Dialogue with Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen, of Hillerbrand+Magsamen

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

 Whether, 2010. Hillerbrand+Magsamen.

Whether, 2010. Hillerbrand+Magsamen.

Whether is a 6-minute looping video with sound. It is about the interaction between family members and how one person’s emotions can effect the family dynamic as identities of parent, spouse and child, through the metaphor of fog, veil and reveal one another. What appears to be a typical family dinner becomes surreal as a cloud of fog engulfs and distorts the everyday event and fluctuates between memory, reality and dream worlds. See the video at: http://hillerbrandmagsamen.com/private/whether.html

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?

SH: We spend all of our time together. We have been married for 8 years and have two children, a lovely girl and boy. So we share everything, household chores, and car pooling the kids, going out to openings and working on our art.

MM: One day when we were getting ready for bed and brushing our teeth Stephan turned to me and said, “I feel like we are growing apart.”  I said, “Honey, we live together, have two children together, we teach the same courses at the same school and make art together. How could we possibly grow apart when we are always together?”  We laughed and laughed and it has become our joke when things get tough. We spend a lot of time together.

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?

MM: When we are in production, we schedule the time so that we can set up the sets and make sure we will both be available for shooting. We find that we work best with some structure and deadlines. When we are working on promotions, applications and grants we work separately. There is just not enough time in the day to get it all done together.

SH: I think it starts out very organically. We have these ideas that come to both of us at the craziest times. We then talk about them, brainstorm, mull them over for weeks or even months. Then, when we have this ”idea,” we plan structured studio time when we can shoot and record the piece.

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

SH: Our personal and professional lives are one big mess. It is really hard to tell where one thing begins and the other ends. But it has also been a great blessing as well. Several years ago I started thinking about our art-making practice. How weird it was that each week we would sneak away to our studio and make work that seemed more and more like it had nothing to do with our daily lives. I would just sit in the studio and think about our kids or how crazy my boss was and none of that got translated into our work. And then I thought we really need to make our work about what is happening in the other 90% of our lives. I think our new work really reflects that I am so happy about that.

MM: Oh, I wouldn’t call it a mess–Stephan always exaggerates, but our lives are very intertwined. The day-to-day becomes the research and the research becomes the day-to-day. Sometimes this feels really interesting and rewarding and sometimes it would be nice to be able to have a little space. I wonder what our kids will say when they get older about how their parents used all the spare time to shoot video art!

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

MM: Not often–that goes back to the previous question.

SH: Mary’s right–it is really hard to turn in “on” or “off” when we are so much part of our lives in the sense that at one moment we are having a complete family melt down, the kids are screaming, we are trying to cook dinner, the dog is barking, we are tired from a long day of teaching, it is complete chaos and then an idea pops in one of our heads. I start talking to Mary and say “Mary, I have this great idea for a piece!” right in the middle of this hurricane.

The reverse is when we get studio time together when we are able to turn off the email, not worry about our jobs or how we are going to pay our bills. When we get these quiet moments in our lives when we are just sitting in the studio, sometimes it is really hard to work.

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

MM: We met in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Stephan loves to tell the story about how one night in our first year, we argued over several beers in the school’s “lounge” about the validity of Foundations in art schools and . . .

SH: (interrupting) See this is one of my favorite stories to tell and Mary always rolls her eyes when I tell my version because she says she remembers it differently. Yes, we both met in graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and we were both in the sculpture program. During the first week of school, everyone was hanging out in the school’s student-run “bar” that was in the basement of the printing department. I met Mary there over beers and we started having this really deep discussion about art like all grad students do. She thought that theory was the most important aspect of an art program and I said it was formalism. I thought she was a big dope and didn’t know anything about art.

MM: I thought he was funny and he thought I was annoying.

At what point did you start making work together?

SH: After graduate school we spent a couple of years apart and then decided to move in together and live together. We were living in this crazy industrial loft above an Asian spice warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Our studio was separated from the bedroom by only a cheap IKEA wardrobe. So here we were sharing a studio, living together and trying to make separate work. And then one day it hit us both that our work looked exactly the same and that maybe, just maybe, one of the reasons we had fallen in love with each other was also that our work was so similar. From that point on we started to make work together.

MM: It was a pretty natural transition to collaborating when we started sharing a studio and using computers encouraged it because we have different skills with software.

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?

MM: There were several years when we first started making work that we made a lot of really bad work. It was a struggle, but we still enjoyed doing it. We had to learn how to give up control over the project.

SH: I think that giving up of control is really important. We thought that, as a couple, we had to do everything 50/50, and our studio practice had to be the same. So, even if one of us was tired, or not excited about an idea or had different strength, they had to be there at full 50%. How can anyone do that? It is crazy!  We started to learn after a couple of years of working together that it was all right one day to have what I would call a 30/70 split because we knew the next day it would be reversed to like 80/20. In the end, we both contributed the same amount and were equal, but it was hard to get over the idea that day collaboration had to be this picture perfect split.

MM: What’s interesting is that when we gave up the control and everything was not 50/50 is when eventually the work began looking as though one person made it rather than two people.

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

MM: We both work on all aspects of the projects, but Stephan is really good at setting up the formal elements like lighting and sets. I am better at the editing.

SH: No, I disagree. I think we both contribute the same or to say it differently we both have the same strengths, but it is our empathy for a project that changes. Maybe Mary will feel really excited about something we are working on, but I am worrying about bills or teaching, and so her energy is focused on the project and then maybe a couple of days later that scenario switches.

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?

SH: I think Mary would agree that the ideas come to us both in the same way. While we do a lot of sketching, reading and brainstorming, most of our successful work has come right out of the blue at the strangest times of day.

MM: That’s right –it is a rather organic process.

SH: I think we are also very visual people. The ideas come to us like a freeze frame of a movie and from that single picture we build a whole work around it.

MM: I love to print out stills and lay them out as a type of storyboarding, which is really helpful for us to see the visual flow. The storyboarding helps, too, because when we are shooting for a project we will get new ideas that will visually lead us into a new direction.

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

MM: That is a sticky question. We have a lot of discussions. We both have to be willing to give and take. But mostly, I would say that working in a digital environment helps out a lot with our decisions and choices because it is so easy to “undo” things or just “save as.”

SH: That is right!  Mary always says that if it were not for the inventions of computers we would not be collaborating. If we did not have Command+Z, that ability to undo what the other person just did or to have version 5.0321 of a project, we would not be collaborating.

MM: (laughing) I can safely say that the Apple keyboard shortcut Command+Z saved our relationship.

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

MM: We usually do all the phases of production and postproduction ourselves. We have tried to work with sound people who are very interesting and something we like, but ultimately, we have always ended up doing the sound ourselves because we like the process. We have also worked collaboratively with Kirk Lynn, a playwright in Austin. He is great and fun to work with. We made a video with him called Let’s Get Married in which we made faces out of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and most recently we did a live cinema project called Blender Love where we made a glow-in-the-dark tent and had an actress ask people to enter the tent; and then she asked them lots of questions about their relationships with their phones and with people. Kirk wrote the script and it was very intimate and magical.

SH: Working with Kirk has been one of the best experiences we have had. It really was tremendous!  It is important to say that we did Let’s Get Married in conjunction with the FuseBox Arts Festival in Austin, Texas. Ron Berry, the founder of the festival, had this wonderful idea of pairing different disciplined artists together from all over the nation to create a new work in a two-week period. We were paired up with someone who used words and we are visual. We had so many disasters the first few days and then we all made this wonderful work that has all of us acting in it.

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?”

SH: Yuck!  We have too many of those. Since we try to incorporate humor in a lot of the work it sometimes get too campy or slapstick. But I think Mary would agree that if a project does not have “it,” we both know it and can put it out of its misery.

MM: Yes, we have a lot of those projects. I worked on a bunch of footage from old family films at the Experimental Television Center and kept trying to work it into a project, but never quite got there. Stephan made a project called Blue Hal which I never liked and never wanted to develop further.

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?

SH: That is a very strange question in the sense that Mary and I both had lots of different skills and practices when we first started collaborating together. What brought us together was the shared interest we had in what you called “research” or what we wanted to say. What is strange is that over the years our process has become more and more selective. We started out being very interdisciplinary, doing everything we could get our hands on but now we just do video. This idea that two people fine-tuned both their research and working process and have done so successfully is amazing to me!

MM: Stephan keeps a good pulse on the latest technologies, which I am not as interested in, but I am interested in what other artists and filmmakers are doing and what galleries and museums are showing. We both keep separate sketchbooks, too. I tend to write a lot and Stephan does a lot of drawing.

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

SH: I always joke with Mary that one day I will leave her and strike out on my own with a “solo album,” but it is so not true. I love working with her so much. I cannot imagine not working with someone else. The idea of sitting by myself, in a cabin out in the woods, all alone, making art seems crazy!  Art is about community. It is about sharing your voice. I am glad Mary likes to listen.

MM: Ah, that is so sweet. We get this question a lot and discuss it frequently, but in the end, we like the collaborative process.

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?

SH: We always work together, so that is not an issue. The big problem is time management. As with everyone else, there are not enough hours in the day. We moved away from New York City several years ago and thought: WOW, we will have all of this time now to make our art because we do not have the craziness of the city competing with us. But of course, once we left, other things filled up the spaces, and we are just as busy.

MM: Our time management issues come into play because we feel passionately about lots of things like our kids, teaching and Mary’s job at the Aurora Picture Show, a micro cinema. It is always a struggle to find a balance, but communication between us is key.

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

SH: I think the strength of working collaboratively is that we push each other. There is always someone there to give you feedback or a critique. It is so hard to be a creative person in a vacuum. I think we have all shared that feeling of when you have worked so hard on something and you just have to show it and get feedback. Time and time again Mary and I are working on a project that has one of us stumped and the other will give us the right kind of push. One of our first successful pieces was a video titled Lick; we had both been editing it for weeks to the point that it was getting worse and worse. Then, one night, Mary came into the studio and looked at it and said what we had silently been thinking. That it was terrible. She made some suggestions and then went out for a drink. Then, with a clear head I used her suggestions and the piece turned out great!  It still is one of our favorites and we remember it as the first work we did where there was real give and take, real communication.

MM: It is great to work collaboratively because of the interaction and the way a project can evolve by us pushing each other—this pushing is both a challenge and strength. Sometimes one person might not feel like work and the other does, so you have to adjust and give up control. Our projects with Kirk Lynn were fun because we were open to working in a new way and hearing Kirk’s ideas. Collaborating makes me feel like I am learning every time I work on a new project.

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?

SH: I think as we have talked about before, our artistic collaboration came from a romantic attraction to each other. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that a lot of collaborations happen that way. That there is some sort of “attraction” that happens, maybe not a romantic one, but perhaps an attraction of faith or culture. Maybe you are attracted by being liked=minded in theory or philosophy or formal issues. But something has to be there, some spark to get the process going. Collaboration is not easy. It is very hard and you have to have something there that made you begin the process.

MM: Stephan and I were doing similar work in graduate school—very personal and combining sculpture, video, performance and photography. We have a similar aesthetic and personal narrative, which is something that I thought was interesting when we first met. I think there is a balance of both philosophical and pragmatic motivations.

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

SH: I have found that both students and faculty are not very open to collaboration. Students have usually have been so indoctrinated about the idea that an “artist” should be off alone in their studio that it is hard for them to work with others. At the same time I have found that most faculty love to throw around buzz words like “collaboration” or “interdisciplinary” in course titles and projects they are doing but it is just marketing. What I have found out to be a great way to get student interested and exposed to a collaborative process is to not “force” it on them conceptually but through a formal process. The craft of film and video production really lends itself to this idea. It is so hard if not impossible to make a film or big video project by yourself. You need help. A cinematographer, editor, lighting designer, grip, production crew and so on. We have some friends that are video artists and collaborative team as well and I remember them saying, “Who has time NOT to collaborate?” when talking about all the things you need to do in video. So, by placing students in a process in which they need to work with others, they begin to see their strengths and how to collaborate without actually having to talk about it.

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?

SH: Unfortunately, we do not co-teach. Not that we have not wanted to. We have tried and tried to get teaching jobs as a collaborative team and it has never worked out. I think academic institutions are very conservative and not supportive at all in the area of collaboration. Mary and I have been on job interviews where the interviewers flat out told us that they would not hire one of us because they did not know who was really doing the research. As a matter of fact, I was told once during a review that they thought that since Mary’s last name went first in our collaborative name of “Magsamen + Hillerbrand,” she must be the “lead” artist, so we had to change it.

MM: Co-teaching has never been something we could do, and as Stephan said, some academics don’t even get the idea of collaboration, despite its long history. I was on a job interview where one senior faculty member said he would not vote for my hiring because he did not see validity in collaboration. This guy actually asked me, very sarcastically, “I ask my wife for input all the time about my projects. Does that mean that I should list her as a collaborator?” I still teach one class, a survey of Interdisciplinary Art, as adjunct faculty. Two years ago I also began working at the Aurora Picture Show as the curator, which I enjoy very much because of the collaborative nature of the organization. It is very small and we show non-traditional, non-commercial artist-made film and video. My co-workers actually understand and support my art too, which is nice!  I recently curated a program called Co-Existing and Co-Laborating that featured five teams of film/video artists who both live and work together (the curatorial inspiration is obvious). It was shown at SPACES Gallery in Cleveland as an exhibition and at an Aurora Picture Show as a screening.

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.




Lets Get Married




Blender Love


The work of the collaborative artistic and curatorial team of Hillerbrand+Magsamen have shown internationally in screenings and exhibitions including Ann Arbor Film Festival, Boston Underground Film Festival, LA Freewaves New Media Art Festival, Stuttgarter Filmwinter, the Aurora Picture Show, Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Dallas Video Festival, the Hudson River Museum, Boston Center for the Arts Mills Gallery, Light Factory Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film and the Dallas Contemporary.

Through the performative strategy of what they call formational interventions, Hillerbrand+Magsamen’s work interstices between art and cultural geography by exploring perceptions of language, identity, media, and family within a uniquely American subjectivities and created system.

They have been awarded the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Residency in New York City, a residency at the Experimental Television Center and an Ohio Arts Council Individual Creativity Award. They have also received a Carol Crow Fellowship from the Houston Center for Photography and a Houston Arts Alliance Artist Grant.

They live and work in Houston, Texas, where Mary Masgamen is the curator for the mirco-cinema The Aurora Picture Show and Stephan Hillerbrand teaches in the University of Houston Digital Media Program.