DEREK G. LARSON AND MARC MITCHELL IN CONVERSATION WITH ELIZABETH DEVLIN ON THE OCCASION OF NOTHING RITUALLY AT GRIN
ELIZABETH DEVLIN: Separately you both maintain your own distinct visual arts practices and Nothing Ritually marks your fourth, and seemingly most complex, collaborative undertaking. Reflecting on your previous collaborations, A Monk Texting, at Redux Contemporary in South Carolina, Just Gaming at Laconia Gallery in Boston and [mon-i-tor] at University of Alabama’s Sella-Granata Art Gallery, Nothing Ritually appears to be guided by a different set of rules. The earlier shows are structured in a linear way; with inputs in the form of variables and data sets identified by you both, which are then aggregated and analyzed to create a visual output. As for Nothing Ritually, the parameters are not as apparent, and the exhibition seems to be driven by qualitative factors rather than quantitative. How would you describe this particular show’s flow? Are there defined rules or guidelines you have in place to drive the creative process?
DEREK LARSON + MARK MITCHELL: This is our most collaborative project, in the past we made things that would hang side by side and the collaboration happened in our conversation. But now we’re sharing and integrating our efforts into singular pieces that travel between our studios. So our approach is similar to past projects---like using data sets to create images, where rules dictate imagery--- but for this project we’ve let go of some of that. The narratives of the seven plays have a role (even if loose) and each piece is titled after a particular play. The plays are obscure and written by American playwrights either during wartime and/or economic catastrophe. Each of the plays are all really good and we certainly don’t do them justice. With that in mind, we’re not trying to illustrate the plays and we’ve decided that each will be made available to read in the gallery.
LD: As an outsider attempting to wrap my head around the exhibition, it seems like the show construct is purposely vague, there is very little content in the overview which guides audience comprehension as opposed to your earlier efforts; and there are so many complex and increasingly esoteric layers to the exhibition as you drill down that at some point I, as a reader of the overview, surrendered and accepted my own naiveté . Thinking structurally about the exhibition as an artistic org chart, you have Nothing Ritually the overarching project, which can be summed up as a collaborative exhibition of two artists featuring seven works, and then conceptually these seven works are grouped within the context of a script called Dazzle Ships, a name which carries its own distinct meaning, and then the script itself contains seven acts, and each act is named after a lesser-known play by a 20th century American playwright. Firstly, have I got that right?
DL+MM: Yes you’re right.
LD: Second, in structuring this show, you must have realized that the general audience will not readily make the connection between these plays and the art on view, which seems like a deliberate decision given the obscure nature of the referenced works -- so is this connection between the plays and the artwork itself important to you? What are you hoping viewers will take away from this exhibition?
DL+MM: Since most people will not have the time to sit down and read all seven plays, we thought our idea shouldn’t hinge on all of the background information. We wanted to create an experience with the playbill, one in which a visitor could walk into the gallery and either look at the work as one typically does, or decide to view them in the order of the seven acts. The plays are a metaphor for November and the moment we’re in. We decided to create a narrative with much more competent and eloquent writers than ourselves.
LD: What is the significance of the sequencing of the Acts? If they are all standalone works, whose order is interchangeable, wondering why the decision to share in an ‘Act’ format,
unless that was a nod to the use of the plays themselves. Do the narratives behind the individual plays in each Act serve as the framework?
DL + MM: Each act is a singular play and should be read separately. We were thinking about a viewing format that interrupts how people usually interact with art (linearly, chronologically, etc). There’s an order with the acts but it’s more like a suggestion.
LD: Can you explain a bit more about what it is about those plays in particular? Do they all convey and reiterate the same messaging?
DL + MM: Most of the plays are nuanced. They feature violent, dramatic fictions about love affairs that highlight various American landscapes in the South, Northeast, West, etc. They’re pure Americana, simultaneouslysatirical and affectionate, and religion plays a recurring role.
We were initially drawn to the plays for their titles, but also found the plots interesting. Many of these plays are difficult to find. Since they are somewhat obscure, many of the plays are bundled in volumes with other works. This makes them difficult to find in library or in print. While the primary attraction was titles, the stories were also compelling. For example, The Folly of Others by Neith Boyce (1904was set just after the Philippine-American War and reveals an interesting shift from Victorian to Modern social mores and ideas about citizenship. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers and adapted by Edward Albee (1963), was compelling because it was written during the first phase of the Vietnam War and the story takes place in Georgia, where both of us taught and lived (Derek still lives there). It’s a tense love triangle with a horrible twist.
LD: Derek, you previously authored a short book called Composition, Color, and Interactivity, which you consider “an ongoing study in task performance, emotion & design” but to me, it also reflects an innate curiosity with the act of seeing and the nuances of how viewers digest stimuli in different settings and under different conditions. You employ various abstract color compositions as your vehicle for understanding, and Marc’s work also inherently seems to play with color theory and the exploration of visual languages, so, assuming this to be true, can Nothing Ritually be approached from purely an aesthetic standpoint? If so, were there any particular design principles that guided the creation of the work?
DL: Yes you could approach it from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but there’s more. The languages we’re using are borrowed; when we talk about color theory, abstraction, mid-century plays, battleship design, these things are part of our past but continually get represented to us as consumers everyday. Misguided optimism in the project gets to the core of how we feel about the 20th Century and why we titled the play Dazzle Ships.
The eye-tracking studies I’ve been running involve measuring task performance while looking at certain designs. The results have had an affect on the imagery I make but I’m more interested in how this information can be used to enhance viewer performance.
MM: There is always a balance. As Derek mentioned, you could approach the work from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but there is certainly more. In the studio, all artists have a relationship to previous languages-- borrowing, appropriating, etc. These works have many layers that, as Derek mentioned, speaks to notions of abstraction, color theory, mid-century plays/literature, battleship design, etc.
LD: Apart from aesthetics, what is the significance of having Dazzle Ships serve as the title of your seven act script? Dazzle camouflage, an early instance of art being used as a tool of war, was remarkable in a design sense, but less successful as a wartime diversion technique; would it have been less compelling subject matter if the design proved to be a success? What role does failure, if any, play in the creative process? Did the socio political context serve as an influence?
DL + MM: Both failure and success are at the heart of our project. It’s difficult to find any history that doesn’t categorize things in that way. Our project doesn’t focus on failure alone (in fact, the dazzle ship technique was successful in many ways), however, we’re more interested in presenting multiple dramatic storylines created during times of major conflict. The stories we’ve chosen act more as dazzle ship painting than our actual paintings. The stories aren’t literal diversions but a parallel to the hopeful optimism in creating a diversion. The dazzle ship painting technique was created to protect merchant ships in wartime, a sort of active pacifism, maybe similar to writing a beautiful story in wartime. Most of the plays we’ve chosen don’t point directly at war but allude to it through metaphor and other literary devices.
LD: As we find ourselves in an election year, is there a relationship between Dazzle Ships and our own current political climate? Do the playwrights serve as conduits through which to express your own thoughts as visual artists, providing a verbal/theatrical framework which serves as a backdrop for your own aesthetic language?
DL + MM: Yes totally. We wanted a script that represents our climate and highlights its cyclical nature. American politics borrows too much from the past and social progress is too slow. Many of the platform issues in the 2016 presidential race are similar to those from the 1980’s & 90’s. Where’s the progress?
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Elizabeth Devlin is an independent curator, art consultant, and founder of FLUX. Boston, an online resource for artists and art enthusiasts in the Boston area and beyond. Through event coverage, artist interviews, and educational posts, Elizabeth enables FLUX. readers to feel informed, engaged in, and connected to the pulse of Boston Arts. Her writing has been featured in Art New England, New American Paintings, and Art21 Magazine among others. As a trusted resource and friend to the Arts community, a ABoston Redevelopment Authority artist and curator of several critically acclaimed exhibitions to-date, Elizabeth strives to make the art world more accessible and to champion the endeavors of Boston's creative community.