Patricia Miranda + Christopher Kaczmarek: Entering a Material Discourse

In Conversation

PM working on Kaczmarek’s Labyrinth project

Patricia Miranda and Christopher Kaczmarek are artists and partners living and working in Washington Heights, New York City. Art Spiel prompts served as a catalyst for a dynamic conversation between them which they recorded as a free-flowing dialogue. Here is a short excerpt of what became a much longer free-ranging conversation about art, education, and life as an artist couple.

AS: Let’s start with introducing each of you. Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to art.

PM: We are both interdisciplinary artists as well as educators. I am also a curator, and Chris has done a little curation. I think I can speak for us both in that we don’t consider these roles as separate from our art practice.

CK: Yes, that’s true, they are all an aspect. My interest in art goes back to grade school. I had an amazing art teacher in grade school, Mrs Flaherty, one of those captivating teachers. Creativity was full of possibility, it wasn’t —fill in the blank, multiple choice, one plus one equals two, learn your ABCs—Ms. Flaherty made art a space where you had open options and I was drawn to that.

When we moved to North Carolina I went to a magnet school that had two art teachers. One was teaching the “talented” students; you had to take a drawing test to take her class. Luckily I failed the test and I ended up with Miss Tilly, an inspiring teacher who wasn’t focused on art as a rigid discipline but as a place of exploration. We worked with a lot of different media. How I ended up in the arts has a lot to do with teachers I had when I was young, a true story of how a good or bad teacher can have a massive impact on your life.

PM: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an artist. My earliest conscious awareness of my place in the world was as an artist. I think for me it is that I am the middle of seven children in a big rambling, chaotic Italian-American/Irish family. I would escape into my imagination, the only place that belonged solely to me, because we didn’t really have any private space growing up. My father was also a musician and all-round artist, so there was lots of music and art in the house.

CK: So you tried to have a space where you could create your own world and inhabit it. Were you working with any other media other than visual arts, were you working with writing, or performance or anything?

Christopher Kaczmarek, Avery Point Labyrinth, 2020. Created for the exhibition Open Air, at the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery at UConn Avery Point, Groton CT

Patricia Miranda, Lamentation to a Reasoned History, 2020-21. cochineal insect-dyed donated lace, thread, paper clay, cast plaster. dimensions variable. Main WINDOW DUMBO

PM: As a child, no, I was too shy for performance! I was an obsessive reader. I would disappear into books. We could bring books home from school for summer; I would carry as many as my small body could bear. When I finished them I would read them all again. I don’t remember art teachers who made a truly lasting impression. I always loved and took art classes, and liked my teachers, but there wasn’t so much individual attention, you were left to your own devices. For me that wasn’t ideal for forming an attachment to a teacher.

I would escape into these worlds. In the house we lived in until I was nine, I had an imaginary space between the walls. I would spray the wall with a special spray, a door would appear, and I would crawl into the space. There was a light, I would stay there quietly and read. I would spray the door again when I left so it would disappear and nobody would find it. That was just in my mind of course, I didn’t literally go into the wall!

CK: How do you know it’s not your adult mind rejecting that magic? It may have been true when you were a kid, you were literally between the walls, and now your adult mind has closed off that space.

PM: It was certainly true in my mind -the inside of my brain is a very real place.

AS: Tell me about a typical day in your studio life.

Patricia Miranda’s studio. Dyeing with cochineal

PM: We’re similar in that neither of us has a typical day in the studio. We are both researchers at heart. Even though I am an object-maker and work with tactile visceral materials, and the work has a felt aspect that grows organically, I’m not an intuitive maker at the start.

My work originates in a passion for material culture – characteristics, trade, use, and aesthetic, environmental, scientific narratives. The research is not random, it is rooted in ideas that fascinate me- rituals of grief and mourning, the violence of environmental and gendered commodification, histories of women’s labor. I gather information around me in the studio, and materials reveal how they might formulate into objects. At that point the process becomes intuitive.

One day I might be doing deep research of manuscripts in libraries in Europe, or lace patterns, or the history of particular minerals or dyes. Another day I’m dyeing lace or books, foraging for materials, sewing, or making ex-votos from plaster and paper.

The studio is a place of the mind, that manifests through a material language. It’s a thinking space, and that thinking encompasses many kinds of activities, from reading to making.

CK: Yeah, I would echo that the typical day in the studio is not necessarily occupying a certain architectural space or action. We both geek out in research as an integral part of studio practice.

Some typical studio materials for Patricia Miranda

AS: Your media and approach seem to be quite different and even at opposites sometimes, yet I can see some underlying shared explorations. I am curious to know how you perceive the differences and similarities in your processes and in what ways do they intersect / complement each other? Can each of you reflect on an individual project in that context?

CK: We work in different arenas of interdisciplinarity; Patricia works with materials with a built-in deep history, and I work with some materials that have only been invented in the last century, or even the last year, such as programming technologies, video, sound, solar power. We’re both interested in how materials are not isolated and autonomous, not outside of time. Materials can be physical, or ideas, revealed through study of their intertextuality. Materials are never a blank page, each is part of a larger interconnected world, where everything that has been produced/considered beforehand, and is being produced/considered now, are in conversation with each other. Uncovering these connections inspires complex and interesting objects and experiences into being.

Christopher Kaczmarek, Untitled (Solar Eggs), solar powered sound machine

PM: We each choose a material because of its entire context, aesthetic, as well as how it’s situated in a social setting, in a history.

I work with materials with a long cultural artistic history. The stories are crucial; for example, red clay is found all over the world, nearly every cultural narrative says that humans came from the clay. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is embedded in the language itself; in Hebrew the root word Adam has three meanings – man, red, and clay. This is not the primary content of the work, and may not even be explicitly visible, but is a subtext to ideas about the body and nature in human culture. This is an example of how a research-based idea becomes deeply visceral.

The choice is content-based, like entering a room where an ongoing thousand year conversation has been happening, and asking -can I join this conversation? It’s not about replicating a historical methodology or ideology or even aesthetic, it’s about entering a material conversation in real time.

Patricia Miranda, Lace Archive- ongoing documentation of donated lace

CK: We share that idea- that materials are embedded in a long standing cultural conversation and that the work has a stake in that dialogue. In the case of new media, such as digital technologies, the lineages also go way back. The technology doesn’t miraculously appear; it has a continuity with all the technologies of human communication, and how new technologies dramatically alter the trajectory of those conversations. How the invention of the printing press as a transformational technology prefigures the internet, or the introduction of cochineal to Europe transforms the world of dyes and color. The social and political realities tied to those transformative moments are subtexts in the work.

Christopher Kaczmarek, All Our Paths Lead to Here (Greece), 2019. Collaborative walking project and generative video, video still and installation photo

PM: Your recent material of walking is, in some ways, closer to mine. Different in that it is dematerialized; you’re creating experiences not physical objects. Similar in that those experiences have a long lineage in the history of pilgrimage, going back thousands of years.

CK: Historical pilgrimages were primarily religious in character. Wherever they took place; the walk was more than a mere mode of transportation. Ancient walking pilgrimages persisting in a contemporary landscape interests me, especially as increasingly larger populations participate today. A majority doing pilgrimage now are not doing it for historically religious reasons. People may feel pilgrimage will have devotional or healing results, or want to slow down, to pay attention. They want to walk a path that people have walked thousands of times over a millennia, or engage with people from around the world in a common non-competitive pursuit. Why we still walk is a big question, and that’s the artistic space that I’m investigating. Making a walk as an artwork references these ideas in both global and deeply local ways, from the notion of transformational journey, to the simple act of slowing down and paying attention to the place you inhabit.

The art of the walking practice is participation through action. The artwork happens inside the participants’ bodies; literally making the work as you walk. While it can be awkward and unexpected initially, if one is able to physically walk (and accessibility does come into play here, with varying solutions), the low pressure of participation allows for an openness not always found in formal art settings.

Christopher Kaczmarek, Line as Labyrinth, Walking the Urban Path of Desire, 2020

Kaczmarek’s Labyrinth Project, Watson Symington Preserve, New Canaan Land Trust Sculpture Trail, New Canaan CT, a 60 foot diameter labyrinth made from rocks gathered in the preserve.

PM: How would you distinguish between people taking a walk in the woods, with walking as an artistic object?

CK: When proposed as an artwork, it activates different potential thinking processes and engagements with the world. The action is contextualized for those who participate and those who view it. Ernesto Pujol has said that what distinguishes an action as artwork is that it’s given an aesthetic framework. The labeling of something can give it that framework.

PM: Yes, I often reference the Cellist of Sarajevo in this regard, in that he put on his tuxedo to go out in the rubble and play the cello, an explicitly aesthetic framing. An artwork has to have a shape, and it’s the shape that you give it that is the aesthetic, that makes it art.

CK: That’s a good way of putting it, the shape is the declaration of this as separate from that. It has a beginning and end, it has edges. It’s helpful to think – what is the shape of the thing? What is the form? Artists think through form; if I’m using paint, for example, then I think through the language of paint, in the digital I think through 1’s and 0’s. Walking becomes an aesthetic form to think through.

Patricia Miranda, Camminare, Created for the exhibition Open Air, at the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery at UConn Avery Point, Groton CT. Dyed Battenberg lace, pins, trees.

AS: Tell me about your recent collaborative project .

PM: We are not true collaborators, more accurately, we live a collaborative creative life as an artist couple. We support one another’s projects, from feedback on proposals and ideas to being the grunt on each other’s installations. Like hauling four tons of rock out of the woods for your labyrinth at the Watson Symington Preserve in 2020! Or you helping install my shows at ODETTA and Main Window Dumbo, among many others. I remember helping create small pewter army men for your exhibit at Real Art Ways, and installing your large sound installation, Solar Symphony, at ODETTA Gallery in Bushwick. We help and encourage one another in every project, and are each other’s critic, art handler, all around diehard fan. We both believe that art is essential for a healthy culture.

CK working on Kaczmarek’s Labyrinth project

AS: Let’s imagine you get awarded a hefty budget for a collaborative project in a space of your choice. How does your dream project look like and how would you approach it?

CK: We’re both interested in using the arts not just to produce objects, but to connect with people, to empower and enhance creativity within a cultural context. I think that’s one of the things that draws you to the crit lab and teaching, it’s interaction with creativity that’s not passive. We have talked about this; if we won the big lottery it might be the development of a school, maybe an expansion of The Crit Lab- an art space, maker space, community space. That would potentially be our collaboration- a space for art to happen, not solely for us to make art. I suppose that’s the educator in us both.

PM: We’ll keep playing the lottery!

Patricia Miranda, Tether, cochineal-dyed doilies, oak gall-dyed sisal twine. oak gall dye from foraged galls. install: I-Park Artist Residency, Haddam CT.

Patricia Miranda is an interdisciplinary artist, curator, educator, and founder of MAPSpace and The Crit Lab. She has been Visiting Artist at Vermont Studio Center, the Heckscher Museum, and University of Utah; and been awarded residencies at I-Park, Weir Farm, Vermont Studio Center, and Julio Valdez Printmaking Studio. She received an Anonymous Was a Woman Covid19 Relief Grant, an artist grant from ArtsWestchester/New York State Council on the Arts, and was part of a year-long NEA grant working with homeless youth. Miranda teaches curatorial studies in the grad program at Western Colorado University, and has taught at New Hampshire Institute of Art, Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts of the University of New Haven, where she led the first study abroad program in Prato, Italy. Her work has been exhibited at ODETTA Gallery, ABC No Rio, Wave Hill, and Rio II Gallery, in NYC; The Alexey von Schlippe Gallery at UConn Avery Point, Groton, CT; the Cape Museum of Fine Art, Cape Cod MA; and the Belvedere Museum, Vienna Austria. She has a solo exhibition upcoming at Garrison Art Center in fall 2021.

Christopher Kaczmarek is a New York based artist whose work spans both experimental and traditional practices, including sculpture, interactive and site-specific installations, performance, video, built circuits, and solar-powered objects. Recent interests have been concerned with the act of walking as a praxis for artistic production, and the shapes in which collective and collaborative environments can become spaces of imagination and creativity in service of hopeful outcomes. He has presented work at nationally and internationally at Art Souterrain in Montreal, Canada; the Trinity College Science Gallery, Dublin Ireland; the Byzantine Museum of Agios Germanos, Prespes Greece; the New York Hall of Science, Queens NY; Real Art Ways, Hartford CT; the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus OH; Art Museum of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Chongqing, China; Art Walk Projects, Edinburgh, Scotland; and the Czong Institute for Contemporary Art, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. Kaczmarek received an MFA in Visual Art and an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory and Criticism from Purchase College, State University of New York, and is currently Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Art, and Program Coordinator of the Visual Arts Program, at Montclair State University, New Jersey USA.