"It's just challenging myself all the time by taking risks and trying to figure out where I can take a photograph where I’ve never been before."
Aimée Beaubien is an artist living and working in Chicago. Beaubien reorganizes photographic experience while exploring networks of meaning and association between the real and the ideal in cut-up collages, artists’ books and immersive installations. A photographed plant, interlaced vine, woven topography merge into fields of color and pattern and back again expanding the ever more complicated sensations of reading a photograph and experiencing nature. Beaubien’s work has been included in national and international exhibitions including Demo Projects, Springfield, IL; Gallery UNO Projektraum, Berlin, Germany; Houston Center for Photography, Houston, TX; Marvelli Gallery, New York, NY; The Pitch Project, Milwaukee, WI; Virus Art Gallery, Rome, Italy. Her work is held in the permanent collections of Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection, Chicago, IL; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY. Aimée Beaubien is an Associate Professor of Photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL where she has taught since 1997. IG @aimeebeaubien
Keyi Zhang: First of all, can you tell us a bit about your experience of teaching at SAIC. How do you feel about the environment, your coworkers, and your students?
Aimee Beaubien: I love the opportunity to teach at the school. I was working in commercial photography and the chair of the photography (department) at the time invited me to teach one class, so I kept working full time at this commercial job and taught that one class. I just love the creative freedom that there is in the classroom, and I love being around artists who are making things and trying to understand why they are making the things they are making. Therefore, I asked for more classes. Then more classes turned into more classes, which turned into more classes, and then finally I decided to quit the full-time job (in commercial photography) and try as hard as I could to make a living at teaching part-time. And then years and years and years later, 17 years later, that turned into a full-time position, and the whole reason why I work so hard at that is that I found the School of the Art Institute to be so inspiring. It is surrounded by so many talented people from students to faculties to staff, and alumni are all around the world, and I can go anywhere and meet people that are somehow connected to the school. It’s just really exciting to see people‘s production evolve over years. I feel like there are so many students that have turned into friends, that have these ongoing relationships. So it’s really exciting to kind of just see everything kind of spinning out of this institution and I am very grateful that it’s a source of inspiration for my personal work too.
Keyi Zhang: So have you brought part of your teaching experience into your work?
Aimee Beaubien: I am always inspired by students and in terms that I am trying to inspire them, so anything that I’m excited about that I encounter in the world, I try to find ways to make it relevant within the classroom. We just started school again, and over the summer I was listening to George Thunders talk about the class that he teaches in the MFA Writing program in Art Therapy, and he is describing this MFA seminar he taught really getting into the details about things that were happening in the classroom and then things that were happening in his own creative process, like different ways of writing and how to be creative within just composing a sentence. And I thought that was something I found out, and I brought it into the classroom and played a clip of it to my students. I was just delighted that they found it inspiring too. So, I am always testing things, you know, like if I think this is interesting, how can I make it interesting for my fellow students, and I see all these students in college as artists and look forward to seeing where the works take them.
Keyi Zhang: In your practice, have you ever experienced the situation that you want to experiment with a new medium?
Aimee Beaubien: Me? Personally? I am always experimenting with new mediums! So, this is new, this just start during the pandemic, and I started this huge series of paper matches sculptures, and then putting photographs on them, and painting and drawing on these sculptures. But I am always experimenting with new material and figuring out ways to bend photographs. You know Photographs are so flexible. What ways can I push photographs that are new to me, that introduce new ways of thinking about the way the world appears in photographs.
Keyi Zhang: In your making process, have you ever experienced the situation, for example, you feel that a photo might not be the best medium to interpret your idea, but sculpture or the combination of two mediums?
Aimee Beaubien: Yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons why I moved into installation. I am always making these complicated collages and every time I photograph the collages (they) just look really flat like they are being made on a computer. So, then I kept thinking how can I make them feel more like an object. So, I first started by just pushing them off the wall and then photographed them but they still looked flat. And I just thought ok, how can I make a photograph stand out on its own? So, I just keep asking myself what if I did this, what if I did that. It's just challenging myself all the time and taking risks and trying to figure out where I can take a photograph where I’ve never been before.
Keyi Zhang: During your making process, have you ever been influenced by others from different fields?
Aimee Beaubien: Always! Thanks for your question, always. I sit in the studio, and I make things, but while I’m making things, I’m listening to different staff; so last summer, I listened to this Book, three times, and it was like 21 hours each time. But It's such a great book, it’s a novel by Richard Powell. It’s about trees and all these overlapping stories about trees. And I thought very inspired by that particular book. I also happen to be collecting a whole bunch of tree branches that have fallen during a storm, and I am also making these leave drawings. So it felt very connected and related to the material I was using in my studio at that time. I think I am always reading and looking at things, and I never limit myself to just only looking at photographers, and I am very inspired by makers of all sorts -- dancers, musicians... you know, just anybody who makes things or thinks about the world in unconventional ways.
Keyi Zhang: Do you think your works are different when they are presented in an art gallery from when they were set in your own studio? What do you think of the relationship between your audience and your works? Do you think the audience will have connection with every single artwork, or is the experience of walking through/staying in such an environment you have created what you want the audience to have?
Aimee Beaubien: That’s such an interesting question. I mean I had a couple of experiences with people being in my studio that are part of my critic group, you know we go to each of our studios. When they come here, if I am working on an installation, I pay close attention to the way that they evaluate anything in my studio. Again, that kind of flipping in the classroom. I’m trying to see the space through fresh eyes because everything is kind of so familiar to me and there is no separation between what I find interesting (I don’t have hierarchies and I am just kind of interested in everything in here), so it’s fascinating to me to see someone navigate this space. And when I am working on an installation, and the group comes over to look at the installation, I’ve noticed that they cannot see or differentiate where the installation begins or where it ends, because it just goes on and on through this space. So, when they have the opportunity to see the same material that is then installed in a local gallery, they are quite shocked by the transformation that happens in that space. Because then it (the installation) is clearly defined, “Oh right, this is what the material of the exhibition is.”
So sometimes I feel when people are in my studio, you know when I really want feedback from them, I kind of have to walk them through and identify as much as possible, this is what it is and this is what I need this moment to learn from you about. And then in an exhibition, while I am building an installation, I think about the ways different bodies will navigate the space. In my experience, if someone is new to my work, they don’t know anything about me or my work, when they are walking through the space, they don’t necessarily know exactly what the materials they were looking at, or not necessarily to say: “oh, these are photographs!” Such an immersive space that it seems more about questions like “what am I looking at” or “what is the meaning” which is exciting for me.
Keyi Zhang: You use some new materials, especially some photo materials to make installations or sculptures. I wonder what’s your materials choosing process? Is that an intuitive thing or is it something in your mind before you do it?
Aimee Beaubien: If I will have plans, they are very loose. I think about one aspect of my research is material investigation, so I am always testing new materials. Usually, one experiment leads to another experiment. And technology is always changing. What we were able to print photographs on is constantly morphing. So lately I’ve been printing on TIVAK material which is this permeable membrane used as a building material, but I am printing book on that material, partly because that it is a really strong material, and I can punch holes into it and bind the book with the pericope that I use in my installation. So, I will have this material that is tactile, very much related to the installation that I built. I was showing that to a friend of mine, she said “I have one of your installations in my lap” I think that is what I was trying for.
Keyi Zhang: Did you feel your thinking pattern or persona changed when you switched mediums/were using different materials.)
Aimee Beaubien: That is an interesting question. I think when I am trying something really new, I have a lot of self-doubt. And I think that self-doubt can be invigorating in some sense once you’ve made a little bit of progress. So, I am constantly putting myself in these states of unknown, and I am seeing how I get content with the unknown, to see where I end up. I feel like there is more growth if I am not just doing things that I am already really familiar with. I want to make something that is challenging and new to me. I think that’s why I am always hungry to mix it up and try new materials, new mediums, new ways of engaging with the material world.
Keyi Zhang: What is interdisciplinary? What does it mean to be interdisciplinary?
Aimee Beaubien: I think that institutions are changing. I think...ok, I think it’s human nature to categorize, so we are very comfortable when we have stable categories. They are painters, they are sculptures, photographers. And I think for a long time, there have been many artists who defined those categories and made the institution a little bit uncomfortable, but not SAIC, we’ve always been interdisciplinary science, at least, as long as I have been connected to the school, which I am very grateful for because I have never ever questioned trans-disciplinary approach to making things. It’s something that I actually talked about with fellow artists that I am in this critic group with because they were trained in a very conventional photographic manner, all of their concentrated research was in only one field, and I feel like I never put walls up. I think museums still have categories like that and are much slower to catch up to artists.
You know it’s so interesting to think about that question because a lot of photographers are asked that question: “Are you an artist or a photographer?” and I always said: “an artist”. If I needed to provide more content, I would like to say an artist who works with photography. But I never placed a construction on what that would look like or what that would mean. Interdisciplinary, I think it’s just everyone who is interested in making something outside of these medium’s specific categories. That’s what I think interdisciplinary is.
Keyi Zhang: Why do we (young artists) need to be interdisciplinary?
Aimee Beaubien: I don’t think anybody needs to be an interdisciplinary artist, but I would hope that all the students at the Art Institute would be open-minded and interested in making things outside of the medium that they are most familiar with, and they would see value in work that has been produced in a wide variety of ways. So, that’s what I would hope.
And I would also hope that students who want to have an adventure of trying different things would... Ok, so what I hear our folks who are saying all the time is “I’m a bad drawer so I became a photographer.” I just don’t really buy that, you know. It kind of feels like that’s an easy answer and you know that through hard work and dedication that you can kind of overcome anything really. I mean maybe some people are more talented at certain things naturally, but I do think that I had a great appreciation for artists that are coming at these mediums from different angles.
INTERVIEWER: KE ZHANG
PHOTOGRAPHER: BLADY LIU, NING DING
EDITOR: WANTONG YAO, KE ZHANG