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November 29, 2017 7 min read
Kat is an artist and professor living in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Her work takes many forms, including neon light sculptures, large-scale graphite drawings, and experimental film. Most recently she created reflective patterns printed onto leather as the first artist featured in Minor History’s new artist collaboration series.
In her own words:
“I have a complicated life story. My parents are American but decided to leave the US in the late seventies. I was born in Amsterdam, and we moved to Ankara, Turkey when I was seven years old. I had already been learning Turkish through neighbors and friends in Amsterdam, so it took me a record 3 months to start speaking Turkish.
‘I have warm memories of my childhood in Turkey, I spent a lot of time playing in the streets, climbing over barbed wire fences, and staying up super late with the neighborhood kids. Our parents would sit out on the balconies and keep an eye on us. People were generally just relaxed with our freedom.’
I lived in Turkey until I was 19, so Turkey is a huge part of my identity. It was good to go home this past summer and see family, but the country has changed a lot. There is an eerie silence that has settled across the cities ever since the failed coup in 2016.
As the daughter of an Armenian in Turkey, we rarely spoke of our ethnic identities in public. We created code words to communicate amongst ourselves as coping mechanisms. I'm interested in what happens when a story can't be told – either due to censorship, oppression or trauma.
I’m drawn to forms and objects that feel unfinished. It reminds me of my childhood in central Turkey where the economy was constantly depressed, inflation high, and investments easily tanked halfway through construction. Rows and rows of towers left incomplete on edges of the city.
‘My current art series began with the most minimal of mediums - graphite on paper - erasing from the page in order to create an intuitive iconography of symbols and glyphs, language creation. Geometric forms protrude from a landscape by means of erasure.’
‘I create messages broadcast in an emptiness, like a light flashing morse in the night, or a sign propped up on an abandoned highway asking for help.’
The method of removal by erasure speaks to an existing absence and a survivalist need to articulate from a flat graphite void.
Although graphite on paper is my source medium, my work also exists as three dimensional forms: using neon, I assemble signs propped up on empty planes. There is no translation or written explanation for these signs, they merely exist in response to the space and conditions that already exist.
‘I started exploring three dimensional forms in my art after my drawings. I wanted to realize my drawings in real life. I kept asking myself what size the objects would be. They could have been miniature, or the size of a city block - it just depended on my own imagination.’
I wanted to work with light and lines, as abstract forms that could define the depth and expanse of a space. The choice to work in neon was influenced by an interest in lights and code for my show ‘Night Speech’. The exhibition involved an installation on the College of Staten Island campus of a lamp post that blinks morse messages sent at night by the public, alongside a video I made several years ago broadcasting my mother’s eulogy in morse over the Aegean.
Right now my work is evolving into steel structures. Influenced by my film project about cheerleaders, called Happy Island, I’m making drawings and objects that might look like unusable gym equipment, diagrams for pyramid stunts and ritual architecture.
‘Happy Island, is an experimental film exploring women’s physical and psychological representations through a collegiate cheerleading team on Staten Island. The film transitions from documentary interviews to a strange fiction; up-close conversations blend into footage of cheer routines at night, or ‘séances’ held in the classrooms and dark forests to conjure the spirit of a matriarch.’
The film isn’t nearly done. It’s a very different process than my past video art as I’m working with a full crew and equipment. Right now I'm in the process of raising funds, but I’m learning how to build a team of qualified people to help make this happen.
I like that there is a lot of potential for camp with cheerleaders, and I’m curious how our views of women in cheer teams actually compounds the injuries for people who are essentially athletes. I’m interested in lore and legends, and as we gathered documentary footage we realized that we were essentially creating a portrait of a campus that also has a sordid history.
I am simply unable to be a one trick pony; it doesn’t reflect my life. it’s not in my DNA. I have an affinity for artists that catalogue materials in a way that feels anthropological. When I saw Rosemarie Trockel’s retrospective at the New Museum, I was blown away by her generosity toward the audience. She’s not shy with mediums. I’m an artist that works in drawing, neon, steel and video; my materials continually change and evolve. I’ve often felt self-conscious about my jack-rabbit behavior, and it was like she gave me permission to do what I wanted to do.
‘As women, we are playing so many roles in our public and private lives. I’m a mother by night, and an artist by day. I can be a conversationalist in public but a quiet skeptic in private. I struggle with the many faces of depression, and keeping it under wraps at my job, aka the art world - or perhaps a better term to describe this is the art market.
As an artist I try to find people who have experience working with artists. It allows for more flexibility, or at least they can tell me if they can do something or not. David Ablon and Precision Neon have been fantastic people to work with.
‘I live in Gowanus with my husband and our daughter. My husband and I moved here in 2010 after I was invited for my first solo exhibition in Chelsea. We moved without jobs, and we first lived in what we called The Shoebox. I could reach my arms out on either side and touch both walls at the same time.’
NYC was a dream city. It was impulsive, but we survived. It’s been 7 years now, and our street in Gowanus is very friendly. We have block parties twice a year that really bring out the older generations from the neighborhood.
‘I’m not sure it ever feels like I leave the studio - I don’t have to be physically in a traditional studio to be making art. I think about art all day long.’
I see art in how my daughter stacks her wood blocks, or on our way to school walking by set design shops with the remains of theater furniture cut from MDF stacked on the sidewalk, or the construction sites and bare bones of buildings rising up across our neighborhood.
‘There are a couple of galleries I’ve particularly enjoyed recently. Miller Contemporary is run by fantastic artists and has had a pretty successful run of top notch art. Also Genesis Ballenger’s show at Mrs. Gallery is killer. Just really beautifully made weird objects and shapes.’
Nicholas Cueva is a roaming curator and an incredible painter who has shown my work. He has an irreverent approach to curation and the art world machine. We need more people like him! And then there are the extremely talented and creative friends that came out of the fine art world and are now infusing beauty in other ways. AlexAllen are fantastic architects and lighting designers based in Gowanus. Heartell Press is no longer a Brooklyn resident, but her cards for difficult times have been helpful over the years. And James Kubie– perhaps one of my favorite artists – makes incredible sculptural desserts at Coquette in New Orleans.
‘In the studio, I don’t have too many rituals other than lining up my list of podcasts.’
I listen to mostly political podcasts: it provides a little perspective on the current daily political roller coaster we find ourselves in. My favorite podcasts include Pod Save America, Lovett or Leave it from Crooked Media, and Code Switch. I’m a huge fan of More Perfect which is an offshoot of Radiolab and concentrates on how the Supreme Court has influenced American life.
“I’m drawn to stories that aren’t so cut and dry. The complexity of law and ethics.”
One of my all time favorite podcast episodes is from Radiolab - called ‘Yellow Rain’. It’s a story about Laos in 1975, and the alleged use of chemical weapons dubbed ‘Yellow Rain’ by Russian bombers. The story takes a difficult turn, when victims of this yellow rain are challenged with new scientific evidence that prove the yellow rain was merely bee droppings. The truth however, does not set the victim free, but rather unapologetically steals the only proof of the victim’s own experience. I always think about this episode and the value of the stories that people tell themselves to survive. Scientific proof is critical, but there are instances where science does not have the answer to emotional pain, and those stories become unequivocally important.
English, Turkish, French. Dutch and Japanese are conversational.
It’s been a year of political chaos to say the least. But even though it might feel a little hopeless at the moment there is so much we can do in response to the political situation we find ourselves in. It’s still possible to actually knock on doors or make phone calls from your home.
‘We need to find ways to not dehumanize the other side, and to fight polarization. We should each keep trying to find love and empathy for those who we disagree with so strongly.’
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