Alumnae Spotlight: Heidi NeilsonMarch 14, 2017
After poking through WSW’s archives to read alumna Heidi Neilson‘s artists’ books, it was a bit jarring to find a photograph of a satellite dish on her website’s home page. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been a shock—Heidi’s second WSW-published book, Orbital Debris Simulator, walks readers through layers of atmospheric litter using space-themed toys and 3-D glasses. Space and satellite dishes seem a few steps removed from one another, and only comprise a fraction of the subjects Heidi addresses through her work.
Heidi first arrived at WSW for a Fellowship (now our Studio Workspace Residency) before returning to print the Atlas of Punctuation, where she condensed 14 literary classics’ punctuation onto 14 pages. Next came Orbital Debris Simulator, then the collaborative book Uniform Paper with our Studio Manager Chris Petrone, which is currently on view in The Center for Book Arts in the exhibition Pulp as Portal. Now that a few years have passed, we’re touching base, reminiscing, and chatting about the weather.
Book arts, DIY satellites, radio transmissions—your practice seems to live at the intersection of electronics, science fiction, and fine art. Tell us how you choose your materials.
I’ve been drawn to media which are relatively low-cost and fairly accessible. I like too that these media forms are not strictly “art” media—that they become artistic media in how they are used, and in that sense anything can be an art medium, which I like the idea of a lot.
You editioned two artists’ books, Atlas of Punctuation and Orbital Debris Simulator, at the Workshop and you’re a four-time alumna. What brought us to your attention and do you have any fond studio memories?
I was drawn to apply to WSW by really wanting some focused time on printmaking, and have returned to WSW because it has always been a great experience. Some of my favorite studio memories are when WSW people upped my game—suggesting, encouraging, and supporting me to do things that were new territory for me. When I complained that the price of cover paper was really high (for editioning Atlas of Punctuation), Tana said something like: “well why don’t you just make the paper? Let’s see, that’s around 100 sheets—hmm that should take under a week” and so we made it. Another time, I sandblasted the title for the edition of Orbital Debris Simulator on the aluminum covers, also a process I had never tried.
Details from the Atlas of Punctuation
Right before Atlas of Punctuation, you made another book, Typography of the Period: A Brief Introduction, and type has continued to appear in your art. How does typography fit with your interests in mapping, broadcasting, and outer space?
Atlas of Punctuation for me is about punctuation indicating a kind of skeletal structure of language on a page which strangely (to me) somehow still has the voice of the language adhered to it. By ‘voice’ I mean the voice of the book—the tone the book takes in your head when you read to yourself. I guess I like operating in the zone of abstract indications of things not exactly there but present—my work in radio transmissions fits this, as do the way maps are both fixed and unfixed indications of place. And yes addressing outer space too—we can’t see outer space in most cases but have to visualize by indication or inference.
Your projects seem to address the cosmic and spatial relationships experienced by three groups. In some works, such as Orbital Debris Simulator, the singular reader finds their place among an atmosphere of space debris. Then there are your maps and guides, like Manhattanhenge, which mainly examines populations within NYC. Finally, you imagine hypothetical colonies on Mars. Why do you choose to represent and reorient across such a broad spectrum of conditions?
I’m interested in how a sense of place or our sense of land/landscape shifts with more awareness of the space above ground level—when weather becomes planet-wide, when commercial air travel can move us unbelievably fast, when we are constantly connected to satellites in space. Subtly our sense of the land we operate in becomes different.
I’m interested in how we visualize this—or not exactly visualize it but conceive of it or understand it—how we understand and relate to a landscape that we can’t see or interpret in the same way we might with landscapes we can “see” more traditionally such as landscape paintings, where there is a thing you can point to and someone else can say “oh yes I see that right there, nice.” So I guess the groups you identify here—individuals, populations, societies—are different angles on ways to address this idea, like different ‘zoom’ levels.
In-process shots of the Orbital Debris Simulator
SP Weather Station is a project centering around a real weather station which collects weather data. For six years we invited an artist (or group) each month to create a report based on the data collected by the station. We also hosted a guest lecture series and created other research and instrument projects. The project intersects a number of interest areas, for example: artists using data, citizen science and independent data collection crowd-sourcing, subjective versus objective experience, weather as cultural phenomena, weather as a metaphor, and how weather relates to climate. The 72 weather reports created over 6 years had an extremely wide interpretation of what weather reporting is and what it can be.
Can you explain “weather as cultural phenomena” a little more?
By ‘weather as cultural phenomena’—kind of hard to put a finger on, but I was referring to, for example: how weather is a common experience and so it is a go-to topic for people to talk about; how weather influences daily decisions by individuals, down to what they wear; and how weather elements—sunshine, clouds, rain, storms—become representative of inner lives or moods, and create emotional atmosphere in the arts.
Spread from the book Orbital Debris Simulator
So Heidi, what’s next?
I’ve been working on research and projects using radio and transmissions as a means of, as individuals, detecting and using the hardware infrastructure in space. I’ve been operating in the place in the Venn diagram where ham radio intersects book arts.
Lastly, we like to ask our alumnae: do you have any advice for emerging women artists?
At the risk of sounding like a self-help book, I’d say: Don’t worry about art-world trends or definitions on what kind of an artist you are, or whether you are pursuing a ‘serious’ topic. Try doing the thing you’ve always wanted to try. If you’re doing something you find interesting and motivating, it is likely other people will find it interesting too.
Heidi Neilson is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City and was recently invited as juror for WSW’s Artist’s Book Residency Grant. She holds a BA in Biology from Reed College and her MFA in Painting from the Pratt Institute.