An Interview with Katie Hargrave


“History Repeats Itself” is a new body of work by Chattanooga-based artist Katie Hargrave. “History Repeats Itself” explores the 2016 election season through a series of new pieces: “Listen to Wolf” is a video installation of Bernie and Hillary trying not to talk over each other at the primary debate; “Cease and Desist Karaoke” is a custom-karaoke of songs used by past and present candidates without the permission of the musicians. Do your best Trump impression of “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” alongside Palin’s “Barracuda;” and finally the titular piece “History Repeats Itself” are a series of take-away posters of redacted speeches of all 16 GOP candidates with the duplicate words removed. Part satire, part catharsis, join in exploring the absurdity of this political moment.

Below is an interview with the artist.


You’re based in Chattanooga, TN right now. I’m curious to know what the art community is like there.

The community is small. I think Chattanooga is a growing city, there are more and more people who are moving to the city, but the art community I think is still pretty small. There are many people who are making work, but not many whose primary form of employment is art. There aren’t a ton of galleries, but that is slowly starting to change. We have maybe two DIY art spaces and a couple of established non-profits and just a few commercial galleries.


Tell me about the work you will be showing at GfG.

It’s going to be three main pieces, all of the work is about this election cycle. I’ve sort of been thinking about how we regular Americans plug into that cycle. There is the broadsheet project which covers all of the GOP candidates. I’ve removed all of the duplicate words from each of their speeches. The first person to announce has the most unique words and the last to announce has the least, because over time everything became repeated. I know they are going to be available for free, first come first serve, at the opening. I guess I’m sort of thinking about how it feels when you look at the way they speak; they don’t say a whole lot in any of their speeches, and whatever the touchstone thing is that week, that is what emerges as the content, and the rest is total formula. They think they’re wise, and then they don’t say much. They talk about whatever it is going on in the media that week, and that’s it. So you don’t have to listen to the whole thing if you can just pick out those elements right? With the formula, you still get some of the unique information so you still get the name of the spouse, you get the name of the children and then you get some of the stuff that is happening in that moment. For instance, when everyone was talking about Hillary’s emails and Benghazi, you see that show up, regardless.


Have you done this with other speeches from our past, or is it just this election cycle?

Yeah I originally started think about this when I did it by hand for Lincoln’s second inaugural just out of curiosity and also the Gettysburg Address just to see what they would sound like. Those really sound like poetry. They are the same in that you still get the basic gist of the speech but there is this poem that emerges. They are such strong speeches to begin with. I think that they hold up and they change, but they still have their elegance. That doesn’t really feel like the right use for this idea, so I was able to write a computer program that would automate it and that allowed me to go through these bigger texts. This cycle has been so absurd and there have been so many of them so it’s kind of like what happened?


So you see a huge difference in how politicians have structured these things over time.

Right. The second piece is a custom karaoke which uses songs that presidential candidates have gotten cease and desist letters from. So for instance, Trump is not allowed to use Rolling Stones songs anymore. So this cd has all the songs that candidates have used, for example, Sarah Palin can’t use Barracuda.


Why is that?

Just because they used them without getting permission from the artist. And actually they are all GOP candidates, the democratic candidates have never had this happen to them. So I have these sort of halloween masks of all the candidates and the idea is that you would wear one of the masks while karaoking to whatever the song is. It is more of the idea for me rather than whether or not it will be used. It will be interesting to see what happens. It’s like an installation that can be participatory, but it doesn’t matter to me if people do it. It will be ridiculous if it happens.

The third piece is footage from one of the democratic debates between Bernie and Hillary. It was one of the last ones and they were just screaming over each other, you know, not being able to get a word in. Wolf Blitzer stopped them and said, “If you keep screaming at each other the voters won’t be able to hear what you’re saying.” I went through that debate footage and removed all of the speaking so it’s just the pauses and the applause when they are trying to catch their breath. There are two monitors so one includes applause for Bernie as he is pausing and one is for Hillary when she is pausing and breathing. That footage moves back and forth between the two so they are in sync and in conversation with one another.


Tell me about your childhood experiences with art if any, or in your case, maybe experiences with community or history?

In terms of art, I was fortunate to have an aunt who was a professional artist, so I spent a lot of time with her, going to museums and talking to other working artists. I knew from an early age that that was I wanted to do. It has totally changed since then though. I went to school for painting but I haven’t made a painting in probably 10 years. The work has gotten more conceptual as time has gone on. When I was growing up we spent every vacation driving around the U.S. and stopping at historic sites. I’ve been to a dozen presidential homes. Every Civil War battlefield we drove past, we stopped at. I think that was just the way my parents thought about killing time and entertaining us, but also making sure we understood the history of this place. I think I have gotten more critical of what is represented in those sites, and I think my parents have become more critical. From that I got interested in fleshing out the more complicated things and understanding what is left out of that story.


Do you think they became more critical because of your work?

I don’t know about that. I think they became more critical just with what is happening. It’s hard not to be critical. I think there is definitely a nerd factor in the work. It is what I’m interested in learning about and that’s why I make what I make. I was joking with a curator that I think the audience for my work is school children and retired men who are interested in railroads. It’s not particularly trendy work.


You said in your statement that you are “interested in a poetic and quiet activism”- What comes of this as opposed to the more stereotypical forms of activism? Is there something to be said of subtlety vs aggression?

I have an activist practice outside of my work; I’m very involved in my community. I’m not a very outgoing person, I’m not a very loud person, so I try to think about other ways to have an effect on the world and I think education is one of those. Things like opening up space for people to learn about things, that can be liberatory. So if we know the story we can decide how to move within it. I think the idea of history being written by the victor is flawed. How can the people who have been negatively impacted by that history, or don’t feel like that history speaks to them take on a revisionist tactic? If you are already aware of that stuff then what do you do? So it’s hard to know the effect of the work and maybe that’s why I say it’s more quiet. I guess it’s more propositional. I also think that participatory art in itself is an activist practice because art can be very exclusionary and elitist, and so if we get the audience actually think that they have some power over the work and can participate in the work then I think we can have more people who feel that they can have creative practices.


Do you find more power in one or the other?

Well they are just different. I was recently volunteering for a progressive political campaign and it’s not what I want to do – I do it – but that also feels very preachy. It’s like you’re trying to tell people what is best for them and in my work I don’t want to do that. I want to create some space for people to think about other possibilities.      


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