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Features / July 12, 2012

Kara Uzelman & Jeffrey Allport: Sounding Saskatchewan

Following successes achieved while living in Vancouver and Berlin—including shows at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Toronto’s Power Plant, Paris’ Le Commissariat and Berlin’s Temporäre Kunsthalle—Canadian artist Kara Uzelman made a surprising move in October 2011, relocating to the tiny town of Nokomis, Saskatchewan, with her partnerJeffrey Allport.

The unusual move to the town of 450 has opened up new horizons of various kinds, however. In addition to working on material for upcoming shows at Sommer & Kohl in Berlin this fall, Uzelman is currently enjoying “Warblers,” her first collaborative exhibition with Allport, at AKA Gallery in Saskatoon.

“I feel like my work is really somehow based in Canada,” Uzelman says over the phone from her new home. “I didn’t really want to live in Germany permanently, and Vancouver was just getting too expensive to be able to both live and travel.” (By contrast, the house she and Allport purchased cost just $28,000 while remaining in easy driving distance to Regina, Saskatoon and their international airports.)

Uzelman is known for an archaeological approach to her practice—she once dug up the backyard of her Vancouver house—as well as her interest in found materials. She notes that both these tendencies, and her family background and high-school years in Saskatoon, are also part of what made the move a good fit.

“In a foreign country, I just didn’t feel totally comfortable [using found materials] because there’s a whole history and culture there that I’m not intimately aware of. Here, it’s somehow a little more comfortable working that way.”

Radio and site-specificity is another theme from Uzelman’s past works, one that crosses over with Allport’s practice and interests as an improvisatory percussionist and performer who has played in beaches and forests as well as galleries and clubs.

For their first collaborative exhibition, “Warblers”—named after both a type of bird found close to Nokomis as well as to the distortion that can develop on an audio tape—the duo initially attempted to create what might be considered a sound work extremely specific to Saskatchewan: recording the frequencies of its land and atmosphere using a very low frequency (VLF) radio.

“A VLF radio is specifically tuned to pick up the earth’s electromagnetic activity,” Uzelman explains. “You have to go out into the middle of nowhere, away from the electrical grid, in order to be able to hear the radio without interference.”

The technology allows users to hear phenomena like the northern lights in a way that is both electronic and organic, Uzelman says, “like a fire crackling or frogs chirping.” But the VLF recordings of the prairie that Uzelman and Allport had hoped to make were not possible given the electromagnetic forces that the recorder itself gave off.

As a result, “Warblers” combines individual works by Uzelman and Allport into a single installation.

In one Allport piece, frequencies of an AM radio pulled from a John Deere tractor are fed to a contact microphone attached to a cymbal, so that the musical instrument itself becomes a kind of speaker. In another, a snare drum amplifies the 60-hertz cycle electrical current running through the gallery wall.

For her part, Uzelman created an expanded radio, adding a variety of nails she excavated from a field to the circuit of a working machine. Laid out in the gallery with electricity running through it, the radio is accompanied by a video of the excavation. Also present, among other Uzelman works, is a sculpture of an electrical tower—an iconic sight of the big-sky prairies—cobbled out of found wood.

Both Uzelman and Allport also carved a schematic of the VLF radio into one of the gallery walls, and included a field recording of frogs in a pond near their house—one that captured that quality of being both electronic and organic, as Uzelman noted of the VLF sounds.

“A lot of the work in the show is inspired by the landscape here, and the materials that we’ve been collecting since living here,” Uzelman explains.

The show will also become site-specific in a different way when Allport plays live in the space with New York’s Gill Arno and Vancouver’s Robert Pedersen as part of Saskatoon’s Sounds Like audio arts festival on July 26. That night, Uzelman and Allport will also crack open a carboy of Cascadian ale, a North American style beer, that has been brewing in the gallery throughout the show.

Though Uzelman and Allport are hardly the first young artists to take unexpected advantage of Saskatchewan’s affordable real estate and easygoing mein (Tyler Brett and Kerri Reid currently run the Bruno Arts Bank, which hosted Uzelman and Allport at a residency prior to their move, and Graeme Patterson famously lived in his ancestors’ town ofWoodrow while creating that eponymous, notice-drawing installation) “Warblers,” and its culmination later in the month, promises to be a lively celebration of wide-open spaces—artistic and otherwise.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is news and special sections editor at Canadian Art. She has also written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. She welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.