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Interview with Margaret Knowles for Art in America, March 2010

Where did you grow up and what was your first experience with art?

I grew up in a small house near the old airport in Austin, Texas. Every couple of hours a plane would fly overhead close enough that you couldn’t hear anything but engine noise for a few seconds. I first noticed the beautiful paintings by my parent’s college friend, Johnny Deckert [1] that hung in our house. These brightly colored airbrushed abstracts on clear vinyl were stretched so that the front of the painting was the back of the painted surface. My great-grandmother Demia Cross’ still life oil paintings were also in the house and hung above the couch. So from an early age, art seemed like something individuals created for a small group of people, who were primarily their friends and family.

My first transformative experience with contemporary art came when I visited Paris and then Documenta 11 in 2002. I fell in love with Philipe Parreno’s work, along with many of the other artists that refuted the impulse to restrict their output by format. Experiencing these works was a clear turning point in my personal history. This was art about ideas and the broader social contract. I wanted to work on projects like that.

I think my work was also influenced by our home’s continuous renovation and my experiences walking job sites with my architect father. Seeing the skeleton structures and equipment used to create these buildings captured my imagination. While not strictly an art experience, this peeled back the veil of the domestic space and I began to see all space as being built by a process, a series of steps planned out over time to fit the human scale.

What was the first technology, web design and computers, that you used. When was that? As the technology has changed, how has your work change?

My mom was the reason I got involved with computers in the first place. My first computer experience was with a TI/994A, a machine heavily promoted to the Austin Independent School District where my mom taught second grade. My timeline continues through the Apple IIe, various family-shared Macintoshes, my own G4 mid- way through college and then my first Powerbook in 2003. This was another clear turning point. Mobility became both an option and an eventual goal, so I worked to become someone who could code from anywhere so that visual art could remain a part of my daily life.

In 1996, I started building websites with Flash for my band, Forty Second Scandals. Flash became a focus of my work as I created various web experiments. In reaction to Flash’s rise to ubiquity near the turn of the century, my interest shifted to the art history of the 60s and 70s. Starting in 2001, my practice became more social and installation-based, moving away from screens towards objects, materials and populations.

I searched this recent past for strategies that could help me better understand and integrate new media and internet-based art rituals into my installation-based practice. I was searching for a way to have an in-gallery installation that also had a complementary online experience. This led me to a respect for the work of Robert Smithson and his idea of non-sites. [2] His work provided a template in which two works/spaces could be successfully interfaced to create an experience greater than if the works/spaces were treated individually. Smithson’s “Indoor Earthwork”, could then be understood in my works as an “Indoor Webwork,” where elements of the piece could be experienced online and also experienced in-gallery, much like his works could be experienced either at the quarry itself or as a sculpture built from the rocks taken from this quarry.

For example, my project Stairway, 2005–7 will eventually be represented online by a database of photographs of trophies before their disassembly. This archive, much like the rock quarries of Smithson, shows the material of my work in its rawest form and also serves as historical record of America’s trophy obsession. This concept of crowdsourcing, or gathering content from your audience, in my case old trophies, came from art projects based online such as Aaron Koblin’s Sheep Market. [4] My project would not have been possible without crowdsourcing these trophy donations, so I look forward to seeing how I can continue to develop these ideas and audience-generated work.

A theme that runs through your materials is the use of office supplies. Where did this interest come from?

I choose materials that are recognizable so that I can use their context and history with my viewers to create meaning and unique experiences. A material’s history, inevitable obsolescence or marketed functionality is really what drives me to incorporate something into my work. Office supplies as cultural objects therefore are infinitely interesting because they can occupy the nexus of these interests. Organizational dots, overhead projectors and Post-it® notes retain the spartan aesthetic required by cost-conscious and efficiency-based businesses, but still allow me to subvert that limited possibility set. These materials also offer compelling features for art-making such as their accessible price point, built-in adhesive, semi-transparency and industrial-grade precision manufacturing.

This allows me to work very cleanly and keep the bonds between my materials weak. I like to borrow the phrase “small pieces loosely joined” from software engineering to describe some of my work, particularly the glass stacks, because they are conceived to be easily taken apart. I would like to quote contemporary art historian Till Richter, who recently published a paper on my approach:

“Where many other artists take a found object and insert it into a completely new context in the Duchampian method, Cross leaves the context intact and uses it to reveal the deeper meaning behind the work. His objects are not so much found objects as they are researched objects. It is this artistic research that connects the identity of the object, the artist and the viewer to create a new context that is both unique and can be experienced through the aesthetic form of the artwork.” [5]