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Art exhibition 'Rio Negro II' finds its way to Buffalo after traveling the globe

Nick Lippa

An art installation nearly three decades in the making is making its way to Silo City in Buffalo starting Friday. ‘Rio Negro II’ is a collaborative project that mixes rain sticks, sculptures, electronic music and robotics. Its focus is on humans examining their relationship with their living environment. WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with the artists involved as they spent this past week setting everything up.

Silo City has put on its fair share of concerts over the years, but Hallwalls Music Director Steve Baczkowski wanted to do something more. So he committed to bringing an exhibit to Buffalo centered on the sound of rain sticks that has been traveling the world since 1992.

“We couldn’t afford to have a moving company bring it here,” Baczkowski said. “I flew to Minneapolis, rented a truck, we loaded everything up and I loaded everything up and I drove it back here for two days by myself and had many of my friends help me to get all of the work in here and to facilitate it.”

Baczkowski met Douglas Ewart, the co-creator of Rio Negro, when he played as a musician in Buffalo decades ago. Ewart spent the past week working with other artists to get the installation up and running.

“When the piece moves, it has to have some real connection to the place,” Ewart said. “We’re not just bringing something and imposing it. We’re bringing something and then we’re adding aspects from it.”

Ewart wants people to have a meditative experience among what can be called totemic sound sculptures and view the world as an interdependent entity.

“The importance of being quiet is so that you can think or not think, but allow your mind to float in a way,” he said.

Around 2006, Ewart joined Douglass Repetto, a Columbia University professor who designed individualized robotics and microcontrollers for each of the rain sticks.

“Douglass (Ewart) and I really clicked and I started making structures and he started decorating them and we went back and forth,” Repetto said, “and since then, we’ve all really become a great team where we have a terrific time together, especially just doing the layout and we make this rock garden and we put down natural materials.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Railroad tiles, coal, and coral was found around the surrounding area and will be used in the exhibit. These are repurposed railroad tiles.

Bamboo in the project is used from China, Ojai and Houston. Garden materials are from all across America. And now, pieces of Buffalo, such as railroad plates, are entering the installation.

“So we’ve got rocks and materials from Houston and Chicago and Philadephia and Ojai. In terms of the cultural connection and the way people move, culture just doesn’t emerge in one place by itself. It’s always a mix of all these different things,” Repetto said.

Goerge Lewis is supplying the electronic sounds for the installation. Repetto calls it strange and surprising.

“You get kind of lulled in to this sense of, oh I know where I am and then all of a sudden, ‘What was that?’ he said. “That only works if you’re able to have that relaxing in to the environment. So that you can be almost shocked out of it almost for a moment.”

Each location poses a new experience given its inclusive nature. But the Marina A Silo presents a unique change to how audiences will experience the piece acoustically.

“When we did it in Ojai, they were in a park, so there was quite a bit of distance between them. But they were all in this kind of round area,” Repetto said. “Here, we’ve got the opportunity to make different groups and figure out. It’s like two rain sticks and one chime here, where in the other room it’s just two chimes. That’s been something new for this space.”

Rio Negro has never had anything like the acoustics of Silo City. Everybody involved is excited this project has made its way to Buffalo, but it wouldn’t have without the dedication of Baczkowski.

“I’ll be living down here for most of the month of September. Literally,” Baczkowski said.

In a side area of the Marina A Silo, Baczkowski can be seen keeping an eye on things in case there is flooding.

“We have to be aware of the water. When it rains very hard, water still does get in here. This is not a controlled environment,” he said. “When we saw we may have some thunderstorms last night, and we hadn’t had everything completely set up, I thought I better be down there just in case.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
The small tent Baczkowski is sleeping in while the exhibit runs

Come rain or shine, Rio Negro is prepared for its Buffalo stay over the next month. Repetto said it’s wonderful that a space like this is accessible and that they can have the freedom they have in Buffalo.

“I spent a long time making art in New York City and boy, if there were a big space like this, it would be a five million dollar retrofit and you’d have to have a giant grant and this and that to do something in a big space like this. It’s wonderful that Buffalo is so supportive,” Repetto said.

“There’s a lot of rules and a lot of protecting things (in other areas). This has got a little bit of the Wild West to it. The wild northeast I guess,” Repetto chuckled.

For those who attend, the artists are specifically curious how their work will be viewed inside the silo.

“It’s going to be a lot of competing sounds, which is going to be interesting, and also a challenge,” Repetto said, “because in a way, the sounds your own body wants to make in there might be very interesting to people of course.”

“It’s going to be interesting to see once they kind of explore their own body making the sounds, whether they really quiet down, whether they really quiet down. Because these sounds are pretty subtle. Even compared to just walking. That’s going to be an interesting thing to observe,” Repetto said. “A confluence of cacophonies,” Ewart laughed.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
From right to left: Douglas Repetto, Douglas R. Ewart, Steve Baczkowski

The exhibit opens Friday at 6 p.m. There will be an artist talk at 7 p.m. Work will be available to view Thursday through Sunday.

Thursday-Saturday: 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday: 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Rio Negro can also be viewed by appointment by contacting Hallwalls.

To experience the exhibit, go to Duende. They will direct you from there.

Rio Negro II at Silo City is a major site-specific exhibition in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and celebrating the renewal and rebirth of Buffalo’s iconic grain elevators & historic waterways.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.