Karen Weiner, gallery owner and curator of The Reading Room, recently interviewed artist, Allyson Packer, about her exhibition, Sounding, which opened in the Hawn Gallery and the Hamon Arts Library on February 7. Prior to the SMU campus closing in March 2020, Weiner walked through the exhibition installed on all four floors of the Library. To get a broader experience of the exhibition, readers may now watch a video walkthrough of Sounding hosted by Glasstire on its splendid Five-minute Tours series of Texas exhibitions.
1) How is this project different from previous work or is it?
This show feels significant in that it operates in a way that is similar to some of my previous work, but it also takes some departures. This space challenged me to expand the mode I’ve been working in for the past few years and find some new strategies.
I’ve been working in this format, with maps and text that direct a viewer to move around a site, for the past four or five years. The goal with these pieces has always been the same: to choreograph a set of experiences that reveal some sort of latent idea embedded in the space. These ideas are typically abstract, like infinity in the case of this show, but they are made tangible through the physical and perceptual engagement the work requires. My partner recently told me that the work “reasserts the viewer as the protagonist” in their own narrative, which I really like. I think he meant that the work makes the viewer aware of their body and what’s happening in their environment, and how they’re participating in it. I’ve noticed that when a viewer is really engaged with the work, they enter this mode of hyper-awareness where they’re noticing all the subtle details of everything around them, whether it’s part of the work or not. It’s really gratifying.
Because the work is so engaged with perception and subtle experience, it’s tough, and also really important, to find the perfect tone with the text—I’m essentially trying to direct someone to look at something just the right way. If they do, a whole new world opens up and if they don’t it just feels confusing. That’s never something I want my viewers to feel.
All of these things have been more or less true of all the installations I’ve done over the past few years, including Sounding. When I first started making this kind of work, I had to rely a lot on my intuition because I’d found this form that people really responded to, but I didn’t really know how it worked yet. When I was making the early installations, I would spend a lot of time writing and trying things out until I found something that felt like it resonated. I would basically build the whole show this way without really knowing where I was leading the viewer until I was near the end of the process. The past couple of shows have been different though. I can get a sense of a space much more quickly and know what I want to pull out of it. Especially with Sounding, I knew almost right away the kind of understanding of the space I wanted someone to walk away with, and where in the space I wanted to direct the viewer’s attention in order to achieve this. I developed and refined these ideas over the time I worked at Hamon, of course, but knowing this so quickly allowed me try new and additional things.
Working with light and text have been standard in my practice for a long time, but incorporating imagery (the JMW Turner books, the videos, and the scanned images printed on vinyl) is new for me. These were some of the later pieces that I produced and came after I had finished all the text and had a solid idea of what the show was about. I realized that even though I like my work to be subtle, I needed the installation to differentiate itself from its surroundings a little more or else it was going to get swallowed up by the library. There’s already so much text in the space, that I had to come to terms with the fact that I needed to expand my approach. Incorporating images, some of them large-scale, gave it the kind of presence it needed.
I was very careful about where these images appeared in the building. I’m always trying to get the viewer to notice how they’re interfacing with the language and rhythm of a space, and I’ve become very comfortable with using text to do this. It allows you to direct the viewer’s attention so precisely. In this show, I had to find a way to get the imagery to speak to what the viewer’s body is doing. I ended up using a lot of installation strategies that engage with the scale and movement of a body in the building: placing the vinyl at the end of long corridor-like areas so that you can feel yourself falling into an infinite space, or increasing the scale of the slow-motion fountain video so that you’re enveloped in that sense of looping time. It’s scary to do something new when you have a method that already works, but I think it’s really important to have these experiences that demand something different from you.
2) You refer to your practice as “precarious” (as defined by Anna Dezeuze) which seems especially pertinent at the moment. This denotes the possibility of failure. Have any of your projects failed or taken a turn that you didn’t expect?
Pretty much all of them in one way or another! Whenever I begin an installation in a space, I have a plan, but a lot of the work is invariably generated by spending time on-site and noticing phenomena that I could never have planned for. I’ve also learned that in almost every show, there’s something that viewers focus their attention on that was unintended on my part. It’s not always bad though, it’s just more information about what people pay attention to, which can be useful. When you make work that asks for such a high level of focus, you can’t expect that focus to stay completely trained on what you want all of the time. In this show, the way we angled the projector in the Hawn gallery created this totally unexpected reaction with the mirrored vinyl text, where this watery reflection appeared on the wall. I was so stressed getting everything done before the opening, that I barely noticed it, but it ended up being this thing that everyone commented on. It was great, and I think I’ll use it in my work again.
In terms of precarity, Dezeuze tells us that precarious artwork runs the risk of “sometimes disappearing completely into the very fabric of the viewer’s everyday.” Much of my work could be described this way. I really like pushing and pulling on that fabric, making something feel significant for a moment and then letting it collapse back into the everyday. The danger implied here is that something doesn’t get pulled out enough, or collapses too quickly, but sometimes I think that’s ok. Precarious work is anti-spectacular and always vulnerable in some way to the people who encounter it. One of its major vulnerabilities is to being ignored. The idea that the number of people who notice the work equates with its success is actually really tied up with spectacle, I think, so I like to push back on that. When I’m making an installation I usually try to have a combination of pieces that are more accessible to the viewer and a few things that only a couple of people will pick up on. I try to be intentional about what kind of audience each piece needs, and I like the idea of different pieces for people who are engaged in different ways. It creates an interesting rhythm within the installation.
3) Tell us about the title Sounding.
Because of the way I work, I often have to come up with a title for a show before I really know what the work’s going to be. That was what happened with this show, but I had a strong sense of the direction I wanted to take things, so it worked out. From the very beginning I had this image of blue-black water in my head, like looking into a very deep lake. I knew that I wanted the title to reference depth in some way, and after a frantic research process I arrived at Sounding. Sounding is the act of determining the depth of a body of water. Typically, you’d use sonar to do this, but it can also refer to more manual processes, like tying an anchor to a rope and measuring how much rope it takes for the anchor to hit bottom. I think it parallels how the show is trying to create a connection to the immense depths of the library.
Etymologically, sounding is related to a sound as in a body of water, but not a sound as in an audible vibration. I love that bit of confusion. I think it makes you pay closer attention. I get excited about any sort of title that does something unexpected with language—palindromes, misspellings, homonyms, double-valences, slang, truncations… It gives the show a kind of voice without totally explaining the work to you. I always find myself drawn to one-word titles. They’re really elegant if you can find the right word.
Researching the word sounding also unexpectedly taught me a little bit about my own work. Sounding falls under the larger category of “remote sensing,” which is basically any method of gathering information about something without physically making contact with it. It occurred to me that this is a way of explaining something that I often do in my work, which is to give viewers a way to experience something that usually seems too large, too distant, or too abstract to perceive. It’s been really helpful to have this language as a way to further articulate my work and to further connect this show to the broader themes in my practice.
4) Water is a recurring element in several of your projects. Is this related to environmental concerns or geography or other issues for you?
I keep coming back to water, as well as breath/air and light, because they’re some of the primary materials through which a body relates to its surroundings. We constantly experience them in small, direct, physical ways, like washing our hands, taking a breath, feeling the sun on our skin. But they can also provide a link to something really massive, like an ocean, a jet stream, the distance between the earth and the sun. (Many of these things fall under what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects.” It’s not a term I use much, but it may be applicable here). I do this thing a lot in my work, where I’ll ask a viewer to consider something very small, and then very large, or something very near, and then very far. It’s a way of having people become aware of their location through their proximity to these things. Water, breath/air, and light are very convenient materials in this way. They’re easily broken down into small parts, which can then be understood as part of something much larger. In Sounding, you see this happening in several places, including the fountains and the blinking lights, where these familiar objects become an entryway to the infinite.
I think a lot about how these materials are always with us as part of our bodies and part of any environment we’re in. I’m really enamored with making work that only uses what the viewer has when they enter a space: the basic conditions of that space and whatever the viewer’s presence brings to it. Water, breath/air, and light are always available in a space and can be used in all kinds of ways without having to introduce any other objects—like how can you get someone to consider a dripping faucet or the condensation of their own breath on a window, and then realize this room they previously thought was empty is actually full of water vapor? When this works well, it creates a real physical presence that people can sense. It’s like making a sculpture out of nothing. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of thinking this way in the past and still helps me form some of the foundational pieces in my more recent installations. Before I’m ready to introduce any objects to the space, I’m always trying to make work with what’s already there.
I often wish that these materials didn’t feel so poetic. While water certainly has a metaphorical function in Sounding, I’m actually typically more interested in encouraging viewers to think about them in a literal sense. Like, observing how the angle of light coming through a window tells us about the way architecture mediates our relationship to the sun is so much more interesting to me than reading the light as a metaphor for knowledge or something. But I suppose any sort of omnipresent material carries a whole human history’s worth of baggage with it, so I’m making my peace.
5) The waterlogged books were especially evocative for me, as objects with no legible content aside from the abstract water stains. How did this come about?
That’s so great to hear—a couple of people have told me that they really responded to those, which is interesting because I had felt unsure of them before the show went up.
They’re an extension of the repeating Turner books that you see on the lower floors, but they also came out of thinking about how I wanted to deal with the top floor of the building. I wanted the pieces there to push into the further reaches of some of the ideas present in the rest of the show. If the lower floors ask the viewer to look into the infinite depths of the library, the top floor asks them to lift their heads and look out onto an infinite horizon. To me, looking at all of those empty pages feels vast. It’s a reminder that emptiness is still a space we have to contend with after it all.
This part of the installation allowed me to incorporate the books while taking a break from text and imagery. They’re objects, but not fetishized in the way that the book-as-object usually is. They become a sort of field or a texture that creates a continuity among that mismatched set of display tables. The decision to use water-damaged books was intuitive. It may have to do with the transition I was speaking about before that I wanted to create on the top floor—pulling away from the deep water.
6) It was encouraging to see younger people exploring the Hamon library during your opening. How has the library and the way it is used been reframed by digital culture?
Yes, it was! Shows at institutions can be really great in that way. The reach seems to be a bit wider.
As any librarian will tell you, the collection of physical items is only part of what they manage and provide. This was on my mind as I was considering the library’s depth, although it didn’t make it into the show so much. The repetition of imagery in digital culture is very interesting to me. It’s like a hyper-version of the repeating images of Turner paintings that I collected. The internet is a great place to go looking for the sublime.
The piece I made for the computer desktops starts to touch on this a little bit. That piece first came about because every time I would go to spend time at Hamon, I would find myself looking at that image of the cave that’s on the desktop screens. It draws you in. The way the cave frames the landscape makes it feel like you’re really looking out a window. At first, though, I didn’t think I was going to use it for anything, because it felt too obvious. In the midst of putting this show together, however, I took a trip back east. I was in a hotel in Washington DC and I peeked behind the front desk as I was walking to my room, and I saw that all their computers had that same image on them. I was so shocked for a moment. But then it dawned on me that of course they have that same image on them. It’s the standard lock screen image for every computer with Microsoft 10. Millions and millions of computers. And that’s when I realized what was important about it: not that the ocean horizon suggests infinity, but that so many millions of people are having the same experience of looking out this “window” every day.
That experience led to the text and image piece I made that’s on the Hamon computers now, but it also highlights something that is very compelling to me about the internet, or maybe just technology in general: that it progresses towards more and more individualized user experience, but also creates these synchronous experiences that I find transporting. Libraries are transporting too, but for the opposite reasons. The objects in a library feel singular and you can go deep inside yourself. I hope this piece holds these experiences, and the fact that you can access them in the library, up next to each other.
In the process of making this piece, I also found the actual location for the photo that’s used on the lock screen. It’s at Wharariki Beach in New Zealand. I searched that location on Flickr and Instagram and found hundreds of people’s vacation photos of the same view, basically approximating the Windows 10 image. A couple of them had even taken a screenshot on their own computer and then set it next to their vacation photo for comparison, like Here I am, finally outside the window I look out every day! I think I would find that experience quite exhilarating, actually… These photos didn’t make it into the show, even though I really like them. I’m finishing up a PDF right now, however, that I’m calling “study notes” (basically a supplementary text for the show that has some writing and imagery from my research), and they make an appearance there. Although it’s not digital, I ended up creating what I think of as an analog version of this same idea with the repeating images from the Turner books.
7) The infinitude suggested by Jorge Luis Borges in his short story, “The Library of Babel,” is serious but also absurd. Comment?
The infinite is terrifying. And absurdity and terror actually feel quite close together to me—they’re both produced through the defiance of a logical progression of events.
8) The inability to encompass all that a library offers is also true of internet content. Do you think of the two as compatible systems or antagonistic?
I’m optimistic that they can be compatible, probably because of their differences. They certainly seem to be in my own research practice. I was just watching Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s short film Flânerie 2.0, which talks about being a flâneur on the internet, and that resonates with me. It’s not how I feel when I’m in a library, though. The internet often leads me to the library, but rarely vice-versa.
I sometimes think about the way in which we conceive of digital spaces, and how they often bear the trace of particular physical spaces. Like the way our computers have desktops, files, and folders, or the way that the layers in a photoshop document are based on the layers of acetate that graphic designers used to use. There are lots of examples and I love finding them. I wonder what traces of the library the internet might bear. I do believe their structures are fundamentally different, but I suppose I could conceive of them as parallel, or maybe layers of each other. If the library is infinitely deep, is the internet infinitely vast? I tend to think of a library’s structure as being more linear, while the internet is a web, but then again, Borges’ library is honeycombed. I may be digging myself into a hole trying to turn this into a spatial relationship….
This also begs the question, at least for me, what is the shape of a library’s digital presence? I wonder what it would be like to intervene in that space and how I might apply some of the same strategies that I used in Sounding to examine it.
9) There is a photograph on your website that features a note saying “Stay Alive”. Perhaps we should end by hearing a bit about that.
So here’s the story with that text. It’s taken on a bit of a life of its own.
I relocated to Texas last summer to teach at UNT. Things were really crazy when I first started and I felt like my brain just didn’t have the bandwidth to do the same kind of writing I normally do as part of my practice, so I started looking around for found text I could use in my work. When I was walking the dog early one morning, I noticed some graffiti written on the wall outside a middle school near our house. It said “STAY ALIVE.” It was scrawled in pencil with these skinny letters that were maybe 5 inches high. It would be pretty easy to miss—a precarious artwork.
I could just imagine some kid taking a pencil from the bottom of their backpack and writing it one day after school. It resonated with me so much. Those words seemed to perfectly impart that sense of dismay at being 13, at your peers, and at authority, but also the drive to carry on through all of that and maintain solidarity with yourself. I remember that feeling well and I can still tap into it sometimes. The words “STAY ALIVE” felt very personal in that way and walking by them became this affirmative act for me.
I eventually incorporated them into a sculpture that’s been shown a few times: a pair of Converse sneakers with “STAY ALIVE” written on their soles in the same handwriting from the wall. When they’re shown, they have their laces tied together and are hung suspended above the viewer’s head, so as to emulate shoes hanging on a telephone wire. The words also found their way into a performance I did this winter at my gallery, and I think they’ve held meaning for a lot of people beyond myself. They’re hopeful. I wish I could thank the person who wrote them.
Thank you to Allyson Packer and Karen Weiner for this interview, and to Allison Klion, Hawn Gallery Project Manager, for her assistance.
Featured image credit: Ciara Elle Bryant