The Insides of a Thought or Emotion: An Interview with Colette Robbins

I met artist Colette Robbins in 1995 and recently had the opportunity to interview her for X. about some of the visual, psychological, and scientific themes she explores in her work. Robbins lives and works in Queens, New York. She attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and received her MFA from Parsons, The New School for Design. She is represented by 101/Exhibit in Los Angeles and teaches at Hofstra University.

Hippocampus_copy

Hippocampus, Graphite Painting on Paper, 2013

I’ve seen you refer to your pieces as “Rorschachs,” after the psychological test, but they also evoke body parts like pelvises, nipples, and anuses. It feels very Freudian. Can you talk a bit about this tension between the bodily and the psychological?

I love the Rorschach test as a format because its reference to mammalian symmetry makes our meaning-making brains start to see faces or demons. I love that adding a texture from water or a cave inside of the Rorschach format makes the viewer think of imagery from the body. I think our ideas are so linked to our psychological states, that I am happy to hear that translates in the work.

Parietal_Lobe_copy

Parietal Lobe, Graphite Painting on Paper, 2014

Your pieces have titles like “Hypothalamus” and “Basal Ganglia.” The texture of your work references geological forms and there is also a sense of artifact, of something being passed on or inherited. I recently read an article about new discoveries in epigenetics, that psychological traumas or resiliencies actually impact our DNA and are passed down to future generations, and it immediately made me think of your work. I am wondering if this, or any neurological research informs your work.

I think that the new discoveries in neuroscience like this one really help psychologists get better and better at helping people determine the roots of their anxiety and depression whether they are physiological or habitual. Also these discoveries help debunk much of the mythology we have built up around mental illness as a culture. I hope that my work helps open up a conversation about mental illness through the discussion of the Rorschach test, since that test has become an icon of psychology.

That is interesting that you see them as an artifact and then you think of genetic information being passed on from generation to generation. I think that our emotional states can be like very nuanced landscapes with cracks and crevices and with rough and smooth patches that very directly can influence those around us. I personally think of my pieces like the insides of a thought or emotion. Even though emotions or being emotional can be stigmatized as being bad, we are all made up of so many emotions and our interactions with the world are based on our emotions and emotional states.

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Basal Ganglia, Watercolor on Paper, 2015

I’ve known you for 20 years and I’ve followed your work. Your background is in painting, and then a few years ago you started working in graphite, and have recently started using watercolor and incorporating color again.  You also co-curated an exhibition that discussed uses of color among New York-based vs. LA-based artists. Can you talk a bit about this transition, why you went more monochromatic and then back to color?

I decided to go with an achromatic palette because color no longer became an important part of what I was trying to communicate. I wanted the focus to be on the values and textures, so removing color was a way to put the viewer in direct contact with what I was trying to say. However, I am always changing, and now I want to incorporate colors to create a different atmosphere in the mood of my work. The show I co-curated about LA-based artists using colors vs. NYC artists’ use of no colors was a show that allowed me to playfully observe why people living in different locations use color differently in general.

You teach painting at Hofstra University and have also done some consulting for emerging artists. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists or art historians who may be reading this?

For any career in the arts, in order to thrive, you need a community that supports you. Sometimes you have to build that community from scratch, one person at a time.

Technology? Art?

I’m a cinematographer and photographer.

(Is the distinction even valid anymore? A topic for another entry perhaps.)

Early on I learned the hard way that, like it or not, the ability to create something anywhere near close to what I envisioned in my mind’s eye depended upon an understanding of the science involved in image making.

Rather than feeling put upon by what, for many people I knew, was an ironic impediment to their “genius,” I was intrigued by the fact that photography seemed to be a marriage of art and science – if only because, as such, it put the lie to the modernist dichotomy which governed my education.

In the analog days, this meant that, in order to have any hope of control over the look of an image, one would need to acquire at least a working knowledge of:

>> the physics of light, film, and lenses

>> the mechanics of the iris and the shutter

>> the chemistry of film development and printmaking

Those were heady times. There’s few things as magical as seeing an image appear on an exposed piece of paper, bathing in developer, in the red light of a darkroom. However, nostalgia needs to be tempered by one incredibly frustrating reality.

If the images in your head happened to be in color, good luck.

Affordable color processing options were of mediocre quality and frustrating to use. The high end color processing options (especially dye transfer printing) were beyond the means of all but the most successful commercial photographers.

Fast forward to the advent of Photoshop. Well before digital cameras reached a quality level that made them reasonable rivals to film cameras, photographers were using new computer-based sciences to transform their celluloid libraries into digital files so they could make use of the freedom that Photoshop afforded to realize their vision in living color.

Soon enough, digital cameras caught up to – and in many ways surpassed – film cameras. Today, small mirrorless cameras capture more information than the famous Hasselblad medium-format film camera which went to the moon – and do so for both stills and video.

So where am I going with all this? I recently had a chance to shoot with one of these magical machines, the brand new Sony A7rII. And while I will try not to bore you with the technologies that make this camera such an amazing tool, I do need to say that it offers the serious image maker a truly unique combination of extended dynamic range, amazing detail, and tremendous low light capabilities.

But rather than prattling on, let me share with you some images I was able to produce. And in my next post, I’ll go into more depth about digital imaging technology and how it’s exended the photographer’s and the cinematographer’s artistic reach.

PLEASE! Click inside each image to see a larger sized view. Doing so will give you a better idea of the camera’s technical capabilities, which are far beyond what can be reproduced online.

Oqunquit Rocks and Weed

Familly on Rocks

 

Halloween Boy

On Jumping Over the Hump of the Sophomore Slump

Guest Post by Morgan Freeman

Hi all! Office assistant Morgan Freeman here with nearly another semester of office assisting under my belt. With my sophomore year well underway I must admit that I feel pretty confident when I tell you, the sophoPicture1more slump is real. Don’t get me wrong, it feels good to have finished my first year of my undergraduate career. Jokes about my name (thanks, Mom) have lessened substantially, I have found an incredible community of friends to support me, and –  for the most part – established a regular routine on this campus. So why the all slumpage?

Let me start off by saying COLLEGE IS HARD. I say this for two reasons. The first being that, it is. To state the obvious: deadlines, multitasking, friends, social media, (lack of) sleep, bridging learning gaps… I really could go on and on. We know this. My second reason for saying this though, is that I really do not believe that this is said enough. Using tools like Facebook at Tufts, sometimes it’s easy to feel like I am the only one who hasn’t met President Obama or recently vacationed in the Galapagos. This is not to discredit or shame any experiences that are not my own. However, I want to acknowledge that it’s not so easy to find balance between academics and… everything else. Here are some things I find myself needing reminders for, so maybe they will help you as well:

  • Social media is a great platform for sharing, organizing, and finding community. That being said, don’t forget that it can be deceiving.
  • It’s okay to say no if you can’t afford to do something.
  • It’s healthy to leave campus once in a while and it doesn’t have to cost money either. Go for a walk to Porter. Remember that the MFA is free with your Tufts ID!
  • Please establish a regular sleep schedule. Believe me, I know that all-nighters must happen sometimes, but it is so important for your brain to get enough sleep. Sleeping enables your brain to remember things, so remember that next time you are cramming for an exam.
  • Ask for extensions!!! If you are struggling to get your work in on time, please talk to your professors. Having open and honest communication with your professors will relieve a lot of anxiety now and in the future as well.
  • Build relationships with your professors. They’re cool! They want to talk to you! They are, in fact, real humans! They like food and coffee, too!
  • (Warning: shameless plug) Take classes through the ExCollege! I am currently taking Social Psychological Dimensions of White Supremacy with Tufts Psychology graduate student Simon Howard. As an American Studies major, this has been an incredible opportunity for me to examine race through a social psychology lens that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise (due to prerequisite restrictions). We work very hard here to make sure the student is getting what they want through ExCollege courses and I can genuinely say that I see this reflecting outside the office and inside the classroom.
  • It’s okay to get off track. You’ll get back on again and it’s okay if it takes time (a week, a semester, 2 years) to get there.

On Costumes and Creativity

One of the most valuable aspects of studying art in college was the confidence it gave me in my ability to make things. Is there a creative problem to solve? A vision to be realized? I can make it happen, or at least enjoy trying. I recognize this courage in Tufts students, especially around Halloween. From the Film and Media Studies Kickoff Celebration, to TUTV’s Horror Fest, to the Art Gallery’s Halloween Party, the campus is brimming with imagination and ingenuity. For creative types, it’s the most wonderful time of the year!

When my mother was in college, she spent her summers making costumes for an opera company in Chautauqua, New York. She loves to recount stories of her summers in Chautauqua. Example: A friend of mine announces on Facebook that she has decided on purple chiffon bridesmaids’ dresses. My mother replies, “There is nothing more heavenly than a violet chiffon! That’s what I was wearing when Pavarotti invited me to his hotel room!”

Halloween 1986

Rainbow Brite, 1986

It’s not surprising, then, that I had some seriously fabulous Halloween costumes as a kid. A store-bought costume would have been unthinkable, and preparations started weeks in advance. Together we would browse pattern books and select fabrics and embellishments. It was the 1980s and fabric stores were packed to the gills with sequins, beads, and tassels. What a time to be alive!

halloween 2009

Rockford Peach, 2009

When I was nine, A League of Their Own was released, and I quickly became obsessed. I listened to the soundtrack cassette as I wrote angst-filled, feminist essays in my diary. I read a novel based on the screenplay many times that summer, and my mother arranged for me to meet a local woman who had actually played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She must have been in her 70s and was extremely gracious about having a third grader ask for her autograph. That year for Halloween, my mother made me a Rockford Peaches uniform. It was her masterpiece. She pulled out her 1960s-era Catholic school gym uniform and used it to make a pattern. She drew a Rockford Peaches logo on Aida cloth, hand-embroidered it, and sewed it to the front. It was incredible. Luckily, I was an extremely tall and chubby 9-year-old, so I was able to wear this costume on Halloween again when I was 26. I was the toast of Greenwich Village.

halloween 2013

Amelia Earhart, 2013

halloween 2014

Green Dinosaur, 2014

I may not be as good a seamstress as my mom, but I do make my daughter’s Halloween costumes. We plan them weeks in advance, using the internet to do research and source materials. I take a more sculptural approach, using glue, felt, cardboard, and paint where my mom used fabric, patterns, and embroidery, but the spirit is the same. The sky is the limit for my daughter’s Halloween costumes; she can be anything she wants.

Mash-Up of ExCollege Courses We’d Like to See

We recently discovered The List App, the deceptively simple and addictive iPhone app by B.J. Novak of The Office fame.  Sometimes the ExCollege course titles all start to run together in my mind…so without further ado:
MASH-UP OF EXCOLLEGE COURSES WE’D LIKE TO SEE

  • Human-Animal Tango
  • Bad Parents in the Digital Age
  • Media Circus & Society
  • The Social Psychology of Movie Stars
  • Iraq Through Young Adult Fiction
  • Neuroscience & Career Development
  • The Gap Between Law & Sports

And when you download The List App, be sure to follow ExCollege!

The Trouble with Jellyfish

A friend offered to babysit and my husband, Scott, and I giddily set off for a date. It felt indulgent and luxurious. We were leaving the house at dusk! Scott had planned our evening, only telling me that before dinner, we were going to see “an art exhibit about jellyfish.” I was skeptical, but he seemed pretty excited about it. We took the T to Kendall and walked a short distance to Le Laboratoire, which presents innovative ideas and interdisciplinary collaborations. It’s like the ExCollege in gallery form. The front window read, “The Trouble with Jellyfish; Mark Dion with Lisa-Ann Gershwin.”

Trouble with Jellyfish

“Mark Dion!” I exclaimed, “I coordinated his ArtisTalk at Harvard! And we saw his exhibition at Mass MoCA.” Scott looked at me blankly; he wanted to see the exhibition because he had recently read Gershwin’s book, Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. It felt like the perfect intersection of our interests, and the interactive exhibition was informative and charming. Dion created a Victorian parlor with jellyfish prints and fossils on loan from Harvard, providing background on the cultural history of jellies. There’s a tank of moon jellyfish from the New England Aquarium, which is always the most dazzling part of an aquarium visit. A video lecture from Gershwin explains the causes and consequences of jellyfish overpopulation. A pair of funny short films and installations, created by Harvard students in collaboration with the artist and marine biologist, propose solutions to deal with the abundance of jellyfish. We laughed, we learned, it was the perfect date.

The exhibition runs through January 2, so check it out!

Spaceship Earth

photo courtesy of NASA

You may have wondered, who is that woman sitting in Howard’s old office scrolling through photos on NASA’s website?  I’m Amy Goldstein, the new Assistant Director at the ExCollege, and I’m thrilled to be here.  When I think about the Experimental College, I can’t help thinking about Spaceship Earth. That was the class I took in college that was the closest thing to an alternative, ExCollege-type course where I went to school.  Spaceship Earth was interdisciplinary, team-taught, and didn’t have a textbook – radical for the time!  We covered everything from global warming (referred to back then as the “greenhouse effect”), to sustainable agriculture, to the global population explosion.  Of course, Tufts now has an array of classes and programs on environmental topics and sustainability that I couldn’t have imagined when I was an undergrad.

The professor who created Spaceship Earth was a bit odd and truly memorable, and I’m indebted to him for encouraging my interest in social justice.  Even though I ended up an English major who went on to law school, it was Spaceship Earth that set me on a course of questioning the status quo and using tools like law to address inequality.

It’s amazing how one class and one teacher can have such a life-long effect.  That’s what we specialize in at the ExCollege.  I hope you’ll ride Spaceship Earth on over to 95 Talbot and say hello!

Mom, Apple Pie, and . . . Documentary?

As the new director of the Experimental College at Tufts, it’s my privilege to lead off with the first post on X, our updated blog. To this end, I want to share a few observations on something I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately: the surprising state of documentary these days.

Here at the ExCollege, for example, we’re offering a well-received course on doc theory taught by Natalie Minik, who’s a product of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. In addition, on Sunday, October 11th, we’re co-sponsoring the Tufts premier of Codename: Pirat, a film by Erik Asch about his father, Bob, the long time director of the Tufts-in-Tubingen program, who may or may not have been a spy!

And my colleague here in the Film and Media Studies program, Khary Jones, is part of the creative team that just brought He Named Me Malala to the screen. I mention “screen” quite intentionally, because the film is currently showing at suburban multiplexes around Boston!

On a personal note, I’m in the very early stages of launching a long-form project about a breakaway Jewish congregation in Chicago, called Mishkan, that’s attempting to meld progressive politics with folk culture and ecstatic practice.

It seems to me that all of this points toward a sea change in American culture. Over the last twenty years, people have started paying attention to films other than features. Yes, it built slowly. And yes, it would be fair to say that interest has waxed and waned. And yes, it might also be fair to say that – call it what you will – this renaissance, this golden age of documentary, owes much to a bookend set of necessary evils: “reality” TV and Michael Moore. (Reality TV and Moore both warrant further discussion, but I won’t take the time now to do so.)

Equally as important, I believe the ascendance of documentary has been driven, in a fundamental manner, by the digitization of media, a phenomenon that cuts two ways.

First of all, thanks to digital cameras and editing software, shooting a documentary at a quality level that audiences will read as “professional” is now within the reach of anyone who can cobble together a few thousand dollars. Once upon a not so distant time, that figure would have been a few hundred thousand, at least.

Secondly, cable and the Internet have exponentially expanded the need for “content” (horrible word, great concept). And “content providers” – HBO, IFC, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and so on – have rushed into the breach, providing the means to promote and distribute small-budget films at a magnitude unimaginable in the 80s and 90s.

Obviously, there’s much to work through. But for me, today, I’m left with these thoughts. We have a solid enrollment in the course. Erik’s film is garnering praise around the world. There’s funding and an audience within reach for my project. And you can buy tickets for Malala at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, and Showcase Cinemas in Worcester and Woburn, five or six shows daily, every day of the week.

Solve for X

X. Great band. The unknown. That something special. Where you are or where you want to be (as in marking the spot). Malcolm.

x

X. The distillation of Tufts University’s Experimental College. Fifty years old and still being born. Thousands of students, faculty, administrators, and alums. Courses that you won’t find anywhere else. Programs that pique the intellectual curiosity of the campus. A place where ideas are nurtured and sent off into the world.

X. Here. And how you’ll get to know us, what we care about, and how we think.

The ExCollege courses I’ve taken at Tufts

I have been at Tufts for four semesters, and I’ve taken three ExCollege classes during that time. The first was my Perspectives class, Superheroes in the Media, which introduced me to the wonderful world of the ExCollege and Tufts as a whole. I adored this class because I got to watch and talk about superhero movies with a bunch of cool people and two rad leaders, and then get a credit for the experience. (The only movie we watched that I didn’t like was “Daredevil,” which is generally considered to be one of the worst movies of all time anyway.)

Then, second semester freshman year I took a class entitled On the Record: Communicating for the Government. This course was taught by a woman who had worked for the Clinton administration, consulted for the television show “The West Wing,” and had been a spokesperson for the Department of Justice in the Obama administration. Her experiences and stories made lectures fascinating and fun, and it was wonderful to learn the behind-the-scenes workings of the White House. Occasionally I’ve considered entering politics after graduation, probably in a communications capacity (think Sam Seaborn on “The West Wing”), and this course made me aware of the difficulties and excitement that is entailed in such a job. We wrote mock communications memos for a hypothetical president. We had Skype interviews with the NBC News Washington Bureau Chief and writers for Politico and AP. It was an overall fascinating, fabulous experience that gave me insight into a possible future career path.

Unfortunately last semester I was too busy to take an ExCollege course, but was still able to be involved due to my position as a Board member. However, this semester I had the time to take the class Gender, Sexuality, and Comics. (It’s especially great because this course counts for my CMS minor as well as being generally fun.) I’m a feminist nerd, so GS&C was the perfect course for me to take. So far I’ve had the opportunity to read a variety of graphic novels, and even create my own DIY-comic. It’s a very different course from anything else I’m taking this semester    mainly Political Science requirement classes, alas    and so every Monday night I’m able to kind of let go and just talk about comics.

Experimental College courses give students the opportunity to learn more on a topic they’re passionate about, or branch out and try something new. They connect people with different majors and extracurriculars. Visiting lecturers are generally experts in their field, so courses allow students to really see first-hand what a person in a certain career path really looks like. All in all, I have loved the ExCollege courses I’ve taken, and I hope that I will take many more in my final two years at Tufts!

Don’t forget: applications to be a Perspectives of Explorations leader are due March 11.