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Welcome to Indianapolis Island: Herron art students living in floating, public work of art at IMA

Think your college apartment was small?

IUPUI Herron School of Art and Design student Jessica Dunn and recent Herron grad Michael Runge are currently living in a 20-foot work of art by sculptor Andrea Zittel known as "Indianapolis Island."

Experimental Artists

Michael Runge and Jessica Dunn chat inside "Indianapolis Island" July 2. The two will make their home inside the public art piece at the Indianapolis Museum of Art until Aug. 1. (Photo by Aaron Bernstein.)

After two years of planning and building, the dome-shaped, igloo-like piece was recently installed on the 35-acre lake at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's new nature preserve, 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park.

Runge and Dunn moved into the space June 20 and will remain there until Aug. 1 for a total of six weeks.

The nature preserve is located on 100 acres of museum land -- untamed woodlands, wetlands, a lake and meadows, plus a LEED-certified visitor center, several walking trails and eight newly commissioned works by internationally known artists.

Zittel, who has created a series of experimental living structures, was commissioned to create "Indianapolis Island" to examine the daily needs of contemporary human beings and inspire people to analyze their own households and consumption habits.

Before the project, Runge and Dunn knew each other only in passing from a Herron sculpture class. A conversation about their individual ideas for the island led the two to submit a joint proposal that was selected from an applicant pool of about 30, making them the inaugural "islanders." A new art student (or students) will be selected each summer for a six-week summer stay each of the next few years.

100 Acres Island

Image Courtesy of Andrea Zittel/Indianapolis Museum of Art

Michael Runge stands near supplies. "Indianapolis Island" is in the background.

Print-Quality Photo

"Jessica had a lot of ideas for the interior, like designing the furniture that made sense for the space and a bicycle generator to make electricity," said Runge, as he oared a small group of visitors across the lake toward the stark white residence on a sunny day in early July. "My ideas were how to interact with people and for the exterior, so it seemed like a natural fit for us to work together."

"One of the main things that we both do in our work is to try to bring art to the people," said Dunn. "There's a very interactive-performance art feeling to this piece."

Dunn realized the magnitude of the piece during the first week of the project, when she went out on the porch one day and saw a tour bus full of people across the water on the neighboring shore.

"I took a look over and they all yelled in unison, 'Hi Jessica!' That's when I realized this is a lot larger than I imagined."

Give and take/You're so not voted off this island

One aspect of Dunn and Runge's piece is their "Give and Take" project. When a flag is raised on the shore, it's a signal that the islanders are accepting visitors. They row ashore and pick up people who want to tour the space. Visitors can then take part in an "island trade," in which they give the islanders a gift and take something from the gift shelf.

"Someone didn't have anything to trade, so they traded their pocket lint for one of our apples," said Dunn. "It could be anything, and that's part of the fun. So what if we really like our bug spray, but someone needs it, too? They could take that from us and then we have to kind of adapt to the situation."

"The purpose of the trade is to represent that when people visit a space they leave their experience," said Runge. "You leave your mark on a space but you also like take an experience with you. This is just a tangible example of that exchange."

In the spirit of being a living art exhibit, Runge is sporting an island costume that would make Gilligan proud: a straw hat, a white T-shirt, cutoff jeans, slip-on canvas sneakers and big eyeglasses.

Some people think Runge and Dunn are marooned on their island, but this isn't "Survivor: Indianapolis," and no one is getting voted off anytime soon (it also isn't US Weekly, and NO, the two aren't dating, so no "Dunnge" nicknames, OK?).

Rather than being bound to the futuristic-rustic dome with no outside contact, Runge and Dunn consider the island their home base and the 100 acres that surround them their yard. In fact, as long as one of them is "home," the other can leave the grounds, just as people leave their homes every day.

Far from having hours for quiet reflection, as Runge initially envisioned, the two are busy every day giving tours, collecting floating messages that visitors place inside miniature replicas of the island, tending the vegetable garden and blogging to document the experience.


Sculptor Andrea Zittel worked on the creation of "Indianapolis Island" for two years. (Photo by Aaron Bernstein.)

"The tours take up a lot of time," said Runge. "If we're ever bored, there are always people staring, so we can either have fun with them or go talk to them. Blogging takes up a lot of time and we're still adjusting and fixing things -- we really haven't had a lot of time to sit around."

A Starbucks muffin for breakfast

Visitors come bearing gifts and food -- one even brought a pizza -- so when asked what they ate for breakfast that morning, Runge had no qualms about admitting to have eaten a Starbucks muffin brought by a friend that week.

"My original idea was that this was going to be a time of reflection and solitude, a quiet time," said Runge. "And we've been joking the whole time about being an art exhibit -- but I didn't really realize how true that was. There are always people looking at us and wanting to talk to us." At first, he said, it was hard to give up the idea of being on vacation at the island. Now, the two are getting into the spirit of the performance aspects of piece. "We're having fun with people always watching us," he said.

On a recent day sitting on the porch chatting, Dunn and Runge saw a pack of photographers and decided to have some fun. "They were taking a nice shot and we were kind of photo bombing them from the island, acting like we were dead," said Dunn.

In fact, because the islanders are labeled as an exhibit, the museum's conservator of objects and variable art, Richard McCoy, is appointed as one of their primary supervisors. "He's like our dad," laughed Dunn.

The lion might be sleeping

One of the challenges of the project is finding time to tend their personal needs -- like eating meals. "It's hard to say no to a tour when a family has come so far to visit the park," said Dunn. "But sometimes we really do have to eat. I've been comparing it to going to the zoo. You might go to the zoo to see the lion, but the lion might be sleeping. It's not because the lion doesn't like you -- well, OK, the lion probably doesn't like you and hasn't chosen to be there," she said, laughing. "But it's similar in that we might not always be giving tours."

100 Acres Students

Image Courtesy of Andrea Zittel/Indianapolis Museum of Art

Jessica Dunn and Michael Runge on the grounds of 100 Acres

Print-Quality Photo

"If we weren't careful, we'd be full-time tour guides and miss out on so much of the project, which is not what either of us wants to do," said Runge. "We want to share and teach, but we also want to take advantage of everything else."

Dunn hopes people will come away from "Indianapolis Island" and reconsider how much space and how much stuff they really need. "It's like the artist, Andrea Zittel, says -- you really can live in such a small, self-sufficient space with very little energy," she said.

"We've also found we can use creativity and ingenuity to solve a lot of the problems that living out here presents," Runge said.

After analyzing the space early in the project, Dunn created a three-section bed with storage space under each portion and a memory foam mattress pillow, all custom-fit to the round contours of the wall. The cushions can come off, turning the middle piece into a table and the other two into chairs, or creating one giant work space.

In addition to her idea for the bicycle generator and specially designed bed, Dunn created an innovative solar island shower. "The shower is pretty awesome -- did you invent that?" Runge asked as Dunn picked up a water-filled, clear plastic milk jug.

"I'd heard of solar showers before and my mom and I were thinking of simple ways to make one instead of buying one," she said, hoisting up the jug to point out the dozen or so golf tees stuck into the side. "You just take a milk jug and poke holes in it, and then cram golf tees in the holes so you can plug it up. If you sit it outside in the sun, it gets hot during the day and then you've got a hot shower at night," she said. "We can use the showers at the IMA, but I think that takes away some of the fun."

Runge said that one of the highlights of the experience is seeing children's faces light up as they look around the space. "You can really see them start to think about things -- they're probably making up inventions in their minds."

And he'll never forget the "crazy storm" that blew past one day, leaving sheer beauty in its wake. "There were rainbows and birds everywhere."

Read Andrea Zittel's blog about "Indianapolis Island" here:

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