The following continues the series of paired interviews with artists carried out here and at This Too Will Pass. Leah Beeferman is a young artist who recently had the opportunity to show her work at Philadelphia’s SPACE 1026. SPACE turned 10 years old this year, and it’s one of the focal points for the alternative art making and exhibition culture that’s really starting to take on a life of its own in the City of Brotherly Love.
Leah Beeferman likes to imagine the internal lives of architecture and buildings. Her show, Orbital Debris, with Brooke Inman, here in Philadelphia, primarily exhibited work from a series she called “Imagining the Universe as seen by a Building used to track Orbital Debris.”
While her work shows a great interest in technology, she does it all by hand. She talks more about what she’s trying to achieve below. If this isn’t enough, you can find more about the inner workings of Ms. Beeferman in the Exterview at This Too Will Pass.
BradyDale: How did the exhibition you just did at SPACE 1026 get started?
Leah Beeferman: After coming down to Richmond for a short visit and seeing our studios, a couple of 1026ers I knew invited Brooke Inman and me to write a proposal and apply for a show. For what it’s worth, what we originally proposed wasn’t quite what we ended up with, but they didn’t seem to mind. We both feel very lucky to have this opportunity!
BD: So how did you and Brooke work out what you were going to do? What was the original gameplan and how did it change? What do you think led to the change?
LB: Well, we’ve both done installation work in the past, and we were thinking of something more directly collaborative. The idea involved a tall ladder on wheels (like in a library or a bookstore) that you would move around the space and climb up and down to look at drawings hung at various heights. I’ve been thinking, for a long time, about accessing different perspectives on things from different heights, and I was excited to create a situation where there were things you could only see from up high, down low, and so on. Anyway, the “Orbital Debris” show actually came together without much specific collaboration. The more we thought about this ladder idea, the less we liked it, and the more we wanted to show the work we had been making in our studios all year. When we started discussing that work together (we were very familiar with each other’s drawings since we were in the same MFA program this past year), we realized that the “Orbital Debris” title and concept was perfect for both of us. It relates very specifically for me, and more metaphorically for Brooke, but we both felt it suited us well and created a really exciting link!
BD: I just went back to your web page to look at the work you had up at your show here in Philadelphia, “Orbital Debris,” and there you have it under the title: ‘Imagining the universe as seen by a building used to track orbital debris.’ Is there a story behind this place that you’ve imagined and that helped you create the maps and design the structures? And is that a rocket waiting there that I see? Why does the Orbital Debris facility need a rocket? I have a feeling you have a pretty good reason for it, so I have to ask.
LB: Yes, there is certainly a story. It started with research I was doing into the space race in general. It became pretty clear early on that the things that interested me weren’t the space stations and the far-traveling rockets, but more what I refer to as “the earth-bound participants in the space race”: specifically, rocket launch towers and the Eglin FPS-85 radar, a building NASA uses to track orbital debris (the Eglin is a real structure in northwestern Florida and it is a “dedicated sensor” responsible for keeping track of the U.S. satellite catalog, which more or less counts as orbital debris). To me, this building epitomizes the perseverance and limitations of human imagination; it forever looks out into the sky, but can only see so far as it never actually leaves the ground. This was the inspiration for all of the larger drawings in this series – my imagining and drawing the universe that this building “sees.”
But you’re right, you do also see a rocket – in two places. The smaller rocketship drawing, “Support structure,” was my thinking about the relationship between the rocket and the launch tower. For the 10′ tall rocket drawing, “Rocket soundings,” I pictured the Eglin “imagining itself” stacked several times on top of itself to form a launching rocket. In this daydream, it actually gets to lift off the ground…
At the “Orbital Debris” show I have a small sheet of paper with some text on both sides. One side of the sheet lists the short, official titles of the drawings. On the other side, there is a sort of poetic elaboration giving a vague explanation of what’s going on. This is something I’m currently experimenting with; I used to do more drawings that included text. Lately, I’ve been leaving them more abstract. It’s interesting – some viewers really like to know the back story and see what the drawings are “representing”. Others want to be left alone to form their own conclusions. I’m investigating different ways of communicating different amounts of information, and trying to figure out how much it matters to me that the full back story be available.
BD: Doing it like this is a pretty good middle-ground. The backstory is out there but they’d have to go ferret it out to find it, which gives them plenty of opportunity to come to their own conclusions before they see your conclusions. I’m of pretty mixed minds about text in art. In a lot of ways, it’s distracting because text can be the easiest part of a visual work to “understand” and when I watch people looking at art with text, that’s what they spend the most time on.
It’s funny that I’m this ambivalent about it because I’m also a huge comic book fan.
Where did you get the idea that a building would dream of being something more? Can you tell us more about the personality that Eglin has in your head? I also just glanced at your del.icio.us page and saw several saved links to articles about the Super-conducting Super-collider. That’s definitely a fascinating structure/dream. Will the Collider become a character in future works (or has it already)?
LB: Yeah, the impulse for “revealing” things is because I work from things that are so super specific – especially in the way that I come to understand them to work from them. It’s tough – I agree that inserting text can be too easy, or too distracting. That’s why I’m exploring some alternative ways of working with it. I’m glad you’re a huge comic book fan. I was too, for a long time, and I still enjoy them although I don’t read them much anymore. The ones I read, though, were primarily Asterix and Tintin… and less the superhero comics, although I was kind of into those too.
I think the idea that a building could be more than what it was grew slowly and surreptitiously out of a class I took in college called “Film Architecture”. We studied the use of architecture and interiors in film, and thus the way that architecture contributed to the story – psychologically, metaphorically, atmospherically. This was where the idea sprouted from that a building could be a character in a story and not just a container for that story. After that solidified, almost all buildings became characters… so it was natural that the Eglin would too.
Specifically, the idea that it could “dream of being something more” was pretty natural. I found it fascinating, hilarious and sad (or frustrating) that this building’s “job” is to spend its entire existence looking out into the sky and tracking what’s up there, but it never gets to actually see it. It seemed pretty obvious to me that the building would dream of getting off the ground some day. I suppose I’d say its personality is a little resigned, but still a tiny bit hopeful.
And yes – the super-conducting super collider (which is totally insane and in my readings about it I’ve been re-learning a little bit about particle physics) – it’s going to be a character for future work.
BD: Do you make up stories/personalities for the buildings you live and/or work in?
LB: Not so much, actually. I’m pretty fascinated by the idea that the shells of buildings or apartments or studios often stay the same, but the character of them totally changes from inhabitant to inhabitant. So in that sense, I think I’m giving it my personality. So it’s imposing myself and my imagination on the structure in a totally different way than I do for my drawings. The sentiment is similar, I guess. I do wonder about a building’s past, its past inhabitants. But I don’t really ever get as involved as I do with the subjects of my artwork.
BD: So what do your buildings think about the people who use them? Do you have ideas about that? In particular, what does the Eglin think, but if you’ve dreamed up strong reactions for other buildings you’ve worked on then it would be great to hear about that, too.
I’m also thinking about the fact that you traveled so far for this show makes me wonder if you ever plan to extend your personality infusion project into vehicles of any kind? You’ve got a rocket in Orbital Debris, already. The Pathetic Fallacy seems like a pretty rich area for artistic inspiration.
LB: I don’t think too much about people in my artwork, actually. That’s been true for a long time. As close as I get, really, is the idea that the human presence is implied by evidence of my hand in the drawing. I deliberately leave people out because I want the focus to be on the structures and the places, not the inhabitants or the users of that place, if that makes sense. It’s not that the presence of humans necessarily “steals the show” away from the setting and the place, but it complicates things in a way that I haven’t really been interested in. So I wouldn’t say that any of the buildings, including the Eglin, really “think” about the people that use them. I’m more interested in the relationships these buildings have with their surrounding landscape and environment.
And regarding vehicles, who knows. I define architecture extremely broadly, so I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. I mean, look at Archigram’s Plug-In City – which I love – it’s a city and a building and a vehicle, so anything is possible, as far as I’m concerned.
More on Ms. Beeferman in the Exterview at This Too Will Pass.