Leah Thomason Bromberg visits the studio of Genevieve Hastings
The permeating June gloom confuses my sense of time. The foggy haze actually feels apropos. Commencement has come and gone; questions loom over my post-MFA life. How is everyone faring?
I escaped the fog for an afternoon, driving an hour south to sun-drenched San Jose where I met with artist Genevieve Hastings. Genevieve has just completed her MFA at San Francisco State University and I was excited to chat with someone new. In the midst of myriad projects, Genevieve generously sat down with me to chat. After our studio visit, we visited her installation at SubZER0 Art Festival in San Jose.
Tell me a little bit about what you do.
I started actually as a photographer at San Jose State. I did my undergrad there. I went through the photography program.I took an installation class with Shannon Wright. I was photographing in abandoned spaces, doing ephemeral installations with string, and taking things from the space and rearranging them. I found that what I really was enjoying was the space itself.
I worked with this artist Phillip Ross to do this piece at San Jose State where we basically made a room. I wanted to make a space that was somehow reminiscent of these abandoned spaces. I dug up wood from a creek bed. It was all rotting, so it really smelled. The floorboards were creaky, and it was kind of a very dangerous sort of space. Then I put my photographs inside of there. I found that after that first installation there were a few things I started working with, and scent was one of them. Everybody commented on the smell of the wood, the smell of the musty suitcases and the old letters. It was very participatory, and so a few of these things that I kind of noticed in that first installation were things that I ended up working with later.
Then I did a piece that was collecting community members’ stories about road trips. Actually that piece is a pop up trailer at Classic Cars West right now in Oakland. Then I ended up doing a sister car for it. It’s an old ‘59 PV544 Volvo. It’s sea foam green. Sea foam green and rust are my two favorite colors.
I started working with the archive then. A lot of my stuff now is participatory, interactive. It’s all installation based. I do a lot of creating spaces to house whatever work it is. It’s a lot of multimedia. I do video. And then work with scent.
I saw at Root Division you had your telephone booth, but I saw on your website that you have a structure for the telephone booth.
That was my thesis show. The whole thing started from the T.S. Eliot poem [“Burial of the Dead” from The Waste Land]. That was the jumping off point. A lot of my participatory pieces end up culminating in this archive on my website, whether that’s an archive of letters or an archive of postcards or an archive of people’s stories. They kind of develop a life of their own. Often times I think it’s way better than the work I’m making. I had a professor who said that my work functioned as receiving stations.
How do you plan these structures?
All of my structures are built into panels, so I can haul them. I really think about the mobility of pieces.
The covered bridge is in Santa Rosa right now. They’re building this path, so it’s going to be a functioning covered bridge in that people get to actually walk through it. It looks so much better out there than it did in the gallery.
A lot of these are structures within a building, so it seems like you like them better outside. Or do you like the structure within a structure?
You know, there’s this great quote. They came out with the book a year ago that’s The Wes Anderson Collection. At the beginning of it, there’s this incredible article that compares Wes Anderson to Nabokov and Joseph Cornell. I was like, my three favorite people! This is amazing! He says something about how for Joseph Cornell the box itself was a gesture. It demarcated a space. So, his whole world could be contained in that box. He was saying that was how Nabokov wrote his novels.
That sounds really interesting. That’s the thing about the inside of Nabokov’s space. He creates a space, and he gets to be completely in control.
He has his own sets of rules that he creates beforehand.
In one of your projects, you were talking about Proust. And then there’s that T.S. Eliot poem. Are you making a project and then finding literature? What does research look like for you?
I love research. I do love reading. One of the things I’m getting into is sensory perception. In my work I try to involve as many senses as I can. I think it makes for a more well-rounded experience of a space or creates a more believable space.
I read this book called Proust Was a Neuroscientist. [Jonah Lehrer] talks about all these different artists, thinkers and writers throughout history, and specifically about Proust and the Madeline cookie and how emotional scent triggers memory. He foresaw that was how our brain functions. Now neuroscientists have found that’s exactly what happens. Our olfactory senses—our sense of smell—is very powerful, because it’s the most directly connected to our hippocampus and goes through our limbic system, the emotion center of our brain.
I picked up The Wasteland, and I hadn’t read it in a long time. I’d had a really rough summer, and I was trying to get back into feeling inspired and figure out what I wanted to do for my thesis. It resonated with me on a level it never had before. I started reading the footnotes, and I started reading another book about the text. I was reading about T.S. Elliot’s life and some of the way he structured his poetry. I felt like I found a home there. His process of creating something felt more closely connected with my process than other visual artists.
I loved the footnotes. I love that things can be experienced as purely emotional or on a surface level; or you can delve into it and start uncovering things. The more you uncover, the more you realize there are connections between everything. That’s a lot to ask of viewers, and so I don’t ask that of viewers. I like this ability to access the things I do on a sensory level.
It seems your work is very much about the box we were talking about—that one place, but that one place gets to travel. You make them mobile and move them around and put them up in different places; but then there’s the footnotes or the poem that we can take with us. I like how you were talking about how there’s more for the viewer to uncover.
When I approached your work at the Murphy Cadogan Exhibition, I was like, All of these things are cool. I want to look at them. But I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to participate. I was wondering how you want people to participate or try to show them how. I had a friend who also does installations, and she made this booth. So I would just periodically go and stand in this thing for her to show other people that you could go in it.
It’s hard to direct people into a space. When people see the piece that’s up at Sub Zero, they don’t know they can go inside until somebody walks in. And once somebody goes in, there’s a line of people. If the line keeps going, which it does for a long time, then there’s people waiting to go in. But if people walk up and there’s nobody there, they don’t do anything unless someone says, “Go ahead! Walk inside!” A lot of time I’ll have some kind of sign like “Watch your head” or a welcome mat or something a bit cheesy that directs or invites people in. The other thing that I find is that most people don’t want to read things in a gallery—even a simple set of instructions like “pick up the phone.”
Sometimes people will participate, and sometimes not. I sometimes find depending on where I show, it’s totally crazy. San Luis Obispo—I had a show down there… I’ve never had so many people participate. I had stacks of letters this high. Some guy came in and put all these vintage photographs and put them all around the installation. Some other guy came back. He had a car in the 70’s or 60’s when that car first came out, and he brought in a picture of himself in the car and wrote on the back. My mind was blown.
I thought it was interesting that a lot of these archives are from other people. So, I was wondering if you put something of your own in there, or if this is about you collecting similar experiences to your own?
I think these archives are for me. When I started collecting people’s stories for the phone booth, I gave them the text, which can be experienced in any number of ways. All of the stories ended up falling into one of three categories pretty perfectly. There’s something very universal about people’s stories, and kind of finding that there’s really beautiful about listening to these stories and how connected you feel, or I feel at least.
Did you grow up in California?
I lived in the Midwest for a while (in Nebraska), but I was born in Walnut Creek. I lived up north near Sacramento in a small town. It was small when I was growing up called Lincoln. I moved to the Bay Area when I was in high school, so I’ve been in this area for a long time.
Do you think that has influenced what you’re doing? I’m interested in how people are connected to their places.
I think aesthetically I have this love for all things Victorian. The structure of the covered bridge things looks very much like an old barn. There’s this agricultural architecture that I keep coming back to. My aesthetic is rooted in a place. I traveled a lot in my twenties. I spent 6 months in Southeast Asia, and I lived in Spain for a little while. I feel like the way I engage with people’s stories is more related to that and related to the fact that I moved a lot. We moved a lot—every year, twice a year, three times a year. I switched a lot of schools, and so the way I engage with people, get to know people, has somehow translated into how I work now. I was always into recording stories of people or them telling some story when I traveled. I have a lot of sound clips from all over. They’re all obsolete now as these big cassettes or like the mini disc things.
Yeah, those were awesome.
I have tons of stuff like that, and I need to digitize it before it’s lost forever. I like getting obsessed with something and then researching it.
And getting to do a project on it…
I think that’s the only reason I’m an artist.
What’s it like being out of MFA now? How are you feeling?
People keep asking that. I don’t know.
I don’t know either…
It’s so early, right?
It’s been like two weeks or whatever. I’m so glad we got to chat.
I love conversations.
Be sure to check out Genevieve Hastings’ installation, Whispers to Marijke, at Paradise Ridge Sculpture Park in Santa Rose through June 2015.
Find more work, footnotes, and archives at genevievehastings.com.