Eileen Cowin by Rachel Kotkoskie

Posted on March 30, 2011

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RK: I am particularly drawn to your art because I feel like it speaks of some of the issues I think about in my work and life, such as relationships, time and reality verses fiction, especially in the Family Docudrama series and I See What You Are Saying series.  Would you say that there is an overall, underlying theme to your work? Or if there are many themes, would you name a few that are strongest to you.  Have these themes or ideas changed over time?

EC: If I had to describe an underlying theme, I would say most of my work is about the idea of storytelling, the nature of narrative and the relationship between fiction and nonfiction. I am exploring how narrative is created and I want the titles to suggest several readings.  This seems to be the constant over the last 40 years.

With the Family Docudrama series, relationships were my main concern. Not just relationships between the actors but I was involved with the study of relationships as it applies to ties between people, words and images, reality and fiction.

When I started working on I see what you’re saying, I was inspired by an episode of Talk of the Nation on NPR-the program was about the moral and ethical complications of lying.  I had been interested in lying, truthfulness and deception and the relationship between lying and storytelling.

RK: Your moving images sometimes seem like stills, while your still images often appear to be captures from a moving picture.  How do you determine whether a concept needs to be executed as a still image, a video or an installation?  Do they all start from the same place in your mind?  Do you approach each media in a different way?

EC: When I started the Family Docudrama series, people would ask me why I wasn’t making films.  Eventually I decided to try video to learn something new and expand the work and it has become a major part of my practice.  Jasper Johns has a great quote that sums it up: “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that.“

You are very perceptive, some of my photographs ARE stills from my videos and sometimes the photographs have the look of film stills because they are inspired by films.

Sometimes the idea dictates the form or the media but it can also depend on where I am going to show the piece and if I have the opportunity to do an installation with video/and or stills or if I am going to submit a piece to a film festival.

RK: Do you have a particular process for creating?

EC: Not really. But someone sent me an email the other day and he said he was waiting to be motivated. I replied that if I waited to be motivated, I would never make anything.  I usually have a period of research before I start something- I read fiction and watch films that have some significance to what I am obsessed with at the moment. (Like lying in the case of I see what you’re saying)

RK: Your images and videos often imply a story or scenario.  Do you intend each viewer to create their own narrative, or hope that they see the story you envisioned?

EC: I am always interested in how other people interpret my work.   The word “imply” is perfect here which means to indicate or suggest without being explicitly stated.  I don’t always have a specific statement. My work is not an illustration – it is more of an investigation.

RK: Do you use actors or “real people” in your films and images?   Did directing come natural to you or was it a learning process?

EC: I started out using “real people” but now I do try to use actors for the videos; I learn a lot from them.  I am still learning how to direct. When I was working on Sentimental Over You, one of the actors seemed frustrated with my lack of direction but when he saw the piece he loved it.  So, sometimes my lack of direction is the direction.

RK: Work like The Studio Visit (of which I’ve only seen excerpts) and Something Out Of The Ordinary (of which you I’ve seen a web project as well as photographs of the installation) you seem to be talking about your personal self as an artist.  I feel as if this work to have an underlying humor.  Do you find that you approach art that is about you specifically in a different way than you do other work?

EC: I think the division is different- I usually try to inject some humor in the video work, even if it is not about me but I don’t seem to do that with the still work.  Something Out of the Ordinary was for an exhibit called: Witness Protection. The idea was to do something that people would not identify as yours when they first saw it.  But in a witness protection program, you can change your identity; change where you live and the way you dress but you don’t have a personality transplant. The Studio Visit is about the artist as a cultural worker. It is about the balance of power, working within a closed system, desire and the fantasy of being a rock star.  It seemed important to make it as humorous as possible otherwise it would be depressing.  Even if I am in the work the work isn’t necessarily “about” me. I have called myself a cultural anthropologist who uses the participant observation method.

RK: What is the most rewarding and enjoyable part about making your art?   The hardest or most challenging?

EC: The most rewarding part is doing the research, trying to figure it out. The hardest… closing the deal.

 

 

I am extremely grateful to Eileen Cowin for taking the time to answer my questions.  Thank you Eileen!

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