The projects of Collective Magpie may be rooted in ideas, but these artists also know how to create something that yields a sense of visual wonder. This is the case with their hot air balloon in gold paper at The New Children’s Museum in downtown San Diego, which measures about 37 by 25 feet. It’s a startling sight, very nearly defying logic since it looks so fragile and yet remains aloft in the museum’s cavernous space.
You might think, gazing at this balloon, that Collective Magpie itself is large. Not so. It is actually a consortium of two: Tae Hwang and MR Barnadas. But the assumption would be half right, since true to the form of earlier projects, they are inspired by the notion of works that need the efforts of many. The balloon itself is the product of numerous workshops in Tijuana and San Diego (begun in February 2015), constructed one carefully made triangle at a time. You can get an idea of the method itself in the videos available for viewing on their website. These workshops will continue because more balloons remain to be made; the project will culminate with the launch of balloons from both sides of the border in Tijuana and San Ysidro in the Spring of 2017.
Call these and other works by Collective Magpie a form of social intervention; categorize them as examples of art as social practice. But when they were undergraduate students at the Art Institute of Chicago, between 1996 and 2001, Hwang and Barnadas weren’t paying attention to such labels. Their inspirations were American polymaths like Buckminster Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames. In fact, Fuller’s famed geodesic dome is one inspiration for the structure of the balloon, as an engaging video that accompanies their installation at The New Children’s Museum explains.
“They just found the disciplines to facilitate what they wanted to create,” says Hwang, pinpointing the essential quality of Eames and Fuller.
The same can be said of Collective Magpie, which graduated from UCSD with an MFA last year. Hwang and Barnadas were admitted as a collective, a first for the department. And they produced all of the work for the degree as, well, a collective.
The hot air balloon is an object that has long fascinated them. Their project, entitled "Globos" (Spanish for balloon), began with an invitation from The New Children’s Museum to be part of the current, long-running exhibition, "Eureka." The six-artist show -- named for the state motto, since all works are about some aspect of California --- continues for several months.
For the "Globos" workshops, participants have been making sections of the balloon along with the artists. Hwang and Barnadas don’t view this project as a simple gesture of uniting people on both sides of the border that separates Alta and Baja California, though it takes a critical look at the dividing line between the American part of California and the portion that resides in Mexico. The workshops, the museum installation and the scheduled launch underscore the tensions and complexities that envelop the region, even as the project itself transcends the border.
Consider one group of workshop participants: the Deported Veterans of America. In spite of having served in the American armed forces, they cannot enter the U.S. But that hasn’t loosened their emotional bounds with it. Workshop participants have a choice of stamping their contributions with “Hecho en Mexico” or "Made in the U.S.A.” In spite of being exiled, they insisted on stamping their sections with the second label.
Neither Hwang nor Barnadas are native to California. Alta or Baja. Yet it was clear to them, when they came to San Diego to attend UCSD’s graduate program in visual arts in 2012, that the border was, as Barnadas put it, “the elephant in the room.”
Both artists' cosmopolitan biographies and family histories emphatically make them sensitive to the dynamics of a binational region: Hwang’s family emigrated to Memphis from South Korea when she was 10 and Barnadas grew up mostly in Canada though her mother came from Trinidad and her father from Peru. But both felt, at least at first, it could be presumptuous to create work about a region where they had just arrived.
It took the convergence of an invitation from the Children’s Museum to create a work about California with the centennial of the Panama-California Exposition (in Balboa Park) to yield "Globos." Their thoughts veered toward the notion of an arbitrary divide between Alta and Baja California as well as the historical connection of the Paris World’s Fair of 1878 with the hot-air balloon.
Connecting these conceptual dots inspired them. As did their introduction to the traditional way of making balloons in Mexico that they learned from Miguel Angel Mendoza. Globos de cantoya, as they are called, involve the use of silk paper and have roots reaching back to the third century CE in China.
Collective Magpie has its roots in Chicago. Hwang and Barnadas met on their first day as undergrads at the Art Institute in 1996, when they each helped each other drag luggage into the dorms. Their friendship was instant and their first “collaboration” was to co-direct a gallery for undergraduates to exhibit work.
After graduating from the Art Institute, each did intriguing jobs and projects before forming Collective Magpie. Hwang worked for seminal conceptual artist, Lawrence Weiner, for more than a decade in New Work; Barnadas ventured to Arcosanti, in Arizona the visionary project of the late architect Paolo Soleri, where she did concrete construction, welding, electrical projects and work on their solar energy system for about three years. (Hwang went there for a short while and they worked with its community of “Arconauts” to create a temporary structure made from plastic part balloons and LEDs.) Both artists have done scientific illustration for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Barnadas has also worked in art restoration and fabrication.
Their friendship and collaboration endured and in 2007, they established Collective Magpie. A year later, they conceived what they now see as their breakthrough piece: the "Giant Paint by Numbers" mural at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The duo gave every willing participant some instructions they could follow to contribute to a mural and 20,000 people did just that. Hwang and Barnadas were overwhelmed -- and inspired.
“It was an amazing experience, “ recalls Hwang. “So many different kinds of people joined in. We saw the joy people had in being part of it. “
They felt as if they had found the bedrock premise of their work. The audience would be a kind of third collaborator. They would provide the structure, but others could participate in its creation.
In 2013, for example, they designed a work for La Jolla Playhouse's Without Walls (WOW) Festival, in which participants would devote about 15 minutes each to making a geometric bird from folded paper; hundreds did, contributing to a wall of them.
A question that seems to connect these participatory works is: how can temporary moments of community be constructed? That collectivity is fleeting, of course, consisting of the artists and willing participants in the moments they converge. But Collective Magpie has developed a gift for creating those moments.
They don’t have some grand vision of where they are headed after "Globos" is completed.
“We don’t have a picture of how to continue,” said Hwang. “We work project by project.”
Still, the bond between them is genuine and strong. Collective Magpie appears sure to have more than a provisional future.
Top image: Collective Magpie, "Migration: After Flight." Performance/object, paper, die press, electronics, concrete, steel, staples, assembly line. Wall dimensions, 7 by 40 feet. Participatory action at the Without Walls Festival, La Jolla Playhouse and Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.