In Conversation: Artists Liss LaFleur & Laura Splan

Liss: Laura, I’ve loved learning more about your work. Could you start with a short introduction?

Laura: My work interrogates cultural manifestations of ambivalence towards the human body. I often use found objects and appropriated sources to explore socially constructed perceptions of beauty and horror, order and disorder. Much of my work is inspired by experimentation with materials and processes including blood, cosmetic facial peel and computerized embroidery. Digital processes have always been a part of my studio process and I’m thrilled to be expanding my toolbox during this residency.

Handkerchief (Anatomy of Tears), 2009, computerized machine embroidery on cosmetic facial peel, 8.5L x 8.5W x .5D inches

Handkerchief (Anatomy of Tears), 2009, computerized machine embroidery on cosmetic facial peel, 8.5L x 8.5W x .5D inches

Laura: It’s been a pleasure learning more about your work as well. I see affinities in our interests in representations of gender and sexuality. And we both seem to mine materials and processes for their narrative implications. Can you talk about the role of cultural and historical context in your studio practice? And about the significance storytelling plays in the development of your work.

Liss: Storytelling, and narrative specifically, for me is a lens to look backwards and forwards. Over the last year I’ve began appropriating ready-made objects into my work, questioning how I can use their embedded cultural meaning to evoke narrative, and/or use them as a tool for public interaction. What’s also emerged from this practice is a desire to combine the public and the personal, building from my own personal narrative within a larger oeuvre. I’ve actually realized that it’s become less about process for me. Learning new tools has made me think even bigger- and working on a larger scale is new & exciting for me. 

LIPSTICK 2014, 3-channel audio/video installation performed with flute, alto flute, and boombox. Composition by Jacob TV. 

Collaboration has also played a role in recent work of mine. Whether I’m working with a coder, a woodworker, or an archivist. I’m curious to know how you view interdisciplinary as both an artist and educator? Is it important and if so why?

Laura: Interdisciplinary art can illuminate concepts, ideas, and experiences that conventional modes within other disciplines cannot. Data visualization, for example, can reveal meaning and produce knowledge from data collected within the social sciences that was not readily apparent in the data alone. Florence Nightingale’s polar area diagram visualizing sources of patient mortality in a military field hospital is a great example of her pioneering work in this area. 

And objects and images can evoke experiences and generate understanding of ideas within disciplines traditionally separate from the Arts. As artists and educators, that is our charge–to draw upon what is familiar, what we think we already know, and to dissect and dismantle the machinations of the status quo and illuminate the cracks. We could focus solely on our own discipline–Art. But as an artist who has many interests besides Art, I find that unsatisfying. I’m much more interested in responding to the world around me in all of its biotechnological, sociopolitical complexities and wonders. At its best, Art is a force that can alter understanding and inspire progress. At minimum, it is a force that can illuminate shared experience and foster human connection.

Doilies (SARS), 2004, freestanding computerized machine embroidered lace mounted on velvet, 8.5L x 8.5W x .125D inches (doily dimensions)

Doilies (SARS), 2004, freestanding computerized machine embroidered lace mounted on velvet, 8.5L x 8.5W x .125D inches (doily dimensions)

Liss: I’m wondering how you view our relationship as makers to machines? Especially considering things like bio art, data-driven art, and any sort of digital fabrication.

Laura: There are so many aspects of digital fabrication that interest me. I am truly a kid in a candy store during out workshops and sessions with Kari and Erik. 

Machine-made objects evoke ambivalence in our understanding and designation of value, care, craft, quality, time–I could go on. Process is something that has always been important if not paramount in all of my work.  So the decision to fabricate something digitally or manually is never logistical but rather conceptual. I intentionally create ambiguities of the hand-made and machine made, the present and the past, the artificial and the biological. Destabilizing the viewer’s understanding of when and how something was made and its very materiality is a strategy as much about understanding ourselves and the arbitrary meanings we assign to these facts as it is about the pleasure of the visual double take.

Host (detail), 2014, hand-built porcelain ceramics, 3D printed plastic stained with blood

Host (detail), 2014, hand-built porcelain ceramics, 3D printed plastic stained with blood

Laura: Your projects often employ several different media including digitally fabricated, computer generated and hand-crafted objects and images.  What role does evoking the process of the objects “making” play in the viewing of your work? 

Liss: I’m often associated with the ‘Maker’ culture, but I think it’s only because of my DIY spirit. I’d say it’s less about evoking the process of making objects, and more about exposing their layers. For example, I’m currently finishing a 9’ neon sculpture titled ‘Queen.’ This project has multiple layers that included: finding the right Dairy Queen sign to appropriate, apprenticing with a neon artist named Deb Slatkin to fabricate the piece, and visualizing an ideal installation space once it’s completed. Using neon, a motor, and mixed media, the sign will flash between the words Queen and Queer, questioning identity, consumerism, and the south.

Queen (work-in-progress), 2015, neon, motor, mixed media. 9’ x 4’

Liss: Are you working on specific projects while a resident or are you working more broadly to acquire new skills and integrate them into your studio practice?

Laura: It’s been a while since I’ve participated in a residency that has a structured and instructional format. So I’m taking full advantage of Kari and Erik’s expertise for the next 6 weeks. I always been a self-learner and while I have had a lot of academic opportunities, for the most part my digital skills are self-taught via online tutorials and books. So this residency feels like a luxury I haven’t had since my graduate research.

During the residency, I am working on a new series of 3D printed sculptures for an upcoming exhibit at the Beall Center for Art+Technology to be announced in Fall of 2015. The exhibit entitled “Objects of Wonder” includes work that explores the transformation of one type of energy or force into another. So I’m exploring the potential for digital fabrication to transform the representation of data and original forms. “Wonder” and “objecthood” are each rich territory in their own right and I’m enjoying the roominess of the curatorial parameters.

Liss: What’s the most surprising thing so far about being a resident?

Laura: I had forgotten how inspiring an intensive learning experience can be. My “future projects” list has grown exponentially in the last few weeks. So much technology, so little time…

Laura: What is the most surprising thing so far about being a resident for you?  What are your thoughts about the online format as an educator? And as an artist?

Liss: I’m surprised by how many new ideas I’ve been able to generate these last 4 weeks, purely based on how inspirational Kari, Erik, and our group is. The remote structure of the Digi Fab Residency has worked out well for me, considering that I’ve moved, am getting married, and will be traveling throughout our time together, but I do miss getting to meet everyone in person and the camaraderie that I know would ensue. It’s been awesome to designate time each week to workshop and learn new software or materials, and I’m sure that I will continue to work with many from the residency even after it’s over.  

To See More of Liss and Laura's Work:

Liss LaFleur

Laura Splan