Hello Kevin, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Hello! I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. My Mom is an artist, so my creativity was always nurtured and encouraged. I started taking classes at the Mattress Factory in high school, which radically expanded my conception of art, and helped to solidify that I wanted to go to art school. I went to Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where I quickly found a home in the Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM). SIM was an incredible interdisciplinary program that instilled a core ethos of experimentation, community, and a free exploration of media. After graduation and a few international projects, I returned to Pittsburgh to set up a studio and affordable home base, where I have been for a decade now. I’m in limbo at the moment, as I was planning to move to Santa Barbara last September to begin my MFA at UCSB, but I have begun the program remotely from Pittsburgh until Covid-19 restrictions ease.
How would you describe your work and practice to someone new?
I am a very visual person, obviously, so whenever possible I prefer to show people the work and then we can begin to untangle it from there. I have a fluid interdisciplinary practice that encompases sculpture, installation, light, and new media. Each project tends to morph, so I often have to teach myself new processes or seek out collaborators to fully realize the vision. I aim to create immersive experiential spaces that open prismatic portals into other possible worlds. This immersive experience has been largely obstructed by the pandemic, but its absence has also solidified its central importance in my work. My work is influenced by the aesthetics and affect of the Internet, screens, and contemporary visual culture, and it often oscillates in translation between the physical and the virtual. Many people experience my work only through the mediation of the screen, so I am very interested in playing with this space of physical and virtual illusion. I frequently work with mold making and casting, which is largely about the suspension of a moment, gesture, or energy in the frenetic churn of time. I have been working with photogrammetry and 3D modeling recently, which has a similar function of capturing a moment in time, a physical presence, a somatic data set. So much of my work is envisioning the relics we will leave behind, assessing these futures in the present, and charting a new course.
What first drew you to making work about the utopic and dystopic potentials of the internet and technologies?
I think that tension between utopian and dystopian forces was present even before I began to focus on the Internet, phones, and technological acceleration. One of my earliest works, babel (2008-2010), was an interactive sound sculpture in which an acoustic piano could be played by a typewriter through the translation of wires and electromagnetic solenoids. It was rooted in this tension between the potential for a harmonious universal language and a discordant confusion of tongues. I would go on to make Portable Utopia (2011) and WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR DREAMS (2014-ongoing), which both attempted to create temporary, nomadic, deployable social spaces as platforms for the collective exploration of utopian possibilities. Throughout these early works, there was an enduring drive to create portals into more vibrant worlds, tempered with a clear-eyed look at the state of our world. My work is continually teetering between these poles, not wanting to dip too far into naive idealism or destructive nihilism. That balance is a central thread throughout all of my work, and life, up until the present. Buckminster Fuller was a big inspiration; from those early works directly inspired by geodesic architecture to my last installation which borrows his title Utopia or Oblivion. IRIS_SIRI (2016) is the point where I began to explore the effects of rapid technological acceleration, both through a very tangible lived experience and as I observed it rippling throughout our social sphere.
Can you tell us more about your installation IRIS_SIRI? How did this piece come about? How was your experience working with the Mattress Factory?
Absolutely. IRIS_SIRI was a site-specific installation that explored the utopic and dystopic potential of the Internet, the omnipresent spectacle of screen time, the mirage of capital, and the effects of rapid technological acceleration on the human species. The title is a palindrome that references Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, and Siri, the goddess of the smartphone. I covered each window of the space with dichroic window film, which simultaneously flooded the interior with vibrant gradient shifts of filtered sunlight and provided a prismatic lens to reexamine the outside world. Resin cats were perched upon a series of floating laptops that displayed hypnotic cascades of infinitely accumulating browser windows. I automated a capacitive replica of my hand to scroll through an infinite feed on a tablet in a disembodied drone. I fabricated a “cash cube” with two-way mirrors and a dichroic light, in which a dark pool of money circulated into infinity, slowly eroding itself in the perpetual churn over the course of the exhibition. That gradual destruction of the money was not intentional, but sometimes you have to step back and let the work teach you.
For most of my early career, I worked in the exhibitions department at the Mattress Factory to support my practice. It was a major part of my informal education between undergrad and grad school, and they provided immense flexibility for me to go on residencies and to take time off for my own projects. I applied to their residency program while I was still working there, and got accepted. That residency was incredible, expansive, and it remains one of the most supportive experiences of my career. The most important part was their unconditional support and trust. It was ok to experiment and fail, and I was able to explore exactly what I wanted to without having to constantly justify or advocate for myself. It was pure trust, support, and growth, and it really was a turning point for me.
IRIS_SIRI was the genesis of my exploration of the effects of rapid technological acceleration, and it has been the foundation for everything that has come since. Generationally, I feel suspended between being born digital and being hyper-aware of the massive shifts within my lifetime. During my residency, I was beginning to feel this increasing dependence on the phone, as a prosthetic brain, a plane of escape, and an emotional manipulator. I was consumed and repulsed by the endless feeds of information, jarringly stitching together the most banal, artificial, and grotesque elements of our society. It was both an inquiry into how these technological shifts are affecting our world, and a very conscious effort to take a step back and unplug. These tensions have amplified exponentially since then.
How do you choose the materials for your work? Are there any materials or technologies you would like to try next?
It is a hybrid of materials serendipitously finding me, constantly scanning my visual field for materials that could be used, misused, or transformed, allowing space in the studio for concepts to steer materiality and for materiality to teach, and a dash of pragmatism using affordable and accessible materials. The dichroic film that I have used extensively for the last five years was literally just glowing in a sample bin. I knew immediately that I wanted to use it, and just had to wait for a project with a budget. In IRIS_SIRI, I covered the windows with it, which simultaneously acted as a filter to create the gradient light environment and a lens to reimagine the world. I continued to apply it to everything and to push the material as far as I could. It became a filter for lighting, a radiant mirror for laser cut and CNC pieces, holographic screens in the cast works, and now I am attempting to simulate it in virtual spaces. I love stumbling upon materials that are so dynamic and adaptable, that can be pushed in many directions over time without getting redundant. I believe they are phasing out production of the specific film I use, so I might be coming to an end with that specific material. I am still captivated by iridescent, color shift, and dichroic materials, and want to start exploring Chemical Vapor Deposition coatings on my sculptures. I’m beginning to shift into resins for the cast works so that I can layer transparency and opacity. I’m interested in embedding flowing water and fire into new works, so I need to start using more water and heat resistant materials. Through this remote period, I have been trying to focus on developing the digital side of my practice (Photogrammetry, 3D modeling, AR, VR, and 3D printing). I’m interested in developing those skills for new strains of the work, and also applying the aesthetics of these spaces to my sculpture and installation work.
You are currently working toward an MFA remotely at the University of California, Santa Barbara. What are you working on right now? Does the program being remote affect your work? How do you overcome it?
It has definitely been a major challenge. I was initially planning to move to Santa Barbara last Fall to begin the program, but we didn’t have access to studios or facilities, so I got stranded in Pittsburgh, and have been in limbo for about six months now. Luckily, I was able to keep my wonderful space at 3577 Studios in Pittsburgh, and I have been transforming a spare room in my childhood home into an installation space. I ripped up the carpet, painted the whole space white, and have made fluorescent orange screens that filter the sunlight into this eerie wildfire glow. I’m slowly trying to develop a new body of work in this space, and thinking through ways to share it through scans, VR, AR, and video. I’m starting to incorporate flowing water into this new work, and there is a very elemental balance emerging between fire and water, between hot and cold, visually and conceptually. It has been disorienting, and reorienting, trying to decide how to share subtle, embodied, experiential work remotely, how material or immaterial my practice should be, and how to gracefully adapt to the conditions. It has been chaotic and frustrating, but hopefully new pathways will be born from it. I am still very much in this limbo, but the situation has really emphasized the balance between the virtual screen-mediated experience and the embodied, spatial, material experience. My work had already been navigating these terrains, but everything has been reinforced and heightened by the circumstances. I am simultaneously delving more into virtual tools and platforms, and feeling a visceral need to unplug and make more tactile work that will be experienced in full in the future. Dwelling with these contradictions.
Are there new ideas or themes you are interested in exploring next?
I’m still building on the foundations of IRIS_SIRI and Utopia or Oblivion, exploring the myriad effects of technological acceleration on the human body, body politic, and social spheres. It has been an endless well, and it actually keeps accelerating, morphing, and expanding exponentially. A new subset is the malleability and fluidity of reality, as we migrate from reality to mixed reality to augmented reality to virtual reality to alternate reality and back again. My practice, and my entire being at this point, is a balance between the virtual and the material. I’m interested in exploring that ebb and flow directly through the work, but also through experimental platforms. Behind the scenes, I am developing new digital skill sets that will hopefully open up entirely new dimensions to my practice, but right now the aesthetics, functions, and sensibilities of virtual space are augmenting my sculptural installation practice. A new sub-subset is an interest in the history of the Internet, its foundations, its architects, how it morphed into our current experience, who maintains control today, and its possible futures. I feel palpably that we are in a moment of chaos, rupture, and immense potential, which is incredibly dangerous, but also full of possibility, and I am hoping we can come out of this period as a better society.
Would you consider collaborating with other artists? If so, what do you look for in artists you collaborate with?
Yes. There was a ton of collaboration in my formative years in the Studio for Interrelated Media, and it was so nourishing, energizing, and expansive. The enduring ethos of the department was “shared experience builds community”, and I’ve always carried that with me. I had a few challenging collaborations early in my career, which were important learning experiences, but they ultimately sent me on a more solo path. I still long for the wild, unpredictable growth of collaboration, so I hope that it will happen again. It really is indescribable magic when everything aligns. Recently, my most fertile collaborations have been with sound artists to create soundscapes for my installations, fabricators to help realize processes outside of my skill set, and photographers and videographers to fully capture the subtleties of the work. With all of them, it starts with a deep appreciation of their work built over a period of time. I trust their visions, skills, and sensibilities, which makes everything a lot more fluid. A huge part of it is funding too, just making sure everyone’s basic needs are met so we can access a highly creative space together.
What is your dream project in a world with unlimited time and budget?
It is such an important question, and one that I have always tried to keep in the back of my mind, but to be completely honest, I’ve also been quite disappointed by the support of the art world. If we are to envision ideal conditions, which I do love to do, I would create a long-term, accumulative, immersive installation space where my life's work could develop and grow. The public would be welcome by appointment, and it would be insulated from the pressures of real estate. I’m thinking of spaces like La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House, a number of Dia sites, and James Turrell’s Roden Crater as model dream spaces. Ideally, this space would exist within a collectively-owned complex where all my favorite people and I could have live-work studios. Also, in this world, we are able to hug our friends and coexist in public space again.
Have you seen or read anything interesting lately that you would like to share?
I really miss experiencing work in person right now, so that has been a huge void in my life. I have only been able to see two shows in person in the last year, and I miss that slow revelatory experience of art. I’m realizing how vital that external stimulus of getting inspired and energized by other people's work is for me. Through this remote period, I have been enjoying the virtual shows at Epoch, the First Look: New Art Online series by New Museum and Rhizome, Carnegie Museum of Art’s Mirror with a Memory podcast hosted by Martine Syms, AQNB’s Artist Statement podcast, and tuning into countless virtual lectures (one of the rare gems to come from this time). It has been challenging to find the time to read what I want within the rigorous structure of school. I am currently in a theory course with Colin Gardner devoted to the philosophy of Michel Serres, and we are reading “The Parasite”, “Genesis”, and “Statues: The Second Book of Foundations”. On my shelf for whenever I get a moment is Ceci Moss’s ‘“Expanded Internet Art: Twenty-First-Century Artistic Practice and the Informational Milieu”, Legacy Russell’s “Glitch Feminism”, and Yasha Levine’s “Surveillance Valley”.
Do you have any bad habits? How do they affect you?
Oof, my bad habits are all amplified right now. I can be unrealistically hard on myself when my work and my life aren’t aligning with my vision, and I can definitely spiral with that if I’m not careful. When things are more balanced, it actually functions as a strength because I have a very high standard and I work very hard to maintain it. It has been a constant struggle to be easy on myself when so many things are completely outside of my control. A big thing has been compartmentalizing what is within and outside my control, and to do the best I can within the circumstances. I typically feel pretty good about maintaining that balance, but this last year has been a real challenge. I hope everyone is doing ok out there, and I hope there is a bright, radiant light at the end of this tunnel.
Is there anything else we should know about you and your work?
Not specifically, I’m as excited to see where this all leads as anyone else. I’m hoping to be out in Southern California soon, so if anyone has any recommendations, please get in touch. I’m looking forward to meeting new people and getting inspired by a new environment. You can follow along at www.kevinclancy.studio, @kevinclancy.studio, and if you are into embryonic studio goo, you can follow @kevinclancy.process