From skateboarding, to exploring the European art scene, to what she’s working on now – Laura Piasta spoke with us about her life as a Vancouver artist and her current residency at BAF.
AB: What made you want to become an artist?
LP: I started dancing when I was about 6 years old, and I studied ballet until I was about 14 or 15. At that time I had injured my ankle really bad skateboarding, and I had to decide at that point whether or not I was going to dance for the rest of my life, or explore other subcultures. I started skateboarding, and I guess that’s how I got into making art, because there is a lot of art that happens in skateboarding culture, such as photography. I started taking photographs. There was a great photography program at my high school, and I was always in the darkroom.
AB: Did you grow up in Vancouver?
LP: Yes, I grew up in Coquitlam and moved to Vancouver pretty much as soon as I graduated. When I finished high school I traveled around for a few years skateboarding.
AB: Where did you go?
LP: I went to Australia first, and I was there for 6 months. Then I went on a road trip all around the perimeter of the USA. It took around 4 months of travel, in a Volkswagen van.
AB: You did your BFA at Emily Carr, and then your MFA in Sweden. What made you want to study in Sweden?
LP: After I graduated from Emily carr, I moved to Berlin in 2008 where I worked as an artist assistant, and maintained a studio practice creating and seeing as much art as possible. When I decided to do my masters, I was interested in studying in Sweden for several reasons and I found out about the Umeå Academy of Fine Art which is one of the most Northern schools in Europe. I was attracted to the extreme landscape, and the idea of the North and as a bonus the faculty and visiting artists were interesting as well.
It’s funny because I was supposed to do an interview at the school before attending, but I was unable to fly there from Berlin because it was during the time of the volcanic eruptions in Iceland. But I have a feeling that if I had gone to do the interview, the harsh weather and small town environment would have turned me off of studying there.
AB: Do you regret going?
LP: No, I’m glad I went because it was so good to focus. That’s one of the problems of living in Berlin, is that there’s so much happening, so much art to see, and so many artists, that you get a bit lost. Umeå was great because it was so small. There were about 75-80 students at the university, between the BA and masters programs. Everyone knew everyone by name, and if you needed something done, it got done. There was 24 hour access to facilities, such as wood shops and art studios. There was a real sense of community.
AB: Is there anything about the Swedish art scene that is notably different from Vancouver’s?
LP: Where I was living in Sweden was not the epicenter of art. Stockholm has a bigger art scene, probably the Swedish equivalent to Vancouver’s. However, Sweden being geographically closer to Europe meant we had access to international exhibitions and artists coming through. There were also more opportunities to have international visiting artists and philosophers give lectures at the university. In comparison, Vancouver is on the other side of the continent from Europe, and not as accessible.
AB: Do you still think about moving abroad?
LP: If you have a studio based practice, it can be expensive and unstabilizing to pick up and move. But my husband’s family is in Sweden and I would like to spend more time there. It’s nice to have that closeness to Europe to be able to look at art. I think in Vancouver, it can be easy to get stuck or caught up in life, and not have a chance to go out and look at art. There is a great art scene here, but it is young. Here, you don’t have the history that you have in Europe.
AB: You seem to use and manipulate a variety of interesting textures in your work – denim, silk, wood, wire, paint, plants – is there something about texture or materiality that inspires you?
LP: Materiality plays a very important roll in my practice and I guess texture is one component to materiality. When I am selecting material or objects to work with there’s most often a narrative or conceptual interest in the raw materiality as well as a phenomenological interest. I am interested in exploring ways in which surface textures affect our experience in not just a visual capacity but in through sound and other bodily perceptions.
AB: Many of your works have a central idea revolving around sound. For example, your piece Acoustic Panels With Fringes, or your exhibition Specific Objects Becoming Communicating Vessels – however not all of these sound-referencing works actually produce any sound. What is it about connecting visual art and sound that interests you?
LP: I’ve been working with and thinking about sound for some time now. I’m interested in the visual representation of sound, or objects that affect the acoustics of a space, for example objects that absorb sound, or change the physicality of sound and vibrations. It’s the intangible relationship to sound and space that I’m interested in exploring.
AB: One of your past works that I find the most intriguing is the Betula Contra-Oscilloscope, a device which claims to extract sounds from birch trees. I think one of the reasons for this is that, without having seen it in person, only having read its description, I can’t tell if it functions the way it is described to, or if it is meant to be ironic. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
LP: It wasn’t necessarily meant to be ironic, there is a sense of humour about it. I feel it’s important to have a sense of humour in my work, and more often than not it will be really subtle. The Betula Contra-Oscilloscope is interesting because Annika Rixen and I were trying to figure out a way to collaborate on a project while she was living in Berlin and I in Sweden. She sent me the writing that went along with the piece, and I took that information and translated it into an object. It was optimism that drove it, like we were asking, ‘what if this could work,’ rather than it being ironic.
In my practice I’m interested in the idea that art objects don’t really have a function. They do function, of course, in the way that they represent ideas, but they function in another sense as opposed to objects that we typically think of as having a function. Scientific instruments and objects normally have very specific functions, but there is also an aesthetic placed upon them, like an authoritative or magical presence. We were kind of playing with the idea of an art object having a life where it also had a function, but maybe that function didn’t quite work. It’s somewhere between conceptual and experimental, scientific and abstract.
AB: I wonder if you are familiar with Bartholomaüs Traubeck’s work, Years, in which he extracted data from playing tree rings on a record player and converting this to piano music. In light of the proposed function of the Betula Contra-Oscilloscope, did you feel any connection to this artwork?
LP: I remember hearing about that piece. I am definitely interested in the idea that sound frequencies can be embedded in material. There were other researchers claiming they could listen to sounds embedded in ceramic objects from centuries ago by running a record needle over it. I am interested in the idea of material holding on to sounds of the past, trees especially, which have a long history.
AB: What do you feel are the differences of working in a residency versus your private studio?
LP: I just started here, and for me there’s always the task of being comfortable in a new space, and feeling a bit disconnected from my tools and materials. This is a great opportunity for me to have a larger space than usual, and also to be able to have access to the gallery because I am able to consider the space I will be exhibiting in while making the work. I think it will be beneficial to be able to try things out while I’m working. I also find that in a private studio, it is easy to fall back into old habits and ideas, so I’m hoping that this will help me to develop new work. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity in different ways.
AB: What ideas are you working on in this residency?
LP: I’m really hoping just to have the time to explore new materials and process based work. I have some idea of what the outcome will be, but I won’t reveal that just yet. Most likely it will morph and change before the residency is over. Sometimes things don’t turn out, and sometimes things turn out better than you thought.
Text by Laura Piasta and Alexandra Best