Friday, October 30, 2009

Interview with Andy Holtin

Andy Holtin is a kinetic sculptor based in Washington, DC. He teaches at American University and is currently featured in the Washington Project for the Arts' Options Biennial. interviewed by Rachel Sitkin

RS: Can you start by telling me where you’re from and how you got to this moment?

AH: I’m from mostly southern states and I ended up at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) for Graduate School. That was the first time that I had really come to this part of the country and I felt like it was a place I could be from.

RS: Richmond?

AH: This whole subdivision of Mid-Atlantic States- the whole region of the country you don’t know exists when you’re from the south. When you’re deeply from a given area, you don’t really know what the boundaries are of other areas. Like people in Texas think that Virginia is in New England or they think of Colorado as the Midwest. Once here, I got to know the culture that defined this region- southern enough not to be too fast moving but northern enough not to have this addiction to it’s own prejudicial past that makes up the south in way that I was never really comfortable with. I really liked it here.

I graduated from VCU and adjuncted for two years at VCU, University of Richmond and George Mason and then I taught in Texas for four years and decided that wasn’t really a long-term scenario for me. I feel like I jumped and the earth rotated a random amount and I came down and it happened to be in Texas. It was a good school but it wasn’t a place that I wanted to be and I decided that I really wanted to be back in this region. I enjoy the art community, and just the geography, I mean it being fall right now which is something that an awful lot of the country doesn’t get to appreciate the way that we do. So getting the job at American University turned out to be a really good opportunity.

RS: You mentioned at some point that you were a drawing major in undergrad. Can you talk about how your worked changed from strictly works on paper to 3D and performance?

AH: In some ways it was my allowance of what I was “allowed” to do that really changed. A lot of us that end up in art, it’s because at some point we were the kids that could draw well. That was the only thing I had in common with art making. I had very little understanding of the cultural complexities or the ways that art overlaps so many other disciplines and fields- I didn’t know any of that. Most of us, in my experience think we’re either going to be illustrators or graphic designers.

I went through a very small undergraduate program. Small programs really focus on 2D because, superficially, image making is the history of art making. I say superficially because there are a whole lot of other things out there, but 2D is the predominance of product. It doesn’t require as many facilities, and there are more people out there teaching it so when you have a small program, it usually ends up being drawing/painting based. So that’s what I went into and I really struggled with thinking in terms of images- I just never really did it. Even though I produced some good work and had some nice drawings, I found that I got more enjoyment out of building the stretchers or priming the surface, dealing the with the real materials than actually making a painting.

I started doing drawings on those objects and materials, like plexiglas or aluminum sheeting. Initially, I was just treating them as surface. But it’s a pretty short skip from that to turning those materials into object. You just bend them, fold them or break them and suddenly they stop being a surface. That really opened things up for me. I started bringing in other materials and realizing that I thought much more in terms of the real-time relationships of objects rather than a completely illusionistic image world. I was really pushing these weird fractured paintings and putting chunks of objects into them, making stretchers with holes in them, or putting a piece on the wall and then drawing around it- things that Vernon Fisher figured out a long time ago, but you have to go through it for yourself.

There wasn’t a lot of discourse around it at my school. People still wanted to see the work as image and kept looking for the skill justification in it. At one point I was so down on it that “I thought” I had a realization that I was really a painter. Because painting has this kind of umbrella history, I thought if I could define myself as a painter I could eliminate all of this answerless groping-in-the-dark for this other kind of art form that I didn’t have a name for at the time. If I could just default into this existing craft it’d be so much easier. So I started on another set of paintings but quickly realized again that I couldn’t stand working that way and started making those into objects… again. It was a strange realization after I had spent my whole life being a “facile drawer”.

It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I realized I could give up on images completely and work with objects and materials.

The Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

RS: Would you say that right now your work is shifting? Does the work that’s in the Options Biennial relate to the cardboard surveillance cameras?

AH: The shift that I see in my work happened about two years ago- as always I didn’t notice at the time. My previous work was an early exploration of using mechanism to create phenomena. Most of those phenomena are based on perceptual analysis- using an event visually and it’s sound as separate layers of reality that we experience by separate senses, that we then cognitively stitch together. I have several pieces that are about amplifying the sound of a tiny event but exporting that sound to another location so it breaks up the event. They all use some sort of mechanical system so that it happens in real time, something that you’re actually watching happen. That way of working is something that I am physically interested in enough to stay with it, but what began to happen was a shifting away from a choreography of cognitive or perceptual phenomena and towards a theater of the objects themselves.

I think of it as puppetry but with a material instead of a figure. I bring a material in and I make that material do what I want it to do or perform in its way, and I do it with a visible mechanism. I really like Japanese Bunraku puppetry where the puppeteers are all in black and they are actually holding the puppet. Yet within about the first 8 minutes of a 3 hour performance, you forget completely about the puppeteer and you spend the rest of the time focusing entirely on the sophisticated graceful gestures of the figure they’re moving. But some part of your brain knows your ignoring the mechanism.

RS: You’re not fixated on “how is this working?” You know how it’s working and you’re just enjoying that it is working.

AH: Yes, but I think that some part of us is enjoying the act of ignoring. It’s like the difference between a Titian painting and a Constable painting. I’d much rather look at a Constable painting, being given the experience without having to define every object in the way that a faithful realist painter would.

The thing that the most recent pieces have in common, including the cardboard cameras and the population of flashlights piece and these landscape pieces I’ve been doing recently, is that they all play with asking, “How much does it take to make us believe that something is what it is in the representation”.

They’re more about analyzing the degree to which the behavior of the piece is real or compelling or correct for our categories of assumption, and the degree to which is it completely incorrect. These little landscapes looking just like landscapes but we know that they’re not. And in a way they don’t really look the way mountains look, they just stand in close enough or the fact that they do look like it given what they’re made of or they’re scale- it’s that we want it to look that way. So the mechanism that produces these things is like the marionette strings that you want to ignore but you know that you’re ignoring them and that’s more fun than having them go away completely.

RS: Can you talk a little about where you find inspiration for new pieces? Is it generated while you’re working on a piece- if you come across a material that you think “wouldn’t it be interesting if this material were working in this way”? Or are ideas generated more outside of the studio?

AH: It changes. There are times when being in the studio working, surrounding myself with materials and things to a play with is the only way things happen. But sometimes it’s just stumbling across something in real life.

There was this optics piece (Very Close) I did not too long ago and that was prompted by a trip I made to an elderly relatives house where I found their magnifying glass with a light in it, for reading. For that piece, I began by bringing in all sorts of lenses and playing- seeing what events looked like. I ended up making a machine with a thin wire stylus that pricked the edge of a quarter while it rotated and it made a sound. I had a magnifying glass looking at the event, but if you looked at it without the magnifying glass you couldn’t even tell that the little needle was moving.

Under the glass it was really bouncing around and suddenly it accounted for the amount of noise that came out of the thing too. So, a piece like that comes about entirely by bringing those bits and pieces of material into the studio, the lab, where I start dissecting them, pulling them apart to see what happens. There was no endgame in mind, no idea whether it would be mechanical or involve sound or anything.

The most recent ones with the sifter- I had worked with the chalk before but was kind of dissatisfied and wanted to play with it some more. So I contacted a friend of mine, Galo Moncayo, that I collaborate with on large-scale projects (causality labs) and was talking about ways of getting this chalk to behave differently and how I wanted it to look like a landscape, how I wanted to build it up or erode it with water. After talking about the idea for a while, we both ended up miming the motions of a flour sifter, and there was the solution. And that was brilliant! So within a few hours I had one of those hand crank ones hooked up and it built beautiful little mountain ranges, unbelievable little landscapes falling out of this kitchen device.

RS: I never noticed the landscape in your work before. What inspired that?

AH: Well, what I’m not interested in is landscape in the historical sense of painting landscape, although maybe it’s just been kind of maligned and is more interesting than we give it credit for. I saw a show in Ghent, Belgium this summer at the Contemporary Museum, called The Picturesque, that really had its finger on it. It was a show about the way in which we envision the world and how that may not be anything like the world itself. The history of our notions about [landscape] become as much of a thing that we are referencing when we imagine the world as our real experience of it. Like, I was recently on the Oregon beach, and I hate it but I can’t stop thinking “this looks like a really great painting”. We now equate the frame of our vision with the frame of the image. It’s a change in our DNA from a hundred years ago and I think it’s permanent.

This show really got me thinking about representing the way that we make images or objects in relation to the landscape being like our pursuit of artificial intelligence. How do I represent the real or the other, and how am I going to acknowledge that I am dealing with a thing that is not just my perception of it but is in fact a real thing? It’s dealing with it ontologically and not just epistemologically, which is kind of impossible. So producing these landscapes that look nothing like any real mountain range that you’ve ever seen, in color or in shape or in anything, but there is something about the basic logic that is compelling in spite of the things that don’t make sense. So in a way these landscapes look like our notion of the world more through the images of the world, not the real world. They look like paintings of landscapes, not landscapes.

We all need a creation myth (2.1) from Andy Holtin on Vimeo.

RS: If all you had was a picture of a landscape and you were to think about how these things came into being, you wouldn’t necessarily think that they were formed by tectonic plates bashing into each other, you might think they were created by something that fell from the sky.

AH: Yeah. So that’s how it’s more about our “view” of the landscape, than representing the real thing.

RS: Ok. I have just a few more ending questions. If you could visit the studio of any living artist, who would it be?

AH: [long pause]… One of them would have to be Jenna Cardiff and George Bures Miller, a partner couple. I hesitate so long because I really wonder what their studio is like, their pieces are so different from each other but one of the things I like about them is that the pieces are experiences that you walk through, and they use sound and projection but integrated into the physical environments so that you’re not just aware of the video editing or sound quality exclusively. So their studio must be some beautiful combination of installation space, fabrication space and technical production space. I would like to see how they interact, how they layer the different tasks that have to be done in their process.

Some of the artists that I like the most, their work is sort of less physical than my own. Erwin Wurm is a good example. Vic Muniz I bet would be a really interesting person to hang around with for a little while. I like the fact that there are some physical solutions to his work, but it is always about the variety of ideas and the layers of interest. His work reflects how complicated contemporary culture is more than any other artist I can think of. Maybe I’d move him to the top of the list.

RS: If you were me, and you could interview any regional artist, who would it be?

AH: It sounds like an industry plug, but Alberto Gaitan. One of things I’ve really enjoyed about coming to D.C. is how strong a community there is for people that are interested in the same sort of technical things that I do. Especially the micro-controllers, the computers I use to choreograph the pieces. Within just a few weeks of coming out here I was able to get in touch with a number of artists that work with similar systems and are far more advanced at it than I am. Alberto is guy that’s been working with electronics and interactive artwork for a really long time and has some really interesting work.

RS: Thanks!

To See More:

options biennial

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