Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art: Erin Elise Holland
BY Audrey Deng, December 23, 2019
Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art is a bi-weekly series and a play on Jerry Seinfeld's Conversations with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. We interview artists about their art and 'getting art'.
In this conversation, we sat down with Erin Holland to discuss the practices of documentary and nonfiction, Texas, and how social media has impacted the moving image.
Born in Abilene, Texas, moving image artist Erin Holland is currently in her first year of her MFA at Columbia University. Prior to this, she worked at the Museum of Modern Art as part of their social media team. It was there she discovered the rhythm of social media, and applied it to her art practice. It was not entirely intentional—it was simply that the practices at work had inspired Holland to view artwork through the lens which she had been using most at the time. With her cellphone camera, Holland began to track how objects and people moved through time and space. She posted these moving images online, on her Instagram, and developed a series on that platform about her mother’s early onset dementia.
Since coming to Columbia, Holland’s taste for the moving image has again changed. She is learning how to have fun with the moving image again, and how to be playful with something which once carried such weight. “it’s been really—what’s the word I’m looking for—nutritious. In some ways I feel like I’d been starving for this and I didn’t know it, and then I started school and now I’m eating full course meals everyday. I feel so much gratitude and I feel nourished in a way I haven’t in a long time.”
Moving image. You’re the first person I’m interviewing from this concentration.
Erin Holland: There are not that many of us! Only four of us total in the program.
Is your work very different from each other?
EH: We all share some interests, but are approaching our work from different perspectives.
I’d love to hear more about moving images. What differentiates moving image from a short film? From a gif?
EH: Columbia has the film department, and as I understand it, the film department is more focused on formal industry education, like screenwriting, directing. The moving image department within the visual arts is a little more about experimentation, it’s art-making with video as your medium. Certainly there is a lot of overlap between filmmaking, it is in many ways the same thing, but maybe with a different lens applied. For instance, the film department would work with more longform narratives, and the moving image might not follow that trope. The moving image could be a 60-minute video of someone walking around his studio, which you would not expect to see in theaters.
Yeah. In another interview, the new genres student Joseph Liatela mentioned a performance art piece of Bruce Nauman walking around his studio.
EH: Exactly! The one I’m referencing is called Stamping in the Studio.
So would you consider Stamping in the Studio a moving image?
EH: Yeah. That’s a good example because it differentiates a work of art using video as a medium versus what we think of as formal film. You generally would not expect to walk into AMC theater and see a video like that; you would expect to see something with a narrative arc. There is a long history of filmmakers doing experimental work, and generally there is a lot of crossover between moving image and film, but it is, I think, a matter of outlook going into the project that makes a difference.
I would love to hear more about how you got into moving image, your career up to this point.
EH: I was working for the last eight years at MoMA. When I started working at MoMA, I had an art practice but I was drawing and painting and using the mediums I learned to use in art school, in my bachelor’s degree. Video was not a component; I didn’t have a video camera, iPhones weren’t in the world at that time, so video was less accessible. Then I ended up being in New York, working for MoMA, and my art practice started to change because while I was at MoMA, I was working as a producer and art director for their retail division. I used photography and video as a form of marketing for their stores. I really developed a rhythm of making and editing photos and videos constantly, and the layer on top of that was social media. I ended up starting their Instagram account and running that for maybe six or seven years. So I was using this language of photography, video, and social media all the time at work, and it started to inform what I was doing as an artist. Because I was working with social media in a very commercial way, I was thinking, in my practice, about how I was becoming disillusioned with social media in general and I started thinking about subverting that social space and what it would look like to address some of my discomforts using that very platform. I started experimenting with my iPhone.
In what ways? How did you start experimenting?
EH: Initially I had an exhibition in 2017 where I had made a collection of drawings for a business space in the West Village but I wanted to open the show up to a larger audience, because I’m from Texas, and I knew there was a large part of my community that wouldn’t be able to fly in and see my work, so I decided to launch a digital component of the show on my Instagram account and I posted a newsfeed for sixty days, daily, for the duration of the exhibition. It became another experience of the show, or an additional experience of the show.
I went home right after that exhibition, to Texas. I took family leave. My mom has early onset dementia. She has had it for about ten years, so I went home to help out for two months, and because I had been in that rhythm of creating videos for Instagram, once a day, every day, when I went home, I wanted to apply that same process to my time at home and see if I could communicate what it was like to spend time with my mom. I started filming moments I was with her doing everyday activities. The work took on a different role. Video became an exciting medium for me because I felt I could communicate nuance with immediacy. I felt video was able to capture what I was experiencing with my mom in a way. So the basic arc is that I was using this form of media in work and I kind of adopted that same medium in my personal art practice. That’s where it all came from.
I’m sorry to hear about your mom.
EH: Thank you. It’s ok.
So you moved from Texas to New York for your job at the MoMA, and started that Instagram account! One of the reasons I wanted so badly to move to New York was because of museums, and these photos on Instagram were so enticing, enchanting.
EH: Totally, yeah! MoMA is an interesting case because they have Instagram accounts for every stream of the museum—their social reach is enormous. I think that’s one of the reasons why I was thinking about it so much, because it’s a job—social media is a job, and MoMA has teams that are just assigned to work on social media engagement. In my personal life I don’t think about my account that way, but there is a whole other side to that now, which is based on very calculated marketing efforts.
It’s become a strange beast. I did want to ask you about this exhibition you completed in the West Village: drawings, you had mentioned. Of what, for whom?
EH: I’m not sure if I want to talk about it, because I think my work is headed in a very different direction. So, because I was working in social media at the time, I was thinking about how politics is affected by social media, and how flat politicians can become on these platforms, so I was drawing the eyes of politicians in an effort to kind of think of these people as parents, spouses, young professionals, teenagers, grade-school students. I did research on their lives, the music they liked, and I would wrap myself in this information in the studio. I felt like I really didn’t understand who these politicians were and it troubled me that they had become so inhuman to me, to the point that I felt I could talk blindly about them and criticize them with my friends, as we all do. So the drawings were of eyes, and they were presented in an exhibition with links to their source imagery, so when you walked into the space you would see these eyes on the wall drawn with care. You would walk into the space and connect with a certain drawing, and you would look at the source, and go, “Oh, it’s Trump.” This reaction was intended to mess with preconceived notions.
Did you draw mostly presidents?
EH: Presidential candidates—this exhibition was in early 2017. It was dealing with political figures from the recent presidential election.
What was important to you about this exhibit in particular that made you want to share it with your friends and family back home in Texas?
EH: You know, I grew up in a conservative bubble, conservative politically, religiously. I guess I should backtrack. I grew up in two very extreme places which are Texas and New York, and these two places have very disparate views on religion, politics, gender roles, all of these underlying beliefs that form our lives. I knew if I was showing work that was questioning politics in New York City, it could only have so much impact. I was interested in widening the conversation, have a dialogue that was broader than what was, I suppose, in an echo chamber. I wasn’t trying to convince one side or another, I just wanted to create a space where we could have this dialogue about politics.
I mean, I am very interested in starting conversations that don’t exist in echo chambers. And it’s hard to do, we all have biases, blind spots, we all struggle to see points of view that are different from our own. But it’s incredibly important that we try.
So you went home to Texas, in this rhythm of documenting everyday life with your mother. Would you call it documentation?
EH: Just capturing moments while we were hanging out together, dancing in the living room, helping her wash her hands, eat her breakfast, simple things.
Did she mind?
EH: She’s at a point in her progression that she’s not able to have a coherent conversation about it. I have talked to her about it, and I’ve asked for her permission, and I’ve entered into that discussion with her, but she can’t really answer it. It’s definitely hard, I’m not objective, and there are a lot of questions about ethics and how to be sensitive to her needs, her privacy, my family’s privacy, my own privacy. These aren’t easy questions, but I’ve come to a place at least, for now, that the work has value despite the question marks present. I feel I can still honor her and the work even though I can’t have a more specific conversation about the details of it with her.
Yeah, I’m in the nonfiction writing program, so a lot of my personal questions—my guilt—surrounds “using” people’s lives.
EH: It’s hard. The process of filming is very much about being present. There have been many moments where I’ve tried to capture something and had to walk away from it, and stop the camera. A lot of it is observing and documenting the moment, and then using discretion to decide: does this honor her or not? A lot of it comes down to intuition.
How have your questions with moving art changed?
EH: I think now, I’m at a place where I’m still very interested in the topic of reconciliation between trying to step outside echo chambers and facilitate dialogue between people with different points of view. But to be honest, I don’t know what that’s going to look like. I’m trying to learn how to play, how to stop putting roles on myself, to expect my work to look a certain way or produce a certain response, but just to experiment and be with myself in the work. Because I’ve worked with social media, it’s in a lot of ways made my work susceptible to audience approval. It can become very unhealthy. With my work, there’s an element of the work that leans on the dialogue that happens because it’s on social media, online, but when that aspect of the work crosses over into the territory where you feel susceptible to opinion, then it becomes something else. I’m trying to focus on being with my own heart and mind and soul, and I’m hoping that will help bring my work to a better place. It’s not to say I won’t work with social media in the future, it’s probably going to be a winding path to get back to that. Certain questions can be answered in conversations, and others need to be processed on your own.
So I’m guessing right now you’re in this latter stage. That sounds healthy.
EH: (Laughs.) I hope so.
How does moving image look like in this stage, currently? What’s your mindset towards art now?
EH: I know my work is never going to save the world. Art can’t do that, I don’t believe art can save the world. I believe art can contribute elements to needed conversations. I think art can help ask needed questions, but art is never going to save the world. I think before, I felt, as an artist, the responsibility to carry a certain amount of pain that has to be beautified through the work somehow, and help to cleanse pain. But that’s not my responsibility. I think that’s kind of why I’m in a place right now where I’m learning to play, because I need to realize that my work may or may not contribute to good conversations. I hope it does, but ultimately, the world can’t be saved by one person.
In the meantime, you ought to experience some joy while making art.
EH: And I think having joy will ultimately bring fruit and beauty to the work. I don’t have to make beautiful work by carrying these heavy weights. I can make beautiful work because I’m playing.
Like when I tried to be an economics major. It just wasn’t going to work.
EH: Right, right. I can see this play out in a lot of ways in my life, not just in artwork. Even in personal relationships. If I approach relationships with a pressure or obligation to make the relationship a certain thing, it’s really detrimental to the growth of the relationship. Just be present, and allow whatever is going to happen, to happen. There’s more organic growth that way.
What are you working on now?
EH: Right now, the video work I’m making is a little more specific to class assignments. I’m learning different aspects of videomaking that are more technical. It’s actually been kind of a nice exercise because it’s taking off the outside pressure of having to produce something interesting, and I’m just in a mode of learning and experimenting. It’s really exciting. I still use moving image, and I feel it will continue to be a big part of my practice. I think learning to play will help me in the long run, to experiment with moving image.
EH: Right now I’m working on a documentary of a friend of mine, back in Texas, and he is in his nineties. He lived in my neighborhood in the East Village, and he was a photographer and he took a lot of photographs of buildings, overlaid with botanical imagery. I was thinking as a filmmaker, a videomaker, how to learn from his process as a photographer. So I went out to tell his story, and decided to go out to the East Village and film the same types of things he used to film, just to try it on. I went into this local garden, and I spent time filming leaves, water, vines on the sides of buildings. Then I came back to my apartment and filmed the potted plant on my windowsill, and I was playing with pulling the focus from the far-out exterior to the leaves, just pushing the medium in different ways that I haven’t before. I’m also using different technology. Before I was using my phone, now I’m learning how to film with a video camera. It’s fun. I can kind of mess around and not feel like I have so much pressure to show it to people immediately. Or it doesn’t have to say something.
How are classes so far?
EH: Classes have been really enjoyable. I feel somehow it just worked out that I have a really nice balance between theory and technical learning and experiential learning and dialogue, and it’s been really—what’s the word I’m looking for—nutritious. In some ways I feel like I’d been starving for this and I didn’t know it, and then I started school and now I’m eating full-course meals everyday. I feel so much gratitude and I feel nourished in a way I haven’t in a long time.
The three elective courses I’m taking right now are Shelly Silver’s Beginning Video class, Rikrit Tiravanija’s Making Without Objects. It’s a sculpture class, but it’s a very conceptual take on sculpture. I’m also taking Eva Hagberg’s seminar A Building of One’s Own: Feminist Architecture, which I love. It’s a seminar that talks about gender and architecture.
A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf.
EH: The other courses are graduate-level requirements that are part of the program, like studio visits, visiting artist lectures, group critiques, mentor weeks. My two mentors are Michael Joo and Rona Yefman.
Could you tell me about moving image artists whose work you admire?
EH: Ann Hamilton is someone I think about a lot. She actually gave a talk at Columbia a few years ago. Sophie Calle. Wolfgang Laib, who had a piece when I was working at MoMA called Pollen from Hazelnut. He lives in Germany. He spent 15 years collecting pollen from hazelnut trees in mason jars, and he brought the pollen to New York and took the pollen to a large white platform, and had a sifter, and tapped it in an even layer over the platform. MoMA paired it with a video about the process. He had previously gone to medical school, but he decided he could heal people more effectively through the arts. He uses pollen as a material of healing. He’s able to bring the sacred into a space. Similarly I remember seeing Ann Hamilton’s piece at the Armory where she had created this arch with swings underneath. You could swing all the way, and there was a curtain in the middle, and you could also sit by the curtain and watch it billow. It was genius. There was something so simple, but so impactful. She has a very acute sensitivity to that sort of thing.
Do you still use social media?
EH: I think the point I’m focused on right now is more of an internal thing, not being focused on how it impacts other people. The project with my mom is ongoing. There are also times when I go home and I’m not participating in the project. There’s a certain level of intentionality and attention that requires, and I’m also aware that I need to be home to be home, and not making art.
But other than that, I’m not specifically using social media right now. I’m not using it intentionally. There’s also my interest around honesty in social media. The pain of sharing personal things and the desire to start a dialogue—I wanted to share hard things. People have said that it has helped others, the willingness to share. I want people to know it’s ok to talk about this, about dementia, sadness. That medium, for me, really flows in and out. It’s a way of communicating. And I think so much of art is that. Sometimes cooking is art, sometimes cooking is heating up oatmeal in the microwave. Sometimes dance is a ballet, sometimes dance is someone jamming to Madonna in the bathroom, sometimes dance is someone walking across the room and sitting down on a chair, sometimes dance is going on a see-saw. Sometimes the things we do is art, or just life, it all depends on your intention.
Beautifully put. Last question. Have you been to the new MoMA since you’ve started graduate school?
EH: Yeah, it’s wonderful. One of the coolest things about the new space is that they’re moving away from white walls. A lot of the exhibitions are painted with different tones. It’s funny, it makes more of a difference than you would think. The space feels warmer in many ways. It’s going to be exciting to see how this changes their programming and opportunities, for them and for artists.
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