Catie Newell Tests Her Methods of Research and Production in the Darkness of Rome

February 18, 2014
Newell installing Curfew for the Concrete Ghosts show as part of Cinque Mostre.
Objects created by Newell for the Found Realities exhibition of Cinque Mostre.
The photographic series Nightly as exhibited for Concrete Ghosts.
A detail image of the installation Curfew lit with flame.
A detail image of the installation Curfew after the flame has been extinguished.
An image from the photography series Nightly.
An image from the photography series Nightly.
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Catie Newell is the winner of the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Rome Prize in Architecture, an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Taubman College at the University of Michigan and a Principal at *Alibi Studio in Detroit, Michigan.

What part of the United States did you come from?

Detroit, Michigan. I actually grew up there, and also currently teach at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?

There is a slurry of reasons that I applied for the Rome Prize; from the provided space and time to work, the moment to breathe in new patterns, and the chance for expanded conversations across disciplines. But the decision was perhaps spearheaded by my desire to test my methods of research and production on another city, one that was foreign to me in so many ways.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

As part of my research and a continuation of a series called Nightly, I have been photographing spaces inside of the private homes of Romans and residents of nearby cities. Each photo shoot has turned into cherished conversations and experiences that, in their own way, have revealed a new understanding of the darkness that I am grappling to better understand and communicate. The work has exposed varied relationships and assumptions about darkness and how we project fear, comfort, calm, and suspicion into our real and imagined surroundings. I have come to cherish the distinct moment when the strangers that have opened their house to me suddenly become surprisingly familiar and giving in conversation as a result of the shared investment in the capturing of their residences in nearly complete darkness. These are the worlds that only darkness permits.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

I came expecting to work with a darkness that was fearful, aggressive, and allusive. This is the darkness that I am familiar with throughout the Rust Belt of the United States, and in particular in Detroit. In Rome, I found a darkness that can still be all of these things but also necessitates the acknowledgement of its present calm, respect, and beauty as well. This has become a driver in my recent built work and photography and remains a conversation that I still seek to value at the forefront of the forthcoming work.

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?

The continued process of fabrication. For me, I always look forward to this moment. As I make installations, and even print work, I thrive entirely off of the discoveries found in production. It is within the pace of making, and the joy that comes with open eyes, swift hands, and the willingness to alter trajectories that new discoveries are found. My work is never really done, and one installation often leads to the next, not to mention changes faces during its fabrication. This centers on the material and immaterial discoveries that an exact place provides and being rigorously connected to the impulses that feed off of those conditions.

What part of your project has been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?

Feeling that Rome has let me in. My work centers on a direct engagement with current physical, ephemeral, and emotional circumstances of a city. It took a long time to feel like my work was rigorously resonating with this city. The history, depth, and construction of Rome is overwhelming. I had to find my relationship to what I was seeing, and not seeing. The Involving Darkness research has since founds its place.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

I never expected the city to conjure up ideas in my head about everything from my planned project Involving Darkness to the preservation of buildings, to the fiction and truth of death, to archeology, to error in urban planning, to puppetry, to the graphics of the alphabet, to mathematics of the knot, to what is at stake in knowledge, and the stories that abstract painting can tell, but all of this comes from the city and my interactions with it through the eyes of my fellow fellows. This place gives us those conversations, and that which will undoubtedly influence my future works.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?

An invested interests in experiencing a place after nightfall has demanded constant attentive wandering. For me it is a read on a city that is not easy nor expected, but giving. It cannot be fully researched or considered without leaving the studio in both daylight and nocturnal hours.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

Rome has managed to call a lot of issues regarding cities into question. From lingering history, to habits of food, to the objects we surround ourselves with. This city has presented its own unapologetic way of doing things, one that has been lasting and complex. With cultural contingencies at the core of my research practice, Rome has made me a great skeptic of all places.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?

The north facing windows in my studio through which I have the most amazing view over Rome. From that perch I watch the city as it goes through all hours of the day and night, the seasons, the weather, and the mysteries which it is barely even opening to me. It is a constant reminder of the preciousness of this year and the gift of the city.