Q&A: Ethan Folk
By Rafael Soldi | March 24, 2016
Ethan Folk was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. Ethan leads large, collaborative works which take form as: multi-media installations, experimental films, music videos, photography collections, and contemporary dance and performance projects. Ethan is committed to a nomadic career which maintains strong roots in Seattle, actively fostering and developing collaborations which connect Seattle to distant artistic communities. Ethan has presented work in Italy, Thailand, Germany, Sweden, Chile, Georgia, the UK, and Serbia.
Rafael Soldi: You took an unusual path to your current art practice. How does an engineer become an audiovisual artist and performance-maker?
Ethan Folk: Well I suppose that I was always an artist, even when I was in aerospace. I had been working for quite a while in photography and visual art but I never shared my work or sought out collaborations. At a certain point my priorities shifted—I found myself stumbling into a series of hugely influential connections/experiences within the Seattle performance community, and at the same time I decided I did not want to participate in the oppressive environment of contemporary American manufacturing.
Also: I realized that I did not need anyone’s permission or credentials to make art.
RS: Your first serious project, ARDIS, was a journey in and of itself. How did ARDIS come about, and do you feel that it set the tone for where your practice would eventually go: durational, performative, and exhausting? Why did you feel it was important to map this experience and distance into a visual representation, and how did you do it?
EF: ARDIS was one year of movement through Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans, relying strictly on hitchhiking as a means of transportation. I began the process with the intention of creating a body of photography, but I soon began to regard the act of hitchhiking as the artwork itself. Although ARDIS eventually became a large installation as well as a 9-hour performance, I see those products as texts which exist in dialogue with the central work – a year-long performance without an audience.
I am infatuated with numbers and information design, so I reveled in the challenge of 1) gathering and systematizing data and 2) mapping this sprawling accumulation into digestible installation/performance parameters. I also harbor a fierce loathing of the aesthetics, attitudes, and general poshlost which dominate genres of travel photography and travel writing, and was desperate to find a satisfying way to deliver what was (inescapably) a travelogue.
Suspended portraits of 257 drivers provide source material through which the 14000 miles covered and 6000 minutes of waiting can be transposed into a gallery setting. In ARDIS I, miles/minutes were scaled to centimeters (4:1). In ARDIS II, miles/minutes were scaled to seconds (5:8). Both works seek ways to convey duration through snapshots, division of space, sound installation, projection, and information architecture. ARDIS exists as an investigation of how journeys can be codified; in data and logistic detail, and in accumulations of personal intersection.
RS: One of the elements that I find most impressive about your work is the amount of production that goes into it. There are often many layers and phases, complex collaborations, multiple mediums, and even numerous incarnations. There is almost a spawning quality—the elements seem to regenerate into more and more complex layers of meaning and visual language. Vernae is a great example. This is massive project, can you talk us through some of the basic elements that make up this work?
EF: Vernae is a two-year cycle of experimental performance, installation, and film works based on The Rite of Spring, which I created and developed in collaboration with The House of ia, Devin McDermott, and Tyler Wardwell. It has been immensely satisfying to engage in a work that has had freedom, openness, and time to explore a proliferation of different mediums, contexts, and collaborative teams. Although it began with a fairly modest scope we were deliberate up front about giving the project room to breathe and develop. Ultimately this resulted in a collaborative group of over 60 artists and a sprawling body of live events, video works, original music, and developmental/filming residencies in Seattle, Eastern Washington, and Belgrade. Vernae culminates in a mid-length experimental film which will have a festival premiere in late 2016.
The process of mapping our ideas onto a diverse array of sites has been instrumental in the construction of Vernae’s internal logic, mythology, and semiotics. The high desert landscapes surrounding Tieton, Washington were hugely influential. Specific natural features became seeds which initiated development of new images and relationships, which were then transposed onto future sites.
In Belgrade we staged durational performances in places like The Drugstore (a cathedral-like Yugoslavian-era slaughterhouse), a glass box gallery on the banks of the Danube, and the roof of an occupied cinema in the city center. Each of these performances was entirely unique, and elements of each become part of the lineage of the broader Vernae universe. Womb-like projections which were developed specifically for Ciglana (a massive, decommissioned brick factory/hangar) became central in subsequent iterations, and will be reflected in the final film. A particularly voluminous site led to the development of a 40 lb. steel and wax kinetic sculpture designed to be manually hoisted over 45 feet in the air so that it could plummet into a milky cavity. Hand sewn mantle/umbilical suits were partially destroyed as part of a Seattle performance, and then were adapted as sculptural objects for later installations.
The squatted/occupied art space which hosted our Belgrade residency, INEX Film, was slated for demolition halfway through our production schedule, and was torn down by the landlords two weeks after we left. This atmosphere of uncertainty and looming destruction permeated our process, and ultimately led to the final performative act in the cycle, a ritual procession and burial in the heart of the doomed site.
RS: You are often invisible in your final works, acting as a director/editor. We talked about you being a creator by subtraction; you lead collaborative bodies on the production of vast amount of content, and you then masterfully edit this into a final work. Talk to us about this collaborative process. Is the collaboration process and the editing process a very different one?
EF: I find it extremely important to create open and communicative generative spaces, where each collaborator can feel a large degree of permission to broadly contribute. I also firmly believe in a subtractive model of creation: that the pruning down can be far more important than the building up. Unbridled proliferation, brutal pruning, repeat.
RS: Earlier we talked about entering projects through a literary lens, but when it comes to editing you often work to sound. What role does sound play in your work, and how does it inform your process? Have you formed relationships with musicians that you collaborate with?
EF: Oh, yes, sound is the most important thing, maybe. Artaud proposed to “…treat the spectators like the snakecharmer’s subjects and conduct them by means of their organisms to an apprehension…”. This is done through a slow layering of a series of “gradually refined means”, the first of which is a seeping accumulation of sound. Second comes a steady introduction of light, and only after the snakes have been sufficiently bathed in such an environment should one present “action”. I buy this.
I have had the pleasure of working with some amazing musicians- Kezz (Tamara Ristić), for example, is a classically trained Balkan folk vocalist who creates incredibly detailed soundscapes through an array of loopers and pedals. She became an integral part of the performance cycle in Belgrade. Working with pann+onn, an electronic producer, they improvised live scores which were performed live for a combined total of 14 hours.
The soundtrack for the final Vernae film is composed completely from live recordings of these performances. In this way there is a transference - although many actions and images which took place in Belgrade but were not filmed, they exist in the film through the documentary record of Tamara’s immediate reactions/responses to the performances and environments.
Sound is the basis for everything. Intoxication with the Stravinsky ballet led to the creation of Vernae. Field recordings of bees I made in Germany were the basis for my first experimental film. Designing projections for a live Max Cooper set at Decibel Festival was amazing. Music Videos are a delightful format that will be looking to explore further.
RS: I recently had the pleasure to attend PYLON I, at the Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park. I was blown away by this performance, and found myself unknowingly becoming part of it. Can you tell us what are some of the basic concepts behind Pylon and how you achieved this? What are some of the challenges of not only a live performance but one that engages an unpredictable audience vs. the rigid control that editing a film might spare?
Thanks for joining us! PYLON I (a collaboration with choreographer Coleman Pester) came from an investigation of surveillance and the ways we build and perform our identities based on observation (and our experiences of being observed). The environment featured a small core cast of dancers, a large cast which gradually emerged from the audience, a series of monolithic surveillance/broadcast installations/operators, and a live score.
This project was entirely contingent on the premise that we would be able to successfully draw the audience into participating (forming large geometric compositions and following modeled observation scores) without offering any explicit instructions. This was a huge unknown! We never got to practice or rehearse with a crowd of more than 5, and the day of the performance brought a crowd of 175. Not only were they quick and organic learners, they displayed a ton of initiative. And we had some wild people that really took the permission and ran with it. Luckily that came right up to the line of “oh this is exciting and uncomfortable and a little scary” but never actually became unsafe or distracting.
I think we talked a bit about how a work like this, with so many unknowns, might be reasonably viewed as more about the parameters than the results. Like, LeWitt’s definition of conceptual art where the decisions and planning are everything and the actual artwork is completely unimportant. I guess that’s where my desire for rigid control is somewhat assuaged – even if I can’t control the result I can certainly control the starting parameters. And if we are disappointed in the result we can just classify it as conceptual art – “the execution is irrelevant!”
RS: What’s next?
EF: PYLON II and III are in development to be staged in a theatre setting and a large warehouse, respectively. At the end of April I’ll go to Krems, Austria to work with Saint Genet on the world premiere of Frail Affinities, a hysteric opera exploring the tragedy of the Donner Party.
Images ©Ethan Folk unless otherwise noted