by Josh Levi
Saint Louis might be the last place standing for the emerging American artist -- and no one knows that better than Kevin Harris. The Floating Laboratories founder has been a resident of St. Louis for just under five years -- and during this time, he's solidified friendships with like-minded artists and enthusiasts, namely Cherokee Street's Galen Gandolfi. Inspired by the likes of Fort Gondo and the late Radio Cherokee, Harris slowly formed his utopian ideas on sustainable, affordable art studios/venues.
It was only a matter of time before Harris found his own place in the sun, which is nestled in a riverside palace amongst the cliffs and barges of South St. Louis. Rising from the graffiti'd excess of it's former skatepark/hardcore house reputation as Building R, Harris has transformed the 3000-square-foot space into a haven for new-age synth weirdos, experimental noise musician, and the occasional Fluxus artist. With the help of local event coordinators such as Jeremy Kannapell, the team of Joe Hess & Mabel Suen, and Joseph Raglani, It appears that the future of Floating Laboratories knows no bounds. Since being established in June of 2009, Floating Laboratories has become one of many arts/music compounds coming to prominence in the St. Louis area.
Between his gig as an electrical engineer, studio musician, and freelance circuit designer, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Kevin Harris for a few questions.
1. How did Floating Laboratories begin? What was the intent of the space, and what has it become? Floating Laboratories is housed in a nineteenth-century industrial building, built into the bluffs along the Mississippi River. It began as some sort of chemical factory. Originally, I was going to use it as a private studio. I suppose now has expanded into a public venue for multimedia and electronic art, sound, music, and performance.
2. For a fairly new outlet, Floating Laboratories has seen a number of interesting events including several touring acts. Which have stood out in your memory? How has the world of the touring artist affected your thoughts on the importance of D.I.Y. venues such as FL? It is always exciting and profound to see people empowering themselves, and this is especially true with regard to artistic endeavors. I have always strongly believed that the most thoughtful works of art are those in which freedom is an essential element in the art-making process. It is only when one can become free from the need to satisfy others that creativity can be truly explored. This can mean freedom from satisfying the requirements of institutions, implicit or explicit, to which funding is dependent -- or [it] can be as simple as freedom from satisfying the requirements of a family or peer group.
I think the exciting thing we are seeing with the DIY movement is that it is a very natural response to the overall consolidation of power that has taken place lately in both cultural and economic areas of our society. Whether you are talking about General Electric, The Museum of Modern Art, or any major record label, powerful institutions have permeated every aspect of our lives, and when art becomes merely an extension of a power center, the only outcome can be a vast sea of mediocrity. It is no surprise to me that people without these institutional resources are making very creative work; necessity really is the mother of invention.
I am always impressed by the organization and enthusiasm of the touring artists I encounter. There is a quite sophisticated network of artists, promoters, and venues all utilizing egalitarian tools such as the internet and old fashion word of mouth to make it all happen ‐ all without fancy advertising or assistance from institutions.
There have been many memorable events at Floating Labs. Once, someone poured water on my front steps and told everyone to be sure to step in it as they entered. He said this piece was called "everyone track mud into the house". He then went on to electrocute himself with some wires and a bowl of water. That was memorable. I also liked it when Pocahaunted played. And Tiger Hatchery. And Jacopo.
3. For every event that has been put on at Floating Laboratories, you have showcased your work. Serving not only as an art space, but a personal studio/think tank -- was this your intent? What is your focus musically/artistically, and what differentiates it from other disciplines that you are interested in? My immediate focus is on sound installation and composition, but I am also very interested in sculpture, video and circuit design at the moment. In the broadest sense, my focus has always been on providing people with the type of stimuli that can potentially change the way they perceive the world. This is what gives me a reason to make art - before decisions are made about media or content. From this perspective, there is no difference between building an object and playing piano. It is me trying to confront my own preconceptions, learn from this process, and somehow communicate it to others through art. There is a certain humility that comes from being impacted by something you don't quite understand. It is always my hope that once humbled by confusion, then acceptance, people will be more thoughtful in the way they approach other aspects of their lives, from relationships to social and political conflicts.
It is only when decisions need to be made with regard to technical aspects within respective disciplines that differences between these disciplines arise. For example, my approach to music and sound is very dependent on the emotional impact it has for a listener and only relates to cultural nuance in so far as technology and instrumentation is concerned. Visual art for me relies heavily on a certain language which tries to explain a specific condition of our culture. I also like bright colors.
4. As prices skyrocket in cities such as New York and San Francisco , artists have been fleeing to set up shop in more affordable cities (i.e. Baltimore , Detroit , and St. Louis ). As the operator of a fairly successful up-and-coming arts space, what words of inspiration/advice can you share on the issues of St. Louis and its available cheap spaces, enthusiasm towards grassroot ethics and blooming art/music community.
I love St. Louis, and I don't blame people for moving here. True, St Louis is cheap compared to other cities. However, what is cheap for one person is always unaffordable for someone else. This is the world we live in.
While I am no expert on issues of urban planning, I do know that I don't want to live in a city with Starbucks and Borders on every corner. Conversely, I don't want to live in a city dominated by fashionable coffee shops where everyone has the same "interesting" haircut.
5. As the founder of a community-oriented arts space, what are your plans for the future i.e. musically, artistically, curatorially? Who are you involved with and who would you like to work with?
I would like to work with someone who knows how to operate a giant crane.