Beauty Surplus is part of the Open House Project series, an ongoing Arts Center initiative providing a platform for emerging and underrepresented artists and art forms. Artists and organizations are invited to collaborate and experiment with new ideas and original content in exhibitions that use the galleries in the John Michael Kohler home as a place for artistic inquiry. The home, built in 1883, is a unique setting for the generation of new curatorial explorations of topics ranging from the familiar to the phenomenal.
Image above: Performance by Paula Matthusen and Olivia Valentine, part of the Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe Opening Celebration at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2019.
Composer Paula Matthusen and visual artist Olivia Valentine performed in the Serra Victoria Bothwell Fells: Beauty Surplus exhibition space in fall 2019. Matthusen and Valentine’s ongoing collaboration, between systems and grounds, creates a dialogue between textile construction, electronics, and the environment in which they perform.
Samantha Maloney, John Michael Kohler Arts Center curatorial assistant, interviewed the artists about their collaboration and performance. The following has been edited for clarity.
Sam Maloney: How did your collaboration begin?
Paula Matthusen: Well, Olivia and I were both in Rome, and her studio was right across from where I was living. Part of it was that we struck up a conversation and realized we were both interested in issues of structure, pattern, and construction and just shared a mutual interest in each other’s work. We thought it would be really interesting, because we have such different practices, to try to find a way that our work might be able to actually speak to each other. And so that began a very long, slow conversation in terms of finding what ways things can share space, time, and conversation with each other.
SM: Did you have any challenges while figuring things out?
Olivia Valentine: When we decided to do this, we didn’t even live on the same continent. Now I live in Iowa, and Paula is here in Middletown, Connecticut. So we tend to go to third locations for the work, which I think is ultimately good for the work, developing a project that required a dedicated time and space. But the actual figuring out how to make these dialogues went strangely smooth.
PM: We’ve benefitted, certainly, from a number of residencies. So starting first with a residency at Hambidge in Rabun Gap, Georgia—that was this critical moment at the start of the project because we really needed the time to try things, have them not work, and then try again. Then we went to ACRE in Stuben, Wisconsin, and continued to work there. And so part of the process has been to figure out how to deal with the different temporal levels as things were unfolding. Our first test was actually in Budapest. In that particular moment, we approached it like a performance. It didn’t really work for either of us because my system was purely reactive.
OV: And mine was purely productive. I was trying to produce these textiles, we had about 10, 15 minutes. We had a very small audience. It had to have a beginning, middle, and end in a very clear way. For me as a visual artist, my work takes a long time.
PM: And so as a result, we tried to expand some of the boundaries of what could be considered performance. And to really look at it more as conducting work with one another in which other people are allowed to visit and see what happens. And you know, having that site specificity built in.
OV: While we were at [the Arts Center] in Serra’s exhibition, we did devise that we would just do our full hour 45-minute set. So as to not actually have to take a break and cause a rupture in what we were doing. When we do a break it turns into a break, a conversation, and a different way of reacting to the work.
SM: Can you expound on your individual processes and how those intersect in these moments?
OV: Actually, the genesis of the piece is a new piece of equipment that Paula acquired right as we were starting the process: the matrix switcher. It has a six-by-six grid of switches. So I started designing the lace based on that. It would have 12 units or 12 cells in the fabric. I’ve been working in bottom weights, which is the technique I’m using in this, for more than 10 years now. But I decided to work specifically with a collection of stitches called rose crown. As we go, I’m responding actually with what I’m doing in the textile to what Paula is doing with the sound in the space.
PM: And then for myself a lot of it is feedback based. That means that I’m generating feedback from microphones and cassette recorders in the space and then also using pretty idiosyncratic microphone placement based on where we are to try to draw out different sounds and ambient noises that might be there. But what’s been fun is choosing how we record within the system. Because of the structure of it, the performance also changes as we record. The system doubles as a cassette and also functions as a music box, playing previous recordings that we do, that are time compressed.
And what’s also important with this project is that Olivia has a contact microphone in her desk. So while she’s working, I can play with the live amplification of the bobbins on the foam core, which is her desk. But then in addition to that, it is also triggering a series of time compressed recordings that get looped back in eventually.
OV: And actually, that contact mic also generates a data stream that I’m then incorporating into the design of the textile.
If it’s helpful to you, there’s a nice set of diagrams for illustrating the relationship. It’s on our website.
PM: But I think you can come in and understand that there’s something going on. I don’t think you necessarily need to have us sit down and explain all the different levels of what’s taking place.
SM: In thinking of place, and your setting, and how that plays into the work, how does that influence your choice of location for projects to unfold?
PM: When we get invited someplace, what we’re interested in is finding how can that space speak in a way.
OV: So at [the Arts Center] working in Serra’s exhibition, we were really excited to work in that back room because, it’s twofold actually—it had a nice resonance. Visually also, it was the right size, we fit really nicely in there. And the window installation that Serra had done, for me a lot of my other work that I do outside of this collaboration does have to do with architectural openings. So I visually have a lot of resonances with Serra’s work.
PM: Hopefully I’m not reading it incorrectly—but what I loved about the exhibit was looking at all these fixtures that resonate with a certain domestic space, or like in particular the fireplace, the windows, the doorway, and even the ceiling. And it was not to fight it, but it was more to find the uniqueness that’s there and use it as a starting point and to work with that. And I think that’s something that we do, too. Because the spaces that we’re interested in and that we look at are not, for example, desirable, sought-out recording spaces; we’re not going to have a violin concerto in there or something like that. What we’re going to do is unique to that space, it’s something that then articulates its own uniqueness and in turn our interactions with each other.
SM: You actually hit the nail on the head with that show and the Open House Project in general. It’s working in a very specific space. What was the experience that was similar or different to past experiences that you had or something that struck you with performing in that space?
PM: It was actually the smallest space that I think we’ve worked in, maybe?
But it’s strange, because there’s enough variety that it becomes difficult to compare in the sense that we look for certain things and figure out how to respond. So every time we’ve done it, at least for me, I’ve used different microphones. I’ve used different placement, different equipment. We’ll adjust something, for example, when we were in Stuben, Wisconsin, I was getting a lot of electrical interference from an electrified fence outside, and rather than fighting with that I said “ok, that’s a signal, so we can treat it like a signal like anything else.”
OV: But this was the first time we were just inside in someone else’s exhibition.
SM: So flipping it a little bit and going to my last question: What do you hope viewers take away from seeing you create this work?
OV: There’s an amazing artist [Judith Leeman] in the show [Even thread has a speech], the contemporary works show with the Tawney exhibition [Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe]. I was familiar with her work somewhat, but she was able to come and spend some time during the performance. And earlier in the day, I listened to her speak about craft as a durational practice. And I love that she actually came in and just laid down in the middle of the exhibition and wouldn’t shift, looking for an hour.
This idea of shared space and attention ultimately, as well as time being a material practice. Or creating, or having documenting the material of time, and time spent together in different places. At least attention to what is going on around us, I think that would be ultimately what I want people to take away from it.
SM: Do you have any other comments or anything else that you think would be important to add to this conversation.
PM: The only other thing that I would say is that this is long in duration and collaboration, because there are a lot of people and spaces that have contributed as part of the evolution of this, we’re just really grateful that we’ve been able to do this.
OV: We are in the beginning stages of a new iteration of the project, which will be sort of performed probably for the first time next year. Using instead of bobbin lace, we’ll be working with a AVL compu-dobby loom. So we’re actually delving much deeper, I would say, into the computational side of all it, unpredicted by either Paula or me. In some ways, while we’re a little bit more restrained, we can also be more responsive, and the patterning that I’m working with will have a quicker response time than what happens with the bobbins.
SM: Well that’s exciting to hear that you’re going down, almost a deeper rabbit hole with this.
PM: There’s no end to the curiosity.
Recording of performance by Paula Matthusen and Olivia Valentine as part of the Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe Opening Celebration at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2019. Video courtesy of Paula Matthusen and Olivia Valentine.
This exhibition is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. Funding was also provided by the Kohler Trust for the Arts and Education, Kohler Foundation, Inc., and the Frederic Cornell Kohler Charitable Trust. The Arts Center thanks its many members for their support of exhibitions and programs through the year.