Semantic Drift

This installation, a study of entomology and etymology, was developed at an artist residency with Michael David in Brooklyn in March 2019.

semantic drift

HURT

Artist Residency with Michael David (February 27 – March 10, 2019)

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Working with Michael David during his Brooklyn-based artist residency was a study in process, precision, broadening, narrowing, loosening, clarifying, materiality, mood, longing and letting go.  I went for the sheer fun of it, but was secretly seeking a swift kick in the butt.  I wanted a bit of boot-camp.  I was dying for a challenge.  I embarked on the opportunity with a fair amount of light-hearted “let’s see what happens” style elation, but was quietly hoping for a solid intellectual shift, and in that respect, I got what I came for. 

Working alone can be freeing to be certain. Studio time creates the feeling you are in control of all the decisions.  But the real fun is in the back and forth– the dialog and the shared experience.  Tossing around ideas, taking in the vast art history in Michael’s head–not to mention his experience as a long-established artist–getting a variety of perspectives, suggestions, opinions, and watching others thrive in the same environment is, for me, far more engaging than working alone.  It knocks on the door in my brain that, when opened, gets the neurons firing, which is important.  I find the science of creativity as fascinating as the art. 

The residency was compact.  The short turnaround brought a certain intensity, and it was clear that excellence was expected.  However, there was room and time for everything:  learning, unfolding, collaborating, reworking and lots of discovering.  There was time to really opening a thing up, revise said thing, and revise again and again if necessary.  Fashioning a group show out of the time spent was the cherry on top, but the larger significance was how the group considered one another—how we conducted critiques that helped the whole find deeper meaning.  All participants became immersed in the success of the entire space, not just what we were individually making.  Michael made sure this commonality would happen by connecting the dots early, and getting us started from a unified idea.

The overarching theme, HURT, was formulated from the visual and musical beauty Johnny Cash created in his video singing the Nine Inch Nails song of the same name.  Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails could not be more different musically from Johnny Cash, yet the pairing became more poignant for it.  This became the loose architecture that led each of us to think about that which is disparate.  Taking two seemingly opposite ideas and merging them becomes more powerful, and has been utilized for ages (think Egyptian artworks that merge the human with the feline).  Michael curates the program to be something like Yo Yo Ma’s collaborative group of musicians (Silk Road Ensemble) that poses the question:  what happens when strangers meet?  He plucked Louise Noel from Montreal, Jean Pederson from Alberta Canada, Francesca Schwartz from Manhattan, Christopher Rico from South Carolina, Pilar Uribe from Houston, and Deborah Kapoor and me from Seattle.  Joining this team was the amazing artist and educator, as well as residency program director, Bonny Liebowitz from Dallas.  We all got in and got to work after many weeks of facetime conversations with Michael David, and discussions with Paul D’Agostino, artist, writer and Parson’s professor. 

Finding your narrative was encouraged–to really understand where you began was crucial.  You were also encouraged to distance yourself from the very narrative you worked so hard to develop.  For me, that progression was akin to the process in a Richard Diebenkorn painting Michael shared with us in which you can clearly see where the chair leg was painted first, and where it ultimately landed.  With the evidence of his process so clear, you feel more connected to the work, and the painter seems more human.  The beauty of the painting is the transparency of his struggle for the end gesture.  As Michael often says, “truth is beauty and beauty is truth (and that’s all I know).”  There are myriad ways to get to the core of what you are trying to achieve–to get to this beauty.  Dialog, questioning, adjusting and more dialog are meant to get you focused, and then just unfocused enough to do something that was successful– not obvious or overt, but just the right balance of intention and physicality.  How Michael manages to elicit a unified narrative from seven individual artists is a mystery– his big picture cognitive, spatial and mathematical abilities are beyond what I can comprehend; I can only admire them.

For my project I chose light and dark as basic opposites that correlated to the pairing of Johnny Cash and Nine Inch Nails.  Next, since music was a starting point for all of us, I assigned two of my favorite musicians/albums to these categories– Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Playing the Piano / Out of Noise album was my light, and Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads was my beloved dark.  What happened after that I can’t really remember, but there were many ideas formed, scrapped, reformed, revised and adjusted, and a few that evaporated.  I pinned down key elements that fit loosely with the theme and meant a lot to me personally.  Another artist in the residency, Francesca Schwartz, was working with Angels and Insects as a theme, and Michael engaged us in dialog and encouraged overlap.  I began to create structures that were bug-like without being insects.  I was encouraged not to paint with encaustic so as to stretch myself out of my comfort zone.  I studied the artists Michael suggested I look up (among them the Starn twins, Mike and Doug Starn and Peyta Coyne) and just when I was sure that everything had already been done, he said, perhaps, but not by you. 

I ended up using a limited palette to approximate light and dark, and eventually my project became an investigation of entomology and etymology–fairly disparate areas but with enough overlap to make me dig deeper to make the connection.  The idea felt right to both of us, and it was in keeping with my science-leaning tendencies while also pulling in my love of words. 

By the time I arrived in Brooklyn, my loose idea was to create a visual biomass that started with a few “insects” inching across the wall, slowly building, and clustering in the upper corner.  The concept also represented word meaning shifts.  The assemblage would be constructed from sculptural elements made with humble materials:  steel wire, cotton string, Icelandic wool, yarn and thread.  I wanted to address the incredibly small percentage we humans contribute to Earth’s overall biomass (.006), which in turn spoke to my views on climate change (we’ll ruin the environment for ourselves but the planet will be fine). 

Plants, fungi and bugs will outlive us and are central to our being.  I am fascinated by all aspects of arthropods and thus chose to feature them.  From bee’s pollinating everything we eat to the vast mushroom network beneath our feet in the roots below that allow for composting on a large scale, we couldn’t exist without these hearty insects and the vast mycological network that most of us think of infrequently.  In addition, we benefit when we mimic insect behavior.  Drones and some of the most sophisticated robots are based on insect behavior and movement.  We could also benefit from eating them, but here in America, that’s still not a thing.  They are, however, used in medicines and have been for ages in nearly every country.  Army ants were collected and used as living sutures by Mayans, grasshoppers have long been used for reducing swelling and relieving pain, and a great amount of research has recently been directed toward the synthesis and use of spider silk as a scaffolding for ligament generation.  As antibiotics have started to fail, more and more research is going into the medicinal benefits of insects.  The list of insects’ miraculous contributions to the health of the planet is endless.

The installation differed from what was planned.  I mostly used the black elements, and only one light colored one.  I had soaked many of these bug-like pieces in hot black dye and photographed them still steaming, fresh out of the pot, as they made unique insect-like prints on yupo paper, and again as they sat on paper towels.  At Michael’s suggestion, I pulled down a mass of light-colored pieces that made lovely shadows on the wall and liked it better, to my surprise.  The suggestion of sparseness was a great lesson in editing.  The negative space spoke to the insignificance of humans’ contribution to the world’s biomass, and the dark black of everything else on that white wall embodied the rich density of the rest of the world’s biomass–plants, bugs, fungus, dirt, animals and earth. 

A rounded steel nest created a wing-like shadow on one wall, a dark, beetle-like form hung directly on the wall with a couple small steel pincers at the base, a black-winged form hung from the ceiling creating three shadows that resembled a lacey brassier, and a chandelier-like cluster of these same elements (wings, arachnids, cocoons, arthropods, eggs, sacs) made the centerpiece–a biomass bundle so black it was hard to decipher from across the room if it was 2D or 3D.  Lastly, the minimalistic photographs of the individual elements were infused with beeswax and hung out from the wall with specimen pins on four corners.  Seven of them were strategically placed to anchor the whole environment.  They added warmth and a touch of hazy soft color, and were skin-like.  Suddenly the effect was just what I was hoping to express.  

That took care of the entomology, but the installation was titled Semantic Drift.  The idea that words change meaning over time is fascinating to me, especially when they end up suggesting the opposite of their original meaning.  While researching, I found out the word insecty was actually a word!  It became a joke during the residency–so many things were insecty (my computer cuts the “y” off every time and I have to put it back in as I type).  But in 1859, it was used.  Eventually it fell from favor from disuse, but it’s still my favorite thing about this project.  Other words not in use for the same reason, as they relate entomology, are insectile (1620s), insectic (1767), insective (1834), insectual (1849), insectine (1853) and insectan (1888).  I also love the idea of word migration and insect migration paired with word evolution and insect evolution–there is a delightful play on words that speaks to all manor of things, from insect behavior to group behavior.  I saw a video the other day of ants creating a bridge (made of ants) in order to invade a wasp nest.  To me, this represents a hyphenated word.  Visual synesthesia if you will.  I’m struck by the science in the behavior.  Creativity in people is one thing, creativity in insects just feels so clear and profound.

By studying the chronological account of the birth and development of certain words, and relating that to insect significance, behavior, and movement, I was more able to create an environment that held mystery and minimalism without being explicit.  That furtiveness was significant because it unfolded from all the dialog with Michael David, Paul D’Agostino, and the other residents.  It fostered the breadth of the thought processes necessary to express the final project.  Not to mention it was astonishingly fun.

-Stephanie

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