Art

Catie Newell’s work exists somewhere between darkness and light. Working at the intersection of architecture and art, the Detroit-based artist tests the effects of light – or lack thereof – in the reconfiguration of familiar, domestic spaces. Her process is hands on, large scale and charged with feeling, an ongoing riff on cultural context and environmental meaning. 

Her latest exhibition, Overnight, represents a marked change in both subject and scale. Rather than reflecting on one space or house, Newell looked to the changing nightscape of Detroit, resulting from the city’s mass lack of streetlights due to theft, neglect and damage, and their eventual replacement. “Light is now returning but from streetlights placed according to mathematical measures of distance, rather than occupied need: the imbalances of the new illumination create spatial oddities that hint at distinct but overlapping stories,” she explains.

Working with materials like copper and aluminium, Newell created a suspended installation that revealed shifting forms in day and night, throwing the impact of light on our worlds into sharp relief – and capturing a moment in Detroit when darkness and light are displaced and the urban landscape is misinterpreted. The installation is presented in tandem with Newell’s ongoing photographic series Nightly, which captures such Detroit spaces, recording “the presence of another city—a city vanishing into a darkness that removes its walls, alters its spaces, and haunts.”

Newell’s preoccupation with space aligns with that of friend and artist Ian Strange, whose large-scale, site-specific works have brought him to cities including Ohio, Alabama, New Jersey – and Detroit. The pair recently came together for a collaborative project in the Michigan city, and in the midst of it they recorded a conversation about space, darkness, and the shifting realities of the city.

Ian Strange: So how would you describe your work, what kind of work do you make?

Catie Newell: I am trained as an architect, but it seems like the work that I do actually lives between both art and architecture. My work is primarily installation based – I usually actually work with existing spaces. I have a strong interest in spaces that already exist, or that have had something happen to them, and I usually move from that work to see how that can be a productive launch for something else, be it a new installation or a different representation of that space, using different materials, darkness, light, and also through photography.

IS: I imagine your work is largely informed by you being based in Detroit, and that you are often reacting to the houses and spaces that already exist there?

CN: I think that’s fair yeah, I’m from the area and live there and Detroit actually offers a lot of really strange moments during rough times that actually end up sparking ideas. There didn’t used to be so much red tape in the city, you could get away with a lot of things because the population and the civil services had greatly decreased and so you could more easily create something without having somebody look over your shoulder. So when I started doing a lot of this work it was not necessary to, say, take a house and put it back to being liveable anymore, it could become something else. And that gave the opportunity to do a bunch of work that involves working with houses in a way that’s completely unexpected – not necessarily fixing a problem but instead sparking up something different.

IS: I mean, we are talking about literally thousands of homes that have been foreclosed and that are just available as almost a base from which you can form an artwork, they become this really exciting material. I think in my experience of working in Detroit I’ve always felt like the outsider coming in and I think there’s a skepticism of outsiders coming into the city – but the work that you make is very much from the perspective of someone who has lived and seen these very specific things happening in a city.

CN: My latest exhibition Overnight has really been sparked by a larger interest of how things are changing between day and night and basically our kind of experience of any space. The differences between what we can trust in the daytime versus the way we see things in the night because of how something is lit or it’s falling in the darkness. The specific premise behind Overnight has to do with this change over several years where Detroit went through a time where we only had about 40% of our street lights operational. And it was very, very dark, because there wasn’t a lot of urban lighting. The standard infrastructure is to now have these very brightly lit mathematically placed LED lights that are in essence making really bright spots that are falling on the very choppy landscape, which all together highlights these very weird visuals.

“There was a time in Detroit where only about 40% of our streetlights worked, and it was very, very dark.”

Catie Newell, 'Overnight' 2016. Courtesy the artist.

So Overnight is both installation and photographs, and the photographs record that shift between the reality of how Detroit looks now, how it had looked at night, and how it looks within the context of the installation. We went from lights that were lit with underground copper wiring to these very bright LED lights that are lit by aluminium wire and also suspended above ground, mainly to reduce scrapping but also to minimise cost.

IS: So you actually used those materials in the work?

CN: Yeah.

IS: Can you explain how it works exactly?

CN: Well, the work is intentionally very difficult to see by day because it’s made from very thin aluminium wire that has been coiled very tightly. There are very large copper wires that are holding the aluminium and that forms the switch from the two materials to create the light. But the pieces in aggregation start to look like these figural objects, they basically look like portions of houses floating in space from one another. So by day because it’s so thin you can hardly see them and at night they are actually lit the same way the kind of street lights are over some of the houses or spaces in Detroit. So it’s kind of playing on the difference between what’s hard and easy to see at day and night – and what exists in-between.

IS: Which is kind of really interesting because you’re looking at shadows and darkness a lot in the photography, you’ve created a work that’s invisible by day and visible at night. In photography, it’s the opposite.

CN: I printed [the photos] with a technique that ends up giving them this metallic sheen and as you move around the photographs, what you can see and how much is actually in the darkness comes and goes and you literally have to kind of experience these in person. And as sunset hits, those photographs go completely dark and you can’t see them anymore. So it kind of reverses the effect – you can see the installation at night, but not the photographs, they switch.

Catie Newell, 'Nightly' 2013-ongoing. Courtesy the artist.

IS: Obviously you have to be in a room to experience the work in full, and when the work can’t be represented in a gallery – like, say how it is represented in this article online – it’s a different or incomplete representation. Does that present a problem for you, is it something you think about?

CN: I’ve actually become hyper-aware of this because you actually pointed it out to me about a year ago – that my work was becoming these thin lines and that maybe I’m getting to the point of actually making nothing [laughs]. I think that gets paired with this interest in the illumination and the darkness, and my work is driving this interest. I’m working with the qualities of day and night, but this installation – unlike some of my other ones which have been very specific to a particular house – are informed or effected by a lot of houses, it’s about the feeling of a change from day to night across a landscape. Also with this show the photographs came first, which is the first time I’ve worked in that way, and the content of the photographs is what informed and pushed the installation to become what it is. Generally, this work requires somebody to actually slow down and be with it, it’s trying to develop a way of seeing, it’s like a method of obscurity that requires a patient viewer.

IS: I wanted to read out something you said about the exhibition: “Nightly which records a presence of another city, a city vanishing into darkness it removes its walls, alters its spaces and haunts.” So you’re reflecting on this darkness and then what’s being taken away: the fact that these houses are being removed, the architecture is being removed. The darkness you seem to be taking is actually a man-made darkness that comes from removing this artificial light.

CN: Right, right. I love your observation of it being a man-made darkness, it’s exactly the right phrase. I have a really strong interest in the existing spaces and the unexpected, like in Detroit nobody thought the lights were going to go away, nobody thought that a lot of the population was going to leave or that things would be boarded up, or even that the old streetlights would be replaced with new LED lights. I understand that a lot of people worried about losing that much light, that things were unsafe and there would be more crime, but there is something kind of beautiful about being in an urban setting that isn’t lit and perhaps once was. As a result, you have all of these extra strange conditions and these bizarre spaces that were built probably with the assumption that they would be lit and occupied and there wouldn’t be as much vacancy or empty lots. Things start to look impossible or unbelievable.

Catie Newell, 'Overnight' 2016. Courtesy the artist.

“I understand that a lot of people worried about losing that much light, that things were unsafe and there would be more crime, but there is something kind of beautiful about being in an urban setting that isn’t lit and perhaps once was.”

IS: We have talked about this before, about work that uses existing structures also uses existing understandings. So, for example, the idea of the homemade represents a sense of safety or security, and that that can be inverted by altering it in some way. Or Detroit overall, and the conditions of Detroit change the idea of safety in the home, or safety in the suburbs, because there’s an existing idea that the streets will be lit – and that makes them safe.

CN: Absolutely, because the day and night is going to happen anyways, but remove what’s expected in that process and you get something very different, a completely different city.

IS: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was to do with your statement, “Overnight intensifies the quality, the qualities of night and day summoning the nuances of their misalignment and it asks what day loses and night keeps”. Could you just reflect on what that means?

CN: We don’t pay attention to what the night gives us, we’re either not staying out in the night long for fear of our safety or we just blow it out with light. And that is something that is happening in Detroit with that man-made darkness being disappeared, it’s like the photographs that I have taken – they don’t exist; they can’t exist anymore because there’s actually no more light in them. There’s also the familiarity of what we have by day and what we presumably know when nightfall happens, we get these other things where they start going into suspension, they get different colouration, the depth of something is unknown and the foreground and background might switch. If we actually take that different kind of landscape as a given, if we appreciate the nighttime then we might actually end up with much more interesting spaces than we have in the daytime. At night, that really is our city.

‘Catie Newell: Overnight’ runs until 6th November at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, 525 S State St, Ann Arbor, MI 48109 USA

Head to the artists’ websites for more info here: Catie Newell and Ian Strange