November 2011: Interview with Katie Murken

Katie Murken: Continua
Katie Murken's Pop-Up Space
2nd Floor
319 N. 11th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107
2 September through 7 October, 2011

Katie Murken is a Philadelphia-based artist whose first solo exhibition Continua is two years in the making. The octagonal, room-sized installation constructed from hand-dyed telephone books celebrates sculptural color harmonies, while a separate space diagrammatically displays her conceptual and working processes. A welcome, rigorously theoretical addition to the city’s art scene, Murken’s DIY show reflects her experience as a lecturer in color theory, and her background in book arts. Whitehot spoke to Katie about her cross-media work, her interest in color and the digital-analogue debate, and her affinity with Schoenberg and the minimalists.  

Becky Hunter: You initially trained as a book artist, but have worked in installation for some time. How did you decide to bring the two together for Continua?

Katie Murken: I have always engaged with the book as a space where sequence can be explored through containment as well as expansion. Within the traditional codex form of the book the bound pages contain a fixed sequence of texts and images that unfold over time as the pages are turned. There is another opportunity for sequence that results from the sculptural nature of the book as a physical object. As individual pages are stacked and bound together they produce a layering effect around the exposed edges of the closed book. These layers can be read as a sequence that occurs throughout space rather than time. For Continua, I expanded upon this idea to create a series of twenty-four columns, each consisting of 65,000 stacked pages. As with the accumulation of information in the codex book, each page contributes to the larger form of the column and allows for the experience of sequence within this bounded space.

Hunter: I’m particularly interested in your description of the book as a “stubborn vestige of the analog age,” and your thoughts on the vast storage space required to keep printed books in circulation. How did you collect all of those Philadelphia phone books? Was that process important to you?

Murken: My interest in books and paper led me to begin collecting unwanted phone books from the stoops in my South Philly neighborhood. As the scope of the project increased, I began making trips to the warehouse where surplus phone books from the region are stored. I was struck by certain similarities between this “big box” full of books and today’s libraries. Both spaces exist to contain and preserve a physical accumulation of printed information, a debatable endeavor in light of the ease of digital storage, reproduction and dissemination. Libraries remain valuable, however, as spaces where the exploration of ideas retains a physical component involving architecture, arrangement, color, texture and smell. By engaging our bodies in the gathering and production of knowledge, books and libraries remind us that the act of feeling brings us closer to the state of knowing.

Katie Murken, Continua, installation view, 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

Hunter: Working with the contemporary problem of digital vs. analogue, usually played out in photography, you draw upon David Batchelor’s Chromophobia. What interested you about his distinction between analogical and digital color?

Murken: Batchelor distinguishes between the analog color wheel, a continuum or seamless spectrum, and the digital color chart, an individuated list or sampling. Digitized color ignores the grammar of spectral color, which consists of complex geometries and hierarchies that establish and describe relationships between colors. I have been teaching foundational art for the past five years and the analog color wheel still lies at the heart of the study of color theory. While digital color samples speak only for themselves, the color wheel introduces a physical space in which the myriad interactions between colors can be observed, understood and manipulated. The language of analog color is not reductive or strictly symbolic, and colors change themselves according to their quantity and placement. I am interested in allowing the complex logic of the color spectrum to enact itself through a large-scale installation work.

Hunter: Why do you think this is such a significant issue for artists working now?

Murken: The history of art is also a continuum, and one that we remain embedded in. Regardless of the critical importance of new media and digital technology to contemporary artistic expression, I believe it is necessary to re-conceptualize the fundamental elements of art within this context as a means of connecting with and commenting upon the past. Digital color revolutionized the production of art in the postwar period with artists such as Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Donald Judd. By focusing my exploration on the study of analogical color conducted at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, I forge a dialogue between these disparate historical movements and the tensions between analog and digital approaches in my own time.

Hunter: How do you see the concise, materialist works of Donald Judd and Anne Truitt relating to Continua?

Murken: I chose to use the form of the column in my work as a way of referencing and reacting to the works of minimalist artists like Judd and Truitt. For me these works involve the parceling of space to create a boundary within which to explore a specific material relationship. With Judd, it is a relationship of surfaces, and with Truitt a relationship between distinct colors. With Continua, I am still working within a bounded space, but one that is charged with a sense of infinite possibility and change. While binary relationships do exists at the horizontal boundary where two colors come into contact, that relationship becomes fleeting and immaterial as the colors continue to progress ad infinitum. 

.Hunter: You are keen to rehabilitate color as a serious formal element in contemporary art. Why is that?

Murken: I wanted to free color from its function as a representational device in order to emphasize the experience of color as instinctual and subjective. While it is common to interpret works of art according to a language-based model, color resists this type of analysis. It is first deciphered by the senses and then made sense of according to the viewer’s own history and experience. By giving color its own space in which to perform this exchange, I wish to suggest that there is still the possibility for an essential experience within contemporary art and that meaning can be constructed without a dependence on language-based forms. 

Hunter: Who else’s color theory have you studied?

Murken: The Bauhaus color theorists Johannes Itten and Josef Albers were particularly influential to my evolving fascination with the interactions of colors in two-dimensional space. It was the color sphere created by Albert Munsell in the early 20th century that led me to consider the enactment of color relationships in three-dimensional space. Munsell’s color sphere maps the three characteristics of color—hue, value and saturation—across the x, y and z axes of a sphere. We had one of these models at Tyler School of Art, where I teach Foundations, and although rudimentary, it was mesmerizing to observe the movement of color through space. 

Hunter: Continua is structured in order to “play the spectrum like a musical instrument… a rhythmic yet unpredictable score of endlessly modulating color.” On viewing the installation-in-progress, its vertical stack of colors reminded me of Schoenberg’s theory of musical overtones. Each note in the scale contains all of the others, at frequencies inaudible to the human ear: this is why we perceive and enjoy harmony. Does this make sense in the context of your work?

Murken: There are striking similarities between musical and color theory and the concept that harmony results from the invisible as well as visible colors was one of the driving principles for my work. The fluidity of the color progressions within each of the columns results from the fact that each color consists of the same three primaries, red, yellow and blue, occurring in different proportions. I wanted to make visible the invisible by showing how individual colors can be transformed into one another and that they are essentially fragments of a single element.

Hunter: How do games, probabilities and chance weave into your working processes? Why was it important for you to include this element?

Murken: My tendency as a visual artist has been to try to control and manipulate color to create a specific meaning that supports the concept for a given work. With Continua, I became interested in designing a sort of game that would allow me to choose colors from the spectrum according to a set of probabilities, thus eliminating the need for compositional logic and allowing colors to present themselves in endlessly variable relationships of quantity and quality. Within the game, there are elements of chance and elements of probability. The size of each color section is chosen at random and ranges in thickness from 95 pages to 950 pages. The colors themselves are chosen according to a set of probabilities that favor slow change or modulation, but allow for the occasional juxtaposition of more distant colors. This system results in unique and unpredictable compositions with in each column and throughout the space. 



Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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