With a diverse background and an unyielding desire for exploration, Madeline Schwartzman has evolved into a video artist, installation artist, writer, and educator. Her ability to effortlessly blend scientific concepts, artistic expression, and human sensory experiences sets her apart as a visionary creator.
We caught up with Madeline in Amsterdam’s Dijkspark on a hot summer day over some ice teas. At the time of the interview, she had just opened her solo exhibition Face Nature at Mediamatic — an art centre dedicated to nature, biotechnology and art+science. During our conversation, Madeline Schwartzman – a fabulous and eloquent speaker – shared insights into her creative path as an artist and thinker of relentless curiosity.
A Journey of Art and Architecture
Madeline’s artistic odyssey began at Yale, where she pursued architecture, leaving the artistic endeavors primarily to her sister. During her time at the university, however, she found herself straddling both disciplines, earning the moniker ‘the artist architect’ among her peers. A turning point came when she won an art and architecture prize upon graduating, validating her unique approach that defied conventional norms.
Despite the accolades, life threw challenges her way, including the loss of a member of her family. Yet, Madeline’s determination remained undaunted. While striving to obtain her architecture license, she embarked on her art journey, creating installations that pushed the boundaries of imagination. Her creative pursuits included filmmaking, writing short stories, and even a novel.
The birth of her children marked a shift in focus, leading Madeline to concentrate on writing, publishing her book See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception in 2011. This interdisciplinary work foreshadowed her future endeavors, weaving together art, science, and human experience. Madeline’s teachings at Barnard College and Parsons also delved into the See Yourself Sensing project, which laid the foundation for her exploration of Face Nature.
Unveiling Nature through Art — Face Nature
The concept of Face Nature was born from Madeline’s quest to find a way forward amid climate anxiety. At At the Digital Naturalism Conference in Thailand, she created an electronic piece that she wore on her face—a wearable art, yet deeply connected to nature. This experience ignited a spark of radical imagination within her.
‘I was already thinking that I have to bring nature closer to me, to try to combat this what we now call climate anxiety. I just knew I needed to do something.’
Madeline’s work seamlessly fuses her background in architecture with the spontaneity of art. Movement and structural thinking play essential roles in her installations, epitomised by her use of chopstick superstructures that mimic the natural world. Through her artworks, she encourages viewers to contemplate the deeper meanings of existence and human connection with nature.
She shares insights from her journey into Face Nature, reminiscing about a moment when she ventured into the woods to collect birch bark for her exhibition. The physicality of the task, combined with the serenity of the forest, brought her unparalleled joy—a therapeutic balance to her analytical self.
At the Lab Verde residency in the Brazilian Amazon, Madeline experienced a paradigm shift in understanding the forest as an ancient entity, through interactions with indigenous artist Vandria Borari and Manaus-based entomologist Chico Xavier. She witnessed their approach, seeking permission and expressing gratitude to the forest—reverence and respect seldom seen in the forest interactions in communities in the US and Europe.
‘I spent much of my time in the forest but misunderstood it. In the Amazon the forest decides to receive you.’
‘This experience provided me with a glimpse into the origin stories of the Amazon, illustrating how the river, for example, embodied much more than just its physical existence… On the other hand, I have a personal interest in conceptual ideas and not merely aesthetic adornment. If something appears to be merely imitating an animal, it doesn’t capture my attention. When I survey various forms of jewelry and wearables, I find myself thinking, “Whatever, whatever, whatever,” until something stands out with an extra dimension or purpose.’
Looking forward, Madeline envisions a future of body augmentation and adornment that transcends aesthetics. She explores the potential for practical and logical enhancements, such as protection for space exploration or adapting to environmental challenges. In her view, the future of adornment could encompass diverse realms, from cultivating living organisms to exploring issues of surveillance and anonymity.
Through her exhibition Face Nature at Mediamatic, Madeline challenges visitors to embrace a deeper connection with the natural world. Her artworks question our relationship with nature and encourage us to envision a future where creativity, science, and nature harmoniously intertwine.
Initially unsure of her intentions, Madeline discovered that by suppressing the very need for intentionality, she could learn and create with greater freedom. Her innovative approach involved constructing prosthetic-like structures on faces, merging nature’s beauty with human expressions.
Madeline’s creative process exemplifies the merging of analytical thinking and radical imagination. Her ability to navigate between systematising complex information and immersing herself in nature allows her to uncover novel artistic expressions.
An Unconventional Approach Blending Art and Architecture
Madeline’s background in architecture deeply influences her artistic process. Rather than allowing participants in her workshops to directly work on their faces, she introduced a kind of ‘scaffolding’ made of chopsticks, to mimic the nature they study. This approach enables movement and reflects architectural thinking, introducing a unique dynamism to her art.
‘I think interdisciplinarity is something that carries through everything I do… Perhaps, like a building, my books possess a level of complexity. This may explain why I can bridge multiple disciplines, as I step back from any single field and take a broader view. It’s like viewing the human face as both skin and support, which, on that level, may be seen as architectural. It’s hard to know, but it’s true that many people now incorporate elements of nature on their faces, especially during the time I’ve been exploring this field. However, I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I engage with nature regularly and seasonally, studying its intricacies and merging it with an exploration of the human face and scientific concepts.’
Seeking Radical Imagination
Madeline embraces the idea of radical imagination, allowing herself to create without overthinking or constraints. In her process, she often immerses herself in nature, finding solace in its beauty and complexity. Her Face Nature project reflects this uncensored approach, resulting in intriguing and thought-provoking creations. It inspires audiences to reconsider the boundaries of artistic expression and the possibilities of future body augmentation.
As Madeline continues to push the boundaries of her imagination, she stands as a true visionary, bridging the gaps between disciplines and creating an artistic legacy that captivates and challenges us all.