Straw Utopia (LGA --> ATL), From the Seat Assignment series, (Courtesy of
GW: You spent a lot of time in Northern Europe it seems?
NK: I have a mother who comes from Finland. So I have spent part of every summer
of my life growing up there. It's a place that my family convenes in every year.
It is a little island off the south coast. It's very, very far away mentally
at least. from the rest of my life. Very different from Brooklyn where I live.
This Island has, over the years, become a really important place for me to go
to on occasion to make work. There are a lot of projects that have happened
in the spirit of play, like the one you have up right now Artificial Insemination
[on computer] about artificial insemination which was me looking at a pond of
tadpoles and thinking...
GW: Was that created in Finland?
Artificial Insemination, C-print, 20 x 20 inches, 1998
NK: Yeah. That happened one summer. I was actually there on my own for a couple
weeks on that island and I saw these tad poles in the pond and I thought it
would be amazing if you put a chicken egg in there and they all kind of swarmed
it and you would get this picture of the sperm fertilizing the egg in a science
textbook. I put the egg in the pond and, of course, the tadpoles couldn't have
cared less about it. So I had to fish out a bunch of tadpoles, borrow them for
a little bit, went up to the house, took out a dinner plate from the cupboard,
and an egg from the fridge and assembled this whole thing on a black T shirt
that I was wearing and took the picture.
GW: Did you make a video of this?
NK: I also made a video of it. They sort of swim around the edges of the plate,
they look very scared of it.
GW: That would be really fun.
NK: Yeah, so there were a lot of things that summer, including this series
[indicates toward screen] the Spider Web Series, which, may be has been the
work that I have exhibited more than anything else. I was finding broken spiderwebs
and repairing them with sewing thread. What would happen was the spider would
come in and kick out these patches and fix the web again. So we were sort of
in this battle of one upmanship about who knew how to fix the web the best way.
GW: They got rid of the thread?
Mended Spiderweb #8 (Fish Patch), Cibachrome, 20 x 20 inches, 1998
GW: So you were creating a temporary band-aid?
NK: Well, yeah, the whole question if I am really trying to help them hovers
over the work. Its a really meddlesome act to go in there with...
GW: It's like Social Practice.
NK: Oh! [Laughs a little uncomfortably]
GW: I can say that because I have worked in that way.
NK: Yeah, yeah. So this project marks the beginning of a lot of work that I
have done that relates to our relationship to the natural world. Specifically
GW: So animals are an area of interest?
NK: I am interested in what we want from animals. Like what it is that we see
in them. Or project onto them. Or hope to get from them. What they seem to tell
us about ourselves. All the metaphorical overlay that we throw on them.
NK: Yes, anthropomorphizing them. I made a piece two years ago that I don't
think is up on my site yet. A big project called Zoo which is a 19 channel video
installation. I have been shooting footage in zoos for the past...eight years
now and then it finally became this kind of room sized piece. with lots of snippets
of animal parts or activities, but it is often very hard to know exactly what
you are looking at. You might see an animal that you think is kind of huge but
it turns out to be a little rodent sized thing. Diorama. I think the thing is
that we go to zoos a lot thinking that the animals will behave a certain way
for us and a lot of the time they are just sitting there asleep or doing something
that is very anticlimactic or disappointing. And there is this urge to kind
of communicate, but its a very one way street. We are here. There's a little
label that says what the animal is over there and you're supposed to read this
thing and get it. In some ways may be, by reading about it and having knowledge
over it, may be...I think of it as a power dynamic of sorts. We kind of know
it therefore we have it. So animals keep coming up. It's one thread of many,
but I think it is probably going to stick around for a long time.
GW: It does seem that you have a number of trajectories of investigation. When
you talk about investigating animals Fritz Haeg
comes to mind.
NK: Fritz Haeg who does the garden project?
GW: Yeah but he also has another project that was in the Whitney a couple of
NK: Did he do the big birds outside?
NK: I don't know him personally. I have seen his work here and there, but I'm
not sure how to describe how he thinks of the human/animal relationship. What's
your understanding of it?
GW: He comes from a more conservation point of view. Animal Estates is the
name of that project. It is very site specific in that he researches marginalized
or endangered animals of a specific place and then creates mini habitats in
the urban landscape that they could inhabit.
NK: Right. I think I am actually not coming at this topic in exactly the same
way especially with the spider work. I am trying to look at the way that we
have a rather competitive and fraught and often damaging relationship to nature
or animals. For example, you might think, 'How nice that she is mending spider
webs', but really there is a lot of evidence in the pictures and the video that
I made that goes along with the pictures that I am doing way more harm than
good by messing around in there and I was sort of, never invited in the first
GW: Exactly. Right?
NK: The spiders were happy to see me go.
GW: They were pretty pissed off?
NK: They were kind of pissed off.
GW: I feel like spiders are pissed off most of the time.
NK: [laughing] I feel like I owe them my career actually so I am very kind
to them. It is also funny, it's been pointed out to me, I have done a lot of
work with animals in the very "uncute" category of animals, so spiders,
snakes, rats, sharks.
GW: Animals that are very necessary to our survival but we also fear them...generally.
NK: Yeah, where its hard to do that thing where it's like, Oh the baby polar
bear, I wanna be just like it, you know? It's harder to feel that way about
a spider or a snake. They are really foreign, more foreign in some ways as animal
bodies than other things are. There's a project called The Continuum of Cute
that we can also look at that is on this topic...[Sound of navigating the internet]
It is the only web based project I have ever done; i was invited to make something
for the New Museum. When you go to the site you end up with a grid of 100 animals
that are all found online and you are asked to arrange these animals in order
of cuteness. I have been thinking about this question of what's cute. Because
we kind of know it when we see it and we have strong feelings about it often.
What's been fun is finding animals that are really hard to decide about for
GW: Like this thing? [pointing to screen]
NK: Yes, this thing is what is called a Dumbo Octopus. If you click on it there
you should be able to see it...
GW: Oh, god.
NK: Isn't that great? It looks like a Pokeomon. But to me, this baby polar
bear is absolutely irresistible. I can't stand how cute that is. And then there
are...I mean it is ridiculous. On the other hand like this is a good example,
this is called a Blob Fish. It's sort of in this category of ugly-cute, sort
of pathetic but sort of sweet looking to me, but for some people this ends up
on the way uncute end and for others it ends up on the cuter end.
GW: I think it is the visceral sliminess...
NK: Oh, god, and this goo coming out of its mouth. Really vile. And then there
are animals, let me find you an example of...what do you do about a...like a
lion? Beautiful animal, but is it cute? It's not exactly cute. So some of these
end up in this interesting middle zone. And then if you click on this link here,
it allows you to see what other people have determined as cute. Unfortunately
this is not functioning right at the moment but...
GW: There's quite a few on here though...Oh man, look at that. That is a hairless
NK: That is a hairless cat, yes.
GW: So it goes from not cute to cute? Left to right?
NK: Yeah, so if you scroll down and pull this bar across you'll see that as
things get cuter and cuter they get fuzzier and younger...
GW: Man, people think slugs are cute?
NK: See, I have an aversion to slugs. Those would be way on the uncute end
to me but some people...
GW: Have you encountered the Banana Slug?
NK: I grew up in California, where there were [sound of disgust] they are horrifying
Go all the way to the right and you will see how many polar bears and fuzzy,
you know like...
GW: Oh look, someone thought the octopus was cute.
NK: Yes. And if you double click on...if you double click anything really,
it will show you where that animal pops up on the whole spectrum so...
GW: You worked with a web developer to create this?
NK: I art directed the page and these people built it for me. Its the only
web thing I have ever made...the interactive format suited itself really well
to this idea. Yeah, I think about words like cute and I think about words like
natural which we always have a fondness for but are pretty complicated words
and I think we have a set of double standards around. So you will notice on
my site that there are lots of...well lets see, there is a project called Natural
Car Alarms for example, I redesigned the standard six tone car alarm that is
really ubiquitous in New York City and replaced all of these six tones with
bird calls instead, but birds that sounded a lot like alarms so it is a very
abrasive, loud, harsh sound situation. It's not a sound beautification project,
but it does get very confusing.
GW: Did you just install that in one car?
NK: No, three cars and took them around like a little flock to a few different
While listening back to the interview recording I discovered that my recording
device had malfunctioned and I had not recorded the last third of the interview.
Katchedourian was kind enough to speak to me again to recapture some of the
lost information. I caught up with her via cell phone as she waited to board
a flight from Portland to San Francisco.
GW: Hello! Thanks so much for talking to me in lieu of the failure of my technology.
I appreciate it very much.
GW: You were not feeling very well at the opening [at the Feldman Gallery]
last night when I spoke to you. Are you feeling better?
NK: Yeah, I wasn't feeling very well all afternoon but by the end of the night
I had rallied back. Yeah it was a great night. The cab driver that drove me
to the airport turned out to be a former photo art gallery dealer. It was such
a weird thing...he was like, 'What have you been doing in Portland?' I have
been having a show, 'Oh, I used to be an art dealer', And now he is driving
GW: Where was his gallery?
NK: I don't know I didn't actually ask him what his gallery was called. He
was a very nice guy, his name was Guy...something. A photo dealer...anyway.
GW: So, had you been in Portland before?
NK: Only in December for this very brief site visit to meet with Mack and do
a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Craft.
GW: How do you feel about your experiences in Portland?
NK: How do I feel about it? I had a great time on this visit. I actually had
some time on this visit to take a look around a little bit. It's interesting
I am from California but it feels sort of...in a West Coast culture sort of
way familiar to me, but its not California. It's a part of the country I really
don't know which is strange given how much I have traveled. From San Francisco
South I am very familiar but North of that I am not familiar. I have never been
to Seattle either.
GW: Hopefully we will be seeing more of you. You mentioned that you have been
traveling a lot?
NK: Yeah, I'm lucky, I get to travel a lot these days. It's rare that two weeks
go by that I am not getting on a plane to go somewhere at the moment. Well,
may be not that frequently, but it is sort of the way that I can handle living
in New York because I get really stir crazy there if I don't get out. So coming
and going even on short trips keeps it from feeling claustrophobic there.
GW: It can be a bit intense.
NK: Yeah, it's just my own thing to be one part really into cities and the
other wanting to be in the most remote places possible. I have this kind of
schizophrenic personality that way.
GW: Sounds like you grew up doing that.
NK: Yeah, we were talking about Finland and all that stuff. It has become really
important to get away, really far away, a couple times a year from anything
city-like. In part that is why I am so excited about New Zealand. Things are
going to be fantastically remote [laughs]. So do you want to recap? I am not
sure what you want to...recover from yesterday? What didn't get recorded?
Sorted Books at PNCA's Feldman Gallery
GW: Yeah, if you don't mind talking about Sorted Books, may be a brief history
and working with Lisa Radon, Tim DuRoche, and family.
NK: Sorted Books started in grad school when a bunch of us decided to, we were
invited by a friends parents to live and work in the house for about a week
and make art with what we found. I got really interested in the couple's books
and ended up spending days and days in their bookshelves pouring over their
books and then eventually doing this thing, putting them into stacks. I never
intended to do anything more with this than show them a sited situation of books
on shelves but then photographed them to document them and then over the years
this has really become more of a photography project as well as, in the case
of this show, where the actual books are shown. So, a few years ago the project
started getting blogged. A lot. I wish I could figure out where that all began.
I think that site Boing Boing ran something about it and a lot of people read
that and from there it kind of just spread. There was suddenly a lot of things
online where people were trying their own hand at this. Somebody set up a Flickr
page saying, Here's my version of Nina Katchedourian's Sorted Books, and I really
liked that. It sort of gave me the idea of what would happen if I intentionally
put this project into other people's hands. So I have worked with a couple art
classes and students from different schools. This show I thought it would be
interesting to work with a family so Mack helped me find Tim and Lisa and all
of them, their three kids, combined their books from their entire collections.
To make the pieces that are in the show.
GW: So they were involved in the arrangement or sorting of the books?
NK: They did it all. I didn't do anything.
GW: You acted more as facilitator.
NK: Yeah, I spoke to them on the phone I sort of explained how the project
worked, they looked all over my web site. Those pictures and then they set about
doing it. And when i got here they had all the books and...one second [sound
of boarding call] Oh, Sacramento, so I mean everything was great but I made
a couple little tweaks and I talked about a few suggestions about how to make
them read more clearly, take a book out here or there, switch the sequence.
You know I did very minor edits. I basically came in their final form. So that
is their work, harnessing my idea, making their version of it.
GW: I did notice that the voice in that area [of the exhibition] was a lot
different than the photographs.
NK: It is different and it is interesting to me. And until trying it this way
I have never really known how individual each voice might be, but it turns out
it is that way and it turns out I have certain hallmark things that I like to
do, certain words, phrases that I know work really well for this project that
I go searching for. I have a few tricks up my sleeve. It was a really nice opportunity
to also get to know some people here. I like the idea of bringing something
in that is distinct to the place.
GW: You mentioned you have been doing a lot of work on planes?
NK: Because I travel so much and I want to make use of those hours in some
way - plane travel to me is usually the kind of experience where you are at
point A and you want to go to point B and you pretty much forget about everything
that happens between point A and B. Do you know what the Sky Mall Catalog is?
A few months ago I ended up looking through that, I'm sort of obsessed with
it. Every single time I am on a flight I have to look through every page of
it. It is a ritual at this point. And I lead this other life as a singer musician
and I ended up writing this song on the plane about the cats that appear on
Sky Mall and made this ridiculous little video when I got home by scanning a
bunch of pictures out of the Sky Mall Catalog and linking them up to this song
called Sky Mall Kitties. It had this minor viral moment on Youtube and it peaked
out at - something like 60,000 views - which really isn't that many, but Sky
Mall Kitties, though I didn't really make it as an artwork, really raised the
question for me, what happens when you try to make something, using what you've
got in these kinds of circumstances - in flight travel. It has led to, now,
this project called Seat Assignment where I am trying to use whatever I have
at hand and using only my phone to document, mostly only photographic situations
where I am laying pretzels, crumbled up pretzels from the snack they hand you,
on the page of a landscape or something. Little movies have also come into play.
I think there is a lot more to do that doesn't involve 2D situations but actually
talking to the person next to me - interviewing them for example - asking them
about their reading - whatever it is I think there is the potential to engage
my fellow passengers in a way that I haven't had the guts to do yet. But I will.
Soon the Seat Assignment project will be published in this little LA art magazine
called Extra. I'm also working on the massive "Jumbo" marathon flying
to New Zealand from New York where I have 27 hours or so to...basically make
the show that I am going to have in Dunedin. A colossal endurance test of my
stamina and creativity. I am sure that I will hit a wall at some point and just
completely not be able to do it, but that's part of it too.
GW: Yeah, I've certainly made that trip.
NK: [laughing] Yeah, I know, I know! I'm scared to ask you how truly exhausting
it is. I flew to Sydney from San Francisco before but, boy, that seems kind
of easy compared to New York Dunedin. So, you know, the Seat Assignment project
is very much in keeping with a lot of ways I work and in keeping with a lot
of things I believe in which is there is a lot to the everyday, more than meets
the eye, there's a lot you can do with very little, there's a lot you can do
by just recontextualizing what's in front of you. The Sorted Books project
works that way. There are already books on the shelves. I am just creating a
new order for them - pulling out a different kind of meaning. In some ways the
plane project is very similar. It is just how you combine your ingredients that
leads to something meaningful, and, as with a lot of things that I make, sometimes
I start out not knowing exactly what it's going to be, but when you have enough
stuff made you sort of have a critical mass situation where you can step back
and take a look at it and kind of act as your own curator, say, what is this
really about? See where the themes lie and where the connecting threads are.
There are a lot of landscapes [in Seat Assignment] - thinking about stuff on
a plane - you are in a weird, particular kind of landscape but you are also
moving over landscapes and between landscapes and there is something that just
makes sense about making landscapes on a plane.
GW: It is certainly a curious way of moving through the landscape, the airplane,
that's for sure.
NK: And from up there you also have impossible views on the landscape that
you never get, you know, that's another thing, so far I don't think I have ever
had a window seat while I have done this, so I have been a little limited -
I haven't really dealt with the view outside much I have really been dealing
with the view inside the plane so far. May be on this flight I'll have a window
GW: That's interesting because you have done tons of work with maps as well.
It seems to be an area of interest...
Hand-held Subway, Cibachrome, 13 x 19 inches, 1996
NK: Yeah, the first work I ever made had to do with maps, that's kind of where
all this stuff began really. All this art stuff. I'm very fond of maps. Yeah
and there is, I think I showed you the ice on the maps of the flight magazine?
NK: I have done a few things with maps in the plane context but it is sort
of different than looking out the window.
GW: I told you about the New Zealand glow worms yesterday, and you have done
a lot of work with insects in the past, do you think there might be a possibility
that you will include them in your work?
NK: [Laughs] Include glow worms in my project! It's possible, I'll see when
I get up there. Well, yeah, worms - I don't know do caterpillars count?
NK: Tadpoles. So, worms might make there way in. I am actually terrified of
worms - it's kind of funny - I don't mind spiders, snakes, rats, I don't mind
any of those things you're supposed to be afraid of but, earthworms, Oh, god!
I have to leave the room - or leeches, even worse, you've hit some phobic spot
GW: The glow worms actually make webs. That's why I mentioned it.
NK: You know, have you seen the Planet Earth series? You know that BBC nature
NK: Is it like those? There's a section on caves and there are these amazing
worms that live in the ceilings of these caves and spin these crazy networks.
That's what I'm imagining...
GW: Yes, it is like that.
NK: Wow. Oh yeah, wow I'd really love to see that.
GW: So, do you have much time left?
NK: Yeah, I'm watching the thing. Their not boarding just yet. Go ahead.
GW: I was looking into some of your video work. I am interested in the video
work Endurance and The Recovery Channel. Will you talk about them?
NK: Sure. Recovery Channel is a spinoff of an earlier project where I was collecting
found audio tape off the street. When I first moved to New York there was a
lot of that stuff - cassette tape - hanging from trees and tangled around things.
One day it occurred to me that it would be pretty easy to pick it up and see
what the song was on it. So I brought them home and cleaned it up and it turned
out to be quite easy to do, so for years I made these found audio tape pieces.
The video tape I started collecting along side of that, but that is a lot harder
to restore it turns out, and it took years. I had a great studio assistant one
summer who really helped me tremendously with cleaning it all up. It just gets
damaged much more easily and VCRs don't want to play tape that is damaged so
I killed a bunch of VCRs transferring all that stuff over, but it is really
interesting material. I think of it of the negative space of television. The
stuff that people don't want. That they don't want to watch in a way, or that
they have thrown out. There is material that ranges from the incredibly boring
like the instructional video for how to set the alarm system for your house
to things that are antiquated in a funny way like, How To Browse the Internet
Using Netscape and it's all like, "Click on this with your mouse",
kind of thing and you realize even ten years later how incredibly dated that
is. Then there is a ton of porn. And the porn is interesting because some of
it is really old, like it was shot on film and we've had it in the closet since
1972 and had to kind of quickly throw it out. Some of it is homemade, it was
a really weird clip to find, I found it just a couple of blocks away from my
house, basically a couple who just shot themselves in their bedroom, and that's
kind of fascinating to watch, but I had a little ethical moment, "Is it
fair to include this?". So the only place where I actually edited was when
I took out the parts where their faces were recognizable and kept the rest.
There is a long segment of a Barney, children's TV show thing. I like imaging
some parent throwing this tape out the window - I can't take it anymore it's
driving me nuts! What happens is you sit down in this little chair living room
arrangement with this TV in front of you and you get to channel surf this TV
which has all the different - each time I found a clump of new tape it became
its own channel, part of The Recovery Channel. So you kind of browse your way
through this thing and you see all this stuff that was on the verge of becoming
garbage and what I feel like I am doing is pulling it back from the edge, of
being garbage hanging from a tree to something to something that has information
on it again.
GW: But the viewer had a remote control and could switch between channels.
How did that happen technically?
NK: The way it worked technically, and this is important to me, is that if
you imagine forwarding through tracks on a DVD for example you always start
at the beginning of each track, but that is not how TV works. On TV you have
channel 1 that continues playing when you are watching channel 2. There is a
place in New York called I Beam that actually helped me program the interface
where it is basically 36 little Quicktime movies that run simultaneously all
the time, the computer drives the program. That way when you scroll through
every channel is constantly moving forward. Although you feel like you are channel
surfing the TV the remote is actually controlling a program that is on a little
laptop that is hidden.
GW: Would you briefly touch on the video piece, Endurance? I am interested
in this idea of projecting onto your tooth and then re-presenting that footage.
NK: Right. So, longtime obsession with all things Maritime, I read a ton of
survival literature, I got really into reading about shipwrecks and Shackelton
is not a hard person to arrive at when you're interested in those things. I
went to see a big show at the Museum of Natural History where they had all of
Frank Hurley's photographs from the expedition. It was an amazing pilgrimage
for me, they had the lifeboat that all of them got off Antarctica in. It was
amazing. In the gift shop I bought a copy of this film called South, which is
the documentary, shot on the expedition. So, I had an idea for a long time to
have a film festival on my front tooth. I would be laying in a dentist chair
or something and people would have to lean down and watch this thing at an uncomfortably
intimate distance, but somehow I never figured out what the films would be and
in the end I didn't end up doing that. I ended up making this video instead.
Suddenly the Shackleton film seemed like the perfect fit because it was an endurance
test. I was sort of excited about putting myself through something mildly painful.
So the goal was to smile brightly for ten minutes while the film is on my tooth,
but it is really hard to stay still and it is very hard to smile that long and
as a result I completely loose my composure at the end and start drooling and
it is all very, not lady like. And it is projected huge, so when you come into
the space you are confronted with this ten foot wide mouth that makes a lot
of icky mouth sounds and spittle sounds. The piece really grosses some people
GW: I apologize for continuing to ask technical questions, but how do you project
on a tooth?
NK: Oh. I had to invent strange methods. You turn a couple of slide projector
lenses in opposite directions and project through that. I shrunk the picture.
GW: That's clever.
NK: So listen, Gary, I think I have to board, everybody's getting on the plane.
GW: If you don't have time for this question I understand, but yesterday you
talked about what you felt your mission as an artist was...
NK: Oh, Ok. There was a conversation that happened between John Cage and Allen
Kaprow - Kaprow was my teacher and Kaprow was Cage's student - so I feel a little
bit of lineage there. But Cage had once said to Kaprow that the definition of
an artist or art could be paying attention or may be then, by extension, an
artist is someone who pays attention. I feel like that is pretty much my job,
to notice things that I am noticing and point those things out to other people
so that they can notice them too and may be change the way they perceive things
in the everyday. You know hopefully enrich them, hopefully change them, hopefully
alter them sometime as well.
GW: I didn't know that Kaprow was your teacher.
NK: Yeah. He was really important to me. He wasn't my advisor but I was really
fond of him and we would talk a lot about art together and worked together a
bit too. Well, listen, I'm going to go. If you want to talk more later I'm happy
to, just text or call if you want to continue this, but I've got to get on the
GW: Thank you so much for making the time. I really appreciate it.
NK: No problem. Please send it to me when its done too.
GW: I will, definitely.
NK: Take care.
Katchadourian's Sorted Books is on view at PNCA's Feldman Gallery