PODCAST EPISODE 5 – INTERVIEW WITH JENNA BURCHELL

Jenna Burchell cover
Taming Tech, The Podcast 2 Taming Tech, The Podcast 3 Taming Tech, The Podcast 4 subscribe youtube

In episode 5 we speak to Jenna Burchell  an award winning South African artist who fuses the digital with the natural world.

When we think of technology, art doesn’t ordinarily come to mind, which is one of the reasons why Jenna Burchell’s sculptures are extraordinary.

Jenna shares with us: 

  • how she works with technology to marry the tech with the organic
  • how the amalgamation of the organic and inorganic subverts expectation and takes on a transformative experience
  • her experience with the ghost in the machine
  • how including technology in her creations results in a long term relationship between creator and collector
  • how her work celebrates the joy of repair and rebuilding and how the process animates the artwork

Who should listen to this episode?

Anyone who is:

  • You are looking for inspiration on how you work with technology
  • You are looking for a way to rebuild after experiencing a fracture in your work or in your life
  • You are exploring ideas on how to use technology in a different way
  • You are interested in the behind the scenes process of creating art that reframes the narrative

Show Notes

Jenna Burchell’s Website https://jennaburchell.com/
Jenna Burchell on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/jennaburchell/
Jenna Burchell on Vimeo https://vimeo.com/jennaburchell
Experience the Sounds https://soundcloud.com/jenna-burchell-1
Jenna Burchell on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/jennaburchell.artist/
Absa’s Art Virtual Tour – 7 artists you should know about https://youtu.be/Q-kMKcele7I?t=820

Experience Jenna Burchell

COURSES RELATED TO THIS PODCAST

7051148e7457b4ff766cf3ae2b144992

Learn sculpture

MORE THAN 700 STUDENTS IN THE SPANISH VERSION! Learn to make a sculpture modeled in traditional plasticine (oil clay): the course...

Edited Transcript

Paul Ogier

Howzit Jenna, how are you doing?

Jenna Burchell 

I’m good. How are you, Paul?

Paul Ogier

I see that you are not in Johannesburg right now. You are down in Cape Town?

Jenna Burchell 

Yep. I’m sitting in Simonstown today.

Paul Ogier

And what is the weather like, out there?

Jenna Burchell 

Ah, sunny.

Paul Ogier

Okay, we’re gonna move off the weather conversation very, very quickly.

Okay, yeah, what we like to do is we like to start off with, with what is called the quick questions. We call it the three Qs, the quick questions to allow listeners to get to know you quickly. So here we go.

If you could take a year off from work, what would you do?

Jenna Burchell 

That’s a really funny question because, in an art career, you often take a year off. So I find in an art career, you tend to have a year that is like in production and a year that’s in making. And pretty much It’s my dream job.

So when I take my dream year off, say, and I spend the year like it might be travelling, it might be like researching gaining insights. It might be upgrading my studio, which is one of my favourites, DIY. Yeah.

Or it could be building new works and exploring new topics. But what I love the most is that it’s a, it’s kind of a very experimental space. So you spend a lot of time kind of messing about a lot of your works. I like high-risk reward type of situation. So you, you have a couple of sculptural failures, or, yeah, at the end of the day, it’s kind of like a year of just pure self-exploration.

Paul Ogier

And because you can take a year off, if you do have failures during that time, it’s okay not to have like, under time pressure, you’re not under a deadline, which is quite nice.

Jenna Burchell 

Yeah, like there’s always pressures, and there’s always some deadlines, but I often see a kind of rhythm in my business, I started kind of encouraging this behaviour for myself. So I’d have a year where I really put into being like out there and producing and exhibiting, but in this particular off year, it’s, yeah, it’s got a lot of liberties. And you can take those types of risks without the fear of not meeting a deadline.

Paul Ogier

If you had to add one cool feature or unusual feature to your dream house, what would it be?

Jenna Burchell 

I would remove the house. I would make the whole space a studio with a little lofty bed at the top. So just nicely layers, so no dust gets in there. But essentially, I’ll flip my domestic and work situation around.

Paul Ogier

Like, so all the floors would be covered in canvas or like drop sheets, tools everywhere.

Jenna Burchell 

Yeah.

Paul Ogier

What is the best gift you’ve ever received? Either from yourself or from someone else?

Jenna Burchell 

Oh, okay. There have definitely been some good ones. You know, I’m going to go for a classic. The best gift I’ve ever received was a trip to Europe when I was quite young. And my parents said to me, okay, guys, pick three countries you want to go to, and we’re going to find a way to make it happen. And that literally changed the course of my entire career. So I would say that’s the gift.

Paul Ogier

Okay, what were the three countries you chose?

Jenna Burchell 

We went to London – at the time I had never been. We went to Florence and we went to Venice. So the big art capitals in the Europe area.

Paul Ogier

What would you name a pet?

Jenna Burchell 

Ah, yes. So I named pets aspirational names. So based on I think like if I hadn’t really like fluffy chubby cats, I’d probably make it something really elegant, okay.

Paul Ogier

Yeah, like Mrs Butterball.

Jenna Burchell 

No, no, that’s not aspirational. Be like, it would be like Gigi, because it’s like French and charming.

Paul Ogier

Is it aspirational for you for or the cat?

Jenna Burchell 

Well, hopefully, both.

Paul Ogier

Okay. Last question. Do you have a guilty pleasure? Like bad reality TV or something?

Jenna Burchell 

Yes, I definitely do. Um, I love to sing all the time. My cat thinks it’s revolting. And ironically, even though I have great pitch and great hearing for compositions, the voice did not come along with that.

Paul Ogier

Very sorry to hear that. That’s very disappointing.

Jenna Burchell 

Thanks. Ja, it is.

Paul Ogier

So to get to the meat of the podcast, I actually just read an interesting article the other day called the rise of technology in art from a website called bareconductive.com. And they talk about 3D printed art and Interactive art and online art and augmented reality and stuff like that.

You include technology, in your art in your sculptures, but you’ve been doing this since 2007. Has it always been part of your art having the technology included? Or is it something that you involve evolved into?

Jenna Burchell 

Yeah, so for me including technology and art started in my honours year of my arts degree, so it’s this kind of formative language of my art career that was there from the start, kind of like inescapably. So it’s a case of your language chooses you more often than not, in art.

Okay, so I, like often get like painter envy, or like 2D envy, like people who can walk into an art show and just hang something on the wall. I’m like, those bastards. Because, yeah, including tech in art has never ever been an easy thing, especially back in 2007.

Paul Ogier

For the people who are watching this on YouTube, there’s going to be a short video clip. But for those who are listening, Jenna, what, what exactly is happening in this in this clip.

Jenna Burchell 

So what you’re seeing or not seeing in this video is an art piece of mine from a collection called Songsmith. And Songsmith is about embedding these golden instruments into the cracks of objects or the gaps in places.

And in particular, and the one in front of us is a rock that’s been found and is in pieces. It’s been repaired with a golden seam kind of alluding to that Japanese art of Kintsugi. It’s Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi, it’s both And so yeah, what I’m doing is using that golden seam as an instrument that’s sensing human proximity, and it’s allowing the rock to reveal a song. And that is, it’s kind of acting like a vessel that holds within a piece of information about the world that’s otherwise very hard to access.

In this case, we’re hearing the grounds electromagnetism, from beneath where I found the rock, and it kind of comes out as this very whaley, unusual, sometimes discordant song. And so I kind of sometimes call these my singing rocks. And the idea is that when a person approaches a rock and brings their hands near to Songsmith that it sings and reveals the sound.

I think ultimately, the feeling that people get from this is the feeling of time, and the feeling of deep time, like time that’s difficult to comprehend and understand. I mean, the recording itself goes down a couple of meters into the earth, which is aeons of time that we’re really listening to.

Paul Ogier

The sound that’s actually coming out is that the resonance of the rock or the resonance of the person interacting with the rock.

Jenna Burchell 

So that is the resonance of the earth from the bigger rock that this tiny piece broke off from. If that makes sense? So like the big whale. The rock is kind of like the tip of the iceberg, but the song is the iceberg under the water.

Paul Ogier

My interaction with you actually goes back further than before I met you. My wife and I saw your singing stones. We’ve seen the singing rocks at Nirox at a sculpture park in Johannesburg. It was one of the most impactful parts of that sculpture park for us. It was powerful, it was contemplative, it was unusual.

Have you had other people tell you what your artwork has meant to them? Because it’s very unusual.

Jenna Burchell 

Yeah, and I have a strong belief or working theory in my practice that when something comes from a very authentic place, and it works with the world around you, it works with universal human experience that it allows more people to connect with it. Because it’s offering a universal experience, a universal language. And it allows each person to bring their own personal life to the equation, and they will find their own connections to the work, their own meanings to the work.

I’ve had very, very strong responses to this particular body of work, probably because it was created from a very strong experience in my life. I’ve had people that are very, I mean, it’s taken me aback, often, it’s been very surprising. And sometimes I feel I look at that work and I think, did this really come from me. It doesn’t really feel like something that I made, it feels like something that was made by many people, and many experiences and many interactions, you know? So yeah, it’s big emotions, I guess it really brings people’s emotions to the surface.

Paul Ogier

You have mentioned that it comes from a very strong place, it comes from a very powerful place for you. What is that place that it comes from?

Jenna Burchell 

So when Songsmith started, which is about five years ago, now, I, I had lost my life partner. And I was going through a major fracture and I had to start looking at how to rebuild who I was and rebuild parts of my life that had been kind of completely inexplicably changed.

Finding these rocks, and these are the subtle things in the work that I feel communicate to us on an intuitive level, is looking at the fractured rocks and working in a golden repair highlighting the fractured bits, like bringing out of the fracture, the greatest story, a more universal story. And, and then offering a song to that story, like one that has connections to the world, connections to life, connections to death, connections to rebuilding.

I don’t think there’s a single human on this earth that can’t relate to that feeling in one way or the other.

Paul Ogier

That’s beautiful that the mournful cry of the stones. It gives me goosebumps, it raises the hair on my, not my head on the back of my neck. It’s exquisite, it’s ethereal, it’s yeah, there are so many words to describe it, I’m actually running out of words, it just beautiful. It really is.

Jenna Burchell 

I think it’s important to note that they are also very joyous.

They celebrate strength and repair. And instead of focusing on the trauma of a break, it rejoices in it and says, there’s so much power in highlighting it and rebuilding it, in making it beautiful again.

Again, it’s something in a sense, aspirational, speaks towards hope and towards beauty and beauty in the disrepair of something even.

Paul Ogier

So now look, technology is one of those things that we’ve invented, we’ve used to record ourselves, our thoughts are speech, our images, using this artwork, and to hear the resonance of the rock, it almost feels like you can hear the resonance of your own body.

And when you interact with it, and normally there’s a viewer of art and if you talk about the two dimensional and envy the painting, you have those people stand in front of a painting and you are separate from the artwork – you observe the artwork. With yours, you are observing the artwork as an audience member, but you also then make the artwork come alive when you move your body closer to it. It changes and becomes a performance piece.

Jenna Burchell 

Yeah, definitely. It’s like you mentioned earlier looking at the company Bare Conductive who they are very strong advocates of getting technology into the hands of people who maybe don’t always have access or knowledge or experience with technology, but they encourage that intermingling of life, the world with the digital.

And that’s, you know, for me, that’s exactly what comes to the forefront in my practice is looking at how can we integrate this man created thing? How can we use it? How can you work with technology work with the digital and integrate into the analogue world in a way, for me that is sensitive, feminine and nurturing? Because for sure, we need to balance the scales of technology used for power, or technology used in extremely masculine ways for corporate use, or whatever it may be. We need a voice that also balances that and says, here are some sensitive ways we can use it. Here are some organic ways we can use it, here are some ways we can integrate it with the world in order to create powerful meaning powerful experiences.

So I mean, I guess one of the big drives for me is looking at using something like technology, and making it feel more natural in the world, and making it feel part of a world instead of not of this world. That makes sense?

Paul Ogier

It does. It does. I think the thing is that your art has almost a transitive property. It’s like it’s a sculpture and a performance piece. And I think I think that’s what technology is for me. I

f you’ve got a cell phone, the cell phone is just a hunk of plastic and metal and glass and does nothing, it just sits there but when you interact with it becomes a phone and a web browser. I think that’s kind of what your art does, too. It’s beautiful to look at but it’s interactive, and it comes more than what it actually is when you interact with it.

And each person’s experience will be different. Was that your intention when you made the sculptures

Jenna Burchell 

you know, the intention is a weird placeholder for me, because this was just my natural language and art connecting to people and looking for ways they can connect in return. So the only language that I know is one where people and places and communities are central to my meaning-making.

I don’t want any work to, in a sense be completed entirely by myself. It’s all work built through a process with other people, it’s work shown in a process or, or performance of play with other people. And, you know, sometimes, you know, to keep my sanity, possibly, I call them living sculptures, just to kind of bring my creative mind space around what they are like. The way that they organically perform with their environments, with their physical nature, with the people around them.

And all of those things are in a dance with each other in that kind of performative, interactive dance. And what comes out of that is so situationally dependent.

It’s not always guaranteed. There aren’t any like hard answers or absolutes in this equation. It’s more of an allowance. It’s an allowance to let things unfold as they will, and a relinquishing of control over how something will enact in the world how technology might respond to people how people might respond to technology.

Paul Ogier

You use technology differently than a lot of people. When I was on your Instagram, I saw that, that you use electrodes, you’ve stitched electrodes into a canvas, and you’ve used the gold and repair on the rocks. What, what kind of tech do you actually use? I mean, what is your favourite type or what inspires you? Or is it just depending on how you wake up in the morning?

Jenna Burchell 

So my particular forte, or niche is capacitive technology. So it’s always about frequencies and it’s always about touch or human proximity. And a lot of the tech I work with is about earthing.

So I’m pretty confident that my work wouldn’t really work on Mars, or like the moon. So, you know, maybe my future is a bit limited. But the idea is it’s often about our connection with the earth, on a science technological level, and it’s about frequencies that run between objects and people.

Paul Ogier

I mean if you were going to get a rock from Mars, the resonance could be quite interesting,

Jenna Burchell 

Be a pretty tough job to record that resonance, I suspect. I’d have to, you know, fly to Mars, just take my machinery and do a recording. So.

Paul Ogier

Well, yeah, if you want people to like to donate to a Patreon, or Kickstarter campaign, to get you to Mars…

Jenna Burchell 

Send Jenna to Mars.

Paul Ogier

Yeah.

There’s always been a saying called the ghost in the machine when talking about computers or bugs or things that happen, a spirit that happens in a machine, whether it’s a computer, whether it’s mechanical. It’s something that’s almost unexplained, it’s something that you can’t put your finger on.

Now you are recalling, or bringing out the sound from this rock or skull, whatever it is, you’re bringing out the information that’s been buried, you’re almost recovering the data, you’re recovering information, you’re almost an archivist of resonance.

Are you retrieving the past with your art? Or are you creating something brand new?

Jenna Burchell 

I really do see it more as a recording, a data gathering, of something that exists.

In a sense, it kind of takes timeline out of the equation very often. And it muddles up ancient history with the present, right now. And yeah, it’s like being an archaeologist of data in a way. It’s looking at what could be there and asking, how could I capture it? If I can’t capture it directly, what kind of metaphor can I use to describe it?

At the moment I have a palette of sound-making. Where most artists have a palette of colours, and they paint with it, for me, it’s like a palette of sound making. And I have ways that I work with recordings of the earth and deep time, I have ways of working with the mind and what’s going on inside our brains in the present context. And I have ways of recording narratives of life in history.

So each of them has their own way of kind of collecting and revealing data that you know, as you say, we would otherwise have no idea was present.

Paul Ogier

I’m a mathematician, and I’m a coder, and I’m a web designer. So when I’m designing a website, I need to use logic and I use need to use creativity. Your art is almost a convergence of logic and creativity.

Can you take us through a little bit of your artistic process?

Jenna Burchell 

Yeah, actually, that’s a really great question.

Because, you know, it’s when we’re looking at things like cognitive behavioural psychology, like the way that our mind functions and problem solves. I spent many years trying to find a way to switch between these mindsets. The mindsets of logic and the mindset of creativity. And at first, this was a very kind of traumatic switching. So I’d be in the studio, and I’d have to go into programming or maths or some type of scientific logic and I would get lost in that process.

But then to switch my mind over to something aesthetic and something conceptual and creative. I mean, they all crossovers, of course, you need creativity to code and to create anything. But in particular, I found that I had two distinctive mindsets happening. And for years, it was quite difficult switching between them until I could kind of easily transition between the two.

What’s the benefit of this whole experience is the idea of really bringing the arts mindsets and that conceptual meta-thinking into a space of technology, and also vice versa, bringing technology into the space of arts. You start looking at things more esoterically. And you start asking questions, as you say, what is the ghost in the machine.

I found time and time again, I’ll be going down an extremely logical path, integrating with my art and I just hit this wall where the tech is just not performing the way it’s been coded to perform. It’s not following its script. It’s not following all the application notes it should be following.

And especially because I’m pushing tech out of its comfort zone more often than not. Out of its standard use parameters. I’m asking it to do something uncomfortable. And you’ll end up with very strange, weird occurrences. That’s I mean, I’ve had artwork running on it on a test late into the night. And like, it was about five of these artworks I was, I was testing over the course of a few days, as you remember this one night waking up to all of them just like singing at the top of their lungs, no apparent reason, nothing wrong with the code. Nothing like had changed some like, yeah, the Ghost in the Machine. It’s, it’s a very real confrontation for me to accept those things. Things that are meant to be one plus one equals two are not always exactly that

Paul Ogier

the people who have your artwork that I mean, you’ve got artwork throughout the world. Do you? Do you feel like I don’t know, like a mommy or parents are saying that, that says, you have to treat it? Well. I’m sort of, like, I’m not going to sit like allow it to be in your space if you haven’t treated well. Is it? Is it that kind of thing? Or does it not have that kind of special connection with you? And

Jenna Burchell 

Ja, it’s a little bit like that. I don’t produce many artworks in a year. It’s I mean, they very, very labour-intensive and balancing their ecosystems are, it’s a very delicate thing. So definitely, I assess my buyers before selling to them, and they aren’t going to live up to my expectations. They can’t, they can’t buy it. Because at the end of the day, technological art has no precedence in ownership. And by that, I mean for centuries, we’ve been selling paintings, and we know how to take care of these and maintain them. But when it comes to technological art, this is a very, very new thing in our lives. And people buy it thinking it’s just magic, and that it doesn’t even need power, or, or it’s just going to last forever. And we all know that’s not going to be the case of technology, it needs servicing, it needs TLC, it needs maintenance. So when I sell a work, I’m selling a long term relationship. And if people aren’t the type people want to have a long term discussion with or interaction with, then definitely I’m not going to sell the work to them.

Paul Ogier

Where do your logic and creativity actually come from? What is it inside of you that’s brings this forth?

Jenna Burchell 

My dad’s a civil engineer, and my mom’s a teacher. And I feel like a little crossover between those two genetic packets makes this. And I found, I just found like, a deep curiosity for how things work, and a fascination with making things. But I also have a storyteller within me that wants to find out why something is the way it is. So inevitably, they ended up with this language of, I can’t separate technology and sound from my thinking when I’m creating work. If somebody told me to create a work that had neither of those two facets, my brain literally just shuts down. I’m like, ah, but someone tells me to work with it. I have 1,000,001 ideas. And that, for me is always the clearest indication of the direction of the path to follow.

Paul Ogier

Well, your work has technology woven through it, whether it’s actually electrodes or electrical currents or anything woven into your work. In your mind, are you taming the tech by putting it inside another piece? Or are you actually setting it free?

Jenna Burchell 

Yes, so a good question. I found at first when I started this, this journey that I was trying to tame it. And I was trying to tell it, how it should act, how it should behave, how it should integrate how it should respond to people. And I initially wanted to control every element of that equation, over the years of experience, and I think this is true universally for life, too, is you have to learn to let go of complete control. And especially with technology, I’ve learned that by embracing those moments of the Ghost in the Machine, by embracing those moments that make no logical sense to me. And working with that, I have found my strongest voice. In fact, the entire songsmith project came from one of the biggest failures I’ve ever made in my career, like, I had tried to force technology to do something it just couldn’t really do. And when I recognized the kind of problem, and I recognized that it was a dead-end of that particular tech application, and so I think Well, how can I use this area to my advantage, and that literally also just started the whole direction of my songsmith technology is working from a place of complete failure with technology, working with its failings, and a time and time and time again, I have experienced that whenever I try and enforce my will upon it, it falls apart, it falls flat, it loses vitality, it loses meaning that when I embrace it, it comes alive. It feels organic, it feels emotional, it feels human. And it’s exactly that line that my work always tethers upon. Is it tameable? Is it untameable? Should you tame it? Should you not?

Paul Ogier

It’s a that’s a very valuable lesson for life as well. You’re right. It really is. It’s do you, like, do you force things to bend to your will or not? Yeah,

Jenna Burchell 

I have actually a great real-world example of this exact equation, resulting in something untamed. And I have a collection of Public Works. Here in Stellenbosch at Spier wine estates is about 12 of my songsmith sculptures out in the field. And, you know, the client would phone me and be like, ah, your rocks are singing. I’m like, well, when are they singing? No, every time it rains every morning when there’s dew. So I’m like, okay, I beat my head up for months trying to fix this, this programming error, you know? Then I’m like, No, no, no, wait a second. That’s kind of beautiful. Yes. Like, let’s let these rocks sing. when it rains. At the time, they were going through like a massive drought. They’re just coming out of that. So I’m like, this is a celebration. Let the tech sing.

Paul Ogier

Let the tech sing. I love that. I love that. Thank you, Jenna. Thank you very much. If people want to be able to get hold of you to see your works. Where is the best place to find everything?

Jenna Burchell 

You can find me on Instagram @jennburchell and definitely my website, Jenna Burchell.com.

Paul Ogier

That’s beautiful. Thank you so much, Jenna, and thank you for your time.

Jenna Burchell 

You’re welcome. It was fun.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

LATEST PODCASTS

Hey Wait!

Get our latest Podcast episodes, Tutorials and discount coupons.