Q & A with Hannah Knoll

For your residency, you proposed a body of work that explores your personal narrative within Kalamazoo’s urban landscape. Since this is an ongoing theme in your work, what new insights do you hope to reveal?

My role within the city has evolved through phases over the time that I’ve lived here and it’s interesting to examine how that changes the way I think about and interact with my surroundings. In my previous pieces relating to Kalamazoo, I’ve passively looked at the physical features and patterns in the landscape and started to examine what influence they have on how I exist and behave within it. For the next body of work, it’s the active shaping of the landscape that I’m interested in­ – how things came to be, what actions and factors go into that and what my role in that process is.

I’ve been working in architecture for the better part of the last year. In that regard, I have a very direct role in shaping the built environment. I draw lines on my computers that eventually become walls or roofs or doors in a building somewhere. That’s one type of action that will mark the landscape that is both very direct and also detached. It’s quite a bit different than being out somewhere, physically installing or altering something. Different yet, are behaviors that alter surroundings unconsciously, like wearing a path through grass by walking a certain way. These types of actions, and how the residue of them accumulates to create landscapes, is what I’m interested investigating.

In your artist statement, you talk about the importance of audience participation with your work. What do you hope this participation will facilitate?

My work is about this cycle of influence and interaction between the built environment and behavior. I create pieces based on my experiences with existing spaces as a process of understanding the role of the space on the experience. In that process, I create these objects that shape new spaces. Some of them could even be looked at as experiments, testing some hypothesis about a connection between action and surrounding. An audience experiencing that space and interacting with objects I made is the last phase of the cycle (at least as far as the piece is defined), in that it’s not complete without it.

Given your interest in how a space can affect human behavior, how do you think a gallery setting changes the context of one of your more functional pieces, like a bench?

Well, I know from experience that it’s not always easy to get people to sit down. Even with “please sit” or “ok to touch” signs put up, there’s a mindset that galleries instill, which is not to touch, only to look – to be this passive observer. It’s a fascinating example of how our role, or perceived role, within a space influences our relationship to that space. It can be frustrating when it’s my intention as the artist for pieces to be used, but on the flip side, being in a gallery means that those functional pieces will be looked at and contemplated more closely than in a more pedestrian setting. Instead of unconsciously provoking an action (i.e. sitting), a bench in a gallery setting that is positioned as an art piece, might bring the idea of sitting to the conscience mind, along with some questioning as to why it does so.

How does furniture operate as a means to communicate some of the broader issues that drive your work?

There’s an accessibility to the scale of furniture that makes it an effective example of how we interact with and are influenced by our physical surroundings. The proportions of a piece of furniture are based on the body and can invite specific actions as a result. A bench, for example, has a surface somewhere in the ballpark of 17 inches off the ground. That height is based on the knee height of a typical person, which makes the surface reasonably comfortable to sit on, thus inviting that action. That much I’m sure seems obvious, but if you keep questioning, the implications are far reaching. Sitting means staying in one place for a time and the duration of that time can have to do with comfort, both of the bench itself and space it’s located in. So how long does the person stay there? Are there other people? Do they sit as well? That would have to do with the size of the bench and other elements to the design – its design could factor into whether these people talk and interact or not. Obviously, the bench itself is not the sole determiner of that, but it plays a role and the same questions used to determine the influence of the bench in that scenario can be applied to anything in our physical soundings. What role does the layout of streets play in where we go and how we get there? What spaces do we gather in and why? Everything about our lives and how we lived together as communities is shaped by our surroundings. Examining singular moments of interaction with pieces of furniture is a way to start to see the mechanics of this relationship at work.

In your photographic series, I am Here: Kalamazoo, I noticed a distinct lack of people. Was this an intentional decision?  

See, that’s interesting because I would say there are people in every single one of those photos. Not their bodies, as you’re pointing out (except for maybe some in the background, and there are one or two photos of my feet in there), but everything depicted in that piece was created or placed there by someone. I’m also in all the photos. You’re looking at what I’m noticing as I wander about the city. Each photo is a record of a moment in which I’m connecting with some detail, object, or space that was shaped by someone and in a way I’m interacting with them as well. There’s an indirectness to that which interests me.

Another reason is that those photos were all taken while I’m out on these walks where I’m wandering aimlessly (or at least without conscience direction) around the city, focusing on the landscape and how I’m reacting to it (my take on the situationist dérive). For me, it’s a meditative exercise, which having a conversation with someone (as would be required to respectfully take their photo) would interrupt.

I create pieces based on my experiences with existing spaces as a process of understanding the role of the space on the experience. In that process, I create these objects that shape new spaces.
I am Here: Kalamazoo, photo installation, 2014

I am Here: Kalamazoo, photo installation, 2014

Recent smart phone apps have enabled more people to track and record their location and movements. Are you interested in these tools, and if so, how do you think these technologies shape our relationship to a place? 

As tools, yes, they interest me. The data generated by them can be fascinating and provide a way of conceptualizing a city map. I’ve seen maps of major cities generated solely from running routes that people have uploaded using these apps and, while that’s a very limited demographic, the ability to map a city based on the actual routes traveled should be a very useful analytical and reflective tool, especially for urban planners. I’ve only used them a little bit in my own work, tracking my own movement for brief periods. I think having a record of my movements to reflect on made me more conscience of how I was interacting with the city (namely what a limited portion of it I was seeing on a regular basis). Reflection there is key – the data alone doesn’t do anything.

On a related topic, using GPS apps as navigational aids on a regular basis definitely affects how we relate to a place. It’s been documented that reliance on them decreases spatial thinking. Traveling becomes about getting from A to B and we don’t have to think about what’s in between, or how the two locations relate to each other. That’s a bit worrisome, especially given that space is a particular interest of mine, but it’s not like these tools will be going away anytime soon. I’m inclined to believe we’ll be able to balance use without dependency.

Can you name an artist or a particular artwork that you recently discovered or rediscovered that has resonated with you in some way?

I’ve been looking at Andrea Zittel’s work a lot recently, especially her furniture and various living units where she’s towing the line between art and design. There’s a blend of practicality and whimsy in those pieces that I find particularly appealing, and in all of her work she seems to be asking questions about patterns in living and their connection to our surroundings.

Contour, picture frames, cable, steel, 2013

Contour, picture frames, cable, steel, 2013

Posted on March 13, 2016 and filed under Q & A.