Kat Murrell

Steve Rowell speaks about “Uncanny Sensing” at Inova

The Chicago-based artist spent a year in Green Bay, collecting images and video juxtaposing the human, animal, and natural environment of the north woods. The exhibition closes Sunday.

By - Sep 13th, 2013 12:47 am
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Steve Rowell: Uncanny Sensing is on view at Inova through September 15.

Steve Rowell: Uncanny Sensing is on view at Inova through September 15.

Artist Steve Rowell is currently based in Chicago but spent a year living in Green Bay. During that time he pursued a project in the north woods juxtaposing aspects of the human, animal, and natural environment captured through discreet technology – resulting in Uncanny Sensing, an exhibition on view at Inova through this Sunday.

Rowell is the program manager at the Center for Land Use Interpretation and received Creative Capital grants for this project, which builds upon his previous work and techniques. The exhibition includes large-scale photographs, videos, maps, and audio through which the landscape and its inhabitants are seen, but always with the tacit insertion of human presence in overt and covert ways.

Opening Weekend, Deer Season 2012, Navarino Wildlife Area, Wisconsin, 2012 Video frame from a hidden, autonomous trail camera, deployed in Wisconsin - from the Uncanny Local project

Opening Weekend, Deer Season 2012, Navarino Wildlife Area, Wisconsin, 2012
Video frame from a hidden, autonomous trail camera, deployed in Wisconsin – from the Uncanny Local project

“What makes this unique for myself, experimental, is I wanted to rely on devices and technology and media in which I don’t actually compose in the traditional sense.” Rowell said. “I am photographing with my usual camera and with the same sort of methods I’ve used in the past, shooting video the same way, but I’m relying on these autonomous cameras and sound-triggered microphone arrays and collecting data from sensors from various sources. That’s an intentional exercise in subtracting myself a bit from the process.”

Rowell’s imprint in this project may be seen through a curatorial lens as the visual material is shaped into works which reveal glimpses of the landscape, in pristine forms as well as areas altered by human intervention. While the exhibition at Inova is nearing the end of its run, Rowell intends the project to carry on in various forms. “It’s ongoing in a sense. The version of the show in Milwaukee is kind of a prototype. It’s part of a larger national project that I’m kicking off now through the Creative Capital Grants and I’m going to other places in the country. My method of curating the landscape is something I’ve been working with for years but wanted to expand that further by selecting sites through a variety of criteria — is it safe to leave something, is it legal to leave something like a hunting camera or microphones on someone’s property or state property? — so all these things have to fit into researching the projects. The field work had an additional complexity because I had to navigate access to certain landscapes.”

Because much of the work relies upon hidden video cameras and equipment triggered by activity in its area, it resonates with questions of surveillance and privacy which are part of public consciences. “There are issues of surveillance: how do we surveil the natural world?,” Rowell said. “We’re basically spying on nonhuman species all the time without their consent. We’re basically monitoring the environment and at what point does that become a surveillance technique? It’s a very human-centered thing, to want to know everything about our environment all the time. It’s also reflecting back on how we treat ourselves, how we treat our fellow humans in the same way.”

Questions of perception are central to the exhibition, which one might ask from a number of vantage points. Are these works understood from the curatorial perspective in which what we see is purposefully selective? Or is the experience of the subject — both human and animal — the primary focus? Alternately, is the perception of the camera and technology really the underlying driver in the way we see?

"Flux Tower Base Station, Willow Creek Site", © 2013 Steve Rowell

“Flux Tower Base Station, Willow Creek Site”, © 2013 Steve Rowell

Rowell offers that each of these views is significant. “I think it’s a bit of all of it. We are constantly learning from nature, in a way we’re compensating for our own sort of limited senses. Other species have quite a few expanded sensory abilities, in a way we’re sort of compensating for that and have to mimic nature. Doing field work I become quite attuned to my surroundings and learn more and question my own senses. In a way it is an experiment to heighten my own sense through these methods.”

“I think it’s important to underscore not just the technology and shifts in my own method of looking at the natural world but also addressing the urgency of activism at this time. There are more people that are more aware of this, and there’s a tipping point which some people believe we’ve already gone past in environmental change.”

Uncanny Seeing continues at Inova (2155 N. Prospect Avenue) through Sunday, September 15. Gallery hours are Thursdays 12-8, Friday through Sunday 12-5. Admission is free.

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