Karen Ostrom is a Canadian born Brooklyn based artist working in photography, installation, video and most recently, animation. She is the recipient of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the MacDowell Colony Artist Fellowships, Canada Council for the Arts Grants, the Duke and Duchess of York Prize in Photography from the Canada Council, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. Her work has been exhibited in museums, galleries and festivals throughout North America and Europe, including the Liverpool Biennial and Bring to Light; Nuit Blanche on the Brooklyn waterfront. Patent Pending, her most ambitious project to date was the result of a yearlong collaboration between Ostrom and Toronto composer Shannon Graham, presenting a unique collaboration of original live music and multiple projections at the CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto.  

How did your collaboration with Shannon Graham on Patent Pending at the Contact Photography Festival come about?

The collaboration with Shannon Graham and the composer's collective Spectrum Music came about inadvertently through a residency at the MacDowell Colony during the spring of 2012 where I met Spectrum composer, Kaitlin Smith. Kaitlin's colleague Shannon was looking for a visual artist to work with and develop a project that expanded and challenged their experiences and one that would take them into the visual world. After a few conversations via skype to feel each other out, we started to talk creatively about the possibilities. Part of what we talked about was the difficulty in making clear the collaborative efforts and it not just being a musical score for a film. Although I generated the fictional world and ultimately the visual narrative, the collaborative strategy evolved over time with many Skype conversations.

My narratives are character based so we mulled over the idea that the music would essentially be a character in dialogue with the visuals and that the musical scores would play into each other the way that the three projections interwove. It was an experiment for all of us, not sure what the final outcome would be, but then that also made it exciting and worth pursuing. The risky part was that our time was short, looking towards a definitive deadline, and until the first performance we actually hadn't seen nor heard the piece in its entirety. But admittedly – that was also very exciting. We approached the CONTACT Photography organizers, as it seemed the perfect venue for their 2013 theme of the 'expanded field', and they immediately offered their assistance. Their support was tremendous and helped draw a diverse crowd for our performances. And they continue to support the work with documentation of the piece archived on their site.     

The woman in the left projection appears to be narrating the entire piece. Could you tell us more about her and how it relates to your larger interest in abstract and linear narratives?

The character on the left is The Writer and I want her to be seen primarily as the creator of the narrative – which is why she is writing and re-writing throughout. The other two characters are playing out what she creates. Sometimes she writes clearly, sometimes its obtuse and they respond accordingly. Although there are three characters, they are essentially one so they are all components of one person or character. She represents the subconscious, giving her license to take the narrative in any direction and not necessarily a predictable one. My intentions for this piece were for the narratives to intertwine and have the essence of one narrative but as much as the writer may control the narrative in one sense, the reader/viewer has their own control and therefore interpretation. I also wanted to leave it open to further elaborate or add another component. Perhaps even add another projection or replace one.

I'm interested in the infinite possibilities of interchanging parts in both the visual sense but also in the written narrative. I describe my work as a living narrative because it's something that can change and grow, and in many ways dictates its own directions. Because I've built up these characters within a narrative that addresses characteristics within me, I have to listen to them; I have to allow the work to breathe on its own once in a while in order to understand what I am try to say. It's become an interesting process – like visual writing. Once I gave up on the idea of the overall project having to be completed, a whole new world opened up for me. It's not about being finished – it's more like an ongoing dialogue that doesn't end – until I die of course.  

Was this your first live video performance? If so then how do you see this working within your larger body of work?

Yes, this was my first live video performance and is something I would like to do more of. Having the musicians perform live and improvise was exciting. It meant the piece was never exactly the same each time it was performed. And it was great to have the musicians as contributing factors. They brought a lot of energy and personality to the work and in some ways became characters themselves – in a subtle kind of way. The process of communicating to the composers what the narratives and the visuals were going to be like was interesting because of our time frame for production to performance. Being animation my workload was heavy and so I was only able to give them a storyboard with a time sequence and description of what was going on in each scene when I would have liked to have given them the finished animations. So as a result we had to talk in terms of metaphors and what the characters represented as a way for them to conceptualize and compose the scores.

Also the composers worked independently of each other so that when the music was brought together by Shannon, it was like the 3 characters in dialogue for the first time. It gave an independent tone to each character and I feel like this is one of the musical strengths of the piece. Until we watched the first performance and saw how beautifully everything fell into place, did we realize the depth and strength of our working strategy, but also how much trust this meant we had put in each other.  

What are you working on now?

I just returned from an 8 week residency in Bahia, Brazil (Instituto Sacatar). They opened up all kinds of doors for me and now I need to really think about what I want to do with all this research and material – and which doors to walk through. I met some amazing people. One project that links directly to my current work is a collaboration with a group of lace makers in a tiny fishing village east of Salvador. The village was introduced to me because my umbrella project is about the construction of a small fictional fishing village with labor as the focus and definition of each character. In the Brazilian village I was introduced to, the women originally made the nets for the fisherman. But once commercially made nets became more available, their role as net makers became obsolete. However they turned their skills towards lace making and now make some of the most beautiful lace in Brazil. However that is now being threatened by lack of interest among the younger generations as their attention is being diverted by the digital age. It's not a money making venture so it requires a great deal of motivation and interest in the craft.

What is also interesting to me and relevant in terms of this project is that my grandfather was a net man in Sweden and then subsequently in Northern Canada to where he immigrated becoming well known along the coast for innovations to the industry. It's a narrative I want to research and think about as I develop this project. The net making transition to the lace was a beautiful connection that was completely unanticipated as its evolutionary story came to us through casual conversation and was not known of, either by my friend who had introduced me to these women, nor myself. I'm currently in conversation about how we can combine our interests and skills to make something beautiful and new but also something that will reflect on this generational shift, draw attention to their work, and ultimately benefit this small community of craftswomen.  

To find out more about Ostrom's work, visit her BRIC Registry profile and her personal website.

Interview compiled by Jenny Gerow