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Filmic Explorations of Magical Realism: An Interview with Chad Stayrook

Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill.

Chad Stayrook often combines video, installation and performance to play the role of an artist/research scientist/adventurer documenting the process of discovery. Stayrook resuscitates the methods of historical explorers whose exploits tended toward the romantic, even the magical. He brings these pursuits into a contemporary world dominated by empirical procedures, where the romance of scientific inquiry has been discouraged. He gathers source material by exploring natural phenomena and unusual landscapes, while drawing upon unexpected moments and fantastical elements that push against the experience of realism. During Wave Hill’s Winter Workspace 2016, Stayrook has continued his exploratory, narrative-video series, responding to the gardens, grounds and buildings of Wave Hill. The series here features an interplanetary explorer who creates devices out of organic debris and can only survive in cold winter weather.

Stayrook will be in Glyndor Gallery this Saturday, March 26, from noon to 3:30PM, during the Open Studios for Winter Workspace 2016 Session II.


Danni Shen: How did you come to develop this interest in discovery through performance, installation and film?

Chad Stayrook: I’ve always had an interest in the unknown and the unseen, particularly in terms of macro and micro perspectives, from the cellular to solar system structures and where “we” fit into that scale. Wandering became an important tool for carving out space and time to think about larger questions of existence. That wandering and wondering then became the focus of the artwork. I rarely discover anything in my pieces, rather it’s a depiction of a process that leads towards a hoped-for discovery. I want the work to be more than the cliché of “the journey is the destination,” though. I try to structure the videos in the form of visual instructions for solving a particular problem…kind of like those “how it works” episodes on the Discovery Channel that talk about how things like erasers or tin foil are made. Except in my videos it’s about how clouds are made in some guy’s kitchen using a hacked clothes dryer or how a cracked-open geode that washes up from the ocean allows one to hear mermaid songs more clearly when part of it is inserted in a conch shell. I’ve tried to depict these processes in a variety of media, but video seems to be the platform that makes my speculations most accessible.


DS: Is your “character” based on any specific/historical figures. Where does your intergalactic explorer come from? Where has he been? Where is he going?

CS: Most of my characters are based on mythical or spiritual figures like minotaurs and shamans, or literary protagonists like Ahab and Nemo. I think the character in my videos produced at Wave Hill might be the same as the one from a previous video of mine, Landship (LINK: https://vimeo.com/71303424). But that could just be a coincidence since I’ve never before purposefully featured the same character in two different pieces. I like to think of this particular character as coming from a ship that sails a great cosmic ocean. The worlds he visits are way stations or ships, even, that he is trying to understand. He comes from nowhere in particular and he is trying to go everywhere.

DS: Is it important that your filmed sites are unrecognizable? Would you say that your narratives, which are played out in those landscapes, are inspired by magical realism?

CS: Yes, magical realism is the perfect term! For the most part, I want my videos to live in a particular geographic region without any elements that lock it into a specific place; in the same vein, my characters aren’t specific to any particular personality. I want the locations I use to be as much a blank canvas as possible for me to add a narrative. I see a kind of Victorian-esque poetic relationship between the architecture and the landscape at Wave Hill that has been the focus for framing my shots. This has been a fun challenge. To highlight this dialogue between man-made architecture and man-made landscape without saying “Hey, everyone, this is Wave Hill.” That lends a certain mystery to the footage and allows me artistic license to make this public place my own, if only in the frame of the camera.


DS: What are your inspirations?

CS: My inspirations include campy sci-fi movies. Sci-fi and fantasy books. Physics research papers and textbooks (mostly the diagrams). Instruction manuals. “Bill Nye the Science Guy” episodes. Rocks, minerals and crystals. Japanese tea ceremonies. Floating on the water in boats or on rafts. Building fires. Any kind of transmission. Maps, GPS, satellites, black holes, magic.

DS: And where do you see your practice heading?

CS: To the future! Things are always changing and morphing into new forms. I’ve been working on a series of “multimedia video sculptures” called Space/Time Vessels. They are sort of like mini video installations that combine one or more of the following elements into a single piece: video, ceramics, drawing and/or photography. To me, they are abstract representations of the same thing as my narrative videos―navigating space within the constraints of time.

Pictured above, from the top:
Chad Stayrook,
Sentient Seeker 1 (working title) (video stills), 2016, 1080p HD video w/sound. Courtesy of the artist
Chad Stayrook,
Sentient Seeker 2 (working title) (video stills), 2016, 1080p HD video w/sound. Courtesy of the artist
Chad Stayrook,
Testing Site #3, #2, #1 (installation view), 2015. Cardboard, wood, hardware, model rockets, launching device, concrete, medium-density fiberboard, 16′ x 20′ x 12′. Courtesy of the artist.

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