Redrawing the lines: The multimedia work of the Killam Library's Artist in Residence

Profile of William Robinson

- February 28, 2013

William Robinson considers the Killam atrium. (Sher Scott photo)
William Robinson considers the Killam atrium. (Sher Scott photo)

Local artist William Robinson is breaking barriers between disciplines as the Killam Library Artist in Residence.

The residency, a collaborative effort between Dalhousie Libraries and the Dalhousie Art Gallery, has Robinson spending two days each week at the Killam and speaking about his work with library-goers. (The second of his lectures takes place this Friday, March 1 at 5 p.m. in the Special Collections room, fifth floor.)

He’s also working on a special project based on the Killam: a kinetic model to show the interplay between sound and space in the library. The finished piece will consist of a detailed replica of the outside structure of the library, which will rotate like a record, producing variations in tone as a sensor plays sound off of its rises and grooves to “show how sound and structure can interact to reflect the culture of the building,” he explains.

Interdisciplinary art for an interdisciplinary space

The idea for the residency, made possible by HRM’s Residency Initiative, was set in motion by Nancy McPhee, a reference intern at the Killam Library. In her position, McPhee works to cultivate a more holistic approach to research that focuses on breaking the barriers between disciplines and building relationships between academia and the community.

McPhee considers art a form of research. “Contemporary libraries are giving a great deal of thought to the ways in which the library as a physical space can facilitate active forms of research and participation.”  

This makes a library an ideal place for an artist in residence. “Libraries are inherently interdisciplinary spaces,” she explains. An artist in residency is a way of “recognizing research as an iterative and creative process that can take many forms.”

Along these lines, Robinson is an ideal candidate for the residency. He defines himself as an interdisciplinary artist, not bound by one style or medium. His pieces work to integrate sound with other forms of art to illustrate his ideas or concepts.

In 2011, Robinson combined sound and performance to pay tribute to the two “fathers” of Point Pleasant Park. To create the piece, Parchetypes, Robinson moved an upright piano into the park, recording music at several scheduled performances as passers-by watched as an homage to the anonymous bagpiper whose haunting melodies can be often be heard drifting through the park.

Robinson then took on the role of the park’s unofficial gatekeeper: a local resident known for sitting on the rock wall by Tower Road and sharing fiddle music with park-goers. Using the music recorded from the piano installation, Robinson combined the sound of the disembodied bagpiper with the physical presence of the gatekeeper to complete his piece. The project, sponsored by HRM Open Projects, was also a fundraiser for the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.

Later that same year, Robinson unveiled his kinetic sound sculpture Young Prayer, which has been featured both as part of Halifax’s Nocturne Festival and Toronto’s Nuit Blanche. The installation is Robinson’s interpretation of what happens on stage at a concert, combining theatrical movement, sound and interesting visual elements to produce a performance.  

The Nocturne installation of Young Prayer can be viewed here:

Creation through collaboration

Robinson is always seeking collaborators to bridge the disciplines that turn his ideas into art.  

“I have a little bit of understanding of electronics,” he says of one of the key elements of both Young Prayer and his current project. “But there are lots of really talented people here in Halifax that are happy to lend some knowledge and have really helped me out.”

The Centre for Art Tapes, a non-for-profit, artist-run organization that works to support artists working with electronic media, was founded in that spirit. Robinson has been a resident with the centre, which helped spark Young Prayer. “I proposed an idea and Art Tapes had technicians and workshops where I could learn the basics of manipulating motors.”

Through his experiences, Robinson has learned that an idea without expertise is an opportunity, not a problem. And residencies help make those opportunities possible.

“These programs allow a lot of artists who have ideas, but aren’t exactly sure of how to achieve something technically to collect knowledge and expertise from friends and colleagues in multiple fields,” he says.

As for young artists getting started, Robinson’s advice is to remember that art is much the same as any other profession. “The amount of energy and quality of your work will equate with your results. Just have passion, make things and don’t be afraid to ask for help or try new things.”  

“And every once and a while,” he adds, “just close your eyes and listen.”


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