Questioning Authority: A Conversation with Eve Andrée Laramée

More philosophy than standard art discourse, Eve Andrée Laramée’s polemical sculpture installations uproot assumptions about the authority of history, science, nature, and art. Never strictly didactic, her work does not simply illustrate information culled from her exhaustive research. Instead, it represents the intellectual process visually. Mediating between fact and fiction, her work unearths tensions in our understanding of both. The nexus of Laramée’s art is curiosity and information, rather than conceptual one-liners.

A Permutational Unfolding, 1999. Artist-designed jacquard fabric, mahogany, hand-painted wall panels, punch cards, historical objects, gouache, and gold leaf, installation view. Commissioned by the MIT List Center for Visual Art.

Laramée has exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, with solo exhibitions in New York, England, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, Israel, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Her work has also been shown at the Venice Biennale; MassMOCA; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the New Museum of Contemporary Art; the High Museum of Art; the MIT List Center; and the Museum of New Mexico.

Laramée opens up incongruous connections that transcend assumptions about art’s relationship to other disciplines. Her installations brilliantly address the malleability of assumed “hard texts” and authoritative disciplines. While not abandoning aesthetic concerns, she never allows them to overpower the conceptual focus. Throughout, Laramée’s work sustains a warm, clean beauty balanced by extensive references, evocations, and inquiries. The resulting work is among the most stimulating and poignant in contemporary art.

Ana Honigman: You explore the interstices between art and science, nature and culture, fact and fiction. What do you consider to be the authority of the artist? How has questioning this role influenced your work?

Eve Andrée Laramée: I am curious about issues of authorship, the relationship between the artist and the institution. Currently I am developing a long-term performance project, Secret History, which began in 1997 and has had numerous permutations. At its inception, I conceived of it as a self-experiment on identity.

I had been approached by the Islip museum on Long Island, which commissioned me to do a project. I explained to them that the project I was interested in developing involved me assuming another identity and creating the work of another person through myself. I wanted to experience that transformation and understand its meaning and function. I wanted to slip outside of myself, of my own work, and see what it might be like to think like another person. Though it was a fictional piece, I was aiming to present it as fact—as history. I presented the work as a historical exhibition, complete with wall text and chronological organization, and positioned myself as the curator. I gave tours of the exhibition and fielded questions from viewers about the work. I invented documents and made photographs in which I dressed as other people. I produced hundreds of works through a fictional character, mostly works on paper, small sculptures and devices, as well as paintings.

Cellular Memories, 1997. Salt crystals, red wine, vinyl tubing, etched glass, steel, and recorded sound, installation view.

The character I invented, Yves Fissiault, was an electrical engineer (and secret artist) during the Cold War, involved in the aerospace industry for the Defense Department. He hid his artistic practice for fear of what his conservative employers might think. Fissiault was an amalgamation of a character from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and facts taken from my personal imagining of my father, who had also been an electrical engineer during the Cold War and whom I last saw when I was five years old. I have strong associations with Pynchon, whom I love for many reasons, including the way he interweaves historical fact with outrageous, ass-kicking absurdity. After my mother passed away, I found seven notebooks in her house that had belonged to my father. The project incorporated his work into the work I created through the character of Yves Fissiault.

AH: How did you subsume your own artistic instincts and intentions to achieve creative malleability?

EAL: During a six-month period, I would try to stop thinking the way I think and slip into the identity of this character. I would try not to break character. It was a little scary, as there are strong boundaries around concepts of self. The process was very revealing as to how much an artist’s work is surrounded by ego boundaries. This ego is not only self-created, it is also created by the art world—institutions, critics, viewers. This was an opportunity for me to temporarily drop all that.

AH: Do you as a viewer appreciate the work created by this fictional artist?

EAL: I do. I love his work.

AH: What was the museum’s response to how you presented the exhibition?

EAL: I encountered some resistance; the director felt they would lose their audience, that no one would be interested in the work of an unknown artist from the Cold War period. They wanted Eve Andrée Laramée—which compelled me to think more about issues of authorship, authenticity, authority, power-dynamics between artists and institutions, and my relationship with the audience. Where does all this territory lie, and how does it shift and fluctuate?

AH: What was the viewer response to the merger of fiction and history?

EAL: Varied. I have worked with this merger before. The first narrative piece in which I deliberately presented something as fact that was fictional was Instrument to Communicate With Kepler’s Ghost at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 1994. The 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler has always interested me: he was both an artist and a scientist. He believed in astrology as much as he believed in astronomy. He was squirrelly—he had one foot in mysticism and the other in science.

Kepler had a theory of harmony, published as Harmonices Mundi, that proposed a musical relationship between the planets, their sizes, their aspects and movements in relation to one another. It was an absolutely operatically beautiful theory and it was wrong, so he falsified his data to prove it, therefore making art rather than science. When the High Museum asked me to do a project, I did a site visit. I looked at the building, a gorgeous Richard Meier building with a skylight in the shape of a grand piano, and, since I had been fascinated by Kepler for years, I thought music, light, the heavens—this is the site to do a Kepler piece.

Detail from Instrument to Communicate with Kepler’s Ghost, 1994. Copper, glass, keyboard telegraph engraved with alphabet, and dustball effects unit. Installation at the High Museum, Atlanta.

Using very thin copper cut wire, I transferred Kepler’s drawings from Harmonices Mundi onto the skylight windows, creating a big “antenna.” Each one of the panels was wired up to the top floor of the building leading into a room where I kept the instrument to communicate with Kepler’s ghost. I was lucky that there were the same number of panels as letters in the alphabet, plus two punctuation marks. I engraved the alphabet onto a keyboard that resembles a 17th-century device complete with wires running through a bell jar. Inside the bell jar is a dust ball—previously taken from my apartment, conceptually linking my personal universe with the larger universe. The fiction was that by using simple telegraph technology, in which you press a key to complete a circuit, you could send a pulse/letter into space thereby communicating your message to Kepler’s ghost.

AH: Sounds like it makes sense.

EAL: Perfectly logical right? Well, to start you have to believe in ghosts, but also, the whole device is itself fictional. There wasn’t even electricity running through the machine. I put a sign next to the keyboard advising people not to operate the keyboard during electrical storms because of the hazard of electrocution. People believed it, they were really fascinated by how I figured out how to build this big antenna and send messages into space.

AH: They were all sure the message would reach Kepler’s ghost? What if it hit someone else’s ghost, such as Newton’s, for example?

EAL: They believed it. I played up the logical sequence of the decay of logic. I was building a chain of logic to put forth something just as absurd as Kepler’s theory, which inspired me. People believed it because (and this is important to subsequent works such as Secret History) institutions such as art or science museums have authority and credibility. They validate the objects that exist within their realm.

AH: Which raises questions of how to relate a work to an artist’s entire career. To what extent is the artist a brand name that validates the work? How do all the other influential factors in an artist’s career—gallery, critics, contemporaries, and historians—dominate the perception of the work?

EAL: My so-called signature piece is Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions, and it has become a kind or “brand” for my work, although I do lots of different kinds of work. With Secret History, my alter-ego piece, some people were uncomfortable when the exhibition was reviewed in The New York Times; the critic did not know that it was fiction or that it was my work. I was questioning the authority of the art institution, the artist, and the ways in which we construct truth in our culture. To me, my art is my research. While my work has its place in the art world and the art market, what really drives me is the research. I make art about the things I am passionately interested in that I do not understand.

Detail from Instrument to Communicate with Kepler’s Ghost, 1994. Copper, glass, keyboard telegraph engraved with alphabet, and dustball effects unit. Installation at the High Museum, Atlanta.

AH: Do you think a really good forgery is art?

EAL: Yes I do. I don’t know whether it is well-intended art, but it is art.

AH: In Cellular Memories (1996) you take a seeming scientific detail and represent it as a very poetic, expansive metaphor.

EAL: I was asked to do a project in San Diego, which is situated between the ocean and the Salton Sea. When developing Cellular Memories, I was thinking about the parallel relationship between human blood and sea water, which chemically are almost exactly the same. The installation incorporated mounds of sea salt, which, when allowed to crystallize naturally, makes huge cubic crystals. High above these mounds were glass funnels engraved with fragments of text relating to questions of the body—blood and origins. Together, these bits of text made a three-dimensional poem for the viewer to walk through. Connected to these 20 vessels were 6,000 feet of vinyl tubing filled with red wine. The tubing branched to Y-connectors, although the wine was not being pumped. There was a sound component as well, a mixture of the human heartbeat and ocean waves. These sounds were combined, blended into a single beat.

AH: Why did you choose not to give the piece a kinetic aspect?

EAL: My work has always been non-utilitarian, non-functional. It is much more about metaphor and visuality.

AH: In Western medicine these two substances, wine and salt, have very strong relationships with blood. Salt invades the blood system, destroying blood pressure, while red wine stabilizes it.

EAL: Some people also read a Christian metaphor into the use of red wine, which was not my intent. I was attracted to it because it was available, red, and cross-cultural.

Breathing into Each Other’s Lungs, 1998. Hand-blown glass, rubber, steel, and wax, 42 x 18 x 9 in.

AH: You have done a lot of work questioning and examining the authority of science. How do you respond to the ways the computer has become almost an analogue for the human mind?

EAL: In A Permutation Unfolding (1999) at the MIT List Center for the Arts, I addressed aspects of the computer’s history by re-evaluating the standard understanding that the computer evolved out of calculating devices or statistical devices or combinatorial machines. I traced alternative histories of the digital computer through the history of textile arts and the performing arts, using the Jacquard loom, automatons, and mechanical musical instruments as focal points. The Jacquard loom, the first automated loom, was invented in 1801 and driven by punch cards, very much like the punch cards used to program computers in the 1960s. Computers are driven by binary code, as was the Jacquard loom whose technology originated from automaton dolls and mechanical musical instruments.

For the installation I created a period room, like those at the Metropolitan Museum, using styles from the Empire period, complete with hand-painted wall panels and an exclusively woven textile pattern for the draperies and upholstery. The fabric was designed for the installation and woven on a contemporary Jacquard loom with a direct feed from a computer. The imagery in the fabric illustrates the alternate history of the computer

The installation was a mixture of historical objects borrowed from different museum collections, including mechanical musical instruments and a Jacquard loom head borrowed from the American Textile History Museum. I also borrowed items from the MIT archives, including memory cores from the Whirlwind Computer, which used a type of pre-silicon memory woven out of copper wires with tiny little ring-shaped magnets. This was from the period when computers had massive memory banks the size of an entire building, all woven together.

AH: Through this installation you were making a decorative cocoon?

EAL: I wasn’t thinking of cocoons, but if we are going to look at interior domestic spaces in relation to the history of installation, this was a period when enormous amounts of upholstery and drapery were coming into vogue. Not only were these decorative fashions a way for people to display their wealth, but I think the huge padded chairs and volumes of drapery on the wall were a way psychologically for people to pad themselves from the terror without. This was happening during the Reign of Terror in France.

Dustball as Model of the Universe, 1994. Household dust, hand-blown glass, and steel, 9 x 6 in. diameter.

AH: Anachronistic combinations of objects were used in the installation. How did you establish the relationship between objects for the viewer?

EAL: There was no text, I wanted people to make the connections visually, and viewers really did understand. There were so many examples of binary code presented visually and materially that the audience was able to draw the necessary connections without needing to read a prescribed explanation. There were objects from the 19th century combined with some from the mid-20th century, combined with things I made specifically for the installation in 1999.

AH: In the Proustian sense there was tangibility to memory—cobwebs, souvenirs—but now, with computers, the concept of memory has become detached from the physical world. How do you perceive the poetry of memory?

EAL: It greatly interested me that Jay Forester, who invented pre-silicon memory, considered weaving a metaphor and model for the computer. He visualized memory as a three-dimensional woven structure. Linguistically, these physical images are still embedded in the language of technology. We talk about the Internet or the World Wide Web.

But, what interests me is how memory has once again become mineral. Silicon is a mineral. It is the earth. History and memory have gone from the earth—where the physiography of the earth acts as a mapping of history—to having memory and history situated in the animal mind, to now where we are deferring back to the mineral world to preserve our memory and our history.

AH: What is your concept or definition of history?

EAL: History is a soft text masquerading as a hard text. I like to think of what makes the distinction between hard text and soft text. There are hard texts, which claim to have and are perceived as having authority as truth, and there are soft texts, which are always open to interpretation. Maps go under the heading of “hard text,” but there are all kinds of map deceptions that occur. Maps are fluid and changing.

Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions, 1994–98. Hand-blown and etched glass, steel, copper, salt water, and flowers, installation view.

AH: How have you addressed your sense of natural versus constructed geological history?

EAL: I am developing a project called Fluid Geographies in which I look at the subjectivity in maps. I plan to develop a type of atlas expanded from a series of drawings I am currently working on, in which I have blacked out all except a selected set of information. In one, all that can be seen are the sites of uranium deposits in Glen Canon National Park. In another, only trailer park communities remain on the map. By erasure and leaving exposed one system of information, I am able to reveal and recognize patterns.

Right now, I am examining this geographical and geological history through the developments of the Secret History project, which is moving away from narrative toward issues of psychology and space.

I had begun developing the character of Yves Fissiault’s wife, a movie star. The characters go into exile and experience a kind of terrain of psychic rootlessness. They travel from L.A. along Route 66 to the Mohobi desert and down into the Salton Sea area and then into Northern Mexico. It is an area that fascinates me. I call it the Netherzone.

The geology of California is totally chaotic because there have been so many cataclysms. The land is physically and topographically extremely complex, yet we think there is nothing there. We perceive the desert as empty, as a place of rootlessness.

AH: What if anything do you see as being “American” in your work?

EAL: My concern with nature and culture, particularly in how I am developing Netherzone, the newest chapter in the Secret History project, is reflective of one of the key concerns for American artists historically, which is the fundamental questioning and analysis of land and landscape. I would consider my American conceptual lineage as looking back to the 18th and 19th centuries—to the Hudson River School artists and Albert Bierstadt, who were suddenly making huge panorama-sized paintings rather than easel paintings. That representation of the grandeur of the West and the Western landscape was not only aesthetic but political. The paintings were brought into Congressional hearings and used as propaganda to fuel westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. In the 20th century, land artists such as Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria responded to land and landscape as phenomena. Artists in the ’90s began to work in terms of reclamation, looking at the work from a more ecological perspective. I am interested in what the Situationists termed “psycho-geography.” They were speaking of their drifts through urban territory. What I do is quite different, but the term applies. I am looking at the ways in which we psychologically process space and how space affects our perceptual states.

Parks on Trucks: Carbon Balance Truck Project for the City of Aachen, Germany, 1999. Truck, corn, soil, and gravel. Project commissioned by the Ludwig Forum Museum.

AH: Are you referring to an examination of your personal psychology or the discipline of psychology?

EAL: There is certainly a personal element in my work, particularly in response to spacial/geological history. I am always looking at my own psychology and my psychological responses. The desert is a place of origin for me. It is the place where I feel most myself. I spent six years living in New Mexico and a lot of time in the California desert, in Israel, and the Sonora desert in Mexico. It is a kind of deep homeland for me.

But there are also aspects of my work that deal with cultural psychology, looking at the ways in which cultures and societies think. How do we formulate our knowledge and our perceptions? There is no getting away from that, whether it is foremost in one’s work or not, and though it never really has been in my work, it is always in there.There is always a triadic focus in my work—issues of nature/culture, issues of science/the history of science, and art issues. Art is the language through which I know how to think about science and nature.

Ana Finel Honigman is a writer living in New York