Bosnian photojournalist Ziyah Gafić photographs the aftermath of conflict. (Watch his TED Talk, “Everyday objects, tragic histories.”) In his most recent book, Quest for Identity, he catalogs the belongings of Bosnia’s genocide victims, everyday objects like keys, books, combs and glasses that were exhumed from mass graves. The objects are still being used to identify the bodies from this two-decade-old conflict. Only 12 when the Bosnian War began, the Sarajevo native has spent the last 15 years turning his lens on conflicts around the world as a way of coming to terms with the tragedy of his homeland. Here, he tells the TED Blog about looking for patterns of violence, the relationship between detachment and empathy, and what it’s like to grow up with war.
Tell us about the overall focus of your work.
The stories I’m interested in are focused on countries that have followed a similar pattern of violence as my homeland, Bosnia. My book Troubled Islam: Short Stories from Troubled Societies covers my own journey starting with the aftermath of war in Bosnia, and then exploring the consequences of conflict in the northwestern province of Pakistan, Palestine and Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Chechnya and Lebanon. “Aftermath” is a key word: the aftermaths of conflicts in these countries follow a similar sequence to that of Bosnia: ethnic violence, fraternal war, ethnic cleansing and, ultimately, genocide.
My idea was to compare countries that are thousands of miles away, on different continents, yet following the same vicious patterns. These countries have certain things in common. One is ethnic wars, though “ethnic” is probably not the most fortunate choice of word. All these countries have significant Muslim communities, or have majority-Muslim populations. In the post-9/11 world, these elements became very relevant.
How is Quest for Identity related to Troubled Islam?
I worked on Quest for Identity in parallel to Troubled Islam, but Quest is totally different from everything I do, because my usual approach to photography is very subjective. I wanted to do something on the other side of the spectrum, something extremely objective—something neutral, something accurate. By coincidence, while doing other stories, around 10 years ago I stumbled upon these objects that are being used as forensic evidence in the ongoing process of identifying over 30,000 missing Bosnians.
Jorge Mañes Rubio explains he makes his new souvenirs to create interesting interactions at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash
From China’s underwater cities to Amsterdam’s neglected neighborhoods to Italy’s looted ruins, Jorge Mañes Rubio seeks out forsaken places and makes art that memorializes, reimagines and reengages them with the world. His project “Normal Pool Level” — which emerged from his exploration of the cities, towns and villages submerged by China’s Three Gorges Dam Project — is on exhibition at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, England, until September 7. So it felt like the perfect time to ask Rubio more about this exhibit, as well as about the experiences that led him from a stable career in design to life as a perpetual tourist.
Let’s start with your current exhibition. How did you end up in China, looking for abandoned underwater cities?
My project in China was something very special to me, on so many levels. It all started when I moved to Chongqing for two months in 2013 as part of an artist-in-residence program. The city was quite tough, and pretty much nobody could speak English, so in the end I decided to travel along the Yangtze River, looking for the remains of the cities flooded by the Three Gorges Dam Project. Thousands of cities and villages have been submerged, and so far 4 million people have been forced to relocate—but very few people know this.
During my journey I came across cities that have no name, cities that don’t appear on any map. On one hand, I was really excited to be able to explore these places which very few people have seen. But on the other, I was appalled to see the conditions people were living in. We’re talking about entire cities that have been pretty much destroyed and left isolated, but where some people have refused to leave. I decided to create a series of souvenirs and symbols that would document and recognize these forgotten cities, and at the same time help me to express this inner conflict I went through during my journey.
What kind of objects did you create?
In the beginning, my intention was just to look for these cities, and to explore this area. But the more I saw, the more I understood that these places deserved recognition. I was struggling with the fact that I found some of these places extremely beautiful. It was a strange and tragic beauty, but a fascinating one nevertheless. I knew photographs were not enough to convey those feelings, so I started to gather materials and objects along the road, and later I modified them and transformed them into the symbols that compose the project.
The most representative are probably two plastic jerrycans that contain water from the Yangtze River. I collected this water at the exact point where the old city of Fengdu used to stand, now completely submerged under the water. Later on, I painted these jerrycans with traditional chinese motifs, as if they were precious Chinese vases. The result is an object whose identity is heavily questioned, which doesn’t seem to belong either to Eastern or Western culture, but that represents the clash between traditional Chinese culture and industrialization. There are more than 10 objects and installations in total, together with a series of photographs.
Fengdu Jerry Cans, from the Normal Pool Level series. Exhibition view at the 501 Contemporary Art Centre, Chongqing, China. Photo: Seethisway.
You call yourself a “perpetual tourist.” What does this mean, especially in the context of design?
Until fairly recently, I worked with design companies on everyday items like chairs, furniture or small products — homeware, vases, so on. But while I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London, I joined a program that was very experimental, pushing the boundaries of design. So my work became much more about the impact design can have in our current society, beyond manufacturing everyday items.
To put it concisely, I became interested in experience. Right now, with any product that you have or acquire, what you look forward to is the experiences the product might allow you to have. So I started thinking about tourism. In a way, industrial design is about creating a product, and replicating it millions of times. And tourism is the mass-production of experiences. You create one experience — say, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower — and then millions of people have, literally, that very same experience. I also find interesting the way people behave when they are tourists. Things look different, the food tastes different, and you dare to do things that otherwise you’d never do. You’re way more open to learning about new cultures, meeting new people. You become someone else. I thought, “What if I apply that kind of behavior to everyday experiences? Can I behave like a tourist every day?”
I did a few projects that explored these ideas. One was an illegal souvenir production project on top of the Eiffel Tower. Another one — my graduation project — was a portable souvenir factory. I rode my bike for three weeks along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and attached to the bike I had a portable rotational molding machine. In every village, I met different people, and I used my machine to manufacture my own souvenirs on the road — in contrast to the experience of buying, you know, fridge magnets.
After a childhood spent traveling the world with her rabbinical family, photographer Kitra Cahana found she couldn’t stop. With her camera as her vehicle, she began work as a documentary photographer, shooting for publications like The New York Times and National Geographic. When Cahana is not on assignment, she comes home to a life on the road — living among communities of nomads that wander the United States, documenting their reality. Cahana’s TED Talk, “A glimpse of life on the road,” offers a look into this world. But we wanted to hear more—about her own experiences, about what motivates people to take to the road, and about the history and evolution of American itinerant culture.
That’s always been a complicated question. I was born in the United States—my parents are both American, but they didn’t want to raise their children in the States, mainly for sociopolitical reasons. So we left shortly after I was born and moved frequently when I was a child. I grew up in different places across Canada and Sweden where my father held rabbinic positions. That’s what took us from place to place.
It was part of my parents’ ethos to prioritize experiences over materialism. From our infancy, they took us on adventures. When we moved to Sweden, we spent months making our way from North America to Europe via Asia. We were raised with this deep knowledge that the world was open and that the world was ours. It’s a beautiful thing to instill in a child — a sense of curiosity about the way other people live, to explore other value systems, to give a sense of otherness and sameness all at once. The idea was to be able to feel a sense of home anywhere, while simultaneously having a really strong core — a family core. In our family, that meant a spiritual and religious core as well.
Which came first, being a nomad, or photography? Or did both happen at the same time?
When I spoke in the talk about wanting to run away as a child, I think that emotion came from wanting to escape stagnation, never wanting to be still. Always wanting to see the next thing around the corner. When we moved to Canada when I was 12, I went from being in a Swedish Montessori school to the rigidity of Orthodox Jewish day schools. I did well, but I hated it. I didn’t want an outside voice to dictate my day to day. Every piece of me was just yearning to explode outwards and move again, to feel unencumbered by any authority but my own.
That’s why I gravitated towards photography, because it allowed me to always be on the move, to investigate other people’s ways of life and to pose deep questions of political and social import. It gave me a purpose to continue the adventuring I had been exposed to as a child, but it went far deeper than just having an adventure. It put me at the crux of really critical and telling moments in the lives of others.
I left home as soon as I finished high school at 16; my photojournalism career started shortly after. I’ve been more or less nomadic since, in many different incarnations of the nomadic life. I’ve lived in a more sedentary fashion in certain places — especially while doing my undergrad in philosophy and my masters in visual anthropology — more transient in others. The lengths of my stays are usually dictated by the projects I’m working on, by the worlds I’m moving in and out of. So it’s always completely different. No world is like the next. Altogether, it’s been about nine years of being in motion. It’s just slowly become my way of life.
Young nomads congregate at the “Dirty Kids Corner” at the National Rainbow Gathering in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. July 2009. Photo: Kitra Cahana
This is an abandoned tobacco factory just outside Salerno, in the south of Italy, where several villages were destroyed after a devastating series of earthquakes and landslides in the 1980s. With his project Buono Fortuna (“good luck” in Italian), artist and TED Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio hopes to reopen the abandoned spaces in these villages to the public, replacing stolen icons and looted artwork with new fictional symbols, inspired by Southern Italian folklore. To a full gallery of Jorge’s Buono Fortuna photos, visit the TED Ideas Blog. And to read about Jorge’s work creating a micronation in a neglected Amsterdam neighborhood, visit the TED Blog.
This summer, the design firm Bittertang, co-founded by Mexican-American architect and TED Fellow Antonio Torres, will construct this “living” amphitheater in Lake Forest, Illinois, primarily from netted straw embedded with wildflowers and vines, which will grow, bloom and transform the theater throughout the summer and fall. The theater, which was the winning entry to the 2014 Ragdale Ring competition, will be twenty feet tall and will function as an outdoor performance space.
Read more about the Ragdale Ring here, and to find out more about Antonio and his work, read the feature-length interview “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” on the TED Blog.
Artist and perpetual tourist Jorge Mañes Rubio makes art inspired by the unexplored, ignored, and abandoned places on Earth. (Read more about his current project to create a micronation in an underprivileged Amsterdam neighborhood here.) After TED2014, he stayed on in Vancouver to explore, and found a few spots you wouldn’t likely see on the beaten path, from a derelict floating McDonald’s to a Sikh temple.
“I was lucky to be able to spend some time in Vancouver after TED2014,” says Rubio. “I didn’t want to leave without having the chance to get to know the city a little bit better, from well known spots in downtown to hidden gems outside the city. During the very busy week at TED it’s hard to find time to explore the city, so if you didn’t have the chance, here are a few interesting places I came across in a post-TED state of mind…”
The McBarge was the first floating McDonald’s location in the world, built for Expo ‘86 in Vancouver. It was moored on Expo grounds in Vancouver’s False Creek, showcasing the newest technology and architecture. The restaurant was designed by Robert Allan Ltd. and was one of five McDonald’s locations on the Expo grounds. Although the floating design allowed for the barge to operate in a new location following the exhibition, the derelict McBarge has since been abandoned and anchored in Burrard Inlet. This abandoned floating restaurant reminds me of many other great structures and buildings built for very specific events – Expos and Olympics – all over the world, which a few years later fail to find a second purpose and end up forgotten in decay.
The gigantic Chevron Gas Refinery Substation is probably the most impressive industrial landscape you can find in Vancouver. It has been operational since the petroleum company set up operations in Canada in 1935. Here, crude and synthetic oils, condensate and butanes are transformed into 50,000 to 55,000 barrels of motor gasolines, diesel, jet fuels, asphalts and propane every day.
While the roots of Vancouver’s Chinese community go back a long way, there have been large migrations from Hong Kong and China in the past 30 years. I’m always very interested in ancient Asian culture, temples and rituals, and the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden was definitely worth the visit. Vancouver’s Chinese Garden was built in 1985 and 1986, inspired by the principles and techniques of the original Ming dynasty garden, creating a huge contrast with the city’s landscape. Even though this is a public garden, it was surprisingly quiet compared to the much busier Chinatown, right on the other side of the walls.
A few stops on the Skytrain and you’ll go from downtown’s high skyscrapers to real suburban neighborhoods. This was the most unique and authentic house I found, right across my friend’s place. It reminded me of many other pictures I’ve seen in suburban American neighborhoods such as in Detroit. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to talk to the owners to find out more about this house and its story, because there must be something special about this place. By the way, even if they might seem small, most of these houses are divided, with different tenants on the ground and first floors.
After taking a wrong turn on the highway in Richmond, I ended up in the Nanak Sar Gurdwara Gursikh Temple. This is a place of worship for Sikhs, but its location and architecture adds a great deal of uniqueness to the temple. Its bright colors, flags and plaster animals got my attention as soon as I drove by. Located pretty much in the middle of nowhere, it features all kinds of decorative elements such as lions, elephants, fountains… My first thought was that it might be an exotic theme park, till I drove into the parking lot and saw the elegant and colorful clothes people were wearing. Turns out that it was Sunday morning, probably the busiest time for a Gurdwara. At that time I didn’t know, but Gurdwaras are open to everybody, despite your religion, age or sex. I didn’t dare go into the building, but I had time to take a few pictures and enjoy what ended up being one of the most unexpected sceneries during my trip.
Taiwanese-born artist Shih Chieh Huang animates ordinary household materials, transforming them into magical, living, breathing creatures. Huang demonstrated one of his sculptures at the end of Session 2 at the TED2014 Fellows talks. Here, he tells us a bit about what inspires him. And for those of you who missed the Fellows talks, or if you were there and would like a closer look, watch this video – taken during the installation process – to enjoy the sights and sounds from the underbelly of Huang’s creation.
What inspired this piece?
I did a research at Smithsonian Natural History Museum studying bioluminescent organisms in the ocean. I was looking at how the movement and some of the light patterns these creatures use in their environment to survive — and that inspired some of the movements of these pieces. When you go down to the deep ocean, everything is slow motion.
What is this piece made of?
The entire piece is made from household materials — Tupperware containers, plastic bottles, highlighter fluid, and lots of desktop computer cooling fans. All the movement of the piece and inflation of the tentacles is controlled by the fans, controlled by a micro-SD chip embedded inside.
Where did you study art?
I studied art in the School of Visual Arts in New York. I wasn’t in the computer arts department: I actually snuck into computer arts department, pretending I was a student there to learn some of the physical computing. But a lot of the electronics were tested in the studio to see what worked and didn’t.
Do you just lie awake at night thinking these things up?
Sometimes. I have insomnia a little bit. I can really only sleep on some type of petrol-engine vehicle. On a bus, on a boat. When it’s very quiet, it’s hard to sleep. Or just in regular rooms.
You think this is where your art originates?
Sometimes. Because sometimes at nighttime, I feel like the whole world’s sleeping, and I am more able to get into my own world, in some ways, when it’s dark.
Shih Chieh Huang installs CC1 in the TED2014 Community Theater.
TED Fellow Lucy McRae (watch her TED Talk) is a body architect — an artist who explores how technology and the body may someday meet and merge. Her latest project is a fantastical and frothy music video for “Dream a Little Crazy” by Australian band Architecture in Helsinki. Watch the mouth-watering video above, and then read all about how McRae and her collaborators wove futuristic ideas about synthetic biology, food-as-sculpture and 3D printing technology into a mad lab full of flying gloop and powder.
How do you describe to people what you do?
I do speculative story-telling. I create parallel, alternate worlds — underpinned by science fiction. The idea is to render possibilities to how technology will change, thinking about how people will embody the future in technology. But I do it in playful ways. In a way, I’m designing the connective tissue between science and imagination. I’m not a technologist, I’m not a scientist. I’m an artist inspired by scientific thinking, and I use that to steer the narratives of my films and concepts.
How did you come to collaborate on the video with Architecture in Helsinki?
A lot of my projects begin with serendipitous encounters, and this project was no different. I got an email from the band at a completely random time when I was at the LimeWharf, a cultural innovation hub in London where I’m now doing a residency. I’d been a Architecture in Helsinki fan for years, while the band’s lead singer, Cameron Bird, had seen my work, but had no idea who was making it. Then he investigated and saw that I was Australian, too, and was like, “Huh? Why haven’t we ever contacted her before?”
So he wrote to me and said I’d love for you to interpret the song. They had no brief, except that they wanted a surreal, infectious, absurd clip, and to have a strong synergy between the album artwork, made by this Finnish illustrator Santtu Mustonen, who hand-crafts analog, globby, dripping illustrations over sharp 3D geometries.
How did this lead to the concept of the biological bakery?
Our concept was to explore how synthetic biology might enter the home, but in a humorous way — using music as a superhighway to illustrate quite a complex idea. My collaborator Rachel Wingfield and I were interested in synthetic biology and the way food is industrially mass-produced, the way balloons or candies are made. We looked at how we could merge these industrial machines with the representation of the body. We started experimenting with the concept of printing the band’s faces with multicolored bacterial strands — using different-colored edible liquids composed of flour and water to symbolize this.
Everything in the film was edible. The band were scanned in Australia with a medical-grade 3D scanner, all the files were sent over to us in London, 3D printed and made into miniature versions in pop-confectionery.
There’s a scene where Cameron’s face-planting the band’s faces into corn flour. This is the way that candies are molded in factories: they create huge, big trays of corn flour, and they emboss, for example, Haribo shapes into the corn flour, and then the liquid is poured in. We piggybacked some of these confectionary techniques and made them for an installation gallery setting.
Two days after the music video, we re-created and built the whole set for a live event. We invited the audience to enter into this world, and we performed the scenes from the music video, exploding the liquid and painting this sort of fantastical tattoo skin over the body. In the end we were merging film and experiential art into the gallery setting.
Did the audience actually get to eat the props from the film? What were they made of?
Yeah, we worked with a chef at the LimeWharf and used the 3D-printed molds to make edible faces with a Prosecco, pear and thyme jelly. The audience members were eating the band. We made chocolate versions of the band as well. Everyone was asked to wear white, so it was kind of like this Willy Wonka–esque experience. Cameron was playing music, it was sort of like this chamber where this liquid was overflowing and spilling everywhere, and people were eating the props.
Now, back in Australia, the band has collaborated with a confectionery company, so the molds we made are being turned into lollipops, which they’re launching as part of their album release. It’s interesting how the evolution of this project started as a conversation, became a music video, then an experiential installation, and now a real-life biological bakery!
I’m interested in transforming materials, and food is a great material to sculpt. By representing the anatomy through food, it’s a way of experiencing sculpture in a different way. You can touch it — eat the contents of a gallery — breaking down the barrier of just being a viewer.
And you’re ingesting into your anatomy the anatomy that was represented by the food.
Exactly. And this points to the bigger picture of whether, in the future, we actually will clone ourselves, or eat ourselves in order to enhance our senses. So it’s kind of tapping into those different areas of research, but in a playful way.
TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio is an artist and perpetual tourist who investigates invisible, forgotten places — Chinese cities submerged by the Three Gorges Dam Project, a little-known Pacific island paradise destroyed by mining — creating artworks that reimagine and revive these sites as attention-worthy destinations. Here, he tells us about his latest art project, in which he created a “new nation” in response to the social struggles of a small neighborhood in Amsterdam.
SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is a pioneering project that aims to research the impact that designers and artists could have if working together with governments and other political/social organizations. I was asked to team up with design studio Muzus and come up with a new proposal for Columbusplein, a public square in Amsterdam West. Politicians and social workers from the area were looking for a different perspective on how to tackle several social issues in the neighborhood, such as bullying among the youngest ones and the lack of a community spirit between all the neighbors.
The first thing we found out during our research is that the demographics in the area are quite unique, with a very multicultural and multiethnic population. Even if the new generation is born Dutch, they still find themselves growing in between different identities (Third Culture Kids TCK), creating a great deal of confusion specially among the youngest ones.
It is also important to say that more than 20 social organizations have been present in the neighborhood for many years, helping those families that struggle the most, and arranging all kinds of activities for kids and their parents. I was overwhelmed to see how much is done by them. But these organizations are also very heavily structured, with little interaction between each other, and showed very small room for changes.
We thought that whatever we would come up with should not only involve the neighbors, but it should also be welcomed by all these social organizations, and somehow reframe their work in a new way, bringing them all together under a common purpose. It all sounds great, but how do you do that?
The answer came to me while walking around Columbusplein’s sports field on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful effect that all the lines and colors created on the court. The analogy between this space and the plurality that inhabits the neighborhood was the spark that initiated everything. That image would later become the flag of a new micronation, a rich mix of cultures, colours, identities — all different but nevertheless intertwined as one. The neighbors would have the chance to create their own nation, their own history, their own identity, all from scratch, and the different social organizations would finally have a strong story that would tie together their hard work.
Amsterdam West received the idea with enthusiasm, but they also remained very skeptical about the viability of the project. A new micronation sounded like an utopia, lots of work, plus how this concept would address social issues such as bullying was not clear.
In order to give shape to this micronation, we created several events, the first one being a competition to create a national secret sauce for fries, the favorite local snack. There was a great response from the neighbors, both adults and kids, coming from all kinds of backgrounds (Turkey, Morocco, Surinam, Netherlands) and the inherent freedom of the event allowed us to observe the behavioral dynamics of the kids from a completely different perspective. Columbusplein was writing its own history for the first time, the winner of the secret sauce contest, a 9-year-old named Sophie, was featured in the nation’s first stamp, and now the secret sauce is being used in local restaurants and markets.
For the second intervention, I decided to step up the game, think big and create Columbusplein’s first Space Program. We thought space exploration and new technologies will be very important for future generations, plus all the important nations have a Space Program right? And we don’t want to stay behind! So together with some young national astronauts, we went to visit the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, where we learnt everything about the International Space Station, the way astronauts live up there, and got ourselves ready for our first mission, which I called Mission Kite.
One day later, kids were creating their own tyvek kites, featuring drawings from lunar modules, planets, space ships… After customizing and assembling them together, it was time to start the mission, and kites were flying in Columbusplein for the very first time. The reaction was great, and even police officers and social workers spontaneously joined the event. After a few minutes, a small group of kids who were mocking the participants had to sit down and watch the rest have fun, wondering why they didn’t join the workshop themselves. The Space program was important not only because it played with kids’ ambitions, but also because for the first time, social workers took ownership of the art project.
More ideas such as an alternative currency featuring social workers on the banknotes or a passport to keep track of citizens’ involvement with the micronation are already on the table. Social workers are being invited to readapt their activities under the Republic of Columbusplein’s perspective, and a new approach based on positive potential instead of problem-solving has been shaped. Amsterdam West recognizes the value of the energy and excitement that the fictional micronation’s concept has created in the neighbourhood, but is also asking for more time and a more detailed plan to evaluate if this new approach could be the right path to follow, and how to fully involve all the social organizations active in the area.
My work as an artist is to imagine a different world, and create little bits of it. The micronation concept allowed me to do so, and allowed the kids and the workers in Columbusplein to be part of it. The micronation of Columbusplein is an art project for the neighborhood, but that doesn’t turn it into community art. Projects like this open new possibilities that might expand the future impact of artists on social issues, going beyond the pre-established white cube context.
SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is an initiative by the New Institute, Twynstra Gudde, social designer Tabo Goudswaard and Doen Foundation.
The micro-nation of Columbusplein was created by Jorge Mañes Rubio and Muzus with the support of Amsterdam West.
All images are by TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio. To find out more about his work visit www.seethisway.com
Artisphere curators Ryan Holladay and Cynthia Connolly, with artist Alicia Eggert, center. Photo: Artisphere
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.
Installation view of Alicia’s work in the Terrace Gallery at Artisphere. Photo: Artisphere
Everything You Are Looking For (2012). A neon sign whose jumbled letters slowly reveals the phrase “Everything you are looking for is invisible.” Made in collaboration with Amy Jorgensen. Photo: Alicia Eggert
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.”
Detail view of AHA (2013) installed in the Terrace Gallery at Artisphere. Photo: Artisphere
Present Perfect (2013). A rock sits on the keyboard of an open laptop, typing the letter Y into in infinity in Microsoft Word. Photo: Alicia Eggert
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.
Ryan and his brother Hays performing at the Sweetlife Festival wearing masks of one another’s faces, designed by Kashuo Bennett. Photo by Margot MacDonald.
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.