[Editor’s note: CAW stopped by the studio of Chicago-based artist Susan Giles to talk about some of her new sculptural work, in the midst of her preparation for the solo exhibition, Interiors, at the Burren College of Art in Ireland in June.]
CAW: What was the starting point for this new body of work and area of research?
Susan Giles (SG): I don’t know how far back to go. I’ve always been interested in gestures as the place where language becomes sculptural. They reveal something about our thinking that might be other than what we say. And in fact, gesture research shows that our gestures often fuel the speech act itself or indicate something that is upcoming in our speech or even that we might not articulate. A gesture is another way of thinking or seeing that our bodies create spatially and physically. My interest in this all kind of came together at this conference, the International Society for Gesture Studies at the University of Paris-Sorbonne Nouvelle last year. Primarily, I was there just to absorb the information, but I also presented some photographic work. I’ve worked with recording gestures in video for a while, focusing on the gestures that people use during storytelling about places, monuments or famous buildings. One person might use very different gestures for the same experience or place than another. During a recent residency at the Burren College of Art in Ireland, I focused on a tower from Newtown Castle on the campus from the 16th century. It was such a striking space to have the opportunity to go in and use. I’m interested in how memory mediates the experience of place and took the chance to talk to people in the tower about how they moved through it. I set up video equipment, as I had always done in the studio, and filmed people as they described their experience.
CAW: And this movement gets recorded in the video, which is the basis for the photographs?
SG: Yes, I’ve previously made some composite videos that show the path of hands during their movement. So I recorded these three people and asked: “How does your body move through this space?”
CAW: Each of these sculptural pieces is generated from people describing the tower?
SG: Correct. Then I go through the videos frame by frame and recreate those gestures spatially through the wire. Tracing them first in animation, frame by frame, to see the line that their hand creates, and then building that in actual space.
CAW: Did you find that different people described the castle differently?
SG: What was different from some of my other work was asking them to talk about how they moved through the space. They were all bodies contending with the space. It’s not just about looking from the outside; it’s about a physical and psychological relationship to the interior of the building. It seemed like an opportunity to reflect on the interiority of their cognitive experience. And it turned out that they had totally different responses to it. Whereas I’m thinking “oh yeah, it’s a spiral staircase.” It’s a pretty simple castle. As they gestured and in their speech that followed clearly they conceived of the space very differently from each other.
CAW: Really, in what way?
SG: One said, “It goes in a spiral like this…” And it was a very tall gesture. It started at the hip and rose above the head, and it was big. This is what I had been expecting, and it seemed to talk about my experience. I thought that everyone would do that gesture. But then the next person does this sort of double helix. But there is only one staircase! I don’t know why she did that. And it’s a very stunted gesture compared the first.
CAW: Stunted in terms of the amount of space that it occupied?
SG: Yes. There could be a number of reasons why really. It could be that she’s uncomfortable. But later in the interview, she says, “It’s not tall like other towers that I’ve been to.” It occurred to me that she doesn’t think that the tower is tall. The first person thinks it’s tall, as an American, the second who’s probably been to lots of castles is a European. Though I don’t know for sure, I think it’s an indication that she doesn’t think it’s that huge. I still don’t know why it’s a double helix, however. I was talking to a writer in Ireland, and she was talking about the possibility that she felt intimidated. This was a tower castle that was built for defense which the villagers would come inside during a time of threat. It is very dark, and there are these little tiny windows and tiny holes for guns or arrows. Maybe it was a response to that too? Then the third individual, she was scared in that space. She had a physical response. The walls are wonky, the staircase is very steep, there are no handrails. Her gesture is huge and enveloping, and I think that gesture conveys that sense of [Susan gesturing widely] her body in that space. That sense of being overwhelmed. She goes around and around and around.
CAW: So then what do these traces become pictures of, exactly?
SG: What a good question.
CAW: I’m a painter, so I think about pictures too much.
SG: I’m thinking of them more of as a trace of the body’s movement. How the individuals think that their body moves through space. They all go around in a circle to some extent. They are all spirals because it was a spiral staircase. But it’s like a picture of what’s in their head, that isn’t exactly what they’re saying. It’s not a model of the space; it’s an individual’s perception of the space. This is what’s so exciting to me about gestures; what they can reveal. They go by so quickly in the everyday, so it’s easy to discount them.
CAW: There is something very deep here about the connection between body and mind and language that I’m sure your research into cognitive science has helped you think about.
SG: Dr. David McNeill, the founder of the gesture research lab at the University of Chicago, now retired, noted that even congenitally blind people gesture when they speak. I thought that fact was amazing. Because they were not gesturing because they’ve seen a parent or a caretaker do it, they have to do it to think. We as humans have to be spatial. My background is in sculpture, and while I was always attracted to language and the spaces in between the words, it felt somehow separate. This need to physically move to think and to form words being so inherent to who we are. We’re born with this. I thought that was fascinating. For me, it bridged language and sculpture and space.
CAW: I feel like the visual arts are always trying to defend their investigation of formal physical properties as being valuable in and of themselves. There is something intuitive here, from an artist perspective, that the way we describe and think about space is more than decorative, but instead primary. It becomes very hard to argue that point of view in a social sense because it can feel so removed. But when you begin to learn things about the way that that form interacts with our cognitive abilities it becomes very clear that art is not just some decorative game, but instead a vital part of who we are as a species. It’s so interesting to have a place like this in your work where it’s so clear that this is true. What are some other revelations from gesture research that have been important to your work?
SG: There are linguists and psychologists doing a lot of research. The U of C is one of the main places where this is going on at the Goldin-Meadow Lab in the Department of Psychology. There are other places across the world too, but I have access to this by being in Chicago. Another thing that Dr. Goldin-Meadow is working on is how children’s gestures can reveal that they are ready to learn something. They are doing these studies on math. In fact, I took my child there who’s at the right age for the study, a particular age where a shift occurs in the understanding of algebraic functions. The researchers figured out that the children can gesture the change first (having to do with the order of operations) before they can say the correct answer. But seeing the gesture means that they are about to get it right. Somehow their hands are showing us what’s going on inside the brain before the awareness reaches the language center. Now researchers are experimenting with teaching through gesture. What if we show them how to gesture?
They are also doing a lot of research on children who are at the language acquirement age, who have bigger vocabularies if they have a caretaker who is gesturing to them. They were going to into homes where the kids weren’t being talked to as frequently and comparing them to kids being spoken to frequently. They are using this research to help the children build their vocabulary. The researchers found that when they go into the homes where children are being spoken to less frequently and teach the children to gesture when they speak, their vocabularies increase significantly. Another cool thing is when people are acquiring language, babies can point before they can speak. There is something elemental about the gesture of pointing that precedes speech.
CAW: How does this project speak back to some of the earlier work that addresses architecture more directly?
SG: One of the things that bridges the two bodies of work is that architecture, like monuments or landmarks, communicate power and ideology about place. I’m interested in ways that individuals respond to and participate in that. Part of that is through the stories that we tell. How do we describe our experiences? Through souvenirs we might make, pictures or videos we might take. So the sculptural work all comes from a place of thinking about things that we want to hold on to. Why would we want to build a model? Why does everybody want that? It’s a way to participate in the power of a place. It’s a way to make it tangible. People make cakes of these buildings! You’re sort of talking back to the building. So I see both projects as about ways that the individual responds and participates in the meaning of the built environment.
CAW: I’m also curious about the shift in scale between the models and the sculptures. Are these monuments of the individual’s response?
SG: I did want to start bringing them back up to an architectural scale. They are not as big as the castle, but I wanted your body to have to contend with them in the space. I didn’t want them to be little models that you distance from your bodily experience. I was thinking tent-sized as my scale reference, that a body would be able physically to occupy the space of the recreated gesture. I was also hoping that you could see all three sculptures at once so that you could compare them.
CAW: How did you decide on the color for the sculptures?
SG: The sculptures will be exhibited along with the video clips from which they are drawn. In the video, I took two points on the hand (which is how the gesture researchers track movement) the first fingertip and knuckle and track each point with an arc. The different shades of gray are intended to signal that the two paths are distinguishable. I was also thinking of the color of graphite to emphasize the drawn quality.
CAW: It strikes me that that wanting to record the individual’s participation in architecture and monumentality becomes really explicit with these sculptures.
SG: I’ve been dealing with the gesture in video and prints for many years, but this is the first time I’ve responded to them sculpturally. Last summer at the International Society for Gesture Studies conference, the researchers often talked about the gestures as if they were a material thing. They think of them as already physical, as material carriers of meaning. I’ve also been working with artist Lindsay French working on how to capture gestures using the Kinect, turn them into a point cloud, and 3D print them. I want the gesture to be a physical thing that you could touch. What if you could hand me your gesture of the space and I will hand you mine? That’s in the early stages for me.
CAW: What are you looking forward to having them back in Ireland and in proximity to the castle?
I’m looking forward to going back and forth. I want to see what it’s like for people at the opening or for people who work there at the College. What will their gestures be? To have the object, right there. That castle. I’ll probably be doing some more videotaping too.