Chandler McWilliams first appeared on our radar when attending the CalArts MFA 100×100 fundraiser sponsored by For Your Art. A one-day event offering 100 pieces of artwork from 35 graduate students, McWilliams’ work immediately stood out. In fact his Aphorism titled Great Distance is a current fixture in the Installation office. McWilliams approaches his practice with a devotion to philosophy and an erudite fascination with the malleability of language. The Aphorisms series explores the influence of prose on paper. His sculptures and video work are informed by the residue of language on a shared visual, tactile, and verbal expression. We spoke with the artist in midst of his preparation his senior thesis Might, on view at the CalArts campus from April 8-12.
Installation Magazine: The Aphorisms Series incorporates prose and expresses a concern text. How did you come to work this way?
Chandler McWilliams: My work has always been pretty text-heavy. I actually have a masters in philosophy from the New School for Social Research in New York City, which I got a few years ago. So, theory and philosophy translated into text as I started making fine art work. I wanted to play with the way that objects and text can both express and embody particular ideas. I am, of course, heavily influenced by Nietzsche; his particular prose style has always fit me. The aphorism format is prose-based, but actually does lend itself well to a sculptural format. My process in generating this series was initially research-based in that I have a few kind of general ideas. I do a fantastic amount of reading, mostly philosophy, to kind of pull the ideas together. From that, I’m left with some higher-level concepts, or in this case, I wrote the titles before completing the pieces.
Is this a visual process initially?
I guess its more akin to writing poetry. What I want to be kind of obfuscated, what I want to be a little more ambivalent, in the meaning. So that it can kind of flip around as you read it. The more you sit with it, it changes meanings depending on its context. I think that’s the particular sweet spot that I’m trying to hit: it’s something that kind of hits you after awhile, and it’s something that kind of changes as you go back.
You leave a lot of the page blank. That’s an intimidating visual plane for writers. You allow for a physical and psychological space to ruminate over the ideas presented in the prose. Had you always conceptualized the Aphorisms on a single page as taken from a book?
Many books are in this size. So it just has that physicality where it feels kind of taken from a book or taken from a larger text. I’ve worked with a lot of graphic designers in the past, so I think I’ve kind of inherited their sensibilities. I wanted to leave enough space so that it wouldn’t feel conceptually cramped.
How are they printed?
I print with a laser printer. I experimented with using a typewriter in the past, but ultimately I preferred the laser printer. I like the way this particular paper holds the toner: it sits right up on top of it. It just kind of feels present, in a way. With a typewriter you get a different materiality- it’s sort of poked into the paper. But it felt almost too material, in a certain way. Like this one had just enough, like it was a very thin slice of materiality. It made it more directly feel like it was an artifact from some larger thing, or from the past.
Your piece Comportment 100/100 [featured image] from the Aphorisms series is a sculptural iteration of some of the ideas you flesh out in the text- based pieces.
Comportment 100/100 is a simple sculpture: just an arrow in a board of maple. It’s a little bit taller than 6 feet. And the only information given at the show was just the title: 100/100. The idea of stochasticity comes up often in my work. Stochasticity can be defined as “random-ness within a range.” The root of the word is from the Greek word for “to shoot an arrow.” I set up a target in my studio and shot 99 times. For my 100th shot, I placed this board in front of the target; this is the last shot.
That’s where it hit. I glued it there so it wouldn’t move. It’s the last of 100 shots. I was thinking a lot about how how ethics expresses itself physically and I was thinking about training and habit: how can you take habit and turn it into a conscious decision? How can you shape it? That’s a different way of approaching ethics than the kind of top-down moral principles approach. This was very much about trying to experience that practice. There’s only one shot that matters: the last one.
Another work in the Aphorisms series is Just in Case, is a play on the superstition of knocking on wood.
Just In Case is one of my funnier pieces. It’s a cast of my hand with this brass bar and a five inch thick block of maple. It knocks on the wood every 40 minutes. It knocks just once and then resets itself. I was thinking about the superstitions that I had- I don’t really have many- but my grandfather always knocked on wood when he jinxed himself. I thought it would be kind of funny to play with that. It ended up setting up a temporal tension. People knew that it was going to happen every 40 minutes so they would stand there and wait until it happened. If they checked their phone and missed it, there would be this sense of frustration. It charged the gallery space and created and made anxiety across time.
The second sculpture from the Aphorisms series Folly marks your curiosity in video.
Folly is a sculpture, but of course, works as a video as well. I was trying to distill the video to something precise. It’s a fan, the fan and a piece of paper that just floats there, flapping in the air illegibly. The paper is normally hung about five feet off the ground. The only way to make out what is on the page is to grab the paper, to interfere. The text is an somewhat nonsensical compilation of passages I underline in books. It seamlessly switches from one thinker to the next, from the Middle Ages to Ancient Greece: it’s disorienting to try to weave them all together. The result is a really nice condensation of all of their thoughts. It just sits there and flaps and flaps.
Making the Audience is a formless performance installation series. What parameters did you create to guide the piece?
I wanted to make something that was really dematerialized. I collect small groups of people and just have a conversation for about an hour on one philosophical topic. So the first one was about the question “what does it mean to call something ‘good?” ” Which is really, actually quite entertaining because there’s a lot of ways into that conversation: you could talk about Godard, or a good movie or having good food, or “ethically good.” The second one dealt with the question, “what is our responsibility to others?” That one was a lot heavier. It was a good discussion, but definitely less playful.
How did you develop this concept?
I like that element of philosophy: that very old Socratic element where you just sit in a small room and talk about things that are important to everyday life. I wanted to reproduce that, almost literally. I don’t do too much preparation about the questions. Of course, I think about it. I don’t reveal the questions in advance and I don’t document the conversations because I want people to be completely free.
The artistic output is the impression.
Yes. It’s my memory and the participant’s memory. Hopefully they carry the question and the answers with them.
Does your upcoming show follow a similar trajectory?
I am trying to make myself uncomfortable with the new work. Typically, I like to have things that are buttoned-up and concise and somewhat clear. I’m trying to force myself to experiment with more cacophonous modes.