Nadia Odlum

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NADIA ODLUM

Artist-in-Residence

 
 

My Time In Wassaic

 
 

I travelled a pretty big distance to come work at Wassaic, all the way from Australia, in fact. I was interested in the facilities, the space, and the community of artists I would have access to. What I found was even more fascinating and inspiring than I thought it would be!

When I arrived, I was looking forward to working in the studio, to using the wood workshop to make sculpture, and to create new paintings and drawings. I also hoped to get outside and make some site-specific installation. These are all things I was able to achieve, however, I also had a number of unexpected outcomes. Access to a kiln encouraged me to push my work into using ceramics — something I had not done since undergraduate. In addition, working with the education program encouraged me to integrate my work as an arts educator more wholly into my practice, and to consider the possibility of bigger projects that engage with social practice and collaborations.

I am excited to show the work I have made at Wassaic at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair in September 2018, with STACKS Projects (this work, and other work I made at the Wassaic Project, will be posted on my website). But I am even more excited to see how this period of exploration and research will unpack itself once I return to Sydney. It has been a very fruitful period. Perhaps I’ll even be back!

 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Interview

By Drew Broderick, June 2018



Why is it important to you that your work structures viewers’ perception, orientation, and movement?

There's always a moment with perceptually challenging works in which the viewer or the audience comes into a certain awareness, where they perceive themselves perceiving. This is the moment that I find interesting, this is the moment that I am after. I want to target the perceptual capacities of the audience. I want to create moments via art where we can all reflect on ourselves as perceiving beings in the world. Works that can go further than just playing with visual perception but also help the audience to place visual perception within the context of the wider body and the way that the body moves through space are even more interesting to me. We're never still beings, even the eyes themselves are never still. These are the reasons why I try to work with things that create movement, disrupt movement, and encourage movement in different ways. Also I find these moments to be really interesting because when you're brought into an awareness of your own body perception you're also brought into the understanding that you see from a definite "somewhere." I see from where I am. When I expand this thought it produces an awareness that you see from where you are and that everybody else sees from a different place as well. It inherently foregrounds the subjectivity of all perception.


Where does navigation come into play?

A lot of my works are influenced by research into processes of movement and navigation in urban environments. Recently, in particular, my research and interests have been drawn more into the structuring of urban environments and the structuring of the ways that people navigate those spaces, how access is created or denied in those spaces, the way that infrastructure of a city and how people are able to move around in it and with it in turn shapes the growth of a city and shapes people’s experiences of a city.

This interest has expanded since 2017 when I was working at the New York Transit Museum after arriving from Sydney. It's been really interesting to go so in depth into learning about the way that the public transportation of New York City has shaped the growth of the city. This has definitely influenced me in pushing my interests further outwards to include navigation specifically in addition to movement in general.


In this change of context — from Sydney to New York City — how have the materials, production processes, and presentations of your work changed, if at all?

That's an interesting question. I think it's changed a bit in some of the ways that I approach working site-specifically. In 2016, I had a on-year studio residency at Parramatta Artist Studios which is a body in Sydney that provides subsidized studio rent to artists in Western Sydney. It's a really amazing organization. Anyway, so I was in the studio for a whole year and I had a really big space and I was making a lot of work and that definitely changed the kind of work I was making and the scale of work that I was making.

I came straight off of that into living in Brooklyn and having a bedroom studio. I really had to accept that because I had moved overseas I wasn't going to have the same kind of infrastructure or access to materials or anything like that. Instead it really became about learning and seeing and absorbing. Obviously my output was quite different as a result. I became more focused on researching things and making work that was process based. I was making a lot of work that had to do with my commute because that was my most common experience, moving back and forth between the Transit Museum and my room. I was treading the same urban space again and again so I became interested in making work that was directly about that.

Also, I've begun making more site-specific work. I made a site-specific work at the New York Transit Museum. It was a work that stretched the entire length of the platform. It responded to commuter movement on subway platforms. I also made a work in one of the subway cars that they have at the museum. It was comprised of drawings that were displayed where the advertisement spaces usually are in a subway car. They were all rubbings of the ground that lay directly above where the subway went each day of my daily commute. I sort of brought the world that I was passing beneath each day into the space of the subway car. In order to do this I walked the path of the subway above ground and made rubbings of the ground.

Taking those two projects as examples, they didn't really exist anymore once the show was over in the way that my past work might have. They were also much more process and project-based, whereas previously, when I've been situated in a more permanent location with a bigger space, I was making much more permanent objects. Now, being here at Wassaic, I'm kind of in-between the two. I'm in one place for a couple of months and I'm planning on making some work that I will take home with me, because I'm getting ready to show in the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair later in the year. But I'm also hoping to use the time and the space here to make some more site-specific work, particularly some outdoor works. I usually work within interior architecture spaces so I'm really excited to try and work with exterior landscaped spaces.


As the education fellow here at Wassaic and as an educator in general, how does education fit into your practice and in what ways does it inform how you produce your work and talk about your work and who your audience is?

When I was at Parramatta Artist Studios, as part of my residency there started writing some workshops for kids from the local area. We were encouraged when we were writing workshops to write them in a way that somehow related to our own practice. That was my first experience writing my own content for an education program. I really enjoyed it. I ended up writing a program that was about optical illusions. What I liked about that experience and what subsequently has had an influence on my practice is the process of going through a complicated idea and taking it apart to its base components. Explaining what optical illusions are to kids is a difficult process. I tried to "explain" less and instead ask more questions of them. That way my role is really more of a facilitator for knowledge and the kids are the guides. I'm definitely not interested in being the sage on the stage. I don't think that's a particularly helpful position to take, especially in art education. Instead you want to teach them to teach themselves. Or at least teach them to ask questions.

It was an interesting experience looking at artworks or images that created optical illusions and then talking about them with kids — talking about what's happening in the images and what it makes them think or what it makes them feel. The ways in which they would speak about the images was very uninhibited. Especially in art education, kids don't have the same kind of self-conscious hesitation as adults. They're not as afraid of saying something silly or sounding incorrect. They're not looking at an illusion and thinking, "oh, I don't know the science behind it so I'm not going to venture a guess at it in case I'm wrong." They'll just say something no matter how wild it is. Those sorts of intuitive responses, particularly for work that is about one of the most basic things that we all experience, perception of the world, are really significant.

So I guess I'm not sure how my role as an educator has shaped my own studio practice, but perhaps it has made me less hesitant. It's allowed me to be a bit freer in the ways that I think and work.

 
 

I want to target the perceptual capacities of the audience. I want to create moments via art where we can all reflect on ourselves as perceiving beings in the world.
— Nadia Odlum
 
 
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Lines — as both structuring devices and geometric abstractions — show up often in your work. You frequently present them in folded, distorted, and/or redirected forms. Why are you drawn to lines and what functions do they serve in your work?

I talk about this with kids a lot too. The New York Transit Museum project dealt a lot in and with lines. At one point in the project there were lines extending down the platform in the transit museum, they appeared as a vinyl floor treatment that was tracking down the length of the platform. I observed that people would often follow the lines, regardless of age, like ants on a sugar trail. I always wanted to take my phone out and film it but I was definitely not allowed to do that. But it was really interesting how instinctively everyone wanted to follow the lines.

At other times when I've had lines tracking through space and installations people will treat them almost like it's a barrier, almost like a wall. They'll stop at it and step over it or try to move around it in someway. So in either case the lines either guide or disrupt movement through the space. And it's really interesting to me because a line is such a simple element, it's not actually a physical barrier in the space, but it still divides space and dictates movement.

The lines that I incorporate into my work come from the urban environment. Their width is directly related to width of the lines on the sides of the road that delineates the area that is for pedestrian traffic and automobile traffic. We are able to read this graphic visual element in our environment, it signals something, it signals a delineation of space. We then move our entire navigation of space in accordance with where those lines are. So that's where the lines come from, but instead I use them for my own means and methods to produce something that meanders around the space in a less structured way. Sometimes the lines will go along the ground and sometimes they will go up and over a wall. So you're actually unable to physically follow it with your body at a certain point and you have to navigate in a different way around a wall if you want to continue to track the lines with your eyes or follow the lines with your body. That sort of playfulness is something I'm interested in because it brings you into an awareness of the different ways that the eyes are scouting ahead of the body's locomotion and that sort of thing.


That moment you just described, about a line traveling up and over a wall, is particularly interesting to me because both lines and walls are structuring devices. But in the encounter where the line meets the wall, the body which is already being structured by the line has to defer to the structure of the wall — physicality takes priority over visuality. It makes me consider the ways in which disrupting a line may not necessarily get one to navigate differently but instead get them to follow the disrupted line in the same manner that they would follow an undisrupted line. Have you ever observed viewers that remain unaffected by the lines that you present? Is that type of movement through space or engagement with your work something you're interested in?

Like are there people that don't follow the lines? Yeah, I mean the lines structure viewers' experiences as much as the space of the gallery does. Generally kids that enter one of my installations will just go for it and run around and follow the lines while adults will enter the installation, stop, track the lines with their eyes, and then move through the space accordingly. For the most part any one that experiences the installation demonstrates some sort of response that signals that they are considering how to move in the space, they're mapping out the space in some way or another. Also, a lot of the time with the line works it's not so much about people following it or moving in accordance with it, but they’re also about drawing out relationships in space. Sometimes the line will stretch from one wall to another, in turn giving a viewer a heightened awareness of the distance between those two walls. And that doesn't necessarily mean you're gonna move between those two spaces in some way that the line is making you, but it highlights a series of relationships in space. I'm interested in those types of dynamics as well. Which is one of the reasons that I want to try going outside with some of this work. Because so much of how I work is based on interior architectural spaces and it terrifies me, the thought of working out in space that is far larger than my own human body rather than something that is structured to contain my human body, that is scaled to my scale. Who knows, maybe the next step is to go out into the desert.


Roads come to mind, in terms of lines that structure non-architectural environments (if there is such a thing). You mentioned the lines on the surfaces of roads earlier, but roads themselves can also be understood as lines that structure movement and navigation, obviously on a very different scale. Perhaps you should do a project that deals with the conditions of roads.

Yeah, totally. Roads tame space by creating paths for us to follow.


Paths that one must follow.

[Laughs]

A road, just by its presence, is already a set of instructions. Move along this, in this way. It's interesting to think about a network of roads relative to wide open planes. Like what's the best plan of attack here. I haven't done a project with roads, especially not outside of the urban landscape, but maybe I should.

There are certain things in urban environments like this that people act out against that I really love. Like say for instance in public parks where there are predetermined paths that have been made. But then you see the desire line path of where people walk across the grass instead. For whatever reason, convenience, feel, etc., over and over, again and again, until a new line is drawn and a new path is formed.


And then eventually it gets paved — officially incorporated.

[Laughs]

Yeah, exactly.


It's easy to forget that things that become naturalized weren't always that way.

Or that it doesn't have to be that way. Or even something as simple as recognizing that its "a way" of doing something, not "the way" of doing something. Lines can do work in both directions depending on how they are being deployed. I try to remember that in my work, and to wield them towards different ends as a different type of mapping.

I often draw map-making practices into my practice, even while producing work that doesn't look too much like a map and isn't explicitly map-based. I use maps as research and source materials to think about how people have attempt to graphically representing movement or instructions for movement. In a similar way, a lot of my work draws from wayfinding devices, from physical instructions for movement, like street signs. But at the same time I don't want my work to look like a street sign. I try to produce visual cues that read differently, that act more as open instructions than authoritarian ones. They are often an invitation for an engagement rather than a specification for a particular engagement that you're meant to have. Like, for example, "Stop here."

 
 
Roads tame space by creating paths for us to follow.
— Nadia Odlum
 
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Photos by Walker Esner and Verónica González Mayoral