Maggie Shirley Want You to Hear What Mountains Sounds Like

by Kristin Burns

The things I had once known about Maggie Shirley were the following: she’s always at the studio; she has a very recognizable laugh; and she could magically appear for lunch breaks covered head-to-toe in sawdust. So I lured with her wine in return for some of her free time to chat about her thesis and her upcoming show: Scale InSight at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art, located in the Rotary Centre for the Arts in Kelowna.

She turned down the wine – drinking and power tools don’t mix, silly me.

Currently Maggie is an MFA student at UBC Okanagan, who will be presenting her thesis show shortly. Back in 2010, Maggie was working for Banff’s New Media Institute (BNMI) in a program called Accelerator, assisting entrepreneurs and small business with their digital content. When the BNMI shut down, she felt it was as good a time as any to make a change and head back to school. One of the reasons she chose the Okanagan Valley was for its proximity to Nelson and her family.

It was actually in Ireland that Maggie’s thesis began to first take shape. She enjoys research-based work, and exploring what is happening with society and the impact of technology. During Maggie’s undergrad at Limerick School of Art and Design, she became interested in “translating different forms of data into sound, or […] translating other data into visual aspects.” In Ireland she was looking at stock charts, so naturally her work continued as she came to Banff and found the mountains to be so similar to those lines on paper; she wanted to hear what the mountains sounded like.

Naturally, her project shifted again upon arriving to UBCO and the Okanagan – the mountains here in the Okanagan valley being calmer and rolling, rather than rocky shards shooting up into the sky as they do around the Alberta border. She began to work with musician Tim Smith to create a composition based on data from the mountains and different sounds associated with the hills and environment. In addition Maggie interviewed several people, both sighted and blind, on their experiences with the mountains: Mount Boucherie, and Okanagan Mountain. 

“I’m trying to get people to experience senses other than just the visuals” Maggie explained, “A lot of knowledge and experience can be gained through embodiment […] the more we use our body the richer our experience.” She feels that there can be too much negativity towards technology as well, and wonders how it can be used in a positive way, adding, “…not in a commercial way. Technology is here and a part of life.” She contends that most often we actually operate in an intersection between the binaries of nature and technology.

Maggie enjoys making interactive and participatory public shows, and this one is no different. Clips from those interviews, as well as some of Tim Smith’s work will be part of the show at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art, as well as an interactive Knox Mountain piece, and a walk, which engages GPS.

I was only treated to a small preview of the top of Okanagan Mountain, the rest being in another woodshop. She told me her skills with woodcraft are not refined, but the beautiful smooth layering of the plywood certainly made me want to close my eyes and run my fingers over the replicated ridges and mountain tops that make up this valley.

Scale InSight will be at The Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art (located in Rotary Centre for the Arts) from August 8th – 18th. Opening reception and artist talk is August 10th at 7pm.
Bring your smart phone. More information about the walking route will be in the gallery.

PS. You should ask about her “Pickled Knickers”.

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