When multimedia artist and Drexel University professor Joshua Ben Longo was a young child, he cherished a small blanket named Dobby.
As a visionary particularly responsive to senses, Longo recalls the object’s softness but also the serenity he felt swaddled in the fabric.
It’s possible Dobby has since been misplaced, but for the past couple of decades, the Passyunk Square artist continues to convey that youthful kind of tranquility through his myriad of mediums, such as tattoo designs and 3D printing, but chiefly, fabrics – a material that composes most childhood toys.
“The idea interested me,” said the 2003 Pratt Institute graduate. “I work with all of this material, and then I take this material and turn it into stuffed animals – these objects of desire. Desire in a very innocent way – a true just unbridled desire. So, how can you create that?”
For the first time, Longo, whose work has been exhibited internationally, is creating that concept through his free live performance of an audio-kinetic sculpture, “Lullaby,” which will be displayed and played in the 125-year-old Trinity Center for Urban Life’s Great Hall, 2212 Spruce St, from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, May 17.
Comprised of 21 four-foot-tall rocking metal structures scattered around the chamber, the work, which suggests themes of animism, ritual and myth, serves as Longo’s capstone project for his master’s degree, which he is currently completing through the study of design research at Drexel University.
Since 2015 Longo, a native of northern New Jersey, has been teaching at the university’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.
Leading up to his time at Drexel, Longo, who’s also known by his pseudonym “Longoland,” accumulated an assortment of creative experiences, ranging from working as a senior designer at retailer Anthropologie to designing fully animatronic puppet characters for the re-branding of a telecommunications provider o2 Germany.
However, Longo says, for him, the line between commercial products and art has always been blurry. One thing that is for certain, though, is how his creativity tends to gravitate toward educating.
“I love working with young designers and young artists,” he said. “I feel I get a lot of joy out of helping other people figure themselves out in the teaching.”
For the past few years at Drexel, as well as at other institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Longo has considered his major influences, such as stuffed animals, animism and a possible correlation between both, while approaching sensory experiments with his students.
Through research inside and outside of the classroom, Longo studies and documents his findings, such as the relationship between human and nonhuman.
“I realized that it’s really experiential,” he said. “It’s multi-sensory. It’s experiential. If you want to get out of this private engagement between you and the blanket, it’s like, how do we get out there and get a whole slew of people to experience those things and have those interactions?”
The question, he says, is how do you design such experiences?
“Lullaby” works to summarize what he’s learned from experiments and execute such ideas through art.
During the performance, roughly a dozen individuals will activate the 21 sculptures in a choreographed sequence. A narrow mailing tub filled with materials, such as beans and bolts, will rest on top of each metal frame, as the rocking motion will then generate sounds similar to rainsticks.
The performance, Longo says, will lend itself to the church, which is a naturally resonating chamber. Essentially, people will see, hear and, ultimately, experience a giant instrument of sorts.
With several tiny soothing sounds orchestrating at once, the rainstick-like resonances rely on one another to create a symphony. As Longo says, it could be impossible to hear one crashing wave or one rustling leaf, but several hundreds of them produce a texture of “non-rhythm” rhythm.
“There’s the combination of traveling sound, like getting a big enough and beautiful enough space that respects the work but the work also respects the space,” Longo said.
Although Longo says he was not raised religious, the performance visibly reveals Longo’s fascination with a secular kind of sacredness, as the Trinity Center for Urban Life is open to cultural events, performances and celebrations of all faiths.
The concept of a lullaby, itself, is not exclusive to one religion or ethnicity.
“In search for this secular experience, potentially spiritual experience that is nondenominational, ‘Lullaby’ is a thing that is cross-cultural that isn’t particular to anyone, and each one has their own,” Longo said. “So, there’s already a sense of understanding.”
In the space, he hopes audiences find relaxation but also self-reflection. The performance is intended to harbor no judgment but simply evoke calmness – much like the feeling Longo found in his childhood blanket many years ago.
With that, perhaps, he is one step closer to his objective – using art to bridge a tie between something innocent, like a stuffed animal, with something more complex, like animism.
“I had articulated (the connection) in some smaller instances, but the larger narrative of starting with these very precious objects and leading to these larger ideas about interaction and ritual and experience – I think it’s scale,” Longo said. “So, if you’re interacting on a very personal scale, there’s very strong emotional things happening and strong relationship things happening with this thing that is ultimately not alive, or, as we commonly perceived. So, how do we scale up that experience and change those perceptions of – you’re not even thinking if it’s alive or not. But, it’s this idea of interaction and experience, multi-sensory experience but in a group environment.”
To learn more about “Lullaby,” visit: www.longoland.com/lullaby.