Suzanne Seesman and Kaytie Johnson: A Conversation

Suzanne Seesman creates sculpture, video, collage, installation and performance works in which Western histories of philosophy, education and radicalism are memorialized, criticized, coveted, and interrogated. Her solo exhibition Lost Worlds of Television (The Artifacts) is on view at The Galleries through July 20. The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Suzanne Seesman and curator Kaytie Johnson.

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KJ: Quite a bit of work in this exhibition seems related, to some extent, to what artist/writer/educator Pablo Helguera has termed ‘transpedagogy’ – that is, projects by artists that blend educational processes and art-making. Could you speak about how education, research, knowledge production and learning inform your practice?

SS: Yes, I suppose I should start out by saying that, for me, art production is a practice that allows me to investigate the languages, rhetoric, and rituals that have shaped and informed my worldview, my belief systems. I’m especially interested in tracing forms of idealism – sources that shaped my understanding of, and participation in, certain situations. So, for me, art making is a process of research in and of itself and, in some way, is tied to what feels like knowledge production. If it isn’t exactly a form of knowledge production itself than it is at least very involved with reinforcing knowledge in a way that feels very much like production. My most recent work is research-based, but histories of continental philosophy, early childhood education, and the materials of learning also inform it. It seems like a continuation of a longer strain of research, though.

KJ: You’ve said that art-making provides access to alternative logics. In what sense? And, how have these ways of thinking manifested themselves in your work?

SS: I’ve consistently used my work to track down sources and repositories of idealism that reflect my own personal, social, and professional trajectories. I usually examine forms of idealism that I’ve recently been engaged with, and often think I examine these on the way out. In my early twenties, I was remixing and performing workout tapes from the late 1980s/early 1990s, looking for connections to the motivation for my energetic involvement in direct action and political activism. At the time, I was parodying myself in performance. Shortly before this, I was looking at the subsumption of DIY culture into the mainstream. These movements would, for example, combine yoga and knitting – things that I was involved with, but also critical of, as movements of potential social change.

I was also doing work that fully indulged my emotional connections with people in my community. One project positioned deejaying as a kind of community service work. It doesn’t always come across, but there is usually a part of the work that is tongue-in-cheek, and a part that comes from genuine interest or engagement: a critique of an indulgence. So, making art for me is always a practice of inquiry into something I am invested in. It seems obvious that I would come around to making work about education and learning after graduate school, especially now that I am teaching. I’m not sure that graduate school is the source of it, though.

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KJ: What is the source?

SS: Even before returning to school to pursue an MFA, I was working in an educational setting. It was one in which a great amount of hope and expectation coexisted with pragmatism. Both are absolutely necessary. At the center of the work I was doing at that time was the assumption that the public school room was an ideal site for initiating positive change in people’s lives. So, I was already thinking about this history – where we are, where we hoped to be, and what we expect from learning as a vehicle. At that time, I was living in an unfamiliar situation away from the subcultures and communities I had been a part of – distanced from certain kinds of conversations that I had been accustomed to having. Conversations that were (almost comically) laced with references to critical theory, philosophy, and radical politics – not to mention other shared musical, culinary, and fashion-based interests. 

KJ: It seems like autodidactism and independent study are playing an increasingly important role in your work. Do you think that’s true? And, if so, when did the idea of self-teaching enter your practice?

SS: In trying to keep myself invested and engaged, and probably also a process of keeping some kind of parameters/definition of myself intact,  I was studying and reading on my own. I suppose this is part of why I’m so interested in independent study now. I was reading philosophy, critical theory and literature classics, but without guide or peer interaction. It seemed like comical mini-struggle copped up for me. I was trying to maintain a practice of sophistication that didn’t relate to what was happening on the ground. This desire to be back in an intellectually charged environment motivated my application to graduate school, but my experiences also made me even more aware of a cultural shift, changing contexts. When I got to school I definitely felt like I was looking for something that didn’t exist. Trying to return to a halcyon period. Hunting a mirage. Making the video To Sleep to Dream (2010) wasn’t a conscious move, but in hindsight it makes complete sense that it was the beginning of this body of work.

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KJ: You’re working with a wider range of materials in this show, and much of the work is object-based, which seems like a bit of a departure for you. And, there are a lot of houseplants. What led you to work with these new materials? How do the plants factor into the equation?

SS: The work in this show focuses on objects and on plants, especially the flower arrangement that disappears from behind Jacques Lacan’s shoulder during his interview/discourse with Jacques-Alain Miller, which was broadcast on French television in 1973. And, the strange egg sculpture in the background during Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky’s debate on the definition of human creativity, which aired on Dutch television in 1971. I see these things as mediums, witnesses, and repositories of knowledge. As you mentioned earlier, there are other things going on with this. However, in terms of the question of education, learning, and research informing my work, I do think of these objects and materials as being a series of didactics, as evidence of intellectual processes and remnants of ideal learning environments.

At the same time they are intentionally arranged, made, or modified, and represent the paraphernalia of these rituals and suggest that materials are integral to the transfer of knowledge, even if this transfer is rooted in the imagination. The same way we might look at a piece of cloth or a tool from an ancient culture and believe that it will tell us something about the rituals of another culture from another time. I look at these objects, their shapes and colors, as containing some kind of information about our source beliefs. Again, I take these ideas seriously but also try to maintain some playful, humorous distance.

Related Programs

The Great Books Reading Group

Wednesdays from 3-5pm (June 19 through July 17)

Join exhibiting artist Suzanne Seesman as she leads weekly group discussions based upon the Great Books Foundation’s collected anthologies of classic and modern literature from across the disciplines.

Philosophy Puppet Show (The Adult Edition)

Thursday, June 27, 6pm

Join artists Matt Kalasky and Suzanne Seesman as they reinterpret a philosophical dialogue for adults through puppetry.

Matt Kalasky is the director and chief editor of The St. Claire, a Philadelphia-based arts organization and publication.

Philosophy Puppet Show (The Youth Edition)

Join artists Matt Kalasky and Suzanne Seesman as they reinterpret a philosophical dialogue through a whimsical puppet show for children.

Pulling Shapes: Modern Furniture and Modern Ideals

Thursday, July 11, 6pm

Join artists Suzanne Seesman and Matt Spahr as they discuss the ideas and desires that drove modern furniture design.

Matt Spahr is an artist based in Richmond, Virginia and adjunct faculty member in the Art Foundation Program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Stop-Motion Animation: The Great Books

Thursday, July 18, 2pm

Learn and execute the basics of stop-motion animation in a workshop lead by artists Emily K. Davidson and Suzanne Seesman.  Projects will be based upon excerpts from The Great Books Foundation’s collected anthologies of classic and modern literature, which are on view in the exhibition Suzanne Seesman: Lost Worlds on Television (The Artifacts).

Emily K. Davidson is a Philadelphia-based artist and educator 

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