Interview: Selina Trepp
Selina Trepp is a Swiss-American artist whose work explores economy and improvisation. Finding a balance between the intuitive and conceptual is a goal, living a life of adventure is a way, embarrassment is often the result. Growing up in a commune in a conservative small town in Switzerland taught her that there is strength in the position of the outsider. “If in doubt, be radical” is the best advice she ever got.
Selina’s artistic output comes in a multitude of media: installation, video, drawing, painting, photography and sculpture. She has also developed a practice combining singing with real-time improvised video projections and performs as half of the duo Spectralina, an audiovisual collaboration with her husband Dan Bitney. Her work is widely exhibited internationally and has received numerous awards and honors including the Swiss Art Award and the Illinois Arts council Fellowship. As the mother of a toddler, Selina also manages to tackle both artmaking and parenting with a creative drive that’s nothing short of incredible.
CR: Tell us a little bit about your daughter in your own words.
Selina: Maxine is 2.5 years old. She is an intense but sweet spirit who likes to look and to take things in in depth. She is very focused and determined. She has the sweetest smile.
CR: Your studio practice has undergone some major changes in the past few years. How would you say parenthood has affected your work?
Selina: The other day I realized that I went from having a social practice to having an antisocial practice.
What I need my work to do for me has shifted greatly since becoming a mother. Pre-Maxine I mostly made video installations, for which I collaborated closely with other artists and which needed to be installed site specifically. My art mostly took place outside the studio and had a strong relational component. Now that I am constantly social in my home life, I want to go to the studio to be alone; I have no desire to collaborate. The studio is my place to play with materials and ideas, to tell stories and to experiment. It is also the place in which I get complete respite from being a mother. When I am there I focus on practice, on being fluid. Making images for me has become a performance, an improvisation.
My method of dealing with the obvious drawbacks of parenthood — less time and less money — have been to turn them into assets. Less time has resulted in more focus, thus more productivity. The effect of less money has brought me to the main conceptual restraint that I am currently working with: I work with what I have. I do not bring anything into my studio, instead I use and reuse all that has accumulated in there over the years. It is a slowly depleting system. I began this experiment in October 2012.
I am now at an interesting point with this project: base materials are becoming sparse, things have run out. This constraint necessarily begins to affect the form of the work. Now when I make, the challenge is to see the potential of things. My work is changing with the circumstances. What remains is that the camera brings all parts together, flattened into a single reality.
I also see this mode of production in itself as a political position. While I do not care about making the message of my work an overtly political one, I use my actions, my production choices of non-consumption and recycling, to express my stance.
CR: How has having children affected your relationship with the art world? What alternative structures might make that world more inclusive for artists with families?
Selina: I don’t go out as often and feel a bit disconnected to the scene. On the other hand, not going out has made me better about asking people to come to me, either in the studio or for conversation at my house. For the most part people are respectful and supportive of the fact that Dan and I are trying to raise a child while still having a full creative life. We have had amazing experiences with people who put on shows and hosted us with Maxine, who helped make things possible. I am more productive than ever, more motivated and more focused.
That being said, I have had my share of bad “art experiences” directly related to my status as mother. The most jarring happened right before I had Maxine. The gallery I worked with in Switzerland dumped me on some vague pretenses via email when I was 8 months pregnant. Later I learned that one of the two owners has a stated policy of not working with women who have small children. He talks about this policy in seminars for professional practices for artists. His argument for this is “that he cannot work with artists who take a break, who are not 100% dedicated to their art.” Yikes.
Within the art community in general I would like for there to be more structural support for families to participate. Free childcare during lectures so parents can attend without needing to spend a lot of money, tours for people with kids, gallery openings beginning at 5pm, free entry to cultural and educational institutions for parents with kids would all be great. Artist residencies that provide childcare, artist residencies that allow the residents to bring their families, artist grants that fund childcare, travel grants for entire families. All these are much-needed, not just for the families, but because the contact with children enriches the entire arts community.
Outside the specific needs parent-artists have, I see many ways that current structures are in opposition to balanced family lives. Most of the people I know fall into a pattern in which at least one of the partners works full time, while the other is a full time parent/caretaker. This is necessary to keep benefits and to maximize the families earning power. The most profound change that is needed, in my eyes, is to create a structure that enables both parents to equally participate in the rearing of their children. This would require more quality part-time work or job-sharing options, the ability to purchase affordable healthcare, and free quality education for everyone.
CR: How did you get back into a studio practice after having a newborn? Any advice to other artist-parents for getting through that phase?
Selina: I worked harder than I had ever worked while I was pregnant and had a solid body of work done by the time Maxine was born. I am very glad things worked out this way, as it allowed me to be relaxed while spending quality time with Maxine in those first months, but also ensured that I had shows lined up for the first year of her life without needing to produce new work for them. I would have been nervous not showing at all during that first year especially, and it was good for my mental state to escape the bubble here and there.
Nursing made it hard to be away from Maxine for more than a few hours at a time, and not sleeping made it hard to focus. Taking long daily walks with the baby was great in the sense that I did think a lot, and all those thoughts eventually found their way into work and made it stronger. I returned to a solid studio practice once Maxine was a bit over a year old.
In the first year of Maxine’s life my active studio practice was mostly focused on Spectralina, partially because working on Spectralina happens more in our home as opposed to the studio, and partially because we were so tight as a family unit that we wanted to do everything together.
CR: What’s the balance now between parenthood, art making, and teaching? What strategies might you recommend to other artist-parents?
Selina: I am very lucky to be in a situation in which my husband Dan and I are able and committed to sharing the work and pleasure of raising Maxine as equally as possible. Keeping things equal isn’t always easy. It requires constant renegotiation and adjustment, as we fluctuate between intensely working on projects, performing, exhibiting, teaching and having down time.
In general we split up the days into two shifts, giving each of us half a day to be with Maxine and half a day to use as needed. Up until a few months ago we had a babysitter one afternoon per week. Now Maxine attends a co-op daycare two days per week. When I am teaching, Dan is with Maxine one of the days, and the other she is in playgroup. This way when Dan is away on tour I only have half the headache of figuring out what to do with Maxine, while still being guaranteed a full day in the studio the day she’s in playgroup.
A difficulty we didn’t consider before having Maxine was that collaborating and performing together means that we need somebody to watch her while we are working, and that costs money. When we perform we need to make this work as a family: it is a priority that Maxine is happy. The last two years have been a lesson in finding playgrounds everywhere we go. We learned that a six-month-old baby is much easier to travel with than a 2-year-old toddler and that the first night in a new place is never easy.
The truth is, if it’s hard for Maxine, it is hard for all of us. We get most work done at home. We still love to travel, but it can be disruptive. If we do it, we try to do it in a way that works for all of us. Keeping that in mind we’ve learned to focus our energy [only] on projects that are financially or creatively rewarding, or, ideally, both.