Joe Brommel: So you all met in Wassaic a few months ago. I visited each of your studios independently in the summer, and the things that I saw then are now all together here at SPRING/BREAK. Can you talk about the arc of how you brought everything from then until now? Because you have now formed an artist collective, SYZYGY, as well.
Danni O’Brien: Yes, we have! In November I saw the theme for SPRING/BREAK this year, IN EXCESS, and I thought to myself, Oh my gosh, this would be the perfect opportunity for the three of us to come together to make a collaborative installation!
Kenzie Wells: I feel like there was also a huge material relationship that we saw even when we were at Wassaic. We all are really drawn to specific textures, texture and touch, or tactility.
DO: We all work with so much stuff and find ways to bring it all together in these ways that I think and feel —
Katie Hubbell: Over the top.
KW: It's tantalizing.
KH: Yeah. I like to think of things sometimes as being too sweet. Where it kind of becomes a little bit nauseating. Something that I think about in my own work is that line where things become abject. I’m interested in making these things where you question why you're so attracted to them, which I think can dissolve power structures in a way. The same with your sculptures, and there's a darkness in Kenzie’s work too. It's excess that kind of pushes the line.
DO: And a big part of our thinking about this was trying to get at this feeling of an in-between-ness — in between dream and reality, trying to dissolve barriers.
KW: It’s about dissolving dimensions. Dimensional boundaries.
Which feels related to the title of your installation: Super Ultra and the Soft Between. Can you say more about that title?
KW: “The soft between” gets at that space between reality and fantasy, subconscious and conscious, abject and magic. Taking two opposite things and finding where they merge and slither between boundaries.
DO: Exactly. It also feels very human. I think about flesh and the softness of and inside of human bodies, and I feel like a lot of the textures we're working with — and even the material that forms the imagery in the video — gets at that soft, mushy, wet, almost slippery material.
KW: And “super ultra”: this is a lot of stuff. Like, the excessiveness of material, texture, imagery.
DO: We talked about embedding video inside of objects: there’s this enticing sculptural object, you have an intimate interaction with it, and then you're surprised that part of it moves! It has a video component that lures you in and invites curiosity. What is the life force of this object? Or the internal organs and structures of this object?
KW: I also have an astigmatism, so the way that I perceive texture, it sometimes looks flatter than it is, and then that realization that it's really, actually there gives me this crazy, Am I in reality? Is this real? kind of sensation that I try to get to happen in the work as well.
Can you say more about that process of merging your practices for this installation? Because it doesn't just feel like, “Oh, we took our three practices and put them all in the same room.”
KH: They really are merged. Like, for instance, I keep talking about this piece [ball n chain (2020), pictured below]: the top ceramic chain is something that I made, Kenzie has the silver ball, Danni has the beads, I have the balls at the bottom, and then Danni has the yellow thing.
DO: And it really happened once we got here. We all brought things from our studios that we called “modular objects,” that we felt would really fit with one another’s work. I brought a couple of paper pulp sculptures that I felt were resolved on their own, but through combining with Katie and Kenzie’s stuff they took on a life of their own. There was a lot of tinkering and playing with our collective materials in a very childlike, experimental way, that helped us arrive at all of these exciting new structures and collaborations.
KW: And the reason why we make so many modular materials in our own independent practices is ‘cause we're very similar workers. Like, we’re always making things, even if there's not a reason to. We’re obsessive workers in the studio.
KH: At Wassaic I always called ourselves “the three o’clock crew,” because we were always up at the studio. [Laughs.]
KW: Yeah, just never stopped working. And I think that's a big reason why we make sense together as well as, is just because our method of making work is very similar.
KH: Yeah, we do have a very similar way of working with materials. Like, the videos: some of them I made specifically for this, but a lot of them are from different projects, and putting them together in this way is something that the conversation or the collaboration really informed. It's just another material.
How do you think of the process of taking something that was already complete and adapting it for a collective installation?
KH: It's less about the longer narrative and more about the specific action or movement. For instance, in Pristine Machine, it felt all of those videos together informed the content that I was working with, but splitting them up into just one action changes it a little bit.
DO: For me, a big part of the proposal was how layering Katie's video was going to look over top of Kenzie and I’s work. Often I'm drawn to sort of bulky, bulbous-y forms, but as I was making work for this show I was thinking, Oh, I need to think about making more spindly, gangly objects that could interrupt the video in a stranger way. And how they would be illuminated by the projections too: keeping the surfaces sort of pulpy and dull so as to absorb the light, rather than reflect it.
KH: It’s so interesting the way yours absorbed the light more, and then Kenzie’s completely shattered the light.
KW: Yeah, my own work is very, very dark for the most part. Palette-wise, I’m always merging black with color, because a lot of my work is kind of about this freaky nighttime energy. It’s still a lot about sensory experience and all that jazz, but it's definitely more about this Queen of the Night character I’ve developed. [Laughs.] I haven't actually done performance with it yet, but I know who the character is and what they would do with the work. I'm going home to finish my thesis show right after this, so I think that's when —
The Queen of the Night will emerge.
KW: The Queen of the Night will emerge.
DO: Hell yeah.
KW: But it’s a really good balance actually, to have something absorb and something refract. And I think that's a big reason why we make sense together as well. We were talking about this last night actually, how we all have this impulse to put things together in this funky way that’s almost too intimidating to do in our own separate practices. Sometimes it's, Oh, did I do too much? But with this, it's like, No, it's just right. [Laughs.]
Let's start with the “pseudo,” specifically the pseudo-scientific. You've expressed that you are influenced by your family's relationship to science — both your parents work as science professionals. Can you talk a bit about the role that science and pseudo-science plays in your work?
I grew up helping my dad paint watercolor images for presentations he used to give. For some reasons just looking at that imagery as a kid has had an impact on me. I was also very influenced by the abundance and presence of my parents’ science magazines. It's something that I think about a lot but not something that I necessarily understand or want to understand either. It really has more to do with the material of it than the beliefs.
Do you think of your work as offering any criticisms of the scientific field or are you simply drawing on its research and materials?
I don't know, maybe. I'm always interested in the ways that definites are a little bit unstable. I feel like science is continuously changing and shifting. That's something that's interesting to me and that I try to address in different ways in my work.
I studied Ecology and Conservation Biology in undergraduate. It was interesting to observe the ways in which the scientific field evolves and how rapidly its moving edges advance. At the same time, it proclaims objective truth and static stability. In your work there is a certain type of movement — an oozing subjectivity if you will — that undermines some of the claims that scientific disciplines and practices continuously stake.
That's not necessarily an observation that I set out to engage with or visualize in my work. But it's definitely something that I've become aware of and arrived at through my working methods overtime as well as through the materials that I incorporate.
What kinds of materials are you working with and how are you thinking about them in relationship to bodies?
I use a lot of foodstuffs and cosmetics in my work. I'm especially interested in using sweet and pretty materials in an abject way but not seriously abject. For example, bubble gum as a cheesy abject.
I'm not sure I follow. Are you speaking about the abject in relationship to theatricality?
Yeah, I'm not using things that are actually disgusting but I am using things in a disgusting way.
I’m still not sure I understand. Why is it important to you to use “desirable” materials to construct “off-putting” sensorial environments? Do the qualities of the materials provide specific entry points into the work while connoting specific thoughts and feelings in viewers?
Yeah, as I just said, these are just materials that I like using, bubble gum is a favorite of mine.
In an earlier conversation you mentioned self-help lingo and motivational advertisement as of interest to you and your practice. How do these two sources show up in your work?
I've explored self-help lingo and motivational advertisement in a number of ways in a number of pieces. In a video work called "20 Life Hacks to Cure Loneliness" I combine tiny bits of advice that kind of contradict themselves over the course of the video. The text and spoken word components of the video make use of these sources. I'm especially interested in the ways that advice can fall on itself and can become totally absurd and feel unstable depending on the context.
Recently you’ve taken up meditation as a practice. But only after making a work about meditation as a practice. We all absorb things in different ways at different rates but I'm very curious to hear a little bit more about this specific instance and the ways in which your engagement with meditation changed from an interest of your work to a practice in your life.
It was a really interesting process. It took a long time for me to incorporate meditation into my being. It was one of those things that people had been telling me I should do for years. You know, "You should do this, you should do that, you should do yoga, you should meditate." That's actually why I wanted to make a piece about it to begin with, because everyone around me was telling me that I should meditate. But also to use that as a tool to have a certain impact on the viewer. After watching a million and one meditation videos in preparation for the piece I was making, a lot of them were pretty bad, I figured why not incorporate it into my life as well. This happened maybe a year later. I guess it takes a while for me to absorb things.
Where's the line for you, assuming there is a line, between ironic and sincere engagement?
Woah. That's a good question. Um… [Long Pause]
Please don't feel like you have to answer.
I don't know.
It seems like your work walks a very fine line between offering a certain perspective on something and actually embodying that something. Which brings us back to the abject. I eat myself up, I purge myself out. Maybe what we are really getting at is a question of healing, of the ways that one heals.
Yeah, it's definitely cathartic. Or it can be. To exorcise oneself. Since you're being persistent, I've always been drawn to the abject since I started making art. The ways in which it can be appealing and threatening at the same time. That is the line that I'm interested in and that I try to play with in the work in general. I guess for me it's also really about the ways in which one can question the boundaries of the self.
How long have you been making work that deals in and with these types of issues?
It was there from the beginning, when I started with painting. I have always been acutely aware of it and have tried to express it in my work. It's also where I see my work going in the future as well. It will always be there.
If the underlying concerns of your practice have remained the same over time, what, if anything, has shifted as you've moved through painting and sculpture into video and installation?
You know, it's funny because the more work I make the more threads I see leading back to the early work I did in undergraduate. Which is interesting for me to acknowledge the ways in which certain ideas resurface over and over again. That said, while they may resurface I have completely different ways of addressing them. I got bored with painting after a while and the same with sculpture. For me it just felt limiting to work within one discipline. As my ideas have gotten a lot more complex they have required different outlets and expressions.
What are you working through or working towards at the moment?
I don't really know what I'm doing and I'm okay with that. I often start out with not knowing and go from there. Generally I start with surfaces and textures and build depth and shape from there. Recently I've been thinking a lot about wanting to make a piece on acupuncture. Which means I want to go get acupuncture. Which means it might just end with me getting acupuncture.
I was thinking about fashion and the body and connective tissue while reading about this discovery that was just made. Like there's this other space in the skin, it's this fluid layer that you can't see in a dead body but that you can see in a live body. And they were talking about the ways in which acupuncture's connection to this fluid layer of the skin is what makes it successful. So I was interested in exploring this kind of system in the body.
That's an interesting example in the sense that it illustrates the limits of scientific knowledge. Ancient-contemporary practices that have been implemented successfully for thousands of years still cannot be entirely understood or explained away by "science."
Yeah, I guess I'm more interested in the body and its surfaces than in what has or is being done to it. Like especially the skin of the body and the nets of the body. My mother was recently telling me about the relationship between fats and fasciae in the body. But I'm not sure if that's been accepted as common knowledge yet. You know, you hear all sorts of different things.
Whether or not you're thinking about or making a surface, the treatment of surfaces in your work seems to be an important aspect of your visual language. What is it about surfaces that you're interested in?
For me surfaces act as backdrops and as sets in my work. Surfaces can act as structures, too. A lot of the work's surfaces have been treated similarly, in a kind of goopy way. I think in part it has to do with incorporating different aspects of painting and sculpture into the work I've been making. I don't want to call them paintings and I don't want to call them sculptures either. The surfaces have become a way to unify different actions and materials.
As a way of concluding our conversation perhaps we can discuss your work in relationship to the work of others, are there any particular art historical lineages and/or constellations of influence you’d like to speak to or address?
Oh, um... [Long pause.]
We don't have to situate your practice in relationship to others if you don't want to.
I don't really wanna situate my practice within anywhere, anything, or anyone. Sure there are certain people and certain work that I get a lot from. But I don't really want to put my work in any particular lineage and I don't want to say who those people are. It's always kinda like "look but don't look" for me with other people.
The tensions and anxieties manifested within the dichotomy of comfort and unease are subjects of my investigation. Through the use of immersive installations, video and objects, the work orchestrates experiences of empathy and connectivity through reciprocal physicality. I am interested in how the viewer becomes keenly aware of their own body through these haptic experiences.
My work is centered on the exploration of visceral materials in relation to the body. As I question ideals, beauty and the gaze, I explore ways of analyzing psychological friction inherent in the everyday by pushing banal or innocent actions and materials to the point of absurdity. As the viewer attempts to engage the materials they suddenly unravel, become tangled, abstracted and abject. They are invited to a dialogue between sensuality and repulsion, boredom and flirtation, consumption and anxiety.
Now, more than ever
2019 Summer Residency
2018 Summer Residency