Future Visions: An Interview with Artist Kelly Richardson

Multimedia artist Kelly Richardson is by now a household name in the visual art world. Her hyper-real landscapes created with digital technology have garnered international recognition. Her work has been called “otherworldly,” “absorbingly apocalyptic” and has been shown in over 90 group and solo exhibitions. Born in Burlington, Ontario, Richardson now resides in the U.K. and lectures in fine arts at Newcastle University. Richardson was also one of the notable artists who showcased their works at this year’s Power Ball XIX: Stereo Vision, a major fundraiser for public exhibitions and programs and an immersive contemporary art exhibition/party.

I had the chance to ask Richardson a few questions about selling caricatures, exploring technology, and the Apocalyptic Sublime.

Natasha Grodzinski: You are such a widely known artist and have shown works internationally. Does it feel the same to show in Canada or do you feel differently about showing your work in the country you were born in?

Kelly Richardson: I have lived in England for the past 14 years and during this time I have been fortunate enough to establish my practice internationally, which I’m incredibly grateful for. However, it has meant a great deal to me personally and professionally to maintain a presence in Canada, so it’s always a pleasure to return to exhibit my work. In fact, very shortly I will be returning permanently to teach at UVic (University of Victoria) which I am extremely excited about.

NG: Have you always been an artistic person? Or is there an “Aha” moment where you realized this was a way to express your passion and ideas?

KR: I have been a maker for as long as I can remember. Instead of setting up a lemonade stand as a kid, I set up a curb-side caricature stand. Portraits were 25 cents each. A bargain, even if they were awful!

NG: You’re described as an artist working in digital technologies. You work with film, but can you go deeper into what kind of digital technologies you’re engaging with?

KR: The kinds of technologies used is very much determined by what is needed to produce each work. I always start with an idea from which lengthy research and development is undertaken to produce it.

In terms of production, this usually means involving various specialist software packages typically used in the film and gaming industries. I’ve also employed sophisticated digital installation methods to challenge established moving image formats to produce seamless panoramic vistas three times the width of high definition and more recently, a 10-screen synced 4k installation.

Currently I am researching how I might employ real-time video for one particular work and for another, I’m simply trying to force available software to make a series of works possible. The technical challenges are always significant, but I need to stress that they are always used as a means to an end. The work is first and foremost about the ideas.

The Erudition by Kelly Richardson. Source.

NG: The landscapes you create are a mix of the natural and unnatural, the organic and technologic. What made you want to explore these contradictions?

KR: That’s a difficult question to answer really, as I think my initial interest in those contradictions came by way of numerous angles in my thinking. Much of this work came out of an interest in the Apocalyptic Sublime, a sub-genre of Romanticism where artists, poets and writers shared a preoccupation with notions of the apocalypse in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is a great deal of speculation as to what the influences of the genre were exactly but one significant one was the birth of the Industrial Revolution which played heavily on the minds of creative practitioners at the time. Roughly 200 years on, the natural world (ourselves included of course) is now facing severe consequences from relentless industrialization. In short, I’m interested in that relationship, which is evident in many ways in the work.

Leviathan by Kelly Richardson. Source.

NG: For example, you digitally created a hypothetical landscape in Mariner 9, but then show footage of a very real one in Leviathan. What is it that draws you to these landscapes?

KR: The landscapes chosen for each work, whether digitally created or filmed and then manipulated, are quite specific. Mariner 9 presents Mars as littered with the rusting remains from various missions to the planet. Despite its suggested abandoned state, several of the spacecraft continue to partially function, looking for signs of life and possibly transmitting the data back to no one. That search for life—to know that we’re not alone in the universe—is fascinating on many levels, but it’s also a beautiful, endearing endeavour, particularly for us as a species. We are destroying much of life as we know it, literally consuming our planet at a truly alarming rate. I’m interested in that contradiction at this critical time in history when current predictions for our future are not just unsettling, but terrifying.

I produced Leviathan during a residency at Artpace in San Antonio. Prior to arriving the BP oil spill (Deepwater Horizon) had just occurred in the Gulf. Taking that environmental disaster as a starting point of interest/concern, through research I discovered Caddo Lake on the east side of Texas on the Louisiana border, which has the dubious claim of being the first site for underwater oil extraction in human history. The location, therefore, could not have been more suitable from which to make work that is concerned with the repercussions of large-scale, unchecked industry. Caddo Lake is a significant landscape from which the modern world was forged.

A still from Mariner 9 by Kelly Richardson. Photo by Colin Davison. Source.

NG: Would Mariner 9 be considered a cautionary tale?

KR: It depends on the viewer’s interpretation. On the one hand, yes, absolutely. I am deeply concerned about where we are heading as a species. But I’m also hopeful. In Mariner 9, whatever interest we had in the planet has long ceased, but it’s not clear why. We might be witnessing machines attempting in their own futile, semi-functioning way to communicate with a planet where no one is left to receive the data. Or perhaps our focus has shifted elsewhere.

Over the last few years, I’ve been increasingly interested in the way science fiction allows us to experience what life might be like in the coming century. Scientists and futurologists can speculate on what the future might look like, but artists are capable of visualising those futures, making them tangible. If hindsight is always 20/20, experiencing these potential futures offers us a window through which we can view our present time and the direction we are headed in with some measure of clarity.

NG: Now that you’re lecturing at Newcastle University, has your experience as a teacher changed your perspective on visual art?

KR: I wouldn’t say that it has changed my perspective on visual art, but I do find that it’s an enriching experience to teach. Arguably (and this sounds like a cliché) I get as much from it as the students do.

NG: If you had to describe your work to someone who knew absolutely nothing about art and had no interest in it, how would you do it?

KR: Most people have an interest in TV and film, so when faced with someone who isn’t interested in art I tend to talk about it in relation to that. The works act as immersive “set extensions” (to borrow a term from film) into another time and place within which the viewer becomes the main character. However, we frame it, it is that experience and what happens internally within the viewer which is important.

You can find out more about Kelly Richardson’s work here. And continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.