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A Visit to Pat Farm

The artist, Patrick Robideau, in the tunnel beneath his installation, Pat Farm.

A critic and his son explore Patrick Robideau's installation at the Burchfield-Penney

Pat Farm, Patrick Robideau’s installation at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center’s Useum, brings to mind the Night at the Museum movies of recent years. There may be an element of free association here, but amidst the predictable, tween-oriented slapstick of these films where natural history and ethnographic displays come to life, the underlying message seems to be that museums are cool and exciting places, but they would be way cooler and more exciting if they were, you know, more real. If, let’s say, the high-end taxidermy of the Museum of Natural History came to life, we’d all have more fun.

Although Pat Farm can’t promise a loveable, reanimated capuchin monkey, it does offer a unique perspective on the artificiality of the museum experience, and our strange tendency to distance ourselves from the experience of nature.

The main structure of Pat Farm is sutured into the neutral volume of the Useum, a temporary spatial invasion that feels uncannily permanent by virtue of Robideau’s meticulous craftsmanship. The crate-like structure has a central entrance which beckons the visitor, but its gaping darkness is somewhat foreboding—part sideshow dark ride, part black box theater. To the side of the main Pat Farm structure is an alcove with two video monitors trained on cave-like locations which appear to be subterranean, like underground footage from an episode of Meerkat Manor. Aisles on either side of the Pat Farm structure contain a number of low, shadowy openings at floor level, and hooks offering headlamps to visitors.

As Pat Farm is intended—at least in part—for children, I visited with my young consultant, Simon, age 13. At risk of violating some obscure law concerning underage sculpture critics, I charged him with exploring Pat Farm, and conducted the following interview afterwards in the Orion Café:

The unprepossesing entrance to the installation at the Burchfield-Penney's Useum.

EJF: What were your first impressions of the installation?

SJF: It’s an enormous box, and I didn’t know what was inside, but I was curious about it. At first, I didn’t know what to do, but then I saw the lights [the headlamps] and followed the other people.

EJF: And what about the two video monitors—what did they add to the experience?

SJF: The parents were watching and enjoying what the kids were doing—it’s a way for the children who go into it to interact with their parents, because most parents won’t go into the thing—it’s a place for children.

EJF: So, what made you think that the piece was intended for children?

SFJ: It’s for children because of the toys inside…the army men and the “stuffed animals.” And the spaces are small—not meant for adults to go in, physically.

EJF: Were there any parts that you think were meant for bigger people?

SJF: Well, the walk-in room is meant for bigger people. The experience there was different because there weren’t as many choices [of direction]. And there weren’t as many choices because you couldn’t interact with the stuff in the walk-in room—you couldn’t touch it.

EJF: And what did you observe about the younger kids in the installation?

SJF: They wanted to go in again and again! They made a game out of exploring the structure and telling their parents to watch them on the monitors. They had more fun with the video because, without it, they wouldn’t be able to show their parents they were having fun.

EJF: Did anything about the installation remind you of something in the “real world?”

SJF: The walk-in room was like a zoo or a science museum—all those animals wouldn’t be assembled there at the same time. With our actions, we’ve condensed them all together.

EJF: What about those little stick structures in that display; would you see something like that in a science museum?

SJF: No…the stick structures there were like the army men in the other parts: a manifestation of humanness…humans invading nature little by little. Humans are invasive to nature and armies invade.

EJF: Any other real-world connections?

SJF: Well, with all the animals, it’s like we’re invading them, their world, nature. The two holes with the raccoon and the skunk: They’re trying to hide from you—evading humanity.

EJF: But were those animals shown in their world?

SJF: Not really—they were surrounded by the box-like structure—not in their natural setting.

EJF: So—why do you think the artist put plastic army men in the piece instead of some other kind of toy?

SJF: When children go in, they don’t harm anything—they don’t harm the animals. The army men represent humans going into nature, but they’re less dominant…the animals are bigger. In the end, they [the army men/humans] don’t mean too much—they don’t threaten the animals.

EJF: When you were younger, you used to like to take your toys outside to play in the dirt—do you remember why?

SJF: The outdoors is like a “backdrop” or environment. It’s just more interesting than indoors, than man-made things. There’s more to the outdoors—it’s more complex.

EJF: I think the piece creates a world of its own. How is this world real and how is it artificial?

SJF: It’s real because it’s like the outdoors—like the forest. But…when you bring something in from the outside and put it there [he refers to a piece of pinecone in the café table centerpiece] it’s dominated by the manmade-ness of it all.

EJF: And what about the tunnels? What purpose do they serve in this world?

SJF: The tunnel parts don’t take up the whole box. There’s a lot more box than tunnel. It’s like nature going through the world that surrounds it. We go “in there” sometimes, but, the army men and stuff we leave behind…our presence…nature still remains.

EJF: How does the installation get you to think about the museum world?

SJF: It’s like a museum because it’s showing what something is, but not always accurately. It also shows how we’ve changed things from how they’re supposed to be. It encloses and allows us to see what things are like.

EJF: But why not just go see these things in nature, at the source?

SJF: Because that would be like invading! And, besides, they [the animals] wouldn’t stay still!

Pat Farm had inspired a more fruitful conversation on the nature of the museum experience—and our uneasy experience with nature—than I could have imagined. And, although I had also borrowed a headlamp and squeezed into the tunnels like an overgrown kid (a stunt not recommended for the claustrophobic), I don’t think I would have emerged with the same experience as Simon did.

Passing by the installation once more before leaving the building, I happened upon an incidental epilogue: One of the monitors showed a father and two children in one of the chambers—a space at the far end of the installation large enough to stand up in. It was curious to note that the children were playing happily with the army men, but the father, probably unaware that he was on video, was busily texting on a cell phone. I wonder if he was telling a friend to check out Pat Farm, or just doing what comes “naturally” to adults.

See the Burchfield-Penney listings on the Artvoice Calendar.

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