Phoebe Washburn / interview
[Kwon] I’m curious how you started constructing architectural ecosystem using cardboards and recycling materials. Please tell us about the works when you pursued a master’s and how those developed to have a connection with your current works.
[Washburn] While in graduate school at SVA I began collecting cardboard boxes and initially I began gathering them to pack up another big piece that I had made in my studio. I did not want to spend money on boxes so I would go out in the early evening when the trash and recyclables were being put out and I would gather boxes and bring them back to my studio. It was then that I began to find the process of collecting the boxes fun. I liked that there was all this free stuff in the streets for the taking and it was so easy to accumulate. Then I began experimenting with the cardboard boxes. I realized that if I layered them together and screwed the layers to each other it was very structural. So then this idea grew and I began making large topographical landscapes with this layered cardboard.
The building process for making these large landscapes was very slow and monotonous. So there was a lot of time to think and look around while building these big pieces. So as I was building these large constructions I began to pay close attention to what was going on in the gallery during the installation process. I found that I liked the way everything looked half undone with things propped up, tools everywhere, coffee cups everywhere. I liked the energy and chaos in the room. I became committed to the idea that the piece should somehow reflect the process and tell the story of its own making. So the idea that there is a system or structure or even life cycle embedded in the process and the piece became important. I continued to work with this idea and tried to push it further with each project.
[Kwon] Please tell us about the architectural aspect of the work <Compeshitstem> exhibited at the Kestnergesellschaft, Honover in 2009?
[Washburn] The exhibition at the Kestnergesellshaft was very architectural. There were two floors dedicated to the installation. The bottom floor housed the “guts” of the piece. It felt like a boiler room or a basement laboratory. The top floor was more architectural. I built (with a big team of people) a huge ship-like structure in the space. The gallery space was amazing; it was originally a bathhouse. It had 35-foot tall vaulted ceilings. It was really dramatic. I think it was the most spectacular place I have ever worked in. When I visited the space I knew immediately that I wanted to build a huge ship form or wooden bowl in the space and completely fill it. I wanted to try to “answer” or echo the space somehow.
[Kwon] You use found objects consisting of scavenged scraps from dumpsters and loading docks. I’m wondering if you have certain place or collecting method in your mind when collecting the medium for the upcoming projects.
[Washburn] I have places that I visit that I know are good scavenging sites. But I also collect as I come and go around the city. I can’t resist picking up wood.
[Kwon] Environmental sustainability issue has been raised in every part of society even more during the last few years. How does the concept of sustainability work with your installation? What is the significance of the concept in your works?
[Washburn] Many of my installations have an inherent system of structure. Sometimes this system is unfolding during the exhibition right before the viewer. In other pieces the system might not be unfolding during the exhibition but there is always a system or set of rules used to make the piece. So for many years I have been interested in this general idea of a structure or system dictating either how something was made or how certain events will unfold over time in the exhibitions.
In some projects this idea of sustainability seems to be more prominent. For example, the last two “Shitstem” projects were, among other things, an exercise in using up wastewater that is generated from a washing machine. This wasted grey water gets filtered and then travels around the installation and gets used for various things like refilling aquariums, watering plants, mixing plaster or washing out bottles. The installation creates a product and a by-product and both are equally important in the Shitstem. So in these projects I definitely flirted with this idea of a certain amount of sustainability. However, having said that, there were many other things happening in the installations so this idea was just one facet of the project. The project was not exclusively about water conservation but it was important for me to show the water traveling around in the space and also show the story of the water from start to finish. Also, I think it is important to note that these projects are in no way sustainable themselves. They are very big projects and a lot of resources go into making them. It is not my intention to make a sustainable art. I do reuse many of the materials form one project to the next if possible, but I do not pretend that my process is sustainable.
[Kwon] What do you want to portray with the frequent inclusion of plants and water in your work?
[Washburn] Plants are a way to insert real life into the installations. The first time I included plants in a project it was exciting for me because I was forced to incorporate a whole new set of rules and a new system into the installation that was not my own. I had to provide for the plants and try to plan for every detail of maintaining them but then ultimately they were going to behave as they wanted to. They plants would live, die, thrive, suffer and all of this would happen in one installation and it seemed so exciting to see this new set of systems at play.
[Kwon] Through the installation process, it seems that you physically recreate your ideas in a given space. Do you sometimes discover that your initial blueprint is modified during the execution of the work? Are there any examples where you found something new or interesting during the process?
[Washburn] The most interesting projects are ones where the site dictates or inspires something that was unexpected or surprising. There are always things that change once I begin building on site. There is no way to completely understand a space until I have spent some time in the space working. Most often there are some details that are not planned, or there are fun interventions here and there that are totally spontaneous and new to me. This only happens because I am there building on site.
A funny example of this happened during my last installation at the Kestnergesellshaft. This has less to do with the architecture of the space and more to do with context, the process and the larger Hannover community. But it still is a good example. We needed a really powerful pump to pump water from the bottom floor of the exhibition through the stairwell to the top floor of the exhibition. The museum borrowed a pump from a very generous man who brought it directly from his home pond. When we plugged it in to test it in the gallery tiny leeches emerged from the pump filter. This was quite unexpected but a very curious thing. So I tried to collect as many of the tiny leeches as possible and I put them in containers with pond plants and tried to set up a “leech sanctuary” of sorts. I dedicated a small area of the gallery to them. This definitely was not in my original plan at all but it became part to the installation because I was part of the story of the process.
Phoebe Washburn was born 1973 in Poughkeepsie, NY and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She received her BFA from Tulane University, New Orleans, LA and her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, NY. Her work has been shown in exhibitions in the United States and Europe, including solo presentations at the Rice University Gallery, Houston, and Zach Feuer Gallery, NY. Her work was also included in the 2008 Whitney Biennal, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; The Bench, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, Switzerland, and Make It Now, Sculpture Center, NY. Washburn's work has been reviewed in Art in America, Artforum, Flash Art, New York Times and Village Voice.
Image Courtesy of Phoebe Washburn
This interview was published in bob Magazine Vol. 73 (August 2010) pp. 128-133