In 1988, a young Angus King sat facing a 91-year-old Margaret Chase Smith, the esteemed former U.S. Senator from Skowhegan, for an important interview.
King, a 44-year-old lawyer and not yet a governor or senator, was host of “Mainewatch” on Maine Public Television. He asked Smith questions about her political legacy as she fiddles with a rose corsage. One of the interview’s primary topics is her “Declaration of Conscience” speech, delivered on the Senate floor in 1950 in a now-famous rebuke to McCarthyism.
At least, that’s how we Mainers can see it on YouTube, where the interview now lives. Of course, this was all before King became governor and reached one of his own political legacies, rolling out the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, or MLTI — an ambitious state program to distribute computers to every student in Maine, educating a new generation on emerging technology and an internet that would become instrumental to American life.
That generation includes the sibling-artist pair Laura K. Nicoll, 39, and Rufus MK Nicoll, 36. The duo have spent a good part of the last year scouring the internet and fleshing out a project that explores notable Maine figures in the historical public record and reframing them for a contemporary audience.
Putting the internet to use comes naturally, after all. Laura and Rufus Nicoll grew up in Mount Desert Island in the ‘90s and early aughts. With a little help from King and his computer distribution program, they and others in their generation were inevitably raised in “a multi-screen society,” as Rufus points out on their project site, “conscious of Wikipedia and YouTube, public television and cable news.”
As adults, Laura and Rufus used the internet to collaborate on creative projects across distances under the moniker Kreilkamp Nicoll. Rufus is based in Deer Isle, while Laura bounces between Maine and New York City. Years ago, their collaborations were party-minded, intended for social spaces. They’d compile playlists of YouTube dance clips and music videos like you would a Spotify playlist, playing them at house parties for friends and audiences to move to.
But now they’ve gone political. The siblings’ new project is a live event and video installation of archival research called “MLTI READS ME,” one that loosely explores Maine’s political history (and present) in one of Portland’s signature historic spaces — the Mechanics’ Hall. It uses video archives of historical figures like King and Smith as source material, filling out the material with film, large-scale video projection, song, dance and theater elements to tell an impressionistic story that spans generations.
As the siblings describe on their project site, their work is “an invitation to today’s audiences to reconsider their elders’ diverse origins.” It’s designed to resist “singular, superlative narratives” and collapse boundaries like “high-tech vs. low-tech, liberal vs. conservative, dance vs. theater and rural vs. urban communities.”
The project combines Laura’s experience in professional dance with Rufus’s academic background in multimedia storytelling, and features a cast of eight. Audiences saw the project’s first chapter, “A Tall Order” last weekend. Joining Rufus and Laura were Portland-area performers Janoah Bailin, Sharoan Cohen, Rachel Jane Henry, and Annie Kloppenberg, with recorded performances by NYC artists Yuki Kawahisa and Matt Korahais.
For those who missed it last weekend, you’ll have a chance to see chapters two and three in 2023 and 2024. The project, supported by American Rescue Plan Maine Project Grants administered by SPACE Gallery via the National Endowment for the Arts, is timed to begin at the midterm elections and conclude at the 2024 general elections.
Dancing to Margaret Chase Smith
So what exactly is MLTI (pronounced “multi”) READS ME all about? For one thing, it’s a way for the siblings to commit to a kind of art-making practice that keeps them engaged in political awareness between election cycles. The point is not only to look at daily headlines, but slow evolutions.
“For us, making is a regular practice,” said Laura. The project is a way of “aligning it with something I wish people got together more to talk about,” like social and political issues.
For example, how does a Mainer’s impression of King today, now 78, change when they view him as a middle-aged man interviewing Smith, who was 91 at the time?
In her “Declaration of Conscience” speech, lauded at one of the great speeches of her era, Smith, a Republican, said that “(t)he nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I do not want to see the Republican party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”
How does that speech, delivered 72 years ago, sound in 2022?
The Kreilkamp Nicoll performance doesn’t aim to hit the ironies of historical political texts on the nose. Instead, using low-tech editing software like QuickTime, the performances reappropriate parts of interviews, like King’s notable one with Smith, along with others conducted by Maine reporters Patsy Wiggins and John Greenman. We also get other cultural nods to Ted Williams and the TV show “Cheers.”
MLTI READS ME examines the ways that famous Mainers such as King and Smith have come to define our cultural awareness. Or others too, like the Maine that Sarah Orne Jewett described in “The Land of the Pointed Firs” in 1896, or the blacklisted civil rights activist-turned-Mount Desert Island journalist LaRue Spiker.
The siblings’ project is generational in more ways than one. Laura and Rufus’s grandfather Donald Nicoll was a longtime staffer in the D.C. offices for Maine Rep. Frank Coffin and Sen. Ed Muskie. After leaving his political career, he was the director of the Edmund S. Muskie Oral History Project at Bates College, and a fierce advocate for the state to embrace technological progress.
That story is how, in part, what brought Laura and Rufus to the state as kids in the 1980s — before the internet. How does the Maine we live in today compare with that one?
We don’t have to rely on memory to find out. if the state’s computer distribution program taught us anything useful, it’s that there’s plenty of information from that era, and it wants to be in the hands of the public.
Or as Laura Nicoll put it, “Hello, internet!”
Echoing King’s initiative, “MLTI READS ME” embraces technology as something that inherently lives in the public domain, where we can hopefully put it to good use.
“We within ourselves have the technologies to vet this information,” Rufus Nicoll said. “It’s not that difficult.”
“MLTI READS ME” is co-produced by Mechanics’ Hall in their 163-year-old building in Portland’s arts district. Designed by Maine’s first architect, Thomas J. Sparrow and built from 1857-59 by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, the building houses a lending library, grand ballroom, boardroom and a small classroom often used as a gallery space.
Mechanics’ Hall has had a busy few years of cultural revitalization. In addition to Kreilkamp Nicoll’s bespoke dance piece, the Hall hosted 50 literary programs and book launches, 10 musical concerts, 21 installations and maker events in 2022.
Upon entering the second-floor ballroom at 519 Congress Street, you might miss the large oil painting hanging on the far wall, depicting a dance scene that would have been commonplace in the late 1890s. The painter is Turner native Melvin Ballou Gilbert, an artist, author, and choreographer who ran a dance academy at the Hall throughout the 1890s to teach physical education classes to women. Gilbert perceived a difference between the curricula that he and his colleagues sought to teach, and is credited by some historians for helping to bridge the gap between physical education pedagogy and social dancing.
— Caroline O’Connor