Nina Katchadourian is a visual artist based out of Brooklyn, New York. Her work cleverly reveals the remarkable qualities of everyday life with an exceptional balance of both thoughtfulness and humor. Katchadourian’s exhibition Curiouser is currently on view at the Blanton Museum of Art through June 11, 2017.
This interview took place at the Blanton Café and has been lightly edited for both length and clarity.
Rebecca Marino: What time frame is covered in this survey show? What’s the oldest project and the newest project that we’re seeing in Curiouser?
Nina Katchadourian: The oldest project is the World Map, which I made my senior year of college. I still think back on this project or moment as something more substantial beginning. It was actually a response to an assignment in a class I was taking, but it opened up this topic of maps and cartography that I’ve been working with ever since. I hadn’t laid eyes on that piece since around 1990. I was looking at it the other day, and it was so odd and interesting for me. I hadn’t seen it for so long that I had really forgotten so many things about it. It was like seeing it as if someone else had made it. It was really strange—I’ve never had that experience with any piece before. There are a lot of little jokes embedded in it where I’ve moved certain countries and certain cities, and I’m seeing those now and it’s like being surprised by my 20-year-old self as a different person.
The most recent work is the video called The Recarcassing Ceremony, which I finished about a year ago after having worked on it for about a year but having also been intending to make a piece about that story for about 25 years; it took that long to figure out how to do that.
RM: How does it feel to see such a vast collection of your work from all the various stages of your practice together in one space?
NK: I have this almost dissociated sense when I walk around in there. I keep forgetting I made all this work, as crazy as that sounds. It’s such an unusual and special experience to see all these things collected in one place. And there really are a lot of things that I haven’t set up in a long time that are in this show. I still don’t quite believe it’s my show, which is a strange feeling.
I will also say that getting to put things that you’ve made at different times in your life into the same space makes you realize connections between them that you hadn’t necessarily seen before. Like the other weekend, as I was working on Paranormal Postcards, I was thinking to myself, “My God, I feel like a spider trying to put together a giant web.” And you know one of the earlier works in the show is those mended spiderweb pieces, so there was this head-slapping, “Whoa-I-never-realized-it” moment. I know I’ve had this interest in networks and connections and charts and systems for a long time, but I had never thought how the process of putting up Paranormal Postcards resembled the process of a spider making a web, so that was kind of my revelation there.
RM: Oh yeah, I think it’s really impressive how all the projects tie together through those kind of subtle connections.
NK: Well, it is all coming out of the same brain. I used to be very worried when I first started making art that I kept changing and it was never the same thing two projects in a row, and I was just like, “Am I just really scattered? Why can’t I stick with one thing?” And then about 10 years into working that way, I realized that not only is that not a problem, it’s actually really part of the content of the work—to try and look to really different places for starting points, for subject matter, and although I think the methodologies are often consistent methodologies that I use, the subjects or the topics they’re applied to might change quite a bit. I think a lot about verbs, so I like to gather things, organize them, “taxonomize” them, arrange them, translate things, mistranslate things. There are a lot of verbs that run through these projects that connect them, but what those verbs are applied to could be translating popcorn, translating bird sounds, etc.
RM: What was your graduate school experience like at the University of California, San Diego?
NK: One of the reasons I actually applied to UC San Diego was that they were one of the few schools that didn’t make me check a box. It was one of the very few applications where you didn’t have to pick painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, etc. That was something that I had a really hard time even then knowing what to say. I was making sculptures, working with maps, making drawings, and the stuff was already in more than one category. UCSD didn’t care about that.
When I visited, it was a small program with about 12 people per class, and people were doing all kinds of different things. It immediately felt like a really great fit, and it turned out to be a really amazing experience. I don’t think I knew how lucky I was then to have wound up there. And a lot of the faculty were expatriate New Yorkers who had moved out there and kind of started the program, and many of them were also people who—Allan Kaprow probably being the most important—were working in a vein of looking at everyday life, looking at where art meets life, and that had huge resonance for me. I was already thinking a little bit like that, but it had a huge influence on me to have contact with people like him.
RM: I wanted to ask about the Lavatory Self-Portraits in Flemish Style series. Many people are familiar with this particular body of your work that went viral several years ago. What was it like to have this strange Internet phenomenon surrounding you and this project?
NK: It’s had three or four major viral moments actually. The first time it happened, it was shocking. It almost crashed my website. It was a two-week period of utter madness. There are about 800,000 hits on that first article to date. But the other times have just been because someone has found those older posts and re-posts and it just starts back up again. It’s interesting how much the Internet really loves to copy content from other places.
My experience with that has been generally positive but also problematic in that the way the images began circulating were more in the vein of a prank. Like, “Crazy lady goes into bathroom, puts stuff on head.” There are two things that are important to me about that: first, I did not do that as a prank, and I never would’ve done that project in my studio. It is totally uninteresting to me to just play dress-up. What’s interesting or important to me with those photos is that they were done under the circumstances that they happened. They were done using materials that I found, in an airplane bathroom, and they were done under this broader set of confines and constraints that define the entire Seat Assignment project.
And the second thing that has been tricky for me about those photos is that they’ve been seen out of the context of the rest of the project. So no one necessarily knows that these are only one tiny part of a much bigger investigation about what I can make on planes using only what I can find and using only my cell phone.
So a few years ago I started to require that anytime someone wanted to publish images of those Flemish portraits, they needed to be talked about in the context of Seat Assignment in general and accompanied by pictures from the rest of the project. It was a little bit of an experiment—like, will people actually comply with that request? And generally, I have to say, they’ve been happy to do that, and they’ve been happy to find out there’s more to the project.
It’s a project that really does have some more serious questions. I’m not trying to just make goofy pictures and little jokes. It is a serious question for me about—what are we not paying attention to in the humdrum aspects of our lives? And what else is out there? What are we paying attention to, and what are we not paying attention to? I’m an optimist about the world as a generally interesting place and as a place we should look more carefully at. So as sort of an attentiveness exercise, a lot of the things I think I’m trying to do are to say, “Sharpen up! Look again.”
RM: As with the Lavatory Self-Portraits in Flemish Style and Seat Assignment in general, you enforce a lot of self-imposed rules and limitations for yourself when you make work (location, materials, etc.) Is that something that’s always been helpful for you in your process?
NK: I love rules. [Laughs.] In this piece are you going to mention the fact that you’ve been engaging with my rules by working on the install?
RM: [Laughs.] Yes, of course; that’s the conflict of interest!
NK: Oh good, because I think that’s really funny.
Yes, I love rules. Many projects have that kind of structure. Some projects have started with an assignment to myself. I like situations that have boundaries around them. I like sites often for that reason—there’s something kind of specific to respond to. On a physical site in the world there are things that can happen there and can’t happen there, that do happen there and don’t happen there, that have a certain kind of social atmosphere around them. I find that very helpful, and that’s where a lot of ideas start. The first questions for me are: “What are the core qualities of this place or situation?” or, “What is usually happening here or not?”
But it’s also true that some projects that are now very rule-bound, like Paranormal Postcards, started with not knowing what that project was. I made the first Paranormal Postcard back in 1997 but didn’t show that piece ’til 2001. I was just stitching these things for years without knowing what they would be. I just kept making them. Sometimes the rules come later. I’ve said this to many students: Sometimes you have to just keep making something to figure out why you’re making it. You have to trust that there’s something there and that you don’t need to know what that is yet. Eventually, you will know, if you persist and keep pushing.
RM: Accent Elimination is a video piece that was recently acquired by the Blanton Museum of Art, which is very exciting! Can you give us a little background on this project and what it was like working on it with your parents?
NK: Well, I moved to New York in 1996, and I kept seeing these flyers around town that advertised this service called “Accent Elimination,” which I had never heard of and thought sounded vaguely creepy. Out of curiosity I called up to see what it was and who it was for. Then I thought about my own family situation. I’ve grown up with parents who each have very noticeable but hard-to-place accents. People are constantly asking them where they’re from because it’s very hard to guess just from their accents. And I have never been able to imitate them, which drives me totally crazy. I just cannot, somehow, make their accent when I try to imitate them.
All these things just converged, and Accent Elimination became a project where my parents and I took private lessons with an accent specialist. The goal was to teach me to speak in my mom’s accent and in my dad’s accent, which are quite different, and to teach them how to speak so-called standard American English, which is complicated. This coach spoke with a different accent in English than I do because he was born and raised in Brooklyn, and I don’t talk like I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I don’t know how I talk—like a Californian, maybe. So in this giant country with all these regional accents (which is one reason I love coming to Texas: I get to hear another accent and other expressions, which is excellent) the question of what standard American English even is is very interesting.
In Accent Elimination it’s hardly like we succeed with flying colors; it’s much more a project about watching us struggle to learn and seeing what comes from all the struggling, what kind of strains we’re under and what kind of things come out between the cracks of this weird task (another project with a task, by the way). My parents are really good sports. I’ve drafted them many times, and they’re great about participating.
RM: In the project Sorted Books, you go through personal libraries and select several books to create your own stack wherein the titles are read in a particular sequence. What has it been like going through people’s libraries?
NK: It is very personal, and I feel like it’s a hugely trusting gesture to let me into their library. Books say a lot about someone’s interests but also about their anxieties and problems and past and history. I’ve been up against moments where I’ve been like, “Oh, there’s clearly been a substance abuse problem in this person’s life,” just as an example, and I have to make a lot of decisions about how much of that I think is OK to expose. I try to be fair and sensitive to that and what the books might reveal.
It’s been a total mixture of people over the years. The very first one was in the home of a friend’s parents. To date I’ve gotten to work with two dead people’s collections: August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright, and William S. Burroughs, the American novelist. When someone’s dead, they can’t tell you not to use certain books, but then there’s a different feeling I have about what’s fair and not fair. I’m always trying to do the project in a respectful way. It’s never about exposing someone or making fun of them, but it is about maybe summing up that person’s interests and sometimes their contradictions.
One of the most amazing things about the William S. Burroughs books was that there were a lot of things that I guess you could say underscored the rather extreme parts of his character. He’s this kind of mythical figure who’s known for drug experimentation and crazy, off-the-rails behavior. He famously accidentally shot his wife in a game of William Tell. There’s a lot of violence and drugs and crazy sorts of things in his life, and there were books that certainly confirmed that all of that was true, but on the other hand he was also a total cat freak! He lived with 19 cats in Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent the last 16 years of his life. A lot of people gave him books about cats. I’d be pulling books out of boxes and there’d be a book about handguns and then a book on how to massage your cat. That was amazing to see those different facets of that guy’s personality.
There’s also no way for total objectivity to exist in this project. There’s certainly my own subjectivity present. My own interests and my curiosities come into play in the book clusters that I make. I think of the project as a kind of portraiture project. There’s a way in which I’m trying to portray that person, but I’m sure I show through the cracks of what I’m doing. So there’s some kind of meeting point between the book owner and me.
Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest and works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX. She was on the Blanton technical crew for Katchadourian’s exhibition and personally helped her to install 353 (paranormal) postcards.