Conversation with Ingrid Schmidt and Hannah Dewhirst

Edited by: Jamie Ferello

Business Casual is an ongoing lecture and panel discussion series showcasing emerging creative practices. The series provides an accessible, conversation based atmosphere that encourages students, faculty and the public to actively participate in the conversation. Business Casual is curated and hosted by David Corns and Ingrid Schmidt in conjunction with the GSA and has received a Graduate Student Group Grant. 

Below is a video of SUBSTUDIO's talk followed by an edited conversation with guest panelists Vincent Sansalone, Meghan Minton, Jordan Tate, and attendees of the talk.

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SUBSTUDIO deals with ritual, tension, bodies, and material. They work across multiple mediums and boundaries, attempting to redefine notions of practice and consumption within academia, art, and architecture. As a combined team, co-founders Hannah Dewhirst and Ingrid Schmidt bring to the table over ten years of professional experience working for artists and architects such as Steven Holl, Anderson Architects, Rafael Vinoly, Gensler, Heather McGill, Bill Massie, and Lindsey Adelman, and are both actively teaching and developing curriculum at the college level. After collaborating on a number of projects during their time at Cranbrook Academy of Art, they discovered common “turf,” and have successfully continued to experiment and fabricate together. In 2018, they are providing Creative Direction and Fabrication services for Movement Festival in Detroit, MI, and are 2018 Curatorial Fellows at Wave Pool Gallery in Cincinnati, OH.

Vincent Sansalone is an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Cincinnati’s College of DAAP. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts (1988) and Bachelor of Architecture (1989) from the Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, RI), and his Master of Fine Arts in Architecture (2001) from Cranbrook Academy of Art (Bloomfield Hills, MI).

Meghan Minton is a graduate of Miami University with a degree in Anthropology and Pratt Institute with a  Masters of Interior Design

Jordan Tate is an Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Cincinnati. Tate has a Bachelor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies from Miami University and a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from Indiana University. He was a Fulbright Fellow in 2008-2009.

Jordan Tate: I think the representation of flatness and dimensionality in your work I found compelling because it seemed like you were approaching the two dimensional as a sketch or a form to ultimately be made three dimensional. It was a pathway rather than an end game.

Hannah Dewhirst: Right, in that it's not necessarily representing the form of the thing itself but it's representing the mood or atmosphere we're aspiring toward, absolutely.

JT: I guess my question is what particular interest do you have in that late 50s, mid 60s era? Because that's conveniently where all of the things that you're interested in were happening. For example, Irwin, Turrell, or Lilly, the person who was credited with developing the isolation tank was in the late 50s. This experimentation with space, perception, experience that became prevalent throughout minimalism. I also see some economic ties and some cultural ties between the then and the now. I'm wondering if you could speak to that.

HD: I think a lot about the 60s utopian architects of that time and specifically the way that the representations that they were making were political and cultural. They were critiquing cultural happenings of that time. Superstudio, Archigram, Haus Rucker Co; firms who were using image in a specific way and doing experiments with the body through prosthetics that they developed. I think about the way that the representation or the image can inform the body-centric object.

JT: But also the politics they were dealing with were sort of deeper, broader, and more critical than image and body. A couple times in your presentation you referenced your politic. I'm wondering if you could discuss what your politic is and thinking of politic as governing of the people, polis as the body. That seems to tie into your work. What is your perspective or direction or context that you're working from?

Ingrid Schmidt: We're creating these spaces that are an extreme interaction between the body, the control that the person feels about the safety or vulnerability of their body in a space that is super complicated, moving quickly, or hyper saturated and maybe too complex. If we're comfortable with putting a body in a space that is vulnerable that might be a statement that I would make of our politic.

HD: I do also think there's some tension between space that's meditative or of deprivation and then a totally oversaturated space. You could talk about techno-oblivion or something like that in terms of the tension that exists between total relaxation and total over stimulation.

JT: The way you're discussing putting a body in a space, over stimulation, exploiting vulnerability. It seems like you are questing for an ownership of someone else's bodily agency.

IS: We both created spaces independently of each other that were hyper controlled and put the person in a really vulnerable state so I think in that way, yes. But, also we were creating these in an environment where we were testing them with our bodies. So, we weren't making uninformed decisions about it.

JT: What is your interest in forcing vulnerability upon someone? Because thinking of early sensory deprivation experiments and hyper stimulus: John Lilly, who did the deprivation tank after a few years was like "this isn't enough" and he did drop acid and go in the tank.

HD: But the end here is spatial and architectural hopefully because the thing that's being tested in space. It's not that I'm going to go make a bunch of sensory deprivation tanks that are cool. I might make a bathroom that has a little nugget of something I've discovered in this research tool. Hopefully, it's generative for spaces that are pleasurable or complex or layered in some way.

Ed Mitchell: I'm not convinced the tact of going towards the body as the critique or the threat to the body is the problem. In a sensory deprivation tank, there is no threat to the body, there's a threat to the psychology of the subject under those conditions. All of the fields you choose to operate in which I am extremely interested in: light, color, sound, all of those things that exceed or are excluded from the context and language from architecture and for a large degree, most of art with a few exceptions. So it's objectless, I don't see it as a threat, I see it as another challenge. The media you're choosing to work in are smartly chosen and the techniques that you're using are smartly chosen in order to work through those exercises. It has a formal property and condition in all the work but it's slightly outside of the realm. There are shared principles in both aspects of the sensory deprivation experiment and the skylights. The study of total interior -- you cannot recognize boundary, edge. You have multiple color fields interacting with each other in order to challenge that in a different way. And my question is why aren't we doing more of this in whatever field we're talking about? Whether it's architecture, interiors. It's a whole set of disciplines which are outside of language in a very specific way. I think that's what's interesting about your work.

JT: The things they are doing now aren't isolated from contemporary art in any way, shape, or form.

EM: I'm not interested in the disciplinary boundaries, per se. That's the easy thing to trace.

IS: If it needs clarification. We're making spaces and we're thinking of them as spaces and we're evaluating them as spaces. We're using a lot of different techniques.

Vincent Sansalone: It's not a question of art and architecture. It is a way of practicing. The beauty of practicing in an art-based way allows for some freedom.  I'm really curious, why is it so honest to just say I work in this way or in this process or in this method because it allows me freedom to explore these ideas without the programmatic issues or the code issues or all of these other things that architecture has. It's not a question between architecture or art, it is just a process.

EM: Can I ask another question? You intelligently chose the term tuning. I want to know what that means to you. That didn't seem like a casual choice.

HD: I would say that it's a long term, deep dive into an idea. It's about a slight adjustment in order to perfect the outcome of the idea. Is that how you would define it?

IS: It especially was present as a term when we were there (Cranbrook) because so many people were doing either light based or material based work where they were looking for a really specific outcome.

HD: If you want to follow the idea of tuning into tuning an instrument. If you're starting to think about spaces as instruments that can be tuned then it's implying that there's an ultimate goal with the work.

Tom Bible: There's an ideal.

HD: Yeah, there's an ideal that you're searching for.

TB: I would question that. That there's some kind of ideal that you're going to get to.

IS: Maybe it's not everyone's ideal.

EM: Some of the most interesting things I've seen recently are in sound and the pieces I've seen are being locked in a room, almost like a sensory deprivation space, where a sound like a jet engine is coming at you and for the first eight minutes, it's the most frightening space I've seen. Then it shifted. It wasn't that they changed the tuning method, it was done with electromagnets and humongous speakers. Then it became something that got you eased into it after a while. I'm more interested in, not the boundary threat problem, but where the same thing transgresses through time from threat to something else. I wonder if when you're tuning is the tuning towards an ideal or is it towards easing somebody or is it trying to hit some edge where those conditions aren't well met on either side. What are you tuning towards?

Rebecca Williamson: Can I throw in an example actually, because I think what Tom was bringing up is provocative.

VS: He's leaving.

(laughter as Tom walks out)

RW: If you think about the space we're in right now. Everyone be quiet for just a few seconds.

(not really silence)

RW: This is a tuned or calibrated or optimized space. Based on the best of what we have to offer in our data driven, performance-based way of doing conventional architecture. Obviously, it's Eisenman so it's trying to be "arty" with its form but, still the campus is trying to get the temperature somewhere in the 68-72 range and the air circulation and all that's been optimized basically. You hear the whine from the HVAC, right? There's all this stuff already going on. If you get back to our discipline, all the stuff we're dealing with is already there. We have no natural light in here. In a sense, you are actually testing the stuff of our discipline that maybe indistinguishable from art in that we have to have some kind of executive decision. I think the "boss" (Ed) has said on several occasions that the question of the boundary between art and architecture is not a reasonable question for SAID while he's boss. Either we're going to be perpetually fighting with him...What I'm trying to say is, I see how art school's treat their students. They pump the students way more than we do. They ask way more questions. The MFA students trouble themselves a lot more than architecture students do. There are all of these questions like "what is your attitude towards the occupant?" or "are you taking power over the occupant? Are you giving them agency?" That doesn't normally come up in a regular critique. I'm trying to turn around the other way and say these are actually our disciplinary problems. It's just we have a really dumb way of dealing with them. Which is the Ohio Building Code, all kinds of things where we optimize the nonvisual aspects of the environment. The acoustics, the temperature, the wind movement, etc. Which is a lot of what you're dealing with. It's just an extreme of something you're not normally dealing with except interiors people sometimes deal with airplane interiors or underwater environments. Sometimes interiors people push into the extreme environment while staying solidly within the discipline. You're pushing your methods into the boundary of art but on the other hand, I don't think the questions are extra-architectural. We're doing a bad job with light, we're doing a bad job with sound, we're doing a bad job across the board with sensory stuff because we're doing it wrong. If we borrow from art, or we borrow from music, or some other place, and get smarter about it.

Stephen Slaughter: Part of the conceit of your question I'm reacting to because we do disciplinarily deal with all of these things that have to do with phenomena. Our work is about the relationship between perception and phenomena in different states. When you start to talk about it relative to art history, I would rather it be talked about relative to practices that engages different aspects of perceptions and experiences. Instead of building it into a silo of art and a silo of architecture and thinking those two disciplines are so different from one another.

Caroline Bozzi: I guess, like speaking to the context, what happens as your work moves forward? As you push it into new things?

IS: In terms from what we want from it?

CB: So when you started to use the work in the Biennial from your work at Cranbrook. So what happens when you re-contextualize it? Does it take on a new political, economic, cultural meaning?

HD: Well it's now then informed by the way that people have interacted with the space. I'm not saying it takes on all those issues but it's gathering more information as it gathers speed in the world. That is the context.

EM: I don't want to get too heavy into it, the whole system of classification and coding has to do with the kind of things that can be coded into a language form. So that excluded very specific things that you two seem to be invested in: color, the fusion and nature of light, multiple bodies in a space that are interacting with those things. That's why I'm wondering if the politics of the project are those interactions so that everything is mutable, fungible, unbounded, transformable. I didn't hear much about what other bodies do in the space other than take a selfie, which is codable. That's not the same thing as the deeper potential meaning of new ideas about publicness. To me, those are some of your conventions. I'm very interested in that there's things in the work you can say that I cannot code at that point or there's acts that you do to deliberately transgress coding your work. Whether you want to extrapolate it into a larger political realm, I think that's the practice. There is coded art and there's coded architecture. There's uncoded architecture and there's uncoded art. This building was designed to be uncoding the code of architecture. The danger is that it's just about the process itself. It seems that it retains some critical edge without claiming criticality in conventions.

IS: Like, is there a wrong way to interact with the Bittertang piece on the formal imperative we've given it. It looks this way therefore you have to interact this way.

EM: I would think you would want to avoid that. There are ways of tuning it so that coding can't take place.

Meghan Minton: Can I kind of piggyback on that in a different direction? You said that you're doing many, many, many tests and you're tuning these things. How do you evaluate those tests? With the inflatables, you said that you were looking at when it's inflated and not inflated, if it was huggable, you had all these criteria. How did you evaluate if it was a success or not? Whether you want to talk about that or whether you want to talk about the work you had in Chicago, how did you fine tune those materials? What was the "yes this works, this isn't working, this is how we're moving forward?"

HD: It's something that we do a lot. When we're teaching, it's a slightly different conversation rather than when we are just in the studio testing together, and a lot of it is experiential reaction. But, when we were teaching and creating those inflatables alongside our students, a lot of the forms we created were based off of actual animal forms that perform in a very specific way. They were informed by a gestural quality that does perform, so that led us to start to search for something specific and figure out if we had gotten there. With our work as SUBSTUDIO, it's very much experiential and we're evaluating it based on our own personal reactions to the work.

IS: It goes back to working with Heather and layering the paint and the plastic. She would always ask us "is this working or is this plastic?" That was always the question.

HD: Transformative quality of material.

IS: By "working" we meant did it become something else. That's what we were trying to get our students to push and understand is "no, I don't want to look at this and see puff paint, I want to look at this and see an object that is original." That was definitely a major criteria. With the inflatables there was a lot of technical aspects to it because when you inflate it, there are a lot of things you can't predict end up happening. The immediate issue we had with that is how do you make forms that are specific, rather than just lumps? Because you had eight studios all creating inflatables, the room ended up being filled with a lot of pointless, ambiguous shapes really quickly. That's why we honed in on these slender shapes and things that were operable and this painting technique that had bodily associations. It's easier to explain when we talk about how we address our students because we have to explain it to them whereas when we work in the studio, it's nonverbal communication.

Chas Wiederhold: What does your guys' studio look like today? You're in two different geographic locations, how do you guys interact?

HD: We worked at a studio in Detroit on a lot of the biennial stuff. We move between Detroit and Cincinnati. It's scrappy and not ideal.

IS: It's a lot of roadtrips.

HD: A lot of transporting materials in a truck. A lot of logistics.

EM: In terms of light art, the critique of Irwin has been: it is what it is. Where there's some other work, even Flavin or people like that, it is what it is and it is something else as well. It always transgresses and plays about in bounded condition of that thing turning into language by being both language and not language. The worry I always have is the Irwin trajectory is a pure phenomenology and feeling and then it becomes inarticulate and dumb. And doesn't challenge you. I've never been that interested in Irwin, where there's a million other light artists.

AJ Sivakumar: I have a question, piggybacking off of the light art question. One of the things, when I saw some of Flavin's work at Dia: Beacon this summer I noticed that there's difference between what you visually perceive versus when you try to take a photograph, it cannot look the same because the nature of light. Is there a point, because we're seeing all of the work through photographs, at which you're trying to tune this relationship between do you want the physical thing to look the same as the way in which you document or is there a disconnect you are trying to create or not? Or is it just a happy coincidence sort of thing that happens?

HD: A lot of the documentation is a visual reminder of how we might recreate that thing again experientially, at least it is for me. So I'm cataloguing some environment that I've created so that I can later reference that and use it to push the work forward even further.

AS: I'm just curious because if, to a certain extent, part of this working off of the previous projects is reliant upon documentation. There's a degree of change that can occur, especially with things dependent on light where the photograph or the documentation is just a little bit off of what the reality was and when you work off of that, you are shifting onto a slightly different path. After so many iterations, I'm curious to see at what point you are so far off that, it's still somewhat connected, you can start to register those points at which the actual method of documentation to remember and work off for iteration.

VS: This is where I'll jump in and say that you're taking a stance on documentation. It is either a record or it becomes the work. It's not both. Even in your work, the way that you documented it, it became other work. It might be a record of some of the larger work. But it became a work in the way you re-presented it.

JT: There's also a third paradigm of thinking about documentation and that's using the compression, the flattening, and the things that the documentation does that the eye doesn't to view your work in new ways. There are some Irwin pieces that, when documented, are fundamentally different and differently interesting. It can be part of a research practice as well.

SS: Which leads to the notion of how you then begin to calibrate, or tune as you called it. If the tuning comes just through the experience of the piece when you're there or does the tuning of the piece come when you're actually looking at the documentation.

JT: Or both because many tunes make a harmony.

VS: Very good, Jordan.