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Jordan Söderberg Mills
8th May 2017

Style + Substance: Q&A with Jordan Söderberg Mills

There’s something undeniably charming about Jordan Söderberg Mills. In an era of hollow, brand-led installations and commissions that exist only to tick the “creativity” box, the Ontario-born, London, Santiago and Toronto-educated designer is a source of substance and wonder. When questioned on the relationship between humans, changing technologies and immersive exhibition spaces he gushes about the positive increase in engagement and the subsequent development of the role of audiences in art and design — a subject usually met with groans of reluctant acceptance

Jordan is one of the handful of innovators set to exhibit as part of Clerkenwell London’s Design Undefined exhibition. From 23—25 May 2017, during Clerkenwell Design Week, he will transform The Keep into an immersive cube of colour and reflection, harnessing the hypnotic power of anaglyphic mirror panels and a new version of his installation Sectum Spectra. As he prepares for the show, we caught up with Jordan to talk about his jet-set life, the changing ways we experience exhibitions and why you should always check your measurements…

Hi Jordan! You work between Toronto, Santiago and London. What makes exhibiting in London (and specifically Clerkenwell) different to other places?

In London there is a very high concentration of sophisticated, engaged viewers — the city is a global aggregator of the arts, design, and visual culture. You’re often challenged and interrogated about the work which I find refreshing, and animating. 

Canadian institutions have been some of my biggest supporters, this past year doing projects with the Power Plant, the Design Exchange, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. In Canada the audience tends to be a little more gentle and encouraging, even if we think the work is crap. I don’t think it’s an artifice, but a sort of institutionalised kindness that tries to look for the bright side of even the most tragic work. 

Santiago has had a creative renaissance since the dictatorship ended, with a young, liberal, and art-focused generation really pushing boundaries. The work is often very politically motivated - my work, on the other hand, deals with a different scale - stardust, matter and energy, colour - with less social connotation. I think that sets me apart. 

Immersion is increasingly common in design exhibitions and experiences. How does it change the way people perceive creative work? 

The way in which you experience objects and spaces are so different — an object is intimate, precious, held in your hand or close to the body.  A space fills your field of vision, is meant to be seen in motion, with shifting perspectives and qualities of light. 

In an exhibition context you’re so far removed from the object, behind a barrier or glass. Installation-scale work has, ironically, made the experience more personal, more intimate, more visceral.

Last year I saw a brilliant installation by Ann Veronica Jannsens at the Wellcome Trust. She filled a room with vapour and coloured light. Inside the installation, you’re breathing it in. You’re saturated, you’re muffled, with these occasional phantoms emerging from the mists. You’re literally living and breathing her work. Traditional exhibitions of objects, on the other hand, usually require a physical and psychological barrier between you and the objects. Installations let you live inside of them. 
Anaglyph ||
Can you identify any major benefits or problems with more immersive approaches to exhibitions? Does it improve or impair accessibility to the industry globally?

More and more people want to take home these experiences, record them for posterity, and share their experiences. They want to see themselves in relation to the work, to become a protagonist — more often than not you’ll see a selfie in a museum, rather than just an image of the artwork. I think this impulse to share selfies in relation to art helps to promote our industry, drive more people into these spaces, encourage them to engage. An immersive approach creates more of an interactive, shareable experience.  

My friend Salimah Ibrahim from Artery (www.artery.is) once called my work an invitation — in a way I’m trying to facilitate the creativity of others. I make mirrors, interactive light elements, and currently I’m developing an iPhone camera filter. When my work stops, the viewer’s work takes over, allowing people to curate their own set of images, revealing new directions, and unexpected points of view. An installation allows for the same kind of engagement.

Of course logistically they can be very complex, from a production point of view. I work in glass, often huge panels of it, which means you hold your breath and make silent prayers a lot. I had a big project planned for Frame Magazine last year, but the damn thing wouldn’t fit through the door. I made the crate too big. These blonde moments can have a pretty devastating impact on the project, so the muck-ups grow in order of magnitude.

You’ve exhibited in major venues such as V&A. How does creating an installation for a more boutique venue and exhibition impact your process? 

I’ve been so lucky to find support from some major institutions worldwide, the V&A during school, Tate Britain just after graduating, The Power Plant, Istanbul Biennale — through my studies at CSM and the help of my peers (Hi Melanie Kat King!) 

I approach each project with the same enthusiasm, but the big guys often have teams to help you set up. I’m used to doing most of the work myself - getting sweaty up on ladders, hoisting glass panels, the macho posturing, the whole shebang. I still feel a little guilty and indulgent when someone else handles my work, but it has saved me from a lot of back ache.  

In the big venues, people have no idea what you look like, so if you’re sneaky and a little curious, you can eavesdrop and catch snippets of unfiltered opinions. Smaller venues on the other hand allow you to engage more with people - these conversations can open up new opportunities, or push you to consider different perspectives. Big shows or small shows, I just love the look of surprise people get when they look into my mirrors. 
Clerkenwell Design Week installation render
You’ve studied art history and architecture and are a qualified blacksmith. Is diversity in skills and knowledge important to you? Does it play a role in the sustainability of the creative industries and their relevance to contemporary society? 

Art History was critical to evaluate my own work, understand it’s context, intent, and how it may be read. It helped me to push the concept and really develop the work theoretically.

Architecture — which I only studied briefly while living in Chile — gave me a lot of insight into how subjective experience changes inside large volumes, the importance of context, and looking at a language of form on a monumental scale. Also, the math helps.

Blacksmithing gave me making skills, and the confidence to actually pick up a power tool. Growing up I was a boy who walked on his tippy toes and played Crystal Princesses in the woods. Certainly nothing wrong with that, but my apprenticeship with Francisco Gazitua toughened me up a little, made me less precious, less afraid of spinning motors.

Diverse skills will help you succeed. Read everything: the theorists, the critics, the journalists — to understand your work and why it could be important. Take the time to learn a little bit of structural engineering. Much of it is common sense, or you can watch Khan Academy lectures. This way your work doesn’t topple over and destroy the village. Lastly, learn to actually make stuff — so much of the beauty of an object comes from minor details - ones which are revealed in process, as you make. You also save a lot of capital by not hiring other makers, which is very important early on, establishing a career. 

What is the biggest challenge you face working so internationally? 

I wish I could travel even more. I tend to miss out on some opportunities simply due to geography — next month I have three shows in three different cities, so I’m just not available to see my own work everywhere. This sounds like the epitome of whiny privilege, I know, but it’s an issue. Creating sustainable growth within a studio practice is a huge challenge — knowing which opportunities to take, when and where, is something I have to consider carefully. Shipping, travel and accommodation become big determining factors in some projects. 

I’m also a bit of a nervous flyer, to be honest, now that I’m hoping to have a family with my partner. Xanax with a side of scotch helps (winky emoji.) Once we figure out how to transmute matter into light, we’ll be teleporting anyway. Easy peasy. 

What else are you looking forward to seeing at Clerkenwell London?

The city! Catching up with old friends. Saying “crisps” and “the tube” without looking like a jackass in Toronto. Connecting with a vibrant art/design community that understands interstitial and unusual design/art objects. 

The SCIN Gallery were a big support during my graduate studies, so I’m looking forward to reconnecting with them and taking a look at their materials library. 

I love the brutalist architecture around Clerkenwell, particularly poignant at the moment as we’re slowly moving towards an Atwood-like dystopia.

Visit Design Undefined #3 at Clerkenwell London 23–25 May 2017, during Clerkenwell Design Week.

Split Spectrum surface
Blue yellow pink green
Jordan Söderberg Mills photographed by Devin Lund
Purple yellow detail

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