Inside Stefana McClure's Studio
Stefana McClure, born in Northern Ireland and currently working in the Hudson Valley, works with the dark undersides of texts. She explores the shadows left in fairy tales and the blood and protest in Seamus Heaney's poems. She knits paper texts like authors knit words.
She also very graciously let qu.ee/r Magazine into her studio to chat with her about her work and to take pictures of the wonderful (and sometimes terrible) world she both exposes and creates with her pieces.
qu.ee/r Magazine: How do you select texts to transform? Is there something intrinsic in them that you find calls out to you?
Stefana McClure: My work has a self-structuring methodology: visual form being determined by the process by which the work is made. Each piece takes a long time to make, so I choose texts and films that I am drawn to and want to spend time with. Favorite writers include George Perec whose work was dominated by the use of “constraints” and Gertrude Stein who reveled in repetition.
The fantasy Lewis Carroll creates in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass is so compelling that both works are complete worlds onto themselves. This is why I choose them. I wound Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince into globes for the same reason.
The texts I am currently weaving address the feminine in fairytales.
q: Translation is conventionally considered a “lossy” process, in that data is in danger of falling through cracks in the translator’s skill. In transforming your texts, do you think about what might be lost, and what might be gained from that loss?
SMC: From 1986 to 1998 I lived in Kyoto, studying the language and traditional arts, traveling to remote paper-making villages, working as a writer, translator and editor, and, ultimately, thanks to a timely scholarship from the Japanese government, devoting myself to the study of Japanese paper and paper-making at Kyoto Seika University. During this period I watched a lot of film, especially foreign film, and, as I rented most of these movies from my local video store, they were typically subtitled in Japanese. I have always been fascinated by the gray area that exists between languages and cultures and so was naturally drawn to discrepancies in translation. Not mistakes, exactly, but, specifically, the Japanese translation of female dialogue was consistently softer than in the original language. It was odd to watch strong Western women ending their sentences with tag questions or with phrases like “perhaps” and “I wonder” and I couldn’t help thinking about the distorted impression a non-native speaker would get of the film as a result.
Films on Paper, a body of work I have been developing over the past fifteen years, is informed, at least in part, by this experience. These drawings methodically remove all of a film’s subtitles, inter-titles or closed captions from a rich monochromatic ground, taking care to ensure that the information removed is formatted exactly as it appeared on the monitor on which the film was originally viewed. Made of transfer paper mounted on cotton rag, or, more recently, aluminum, the drawings are minimal compositions of two blurred lines at the bottom of a monochromatic field and consist of the superimposition of the subtitles or closed captions of an entire movie. To make the drawings I watch a film frame by frame, systematically inscribing all of the subtitles on top of one another on a ground of transfer paper. The process is subtractive: the surface of the paper is slowly eroded as successive layers of information are transferred off. Hours of translated dialogue are reduced to a ghost form, dense in the middle, fading towards the edges. The hypersensitivity and intrinsic memory of the transfer paper enables these multi-layered works to become palimpsests with the iridescent glow of high tech video screens.
q: Speaking of the treatment of women in art and media, how, if at all, has your work been influenced by your positioning as a queer artist, and a woman artist, in a world that’s known to be hostile to both?
SMC: I think of myself as a conceptual artist, rather than a female artist, a queer artist or an artist from Northern Ireland, although I am also all of those things…
q: To what extent is your work influenced by your life in Northern Ireland? Is it ever an intentional response to the The Troubles?
SMC: The first piece I made about Northern Ireland was called whatever you say, say nothing: a poem by Seamus Heaney and took the form of a pair of text-wrapped stones, one for each pocket, ready to be thrown. The poem is taken from Heaney's anthology North, first published in 1975, where he addresses the theme of the "troubles" in Northern Ireland head-on for the first time. Faced with irrational bigotry and hostility in the six counties, many of the poems describe a way of Catholics “getting by.” The entire anthology, reconfigured as protest stones, was shown at Dublin Contemporary in the fall of 2011.
q: Have the protest stones ever seen any protest?
SMC: The stones for North came from our backyard in Brooklyn and, after they were wrapped with text, had the edges knocked off them by being hurled at the stone walls of our basement there. It proved to be a fine way of releasing stress at the frustration of living directly across from a building site.
q: The arts that you deploy in your work—especially weaving, but no less the knitting evoked by the balled-up texts—are often historically gendered ones. Do you see yourself as pushing against that frame, playing within it, or something else entirely?
SMC: The knitted drawings began as a way of taking extremely unsavory information and slipping it under the radar by packaging it as homey and benign. These pieces began with Manner of Death: Natural: a hand knit shroud measuring 7.4 by 3.7 feet created from hundreds of pages of autopsy and death reports of detainees held in U.S. facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan and killed in US custody. The body of work also includes a series of heavily redacted drawings made from torture documents relating to "enhanced interrogation techniques" including the "waterboarding" of prisoners in CIA custody. Deeply disturbing documents presented as hand-knit reconstructions...
q: If it can be said that texts have an “essence,” do you see your formal translations as taking them further from their essential character, or bringing them closer to it? In particular, I’m struck both by how your work highlights the “made” quality of a text and how it stays true to the etymological root of the word “text,” the Latin textus, from the verb “to weave.”
SMC: The sculptural drawings that deconstruct books, often lengthy ones such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or the Rand McNally Reader’s Digest Atlas of the World, reconfiguring them as continuous balls of string, strive to find and distill the "essence" or "nature" of a text. A world atlas becomes a globe, a 135-chapter epic the embodiment of a great white whale. Distillation of time and obliteration and reconstruction of information characterize my drawings and sculptures.
q: One might detect in your work a certain violence towards the texts it encounters: they must, after all, be sliced up before they’re reassembled. Do you find the process at all aggressive?
SMC: I see the process as transformative rather than aggressive, although there is obviously some violence involved.
q: And finally—what are you reading right now?
SMC: I am currently reading Félix Fénéon's ruthlessly precise Novels in Three Lines which I aim to condense further into wall poetry and Alfred Doblin's Alexanderplatz, Berlin (I am working on a 14-part drawing of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic 15-hour film adaptation of the novel). And The Music of Chance by Paul Auster, which may well end up wrapped around the stones in a dry stone wall…