OtherPeoplesPixels: Your conceptual drawing has a cleverness to it in that you draw copies of photocopies of texts which often speak directly about the act of drawing, copying, and translating. But it is your investment in making the painstaking drawings that keeps me thinking about what you do and why you do it. This gets me thinking about you as the maker and what you are revealing about your connection to the texts themselves. The drawings seem upon first glance to be completely devoid of emotion, but the more I think about the work, the more I am struck by the devotional aspects of your drawing practice. Does this resonate with you?
Molly Springfield: These comments resonate with me very much and speak to some of the questions that I deliberately try to raise and work through in the drawings. That the drawings are devoid of emotion is something I hear fairly often. And to be fair, I can understand how a viewer might find them humorless or academic at first glance. But I have a strong personal connection to every text I draw, and I couldn't put in the extreme amount of time and physical labor into each drawing if I didn't have that.
It's been suggested to me that there's a performative aspect to my work, and many viewers say that they find themselves imagining me making the work and wondering about the time and labor required for each piece. I wouldn't go so far to say that what I do is really performance, but the issues you raise about devotion, labor, and the hand are pretty central to my work.
OPP: It seems that the thing you are getting it can never be accomplished without the presence of human subjectivity. What does it mean to you to do by hand what can easily be done by a machine?
MS: It's very important to me that my work is done by hand. When I draw the texts, no matter how carefully I try to produce a faithful copy, I introduce imperfections. My imperfections are layered on top of the mechanically created imperfections introduced during the original printing and in the photocopying process. I think once people realize this, my presence in the work becomes more apparent.
OPP: Can you describe your experience of drawing words? Do you listen to anything while you do it? Do you think about the meaning of the words or do they stop being language while you draw?
MS: I don't read text as I draw it. I draw a text letter-by-letter, so that individual words become abstract in my mind, and I don't perceive whole words or sentences. When I come to the end of a line, I usually take a break to make sure I haven't made any glaring mistakes. Like a lot of artists, I listen to NPR while I work. And, oddly enough, I like to listen to audiobooks. When a drawing is particularly labor intensive, it really helps me get through it by getting lost in a narrative that isn't the one I'm drawing.
OPP: Is there ever a time when you wish you could be drawing something other than text?
MS: Many of my photocopy drawings contain images as well as text, but, yes, I sometimes get tired of drawing text. When I was working on Translation (a "translation" in drawings of the first chapter of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time), I got particularly frustrated and bored at times, but working through those moments became very much a part of the work for me.
The drawings I'm working on right now are larger and, though they contain text, have other elements as their central focus. I wouldn't call them a complete departure, but they involve a lot of visual and formal experimentation and are pretty different from anything I've made recently. I'll show them in my upcoming solo show at Chicago’s Thomas Robertello Gallery in June.
OPP: I can’t wait to see it. Can you tell us more? What’s your source material for this new body of work?
MS: The life and work of the Belgian information scientist, Paul Otlet, as well as my own writing about him, is the source material for this project. Otlet developed the Universal Decimal Classification, a more complex version of the Dewey Decimal System that some people liken to an early, analog form of hypertext. His life ambition was to catalogue and cross-reference all of the world's published information into a single archive that could be accessed remotely by anyone, anywhere. This was during the early twentieth-century, so obviously the necessary technology didn't exist. But over the course of his career, he built a physical archive of around twelve million index cards cataloguing individual documents using the UDC system. People could search the archive in person, or send queries via letter or telegraph.
I stumbled on Otlet while researching classification systems for the Marginalia Archive and then I wrote an article about him for Triple Canopy. After writing the article, I felt like I had said what I needed to say and wasn't sure if I needed to make additional visual work. But I came back to my research over the summer and began making drawings. Otlet illustrated his writings with really quirky charts and other imagery, so my drawings incorporate altered versions of his illustrations combined with pages from the index of an Otlet biography that was one of my main sources. I'm also using drafts of my article as source material for an additional drawing. The drawings are much more formal than anything I've done, but I hope they'll speak to the visualization of information and the research and writing process.
OPP: I've witnessed how little most viewers are willing to read when walking through a gallery or museum. Is there such a thing as too much text in a gallery setting? How much do you expect viewers to read your drawings as opposed to looking at them?
MS: Yes, I think there can be too much text in an exhibition. I think viewers sometimes rely too much on wall text to explain things quickly rather than taking the time to experience work and form their own understanding.
I try to make work that contains all the information a viewer needs to understand and access my ideas. Of course, text-based work is uniquely situated to do this, but there has to be a visual balance. I want viewers to read and look, but I know that most people just aren't going to read all of the text in a single drawing or exhibition, and I don't insist or expect that they do. So, I try to guide viewers toward the most important parts of a drawing or installation. Sometimes a passage of text in a drawing might be underlined, or marked in some way for emphasis. With Translation, I installed the drawing more like a document displayed in an archive rather than as art on a wall. It was an approach that I felt encouraged reading, and I think it was successful.
Ultimately, no matter how readable the text within a work, I'm trying to create a visual experience. How the work is experienced visually, within a physical space, is what matters most. I hope that if the initial visual experience engages the viewer, they'll be more willing to spend some more time reading and perhaps oscillating back and forth between reading and seeing.
OPP: You have invited people to submit copies of their own annotations in books that have been personal to them for your in-progress project The Marginalia Archive. This new work is definitely bringing in more emotional content by highlighting individual readers' personal connections to the texts they read, and your role as artist has shifted slightly from maker to archivist. Are there plans to draw these copies, or is the archive the final form? Any upcoming plans to exhibit this work?
MS: I have drawn submissions from the archive and plan to draw more, though probably not as faithful copies of the original documents. Whatever drawings I end up making I'll show alongside the archive. I exhibited an early test run of the archive last spring at a college where I was a visiting artist, and learned that the project needs to be tweaked to better encourage contributions. The project asks a lot of the viewer: find a book you've annotated, make copies of it, fill out the form, send it to me. So, I need to rethink how I can better facilitate participation. I hope to work all this out over the coming months and show the project again soon.
OPP: Of course, the very fact that it is difficult to elicit participation gets at something significant in your work: the slowness of your drawing process in relation to the speed of our digital lives. Many of us can’t slow down. But reading takes as long as it takes. If you are reading a book or using an eReader, the reading itself hasn’t changed. Just the interface. You have another in-progress project called Dear eReader which explores “the recent development and influence of electronic reading devices and book-scanning,” to use your own words. Could you describe this project?
MS: This project is still in the very early stages, so it's a bit harder to talk about, but it began with a drawing of a Kindle. Making that drawing got me thinking more about e-readership and what happens when we experience a text in digital form versus book form, or codex.
It can be very awkward to read nonlinearly on an e-reader. It's more like reading a scroll, which was once the information technology that the codex replaced. So, my next thought was to make an analog Kindle, one where the text is an actual scroll. In practical terms, this involves me writing complete texts onto vellum scrolls and casting handmade paper into Kindle-like forms for the scrolls to run through.
I've completed one Kindle sculpture, but I'm not totally satisfied and plan to revise my mould making and casting process. To say that my sculpture learning curve has been high is an understatement, but I want the project to encompass work that is more varied in terms of media and subject. I've been very lucky to have access to the resources at Pyramid Atlantic, a paper-making facility here in the D.C. area, and I think it's been good to work outside my comfort zone. I don't have a firm timeline for the project; like reading, it's going to take as long it takes.
OPP: Your work was just included in It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image + Text Work by Women Artists and Writers (2011), an anthology that is exactly what it says it is. What does it feel like to have your work contextualized alongside such prominent artists as Eleanor Antin, Louise Bourgeois, Adrian Piper, and Carrie Mae Weems? Were any of the artists in the book a major influence for you?
MS: Well, it feels pretty great! It's an amazing, beautiful book and I feel incredibly lucky to be included. I'm very much influenced by the conceptual art of the late 1960's and '70s, so I do feel a special affinity for Eleanor Antin, Adrian Piper, and Susan Hiller, and am a big admirer of many of the artists in the book, like Ann Hamilton and Fiona Banner. Today, we sometimes take it for granted that the parameters of artmaking are so broad. Many of the women in It Is Almost That were part of the generation that made that possible. In that sense, I owe a great debt to all of them.
OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Molly Springfield by Stacia Yeapanis.