Sculpture and Architecture in Dialogue: A Conversation with Diana Thater

Diana Thater is an internationally renowned video artist who combines large-scale video projections with sculptural arrangements of video monitors in complex installations known for their striking use of color. A recipient of numerous grants and awards from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Franco-American Foundation for Contemporary Art, Thater has had more than 30 solo exhibitions in a variety of national and international venues since 1991, among them the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Vienna Secession, and the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland. Her video installation Knots + Surfaces (2001) is on view at the DIA Center for the Arts in New York through January 2002, and three other new works were recently installed at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York. Thater lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Knots + Surfaces (version #1), 2001. Detail of bees with 2 windows. View of installation at DIA Center for the Arts.

Melinda Barlow: Tell me how you came to make Knots + Surfaces. I understand it was inspired, in part, by a mathematical hypothesis concerning the dance of the honeybee.

Diana Thater: The work is not about honeybees or about math but about meaning-making and image-making and ultimately about abstract space. I started the piece several years ago when I came across the work of Barbara Shipman. Shipman is a mathematician who did her Ph.D. dissertation on the mapping of six-dimensional space (she also happens to be the daughter of an entomologist who specialized in honeybees). Simply put, 6-D space is the space of quantum fields. Anyway, as Shipman built her computer models of 6-D space, she slowly began to recognize that the images she was drawing were exact replicas or reconstructions of the dance of the honeybee.

Bees communicate with one another by dancing: a worker bee leaves the hive and goes out into the world to find pollen; she then comes back to the hive and dances on its vertical interior surface to tell the other bees where the pollen is. Communication among bees was famously examined by Karl von Frisch in his book The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. We know from von Frisch’s studies that the dance tells the other bees where the pollen is in four dimensions: latitude, longitude, altitude, and in time/ distance. But Shipman realized that bees are actually speaking about six dimensions, so that to read the dance of the honeybee is to read information about quantum fields in their natural state.

This is a beautiful idea and so in line with my search for other models of understanding space that I decided to use the honeybee as a subject (in the same way that I used dolphins, for example, in Delphine [2000]). In Knots + Surfaces the movement of honeybees is a jumping-off point for an artwork that is a place where one may renegotiate one’s understanding of space.

Knots + Surfaces (version #2), 2001. 5 LCD video projectors, 16 video monitors, 6 DVD players with DVDs, VVR-1000 video processors, and Lee filters. View of installation at DIA Center for the Arts.

MB: The two works seem to explore similar things. In Delphine, you worked with mammals who can do something human beings cannot, namely, negotiate the separate realms of air and water for survival, and in Knots + Surfaces you focus again on a form of behavior specific to a non-human species. China (1995) likewise examined the process of training wolves and considered them as subjects rather than objects.

DT: Bees, dolphins, wolves: these are all models of other subjectivities which become the basis for artworks that are ultimately about the viewer/subject re-thinking her own subjectivity.

MB: How did you arrive at the specific arrangement of video projections and sculptural elements used in Knots + Surfaces?

DT: A beehive is a modular structure made up of individual hexagonal spaces (the hexagon is the basic map of 6-D space as you might imagine). In my project as a whole there are 24 modules, and I can use as many or as few as I think a space requires. So, like the hive, the work may be as big or as small as it needs to be. In Knots + Surfaces at DIA there are five hexagonal projections that extend across the floor, up onto the far wall, and onto the ceiling.

The best outside is the inside, 1998. View of installation at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, L.A.

MB: Those hexagonal projections are just one way the work draws attention to spatial geometry and to the way that we, as viewers, frame the world in the act of perceiving it. The diamond-like patterns of sunlight on the floor, the rectangular elevator shaft on the north wall, the way the outside world is framed by the room’s many windows—Knots + Surfaces highlights and incorporates each of these related geometric, spatial, and architectural elements.

DT: It seems to me that the deliberate point of installation as a form is that it is neither sculpture nor architecture but something half-way in between. It is an art, as Robert Morris said (in his essay “The Present Tense of Space”) of “presentness” that allows viewers to be conscious of the now. I’m not interested in what currently passes for “video installation”—just projected images which, it should be noted, are cinematic and not spatial. I try to make work that exists in the space between sculpture and architecture. At DIA the projectors come staggering down from the ceiling as you enter the room, and the images of the bees stretch out in space across the surfaces of the architecture. In Knots + Surfaces, as in Delphine, I wanted to change the shape of the room via the images. In both works I did it through a move often made by architects, which is to twist the architectural grid on its axis.

Delphine, 1999. 6 LCD video projectors, 10 video monitors, 7 laser disc players with discs, Lasrplay 6 sync generator, and VR-1000 video wall controller. View of installation at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh.

MB: You allow technological equipment to be a visible part of your installations, and the projectors in Knots + Surfaces are no exception. What about the configuration of 16 video monitors? It reminds me of the early “video walls” of Nam June Paik, as well as works by artists using live feeds in multiple monitor matrices such as Les Levine, Ira Schneider, and Frank Gillette, who made Wipe Cycle in 1969. You seem interested in this tradition and even titled a smaller scale work Videowall Blue Sun (2000).

DT: I wanted to evoke that practice, especially as it’s been used by artists such as Paik, who group multiple monitors together and then distribute a single image across them. I took that traditional video wall and made it more architectural by folding it up at a 90-degree angle. The projected images fold across the walls as the video wall itself folds. On it is an image of a single, giant flower, fragmented but still one. The video wall is a form that makes the many one and the one many. So again, like the beehive, the video wall is modular.

Delphine, 1999. 4 video projectors, 18 video monitors, 6 laser disc players with discs, Lasrplay 4 sync generator, and 2 VR-1000 video wall controllers. View of installation at the Vienna Secession.

MB: What is the significance of the numbers that appear in the projections and on the monitors?

DT: There are 24 modules out of which I make the work; I may use as many or as few of these as the space requires. The numbers that appear tell me which module I am using. These “slates” were never intended to be played in the installation or shown to the viewer. Yet, after making them I decided to leave them visible. They give the work a bit of ’60s experimental film quality, and I like to push that relationship in my work because, as has been noted many times before, my work is based in an early idea I had about developing a kind of neo-structuralist video installation.

MB: Tell me about your editing in Knots + Surfaces.

DT: I made separate shots of the bees in front of a blue screen, shooting long shots, medium shots, and close-ups. The colored hexagons are actual colored boxes filmed with Super-8 film. Each module/DVD has a film/colored box on the bottom layer, and three layers of bees (long shot, medium shot, and close-up) played at different speeds on top. The modules are not edited—each layer is just a continuous shot. So in this work I have exchanged layering for editing.

The best animals are the flat animals (version #1), 1998. LCD projector, 3-lens video projector, video monitor, 4 laser disc players with discs, window film, and false wall. View of installation at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture.

MB: Didn’t you overlap or layer projections and sculptural elements in Wicked Witch (1996) and in The best animals are the flat animals—The best space is the deep space (1998)?

DT: In Knots + Surfaces the layers are edited together on tape, and a viewer in the room cannot interfere in their relationship. In the other two projects you mention, the overlapping layers exist in real space and the movement of a viewer conceals and reveals the layering. So you see, the space where the layers actually lie is an important choice. Wicked Witch uses six projectors to create a 360-degree projection of a field of poppies, which becomes increasingly out of register as it extends across the walls and around the room—this work uses overlapping repeated images. The best animals are the flat animals—The best space is the deep space is a complicated project made up of eight works, all shot in film and video. Each uses a different grouping from 27 different pieces, all of which were exhibited in different spaces in different cities simultaneously. There I wanted to make an interrelated but ever-changing group of works and explore the idea of multiple points of view. So, for example, in The best animals are the flat animals (version #1), a monitor is placed in front of a freestanding wall in front of a real wall. Text on the monitor is thus in the foreground, with images of a zebra performing tricks in a field in the mid-ground, and with extreme close-ups of the zebra’s coat in the background.

The best space is the deep space, 1998. 10 unique laser discs, video monitor, and laser disc player with disc, installation view.

MB: Another version called Bridget Riley made a painting (1998) foregrounds the fact that those abstracted close-ups are reminiscent of Op Art paintings. You draw inspiration from a wide range of sources: abstraction, conceptual art, Robert Morris and post-Minimalist sculpture, experimental and narrative film, as well as numerous texts, both fiction and non-fiction. What written sources inspired The best animals are the flat animals—The best space is the deep space?

DT: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was one of the inspirations for this project, as well as for an earlier work called The Caucus Race. Of course Alice has been the inspiration for a lot of artworks (particularly a wonderful piece by Gary Hill), as well as texts by contemporary philosophers like Gilles Deleuze and a very young theorist, Akira Mizuta Lippet, who wrote a beautiful analysis of Alice in his book Electric Animals. In the story, Alice goes down the rabbit hole and encounters a whole series of talking animals and, as the story progresses, the animals give way to the playing cards and three dimensions give way to flatness.

The filmmaker Robert Bresson speaks of his actors/ models as two-dimensional. They are like screens— wide and flat. The meeting point of Bresson’s idea of actors, Carroll’s idea of characters, and my idea of animals interested me. In The best animals are the flat animals—the best space is the deep space, I was interested in examining the limits of depth and the possibilities of expansive surface. That expansive surface is the surface that the models/animals present as well as the surface of the architecture.

MB: Was The best outside is the inside (1998), one of the other works in the project, also concerned with these issues?

DT: It is about a different idea that was additional to the wide/flat spirit of the project. For The best outside is the inside I shot two tableaux of a forest at the L.A. County Arboretum. One image shot during the day was made with filters as “day for night,” the other was shot with lights at night as “night for day.” The illusion is deconstructed in each shot, because each is wide enough to let you see the blue sky in the “day for night” shot and the night sky in the “night for day” shot. The technique is revealed and the atmospheric becomes affect and the deep becomes flat (it’s a sfumato thing). So what that translates to as an actual experience is: time becomes visible.

Videowall Blue Sun, 2000. 4 video monitors and 4 laser disc players with discs, installation view.

MB: The relationship between space and time and the way that relationship affects and transforms human subjectivity seem to be one of your primary concerns.

DT: It is my only concern. I’m interested in transformation. With each new work I ask how can I reconfigure the space/time continuum and what kind of space does that make for the subject to reconsider herself? To do this, I take what are considered to be the limitations of video and expand them so that they are no longer limiting. My work therefore embraces video’s flatness and color palette.

The story of art in the ’90s is the story of the explosion of installation. If installation is an art of real space and time that, as Robert Morris tells us, puts sculpture and architecture in dialogue with one another, then I am interested in making the space between them visible through the intervention of moving images and the time they exist in volumetric through color.

Melinda Barlow is the editor of Mary Lucier: Art and Performance (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).