Just a week before TED2013, Alicia Eggert — who makes kinetic sculptures investigating the nature of language and time — and musical artist Ryan Holladay made contact for the first time. They had never met, and neither of them knew they had each been selected as Fellows. Now, Holladay is co-curating Eggert’s largest solo exhibition of kinetic sculptural art at Artisphere — a 52,000 square foot arts space located just outside Washington DC. Here, Holladay and Eggert chat with each other about their work, their process, collaboration, and life. For more on Eggert and her work, visit her Fellows Friday interview.
When I’m not working on my own work with my brother, Hays, making sound-specific installations and GPS compositions with BLUEBRAIN, I have a wonderful job working as the curator of new media at Artisphere. I was sitting in the Artispace office with my co-curator, Cynthia Connolly, when an inquiry came in from an artist named Alicia Eggert. She lived in Maine, taught at Bowdoin College and had won numerous awards and grants. But this had me pinching myself: like me, Alicia was a 2013 TED Fellow and she, too, would be speaking at the conference the following week in Long Beach.
As it turns out, Alicia is one of the most talented and inventive artists I’ve come across in some time. With a diverse body of work that ranges from simple modifications of household items to highly complex interactive sculptures, this is an artist with a highly developed vision. Alicia and I quickly struck up a friendship at TED and began dreaming about what we could do together.
After TED, Cynthia and I began discussing the best way to bring Alicia’s work to Artisphere. As curators at a sizable arts facility, we have the privilege of programming a number of spaces of varying sizes throughout the building, but it quickly became clear to us that this was an artist that was ready for something big. And so, after many months of preparation, we are excited to present Alicia’s largest solo exhibition ever in our flagship space, the Terrace Gallery.
Ryan: So you’ve just finished a marathon of an install. Is that a process you enjoy?
Alicia: I have a love/hate relationship with the installation process. In some ways, it stresses me out, because so much of my work is kinetic, and I’m always afraid it’s not going to work properly. And there’s always the chance a neon letter will break if you just look at it the wrong way. But I really enjoyed the installation at Artisphere. First of all, nothing broke or went wrong. But more importantly, it was fun to work with you and Cynthia, and to engage in a dialogue with the two of you about the work and where it should be placed in the gallery. It gave me a new perspective of my work.
R: I can imagine with so many moving parts there’d be a level of anxiety — the feeling of anything that can go wrong will go wrong. But now that it’s all up, it must be a relief.
A: Is your working relationship with each artist completely different?
R: Every artist is different for sure. And with new media work, it gets a bit tricky sometimes. There are artists who have all their ducks in a row. Then there are others who may be experimenting with some new technology for the first time, and it doesn’t work exactly how they planned and we find ourselves in triage mode hours before an opening. I once had to do a Skype session with an artist in Japan as he walked me through taking apart and reassembling his work.
A: That sounds incredibly stressful. But it’s great that Artisphere is willing to work with artists who are taking risks and exploring unfamiliar territories.
R: I liked walking into the gallery and hearing you listening to that Haim record! Do you usually listen to music when you work?
A: It depends. If it’s a familiar, repetitive task, I love listening to music or even watching a television show. For example, when I was working on the wiring all of the “Lost Gloves” in my recent artist residency at Sculpture Space in Utica, NY, I watched a few episodes of Breaking Bad. But when I’m doing work that requires any kind of problem solving, I prefer to work in silence.
R: One of the things about making music is that you can’t listen to music while you’re working! I get jealous of painters or architects who can get to work and go through the entire Kate Bush catalogue on Spotify. Sometimes when I want to listen to NPR or a new record or something I’ll play Super Mario 3. I’ve played that game so many times, it kind of puts me in a trance where I can focus all my attention on what I’m hearing.
A: I can totally relate. I can get into a similar trance-like headspace when I’m driving. I get some of my best ideas on long-distance road trips.
R: Language seems to play a big role in many of your pieces. You seem to play with our notions of how language is used and often overlooked, for instance, drawing attention to how removing one word from a simple sentence can change its meaning significantly (‘You Are (On) An Island). Do you ever think about how your work might effect someone who isn’t a native English speaker? And have you ever considered working with other languages?
A: I feel lucky that my native language is one that has become so universal. I often wonder how my work would be different if English wasn’t as widely spoken as it is, because it’s always been very important to me that my work is accessible to as many people as possible — something from my Evangelical Christian upbringing that I’ve carried over to my practice as an artist. I would love to be given the opportunity to work sculpturally with another language, especially one that’s completely different from English visually, like Arabic. But I don’t think that’s something I would pursue on my own without a specific reason, like a commission.
R: Well, as the saying goes: “سيحدث ذلك عندما يكون من المفترض أن يحدث.”
A: I’m really curious about your collaborative process. I love collaborating with other artists on visual projects, but I wonder how the process is different with sound.
R: Hays and I are sharing ideas all the time. Now that we’re living in different cities, everything has to be done remotely. So whether that’s some conceptual art project or an actual melody, we generally have these open lines of communication over the phone, text, email and Skype where we bounce ideas off of one another. I think we look for a reaction from the other to see which ideas might have, legs and that’s usually how we start. But, you know, we’ve worked together since we were, kids so I don’t really know any other way of doing it, honestly. It’s fantastic in some ways because you can move really quickly and it’s kind of like having two brains working at once. But on the flip side, if a disagreement turns into an argument, it goes nuclear very quickly. Siblings know exactly what buttons to press. How does it work with Mike [Fleming, Eggert’s partner] when you two collaborate?
A: For Mike and me, every project seems to evolve out of a conversation. Eternity started with a car ride. We drove past a church that had a big sign out front saying something about spending eternity in heaven, so we started to talked about that word and what it actually meant. We decided it would be a fun word to mine for an art project. Then we just started brainstorming, bouncing ideas back and forth about it. I forget who came up with the idea to use clocks to spell it, but I remember us both saying, “YES! That’s it!” And then it took months to figure out how to actually do that.
R: Isn’t that the best, when you can’t remember who actually came up with an idea? I feel that’s a sign of a healthy collaboration, where your brain has sort of relinquished the need for ownership or something and who initially birthed the concept or a part of it seems unimportant.
A: I totally agree. You have to totally let go of your ideas, and completely give them to the other person to see where they can take them. But having a collaborative working relationship with someone you love can be challenging. It’s important for Mike and me to maintain a part of our relationship that doesn’t have to do with our work, so it doesn’t feel like we’re just business partners, so we can salvage some romance. Do you and Hays have to worry about similar things, or no?
R: Well the romance died years ago with Hays and me. No, but to be serious, I think there was a period of time when I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to work together in the future. We were always able to get down in the dirt and argue about ideas and have that be separate from our friendship. But there came a point where that seemed more and more difficult, and the distinction between our personal and working relationship became less clear. And I felt like, as much as I loved working with him, it wasn’t worth damaging what had always been a really close relationship.
What changed, I think, was when we started working on these location-aware compositions because we were starting from scratch and creating something completely new that neither of us knew anything about. We were learning about software development, about landscape architecture, about interface design and so on. And so it became this feeling of discovery that I think had gotten lost somewhere along the way.
A: You were in new territory together. I can see how that would change the rules. I think that’s when collaborations work best. Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re working on right now?
R: Well, as a curator at Artisphere, I’m working on a number of projects, including putting together a sound exhibition in the Terrace Gallery for next summer. I’m trying to bring TED Fellow Christine Sun Kim down for that one! As for Hays and me, we have about 10 projects we’re working on together right now, little ones and big ones. We’re finishing up a new record — a traditional, start-to-finish linear album — that I’m really excited about. But we’ve been talking about releasing it in a different way than we’ve done before. I feel like it’s a bit early to explain much more, but I’m really excited about it. We’re also starting to transition into a slightly different way of doing these location-aware composition apps, doing them as commissions for spaces and museums, which has been fun. Hopefully we’ll have three of those done in the next two years.
A: Wow, and I thought I was busy! It sounds like you have your hands full. I can’t wait to hear your new album.
R: Considering how carefully you chose words and how prominent they are in so many of your pieces, the pressure to pick a great baby name must be high.
A: You would think so, right? But I’ve been so busy working on this show at Artisphere that I regret to say I haven’t had much time to think about what’s coming next. I still can’t believe I’m having a baby! But it will certainly be my most exciting collaborative project with Mike to date.
R: My money’s on Eternity Eggert. Has a nice ring to it.
Everything You Are Looking For will run until February 2nd, with an opening reception on Thursday, December 5th. Artisphere is located at 1101 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA 22209.