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Feature Sun Mar 30 2008

An Interview with Performance/ Installation Artist Sara Schnadt

A native of Scotland, Sara Schnadt moved to the United States in 1986 with her American mother and sister, and came to Chicago in 1995 to earn her masters degree in fine arts (MFA) at the Art Institute of Chicago. By day, she serves as Webmaster for the Chicago Artists' Resource, part of the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs. By night, weekends and other free moments, she is an innovative performance and installation artist whose work incorporates body movement and dance, found objects and themes drawn from Schnadt's wealth of personal experiences. You can catch her next performance on May 2 at Looptopia 2008 from 5-10 p.m. at Macy's State St. windows (111 N. State St.), where she will be representing the Museum of Contemporary Art's 12x12 series.

You grew up on a commune. Can you describe a day in the life for us?

At Findhorn, an intentional community in Scotland where I lived until I was 14, a core group of people from around the world lived and worked together. An average day for an adult would start with breakfast at home, then going to a work department -- for example: working in the garden, the kitchen, the arts center, the publications or bookings departments (Findhorn is also a new age workshop center and has published a lot of books.). Wherever you worked, you started the day with an "attunement": a brief check-in and meditation with your work group. You then worked half the morning, had a tea break, worked the rest of the morning, had lunch with the whole community in a central dining room, worked the afternoon with another tea break, then had an end of day attunement, then dinner with everyone again. The priority for working was to achieve group harmony, and to discuss, as the day went along, how your life philosophy could be integrated into what you were doing. As a child, I shared all my meals, holidays and celebrations with the community, and there were invented rituals around each.

On the weekends, international touring visual and performing artists often presented or gave workshops. There were also community-produced variety shows called "sharings," with comedy skits and songs to entertain everyone. As a child, I took workshops and performed. My first exhibited painting was in a group show at the World Wilderness Congress (hosted at our arts center) when I was 11. My first master class with a contemporary London choreographer was at the age of 13. I am extremely lucky in this regard, I know.

How did this experience influence your work?

By exposing me to multiple artistic disciplines from a young age, many of which have become part of my work. It also caused me to see art and ritual as integral to daily life -- and performed ritual as a way to distill the group's life experiences and feed them back into a shared philosophy of living. Since moving to the U.S., I have used my work to find ways to translate this experience in larger, less rarified contexts -- one commonly held belief, history, cultural trend, or public site at a time.

Who, or what, are your primary sources of inspiration?

Probably because of my background, I am most engaged when I am making work in some kind of context -- making work for a festival when I know the other artists performing, and especially making work in response to a public space or site that has a rich history or set of collectively-held references. For example, my piece Reading Gestures, which I performed last November for the Site Unseen performance festival at the Cultural Center, was a response to the library's reading room. I focused on body language that described how people interrelate around all of that collective knowledge.

I am also inspired by my day job. I oversaw the building of, and manage, the Chicago Artists' Resource Website, which is basically a comprehensive reflection of local arts support systems, and an online community hub for local artists. The skills I have developed through this work have changed the scale and complexity of my artwork, and have also inspired me to incorporate technology and information structures. Serving the local art community through CAR also aligns with the values of my upbringing, and has changed my relationship to the art community. It places me within a large network and makes me feel like an active contributor in a dialogue with other artists, rather than an isolated artist trying to get her share.

Other artists/trends I think about a lot include relational aesthetics -- creating environments for audience interaction -- and the work of Rudolph Stingel, Mark Lombardi, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Ann Hamilton, Meredith Monk, and Gunther Gras.

One of the themes in your work is the importance of ritual. Can you talk more about that?

Ritual is not so much a theme of my work, but more a vocabulary. I often subtly ritualize everyday gestures through repetition, movement quality, scale, or relating them to a very aesthetisized task. This is part of an overall goal in my work: to distill collective experience into a rarified moment that can have a philosophical impact on the viewer.

Some of your recent performances have lasted for three hours. How do you maintain your energy level and focus for so long?

My work comes primarily from my background in sculpture and dance, so I use performance installation as my format. This format, as opposed to work more grounded in a theatrical tradition, usually involves the performer becoming a live element in a sculptural environment. Even three hours is an extremely short time window for an exhibit. And also the work, like an exhibit, is intended to be seen with smaller groups of people coming and going. So a longer time period is ideal. I maintain the energy to perform between two and seven hours at a time, depending on the piece -- the same way a visual artist would maintain the stamina to work intently in the studio for that long. It can take more, but the concentration and adrenaline rush of being in front of an audience also give you energy, and put you into an altered time sense, so that the hours slip by.

You use found objects in your work. Where do you find them, and what sorts of objects?

This depends on the piece. Thrift stores are great, and for my last piece at the MCA's 12x12 series in December -- where I "built" the Internet as a performance using large quantities of "community contributed" wool, wire and twine -- I reached out to networks of knitters and new media artists, who donated materials.

What's the most challenging piece you've done? The most enjoyable?

Reading Gestures last November was both for me. The piece was about six times more ambitious technically, and in terms of scale, than any previous piece. It involved live feed remote video, built-in projections onto books at six reading stations throughout an enormous hall, large quantities of image research, developing six library-subject-specific image collages to be used as projection sources, seven performers, making blank books, and a lot of custom construction work that took over my house for several months ahead of time. It was also that much more satisfying. What the audience got out of the piece was proportional to what I put into it. Also, I think, sometimes you get the concept and an execution of a piece just right. You really hit a sweet spot. This takes a lot of work, but there is also an element of luck to having all the elements come together just right. This piece hit the sweet spot for me, and it was delightful and so satisfying see the finished work and the audience response.

Do you engage in other artistic pursuits -- painting, drawing, etc.?

I have classical training in photorealistic drawing and painting. This is very useful to develop ideas and illustrate them for proposals. I also collage and make found object sculptures around my house as an ongoing creative offshoot of larger projects.

What are you working on now?

I am getting ready to adapt my room-sized, labor-intensive Connectivity installation from my December 12x12 for Looptopia. What I will lose in scale/complexity and installation time, I will gain in spades in accidental audience. I am very excited to see how this goes. I am also in the research and fund-raising stages for a new piece about gestures, interactivity and online space. Building a version of an element of Connectivity, and the audience's response to it, the new piece will involve a giant field of tiny metal nuts with a system of sensors that records travel patterns of a performer through them (dancing to articulate the building of online structures and networks) and mark-making by the audience (to represent community content). This piece will involve more technical research and more developed choreography than previous pieces.

About the Author:

A native of Johnstown, PA, Lauri Apple is a contender for the title, "world's most renowned bag lady," thanks to her somewhat popular (at times) website, FoundClothing. Lauri has a JD and doesn't know why, but it will take about 30 years for her to pay it off, and that worries her. Her favorite cities are Prague, Pittsburgh, Austin and Chicago. When she's not looking through people's trash, she's either painting, taking pictures, or making/thinking about making cartoons about her weird life.

 
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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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