New York-based new media artist Katie Torn makes work suspended in limbo somewhere between our physical and digital realities, as she seamlessly synthesizes filmed or photographed sculptural objects with digitally generated forms. There is strange alchemy at work in Torn’s aesthetic, which fuses disposable cultural touchstones of the 80s and 90s with complex, surrealist compositions and ideas. Her work is simultaneously joyful and solemn, perfectly reflecting her love/hate relationship with the modern capitalist world, including her most frequent subject matter: consumer culture and its unstoppable impact on every aspect of our existence.
Breathe Deep, 2014, Still from single channel video. Commissioned by the Denver Theater District / Denver Digerati 2014
Christian Petersen: What toys inspired you as a kid?
Katie Torn: Growing up in the 1980s I was really into the original My Little Pony, The Care Bears, and Glo Worms. I remember watching the shows on television and then making up my own narratives with the toys. There was an active back and forth interplay between my imagination and watching merchandise-driven cartoons. This is why I’m so drawn to this type of imagery in my work. I was bombarded by these images when I was first developing my imagination and creativity as a child.
Gremlin, 2017, Still from Low Tide, 3-channel video installation
CP: What are your strongest memories of when you started using the internet?
KT: My grandfather bought me first computer when I was 12 years old, around 1993. Shortly after I started using the internet and AOL. I would spend hours in chat rooms messaging with strangers with no parental control. I don’t think my parents even understood what I was doing. I remember having a sleepover with a bunch of friends and writing provocative things to strange men online in the middle of the night. It was an interesting time to come of age. I imagine many people in my generation experienced sexuality virtually before having physical experiences.
CP: How would you describe your current relationship with the internet?
KT: It’s a love/hate relationship. Although I really enjoy being connected to a community of digital artists and being witness to their art-making processes, I am often bored while using the internet. It’s a lot less exciting than it used to be when it was new and lawless. Now it’s so much part of the everyday humdrum of life.
Squid, 2017, Still from Low Tide, 3-channel video installation
CP: When did you first discover the creative possibilities of computers?
KT: Playing around with editing software in high school. I originally wanted to be a narrative filmmaker, but found myself focusing more on the post-production process. I started by making simple motion graphic animations and mixing that with overly color-corrected video footage. Later in college I realized what I was doing was more inline with video art than filmmaking, so I took off in that direction.
CP: When did you first become aware of the medium of digital art?
KT: I discovered net art through the website gUrl in the mid 90s. I really loved that site; it provided teenage girls with an alternative to mainstream teenage culture and was also a great database of weird, random net art projects. I wasn’t even really aware that I was experiencing digital art at the time, but looking back that was my first experience of it.
#BeachSelfie, 2016, Still from video series @RealSelfCindy. Courtesy of daata-editions.com and the Artist
CP: Was there a particular “eureka” moment for you what you started using programs for 3D animation?
KT: Definitely! I discovered the potential for 3D animation as a grad student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Claudia Hart’s experimental 3D class was producing some pretty interesting stuff and using 3D in a way that I had never seen before. I was making videos of physical sculptures and collaging those together with After Effects. Once I figured out how to bring 3D into my videos in a convincing way it opened up a whole new world of making that was life changing for my practice.
CP: How you describe you art school experience?
KT: Art school can be confusing. There are so many methodologies, and unfortunately many art professors are trying to convince you that their way of making and thinking is the best and only way. My practice went through a lot of changes and I made a lot of really bad stuff as a student. I think you just have to make a lot of work and get as diverse an education as you can. I was lucky enough to have the time and resources to figure it out and I eventually was able to cultivate multiple techniques into a practice that felt right for what I wanted to say.
CP: Your work often features physical elements that you have filmed and manipulated. What differentiates these pieces from your purely digital work?
KT: As an undergraduate student at Hunter College, I was a painting major at the time but still was interested in moving image. I took a video art class with the artist and writer Constance DeJong and started making videos of my paintings and manipulating them in the computer with editing software. This was also the first time I experimented with sculpture. I began to paint objects and TVs that I included in my videos and made TV sculptures to show those videos on. As I have developed as an artist I find myself being drawn more and more to working with physical elements and I am less interested in purely 3D-rendered works. My true voice is in the mix of the two.
CP: Have your considered presenting physical sculptures as the final form of your work?
KT: I’ve thought about it, but it never really made sense with my concept. I reuse and recycle many of my sculptures to generate my work. My sculptures are modular and I like working with materials that are ephemeral. If they were made permanent I would have to let go of an element of freedom that I relish in while making the work.
Installation shot from the solo exhibition Low Tide, Upfor Gallery, Portland, OR, 2017
CP: How would you describe your aesthetic?
KT: My ideas emerge from a physical handmade place. There is a rawness and expressionism there that is visceral, but I also incorporate slick computer-generated imagery. I work with found physical objects and imagery scavenged from online so there is a kind of thrift store digital detritus element to the work. The visual choices that I make are also influenced by a girly aesthetic that was ingrained in me as a child. I am drawn to “feminine” colors and childlike shapes, yet I mix this with a somewhat cynical vision of the future.
CP: Do you think the internet has been generally good for humanity?
KT: I’m ambivalent. The internet has really helped people who are isolated and oppressed. It has given them a voice and a community. But on the other hand it has brought together people whose ideas are detrimental to society and it has been used to organize hate groups and spread propaganda on a massive level. Only time will tell if the overall effect has been negative or positive.
CP: Your work seems to simultaneously suggest a fascination and repulsion of consumerist/capitalist culture. Do you struggle with that duality?
KT: Very much. I love the cartoons and toys I grew up with, while at the same time I am aware I was being manipulated to consume junk that was commercially constructed for “females.” I also see beauty in the decay and destruction that is caused by capitalism while simultaneously feeling disturbed and saddened. It’s a kind of tragic romanticism.
CP: When did you first become aware of these concepts?
KT: In college I used to make paintings of female figures in dirty snow that was filled with garbage. From the time I started making work that had any meaning it had some element of decay brought on by consumer culture mixed with stereotypical female beauty.
CP: Would you describe yourself as a political person?
KT: My work has had political undertones for quite a while, but it wasn't until the People’s Climate March in 2014 that I began to be politically active other than voting. I heard environmental activists Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben speak at an event and it scared the crap out of me. Their words brought a realness to what I already felt was happening with our planet, but was not ready to face up to.
CP: How autobiographical is your work?
KT: My work stems from my own experience and feeling about being a physical body navigating through a toxic landscape caused by capitalism. From a young age, capitalism has promoted behavior in me that is detrimental to me and my environment. My work is autobiographical in that it reflects that I am a female that came of age in the 1990s who is living through the Anthropocene extinction.
#DuckFace, 2016, Still from video series @RealSelfCindy. Courtesy of daata-editions.com and the artist
CP: Why do you think new media art has become a natural home for feminist thinking?
KT: Throughout history male artists have used art to objectify and commodify women’s bodies. Right now you see a wave of young female artists and entrepreneurs using new media, in particular the internet, to reclaim ownership and control over their own images of their bodies. Because the internet cuts out the middle man to reach a wider audience, it has the potential to supersede the traditional patriarchal power structures.
CP: Your recent collages feature directly painted elements on canvas. What inspired you to explore the most traditional of art mediums?
KT: I studied classical figurative painting and drawing starting from the age of 13, and it’s something that I have wanted to incorporate back into my work for a while. For me, 3D animation has a connection to traditional painting. With painting the artist is manually rendering light and form; in 3D animation the computer is doing it for you. Both are attempting to replicate nature and reality and can be used to create worlds that are viewed through a picture plane. With the collage work, I was experimenting with transforming my digital collage technique of video and 3D renders into a physical process on paper. For both I am combining elements from multiple sources: painted imagery, 3D renders, photographs, and found images. These elements are brought together to exist in the same space through the use of light and shadow.
Trikonasana (Pose 5), 2017, Photo collage, paint, canvas paper, 22 x 28 inches
CP: How influenced are you by Surrealism?
KT: Surrealism employs the rules of reality, like how light and shadow give objects depth, to create imagined worlds that reflect certain truths about the world that cannot be expressed in a literal way. I’m interested in how surrealism uses the familiar, but makes it appear unsettling to get at something about human nature. You see this in a lot of super realistic 3D-rendered work, animation that falls into the uncanny valley. Coming from a painting background, I am influenced by 20th century art that makes a connection between the human figure and technology. For example, the Surrealist Yves Tanguy, Cubism, and the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni.
Lotus (Pose 7), 2017, Photo collage, paint, canvas paper, 22 x 28 inches
CP: How do you think the wider art world views new media art?
KT: I’m always shocked when I go to art fairs because there are usually very few digital art pieces. I think the art world is interested in the ideas that new media brings to the table, but there is still a push to turn those ideas into saleable objects. For instance, the term “Post-Internet” was hot topic for a while—it described works that are about the internet or use digital methods but whose output fits into traditional categories like painting and sculpture.
CP: How would you describe you personal experiences in the “art world”?
KT: I have had some very positive experiences working with curators, galleries, and other artists. However, if you look at gallery rosters, most have one or two young new media artists, and usually that artist is white and male. This isn’t true for all galleries, but you still see it a lot. I had a gallery once tell me that they were interested in representing me because they were looking to represent more women, yet they wanted my work to be less “girly.” They wanted to know if I was willing to make my work less feminine in order to work with them. It’s pretty absurd how superficial the art world can be sometimes, ha.
Half Moon (Pose 1), 2017, Photo collage, paint, canvas paper, 16 x 20 inches
CP: What do you have coming up?
KT: I’m working on a longer format animation that has an experimental narrative structure. It’s about a female character who attends a yoga retreat in order to cope with her body deconstructing in a decaying environment. This is the first time in a while that I’ve been able to work on something without a deadline and it has allowed me more freedom to experiment.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.
(Image at top: 3 Katie Torn, #BathroomSelfie, 2016, Still from video series @RealSelfCindy. Courtesy of daata-editions.com and the Artist. All images courtesy of the artist)