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Island Fever 

The lake with no name is nestled deep in the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. You can see it through the leaves as you walk down the crackling gravel paths past an underground tunnel to a secret garden and the horizontal bones of a tulip tree. Eventually you'll come to an unmarked beach, down a steep rutted incline. Depending on the day, there may be a beaten up boat listing on the ground, dented seats baking in the sun.

Always, though, you'll see the island.

click to enlarge Life on Indy Island is isolated, but at the same time very exposed. "It's easy to forget sometimes, but you're in the middle of a park," Rimas said. "People are always around." - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Life on Indy Island is isolated, but at the same time very exposed. "It's easy to forget sometimes, but you're in the middle of a park," Rimas said. "People are always around."

Indy Island is an experimental living structure by famed installation artist Andrea Zittel. Built primarily of fiberglass, it is meant "to examine the daily needs of contemporary human beings." It does this by taking in an artist (or maybe two) for six weeks every summer, to create art and modify the structure to their own needs. Over one hundred artists a year apply for the Indy Island residency and its unique challenges.

While there is a guesthouse available to the artists, they are expected to spend most of their time on the island. They eat, sleep, work, and play on a 20 foot diameter structure that combines isolation and exhibitionism as they add their own work to Zittel's. It's a broad charter, and past artists have done everything from six week performance art pieces involving a giant beaver costume, to a set of fungal micro-filters meant to strain out e coli.

click to enlarge Indy Island lacks running water. Most of the time Rimas just brought gallon jugs out, but with a hand pumped filter, the lake water was drinkable. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Indy Island lacks running water. Most of the time Rimas just brought gallon jugs out, but with a hand pumped filter, the lake water was drinkable.

This year's resident, Rimas Simaitis, is working on something else entirely. Through August, the island has sprouted a tall bamboo mast, the beach has acquired a phone booth, and blitzing off into space at the speed of light go microwaves bearing the puzzled questions of museum visitors. They're all parts of Simaitis' work, Island Fever, the accumulation of weeks of tinkering and months of planning.

But even simple things take a long time on the island, which lacks electricity, drinking water, or a rest room. Especially with the phone booth on shore, progress is a long series of treks back and forth across the water in the creaking old boat. Each trip eats up more daylight, precious when the alternatives are limited to candles. Rimas calls this shrinking of the day "island time."

***

click to enlarge Rimas enjoyed playing with expectations about islands. "There's this whole "tiki bar" aesthetic associated with islands, and I wanted to play with that." - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Rimas enjoyed playing with expectations about islands. "There's this whole "tiki bar" aesthetic associated with islands, and I wanted to play with that."

I first meet Rimas Simaitis as I walk down to the Island.  He's tall and thin, with hair cropped so short it almost passes for shaved, and friendly. We amble down the park's paths to the Visitor's Center, which has the electricity - and refrigerator - that the island lacks. Unfortunately, while they had given Rimas permission to use the fridge, they had not given him a key to access it. So we waited for a half hour for someone to come open it. We talked while we waited.

It turns out Rimas ended up on the island after a friend showed him the application for the residency. "He knew I'm really interested by islands," Rimas says. "He showed it to me and he was like 'dude, this is your residency.'"

Getting to the island wasn't all that easy:  Rimas is effectively homeless. Before he came to Indianapolis, the LAPD came to his apartment in SWAT gear and kicked him out. They weren't there for him, but after they'd broken down half the doors in the building with battering rams, everyone had to leave. A third of the building's space was devoted to illegal grow rooms for marijuana, and they'd broken down the doors of another third just to be safe.

"Eventually they got tired of battering down all those doors," Rimas remembers. "So they sawed through the drywall and reached through to open the doors. Luckily my apartment was in a part of the building that was under renovation. We were the only renters there, so the cops didn't break down our door."

He moved past the yellow crime scene tape and the now-doorless apartments picked over by looters to gather up his possessions. After moving almost everything he owned into storage, he set out for Indianapolis, by way of his hometown in Idaho and a gallery show in Chicago.

Around the time he's finishing up his story, a security guard with a key comes. He apologizes profusely, and to make it up to us, he drives us down to the beach in his golf cart. I catch glimpses of the island through the trees: it seems ethereal, floating on its own reflection. It's at the center of the lake, a lumpy igloo hunched low over the water. Without any nearby points of reference, it's hard to tell how small it really is.

After the guard drops us off, the first thing I notice is the phone booth: a kitschy mix of red plastic and bamboo - the kind of thing you'll see poolside at a Cancun resort. It only has one button, no key pad. I figure it's an emergency center for people out around dusk.

click to enlarge Rimas's next stop is the fall residency at Ox-Bow in Saugatuck, Michigan - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Rimas's next stop is the fall residency at Ox-Bow in Saugatuck, Michigan

Rimas is busy grabbing the oars and life vests from the footlocker on the beach, taking them over to the boat and dragging it to the water's edge. Short of swimming, it's the only lifeline between the island and the rest of the world. Once we're out in the water, the only human sound is the squeal of the oars.

***

The island is incredibly isolated, in part by design. The artist (and guests) are forced to come to grips with the limited space and human contact. If creativity is about pushing boundaries, then Indy Island is the perfect place to make art: three steps and you're pushing right up against a curved wall. Cell reception is fine, for as long as your battery lasts, but once that's gone communication is limited to bellowing over the water.

click to enlarge Still worried about the coolers flipping, Rimas tied the anchors to life vests, then attached the coolers to the vests. "I looked online to check out how they design buoys," he explained. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Still worried about the coolers flipping, Rimas tied the anchors to life vests, then attached the coolers to the vests. "I looked online to check out how they design buoys," he explained.

Almost immediately after we get to the island, Rimas sets to work on the most troubling part of the project: the coolers. Two white Igloo coolers with loudspeakers and antennas attached to their lids sit on the small porch of the island. Inside are a smorgasbord of electronics - transceivers, receivers and batteries - all of which are not friends with the water. That's a problem: the coolers are meant to float in the lake, and they keep tipping over.

Rimas's solution comes from his time in California: "When I was out there, I made my own surfboard. I remember a lot of guys put fins on their boards. While I didn't, I thought it might work for this."

The coolers more or less rest on the surface of the water, like a surfboard, so what worked for one should work for the other. The only catch is that the wood Rimas made his fins out of floats like any other wood - and unlike a surfboard, no one will be standing on the coolers.

Rimas's next solution is to tie Fiji water bottles full of rocks to the ends of the fins. They'll pull the fin down into the water, where it will use water resistance to stabilize the cooler. Each bottle rests in a colorful net of rope made from torn-up tie-dyed t-shirts.

click to enlarge Anything electrical involved with Indy Island is solar powered. Rimas included it for two reasons: the island lacked electricity, and because he likes to work an element of chaos into his work. "If it's cloudy, it's not going to work as well, and that's by design." - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Anything electrical involved with Indy Island is solar powered. Rimas included it for two reasons: the island lacked electricity, and because he likes to work an element of chaos into his work. "If it's cloudy, it's not going to work as well, and that's by design."

"I had a studio visit from a sculptor last year, and though she liked my work she told me she knew every aisle in Home Depot that I had gotten rope from," Rimas explains. "So I've been trying to find alternatives."

Rope is a theme Rimas uses a lot in his work. Rather than use glue or nails, he'll wind as much rope as it takes to bring a piece together. It works too, because Rimas know what he's doing with rope. Whether it's lashing the boat to the island or securing bottles to the coolers, he's got a knot for everything.

"I think it comes from growing up as a boy scout," he says, his fingers weaving a web of techni-colored cotton.

While Rimas is fixing up the coolers, I snoop around the island. It's a short trip that reveals a hammock, supplies for the work, and non-perishable food. But when I look out the door, I'm struck with vertigo: the island is moving. The movement is so subtle and slow that if you aren't actively watching the horizon you won't catch it, but peering out the window the rotation is obvious. Indy Island is less an island and more a permanently anchored raft with a roof. If you look through the floor slats, you can see the water underneath.

Outside, Rimas hoists the coolers out and into the water with a grunt. It bobs in the water for a moment, ripples pulsing out as my host holds his breath. Finally it settles in a nearly perfectly vertical alignment. Rimas bends down and gives it a shove, and it instantly rights itself.

I give Rimas a congratulatory smile, and he smiles back. But the work isn't done. Even with the added weight, left to their own devices the coolers will eventually drift away. No, we need to go to shore and find some rocks to use for anchors. Even then, we won't be finished, not even close. We're about to catch a very bad case of "island time."

***

In Rimas's proposal for the residency, Island Fever has five basic components - phone booth, island, coolers, the atmosphere and space - and with them, four stages. When a visitor presses the button on the phone booth and speaks into the phone, the message is broadcast over the water to the island, the first step of the work. This is visitor participation, part of Rimas's original proposal.

In the second stage, the island relays the signal from the phone out to the coolers, which play the audio, along with the island, which also has a speaker. The coolers are spread out around the lake, so that the sound waves all hit the visitor at different points. It's like shouting into a cave and getting back three, asynchronous echoes.

Back on the island, the third and fourth stages happen simultaneously. In one, a HAM radio takes the signal from the phone booth and bounces it off the atmosphere to somewhere across the horizon. Given that the signal can ricochet between the ground and the sky, there's no telling who on earth is going to pick it up. While that's going on, a microwave antenna shoots the signal straight through the atmosphere and into outer space.

click to enlarge In this concept drawing, the coolers would vibrate as they played audio to make physical waves. "It worked great when I tested in a bathtub," Rimas said, but the harmonics of a lake are quite different. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • In this concept drawing, the coolers would vibrate as they played audio to make physical waves. "It worked great when I tested in a bathtub," Rimas said, but the harmonics of a lake are quite different.

It's a very complicated piece that has required Rimas to get two levels of HAM radio certification and to brush up on his FCC regulations. Those rules have left him with a very narrow range of bandwidth at the bleeding edge of normal radio frequency. Which is just one of the things that makes getting the whole thing running difficult. Add in the fact that Rimas is basically working in a vacuum without much assistance, and you begin to understand why five weeks into the residency, it still isn't working.

click to enlarge There is not a lot of open water in Idaho, where Rimas grew up. His insurance salesman father and graphic designer mother enrolled him in some advanced art classes in grade school. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • There is not a lot of open water in Idaho, where Rimas grew up. His insurance salesman father and graphic designer mother enrolled him in some advanced art classes in grade school.

Just as Rimas applied for the residency, the IMA was undergoing a big change in leadership and then an eleven percent staff reduction and an ill-timed tweet only fed resentment about the changes in the community.

This was the situation Rimas parachuted into, fresh from his LAPD spurred relocation. Tensions within the IMA have been high as fewer workers try to accomplish more than before, and this may have spilled into Rimas's work. Rimas admits that he also could be part of the problem.

"Coming from the West Coast," he concedes, "I'm more passive about things. Maybe I should have just asked for things."

Whether it's the recent shake up or his own laid-back nature, or a combination of the two, Rimas hasn't gotten much of a hand from the museum. But I'm here, I have hands, and Rimas is enlisting me to help.

***

After we get the anchors in place and grab some dinner, Rimas and I decide to test Island Fever.  I'm excited because this is what I came out here for, and Rimas is excited because after all his work, he's finally got someone to help him test it. He drops me off on shore to use the phone booth while he gets the radios on the island up and running. When I first press the button, my voice rings out over the night time water with an awkward hello. But the next time I try it my voice is faint and garbled. After that, silence.

Rimas thinks - hopes really - that it's the radio on the island. Both of our cellphones are dead, so we have to resort to shouting over the lake.

"Are you still trying?" he shouts.

"Testing, testing, testing," I cry into the phone.

But the speakers on the coolers keep playing the same dull hiss. Eventually we realize the signal is right because every time I press the button, the speakers pop slightly. The issues on my end, with the decades old phone booth.

"They're hard to find," Rimas explains after another ten minute trip to shore. "I went online to see if anyone in Indianapolis had a phone booth they were willing to sell. I bought this off a guy for fifty bucks. He told me he and his brother had stolen it years ago from the 'telephone graveyard.'"

At the moment, a graveyard seems like where the phone booth belongs. Rimas begins gingerly taking it apart, checking connections and wires for corrosion or breakage. During bad weather, Rimas pulls the coolers into the island, but the phone booth endures the elements 24/7. Now he's worried all that time has taken its toll.

click to enlarge Rimas worked late into the night on phone booth with nothing but a battery operated headlamp - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Rimas worked late into the night on phone booth with nothing but a battery operated headlamp

While Rimas tries to repair the phone booth, I turn to observe the island. If it's easy to forget you're at the heart of a city during the day, it's impossible at night. The incandescent glow of the city bounces off the clouds like the glow of a full, orange moon. The fish are just calming down from their sunset feeding, and the insects in the forest are almost deafeningly loud. Other bugs have come out too: while they rarely venture out to the island at the center of the lake, the mosquitos cover the shore like a blanket.

I don't know anything about electronics repair, so I'm useless as Rimas grows increasingly frustrated. He twists and pries with nothing more than his fingers, trying to coax the phone booth back to life. It's almost three in the morning when Rimas finds the infuriatingly simple problem: the jack at the end of the phone's chord isn't quite snug enough. He makes a quick splint out of a twig and shims the cable back in. When he presses the button this time, the speakers bark back to life.

"Kilo-Indigo-Five-Lima-November-Delta. This is Indy Island Radio, looking for signs of intelligent life."

***

It's 3am when we get back to the island, and while I'm almost as exuberant as Rimas that the project is working, I'm exhausted. Still, he has one more thing he wants to show me. He grabs the HAM radio receiver out of the island and brings it to the porch. The cloud cover breaks and the full moon shines through, along with a few stars. Rimas starts looking for a signal.

When he first gets the edges of a frequency, it sounds like aliens: the speaker warbles and croaks with inhuman sounds. But as Rimas' fingers spider over the knobs of the receiver, the sound begins to slide into something recognizable. At first I thought it was a Slavic language, but in an unmistakably Australian accent we hear "... expecting an awful lot of rain. Nasty storms coming through around here."

click to enlarge A complicated radio system was the heart of the Island Fever project. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • A complicated radio system was the heart of the Island Fever project.

Rimas fiddles with the radio some more, until the voices are clear if faint. There was apparently a weather system moving through Melbourne. After a night working on a high concept work of art centered on an artificial island, we eavesdrop on a mundane conversation on the world's largest island almost 10,000 miles away.

We turned in when the signal got choppy, but we didn't get to sleep for long. A photographer from the museum comes to shoot the finished work at nine in the morning, which meant we got six hours of sleep. Our phones are dead, and men who came of age in the 21st century aren't great at telling time by the position of the sun. Needless to say, we are over thirty minutes late.

By the time we reach the waiting photographer on shore, he's nearly run out of time. Instead of photographing the island and all of its work, he has time for a simple stand up interview with Rimas. I watch cicada killers hover near the roots of a tree while Rimas explains the premise of Island Fever to the camera. Then the photographer leaves, with the two of us standing on the beach watching him go.

I can tell Rimas is frustrated. I'm frustrated and it isn't even my project. Thankfully I have my camera, so the project won't go undocumented. I photograph Rimas as he speaks into the telephone, sending broadcasts out to the coolers we'd reactivated for the abortive shoot.

Somewhat surprisingly, there are people walking around the IMA at ten in the morning on a Saturday. I know because they hear Rimas' broadcast and came to investigate. They eye the phone booth and the spindly artist using it with mild apprehension, and me with my camera even more so. The whole scene must smack of Punk'd.

click to enlarge Island Fever isn't Rimas's first work with radio waves or audience participation. Past work allowed visitors to use their body to alter the waves sent from one radio to another in a room. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Island Fever isn't Rimas's first work with radio waves or audience participation. Past work allowed visitors to use their body to alter the waves sent from one radio to another in a room.

But Rimas is infused with energy. This is the moment everything has been leading up to - the five weeks of painfully slow work. He quickly explains who he is, how he has come to live on the island, and what Island Fever is. And then he offers up the receiver, and one of the group, a college kid, takes it.

"Hello," he says, looking back at his group. He's fascinated by the part where his voice is going to get beamed out to aliens. "We know you're out there. We're friendly and we know you probably are too." Then he licks his lips and hangs the receiver back up.

After the crowd leaves, Rimas is visibly elated. The whole experience of the residency has been difficult. He had hoped to have the project running for visitors before his last week. But it doesn't matter right now because a visitor did get to try it out, and it worked.  

That's how I leave Rimas, on a high note. We were both still tired from the night's labors, though he was the one who did all the work. We say our goodbyes, and then I trudge up the gravel road, back past the hidden garden and out of "island time." In a week, Rimas is going to take the same trip, on his way to another residency - this one in Michigan. His work is basically done.

When I think about it, the name of his project, Island Fever, seems incredibly hokey at first, almost crass. But after Rimas explains what it meant, I knew it was perfect:

"It can mean the drive mainlanders feel to get away from everything and go to the islands," he said. "But it's original meaning came from the islanders themselves. It was the intense need to get off the island. To get away."

click to enlarge MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
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About The Author

Mike Potter

Mike Potter

Bio:
Production Editor Mike Potter is a big fan of magazines. When he isn't designing, photographing, writing or developing, he likes to try formulating a better author bio.

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