WPA recently sat down with artist Nina Katchadourian to discuss her work and practice, including her upcoming installation Monument to the Unelected, a work consisting of 56 election signs for every presidential hopeful who came in second place, presented by WPA at The Washington Post headquarters September 10 - November 9, 2012.

Interview by Christopher Cunetto

WPA: Thank you for talking with us today! So, how did you get started in the arts? What is your background?

Nina: I never meant to be an artist (laughs). At the point in time when I got to college, I was interested in radio journalism, writing, editing, theater, and music, but I had never taken an art class. Art was something that I discovered once I got to college. I took a class at RISD which was a course on conceptual bookmaking where the idea was to link the form and the content of these books that we were making, and it was a huge revelation that form and content could have this kind of a relationship. Art was not just about drawing something realistically, it wasn’t about that as a skill base at all. A lot of new things opened up from that.

By the time I finished college, I felt much more interested in and engaged in the question of artistic practice and decided to apply to grad schools, and I went to grad school as a way of figuring out how important all of this was to me and how serious I was about it. I had an amazing experience in graduate school at the university of California San Diego and, when I was through that, I  felt  “dug in” at that point.

WPA: Did you have a specific way of working immediately out of your graduate program?

Nina: A lot of my experience at UCSD was about beginning to work collaboratively, often site specifically. My practice has always been driven by a conceptual approach; the idea dictates  how the thing is manifest and how it’s made so even then I was working with combinations of things. It was photography for some projects, video for others, public sculpture for others. It’s a very engrained way of working for me and one that feels very natural.

It is not just part of the methodology, but arguably part of what the work is about: finding subject matter in the everyday and in places where you don’t expect to find anything that you would be able to import into art. There is a lot of flow for me between what we might call "art subject matter" and that realm of things that we don't think of as art. And, as such, I often do look to the “dumb” stuff around us with the question of what might be there, what else is there that is interesting.

WPA: Monument to the Unelected definitely seems to fall into that category.

Nina: The WPA project at the Washington Post is very much along those lines. These election signs are a familiar and mundane part of the American landscape, something very familiar that you see in public in the months leading up to an election.

WPA: How did the project begin?

Nina: The back-story for this project was that I was invited to come to Scottsdale, Arizona to make a piece for the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. This was in 2008, and they were planning a ten-year anniversary show on humor. It’s a funny invitation when you are asked to come somewhere and think of something funny. Kind of impossible, actually, and although there is a lot of humor in what I make, it’s not something that I plan on. It was very weird to be trying to be funny.

Scottsdale was a brand new place for me, and I was trying to get a grip on where I was. I think what is so useful about being invited to a brand new place is that you start to notice things there that might have even been around you in the place you lived, but suddenly you are looking more at everything, and therefore those kinds of things suddenly appear. That is exactly what happened with the election signs.

WPA: Did politics directly and initially influence or inspire the work?

Nina: The visit was in October and November and it was a very tense and exciting time. There was the big face off between Obama and McCain/Palin happening, and Arizona being McCain’s state added an additional layer of intensity to that. I kept noticing election signs in the landscape and thinking "Here these things are, and half the people that appear on these signs are names that we will probably see for the next few years and a bunch of these other names are going to disappear and we will never think about these people again." I was also acutely aware of  decimation of the Native Americans and that sad history that sometimes shows up in the names of various roads in the area there ("Indian School Road," for example). And, funny, even though I grew up in California where, among other places in the country, a lot of that history visible, being in a new place made all these things glaringly present for me and I, ironically, was trying to have a really funny idea and all I could do was think about the defamation of the Native Americans and it just started getting more and more depressing. But all of those thoughts turned me toward wanting to make a piece that thought about the American past. Proposing this piece was a way of thinking of one strain of our past collective history and the decisions that had been made as a society, and to think about how other decisions might have led to different things.

In DC, we are taking advantage of that interesting window of time leading up to [the election]. And I’m really excited about showing it in DC because in my experience it tends to be a very politically literate population; a lot of people are in professional situations where they are thinking about and engaging politics in one way or another.  I’m imagining people probably know their history in a way that perhaps is more acute than in other cities. I’m really curious to see the response.

WPA: What do you think about the recontextualization of the piece? In the Washington Post Building, in the capital of the country, in a presidential election year, how do you think this changes how the work is received?

Nina: I think that remains to be seen.  I’ve tried showing this piece a couple of very different ways. It’s been outside shown as lawn signs, in front of someone’s house, for example. The other place I’ve seen these signs turn up is in windows. That is the thing I felt excited about when the window site was proposed. Of course, as with every other time the piece was shown, there is something completely overloaded about the way  the signs appear. I hope that at the Washington Post site, there will be a resonance with the tradition of putting political signs in windows. I also hope, given the site, that the signs will announce themselves as news, and I’ve been thinking about that especially since I heard there is a news ticker above the windows. You may, sort of as a passerby, have the mindset of “Oh–this is a building, a place where you find out about things,” so you take things up as informational, you take things up as fact, and you take things up as contemporary. Someone may see a name that is familiar to them but then they think, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, Roosevelt? What’s going on with Roosevelt now?” "Monument to the Unelected" always relies on a double-take moment, and the context of the Washington Post might make that especially interesting.

WPA: That’s very interesting. So do you consider the piece being partisan in any way?

Nina: One thing that has been very important to the concept is that the piece is as politically neutral as I can make it. I have not tried to make the Democrats’ signs look one way and the Republicans’ another.I hope it is a productively ambiguous piece, where any person, regardless of their view, has the opportunity to feel happy or sad about any one of those signs.  You can think, “Thank God that person lost!” or “Oh, I wish that person hadn’t lost.” When people make inferences about the opinion engrained into the piece, I think that’s a very good thing. I've tried to make a political piece that is apolitical, in a strange way. What I want it to be is an opportunity to think about all these decisions in our collective past. The piece is a bit like a history quiz, because you look at some of these things and think “Oh, I've heard of that person. Oh yeah…that happened there, then, and that’s what was going on in the country…” and then with other names, you might draw a giant blank. it has been a little bit humbling to realize how shoddy my own knowledge of American history has been in places and I’ve certainly learned a lot making this piece. There are still things that I realize are murky for me, and for a lot of people. It’s just not a history that we all know consistently through and through.

WPA: And that is also one thing that remains current… how murky things still can be, and how the facts appear to be so malleable in today’s politics as well. So, how long did this take you to research before you were able to make all of the signs?

Nina: The piece was produced over about six months. The research took a while; I consulted a couple of historians, one at Stanford and one at Princeton, to check with them about some of the trickier decisions. The logic for whose names go on the signs is that it’s everybody who came in second.  You can say it is "everybody who ever ran for office and lost." But of course, many more people run for office and lose than the one person who wins. So in some ways, it is more accurate to say who came in second.

The graphic design was a delightful but long process. I worked with an excellent graphic designer named Evan Gaffney who is here in New York. I would find imagery of existing signs; I did a lot of image research on the Internet and found signs from small local elections, and I would say,  “Hey, please model the Jefferson sign on this one." And then I tried to come up a set of size and color variations that, again, were often modeled on what you see out there. There is a certain look to these signs, they try to look often confident and patriotic and positive. There is a design sensibility that is very typical and so part of the project was thinking through that.

WPA: So you, yourself, really had to become educated in the language of these signs before you executed the piece.

Nina: Yeah, I did. And Evan was amazing. He has a fantastic sense of humor and he is very “font-fluent” so he was able to not only know what fonts were in use on any found sign, but also was able to import other fonts into the project that really carried a lot of humor along with them. We were thinking in a loose way that the signs should appear like the person could have been running for office at any time within the past twenty to thirty years. They looked contemporary in general terms, but sometimes perhaps not entirely of this present moment. And then, of course, there is the whole issue of advertising and that these signs really are advertisements for a candidate and how that in American politics these days is incredibly present and important. And how much money goes toward advertisements for candidates. That was something that I did not think very much about in the early part of this piece, but it has been a consistent response by viewers and those who have written about the piece, but was something that dawned on me later that, of course the piece is also about how we promote, spend money on, advertise, and elect these people and that those things are all, for better or worse, part of a continuum in this country.

WPA: You recently were interviewed by Nightline, the ABC news program. What was that like and what did you talk about?

Nina: They contacted me after having seen a group of photographs that had a viral moment online and they were interested in knowing more about that project. Those photos were a set of self portraits that I had done in an airplane lavatory where, using the materials I found, I dressed myself up to look like 15th-century Flemish portraits. Those portraits are part of a much bigger project called Seat Assignment. And Seat Assignment is a project that I’ve been most busy with over the past two and a half years. They called me up and I said “Yep, I realize those photos are all over the web, but there is also a lot more that is part of this project that I’d love to tell you about.” So we talked and discussed things. I wanted to make sure that the producer was going to come at this in a contextualized and respectful way. When the mainstream media covers art, they sometimes lean very hard on the kind of prank-like or entertainment aspect of it. Although there is a lot of humor in the project that I wouldn’t want to deny, it’s also about a lot of other things that are more serious to me. They understood that and I felt we had a good conversation about the larger context of the project. I'm not sure yet when the segment will air.

WPA: Do you worry that people will treat Monument to the Unelected in the way that you were describing, focusing on the entertainment or shock of it, or as a prank?

Nina: I haven’t felt as concerned with that piece in that way. It hasn’t been taken up in that spirit. There is something very absurdist about getting into an airplane bathroom and dressing yourself up, and of course I’m aware of that. But that gesture is part of a much larger set of gestures that have to do with the question of can you make something out of nothing and can you make something where you don’t think there is anything art-worthy about where you are. Can you shift your mindset and really invest in the idea that there is something there, in a situation that seems full of scarcity by way of interesting material?

WPA: That seems pretty core to your way of working generally.

Nina: It is, and Monument to the Unelected comes out of that, too, in a way. We could write off election signs as something boring, ugly, and disposable, but I’m trying to take that form and inject a content into it that I hope hooks people initially because it is familiar. I hope it forces you to confront a situation that is also on one level absurdist, but where there is also a lot of factual information there. And perhaps if you engage it longer and longer, there is a next tier of thoughts. What do these choices say about us as a nation? Because here is how it has gone so far. What might happen next? Of course, we are going to be at a moment in this election season where we are thinking a lot about what might happen next. It is a piece that I hope is an opportunity for viewer’s projections in a number of different ways. It’s like an elaborate Rorschach blot test, you know?

WPA: Is there one thing that you are hoping will happen by mounting this piece? Or perhaps one thing you really want to examine more closely or observe as it goes up at the Washington Post building?

Nina: I hope there are people who bring their specialized knowledge to the piece in a way that amplifies something about the work or adds some extra layer of resonance to it. I am excited about that possibility.

WPA: Now that the piece has found a home in Washington, DC during a presidential election year, do you consider it fulfilling its goal, or see this as full circle?

Nina: I thought about this for the last four years. When the piece was exhibited last time I thought to myself, “I really want to show this again before the next election.” And it would be amazing to show it in the country’s capital. Symbolically, it’s so obvious! It should travel to DC! I would love to show this piece on an ongoing basis. My graphic designer friend Evan joked about this the other day saying, “Maybe this is one of those pieces where you take it out every four years and a new sign is added every time. And I would love to see that happen, I would love for it become a tradition to show it somewhere before each election. And if that happened, over time that might become a kind of interesting barometer of politics in this country. The response to the piece becomes a measuring stick of some kind. I am so happy that this has worked out, and it has been great to work for WPA. I think we’re going to learn something now about it being linked to this place that is so established as an important source of news.

I really enjoy the opportunity to put art into a place where people don’t necessarily know that is what they have just found. The mindset of the viewer when they walk into a museum is already all around art making. But somebody passing this piece in the windows will probably have other things on their mind when they encounter it.

WPA: And it seems to be such a natural transition. Your source material and inspiration come from this place that is public and communal, so to present it back in that kind of environment, or in a way that is public, makes perfect sense.

Nina: It does. And I like situations where art making activities do not announce themselves as such. So, when I’m on the plane with my cell phone taking pictures of small constructions that I’ve made [for Seat Assignment] on my tray table, which really is my studio now, I just probably look like a bored, weird person. But the last thing I want that to look like is me making art. The reason I use my phone is I just need that as a – I need the “bored person” as an alibi. (laughs) Although in fact what I’m trying to do is be anything but a bored unengaged person, I’m trying to do exactly the opposite. My election signs work a little the same way: they masquerade as the thing that inspired their creation but in the end, they turn out to be something different.  

For more information on Nina and her work, visit her website here. She will present a talk in conjunction with the opening of her installation at The Washington Post on September 10, 2012. For detail and for more information on Monument to the Unelected click here. "Monument to the Unelected", 2009, was produced by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art for the exhibition Seriously Funny, February 13, 2009- May 24, 2009 

Best SneakersAir Jordan


September 6, 2012