Interview with Kristen Neville Taylor

By Suzanne L. Seesman

“If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again–if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.”

Ursula K. Le Guin 1986

Suzanne L. Seesman: You said that you loved being at RAIR, and that when you were there you wish it was your everyday. Describe an average day. If RAIR was your everyday, what would that be like?

Kristen Neville Taylor: I was told the early bird gets the worm so I often tried to be there by 7 am, although trucks probably started dumping around 6. It’s easy to miss loads of material so a good strategy is to be there as often as possible to survey as much of it as possible. Time was shared between working in the studio situated above the offices and spending time sorting through material in the yard. The yard is busy with men working and that is the priority; it was important to respect this work and be efficient. If I had even the slightest interest in an object or material I had to decide quickly before it was swept away into its respective pile. Sometimes you have to make a case for a thing you want, like valuable materials such as metal that can be turned into money. In recycling, if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense. The bags, pouches, or recipients at RAIR are large Tupperware bins that are filled throughout the day and brought up to the studio later.

Process shot of the wooden bench about to be chipped

The studio was adjacent to a conveyor belt that fed inside from the dump creating a pleasing background noise. This combined with the buzz of 95 served as a soundtrack in the studio which strangely I loved and miss. I think the defining characteristic of the RAIR routine was the unknown lying in wait in each truck. Of course, I could make plans with the materials I had found on previous days but the element of uncertainty was most exciting. If RAIR were my everyday, the pace of production would necessarily change since you can always expect that the item you’re looking for will show up but it’s a matter of when and in what condition. Sometimes you don’t even know you are looking for it.

SLS: Your previous works make me think about our everyday practices of use, reuse and disregard for material. There’s a kind of intimacy to your work. It makes so much sense to me that Ursula K Le Guin’s Carrier Bag of Fiction is/was a touchstone for your work in Temporary Stay. What was it like, to be at RAIR where the scale and amount of the things so often exceeds the intimate scale of a Wawa cup, a collection of lint or an email chain about the Anthropocene?  

Photo of the chiped bench in ball form





KNT: I came to RAIR specifically to expand my Pre-Modern Pulverizing project wherein objects are crushed and formed into balls to mask their history, level hierarchies, and to make it difficult to put them in familiar categories. I was given the opportunity to use the industrial shredder to this end which allowed me to shred desks and furniture, something that would have been difficult to do on my own at that scale in that kind of timeframe. It was a testing ground for both me and RAIR and we relied on specially trained staff to run the machine so we couldn’t do this very often. As a result, I had a lot of time outside this specific project to respond to whatever else came my way. Ultimately, I returned to a more intimate scale of domestic objects from home cleanouts, 1-800-GotJunk Trucks, or what Billy calls “1-800-GotFriends.” I thought I might create a kind of anthropological study observing human behavioral patterns through garbage but there was so much more that didn’t exactly speak to this focus. So much of my practice is work about the outdoors made inside the studio. It was really important for me to have this experience of making work at a site specifically in response to it.

SLS: How did this ‘seeing what comes’ affect your process and practice?

KNT: It was a physical, intuitive way of working. Normally, reading and research are a large part of my practice but at RAIR it became primarily reactive. This process reminded me of the conservation practice in recreational fishing where sportspeople throw their catches back in. I like the intentional punning in this metaphor in relationship to conservation culture and recycling. In my case, I would make slight alterations to objects picked in the trash before releasing them back to the world. These items took the form of an exhibition titled Signals (Catch & Release) before they were returned to the trash or the studio.


Process shot of the wooden bench about to be chipped

SLS: What has it been like to bring these ideas to your studio practice since the residency?

KNT: RAIR operates under a different framework that is defined by expectations. It is inevitable that the resources you require for any project will appear but the question is when and what will you do in the interim. Sitting and staring at the Delaware River from a perch in the studio is an option and I made a few viewing devices for this. RAIR’s frame of logic is a shift in expectations that can definitely be incorporated into the everyday and I think it’s already common practice for me and other artists. The greatest challenge is figuring this system into an exhibition or gallery structure while resisting the urge to work in the kinds of ways time and resources are usually supported under capitalism.  I am still working on this part.

SLS: Thinking about this different mode of working and fostering a different approach to time makes me think about our conversations about comfort. In the work you made at RAIR, ideas about stasis or comfort are played against ideas of survival. Works like the quilt made of pipe insulation material reference architecture and infrastructure but also evoke emergency heat blankets.  Could you talk about how you see this relationship – between the everyday and survival?

KNT: I was influenced by a sense that the recycling center was a gauge of Philadelphia’s needs and desires. In “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Le Guin reminds us that larger systems and structures such as a home can also behave like containers. I began making quilts out of the insulation in the Pennsylvania Amish and Mennonite barn raising tradition to make visible a unique ritual that requires the involvement of the entire community. I was thinking about the fundamental ways that humans build worlds described succinctly by Jedidiah Purdy: “The way we live is a kind of collective landscape architecture. We make the world by moving around, getting food and shelter, staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”

During my residency, I thought a lot about the parameters of human comfort and its variables. I was there during August and September and I seemed to uncover a lot of camping and hiking equipment from garage and pool house cleanouts. Removed from their original context, a hurricane lamp or hiking boots take on a different meaning and I began to think about the performance of survival. The thought of going into the woods with very little in a technical costume seemed absurdly comical. In September when hurricane season hit hard, the meaning of these objects shifted and any humor in them was collapsed.

Photo of an experimental water filtration sculpture

SLS: You often engage ephemera, literature and rhetoric of popular environmental, scientific, and ecological movements in your work. How did being at RAIR affect your thinking about ecological movements or environmental initiatives?

KNT: I reflected back on my personal introduction to environmentalism and actually called my mom to ask her to uncover letters from John Heinz and other local legislators who I corresponded with for my grade school environmental club. Recycling really feels like a relic of the environmental movement I grew up with. Although I remember these initiatives as movements, a lot of actions were tasked to the individual. We were often told that we can participate by recycling, taking shorter showers, “only YOU can prevent forest fires.” This type of activity dissolves critical thinking as each action poses as a solution. At RAIR I began to think about individual vs. collective action and also the role of legislation in forming the way we imagine nature.

SLS: It seems like you are always reading and researching. What are you reading right now, and what are you working on right now?

KNT: I’ve finished so many great books recently (The Mushroom at the End of the World, The Sixth Extinction, Staying with the Trouble) but I should say that I have been Frankenstein obsessed. A friend gave me a syllabus from a college course taught by Frances Richard devoted entirely to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that’s organized according to various disciplines like bioethics, feminism, sci-fi, the sublime and film which became a great bibliography. I have been working my way through different film adaptations as I read the novel and have a copy of The Annotated Frankenstein by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao. In the Fall I took a class on Frankenstein at the Rosenbach Museum with Siobhan Carroll who wrote Crusades Against Frost: Frankenstein, Polar Ice, and Climate Change in 1818. I’ll be exhibiting work in response to a fraction of the ideas that this work and research has conjured for the Fleisher Wind Challenge set to open on April 6. The show titled FOREVER MORE is an installation of glass objects that explore the myth of nature as a fixed and reliable source of healing.

Kristen Neville Taylor’s diverse practice combines drawing, sculpture, and glass which converge playfully in installation style environments. Her work considers nature futures through science, anthropology, science fiction, and mythology. Taylor’s work has been shown at Little Berlin, Bunker Hull and the Philadelphia Art Alliance in Philadelphia, PNCA, Richard Stockton and Rowan University Art Galleries in New Jersey, and Expo Chicago. She has organized several exhibitions including Landscape Techne at Little Berlin, The Usable Earth at the Esther Klein Gallery, and she co-curated Middle of Nowhere in the Pine Barrens. Taylor is the recipient of the Laurie Wagman Prize in Glass, the Jack Malis Scholarship, and a 2017 Vermont Studio Center Fellowship.

Suzanne Seesman is a Philadelphia based artist, writer, and curator. She holds a BFA in Sculpture from Ohio University and an MFA from Tyler School of Art and is an Alumni of the member run gallery Vox Populi. Suzanne has received awards in recognition and support of her work including the Cloud Artist Prize and The Ilya and Emilia Kabakov Fellowship and has been an Artist in Residence at The International Ceramics Studio (ICS) in Kecskemet, Hungary and The Vermont Studio Center. Suzanne is currently the Artistic Director of Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary, a project of Swarthmore College Library made possible by the generous support of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and an Instructor of Visual Studies at Tyler School of Art at Temple University.