The domestic space can be dark – but it can be light too.
We like exploring those two extremes and trying to traverse the transitional space between them.
“Such stuff as dreams are made on…”
Those words were written by the English playwright William Shakespeare and come from his play ‘The Tempest’. The use of the word ‘stuff’ is interesting in the way it has changed its meaning over the years. When the play was written in the early seventeenth century (and today in the language of philosophy), ‘stuff’ refers to the material from which something is made. While it may simply be the physical substance from which an object is constructed (wood is the stuff from which a chair is made) it can also be an idea (fear is the stuff of nightmares). Today, however, ‘stuff’ commonly refers to the things we buy and put into our homes; things which wear out or become unfashionable or are no longer of use, but which we nonetheless keep. In the fast-paced wasteful cycles of Western consumerism, our homes become the crowded repositories of faded aspiration. A steady accretion of retail goods which all too soon pass their ‘use by’ date as we try to buy our way to happiness.
Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen are an American couple who live in suburban Houston, Texas, with their daughter Madeleine and son Emmett. They are also artists who use photography, video, performance and installation to explore the paradoxes of domestic consumerism and critique the modern mythologies of the ‘perfect family’. They make work together under the name of Hillerbrand + Magsamen; work in which they and their children are actors and their home the stage.
While the Shakespearian line is often misquoted as “stuff as dreams are made of”, the actual line is “stuff as dreams are made on”. This is a significant point. The ‘stuff’ is not the subject of the dream, but the material on which a dream is constructed. This is important, too, in the work of Hillerbrand+Magsamen. They use their household furniture and possessions – and indeed the walls and doors of their house itself – to create new, truer mythologies that range from the whimsical to the nightmarish. The focus is not the materialistic aspiration of the American Dream, but the nature of family life and domestic relationships drowning under the weight of rampant consumption.
Alasdair: When did you begin working together?
Hillerbrand + Magsamen: We began collaborating about 16 years ago. The first work we made together was a video entitled ‘Lick’. We were both interested in interdisciplinary projects and the collaboration was very natural. We began living together and sharing a studio. At first the collaboration was difficult – there was a lot of struggle over control. But then we realised that, if we had two different ideas about how to handle a particular aspect of the work, the technology allowed us to save both. Later, we could assess what worked best with the benefit of hindsight. In this way, we developed a system for collaborating through which the ideas of both of us could be explored equally.
What was the first photographic project that you made together?
The first set of photographs we made together was a series titled ‘Air Hunger’ where we shot close ups of us blowing bubble-gum bubbles and sharing air between them. We made this work while on a residency with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in New York City. We were fascinated by the formal aesthetic quality of the gum and our mouths (shapes, colours, textures) and, more conceptually, by ideas of communication and the nature of relationships. Not long before, we had been scuba diving during which Mary’s compressed air cylinder ran out and we had to share air underwater. The idea of sharing air and communicating with each other during that dangerous event had a profound impact on us both.
The first of your works that I saw were the ‘Mandalas’. What ideas were you exploring here?
We were seeking some solace in our lives. We had been making a lot of work about destruction – literally destroying our home and belongings. We decided that we needed to attempt to make some work that, while it still addressed our concerns with consumption and the home, did so in a more peaceful way. For us, adapting the idea of the mandala was interesting because mandalas are associated with the concept of healing. So we gathered our stuff and created mandalas as a way to ‘heal’ our home and our possessions. As the project developed, the designs of the mandalas became more complex.
While those images create a degree of order from the chaos, in your earlier series ‘Comfort’ the plethora of possessions seems to be getting the better of the household…
In ‘Comfort’ we created barriers with our stuff. We walled ourselves up inside our home and photographed those actions. The garage door was walled up with stuff from the garage, and the house doors got walled up with rolled blankets. We were unable to go out or let anyone in because of all our stuff. We then took the photographs and had them printed, not on paper, but on polar fleece fabric as blankets, which we ordered through the department store Walmart. Thus, we sent the images of stuff that may well have been bought at Walmart back to the store to be made into a new object; an art object that could also be useful, providing comfort and keep one warm.
In ‘House/Hold’ the domestic is explored in terms both of possessions and family relationships. What do you want to say in this work about the relationship between a father and a mother and their children?
We photographed ourselves inside our home, again with our stuff, but addressing our everyday activities in a slightly ‘uncanny’ way. We also titled them with the names of characters from ancient myth and Shakespearian drama. What interested us was the idea of referring to mythological stories and the sort of characters that might appear in a play. By using our home as a stage and photographing situations that happen there, we wanted to explore the nature of our relationships with each other and all our stuff – toys, clothes, household objects…
Your children, Madeleine and Emmett, feature I many of your photographs and videos. Are they actors working to parental direction, or collaborators in the creative process?
A little of both. As they get older, they have more opinions (as you might imagine) and now we ask them for their feedback and input on the projects we are making together. However, when they were younger, there was much more ‘parental direction’. Our daughter Maddie (who is now 15 years old) often says she prefers to be behind the camera now, involved in controlling how the image turns out.
In ‘Whole’ you seem to be destroying your home; or perhaps escaping from it in the style of a prisoner of war movie.
It was like creating a Habitrail in our home. [Habitrail is the proprietary name for a modular system of interlocking plastic tunnels and nesting pods designed specifically for pet hamsters. It is supposed to mimic the burrows in which hamsters live in the wild, but it is a closed system with no escape.] We destroy our home and drag our possessions through it on a journey with no real purpose. Sometimes it feels like life has no real purpose and you are just dragging your stuff from one place to another for no reason!
A number of these bodies of work suggest that the domestic is an emotionally dark space. Is that what you feel? How much is this is satirical melodrama and how much a kind of psychodrama?
The domestic space can be dark – but it can be light too. We like exploring those two extremes and trying to traverse the transitional space between them. We try to walk a fine line between dark and light in a way that creates some tension and discomfort. We want to create questions for people – we don’t want to give answers. By raising questions we hope that people might think about their own homes, families and their relationship to others, to space and to possessions.
How much do you think your observations relate specifically to the American consumerist culture and how much do you see this as an exploration of family dynamics at a more fundamental level?
There is so much waste in America – much more than in other countries. The amount of consumption is insane. Megastores like Costco and Walmart have contributed to this culture of ‘buy big and buy more’. A lot of our work is about family dynamics on a fundamental level, but this is often bound up with the extravagant consumer culture of America, with all its waste and artificiality.
Where do the ideas for your work come from? Are they responses to real events or, more generally, to the clichés of mass media or the theories of psychoanalysis?
They are typically inspired by our everyday life. Ordinary domestic objects and events are what inspire us. Our art practice is influenced by Fluxus [a Western art movement of the 1960s and 1970s that broke away from the idea of the art object to explore more spontaneous forms of interactive performance, the assembling of found objects into new forms and a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude to creative activity]. Many of those artists believed that there was no distinction between life and art. News, television shows, cinema and all the clichés of mass media that constantly stream into our everyday lives, these can all become material from which we make our art.
How would you illustrate that approach in discussing a work such as ‘Whether’? The title plays on two words that in English sound the same but have different meanings: ‘weather’, which describes climatic conditions, and ‘whether’, expressing a doubt or choice between alternatives.
‘Whether’ explores the psychological interactions of a family in a physical way. The use of the fog was interesting because one does not expect to see fog inside a house. We wanted to work with the home and our family, and then introduce this strange fog – really simple elements to explore complex ideas around the emotional atmospheres that arise in domestic situations. Then, in the editing process, we manipulated the videos by playing sequences backwards, by altering their speed and by adding a rumbling soundtrack to create an eerie soundscape.
Can you describe the sequence of events portrayed in ‘DIY Loveseat’?
That was a funny one. One morning Mary said: “Hey, I have an idea. Let’s use a chainsaw to cut up our couch”. Stephan totally freaked and said: “No! Why would you want to do that to the first piece of furniture we bought? Is there something wrong?”
The idea was to take this object – the family couch where we all spend a lot of time – and make it shorter, so that only two people could use it. It would become a ‘love seat’ that would bring back some romance for the parents after having two kids; it would bring us closer together. So Mary, dressed in her Sunday best, takes a chainsaw and starts cutting up the family couch. After much labour, she removes the centre section. Then Stephan, also dressed in his Sunday best, comes with duct tape (the ‘ultimate’ home-repair item) and sticks it back together, but in a kind of pathetic way. Then we sit down together, but it is not at all romantic. The idea was to consider what it means to be a couple and how space and objects reflect ideas of ‘togetherness’, home and family.
How did the series ‘Higher Ground’ come about?
In 2015, we received a commission from the Houston Airport System to make a video. But it became so much more! It became a video, sculpture, installation, photographs and gift shop with over fifty types of memorabilia!
It seems more upbeat and, in a whimsical way, more affirming of family life. Were you consciously exploring a different notion of the domestic in this work?
We had been thinking about the film ‘A Trip to the Moon’  made by the French pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès and the first ‘Star Trek’ TV series. We wanted to make our video playful while, at the same time, maintaining the notion of a mythology.
The whole family really enjoyed creating the rocket and space paraphernalia out of ordinary household stuff. Everything used to build the rocket and spacesuits came from our home! We would be in the kitchen looking for the spatula or the colander and then remember “Oh, right, it’s now part of the spaceship!” One day Mary came home and Stephan was on the floor of the kitchen making a satellite with the toaster, an umbrella and a garden rake. Nothing in our house was left untouched!
We also worked with a wonderful graphic designer called Jenny Conte from a company called Sharp Egg Design. She helped us create space-age logos, flight patches and even our own operations manual for the rocket we were building. Although it was a fantasy, the process was definitely affirming for us as a family. It was an adventure that, conceptually and physically, we embarked on together.
Why did you call it ‘Higher Ground’?
The name ‘Higher Ground’ quotes a famous phrase originally used by Sam Houston (1793–1863), [the first President of the Republic of Texas]. In 1900, a devastating hurricane wiped out Galveston [a large seaport to the south of the city of Houston]. The authorities in the city of Houston used Sam Houston’s famous phrase in advertisements urging the people of Galveston to move to Houston to be on ‘higher ground’. The irony is that Houston is also at sea level. It is no higher than Galveston, just further inland.
How do people respond to your work?
People really like how accessible our work is. They like that we involve our children and that we are exploring the topic of family. Everyone has a family!
They do sometimes express surprise – concern even – over the effect our art-making might be having on our home. As one visitor noted after seeing our exhibition: “I hope you’re not planning to sell your house anytime soon!”
Do you approach each project as distinct and separate, or do you see your work building to create a larger ‘picture’?
Good question… I think the work builds on itself – there is a common thread both in how the work is made and in the broader ideas it explores that link all the various bodies of work together. Of course, it keeps evolving with each project we create, but you can still look at any of the work and see that it is our personal creative vision that underpins it.
What have you learned about yourselves through the process of making these photographs?
The family that makes art together stays together.
Stephan Hillerbrand was born in Denver, Colorado. He is an educator, artist and arts activist. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Sculpture from Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and a Master of Arts degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Since 2006, he has been an Associate Professor and Honors College Fellow in the School of Art at the University of Houston.
Mary Magsamen was born in Durham, North Carolina. She is a curator, artist and educational advocate. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the University of Denver and Master of Fine Arts in sculpture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Since 2008 she has been the curator at Aurora Picture Show, Houston.
Together they collaborate as the artistic team of Hillerbrand + Magsamen creating sculpture, installation, performance, video and photographic works they call ‘Suburban Fluxus’. These projects frequently include their two children, Madeleine and Emmett, in work that critiques and playfully scrutinises contemporary suburban life. They have exhibited widely at film, video and photography galleries and festivals in the Americas, Europe and Asia. They live and work in Houston, Texas.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the August 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.