Monday, April 23, 2018

The Look Here! Project: An Interview with Jill Sebastian

This is the fifth installment in our interview series with artists participating in the Look Here! project. Jill Sebastian is Professor Emerita at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. She has received numerous awards, including an NEA Fellowship, and the City of Milwaukee's Artist of the Year Award (1997). She has completed public art installations in Milwaukee, Madison, and New Orleans, and her work has been exhibited nationally.

Why were you interested in participating in the Look Here! pilot project?

Much of my work involves a dialectical overlay between physical experience and conceptual subtext. Whereas I may do extensive "needle-in-the-haystack" trolling of cultural context, history, politics to map my ideas, as an object maker I am still riveted by the rare, the firsthand experiencing of things. AGSL (The American Geographical Society Library) and the UWM Special Collections' rich, unique artifacts presented the possibility of adventure, exploring territories rarely visited and holding them to the light of now.

What collections are using or did you begin to use for your project?

Where I began as an explorer is not where we will arrive in the final work.

My initial proposal was to use the Brumder and the Civil Rights collections to flesh out a children's book in progress - a primer on voting rights. Raking through the archives added a few important details to the project, which I will use, but my overall continuing research would lead me quite afield from the collections. Once Look Here! introduced us to the prospect of exhibiting at Villa Terrace, I felt the opportunity would better be used to connect to major ongoing threads within my studio work - the distribution of protectionist propaganda with migration/invasion of plant and wildlife - to the research opportunity.

The Brumder publishing collection with its emphasis on familiarizing and situating the 19th century, immigrant German population in their new locale, Milwaukee, once gave a widely needed framework of belonging, influence and assumed regional values. I looked at far more than I could ever use but settled on Our native birds of song and beauty by H. Nehring.

Casting a wide net helped me gather a bounty which I can winnow - eliminating this option or that, focusing to a multi-layered simplicity; considering whether what I envision has been done or not, giving authentic context for my effort and finally being reassured that I am pursuing a new path.

Zuber Gallery at Villa Terrace
I will be doing an installation in Villa Terrace's Zuber room with its Chinoise wallpaper printed by hand from 500 wood blocks dating back to 1795. I have looked carefully at holdings in original artists' woodcuts. I think Max Yela (Curator, UWM Special Collections) saw the relevance of my papermaking in the larger context of artists books and works on or about paper before I did.

Since the Zuber room is centered to overlook an Italian inspired garden, I expanded into meanings of garden design - The Art of Garden Design in Italy by H. Inigo Triggs and ASGL photographs of the Gardens of Babur in Kabul (Bagh-e Babur). Destroyed in war this Islamic garden was built along a center stepped spine of water in the 1500s as a reminder of paradise and became an influence on Renaissance thought.

How did what you found in the collections influence your work?

Because I have strong trajectories in my practice, I worked to connect the collection to what I am doing, rather than approaching without a concept looking for inspiration. This means a much longer process of research to find what resonates, what deepens through threads of connections over time. I admit this has been sometimes a struggle with optimistic starts that did not pan out, but the librarians were always excited to suggest, "Have you seen this?" or "Maybe you would find this valuable." Their guidance has been the most valuable asset.

How does having so much content available digitally affect the work you're creating? Or does it?

I began my research with an exhibition on Brumder Publishing and the actual artifacts. Special Collections offered to digitize any holdings, and scanning Nehring's Birds became a foundation for my project. Perhaps the biggest advantage was in culling through the online catalogue of holdings and seeing images there that opened up new avenues of research.

The high quality of the images meant that I could work directly with information rich files. To pry open the singularity of one-of-a-kind artifacts, books, engravings, to share them broadly. And yet, my work - despite digitally laser cutting woodblocks and several hundred prints - will be synthesized into a fragile, temporary, first-hand physical nature of a site-specific installation. The expansion and contraction of experience is the irony of our digital age.

What more can you tell us about your experience in this project?

Knowing that the work from Look Here! would be shared in an exhibition in a venue, Villa Terrace, laden with rich history impacted the direction of my project.

We romanticize nature, and we idealize it in gardens. Right in front of us on a micro level are ongoing lessons of life and death, war and peace, heaven and hell found by closely considering a small plot of earth.

The Zuber Room at the Villa Terrace is papered with handprinted scenes of an exotic Chinoise paradise. My site-specific installation will inject realities of the garden world outside where drab Wisconsin Sparrows have been harvested for culinary pleasure; Red Wing Blackbirds fiercely defend their territory; Tree of Heaven Sumac, Wild Mustard, Burdock and Thistle invade, threatening the order of a perfect world; and where the continuing war in Afganistan seems remote, unreal.

More about Jill Sebastian's work is here:

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Look Here! Project: An interview with Anja Sieger

This is the fifth installment in our interview series with artists participating in the Look Here! project. Anja Notanja Sieger is an improv artist and writer who uses multiple media and performance. She is an Artist in Residence at RedLine Milwaukee, and was Resident Narrator at the Pfister Hotel in 2014-2015.

Why were you interested in participating in this Look Here! pilot project?

I really like libraries, research, images, learning, and then with this project, having parameters within which to make artwork so I’m not just inventing everything. I like rules. The Look Here! project has a broad charge but the main restriction is that the inspiration needs to come from the digital collections. And I like that because I feel that I'm magnetically pulled to books – and even though the digital library isn’t per se a book, it has that attraction for me in that it’s access to a bunch of things that you have to wade through to understand; texts, images, documents.

What collections are using or did you begin to use for your project?

Originally I was very drawn to the American Geographical Society Library (AGSL) collections specifically because they could take you anywhere in the world that you wanted to go and you’d never have the same thing going on. But since then I’ve based my work around the tarot deck, and I have new parameters of trying to find anything related to the current tarot card that I’m working on. Tarot cards are an ancient picture system that tell a story of someone going on a journey and having basically a whole life cycle of experiences. Each of the cards has traditionally associated with different meanings. So I try to look into the traditional meaning of that card, and then I try to see if I can find a picture anywhere in the digital archive that meets that parameter. If I can, I want them to be wearing a hat because my whole theme within the tarot deck is hats -  so I have to have a hat, I have to have a digital picture, I have to have the theme of the tarot card, and then I have to interpret it in a way where I like the meaning and the way it looks and the composition. So there are about four factors that constrict me and I really like that because before I didn’t have any rules as to what I was finding, and that fizzled out because I didn’t have the rigor with that, that having these four rules provide.

Is rule-making always part of your project/process?

It kind of is my process – what I’ve done is always improvisational. So I don’t usually plan things out a lot; so when I am cutting paper I just have a scissors and a piece of paper and that is my rule – I can only do something with scissors and a piece of paper. Or when I’m out typing – which is what most people locally might know me for – I have the person, I have what they want, I have a typewriter, and I have 10 minutes. So I kind of like higher-stakes projects.

Since you’re more well-known for the typing project and that’s machine-oriented, have you thought of that with regard to the digital aspect of this project?

No real connection except that there isn’t one. I’ve taken three months off from commissions and working for other people, and checking Facebook a lot, and seeing what happens when I’m not online and if I don’t have previous engagements. And, apparently, using pen and ink, drawing tarot, doing collage, and using Cray-pas thus far is the answer to what happens!

How did what you found in the collections influence your work?

One of my cards is the wheel of fortune, so I would just type the word "wheel" into the digital collections search engine and find something. Since then I’ve worked with the (Milwaukee) Polonia collections, the ARCW (AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin) collection, the (James Blair) Murdoch photographs, the Golda Meir collection, and the AGSL photo collections.

You were able to take not just the images in the collection but the construct of the collection – the fact that it’s vast, and just approach it randomly with a keyword search.

It’s kind of natural to me because I am of the generation that probably started Googling things when I was in 7th grade, so I’m a Googler – that’s my main way of doing research. Of course I used card catalogs growing up, but Google is the technique I’m most familiar with. It’s efficient. It’s the same process I would use normally if I wanted to find out anything – even though I’m on a social media break, I still retain the knowledge I gained using social media. So searching through the collections, I know these librarians probably used a particular tag to describe an image, for example, and I can use that to find other images.

When I was interpreting the hanged man card – that subject or image could be very delicate. Do I want to take a picture of lynching and interpret it? Probably not for this project. I had to think about, "what is another way people hang upside down?" I thought of gymnasts – and there are some gymnast photos in the Polonia collection. And then I just needed an interpretation of the act of hanging from something, with a tree as part of the image. It’s actually very creepy looking but at the same time I’m not appropriating anything horrible that happened to someone. It makes it a different piece at that point and I don’t think I have the authority to make such a piece. [note: The source image for this card ultimately came from the James Blair Murdoch collection]

In this example, when you thought about gymnasts as an alternative, did you think – oh I’ve seen this in Polonia?

No, I just typed in "gymnast" and then I limited to just images and the Polonia collection came up. And he wasn’t wearing a hat so I decided to make it a hat that he was actually hanging from. It’s interesting because I feel a certain connection to the Polonia collection because I went to school at 5th and Mitchell from K-8 and I would walk up and down Mitchell Street and I feel like I know that neighborhood pretty well, and I’m Polish so some of these people could be my ancestors. It’s also a vast collection – your chances of finding things that can be used are pretty good. And interesting to see what’s still around in Milwaukee, and what's disappeared.

How does having so much content available digitally affect the work you're creating?

I’m really having to let go of trying to control the image. I would say the digital collection has the
biggest impact on what the image is going to look like. I don’t do any predesigning of the card. I do some research on the tradition of the card, and then I try and sum up the meaning in images. For example, in the traditional judgment card, it's a picture of a bunch of people rising out of coffins, skies opening up, there’s a big horn – traditionally the interpretation of the card is something like your "true calling," rising up out of your deadened state to become who you're meant to be. So then I thought of what the idea of true calling is, and what does that look like as an image? And then I thought of a phone call. So I started looking for pictures of people on the telephone, and then I found this woman who is on the phone with a calendar behind her, but I still needed to find other images that relate to the original judgement card, so I added gnomes around her and other images of getting ready to go to work, gnomes who can help you get something done.

I like looking at the cards as archetypes and then I try to replicate that archetype in any way using the digital collections – so I’m really finding archetypes in the digital collections. It’s a new way to use the digital collections – for archetype-finding.

Even though the digital collections are vast, I’ll do a search and then sometimes nothing pops up that’s related, but it’s still productive. For example, I tried to do a search for "gambling" when I was interpreting the four of pentacles card. All of the pentacle cards are a suit that in your normal playing card deck – which are the same thing but at one point they split off in their history. So four of pentacles are the same as four of diamonds, and this is about money and worldly goods. The four of pentacles is traditionally about being stable with your money but also having enough to be able to do something with it and not hoard it. So who is someone who might hoard money, and I thought of gamblers. When I searched the collection I was hoping for some Las Vegas gambler but what I got were some really interesting images of people in Asia with a wheel of fortune device or elsewhere with wheels, but I was looking for were more like images of money exchange, or those chips. I did find people going to banks, making transactions. So it's a vast collection but not infinite. It means I need to redefine my search or my card and so the digital collection ends up completely defining what my archetype is going to be for the card.

And so you really confined yourself to the digital collection in a way others haven’t necessarily done; you’re doing a project that really is only mediated by the digital collection. You aren’t going in and asking reference questions – you’re working from this as a database and the source for your work. 

Sometimes I think I’ll want to do another tarot deck where I choose the imagery more, but in doing it this way I really have to think about what is the essence of something, and I’ll have to completely change it because it was getting too complicated. Because tarot cards are from pre-literate society you have to get the whole meaning from looking at it, so you have to keep things simple. I recently drew an entire card and it was beautiful but when I looked at it I didn’t think anyone could tell what it was about so I had to scrap it.

When you’re searching in the digital collection for something, is that similar for you to pulling a card from the deck – where you don’t know what you’re going to get but you’re going to work with it? Is that part of your approach?

Yes, it’s almost like divining – an image comes to you from the archive. You do the search, and it sometimes is a random process. A lot of people think of the tarot deck as a conduit of the spirit giving you a message from your unconscious. So I think of the digital archive as a conduit of the spirit or the unconscious.

It’s a mystification of the digital collection that isn’t usually how we think of the deliberate work of creating these digital collections, but that seems entirely appropriate in the context of the project. 

Any project I work on has to do with divining and letting the unconscious bleed and then seeing what happens when you clean up that mess. It’s interesting to do this with library collections – where the library is all about organizing and cleaning up what might have been a mess, and so this is an interesting process to lay on top of library collections that really resist disorganization; but going ahead and letting it be random. There is an expectation that we respond to a specific collection in the library, but I’m much more interested in what falls out as I shuffle the cards.

What more can you tell us about your experience in this project?

I think that a lot of people are really freaked out by the tarot, but I’m not. And as I do this work, I think the whole process is really interesting because how often do we get to interact with archetypes in our lives, in a deliberate way? It’s interesting because I’m almost exclusively using photographs as my source materials, so the images I’m drawing are based on real life. It’s like discovering how in any given moment you can be living in an archetype and it calls attention to the archetype of the moment as something you are experiencing and learning from. If anything, this process has more to do with the past and bringing it into the present. This has nothing to do with the future.

More about Anja Notanja Sieger's work is here: