Erika Lynne Hanson uses a diverse range of media to interrogate the various methods through which a site may be communicated. Working from the idea that there is no such thing as an unmediated landscape – no such thing as a direct experience of a place – Hanson investigates how experiences of natural sites or points of interest are constructed and subsequently translated into image. What information is conveyed? What information is lost? What counts as an experience of a place? For her current installation Initial Encounters: Like Meets Like, Iceberg and Glacier, on view now at Field Projects as part of “Icicles in Caves,” Hanson displays two small flags and a set of cast-resin rocks and minerals. Two videos are projected side-by-side. One shows footage from an arctic landscape as captured from a boat, while the second features Hanson attempting to plant the flags into the surface of an icy glacier. We spoke over the phone about this project specifically, Hanson’s practice in general, the relationship between computers and looms, and Invisible Cities.
Nate Jones: So to help start us off, I was hoping that you could give us some more information on the specifics of your current installation Initial Encounters: Like Meets Like, Iceberg and Glacier on view at Field Projects Gallery as part of Icicles in Caves. To be precise, more information about the content featured in both videos, the relevance and layered symbolism of the flags – both on view in the gallery and featured in the videos, as well as the display of your artificial geological formations.
Erika Lynne Hanson: Okay, that’s a lot to cover so I’ll start by giving you a rough outline of what that work is and how it came about.
ELH: The rough outline for the project is the videos in relationship to the flags, and the bigger conceptual question was “How do you experience a landscape?” I had been making a series of works about icebergs, specifically making weavings, videos, and installations reacting to Frederic Church’s iceberg paintings from the mid-1800’s and thinking about them as [an] extreme removal from an actual landscape. He traveled to Canada, saw these icebergs, went back to New York, and painted them about two years later, so these 19th century paintings were super rough depictions of what an iceberg was. So I was pulling those images from Google search and trying to make weavings based on them, and thinking about the different layered mediations of time, space, and subjectivity that existed between these iceberg landscapes that existed in Newfoundland in the 1800’s and me sitting in my studio in the early 2000’s. How do you represent, how do you grapple with what a landscape is, and what those spaces are? So I was thinking about these icebergs – I had never seen them, I had never had any interaction with these extremely sublime landscapes – and then I went and did a residency in Iceland and had the opportunity to go on a boat and be in front of icebergs, which are these mythological creatures to me at that point. So the question was how do you respond to that in your work – these things that only existed as theoretical objects and now to tangibly be in front of them – and if that space is any closer than all of those mediated interpretations of what an iceberg was. Does that make sense at all?
NJ: Absolutely. What I’m gathering is that you’re grappling with all of the differences between different modes of experiencing a landscape, whether mediated or direct, and what’s the difference between the two.
ELH: Exactly. So that was the starting point for this project. Realizing that I was actually in this space, the first thing to do – which is depicted in one of those videos [in the installation] – is to capture raw video. That very tourist and quick instinct we seem to have these days, like “Oh, I’m in this spectacular place. What do I do? Oh, I should probably take a picture of it. Take a picture, take a video – I’ll remember it this way.” But then you end up having half of that experience existing only in that photograph, or you’re in that space but you’re experiencing it through a screen.
ELH: So there was that experience [with the icebergs], and then taking that in and processing it and figuring out what are more possible and meaningful ways of understanding a space. I’ve been trying to propose that maybe making something through the hand is a way to also experience a place and represent a thing that may be just as true or real – if you want to use those terms – as taking a photo. So by taking that video, going back to my studio, and trying to make a weaving based on the memory of that sort of experience, [I was asking] if creating this tactile object has a different sort of record-keeping sense to it, since it does have that weird hand[made] quality to it, but then there’s also distortion and I think the distortion is a bit more evident. That’s how those flags came to be. So I went and experienced icebergs in a very physical sense, created flags based on that experience – as a mode of representation, and as a kind of homage to it – and then what do you do with that? So my next inclination was to try to bring those [flags] back to a glacier and see if there is a uniting between bringing back the iceberg – which is the thing that had fallen off the glacier – and [asking] what is that territory or space created by [that gesture]. And is it like a futile gesture or is there something more to be said than that?
NJ: Right. I want to ask you a little bit more about these flags because the press release for Icicles in Caves states that the flags were distortions from a video. Is that correct?
NJ: Was the video one of the videos that you have displayed in the gallery as part of Initial Encounters?
ELH. Yeah, it’s the left video in the gallery. That’s the raw footage from being amongst the icebergs in the bay where they had broken off from the glaciers.
NJ: Ok, yeah, that seems really interesting to me because when I look at the flags I understand them as a rabbit hole of representation.
NJ: There you are, you are taking this video, this tourist-like video of your experience being near an iceberg for the first time. Then, using the same footage after it had been distorted and scrambled a bit, you create the flags with a computerized loom. So with each change of the medium, you move further away from the actual site of representation itself. So then you go back to a glacier and stage this symbolic reunification of the representation of an iceberg – the flag – with a glacier. How do you think that went? You have two flags, so immediately I think about the image and its reproducibility – you don’t just have one copy of the footage, you have two – against the fact that you are actually at the glacier, experiencing it directly. I also notice that when you plant the flags in the glacier, they don’t really penetrate properly. Is there some sort of failure in this project?
ELH: Well, I guess “failure” isn’t my ideal word choice. I think [I like] “precariousness,” or an “instability,” or a temporary sort of space. So as opposed to trying to plant a flag that’s going to last there forever, it’s a temporary conversation or a territory for dialogue between what these objects are and what that space is.
NJ: And those flags in the gallery, these are the same flags that were on the trip with you?
NJ: And now they are mounted in what I guess are hand-made geological formations? These are fake rocks, right?
ELH: Oh yeah, they’re all cast resin. So the sculptural rocks that are on display in the gallery are not necessarily directly related to these trips, but they are another iteration of thinking about that idea of representation and what is something. Visually, they reference the iceberg of course, and that’s why I started collecting these shards of glass – there’s two of them on display with the rest of the [rocks]. All of the other objects in the space are molds cast off those two. So [I’m] thinking about reproducibility and reproduction in that sort of sense, but then the fact that it’s always different and the fact that there is always a glitch.
NJ: Yeah. That kind of reminds me – I guess in your bringing these external elements into the gallery space – of someone like Robert Smithson and his theory of site and non-site. He actually brought the earth into the gallery space. How would you draw a comparison or distinction between both of your practices?
ELH: Yeah, well I think Smithson’s work, in particular, is one that I have always thought of as the jumping off point for the question of “what do you do now?” I think I have an interesting relationship with art history in that sort of way. There are these things that have been done that seem so iconic that you grow up having as your inspirations. There’s [Smithson’s work] but then there’s also Bruce Nauman’s Setting a Good Corner – that video where he is making a fence – that stick out as these iconic moments, and then wondering how you respond to that. There’s something that’s been done, how do I comment on that, or what space is left to be talked about?
NJ: I definitely understand that. Earlier we were talking about weavings as a way to experience a site. Some of your work that I really enjoy is part of The Forms of Things Derived from a Distance, where you pair screenshots showing footage from National Parks taken at different times of day, and set them next to weavings. I think this is really interesting when considering, as you said earlier, that central to your practice is the question – what qualifies as an experience of a place or a site? So you’ve taken these screenshots from webcams of National Parks, two per park, and the only differences we notice between the two images are the positions of the sun and the resulting shadows. I am reminded of early forms of effortless, or I would even say virtual, travel, like Daguerre’s Dioramas or the Panoramas that popped up around Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Through these visual displays, visitors were transported to distant places, and in the case of the Diorama could see an entire day pass over a distant landscape over the course of a fifteen-minute show. Virtual travel was also promoted in the contexts of World’s Fairs. But now it seems that this is our latest iteration of virtual travel – sitting at your computer, looking at images of somewhere else via webcam, on demand, whenever you would want. By including the timestamp of your screenshots in the titles of these images, you convey the immediacy that we associate with digital images. But then you pair these images with a weaving – which often incorporates colors found in the screenshots. There is an interesting tension between the amount of time and reflection it would take to create something handmade, like a weaving, versus sitting at your computer and being immediately plugged into a landscape. Would you agree with this temporal distinction that I am trying to chart? That is, the difference between the virtual, effortless experience, and the more laborious and reflective process of weaving?
ELH: Yeah it totally makes sense, and I think that’s very close to what I was thinking about when I was making those. It’s like how can you immediately move anywhere at anytime. But it’s also so easy to lose that information. So to stop and try to reprocess [the experience] through a slower mode of making, [is to ask] what is the difference between that screenshot and that weaving? Are they conveying the same information? Are they not? And how does the information move through time and space? And also weaving has that relationship with the computer in that the Jacquard loom was one of the predecessors to what is now our binary output device. So thinking about the core as a set of zeroes and ones and pixels and grids, and how can those two things [loom and computer] be in relationship to one another, where in my mind they are so closely linked yet so drastically far away from how we experience either of those things.
NJ: I’ve never thought about that before. So you’re saying that there is a comparison between the way a computer program operates according to a particular set of rules, and the way a loom operates with a particular set of rules.
ELH: Exactly, yeah. So, Babbage who was making the Difference engine and the Analytic engine, the first iteration of computers, he was inspired by Jacquard who had created this loom in 1804 that was the first mechanized device to use punch cards in production.
NJ: When I think of punch card – I’m not exactly technologically literate – I think of clocking in at work. What’s the relationship with the punch card to the computer?
ELH: Oh yeah, so the earliest computers ran off of these cards that had a series of holes punched in them. So you know the term zeroes and ones in relationship to computers?
ELH: Yeah, exactly, so that’s the basis of all that. So, these punch cards would have X number of slots and certain of those slots would be punched and [others] wouldn’t be – telling the computer “yes” or “no” for those outputs. Earlier computing started that way, and there were physical punch cards that conveyed all the data. And that took inspiration from this loom that was created in the 1800’s.
NJ: Ok, so the link is much closer than I would have imagined. There’s pretty much a direct lineage between the loom and early computing.
NJ: Can you speak more about your reflections on the mediation of site? The idea of mediation is built into the word “landscape” itself, and when you think of meditation and simulation – something which blankets the real and distances it from experience – Baudrillard come to mind. For example, in Simulacra and Simulation he speaks on the “hyperreal,” the condition in which the experiential is constructed according to a preceding model thereby collapsing the distinction between the real and its abstraction. But I ask this question also because it seems like you have a very broad interest in how a particular site or experience is communicated, whether in travel writing or the nostalgia and descriptive qualities of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. So beyond maybe a critique of the more nefarious qualities of simulation, you are also interested in how a site is constructed.
ELH: Mediated experiences are inescapable. The idea of landscape itself is a sort of flawed ideal I guess, that’s kind of how I came to it – this romantic notion of something that will never actually be achieved or interacted with. Going back a little bit further, and thinking about the sublime and the landscape where [there is] this awe, [this] natural, powerful thing, and questioning the nature of that power and how it is perceived by the human viewer. I think it stems from a personal questioning of when you’re in these sort of situations, and you get there, and then ask “okay, now what am I supposed to do with this?” This is something I’m seeing, but can never actually reach —I am always kept at a distance. I think that’s where I naturally go to Baudrillard and thinking about simulation as the only possible way to start understanding these spaces, having the idea of simulation as a starting point. When he speaks on the “hyperreal” in Simulacra and Simulation – the condition in which the experiential is constructed as if according to a preceding model, Baudrillard notes:
“The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control – and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these. It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance. It is no longer anything but operational. In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelopes it anymore. It is hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.”
So for him, the real is something produced. But then I question the negative and possible implications of this idea. I think there’re lots of possible ways of looking at the fact that there is always a mediation or simulation in relationship to the landscape. Hence the jumping into things like questioning whether or not making something with the hand, or having a tactile experience, is a way to think about possible alternatives opposed to representation that relies on optics. And with things like Bruce Springsteen and the construction of space, [I am] thinking about how we hear [place] through words and language and narrative, and [I am asking] is narrative more of a strong way to talk about place than abstraction, [and] how each of these function especially in public realms.
Bruce Springsteen, Jungleland: 1976 [Excerpt] The midnight gang’s assembled And picked a rendezvous for the night They’ll meet ‘neath that giant Exxon sign That brings this fair city light Man, there’s an opera out on the Turnpike There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley Until the local cops, Cherry-Tops, rips this holy night The street’s alive as secret debts are paid Contacts made, they flash unseen Kids flash guitars just like switchblades Hustling for the record machine The hungry and the hunted Explode into rock ‘n’ roll bands That face off against each other out in the street Down in Jungleland
NJ: Can I ask you then, do you think there is anything redeemable in digital mediation? Is there any way, in your opinion, that a digital experience or telecommunicational experience can be redeemed so that you do have…
ELH: Yeah, I totally don’t think that digital media and digital representation is a negative thing either. I think it functions in a very similar way to any other sort of representation, but I think there’s a sort of…not a transparency…but it exists in a sort of way where we forget that it’s mediating, or that it’s actually doing the same thing as any other sort of representation where it’s taking down your information, running it through a process, and then spitting it out the other end.
ELH: So I don’t think as a process there is something inherently wrong with that. I think it’s very similar to everything else, but I think the invisibility of it is something that’s interesting that we start to forget. You know there’s that slippage between when you see things represented in the media, and these digital images and videos that are coming out all the time, that sometimes there’s that question “Wait, did I actually see this? Was I there at this place in person? Or was that just a video I saw?” The way that memory deals with that sort of thing is so image-based, even though there is that point of mediation in there.
NJ: Where we’re going in this conversation definitely reminds me of Tom Gunning’s essay “An Aesthetic of Astonishment.” Are you familiar with it?
ELH: I’m not.
NJ: He’s a film theorist, and has written a lot on early cinema and the spectator, which is where this idea of astonishment comes from. Astonishment is the space where you both acknowledge an illusion but are also aware of the apparatus that creates the illusion. So rather than being totally subsumed within an illusion, you have a sort of third consciousness – you’re not totally immersed in illusion, you’re not totally aloof, you’re somewhere in between. You recognize the power of the illusion, but also understand that it’s an illusion coming from a particular apparatus. Early cinema goers may have jumped and screamed when they saw the image of a train coming at them, but they weren’t dumb – they knew they weren’t in any danger. It’s not a reaction of fear, but one of a thrill, stemming from an acknowledgment of the power of the illusion generated by the cinematic apparatus. I feel like that slippage you were talking about earlier happens when you are in a digital space, looking at images, and you forget about the apparatus, and next thing you know, you are questioning “Was I really there? Did that just happen?” The internet, computers, all these things seem very immaterial, but there is actually a huge, very real infrastructure that a lot of us aren’t really aware of. So when you mentioned that slippage I immediately thought of this situation where you are both aware of an illusion and aware of the apparatus that makes the illusion, but now maybe we are forgetting the apparatus and falling into illusion. Or at least, we slip into the illusion before remembering the apparatus and asking, “Wait, was I just there?”
ELH: Yeah that totally makes sense, and I think that’s a really great connection. That’s articulating what I am trying to say.
NJ: On the topic of the mediation of site, you’ve mentioned to Jacob Rhodes (curator ofIcicles in Caves) the “ah-ha” moment you had when reading Italo Calvino’s extraordinarily heady Invisible Cities – the connection with your work being the translation of a particular site into a sign, whether language or image, which stands in for the experience of a place. This is a fun question, and one I always like to ask people who’ve read the book, what’s your favorite city and why?
ELH: Oh, it starts with a “Z,” it’s right after Zora.
NJ: I can’t believe you remember the names. That’s incredible. I always have to describe my favorites to people because I can never remember the names.
ELH: Yeah, I think it’s Cities and Signs: One. I’m going to go see if it’s on my desk so I can remember it. It’s essentially thinking about how this city is constantly shifting. It’s one of the first ones where [Calvino is] talking about how [the city] exists as a series of experiences and word-of-mouths, and the people in relationship to the space directly. I’ll send you an email.
NJ: Is that the one with the strings? Where the connections between people and place are charted with strings?
ELH: No it’s not that one. This one is more like, a cat walks along a thing, somebody is hanged, somebody is drinking wine. It’s like a Rube Goldberg of moving through the spaces.
NJ: Great, thank you.
Postscript: Erika’s favorite city is Zaira
ICICLES IN CAVES: ERIKA LYNNE HANSON AND RACHEL SCHMIDHOFER
Curated by Jacob Rhodes, on view at Field Projects Gallery, June 16 – July 30, 2016.