Stephanie Owens, a former Director of the Cornell Council for the Arts (CCA) at the US Ivy League institution, Cornell University, and Founder and Director of Empathy Academy, an art research platform for the future of art, design and matter with collaborators from universities in Europe, Asia and Latin America, has been appointed as our new Head of School, Arts + Media.
Stephanie is an interdisciplinary artist, creative researcher, and curator interested in the influence of digital networks on contemporary aesthetics and the production of subjectivity. As Founder of Cornell University’s first art biennial, Stephanie led its focus on the intersections between art, design and nano science. This landmark event for the university included a site-specific, 46-foot sculpture by internationally acclaimed artist Kimsooja made in collaboration with the Wiesner Nanomaterials Lab. The resulting iridescent 4-metre-high artwork is the first sculpture to use nanopolymer on an architectural scale, and recently exhibited at Frieze Sculpture 2018, London.
We sat down with Stephanie to find out more about her, covering her work bridging the divide between science and art, why she believes that artists have modelled a critical thinking that is shared by the most accomplished people in every field, and how she came about working with the acclaimed filmmakers the Wachowski siblings ahead of the release of The Matrix.
In your biography you describe yourself as an interdisciplinary artist, creative researcher, and curator. What kind of background do you have as an artist?
I trained initially as a fine art painter at Syracuse University, interested in studio practice alongside the aesthetics and historical/critical aspects of being an artist. My education was very traditional, studying anatomy and painting large oil paintings. But then at graduate school at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, we began to think about digital tools and digital practice.
I moved to New York to be an artist and painter, but then one of my first jobs in the early 1990s was at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, helping to introduce the art world to what was possible with the internet as a medium.
How did your early work with the internet lead to you collaborating with the Wachowskis on The Matrix?
During the mid to late 1990s there was a period of my career when I worked for a series of internet startups, creative companies and Hollywood and television studios, meeting prospective clients, pitching website ideas to promote their creative output, and then designing and coding the websites that I’d pitched. I worked first as Lead Designer and Art Director at Reset Interactive and later as Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Oddcast Interactive, developing websites and interactive digital content for the film, television and music industries.
Our clients included Warner Brothers Studios, FineLine Entertainment, October Films, NewLine Cinema, MGM, HBO, Bad Boy Records, MTV, SONY Pictures, SONY Music, Britt Alcroft, Universal Studios, and Paramount Pictures.
This was a richly creative period to work on web development. I got to work for artists including Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., to develop the website for the television series The Sopranos, and I worked closely with the Wachowski sbilings on the concept and creation of whatisthematrix.com, an interactive media website that launched one year ahead of The Matrix movie. It was such an experimental, exciting time to work with the entertainment industry in the early days of the web.
To what extent have new kinds of digital innovation shaped your career?
The fusion of emerging technologies with traditional artistic practices is something that has developed in my life alongside my personal and professional practices. As the amount of money being invested in websites for entertainment grew and grew, that became less of an experimental space, so I moved on and started teaching an MFA in Design & Technology at Parsons The New School for Design.
During my time at Parsons I was a founder of Mobile Geographies, a locative-media initiative and co-founder of the storefront new media art space MediaNoche (NY), the first artist-run gallery for digital art in Upper Manhattan.
Following Parsons I was invited to join Cornell University in Ithaca, first as a visiting professor and later as Director of the Cornell Council for the Arts (CCA), reimagining a prestigious 62-year-old institution. That was an incredibly exciting opportunity and as part of it I founded Cornell University’s first art biennial, where we invited contemporary artists to work with Cornell researchers, creating new work in the public realm.
Was there any particular project at Cornell that stands out as an example of reimagining the CCA’s artistic traditions?
Cornell University has world-renowned nanotechnologists, which created an opportunity for me to connect Professor Ulrich Wiesner, who was working on light at a nano-scale, with internationally acclaimed artist Kimsooja. Together they created A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir (2014), an iridescent 4-metre-high artwork which was the first sculpture to use nanopolymer on an architectural scale.
Art is so often sidelined to the periphery of research at universities, but I wanted to centralise art as an equally critical and necessary practice. We commissioned that giant iridescent sculpture and placed it at the heart of Cornell’s campus so that art became part of the larger conversation of students and academics, encouraging people to think creatively, whatever field they specialised in.
Following my time at Cornell University, I founded Empathy Academy, as an art research platform for the future of art, design and matter. Professor Andrew Brewerton, the Principal of Plymouth College of Art, wants to reimagine the centrality of art in society, and this is a belief that I very much share, pursuing a vision of how art can exist outside the studio. Whatever industry or academic field you look at, the most accomplished people at the highest levels utilise creative thinking to solve problems. This shows that artists have modelled a kind of critical thinking that is shared by the most accomplished people in every field, where collaboration and the development of new ideas become possible.
Bringing such an innovative approach with you, how do you think your experiences are going to benefit staff and students at Plymouth College of Art?
One of the things that has drawn me across the Atlantic is Plymouth College of Art’s commitment to material practice and dedicated physical spaces to make, which internationally are becoming a rarity. The studio spaces and resources at the college offer possibilities for new hybrids between analogue and digital making techniques, for using digital and physical expertise to solve problems creatively. That’s something that we’re going to build on with staff and students alike.
I’m particularly interested in materials and material science. Traditionally trained artists have an immediate familiarity with and interest in matter and materials - grinding paint, kneading clay, blowing glass and developing unique pigments - these are all examples of artists using materials to think ideas into being. What’s exciting is that right now, material scientists are starting to synthetically extend the properties of existing materials, redesigning materials at a molecular level. This is an open invitation for artists and designers to work with scientists to determine the properties of matter and material.