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Kim Schoenstadt Wanders the Smithsonian’s Digital Archive and Finds Unexpected Meaning in Simple Machines.

Shana Lutker in conversation with Kim Schoenstadt | August 19, 2020

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Former Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow, Kim Schoenstadt, looks at the beauty and power of parachutes from the National Air and Space Museum, uncovers an original mechanical lantern Isaac Newton used from the Archive Center at the National American History Museum, and learns how lenses are made.

To commemorate MHz Foundation’s collaboration with the Smithsonian Open Access initiative, we asked artist Shana Lutker, one of MHz Curationist’s Advising Editors, to introduce the new Smithsonian Open Access collections to artists and talk with them about what they found. Shana and the other artists in this series are all former Smithsonian Artist Research Fellows (SARFs). The SARF residency invites artists to spend a month or two in the Smithsonian Archives in Washington DC, exploring a topic of their choice, expanding their artistic research. For the first interview in the series, Shana spoke with Kim Schoenstadt about her experience as a SARF and revisiting the Smithsonian archives via the Learning Lab portal.

The two LA-based artists have crossed paths numerous times over the years, most recently through Kim’s Now Be Here project, which aims to give visibility to women-identifying and non-binary artists.

When this interview was conducted over video on April 2nd, 2020, they were both in Los Angeles under the new “safer at home” order in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. George Floyd had not yet been killed in police custody and the mass protests for racial justice and against police violence had yet to begin.

As we publish this now, months into these crises, most schools, museums, and libraries are closed and the value and necessity of Open Access initiatives is all the more clear.

Kim Schoenstadt: The interesting thing about the Smithsonian Artists Research Fellowship (SARF) was that you would get rare access to the physical archives. I was very open-minded, since I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. So when I applied, I named four different institutions: Air and Space, American History Museum, Archives of American Art, and the Hirshhorn.

I ended up spending a lot of time at Air and Space. Interestingly, Air and Space was the one place where I couldn’t rummage around the physical archives, but I could dig around in the digital database. At that point it was in-house only and could not be accessed remotely. I also got access to all of their paper archives. They have this fantastic library on site–– there’s the big building with the giant atrium that everyone knows and then over on either side are wings that hold the library, the archives, and offices. The archives are full of binder after binder after binder of photographs taken during the various space missions. They took pictures of everything. It blew my mind.

Shana Lutker: We think of the Smithsonian as an arts and cultural institution, but Air and Space crosses over into science. That photographic documentation also has a specific role in science and is simultaneously an archive of cultural artifacts and relics.

KS: Right. And, part of science requires this sort of documentation. The first image I selected is this parachute photographed on the floor. Until they started using the space shuttles, every mission would go up into space with really complicated stuff. You need a lot of new tech to get these rockets off the ground. But to get them home, they use something Da Vinci invented, however long ago—the parachute. It’s drag and force. They’re fairly intricate parachutes with several chambers, but it’s still a parachute. I just loved this idea: that to go up, it was really complicated, but to come home, you just needed this simple machine.

The other interesting thing was that most objects and tools documented in the photographic archive were properly lit, elevated on a pedestals. The shoes were perfectly lit, the gloves, or even the cameras that they took into space, perfectly lit. The documentation of everything else in the collection is much more professional than the documentation of parachutes, laid on the floor, or shoved in a box.

“I wanted to see it If I could get away from architecture and move more towards perception, and how we perceive our surroundings, and how we perceive reality.”

SL: It’s very casual. More like an image to remind them what’s in the box.

KS: It’s almost like it doesn’t really matter. “Oh, it’s a parachute. We just shoved it in the box. And there it is.” But if the parachute failed, that was it. In my mind, it was the most important part, and yet it received the least amount of love and attention in terms of documenting its beauty.

SL: You came across this image in the photo binders in the archive while you were a SARF. Did you also get to see the parachutes in real life?

KS: No, never. Because I never got to go to the off-site physical warehouse of the archive, in my mind, I imagine it looks like that scene at the end of Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the Lost Ark, where it’s just the never-ending warehouse of identical boxes with number stamps on them.

They also auction off a lot of stuff. It was never really clear to me what was and was not still physically there. But if you do a search at The Smithsonian Learning Lab for parachutes and filter towards Air and Space, you’ll see an amazing collection of parachutes. 

There’s a lot of semiotics involved in the coloring. It’s also one of the most woman’s-worky things in the archive. There is a fair amount of handwork, as with the original spacesuits. The parachutes are fabric, and quite delicate. And yet, in this archive photo, it is just piled on the floor. I found another photo while I was a SARF that showed a woman holding part of a parachute up and a man in the background holding the other end. You get a sense of scale, because these things are really huge!

SL: And the things that the parachutes are attached to are huge, too. It’s not just a man with a parachute. It’s a big container with a parachute.

KS: Yes, it’s like a shipping container that you’re trying to float down and make sure it slows down enough so that when it hits the water, the astronauts don’t bite their tongues off. That’s a little graphic, but that was the goal. There’s a fair amount of language about re-entry, and the need to be careful about your body. 

SL: Can you summarize your SARF research project? Did you arrive with a clear project or plan for a body of work? How did it resolve for you?

KS: My Smithsonian residency came at a really interesting moment in my life path. My mom had just passed away, and I was trying to figure out a different direction for my work. I had been doing a lot of architectural work, always responding to projects, through architecture. I wanted to see it If I could get away from architecture and move more towards perception, and how we perceive our surroundings, and how we perceive reality.

My focus at American History Museum was color perception. For example, the next image I selected to show you is a wheel that Newton used to demonstrate color. At the American History Museum, I went into the archive with the curator and he just pulled out these boxes, and was like, “…and Newton used this.” It was amazing.

At that moment in my life, I needed to wander. I needed to not have the pressure of purpose, because my world had just been rocked. I’d lost my father in college and now I just lost my mother. It was a heavy life moment. I needed the permission. This was also the first artist residency I’ve ever done because I’d always had a day job.

It was really important for me to not have an end result. And ultimately, I incorporated everything that I learned in different ways, but there wasn’t a concrete goal to do a project out of this research. The research molded the way that I thought about things and the way that I approached projects from there on out. That’s the beauty of the SARF program.

SL: I feel similarly about my experience there. It’s an outcome of doing research without having access to a studio. It steeps. Coming back to the subject of perception, you talked a little bit about how the colors of the parachutes caught your eye and the language around color in the archives. It sounds like there’s also something about how color is explained and articulated. I’m interested in the relationship between the Newton’s wheel that you chose, and the Man Ray photograph of the woman with the glasses.

“That’s the beauty of digital archive search—seeing what you’re shown based on the words you put into the search engine.”

KS: That is Juliet Man Ray, wearing stenopeic glasses that filter or differentiate the world in a way. They create confusion in your eyes. I don’t know much about it, to be honest. I came across that picture as I was making my way in the collection and it struck me. That’s the beauty of digital archive search—seeing what you’re shown based on the words you put into the search engine.

SL: What I most appreciated about my time at the Smithsonian was that process of wandering discovery. I love the idea that you went to DC with that permissive assignment, to wander. That’s my guiding principle when operating in any archive, whether it be digital or physical. You find things when you’re wandering that you couldn’t have imagined existing. The discovery in that process is very rewarding. There’s a feeling of research. Do you also know this feeling of research while wandering in an archive? Is there a way that you would describe that feeling and its importance to your process?

“You find things when you’re wandering that you couldn’t have imagined existing.”

KS: Research is important to my work. Even the pieces that seem like they’re not researched and are one-off drawings, each building in that drawing is researched and put together for some wackadoodle reason. It might be as straightforward as they’re all municipal buildings. Or they were all done on the same day of one year.

Research without purpose is very generative. I did the same thing this summer. This time last year, I’d just done these two huge commissions. And I was like, “That’s it, I’m done. I’m going to give myself a break.” I gave myself permission to do research at the Getty Research Institute. I typed “women architects” and 30 books came up, and there I went. That’s how I became obsessed with Eileen Gray. I’m also sort of a secret archivist. I love the stories that archives tell.

A curious item from my collection is this chart of color standards. This is interesting to me because of an experience I had when I was in the Bahamas, collecting research for a commission. We were to spend the day touring the area by car. Before driving around, I met with a bunch of people, 20 locals, and they all told me what to go and look at and I made a master map. One of the things that came up and stuck with me was something a person from the city said: you’re going to notice that our buildings are color coded. All schools are yellow. All hospitals are pink. I’m not really remembering the exact color equivalences, but in the Bahamas, in this archipelago of over 100 Islands, they decided to standardize their municipality colors so that you could visually see the building’s purpose on the outside. It made me think about how in LA we’re so not standardized that even painting out graffiti is impossible—the colors never match.

So, I thought of the Bahamas when I found this sheet of standardized colors for the power plant and the Coulee Dam in Colorado in the SI Archive. There’s a bunch of other sheets in there like this.

“I’m also sort of a secret archivist. I love the stories that archives tell.”

 SL: I am now imagining walking in the Bahamas, turning a corner, and knowing—there’s the library—without needing a sign.

We haven’t talked about the abrasives.

KS: The abrasives are fascinating to me because I love thinking about production: how do you make a lens? I knew they had to grind or shape it, but I saw this image and I thought that it was really interesting that the abrasives that they use are rocks. There’s our projection of how things are made, and then the reality of how things are made.

SL: What is the focus of your research now? 

KS: I’m working on a show that’s coming up for Art Center in Pasadena. And it’s based on Eileen Gray, and her house, E-1027. My work is a response to the violations that happened to the house because it was either misunderstood or misinterpreted or mis-attributed. It went into disrepair, and when they tried to repair it, they found this weird color blocking that they thought was hers, but it’s not hers. And she also, quite famously didn’t like keeping an archive. I’m exploring the legacy of an idea. For the show, I’m moving into new territory, I’m coming off the wall and am making these metal structures of her original color blocking and her original intent.

Visit Kim’s full collection at the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab.

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