Youa Vang interviewed Aaron Dysart for Wakpa. Youa is the Curator of Community Engagement for Public Art Saint Paul.
The world of Aaron Dysart has many facets, much like his art that he creates. It’s hard to compartmentalize all of his roles: teacher, city artist, visual artist, and a vessel for the world around him.
It runs a parallel to his piece Commune (can be pronounced comm-une or com-mune) in how Dysart has taken a tree and embedded acoustical mirrors that allow you to bend sound. Upright, a tree shows us the many ways it represents generations. Turned on its side, the tree can be a visual timeline of how we are all connected. Commune can be viewed at Upper Landing Park in St. Paul, Minnesota.
How did you know when you were an artist?
I was in art school before kindergarten. To Help me socialize, my parents signed me up for T-ball. I got there, and it was a game as there was no practice; I had never seen baseball in my life. My team was in the field, and how you picked the position to play is you just ran out in the field and yelled what position you wanted. I didn’t even know what the positions were, so I ended up in left field. I stayed out in the field since I didn’t know you changed sides and they eventually found me just thinking in the mounds of grass. I wasn’t sporty, so my parents signed me up for art classes.
I was always making stuff in my hands, but an easy answer for me is when I graduated from grad school was like, “Hey, I was a professional artist,” and even though I wasn’t selling anything, I put on my own shows to keep going. There’s what you want to do with your life. “What makes you happy? Where’s your drive? Where’s your passion? Joy?” So much joy will make you overcome despair. Then you’ll have to pay bills. Right? You know, and that’s not nothing. That’s huge. We’ve all been there, just vomiting with fear when the rent check came due. I think it’s a common contemporary dream that your worth has to come from how you make money which is very capitalist. There’s been times where my bills don’t primarily get paid by my work, but I’ve never not been an artist. It’s because art is how I see and experience the world, and that’s baked in.
Tell me how you came up with the concept for Commune.
Originally, it was going to be a fiberglass casting of a tree, and the acoustical mirrors were going to be embedded into it. The piece is now an actual tree, and then it trumpets out to the mirrors. Number one, the mirrors have to be so big. If they’re small, your head will block and won’t work. Then I focused on those shapes based off the bell of a trumpet. A few things changed, it was more just logistics, timing, and budget. My initial understanding is that this was to be a permanent piece to be in a park for ten years which limits your material choices. For instance, wood will rot.
When I was planning to take a casting of a tree, I could use a much bigger tree because I didn’t have to move it. A full sized tree is just too big, even for a crane, and it’s a lot of labor. As soon as I came to the understanding that it’s meant to be temporary, that freed up a few things since it could be wood. That made me happy, but since it had to be wood and I didn’t want the tree piece bolted together the tree could only be a certain goldilocks size. It had to be big enough to have a presence outside, and small enough to be moved. Also, I had to have access and permission to take it. The hardest factor was getting an intact root ball and I spent a lot of time trying to find one since they are not normally removed from the ground.
Commune combines a few different interests of mine, I always tend to use tree imagery for multiple reasons. There’s a layered history there, from the directionality of their cellular structure, to this notion of a giant lever, to looking like the dendrite from the earth. With this piece I’m particularly interested in is the notion of the roots and the directionality of what a tree implies. The roots go down below the surface. We think about this notion of history, our past, our ancestors, things that are buried in the ground. They also tie us to place, “What are your roots?” When you talk about that, you speak to family, culture or society, or history. On the other end of the tree, we have a crown that branches out. As the organism itself reaches to the heavens, to the future, the sun, it constantly grows upward. You have this directionality, and flipped it and made it into a timeline. With the acoustical mirrors you can speak from the roots and the past to the branches and the future without a digital interface.
How did you come to using this concept with the acoustical mirrors for this piece?
I forgot where I tripped across this notion of acoustical mirrors, which are often called whisper dishes. The mirrors are an object that doesn’t plug in, it only uses acoustics. As you use it, you know what’s happening, but it still is surprising, magical. I tend to mash things together to see what happens. Thinking about this notion of roots of past branches as the future and how you can talk across generations. I know there’s augmented reality, and I appreciate it, but with the mirrors there is no interface, no electricity needed which feels more magical to me. You just sit in the right spot, and you can hear from really far away. So this way of positioning and expanding that timeline of the tree and being able to talk from into your past to your future and how that starts to blend time is a central layer of the piece.
It can be ambiguous – whether you’re talking to the future, talking to the past – it’s a way to communicate across the distance of space. There’s nothing there. There’s object, space, object, and you’re talking through nothing and being able to listen and communicate, which is really compelling. It really fits the notion of a network of mutuality for me. We are tied together, whether we know it or not, or whether we want to or not. This notion of network often doesn’t care what you want. Your actions involve other things, and I was trying to get that ambiguous blur into a goofy little piece.
In reference to humanity and how we’re all tied together, why is it important to be aware of others? Do we need to be cognizant that we don’t live and work in a vacuum and what we do doesn’t affect only us humans?
My core interest as a person, as an artist, is this notion of being self-aware that you’re a part of a whole, whether you want to or not. I tend to phrase it in different ways, but I feel very much a part from something rather than a part of something. By definition, we’re natural, I don’t believe in the supernatural. Everything is natural, but whether it fits in the natural system is the issue. It’s much easier to just concentrate and think about a singular part, which feels very Western. Look at something such as nutrition – it’s only fat, or it’s only sugar. No, it’s this whole system that you add together to be healthy.
I’m also a fixer and a bridge builder, and I try to be a connector as a person. How do you do that without knowing the best way of action? Your question of “Is this connection that important?” Yeah, and for me, my focus and personality is that connection to the nonhuman. I’m about 98% hermit, but I look at, “Okay, how does this connect to other things?” I even look at conventional and organic food conversations that happen in the media where people say, “Well, studies come out that they’re equally as healthy to you.” But what about the bugs in the ground, or the ground itself? If it is the same level of health to me and not to other beings that seems extraordinarily problematic.
How are you when you have a project and you have to pivot?
I’m not a big planner. My strengths are thinking on my feet and moving. Being an artist and a sculptor and doing bigger projects for long enough allows you to realize that you have to plan to a certain degree but be nimble. Even in life, I talk to my students all the time, “You can plan all you want in your life, and your plans aren’t gonna go right. They’re just not. Things are gonna go sideways. You can either redo it and just ram your ego into it and force it to work, or you can adjust or do something different.”
Typically, when I look and have to pivot or have to change, what I love about that is it forces you to actually start to think about what’s important to you. Sometimes it is the material. I look at the tree – is that a piece that I can’t lose? Other times it’s, “Well, here’s the concept I want to do. It’s actually better done this way.” I’m a fabricator, as well. I build things, and that’s how I’ve supported myself for a long time. At that time, it’s a matter of, “What’s the best way to do it?” When you let go of past ways of making, it’s a big leap, but the rewards can also be greater. So I’m not I’m not that rigid of a planner and I try to convince myself it’s a good thing.
Do you feel that carries into your life too?
I don’t see much difference. I’m not much of a planner. I plan a little bit, and some of it is for protection of not getting too excited about something that might not happen. Some of that is just a mental trick of mine to hide, but I do really well on my feet. It allows me to push through that mentality.
It’s also that surge of adrenaline – there’s a bit of a rush. When things get crunchy, there’s a clarity that has to happen, because you don’t have any time. Time starts to make decisions for you. I fluctuate, I think and I might be a little bit too flowy. I’m just, “Hey, let’s see what happens,” but I also have seen people that have their head down focused on a set goal, and they never look out the window and see how gorgeous things are.
A lot of the pivots I’ve had to make are external factors, such as budget, material, time, all of that. I tend to center the concept. All of my work is much more conceptual than material-based. Ideas come first, and then I figure out how it’s best expressed. The thing I love about sculpture is there’s always a tool, technique or material to learn. There’s never a comfort zone, and you can keep expanding. There’s always more to figure out.
Is that something that you teach your students?
I try. I do both, because while that’s how I operate well, I also have friends that operate very differently. That notion of a strict plan is paramount to them. For me, planning a little works really well, but it also plays to my strengths. For others, it doesn’t, although when I teach I think it’s really important. I see a tendency to learn how to do specific things rather than learning how to figure things out. As an artist you are trying to do things that have never been done before, so you are going to need to figure out how to do it.
When I teach about concepts I use them a lot as life lessons. I started opening up about my failures, and I speak to a few different things that have happened to me and have noticed students start to see that everyone struggles. Every major project has broken me somehow, in ways I didn’t know it could be broken – and I wish I was joking. I have sobbed my eyes out in the middle of a power plant by myself in the most industrial, manly place because the project I had been working on for a year and a half wasn’t going to happen.
The technology didn’t work. We eventually got it to work through another method, and it went on, but there was an incident where I didn’t think it was going to happen after two years of work. So when I talk about things and fluctuating and spinning and moving, I try to when I talk about that in class. There are stages where you have to grieve. If people tell you it doesn’t matter, they’re full of shit. It hurts really bad, and you have to honor that. The key is, “What are you going to do about it?” You can either just redo it, which a lot of times isn’t the option, or you can say, “Well, this happened. I have to deal with it.” You make it the best you can or you pivot, and that’s letting go of the past and seeing what you have and what it can be. That fulcrum can move it into a better piece.
How do you help others see that art doesn’t just have to follow the path of aesthetic beauty?
Art is a visual language. It’s communication, no more but certainly, no less. I’ve read plenty of novels that are terrifying, super sad, beautiful, sexy. Just like we use the written and oral language, that’s what visual language is. It communicates and understands the world in a different way. We’re historically attached to the notion of beauty and aesthetics, and I feel that’s important too, but every language doesn’t have to speak to the good things. People use the elements and principles of art to communicate because they’re based on the lived experience, and that’s what’s important.
I operate as a professional in very non-art specific places, in both the sciences and in government. In these realms I use art to communicate in a different manner, and to reach people differently. Each method of communication has its strengths and weaknesses, and that’s the same thing in an ecosystem. We speak to diversity, and that’s very important, but I don’t think we go far enough as we don’t talk about why diversity is so important. One method, one viewpoint, one orientation cannot cover the expanse of the lived world. The more ways of communication, understanding, and viewpoints the better off everyone is, somehow we often forget that natural lesson.
One scientist I worked with for a long time, talked to me a lot about the nitrogen cycle and he made a statement that I will always hold dear. He said, “Anytime you maximize a system for one outcome, it’s at the detriment of every other outcome.” That statement contains scientific truth, but also just plain truth. Anytime you try to make it better for one thing, you lose all of the cursory things.
What’s your goal with this piece?
I don’t really think of goals that much. When you know all the components, and you can rationally understand what’s going on but it still surprises you when you experience it is the closest goal I have. I think it’s a next to impossible goal to have. Even in my work, I try to have a concept or an idea and jam these things together, and then I just want to see it. If the combinations produce unexpected magic that I couldn’t have known before, I succeeded.
Do you want your art to be unexpected? For those who came to see it and for those who are walking past?
I think it’s always gonna be unexpected for people. I’ll be honest, my goal is I want it to be unexpected to me. Because if I’ve thought about this for literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours, and it gets even better and magical than I thought, then that’s crazy. But if it’s in the public sphere, I take myself out of it. I’m gonna get out of it what I already do, so that’s not important anymore. “How is that audience member going to perceive it? What access do they have?” I deal with spectacle a lot. Especially in a public piece, I want to be able to peel the onion layers, but if you don’t have that initial aesthetic look, nobody’s gonna care, so I try to lead with a big fancy hook like in a song. Then you have the layers of, “What do you mean by roots? Oh, like the actual roots.” I think the subtlety is baked in there. Whether or not everyone gets it, I don’t know, but they’ll at least come out with something that’s pretty magical.
What’s your favorite medium?
Favorite that I always come back to is wood. I have a mastery of the material that is much more profound than any material. It was my first love, and I’ve used it and tree forms for well over two decades now and counting. I also search out things I just love. Each time I turn on a colorful light, I get giddy and have goosebumps. When I turn on a fog machine, I gleefully laugh and I have a Disco Ball permanently mounted in my studio which always brings me joy.