In addition to the phenomenal French Impressionist show currently on view at the Jepson Center, Telfair Museums is presenting a very special pair of contemporary artists as part of its “Contemporary Spotlight” series.

Erin Johnson and Ken Ueno have two separate art practices, but will intersect in thought-provoking ways this weekend.

Johnson's “Heavy Water” video installation opens Oct. 5 at the Jepson Center and she will be doing an artist talk from 2-4 p.m. Oct. 7 with vocalist and composer Ken Ueno, which will also function as an artist-led town hall meeting in partnership with the For Freedoms 50 State Initiative.

At 8 p.m. both Oct. 6 and 7, the public will gather at the Cluskey Embankment Stores at Factor's Walk to watch a site-specific performance titled “Ghost Vault Triptych,” where Ueno will utilize “the hollow, vaulted spaces as resonant chambers, effectively turning the historic structures into a large instrument.” The performances and artist talk are free, and it should be noted that the Cluskey Embankment Stores have no seating and are not ADA accessible.

Ueno's performance is described as a “collaboration between architecture and Ueno's vocal subtones and multiphonics, accompanied by special lighting effects.” It will include 20 stand-alone speakers in one vault playing a 20-channel composition of Ueno's while he performs live accompanying vocalizations in an adjacent vault, creating a “ghostly proxy” for his voice.


The For Freedoms 50 State Initiative was founded by artist and Guggenheim Fellow Hank Willis Thomas and Creative Capital artist Eric Gottesman with the goal of sparking a national dialogue about art, education, advertising and politics. Each state is participating with programming, including a campaign being billed as “the largest public art project in U.S. history," which is bringing 52 different artist-designed billboards to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Other associated programming includes artist-led town hall events like the ones hosted by the Jepson Center.

Johnson's “Heavy Water” converges with the initiative in ways particular to the region. Her subject matter is the Savannah River Site, a nuclear facility located on the Savannah River just south of Augusta run by the Department of Energy. The site covers over 300 square miles and has the distinction of also being the habitat of free-ranging, wild dogs officially named Carolina Dogs.

Some ecologists suspect the Carolina Dogs are related to the first canines that entered North America via the Bering Land Bridge some 8,000 years ago. Johnson's “Heavy Water” contrasts this multi-millennial timeline of the past with an equally incomprehensible one of the future, namely the half-life of the radioactive material at the Savannah River Site, which can span tens of thousands of years.


“What was interesting to me about the Savannah River Site is it's also designated a National Environmental Research Park, and that got my attention,” Johnson said. “The contradictions were too wild to ignore, so I contacted the ecology lab, the SREL, and got in touch with one of the biologists there that was willing to talk with me and through that, I learned more about the Carolina Dogs.

“The dogs became kind of a lens. They're stuck between these two epic timelines — the timeline of their past and the epic timeline of the future of their home, so that's kind of how I looked at it.”

Johnson's multi-channel video projections are more meditative than prescriptive. She's seeking to provoke questions with her work, not necessarily answer them.

“There's a kind of cognitive dissonance that happens when things are so big and hard that we just don't want to know them,” Johnson continued. “And I'm really interested in that. I think nuclear is one example of that and climate change is another.”