“Data Spill” at Widow Jane Mine

Ever since she first visited the cement mine on Rosendale’s Snyder Estate shortly after moving to the area 16 years ago, artist Mau Schoettle had been itching to do a project in the cavernous space. “It’s like a church or a giant ruin from an ancient civilization,” she said of the half-acre limestone mine, which contains an underground lake and enormous columns carved out of the stone. After reconnecting with Kate Hamilton, a schoolmate from high school, several years ago, she found the perfect partner for the project, someone who was similarly enthused and who, as it happened, also used clothing and fabric as the basis of her work. (Schoettle makes conceptual clothing, including wearable pieces utilizing unusual fabrics such as Tyvek; Hamilton is a costume designer who recently branched out into making clothing art pieces.) Hamilton had had her own epiphany when she visited a former bauxite mine in France five years ago. “I burst into tears,” she recalled. “It was overwhelming, being in a place underground that was so vast.”

The two artists began meeting every week, becoming obsessed with the installation as they researched the Widow Jane Mine and uncovered its strange, idiosyncratic history, which encompasses mushroom growing and the Cold War. “DaDa data spill,” which will be presented at the cave on Sunday, July 28 from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., is the result of three years of brainstorming, research, inspiration, costume design, and sewing and paper making, much of the latter undertaken during a residency at the Women’s Studio Workshop. (One of the projects at WSW was cutting a man’s blue cotton work suit into one-inch-square pieces and turning them into pulp, from which pale blue sheets of paper were produced; these were cut and sewn into a replica suit — in essence, a facsimile of a laborer’s suit symbolizing the “shadow” information industry that has replaced manufacturing in this country. The wearer of the gossamer suit, which Schoettle referred to as “a paper laborer,” will be “moving information” in the installation.)

DaDa, a reference to the European art movement that emerged in reaction to the senseless horrors of World War I and relied on nonsense, absurdity and intuition, is an obvious pun on data, which has become incalculably valuable in the electronic age, central to the operations of governments and business and the source of much consternation among citizens who value their privacy. “Data spill,” which refers to a security breach, will occur literally at the event as visitors fill out identity forms and then pass from station to station to watch them get “processed”: shredded and tucked into a bottle, which is tossed into the lake, or sewed together with other forms and hung out on a line that extends into the cave’s dark abyss. Various archetypal characters — the Shredder, Sifter, Sewer, and Phisher — played by actors in special clothing constructed by Schoettle and Hamilton will be arranged in tableaux around the cave, each assigned a specific task in performing the data spill. The characters were inspired by actual historical figures in the area, such as Sojourner Truth (who in supporting her abolitionist and feminist lectures sold tintypes of herself, a process she described as selling “the shadow to support the substance”) and the Leatherman, a 19th century eccentric who lived in caves and survived on food given to him by the local populace. As such they conflate local tradition and the information age, constituting a kind of post-industrial folk culture. The Sifter, for example, will be engulfed in a large silver skirt and be knitting magnetic tape as part of his/her job in filtering the data.

Lighting will be provided by flashlights and the LED lights from 28 paper miner helmets made by the artists, which are printed with a collage of maps and text, including accident reports, related to the mine. A sound piece conceived by Jeff Mullan, DJ at WFMU, will consist of rare radio broadcasts of actual Cold War-era spy recordings, including “coordinates nobody can comprehend,” as Schoettle described it. In addition, a short play entitled Wrench by New Paltz-based playwright Elana Greenfield will be performed by two actors on ladders wearing a combination of military gear and cocktail outfits. Six-inch cookies frosted with the word “delete,” produced by a friend’s engineer father on his 3-D printer, exclusively designed to ice cakes, will be arranged on a banquet table; “delete” and “data speed” will also be mechanically embroidered on antique kerchiefs. A poster will be for sale, and the entire cave will be transformed into a conceptual “enterprise zone” during the performance.

Schoettle and Hamilton hope to obtain grant funding to continue the project, making “DaDa Data Spill” the first in a series of cave-related pieces. There’s no dearth of material, and the two artists said they’ve barely scratched the surface of the cave’s weirdness, much of which revolves around the story of Herman Knaust, a chemist who started out growing mushrooms in the mine and other area caves, invented a medication for tuberculosis in his Catskill Mountain lab, then converted the caves into secure storage space for documents, creating Iron Mountain. Knaust spent three quarter of a million dollars converting the caves into bomb shelters with luxury housing for the elite. The ironic aftermath to these activities included Dial Press’s publishing of the hoax book Report on Iron Mountain, which purported to be a top-secret government document, complete with hoax review, in 1967. Twenty years later, the book resurfaced as the Bible of a right-wing group in Idaho, who believed it to be authentic.

“We’re working on passion, and spending a lot of money to do this,” Schoettle said. For an experience that viscerally touches on a central dilemma of our time — who owns our identity, and is our data worth more than us? — check out “DaDa Data Spill.”

“DaDa Data Spill,” 3 p.m.-4:30 pm on Sunday, July 28 at the mine at the Snyder Estate, 668 Rt. 213, Rosendale. $10, kids free. Proceeds to benefit The Century House Historical Society. For more information, see www.themineproject-dadaspill.net.

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