At the intersection of art, science and sustainability sits Epsilon Spires.
The Brattleboro nonprofit works to build these connections by providing interactive art installations that experiment with sound, light and sensory perception, all while encouraging inquiry and discourse by integrating diverse forms of expression. The name Epsilon Spires, which also refers to a performance series, combines a reference to the architectural structure of the building — the First Baptist Church on Main Street — and Epsilon, which when applied in physics can be understood as “pushing the envelope.”
It all began with the 1868 High Victorian Gothic church, with its historic Estey organ, double balcony and exemplary acoustics. “It was built before amplification,” said Epsilon Spires creative director, Jamie Mohr. “It has a resonant quality for different kinds of sound.”
Local physicist and businessman Robert Johnson purchased the building in December 2016 and did some exterior and interior renovations. “He’s fascinated with early electronics,” she said of Johnson. “He wanted to use the space in a way that creates a sonic experience you couldn’t have in most spaces.”
In celebration of his scientific achievements, celestial images captured by the Hubble are projected onto the sanctuary’s vaulted ceiling. Johnson’s business, Omega Optics, designs optics for space exploration: satellite lenses, telescopes, et cetera.
“Inventing is play for him,” said Mohr.
The church is also serving as Johnson’s model for energy efficiency innovation in relation to historic preservation as it is outfitted with split-level heat pumps that cut fossil fuel usage by 75 percent. Epsilon Spires is using the 425-seat sanctuary as a location for cutting-edge performances, rarely screened films (shown on the sanctuary’s 18-foot screen) and interactive art installations.
“My curation (for the series) is about the idea of understanding the subjective experience through perception,” said Mohr, an experimental and documentary filmmaker and graduate of Brattleboro’s School of International Training with a focus in climate studies.
The first interactive art installation is already in place. The Weather Warlock, also called Weather for the Blind, is a permanent installation in the bell tower of the church. Created by Quintron, a New Orleans-based musician and inventor, The Weather Warlock is an analog synthesizer controlled completely by the weather, employing sun, rain, wind, temperature, moon and lightning to produce an F major drone chord, with special sonic events occurring at sunrise and sunset. (Access to the sounds of weather are available at epsilonspires.org.)
Quintron has collaborated with Neil Young, Laurie Anderson and Jack White from The White Stripes. Brattleboro’s Weather Warlock joins four active set-ups in New Orleans, Miami, Acra, N.Y. and Abu Dhabai, United Arab Emirates. Each instrument is customized to the local climate and the exact location of the sensors.
Mohr said unless she chooses to amplify the sound, no one will hear the Warlock from the street or within the building. Weather Warlock is also the name of a band that sometimes accompanies the live sound of weather as it is distilled through the instrument. A few local musicians are usually invited to take part. Players recently sitting in with Weather Warlock have included Steve Shelly (Sonic Youth), Sean Ono Lennon and Nels Cline (Wilco).
Kicking off the fall season are two exhibits opening Sept. 6 during Brattleboro’s Gallery Walk. The first is Natalja Kent’s latest show, “Movement Artifact.” Kent, based in Los Angeles, defies convention by removing the camera completely. She creates large-scale geometric abstractions produced by the application of light to paper in the darkroom using flashlights and colored gels.
The show is in conjunction with artist Victoria Keddie’s performance and multimedia installation, “Electrona in Crystallo Fluenti.” Her compositions of sound and image are synchronized in real time with orbital debris objects, also known as “space junk.”
Epsilon Spires’ schedule of events this fall includes a performance by Alloy Orchestra, which provides a live soundtrack to screenings of silent films. This one is from the master of Soviet surrealism, Dziga Vertov — the 1929 film, “Man with a Movie Camera,” will be shown on Sept. 21. The following week there will be an Experimental Gamelan Festival Sept. 28. The festival consists of concerts and workshops by international artists experimenting with modern applications of Indonesian, Javanese and Balinese musical forms.
Two November events feature the theremin. Popular in vintage science fiction films and with The Beach Boys in their recordings (“Good Vibration”), the instrument is controlled without physical contact by the performer. The 1928 device consists of two metal antennas and frequency controllers along with an amplifier. The electric signals from the theremin are sent to a loudspeaker.
Carolina Eyck presents “Elegies for Theramin and Voice” on Nov. 1. With loops and a variety of sound effects, she creates choirs that merge theremin and voice, giving the music an other-worldly element. The New York Theramin Society will present a concert Nov. 16 featuring members Dorit Chryser and Charlie Hobbs, followed by a weekend of workshops for children and adults to learn how to play the theremin.
In addition to studio space for artists, Epsilon Spires’ home also houses a café and conference space called Social Engagement, which offers a performance venue and incubation lab in support of experimental music and performance, film screenings, educational lectures and sustainability workshops. Thematically curated and locally sourced refreshments will be served during intermissions designed for exchanging ideas.
The space is available for rent to outside groups for performances and events. Coming up this month is a screening Sept. 21 of the documentary film, “Island of Hungry Ghosts,” about land crabs migrating in the millions from an isolated island into the sea. On the same island is a high-security Australian detention center where thousands of asylum seekers have been held indefinitely, their only connection to the outside world being trauma counselor, Poh Lin Lee.
“It’s an unusual, moving, very poetic film,” said Mohr.
Epsilon Spires also partners with regional nonprofit organizations and events, including the Brattleboro Literary Festival, Brattleboro Area Hospice and In-Sight Photography.
“(Epsilon Spires) is the nexus of great ideas,” said Mohr.
The Epsilon Spires series kicks off this Friday, Sept. 6, with the opening of Natalja Kent’s exhibit, “Movement Artifact” and “Electrona in Crystallo Fluenti” by Victoria Keddie. Keddie’s performance is that evening at 8 p.m. Natalja Kent’s show will be on display in the Sanctuary Gallery through Nov. 1. All events take place at the big red brick church at 190 Main St. For more information about the series opening and other Epsilon Spires programming, visit epsilonspires.org.