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Interview with artist Rebecca Keller

Statue of Roentgen with x-ray, installation by Rebecca Keller at the
International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago, 2011

Rebecca Keller is a multimedia artist who is currently exhibiting in an installation at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, in a show with other artists that she organized as part of her Excavating History project. The show is an intriguing reinterpretation and reimagining of the museum, with work that was created in response to the museum's archives, or that is a provocative replacing and rearrangement of that material. After meeting Rebecca Keller and some of her collaborators on a tour of the exhibition a few weeks, she agreed to answer some questions about the nature of this work.

Philip: What is the Excavating History project?

Rebecca: Excavating History is an umbrella title for a series of exhibitions, classes, and publications that explore or complicate the embedded narratives of public historic sites. The projects are research driven: they enlarge the stories that these places tell. They began when my research for projects in Chicago and Europe led to installations and objects that were situated within the historic site alongside the regular collections.

These sites function as palimpsests: places where stories are re-inscribed over other stories, with each narrative and narrator leaving their own trace entwined with the others. After doing the above projects, it occurred to me that many voices working in collaboration could result in richer narratives, and I designed a class for the School of the Art institute of Chicago which functions as a workshop and culminates in an exhibition at an historic site. The class exhibitions have taken place at various spots around Chicago. The research-driven methodology and site-generated approach is an important opportunity for students, and these exhibitions have been a way of exploring our collective history with multiple voices.

Philip: How has EH developed in the last few years?

Rebecca: EH continues to evolve; in addition to solo projects and the class, there are now a number of talented individuals who have participated and wish to continue working together when possible, generating a sort of ad-hoc collective. A book of images and essays about Excavating History is forthcoming from Stepsister Press, with support from the Illinois Arts Council and the School of the Art Institute.    

Excavating History projects use site-based research as the imagination-fuel for artmaking: the artists draw on archives and 'hard' research as well as on oral histories, memories, undocumentable rumor and mythologies. The resulting exhibitions, programs and performances re-examine historic sites through the lens of contemporary experience. Essential questions are raised, such as: whose story gets told and who gets to tell it? How have these inherited stories shaped the way we think? What kind of alternative futures could they inspire? EH projects explore both the politics and poetics of our shared stories.

Veselius, installation by Rebecca Keller at the IMSS, Chicago

Philip: How does the project at the International Museum of Surgical Science extend your notion of “site-complicit art”?

Rebecca: I coined this term because, at least in the case of Excavating History it is more accurate and more nuanced, than Site-Specific.

For me, the historic sites where I work are generative, not incidental. In these projects, the artwork is both site-generated (based on considerable research into the particular qualities, histories and contexts the site presents) and site-responsive (made in creative response to the research as well as to the physical and social aspects of the site). The art and the site are complicit in generating meanings, building a symbolic matrix in which viewers locate themselves.

Sol Lewitt famously said: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”  In Excavating History, the site becomes an engine that drives the work, both in its physical manifestation as well as in terms of content and, often, audience. There's a peculiar but useful question I ask myself at the beginning of each project. I set out to discover: What is this site’s practice? What questions and concerns is it generating, who is speaking out of this particular context?

Kitchen closet/cook, sepia on cloth, Glessner House, Chicago, 2006

Philip: Has your art-making always been collaborative, or was this the result of a gradual journey in your practice?

Rebecca: I have often worked collaboratively, but I've become even more drawn to it in this work. I think it has a lot to do with the extensive research these projects require--more voices and more people sharing ideas. Plus, the physical challenges, like how to place work where one cannot hammer into walls or change the space, are more easily overcome when many brains and hands focus on finding the solutions.

Philip: After looking at the work you created in history-laden institutions such as the Jane Addams house, where you lined a wall with malleable clay tiles on which visitors could leave a physical impression, I am struck by the constant urge in your work to turn complex ideas into very tactile things, objects, experiences. What are your thoughts on this?

Rebecca: What a great question. My thoughts go in several directions. First, I want to talk about the practical challenges I mentioned above. For example, I WISH I could've installed tiles at Hull House. But since I couldn't attach anything to the walls, I had to hang everything from the picture rail.  I had to make quite large panels (like 4 x 6 ft) covered with clay. Those things were heavy! That is what I mean by practical. Sometimes I think I should teach a skills class in how to make elaborate on-site installations without leaving any footprint behind.

"Fingerprint by Fingerprint", clay-lined room by Rebecca Keller.
Bottles: part of performance by Maral Hashemi; 
other objects 
collection of Hull House Museum
But to get to the heart of your question: Material choice is really important to me.  It helps to physicalize or embody the ideas that I am working with, ideas inspired or suggested by the research. In these projects, engaging other senses --such as touch, as in Hull House; or smell; or a sense of danger or precariousness as at the IMSS, helps to create emotional connections to the material, and enlarges the experience without becoming didactic. Sometimes materials function simultaneously, as both metaphor and a very literal reenactment or demonstration. After the opening at the IMSS, a psychologist came up and said he'd like to talk with me about the notion of embodiment and sensory triggers. He must have been responding to the same things as prompted your question.

It isn't all about exotic or unusually deployed materials, of course. But my hope is that we open up the complexities contained in the site, inviting viewers to a new understanding through the domain of the imagination.

Philip: As I read your accounts of your site-based projects, I was also struck by how much story-telling you were doing. Your descriptions of the history of the Glessner House and the Pleasant Home read like the narratives at the start of nineteenth century novels (which I intend as a compliment). Does this have any connection, do you think, to your current interest in writing fiction?

Rebecca: Absolutely. What I mentioned before--manifesting complex ideas through art objects, materials and experiences-- has a co-relative in literature. Fiction can take complex ideas and give them an emotional, resonant truth, showing us how they play them out across time, space and culture. Good writing is specific, detailed, and precise. Likewise, in these projects I ask: What precise anecdote/ historical moment/person/ detail/image keys an artwork, and resonates within the space and exhibition? 

Additionally, history is a narrative discipline. One critical element of this is figuring out where the narrator lies--who is given a voice in these spaces?  Paying attention to who is in possession of the story is important.

Philip: Finally, what plans do you have for future Excavating History projects?

Rebecca: There are several possibilities I am working on. Unfortunately, I haven't quite nailed them down yet, but you'll be among the first to know!

"Body of Work, the Excavating History Collective in Residence at the Museum of Surgical Science," runs until December 31, 2011.

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