Elaine Catherine Miller

Waterfall Machine from How to Have a Natural Experience


Wavepool – How did How to Have a Natural Experience start for you? Were there any specific events or experiences that coaxed the idea into existence?

Elaine Catherine Miller – The project’s catalyst was a piece I built in the spring of 2014 titled Waterfall Machine. I spent nearly 3 months designing, planning, and constructing various iterations of the piece until its final installation on May 16 that year. It was the first finished large-scale installation piece I had ever made, and from the experience of working in that form, I began to create parameters for pieces to follow, unbeknownst that it would become part of a body of work. For the entire summer that year, I sat with Waterfall Machine not really knowing how to move forward or what my intention fully was with the work. It wasn’t until that fall, when I created Island (1), that I really began to make some more definitive decisions on how internet-derived imagery (photography and video) would become the main components of the sculptures and installations I wanted to create.

To back pedal for a moment, I have to say that before creating Waterfall Machine, my relationship with photography was kind of like that of having one close friend with whom you’ve spent WAAAY too much time with – you know one another intimately, but by proximity, have begun to rub each other the wrong way. Up until this point, I had been studying fine art photography almost exclusively for about 6 consecutive years, working at the Museum of Contemporary Photography for 2 years, and inevitably had become inundated by images.

It is VERY hard to make pictures when you feel the impossibility of creating anything that feels “new”, so I took to the method of appropriation. I felt liberated turning the source of my frustration with photography into a creative outlet. Google Images and Youtube became my archives for photographs and stock footage that I would later, through sculpture and installation, create a physical context or environment.

Wavepool – Were you playing with similar themes when working in the more traditionally photographic manner, or did the act of appropriation shake everything up?

Elaine Catherine Miller – The photographs I was making before How to Have a Natural Experience were definitely interested in the same themes of artificial nature and consumer culture, but I think that the act of appropriation allowed my work to take on a more critical examination of the process of photography more generally. I began to look at photographic and video-based imagery in a different way, specifically in how contemporary society consumes images; how images act as symbols and signs for “real” things; how images affect and often disrupt our experience with everyday life; how they mediate information but are still taken with very little hesitation as the “truth”. I think in a way the artificiality I am trying to address through How to Have a Natural Experience not only relates to the urban dweller’s experience of the natural world, but moreover, how millennials relate to the world outside of their computer’s or phone’s screen.


Island (2) from How to Have a Natural Experience


Wavepool – How has place and your personal environment influenced the work?

Elaine Catherine Miller – I think for most of my life as a creator my geographical location has been a huge influence in my work. It was not until I moved away from Tennessee to Chicago in 2012, that I actually could see how the change in my physical environment translated to the type of works I was making. For example, while I was an undergraduate studying in Memphis, I was extremely influenced by southern color photographers including William Christenberry and William Eggleston. My work reflected a similar aesthetic and my approach to photography was almost identical- somewhat rooted in a “street” or documentary method. Within a year of living in Chicago my process drastically changed. The overwhelming magnitude of the city intimidated me. I no longer possessed a vehicle in which to aimlessly drive around. The winters are brutal.

Inevitably, my practice became studio-centric. I experimented for almost two years with “making” pictures rather than “taking” them on the street. From working within the dining room of my apartment to sharing a large space with other artists, as the space itself changed, my works evolved too. Quickly, I went from building things in front of my camera, to just building things. This is how installation became such an interesting medium to me. Most of them (installations) do not exist in physical space upon their deconstruction. So the afterlife of the work relies heavily upon photography.

Today, I think that all art relies on photography. It seems that in order to be relevant, one must exist on the internet. In order to do so, one must have good documentation of their work. This can allow your work to have an audience- not in a museum, not in a gallery, but in a limitless space that is quite possibly the MOST accessible in the world. I think because of that, right now, the internet IS the most influential place in my practice.

Wavepool – Can viewing on the internet match a physical experience?

Elaine Catherine Miller – In regards to my sculpture and installation works, no; for the reason that scale and proximity, as well as, auditory and scent-related elements of the work cannot be fully realized without existing in the same physical space as the piece. I think that most visual art, with the exception of primarily digital or web-based works, suffer for some reason or another because of how they translate onto the internet.

As an archive, however, I do think that the internet offers an additional experience of artworks. Image-based websites like Tumblr and Instagram, for example, create a platform in which artworks can be easily curated into different contexts. Despite authorship controversies, I think these types of sites are awesome for exposing high art to a different type of audience. They allow the art to be accessed in a sort of less stigmatized environment to that of a gallery or museum.



Wavepool – Going back to your interest in installation, can you talk more about the transition from building things for the camera to just building things? Was there any hesitance when making that change?

Elaine Catherine Miller – During the Summer and Fall of 2013, I was working on a body of photographic tableaus made from craft materials, appropriated photographs, and taxidermied animals. I did a lot of the taxidermy myself and found that each image took as long as 2 weeks to a month to create. At the time, I was even on a graduate student’s schedule, so today, these types of photographs would easily take me about twice the amount time to produce. Needless to say, there was a lot of work going into each image including sculpture, set design, installation, and lighting, so by the end of each shoot, I found it really dissatisfying to dismantle the set without anyone else (aside from my roommate) having seen it. I began to ask myself what it was about this process that I found most engaging and eventually came to terms with the fact that the construction of the scene meant more to me than the finished photograph. As a result, I altogether ceased production on that body of work and began making sculpture.

I ended up making a lot of really bad sculptures. I think due to my own frustration and insecurity with the somewhat foreign medium, I began to integrate photography back into my practice. This time, however, I made these very small table-top dioramas using plexiglass in conjunction with my own photographs of plants and product branding. I remember it was mentioned to me during a critique that the dioramas I had made resembled models for much bigger installation pieces. My classmates remarked, “I want to be able to walk around in this!”, and up until that point, I had not even once considered making anything large-scale, let alone, immersive. Soon, I began experimenting with new photographic works that required “installing” as they were designed to hang in a sort of unconventional manner, but it was not until the creation of the aforementioned Waterfall Machine, that I actually set out to create a piece with an exhibition space in mind.

I struggled a lot and still struggle today with 3-dimensional design. To alleviate this problem, I use a program called SketchUp to aid in planning and mapping out sculpture and installation works. Inherently, I create with a photographer’s eye so everything I make ends up with a “good side” or better angle from which to be viewed. For example, my assemblage, Hurricane, really has only one side that looks interesting. Although I still show the piece as sculpture from time-to-time, the video adaptation, Hurricane (In Showroom), properly exemplifies the intention of the assemblage though only represents it in 2-dimensions.  Similarly, I have a tendency to position the objects in my installation works with the fronts facing forwards and back-sides against the wall. My installation Moon Gazing draws attention to this habit as the audience is made to “gaze upon” a 4×6” photograph of the moon tacked up on the facing wall in the gallery at a distance determined by an elastic control barrier. The content of the photograph can only be seen through a pair of binoculars provided on a nearby table. With binoculars in hand, a suspended tree branch in the center of the gallery causes onlookers to move around until the photograph becomes visible. Although the piece physically engages with the audience, it provides a similar viewing experience to that of a 2-dimensional object.

Wavepool – I’d love to hear about your recent publication Paradise:Lost, which looks like it continues the conversation found in the sculptural work but in a strictly two dimensional way. Where do the images come from, and what makes the book a good form for the work?

Elaine Catherine Miller – It makes sense that you can see the visual connections between Paradise:Lost and How to Have a Natural Experience as both projects were formed somewhat concurrently. I mentioned earlier that I turned to appropriation in order to alleviate my anxiety about making photographs. As a result, my day to day intake of visual information amplified. My desktop became a landing pad for thousands of screenshots I’d take from images found on Tumblr, notes created in Microsoft Word, text correspondences between myself and friends, and so forth. Inadvertently, I began to catalog my personal experience with my computer and phone. My screenshots acted as photographs; capturing ephemeral moments caught between myself and the screen.

I thought about how a screenshot makes a sudo-tangible reference to the screen-based experience; similarly to what a printed photograph does for the “lived” experience. Much like How to Have a Natural Experience, Paradise:Lost explores that idea of “the lived experience” and what it means in a time when many of our daily actions occur while looking at a screen. In both projects, nature symbolises purity or the world unprovoked. With Paradise:Lost, I make an allusion to nature with the use of continually repeating desktop backgrounds I found through a google image search of the keyword “paradise”. The backgrounds have an applied halftone filter evoking nostalgia for a, thought by some, “golden age” for design and photography. By carefully intertwining beautiful, full bleed images of tropical beaches, palm trees, clouds, sunsets, and oceans with my low resolution screenshots and personal iPhone photographs, Paradise:Lost observes the romanticism of print-based media in a screen-based world.

The final form of the project is contained in a 108-page glossy magazine. I wanted the form to relate to the content with the thought in mind of how we consume visual media on a daily basis. Today, we are likely to flick through our dashboards and feeds only to stop and read or look at something for a second before we glaze over and mindlessly watch the content scroll by. Unlike a book, a magazine seems to share the same “flip-through” ability like a phone app. Additionally, its 8.5 x 11” size still enables it to be handheld and easy to transport, while resembling the scale of a computer screen while open.

The production of Paradise:Lost has helped me to realize some overarching themes that I was not aware existed in my other projects. I took away from it some strong realizations about my own artistic practice and what kinds of objects I want to make that can include photography into the conversation.


spread from Paradise:Lost


To see more, please visit Elaine’s website.