Iñupiaq performance artist and rapper Allison Warden (also known as AKU-MATU) is hard at work on the fourth floor of the Anchorage Museum; she's having the ceiling lowered, creating an outfit made of a futuristic white mesh and zip-ties, making as much of her installation glow in the dark as is possible, and when she goes home, trying to finish a 14-hour recording of her speaking Iñupiaq.
Warden is hurtling toward the October 7 opening date of "Unipkaa?usiksu?uvik (the place of the future/ancient)," a multimedia installation and immersive performance space where she'll spend 44 days in her recreational interpretation of an Iñupiaq ceremonial house. She's compiled a baffling number of elements for the project, from museum artifacts to rotary phones to sleeping benches inside the space-but the genesis of Warden's most ambitious project of her career began in the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka two years ago.
"The show was inspired by an Iñupiaq whaling suit," she explains. "It looks like a space suit, like an astronaut's suit, but it's made of oogruk-bearded seal skin, the same skin we use for our boats. It's essentially the first scuba suit. I was so inspired by the suit because it was a way for whalers to butcher the whale half-submerged in the Arctic Ocean, in freezing water." Warden wanted to recreate this ancient technology, and is finishing her plastic mesh replica in time for the show's opening.
After first seeing the whaling suit at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, Warden took a two-week artist's internship at the museum, where she could stare at and photograph the suit daily. At the time, she was also gunning for a grant from Creative Capital, a foundation based in New York City-she didn't win the grant, but via the rigorous application process, she honed the concept that she's bringing to life in the Anchorage Museum. She'd envisioned using the fourth floor space before she'd even spoken with anyone there.
"Making this ancient object out of futuristic material, I knew where I wanted to have it. I wrote the project for the space. The space in the museum is an oblong-y rectangle; it reminded me of a Tlingit longhouse, or I could imagine recreating an Iñupiaq ceremonial house in the space." The space under construction will include sleeping benches, like a traditional ceremonial house, alongside a few museum artifacts, objects from Warden's personal collection, along with her own creations and an array of technology (an LCD projection screen; rotary phones with which to listen to Warden speaking Iñupiaq) and anti-technology (another version of the whaling suit made of copper mesh-a Faraday cage one can step into, which blocks out electric and magnetic fields).
"I was thinking of the concept of time being a circle," she says. "So if you make your arms into a circle like you're the sun, then you break your arms apart at the fingers, then in one hand is the super, super ancient, and the other hand is the hyper, hyper future. In between that gap is the synapse part, and within that synaptic, otherworldly, liminal space is the ceremonial house, which I'm building at the museum."
Performance will be an element of Warden's installation as well, though she says she's still developing that facet. She'll document the progression of the show's 44 days on a whaling ship's log affixed to one wall, a visual journal of her time in her ceremonial house. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she'll host guests in a talk show format in the space from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., and she also has a full slate of workshops for school groups and youngsters of various ages.
The museum is allowing three of its Iñupiaq artifacts in Warden's space-a bowl, a carving of a polar bear with a crown on its head, and a parka. "I would have had 20 things if they'd let me," she laughs. "It's a big deal for them to allow artifacts to be in an exhibit like this." She also selected about 250 images from the museum's archives to be projected alongside futuristic images.
"Unipkaa?usiksu?uvik (the place of the future/ancient)" promises to be an evolving experience for patrons, never repeating from moment to moment (hence Warden's recording 14 hours of speaking Iñupiaq). "I have a full stage at my disposal; a screen that I can plug into any of my devices and project onto; I have microphones; I have my costume; I have this beautiful space in the museum I've worked really hard to create-it's just a recipe for something magical and special."
"Unipkaa?usiksu?uvik (the place of the future/ancient)" is on view at the Anchorage Museum on the fourth floor from October 7 through November 26.