#67 Storytellers I Admire: Jen Aitken
In which we challenge the idea of storytelling in art
For this month’s interview I was lucky enough to sit down with Toronto sculptor, Jen Aitken. We had a thoughtful conversation about the concept of storytelling itself and whether there’s even a role for it in the world of art. Jen is what we might call a story skeptic which made for a stimulating conversation that challenged me to think about what a story is and where it can come to life. She doesn’t quite buy it. We left the discussion with our opinions unchanged but our perspectives were certainly shifted. We also dug into her process as an artist and some of the big questions that come up when making and or viewing art. Jen has a way of speaking that gets to the heart of an idea that I hope you’ll enjoy—it is thoughtful and brings concepts to life in your mind’s eye as if your were staring at or experiencing the thing with her.
I’m lucky enough to have known Jen for most of my life at this point. That means we have shorthand understanding about each other, our work, and lives that I tried my best to make sure doesn’t go over any reader’s head. There were a lot of deep belly laughs as we got tangled up in each other’s thoughts and I talked way more than I like to in these things. It also made for a conversation about ideas that went beyond the surface. We go on a bit of a trip around stories and their meaning at the end that I think you might enjoy—you get to see us both explore our thinking in real time. We went deep folks, so set aside some time and dive into some big ideas around the concepts of art and storytelling. Let me know what you think in the comments below, especially Jen’s perspective on storytelling in art. Are you in a field where you don’t think storytelling should play a role? I’d love to hear about it.
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NB: The interview has been edited and condensed for brevity, but I tried to leave as much with you as possible. It’s long so I’d encourage you to grab a cuppa when you have a bit of time and dive into the world of one storyteller for a bit. Enjoy and let me know what you think, I have more of these planned.
Chantaie: Okay, so first question, and you can take this one to however you want, what's your story? Or can you share your story?
Jen: I feel like I'm taking it very directly
J: I grew up in Toronto and my mom was a curator my dad was a designer and they actually met at art school. So from a super young age art and the field—being an artist—was a possibility. It wasn't something I had to learn later. From an early age, it was available as a future. When I was a kid, that's what I wanted. And then I took a super brief detour into fashion.
Why did that happen?
J: I think… I don't really know why it happened. I can't remember what it was, somehow I was just drawn to it. I think... No, I couldn't tell you, but the reason it didn't stick, I think, is because I realized that ultimately I was only interested in the garment as an object in relation to your body and not at all about the field of fashion. And then when I went to art school and found sculpture, it was like, oh yeah.
What did that brief detour in fashion look like?
J: Right out of high school, I went to Ryerson for fashion design and then dropped out after two years. I think at the time I dropped out because it was all about technique and skill and not at all about design.
And then what happened?
J: (Laughs) And then I traveled for half a year and when I came back I got a job as an assistant to a painter who was a full-time artist. That was the first time I've ever really been around a full-time artist and that also made it seem possible. I moved to Vancouver and went to Emily Carr, still thinking I was going to use that art education to apply to a fashion life. And then in my first sculpture class, I was like, yeah, this is the thing. I feel like right now in my life, I'm at a bit of a turning point or a plateau or something. Since I was a kid up until now, the story has been, ‘I would like to be an artist and how am I getting there and how can I do it and make it happen and live that life?’ And finally now I feel actually kind of stunned that I'm here and doing it and having this life.
You're an artist!
J: Yeah, I'm an artist. That's it. I'm here, so now…I mean, I wanted to get here always, but I never really thought about what would happen after I was there. [laugh]
J: It’s really exciting.
So what’s happening?
J: Something I've been thinking about partly during the pandemic as we've all been reflecting is the thing that made me want to be an artist is this kid mental scape in your brain. I think when you're a kid—I mean, I don't know I was like this, I assume all kids are like this—you just have this super active imagination and this whole internal world. And it's a real place. It’s a place within yourself and there's an urge to sort of translate that or live in that. To express it somehow. But then the more professionalized that instinct has become, just the urge to make a thing, it becomes a profession, and that kid brain is sort of lost. It moved a little bit more and more under the surface and there's less access to it now. So I think now the work is to get that back.
Yeah...Like, re-access the inner child or the inner creativity?
J: Kind of. Like inner mental space. To keep all the professional part that I've made for myself and bring that into it somehow.
So before I ask questions about story. I want to ask you about being a storyteller, because all of these interviews are about storytellers I admire, I think everyone is a storyteller in some form, but not everyone feels the same way. So first of all, when you hear the word storyteller, do you think of yourself in that world in any way?
J: I'm like… I love what you're doing. And I’m intrigued by this idea of expanding the idea of a story and what can be a story and who's a storyteller. I've had an open mind about it and like tried to get there, but I can't quite.
Okay. So tell me more about that. What's stopping you?
J: The initial thing that I got my backup about is… how do I say this? I think I resent storytelling about art.
Explain that a bit more, what do you mean?
J: I mean, art needs to have writing about it. To legitimize it, as part of the field we need writing and discourse around the art. But I think there's a way to do that that doesn't try to overtake or undermine the art itself. The associations I have with storytelling or the way that storytelling operates—maybe there's just an instinct or an impulse or a tendency for people who are telling stories about art to want to allow the story to take the form of the art and kind of squeeze it into its form. Art has a particular kind of meaning and stories have a particular kind of meaning and they're not the same. And as a culture, we tend to privilege the story meaning or the language. you know, language has more power than anything I think and so when you start to put language around art, it kind of starts to squash the actual art.
Yeah. It’s like…here’s what I’m hearing. Tell me if I’m getting it right. It’s almost like by imposing storytelling on it or telling stories around the art, you’re sort of forcing meaning onto it in a way that takes away from just whatever the art itself could be expressing.
J: Not only that you're forcing meaning onto it, because it already has meaning, so by forcing a kind of language-based meaning onto it you’re overshadowing the kind of non-language meaning. If you can tell a story about art, that does the same thing as the art, why do you need the art? You know? It's doing something different than the story would do.
Okay. I love that. I want to dig deeper here a little bit. So when you think about your art and the work that you do, absent stories told around it and art that you experience in the world, absent criticism—I’m assuming when you say stories told we’re talking criticism, descriptions, all that stuff. Absent that sort of world of storytelling and in the actual work itself, does storytelling have a place? Is there meaning that is trying to be expressed, which is usually how I think about the storytelling, the expression and creation of meaning in some way.
J: So this was the second part of my train of thought, cause I figured that's what you're getting at. It's like my initial reservation is about this writing about art, but then if we kind of, hypothetically can get rid of all of that and think of, for instance, an abstract sculpture as a story. Can it exist in that way? And I still think, no. (Laughs)
(Laughs) Okay tell me more.
J: And it's because of the language thing and because—are story and narrative the same thing to you?
That one's a tough one. Yes and no because narrative creates story. Like there's no story without a narrative, but that's only in the literary, language-based sense of story. But for me, my understanding of story and the way I'm more and more starting to define and understand it is around the experience and understanding that comes from that experience, which is why when I think about art and when I think about your art specifically, I think about the experience I have with the pieces from the moment I encounter it, to moving around it, trying to gain a sense of understanding and defining what I'm getting from it. That for me is an experience of a story. And for me, you're the person who created it. So you're the teller of that story. Even though you might've infused something or some sort of meaning into it that I’m not picking up, I'm going to experience something entirely different. Because I have different contexts, I'm looking at it from a different perspective. Right? So that's sort of my, my take on it.
J: I think I… yeah, that's wonderful. That's all that I want for my work. I still feel like the term story to me feels misleading because it's so tied up with language. And what I'm trying to do with my work is, create experiences for the kind of non-language parts of being alive.
Say more about that. Like, just when you think about what you're creating.
J: I think we spend so much of our life in language and articulating thoughts and feelings and reading and writing. Language has the most power of everything. And it's not that that's false or anything, but there’s other components to existence that get swept under that wave. And I think there's a way that something can feel meaningful, like, in the way that I'm talking about this kid space in your brain, like this kind of intimate, personal landscape in myself, I think that there's not language there and what I'm trying to do with form and material is create a kind of analogous environment to how it is in my head. And then if you, as a person encountering these things, can have a kind of moment—obviously you're not going to get into my brain—but if it can kind of evoke just a flash, like if you can just feel something for a second before you have a thought about it. That's interesting.
Yeah. Is it fair to say in a way that part of the effort is externalizing that interior landscape in some way, and you're doing it through form? Or is that a misinterpretation of what you just said?
J: I mean, I think that's what I'm doing. I don't think it's important that you need to know that necessarily but that's what drives me. Ultimately the point of it is to give you an experience where you can just have a feeling and not be able to name it for a second.
Yeah. I think… okay. So, sorry. I'm thinking about a million things at once right now. Like who's going to be reading this, but also my own knowledge and experience. When I think about your work, I have a powerful reaction. Part of the reason I like your work is because I can't really describe it. I don't have words for the experience of seeing your work. I feel like I'm tapping into a feeling when I'm experiencing it. It's not viewing, I'm experiencing your work. And I don't think that happens with all art. It leaves me wondering is it that I know you, is it the art, or is it, I don't know, something else? It leaves me with more questions than the answers, which I'm happy to sit in and enjoy.
J: Yeah. I don't know. I mean there's not going to be a definition of what art is. There's different approaches or values or there's different things people want out of it.
What is it that you're looking for when you're looking at art from other artists? Not your work, not what you're trying to do.
J: I can't help but be looking for the same thing I want out of my own work, which is, a sense of a kind of world. Like another kind of plane of existence or dimension. I mean, I hesitate to talk about it in that way, but it's like a spiritual sort of thing of something that exists that's here, but it's also not here. Like, it's a thing, here's an object that somehow has more presence than another object (holds out her hand as if something is in it to express the point).
I hear what you're saying. Okay. So thank you for going on that journey with me. Do you any thoughts about how do you define a story? What makes a good story? Was there anything interesting there that you wanted to share? How would you define a story and what makes a good one?
J: I think I, I mean, I dunno, maybe I'm having my mind expanded. I’m still really resistant to this expanded notion of story. Like I'm interested in it, but I'm skeptical of it.
Give me time let me keep writing.
J: Because I think to me, story has such a linear sense of time. It's a contained sense of time and art is not necessarily doing that. It kind of can loop around or it can just be a flash with no time.
I have a book I'd like to lend you about this.
J: Oh, great.
So we've talked about your work in general. One of the questions I’d love to hear your answer to is just, tell me a bit about work you do that brings you joy and that can be in any realm.
J: I've been building these wire drawings recently, where [I explore] the idea of drawing in space. I have a bunch of different materials and approaches and different projects, but the thing that's in common with all of them is the idea of finding shapes. And so for the wire drawing, it's bending wires, arranging them in space, soldering bits together, cutting things away, adding things, cutting them away. It’s sort of like moving rectangles around in space and having a vague idea of what I want or what I'm looking for, but not really ever being sure what something's going to turn into. And then there’s a moment where a kind of figure, a kind of specific form, starts to just emerge out of a mass of lines. And it becomes specific to itself and sort of familiar, of the world, but separate from the world and kind of familiar to my own body of work; the forms I've dealt with before, it kind of takes on the presence of a figure or being, not with arms and legs, but a sense of another kind of being that has more presence than just a mass. And so the joy is in that moment where something just flips and it's looking back at me. Yeah. Yeah.
I love that. Thank you for sharing. So let's talk about who your audiences are and who you create for. And those might be two separate groups.
J: Why are those separate?
My audience, for example, for my newsletter are creators and independents, but I write the newsletter for myself. Because it helps me untangle and understand things in new ways.
J: Ahhhh. I see. Right. Yeah. I probably also definitely make for myself. But one thing I learned this year is that it's actually very hard to make things without an external purpose, like a show or deadline of some kind. If I had no audience, it would be difficult to keep motivated. I mean, the audience is whoever wants to look really. I don't mean that flippantly. Because I think actually very few people want to look and actually look with patience and attention and kind of an open mind. And I don't think that's about education. I've encountered people who are super educated in art and people who have no education in art and both of them can not want to look at all or be completely open to seeing.
Cool. Thank you for that. Uh, so let's hop back to stories. Do you think stories matter?
Okay ( both laugh)
J: I'm only anti-story in the context of my work. I’m not anti-story.
So yes they matter. Why do they matter?
J: Because we need meaning and stories make meaning and humans need meaning. It’s survival. Or else we'd all just be depressed
(chuckles) Sometimes we’re depressed anyway, but yah. Wait, were you going to add to that?
J: I always think of this line from Louise Bourgeois. Do you know her? She's a French American artist and a sculptor and somebody asked her once, why do you make art? And she said, ‘to avoid depression.’ Like, period. (laughing) So yeah. That’s it.
(Laughs)It’s simple. So who's a storyteller that you admire?
J: For the rest of these questions I’m going to continue with your definition. (loud laugh)
No, no, no. I want you to continue with your definition because I want people to see it and challenge the ideas that I'm putting out there. So, like, go for it.
J: No, cause I don't… I think…
It doesn't have to be an artist.
J: Nah, I'm just going to pick an artist. I think those are people I admire more. I think, I just don't feel…I mean stories are important and of course I've had stories in my life, but I don't really feel that connected to narrative in a way. (pause) Yeah, I think I just feel more connected to this more expansive [definition]. How did you put it? The feeling or your experience of having a feeling in front of the thing or something?
Yeah, (laughs) that doesn't sound exactly like something I would say…?
J: That’s me translating it.
But that notion of an experience is really what the story is for me.
J: Lately I have been looking again at the work of an artist called Richard Tuttle and I feel that with admiration, often comes a kind of envy or resentment mixed in for me.
Hmmmm. Say more.
At least with art. You know? And he was someone I encountered early on and was super popular at the time when I was in a school. Basically, what I admire about it is a lot of what he makes are objects made from scraps or bits of stuff, kind of off cuts or odds and ends of random stuff kind of strewn together or sort of doodle-ish, playful shapes cut out of paper or cardboard or fabric or something he just tacked on the wall. And what I admire is there's an elegance and kind of quiet grace to these things that seem like they should be garbage. And yet somehow there’s this poetic lightness and every single thing is really inventive and playful and nothing is burdened by overthinking a thing. You can just kind of have an idea and do it and then step back. I don't know how much editing ever goes on. And then some of them are great and some aren’t, but overall there's just this certain quality that I admire slash envy, as someone who overthinks and overworks. I was in a studio visit once, several years later and we were talking about my work, but then the artist I was talking with looked over at the wall at this cardboard scrap thing that I had tacked on the wall as ‘oh, this an interesting thing.’ And he was like, ‘why can't you just show that? That's really great. Let’s look at this thing.’ Obviously I had seen something in it cause I put it up to look at it. But then I was like, ‘fuck, no, because everyone just wants to be Richard Tuttle.’
Did you say that!? (laughs)
J: Yeah. So the thing I admire is being able to see the beauty in these little bits of what people would call garbage. And yet now the fact that I can see that too, [I wonder] am I actually seeing it or am I just seeing his work everywhere? Does that make sense?
Yeah, I know exactly the question that creates.
J: Like, is it him or is he showing me a certain beauty in the world that I hadn't seen before? Or am I just thinking things are beautiful because they remind me of his work?
Yeah. Oh. Fuck him.
J: And if that's the case, how can I even… how can I ever…you can't touch it. You can't use it. You're just doing his work. And so many artists are just doing his work. But it's so good. I love it so much.
Now I’m curious. I want to like go check out his stuff. Wow. That's a circular question that would drive me insane.
What's a story you've created and, or shared, or let's change the language here a bit, what's work that you've created and shared that you're especially proud of?
J: An exhibition called Numa that I made in 2016. It was a group of concrete sculptures. I'm not going to say it was the best thing I've ever done, but the reason that sticks out as particularly meaningful to me was that it felt like the first time that the kind of vague vision I had in my head, I could actually see it in the thing that I had made. The way the work turned out, the way it looked in the space installed actually started to approach that idea. Like that big vision in my mind. Those two realities were closer than they've ever been. I've made some things that I'm very proud of since then, but that show was still the closest that those two worlds had ever come.
Is there work that you're looking forward to sharing that you haven't shared yet?
J: I started working on an animation project. Did I tell you about this?
No, tell me more!
J: It’s very exciting. So I started this idea or I had this idea and started working on it in 2014. And then got so overwhelmed with the technical part and then I got busy also and abandoned it. When things got really quiet last year and I needed something to do that wasn't going to take up space I picked it back up. Also I had seen this animation project by Howie Tsui at the Power Plant that was so amazing and reminded me I had started this thing. It's nothing like his work, but it just reminded me. I don't know where it's necessarily going to go, but I have this vision of a small video room and when you walk in—I don't know how to put this into words yet—but you walk in and the three walls that are facing you, there's one shape projected onto each wall. So a three channel installation. And then the shapes are figures that have occurred in my work over and over again. Triangle, rectangle, circle shapes. And they're dancing and moving in these sort of permutations. So it moves into a pose and then holds it for a second and then moves into a pose and holds it for a second. And so there's these three things that are sort of maybe in sync, maybe out of sync at times, but three different loops moving. And then, they’ll have a little bit of a sound that'll make a kind of percussive thing.
One of the things that keeps coming up in all of my other work, particularly my concrete sculptures is, as you were saying, walking around the thing and then noticing it shifting from every angle, there's different shapes that occur. And it becomes this question of, how does that view add up with that view? They seem to morph as you move. And so it's literally animating that experience. So there's a thing that's moving on the screen and yet, somehow you register it as one thing that's moving, not just a series of shapes, there's something that's holding it together as a being, even though you can't sum it up by any one shape. It is the whole.
I’m excited to see that when it comes to life. So question about process, because you said you started this in 2014 and put it away. What's your process like in terms of timelines? Does that happen often where you'll start thinking about something and it'll take a while for it to really come to life for whatever reason, whether it's technical or something else?
J: Yeah. I think things generally take a long time of stewing. There's a lot of stuff that I make and throw out and then it's not till the third version that I figure something out. But I think I haven't really been working long enough for that to show, it's been 10 years.
That's interesting because that's how writing works for me too, where I'll get an idea and be like, oh, that's interesting. And I'll put it away or I'll start reading about it depending on what it is. And years later, I'm like, oh, I can write a story about this. Or I can write a novel about this. I can, whatever.
J: Yeah. I had a professor once who would always say ideas are a dime a dozen. I have a million ideas.
J: Getting ideas is not the hard part. It's finding a way to start it or do it or finish it or give it form.
Okay. Last question. What's a story you've seen recently that you loved or what are some of the important stories being told right now?
J: I'm going to stick with sculpture. And so a sculpture that I've seen recently that I loved is, well, it was a series of works at, the MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto) right now. The artist is called OLUSEYE.It’s a series of maybe 10 or 15 objects all in a row. And he's spliced together old hockey sticks with old farming tools at the handle portion. So they're kind of stick figures. Each figure has a hockey stick tail coming out at you and then you go up and there's a shovel or a rake or something as a head. And there's a bunch all in a row and they're installed on the wall slightly higher than you in two or three alcove spaces tucked in, and leaning out. Their tails are butted against the wall. And then they're held out from the wall at the top, by this skinny little dowel and they are leaning towards you. It seems like maybe an obvious or boring thing to smash two things together but there's so much care and attention in the splice join and they're installed so perfectly. They have this, like…they're kind of funny and delicate and kind of humble, but like really haunting at the same time, this theatrical heavy haunting presence. It's a really nice installation.
Oh. Nice. Should I go check it out?
J: Yeah, sure.
Those were all the questions I had. But were there any thoughts that you had about storytelling or things that you expected us to talk about that haven't come up that you wanted to share?
J: … I feel like I really want to come around to this expanded notion of story and I'm hopeful that by, you know, after continuing to read your newsletter and other stuff over time, I will.
I'm going to keep writing about it and keep exploring that idea of what's a story. What makes a story?
J: I have a question. What do you think stands to be gained by calling multiple things that we don't consider stories, stories?
Good question. It's partly because I think stories are so important that they can't just live in the realm of the writer or the speech, you know? They have to live further out than that one world because they matter so much to the human experience. I think that's where it starts from. My whole PhD idea is around the notion of shared stories and how we've lost shared stories to a certain extent, or, they've become a bit more fractured because the media landscape has shifted so much. And what that means for us in terms of community connection in society. So in that context, I'm not thinking about stories as the books we all read, or even the shows we all watch, but it's also the experiences we have and the meaning that we create around them. So for example, 9/11 is an experience that happened, but then there were so many stories around it and there's been art that's been created, all these different things and interpretations [of that experience] and I think leaving it [exclusively] in the world of the writer or the speaker doesn’t leave enough space for this thing that is so important. Like, our brains make stories.
J: Oh totally.
That's what we do. There's no way for us to have meaning as human beings, if we don't. This is neuroscience, if we don't create stories, if you don't start to create narratives and put things together in some sort of sense we lose that sense of order for ourselves. So yeah. That's why,
J: Yeah, I totally agree.
And it's also, I think, partly what my own experience has been. I started out as a writer and I've done so many things since then and I think in all those things I've been a storyteller while not always writing.
J: Yeah. And I think that there's danger in not. In letting the stories be unconscious or implicit. It's like, that's where damage gets done. Whether it's that larger cultural dynamic or the dynamic in family stories, roles we end up playing unconsciously.
Yeah. Think of the stories not told, especially within families and then the huge difference it makes when those stories come to light.
J: Yeah. And in rewriting your own stories. So much of what happens in therapy is, what is the story you're telling yourself?
Yeah, Brené Bown has this whole thing about, sometimes she has to catch herself spiraling. And be like, ‘what's the story I'm telling myself?’ and externalize it and say, ‘oh, I've made up that X, Y, Z,’ because our brains do it.
So that's the drive and that's like the thing behind it for me, it's partly personal experience partly perspective.
J: Okay. Maybe there's some similarity in our thinking. If you are trying to really examine these stories or things that aren't getting told or tell stories that aren't being told or rewrite stories that are no longer relevant or true and I'm trying to avoid the whole impulse of telling a story in the first place. It’s about the default brain of telling a story, we’re trying to scratch under that from different angles.
Yeah. We're coming at it from different directions.
And I still think in the effort to not tell a story, even though I know that's not what you're saying, but that effort to sort of step away from the story creates its own story. Cause it, like I said, story's experience in a lot of ways. It's not [just] narrative.
J: I feel like it's interpreting experience.
That's partly why I use ‘share’ a lot more than ‘I tell,’ because I think ‘tell’ assumes that the thing you're saying is going to be received in the way you intended for it to be received and that's not it. So sharing is sort of putting it out there and leaving it for the audience to experience themselves. And in that experience, they start to create a story in their own heads about whatever that experience is, whether they're reading a book or seeing a piece of art or whatever it happens to be, the story itself is in the thing, whatever the thing is, but how it's interpreted, how it's understood, how it comes to life the meaning that comes from it is individual in a lot of ways.
J: I mean, it's a shared thing though. I think if you take that idea to the end then it takes any onus off the storyteller to be careful and intentional.
That’s right. I think what I've tried to do in that understanding is remove the expectation that everyone's going to get what you're putting out in the way that you're putting it out. And then the choice from there as the creator, it's up to you to either decide I'm going to work extra hard, to make sure they get exactly what I'm trying to do or to step back and allow it to live in whatever way it lives. So I think it's important to have intent and I'm glad you called that out.
J: Yeah and I would call myself out on that too. I think everything I've said so far sounds like I'm talking about my work as if you're in the experience and there is no content or anything, but, of course there's like history and context and the specific forms that I am working with have particular associations. I could talk about it in terms of that.
I don't feel like you were denying that at all.
J: Okay. Good.
Wow. Okay and on that note, thank you so much for doing this.
J: Thank you. This was fun.