Cutaneous Habitats: ISEA2012 Interview with Colleen Ludwig

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Building on the ISEA2012 Albuquerque: Machine Wilderness (September 19 – 24, 2012) photo essay posts, Temporary New Mexico regional editor Nancy Zastudil has organized ongoing coverage of the symposium with the ISEA2012 Insiders, a group of (ISEA2012′s Artistic Director) Andrea Polli‘s University of New Mexico students who attended the event. This interview is the first in a series of posts from the Insiders in conversation with several ISEA2012 artists about their artistic practice, exhibition projects, and overall experience of the symposium.

Colleen Ludwig works with metaphors of skin and boundaries to create immersive environments, video works and performances. Her current research is a four-room suite of interactive installations called Elemental Bodies. She has created the installation Vanishing Point at aceartinc. in Winnipeg with collaborator Jarod Charzewski in 2008 and performed an interactive, electronic costume called ContactContact in San Francisco and Austin in 2007. Most recently, she exhibited the first work in Elemental Bodies, called Shiver, as part of the Watershed: Art, Activism and Community Engagement show at the UW-Milwaukee. Shiver was supported by a Research Growth Initiative Grant and a fellowship from the Center for 21st Century Studies, both at UW-Milwaukee. She received her MFA in Time in Interactivity in 2005 from the University of Minnesota and is currently teaching at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Rachel Cisler: According to your website it seems Shiver began as a piece called Watergraph, and there was another piece, Vanishing Point, that dealt with the theme of water.

Colleen Ludwig: Well, water itself is a very important touchstone for me, as a metaphor for the body–an elemental component of the body. In a crude way I think of humans as sacks of water (plus some other stuff), but it’s so intriguing that such a large portion of us is water, like 60%.

When I was first hired as an art professor I went to an orientation about getting research funding, and first heard the term research agenda, so I spent about a year trying to hone a clear concept for a research agenda. I thought about all the different works I had done, and tried to come up with that core question. I decided that the central question I was interested in studying was skin as this border between the inside of the body and the outside of the body. I find the process of getting from the inside out, and then the outside back in, so mysteriously fascinating. It happens so subconsciously and instantaneously. We are constantly taking in stimuli and material through our porous skin, then constantly excreting and giving back signals. You can’t possibly slow that down and look at it in serial fashion, so I came up with this concept for a series called Cutaneous Habitat, or habitats of the skin, and Shiver is the first in that series. I started researching skin itself, both biologically and also culturally: skin as a border space between the inside and the outside of the body. This is interesting because we have a lot of cultural references with our skin; we think of it in terms of race, health, beauty, but I don’t think we fully appreciate its function as a sensor that we use to take in our environment. I think we also use skin as a very key component to our intuition, probably much more involved in our decision-making practices than we even realize.

So, the series Cutaneous Habitat is really meant to be a tactile, very sensual experience. It sets up these spaces, which bring you into close focus with your body as a surface area of skin and as a sensor that is sensing the space around you and changing your perception of your world as the stimuli changes around you.

I’m really interested in that process of changing your worldview from very closed to very open and all the other ways you can change your focus depending on the stimuli around you.

RC: This idea of sensing makes me think of place, and can I guess bring us to the installation. Does this piece have an important sense of place?

CL: The place of the installation? Yes definitely! I haven’t foregrounded this aspect in my work or research, but I have been thinking more recently about gender in the work and gender in relation to space. I think that the more I work with this piece, the more I think of it as a very interesting clash of male and female aspects. It has very cold, technological, rectilinear aspects, but also these feminine, curvy water flows. I think this takes people aback sometimes, this clash of the male and female in the work. I really like that and want to explore it even more. I wouldn’t say that I’m not at all interested in resolving it, but I’m not too concerned with resolving it, I think the contrast is really interesting. Someone yesterday was saying I’ve created a CAVE (TM), like the virtual environment, but the water is too real, so it’s like a real cave. Yet at the same time it’s too technological to be real! But the water is womb-like, and it certainly references a weeping wall, or femininity. So the idea of place is this weird paradox, that is neither here nor there; it’s not purely organic or purely technological. That’s part of the reason I was so excited to be in the Machine Wilderness show. For some reason, I don’t think I can figure out why, we can only just begin to imagine how the combination of the high technological, highly cultural might coexist with a purely organic and wild system.

RC: When you were describing, even this piece, you were describing the poetic. I think the combination of the highly technological and maybe the obsolete can lend itself to a very abstract conversation about those two things and where they meet. You were also talking about the masculine and the feminine, is that a conversation that this piece lends itself to or is that on the surface which is just alluded to or does the conversation go beyond that?

CL: Good question, I guess I think it’s not on the surface but beneath the surface, almost in a Jungian sense of masculine and feminine archetypes.

RC: Has the question ever come up that surrounds you being a female artist and making feminine work?

CL: Definitely. But the thing that comes up over and over again with this piece is how much work it is to put up and that it’s such an ambitious piece and I can’t help but wonder if I would get that if I was a man. I think I’m insane to be trying to control water to this degree. That feels like a very masculine gesture, that desire for control. Yet when it all comes together and the system is working, it reminds me a lot of menstruation, in terms of the completeness of the system. It takes care of itself, and maybe it wouldn’t be a piece that a man would make.

RC: I find what’s beautiful about this piece is the immediate identity; the system, the surface, the emotions that are felt. On your website you outlined a survey you conducted of viewer responses to the space, I found that very interesting. When I saw the piece it reminded me of myself, of people, of humans.

CL: Yes, I’ve been very gratified about people’s responses, because that has really been the impetus of the work for me. When I went to graduate school and learned about interactivity and interactive work, I really identified with that. That’s always been an inspiration for my work. I am always questioning what I want my audience to feel. That’s where I start in all my planning. All the decisions in Shiver, whether or not it was going to have ceiling or a floor, the scale, the shape, what the walls were going to be made out of, ALL of it goes back to the question of what I’m after in the responses from the audience.

RC: The amount of water that comes out is really intense in relationship to where you’re standing. Is that what you wanted?

CL: Yes, I was going after the sensation that you get when you’re standing very close to someone, that sensation of being in someone’s personal space. What was really important to me, more than anything was getting the water to crawl, so that it created little rivulets, changing like a river. Like rain on glass. Strangely, I had been working on this piece for about a year when I was in the shower and I realized that the water moves in Shiver exactly like it does on your skin. I must have known this subconsciously. But that is a function of the water pressure, the size of the hole, and the material it flows over. So if the water pressure is too high, or it flows too fast, the water will flow straight.

RC: What’s also very beautiful is the accumulation of water towards the bottom…

CL: Yes, and that was kind of a happy accident. It does it very nicely on this marine fabric.

RC: The external part of the piece I find very beautiful even if I don’t know what’s happening. Did you even consider enclosing that?

CL: I wanted it to be very robotic, kind of baroque, and chaotic on the outside. That was also metaphoric for me. Whereas I felt that people’s typical idea is that we are full of guts and it’s all kind of chaotic on the inside, but on the outside we are these polished, masked, perfect beings, I feel the opposite. I feel that on the inside we are these perfect systems, and that on the outside we are a total mess. We think we have these really polished personas, but we are really just a mess on the outside. I have become more of a believer that as we age our bodies tell us what they need. Often times if we stop and listen, our bodies have biological triggers.

RC: Now that we are discussing need I would like to ask you about the sensors in the ceiling. I was going to ask if the piece could exist without them, but now that we are discussing need, it seems to me that the piece needs people just as much as people need the piece.

CL: Yes, that’s a conversation I have had many times. When I started making the piece it was just a waterfall, but I really wanted to make a reactive space. I recognize that there are a lot of works out there that use other data than just the straight mapping that is used in this piece, but again, it was that relationship between the walls and the viewer that I wanted to be really palpable. That was my tactile goal. We tried out a bunch of different programming methods, but it was only when we figured out how the center should react did the whole piece come together. I had to go on faith for a long time saying yes, yes I do need those sensors! I’m really happy with the result and feel it wouldn’t be the same otherwise.

It’s very interesting watching people. Some are very shy about getting in the space and I go back and forth about how to instruct people on interacting with the space. Other times I have had dancers in the space, which is very different and quite gratifying.

RC: Yes the space is very self-reflective!

CL: And I understand that some people will not allow the space to free them in that sense.

RC: Let’s talk about the technical components; 70 solenoid valves, 35 infra-red sensors and 1 Arduino controller with bit shifters. This reads as quite possibly an intense collaboration with other artists or engineers?

CL: You know, I’ve been very lucky. I had a grant to work with grad students and I put out the word that I was looking for someone who possibly had a background in mechanical engineering, working with water, or architecture. I happened upon a gentlemen that had it all; in undergrad he had studied mechanical engineering and did a project with water and was coming into graduate school to study architecture. We worked very well together, and he was particularly good at listening to my goals and not losing sight of them. For instance, I really wanted to keep the floor the same as the gallery space. I felt that if the floor stayed the same, then when you enter the piece you are entering a space, but if the floor is different then you are entering an object. We managed to figure out ways to avoid putting things on the floor, and that was really important to me. Other goals were to have very hard side lighting, to have the water run along the walls almost to the floor and that the water ran in a certain way. I also consulted with various other professors, so the piece has come together from a lot of different areas.

RC: Through all this collaboration did your prototype change quite a bit?

CL: It did! Quite a lot over the course of two years, and those changes had to do with different discoveries. For instance, pretty early on we decided we were going to go with a fabric wall. The fabric is actually a marine fabric we found. And I really wanted four walls, but after making the framework we decided to do three walls, leaving the fourth the gallery wall. The sensors came in late; they were really new on the market, so for a long time I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. The tanks came in late as well. Early on we had fabricated our own, but had many problems with leakage and mold. Eventually we found a manufacturer that made tanks for boats and RVs; these tanks were completely sealed and solved these problems. It was two years before we made the structure, after about one year of honing the design.

RC: Shiver is the first piece of the Cutaneous Habitat series, what are for plans for future pieces in this series?

CL: I started working on the next room called Blushing, and I’m very excited about it. It stems from my fascination with fireflies. I love to watch their magical flashings and I made a connection between their signals and human blushing. I started observing people blushing; you can even get people to blush even if you start talking about blushing…

RC: Am I doing it now!?

CL: You are! It turns out that blushing is a very empathetic reaction. People blush in response to others, almost as a signal of apology or self-awareness. So I want to create a space that has a visual flashing, similar to a field of fireflies. But once they escape your reach, they leave behind these patches of radiant heat, like a blush or flush. I’m also thinking about working smaller again, to be able to quickly plan, think and design. Shiver has been such a long piece in the making, I feel like I need to exercise!



Shiver is on display at the Albuquerque Museum as part of the ISEA2012: Machine Wilderness exhibition through January 6, 2013.
Images courtesy of the artist. 

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