by Douglas Lausten
BUMBERSHOOTS is a sound installation for interactive umbrellas, aka parasols, aka bumbershoots, if you happen to be living in America in the late 19th Century. The work invites participants to maneuver and twist the freestanding umbrellas to different angles and rotations to create a variety of sound combinations. Through cooperative play participants can explore the piece’s full range of possibilities.
Umbrellas have a surprisingly interesting cultural history. The Chinese created the first collapsible umbrella around 20 AD, but depictions of umbrellas date back much further. Ancient Greeks viewed them as important accessories for women as far back as the late 5th century BCE. Later on, Greek noblemen apparently copied their female counterparts. This was depicted on a Grecian urn where a man transitions from holding a sword to a spear to a staff and then a parasol (apparently the parasol is also mightier than the sword). In ancient India, there was a story that the sun itself giving the skilled archer Jamadagni a parasol after he shot the sun with an arrow. Why did he shoot the sun with an arrow? The heat of the sun made it difficult for his wife to carry out the task of gathering all of his arrows, upsetting the bowman.
Independent of Europe and Asia, the Aztecs had their own version of the umbrella, because shielding yourself from the sun and rain is an obvious thing to do if you’d rather not be sunburnt and/or soaked. Despite this, Europeans in the Middle Ages inexplicably did not use umbrellas, which says a lot about how awful the Middle Ages were.
Umbrellas have historically been used as a sign of status. Examples include the aforementioned Aztecs and the Roman Catholic Church, who designated special umbrellas for different bishops. Some speculate that their funny looking hats are in fact an homage to the umbrella. In late 1700s France, umbrellas became a must have for leaving the house, as depicted in a number of famous paintings. People could even rent numbered and uniformly colored umbrellas should bad weather surprise them, which sounds a lot like today’s newfangled bike share services.
Today people even put umbrellas in drinks, ostensibly to provide their cold beverage with some shade when it is warm out.