Dialogue with Sven Humphrey and Robyn Voshardt

Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling

 New & Improved, 2007. Humphrey and Voshardt

New & Improved, 2007. Humphrey and Voshardt

New and Improved shows a manic flash-card script for positive thinking and self-improvement paced by an internal clock gone awry. Overloading between directives and objectives: I am . . . , I can . . . , I will . . . . the reader can’t prioritize between daily minutiae or life-changing goals. The handwritten cards came from an actual exercise in behavioral modification, and revisit ideas from the earlier Time Project. It’s difficult to determine which goals for maximum efficiency were self-generated, or which were influenced by an ever-sliding scale of cultural expectations and technological innovations. See this work under the video category at:


How much time do you spend together? Do you live together or share a studio, or do you just get together to work on projects as they come up?

RV: Compared to other couples we know (artists or otherwise), we’ve spent an unusual amount of time together. We’ve lived together since 1993 and been married since 1995. We’ve alternated between having a large live/work arrangement in Florida, a rickety old walkup in Manhattan, and working out of our small apartment last year to do a solo show which necessitated a printer the size of a piano in lieu of our sofa and left little room for us. We seem to expand and contract our physical and mental real estate every few years. Needing more breathing room this past spring, we rented a studio in a former knitting mill building in Brooklyn. We now have space and quiet and can separate clean from messy, desktop from dishes.

SH: I think we’d both agree we spend entirely too much time together! It seems we’ve tried every imaginable live/work proposition. We’ve lived and worked in large and small spaces, separate and combined. We currently live together in a relatively modest-size one-bedroom apartment and work out of a larger studio. In our most recent move to a new studio we made a point to separate our respective work areas with a partial wall. It works very well to define some privacy. But now we have a new problem because when we attempt to talk, we can’t hear one another at all!

When you are working on something do you schedule structured time together in a physical space, or meet online, or is it more organic than that?

RV: We alternate between free association and spontaneous manipulation of materials in the studio, to mind-numbing stints at our computers trying to catalog and edit volumes of data and files. We generate and work from an inordinate amount of stuff: boxes of drawings and prints, framed photographs, scrapbooks, analog film archives, digital photo files, video on hard drives and all its related audio and projection equipment. We’re usually at the studio together, but our work time there is unstructured, which can prove an advantage or sometimes be a detriment. It allows for vast strides of spontaneity, but it’s difficult for us to commit to a very long-term project and probably why we don’t think in those terms. I need long stretches of time without interruption and this is hard unless I turn off all electronic devices and shut out the world, including Sven. And I’m guilty of interrupting him also. Both of us thrive on constant reinvention of our thinking, process, or materials. Our collaborations are like concentrated bursts of activity, almost manic obsessions. Afterward we’re exhausted and need a hiatus before starting something new. (Likewise, when on a tight deadline we get in sync rather easily and forge ahead in tandem.)

Our daily work habits are almost opposite one another. I’m a compulsive organizer and methodical research librarian-type; Sven is organized according to his own system that I don’t always comprehend. (Maybe it’s my structured prep school past compared to his free-ranging Montessori methods). We both rely on intuition to overcome our tendency to be doggedly pragmatic. Mind-maps have been a good compromise for recording ideas and starting points that are otherwise lost. Undoubtedly our most successful projects begin with one of us asking: What happens if we just try THIS? That first take or off-hand experiment is the one that sticks, versus our best-laid plans dying a slow death on the desk or hard drive.

SH: Our habits are very loose. We can be working on many projects simultaneously individually and/or with each other. Each of us runs with specific interests and develops them independently, then brings them up with the other that allows for very organic conversations.

Do you keep your personal/professional lives separate, or have they become seamless and indistinct? Is this okay?

RV: They’ve always been intertwined, but exterior seamlessness can mask internal fragmentation. The vagaries of the art world(s), what we do and make, and our drive to continue with a pursuit providing little financial reward are inexplicable to family and longtime friends. We have extensive artist and art-related colleagues, but many friends come from totally different fields and locales. We’ve each had to adapt to a lot of change throughout our lives, so both separately and together we tend to travel across distinct social groups and situations. It’s a challenge to maintain your own sense of selves while being professionally identified as a duo.

SH: It would appear to be impossible to keep them separate, even with every attempt to compartmentalize them. I’m not sure they’re meant to be kept separate, just as you can’t separate your own motivation and intent from yourself.

Can you, or do you, turn off your research/studio practice(s)?

RV: Not very often. I love to walk, and for me it can be possible if I escape to the park or read a book outside. I miss having an outdoor space to dig in the dirt and plant things. In the city, I have to make a concerted effort to disconnect and get my mind to travel elsewhere. Finding time to do nothing at all, or unrelated to art, is a necessary diversion and can ultimately be quite productive and restorative. So is baking or cooking, because you can savor a tangible reward.

SH: No, I have a very hard time shutting off. Most all of my interests lead back to questions which can find some form in the work, even if it remains just a question of honing various perspectives around interests that I have. I don’t see this as a deficiency or defect, or if it is, then it’s something to be exploited. On an interpersonal level, it certainly leads to heightened tension and anxiety between us when we can’t shut it off completely. We’ve known this about each other for a while it’s elliptical or rather like an infinity loop we’ll be in sync and then out of sync. One up, one down. The tension and space between us can be quite useful to explore.

When and how did you meet each other and under what circumstances?

RV: We met in Photographs in Context with S.A. Bachman and Color Photography with Jim Dow at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Our first project was a collaborative assignment to construct a sequential narrative in 36 frames on a roll of film.

SH: We met in the ‘darkroom’ (photographic) when we were both at the SMFA in Boston. This would have been September of 1991. By November, I was spending a good deal of time at Robyn’s apartment since my loft was commercially zoned and didn’t have heat on the weekends or after 5 p.m. during the week. I’ll admit there were clear advantages in this coupling early on.

At what point did you start making work together?

RV: We started making work together in those classes, but more extensively as I was finishing my final project for the Fifth Year Program at the SMFA. After we graduated, we started attributing all our work jointly.

SH: We’ve been working as a collaborative exclusively since about 1994-95. There may have been a few projects prior where we lent a hand or advice to each other on individual projects.

Was there a growing period, when you had to get a feel for each other’s process/priorities, learn how to communicate – or did you click right away?

RV: We clicked right away and it just made sense to work together. We have an uncannily similar aesthetic sensibility and seem predisposed to seek out an optimum visual and perceptual balance, like an internal carpenter’s level. We bring different but complementary skills to the process. I think recently we’ve had to go back and re-visit some of the basic parameters of communicating and negotiation that perhaps others map out more concretely from the start. After developing facile shorthand, it’s important to reassess our expectations before making too many assumptions about shared interests and goals, or varying definitions of success or failure.

SH: I do think we clicked early on. We’ve developed a shorthand. Lately it seems we’ve had a very hard time communicating with each other. I’m sure, as most things are, this is not permanent.

Do you gravitate towards roles in your practice – based on strengths, or personality, or skills? Or is every project a different kind of adventure?

RV: We’re both natural introverts who need more time in solitude or with a few friends than socializing in large groups, which runs counter to openings and large art events. I’ve had a small number of close and loyal friends over many years, but Sven moved around a lot and had to quickly meet new people and start over in new situations. I tend to do most of the written correspondence and composition. Sven is better at getting out and talking to people he doesn’t know, but I’ve become more involved with social media and reconnecting through alumni networks. Sven handles most technical aspects of photo and A/V production and editing, web design, and our convoluted IT system. My background includes typography and graphic design so I still love to work on visual communication, drawings, and prints. We both love books and reading. When it comes to tools and materials, we learned right away to double up on computers and cameras. It doesn’t work for either of us to be the ‘backseat driver!’

SH: Generally, Robyn is an organizer. I seem to fix things, although Robyn would probably say I break as many too. I will say we don’t necessarily ‘work on projects.’ I know Robyn would rather that we do have that established structure. I’m interested in seeing how an idea can manifest itself in different forms. The ”work,” as it were, is (or becomes) finding where the idea should rest. This isn’t something that can be predicted. So I don’t like to start with that premise. I find it could/can and often does restrict that result. You’ve influenced the process by creating expectations, defined parameters, and often planned chance out of the process. We have consciously tried to give ourselves permission . . . and to allow for chance, accidents, and problems to arise that we react to. It’s that reaction that is often where interesting work lies, where you may not be able to explain why you got there or what you’re looking at, but the image/work keeps drawing you back to it . . . precisely because it doesn’t offer an easily defined answer, but often leaves you with the question. For me that is a successful work, or sequence of images.

How do you generate the concepts you work with? Do you draw, write, photograph, or do any sort of regular background practice? Is this a shared thing?

RV: I’m a compulsive researcher and hoard clippings, notes, and visuals in three-ring binders or PDFs. I periodically browse and rearrange the contents into new combinations and sequences, searching for underlying patterns, similarities, or structures. I go through intense periods where I draw or paint a lot, usually when I’m ready to abandon technology and feel compelled to make a mess with real unplugged stuff, not data. In general we consume vast amounts of visual material, whether looking, reading, recording, scanning or organizing. We both take photographs sporadically, maybe going for weeks or even months without doing so and then shooting constantly when it seems as if someone has thrown open the shades and we can suddenly ‘see’ again. Sven has started to write more frequently. We tend to do these activities in parallel and eventually achieve overlap by generating prints or some type of tangible evidence, and then spreading things out on tables and tacking them on the wall, intermixing each other’s ideas and language. Video is a similar process but more intangible and fleeting, and seems more difficult to harness into a finished or accessible form.

SH: We read, we walk, we talk. We draw, we make photographs, we write. Sometimes we do nothing. We clean the studio, organize ephemera on shelves. All of these activities are about finding rhythms.

RV: (response) …and remembering to record them before they disappear from sight or memory.

How do you make choices and negotiate decisions about what direction to take with projects?

RV: This is tough! On rare occasions it seems almost effortless. One of us starts an idea, we both like the potential, and run with it. There are just as many instances where it’s ongoing debate, or fraught with indecision on both accounts, or impossible because of the expense and we abandon it, at least temporarily. If it’s something that only Sven feels strongly about trying, I realize now that I should let him see where it goes before trying to force my involvement and shut it down entirely. Sometimes the collaboration comes from combining finished individual ideas with the goal of creating an assemblage better than the sum of the parts. It seems naive and frustrating to expect that all collaborative attempts should be a utopian and democratic process entirely, or always.

SH: It’s a give and take between us. Generally it evolves very quickly once an idea is taking shape. I’m not sure there is a specific point we can pinpoint that would give much clarity to this part. Sometimes it’s about keeping the experience (the act of seeing the image or images together) alive, then fixing it for someone else to see.

Our work is certainly generated out of that need or desire to experience, as well as to connect to a longer historical continuum where those questions are reflected upon.

The question which Plato’s Meno posed to Socrates is a good example: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

As is Rebecca Solnit’s more contemporary reading: “Artists get you out onto the dark sea.…The thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost” (Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005).

Does your collaboration ever involve more people? If no, why not? If yes, then when and how does that work?

RV: We involve other people only when it’s necessary for an idea to get realized in a finished form. For example, when we work on prints with a master printmaker, she brings her knowledge of that process and its possibilities and limitations into line with our ideas. She’s already accustomed to collaborating with notoriously difficult artists and their sometimes crazy spoken and unspoken demands. She also works in close proximity to her husband who’s a sculptor, so there’s understanding and empathy there with us as a couple. Even so, we’ve tried projects that haven’t gotten off the ground or stopped midway through. We know eventually we’ll hit on something we’re all invested in and be mutually satisfied with the results.

More often, we work with other people whom we engage for professional services, offset printing, or fabrication. Situations involving fees for service are usually more formal in their arrangements, but equally subject to potential for collaborative success or disaster if all parties don’t tend to the working relationship. We know to never assume anything . . . and the parameters and expectations must be clear from the start.

SH: No we have not. In regard to the production of our work, we’ve always made all of our own work. We take all of our own images, still and moving. We record and mix all of our own sound. We edit all of our projects. We do work with good people for mounting and framing our photographic and drawing works.

I remember a collaborative class project years ago that involved close to 10 people. Needless to say it was a difficult thing to pull off. My contribution was to facilitate all the voices (at the expense of my own). It was an interesting study of motivation, and a role I assumed again last year while serving on a 12-person criminal trial jury in Manhattan.

Will you describe a project that didn’t work out or you didn’t follow through on? Can you describe something that you couldn’t agree on or you didn’t feel like you were both “into?”

RV: Recently we’ve been working on a series of photogravures from video stills. It’s a challenge because video pixels behave very differently in a projection than trying to capture and etch them onto a printing plate that’s hand-rubbed with ink and translated onto paper without a light-source. It’s a reverse digital to mechanical process influenced by human involvement and the hand. Though the first attempt hasn’t achieved the level of ephemerality and luminosity we’re all searching for, I think it’s something we’ll try again from different iterations of the source material. We’re captivated by the interplay, overlap, and tension between analog and digital imagery, and the archaic with the new. I think we need to be more patient with ourselves and not expect instant results to which we’ve grown so accustomed.

SH: I would describe them as ideas that didn’t find footing or traction than as a ”project.” A project, or series of ideas, in my mind would be the thing finished which you can’t know before you’ve started or are even the middle of. There are really too many to speak to. I guess in general they’re often left open, as ideas to be revisited.

What kinds of singular processes or practices, studio or research, do you maintain as individuals that you may or may not bring into the collaboration?

RV: This year I’ve been working on a number of ideas for patterns and surface design that may merge with video installation. I’m also reintroducing myself to some prior interests in typography and graphic design and talking to people working in fashion and interiors. Sven has been exploring more in film, video and artists’ books. He has also investing more time in how to catalog, archive, and preserve our video work and looking to further a dialogue between video artists, curators, and conservators. Much of the emphasis on conservation has been placed on preserving seminal past works (rightly so), but there’s a huge void in addressing standards for presentation and preservation for current work being made by contemporary artists. Many decisions have been left to the art market instead of being determined by artists, who need to assume responsibility and a more active role if they want to ensure longevity for their work or consistency in presentation.

SH: We share so much. . . . I’m not aware of any that we deliberately keep out of the collaboration.

SH: (response) Specifically with video/sound installations, the question of what the ”work” is remains an ongoing concern. Since the work is usually site-specific, or needs to be considered in relation to the body in space, the textual/contextual detail describing the work is crucial to ensure its successful presentation over time and changing technology. Also critical is the plan for migrating the files (video/sound) forward, both for the studio, collector, and museum. After all, artists are the work’s first conservators. As a collaborative we’re already having that dialogue about how to fix the work in form, space, and over time.

Do you make your own work in addition to the collaborative work, and what sort of need does this fill?

RV: We have begun pursuing more interests separately. It seemed a threat to our long history as a collaborative, but I’ve found it rewarding to reacquaint myself with other disciplines that I’d shelved since college. When objects I make are shown, they’re attributed to both of us as part of the collective process (except in one case when an individual artist grant necessitated only my name). My satisfaction comes from making something without answering to anyone else, or having to defend an idea before making it happen. I suppose if I wanted to present some of these objects and Sven didn’t agree, I’d need to figure out a way to do so that didn’t conflict with our collaboration.

SH: We do make our own work. We don’t currently maintain two separate practices on top of the collaborative. I’m sure that could change. We make all kinds of work in the studio. Much of it doesn’t find it’s way into a public form.

If you maintain an individual practice as well as a collaborative practice, have you run into conflicts of interest, time-management/priority issues, or experienced communication problems due to multiple focuses at any point? How is this resolved?

RV: We’re currently working through some of these issues. Some of the ideas I have in mind don’t clearly mesh with our work together as it has been known, and talk of making a change is often difficult for any couple. I, or both of us, if we choose to work together on these new projects, will likely do so under a fictitious name or names. Time management will have to be determined as we go. Thankfully, we’re not talking about two different geographic locations! These are difficult questions when you’ve been working together for many years under certain parameters and one or both of you needs a new challenge or direction while maintaining a joint living and working relationship privately and publicly.

SH: I suspect if we began maintaining three distinct practices we would have to address these concerns. Since we already have multiple focuses within our collaborative, I imagine it may not be as difficult to allow them all a voice at the same time. We were supportive of one another in the past and I see no reason why we wouldn’t be in the future.

We have had discussions about producing work under various pseudonyms. It’s quite possible that we need other forms than the collaborative model we’ve been working in to allow for the various voices we have individually. Our process is admittedly a bit schizophrenic. We both have committees in our heads, the combined result of which would certainly be confusing to a viewer.

What are the strengths in working collaboratively and what are the challenges in working collaboratively?

RV: Collaboration encourages you to expand your ideas and skills beyond that which you know or can possibly manage to master only by yourself. You get twice the entrepreneurial drive, people- and brain-power, and can share resources and a lifetime’s experiences. You’re not alone to face a blank wall in the studio, and you have at least one audience member, an alter ego, advocate and confidante. On the other hand, you can veer from constructive debate to getting stuck as two intractably stubborn people, or working counter to one another knowingly or unknowingly. You still need to set aside time for yourself and with others. Beyond a two-person collaborative, I can’t begin to speculate how people do it without a clear sense of leadership or structure, whether flexible or prescribed. I confess I’ve never been known as a “team player” and blind group-think across organizations and cliques really frightens me. Even in my long-ago roles as an employee, I was allowed to work independently and checked in with those in charge only when necessary.

SH: Ask the same question of anyone in a relationship over time in life and I think you’d have, more or less universal answers. Our challenges are not unique. The strength of a collaborative art practice is that it gives us a perfect tool/foil to give ourselves permission…in anything we would like to explore.

I heard someone recently referring to an artist’s practice lying somewhere between melancholia and utopia – the isolation of the studio or working alone with the result/ product of the work being that idea or utopia presented. In a collaborative you still have that melancholia. It’s now amplified, although tempered a bit with regard to loneliness.

But the utopia is now represented in the struggle or tension between two. The resulting work doesn’t have to posit itself as a finished utopian idea, merely evidence of that effort – the sticky, messy, guts of the thing – of life itself. Our collaborative is a kind of gray matter that gives rise to those perceptions, traces, and observations – experiences.

What sort of theory, cultural circumstances, or life scenarios influence or inform your decision to work collaboratively? Would you say that your collaboration is philosophically driven, or more pragmatic?

RV: At its most productive and rewarding, our collaboration is both philosophical and pragmatic. It has allowed us to continue working in a more experimental scenario, whereas solo we would’ve felt REALLY alone or counter to what’s ”on trend.”

We’re both proponents of being avid generalists instead of specialists. Eventually we arrive at a project where individually generated elements integrate, or set up a marked contrast. To us, collaboration has always been as much about the reality of tension rather than the semblance of idyllic accord.

SH: When we first met, our conversations were driven out of two primary locations – time and memory – specifically as they related to existential questions. One reason a collaborative seemed possible was that there was so much overlap in our interests. It was also clear that we each brought different skills and knowledge to the collaborative. Robyn’s analytical approach brings volumes of research from far-flung sources. My propensity for thinking abstractly allows for chance and accidents to align.

One way to describe how this works is that of a three dimensional space. All of the different approaches can have their place, much as a writer can employ different voices such as first—or third–person. A collaborative allows that option of a seemingly neutral, non-gendered perspective. Or if we desire it can have a more focused voice, male or female.

We’ve both had close calls in our lives, leading us to be very aware of our own mortality.

If you teach, how does collaborative practice inform the way you facilitate student projects and teach studio courses?

RV: We’ve never taught, but have given artist talks and presentations together to art school students and museum audiences.

SH: I’m not opposed to teaching. I would consider it in the future.

If you teach, do you co-teach? If you do co-teach, how has that been received by the students, and how has this been received in the academic institutions you have worked with?

RV: Speaking to groups of students we’ve found them surprisingly more receptive to our ideas and way of working than we’d imagined. They seem eager to embrace new models and modes of working.

SH: We have given talks to a number of art schools and museums. These often allowed for extended interaction with students and the general public. Our talks have been received quite well, so we’re told. While the oddity of being a collaborative is initially what people focus on, i.e., Do we argue? How did you make the work? Who did what? etc., they begin to realize that the permission we give ourselves in this model allows for a different kind of inquiry and resulting work.

Please point to us at a project or projects you would like to describe. Include links or attach files. If relevant, share with us a sense of the collaborative back-and-forth that may have gone into planning and making the work.

RV: More often our work employs metaphor than autobiography, but New and Improved is a strong example of how our lives and art practice can intersect in unexpected ways. From a personal attempt to willfully rethink a lot of things in my life, came a spontaneous recording Sven made of me flipping through my index card ‘script’ (and the only time our written narrative has ended up on film or video). My private analog hypercard retrieval system became a runaway digital HYPER-card scenario shuffling through constructs of time, value, happiness, reward, and motivation – not just in my life but pointing to contemporary culture. My script, myself, our lives . . . his recording and editing . . . our collaborative surprise that was at once pleasingly spontaneous, frighteningly concrete, and vulnerably public.

New & Improved, 2007, (2 min 21 sec), HD single channel video/sound, dim. var. synopsis: New and Improved shows a manic flash-card script for positive thinking and self-improvement paced by an internal clock gone awry. Overloading between directives and objectives: I am . . . , I can . . . , I will . . . . the reader can’t prioritize between daily minutiae or life-changing goals. The handwritten cards came from an actual exercise in behavioral modification, and revisit ideas from the earlier Time Project. It’s difficult to determine which goals for maximum efficiency were self-generated, or which were influenced by an ever-sliding scale of cultural expectations and technological innovations. It’s a poignant collision of conflicting ideals: the remnants of a stringent work ethic vs. self-regulated emotional development attempting to keep pace in a post-Fordist global economy.

Available on our website under “Video” (in Flash) WEBSITE: http://www.voshardthumphrey.com

Robyn Voshardt/Sven Humphrey explore states of being, temporal records, and cognitive patterns on personal, social, and institutional levels. They intend to create a pause for a contradictory experience: intimately inside one’s head yet a universal thought, requiring patience yet timeless, about that moment but lingering in an afterimage.

Voshardt/Humphrey have collaborated on photo, video, and print projects since meeting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Exhibitions and screenings include V/07 Venice Videoart Fair, Italy; Arteleku and KM Kulturunea at MID_E in San Sebastían, Spain; Directors Lounge, Berlin; Aurora Picture Show, Houston; SPACES, Cleveland; Vernacular Terrain, Australia; DiVA Streets NY; Greene Contemporary, New York; Tampa Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and Bleu Acier in Florida. Studio presentations and artist talks include: Museum of Fine Arts Boston Contemporaries; Ringling School of Art & Design Selby Gallery, RSAD Photography Department, RSAD Development Committee; John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art; and Tampa Museum of Art. Voshardt/Humphrey live in Manhattan and work in Brooklyn.