Caitlin Perkins is the third artist here on Life, the Universe and Art. She is a self-described thrifty Yankee girl from northern New Hampshire where she attended a three-room schoolhouse in the village of Jackson. Her work includes prints, artist books and installations and draws heavily on the visual vernacular of urban streets and historical collections. She is particularly obsessed with 19th Century sea exploration, 18th Century literature, natural science museums and menageries.
Perkins has an MFA in Printmaking/Book Arts from The University of the Arts and a BFA from the University of New Mexico. By day she works for Philagrafika, a non profit arts organization supporting fine art printmaking and is a founding member of the Philadelphia Center for the Book. She is a practicing artist working out of Space 1026 in Philadelphia, a collective which has exhibited at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, in Milan, Italy, London and most recently at BravinLee Programs in New York City. Perkins received an Independence Foundation Fellowship in July 2007.
Caitlin sets the scene for us:
First, let me set the scene for you. So I‚ am sitting in a cafe in Philadelphia, the smell of roasted beans wafting around, and, to my left is a pumpkin. It‚ is amazing how many strangers have walked up to me to talk about my silent companion. Large squash seem to command a lot of respect in this tiny cafe. Yup, it is me, my large orange pumpkin, and a faintly sweet iced soychai latte, in a 24 oz cup.
I’m typing away in a sea of cluttered cafe tables, each one floating a computer. All of the faces illuminated by the screens‚ clicking away, on our little silver boxes, Little ticky-tacky boxes. My, my, it is totally ridiculous in here.
I just caught up with a friend who is now working for a Philadelphia School teaching history and social science. We talked about my latest Curatorial project here in Philadelphia, curriculum development for her spring African American History class, and well, my pumpkin.
I love philly.
And, I love the 21st century.
And, I digress‚ on to your questions.
1. In your pieces Secret Cafe and Photobooth, there is a rich historiography to the work. How does historical research, and documentation practices engage your thought and work process?
I’ve always been a research junky‚ I got it from my mom, and my jealousy for her photographic memory. We used to have long conversations about literature, folklore, education, and religion in our weekly commute to Maine for my piano lesson. We made that commute for 9 years. I admit I’m curious, sometimes a revisionist, and most definitely a generalist. My love for irony, random facts and minutia allows me to find relevance in most conversational topics. I suppose that is what I like to do, create synergistic experiences, bridging gaps between fields of study, occupations or avocations. One can find oneself in strange situations, and it is useful to be able to converse with a scientist, drug dealer or a firefighter.
Then, I am totally amused by annotation and cross-referencing. Perhaps also this goes back to my love of libraries and my adoration for the interweb‚ the hunt and the random places it can take you.
Also, since I grew up in rural New Hampshire, my family would spend huge amounts of time at our local library, at least a weekly trip. When we moved from one town to another one about 25 miles north, the librarians joked that their circulation dropped by 50%. There is something so gluttonous about going to the library and walking out with 10, 12 or 15 books. Sort of like window shopping, or trying clothes on in a dressing room, if only briefly, a dazzling sequin evening gown, the dress is yours for those brief few moments while you twirl with your reflection. Books filled with beautiful pictures and stories; mine to look at over and over, until the next week.
And then, of course there is my city, Philadelphia. History is such a part of my daily life. I get to run on well-weathered bricks, not to mention the cobblestones that have been here for centuries! And almost monthly, when I first moved here for graduate school, I would see a re-enactor come out of their door in leather knickers or a hoop skirt and bonnet, as if everything was totally normal. And, well really it is.
History and research is important for all those reasons, and‚ then there was Indiana Jones. OH, how I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a kid. That movie inspired me, and I had such a crush on Harrison Ford crashing through the jungle with sweaty bravado, uncovering treasures.
The summer my grandfather gave me a metal detector, that was it‚ I spent hours underneath our family barn digging for agricultural treasure. (My mother said she couldn't get the dirt out of the knees of my pants) The spoils of my digs were carefully cataloged and installed in my farm museum, an empty stall. The admission was on a sliding scale, but the suggested entrance donation, was I think 25 cents.
So, really, my research and historical projects that I’ve been doing are all recreations or adaptations of projects that I had going before first grade.
2. Your aesthetic practice has a distinct look that seems married to the historical and the philosophical underpinning in your work. How did you develop your aesthetic sensibility?
My practice, was codified when I spent a summer interning at the American Philosophical Society in 2003. While there I was able to touch, admire and conserve some amazing documents. I also tapped into a collection of scientific documents about sea serpents from the 19th Century‚ and well that led to my graduate school thesis, all about sea serpents. The final show was a fake museum installation about hunting sea serpents, playing off the implied truth to a museum crossed with a cheesy roadside attraction aesthetic that I love so much.
I realized that I do have an aesthetic, and that comes with the need to make things real. It is all staging, creating an experience that is believable, allowing the viewer to suspend belief for a few moments, I can hook them.
There are a lot of artists who use this pseudo/real research artwork. Sue Johnson and her encyclopedia, Mark Dion and his partner J. Morgan Puett, and Beauvais Lyons and his Hoke’s Collection. Even museums dedicated to this like the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California.
What I’ve learned is there must be a certain degree of polish‚ even if I’m using humble cardboard or newsprint, there has to be a finish to them. Cardboard is amazing stuff, you can make it look like rocks, or wood.
3. A lot of your work, such as the Secret Cafe and Phototbooth deals with the audience becoming part of the piece through participation. Did you conceive of this with the participants as part of the piece or is the interaction itself the piece? And how does the act of audience participation affect the relationship of artist/ viewer for you?
I’ve always spoke of audience participation as a token of my work, the touchstone. I think with the Photobooth piece, it really nailed it. I created that piece, solely for the joke. It took me a week to build it because I was stubborn and I wanted to make it out of all recycled materials, so of course it took me like 50 times longer. Anyway, I was finishing it right up until the opening, hadn’t thought of the exchange except for preparing the drawing sheets, putting out the drawing implements. But the human contact was not anywhere in my thinking. I had thought about the exchange, I wanted it to be free, and‚ anonymous‚ only the person sitting could see the artist. I was running around until the opening. Plopped myself in the box and the first person walked in, and it almost took my breath away. I had created this totally intimate space. Two people only inches from each other, doing this very intense exercise of drawing this person with the intention of giving them the drawing through the slot when it was done. And it hit me during the first conversation. Here was a complete stranger, facing me, and we talked and I drew. Then the next, and the next.
4. For the Photobooth piece, you have artists drawing the photo for the participants. The sense of play and subversion of media is very engaging. What is your thinking behind this act?
Subversion is so important. Making these things‚ my friend recently, who always make fun of me doing stuff that won’t make money‚ branded me an event artist as a joke. But I decided I like that. Events or situations are my medium.
And going back to my earlier thought, that I’ve been doing these kinds of projects for thirty years now. Hell, even the photo booth is similar to an experiment for a while at my hippy kindergarten, Little Earth. A little side business I had going, using a camera‚ I made out of foam blocks. I would take a picture‚ then draw the person, to give them a photo. This memory only surfaced after I made the photo booth in the March exhibition.
5. How did the audience/ participants react to the Photobooth?
It was strange, because people got sassy! Two teenage girls came in, and totally brashly asked if they could make out. I didn’t skip a beat, even though it totally took me by surprise sure if you can hold the pose for that long. Other artists sat, cause it is hard to draw for that long and they had similar experiences, intimate exchanges. And sass. There was more sass.
And then there were people came to have their portraits done including a new family, with a brand, brand new baby. It was their first walk out of the house with that little human. And they were so sweet, all three of them.
Top Ten Influences
1. My mom of course, eh?
2. My grandfather and father for both sort of surreptitiously working in the printing industry. My grandfather worked in the newspaper printing industry and my dad had a small offset press when I was a small baby. Ink in my blood I guess.
3. Yankee thrift and ingenuity
4. Benjamin Franklin and all his societal experiments-like all the libraries here in Philly
5. 18th century history and 19th century science
6. Definitely Lawrence Stern who wrote A Sentimental Journey and Tristam Shandy, that dead white guy from the 18th century can make me laugh at his escapades so hard. His sentimental journey is about a guy eating dinner in England, deciding that he would like to dine in France and leaves the next day to do so,he eats and screws his way through Europe and carefully comments on and documents the most commonplace things. Hilarious and very bawdy.
7. Francisco Goya
9. The Yankee Remix, an exhibition at MassMoca. The artists included:
Rina Banerjee, Ann Hamilton, Martin Kersels, Zoe Leonard, Annette Messager, Manfred
Pernice, Huang Yong Ping, Lorna Simpson, and Frano Violich.
10. Betsy Johnson
11. Jay Shafer and his Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.
So, here I thought I would also include movies, since they were taking up all my top 10, and they are such their own thing.
Arsenic and Old Lace
Lady for a Day ‚ one of the most crisp, sassy screen dialogs, ever!
Brothers Quay short films, (I saw them together pushing an empty baby carriage down the street in Philadelphia on pine street one day)
Errol Morris‚ Vernon Florida
Maysles Brothers‚ Grey Gardens
Science of Sleep