Spencer Stucky is an artist on the rise — currently residing in Chicago, IL, he is a working artist and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Spencer’s work is research heavy, many elements of his work tie back to an academic exploration and still they contain an ethereal beauty.
His work often entices you to learn more about a certain history, moreover the different perspectives surrounding events in history, and manages to do so in a powerfully silent manner that strikes an impressive balance between poetic and pragmatic. He is now working on a film project that arose from a moment of epiphany, all currently being filmed around Stockholm, Sweden. I recently caught up with Spencer before his trip to learn more about his practices and recent projects.
You recently did an interview for Apartamento Magazine. How did that go?
It was cool. My friend shoots and writes for them and pitched a story to the editor to write about this project that I’m doing, but I had to do some research still, like there were a lot of texts I hadn’t read for this work. I kind of half-jokingly suggested, “what if we just go to my cabin?” because she was proposing just shooting it in here in Chicago at my apartment and I thought “eh, kinda boring” but I have this really cool cabin that’s 100 years old that my great grandpa bought. The story is about me and my cabin and what that home means for me as well as my family, and as a place I did research in about the project — It isn’t a full interview per say. But we went out there for 5 days and I did what I needed to do kinda. [My friend who works at Apartamento], she’s also the producer of this film project I’m about to start so we had a lot of work stuff to do as well. [The issue] should be coming out in, I think not in the next issue but the one following, which is kind of timed perfectly with the film’s release so it will be good press from a strategic standpoint. I’ve always loved them and wanted to do something with them so it was an easy thing to say yes to.
So you were doing research for the film you’re about to make?
Yeah, some was pretty specific and some was more general. The film I’m working on surrounds a couple different narratives in modern and post-modern dance as well as some architectural connections to these pictures I’m looking at that flowered out of personal relationships. So I had to do some serious backstory on these women Birgit Åkesson, a Swedish modern dancer and Trisha Brown, a postmodern dancer based out of New York in the 60s, 70s, 80s, etc. This all comes out of an encounter I had with a photograph in an archive of Åkesson dancing but the original negative was lost so the photographer, Sune Sundahl, rephotographed the image he had taken of her on a coffee stand because he didn’t have a negative. So it’s like this beautiful, gestural pose by Åkesson on a neutral gray background and it’s surrounded by this crazy technical grid of the coffee stand; it was totally breathtaking, I loved it. So I started to research that object and that kind of led into this film.
You’re going to Stockholm soon to make this film. Was the photo taken in Stockholm?
Yeah, it was taken in Sune Sundahl’s studio in Stockholm and Sundahl is kind of interesting because his father was an architect with KFA Architects in Stockholm, who built kind of all the city’s early Functionalist buildings between the 20s and 40s. I became really interested in one particular building his father Eskil designed, which was the Luma light bulb Factory, or Lumafabriken in Swedish — it’s a Functionalist masterpiece and it’s totally gorgeous but then on the top there’s this glass cube, which is a room. It’s somewhere between 50 to 70 feet x 20 or 30 feet and pretty tall, like 20 feet tall, and made of all glass and steel. It was a room where they would test new filament combinations for the light bulbs. They would screw in, say, 200 of these new bulb combinations and then wait for them to burn out, which I thought was a totally beautiful thing and considering the lights were always on it was kind of like a beacon, a weird kind of nightlight over the harbor that’s mirrored in the water. It’s also this symbol of Swedish industrialism and perseverance through both World Wars.
This architectural photographer shot all of his father’s buildings with Åkesson and some of the images they made in his studio are totally mindblowing. [In my film] I’m kind of equating this grid of the coffee stand surrounding Åkesson with this grid in the lightbulb factory that contains all of the lights or the information or the potential etc and also how Trisha Brown’s dances, specifically the accumulation pieces from the early 70s, are also a very direct articulation of her body’s relationship to architecture — or more specifically the floor plane and the wall plane and how she can move her body to both embrace that geometry of the square or the grid and these moments where she has a flourish outside of that space so it’s kind of, in a simple way, this postmodern moment in a grid structure, which is like her deviation from the grid.
So I have a dancer from the Royal Swedish Ballet who Åkesson choreographed for this ballet performing Trisha Brown’s accumulation pieces in sites that are historically relevant to this narrative. For one, she’ll be performing in that [Lumafabriken glass grid] room. I’m going to be having her do dances in the Royal Gardens and Drottningholm palace as well as in the ballroom there where the king used to play badminton. It’s like a… I don’t know, there are a lot of steps going down.
With your work it seems like there’s so much research involved, and it always seems to circle around the idea of architecture and space, and I’m wondering, how do you feel architecture works in relation to the idea of space as an environment that people actually use? What is that connection to you between people and the space they inhabit, whether that’s conceptual or literal?
These last couple projects I’ve done have completely surrounded around architecture and I swear that was not intentional, I just kind of got on a kick for a minute where I saw a lot of examples within architecture that highlighted some of these sentiments that I was interested in. But I will say that architecture is in such a unique position in a way because it allows us a very physical, visceral, bodily sense to understand visual considerations of a different time. Where, let’s say, we look at a piece of art, from the 1930s and in order to fully understand what that object represents within a historical context and a political one as well we need a lot of background information in order to understand the theory, understand the art of the period — but for architecture it kind of exists as these interesting monuments where you can in a way walk in and experience a sentiment or idea or special philosophy without necessarily having to understand the history of the architecture, and that’s a kind of dumb way to say it but I really do believe that’s true. For these past couple projects it just happened to be the lens that I used to examine various historical moments…In the last work [I did], I used this hospital, or sanatorium, which are those drawings in the Elmhurst Museum, to kind of pinpoint this moment in, let’s say like, a clinical history within architecture.
The building was emblematic and embodied a shift of ideas surrounding how we treat patients in a healing space or environment as well as providing a kind of scientific rationale for the unknown, or as Alvar Aalto called it — who was the architect of that space — the “psychophysical”, which he wouldn’t ever admit was spiritual, but was a place that he said he could build into his buildings or structures to kind of house this energy that we might not necessarily understand. I thought that was interesting, basically to acknowledge the unknown and to leave room for that in the design, which isn’t surprising because if you look at Aalto’s building history, he designed something like 30 odd churches before he actually designed this hospital. So he was very aware of how we can treat a space to allow for some kind of spirituality to occur within it.
It feels like in your work, there’s definitely this, I mean, I’m seeing it as a contrast between more conceptual and philosophical ideas but also practical, historical, almost design-based ideas — in terms of art vs. design, do you think that nowadays it has this dual purpose; are they connected or do you think they do serve very different purposes?
That’s hard to say. Back in undergrad I had this really funny argument with a friend where I was being an asshole and arguing that architecture was not an art form, and now, I think in a lot of ways that opinion has changed. I think that at the base of all art practice there should be a fundamental desire to explore, question or critique — it doesn’t have to be all of those things, it doesn’t have to be one or the other, it can be all three, but I think that there is criticality whether it be intellectual pursuits or questioning of how something operates or has existed; it needs to be there in art to make it successful in my opinion, and I think that can happen in design and architecture but I don’t necessarily think that’s necessary in order for it to perform its function.
I guess I’m asking because I feel like there are a lot of elements of design in your work, like you incorporate furniture and obviously architecture and whatnot and so it seems to hold some sort of connection — but you’re kind of using those objects to explain an idea.
Exactly. Like the chair for example — So Artek, the company that makes some of Aalto’s furniture lent me a few pieces for this exhibition and kind of everything I needed to say about the function of the institution that I was talking about was kind of housed in the furniture. I mean, like most architects and designers who operate in both those roles, their concept or sentiment or specific part of their operation they’re trying to perform with the building always ends up in the micro as well. So for example, the furniture follows the same design considerations as the building does; so it’s an easy way for me to have an object from this actual history that also acts as an annotative body for what’s going on in the building that I’m talking about — so it works as an object but also a sculpture.
And you seem like you like to use objects not only to represent culture but also humanity, and use it almost like a ghost of the people who designed it or were behind the idea.
Yeah, and there are a lot of parts. I’m also kind of interested in the institutions making the work for me — I mean, I love to make objects and commission objects and bring new things into the world, but a lot of times the objects I want to communicate that already exist and it’s really interesting for me to pull those objects out of their supposed or expected context and re-present them in an art space. I can shift and highlight meanings that I want to by placing some things that I make on my own in the spaces. Like some of the photographs that accompany those drawings [in the Elmhurst Museum Exhibition], which are called PAIMIO annotations, some of them I took in the space while I was researching at the Sanatorium, and others are just from the permanent collection at the British Museum – a collection of those images are from the archive so it’s just like, using the museum to provide me with the objects or images I’m going to display can be just as potent if not more than making my own objects. But I like putting something in there that I make that operates as a prism in a sense, that maybe shifts ideas about something that already exists.
What do you think is most important when making art — creating a narrative, an experience, or something academic and intellectual?
I think sometimes I create narratives, but then sometimes I also try to erase or erode the narrative just because I think without that, let’s say, something structured in a linear narrative, without that system surrounding the work or let’s say, histories, we can understand something different about what we thought was familiar. What I want to do with my work always is…I don’t want to say I want to teach or educate because that’s not what it is, it’s more I want you to at least reconsider some relationships or sentiments that you’ve been presented with in the past and through that, understand that maybe other narratives are also just as complicated and there isn’t really a clear form of any one history. What I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is actually how problematic the term “history” might be because when we talk about histories we talk about either recounted experience or something that is sourced from any number of canons. It seems like even if you have a collection of information around some of these events, it still tends to be pretty binary and of course, individual experience can fluctuate and has a full gamut of possibilities even surrounding the same event. If you are witnessing something in a crowd, there might be a collective sentiment, but also everyone in that crowd might have a different relationship to what’s going on — so it’s kind of like providing possibility in some of these narratives or histories, for them to be questioned in a really fundamental way or sometimes bring them back into the familiar. For example, with [my] PAIMIO work I also talked about Mesoamerican scrying practices and early forms of divination tools and their relationship to healing and was kind of trying to point back to the 1930s and this sanatorium as an insanely similar practice to some of these Aztec obsidian mirrors and tools and how they were used. So in one sense to be like “look at this population that is really easy to ‘other’”, who seem to be ‘others’ because they’re located in this completely different time and space, we have no idea how to emotionally access 800 BCE; but also look at these interesting ways in which their spirituality is also tied to an idea of medicine and technology. I don’t know, it kind of allows me to erode some of those pre-existing narratives about these times, and I guess that’s kind of — I can’t remember the exact phrasing of your question but — that’s what I want to do.
A lot of times I get criticized, or one of my main criticisms, is that my work is somewhat hard to access because there is so much research behind it in what I present; it ends up being really minimal. Especially relating to the volumes of information that were required to make these aesthetic decisions, but I don’t mind that. It’d be great if my viewer was educated on the topic I was looking at, I always provide optional writing if the viewer would want to read but it’s more like giving these, let’s say like, objects that represent textual flags so that if they were interested, they could go back and research to understand the work more fully, but I also want to drive [people] in . Like, when someone approaches a work, there can be a sentiment that’s produced or displayed by an installation and I want that to be like, living in the frequency of, I suppose, this history that I’m trying to talk about. So I don’t care if they may not know, “Oh, these are lines from, you know, the Paimio sanatorium designed in the 1930s by Alvar Aalto blah blah blah…”, but if they come in and they can see “Oh, this is a recording of light on a wall — what does that mean? Okay. There’s time passing, there’s an individual who’s pursuing this task, this sort of menial task of drawing and tracing light along the wall, so there’s like, kind of an idea of isolation and loneliness as well as an acute awareness of, you know, time passing and what that might mean and entail in that institutional space?” So I think if people really kind of just go there and read the work, there are things they can pull from it, but they do not need the whole research behind to understand.
I also feel like with your work, from what I’ve seen, you really take advantage of the space as well. I think an interesting thing about your work is that it sort of traces humanity all the while not showing much of humanity itself, and so the whole fact that there’s a lack of human presence there shows that this might be something from the past or something to be researched. In that way, it can be very strong because there’s a sort of emptiness, but the items you choose that you’ve repurposed bring back a lot of ideas and memories about things people may have already learned.
That’s a nice way to put it actually.
So what is your everyday routine like?
It differs when I’m teaching and when I’m not. Right now, since I’m not teaching, I pretty much just come to my studio everyday and knock off time sensitive things first like emails, errands, stuff which could be like getting frame details to a framer, I don’t know, stupid things along those lines. Recently I’ve been working on this film so there’s been some technical research because it’s the first film I’ve ever made and have purchased all the equipment which was a really large investment, and in order to make those decisions and even feeling comfortable about purchasing that equipment I had to research all this super technical stuff about a medium I was kind of familiar with but by no means an expert; so I had to do forums with B&H for like 4 hours a day and then yeah, there’s a lot of reading that takes place as well. At least a couple hours a day go back into research so it’s kind of as important, if not more important, than making. As soon as I have my ideas down for what I want to do, then there’s ordering material, doing material investigation, etc. and then go from there making stuff; but I am hands-on. I’m not just like a guy, although I sometimes do this, who makes specs and send them out to someone to get an object back. Usually there’s a lot of hands-on that goes on before I would pay to get something made — I think since undergrad I’ve just learned if you can make it awesome and if it looks the way you want and beautiful sometimes it comes out that way and that’s great, but I’ve also learned to work within your means so if there’s something you’re absolutely certain you want and you know you might need an expert to make that manifest physically, then you just save up and get it done right instead of spending just maybe ¾ of the money to do it yourself with possible error. So that’s kind of changed in the last couple years. And I know that’s kind of a bizarre thing to say because not a lot of people have the financial resources, and I’m sure amazing things can happen from developing alternative ways to execute an idea if you don’t have the financial means to make it happen in just the way you want. So those are the kinds of considerations that of course come up but, if it can be done, if I can save up and do it then I try to do that.
So it seems like you’re researching everyday and nose-diving into that information that inspires you. Are there elements of daily life in that whole routine that inspires your work or is it all about the big picture ideas that you research?
No, there’s for sure stuff in the everyday that happens that totally blows my mind. In fact, one of the scenes from this film where a dancer is walking through some of these Baroque gardens in Stockholm there are people on the other side of the hedgerows carrying saplings so that you can’t see the people, but you see these trees moving at the same speed as the dancer moving through the hedgerow in the space. That idea just came about because I was with my class out in Millennium Park [in Chicago] doing a tech demo and all of the sudden we looked over and saw all these gardeners planting trees, walking behind a hedgerow and there were like, 20 trees moving in perfect harmony and procession, hopping up and down behind this hedge and we were all like, “Oh my god, that’s so crazy!” Everyone was taking photos and video. But then it’s like, yeah, it made its way into this other project so there’s plenty of room for the everyday to make its way into my work, and sometimes I’ll see something and I can acknowledge like, “I’m very interested in this, I don’t know why yet but I am, and I’m going to use it and I’ll figure it out later”. And so there is sometimes reverse engineering of some of these ideas where I saw that I knew instantly that it made sense within this project but then it took a while to put back in sync [and ask], “Okay, why? Why was I into this, why was I interested?” and almost always you begin to notice that the impetus to include those things falls back within veins of what you’ve been looking at. So you kind of train your brain in a way to pick stuff out. And of course, going to other shows and exhibitions and stuff is totally inspiring, that’s like a big part of doing what we do I think, to see what other people have going on or how they’re thinking. I try also to not just look at work that’s like mine, that’s a big thing for me. And it’s easy to see someone’s work who I think has similar paths of thought and I’m like “Oh yeah that’s awesome, interesting, I understand everything, great, perfect”, but sometimes it’s those things that, I don’t know, the things you really don’t understand and have a hard time confronting that I think deserve a lot of time and attention. So I’ve always tried to include some of that time into what I look at. And I think, for example, film was one of those things before this project. I went to this weekly film program at the Gene Siskel Film Center every week while it was going on for two years and then it kind of just popped out, like “Oh shit, I want to make a film and here’s what it’s going to be about.” The initial proposal for this film was a sculptural installation and I realized, you know, it would be so much better in this media, so I don’t know, that changed I guess.
Ok, I have one more question, and it’s kind of in conjunction. I know that you use Instagram. I’m wondering what you think about that as a medium — what do you think is the purpose for you of doing something like that everyday?
For me, it really is the only social media that I use voluntarily — like, I’m on Facebook because “professionally” “I need to be” so people have a way to contact me informally if they don’t have my email address but Instagram, I use it as a cool way to quickly throw out information or weird shit I see that I find interesting visually to my friends. So it is like a way to communicate with images and that’s how I use it. It also performs a diaristic function and you know, showing what I might be doing at that moment, although I use it in that way for pretty specific circumstances like “come see my show” and to inform my friends. I think it’s interesting because it’s a very quick way to get out information as opposed to, let’s say, my blog on my website that I also try to regularly update with things that I’m looking at, but that usually is a longer process. So I kind of have like research stuff I’m checking out on my blog and it just shows up as a photo. Then if you click thru the photo, there’s actually a link to an article or Wikipedia page or some other information about what’s being displayed. It’s a way to generate some visual interest behind the research that I’m doing and you click thru and you can read about it whereas Instagram is like “Dude, I just found this like, crazy hot dog badge, I can’t believe this exists, awesome, I love hot dog badges, I’m going to put it on Instagram.” So it’s kind of a space that’s really loose, it’s not a presentational format like the blog is. It’s not associated with say my web presence or some kind of professionalism so it’s kind of just a really fun space to share crazy stuff that I see with a group of friends — it’s a nice informational visual diary I guess would be a way to put it.
ARTWORK AND FOUND PHOTOS COURTESY OF SPENCER STUCKY
Learn more about Spencer’s work at spencerstucky.net