KATHLEEN FORDE & Emily Berçir Zimmerman

Both of your commissions relate to and actually embed themselves in the architecture of the EMPAC building. Can you discuss the relationship to architecture in the piece and/or your practice more broadly?

Architecture has played an important role in my imagination since I was very young. Maybe because they were so important to me in childhood, I tend to think of buildings and structures as emotional. So for a good while, I have been looking for ways to imbue a building with some kind of animated presence.

What interests me most about a building is its expressive quality, or more accurately, its potential for expression. The task of my work is to interact with the building in a way that reveals or amplifies something I feel when I am in it.

The EMPAC building is loaded with opportunities to harness the expressive aspects of the physical structure. Before you get inside, in fact, before you even get to the Rensselaer campus, you feel the presence and impact of the building from the way it sits on the hill. I couldn’t resist projecting on the façade, given the relationship of the building to the city below.

With the elevator piece, I saw an opportunity to convert one kind of energy to another, almost the way a dam coverts water to electricity. The motion of the mechanism is harnessed to tell a story as it lifts and lowers. It seemed natural that the story might then be related to our relationship to gravity.

You have spoken about both lightness and transcendence as major themes in your body of work. Can you comment on that a bit more?

I suppose it begins with the fact that I dream about flying all the time. I am incredibly frustrated by my inability to fly when I am awake. For me, defying gravity is transcendence; it is about transcending the limitations of physics. Remarkable skateboarders, as well as many other athletes, mess with physical limitations all the time.

But transcending the physical is different from lightness. Lightness and weightlessness in my work are more about insignificance and the fleeting nature of life. In a project like Leap, for example, ascension is a way of expressing just how very briefly we animate this planet with our presence.

You have had a number of commissioned projects throughout your career. How strict or flexible are your boundaries with a specific life of a work? For example do you think of commissioned works as being able to live on in different iterations in different spaces or do animations from one project bleed into another?

Temporary projects are another way of appreciating the brevity of it all. And I have absolutely had to come to grips with making things that do not last. Often the projects are tied to a time as much as they are to a place. Again, Leap is a good example. That project was born out of my feeling of exuberance about living in New York, and it was presented a few months before 9/11. I couldn’t do it again, in the same way, the context has shifted entirely.

But I also get commissioned to do “permanent” works that are intended to stay around for 20 years or so. Often the ideas from one project might be a point of departure for another. The projects end up working like a constellation. With each piece, I am trying to get at a specific idea. But it is only after I do a number of related pieces exploring variations that I can begin to see the form of that idea.

If Method Air deals with the transcendence of physical laws, can you speak to the notion of transcendence on a psychological level in relation to the emotional realities expressed in Your Love Keeps Lifting Me?

Your Love Keeps Lifting Me started with a general notion of interdependence, both in physical and psychological terms. You can’t see the video without the motion of the elevator cab, which is in turn dependent on the user pressing the call button. This physical contingency mirrors a narrative of psychological interdependence. In a way, the elevator offers an everyday transcendence—so does being in love. Often we begin a relationship as a kind of a dance, a little awkward at first until we find our footing. Then, as we become more familiar with each other, individual rhythms sync and we move as one. But love is never static. I wanted to give physical form to the experience where the gravity in a relationship fluctuates. There is beauty in the interdependence.

To what extent does the will of the individual and the realization of possibility play a role in your understanding of transcendence?

People go to great lengths to achieve a state of transcendence. I am actually more interested in the aspiration than the state itself. Humanity is revealed in the trying. My experience of being human is expressed in my failure to be more than human. A few years ago, I made a video called Flight where I made more than 200 attempts to fly. I then took these failures and strung them together into a creaky, particularly human kind of success.

In terms of your working process how do you approach long-term commissions versus projects that will be present for a shorter time-span in a particular community?

I think that my approach to the various commissions is fairly consistent. I try to imbue the architecture of a site with a sense of animation. At the same time, I engage the community that is meant to live with the work and bring them into the process of making the project.

Typically, the short-term projects allow me to work with technology that is either too expensive, or too delicate to be used in the longer installations. The challenge with the long-term projects is to bring the static to life without moving parts. Sometimes I am lucky enough to get a permanent commission, like The Moons for the Sprint Arena in Kansas City, where I am able to incorporate more advanced technology into a work.

What would an ideal response from an audience member be to your two commissions?

I learned early on to have no audience expectations; there is no way to predict the way a piece will be taken. Most often, I want to elicit an emotional response, or more accurately, an emotional connection with the viewer. This is definitely true for Your Love. But in the case of Method Air, I am looking for something more visceral, the way we feel when we watch fireworks. I think I try to bring people in with the spectacle, with the hope that the project might stay with them long enough to make them think about where it may come from. That is where the connection is made.

Virgin Airlines has begun a Galactic program that offers flights into space. If money were not an object, would you be interested in going on such a flight? Why or why not?

I am much more interested in a minimal approach to flying. I have thought seriously about paragliding or base jumping in a wing suit. Right now, the art is really connected to my dream life, and the flying in my dreams is oddly fulfilling.

Artist interviews were conducted via email correspondence between the artists, Kathleen Forde, and Emily Berçir Zimmerman. Several questions were posed at the outset, and the artists’ responses to those questions became the source for further discussion.