An Interview with Artist Matthew Schreiber

In anticipation of Matthew Schreiber’s 75-foot laser sculpture that will debut at OPUS, he sat down with the curators, Ken Farmer and Caroline Maxwell, to discuss perception, mysticism, and ducks.


Caroline Maxwell: So Matthew, on our last site visit, you expressed that you were interested in holograms because of their defunct qualities. What are those qualities and how do you expand on them in your practice?

Matthew Schreiber: Well holograms weren’t defunct when I started… Well, no, they were because I’m in the last generation of people making them. I was inspired by Spencer’s gift shop. In the back of a Spencer’s gift shop there’s a black curtain and blacklight posters and holograms, lava lamps, all of that. So it just came from my childhood and being into that stuff. It started with me being a painter and trying to understand how my eyes worked, or the function of seeing. Then in college I started taking some physics classes and that’s when I really got into the holograms. What I liked about holography was that it was dead. It was a technology that ran out of steam because it was just a novelty. It never went beyond that. I think a lot of media technology will end up like that, so I’m just waiting for the next thing. Like right now, LED technology is defunct in my opinion. I’ve played with that too to exploit it, to exploit that it’s a novelty. It shows people that the “new” in media technology eventually runs its course.

CM: How does your background in holography translate to your practice?

MS: I worked with lasers even before holograms. That was in high school, and I wasn’t thinking necessarily that it was art. And then I just started making the holograms. I always had an interest in the mechanism itself and the materials, and a sort of geeky desire just to play with the equipment and the materials. I think a lot of artists deny that that’s why they’re making things; they don’t want to admit that they’re getting off on a material. I really love lasers, and that was always a part of it for me. It felt like my thing, my material, and so I decided to keep using them. The first pieces weren’t actually laser sculptures, they were functioning holography devices. There’s something called the Michelson interferometer, which shows interference motion. I made that into a sculpture, and that was one of the first things I made like that. From there I said “Okay, I’ll just use the lasers.”

CM: What are the limits of perception and what defines those limits? How can we be more open to our blindness?

MS: I’m always thinking about how to control that. What happens to the viewer in space is a very formal thing and opens up questions around how light moves through space. The holograms raise these questions. It’s about your ability to manipulate your tools and materials to make people aware. That’s where it moves into perception. It makes people sense where they are in space—sense their body. I think it’s Olafur Eliasson who called one of his pieces “Seeing Yourself Seeing.” He makes it really clear that you’re physically inside a space and that when you move, this thing that isn’t moving, is changing. It makes you more aware of the function of sight, the function of your perception. Holograms do that too because with a Hologram you’re getting an entire field of light. Once we start looking at the holograms you’ll see what I mean, but it’s not a binocular vision. It’s an entire field, so you decide what you’re seeing. In virtual reality or 3D film or photography, it’s a binocular left/right mechanism. So it’s predetermined what you’re going to see. Even though it’s tracking and you’re moving, what you’re seeing in space is controlled by the left/right vision. Holograms are different; they’re the actual field of light. So it’s pretty equivalent to the laser field of space.

MS: There’s this idea that Turrell talks about a lot too, this idea of “behind the eye, seeing.” It’s a retinal effect that’s not actually there, but the way the retina is built, with its rods and cones, is causing that effect. So it’s the fact that we’re human—the structure of our eyes is causing us to see that effect with the lasers. It’s an interference pattern of light. The strobe effects are happening in our heads. It’s another function of the afterimage decay and a kind of release. Something called the “Purkinje effect” is causing this patterning in our eyes that relates to the structure of the rods and cones. So it’s our bodies making that happen. Those patterns aren’t seen by ducks, for example. It’s totally different for them.

CM: Could you tell us a bit more about your interest in liminal space?

MS: I’m interested in the reading you sent about carnivals and festivals. They’re these events that people go to to be together where there’s something unreal happening, and to engage in that in a physical way rather than on their device or a screen. A light show, or say laser light show, for example, is so disconnected from people. It’s outside of you and away from you. So I’m trying to stop it and hold it as a sculpture—I’m framing a spectacle. This allows people to stop and have an actual physical engagement with it.

CM: The word “gemini” has so many different connotations, from the star constellation, to mythology, to the roller coaster at Cedar Point. Could you tell us a bit more about the title of Gemini and the ideas that influenced it?

MS: All the big laser pieces I named after roller coaster rides. I’ll back up a little bit to being an artist in Miami. Art Basel started coming to town, so it was like the carnival was coming to town. It changed the city and all of its artists because it became this one thing that you would work towards—the big show. This idea of the big show was influential for me in thinking about my work and the idea of spectacle. And that spectacle has taken over the art world to a degree now that every single day there’s probably an art fair happening somewhere. I had a show here in New York that I called ”Sideshow.” I had the idea that it was literally a sideshow—a sideshow freak. Then a year ago I started reading and getting involved with these festivals, and I was attracted to the utopian community ideals around the festival that you’re doing at Merriweather. And the name “gemini” seemed to fit for a few reasons. I named the piece after a roller coaster at Cedar Point, near where I grew up in Cleveland. There’s the zodiac sign Gemini that’s represented by twins, and the coaster is a racer coaster, meaning it has two parts. The whole idea of Gemini itself and astrology and this hippie age that goes along with it fits into the history of Merriweather as a site of old festivals and concerts that happened in the area. So that’s where it came from.

CM: What was it like to spend time in Columbia and how did you decide on the location of your piece?

MS: Yeah, it was great coming to the forest with you guys, but it’s a hard space. I think I was saying that over and over again at first. Pacing back and forth going, “Oh my God!” But then the night that I came back by myself, there was this beautiful deer standing by the spot among all these fireflies, and it was just staring. It felt pretty mystical, and I was into that. For some reason that helped me visualize a form and space and where it would go, and I’ve made enough of these pieces now that I can see it in my mind. And I can tell how the piece will change and mutate depending on where you’re standing.

Ken Farmer: I think the Miami show comes to town and represents this aspirational kind of spectacle in the art world and in our lives. Festivals do become a sort of heightened experience of that for people. But the idea of this journey through place, and experiences and encounters that may be foreign at first but gradually wind their way into a sort of mesmerizing space meditation—this is a place of entry for us.

MS: Yeah. It’s been this year of experimenting with the world of the festival as opposed to the gallery or museum space. In museums, people just take pictures of themselves standing in front of whatever work of art but they’re not present with it. And that’s why I keep thinking about trying to frame the spectacle and make it a perceptual thing so that your body feels like you’re engaged with something that is normally so mediated.

KF: I’m most interested in talking about creating architectural spaces in light, with light, tying back to this cathedral-esque form. We’ve talked a lot about creating an oasis as a place of stillness within the broader festival context and the world we’re living in. Maybe you can touch on that and perhaps tie it back into some of the initial conversations around the media that you’re working in.

MS: I keep going back to this framing idea that lasers and light are immediately a laser light show. In a way it’s the opposite of what I’m doing, because the lasers don’t move and there’s silence. It’s giving you the oasis that you’re talking about and trying to contrast against the hyperactive computer-controlled light that’s out there. What that does is allow you to engage in the material of light itself and the space itself. But simultaneously you’re seeing what would be represented as a laser light show, but paused. And putting it inside the context of a festival is even more extreme. With my work you get to stand inside it, and it feels very real. It’s an odd space to be in; it feels like being between the real and virtual.

CM: Could you speak a little more to your explorations in sacred geometry, the relation of sacred geometry to nature, and how those patterns and principles influence the architectural design of your work?

MS: Yeah. The sacred geometry. I mean my thinking about that really started because light moves in straight lines, so it lends itself to geometry. It also has to do with a lot of the subject matter that comes out of the light and space movement, California and the sixties, the music scene in California in London, etc. Holography started at the same time, in the sixties, and it was growing a lot. The idea of the sacred surrounded a lot of that, and early holography used that type of imagery. So I was reading about and researching that, and kept exploring it for different reasons. Sometimes I take it really seriously and sometimes I’m playing with it in a more humorous way. By using this geometry I’m making a model for space that’s hard to perceive because of the way that we engage with space. And that’s how it’s been used in architecture for such a long time, and it’s just natural when it comes to light. In this piece it’s just based on a triangle. I’m always referring back to architecture, even without trying. It’s impossible not to, because it’s essential to the way light moves through space.