Holly Ward produces visually enveloping works that strike a profound balance between criticism and aesthetic exploration—every piece is as beautiful as it is subversive. Her work evokes feelings of radical possibility. They are proposals, as she describes, to imagine something different, aimed towards catalyzing personal and collective investigations of the status quo.
Invited in 2010 to exhibit in the VANOC sponsored exhibition during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, she produced ‘Operation Podium’, a sculpture that consisted of 24 cases of Pepsi in the configuration of the 1968 summer Olympics podium, upon which two black Olympic athletes raised their fists in the Black Power salute. As Coke was the official sponsor of the Olympics, her provocative piece simultaneously paid tribute to a symbolic moment of revolution and offered up a proverbial middle finger to what is and is not permitted under the rule of corporate sponsorship.
Her ongoing fascination with Utopian philosophy has been central to her exploration of human potential and desire. Though her work is starkly critical of systems of power and the structures that confine us, they are also about the ideas that activate us and the implicit tie between art and social agency. Ward is unafraid; she is an artist brave enough to imagine the possibility of a different kind of world and audacious enough to believe that if we truly want it we can have it.
In much of Kevin Schmidt’s work you are transported to hauntingly beautiful and sometimes barren, isolated landscapes of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. You are called upon to unravel the mixed messages of environment and spectacle. His works compose a surreal dialectic between history and landscape, nature and culture, to reveal the evolutions and incongruities of our everyday experience of the world.
In a piece titled, ‘Harmless High Altitude Balloon Amateur Radio Equipment’, Schmidt enlisted the help of amateur radio balloon operators to assist him in launching and recovering a hot air balloon equipped with a hand-built camera (built by Schmidt) rigged with hardware and software. The balloon would float into the earth’s atmosphere to allow Schmidt to expose a single piece of film when aimed at the horizon, twenty-five kilometres above the earth’s surface. The work was exhibited in galleries through the display of the materials used to launch the camera and a large scale projection of the photograph Schmidt took of the earth above the atmosphere.
The most famous image of that kind, ‘Earthrise’, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve of 1968, is considered one of the most influential photographs ever taken. Schmidt’s DIY photographic space launch is a fascinating and philosophical critique of earth as spectacle. He comments on the evolution of our access to take such images. Ultimately, he questions how these shifts in access transform the cultural and societal significance of spectacle at large.
Always working in site-specific installation, Schmidt’s gallery presence reveals the disjuncture between the labour and production of art and performance and its ability to be represented and reproduced. Each work lives on only by the ephemera it produces and in the minds and memories of the few that helped produce the work. It purposefully points out the limitations of documentation and the gravity of lived experience. Against the backdrop of dreamlike natural settings, Schmidt’s installations and constructions shake us from the familiar narratives and landscapes we inhabit and wake us to the absurdity and wonder of our modern existence.
Joni McKervey had the chance to meet the duo to talk about their collaborations and upcoming projects.
Interview by: Joni Mckervey
Written introduction by: Jennifer Chui
Copy Editor: Tina Shabani
Top Photo: EDM House, video by Kevin Schmidt, photo by Scott Massey/ Bottom Left Photo: Alchemy and Architecture series 1-3, by Holly Ward, photo by Kevin Schmidt/ Bottom Right Photo: High Altitude Balloon Harmless Amateur Radio Equipment, by Kevin Schmidt, photo by Scott Massey
‘Established artists in their own rights with decade long practices under their belts, Canadian duo Holly Ward and Kevin Schmidt began collaborating for the first time in 2012. Travelling between Vancouver, the Interior of British Columbia and Germany, the pair find time where they can to complete the work that brought their artistic focus together, “The Pavilion“(AKA “the dome”).
A work of art in itself, “the dome” is also in the process of becoming a platform and a resource for the creation of future work. A site that will one day host artists, exhibitions and film festivals, it is an ambitious stand in support of the artists’ lives. During a recent stint in Vancouver, Ward and Schmidt talked with me about utopian impulses, the internet and purposefully erecting a round peg in a world made up of square holes.’
First Photo: The Pavilion : (under construction), by Holly Ward and Kevin Schmidt, photo by Holly Ward/ Second Photo(Left): Sad Wolf, video piece by Kevin Schmidt, photo by Scott Massey/ Third Photo(Right): Installation view- High Altitude Balloon Harmless Amateur Radio Equipment by Kevin Schmidt, photo by Scott Massey
You each have distinct practices and have worked separately for some time but have recently begun working together. How did that come about?
Holly: It’s a fairly new happening but we spend so much time together and there’s a lot of overlap starting to happen, so we decided it was time to take on those ideas that were in the zone of “Well, whose idea was it?”.
And do you need to put that label on it?
Holly: We do share authorship. When the main thing that both of us do is art, regardless of how we would ideally like for those things to play out in the end it does matter. But we’ve been talking about wanting to collaborate for a really long time too.
Kevin: It started from working on the dome. Holly started putting up the dome and it’s just such a huge project. I was already helping and she asked if I wanted to collaborate with her on it. So we started on it as a kind of life and art project together and then there just seemed to be so many ideas that we were both interested in exploring.
Holly: Ideas coming out of that specific experience and context, not only the landscape but our interaction with new modes of living.
Where did the dome come from?
Holly: Originally I was part of the Artist-in-residence program at Langara College from 2009 to 2010. I built this 22’ diameter geodesic dome on the front lawn of the college and used it as a platform for a lot of projects—a space for performances, exhibitions, readings and workshops. Towards the end of that period, Jane Irwin and Ross Hill offered me the opportunity to construct it as a permanent building on a piece of their property in Heffley Creek, an hour North of Kamloops. The dome itself was modular and so could be taken apart and reassembled piece by piece. So over the last five years we’ve been reconstructing it together, carving time out of our year to work on the infrastructure together. It’s still in development.
How is the process changing the dome and what you do with it?
Holly: When it was at Langara it was on a temporary structure on a wooden platform with shrink-wrapped plastic for the roof. Then when we moved it up to the Interior, the climate is so extreme—it’s very cold in the winter, very dry and hot in the summer and it’s very remote. It needed a complete revision. Ross recommended that it go on a concrete foundation which really shifted the whole thing from being a glorified shed to permanent architecture. We began really thinking about what it’s going to take to make this a functional and useful space in this particular location and context.
Kevin: We had basically been given carte blanche to use this space for whatever we wanted and we felt it needed to be highly functional.
Holly: The building is constructed in such a way that it’s going to outlive us.
Kevin: It’s serious architecture.
Holly: Neither one of us knew what we were doing when we started.
First Photo: Repurposed Geodesic Dome Segments Topped with Dung-Fired Clay Piece, Propped on a Steel Pole, by Holly Ward, photo courtesy of Republic Gallery/ Second Photo (Left): Wild Signals by Kevin Schmidt, photo by Scott Massey/ Third Photo (Right): Industry Is Useless Without Culture: Resource Extraction Series, by Holly Ward, photo by Kevin Schmidt
Sounds like it must be very satisfying.
Holly: It will be satisfying when it’s done.
If you’re working on the dome and making it so functional, does it somehow transition from art into just a building project? Does it remain art? Does that distinction mean anything?
Holly: We’re not thinking of it as just architecture. We want to open it up and share it as an art facility. We’re also building an open-air cinema on the same property. It’s remote so people will need to come a long way but we’d like to have artists spend time there and create work. We’d like to do some free school seminars, workshops and film festivals at the cinema.
Kevin: I also think that just because of the iconography of the dome itself, it’s a sort of marker of utopian life, an echo of the 70’s back-to-the-land movement.
Holly: We want to experiment with those boundaries—what is art, what is life. We’re interested in the political aspect of it. This is a place where we get to explore a different kind of agency. We can live up there for very cheap which means we get to keep making art on our own terms. It’s a holistic experiment.
And that’s one of the biggest challenges those utopian societies faced—getting through all the mundane, heavy work of sustaining life in an organized way when you’re just trying to do your ideal thing.
Utopian thinking was so popular in the early and mid 20th century and then it all started to fall apart. My impression of how we experience that philosophy now is to examine it, pick it apart and find out how it failed and investigate the problems in human nature that make it fail. There is a clear influence of utopian thinking in the dome. Are you both modern utopianists?
Holly: We’re not making a commune!
First Photo: Felted Fleece of One Sheep with Synthetic Shape, by Holly Ward, photo by Kevin Schmidt
Second Photo From (Left): Installation view from Kamloops Art Gallery from Kevin Schmidt’s ‘The Commons’ show, photo by Scott Massey Third Photo (Right): Back to the Land: Dropped Spores series, by Holly Ward, photo Kevin Schmidt
Right. But is it an impulse that’s still alive and at work right now or is it just a museum piece that we can refer to?
Kevin: We might have different answers to this question. At this point we’re not being naive about it. Geodesic domes are a utopian reference and what we’re trying to do is utopian in a way. But we also recognize that this utopian gesture is inevitably already compromised. I don’t think that dissuades us or that it should dissuade people from trying to make markers of difference.
Even in building the dome itself—yes we’re mired in this whole building process which is incredibly mundane. But the fact of building a dome means that you are constantly experiencing how the rationalization of the building industry exists only in one form, but it could exist in other forms. Our standard building industry is all based on 90-degree angles. It doesn’t have to be but it is. So when we go to buy materials or we try to talk to trades people about the dome it’s impossible to talk about.
Holly: They can’t picture it and the materials won’t fit. We have to take everything and reconfigure it to fit this other type of model. So it’s taken us probably 3 times longer to get to where we are with it because it’s such a complicated process.
Is it frustrating or is it kind of exciting?
Holly: It’s both.
Kevin: It’s exciting in the way that the structure itself holds the idea of difference and that the way things are is not how they have to be. Standards are arbitrary. Is it frustrating? Yes. Would we build a dome again? No. (Both laugh.)
Holly: The form has been the catalyst all along—it represents a mode of ideas, a mode of operation. It’s really useful in terms of getting other people interested to have them want to be involved and do something that is different. Everything about it is different and for better or for worse this difference is always operating. It’s a real example of a round peg in a square hole, which is emblematic of the whole endeavour and experience.
But we’re not trying to recreate something that people tried to enact before. It’s more of an exploration outside of these norms which is what interests us. We completely see the project in the context of contemporary economic and cultural issues.
We’re both really interested in learning how to do things for ourselves and enjoy finding ways to maximize whatever resources we can bring to the table. That’s where I think the political aspect of the whole project lives.
First Photo: Ideas and Integrities, An Utopian Library Version 2 by Holly Ward, photo by Kevin Schmidt/ Second Photo: Holly and Kevin at The Pavilion, photo by Jennifer Latour/ Third Photo: Kevin blowing sage, photo by Holly Ward
Kevin: It’s an ongoing exploration. I think that’s also what’s different in what we’re doing from the 70s, or the mid century modernist utopias you’re talking about where it was like “Here’s our manifesto, we’re gonna go manifest it now” and then they failed. Now because of that failure and because of the failure of many modernist movements in general you have cynicism about trying to do anything differently. We’re trying to find a way around that.
Holly: They were statements of dissatisfaction with the status quo. I am really inspired by counter cultural movements and things that did have these articulated manifestos. They’re fascinating projects.
It’s exciting when people get worked up about things.
Holly and Kevin: Yeah.
Holly: But it’s also scary. And I’m always suspicious of leaders, I’m not too much of a leader myself in that way.
Kevin: You like to do things on your own.
Holly: Yeah I do things more on my own rather than try to rally a group together to have the same message.
Kevin: Basically we’re both committed to making art and the art we want to make is not necessarily political but it examines its own role, examines where it sits in society and pushes against its own boundaries of perception.
That makes me think kind of tangentially about EDM House—the idea came from the internet and the work creates an alternate version of what someone else already made so that the art itself and the general cultural are sort of looking at each other in this weird way.
Kevin: My interest is very much in popular culture and how an autonomous art fits within it or not. What Warhol predicted is true – everyone is an artist. There’s amazing creative projects that people are doing and it’s all disseminated online— so why do we need art galleries? Why do we need professional artists? For the last few projects I’ve really been trying to answer these questions.
With EDM House I was inspired by people making and posting these amazing videos of Christmas light displays. I wondered what I, as a professional artist could bring to this. Not just with improved production values but also a conceptual underpinning to the work. The EDM House video is where we live while we’re working on the dome. It was the first settlement house in that valley and now it’s abandoned – except for when Holly and I are living there. It was originally built in 1905 by Norwegian settlers who homesteaded there, creating their own sustenance farm. I began looking at it as a model of independence that is now a ruin because the property does not function as a sustenance farm anymore. Today we must create our own financial independence, our financial sustenance by turning ourselves into digital brands. So I made this electric display and wrote my own electronic dance music to displace a new model of economic survival onto the ruin of an old one. EDM House is self reflexive in this way and that’s what I can bring to mark the difference between my work and something you might see online.
I like the schizophrenia of how it’s a video as well as a sculpture. It’s not either or, it is both. With the original youtube videos somewhere out there is a house playing Slayer’s Reign in Blood. I would love to go see the actual house.
First Photo: The Pavillion (under construction), by Holly Ward and Kevin Schmidt, photo by Jennifer Latour/ Second Photo: Holly and Kevin, photo by Jennifer Latour/ Third Photo: Screen IN The Landscape (under construction) in Heffley Creek, by Holly Ward and Kevin Schmidt, photo by Jennifer Latour
Holly: It’s a weird puncture through this perceived normalcy of suburbia which is heartening. (Laughs.)
I feel like that’s another gift of the internet. Weird humour is now a cultural baseline. It’s mainstream and things that just a few years ago would have been considered very “out there” are embraced. So now there is this wonderful limitless space for people to be weird in and everyone is discovering that we’re all kind of weird.
Kevin: This is a nice thing.
It is nice. It makes me feel good. Gives you hope a little bit.
Holly: In the early days of the internet it was seen as a very utopian project. It had all these utopian potentialities and this is what we ended up with—we don’t get to have that whole package but there are these little pockets of being able to see ourselves in new ways or form new communities and things. It’s not fulfilling all of its promises but I think that the story is still there.
Kevin: There is this definite strangeness and a lot of stuff we’ve been working on like the dome, we start with “Okay, how do you do this?” And then we go online—
Holly: It’s all on the internet.
Kevin: —and we find that someone has solved this problem before.
Holly: Thank god.
Kevin: One of the first things we have to do when we are finally up there full time is to put in satellite internet. That’s the first thing we have to do.
Holly Ward’s exhibition The House of Light and Entropy on display at Republic Gallery through January 16, 2016.
Kevin Schmidt’s work is currently on display at the Kamloops Art Gallery through January 2, 2016.