This past July, Canadian-born artist Laura Piasta sat in her studio at The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, where she was finishing a residency with Johan Björck, a Swedish artist she met at the Umeå Academy of Fine Arts in Sweden in 2010. Sitting between them on the ground was a strange machine salvaged from a scrapyard, its screen glowing the nostalgic green of Apple IIe computers from the 1980s: “Everyone walks in and asks ‘What is this? What does it do?’” Piasta said. “It actually does engine diagnostics,” she added, “but what’s interesting about it is how we all have a relationship to this technological machine.” Though this cultural relic is not a sculpture in any formal sense—rather something the artist hauled up for further investigation—it points to the sort of anthropological study that interest Piasta and Björck as a team. In their work, objects point to how we investigate both our technological and natural surroundings.
Björck and Piasta began collaborating together in school: Among their first shared endeavors was the video Bronze Age Stone Phone, shot at Hagbard’s Gallow, Vargö Island and the Umeå River, near where Björck grew up. In the bright northern light, Piasta’s camera panned monoliths and carvings from bronze-age sacred burial sites, often focusing in on a girl holding a rock to her ear, as if listening on a cell phone. The short film’s soundtrack—composed by Björck —underscored a dreamy awareness of eternity and contemporaneity converging.
The confluence of geological and technological is a theme in several of Piasta’s works: In March 2012, she presented a series of works-on-pedestals called Sculptures for Listening to Inaudible Frequencies: Pyrite Radios. Visually lyrical on their own, these are also working receivers made from wood, copper wire, earphones, scrap metal, and fool’s gold (a crystal diode). “I’m fascinated by the instruments we use to comprehend phenomena that are otherwise incomprehensible—for instance a particle collider,” Piasta explains. Similarly, “the art object makes a concept perceptible. It’s a scientific tool in that respect: It allows you to manifest an idea, continue an ongoing investigation.”
At the Banff residency, Piasta and Björck spent days doing field investigations, allowing their findings to filter into their artwork back in the studio. On mountain hikes, they studied the area’s indigenous flora and geology, recording their findings with rented tech equipment. Piasta’s relationship to sound in situ came together in Plein Air Travelling Sound Box, her wood-and-speaker assemblage that—easily carried from place to place—suggests sound as a traditional artist’s tool, as portable as a travel paint set. Meanwhile Bjork’s interests brought him to investigate the North American culture of baseball, which he explains (growing up in Nordic territory) has many aspects that are exotic to him. This ultimately led him to make a series of sculptural baseballs and bats—made from both utilitarian wood, and symbolic ceramic—and also to the duo’s second collaborative video, Practice, which captures a ball game played in the Canadian pine forests.
I asked what’s next after these summer investigations. While Laura mused that she was considering doing future sculptures in bronze, “I’m still thinking about poetry and baseball,” Björck said. “And the creatures here, especially prairie dogs. I shared an apple with a prairie dog today. They’re pretty friendly.”