Studying the reuses has offered an interesting portrait of the changing face of America today, Christensen says.
“The fact that towns have churches that see a Wal-Mart or a grocery store fit for use is a new insight into how downtowns are changing in this country,” she says. “As towns become less reliant on everything being within walking distance, and more reliant on access from the highway, these structures are becoming the new town centers. Religious and many other organizations are taking advantage of that.”
A main reason for rethinking about reusable space is a practical one, Christensen adds. When a big-box retailer moves into town, stoplights are put into place, roads are built, and exits off the highway are constructed so that consumers have easy access to the store. When the retailer moves across town, all the invested infrastructure is left in place, making the location ideal for any number of civic uses.
As a multimedia artist, Christensen is talented in digital photography, video, and computer-based music and visual art. Her electronic installation work has been exhibited at Lincoln Center in New York City, and she plays a host of musical instruments.
In high school, she attended the Interlochen Arts Academy, a performing arts boarding school in Michigan, where she majored in theater.
Christensen’s acting career took a backseat when she attended Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where she was introduced to computers, video, and electronic music as an undergraduate student. She was a member of the first class to receive degrees in Bard’s new integrated arts program in 1999. She also received a master’s degree in electronic music and recording media at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.
The multidisciplinary approach to art was the same reason she was attracted to Rensselaer.
“What is really exciting about RPI’s arts department is that there’s so much collaboration with other departments and schools,” she says. “More and more there are projects happening in academia that don’t fit into just the arts department, or just the music department, or any of the other traditional departments.”
As for her big-box project, Christensen is letting her audiences decide for themselves on what the art is whether the art is in the photographs, in the creation of her Web site, in her presentations, or in the interactions between the audience and Christensen.
Arts department chair Kathy High says Christensen has made the most of Rensselaer’s innovative approach to art and research. “She exemplifies the arts department’s dedication to providing students with opportunities to combine artistic development with interdisciplinary creative research.
“Art is about communicating, and that’s what Julia continues to do with this piece,” High says. “She approached her project in an open-ended way without a particular political agenda, which made it possible for all kinds of people to become involved.”
This summer, Christensen will go on another cross-country trip to continue her research and finalize her book. She plans first to return to Kentucky to document any new developments on the empty Wal-Mart building. She is then scheduled to travel to Wisconsin, Florida, and Texas.
Although her research is based on what she considers an important social issue, she doesn’t think of herself as an activist but an artist interested in social practice, disseminating information, and leaving the interpretation to her audiences.
“I’m putting out this information so that people can take it as they will,” she says. “These buildings are relevant to people on all sides of the empty big-box issue, so it is important that the artwork itself is relevant to everyone as well.”
How long will she be on the road this time?
“However long it takes,” she says.
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