An Interview with Phil Peters

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MR: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

PP: I make sculptural/installation-based work that often references or makes use of the existing architecture of a space.  I am particularly interested in boundaries, thresholds and systems that are both visible and invisible within that space.  Sometimes I try to make work that doesn’t present itself at all such as the large window screens installed in the 7th floor windows of the Louis Sullivan building at Madison and State.  Other times I would like the work to be an abrupt interrupt that forces an immediate interaction with the viewer such as the barbed wire fence that cut a gallery exhibition in half.  Both are examples of control structures, and both are examples of a kind dislocated vernacular architecture.  I am interested in the differing levels of engagement we have with each piece and how we come into an awareness of the work and equally how we begin to forget.  I am often surprised by what behaviors are made implicit and explicit in the context of these structures.

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MR: What are some recent or upcoming projects you’re working on?

PP: I just finished installing the barbed wire fence piece for an exhibition in Bucktown with my collaborator David Rueter. Actually the work is both a fence and a point-to-point telephone system which references a specific period in American history when, due to the proliferation of barbed wire across the west, ranchers were able to turn their fences into telephone lines.  In 1902, Montana briefly became the best networked state in the whole union.  It’s a simple gesture, turning a fence line that divides into one that “connects,” but that spirit of ad hocism is really wonderful to me.  But the fact that these two landscape altering, culture shaping technologies were ever overlaid in such an improbable way is probably what is most intriguing to me.

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MR: The referent point is so specific, how do you arrive at this particular aspect of the fence’s narrative as a generative place? Do you consider the work research based?

PP: It was a story that I had been aware of and it stands as an important step in the development of our contemporary communications network and so at the outset it seemed like a story worth retelling.  I wanted to re-constitute something of that moment.  I enjoy talking about the piece, and framing it within the artifice of a historic investigation.  In fact the whole piece resembles a natural history museum display or diorama.  Except the telephones are straight out of the 1990’s and more akin to what I remember of telephone communication rather than what an early 20th century rancher would have known.  However, you can’t really get to heart of the work without talking across the telephones.  You can still see the person at the other end of the room, but their voice is present in a way that defies distance.  It’s that feeling of walking down the street while talking on your cell phone and coming face to face with the person you’ve been speaking to.  It’s such a shock.  The system you’ve been a part of is suddenly made clear and pointless and immediately you want to get off the phone.  But there is that moment of novelty, of both seeing and hearing a person in a way that defies the normal boundaries of interaction.  Having someone’s voice delivered to you in this way is an incredibly intimate act.  In my research, and yes this project was born from the process of reading/researching these histories, I came across a very believable though unverified story about an early telephone user.  Through a process of what we now know to be ground-induction, telegraph operators inadvertently broadcast a recording of Sunday hymnals through the earth that were picked up miles away by a man who was idly listening to the white noise of his telephone line.  In that instant, he thought he was hearing music coming down from heaven.  He and his wife spent the rest of the evening straining to decipher the signal from noise.  It’s a quaint and slightly silly story, but understandable on some level in the recognition of the uncanny experience that telephones offer us.  So that is a long-winded way of saying, I find that it is the interface between the narrative and the experience of the work that is generative for me.

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MR: What materials do you use in your work?  Is there a particular specificity to the relationship of your material construction and conceptual concerns?

PP: The materials are often dictated by the project at hand.  “The fence is a fence,” as someone once put it.  I think that this in itself is an important conceptual decision.  I will often research and find precedent for the “appropriate” material and building technique to use in a specific project such as special ordering “clear center-cut vertical-grain douglas fir” for the window screen frames.  That decision came out of a long conversation with a log cabin builder based out of Jackson Hole Wyoming.  There are times when I am specifically interested in transformation in the materiality of an object and the histories these materials carry with them.  The series of “flying” tent forms made from gold/silver mylar emergency blankets or the black and iridescent automobile paint used on the woodpile sculptures are examples of this.

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MR: How so?

PP: Mylar’s material history backs up to the NASA space program and the outer most extreme examples of survival.  The reflection and conservation of energy and the fragility of environment.  The “emergency blanket’s” dual surfacing of silver and gold may also stand in for a old survivalists belief that silver and gold are the only true and dependable currencies in the world.  These surfaces are so reflective that when multiple sheet are hung together, their color values become indistinguishable as gold becomes silver, sliver becomes gold, and the metal laminate reflects back the colors and textures of the environment.  The car paint also reflects light into shimmering dirty-rainbows that emulates the experience of a fire while maintaining a material toxicity that is an interesting tension.  To me it comes from a world of say “car-camping,” to pick a kind of literal example, and our conflicted desires to be both autonomous and dependent on societal and technological systems.  It’s the Walden pond phenomenon where Thoreau wanted to both live in isolation, but have a cup of soup at his mother’s house every now and again.  That piece was paired with another digital fire where a video stream of a campfire was algorithmically processed into a technicolor amoeba like fire-form that was projected against an object or a wall in the room.  A cold, non-consuming, light projection that again emulated properties of fire.  These are all examples for me of material surfacing as artifice.  A fusion of technology and materiality.  Of idealism and practicality, but I want to couch that within a thought experiment around notions of survival.

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MR: Is there a common thread that runs through the work?

PP: I think there are themes of architecture and environment that cut across most of the work that I do.  One might also say that I have a preoccupation with the American west.

MR: Does your personal biography play a particular role in the work?

PP: It is in there.  I have lived most of my adult life in major cities including New York, Paris, and Chicago, but it’s the summers I spent mending fences in Wyoming that seem to keep coming back to me.  I hope that biography can serve as a resource rather then the reason.

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MR: How does being in Chicago affect your practice?

PP: Conceptually Chicago has turned out to be a really interesting place for me to work.  It’s position historically and economically within the development of the nation is always interesting.  On the more practical level, I have found that there are a number of opportunities to make and show work within the city.  It’s always a mixed bag, but I’m trying to make the most out of cheap rent and a studio with views of the city skyline.

www.philipbpeters.com

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