Backstage with Art Preparator Jasen Bernthisel | Backstage | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Backstage with Art Preparator Jasen Bernthisel

'Things break constantly, especially with robotic and more in-depth media pieces, so we spend a lot of time learning how things work'

click to enlarge Jasen Bernthisel - CP PHOTO: JARED MURPHY
CP photo: Jared Murphy
Jasen Bernthisel

Name: Jasen Bernthisel, Wilkinsburg
Work: Art Preparator at Wood Street Galleries, Space, 937 Gallery, and 707 Gallery

What do you do every day?
Anything from something as straightforward as hanging paintings on a wall to as complex as the engineering of a large mirrored room. We know ahead of time about the fabrication process of installations so work months in advance, leading up to one show while putting up another. Things break constantly, especially with robotic and more in-depth media pieces, so we spend a lot of time learning how things work. How do we keep this motor running? What’s the software artists are using in case we need to modify if something goes wrong? Every show brings new tasks we’re actively responding to, and it’s extremely varied in the day to day. But the safety and strategy of how to install a work, sometimes with things that are mostly just concepts, is a large part of it.  

“Concepts” meaning works that don’t exist yet?
Sometimes. Artists send specs that are “I want to do this.” It’s all in their head and [we're told to] “make this happen.” A lot of our work is translating artists’ thoughts into actual physical spaces and physical works, translating ideas into installations and immersive experiences.

And the artists aren’t present.
Oftentimes not. With Wood Street, we work mostly with international artists almost exclusively. 

How do you stay true to a concept when there’s no prototype to follow?
A lot of back and forth. A lot of Skype. At times we need something specific or crucial to proceed further and when our artists aren’t here, we have to intuit what’s in their best interest and the best interest of the piece. Luckily, we have a lot of really smart people on our team that are able to negotiate the potential of the artistic vision. There’s a lot of navigation, and they trust us to make decisions for them based on our experience. We have a rapport established that allows that. But sometimes the course is completely mapped out. 

Do you prefer working off a regimented blueprint or less explicit framework?
I love a technical drawing that has everything down to the millimeter. When I get that information, I know exactly what I need to do. That said, when I’m given carte blanche to go ahead and pursue the best way, it allows for a lot of creative problem solving. The collaboration that happens can be really exciting.

Is it predominantly tech or are you also working with raw materials like wood and paint
We kind of function as general contractors. Our entire crew are capable of building walls to OSHA specifications, making sure galleries are completely accessible. We’re painters in terms of wall prep and treatment, pretty competent wall framers and dry wallers. We have to run this gamut of being very versatile. 

How do you know all this?
I studied sculpture at Ohio University, learned all the ins and outs of how to work with material.  Now there’s a lot of learning on the go, but doing this a number of years, you have the basics of what could possibly happen when you get thrown a project, tweaking knowledge you already have. 

How has working with others’ art informed your own?
I notice the community around me permeating what I’m doing on a level that’s not necessarily specific and conscious but more innate and ingrained. There’s a lot of transmutation of ideas. 

Do you have a favorite process?
Anything very complicated, potentially dangerous, requiring a lot of engineering, and also maybe in the realm of “we don’t quite know how to do this.” That level of challenge makes it feel more as though I’m inserting a part of myself because I really have to activate my brain to make it happen.

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