Robert Mertens Interview
Robert Mertens was ECA’s resident artist for Public Process 2 during March and April of 2013, and was interviewed by artist, writer and ECA volunteer Rosie Lockie. He discusses his Public Process 2 experience, the work on view and his ideas.
First, a quick bio:
Currently an adjunct professor at the U of O, Robert obtained his MFA in 2012 with a focus in Fiber Art from the University of Oregon. He received his BFA with a focus on Sound Art from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008. His interests combine Post-Modernism, Post-Minimalism and the Post-Apocalypse. He owns and operates “The Weaving Room,” a textile and audio recording studio in Eugene, OR.
Mertens’ work centers on fiber arts and multimedia installation pieces. His interest in weaving lies with the possibility of regaining a sense of control over communication and the physical environment and the role of string in the technological advances of humankind. He seeks to examine contemporary attempts of constructing history and meaning through hybridizing technology and handcrafting.
How was your experience working in the ECA space?
It was fantastic, I had been working smaller for the past couple of months and it was great to create some larger works and installation again. I mostly worked during the day before heading to school. The Whiteaker has a very different energy during the day. As I worked in the gallery the natural light would shift and this changed how I hung the show.
I’m kind of curious as to what kind of research you might be doing. Is there anything in particular you can cite that has been a major driving force or inspiration?
Well, the Mad Max trilogy factors in heavily. One book called Apocalyptic Transformations by E. Rosen, which is about postmodern apocalyptic fiction. Another book called Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of E-waste, by Jennifer Gabrys. I’ve been influenced by images of Andean culture as well. Khipu, Peruvian textiles, and Nazca Lines. As far as sound goes, I listened to Disintegration Loops by William Basinski, a lot during the day while weaving. As far as weaving, I don’t study books for weaving, I just improvise. I’m not big on pattern books, though there is a good one called Knitting for Anarchists by Anna Zilboorg.
Looking at your work, I could see how the weaving process could be an organic way of working, letting the form take shape by its own accord. However in some, I can’t imagine creating something like that without setting up a structure beforehand. How consciously do you plan a piece out before starting? What can you say about your work flow or process?
I sketch everything out at first, layout in the gallery, shape of the individual pieces, details, then I set out to make them. I let the material dictate how it forms, so if I pull a piece of flexible conduit together to make a loop, it bends in whatever way it bends. Much of the weaving is done kind of patchwork-like, I tend to work on several pieces at the same time, so I maybe weaving a section on a tabletop loom, and needle weaving another section of something else, and crocheting another piece. It’s kind of chaotic for someone to watch but I have a check list of each section on each piece that I cross off as I do it. A lot of it is just knowing how a process will turn out and letting the material challenge its form.
Do you ever find yourself speculating on what materials you may be able to use in another 5 years, how technology might change, what devices might become obsolete and how that might change the appearance or concept of your work?
I have a feeling it will get smaller. I also do digital work, and I think of weaving beyond the more traditional material sense. I imagine working with code and thinking about the abundance of dead and abandoned web pages out there awaiting some manipulation. I’m also interested in working with pirated radio waves. Thinking about weaving broadcasts and sounds. Though, I think as a culture this tech-waste will be around long after I am. It just doesn’t seem to run out.
You describe your work as an “urgent plea for re-imagining our collective future and for embracing aspects of our technological progression rather than forgetting its past.” Can you unpack this a bit? Is this a way of saying technology will lead to our demise unless we “re-imagine” it? How much of your work is related to the practical world and how much of it is part of an imagining of a possibility?
Half and half. Part of my interest in these materials is their history. Imagine each object has an origin story, a life with its first owner, then tragically it dies (hard drive burns out). What typically happens next mimics how our culture deals with human death. We bring it to someone and make it disappear. This is a bit didactic, but I image that as a culture if we stop this habit of pushing the things that have lost their original function outside our view and embrace them or re-envision their function, we can still progress but find more balance.
This is where the half and half comes in, the re-purposing of objects can go in many directions but here are two. First, there is the “constructables” route: take something that had a practical function and give it another one. A simple example: you converted your records to digital formats and rather than toss the records, melt them into bowls. Or VHS tape, why buy new acrylic yarn to make your grocery bag? VHS tape knits very well and can become quite durable. OK, second, besides practical function, what is another type of function? Symbolic function, ie for most people art. The things we throw out aren’t only waste, they are a new natural resource.
I get the sense that your relationship with technology is complicated. Would you say this is true? Does it bother you that our culture has such a rapid input/output of what is considered relevant information?
I think everyone has a complicated relationship with technology, part of my research has been about identifying what we call technology. Anthropologists call string an early form of technology. And there’s no such thing as too much string. As far as information goes, humanity always makes value judgments, even on histories. I think the information age is the most incredible age to live in. We can make our judgments and still be heard, ie the internet. On the internet there is no erasing. There no longer can be a clear winner to write history. The world is starting to understand the concept of transparency.
I wouldn’t say that I’m against the speed of society, I’m not a Luddite, though I do hand weave. My focus is on acknowledging that existence causes waste, for some reason western culture has had a problem with this. Everything uses something. A tree uses nutrients from the soil and sheds its leaves. I better stop there before I go to the circle of li—. You get it. Or at least “you/we” do if its a Disney movie.
What do you have planned next?
Well, keep your eyes peeled for the pieces in the show to start appearing around town. The next step is to find them new homes and document them outside the gallery. I’m planing a trip to Peru for the summer to learn how to back-strap weave. I’m also hoping to link up with some people to do some performances with the masks and costumes I’m making. I’d like to develop a parade to go with the “ReArt Festival” that Next Step puts on in the summer.