"Becoming deeply engrossed in a new environment, especially as an artist, can challenge one’s personal outlook but also the public assumptions about the work produced"

Sam van Strien, Artist.

Sam van Strien – Embarking on a summer residency in Bergen with USF 

Sam van Strien is an artist based in Mile End, east London, whose work has been exhibited in Britain, America and France. He is currently developing a project that uses drawing to respond to urban architecture. Having recently finished his MFA at Ohio State University in America, and taken part in a residency at Kunstnarhuset Messen in Norway, he decided to travel to Bergen for three months over the summer for a residency at USF. British Council spoke to Sam about his work and interest in the city of Bergen.  

How would you describe your work to someone unfamiliar with your practice?

My practice is driven by the question of how – and where – I personally experience architecture; whether this is directly through my own understandings of the metropolis, or indirectly through a photograph, text or another medium. I engage with these direct and mediated responses to architecture by making rubbings of buildings and responding to the archives of architects, for instance those found at RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects). An ongoing ‘problem’ motivating what I do is whether architecture may ever be adequately represented in images or texts, or, if it exists only as concrete matter and a thing or place that we can touch and see.

How did you hear about the residency in Bergen with USF?

When I was an Erasmus student in Oslo in 2013 I decided to visit Bergen during the final exhibition period for the BFA students at Bergen University. A few students from the art school and I visited the exhibitions together, which were held at different venues around the city. I happened to visit USF, which is located in an old factory, and was impressed by their gallery space. Later, after reading about the artist’s residency at USF and the opportunities that were on offer, I jumped at the chance to apply and return to the city. 

Why would young artists like you want to do a residency in Bergen?

What’s really nice about Bergen is that it has a strong arts scene in a city that is relatively small, and has great institutions such as Kunsthall Bergen. There is an intimacy to the city that I also feel makes it an excellent place for young artists to develop their practice. From personal experience, I know that I work well in such an environment. An attraction of USF is that it is an art centre with its own gallery, theatre, cinema and artist studios. I’m looking forward to being around a small but diverse mix of creative people from different arts backgrounds, work in the studio space, live in an apartment on site and focus on my art for three months. This kind of immersion is second to none.

What are the benefits of living in a city for 3 months? 

A three month residency offers one time to not only develop a project but feel more secure about the direction in which it travels. One can be ambitious in terms of the work produced and, crucially, settle into an entirely new environment. Too many residencies are much too short; by the time that a rhythm of work has been found, it’s time to go home. Because my practice responds to my experiences of urban architecture, having an extended period within which explore and become familiar with Bergen should bring about a greater depth and specificity to whatever I create. 

Tell us a bit about your Erasmus stay in Oslo?

My Erasmus exchange provided me with an exclusive opportunity to live and study in Norway. Becoming deeply engrossed in a new environment, especially as an artist, can challenge one’s personal outlook but also the public assumptions about the work produced. Because I was fascinated by Norwegian culture and natural landscape when I was growing up, it wasn’t hard to refuse an offer to live and study in Oslo. Replacing the London art bubble with an art scene that seemed less pressurised and supportive of its artists was equally attractive. The art academy where I studied was fairly small, which aided a sense of community. The students and staff would even have breakfasts together every Monday morning! I also discovered a few artist-run spaces, small galleries and museums that provided students with the opportunity to exhibit their work. The welcoming, relaxed and supportive environment encouraged me to start experimenting with super8 film and begin to create work that directly responded to the architecture around me. This approach has stayed with me ever since.  

You’ve also spent time in the USA. Where was that and why? 

I moved to the US to do a funded MFA at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, which meant that I came out of my studies debt free. It was a three year long programme, which was also nice, and allowed me to teach a few undergraduate classes. A major draw was also the faculty staff at Ohio State. The artists Laura Lisbon and George Rush teach there, and I knew I wanted to work with them and attend other well-taught classes at the university. Taking extra courses helped me develop my practice and style, especially those related to architectural history and theory. More generally, it was a chance to live in America for a few years and explore the country. 

Did you find any links between what you’d discovered as an artist working in the UK, Scandinavia and America?  

There is a definite distinction in attitudes between artists in different countries, which is partly shaped by their political and economic situations, and specific cultural attitudes. The public attitude towards artists and artist funding is an important factor. To be more specific, based on what I’ve experienced, artists in Scandinavia have a lot more access to arts funding than in the US or the UK. This provides a firmer foundation from which to focus on making art in the studio and embrace opportunities. If one has to have a part-time job to make ends meet, which can be the case in the UK and USA, it’s difficult to enjoy such freedom. Here in Britain artists have to work a lot harder to survive and create a sustainable way of working. Artists in America seem to have an even more intense work ethic, and are often equipped with an inner drive to make things happen. But it could be that they just like to talk more about how hard they work! On the other hand, I moved to the US in August 2014 when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. All the unrest that followed – and the ensuing election of Trump in 2016 – has set the tone for a certain work ethic, quality and quantity of art that my friends have been making. The events have also given rise to a lot of questions about their professional purpose. It felt like a time of crisis, compared to the relative calmness of Norway. 

Have you any objectives from your stay in Norway?

My objective is to develop a series of drawings in response to contemporary architecture in Bergen, including work with rubbings and drawings from archives. I’d also like to experiment with squeeze paper, a process traditionally used in epigraphy to reveal an impression and detail of a surface, as a new way for me to work with architecture and an extension of my work with rubbings. I’m in contact with a few architectural firms in the city, and I’m planning to visit their offices during my time in Bergen to document their archive of projects. That will then become material that I can also respond to. This will be the first time I’ve worked with a contemporary architectural firm, so naturally I’m excited to see what happens.

'Unfulfilled Traces' by Sam van Strien. Gesso, pencil rubbing, photo transfer, drafting film, metal wires, tensioners (2016).
A section of 'American Electric Power' by Sam van Strien.
A section from 'Displacement' by Sam van Strien.
A section of 'American Electric Power' by Sam van Strien.
An architecht's rendering of the AEP building, part of 'American Electric Power' by Sam van Strien.

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