Olivia Robinson: 1889-1902 Pre-show Interview

The Stamp Gallery is excited to present Olivia Robinson: 1889-1902. Robinson’s work challenges audiences to consider sweat as both the byproduct of labor and the elemental source for one of the world’s most valuable commodities: salt. We had the privilege of interviewing Olivia Robinson regarding her inspiration for this labor intensive venture.

Your current exhibition “takes place” during the years of 1899-1902, what drew you towards this particular time period?

This time period, just before WWI, was called the Technological Revolution.  This was our second Industrial Revolution (running from 1860 to WWI) and we were looking to new scientific innovations – particularly electrical and chemical technologies – to make us more efficient, smarter, richer, stronger, faster, and generally more powerful within our personal and public domains.  Much as we do today.  And often at the expense of the environment and those that worked in industries.

The time period also lies on the precipice of many radical transformations: we still employed women and children in sweat shops in the US, leaps and bounds were being made in scientific discoveries about the atom, the US was not the center of the universe, European nations had colonies all over the world (but would loose most of them within 50 years), cinema had just been born, women could not vote in the US, segregation was still a norm, and antibiotics had not yet been invented.  So different from now, but how do some of these issues still remain, even if seemingly hidden now?  Then and now, power was still generated in essentially the same ways – both electronically and politically.

Additionally, this is a time period where we think of most goods having been handmade.  Interestingly, many of our goods today are also handmade – but we don’t see our current products this way.  Did you know that we have never been able to invent a machine to make a basket?  All baskets to this day are handmade.  The sewing machine essentially has not changed since its development in the 1860’s, and someone still sews the clothes we purchase today.  Hard to believe, but underneath the sleek cover of our electronic devices lies an array of hand-assembled circuits.  I think this is both amazing and strange.

Is there a specific concept or argument you are aiming to denote through this particular exhibition?

I am very interested in different notions of power (in all senses of the word) and its origins.  I have a lot of ideas I am thinking about: power, exchange, words, alchemy, meditation, history, electricity, internal and external sources of energy.

In the exhibition, there will be essentially three different works that all relate generally to each other.  A bicycle-driven cart that relates to external power, work, exchange, and public interaction.  A series of hand painted posters.  Each poster is a short “poem” made from words that were used in 1899-1902 in conjunction with a specific term, such as “work”, “health”, “share” and “power”.  The third is a series of electronic textile pieces that relate to internal sources of generating power.  I think of them as alchemy and meditation panels.

You used yourself as a fictitious character during this time period in your work. Why did you choose to represent yourself as this character rather than another individual? 

“S.W. Eats” is the name I gave my small business that I ran during this time (1899-1902).  My small business sold salts and salted products that I made from sweat.  When I rode my cart around and sold my products, I took on an appropriate sales persona that went with the business.


What is the significance of using sweat as a source of salt for your character’s products?

Sweat is a by-product from human exertion.  It is an indication of effort, work, labor, exercise, heat.  Sweat also contains pheromones and other personal markers that are specific to the person it came from, as well as salts.  In most industries, the personal markers of who makes our goods are removed in the process of the making, packaging and selling.  With creating edible products from sweat, it seems to constantly beg the question, where did this come from?  Whose sweat is this?

The name of your entrepreneurial endeavor, S.W. Eats, is a clever play on words. Does humor often play a role in your work?

Sometimes! I like humor and I like laughing, I think it’s very healthy.

Much of your collaborative work incorporates human history as a narrative. What inspired you to create a fictional history as a vessel for communicating the commodity of salt in actual history?

Ah!  Who said anything about fictional histories?  How do we know what is true in the histories we read?  I think fiction is always present with any depiction of history.  My imagination often fills in the gaps within documented history.  I think collaborating with history can make for an interesting experiential understanding of it.

Want to learn more? Browse Olivia Robinson’s work on her website or check out our recent behind-the-scenes take on the exhibit from gallery attendant Gabrielle Dunkley.

Olivia Robinson: 1889-1902 will run from September 9th to October 20th at the Stamp Gallery.

Stay curious.

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