Words in Art: Australian artist Josephine Starrs maps rivers with poetry


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Art Radar recently spoke with the Australian new media artist Josephine Starrs. In the interview, Starrs explains how she and collaborator Leon Cmielewski use poetical texts, locally collected quotes and song lyrics in their socially-based art to express their climate change concerns.

Australian artists Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski. Image courtesy the artists.

Starrs and Cmielewski have worked together on several projects in the past decade, producing a variety of screen-based installations. Their works often use play as a strategy for engaging with the social and political contradictions inherent in contemporary life. Some of these works include Floating territories, Plaything and Seeker. Their latest project, called Incompatible Elements, is a multimedia art installation that responds to the issues of climate change, building on techniques used in two earlier artworks.

Josephine Starrs: Artistic background

Where did you grow up and where were you educated?

I grew up in South Australia… in Adelaide. I was educated [at the South Australian School of Art] and am now living in Sydney.

Were there any major influences or people in your life pushing you toward the arts? When did you first realise you were an artist?

Well, I was actually pushed more towards science by my family but I realised in my early 20’s that I wanted to become an artist and decided to train in an art school. So I’ve been an artist since.

As an artist, how have you changed over your working career? What caused these changes?

I’ve worked with [photography],… animation, video installations and new media art. In terms of what drives me as an artist, I am very interested in the space of contemporary society …[and peoples’] identity [within it]. I’ve [never] moved into different media … because of new technolog[ical innovations] driving me there. … It’s about what medium is the best for the project.

'Seeker' by Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, 2007. 'Seeker' uses three large projections to explore migration, territorial boundaries, conflict commodities and human displacement. Image courtesy the artist.Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, ‘Seeker’, 2007. Three large projections explore migration, territorial boundaries, conflict commodities and human displacement. Image courtesy the artists.

Since 1994, I’ve been working with my collaborator, Leon Cmielewski. We’ve [created] a variety of art projects that often incorporate play as a strategy for engaging with [the] social and political contradictions we [see] in contemporary society. But we also draw [upon] cinema, we draw [upon] landscape [and poetry]. Leon’s background [is in] animation and mine [is in] photography and video. … I guess we tailor our work … to suit [our subject matter].

What achievement in your art career are you most proud of?

Our [media art installation] … Seeker … evolved over a few years, from 2004 to 2007. It looked at people’s personal migration strings and linked that with data visualisations to do with the movement of populations … [and] conflict commodities. So basically we made an interactive work in which people were plotting their own history and people enjoyed doing that. But then we linked [these personal histories with] the fact that people were seeking asylum in different parts of the world and fleeing from different hot spots in the world.

We wanted to create a work where people thought more deeply about the problems of asylum. We were [given an Award of] Distinction at Prix Ars Electronica 2007. So [Seeker] was shown in different places around the world [creating a variety of immigration history maps].

Tell us more about your collaboration with Leon Cmielewski.

We were living together. He was making his works and I was making mine. We just started bouncing ideas [off each other] and, when we were living in New York, we decided to work on a project together. We didn’t work exclusively with each other; we worked with other people as well. In the last few years,… we have worked together basically because our skills [and ideas] complement each other.

When did you start incorporating text into your works? How did you come to the idea of using sentences and strings of words? Do you also use single words?

I was using words in my art when I was a photographer. I was incorporating text into my videos, putting subtitles into my photographs or [combining image and text] and then photographing [the collage]. Words have always been important in my work. When I started working with Leon we made interactive works, often asking people to input words.

What does language and the written word mean to your work?

Language has always been an important part of our works. … [In our] most recent [works] we embed poetic text into  landscape photography.

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, 'land |sound| scapes', 2009. Images of the Walls of China, Lake Mungo, Australia projected onto double-sided suspended video screen. Image courtesy the artists.

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, 'land |sound| scapes', 2009. Images of the Walls of China, Lake Mungo, Australia projected onto double-sided suspended video screen. Image courtesy the artists.

I think [the inclusion of words] came about by looking at aerial photography, looking at rivers that have those script-like shapes. You could imagine that the rivers are trying to spell something out. In the last few decades, [our perception of the landscape has changed] through Google earth and Google maps. … The idea came to us that we could [create new meanings with] aerial photography, [by imbedding] text into those images.

Could you tell me what language means to you? What about the written word?

Both are important. Being a visual artist, I’ve been trained to work with visual language, especially with regards to photography, video and film. At university I teach film and digital arts. Words can be used in many different and interesting ways. Traditionally, words were used to write stories, essays and letters. One word can have different [meanings] and two words [together] can have multiple meanings. For [our work], wordplay is important.

One limitation is that [Cmielewski and I are] working [only] with the English language. We hope that we can work with other languages and other scripts as well. [It] would be interesting to put [Chinese script] into [satellite photographs of] landscapes.

Josephine Starrs: Artworks and projects

  • Downstream (2009)
  • Incompatible Elements (2010 – 2011)
  • sms_origin (2009)

In 2009, you and Leon Cmielewski exhibited an installation project called Downstream. Can you tell us more about Downstream and what inspired you to create it?

That particular work was made specifically for an exhibition that was curated by Novamedia, and it was shown in Washington DC in 2009. [Editor’s note: Click here to read more about this US show, called “Impact by Degrees”.]

We were asked to make a work that responded to climate change, the dangerous effects of climate change, and how we felt about climate change. That’s when we made a large print work called And The River Was Dust into which we embedded text. At the time, Australia was suffering a ten-year drought and the [country’s main] river system was in danger, and still is in danger, even with the [recent] floods. We used text that said, ‘and the river was dust’, [originally] written by a very famous Australian poet, Judith Wright. [Editor’s note: This phrase appeared in the poem South of my Days.] It’s almost like the river is spelling out an SOS. [And The River Was Dust] was the main piece in Downstream; there were also videos that focussed on different areas of Australia.

'and the river was dust' by Josephine Starrs and Leone Cmielewski. Exhibited at the Australian Embassy Gallery, Washington DC, USA, 2009. Image courtesy the artist.

Josephine Starrs and Leone Cmielewski, 'And The River Was Dust', 2009. Australian Embassy Gallery, Washington DC, USA. Image courtesy the artists.

That work sort of evolved into our latest project called Incompatible Elements, where we’ve continued to look at areas [at risk due to climate change]. For instance, we used a new photograph of the Ganges Delta in Bangladesh [and] we put the words ‘in days like these’ into it, which were [taken from] a song by John Lennon, Nobody Told Me. Basically, [we are sourcing satellite photographs from] around the world, imbedding poetic text into the image and then animating it. Our last work, Incompatible Elements, [was made up of] five videos projected onto the floor, [allowing the audience to move around them].

[Editor’s note: Incompatible Elements was exhibited at Performance Space Carriageworks, Sydney in October 2010, and is showing at MIC | Toi Rerehiko as part of the Auckland Arts Festival through March 2011.]

What does the title Downstream mean to you and to the work?

Basically Downstream [as a project] is concerned with what happens downstream in river systems when the flow [of water] is restricted. It was particularly referring to [Australian] waterways.

What emotions do you think Downstream evokes? Do these emotions relate directly to the kinds of words you use?

Normally what [the word ‘downstream’] means is that people downstream get affected by what happens upstream. That’s the emotional connotation.

By putting text into a landscape we’re [exploring] the relationship between culture and nature. [There is a big divide in people’s perception of] culture and nature. We have to think of ways to manage these together. … That’s one of the reasons we’re integrating text with [landscape photography].

[In Incompatible Elements] … we put the words ‘a living body’ into aerial photographs [of a] wetland area [in Australia called the Coorong and animated them] so that the words appear gradually. The words are very important because they’re the words of indigenous people who are describing the land that they look after. It’s their way of bringing attention to the ways in which these waterways can be managed better and also to the changes in climate. So for us, text is very important because we’re looking for texts that have local meaning [in a particular part of the world].

Do the elements of line, colour and texture in your work have anything to do with how or why you choose the text you do?

Definitely, because when we’re looking at these landscapes and these aerial photographs and images, we’re looking at the lines and colours and shapes [in these images] and thinking about how we can embed text into them. What we want to do is create animations where the text is [emerging from] the natural lines and colours of the landscape.

Can you tell us more about how Downstream inspired Incompatible Elements?

We had made a text-in-landscape work [called And The River Was Dust] for Downstream; we decided to continue working in this way. [In 2010] we held a solo show that just concentrated on text in landscapes. We called that solo show ‘Incompatible Elements‘. We feel that this exhibition [evolved] from the [previous] work, And The River Was Dust.

'Incompatible Elements' by Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski was shown in Sydney in 2010. Image courtesy the artist.

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, 'Incompatible Elements', 2010. Image courtesy the artists.

Downstream was an installation that had many different aspects to it. There were different kinds of videos and [only] one printed image that contained text in a landscape. So we just took one element from Downstream and then we kept working on it to create a new body of work.

[We were inspired to create Incompatible Elements because] we continued to see that there are a lot of places in the world that are at risk from dangerous climate change. We enjoy working with the text [and] … with landscape imagery. So I think the inspiration just comes from the fact that we wanted to continue working in this way.

Can you tell us what the title Incompatible Elements means to you? What does the title have to do with your use of text?

It is obviously an ambiguous title. Is contemporary society incompatible with nature? The term ‘incompatible [elements]’ is actually a geological term. It describes the processes that happen when the Earth’s crust is formed. … Our work is about working with the Earth’s crust; we’re taking images of the surface and we’re taking the geological term ‘incompatible [elements]’ and using it also as a cultural term.

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, 'A Living Body', 2010. Image courtesy the artists.

How do you choose the words that you have used for these works? Do they come from, explain or relate to the environmental issues?

[We] research [particular areas and we] choose our words carefully because we feel they are relevant to the landscape.

[In our work land [sound] scape (2008)], we were talking about Chinese migration to Australia in the early 1800s. We were looking at an area in Australia where the Chinese spent time working on the sheep farms and had named certain rock and land formations as the Walls of China. They’re still called the Walls of China. [The text incorporated into the satellite image video I only wish to face the sea comes from a poem by the Chinese poet Hai Zi, 1964-1989. His poetry is about the disappearing Chinese landscape and expresses nostalgia for the traditional countryside brought about by migration to cities.]

[We created land [sound] scape] for the Guangzhou Triennial in 2008, so we were thinking of the relationship between China and Australia…. We did a lot of research and we wanted to create a work that was meaningful to a Chinese and international audience. We get invited to do exhibitions in different places…, [and] we always want to make work that is meaningful to the [local] people….

What experience do you want people to take away from this work?

That’s hard to answer. We get some interesting reviews and comments [on our work] and basically we have found that people think more deeply about the [particular] … places we are [representing in the work].

Were you inspired in your use of text by other art forms?

Leon teaches design and he is very interested in typography.

In 2009 you created sms_origins. In this work, a phone number was displayed on a large screen in Federation Square in Melbourne City, Australia, accompanied by instructions that asked people to SMS their family origins. Participants would SMS their own and their parents places of birth to this number. As this information was received, linked curved vectors were added to a public map that updated in real-time. Can you tell us more about this work?

I was talking before about a work called Seeker, a three-screen installation, which also had an interactive component. People [were able to] plot their immigration history – where they were born, their parents, their grandparents – then [this information] was [integrated] into a map on a big screen. So you got a sense of where the [audience] came from.

Leon and I adapted Seeker to work with a mobile phone. In Melbourne, in Federation Square, there is a large [public] screen and we made sms_origins for that screen. It shows where [the participant is at the time of SMSing], where they were born and [where] their parents were born, and it presents this information on a map.

So sms_origin is about public space and seeing on a screen (and realising) that [in Australia many people] come from different places [around the world]. We wanted to use a piece of technology that everyone has and which is easy to use.

'SMS_origins' by Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, 2009. A large public screen project at the Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia. Image courtesy the artist.

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, 'sms_origins', 2009. Public screen project, Federation Square, Melbourne, Australia. Image courtesy the artists.

What emotions do you think this work evokes? Do you consider it playful?

Yes, definitely. It’s a playful work and it’s a work that people enjoy [participating in].

Basically [participants are] texting their [home] cities and countries. It’s not exactly poetry; … it’s a mapping project in which the words [and data] are coming from the audience.

What experience do you want people to take away from this work?

[We are] incorporating technology that people [use] everyday into a shar[ed playful] experience [that occurs in a public space].

Josephine Starrs: General art creation

Why do you work with video, installation and digital art, as well as photography?

Our last installation [Incompatible Elements] had [a] surround sound ambient soundscape [that] related to the landscape images. We like creating immersive spaces … where people can slow down and engage [with the work], so we create installations that are quite atmospheric. Our animations run very slowly and rhythmically.

How does the use of these mediums (still/moving image and sound) relate to your use of words?

[In our videos the text emerges] gradually from the landscape, [encouraging the viewer to] … watch and engage, slow down and contemplate, to [understand the meaning of the work].

'days like these' by Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, 2010. Part of the "Incompatible Elements" series. Image courtesy the artist.

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, 'days like these', 2010, "Incompatible Elements" series. Image courtesy the artists.

The words might mean different things to different people, but if the viewer stays [within the installation there is a] chance that they will [experience] something.

What are you trying to achieve or communicate through your art?

What we are trying to communicate in this latest work, [Incompatible Elements,] is a respect for the land, but also to collapse the ‘nature/culture divide’. … [People] are not separate from the environment, we are the environment. … We create installations that we feel intrigue. I don’t know if we want [our audiences] to completely relax. There is an edgy feel to what we project, but beauty is [also] very important. We [hope the audience] … experiences … beauty and also takes some sort of meaningful experience from [the work].

Readers please note that on 1 April 2011 some minor factual changes were made to this interview by Art Radar Asia in consultation with Josephine Starrs to ensure the accuracy of the information. These alterations and additions, as well as any grammatical additions made by the editor, are surrounded by square brackets to differentiate them from the original interview text.

About our “Words in Art” interview series

We have already spoken with Indian new media collective Raqs, Filipino painter Manuel Ocampo and new media artist Hung Keung. Who will we be profiling next? Now down to two, it will be either Sujata Bajaj (India) or Wenda Gu (China). To find out more about what these artists have to say about words in art, please continue to follow our series over the coming weeks.

We would like readers to note that we hope to provide an insight into, rather than a comprehensive study of, the feature of words in art. Also, as we are focussing on a specific geographical area, Asia, we realise that this in no way represents a world-view of the concept and we welcome comments from readers regarding the use of text and words by artists living and creating in areas outside of the Asian region.

So, tell us what you think about the use of text and words in contemporary art. Go on, leave a comment below.


Related Topics: words in art, environmentinterviews, Australian artists, new media art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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