Of animals, art and otherness: Q&A with incoming Grad Art chair, Diana Thater

Diana Thater. Photo by Sigrid Rothe, 2012

Diana Thater. Photo by Sigrid Rothe, 2012

Just over two months ago, Art Center provost, Fred Fehlau announced that full-time faculty members, Diana Thater and Jason Smith, would assume the roles of Chair and Associate Chair of Art Center’s Graduate Art program after longtime Chair, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe vacates the position in summer, 2014.

Thater, a pioneering film, video and installation artist, has been a dynamic and esteemed member of the international art community, ever since she earned her MFA from Art Center’s Grad Art program in 1990.  She is a prolific artist who has exhibited around the world at first-rate institutions, including MOMA, the Walker Art Center and Dia Center for the Arts. Much of Thater’s work is informed by the social conscience she brings to her installation and video work exploring the relationship between humans and the natural world.

The Dotted Line recently visited Thater in her studio to discuss her plans for the Graduate Art Department as well as her current and future projects.

The Dotted Line: Can you talk about your feelings about becoming Chair of the Graduate Art Department at Art Center?

Diana Thater: I think becoming Chair of the Grad Art department is a wonderful honor, particularly after great people like Richard Hertz, Stephen Prina and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe have been such important leaders of that department. Following in their footsteps will be hard thing to do. But I was nominated by my fellow faculty; so I feel that I have a mandate from the faculty. And I’m working closely with Jason Smith, who is the Associate Chair and was also nominated by the faculty. We have a job to do and I’m excited to do it.

TDL: What are some of your goals as Chair and Associate Chair?

DT: We hope to produce great students who become internationally exhibiting artists and who understand that making art and exhibiting art are nearly the same thing. When you make art you have a commitment to showing art. And that’s something we really want to happen with our students. We want to produce the next important generation of artists. That’s our goal.

TDL: How do you plan to go about doing that?

DT: You do it with faculty. We have an amazing group of faculty and adjunct professors. You try to keep the curriculum fresh—keep it moving; keep it hard; keep it challenging. And we encourage the students to endeavor to become our peers.

I want our students to show as much as I do. I want them to make as much work as I make, if not more. I want them to be better than I am. I don’t mean market-driven successful artists. I mean really important and influential artists. And you do that with a great faculty and a great curriculum.

This is something Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe built; and it’s something that Jason Smith and I are going to continue building in our own way. We’re not going to continue to do things in exactly the same way. That would mean we’re just replacements. We’re not replacements. We’re the new Chair and Associate Chair. We have a mandate from our faculty and a responsibility to the students. And I think that responsibility is to teach them to be good artists and exhibiting artists at the same time.

TDL: Switching gears to your own career as a working and frequently exhibiting artist. Your video work has long explored the plight of animals. And there’s a strong humanistic aspect to everything you do. Can you talk about that?

DT:  My work is very much about empathy and ethics. I approach animals and nature as the only true ‘other.’ I attempt to construct an interface with that kind of ‘other’ in my work. There’s culture and then there’s everything else: Flora and fauna. Animals are the misunderstood. The freaks. The weirdos. They’re the ones we don’t understand and so it’s easy to not care about them – to exploit and kill them.

TDL: Can you talk about your films about the slaughter and capture of dolphins, Delphine and Welcome to Taiji, and how they influenced The Cove?

DT: Sure. I want to start off by saying that I now work exclusively with wild animals because I don’t believe in keeping animals captive. I worked with captive animals up until 1997. But I grew, as an artist should, and I made a commitment to only working with free animals.

I wanted to do a project with dolphins and I contacted one of the world’s leading dolphin rights activists, Ric O’Barry. He was going back and forth to Taiji in Japan to protest the slaughter and capture of dolphins. In Taiji they capture dolphins and sell them to amusement parks and shows.

So after enlisting Ric’s help, I set out to shoot the piece about dolphins, and it couldn’t have been better. The dolphins came to Ric, I got amazing footage and created a piece called Delphine. One day when we were out on the boat shooting, Ric said to me: “They’ve given you something. Now you have to give them something back.” That was really important. So I took my footage, wrote a script and T. Kelly Mason composed the music for a video exposé called Welcome to Taiji, which I funded myself and edited myself. It was a thirty-minute video we distributed and that Ric took to these international dolphin and whale conferences. It exposed, for the first time, the slaughter and capture of wild dolphins in Taiji for the captive animal industry.

The people who made The Cove saw Welcome to Taiji and made a feature documentary film that was essentially the same film as Welcome to Taiji, except that it was made with a lot more money and a much bigger crew. I worked on The Cove but didn’t get credit for my work and didn’t get paid for my work. But that wasn’t important because what Ric always said was that if one person sees Welcome to Taiji, and that one person acts, then we’ve done our job.

So Louis Psihoyos saw Welcome to Taiji and made The Cove, which won an Oscar and changed the way people think about the captive dolphin industry. He was that one person. So I didn’t care about getting credit or paid for my work. What I cared about was that I had done what Ric told me to do, which was to give back to the Dolphins. And I did.

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