Stephanie Simek

Interview by Naz Cuguoğlu


Where does your interest in materials and systems come from? Can you remember the first moment of that spark of curiosity? How did it develop and change form over the years?

I think I’ve always been interested in how things work, even as a child. One clear thread though, for me, was when I moved to Portland in 2007, I hosted experimental music shows at my house, and it was around that time I started seeing all these scratch-built, hacked, and crazy instruments people were making. I built a couple of instruments of my own and really started taking things apart. From there, I wanted to know what was inside those electrical components — inside the casings (really what’s going on in there to make it all work). That’s when I started learning about the minerals that are at the heart of it all. And I started building crystal radios and learning about magnetic properties. Up until I started grad school, I worked for a couple of years with a physicist building ultrasonic sensors (for specialty applications mainly in the semiconductor industry). I tried to treat that job like a little residency — learning, taking from it what I could. So, it was kind of like zooming in / digging down, that got things moving for me.

Which materials and systems have you investigated so far? What did you learn from them? Were there any surprises that you’d like to share with us?

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about minerals (I made a residency for myself years ago called Joules / Jewels), and this also led to understanding magnetic recording properties (which relies on iron-bearing materials). During my time in grad school, relating to some of my recent work and the images in the folder you received, I’ve studied meanders that occur all over nature, and focused on their makeup of oscillations that are formed by erosion and deposition, and a tipping point between those two states. The tipping point has been particularly rich for me (especially under the current circumstances), and I’ve included some work that relates to it in the folder. Specifically, the profiles of the wood chairs are partially derived from a painting of five Cistercian monks working in a field. They are a really interesting example of a tipping point in history- isolating themselves from society, (and in doing so) surviving the Black Death, and being heavily responsible for preserving, spreading, and developing information. Living near a river, they made use of its force and developed water-powered mechanisms for textile production, which increased supply, leading to the Jacquard loom (and that leading to early computer programming). Also, with regard to tipping points, I’ve included some work with bubbles (unique structures as they are both at critical mass and capacity).

One of the questions you listed as guidance for your work was: “How do workarounds / latent potential / structural anomalies relate to responsiveness and adaptability?” I will throw this question back at you as there is some kind of technical language involved in it. What does this mean to you? Can you visualize this for us, the readers?

In general, I’d classify workarounds, latent potential, and structural anomalies as exceptions to the rules. For some concrete examples:

workaround: if you only have a small piece of land, there are some mathematical approaches in the way of thinning out and winding around to make a house feel like there is more privacy and room than there actually is (I get this concept from the book, The Pattern Language).

latent potential: (a property of a material or system that is unapparent / obscured) — lots of minerals come to mind, a cool example is hackmanite, a mineral that temporarily changes color from lime green to purple in the light (like a temporary photograph).

structural anomaly: (broadly: unique, exceptional characteristics of a structure / system) — how some starfish can regenerate themselves from only a severed piece of an arm.

As part of my thesis work, I’ve made this database that tries to catalog these examples and bridge all these seemingly unconnected points of research. What holds everything together for me in this database are the tags at the bottom of each entry — the manner that the information gets organized, retrieved, and deprioritized / leveled.

So, it’s a two-part process: learning about these exceptions and then finding / bridging connections between them, like a giant elastic net that has to have the ability to stretch to difficult reaches. The flexibility of the net to see the potential that has yet to be realized. I think it’s like building muscle, exercising my ability to be ultra-responsive — like training for an improv musician, maybe?

It seems like research has a core value for your practice. The way we were taught was that research was academic with its own rules and hierarchies. The way you approach research is more organic and memory-based — it is a fragmented process with endless possibilities. Can you tell us about your research process?

Going off the first question about my background, yes, definitely, learning / understanding / researching is a big part of my life. I really never know where it’s going to take me. I try to connect with people in that field (like the physicist I worked with) and be receptive. It’s an open and fluid way of working, and that keeps it exciting for me.

Language is at the root of communicating materials, systems, and also research. Similarly, you task different words to deliver these messages. What is your relation to the language, to the words? How do you borrow words, stretch them, make them your own? How much of it is technical language, inner voice, relational poetics?

I’ve been trying to do more writing since school. I’ve found it really helps me when I’m limited by a material or project needing to “work” or it being so labor-intensive that I can’t move in that open and fluid way that I described above. So, with writing, I feel like I can more easily bridge weird spans and go places I can’t go otherwise in the material world (like the hypothetical corn situation that’s included in the folder). I’ve also used sound-based projects in a similar way.

What have you been reading, listening to, and watching? Where / from whom do you get your brain juice?

I’ve been trying to cut down lately! So much news right now. In the current situation, a lot of my ideas start to come out on walks. In general, though, I look all over the place. I’m reading some Donna Haraway right now. Not a regular go-to for me, but do you ever look at Worldbuilding Stack Exchange? I love reading some of those questions.

Thinking about the current moment of the pandemic, how do you envision the future of art? I believe that speculative fiction allows us to construct alternative realities. Daydreaming is the first step towards action. What would your speculative fiction for the art world look like?

Daydreaming — totally! I’m really curious about what art from this time will look like collectively since everyone is affected, like it’s a leveler of sorts. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to see past this moment that I started consciously trying to stay focused on the present. And I’ve been thinking about work like that too — like music, being in the present moment, and letting that take us into the (near) future. I heard a theory about early organisms being shaped by environmental sounds — the sounds that came from deep sea hydrothermal vents rang out at a certain frequency (that frequency makes a signature shape). That shape is similar to early life forms (like trilobites and diatoms). So, sounds shaped their structure. I’ve been thinking about what if sounds could affect our “right now” going into the future. And speculatively, how microscopic (imperceivable changes) can be manifested through sound / music / suggestion, like flipping fear of contracting the unseeable into something else.

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