Harnessing collective energy and creativity
The “law of the instrument” offers the observation that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” for those who favor a certain tool or method over others because it is familiar.
In the case of artist and educator Katie Hargrave, her versatility is more like a Swiss Army knife with a willingness to work with many different media types and materials, ranging from sculpture, video, audio, photography, textiles, print and even food, at the center of various fascinating installations and performances.
“My work is research driven. A kernel of interest pops up, and I get drawn in,” said Hargrave, an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, regarding how an idea develops into a new work. “I have to learn as much as I can about that topic. Somewhere along the way, a material will also start to make sense.”
One of Hargrave’s projects is “Reading White Pines,” about an obscure law in the colonial history of the United States that banned cutting down white pines, since those were reserved for use as ship masts for the English navy; Americans would chop down these trees and mill them into boards as a form of protest.
“This story is represented in our historical record through a series of flags which became public representations of anti-colonial sentiments,” said Hargrave. “As a way to make this history relevant to the politics of today, I remade the flags and gave them to young Americans, who I asked to document their experiences with the flags.”
Another project entitled “How to Unmake an American Quilt” let participants meticulously take apart a discarded hand-sewn quilt.
“The project was originally intended to ‘take apart’ notions of gendered labor, but I was surprised at how much time it took to deconstruct the quilt, how much each participant learned about how to make a quilt by looking at its insides, and how much we honored the original maker,” said Hargrave. “It was a humbling experience.”
Several themes run through Hargrave’s work, including symbology and flag-making, geography, rebuilding (in both natural and urban spaces) and deconstructing, debunking myths and examining historical figures.
“I am interested in both art and education because they are powerful,” said Hargrave. “The power of both fields is diminished when the maker is the expert and the audience is asked to receive the information (artwork or knowledge).”
In line with this, Hargrave often asks her audiences to become co-creators in projects and collaborates with community organizations and other artists, including Chicago-based artist Amber Ginsburg and Hornell, NY artist and educator Brett Hunter.
“By opening up the creation of an artwork everything gets messier, but it also becomes more dynamic, more alive, more interesting for me—and hopefully for viewers as well,” said Hargrave.
“In terms of education, I am interested in the liberatory possibilities of education,” said Hargrave. “I think of myself as an educator that teaches my students how to learn rather than what to learn. Rather than telling them what something means or how to do something, I give them tools to ask questions and find answers.”
Currently, Hargrave is working on a series of projects dealing with the upcoming presidential election, which will be exhibited at Nashville’s Ground Floor Gallery next month.
“I’ve been making posters of GOP candidate speeches that are edited to remove all duplicate words (titled “History Repeats Itself”), a custom karaoke that includes only songs that the candidates have been banned by the bands from using, videos of the edited debates that only include the candidates taking breaths between words and a giant Jenga set with Donald Trump on top of it,” said Hargrave. “The work is about both the GOP and the DNC, poking fun at the whole process.”
No matter what form Hargrave’s work takes, she is always interested in including participatory elements, in order to harness collective energy and creativity.
“We all have power, but we have to be taught how to use it,” said Hargrave. “We have been trained to not touch the artwork in a museum. I make work that is interactive, so I need to give the viewers clues so that they know that not only they can participate but also that the artwork won’t be successful unless they participate. Culture and society have trained us how to behave, but sometimes it is important to break those rules to create meaningful change.”
Learn more about Katie at her website at katiehargrave.us