ITHACA, N.Y.—Where remapping the distances between art and architecture takes place, there is Dream The Combine, the Ithaca-based creative practice of Cornell University professors Jennifer Newsom and Tom Carruthers.
“There are disciplinary boundaries that usually depend upon how someone else has been raised to think about whatever it is that you do,” said Carruthers. “So, you know, to some people, what we’re doing is art and to some people what we’re doing is architecture.”
The projects Dream The Combine pursues are broadly defined as installation art and architecture. These are site-specific pieces that usually aim to change the way people perceive a space, like their installation Clearing, which consists of carefully angled mirrors mounted onto metal poles in a field. Conflicting views of the field appear to float amidst one another. Reflections layer onto other reflections, creating collages out of the plant life and horizons of the clearing.
Both partners in life as well as work, Newsom and Carruthers’ projects have steadily garnered them awards and attention in recent years, and just earned them a major recognition. Dream The Combine is one of 63 recipients of the 2022 USA Fellowship from United States Artists. The Chicago-based arts funding organization is granting Newsom and Carruthers a cool, no-strings-attached $50,000 to support work that they recognize as creatively disruptive and socially significant.
“It’s a kind of behind-the-scenes, quiet, almost silent, validation of our work and just kind of encouragement to keep going. So that that feels really good,” said Newsom
The fellowships are awarded through a somewhat secretive process. Dream The Combine was anonymously nominated to United States Artists which then invited them to apply for the USA Fellowship. They submitted their application over a year ago. Having actually been selected has both Newsom and Carruthers feeling blown away.
“I’m floored that we landed this thing. I don’t even know how to respond exactly,” said Carruthers. “It’s not even something that you can take for granted, because it’s such a surprise.”
As they speak, Newsom and Carruthers feel deeply tuned to each other’s idiosyncrasies and patterns of thought, freely cameoing in each other’s monologues and enriching one another’s musings. It’s easy to believe them when they describe how they design their installations.
“Literally, sometimes we are both with a pencil on the piece of trace paper,” said Newsom. “Or one has a pencil and one has an eraser and then we switch. It’s a very interwoven process.” On the heels of her last words, Carruthers said, “Like neither are we different, nor are we the same.”
“That’s a very enigmatic answer,” said Newsom, laughing through her words.
Newsom and Carruthers said there are certain thematic refrains which they carry from project to project; ideas and messages that they try to embed in their work. But they put a high premium on the individual’s subjective experience of an installation.
“The sort of raw material that we’re working with is direct experience. I’m interested in the kind of chance-encounter, the perspective that anybody might bring to our work,” said Newsom. “You don’t have to know what our motivations were to find something in it.”
For an installation at Mill Race Park in Columbus, Indiana, Dream The Combine erected 58 silvery-white poles along a grassy slope, which in their placement form a map of civic points with names drawn from Christopher Columbus. The project is titled Columbus Columbia Colombo Colón.
As a historical figure, Columbus is in part seen as a harbinger of centuries of European land seizure, genocide, and enslavement of the native inhabitants of the Americas. For Newsom and Carruthers, the desired effect of the piece was to invite visitors to engage with colonialism’s legacy.
Appearing on each of the poles is a story, quote, or historical fact relating to the specific place that each pole represents, “kind of like an overriding to that sort of master narrative of Columbus,” said Newsom.
But whatever the project may have impressed upon a visitor, Carruthers said, “I think ultimately, the project’s kind of live up here for everyone,” pointing to his head.
Another one of their installations, Hide and Seek, was set in the courtyards of MoMA PS1, an institution dedicated to contemporary art in New York City and affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art. Dream The Combine transformed the courtyards at MoMA PS1 with a variety of stages, large nets for people to lay down in, and movable mirrors placed throughout the space that could distort and expand the setting, as well as introduce views of the courtyards to the sidewalks running outside of them.
Newsom shared a story about meeting a four-year-old boy and his mother at the installation who seemed like he was “experiencing pure unadulterated joy” moving the mirrors, scampering across and jumping off the platforms. She recalled that the boy asked her, “Why did you make this?”
She said she told him, “I made this for you.”
“You don’t have to have an architecture degree from wherever to just be there and experience something. That felt very meaningful,” said Newsom.
Dream The Combine isn’t completely sure what they’re going to do with the money they’ve received. They want to try and open up opportunities to design and build installation art for people, particularly artists of color. They’ve considered starting a nonprofit to work towards that goal, which feels fitting considering their general outlook on the form they work in.
Carruthers said that “Once you can lift certain governing limits, you’re actually able to propose a conception of a piece that is necessarily unfinished, and that is capacious enough—”
“That’s my term,” said Newsom, laughing.
“That is your term,” Carruthers agreed, continuing, “It’s generous enough to invite others into that journey with you.”
“Yeah, I think that’s one of the great capacities of architecture,” Newsom followed. “This ability to welcome. You can feel something and you can share that with others in a place.”