Anne Senstad talks about creating “Radical Light,” how to have a neon geek fest, and why we need to reclaim human experience beyond technology-based art.
Interviewed by Karin Laansoo, May 2020
Karin Laansoo: I could not think of a more extraordinary time to make this interview. We started preparing for your project a little less than a year ago when Kai was still a construction zone. Fast-forward to spring of this year, and your exhibition was literally cut in half by the virus crisis on March 13th. With the world slowly reopening again, Kai will also open its doors in May. Let’s go back to the beginning – tell me your first thoughts and ideas for planning “Radical Light”.
Anne Katrine Senstad: Yes, I remember well when we first started working on the initial steps of the exhibition. It’s an interesting process to review and look at what we did in retrospective. When you’re in the middle of the birth of a new work, you’re pretty much engulfed in the whole project and it’s a very raw and creative state to be in. I think the process of conceiving a work is really exciting, since it entails igniting all aspects of one’s vision, the creative “artillery,” and stepping into new, uncharted territory with a new space/new geographic place/new context and allowing one’s art practice to grow.
I really envisioned the possibility of creating a vast experiential space of pure light and sound as a structural monumental form – to be able to really take it to the max which I think we did pretty well. The architecture of the space had to be the framework so I didn’t want to section it up into parts, but utilize the unique architecture of it. My vision was to anchor the experience of pure perception within a contained neon matrix structure, yet creating the infinitesimal simultaneously, and for the public to be able to experience those various cognitive forms of transformation – so in a way try to create an ultimate potential.
The first idea was working with nature and the northern lights, but then in working with light tests the whole element of investigating further what light in itself can do started to unfold. I remember we spoke about the epoch we were in, as being on the threshold between eras, and drawing eras in history where art spoke about and responded to transformation, being in the transformative state, or ushering in transformation as in the idea of the revolutionary in art, like the land artists were moving out of the white cube into the landscape, or a number of post-war movements, what the idea of the radical represents. The history of Estonia is very unique in that way, having gone through numerous systems and rulerships, where my impression is that the country and people had the ability to adapt and to be able to reform into new formulas for living when the country became independent in 1989.
By lending creativity to a space, it alters the space for a set time as well, and hopefully will be embedded in people’s memory and a time in history. When you invited me to Tallinn for the site visit to Kai last summer, before it opened, I was mainly affected by the space itself of course, with its gorgeous vaulted ceiling and nostalgic industrial beauty. It’s a very important part of the initial planning and development of an art work that entails the kind of scale, psychological narration, social-political history, and the former usage that Kai Art Center offers the possibility to learn from and create a dialogue with. So to be able to be in the space and absorb the light, volume, and architecture really is the entry point into creating a whole new work in my system.
KL: It’s definitely an ambitious space and it takes an experienced eye to draw out its full potential. I admired your ability to work easily and quickly with architectural plans and the very technical aspects of building the neon grid. When I look back at your practice, there are certain milestones that lead to your largest work yet – “Radical Light” – namely ELEMENTS I, II and III where you started working with vertical and horizontal neon lights and transparent acrylic rods. I would also add here ETERNAL, your public art commission in collaboration with Snøhetta in 2010. Working with large-scale projects like these almost require you to be part engineer, part architect in addition to being an artist. What did you take away from these collaborations and how did these experiences influence you as a creative?
AKS: I think collaborations between groups from different expertises are most fruitful when all parties join forces knowing they will learn from the other and contribute to the dynamic “pool” of ideas towards the communal goal. It’s like a dance, or you could say as in eastern philosophies, as in the image of the river moving around the rock, shaping the rock over time, instead of a one-way street mentality where the voice of the ego takes over – so each part exists in its autonomy as a knowing river or a stone. However, since I seek to do the impossible, how does one make light float in space without it being a cheesy low-tech hologram (I think the hologram technology is terrible), how does one transmit something completely elusive and ephemeral, experientially subjective – yet maintain a dignity and quality as an art work? These inquiries are made possible through the expertise of other fields rather than the creative process. I often look for how to expand the art experience beyond its limits of materiality and space, and importantly steer clear of superficiality since scale can often be misunderstood with entertainment. So that means the questions require a lot of research, experiments, and elaborate brainstorming – and a lot of what-if’s.
I think a lot of artists become quite knowledgeable in many fields, as artists are very good survivors as well as inventors. I’ve learned so much from architects, engineers, and manufacturers, and what we have in common is the ability to problem solve – in addition to just being geeks on various levels. Coming from film and photography, technical and creative problem solving is part of the handcraft of it, the creative process and philosophy, and you approach a new work from that mindset. There are always going to be problems in any part of life, so it’s just a matter of finding the solution. Almost anything can be done, altered, improved, and saved. I also work very hands-on with manufacturers and they usually like to brainstorm as well, so I always learn a lot of new tricks from them too. I think a lot of artists whose work hovers across ephemerality, space & architecture and the purely aesthetic are part mad-inventor-tech geeks and part otherworldly poets. However, I would never attempt to design a building or claim I could do the structural engineering for a bridge – I know my limitations. I have deep respect for each field and what it takes to be an architect or structural engineer. That’s why the best collaborations are where there is mutual respect for each other’s practice and knowledge, where it compliments the other’s work. You can say that public art that is integrated or external yet in dialogue with a building’s architectural design and the public purpose is the most successful. With all these experiences in mind, I think by applying new techniques I’ve learned from experts in their field and created some landmark works along the way. When I was working on the Snøhetta project, I was studying “how to” engineering and builders’ documentaries on skyscraper windows, how they are attached/secured, and the technology of industrial glass. This came out of having to secure the artwork to the wall and insure it against natural catastrophes like earthquakes. So the next step was working with the structural engineer to actually create a new system for securing the artwork to the specific wall type. So you can say that here my idea was tailored to the building by way of technology and science.
KL: This makes so much sense also for “Radical Light.” One of my favorite moments from the planning phase was during the summer of 2019 when we visited Neoonreklaam and Rauno Kiik in Kopli to check out some of their neon samples. It was like a meeting of neon nerds, deeply fond of their craft and speaking a language only they understand. Where does your love of neon come from? You’ve said many times before that it does not compare to LED, which you do not work with.
AKS: That’s so funny. Yes, Rauno Kiik and I definitely had a neon geek fest. It seemed to me you were part of the “neon club,” so you caught on fast! I’m also impressed by everyone on the Kai team who were so enthusiastic and really learned a lot about neon as well during the pre-production phase, and to inform the public and look after the installation itself. The installation team, Tõnu and Mihkel, also learned everything about it very fast, and pretty much installed a very precise piece. They were very sophisticated in their handling of my concept and the materials as in understanding the art form.
The neon nerd in me was really ecstatic when Rauno told me he could get specific, not so common neon tube dimensions and color temperature nuances for the whites, which meant I was given the opportunity to expand my work in real time to a new level and work with exclusive materials. That is part of the gift of showing at Kai – the ability to be able to create a brand new monumental work for the public due to the scale of it and its amazing vaulted ceiling. It’s a massive space, but it’s not out of reach, so it can house a very large single piece, sort of like at Dia Beacon. The global neon family is a very purist group. The science and technical specifics are very particular, which includes issues like the hand craft and quality of the glass for the tubes, the brand of gasses, knowledge about color temperatures and color combinations according to what the different neon brands provide, and which clearly exceeds the LED realm that’s more focused on other issues, like how vivid, fast and flashy things can get, what the programming of the lights are, and so on. So it’s analog versus digital, in essence. James Turrell uses LED, so it is fully tolerable when used in such an exquisite way, and it compares well to the spatial light installations of Doug Wheeler, who uses neon, and Lucio Fontana’s spatial neon installations. LED is a lot more practical when it’s hidden and embedded in architectural installations. It’s a lot more economical than neon and in the pre-pandemic technology-based society, LED goes hand in hand with the rapid expansive growth of cities, tourism industry, data economy, and information-consumerism society.
I think for exposed light sculpture that defines space yet is a sculpture in itself simultaneously, as in my work and earlier legends like Flavin, the physicality of the light source is also part of the artwork. Neon is organic. It emits electrical pulsations and waves. We are so bombarded by technology, digital wavelengths, so in my mind it feels a lot more comfortable for a human body, eyes, and minds to experience neon. People are just instinctively drawn to neon. It seems to have a very positive effect on our cognitive system, while LEDs are a lot harder and colder when experienced directly and too much over time, unless it’s very indirect like in Turrell’s work. Neon has a quality that echoes our own physical beings, how blood pumps through our system on the biological level, just like the electricity creates light from the friction and movement of electricity reacting to the noble gas within the glass tubes.
As an artist working with different mediums, ranging from installation and light art, to land art and agricultural projects, to photography and film – it’s natural to work in chapters and focus on certain materials for a number of years in one’s practice, to work between different related materials. However, I’ve worked with neon specifically since around 2006 with my text installations in the public space. Other forms of light sources I used before were fluorescent light tubes, projections with transparent mirrors and reflections, or fabrics extenders. In my photographic practice I also use light as the material itself, much the same aesthetic as in the sculptural neon installations, where there is a technical-material framework that provides the transmission of the ephemeral, time and space.
As we know, neon represents commerce, seduction, glamour, nostalgia – major elements of the material side to earthly existence, basically. But neon as a material goes way beyond its own limits of the glass tube, and as I see it, is quite inexhaustible as both aesthetic material and a vehicle for conceptual works, as long as it’s looked after and continues to be produced.
KL: There’s one more important part of the installation – the sound. JG Thirlwell created new music for “Radical Light” without even seeing the space, yet his piece feels like such an organic part of the installation. How do you achieve that when you work with a composer? Also – when did you first use sound in your practice?
AKS The work relationship with JG is pretty unique and lucky I would say – I think I tune into his creative language and his capacity pretty well, and I can manage to “direct” him without bossing him, so it’s a pretty equal combo. A balance between mutual respect but with clear direction, knowing one’s place, and the potentials of the end result. The key to our situation is that I know his music and his history very well. I knew his music well before we worked together, since the late 80’s actually. So I think that provides for an ease as well. The collaborations always start with my work – it’s pretty much a commission you could say. He composes freely but it is based on an existing idea from me. He’s a very visual and imaginative composer, and since he also composes music for films, he understands the narrative in what I’m trying to convey, not just technicalities of the artwork.
I also find that it’s very important to show images and working sketches as a starting point, with references to past similar works. The other thing is that he loves history too, and several of his earlier musical works were based on World War II history. So since Kai Art Center was a former Submarine factory built in 1911 and an initial quick walk through some pinpoints of Estonia’s interesting history, that was also an inspiration to him. With his 40 years of experience mixed with a dose of contextual enthusiasm and inspiration, he will for sure create some very strong sound works extending himself past previous works. The key is to inspire each other. I actually used to create soundscape works myself, which came out of late 80’s to late 90’s technology and recording manipulations. I was somewhat trained in music growing up, then in industrial noise bands as a teenager in Oslo playing bass guitar and keyboard (not very good one), so I know sound as a participant. For me the composer is in a way an extension of myself, except they are fully talented in that area. The first sound pieces I included were for a video trilogy I created in collaboration with my old friend Manuel Sander in NY in the late 90’s / early 2000’s. He is the great-grandson of the great photographer August Sander, and his father had a gallery in NY at the time who showed people like Anselm Kiefer alongside the photographic legacy of Sander. Manuel was very into very sparse, minimal noise pieces at the time, which he created at the same time as editing the video. I also started working with JG Thirlwell around 2000, so sometimes Manuel would edit and JG would provide sound, as in my short film The Sugarcane Labyrinth, 2011. Our collaborations came from straight video works as short films, video projection installations, as well as site-specific multi-projections with sound, mirrors, textiles, and objects, or as in The Sensory Chamber at Kai, we had a bath of salt with a projection into.
I also work with CC Hennix, an exquisite polymath who I have learned tremendously from. When I used to visit her in Berlin, we would just sit and listen for hours without speaking – a form of creative meditation I suppose. With her work I manage to absorb her sound into my work, and it’s often pieces that are produced in the past. But my works are usually almost finished as well, and I adjust them slightly to her sound. She works with sound artist Henry Flynt still, and used to collaborate with LaMonte Young and the sound minimalists of the late 70’s and early 80’s in NY. She was on the art scene in NY with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and so on. She also played on the soundtrack on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain with Don Cherry, so she’s quite a jewel as well.
KL: You briefly touched on this already and I want to come back to it. You’re particularly inspired by the 1970’s artists’ generation and land art as well as light and space movement. What makes it special for you? It’s no small coincidence that Robert Smithson’s landmark earthwork Spiral Jetty celebrates 50 years in 2020. For the exhibition, we built the link with your inspiration sources through the film program. Can you talk about that a bit more?
AKS: Well, as the title for the exhibition suggests, the idea of the Radical is upheaval of the status quo, as counter action, a reaction in the stark opposite direction, something revolutionary. I think that epoch in art history, in conjunction with political ideas and philosophies, was one of the more authentic and inspiring movements to me. If we think of the cultural agency as a form of chemical reaction, one could say that in art, the land art movement sought to react towards the confinement of the bourgeois white cube gallery space as representation of the status quo, which is a largely very political statement in that action as well. This is simultaneously as all these things were changing in society – jazz, the beat generation, the Korean and Vietnam wars, illusions of the nuclear age and nuclear family, global revolutions of ’68, civil rights and race wars, feminism – so a general massive global shift was going on over a short period of time. As artists reacted to limitations in the gallerist-artist relationship and the cultural economy machinery that presided over the postwar artist generation, the counter reactions manifested as in one branch to break out of the confinements of the white cube and the art world limitations. The artistic enterprise was and has been for the past decades, very much limited to either a pure, high-yielding economy and production or one is confined to the structural hierarchy of academia which is another kind of economy, that of your time. So you can say that the continuous chemical reaction is a creative accelerator that keeps the art in continuous movement and not reduced to formulas but to continuous inquiries. I think the sense of massive freedom that land art invites the “experiencer” or the public into is very unique since scale and a sense of infinity are generally a condition for land art, as well as the light and space movement from the 60’s in California. Another movement I think has similarities is the Neo Concrete movement in Latin America. That had similar political underpinnings, but the art philosophies were more engaged in merging performative practice with abstraction, such as Hélio Oiticica or Lygia Clarke from Brazil. More intimate aspects of both the land art and the light and space movement are the experiential psychological integrations with nature and the landscape. If you look at Richards Long’s works on “walking”, or Andy Goldsworthy’s ephemeral droplets of melting ice in a brook in spring – these are in an almost nouveau Thoreau world, an intimate and romantic approach to the landscape and nature as a universe in itself represented in the micro space in time. While if you read the texts by Smithson or Lucy Lippard, they are highly academic, political, and anchored in a sharp and demanding mind and eye. Entering the light and space guys – Turrell, McCracken, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, DeWain Valentine – they brought in a sense of conceptualism, perception, and science in their quest for understanding the presence of the universe more relevant to the ancient Egyptians. So I think that the interwoven approaches to representation of what is larger than ourselves is the most precise and aesthetically relevant to me. I think history is the greatest teacher, so I think this is an important era to look at, but also in terms of future solutions to the recent forms of social practice and art activism that’s tied in with sustainability and the individual. Since we are in the midst of a pandemic, which brings all art practices into the artist’s head and the confinement of the home, it will be interesting to see the actions and reactions in the next few years that go beyond technology-based art, like AR or VR art, but as a form of human experience and in reclaiming our experience.
KL: We’ve done this interview during a virus pandemic, each cooped up in our homes and following the same stay-at-home orders in different parts of New York state, in what has become an epicenter of the virus in the US, if not the world. Has this incredibly stressful and isolated time changed any priorities for you? Can you imagine what the post-pandemic (art) world will look like? How would you want it to look like?
AKS: Now that we are 2 months into the pandemic, and NY is becoming the epicentre for the past month, it’s been incredibly stressful. In many ways it is beyond the impact of 911 – so I think it’s important to take the time to be still and rest in order to digest everything, to focus on just living and being practical in order to take care of oneself and not get sick. We have to adjust day-to-day with all the new information and changes we are faced with and the pandemic sweeping across the globe – I feel that’s the focus of attention here. We all need to help those in need and vulnerable if we can, and I think it’s best to not have too high ambitions like writing that grand novel in two months or starting a new tech company providing outlandish Artificial Intelligence business solutions. This pandemic is affecting us all on a personal level no matter if you are an artist or a farmer. I think this situation will go on for a long time due to the aftermaths and financial crises we will see for a very long time, possibly the next decade, so we need to rely on other methods of sustainability than the normal capital-driven infrastructure to survive.
I personally find this is an opportunity to experience a time of deep contemplation through this massive global shift we are going through, and I think it is important to let time unfold before we participate too heavily in shaping the concept of the philosophical and intellectual future. It is premature to say anything about any direction now other than that it’s important to make sure it doesn’t stay in a repetitive, market-driven state of consumerist hysteria we were in. If art has a role in all of this, I think it is a vehicle for radical changes to happen for the better, but as of yet all the unravelling chips are in the air and the most important immediate thing is to focus on our health and the sustainability of nature and the environmental health of the planet first of all.