Astrid Kaemmerling

Studio Sessions

Astrid Kaemmerling

By Elia Rita February 27, 2018

Studio Sessions offers behind-the-scenes access to artists, writers, curators, and creative individuals through a variety of tête-à-tête conversations that consider the how, and what, and where of making art. Studio Sessions are presented as interviews, profiles, and studio visits through text, photo essays, and videos.


Cities, houses, rooms, doors; homesickness. In her installations, paintings, and drawings, artist Astrid Kaemmerling makes constant reference to the intimate experience of home, as well as its absence. Nevertheless, she is also a “walking artist.” Walking as a form of art first appeared in Europe as a soughing echo to the monumental American earthworks. Walking artists pushed forward the dematerialization of the artwork in search of bodily explorations of the unfamiliar, changing landscape.1 This legwork has them constantly on the move, always leaving. But why does Kaemmerling keep on walking if she misses that place called home?

“Home doesn't necessarily have to be connected to a specific place, so when I talk about ‘homesickness,’ I don’t necessarily refer to it in the way that we know,” she shares during our studio visit on January 24, 2018. “I grew up in Germany and I miss Germany...[but] when you’re nomadic, you transition from being rooted in one place to learning how to be rooted in yourself, even though you move—that’s the process and that’s the sickness I am addressing.”

Some of us walk away from known territories—by need or desire—and as we stroll, we transform an unknown urban space into a place of meaning. Nevertheless, without a secure, physical dwelling place to return to, it’s harder to build scaffoldings that can uphold our internal homes. Yi-Fu Tuan, a pioneer of human geography, a discipline that studies the interrelationships of communities and their physical and symbolic environments, distinguishes both concepts as follows: “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value… The ideas ‘space’ and ‘place’ require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa.”2

Astrid Kaemmerling. 100 Days of Walk & Talk, 2017; walking performance, San Francisco, California. Courtesy of the Artist.

Places, nonetheless, can acquire the menacing transience of space. Forced evictions, displacement, dispossession, and homelessness are a palpable matter in the Bay Area, and are especially perceived by the acute observations of city roamers like Kaemmerling, whose doctoral dissertation, “Walking the Gentrifying Streetscape: Artistic Practice in San Francisco's Mission District,” analyzes the manifold roles artists have played in gentrification processes, beyond being its agent or victim. These roles include “urban researcher, analyst, diplomat, activist, and/or mediator.”3 Regardless of the role chosen, when practiced with a dedicated awareness, walking (be it art or an everyday act) can be “a critical tool that enables the collection of impressions, feelings, and attitudes—walking information which, all too often, otherwise escapes.”4

Information of this kind was collected in Kaemmerling’s two-month Enos Park residency project, Walking Enos Park: Who Is Your Neighborhood? (2017), in Springfield, Illinois. The project included more than thirty one-hour, one-on-one walks with residents of Enos Park, a historic neighborhood undergoing urban-renewal processes after three decades of significant physical deterioration and changing demographics. While ambling, locals were invited to examine the history of the area, observe its present, and imagine a potential future brought by the urban-gentrification efforts. This walking-as-research approach, tested by the artist previously in the project 100 Days of Walk and Talk (2017) in San Francisco, allowed for unrestrained attention and trust to take place between artist and dweller, something highly valued by the latter and which—according to Kaemmerling—is not often easily attained in group sessions.

Astrid Kaemmerling. Walking Enos Park: Who Is Your Neighborhood?, 2017; solo exhibition, Visual Arts Gallery, University of Illinois Springfield, Springfield, Illinois. Courtesy of the Artist.

The itineraries of the individual walks, always chosen by the participants, were represented on maps, and the conversations recorded and compiled in two audio pieces: Who Is Enos Park? (2017) and What Do Artists/The Community in Enos Park Need? (2017). This documentation was brought back to the neighborhood in Kaemmerling’s solo exhibition, which was on view at University of Illinois Springfield Visual Arts Gallery from June 28 to July 28, 2017. The exhibition also included a group walk, where listening to one another (through the previously collected audio data) was the only request. In her reflection on 100 Days of Walk and Talk, the artist states, “If I just go on the one-on-one walks but I don’t share the conversations through composed sound recordings and don’t give the participants a chance to meet, then something is lost.”5

I asked her whether our particular “strengths” as walking artists carry a responsibility. What should we do with the spatial, cultural, and socioeconomic information collected from our strolls and encounters? Given her background as an educator and ethnographic researcher, she acknowledged that there are some responsibilities that come with having the tools to share the works’ outcomes. However, she is hesitant about superimposing that duty on other walking artists whose practices may look different and may have different goals. Kaemmerling has decided to stay away from providing unsolicited solutions and definite answers about structural changes, and to instead highlight the need for a variety of practices—poetic, playful, meditative, civically active, pedagogical—where the knowledge acquired during these experiences and its best use are necessarily negotiated through a communal effort. “There’s no one model, so I don’t think there’s just one responsibility.”6

Astrid Kaemmerling. Enos Park Uncovered, 2017; artist-led, one-hour audio walk, Springfield Art Association, Springfield, Illinois. Courtesy of the Artist.

These beliefs led Kaemmerling to found both the Walk Discourse and the International Community of Artist Scholars, where her observations are diversified by other voices, and footsteps. The Walk Discourse, co-founded with Bay Area artist Minoosh Zomorodinia, provides a space for walking artists, researchers, and enthusiasts to exchange tools, methodologies, and practices that challenge and inspire the different approaches to walking art. Every second Sunday of the month a group “walkshop” is hosted. The five walkshops that have already occurred allowed participants to drift simultaneously in both urban and virtual space (through Dérive App, designed by Eduardo Cachucho and Babak Fakhamzadeh); visit sixty-eight of San Francisco’s privately owned public open spaces (led by Walking Public); reflect on the systems of power that operate on the edges (led by artist Annie Albagli); collect the city’s soundscape (led by Michal Wisniowski); and explore the fleeting and enduring landscape of Chinatown (led by Shirley Huey).

From Kaemmerling’s constant interaction with walking artists, she observes that “walking artists set out to create a union between institutional conformity and activism [...] By placing their practice in the space in-between, they are able to provoke the system from within.”7 This medium allows for a subtle reclamation of a slower pace, and a celebration of unique places within the gentrifying, privatizing, vehicular space.

The International Community of Artist Scholars (ICAS), which arises from Kaemmerling’s academic background and goes beyond walking art, embraces the myriad procedures from those working somewhere between artistic practice and scholarship. She explains that after obtaining her PhD at the School of Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University, an uncomfortable feeling came with it: “When I entered traditional conferences, I oftentimes had to justify why I was also doing art practice, and when I went to exhibit my work in exhibition venues or galleries, or even mingles among artists, I felt that I had to shift my identity.”8 Wanting to test and push the boundaries of hybrid practices, she teamed up with fellow artist–scholars Emilie St. Hilaire, Gabriel Peña Tijerina, Deepa Mahadevan, and Afroditi Psarra. The collective impulse to set this initiative in motion was unstoppable: “If that place doesn’t exist, let’s create it!”9

Astrid Kaemmerling. The Walk Discourse, Walkshop #4, 2017; artist-led walk. Courtesy of the Artist.

Beyond Justification,” the second international conference organized by the collective, was held this January. Its open call for participation brought together a broad spectrum of practitioners ready to create bridges between disciplines and support Simply the Basics (by donating more than 300 toiletry bags for people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco). St. Hilaire referred to ICAS as having “the potential to fill gaps in the nascent field of artistic research, particularly for students in North America and those who wish to engage across disciplinary and geographical boundaries.”10

Walking together can be a critical tool for instigating change and traversing boundaries of identity and ideology. As walking artist Simon Pope remarks, “Walking alongside becomes a means to negotiate a flow — of conversation, of movement. Moreover, it becomes symbolic of an ideal type of relation, where moving together, shoulder-to-shoulder, conveys the potential for mutuality, parity, or equality.11 Perhaps, only through shared local undertakings that are born out of a multifaceted, inclusive approach like Kaemmerling’s, will we be able to create safe, resting places for those who wander across boundaries and borders.

Notes

  1. For more information on the practice of walking artists, see http://www.walkingartistsnetwork.org.
  2. Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 6.
  3. Astrid Kaemmerling, "Walking the Gentrifying Streetscape: Artistic Practice In San Francisco's Mission District" (PhD dissertation, Ohio University, College of Fine Arts, 2016), 282.
  4. Ibid., 18.
  5. From an interview with the author on January 24, 2018.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Astrid Kaemmerling, "Walking the Gentrifying Streetscape: Artistic Practice in San Francisco's Mission District" (PhD dissertation, Ohio University, College of Fine Arts, 2016), 48.
  8. From an interview with the author on January 24, 2018.
  9. Ibid.
  10. From an in-person interview with Emilie St. Hilaire by Astrid Kaemmerling at the “Beyond Justification” conference in San Francisco, California, January 2018.
  11. Simon Pope, "Walking Transformed: The Dialogics of Art and Walking," C Magazine, 2014, http://cmagazine.com/issues/121/walking-transformed-the-dialogics-of-art-and-walking.

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