Episode 3 | May 10, 2018
This week Texas Energy Lab went on the road for a special episode recorded in Marfa, Texas, where an ambitious new art installation called "stone circle" was just unveiled. Guest host Sherren Harter talks to Haroon Mirza, the artist; Laura Copelin and Peyton Gardner of Ballroom Marfa, which commissioned the work; and Alex Seyer of Freedom Solar, which donated an off-grid solar and battery system that powers the sculpture.
00:39-02:34 – Alex Seyer, Energy Consultant, Freedom Solar
Alex Seyer recalls the happy accident that led to a partnership with Ballroom Marfa. As a new Energy Consultant last year, he wanted to expand Freedom’s operations out west, and he thought the progressive attitude of Marfa would make it a good fit. Google Earth research revealed that Ballroom Marfa appeared to be the only building in town that had solar, so he reached out to Executive Director Laura Copelin to learn more. Serendipitously, he reached her just as they had decided to move forward with stone circle and were looking for a solar partner.
It seemed like fate to Alex, but the company’s owners weren’t so sure. Alex eventually convinced them of the collective opportunity the project could inspire, and in fact they have developed many relationships in the area since then.
02:35-08:09 – Haroon Mirza, Artist, stone circle
Haroon Mirza describes his medium, which uses electricity as an instrument to compose works of light and sound in a unique way. stone circle builds on his past work, indoor projects typically made of a surrounding circle of speakers and sometimes lights, while incorporating other personal interests, including stone circles and solar energy.
The piece merges elements of the past and the future. Stone circles are ancient structures. The marble used in this sculpture took 4 million years to form. On the other hand, solar PV and LED lighting are contemporary technologies. While Haroon composed the music and simultaneous patterns of light, the stones were a collective, collaborative process.
Haroon laughingly suggested that a levitating stone circle back in Switzerland (he did an artist residency at CERN in Geneva) might be the next challenge, but he also noted that it is possible to make very heavy objects float with superconducting magnets. So stay tuned – and if you want to help Haroon make that happen, let him know! As for stone circle, “I hope it takes on a life of its own and that people really take ownership of it.”
09:39-13:17 – Laura Copelin, Executive Director of Ballroom Marfa
Laura Copelin got involved with Ballroom Marfa about four years ago, when the conversations with Haroon were in early stages. Commissioning new work, everything from Prada Marfa to an experimental chamber opera by Austin composer Graham Reynolds, is important to Ballroom, a nonprofit multidisciplinary space that was founded 15 years ago. “One of the signature things about Ballroom’s mission is to support artists that are doing experimental and rigorous work in visual arts, music, and performance.”
Ecology is a driving interest for Laura. “Since I’ve been at Ballroom I’ve tried to push for programming that gets people out into the Trans Pecos landscape.” This passion is reflected in Ballroom’s current Hyperobjects exhibition. Laura organized the exhibition with Rice University professor Timothy Morton around his ecological theory, and they worked with geologists, botanists, astrophysicists, and compiled objects specific to Marfa. Activation for the exhibit may include a screening and lecture about the Magellan telescope at McDonald Observatory, a bird banding workshop with the Borderlands Research Institute that studies the health of grasslands, a soil workshop, and a guided walk through the Ponderosa pines with The Nature Conservancy. The exhibit will be available through the fall of 2018, and visitors can sign up for Ballroom’s mailing list to find out about the activation programs.
13:18-16:07 – Peyton Gardner, Assistant Director of Advancement, Ballroom Marfa
The solar system was a big component of the stone circle budget, and Ballroom Marfa was seeking in-kind support from across the state. “It’s a wild idea – this big stone circle in the middle of the desert.” In Freedom Solar, they found a company that understood Marfa and the importance of art to the community.
Freedom contributed half of the array and battery system in-kind, and Ballroom is working off the other half through a referral program, overseen by Peyton, that has contributed directly to significant local growth in solar capacity. The town’s enthusiasm even led to the formation of a group called the Marfa Solar System, whose mission is to get renewable energy to the public school, other public offices, and perhaps to power Marfa with 100% renewable energy. “In the current political climate, cultural institutions can have such leverage over important issues, and I’m grateful to be part of one that’s at the vanguard.”
16:36-20:25 – Laura Copelin, Executive Director, Ballroom Marfa
Laura says, “We believe in the visionary power of art and artists. It’s mysterious at the beginning. Somebody has a wild idea, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, and that kind of risk-taking thinking can really spark some amazing reactions from people. Like Peyton said, we have to give a lot of credit to the community for seeing this project, being inspired and having it plug into their existing interests and seeing an opportunity to have a collective conversation and run with some of these ideas. So many people have supported the project through these referrals and so many businesses in town have committed to go solar, and we’re really inspired by that.”
She cited Buck Johnston as an example. Buck put solar panels on her home and business, The Wrong Store, through the referral program. But she didn’t stop there. Buck was elected on May 4th to one of three Marfa City Council seats on a platform to power Marfa with renewable energy.
To Laura, that represents the potential of art. Ballroom’s approach is to provide a forum for experimentation and transformation. Commissioning new work and not having a permanent collection give artists like Haroon Mirza more freedom to explore new materials and disciplines. “It creates this imaginative and inspired visionary thinking that ends up addressing issues that are systemic in new ways that we haven’t tried yet.”
20:32-22:41 – Alex Seyer, Energy Consultant, Freedom Solar
Alex still believes strongly in the solar potential of Marfa, a progressive town with great sun exposure and a good rebate program through the AEP utility. Working with Ballroom Marfa on stone circle has had a domino effect for Freedom Solar in building relationships with homeowners and businesses in West Texas. Not many companies would be willing to establish a presence in a town that “is six hours away from just about anywhere,” but Freedom Solar is investing in the area and is committed to helping Marfans go solar.
If you want to support this project and Ballroom Marfa, call Freedom Solar at 800-504-2337 and mention the stone circle project.