Social Practice Artist at Large

Cyr’s journey began in Adamsville, Rhode Island, and Westport, the twin places she considers her hometown.

She’s back in the area now, teaching and pursuing her MFA at UMass Dartmouth CVPA. She brings with her to SouthCoast and New Bedford an aesthetic sensibility forged as a freelance artpreneur in Manhattan and her adopted “hometown,” Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Practically, that means launching impressive public art projects in the city, with her students at UMD, and introducing a tech element to the Moby-Dick reading with her Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) thesis project.

And, it means burnishing the legend of a musician whose candle burned bright but all-too briefly with another project, a book featuring her photographs and capturing the promise of Jeff Buckley before his untimely death in 1997.

That’s on the agenda for August publication. Before then, Merri — and perhaps you, reader — will have written “The Great American Novel Part 2” this weekend at the annual Moby-Dick Marathon, which reads the entire text of the original Great American Novel in its entirety.

“Part 2” is Cyr’s tongue-in-cheek name for her thesis project, which will be generated by visitors to the reading Saturday and Sunday at the Whaling Museum, and then edited by her.

Here’s how that will happen: Using a word generator developed by her brother, an engineer for Pandora, the entire text of Moby-Dick has been entered into a computer program.

Patrons visiting the pop-up installation — what Cyr terms a “Social Practice Piece” — at the museum this weekend will be able to move around the text using a touchscreen.

An algorithm will then generate alternative text based on the input and original words, producing something entirely new.

It will be, Cyr says, a collaboration between humans and a.i.

The new pages will comprise the book she will then edit into...“The Great American Novel Part 2.”

Plans are to unveil it at the Star Store UMD CVPA building in the spring.

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The project reflects her working life now. Her official bio states, “Working as a contractor for Apple for the past 10 years and photographing events and portraits, Merri’s study of how technology effects and changes the way we live in the world has worked its way into her engaged art installations.

“She incorporates easily accessible digital tech into her social practice pieces and often mixes them with outmoded tools to enhance contemporary viewpoints and contrast processes and perspectives from other times in history.”

If this project sounds to sci-fi to some, you can rest assured that Merri Cyr brings a very human hand to the proceedings.

In fact, another of her public art projects since returning to these shores captured the fundamental essence of making human connections.

She explains, “During the course of teaching a photography lighting class at Umass Dartmouth in Fall 2017, I worked on two engaged projects with my students.

“For the first project I had my students set up an outdoor studio with portable strobe lights and a white background in the middle of Wings Court.

“The assignment for each student was to approach a person on the street and ask them to be photographed, and then conduct a mini-photo shoot with them on the set.

“There were a diversity of New Bedford citizens photographed by my students — including business owners, artists, folks who live on the streets...”

And then, the resulting photos were enlarged and exhibited outdoors throughout downtown New Bedford. You may recall seeing them on the fence across from Custom House Square Park or running along the bottom windows of the Pilgrim United Church building near the Zeiterion Theatre parking garage.

Cyr writes of the project, “The thing that really surprised me about the exercise was that although initially nervous to approach people who were different than themselves, once contact was made with subjects, the students were interacting with some as if they were old friends and it seemed all were having extremely animated discussions.

“Ultimately it became much more than a technical photography exercise, allowing students to break the ice and engage with neighbors they would ordinarily just pass by on the street.”

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Merri Cyr knows a bit about about becoming friends with the subject of her artwork.

Beginning in the early ’90s and lasting for 20 years, she was as a fine art and commercial photographer in New York City. There, she photographed around 100 album covers and created photos for all types of editorial and promotional visual media for companies such as Columbia Records, Sony, Conde Nast, Disney and Rolling Stone.

But one in particular defines her work from the period.

Jeff Buckley was a musician of unusual promise in the early ’90s. His debut album, “Grace” stunned critics and listeners alike.

Cyr began photographing Buckley for Paper magazine before he recorded that disc, capturing the young performer for his warm-up CD, “Live at Sin-é,” a recording from an East Village coffeehouse.

Her cache of photographs of the gifted singer — named one of the greatest singers of all-time by Rolling Stone in 2004 — turned poignant when Jeff Buckley drowned in 1997.

According to Wikipedia, “On May 29, 1997, while awaiting the arrival of his band from New York, he drowned during a spontaneous evening swim, fully clothed, in the Mississippi River when he was caught in the wake of a passing boat; his body was found on June 4.”

Buckley was in Memphis, TN to record the follow-up to “Grace” — which forevermore would be his only studio album after his death.

Like so many others, Jeff Buckley touched Merri Cyr with his voice. She recalls coming to tears when she heard his amazing cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — regarded as a classic on its own.

Like Dennis Stock capturing James Dean through his lens, producing a trove of photographic iconography, Cyr’s photos of the tragic talent that Jeff Buckley would become now belong to history.

This August, 2019 on the 25th anniversary of the release of “Grace,” a commemorative book featuring those photographs will be published.

It will be an intensely human moment in Merri Cyr’s career.

But then again, capturing humanity is a matter of social practice for this artist.

Steven Froias blogs for the coworking facility, Groundwork! at NewBedfordCoworking.com. Email: StevenFroias@gmail.com.