A Conversation with Jan Estep

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Jan Estep is Associate Professor in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Selected notable past projects include Beneath the Surface (of language), 2011; Wittgenstein Project, 2007; The Antarctica Project/Because Snow Never Melts, 2004; and “Survival Wear,” 1996- 2001.

Jan Estep is currently working on two exciting conceptual-based projects. Most recent and ongoing is a collaborative interdisciplinary art and cognitive neuroscience project, titled Thinking Portraits. And this past summer (2011), Estep traveled to the Grand Canyon and performed Metta and Loving Kindness acts to honor those who had taken their lives there in the related projects, Grand Canyon Suicide Map and Metta Meditation, Grand Canyon National Park.

Photographically, Estep’s contributions expand the range and approach to traditional image-making. I sat down with her recently to learn about her refreshing process, but also about how her experience in life is ultimately one of her most used materials.

MPB: Your background has philosophical flavorings. Could you contextualize what your role and responsibilities are to the Art Department at the University of Minnesota?

JE: I am hired through the photography area, but honestly, I’m photo/interdisciplinary.

In terms of my teaching, I develop more conceptual-based processes rather than technically-based processes. For example, one of the photography classes I’ve developed is Performative Photography: Documentation of Artistic Acts and Social Interventions. The class parallels my own relationship with the camera. I’m affiliated with the photography area, but I use the camera, really, as a tool when it’s appropriate in my projects, usually documenting some other behavior.

MPB: Speaking of this approach, but stepping back to 2001, as part of the series “Survival Wear,” you trekked through a forest in Wisconsin and photographed yourself for the Hunter Dress images.

JE: Yes. I designed the dress, a simple bodice, a simple skirt; the skirt is made with a Realtree nature-print pattern that hunters use during hunting season, using a material that would help camouflage me but a bodice that is bright red, so I’m also a target. I hiked with my camera, tripod, and garment carried in a backpack. I made the dress the entire time with this particular image of me draped over a tree in mind, like a hunted, trapped animal in some kind of dark fairy tale. I hiked in the woods until I found a felled tree, and found a way to hoist myself on to it. In this case, I only took two takes: I put the camera on a timer. It just felt right. I felt I got the image.

This image is part of a series. In another image, I was on the ground; in the other, I leaned on the tree. But the point is that this is how I use the camera, to document an event or action that otherwise would go unnoticed, and also to be able to share it with others.

I have to rely on the viewer imagining what this experience would be like, of extending themselves into the situation: so in the case of this image, what would motivate me, what would it be like to be out in the woods like this, hanging over a tree. What other references does the image hold?

MPB: What’s compelling is the experience, the momentary time and context–the ingredients of life.

JE: Yes. I’m interested in the primary behavior, the trip event, the research, my experience, and as the artist, it’s always, “Can you share the experience with people? How can you share it with people? How can you make it interesting for the viewer?”

MPB: But it’s even the joy you express, or your curiosity–and sometimes the way you inhabit that circumstance, and how those qualities become communicated. The person in the environment.

JE: That’s how I got into the photography. I needed a way to document these things I wanted to do in the world. Lots of artists do this. It’s not a totally novel idea.

I think about this a lot, “How can I have these kinds of experiences, which I think are important not only selfishly, but how are they going to be shared to others—my audience?”

The dilemma is as the artist I always get an incredible amount of satisfaction and engagement from making the work, but others don’t have that creative, making moment. So the issue is, will anybody else get anything else out of it? In this case, documentation is not about replicating the experience or providing a way for someone to mirror it in some experiential way; that’s not possible, nor do I think it’s necessary for the work to have meaning or to communicate. Nonetheless, I wonder what the pay off will be for my viewers, and will what I’ve done translate when they’re not with me, they’re not in the forest?

MPB: But even so, you’ve exhibited the work with success. Moving to more recently–this past summeryou worked on quite the project!

JE: Yes! Last year I made a map of all the suicides that have occurred in the Grand Canyon—the valley of the canyon—the ones that have been recorded by the National Park Service, going back to 1900. There have been 59 known suicides, most of them from jumping or driving off the edge. Over 600 people have died, and some “accidents” could have been suicides, but only 59 suicides have been determined. Relative to all the deaths in the region, most of the suicides happen at the Grand Canyon National Park, clustering mainly around the South Rim of the Park.

Grand Canyon Suicide Map, 2011, detail

This past summer I spent a week at the Park, both the North and South Rims. My agenda for the trip was to retrace and visit all the spots where people had taken their lives, and perform acts of Metta mixed with compassion. I had a backpack of Z-rests as a seat cushion, and in each spot I would meditate and reflect.

What’s curious about these sites is most people who go to the Canyon are blown away by the beauty. They’re there to gawk and awe and be amazed, and to be outdoors in that setting which is full of life. But there have been times where in front of the same sublime spot there are people who are so distraught, so alienated from themselves and life, they jump or take their life.

MPB: You were there as a tourist and interacting with the tourists, right? 

JE: Exactly. Yes, I was a tourist, but for some of my projects, there’s pilgrimage—it’s part of the experience.

For the Grand Canyon, each day I hiked my way out along the Rim trails, stopping by each of the sites to meditate, then at the end of the day I’d ride the shuttle back to the campground, cramped in the bus like sardines with lots of other talkative tourists. There were also lots of visitors around me as I meditated, and I just included them in my Metta.

Suicide is a serious thing. It’s about suffering and being in pain. A lot of us suffer in different ways. These two experiences—tourism and alienation—were happening simultaneously.

MPB: Tourism is a metaphor about life: in life, we’re visitorswe’re here, we come, then we go. The visitor theme is strong in the project because multiple dimensions about traveling are happening simultaneously in the parkvisitors in life, visitors to the park. 

Traveling to another project. Could you reflect on your Wittgenstein pilgrimage because it exemplifies your philosophical underpinnings and curiosities?

JE: When I visited Wittgenstein’s hut in Norway, the project was partially about this famous philosopher who built a hut in the middle of Norway, where is it, what is it?

MPB: To which you created a map.

JE: Yeah! I’ve been very enamored by Wittgenstein’s philosophy. He was the first philosopher I ever read, though I didn’t understand much of it. I can reread it, reread it and still discover new things.

In this project, I took the camera as a way to document the trip, though I didn’t know at the outset what kind of art would arise. I ended up making a map that literally maps where the hut is, which had never been done before. It’s a functional map that you can buy and if you want to visit his hut, there’s an essay about the trip, some historical information, and archival pictures as well. It will get you there.

Searching for Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lake Eidsvatnet, Skjolden, Sogn, Norway

Maps are interesting. They have this factual tie to the world, yet they are really subjective, an interpretation of the empirical world. In a way they are like photographs—at the same time they’re real and not real, natural and cultural. It’s a paradox. I think maps also play that role: they’re two-dimensional, they’re a schema, they’re not realistic, and yet they represent reality, too.

The maps were made with the support of a McKnight Fellowship. In the Wittgenstein map, the essay talks about two interrelated things about the hike. As I walked to the hut, in my head I had this narrative of who Wittgenstein was—informed by fame, informed by the legend and what he knew, his ideas about language and the world—he’s so smart and thoughtful—and then alongside this there was a really strong experience of the physical world: an embodied physical element. It was both of these things at the same time.

Wittgenstein lived in a particular social time, experienced a specific historical perspective, a materially and intellectually concrete location, which helped shape how his thoughts manifested. It’s curious to me how his ideas are taken up by contemporary readers, where they have resonance. And also how the embodied, lived experience relates to thoughts and thinking.

I return a lot to the connection between the mind and the body, in a very philosophical way. How do you make art about this? I don’t just want to write about it. I also look for opportunities that give my audience a different entry point. Is the body just a container for the mind? I think that concept is too simplistic.

(Moment of silence.)

I’m also doing a project called Thinking Portraits that’s a cross-collaboration with a group of cognitive neuroscientists in the Department of Psychology. Part of our research uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), calculating blood flow, oxygen levels in human brains during specific thinking and memory tasks.

The fMRI machine gathers this information from each subject, and then scientists treat the data to algorithms mathematically, so that it is organized to create an image. The resulting visual presentation is as if we’re seeing another person’s brain, yet it’s not a contact print or direct X-ray. Rhetorically, it appears as a photograph, and the images seem to have all the evidentiary quality that a photo has. They’re anatomical, they’re realistic, it’s . . ..

MPB: But it’s not a photo made by a camera: the data is formulated, then manipulated to create an image like a graph.

JE: Yes. It’s called a “scan,” but it’s not a real scan. It’s very seductive. Not only as an image, but also what we think it’s showing us about the brain, direct visual access to the body.

Again, it’s this kind of photographic perspective here, I’m using it as a way to analyze what the fMRI data shows—how people respond to it, and take its truth-value as much more simplistic than it actually is. The image and data is a highly interpretable thing. Scientists disagree about what it means.

MPB: What is your role? How much longer is this project going to continue?

JE: We’ve been meeting for nearly two years now and our study is almost ready to begin. I’ve been part of the group as we research and create the scientific study, and also will be one of the test subjects. I’m hoping to use the resulting images of my own brain to produce some self-portraits and related works.

I’ve learned so much about science, the brain and mind, from working with this team; they’ve been incredibly generous to welcome an artist in the group, which as you can imagine shifts things a little bit. Artist and scientists ask questions differently than one another, and we can learn a lot from sharing our processes.

Again, I’ve taken up a project that poses a similar dilemma: how do I take my own interests in the world and how we connect our thoughts and feelings about our experience, and create art out of those interests? The art for Thinking Portraits is very much still emerging from the process, and pushing me in ways I’ve never experienced before.

MPB: Collectively, your projects are very personal.

JE: The great thing about art—when you put the frame of art around something, or when you’re in the right frame of mind—is, it shifts the way your perceive reality. You look at the world anew. And ultimately, it helps you understand something about the world that you didn’t quite know before, yet feels totally in sync with what your experience tells you.

Visit www.janestep.com for more information about Estep’s work.

Metta Meditation, Grand Canyon National Park, Pima Point, 2011, photo documentation

PHOTOS:

Hunter Dress, Draped, 2001, from “Survival Wear,” color photograph, 30 by 41 inches

Hunter Dress series, Exhibition view, Donald Young Gallery, Chicago, 2001

Wittgenstein Project, Exhibition view, “McKnight Visual Artists 2006-2007,” MCAD Gallery, Minneapolis, July to August 2007

Wittgenstein Project, Exhibition view, “Out of the Comfort Zone,” Nash Gallery, Minneapolis, September to October 2007

Signs en route to Wittgenstein’s Hut, Norway, 2007, photographic digital inkjet print, 22″h x 48″w

Searching for Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lake Eidsvatnet, Skjolden, Sogn, Norway, 2007, illustrated folded sheet map, four-color offset print, 32″w x 24″h (unfolded), 3″w x 8″h (folded).

Grand Canyon Suicide Map, 2011, digital inkjet print, map pins, 39″h x 86″w

Grand Canyon Suicide Map, 2011, detail

Metta Meditation, Grand Canyon National Park, Pima Point, 2011

Metta Meditation, Grand Canyon National Park, Shoeshone Point, 2011

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