Cam Schoepp’s love of materials and his investigations into their potential combined with precise craftsmanship and inventive techniques are evident in all his work. He is also a keen observer—recognizing that past experiences combined with deconstructing systems are a rich source of inspiration for his creations. Schoepp’s works range from minimal, contemplative objects to more complex installations that incorporate non-traditional material within carefully considered spaces.
In his Cell Series Installation broken/time, he considers the implications of dealing with time by installing a grid of sound domes in the isolation cell that contain miniature metronomes—each counting their own time. In the larger cell (gallery) a group of plaster “starburst” objects, of various sizes, appear to have crashed onto the floor. From these he anticipates “…some disappointment on the part of the audience; I want that kind of emotion of failure. The failure is a reaction to its potential before its broken and the loss in its current form, but I really think the broken forms are quite beautiful. But played back into the context of the room, it's just like these disruptions. The disruptions in people's lives.”
The 2018 Cell Series is generously supported by the McGinnis Family Fund of Communities Foundation of Texas with additional funding from Susie & Joe Clack, Gene & Marsha Gray, Amy & Patrick Kelly, and Sally & Robert Porter.
Patrick Kelly, Old Jail Art Center Executive Director and Curator, interview with Cam Schoepp. (July 19, 2018)
PK: Tell me about your earliest influences in becoming an artist, in particular, your dad. I know he was an artist and an educator. How did that influence your career path? Or did it deter?
CS: It probably deterred more initially, because I didn't go to college to be an artist. I didn't take any art classes in high school. I was going to be an engineer. There are aspects of engineering that I still respect and admire. I did stay with math in college and was a math minor. I took my first art class in college and found myself quickly finishing all my other stuff so I could get to the studio. And at a certain point, it becomes a reality. The thing is, when I got to call home and say, "I want to be an art major," I had full support. I think, unfortunately, most people don't have that experience.
PK: By observing your dad's career, though, did that career path look feasible, or did it look difficult? Was it enjoyable-looking? Your dad taught, too, didn't he?
CS: He taught. It seemed more mysterious than those practical questions of feasibility. So I think I've never approached anything with a practical, feasible notion of, "How am I going to make this work?" But one thing...I was with my dad a lot, hugely admired my father, and was always mystified by these things that he would make. I mean, it's like, "Where did that come from?" As a child, that was a great mystery. I couldn't imagine how he got from point A to point B. And my brother, who's three years older, was a painting major. There was a sense of legacy that this was all okay. Everyone made it work. We knew people who made it work. It wasn't strange.
PK: So you had a good baseline to start with. And then your college friends—the Andersons…?
CS: Definitely a big influence. Mark and Peter Anderson are brothers. Mark, I think is a year and a half older than Peter. Neither were art majors, but they were these interesting Norwegian brothers who were taking art classes at the time, fearless in so many ways. We just kind of hit it off from the beginning.
PK: They weren't architecture majors?
CS: No. We went to a small school in Tacoma, Washington—a liberal arts school. They had been doing construction from an earlier stage. Like, in high school, they were already taking on projects. I mean, fearless to the point, and I'm gonna get this story slightly wrong. You don't have to publish any of this. But in high school, they bid on a public project to put in fire hydrants in a development. And they had…
PK: No background!
CS: No background whatsoever. And they somehow managed to kind of do it, but I think they put in one of the valves backwards or something, and the city sued them. And this is all in high school.
PK: They realized they were dealing with a bunch of high school kids.
CS: Yeah, right. They’re great friends, and we had great adventures together. Mark went off to Harvard, and then Peter followed him. So they both have their architecture degrees from Harvard. In the summers, they started doing construction work, and I would work for them. Initially doing kind of complex decks in steep terrain, and then smaller houses. I eventually took my own path, but while we were working together we did a small collaboration for a juried show at the Tacoma Art Museum. Then, while they were both at Harvard, the architecture program did a project on the topic “making shelter.” And they had all these big names come in. Vito Acconci was in the show, Donald Judd was in the show, big heavy hitters. We did a project for that show. We built a box with a large megaphone projecting from it that you could look through or scream out of in front of the Graduate School of Design building at Harvard, under the name Jet Construction. And then we continued to do bigger and more complex projects over the years.
PK: Talk about some of your earlier works as an individual artist. Were your concerns more formal interests about making sculpture, about the craftsmanship, materials and things like that? Was that kind of your initial interest as an artist?
CS: It just depends on how far back you go. I was actually a ceramics major; but in sculpture, I was making found object pieces. I was making very organized reconstructed fetish-like forms, finding these elegant forms and then reconstructing them and repositioning how we look at them. In graduate school, I started making more formal things, working with space, interiors and exteriors, how we optically perceive things. And that continued for quite a while after school.
PK: But you were mostly creating stand-alone works?
CS: I was doing stand-alone objects and I was also following a train of thought, in a way. One piece looked similar to the next piece, kind of a tradition of many artists throughout time. It was a body of work, formal in nature, very architectural, materially-based, with the sensitivity of material history and material implications, scale, relationship to the body, and....
PK: Did you feel like that was what you were supposed to be doing as an artist?
CS: Probably. Yeah. I mean, and I was getting some success with that, there's no doubt about it. I was selling stuff and I was showing. Things were kind of happening in a traditional fashion. It seemed very natural. In a way, I kind of miss that. I wish I could still do that, because it seemed somewhat simpler. I think it's probably more acceptable to a viewing community, because they can pin you down, they can identify.
PK: With that in mind, was that a natural transition into what you do now? Because the work you're doing now is not at all….
CS: It's not about a body of work anymore. And in a way, the influence of the Andersons; this is part of that influence. You approach each project with a fresh eye.
PK: Let's talk about how you respond to spaces. I know that the spaces you present in your work, or you create work for, are very important. For instance, like the old jail’s upper cells (galleries), how do you respond to those, and what is it that is there that kind of sparks something? What is it that starts the creative process? Not just in that space but any space?
CS: In a way, that's a hard space. I mean if we're going to be honest, it's a difficult space. The last big show I had was in Dallas at SITE 131; that space was a large space, tall ceilings, white walls, designed as a white box gallery. And it was just this empty canvas...which was a lot of fun.
PK: That can also be intimidating.
CS: Hugely, right. I've known this space at your museum since Reilly (Nail) was there. And what strikes me, this isn't the reason I did it, but it's a jail. The idea that there were people in there, locked up for whatever reason, good or bad, they were there. There was a life that was momentarily interrupted because they were sitting in there because they were drunk, because they beat somebody up, because they robbed someone, whatever that interruption was. There was an interruption in their life, and they sat in that room, and that story is pretty powerful. I don't necessarily do narrative art. I guess I don't have that capacity. But I'm interested in the purpose of the space and beyond that the implications of what it was like in that space. I tried putting myself in that space; and the quietness, I think would drive me nuts. The idea of nothingness, you know, just sitting there. Long periods of silence, long periods of nothing. It’s not so much about the physicality of the space. Because I know the space so well, there's really more thinking about the implications of that space.
PK: So the idea of this sitting in silence... We just went to the studio and you showed me some of the sound devices you’re creating for your exhibit. What are you calling those?
CS: They are sound domes.
PK: Each sound dome will contain a metronome. Talk about how that fits in with this idea of isolation or the context of space, and about that particular aspect of the exhibit. First, physically describe that gallery.
CS: The room will have a false ceiling of these glass sound domes and in each sound dome will be a metronome of sorts. Something that's counting time in a sense, clicking time, marking time, but each sound dome will have a different beat.
PK: It's irregular?
CS: The beat won't be irregular. But from one to the other, one might be 60 beats per minute, one might be 72 beats per minute. My anticipation is a white noise. But as you walk under a sound dome, it focuses that sound within that white noise so you hear one particular beat. If there's more than one person in there, others will be experiencing something fundamentally different than you are. Even within a small space, they'll be hearing a different rhythm. I want it to be disruptive, I want it to be somewhat agitating; not aggressive, but just a kind of disquiet that the clicking sound creates.
PK: I think that's extremely fitting for that room and I don’t want to interpret it for anybody. But the idea of an individual’s reaction and response to isolation along with the measurement of time are interesting. The space also has an inscribed name of an inmate that was incarcerated there nearly a century ago as a constant physical reminder. It’s a really smart solution for that space. For the larger gallery…you showed me...I guess you'd call them starburst objects?
CS: Yeah. They come out of that kind of notion of the atomic age.
PK: Like nuclear fission symbols?
CS: I know there were neon signs made this way. You see, it's not a distinct image in a sense. It's a sphere with these kind of spikes coming off of it.
PK: Possibly it derives from the age we grew up in—the atomic age. There is also the fallacy of modernism, too. Contained in it is the concept that science is going to be our savior and solve the problems we created.
CS: A utopian notion.
PK: Yeah exactly. Which will lead into what you are going to talk about next…the falsity of that.
CS: And the failure of that.
PK: So, can you tell me more about those?
CS: So, everything in the room will be cast in white hydrostone that is like plaster, which I love because the form itself screams, "Don't make me in plaster."
PK: But they're very pristine.
CS: They are elegant.
PK: Yeah, they are elegant to begin with.
CS: They are elegant. And they'll be dropped in the room and shattered on the floor. It's a disruption. I'm expecting some disappointment on the part of the audience; I want that kind of emotion of failure. The failure is a reaction to its potential before its broken and the loss in its current form, but I really think the broken forms are quite beautiful. I find the object itself is beautiful as is. But played back into the context of the room, it's just like these disruptions. The disruptions in people's lives.
PK: Right, which kind of leads into the artist’s statement that you emailed me. You talked about imperfections in systems. I can't remember your exact term, but it related to a fascination with imperfect systems. That it is failures that are interesting.
CS: I think I used the word “slippages.” It's like where things don't...it's like a gear slipping or a click or a misfire…it's where things don't line up.
PK: Those are the things that interest you and they also interest me as well. I don't know why, but I think it is this idea of the pursuit of perfection; we pursue perfection in the things we do. Inevitably there's failure, and you just have to accept the failure, and there's often beauty and meaning in failure and imperfection.
CS: Well, I mean, to go back to architecture because I am interested in that, there are developers driving our visual landscape, because they have the money and they have the power and they can buy things, cash out, and they can control large areas of land. And as a result, you can have large developments made with a certain kind of homogeny. This is not a new notion—post World War IILevittown [New York] is an old idea. You get to choose from four home designs, similar setbacks, new town hall and city square, and homeowners’ associations to control the new ready-made city.
PK: Yeah, it's certainly a modern utopian idea.
CS: It's a utopian notion. But now we revisit Levittown [New York] or any of those kinds of utopian notions; this is where I think the failures within the system stand out and are interesting. For example, the family got big so we had to add a room; I'm horrible at taking care of my lawn, so I'm just going to put gravel on my front yard. It's all those kinds of things that happen when perfect places age. In older cities like London, New York, Chicago those slippages are there. You see layers of disruptions on top of each other and you see how something was repaired over and over and over and there's a beauty in this.
PK: It's also evidence of the human touch…recognizing the human element in those structures. I think people are still attracted to the human touch—that is evident in art. I think people still need that. I enjoy new media work, but I think sometimes it gets a little cold for many, in that there is less evidence of that human touch. I wonder if it's a small community of individuals who seek that human element or maybe we've grown into a society that doesn't require it.
CS: Well we might be...I'm constantly reminding myself that my way isn't the only way. My way isn't the best way.
PK: So if you weren't an artist…you said something about being an engineer or…?
CS: No I don't have the patience to sit down. It wouldn't be a desk job.
CS: No, I think it would be some weird trade I would probably really enjoy…like a really narrow niche, fixing antique motorcycles or something. You know, like where you are the only one who knows how to work on this particular thing. I mean, that would be really interesting. I’ve also played out how wonderful it would be to be with a team of four or five different disciplined people solving big problems.
PK: Like a think tank?
CS: Yeah. Working with, for example, a scientist and an engineer, and everyone respected each other, each had their own discipline, working on how we could make that widget better...I think that would become my ideal job. I walk in every day and something is in the center of the table, "I don't care if it works now, let's see why it works, and how we can make it better.”