Michael John McKee, aka Helicopter Copter, has been in his fair share of bands: Americana bands, folk bands, jazz bands and rock bands. None of them allowed the Nebraska-born, Denver-based artist to explore his passion for experimental music, so he created the persona Helicopter Copter in early 2015 as a way to break out of his artistic rut.
"I felt like I was kind of in this feedback loop where I'd practice my instruments, I'd get good, I would join a band, we would learn our songs together, we would perform them live, and then it just felt like a dead end," McKee says. "I wanted to try new stuff, so I created Helicopter Copter, not sure if it was going to be a band or a series of art projects, and that's kind of what it turned out to be."
His first project as Helicopter Copter was an experimental music video collaboration in which McKee and three other artists each contributed 25 percent of the final product without being able to coach or make suggestions to each other. Helicopter Copter has kept up that collaborative spirit, often working with other sound-based or visual artists on his projects, including his latest, a sound installation titled Voices.
Voices consists of a series of single-note wind chimes installed in Lakewood-Dry Gulch Park in Denver's West Colfax neighborhood. The chimes are made from wood, steel cables, aluminum tubing and reclaimed plastic from litter found in the park. They are attached to disc-golf tee posts and pedestrian bridges along the transportation corridor between Federal and Sheridan boulevards.
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Invoking the uneasiness and discomfort associated with homelessness, the unconventional harmony and minor chords of the wind chimes encourage patient and active listening as people move through the park.
"I've always been fascinated by musical instruments that aren't necessarily played by human beings, like a wind chime," McKee says. "My spouse, Eileen, deserves a lot of credit for this concept and project. When we moved to West Colfax, we would walk our dog at Dry Gulch Park all the time, and we were discussing how cool it would be to put wind chimes throughout the park. About that same time, the camping ban happened, and a lot of folks started living in the gulch in the months and years following. The two ideas met, of the wind chimes in nature as well as trying to capture some of the feeling and essence of what it means to be homeless."
Though McKee is quick to point out that he has never personally experienced homelessness, he considers the people who occupy his neighborhood as part of the community.
"I've always tried to include them in my daily life, insofar as saying hello, learning their names, in the same way that I am with my neighbors," he says. "Just seeing these folks live, essentially, outside year round, and always on the move, I've always tried to imagine what that's like, and I can imagine it's just constantly exhausting, because it's hard to come to a place and recharge and feel safe. That's the feeling I was trying to get at with the sound installation."
To that end, careful listeners will hear that there is a distinct lack of resolution in the series of notes and three repeating pitches produced by the chimes. Originally, the chimes were intended to be set closer together, so that you could hear them almost simultaneously. But Helicopter Copter is happy with the current configuration, in which they are more widely spread out, because it requires more attentive listening in order to remember what the last chime sounded like.
Voices was funded through the Denver Arts & Venues' P.S. You Are Here grant and produced in partnership with the West Colfax Association of Neighbors (WeCan). The P.S. You Are Here grant aims to fund short-term public works projects that transform underused urban spaces.
McKee first applied for the grant by himself and was denied, then applied again with WeCan backing the project and was approved. It took over a year after being awarded the grant to sort out the logistics with the town before the installation process actually started. The original plan was to spread the structures throughout the park's landscape, but Denver Parks and Recreation did not want the ground to be dug up, because they were afraid possible asbestos in the soil could become airborne.
After working with Denver Arts & Venues as well as Parks and Recreation, Helicopter Copter arranged for the wind chimes to be attached to disc-golf tee posts and pedestrian bridges. There are around 26 chimes. A few were damaged and had to be taken down. Four more will be added in the coming weeks.
True to his collaborative nature, Helicopter Copter worked with Anthony Garcia Sr. of Birdseed Collective on the upcoming additions to Voices. Garcia will be painting a mural close to the chimes and painted the four chimes that will be installed in mid-June.
With the recent rejection of Initiated Ordinance 300, which would have repealed the urban camping ban, an art installation considering homelessness seems topical. However, Voices was in the works long before Right to Survive was shot down, and is more a reflection on homelessness in general.
Helicopter Copter never intended to make a political statement: "For a long time I thought, with Helicopter Copter, I just want to make cool art," he says. "I just want the experience to be enough. The more that I've grown and kind of understood my place in the Denver community — my place, ultimately, in this weird capitalist society that we're all in — the more I feel like saying 'Oh, the experience is enough, and there's no political context' is kind of naive.
"I'm not necessarily being overtly political, but I think everything we do as human beings is political, in a sense," adds McKee. "Ultimately I feel like if people are going to interact with homelessness on a more regular basis, they're more likely to be able to have empathy and spawn change. Maybe we can finally address this problem instead of pushing it elsewhere."
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But Helicopter Copter is not interested in telling people how to experience his art, or how it should make you feel.
"I don't feel like people should be told how to interact with art," he explains. "The wind chimes are built so that they would catch wind with the plastic windsail, but there's a lot of folks, when I was installing them, that were really eager to see what they sound like, so people were playing them like instruments, which is great, too."
He did hope that the title, Voices, would suggest the chimes' deeper meaning: "I feel that titling it Voices gets people to this place of considering the chimes as voices, and the experience that they have hearing those. And then furthermore, once the chimes are gone — because it is a temporary installation — what do they hear? Do they hear nature, do they hear nothing, or do they hear human voices, the humans that are living in the gulch? That's part of what I hope people might begin to think about."
Voices is a free public art installation, and will be up at Lakewood-Dry Gulch Park through July 15.