Simon Mitchell

Leery, but hopeful.

We sit down with featured artist Simon Mitchell and learn about his motivation for creation with dotconnexion.

Tell us a bit about the piece you are featuring in this exhibit.

This piece is called “Unblinking”. I’ve created it from several columns of directed light which can rotate to track the viewer, or even those just walking by. I find the interactivity helps capture an audience, and I hope it encourages people to slow down and think about what the piece is communicating.

And what are you hoping to communicate with this piece?

Well, I hope everyone will take away something personal from interacting with the piece, something unique. I don’t think it’s my job as an artist to tell you what a piece means, really. But I can tell you that my inspiration for “Unblinking” came from a trip to the grocery store. I was making a quick run out, you know, like for milk or something, I forget what it was exactly, but when I walked in there was a monitor right there in the door showing me walk in. You know, I guess that’s their way of saying “Hey, we’re watching you!” or whatever, and I know I’d seen it probably a thousand times, but for some reason it just struck me then, kind of a “Wow, I can’t even buy milk without someone watching me.” So I won’t tell you what I think you should get out of the piece, but that moment in the supermarket was what sparked its creation.

I don’t think it’s my job as an artist to tell you what a piece means.

How did you get started with this style of artwork?

Honestly, I got started with it out of frustration. I’m actually a traditionalist by nature. I’ve always been really interested in the interplay of light and shadow, but growing up my primary interest was in working with more traditional media; pencil sketches, charcoal, that sort of thing. But these days, it seems like modern society doesn’t really know what to do with art, you know? We don’t take the time to really appreciate a piece, and we’re not teaching our kids enough about visual language for them to even know how to appreciate a piece. So the installation, especially with the interactivity we can create these days, I guess is my way of trying to capture attention away from the smart phone.

Who are your major influences?

James Turrell has been a major influence on how I think about art, especially in getting me to think about how I’d want an ideal viewer to experience it. Barnett Newman, I love his minimalist approach, and Robert Irwin I think gave me the courage to move out of my traditional niche and into the world of installations. Aaron Siskind’s photography has always moved me. And probably Makoto Fujimura has been the greatest personal inspiration to me, both in his mastery of his medium and in his incredible depth of thought on art and what it means for culture.

How did you end up in Chicago?

Working with the artists in the DotConnexion collective was really what brought me here. I grew up in Carrboro, North Carolina, which is a pretty small but very art-friendly community, and then I studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, and then like a lot of artists, I ended up doing the New York thing for a while. But Chicago, you know, it kind of has elements of all the places in my background. The culture and diversity here is great, and there’s a real openness to art that’s inspiring to me, without having that sort of cutthroat feel that you sometimes find in other big city art communities. It’s kind of the best of all worlds for me personally. Except for the weather.

The installation, especially with the interactivity we can create these days... is my way of trying to capture attention away from the smart phone.

What is the common factor between all the artists in the DotConnexion Collective?

I guess it’s our mutual interest in how technology, humans, and connectivity are all related. Being a bunch of artists, I think we all have different feelings about what it all means, but we have common ground in the fact that we’re all thinking about it and exploring those ideas through our art.

Why did the Collective choose to exhibit here in Chicago?

Chicago is sort of the epicenter of everything we’re talking about with our art. People living here know probably better than anyone else in the country what it’s like to be watched and tracked every minute of every day. So we’re not here to tell you what to do, or at least I’m not, but you know, we’re hoping to ask the right questions and maybe get people to start thinking about some of the decisions the city of Chicago has made and how they affect everyday life.

As an artist, how do you feel about the future of our society?

Terrified, but hopeful. I think there are a lot of hidden costs to raising a culture that doesn’t value art as essential. You know, we kind of treat art like it’s a nice-to-have. If there’s not enough money in the budget, it’s always the first thing to go. And I don’t just mean schools. You see it in businesses, in the government, in churches. It’s always, you know, logistics and efficiency trump all. But a culture that doesn’t value beauty and virtue, I’m not sure you can call that a culture at all. And throughout history I think art has done more to give man something to aspire to than any other endeavor. But we’re also at a point where everything is so connected, you can reach just about anyone anywhere. So I’m hopeful that maybe we’ll be able to use that connectivity to touch people and to re-awaken them to what art is and what it means.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Definitely come out to this exhibit, there are some amazing things being done by these other artists. When I was putting my piece together and I saw the things that were going to be next to it, I kind of felt like maybe I should just pack up and go home. I don’t even know why you’re interviewing me, honestly, when you’ve got so much other talent out there. But definitely come experience it for yourself.