Lined up in long-necked Tabasco bottles or stout jam jars, Alex Branch's water collection sits on a weathered white shelf in her New York City home. The first jar came like this—her brother was in the military, stationed in Japan. He asked Branch what she wanted him to bring back for her. She asked for the China Sea. He dutifully brought some home, and now that jar is prized in Branch's collection of 40 or so specimens. “I have some of the Pacific Ocean, and the Atlantic,” she tallied aloud, “I have some of the Arctic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico. I don't have the Indian Ocean, but I have some of the Puget Sound. I'm from Seattle, so that's a special one.”
In her recent work water has had a strong role to play, and during her residency at Sanitary Tortilla Factory Branch hopes to expand its presence in her work. Over the course of six weeks she will design, source materials for and build an acoustic vessel that will make its home, for a time, in the gallery, with associated workshops and events on music, boat making and water issues in the Southwest happening in conjunction with her tenure in Albuquerque.
Branch has completed many residencies all over the world and at her home base in New York, she has created numerous installations and instruments. Recently, she completed a piece for an exhibition at Brooklyn's UrbanGlass called Dead Horse Bay: The Glass Graveyard of Brooklyn. “I made an instrument using water from the bay,” Branch described. “[The bay] is in the south of Brooklyn and was a dumping ground for years, and was also an area where horses … were refined and turned into glue and things like that, that's why they call it Dead Horse Bay.” This sliver of shore and its refuse of bygone times provided plenty of inspiration for Branch, who not only used the water for sonic pitch in her piece, titled “Concussive Idiophone,” but collected bottles to use as well. In fact, scavenging materials has been a central part of her creative process for many works.
“I find that I like the idea of reusing things that are already there or repurposing them, because I think there's a value in those materials that already exists,” Branch said. “And I also find with materials or objects that already exist, there's something to them, some kind of history to them that even if I don't completely know it, there's something about working with it that is inspiring to me and kind of sparks ideas during my creative process.” During a residency in Florida building an installation that would come to be called Signal House, Branch listened daily to the varied sounds of trains passing by on the nearby tracks. There, she found piles of discarded electrical tubing, “they were multicolored—red, orange, green, yellow, black,” she described. She saw them and knew they were the pieces she needed to complete a project that had been kicking around in the back of her mind. With banisters from a motel that had recently been torn down, Branch was able to complete that project—to build a pipe organ out of these discarded materials, which brought their own particular musicality to the instrument.
“I think the place inspires the sound,” Branch said, wondering aloud what might become part of her work as she heads to Albuquerque, knowing that it will reveal itself during her residency. “I really started using sounds when I started building architectural spaces,” she detailed. “I noticed the sounds that places make—like specific echoes, or just a certain creaking … so I started thinking about embedding instruments or making the instruments part of the structure … but also utilizing those sounds that are already there. Anything can be an instrument.”
Including the boat that will be well-moored at Sanitary Tortilla Factory—the poetry of which doesn't escape Branch. “There is a relationship between building a boat in the desert and the desert's relationship to water,” she said. As such, the vessel will hold many meanings—there's the symbolism of that boat as a touchstone of water issues in the Southwest, but there is also the matter of the reclaimed materials that will float it, the music that will travel through it, and its unique role as a piece of art that intends to gather people to it, effectively creating a meeting point for the community.
These many meanings will be explored and defined in the brief six weeks of the residency term, though, as the process demands—by examining the leftovers and refuse of a place, scouring its Craigslist and listening to its soundtrack as the days roll on—intimacy comes quickly. You pay attention to the details. “It can be challenging, going to a new place,” she said. “But it's really, really inspiring how it affects the work. And you can't know what will happen until you get to the place.” What we can bank on is a vile of the Rio Grande being added to Branch's shelf of water specimens a whole country away. Branch's residency at Sanitary Tortilla Factory will run until Sept. 30. To learn about events happening during her tenure there, and find out about the unveiling of her newest work, visit sanitarytortillafactory.org or her website, alexbranch.com.