Issue #200
A Party To End All Parties November 9, 2012

Nina Katchadourian

What Is Art? from Special Collections Revisited

Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco

Interview: Nina Katchadourian

by Regine Basha

Regine Basha [RB]: So to set the record straight, or to set it crooked where it should be.......I wanted to share with our readers your trajectory, as an artist and as a person with multiple interests.

First of all, for those readers and viewers new to your work (which is very well documented on, there very well might be a presumption- given your name -  that you come directly from the Middle East - especially now since the increased visibility for artists circulating the international circuit (from Cairo, Beirut, Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dabi, and neighboring countries for instance). Let's start with this unruly question that nobody likes to be asked: Where are you from exactly? How do you identify your cultural background?

Nina Katchadourian [NK]: When I'm in New York and someone asks me where I'm from, I say "I'm from California, but I live in New York." I still feel somewhat adamant about making the point that I didn't grow up in New York. When I'm asked where my family is from, I say that my mother is Finnish and my father is Armenian, although that's really the short version of the much longer answer. In a way, the much longer answer is part of what motivated me to make a project in 2005 called Accent Elimination, where I worked with my parents and a speech coach to teach them to speak "Standard American English" and to teach me to speak with each of their accents.

I don't see my family story as very special, by the way; I think it's in fact a very American story, in fact. The ethnic ingredients in my family might just be a bit more odd or improbable, that's all. I'm certainly more American than anything else. I was born in suburban California and grew up there. I do also feel strong connections elsewhere, probably nowhere more so than Finland, where I've spent part of every year since I was a kid. There are many things about Finland specifically that have been influential or formative, and I could get into the details of the particular natural landscape or ways in which I've been encouraged to pay attention to those details. But the experience of distance, and of translations between places, even the disorientation that leads to a productive kind of confusion has informed my practice, I would say. Lately, I've even become keenly aware of how much all that time on planes as a kid has had its after-effects.

[RB]: I first learned about your work through InSite, a San Diego/Tijuana-based organization I worked for in 1997. At that time your project for them in 1994 CARPARK was still being hailed as one of the best that ever happened with InSite. I was kind of in awe of what you and your collaborators did, and I can say that it had a huge impact on my own curatorial work and interests from then on. Can you talk a bit about your early work and interests in Grad school and post grad school back in San Diego - who were you surrounded by? What or who made an impact on you at that time ? Did you feel at home as a 'West Coast artist' ?

[NK]: I'm shocked to hear that! I never thought inSITE cared much for CARPARK, to tell you the truth. It's been interesting, in recent years, to think about how that piece might now be cast as a "social practice project." It did seem very much the result of many years of living and working in a community of artists, and in the climate of UCSD, that was informed by the art/life conversation, and the tradition of performance, as influenced by Kaprow and others who taught there. And perhaps the even more important part was the fact that it was a collaboration, with Steven Matheson and Mark Tribe. There was a lot of collaborating during those years, and it happened quite successfully. We also considered it important to try to work together with each other. I feel wistful about this at times, since part of the reason I think it was possible and fruitful was that we weren't so stuck in our own methods yet, or as dug into the identity of our individual practice. I barely knew what I was doing when I got to grad school. Collaborating was a way of learning from my peers, as well as trying to see where there might be combustion when you put them together with the ideas of others in a way that wouldn't happen working alone. 

[RB]: Recently you mentioned finding the tapes to your grad school crits, which I would imagine being both fascinating and terrifying! Is there anything that stayed with you from that time? Any ideas, fears, aspirations that continue to resonate or reappear in your work since those dialogues?

[NK]: It was a few years ago, yes. The conversation that had been recorded was my MFA review, for which we had to assemble a committee, and we were allowed to tape it. In the room were (as best I can remember) Helen and Newton Harrison, David Antin, and George Lewis (from the music department). One interesting detail here is that at the end of the conversation the student was asked to leave the room, which I did, but I left the tape player running. I remembered once I was outside, but I didn't exactly rush back in to turn it off. In the meantime, my faculty kept talking, until someone noticed, and turned it off. (There wasn't anything said that was shocking to hear, except for the absolute scrambling of facts that one of my advisers had about my life details, which comes back to your first question.) David Antin did have one comment that made a huge impression back then. When I heard it about a decade and a half after grad school, I was shocked at how insightful it was then, even how prescient it seemed.

[RB]: Testsite, the project initiated by Fluent~Collaborative was actually inspired by a story you told me long ago about having the opportunity to make a work in your friend's house early on - and how that project  became, in many ways, a gestation period for so many works to come. I don't know if it was the charge of the domestic setting per se, or the freedom to experiment in a more casual setting outside the studio or gallery, what would you say about it? i.e; Could you recount for us here what that project was and how it may have had this effect on your thinking or future projects?

[NK]: The project you're remembering was called The Half Moon Bay Experiment and it was a six of us in grad school who hatched the idea to live together in a house for week and make work with what we found there. We had an undergraduate friend interested in curating, and she convinced her parents to host us for a week. They kindly agreed. They were not art collector types, or particularly engaged in contemporary art—they were nice and generous people who wanted to support their daughter and her friends. I remember that the woman was a real estate agent in the small coastal town of Half Moon Bay. We holed up in the house for a week and set to work. It was a very interesting and formative project, yes, for the way it involved improvisation and making use of limited materials. There was a nice, loose camaraderie among our group, and quite an age span (I was the youngest, at 23, and the oldest was 45). I got interested in working with the books in their library, and my project in that house became the first iteration of a project now known, twenty years later, as the Sorted Books project.

This approach to the everyday (as something of value and full of potential) and a methodology that at best links rigor with play were really important lessons learned through that project.

Regine Basha, ever your independent curator and writer.


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