OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Emily Biondo

Touch Me
A collaboration with Bradford Barr
LEDs, custom electronic boards, 2 gloves, plastic sheeting, bamboo

EMILY BIONDO explores "the awkward interstices of language, presence and human relationships." Her interactive installations, which employ light, sound and touch, often require more than one viewer to activate them, while her audio sculptures crocheted from speaker wire allow the viewer to listen in on intimate, private conversations. Emily received her MFA from American University (2011), where she received the Mellon Grant and the Catharina Baart Biddle Art Award. She has exhibited widely in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, including exhibitions at the Arlington Arts Center, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, Blackrock Center for the Arts and The Athenaeum. Most recently, she exhibited in Gawker, a three-person show of interactive media at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland, and Touch Me, a collaborative installation with Bradford Barr at Flashpoint Gallery, which included an artist talk at the Luce Foundation Center in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Emily lives and works in Washington, DC.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your interactive installations and sculptures use sight, sound and touch to explore connection and clashes in human communication. Do taste and smell relate to communication as well? Might these senses ever make it into your work?

Emily Biondo: Taste and smell certainly communicate, but they have more to do with memory than dialogue. When I constructed Proustian Fortunate Moment, I was obsessed with Proust's famous account of eating a madeleine and being immediately transported back to a vivid memory of his childhood. But that piece was more a visualization of his experience than a utilization of its sensory ideas. I'd LOVE to use taste and smell. I have always admired how Ernesto Neto uses fragrances to great effect in creating an experience, but I haven't yet exhausted the other senses in my work. When I do reach that point, however, smell will be the next sense I use.

Proustian Fortunate Moment
Crocheted monofilament, high-intensity lightbulb

OPP: When did you first learn to crochet and what associations did you bring to it?

EB: I associate it with my family, particularly the female members on my maternal side. I also think of the intersection of craft and comfort in the sense of doing something over and over again so familiarly that it is effortless. I learned to crochet from my great-grandmother when I was about nine. My very first crocheted piece was supposed to be a red square, and because of the erratic stitch length, ended up looking like a tiny mutilated bonnet. I learned that you could add to a crocheted piece anywhere and with any stitch, so I'd end up with elaborate free form pieces based upon my own whims. I'd end up with blankets, bikinis, cuffs, hats, etc. all without a pattern because it was easy to guess how a stitch would form a shape and layer stitches to create those forms. Years later in grad school, I'd practice layering by making complex shapes like coral, a wedding dress or a penis. Until my speaker wire pieces, the layering was used in a more utilitarian way than a visual metaphor. It helped sculpt the structure of the work.

Two Young Modern Women on a Car Trip (detail)
Audio sculpture with crocheted speaker wire

OPP: When did you first begin to crochet with speaker wire? What are the practical challenges of this material?

EB: During grad school, I had a dream that I was back in undergrad and panicking at the end of the semester. I needed one more work to complete my portfolio. After much thought, I decided to make a large, crocheted wall hanging out of speaker wire AND a cyclone out of marbles. It was such a vivid dream and I was so confident in my ideas that when I woke up, I immediately got materials to make both pieces. The marble cyclone was a (slightly messy) disaster, but the speaker wire was a raging success.

Speaker wire is a great faux-yarn because plastic is not so different from certain polyester/acrylic blends. I use a wire gauge (thickness) that is similar in weight to a strand of thick yarn and usually crochet with a whole roll of wire at hand. Downsides include the exorbitant cost of my favorite clear-coated copper, the smell, the sometimes waxy coating used to keep the wire from sticking, the heavy weight of some pieces and the logistics of wiring 100-1000 feet of speaker wire to circuits.

Two Middle Aged Sisters with Children
1800 ft of speaker wire, audio
22 x 9 x 9 in

OPP: How does crochet inform the audio components in sculptures like Bridal Shower (2010), Shrouded (Prayer Shawl) (2011) and Two Young Modern Women on a Car Trip (2010)?

EB: So for me, crochet was always an intricately layered web. As I got to college, I realized that my conception of communication had always been a palimpsest of words layered in one's mind. Crochet visually completes this metaphor. It is an actual example of the layering of words and phrases that travel in a circuitous strand to complete a monologue/dialogue, which ultimately completes the artwork.

My original plan was to simply crochet with nontraditional materials. But then I realized how speaker wire relates to text and communication, and I had to add audio into the works. Monologues/dialogues are not only metaphorically formed by the wire but electronically passed through the layered crocheted web.

Prison visitation booth, two telephones, viewing window, stools
6 x 3 x 5 ft

OPP: Painful narratives are shared through interactive installations in What I Never Said (2011), Pick Up the Phone (2011) and Lift the Seat (2011). The video Wind up (2012) also gets at one-sidedness in relationships. For me, these pieces are about how technology sometimes aids and sometimes obstructs communication and connection between human beings. What are your thoughts on technology and communication?

EB: I believe that technology IS communication. Historically, humans have always used innovations to augment communication: horn blasts, carrier pigeons, mail systems, morse code, telephones, etc. These inventions and improvements shaped the way we see, talk to and understand one another. Technology shapes our culture and defines certain generational properties of dialogue (colloquialisms, length/number of pauses, touching/no touching, eye contact, MIScommunication). Those properties have always existed in communication—it just depends on the time period and technologies present to define exactly what they are. Because of this, I find technology and communication inextricably linked and will not produce artwork about communication without using and commenting on technology as well.

Millennial translation of the following text from Russian Poetry:
"Beautiful boy, like a faun here in loneliness roaming, who art thou?
Surely no child of the woods: thine is too prideful a face.
Music that moves in thy gait, the wrought grace of thy sumptuous sandal
Tell thou art son to the gods, or high offspring of kings."

OPP: It's easy to blame new trends in communication technology—for example, texting, twitter and Facebook—for all that's wrong in the world: "kids today!" Your recent installation Headspace (2014) reveals both the disconnect and the continuity between the past and the present. Can you explain the piece to our readers?

EB: Headspace is one of my favorites. Like any creative work, books are a huge indicator of language and communication in any time period and culture. I like the idea that the millennial slang used today would be considered similar to the language used in classic literature at their respective time.

In Headspace, there is a glove attached to a pair of headphones. Each glove contains  an RFID reader and microcontroller used to “read” the book electronically. When participants swipe their hands across the classic literature installed on the wall, the headset reads an audio translation of a highlighted phrase into current 'millennial' language, including electronic slang, pop culture references and common phrases. Juxtaposing the two languages through technology relates even more how innovations can act as a bridge in communication.

I originally created this work for a show at a college campus because I wanted the audience to really understand and appreciate the translated language, particularly how it compares to works of literature that they probably are or have studied in school.

Millennial translation of the following text from English Literature
"Ion. I thank you for your greetings—shout no more,
But in deep silence raise your hearts to heaven,
That it may strengthen one so young and frail
As I am for the business of this hour.—
Must I sit here?"

OPP: How did they college students respond? What about professors?

EB: The students loved it, and I loved watching them. They'd timidly try on the equipment, look around shyly, then swipe the first book. The look of surprise, dawning comprehension, laughter, then eager anticipation for the next all in a period of 30 seconds was a common and fantastic thing to witness. I liked seeing them finish the installation then grab one of their friends and make them experience it while they watched their expression. There's always a personal and a voyeuristic aspect to my work that I highly appreciate as artist and viewer.

As for the professors, they thought it was clever, but didn't really enjoy it as much as the students. I make works first for the experience, then for the analysis, so I assumed (rightly) that the students would glean the most from it.

To view more of Emily's work, please visit emilybiondo.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago. Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, is on view at Design Cloud in Chicago from July 25 - October, 24, 2014. Beginning on November 7, 2014, Stacia will improvise When Things Fall Apart, an ongoing, collage installation in the Lillstreet Annex Gallery. Closing reception guests will be invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall on December 5, 2014.