Conversation with Norwood Viviano

Global Cities sculpture

Global Cities (2015-2016) Hand-blown glass and vinyl cut drawings Photo Credit: Tim Thayer/Robert Hensleigh

I had the chance to work with Norwood Viviano for two weeks during his workshop Digital Foundry at Anderson Ranch Arts Center which focused on digital design and 3D printing with a finished object in cast aluminum or bronze. Technology has begun to revolutionize the already complex sculpture processes in the past 20 years and Viviano has explored the possibilities during this time as a student and now as educator and professional artist who is busy with projects in large museums and institutions. The more we talked, the more it became apparent that the approach to his art making was a value of craft traditions and aesthetics that tempered the highly conceptual, data based information that drives the work. This approach adds a greater complexity to the reading of visual information and facts met with a humanistic understanding to how art, industry, technology, environment and community interact.

Jake: Your work uses information and technology to create the forms. How did you start working with data visualization in your own work?

Norwood: I would start by saying that the work is autobiographical in the sense that I was very much rooted in the city of Detroit. My grandfather worked in the automobile industry. He was a painter for 30 years for Chrysler and in some ways I had the opportunity to grow up in and around the city but then actually leave for several years and then come back. That really made me really aware of the transformation of the city and thinking about things that influenced that transformation, even thinking of methods of expressing that transformation. I think one of the most dramatic things that has happened to Detroit, and not just Detroit, is the transformation of industry and the traditional ideas of industry in America. Detroit became a way of studying how this work could expand and the idea that data visualization was a way of seeing what’s going on in Detroit but here’s an opportunity to see that it’s also happening in places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, to a certain extent in the latter part of the twentieth century, although that’s starting to shift. So it was an opportunity to begin a conversation with an audience with the work and in a way, it’s a very serious conversation but I’ve found that it’s also a playful way to engage an audience because it’s about teaching them but also finding a way into the work. In certain projects there may be 24 to 32 cities within the project and then people start hunting for a city that they know and then realize that there are all these other cities that begin to look similar. So there is an opportunity for them to learn something about the places they’re from but then to compare and try to understand places they don’t know but have some similar shapes as related to the data. So it’s regional, I wouldn’t say global, but it’s a way of playing with these structures.


Detroit Population Shift from the series Recasting Michigan (2009-2011) Cast aluminum Photo Credit: Tim Thayer

J: Before using mostly data, you created a series First Generation Artifacts beginning in 2003 of seemingly forgotten artifacts from Italian immigrants. One of the focuses was on craftsmanship lost in the American twentieth century as well as a personal narrative. How has this work influenced your work in the past ten years?

N: That series also went by the title of Trace and it was a made up narrative for an exhibition at the Italian American Museum in New York City. It does have a personal connection with my own heritage and I found objects that related to this story and cast them in bronze to give them a new life, a new history.

Recasting Michigan was the first real body of work to use digital information in looking at the data and looking at the places and impacts of industry, again from a personal interest. One of the most dramatic changes in the city was the increase and decrease in population. After coming to the realization I felt it was important to find a way of expressing that chance. It came after years of experimentation since the 90’s in new technologies.

J: There’s inherently political insight or information in the work. Do you consider that when making the work?

N: I don’t think you can talk about population shift in a country like America without talking about the reasons why or the methods that have encouraged it. So you can talk about the methods going back to the Civil War, where one can see patterns of migrations from people leaving the South to move to the North for many reason including opportunity or freedom, but then there were patterns of migration back to the South. This was a newer thing happening in the latter part of the twentieth century, but imbedded in this project are things like race or white flight and then the politics of opportunity. So in many ways people moved out of cities after World War II because they had automobiles which was considered a good thing. This was also wrapped up in the economic structure of the family, which was considered predominantly white, certainly in the suburbs. So those are all definitely wrapped up in this information and although I feel comfortable talking about the politics of it, I’ve never wanted the work to be just about the politics. Maybe it’s a teacher thing and also an artist thing, but political work gets mired into a specific place and time and I’m really interested in how the work can expand rather than be constricted.

The other thing with politics is that when you look at these studies in more of a global way you see these trends from things, such as World War II, that shouldn’t affect global populations because they’re disconnected geographically, but then you see population expansions and contractions based on these larger systems and events from these migrations and of course those are political.

J: Simply looking at the work you don’t see the political connections right away, you have to go further. Are there certain time periods or histories that you’re interested in personally when you’re doing these population studies?

N: So in the two larger studies that became installations between 24 and 32 elements, in the American study, it became clear that there were very distinct events that were occurring in the mid-twentieth century that influenced population transformations. The biggest one was the end of World War II with the return of the GI’s and the Civil Right’s Movement. The other parallel event was the Eisenhower expressway system. In some ways we can pull those out as individual events and try to make sense of them in terms of population study but they really are tied up in an interesting way together. I love that you can still something out but as a scientist or anthropologist or historian, it’s really clear that things don’t ever really exist as distinct events but that one pushes on the other and they all influence each other at the same time. In terms of the work, I feel a lot of responsibility with that work because it’s talking about a lot of people and a lot of history. I meet with historians, anthropologists, sociologists, one of the benefits of working at a university, and it creates of web where we can discuss that regional events were really part of the larger national events that were occurring 50 plus years ago. So I love the relationships involved and going into a project assuming one thing and it turned into something completely different.


Prayer Book from the series First Generation Artifacts (2003 – 2009) Cast bronze Photo Credit: Tim Thayer

I just sold a body of work to the Corning Museum of Glass and the curator was really supportive of the project called Global Cities. It was this study of 32 cities hanging over a map to explore this structure of population and structure of geography where the vertical length of the pieces is related to time and the width is related to population. What came from the project was looking at population and turning it into a way of documenting colonialism. I saw this outgrowth of cities that started from Europe in the last 1,000 years and colonialism expanded from Europe. It was not what the project was going to be about but I discovered that we’re very much a part of that and where America is today. It’s a good way of reconciling that history and looking at cities that have benefitted from colonialism and have also been devastated by colonialism, cities that are 500 years old and those that are 100 years old.

I didn’t think about how the cities would be so thematically tied together when I started. I was asking myself what a global city is and I realized the interconnected between international cities isn’t just about the technology today or industry and shipping and commerce, but how that network was tied together 500 years ago. It wasn’t even done in terms of knowingly building a network but out of necessity for resources in from other locations. So I went into it form the modern or contemporary setting but ended up learning about these cities and populations and the history.

J: So how does the material connect to this work? You’ve been working mostly with glass lately and cast aluminum or ceramics as an artist in residence at the Kohler Company before that.

N: As an artist there are a lot of choices and I’m not a scientist or statistician. Ultimately I have to define what my goals are for people interacting with my work. Those have grown and changed a lot and I’m interested in engaging people in a dialogue of not just where they’re from but how that place in connected to some larger piece and doing it in a way that isn’t forcing a way for them to do that but stimulating curiosity, as a productive tool and thinking about how art can be meaningful.

Within the projects there are also questions that come up about materiality or craft and beauty. It may be a larger question of the way we approach making as artists or sculptors but the idea that these things can be hooks for people before content. It becomes a much more layered and complex meaning and I’m interested in the comment of “it’s a plumb bob and it’s also this representation of something”.

J: Going back to politics for a moment, the current situation in the country is one of growing divisions so the idea of shielding that through aesthetics makes sense and gives it a more objective approach.

N: Sure and that makes me think of discrepancies of data as well. The other layer of politics in the domestic study is in 2011 after the 2010 census was rolled out, there was something like 30 court cases in New York City just over population information and the question of representation of constituents regarding gerrymandering and other issues so I’m guessing the 2020 census will be the most contentious ever. In the global study the information I’ve been collecting is from the United Nations so there’s other discrepancies on how that information is collected and how data is counted or not counted and why this may occur.


Kohler Village detail from the series Kohler Arts/Industry Residency (2010-2012) Glazed porcelain
Photo Credit: Cathy Carver/Tim Thayer

J: You’re work is about industry and I find it interesting that you’re working in a medium that has been shifted away traditional production from the cities and the United States itself. In fact you’re using digital technologies to produce the work and that type of production has altered population centers, especially within factory settings.

N: That’s a really good point that is very much part of the work that I haven’t talked about yet. For a while I really didn’t know how to output the work from the computer but really wanted to use it.

At Kohler, for example, I’ve seen the idea of how industry is related to place and people. So if you want to talk autobiographically about how the work developed in researching Detroit, the work at Kohler is really just an extension of that. Thinking about not only the village but understanding the worker’s relationship to the city, it’s very tenuous. There’s not much other support or available work in the area and they’re very much reliant upon that one industry and the fascinating thing about it, either Kohler, Detroit or even the future tech industry, is that it’s common for three generations to be working in the Kohler factory and that Kohler is really making big decisions based off of these much larger, global events. They don’t have much to do with what’s going on in Kohler, Wisconsin and yet it’s affecting the factory workers. For me, that was so much what that experience was about, being a part of that really tenuous system and realizing that the company isn’t really making a 30 year commitment to the worker but until the work needs to be shifted or the market shifts and then things move on.

One of the things as artists that we try is to do something with materials they aren’t necessarily meant to do. The nature of the material and fragility or balance of it, literally suspended in space has also made sense in terms of the work. I also like the dialogue about craft material and sculpture or installation as there’s been a lot of critical development in that space in the last 20 years. So I’ve seen the work grow in terms of material play. Forming the industrial materials like glass, aluminum and ceramics into art.


Dowtown Louisville and Martiki Mine from the series Mining Industries (2013 – 2016) at the Corning Museum of Glass Cast glass, mirrors, steel, vinyl cut drawings Photo Credit: Cathy Carver/Tim Thayer/Robert Hensleigh

J: How long does it generally take for a new project?

N: It takes about a year although I can do something within six month projects. I begin with a set of cities and can then expand. Some of the places I’ve been showing want me to add their city to the work and I like that. It’s good to imagine that a series is never finished with the ability to expand with information.

J: What about incorporating more data, more complexities in the work? What’s in the near future for work?

N: The images I’m putting together right now are for a show called Cities Under Water. The data I’m using looks at population change but also looking at population projections and including information such as rising sea levels and temperature around the world. My next show will be at the Heller Gallery in New York in May 2018 and may travel aftwards.

Norwood Viviano received his BFA from Alfred University and MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. He is currently Associate Professor and Sculpture Program Coordinator at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. He has exhibited extensively including recently at the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, Heller Gallery, New York, NY, Art Miami/Context Art Miami, Miami, FL, and the Venice Biennale with art in the collections at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague, Czech Republic, Kohler Co., Kohler, WI, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI, Lincoln Motor Company, Dearborn, MI, Museum of Glass, Tacoma, WA, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, as well as numerous private collections. He is represented by the Heller Gallery in New York City.

By Jake Weigel

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