For Texas artist Julie Libersat the landscape is a site increasingly mediated by personal and collective memory, political ideology, and technology. The urban landscape, in particular, occupies the central focus of Libersat's interventionist projects, many of which begin with the artist's personal experience of a site that is then translated or re-presented in its mediated format within a gallery context. Deploying a range of tactics that include wandering, disorientation, driving, navigation, mapping, and modeling, Libersat's art recalls certain aspects of the post-war French avant-garde, yet in her work the revolutionary, Utopian impulse is sublimated in favor of the dystopian, ludic, the ironic, and the humorous - sensibilities more conducive to sustaining a functional critical apparatus within culture. The daughter of an architect, Libersat brings to her practice a facility for design and modeling, yet shuns the hallmarks traditionally associated with the discipline of architecture, namely, a practical concern for a logical correlation between form and function. Instead, Libersat disorients viewers by injecting elements of the uncanny into the familiar, quotidian experience of a spaces. To put it more succinctly, the artist does not attempt of provide solutions to practical problems, rather she uses her art to call attention to the ways in which our environment is already dysfunctional and uncanny. In this interview, Libersat discusses her early influences and pivotal projects, and weighs in on recent public art controversies.
You achieved strong recognition during your undergraduate experience at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. How did you first learn you wanted to be an artist and who influenced your early creative development?
As an art educator, I think it’s important to acknowledge how privileged access to art education can be. I did well at MICA as a young art student because I was prepared with a childhood rich with art opportunities. Growing up in a family of creative people, I was encouraged to pursue art and was exposed to art history, architecture, and craftsmanship. My father is an architect and my mother is an educator - both equally inform my art practice and commitment to art education. I was born in India, where we lived for four years while my father was a Fulbright scholar and visited frequently throughout my adolescence. I felt pulled between the two locations, and from an early age struggled to define a sense of belonging with the idea of home. These themes have been present throughout my creative development and found voice during my time at MICA. I spent a formative semester abroad in the South of France, where I began to create urban interventions in response to the local architecture. I was fortunate during my time at MICA to engage in an interdisciplinary practice, which allowed me to explore materials in search of a sense of belonging with an area of concentration. The class, “Projected Light,” taught by Hugh Pocock was a major turning point for me where I connected with light as a medium and began to identify myself as an installation artist, using architecture and site as a starting point.
The themes of place and space recur throughout your practice and have been key undercurrents of progressive art, urbanism, and theory since the post-war period. How do you define "place" and "space" in your art? Where do you see your art contributing to historical and current conversations?
I have always felt a sense of the history and atmosphere of places, feeling as though I was haunted by all the locations that I’ve inhabited. Before I had the academic vocabulary to articulate space versus place, I was attempting to create artworks that enabled viewers to be in more than one place at a time or facilitated time and space travel.
The spatial theorists Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefevbre and the work of the Situationist International articulate the important distinction that space is socially constructed. Understanding that our relationship with space and place creates meaning through our situated perspectives and nuanced relationships with sites helps me to articulate the difference between space, which is abstract, and place, which distinguishes the cultural, personal and social relationships to site. The opportunity to travel showed me how different cultures communicate status and identity through architecture and symbols.
Hurricane House is an example of a piece that unpacks a more personal relationship to home. Using floor plans drawn from memory by my family members, I reconstructed my father’s childhood home which was destroyed in Hurricane Rita in 2005. I compiled all of their memory plans into a 3D render and created a resin 3d print of the house and placed it inside of a Plexiglas box filled with water. The water condenses and drips down the sides, preserving Hurricane House within a permanent storm state. Interacting with my family’s relationship with this structure and site, I explore home as a metaphor and symbol for belonging and identity and as a receptacle for cultural meaning. This can often be in contrast to our complex relationships with a house that we may or may not feel ‘at home’ within. Utilizing scale and the process of computer rendering, I am interested in our virtual relationships with places through memory, imagination and the process of navigation.
Some of your earliest projects intervened in public urban as well as private domestic architectural spaces. Can you tell us about this work and identify a piece you consider pivotal to an understanding of your early practice?
My early work was largely driven by an interest in our reflexive relationship with architecture: how we are directed by it and how we shape it through our interactions. I was exploring the ornamentation of domestic and public spaces through pattern and symbols that direct viewers to perceive a theatrical façade or skin of cultural meaning. In an early installation, Skirting Corners, a woman's skirt is buttoned onto the corner of a room. Making clothes for architecture, I hoped to show how we dress spaces with meaning and identity. An early work of public art commissioned by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, Burning Down the House, made connections with the history of the site and the city. The baroque patterning is meant to highlight the ornamentation of the building and its reconstruction after the Great Baltimore Fire that consumed 140 acres of downtown Baltimore in 1904.
Another early work that was pivotal for me is Four Corners, an installation with four slide projectors projecting images of corners back into the four corners of the room. I was attempting to allow viewers to travel between hundreds of different corners I had visited and photographed through the year. Using space and time, this piece was my first immersive installation that acts as a device to transport viewers through multiple places.
Hurricane House reminds me of Guy Debord's and Asger Jorn's collaborative art book project, Mémoires, a sandpaper covered volume containing layered imagery of fragmentary maps, texts, ink splotches, and photographs. Mémoires embodies an important correlation in Situationism and in your own practice between immediate embodied experiences of space through such tactics as the dérive and experiences mediated through memory, such as psychogeography. Can you elaborate on these distinctions as they relate to your ongoing GPS project, ROAM, funded by the CADD grant, and projects like Hobby Lobby Maze and Ridgecrest Circle, which re-present participatory maps of real spaces within a gallery context?
Recent projects deal with public space, infrastructure and the language of navigation. I am using various mediums to explore the ways that technology is transforming the way we perceive ourselves, the world around us and the way we in habit, build, and move through it. GPS navigation, virtual communities and forums, virtual reality, video game perspectives such as first person shooter, are a few examples of the pluralistic and hybrid ways we represent and perceive ourselves moving within real and virtual spaces.
ROAM is an ongoing project first developed as a CADD FUNd grant proposal that now includes a published article, prototypes for mobile game application, card game, curricular structure, and workshop series. ROAM is a mobile urban game that gets players lost, similar to the Situationist’s dérive, and engages them in documenting their experience through creative prompts. The resultant recordings produced by players creates possibilities for a collaboratively produced map that opens up pluralistic perspectives of places shared by many players. As a game and curricular structure, ROAM focuses on using a sense of play to structure creative wanderings: players are engaged in observation, creative interaction, and notation of shared space. Like the Situationist’s emphasis on creative detournements (disruptions in urban capitalistic space), ROAM uses disorientation in a similar strategy to initiate and welcome critical observation and disrupt the dominant narrative and perspective of space.
I explore disorientation in my work because of a fascination with the processes of perception and navigation. In interactive works such as Ridgecrest Circle and Hobby Lobby Maze, the interactivity and installation of the video produces a sense of disorientation in the viewer by seemingly simple means: allowing for viewers to move a moving image. In Ridgecrest Circle, an installation at the Dallas Contemporary Museum, the viewer, following a map of North Texas neighborhood printed on the floor, pushes a kart with a video projector inside while a video of the same suburban development is projected on the walls. Getting lost is both the circumstances under which I make the video (I set game like parameters around video production, wandering the shot as a single unedited journey through a place) as well as the end goal for the viewer. Like a detournement, disorientation is a strategy (also like wandering) that disrupts and reframes our everyday landscapes.
I am interested in the ways that technology shapes and distorts our perception, mediating and hybridizing how we represent and simulate space and experience. In Hobby Lobby Maze, the interactive kiosk allows viewers to “drive” through the retail space. Driving the shopping kart by means of hands on controls, asks viewers to question their own agency as a consumer. Getting lost in everyday spaces such as Hobby Lobby, I ask viewers to observe the ways the built environment orients us towards cultural values and is designed for consumption.
Yes, and shifting population demographics as well as new historical contexts are now revealing that cultural values once shared by those in power to shape the urban environment - values enshrined in monuments and memorials, especially - are no longer shared by the communities they ostensibly represent. How do you respond to controversies about Confederate monuments in Dallas and other cities? What role should public art play in preserving historical memory of legacies of hate and segregation?
Public monuments and commemorative public art does not simply honor past epochs, it actively reproduces and maintains a constantly evolving notion of shared public space. Historian and architect Delores Hayden advocates a model of urban landscape that promotes a socially inclusive public history, and I subscribe to this idea as a viable way of shaping our future cities. As our cities continue to evolve we need to preserve and protect our architecture and shared ecological and cultural landscapes against ever encroaching economic development, and to make informed decisions to create a public history that is socially inclusive. I support the removal of Confederate monuments precisely because they work against inclusivity.
Your current collaboration with artist Nic Mathis is on view at The Box Company in Dallas through October 8, 2017. How do you see your works in dialog with Mathis' art and the exhibition space?
Nic and I share a lot of the same motifs, interests and inclinations despite having different aesthetic concerns and working in different media. We both think about creatively navigating urban space: Nic approaches an idea of the city as a social phenomenon through the lens of skateboard visual culture of the 1990s; similarly, I explore an idea of socially constructed urban space, but a space mediated by design and technology. My minimal and digitally fabricated works contrast stylistically with Nic’s gestural and immediate aesthetic; however, both our works incorporate the themes of navigation and bodily movement through such acts as mark making, skating, or wandering.
We both couldn’t help but respond to and work with the Box Co’s vibrant yellow enamel floor markings, traces of the structure’s former life as an assembly-line box factory, which bear a striking similarity to the markings of streets, crosswalks, and parking lots. The result is an installation that functions as an itinerary through the space, which is a pristine, freestanding “white box” gallery set within the cavernous expanse of a rusty corrugated steel structure. Thus, the work connects not just to the history of the building and the family that owns it, gallerists Jason and Nancy Koen, but to the South Dallas Cedars neighborhood and the role it currently plays within Dallas's rapidly transforming urban landscape.
You have recently accepted a faculty position at Texas Women's University. How do you see pedagogy informing your future art practice?
I have always considered my art and teaching practices as mutually sustaining, which is one of the reasons I pursued a MFA in studio art concurrently with an MA in Art Education at the University of North Texas. I am excited to design courses in which we may consider the art object as a “curricular object,” and to think about approaching curriculum design the way I plan a viewer’s experience within an art installation. For instance, this month, I have been teaching students to create a game that disorients their experience of space within the galleries of Tado Ando’s Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, ideas I am actively developing in my ongoing ROAM project, a mobile web application that subverts our reliance on GPS navigation.