas of presence can be comforting, but really they are self-generated ideas of comfort. This work is being designed to take banal and boring memories and give it a full physicality in a space just as it does in our minds.
Aileen Farshi is a writer based in Atlanta, GA.