Jennifer Steinkamp was one of the first to adopt digital animation software Maya over 30 years ago. Since then, she has used the program to develop a diverse body of digital animations, often at monumental scale, projected onto the walls of museums, galleries, and in public spaces. The artist favors botanical forms, but with idiosyncratic twists. Blind Eye (2018), for example, positions the viewer within a dense grove of birch trees undergoing seasonal change; the title puns on the characteristic “eyes” of birch trees where branches have fallen off, as well as on metaphorical limits of vision. Other projects include Winter Fountains (2017), a series of domed projections sited along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, and Bouquet (2013)—plan views of botanical groupings, but of massive tree canopies rather than delicate flowers. Steinkamp’s newest work, Eon, is the latest to join the Landmarks public art collection at the University of Texas at Austin. Thirty feet long and nine feet high, the digital LED projection, on display in the lobby of the College of Natural Sciences, immerses viewers in an underwater flow of primordial life.
Maura Thomas: How did Eon, your new commission for Landmarks, come about, and how did it develop?
Jennifer Steinkamp: It started perhaps a year and a half ago. I like to respond to the context and use it for inspiration, and since it’s for the Welch Hall, which is a biological sciences building, I was thinking about how life on our planet began. I’ve created these pieces which deal with panspermia and how asteroids land on our planet and melt and microbes perhaps started life. I was actually influenced by Stephen Hawking’s TV show. And so I made asteroids with graffiti on them, to say well maybe this happened, but maybe there was intent—or not. I was taking a stance somewhere between religion and science, because science seems so cold and deals more mathematically, and religion is bizarre to me. Maybe it’s aliens, who knows?
But I definitely sense that there are things far beyond what we can experience in our limited bodies. When this project came along, I was still thinking about that and came across the scientist Lynn Margulis, who deals with symbiosis and how basically our ancient relatives, our ancestors, are bacteria. Single-celled organisms somehow blended with bacteria and started to form more complex cells, and as the earth evolved and oxygen formed, we became what we are today. Thinking about that, I’ve been trying to visualize what the earth might have been like way back when and looking at fossils and how scientific illustrators depicted what it might have looked like. I went with that and created an interpretation.
I guess it’s speculative, because you can’t really be literal. It doesn’t have scientific value, that’s for sure. But it’s certainly inspired by those values. I spent a great deal of time trying to animate a feeling of flowy-ness and currents. The bubbles are going up and everything else is going down, so there are opposing forces. And things float down and then a little up, so there’s definitely some kind of invisible force. That’s pretty constant in all of my work: these invisible forces, like wind or currents, that move things. Light is an invisible force as well. It doesn’t have any physicality. Goodness, sometimes I sound like a scientist.
MT: While part of it is speculative and non-scientific, you still do a lot of research and pay attention to form.
JS: I do. The thing is, if I were a scientist, I would retain this information much better. It’s an interest for me as I’m making the work, and then it’s gone out of my mind. Certainly strange, but sort of how it works.
MT: Do you think about when something more highly rendered is useful, versus keeping things a little less defined? How do you make those decisions?
JS: I’ve been doing this a long time, and as the display equipment has evolved there’s more resolution and the ability to have more detail. The computer processing is so much faster, and there are more tools. All these things collide, and I’m able to add a lot more detail. Maybe someday I’ll pull back on that. But I still keep everything feeling like a drawing, more or less—by adding outlines and things, or not really caring about a hyper-realism.
MT: Why do you like to keep things looking like a drawing?
JS: I’ve been doing it for such a long time, perhaps I don’t think about it. I’m working on another project and the technical people are saying, “Isn’t there a problem? There’s outlines around everything.” It was a discussion point. “No, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” It’s more related to a drawing somehow. And it also allows things to be accentuated or highlighted a little more so that they separate from other objects. But I like that it’s sort of pretending to be a drawing. Maybe it’s an animator thing, too.
MT: Do you think of your works as site-specific?
JS: Many times, yes. It’s more like a lucky thing when you come up with a piece that responds perfectly to the architecture and context. Some do more than others. I was just watching an Orson Welles documentary, and he was talking about shooting for the lucky instances—I totally relate to that. Also Merce Cunningham—I worked with his dancers, and it’s the same thing. It’s all about this collision, random chances. This is something that happens in my work a lot, because I work with something called dynamics. You let the program run a simulation with invisible forces, and then you see what you get after the fact. You have somewhat of an idea, but it’s hard to know exactly what it’s going to do. I’ll run like 70 instances of something until I get what I want—that’s why it takes so long.
I’m so intrigued by motion and how our bodies respond to movement. It’s outside of the way you think—it’s more bodily. I have a lot of control over the speed and things like that, but I still don’t know exactly what it’s going to turn out like. I create a lot of chaos, and then I have to straighten it out a little.
MT: Do you have any specific goals for work that’s going to be on view in public versus in a museum or gallery?
JS: That certainly might change things. I can remember when I was more naïve and more fascinated by art, and I really appreciated work that could talk to you on multiple levels. I think as an artist you can choose how you want to approach that. I mean, somebody’s not going to totally understand the work unless they do a little research—I’d say that goes for any artwork.
With the Winter Fountains in Philadelphia, I had a lot of people come up to me and say, “Oh, are you the artist?” And then they’d thank me, profusely, over and over again. That doesn’t happen in a museum. It’s a very abstract piece, but I think it touched people.
MT: A lot of the projections remind me of Gothic stained glass, both in the way that they deal with light and also in terms of the botanicals and imagery of growth. Do you have particular art historical references?
JS: When I was making this project called Still Life, I was looking at Dutch still lifes and trying to see if I could make the computer feel like that sort of painting, which is really hard to do because it’s just completely different. It influenced how I thought about lighting, too.
I guess the big difference, at least so far, between my work and still lifes is that still lifes might represent death and decay, and my work doesn’t have that so much. It’s more about continuation, and I think that also goes for the narrative quality of my work. There’s never a real beginning, middle, or end, like maybe an animation might have, or a story. There’s no birth, life, death—even with the seasons, they cycle.
Maybe someday I’ll decide to do that more. Have you ever seen Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts? It’s all these stop motions of footage clips of various things dying, decaying. It’s kind of incredible. That would be a starting point.
Eon is now on view at Welch Hall, The University of Texas at Austin.