An artist on the move
Katie Holten's work methods are unconventional, but her reliance on chance has got her to the Venice Biennale, writes Aidan Dunne.
It's hard to describe Katie Holten's work, particularly in terms of conventional artistic production. She doesn't make saleable art objects in the accepted sense. She doesn't usually work in a studio; her studio is wherever she happens to be, with her iBook, her mobile phone and the nearest photocopy shop. Which is how she'll approach her impending residency in Venice, where she is Ireland's representative at the 50th Art Biennale, probably the most famous international exhibition in the world.
During her time there, she will produce a series of photocopied pamphlets, collectively titled Papers. These will form a significant strand of her work, but not all of it. Other aspects are as yet unclear but will be formulated as she goes along. With anyone else, that might all sound a bit vague, but it is the way Holten works, the way she has worked since she was in college in Dublin in the 1990s.
In her Guide, the first edition of the Papers, she writes: "For the Venice Biennale I am making a new work called Laboratorio della Vigna. Like most of my investigations, Laboratorio begins with conversation, and like any conversation, it will begin anywhere. My way has always been to move around and make do . . ."
Her work consists of activities arising out of the combination of people and places, of unpredictable inter-connections and serendipitous events.
The centre of Holten's activities in Venice will be the Scuolo di San Pasquale in the Castello district. She has discovered that "it's around the corner from the cultural centre for squatters in Venice". There, the people who turn up for weekly meetings are mostly Venetians. There is a great deal of musical activity associated with the centre. She is going to turn up for the meetings and hopes to make connections with individuals. She has always depended on an element of chance.
"There's no way of knowing where things are going to lead," she says. "You start to talk to someone and you've no idea where it's going to take you."
For example, during her residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, she got into conversation with one of the technicians there. "It turned out that he's a self-taught expert on spiders who has discovered a previously unknown species of spider," she says. "When you meet someone, there's no way of predicting what might interest them, what they have to offer."
So the publications she compiles and contributes to, including a fully fledged book, Drawings, Instances, Collaborations and Texts, produced last year, are a very particular kind of miscellany. They combine the fruits of chance encounters with things she seeks out more actively.
She is clearly fascinated, for example, by aspects of science. "Absolutely," she agrees. "When I was at school, I wanted to be a physicist, but they wouldn't let me do physics. My mind doesn't work like that. But I'd say I've always had what I'd describe as this incredible thirst for knowledge, if it didn't sound so corny. I've always wanted to know, but I've also been interested in the process of getting to know, of finding out."
Currently, for example, she's in communication with the physicist and writer, John D. Barrow.
Holten's approach is simply to e-mail people who interest her. For the most part, once they realise her interest is genuine, they are responsive, she says. Hence Drawings, Instances . . . includes contributions from cosmologists, poets, artists, mathematicians and writers, including A.L. Kennedy. She likes bringing together hugely varied ideas, "odd tangential things, next to a discussion of why we're here in the universe; very technical, specific studies next to purely anecdotal things".
Oddly enough, given its emphasis on openness, serendipity, communication and collaboration, a darker note runs through virtually all of her work, and has done so from the beginning. It has to do with the fact that, built into her treatment of various networks, schemes and plans, is the idea of failure. There is always a shortfall. Sometimes, this is evident in the way things peter out along the way. One project, involving the transplantation of city weeds, was titled cul-de-sac . . . and other failed projects. The optimism of grand plans is hopelessly misplaced.
"Failure is important, the idea of failure is important," she says. "It's always there, it's part of what I do, failing. I think it has to do with the fact that you can't actually know everything. That dimension became clear to me in a show I took part in at the Douglas Hyde, Utopias, in which you had the sense of limits."
For her, utopia is bound to fail because you cannot plan for happiness or anything else very much. Yet she is a Panglossian optimist of sorts.
"Things always work out for the best - that's my motto," she says. "I can't stop saying it, and I really believe it. But you can't plan for that. I feel that you can't really plan anything, and if you do, it will be a disaster."
She was born in Dublin, but spent the first 10 years of her life in rural Longford. "We didn't farm," she says. "My father was an accountant. But we were out surrounded by fields and cows. I led a tomboy existence. The family moved to Ardee in Co Louth when I was 10. I refused to go, I said I was going to stay in Longford in the treehouse."
She did go to Ardee, and still has a room in the family home there which she occupies in transit.
In transit is a good description of Holten's life. "Some people have difficulty with the fact that I don't live anywhere," she says.
Come again? She really doesn't live anywhere, in the sense of having a permanent residential base. "I'm used to carrying bags around, with just the minimum of stuff."
The travel bug bit early. "As soon as I was old enough to travel alone, I did," she says. "When I was 16, I looked for work as an au pair because it was a way for a young woman to travel alone, even though I don't really like children. It brought me to Marseilles and then Paris and worked out very well."
She also spent time in Canada and Nova Scotia. Then, in 1994, she began studying at the National College of Art and Design. It was, she says, her time as an Erasmus exchange student while at college that changed her life. The Hochschule der Kunste in Berlin broadened her horizons immeasurably. She didn't know much about the contemporary art scene before she arrived there, she admits.
At one point, they suggested she write a paper on the Irish artist, James Coleman. Never having heard of Coleman (who is easily the best known Irish artist internationally), she thought they were winding her up, that they'd invented a typically Irish name to tease her. In any case, "I started working on various projects with the people I met there and, really, it's snowballed since then. It hasn't really stopped".
She had looked forward to her six-month artist's residency at IMMA, which has just ended. "I thought it would be great to have a base, to stay still," she says. "In fact, I was paralysed by it."
It was only when she found herself abroad again, under pressure, that ideas occurred to her in relation to Venice.
Holten is desperately keen to get going in Venice. Whatever she does, it will not be predictable.
"I'm not trying to be evasive, but I know my ideas are going to change as soon as I'm there," she says.
The Venice Biennale opens on June 15th and runs until to November 2nd. Katie Holten's Laboratorio della Vigna is at the Scuola de San Pasquale, Chiesa San Francesco della Vigan, Campo della Confraternia, Castello 2786