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Interview with Nina Katchadourian
by Peter Dobey

New York, May 2013: In conjunction with the release of the monograph Sorted Books, the latest installment of Nina Katchadourian’s ongoing series of organized bookspines and covers, Once Upon a Time in Delaware/In Quest of the Perfect Book will be on display at Catharine Clark Gallery, New York as of May 10th, coinciding with the Frieze New York art fair. In her Sorted Books project, which has spanned two decades, the artist re-organizes books of various global collections and libraries into new groupings in order to create lyrical sentences and imaginative syntactical arrangements from their titles, forming compositions that are both literary and visual.

Katchadourian’s playful use of everyday objects speaks volumes (pun intended) about the nature of the creative process and how research methodologies shape the artistic act itself.

I initially met Nina when she spoke at Stanford, where she grew up, in which a good part of her presentation was given to talking about the months she has spent yearly since she was a child on the island of Pörtö in the Finnish archipelago. In attendance were her mother, a literary translator who grew up in Finland, and her father who is a professor emeritus in psychiatry and human biology at Stanford who grew up in Beirut.

I sat down with Ms. Katchadourian to talk about her thought process and if the notion of play in artistic practice has connections to childhood and an artist’s fundamental engagement with the world.

Nina Katchadourian, A Day at the Beach from Sorting Shark, 2001, The series Sorting Shark from the Sorted Books project; Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Peter Dobey: Looking at Sorted Books, a question arises about what it means to be an artist and what it means to play with objects and to play with the world. It makes me think of the state of play we engage in as children. I think the artistic act, or the essence of the desire to work as an artist invokes a continuation of this state of play as a fundamental way of experiencing the world. As R.G. Collingwood put it, other disciplines seem to have a distinction between planning and execution. I was intrigued by the way you presented your ideas at the Stanford talk, and how they involve a peculiar mix of playful research and free discovery that seems to be ubiquitous in your practice. Is this a thought process you have always had? Did you always make things growing up? I can’t help but think your time in the Finnish archipelagos encouraged this.

Nina Katchadourian: I do think of the world as a malleable place. But I don’t believe there is anything like a rule-less state of play. And that’s a good thing, because I think there is a way in which play is always a balance between freedom and restraint.

I spent my childhood summers in Finland on an island where we had open terrain and a lot of freedom, but there was also a tremendous amount of structure and systems and rules. My grandparents had a lot of very specific ways of doing things (organizing the tool shed, steering the boat along certain prescribed routes, cataloging which birds had built nests in which bird houses, and so on). I would argue that in some way those systems facilitate play and also discovery. I have, in fact, raided the tool shed for materials, used the boat to get to areas near rocks we usually avoid, and moved a few of the bird houses for a project (before moving them back).

For me, this idea of play is one bound up very closely with research, and so I am speaking about the simple gesture of picking something up and turning it over and over and over in your hand. You are playing with the thing, but you are also trying to understand it and to see it from another angle. There are all sorts of ways in which this investigative mindset manifests itself. Maybe you don’t know it’s research you’re doing at the time, but it’s always research towards something.

So I guess I would like to even challenge the idea that there is such a thing as unbounded play. For me there is a lot of structure around all of it, although people often find that surprising. The beginning of my process may take on the form of a question, a certain “what if…” What happens if I go one week collecting things? What will I find? There is merit, to me, in doing something in order to figure out what the rules actually were to begin with.

PD: This method doesn’t have a specific end per se, in the way, for example, a carpenter, or even a scientist might approach a project. There is an idea, again coming from Collingwood, that the artist doesn’t know how to fix something because he does not know how he got there in the first place, as opposed to a carpenter who knows the guidelines to the structure he made and fulfilled its specifications. I want to suggest that to be an artist is to refrain from working within a given structure. For you, is art a different way to see the world?

NK: Sure. Fair enough; that’s the freedom artists have, that you can go into this research without having to stay on the trajectory you started out with. You start with a question but you make something in order to find out why you’re making it in the first place. I suppose someone like a scientist more often starts from a question, and they are quite sure of what the particular question is, without knowing where that will lead them. But for me, I am not always sure of the question until some way into the process.

Nina Katchadourian, Mended Spiderweb #19 (Laundry Line), 1998, Cibachrome, 30 x 20 inches, 1998, One of Katchadourian’s “Uninvited Collaborations with Nature”; Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

PD: Most experimental science starts from premises but there are also discoveries that can arise out of bungled actions. However, as you say, findings from cumulative research seem to first start with a specific question and the research goes from there. I think it's important coming from you, to hear that you don’t even know what that question is to begin with, and that, through doing it, you discover why you started it in the first place.

NK: The “open-ended enquiry” and “play” are states of mind that one could say are similar. But the problem with that word “play” is the same problem I have with the word “funny”: people confuse “funny” with “frivolous” and they confuse “play” with a sort of aimlessness. And I think you can take play very seriously. Even though you are doing it in a state of mind where there is a lot of levity. I get these kinds of questions frequently: “How do you get your ideas?” and “Can you address the use of humor in your work?”

I think that the key is to find a way of being flexible and open-ended with the way you are going to explore and play but to be very rigorous in how you do that. It’s not enough to mess around with things and leave them half done. It sounds so dire, but you have to play one-hundred-and-ten percent of the way, or you never reach that point when things transition from being more than a fun experiment in the world to becoming an artwork. The Mended Spiderwebs project may be a good example. The series came about during a six-week period in June and July in 1998 which I spent on Pörtö. In the forest and around the house where I was living, I searched for broken spiderwebs which I repaired using red sewing thread. It required a thorough investment in the spontaneous idea of “let me try to fix a spiderweb.”

I often tell students that you have to take seriously your impulses to work with something, and really follow your impulses all the way to the end point. A lot of people are very quick, myself included, to talk themselves out of things. The key is to not do that too soon. Because if you do, you lose an opportunity.

PD: The question “how do you get your ideas?” seems to suggest the artist today should have a concept first, and I often feel that disregards the ingenuity of the artist’s creation and the possibility that it could have come from nowhere. What I liked about your lecture is that it had no theoretical jargon, you spoke naturally, without the pretense of validating it with theory. You didn’t speak for the other, if you will. It reminds me of a recent psychoanalytic case study I heard: the patient could only speak about what his art was actually concerned with when talking to his lover or analyst. To his peers, and most pertinently, to his gallerist – he could only speak in this language of the other, a language of theory and tropes he himself was unsure of and in fact disliked. I think young artists are often scared to speak about where their art actually arises from. There is nothing worse than reading artist statements offering many pseudo-theories, but nothing is said about why it was made in the first place, where it comes from personally.

NK: I understand where you’re going but I think there is room for many approaches. I’m not someone who usually reads and then makes. I spent a year in the Whitney independent study program very steeped in theory. The Whitney program was invested in an approach to making art that was underpinned by a lot of theoretical reading and writing. This was very useful for many of the artists I was there with, but I discovered that’s not the most productive way for me to work. Those things have to come in at a slightly later time. It’s more about a timing issue rather than skepticism for the whole enterprise.

Every field has its specialists, though. I think there is a place for a certain conversation that digs into that stuff, and that some artists are much more comfortable talking about where the personal fits into what they make. Theory isn’t the most effective framework for me to explain what I do and why, but at the same time, I don’t think an artist is duty-bound to orient anything in the autobiographical. I don’t think that’s the only way to explain work, or the only way to be motivated to make work either. People are cut from such different cloth around this. I give an anecdotal and rather personal version of an artist’s talk. That is just the thing I am most comfortable doing, and it’s the approach that I have found after many years of doing this that seems to get the ideas of the work across in the best way. But that’s one way among many to approach this question of “why you make what you make.” For other people it just works so differently.

What I think is problematic is when there is a certain disconnect between the artist’s statement and the work. It’s a problem when there is some sense these things exist separately, and you can’t see evidence of one in the other at all.

Nina Katchadourian, Installation view of the Birdhouse from Birdhouse/Outhouse: The Semiotics of the Forest, 2003, One of Katchadourian’s “Uninvited Collaborations with Nature”; Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

PD: You have a statement on your website that says “misunderstandings” are important impetuses for your work. This was in regards to your project Natural Car Alarms, where you equipped some cars outside of PS1 with car alarms that when triggered produced bird calls. This was inspired by you misinterpreting bird calls in Trinidad for the sound of car alarms, a mild hallucinatory experience of mixing up two environments. You have also worked with the concept of foreign accents and how they confuse identity, trying in vain to remove your parents' in Accent Elimination. With the piece Chloe, you wanted to put a taxidermied pet lapdog, shown in her natural domestic habitat, next to the diorama of a coyote in the San Diego Museum of Natural History. This is a gesture that facilitates an understanding of the museum’s classification system as malleable, and perhaps this is why the museum rejected it on the basis that it would confuse and upset people, especially children. Of course, it wasn’t you playing around with taxidermy, but taxonomy itself that upset the institution, and the ironic thing is that children don’t care about taxonomy or categorization, and they probably would have liked seeing the little doggie. You even pointed out that Chloe was genetically similar to the coyote it would have been displayed next to.

It seems you make connections that are obvious for you but perhaps are not so obvious for other people. Does this making connections between arbitrary objects inform much of the process of your work?

NK: For me, when things are very close there is this potential for them to become the same thing. Things are sometimes closer than we realize. In the case of the bird calls, what we think of as “natural” and “unnatural” ended up being much closer than I had realized. I try to step back and wonder what is this all getting at. What are all the connections? Sometimes I’m too close to see things and so it’s good to hear from other people to find out what’s right under my nose. I hadn’t thought about Chloe in that way, actually.

PD: Do you think someone else would have heard a birdcall rather than a car alarm?

NK: Possibly. But I am always trying to be alert. It’s my job, as an artist, and it’s probably a large part of where my work comes from. It’s a job requirement to be a gatherer. That’s the task at hand.

Nina Katchadourian, Installation view of Accent Elimination, 2005, Six televisions, three pedestals, six-channel video (three synchronized programs and three loops), headphones and benches, 2005; Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

PD: You have spoken about your work with students. You have a distinct methodology that involves both controlled research and accidental discoveries, but I must admit it makes me cringe a bit when you say that "every field has its specialists”. I believe more and more that art schools tend to make art into just another field. It does so under the premise that the discourse of the university can help art. Can being an artist be taught? Can creativity as such be taught? Can it be part of a pedagogy? Is art school good for creativity or has it become a factory that thrives because it has undertones of art as a profession?

NK: I think an artist can be taught, yes, because it happened to me. Grad school was useful in several ways. I was forced to spend a couple of years really digging into the question of what am I making, and what it is about, and why I want to do this. And to do that research alongside others doing that research themselves was really productive for me. “Like being in the hive” as I say! It was also very useful to have conversations with people who had been making work for much longer than me. To address your question “Can art be taught,” I think it’s about setting up a conducive atmosphere for a kind of self-inquiry.

PD: Did you make art before the formative experience as a child in the Finnish islands, removed from your American home-town?

NK: I don’t think I was an exceptional child. I made stuff, but all kids make stuff. In many ways, music was more important for me. I didn’t really get interested in art until I took a class at RISD. That’s where the lightbulb went off, and it was my first encounter with a more conceptual approach. Art was not only about technique, which I mistakenly thought it was. Graduate school was really an experiment in trying to see how serious I was about this whole thing.

For a long time, I hated the word “artist.” Through most of college I would not use it. I thought it was pretentious, it was of affect and privilege. It was a deeply uncomfortable term. Now I’ve come to see it as just one job description among others. It happened to be the thing that I do well and I thought that one should certainly feel beholden to the things one does well.

It sometimes horrifies people when I say this, but I am not that kid who grew up thinking “I want to be an artist when I grow up.” I really don’t think that that was in my mind at all, and for that matter, I don’t think it’s the only thing I’d be happy doing now. It’s in some ways the best overarching job description or alibi for me to do all the different things I’m interested in. It’s a big descriptive term that encompasses a lot, but I could have been a radio journalist, I could have been an ethnomusicologist. Art is this wonderfully broad thing, and allows you access to a lot of stuff that other professions would seem too specialized for. Art is so huge that way.


Peter Dobey


ArtSlant would like to thank Nina Katchadourian for her assistance in making this interview possible.


(Image at top: Nina Katchadourian, From the series Once Upon a Time in Delaware/In Search of the Perfect Book from the Sorted Books project, C-prints, 12.5" x 15", 12.5" x 19", and 12.5" x 26", 2012; Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.)


Posted by Peter Dobey on 5/6/13 | tags: conceptual video-art installation mixed-media books

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