Traveler, Not Tourist: The work of Kathryn Armstrong: An Essay by Paula Katz

Traveler, Not Tourist: The work of Kathryn Armstrong

An Essay by Paula Katz

“The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects,
to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror.
We march backwards into the future.”

– Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage




On the Horizon (Grand Rapids), mixed-media installation, 2014

How do you experience a place before you know it, before you have traveled there? Interdisciplinary artist Kathryn Armstrong grapples with this question in her site responsive work, Phases of Reflection at NAPOLEON. Theories on the nature of the new location – in this case the city of Philadelphia and specifically the NAPOLEON gallery – are concocted from the personal minutia shared by acquaintances and from internet searches. What is heard and read may resonate as a source of inspiration or be wholly rejected. Although one can never “know” a place from looking at second hand destination images or the accounts of others, they remain the best ways to peripherally connect with a place before travel. Though imperfect, these small bits of knowledge remain the departure point for both the expectation of the visitor and the reality of a place.


BEYOND OBJECT AND IMAGE, (floor detail of site-responsive installation in Salzburg, Austria), 2013. Materials: plastic net, paper, foil, tape, string, rope, ribbon, glass, pastel, paint and acrylic panel

Armstrong started out in photography and it is undeniable that the impact of thinking through the lens informs a significant part of her approach. Her installations exist as impermanent records that temporarily track a physical and metaphorical space in material. Her practice borrows from the freeze-frame nature of photography but instead reflects on a paused alignment of material in the real. It is the antithesis of the frozen taxidermy that is photography. While the still image can never be changed, Armstrong’s work is ever evolving, taking risks, and challenging the viewer’s perception of what they are physically moving through and what they imagine art to be.

Traveling to a location and allowing for the unknown to become inspiration is the apogee of an ever-evolving practice that has been part of Armstrong’s opus for the last several years. She accumulates materials and objects that speak to her, bringing items that may or may not end up in her final installation. These objects are typically outside the range of what most people would value and mainly consist of what would normally be considered refuse. Objects are not selected to elevate their status, but are used rather because they are the preferred working supplies of Armstrong. As the title of the exhibition indicates, Phases of Reflection incorporates materials that are reflective but the idea of reflection is much imbued with a double meaning in context, literally and metaphorically. While light is redirected off of a real surface, a philosophical reassessment of the act of contemplation is also suggested. The reflective inference suggests an examination of the past, present and/or future but the intent for the artist leans toward forward-thinking musings.

The installation of Phases of Reflection is a result of chance encounters and interactions- the lure of a location and the desirability of some materials over others. The result of this exhibition at NAPOLEON shows the gallery as a real-time studio, where assumptions have been tested out and a plan has been finalized in situ. Armstrong departed Indianapolis with a pre-selected bag of supplies but extended her artistic toolbox to find supplies on site both through her own doing and by accepting the offerings of those around this new space.

BEYOND OBJECT AND IMAGE, (detail of site-responsive installation in Salzburg, Austria), 2013. Materials: plastic net, paper, foil, tape, string, rope, ribbon, glass, pastel, paint and acrylic panel

BEYOND OBJECT AND IMAGE, (detail of site-responsive installation in Salzburg, Austria), 2013.
Materials: plastic net, paper, foil, tape, string, rope, ribbon, glass, pastel, paint and acrylic panel

The precedent for this type of collection work was set back in 2013 when Armstrong began to accept items from others during a several week residency at the Periscope Project Space in Salzburg, Austria. In previous interventions only materials that were thoroughly vetted and selected by the artist were incorporated. As she became integrated into the arts community there new friends would note what items she was attracted to and make assumptions about what she might like of their own artist supplies and daily debris. Gifts would be lovingly left on her doorstep or handed off in person with an explanation of why they had thought she might like it. Armstrong liked the uncertainty that went along with accepting others as participants in the process of accumulating material. However, in a very deliberate move she decided that there was to be no remaining archive after the outcome, items borrowed would be returned to their original owner. Even her own supplies lovingly imported from Indianapolis, once used, are released and only occasionally resurrected in other installations. This way of frequently changing materials underscores the very temporary nature of Armstrong’s practice.

On a macro level Armstrong’s strong response to location has been derived from living and working in Indianapolis and her travels throughout the region as well as recent journeys to Maine and Salzburg, Austria. The differences between the flat horizon of the Midwest, the hazy light of Maine and the dominating mountains of Salzburg sometimes reappear in her installations. In her Periscope installation, BEYOND OBJECT AND IMAGE, a net was included as a visual substitute for the mountain peaks surrounding the city. Narrowing her scope to individual project sites, it is often the most marginal locations within an architectural setting – the missing drywall, a window, the corner – that become focal points and places for intervention.

No visitor can have the same relationship with an artwork that the artist did – that is true of all art. With site responsive installations there is strict control on the placement and determination of materials. While the presence of the artist cannot be denied, it is also important to recognize the removal of the artist once the final touches are made. Liminal spaces, such an important part of Armstrong’s work, often fail to be recognized by the visitor as part of the artist’s intervention. On occasion someone has moved something, created marks or left something of their own in the space. With no signage or language for guidance, the artist does not call for this to happen, nor try to prevent it. Whether it is an oversight on part of the visitor or simply ignorance to what is “art” and what is simply the terrain of the gallery is not known, raising questions about the differences between true uncertainty and very deliberate intention. This visitor intervention is ultimately what activates Armstrong’s installations into dynamic environments, allowing new relationships between material and place to reach their full potential.


About the Author:

Paula Katz is an independent curator and consultant. With expertise in contemporary art in all media, she has particular interest in photographic history and techniques, community engaged art and collaborative practices. Katz holds a BA in Art History from Tulane University, an MPhil in Modern and Contemporary Art and Design from the University of Glasgow and a MBA in Social Entrepreneurship from the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. For more information please visit

 To download a .pdf version of this essay, click Armstrong_Katz_June_2014.

One Response to “Traveler, Not Tourist: The work of Kathryn Armstrong: An Essay by Paula Katz”
  1. AK says:

    In some regards when you explain that the fish nets were “included as a visual substitute for the mountain peaks surrounding the city.” Is this a double meaning as well? A net for “trapping” like the mountains trapping (surrounding) the city? What if I, the visitor, came by and removed the netting..if it “symbolically” stood for “mountains” or if it even stood for the word “trapping” (no matter the literal or metamorphic sense) than I believe there is some type of “something” or “meaning” Kathryn wanted to create. What is the actual purpose of her work then? Katz makes it sound like she collects (junk), creates, and doesn’t care afterwards.. on to the next installation.. like she is some kind of nomadic artist with no purpose?

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