Monday, April 4, 2016

Artist-on-Artist: Christine Zuercher

Christine Zuercher is a photographer born and raised in Dayton, Ohio. She exhibits work nationally, is a 2010 Dayton Art Institute Yeck Fellow and a 2013 Ohio Arts Council Excellence Award Recipient. Her research is on shortwave radio, the Space Race, and transmission technologies. She will be completing her MFA in photography at East Carolina University in May 2016.

Artist-on-Artist Interview conducted by Deedra Baker. Stay tuned for Christine Zuercher interviewing Deedra about her work in the coming week! 

Artist’s Statement: Distant Transmissions

In traveling to the dark outer reaches of our planet, there exists the drive to find out something new about ourselves and the vastness above us. Shortwave radio and Space Race technology of the 1950’s and 1960’s cultivated intensely individual and collective experiences. My research on shortwave radio and space travel as landmarks of exploration includes photographs, shortwave spy codes, a spacesuit, and a collection of the QSL cards that shortwave operators mail to one another. This research has influenced my need to ask questions and seek the unknown through travel and my own experiences. I am commenting on our cultural associations with communication and distance while challenging the ownership and definitions of space exploration. Photographs are portals between our subjective and objective nature, the real and unreal. This research is comprised of photography, audio, and sculpture and is presented under the guise of the “American Interterrestrial Society”, a fictitious organization that is archiving this investigation.

Photography encourages us to dream of exploring unknown lands through its subjective nature. The blending of real and make believe will produce a visual dialogue that asks: How quiet would things be if all other technology failed and we only heard the humming of radios? What does static sound like in space? When you come back from space, do you miss it? Do you hear the stars pounding in your ears? Can historical technology remind us of a history that is no longer ours? Can we reclaim history and make it our own? Do we find history or create it?

Deedra Baker: How did you become interested in shortwave radio and space exploration? What other information can you share with us about this unique research topic?

Christine Zuercher: In many ways, my discovery of shortwave radio felt like what my father would call “kismet” or fate. While driving home from my first winter break at East Carolina University, I stumbled upon David Goren’s audio piece called “Atencion! Seis Siete Tres Siete Cero: The Mystery of the Shortwave Numbers Stations”. Shortwave radio is a band of transmission frequencies used for distant communications. David’s piece discusses an anomaly that can be heard on these frequencies: spy codes, a lone voice reading messages in code via a list of numbers. What a beautiful sentiment- spies communicating over a public medium that anyone can hear. I was instantly hooked. I felt shortchanged by AM and FM radio for many years and found this part of radio that is…exciting….unpredictable… can hear broadcasts from all over the planet, news reports, Morse Code, music from distant countries, political rants, eccentric preachers, even spies. Shortwave is really the world’s radio. As my interest grew and I decided to research shortwave further for my thesis, I found out that Greenville, NC, where I’m attending graduate school, is home to Voice of America, the last government owned shortwave radio station in the country. The rest is history. I even earned my amateur radio license a few months ago. Space exploration and aviation have always been a conceptual interest of mine. I was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of the Wright Brothers, the inventors of aviation. Dayton, to this day, has a lot of pride for the innovations of these two brothers. This pride, instilled in me from my father, has given me a reverence for flight. When NASA ended its space shuttle program in 2011, It felt like we as a culture lost our curiosity, our drive to push the limits of the unknown, to discover whatever may be out there. Shortwave radio and the Space Race, particularly in the 1950’s and 1960’s, connected us in spite of distance, in spite of not knowing.

DB: Your series Distant Transmissions is inspired by the shortwave radio and Space Race technologies employed in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Do you find inspiration from other sources like fellow artists, literature, experiences, etc?

CZ: Yes! Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost has been very influential on me, as has Italo Calvino’s Comicomics and Chris Marker’s film La Jetee. I’m drawn to artists and thinkers who are interdisciplinary, who implore a variety of methods and mediums to tell a story or share ideas. I’m a big fan of Buckminster Fuller and his way of viewing Earth like a giant spaceship. I enjoy the way Ann Hamilton and Ai Wei Wei use sculpture and tactile mediums to create impactful experiences. And I like Sherin Neshat- she’s got guts.

DB: Describe your working methodology. What is your process for creating your photographs, shortwave sounds, and sculptural objects? Why have you chosen to use the gum bichromate process for your images? 

CZ: My creative process for Distant Transmissions began with questions: How can I make work about something like radio waves that we can’t see? How can I use the art making process to create a tactile conversation examining the influence of technology on our individual and collective histories? My process in making the images and objects from Distant Transmissions is directly related to my travels and the relationships I’ve formed while exploring the United States and other countries.

Part of my research has included making my own spacesuit and photographing myself in it. The spacesuit is pretty bulky, however, so I realized early on that I’d need help being photographed. Collaboration has become a fundamental part of my process. The photographs of me in the spacesuit were taken with the help of friends. Many of the locations I photographed were found while exploring with friends and collaborators: picking wild blueberries, driving through the Mojave desert, exploring abandoned FCC sites, picnics on lakeshores in Maine. One of the methods I use after I photograph and edit is Gum Bichromate, a process that has a grainy, soft focused quality. I use this method to create an obscured, otherworldly aesthetic. I also use this aesthetic to explore the tension between the innate ability of the photograph to record and our desire to re-experience memories. What we remember is a copy of an experience at best. Our memories begin to change and break down from the moment an experience happens. The aesthetics of my work demonstrate a lack of literal representation, the layering, covering up, and altering of memories through process.

DB: The audio shortwave elements have almost a hypnotic note to them with elements of disruption, how do you think this enhances the overall body of work and exhibition?

CZ: Just as photographs have the power to transport us, sound has a similar affect. Not knowing the person in a photograph inspires us to conjure up stories about their lives. Radio static encourages us to sit and wait for someone unknown to speak. I hope for the audio elements of Distant Transmissions to create an experience that hints at what I’ve heard and shares these lovely hidden technologies that are still relatively unknown.

Distant Transmissions conjures contemplation and answer seeking for you as the artist. What do you intend your viewer to experience while looking at this work? I hope for the viewer to encounter some of the magic I’ve experienced while experimenting with these technologies. The exhibition includes photographs, an installation where viewers are invited to examine my collection of QSL cards, shortwave sounds, my spacesuit, and a collaborative cabinet made with the artist Harrison Walker containing found interplanetary objects. The images and objects in the exhibition are to be uncovered in an intimate environment. I hope that my research creates a tactile experience for the radio waves we cannot see, the photographs we can experience only as the past, the planets we can only dream of exploring. I believe these technologies bridge the gaps of distance and time.

DB: How does the balance between the surreal and reality affect this body of work?

CZ: Great question! The balance between the real and unreal in Distant Transmissions is a big part of the work. We understand much of history now through photographs. But photographs are often both subjective and objective. A large part of my research questions how we perceive history through both literal and conceptual distance. To elaborate on this tension between the truth and fabrication of photographs, I have created a fictitious organization, the American Interterrestrial Society that archives my collection of images, objects, and sounds. I serve as an honorary astronaut and shortwave radio operator for the organization.

Some Background on the American Interterrestrial Society:

The celebrated American deep sea explorer Gertrude Hoover founded AIS in August 1969. While mining for gemstones in the Burkle crater of the Indian Ocean, Hoover listened to the Apollo 11 Moon landing from her tiny radio shack 12,500 feet below the surface of the Earth. Hoover was determined, in that moment, to dedicate her life to fellow explorers. She believed technology, in an increasingly divided world, could help us overcome great geographic distances. Hoover created the American Interterrestrial Society, a non-profit organization that supports fellow explorers through funding, research, and libraries and archives located in the Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was approached by the current Director of AIS, Hoover’s granddaughter several years ago after being introduced at a meeting for the Explorer’s Club in NYC. I am honored to have AIS include my images and objects in their archives.

DB: What are your future plans after completing your Master of Fine Arts? Congratulations Christine!

CZ: Thanks Deedra! I am excited to be working in Massachusetts this summer, teaching photography to young girls. The female mentors in my life have had a great impact on me, so I look forward to working with the awesome young women at Belvoir Terrace. After that, I don’t know! I’m jumping head first into the unknown.

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