Why Are These Games So Bad?

Illustration by Sharon Madanes A'14

Text by Susan Metrican A'14

There are certain events each summer that act as almost a stand-in for the entire experience of the group of 65 distinct individuals who find themselves at Skowhegan. Sometimes these events happen early and set the tone for group interaction—sometimes they happen once the group can no longer imagine anyone else and collective brainstorming takes hold. In 2014, both happened—the nexus of practice and making, collaboration, spontaneity, and joyful celebration manifested itself into a carnival called HappyLand.

HappyLand, Sharon Madanes (A ‘14)

The Stuff they picked up at the dump would be the perfect material for what they had in mind, but The Stuff had another plan. “The dump is actually a really great place to find materials for projects—and it’s a good way to be spontaneous!” – participant
Haunted Pile, Kyle Downs

They had 24 hours, and worked straight through lunch. “I was super hungry, we all were, but we had to keep working. This thing was supposed to pop off in about 8 hours.” – participant

A backwoods bloodbath that will tickle your heart, then rip it out. “We spent countless hours talking in those rocking chairs on the porch. It was good to be able to turn off your cellphone and insta-chat and get to know someone the old fashioned way.” – participant
Knock Out the Teeth of the Redneck Zombie, Willie Stewart

Bla Bla...hihi hi, this Chatterbox has something she wants to tell you. “We came up with the idea of the face-painting booth mainly so we could touch each other’s faces. It was nice to catch up and see how people were coming along with their work and missing home and stuff.” – participant
Bla Bla...hihi hi, Make-Up Salon, Sharon Madanes & Irini Miga

Where the hell is everybody? The Lone Sweeper is the only one left to clean up the mess. “I just found it pretty annoying that everyone was willing to get in there and make a huge mess and enjoy themselves, but when it was time to clean up, they’re all still asleep." – participant

HappyLand, Sharon Madanes (A ‘14)

HappyLand Games:

Heavy Plinko, Andrew Hamill & Magdalen Wong

Ayo’s Massage, Ayo Shih

Billy Putt-Putt, Kyle Downs & Alex Goss

B-Movie Screening, Kyle Downs & Willie Stewart

Greek Vase Head-in-Hole, Susan Metrican

T-shirt Painting, Alex Cohen

Arm Wrestling, Everybody

Prince Albert, Kolbeinn Hugi

Tuzan the Fortune Teller, Kyle Downs, Susan Metrican & Kuldeep Singh

Monster Acne, Nick Doyle, Kyle Downs & Willie Stewart

Katapult Kornhole, Chris Papa  

Basketball, Aaron Fowler

DJ, Austin White

HappyLand is an artist-made traveling circus that contains unusual games, prizes, b-movie screenings, and multiple performances involving the artists as clowns, side-show performers, and HappyLand employees. The environment and props are built by the artists twenty-four hours ahead of the performance from local, discarded materials, and found objects, transforming everyday detritus into a collaborative environment that fosters creative problem solving on a community and personal level.

– Kyle Downs & Willie Stewart


Bernard Langlais and Skowhegan

Hannah W. Blunt

Langlais Curator for Special Projects, Colby College


In 1940, Bernard Langlais left his home state of Maine, set on pursuing a career in commercial art. His childhood studio—a loft space over his grandparents' barn—was filled with his early artistic exploits: comic strips, painted banners for local sports games, and cartoon drawings. Eager for training and artistic exposure, Langlais said he was “just biding my time, waiting to finish high school so that I could go somewhere else.” In 1949, after a stint in the Naval Air Command and several years studying at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., he received a scholarship to the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. On the then 160-acre farm, with its converted-barn studios, rolling fields, and open-air “classrooms,” Langlais was enlightened by paradox: he was surrounded by a diverse group of experimental artists, in a rural setting just 60 miles down the Maine back roads from his childhood home in Old Town. “The first summer at Skowhegan changed the direction of my life,” he wrote in 1973. He abandoned commercial design for fine art, and began making vibrant, expressionistic painted landscapes.

Langlais returned to Skowhegan as a participant for three summers in a row (1949-51). He forged close friendships with Alex Katz and Charles Duback, artists who became his studio mates in New York City. Skowhegan School co-founder Willard “Bill” Cummings—once described as a man who was “just farming artists instead of chickens”—became a friend and mentor. Langlais rented a cottage from Cummings on Wesserunsett Lake after the School's session. It was even in Skowhegan, at Lakewood Theater, across the Lake from campus, that Langlais first spotted Helen Friend, an aspiring singer and the daughter of a Maine state senator who was working at the ticket booth—they married in 1955.

The deeper, more lasting effect of the School, however, was Langlais's fixation on the environment of his art: how and where he worked; the materials and techniques he used; and the conditions in which he completed and displayed his pieces. Outdoor space, old barns, reclaimed wood, and fresh Maine air became integral to Langlais's art. By the late 1950s, Langlais abandoned painting for the medium of wood—a material he found more intuitive. Langlais remained close to Bill Cummings even after he purchased his own summer cottage in Cushing. When Langlais debated moving back to Maine full-time in the mid-1960s, he confided in a letter to Cummings: “I think I've had it with NY.”


It was Cummings who recommended Langlais to the Skowhegan Tourist Hospitality Association in 1967 for their planned monument to Maine's Native Americans. Cummings applauded their decision “to have a fine work of art rather than a commercial statue with no local or artistic identity.” Nonetheless, and not surprisingly, Langlais challenged the Association's concept for the commission. The original plans outlined a thirty-foot statue representing an Indian, which one advisor to the project described as, “a compromise between expected-tourist-stereotype and whatever historical-accuracywe-can-uncover.” Langlais used the full 70-foot timbers that were donated for the project and, after taking it upon himself to research the local native peoples, represented an Abenaki man with fishing weir and spear, rather than the figure with headdress, loin cloth and tomahawk that had been proposed. He worked on the project for two years, building scaffolding for the statue in the front yard of his home in Cushing in order to work on the sculpture at its full height.

In June of 1969, the monumental piece was transported to Skowhegan on a flatbed truck with a similarly gigantic banner that identified the cargo as THE SKOWHEGAN INDIAN. The legislative body recessed as the Indian passed the State Capital in Augusta. In the weeks leading up to the dedication ceremony, a rumor began to spread that President Richard Nixon might be in attendance at the dedication event. Much better than an appearance by Nixon, though, were Langlais's succinct, humble remarks at the ceremony: “I've lived with this fellow for two years. There will be an empty space in my yard. He's become a good friend. I hope you accept him as that.”

By the time of the Indian's dedication, Langlais had populated his backyard with half a dozen large-scale wood sculptures, mostly representing animals, from the jungle to the plains to the realms of make believe, but also athletes and politicians. That number multiplied in the 1970s as his land became his primary canvas. He covered the exteriors of his barns with wood reliefs, and moved and reworked three-dimensional pieces in an ever-changing outdoor installation. Langlais acquired live sheep, geese, a donkey, a ram, and a horse to graze among the sculptures. By his death in 1977, he had created a farm of his own in Cushing, a rolling field with old barns, muddy ponds, and river views, where art was the bumper crop.


I see you, you see me.

by Felipe Steinberg (A '14)

Felipe Steinberg is a Brazilian artist whose film and video works relate largely to an examination of global political structures explored through the micro relationships expressed in daily life and culture. While at Skowhegan, Felipe developed work in response to a local public sculpture, Bernard Langlais's Indian, which was undergoing renovation. Interested in both the town's investment in preserving the sculpture and its complicated history with the Native American population, Felipe inverts the colonial eye by using film and photo to convey the Indian's gaze upon the town's inhabitants.


The Drift

Christopher Meerdo, A '13

Jordyn Oetken, Fleet (The Naming) (2013), markers from Skowhegan break room on paper

Jordyn Oetken, Fleet (The Naming) (2013), markers from Skowhegan break room on paper

Daniel Giles, Souvenir (The End) (2013), inkjet print and pencil on paper

Daniel Giles, Souvenir (The End) (2013), inkjet print and pencil on paper

Aimlessness is a quality that has profound aspects of civil disobedience when theorized within the correct framework: as a technique for an anti-dominant ideological critique through the means of the Dérive. Within Debord’s framework of prompting us as social revolutionaries to remap our monotonous environments within a psychogeographic context, we can create multiple modes of experimentation, play, and co-optation through his basic framework. This summer, I and 24 others from Skowhegan descended upon the Kennebec River with this prompt in mind. In the small hours of the morning, bound by new friendships and matching pink watershoes from Walmart, we launched ourselves into the dense fog of the morning mist. With Marie Lorenz at the helm, our Dérive brought us to islands, inlets, rapids, embankments, hydroelectric dams, socioeconomically challenged pizza parlors, the rubble of post-industrial logging bridges, and an '80s metal cover band concert. Along the way we floated in tandem, alone, backwards, euphoric, constipated, weary, and above all, with enthusiasm and anticipation for our Drift.

As individual makers, our response to the expedition varied: a collaborative drawing tossed into the river in a bottle as a time capsule, accordion shaped drawing pads with reflexive graphite drawings, a tribute song to the Kennebec, a collection of river articles and other ephemera, the contact-microphone recordings of an oar, a rock splash, and an archive of photos and videos.

One thing held these different projects together: the immediacy of responding to notions of atmospheres and the aimlessness that prompted them. We can consider these ruptures of passage as ways of pointing, of observing, of catching and releasing. Each bald eagle we passed caused a chorus of participants shouting

“Rald Reago!” – a portmanteau of “Bald Eagle” and “Rodrigo” – a fellow participant (who is also lovingly commemorated on the year’s group t-shirt). Inside jokes abound, but in these moments of pointing, we can reconfigure epistemological cartographic systems into a psychogeographic reformulation of memory and joy.

Later in the summer, I produced a television show in collaboration with Lindsay Lawson that aired on the local public access channel and was viewed by the school at the Southside Tavern in town. In the episode, Wesserunsett, the visible TV crew and our tour guide fellow participant Daniel Petraitis embark on a Dérive of our own, wandering the grounds of Skowhegan and pointing out objects and spaces, providing misleading and false information about the school. In the piece we address the tightly controlled myth of Skowhegan but also position ourselves as full participants in the reaffirming of that mythology. The film includes a concluding section of 3D scanned Skowhegan environments that produce a digital/mediated/simulacra Dérive that considers more the act of pointing and observation within a psychogeographic space. Through technological simulation, we consider the role of the contemporary Dériver. Can Debord’s prompt be activated through virtual means when those same modes of virtualization are responsible for the rigidity and predictability of our contemporary environments? I think perhaps I should have been live tweeting from my canoe.

In Theory of the Dérive, Debord reasserts an old Marxist theorem “men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves.” Anthropocentrism aside, The Drift and Wesserunsett occupy different psychologeographical spaces. Both consider contrasting modes of moving through atmospheres and the resulting documentation, but the two raise the same question that lies at the heart of the methodology of the Dérive: what does the act of pointing tell us about ourselves and the way we operate within the dominant frameworks that Debord impels us to explore? XO


The Drift: Day One

Marie Lorenz, A '04, F '13

The Drift was a boat excursion down the Kennebec River in Maine, undertaken by me and a group of 25 participants. Our mission was to get a far as we could from Skowhegan to the ocean in two days, to explore, and to treat the river as though it was a wilderness.


Samantha Adler de Oliveira
Luis Alonzo
Trevor Amery
Prerna Bishnoi
John Dombroski
Anastasia Douka
Zachary Fabri
Mauro Giaconi
Daniel Giles
Joshua Haycraft
Shana Hoehn
Mira Hunter
Kristian Blomstroem Johansson
Nicholas Johnston
Lindsay Lawson
Christopher Meerdo
Harold Mendez
Joiri Minaya
Michaela Murphy
Jordie Oetken
Omar Rodriguez Graham
Erik Swanson
Seneca Weintraut
May Wilson
Lindsay Zappas

July 30, 2013

We left camp on an incredibly foggy morning. As the boats pulled away from the bank, they seemed to disappear.

We got to know the boats and each other, and we watched familiar landmarks roll by as if on film.

We knew there might be some walking, but the difficulty surpassed my predictions. We had to walk around two dams—a two-mile trek with nine boats and hundreds of pounds of gear. 

Below Waterville, we saw signs of bridges and dams that had been removed in the 1960’s. From here on, the water flowed freely all the way to the ocean.

We pulled the boats up on a tiny island in the river. We hadn’t come as far as I had thought we would that day, but I tried to put that out of my mind. It was, after all, a ‘Dérive’, and the crew seemed happy with our home for the night.


The Drift: Day Two


July 31, 2013

This is the tent that May built. She used driftwood and paddles as tent poles, and it slept six people comfortably.

When the sun rose the next morning, the island was strewn with color: canoes, tarps, backpacks, and campers, all waking up from a sound sleep.

Our mission the second day was to go slower and explore. Some of the boats grouped together in a formation that became known as ‘canoodling’. It was a good day for taking it easy.

This was the stretch of river that I had been waiting for: a strangely inaccessible green belt, situated between Interstate 95 and highway 201. As far as our eyes were concerned, we were paddling through the wilderness, but if you listened carefully, you could hear the traffic rumbling in the distance.This is my favorite kind of travel; parallel to civilization, but invisible.

We finished our trip in Augusta and were met by a crew of vans and drivers dispatched from camp. We performed a song that Luis composed for the occasion. “The Kennebec is like an angry wife…” it began.

Skowhegan Burial Society

By Dan Levenson, A '09

We are a lonely society. Most of the time we’re working or struggling to stay afloat and in between we comfort ourselves with haphazard friendships, professional networks, family and possibly marriage. We call these things “communities” even though they are all disconnected, fragmented, and don’t really support us. Your co-workers might like you a lot and meet you for a drink every now and then and they’d be sad if you got sick but you can’t expect them to pay your medical bills or bring you chicken soup or mop your brow when you have a fever. In our society we are forced to support ourselves.

The idea of a Skowhegan Burial Society emerged during a conversation between Sarah Workneh and a group of recent Skowhegan alumni following Hurricane Sandy. Sarah’s idea was to brainstorm ways in which Skowhegan could possibly provide material support for artists affected by natural disasters. I suggested (only partially jokingly) that we might consider setting up a burial society, since these can be seen in some ways as ancient precursors to modern insurance companies. When Skowhegan alumni pass away the expenses and arrangements would be taken care of by the society.

Following this Sarah asked Park McArthur and me to begin a conversation about what possibilities we could imagine for Skowhegan’s new space in Manhattan. Via Skype we had several conversations covering a range of topics, beginning with our very different experiences at Skowhegan, to the question of the artist’s role in society, questions of the possibility of community, of organization, of mutual aid, of the individualism of artists, of the new trend of “social practice” in art, and of the very real social antagonisms that institutions like Skowhegan must work to paper over. I proposed an idea about which I am still uncertain. My idea was that the central function of art and the function of Skowhegan are similar. Both can ask questions about what is possible in society. At best they can help us to imagine possibilities that we had not previously seen. But when art, (in the form of social practice) or Skowhegan (if it ever did attempt to become a burial society, for example) attempt to immediately realize their idealisms beyond what our essentially non-cooperative society can support, good intentions can lead to bad results.

This is not to say that nothing real should be attempted, that we should satisfy ourselves with image-making and not attempt real social change, just that we should be aware of the enormity of the task. In creating a community, in creating a space of possibility, we should be aware of the context in which we are operating. We should remember that the real supportive lifelong community of friendship and material support that Skowhegan aspires to is never a fait accompli.

Aleatoric Affinities: John Cage and Maria Elena González’s Skowhegan Birch # 1

by Marshall N. Price

Maria Elena Gonzaléz,  Skowhegan Birch #1 , 2012, still from single channel video. The left screen shows the player piano roll made from the pattern on Birchbark found at Skowhegan. The right shows Randolph Herr playing the composition.

Maria Elena Gonzaléz, Skowhegan Birch #1, 2012, still from single channel video.
The left screen shows the player piano roll made from the pattern on Birchbark found at Skowhegan. The right shows Randolph Herr playing the composition.

When John Cage declared that “art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation,” he was not only drawing on ideas articulated by his predecessors in the field of metaphysics such as the Indian philosopher and art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy and the medieval theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, but he was also attempting to illuminate an aspect of the process in which he ostensibly removed his own hand from the creative process, allowing chance to determine any variety of one’s artistic choices. Cage believed that anthropocentric art and music was trivial, and that beyond individuals, nature herself had an intrinsic expressivity found in elements such as trees, rocks, and water. It is with these ideas in mind that we can reflect on Maria Elena González’s Skowhegan Birch #1, 2012, a multi-disciplinary work in which birch bark forms the blueprint for player piano rolls, and ultimately the music produced by the rolls themselves.

The genesis of Skowhegan Birch #1 came from the Cagean notion of allowing artistic choices to manifest by simply deciding which questions to ask, and was born in a moment of synesthetic curiosity in which González wondered how we might better understand the information held within the architecture of the natural world. Could this biological matrix, built on the collective history of evolution and nature’s forward march of time, be translated into a musical vocabulary, and if so, what would that music sound like? In many ways, Skowhegan Birch #1 unlocks this history and gives a sonorous voice and an audible consciousness to the rural Maine landscape. González has long been engaged with memory and architecture in her work, and here instead of creating a socio- political iconographic program used by the artist in the form of her recognizable maps, floor plans, carpets, and sculptural towers, she has instead relinquished dominion of her hand and literally allowed the trees to speak for themselves. While the piece remains a type of mimesis, however unconventional in this format, it shares with much of Cage’s works a clearly established conceptual framework.

Skowhegan Birch #1 is aleatory and its sounds vacillate between brief moments of silence and long, cascading polytonal phrases. But cacophony and dissonance become paradoxical concepts here as a chorus of voices, held for centuries within the trees of the forest, are freed from their confines and finally speak out all at once. Liberated from the constraints of conventional elements of music such as time and key signatures, Skowhegan Birch #1 is a symphony of sensorial effluence. The musical result is an uninhibited arrangement of collected sounds that sing with immediacy and abandon. Cage believed that music could sober and quiet the mind, making it susceptible to divine influences and thus open to the fluency of things that come through our senses. Art, he believed, could help us achieve this state. In the end, it is easy to imagine that, having listened to Skowhegan Birch #1, John Cage would have likely smiled impishly and delighted in the sound of nature’s emancipated music.

Skowhegan Birch #1, 2012, by Maria Elena González (Skowhegan Governor and F ’05) is included in the exhibition Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft, and Design, currently on view at the Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC (through January 27, 2013) and traveling to the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (March–June 2013).

Marshall N. Price is the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Academy Museum, New York. His current exhibition, John Cage: The Sight of Silence, is on view through January 13, 2013.