Interview by Greg Mania
Images Courtesy of BOSI Contemporary
In a technology inundated world where precious moments are marginalized by temporal boundaries—Katie Holten and Mariateresa Sartori remind us that beauty lies in the unspoken, unsaid, and unseen. By utilizing elements of mapping and landscape in their work, they successfully capture their celestial and physical presence in relation to the cosmos. I sit down with the two artists to discuss their out-of-this-world work and probe them (please keep reading, I’ll simmer down with the puns) about future collaborations and a public walk they will be spear-headed on May 1st. Holten and Sartori’s exhibition Linea is on view at BOSI Contemporary through May 31st.
How does your individual work parallel one another’s?
MS: I think that drawing and science are what connect our works most.
KH: Yes, we’re both interested in mapping our relationship with the world around us and we both use drawing and science as tools to investigate the possibilities.
Did you instantly click when you first met?
MS: Yes for me it was so, I instantly clicked when I first met Katie.
Would you ever consider a collaboration that shares both of your values and aesthetics? And if you were to collaborate would it be through drawing or another medium?
MS: Maybe through drawing?
KH: A collaboration would be fun – great idea! Meri (Mariateresa) uses a lot of music in her work and I’ve rarely had the opportunity to work with sound, so I’d be curious to see where a conversation on music could lead…
Katie, how long have you had an affinity for the cosmos? What made you choose NASA’s 2012 satellite images for the basis of your work?
I’ve always been interested in the natural world around me and for as long as I can remember I’ve simultaneously looked at macro and micro views of wherever I am – zooming from tiny lichens under my feet to star clusters in a distant galaxy. It’s all connected and I’ve always been fascinated by the underlying mathematics to it all that seems to mirror at different scales. I like combining these contrasting viewpoints. An obvious example of where I did that recently was in Tree Museum, my public artwork commissioned by the city to celebrate the centennial of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx in 2009. I selected 100 street trees along the Concourse and each tree told one of the infinite stories that the place has to tell. The trees ‘spoke’ – via an audio guide – through the voices of many, many people, including local residents, scientists, community gardeners, architects, historians, and school children.
As with all my work, the Constellation drawings are related to this fascination that I have with place. The first Constellation was made in 2012 when I was commissioned to make new work for the New Orleans Museum of Art. It came out of my research into the city’s relationship with water and I made a series of enormous drawings on canvas that functioned as walls within the museum. The Constellation drawing was based on a map by local cartographer Jakob Rosenzweig, who I met during my residency. His map showed all the oil and gas wells in Louisiana – an incredible cluster of dots. To reduce the ‘noise’ of information contained in the map, I made the drawing in black and white and removed everything but the dots indicating wells. The drawing resembled a section of the night sky, with thousands of white dots in an infinite black space. Even before I’d started that first drawing I knew that I wanted to call it Constellation. For me, it was a way to immediately tell the viewer that yes, the drawing is representing something ‘natural,’ a constellation, a cluster, a collection, of something. But upon closer examination they’ll notice (hopefully, via the sub-title) that it’s not ‘actual’ constellations of stars in outer space, but constellations of man-made objects here on Earth. The positioning of the dots corresponds to the oil and gas deposits in Louisiana, so it’s an accurate map of the State, but from a different perspective to what we’re normally used to seeing.
In 2012 NASA released a ‘black marble’ image that shows satellite images of Earth at Night. As soon as I saw them, I knew that I had to use these images to make another Constellation drawing. It’s a very simple idea – the ‘black marble’ shows Earth when the Sun is not shining on it and all that’s illuminated in the black of outer space is the bright, glowing lights of humanity’s electric grid. These satellite images show us clearly how embedded we are on the planet – each dot represents an electric light somewhere on Earth. I use the Latitude and Longitude coordinates to give the viewer a sense of where exactly each drawing is mapping. I ended up making a series of Constellation drawings for my solo exhibition at VAN HORN Gallery in Düsseldorf in Winter 2013. At the time I was invited to participate in the two-person show with Meri and it made perfect sense to continue the Constellation series for the Linea exhibition. The scale-shift contrasts wonderfully with Meri’s work in the show.
Mariateresa, tell me a little bit about the creative process behind your work. What sort of reaction are you hoping to provoke from your audience?
For the video The Drawers I have been inspired by my students: I had the experience of being drawn by them. I was very impressed by the particular way they looked at me: suddenly I stopped being perceived as a person with her own character, her psychology, etc. I became just a physical presence in the space, just a physical phenomenon. The drawers’ gaze is a measuring gaze, beyond any moral or aesthetic judgment. I filmed them in such a way that the viewers of the video installation could have the same experience I had. Looking at the video from any point of view gives you the impression that these drawers are looking at you, just at you, and that they are drawing you. Each person has his/her own rhythm by moving his/her head looking alternatively at the drawing and at the object he/she is drawing. All together they create a sort of visual musical counterpoint.
What made you choose this specific medium?
MS: Video allows me to record and to observe human behavior, that is what interests me most.
Drawing allows me to work with my hand and my eyes. I’ll try to explain what I mean by telling you how I realized the drawings of the series 1 minute and 15 seconds of drawers’ gaze:
First I filmed people drawing a model during a lesson. (see video The Drawers). Then I focused my attention on the gaze rhythm of each student who alternatively looks at the model and at the drawing he is making. I followed this method: I put on the computer screen a transparent paper and I followed with a felt pen the movement of each eye for 1 minute and 15 seconds. In this way I managed to register the rhythm of the gaze of every student.
And I discovered some interesting things: independently from the object they are drawing, independently from the moment (they were filmed in different months) each drawer shows a kind of rhythmical fingerprint (eyeprint?) that is typical of him. The rhythmical configurations that can be produced by a particular student are infinite, but not every configuration is possible because they always refer to a specific pattern, which is typical of this particular person.
The method used renders lines that are imprecise. Nevertheless, it is an imprecision that is not so approximate, in so much as the movements are recorded in a “relatively” faithful manner, in other words as faithful as human sense perception can allow. I would say that while drawing I become a hand that sees.
I am very interested in the modalities of perception; they are so imperfect, yet sufficiently perfect to make our existence possible. Therefore, I want this to be a mere record, a relatively precise record of what occurred. Invent nothing, observe what has been and what is, and know that that is exactly how things went, even though everything could have gone differently. This does not mean that everything is possible. The variations are infinite but not every variation is possible. Quietly record, trying to convey that incredible complexity that makes our strange world unspeakably beautiful.
The Progressive translates Brahm’s 4th symphony into a series of lines. How does this particular piece correlate with the theme of lines and systemic composition, Mariateresa?
MS: In this work I tried to translate into visual signs the compositional principle of Brahms’ music. The title (The Progressive) comes from Schoenberg’s definition of Brahms’ composing process: starting from a core theme developing all the possible variations in a progressive way. This means that themes do not work in opposition to each other, but rather every musical step is just a variation born from the core theme and every new variation generates the next one.
To represent this process I chose a branched structure as a core theme for 2 different reasons. Since I was a young girl listening to the Fourth Symphony, Nordic trees such as firs and pins stand out as a clear mental picture. Furthermore the branched structure clearly shows its development process: each branch generates the next and each form determines the next shape, in a self-generating process in which progression is the constitutive principle.
So I can distinguish 2 different levels: a subjective one, i.e. what this music suggests to me as a mental picture, and an objective level, where I have tried to convey this composing music principle in a more universal code.
When I say “beauty,” what is the first thing both of you think of?
MS: What I like most is to be in the empirical experimentation. I do not look for beauty. Beauty can be a side effect. When I draw I am just a seismograph. Later when I observe the results I can look at my drawings with an aesthetical curiosity. If some drawings are “also” beautiful this does not upset me.
KH: The sunlight falling in my window right now and casting shadows that slowly move as I sit here typing this…
Tell me how mapping correlates with walking. How does being aware of one’s physical space in the world illicit an artistic reaction?
MS: For the series of drawings All People Going I have followed the same process as for the drawings of the series 1 Minute and 15 seconds of drawers’ gaze.
I had the good fortune to meet the physicist Bruno Giorgini and the researchers from the Physics of the City Laboratory at Bologna University, www.fisicadellacittà, who put their film material of crowd movements in St. Mark’s Square during the carnival at my disposal, as well the relative models for the simulation of pedestrian movements.
Starting from their material I made many drawings: I traced the pedestrians’ movements, drawing their paths with a felt-tipped pen on a transparent sheet placed over the computer monitor. I then faithfully transferred the results onto ordinary large sheets of white paper. The lines drawn in different directions create the space, drawing a St. Mark’s Square that is actually not there. As well as the actual physical space, it is also a drawing of our individual and collective manner of relating to space. Each single path determines the route of others, in a continuous and reciprocal game of influences that makes our collective progress.
Venice shows two big human typologies: tourists and people who live in Venice. One can read this classification also in the trajectories traced by the persons going: long and almost straight lines cutting diagonally through St. Mark’s Square belong necessary to Venetians or to people who work or live here. Curls and twirls are created by tourists.
After Venice, Milan, in particular Piazza Duomo, shows a social complexity that is very different from that of St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Referring to that specific portion of space and to that specific time frame I have analyzed some different human categories: street vendors, street cleaners, people approached by street cleaners and pigeons.
The project I worked on with the physicist Bruno Giorgini in Marseille developed this exploration thanks to our residency at IMéRA, Institut d’études avancées d’Aix-Marseille, www.imera.fr. At IMERA we developed this method for a new environment, a city more ethnically and culturally plural than Venice. Together we set up procedures and tools for collecting data about mobility networks there: nodes, links, chronotopi. We shot videos focusing on specific behavioral patterns where strategies of shifting, approaching and distancing play a decisive role; and we were also attracted by the places and situations of pedestrian congestion. Using the same technique as in Venice, I translated these into drawings of movement.
KH: For the duration of the show I’m going to create a new piece called Walks that involves me going for a walk every day and documenting the walks through a series of drawings, photographs, collected objects, conversations, etc.
Meri has made very specific walking maps – her drawings literally track the real-time movements of pedestrians through specific spaces. When we first met, exactly a year ago in May 2013, in Venice. I was immediately struck by these drawings – they’re simple, direct and beautifully capture the everyday action of walking. Attempting to map time and space is something that’s always fascinated me. I was in Venice last year for a Ten Year Later project in which I followed up on my Irish Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. For that project I undertook a series of walks around the city in order to look at the ecosystem of the city. It was an effective way to meet local experts and have informal conversations about often quite loaded themes, from Venice’s infamous water and sewerage system, the construction of the MOSE, the changing weed populations due to climate change, to the dilemma of tourists clogging the tiny streets.
I’m a walker. Most of my work happens outside, in the real world. When Kathy Battista, the curator of the show, invited me the first thing she asked is if I would consider doing something outside. Of course, it’s vital! It’s a way for both Meri and myself to use the exhibition Linea as a platform to explore an expanded notion of drawing. We both use different media, tools, to draw with. But drawing itself is a tool. I see it as a tool to explore how we fit in the world and connect with the things around us. The simple act of walking is one powerful way to do that. I’ve already gone on some wonderful walks with Meri and Samuel Bordreuil (who wrote an elegant text on Meri’s work in the catalogue that will accompany the show) and Richard Garet, Ellen Harvey, and Dan Graham. Our walks led us from the edges of the island, to hidden corners and secret gardens, through conversations that tracked across time, expanded sound, and went off on tangents. I’m looking forward to walking with Richard Wentworth tomorrow. Who knows where we’ll end up…
How do you see your work evolving in the future? Do you hope to continue pushing the boundaries of time and space and how we see ourselves in it?
MS: I do not know exactly what I will do in the future. I just know that my next project is about music.
KH: I’ve started research on a project about 1975 and I’ll get stuck into that once this show is over. Yes, I’m sure it will push the boundaries of time and space and how we see ourselves in it!
The public was invited to join you for a walk on May 1st. Tell me a little bit about the walk and what it entailed. What did you want people to take away from it?
KH: The walk on May 1st was one of my daily walks. Most of the walks are private – myself and one or two other people I invite to join me. But we thought it would be nice to have a public walk with both of us while Meri was in New York, so we picked May 1st. I wanted to show Meri the ‘islandness’ of Manhattan and bring her to the water’s edge to look at how similar/different it is to the islands of Venice. On April 29th we went on a walk to the East River (sociologist Samuel Bordreuil was able to join us for that adventure). So, on May 1st, on the public walk, I thought it would be nice to walk across the island to the west side to look at the Hudson River. It was a beautiful day and we wandered west through the Lower East Side, Chinatown, SoHo, the West Village, up along the High Line, and we ended at an opening of a friend’s show in Chelsea. For me, the walks are a simple way to slow down and notice the rhythms of the city and all the lines of possibility that can be drawn. I have to stop writing now as I’m late to meet Aengus Woods for today’s walk. I’ll leave you with something he wrote about walking –
“…it appears that the pleasures of ambling, dawdling, sauntering, strolling, and even straight-up walking have been subordinated to the means/end logic of appointments, schedules, and target bodies. Activities get slotted into temporal compartments so that maximum utility is gained and the humble walk is relegated to nuisance.”
Aengus Woods, ‘My Eyes Are in My Feet: On Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways’, published in ‘The Millions’, October 2012.