We are excited this month to share with you the work of 2015-16 Arts, Science & Culture Graduate Fellow Elisabeth Hogeman (MFA candidate, Department of Visual Art, UChicago). Meeting on a monthly basis, the Arts, Science & Culture Graduate Fellows program brings together graduate students from across the University of Chicago to share their work in the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences. The Fellows exchange insights into their disciplinary methodologies and research practices, and are individually funded to publically engage a new or ongoing body of research that extends beyond the university campus.
Having spent the past six years working as a photographer, Elisabeth has transitioned to making films while at the University of Chicago. Her two-year film-in-progress, with the working title And you the bell, was screened for the Arts, Science & Culture Fellows this January, and enveloped us in its intimate, sensual, unsettling world. Elisabeth will be exhibiting new work in the upcoming MFA exhibition at the Logan Center for the Arts, which will include a screening of the film on May 6 in the Screening Room at the Logan Center for the Arts (check-back in a few weeks for event details!). We were happy to have the opportunity to ask Elisabeth to reflect on her work.
Can you talk a bit about your background, and what drew you to the MFA program at the University of Chicago?
I studied photography and Modern Literature as an undergraduate. I am a description-and-detail-oriented person, but my attention goes in and out, so often I'll focus obsessively on a fragment or a pattern. Both in literature and in photography I'm Interested in the slow excavation of a subject through repetition and variation. At the same time I was learning how to make photographs I was reading Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. I was interested mostly in passages dealing with ruptures in sensory perception: the mind's unsuccessful attempts to discover where it is, with an emphasis on the rhythm of experience over content.
I like the idea of the visual artist as someone who conducts research on human experience, alongside the novelist and the neuroscientist. The University of Chicago houses its Department of Visual Art within the Humanities Division. It is an environment that acknowledges and invests in a variety of forms and types of intelligence. It is a relativity small MFA program, and we are a pretty amorphous group of artists. I think the Art, Science & Culture Initiative is a good example of what happens when people in dialogue with one another begin to understand that they are operating via different modes of intelligence and methodologies of knowledge production.
There is a sensuality to your photographs that becomes amplified in your video work as you surround your audience with sound and light. Can you speak a bit about your changing relationship to sensuality as you have begun making films?
The film I am currently working on is in some ways a portrait of a woman and her immediate environment. I think there is something seductive in being given extended access to a body and that sense of private space. Unlike a photographic portrait, the rendered body of the subject can literally breathe – and not only the human body, but the body of a room, or the body of a mundane household object. The repetition of rising and falling, and the rhythms that build, both visually and sonically, enable a sense of presence and closeness, even co-habitation. The thing is in the room with you, in the dark – towering, intimate, immersive. The components of the image are evolving and receding all the time. For example, a pink nightgown becomes a dozen different shades in changing light, and a pink-tiled bathroom can become a labyrinth with uncertain walls.
While the sensual qualities of presence and color and texture become amplified, so does the psychopathic eye of the camera, which continues to focus obsessively on whatever It attaches itself to. The point of view of the camera is distinctly not human. It is surgical, compulsive, and essentializes its subject to a series of behaviors and surface characteristics. There is a back and forth between the pleasures and apprehensions of a scopophilic experience. Working in a time-based medium enables me to control the rhythm of that back and forth between human and mechanical registers.
Your work builds a carefully structured atmosphere that creates varying levels of affect: repulsion and attraction, claustrophobia and luminosity, banality and paranoia. Can you talk about how you adjust the volume on these qualities in different series, such as Vivarium or Gaslight?
The photographs function more like specimens in jars. There is an atmosphere of containment and paranoia, but the viewer isn't necessarily forced to breath that same air. By virtue of the viewing conditions of a cinematic screening room, the film (And you the bell [working title]) is more aggressive. Though it can be tempting to dial everything up in this context, I think you had a great point at the preview screening you saw at last month's Art Science & Culture dinner when you suggested that there might be opportunities for little movements to become radicalized. I really love melodrama though – its over the top, but also particularly tuned into the pleasures and capacities of vision.
Another dial that I think shifts a lot in volume from project to project is the degree of artifice, which might relate to my attraction to the overly dramatic. An installation like Vivarium is all about the tableau and is a totally constructed space that reveals itself as artifice. The idea was to create a domestic space where a human subject could not leave and would be under constant observation. Even within the fictional narrative of a vivarium for a human subject, the space is an imitation or proxy. It draws on the language of theater, still life painting, and natural history dioramas. Each image was sketched out ahead of time on graph paper corresponding to the grid of the 4x5 view camera used to make the final images. In the film I am more interested in creating a seamlessness between fiction and nonfiction. It is far more improvisational – even though I intervene in the space to rearrange objects and adjust lighting to compose the shot I want, the action is largely undirected.
Earlier projects like Vivarium and Gaslight have a lot of overlapping interests and motifs with the film. In some ways they both serve as studies for the film, working out a set of ideas on the relationship between a specimen and its container, between the body and architecture. The film is emphatically optical, there is no dialogue and in many ways, as a new filmmaker, I'm still making my choices with the governing intelligence of a photographer.
In relating to your subjects and subject matter as a photographer and filmmaker, which is more relevant for you: occupation, incorporation, collaboration or possession?
Possession. I think this goes back to my interest in scopophilia and the pleasures of viewing. I tend to treat everything on the other end of my camera as a possible object of my desire and curiosity, and this leads to a kind of objectification. But I don't think of "possessive" or "objectifying” as being pejorative terms. I also think of possession and collaboration as going hand-in-hand, since the subject is giving consent and taking part In their own objectification.
The light and the color in your work creates a world that seems to embed your subjects inextricably within their environment – they are a continuum, one constituting the other. I’m thinking about Hito Steyerl’s essay “A Thing Like You and Me,” where she asks, “Why not be a thing? An object without a subject? A thing among other things? ‘A thing that feels,’ as Mario Perniola seductively phrased it…” Do you find this continuum between object and subject exhilarating or entrapping?
I treat my female protagonist very much as "a thing among other things," but also as a thing that is continuously shedding its skin in a world that is also continuously shedding its skin. I don't know to what extent the character is "a thing that feels" though. The viewer has access to her optically and accrues a sense of how she operates behaviorally, but I don't know if that gives the viewer access to her emotionally or psychologically. I am drawn to Steyerl's language when she writes, "things are never just inert objects” but “consist of tensions, forces, hidden powers, all being constantly exchanged." I imagine those hidden powers and inner forces as a series of nested containers divided by layers of skin. The woman in the film is, as you said, on a continuum with her environment. She ignores intuitive boundaries that outline and preserve the self. She will indiscriminately shift from washing herself to washing the walls and bathtub around her, treating her material environment as an extension of her skin. There is a seduction to being trapped within the continuum between object and subject.
My interest in disembodiment and the self is something I have tried to articulate in projects like Vivarium and Gaslight. For example, in Vivarium the human body is only present in the form of objects which function as evidence of the body. Gaslight approaches a loss of self through a subject that doesn’t trust her own memory.
What has been the most intimate, strange or unexpected part of participating in the Arts, Science & Culture Graduate Fellows program so far?
I was surprised when, towards the end of a really great presentation by Martin Scheeler from the Physics Department on "Tiling the Universe," the conversation turned to the subject of death. I don't think I had experienced a frank conversation about death in an academic setting before. Martin explains about predicting outcomes and particles, and how even though particles always follow the rules, they don't always meet their optimal results – this resonates a lot with my interest in compulsive and repetitive behavior and the definition of madness as performing the same action again and again and expecting a different result. This leads to a discussion about how, from an abstract perspective, humans are efficient and pliable computers, which comes back to that continuum of object and subject. The conversation proposes humans as these weird machines where the minute you die, all the things that were inside of you are still inside of you, minus epsilon, minus that "animating spirit". Hearing people talk about their fears and thoughts on death felt strangely intimate.
Elisabeth Hogeman is a M.F.A. candidate in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and Studio Art from the University of Virginia, where she focused on photography and experimental approaches to autobiography in Modernist Literature. Her photographic and video-based work examines the relationship between containment, surveillance, and fantasies of disembodiment, using confining and confusing architecture as a platform to explore mind-body relationships. More information about Elisabeth and her work can be found on her website.