Lines and Wine

"Art" in bars usually runs to beer signs, posters or maybe lame paintings by friends of the owner. But Ariane Roesch's new installation Hot and Grounded at 13 Celsius, a hip wine bar in an old drycleaner's building on Caroline Street, is pretty amazing. It may glow like a neon Budweiser sign, but the similarity ends there.

Roesch studied photography at the University of Houston. In earlier works, she has scavenged vintage photos of offices and factories and, using brightly colored thread, stitched lines of sight and connection between people and objects. For Hot and Grounded, Roesch created a luminous network that alludes to the kinds of connections people make in bars.

From the street you can see glowing red and green wires angling across the ceiling of 13 Celsius. Inside the bar, they run down the walls and terminate into photographs silk-screened on frosted Plexiglas. In one corner, the lines disappear into an image of a control box operated by a man in a lab coat. Across the room, red lines end in bottles of German wine. The lines run into the courtyard; at the back of the bar, by the bathrooms, the radiant red wires connect to an image of an embracing couple, extending from the man's eyes to the woman's heart. Or is it her boobs?

I saw the installation when the space was packed full with a private party. (I crashed it.) It was an uncharacteristically cold Houston evening, and the bar was filled with warmly dressed people standing in friendly clusters. The red and green lines of the work have obvious holiday implications, but the combination of the network of lines and the talking and laughing crowd made the bar feel like a factory producing human interaction. Roesch's man in the corner seemed to be throwing the switch to turn things on, activating the wine and causing embracing couples and bar hookups. Rather than just art shown in a bar, Roesch's work seemed to energize the whole space, with the people and the art forming a complete circuit.

I was dying to know what the glowing wires were. They looked sort of like fiber-optic cable but weren't; they had a kind of black-light glow but lacked black light. I called Roesch, and she explained they were electroluminescent, or EL, wires — copper wires with a phosphor coating. Unlike fiber optics, EL wire doesn't have to be used in a complete circuit; you just plug one end into a transformer. It's used in places like Vegas and Disneyland, and it also turns up on glowing Halloween costumes. But rather than seeming kitschy, campy or theatrical, in Roesch's hands it reads as a sleek, stylishly minimal ­material.

There's a lot of installation art out there, and there are a lot of artists who want people to interact with their installations. But when art is presented in galleries and museums, interacting with it is a self-conscious experience; you know you are there to view and "interact" with the art. In the bar, people are effortlessly a part of Roesch's work, whether they notice the network of lines or simply sit, drink, eat and chat with friends. Museums are often compared to temples and churches, but not all art needs a space for quiet contemplation, study and enlightenment. And really, wouldn't it be great if more art spaces were less like church and more like a neighborhood bar?

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer