People of Duke Arts: Alexandra Bateman (T’19)
Living Invisible is a multimedia project exploring what it is like to live with a chronic—but invisible—illness at Duke. Alexandra Bateman (T' 19) discusses her senior capstone project, which is on view in the Ruby through May 12.
Meet Alexandra (Lexi) Bateman, a senior at Duke majoring in visual arts and minoring in both philosophy and creative writing. Through the Rubenstein Arts Center’s arts project residencies program, Bateman is exhibiting Living Invisible, her senior capstone project.
Duke CAST member Ilona Stanback sat down with Alexandra to learn more about her project, the creative process, and what she hopes people will take away from her work.
Q&A with Alexandra Bateman
Ilona Stanback: Can you tell me about your capstone project Living Invisible?
Alexandra Bateman: The installation focuses on two students living on campus who have chronic invisible illnesses. One person has diabetes and has had it for a long time, and the other person has chronic migraines. I am really interested in documentary work and I knew I wanted to have it animated, so it grew out of that. Living Invisible is an animated diptych installation. There are two films that run simultaneously and speak to one another.
IS: What inspired you to focus on chronic invisible illness for your project?
AB: I knew that I wanted to do a chronic illness project because my mom has several different invisible illnesses, and I’ve grown up seeing how she has dealt with these conditions. A person dealing with an illness that isn’t visible to others is highly aware of their condition, but most other people cannot empathize with what it is like to be that person. Another factor that complicates things is living on a college campus away from your family. Students with invisible illnesses have to manage these things on their own.
IS: How did you choose your subjects for the project?
AB: I started by reaching out to people who might want to talk to me. My original idea was to do one narrative film that would combine different aspects of different students’ experiences. A student dealing with anxiety and OCD experiences things very differently than someone living with diabetes and migraines. I did not want to make a generalization about something that is very specific and personal. I decided to focus on two students and to do narrative films influenced by their experiences.
IS: How did you do the animation?
AB: I did the animations in three different styles. I wanted to work with silhouette animation, which is basically taking cut out 2D silhouette puppets and then photographing them frame-by-frame to create a stop motion animation. I have always been really attracted having a stark contrast between the dark silhouettes and more detailed backgrounds. It creates a visually interesting effect.
IS: Why did you choose animation as the medium for this project?
AB: I think it spoke to what I wanted to stress about the illnesses themselves. Invisible illnesses are very much internal, and both of the students in my project spoke to this. I thought that the ambiguity of silhouette characters would reflect that in some way. The characters are done in silhouette, and the backgrounds are digitally animated. Each of the backgrounds are meant to reflect what is happening internally with these characters. I also have secondary characters that the silhouette characters are interacting with throughout the film.
IS: Did you have other ideas that you were considering for the project before you chose this method?
AB: Yes, I had several different game plans before I settled on this one. Last semester, I did a rotoscoping project in a class. We exported it as frames and then hand traced each frame on a blank piece of paper and then we photographed that. When it was compiled it was this really beautiful hand drawn sketch-like kind of animation. I considered doing the whole project like that, but I also wanted to see if I could push myself to do something else. In the end, since I was drawn to silhouettes, I decided to experiment with that style.
IS: Is chronic invisible illness something you have always been interested in doing a project on?
AB: My mom started dealing with her illnesses in 2008. I was young at the time. We’ve dealt with her illnesses as a family for a large portion of my life. I always wanted to talk about it from the perspective of someone who is not chronically ill themselves, but who has lived with it and seen the effects of it. I thought I might be able to shed some light on an issue that I feel a lot of people do not know about.
IS: What do you hope people take away from seeing your project?
AB: I want people to listen. A lot of people I have talked to feel unseen or unheard. Like I said before, it’s really difficult to convey the extent of what someone is going through to someone who has no frame of reference for that experience. I want people to come in and open themselves up to the experience of seeing it and listening to people’s experiences. I think if people can leave being curious or learning about something they were not aware was a problem, then I will be happy.
IS: Do you have plans to continue this project to the future?
AB: I would like to continue to work on this project. I am a fiction writer and I have always liked the idea of pairing my writing with animation and graphic design. I can see the two of them pairing well together to make the project more robust. I would also like to expand it by collecting more stories.
IS: Who are the artists whose work you admire and have inspired your work?
AB: Lotte Reiniger, a German animator from the 40s, pioneered the silhouette style. As a woman, to even be animating during this time was a huge deal, and she made gorgeous stop motion silhouette pieces. Kara Walker, whose work is stationary, also works in silhouettes. Her work is very influential to the kind of things I would like to do with my work. Kara is also really interested in personal political questions.
IS: Did you know you wanted to pursue visual arts when you first came to Duke?
AB: I have always been interested in art, but I never let myself consider it seriously. I have always drawn and painted, but I never picked up the pen and I thought “this is good, I should be an illustrator.” It was just something I did that was relaxing, fun and helped me process the world and find my place in it. Then I came here and was having a difficult time trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I felt really jumbled and disconnected; I think that is why I came back to art.
IS: What does art mean to you?
AB: I still do not consider myself an artist, but it is something I enjoy doing. I think art is powerful, and it is a very relaxing and grounding experience for me. I like working with my hands and I love having a material connection to art.
IS: What would you say to other people who might not consider themselves as artists but enjoy making art?
AB: I think it really comes down to what makes you happiest and is the most fulfilling for you. For a long time I got stuck in the mindset where I told myself that I wasn’t the best at something and therefore I should not do it. That is the wrong outlook. There is value in all kinds of art and people connect with art differently. What I think might not be the best part of my work, someone else may see and immediately connect with or find meaning that I had not intended. You are your own biggest critic at the end of the day. Once you share your art with other people, it is not yours anymore, it is theirs and so it does not matter. If it makes you happy, do it!
Ilona Stanback (Class of 2019) is majoring in Psychology and working toward a certificate in Documentary Studies. She plans to work with victims of human trafficking and hopes to incorporate her passion for documentary photography by sharing the stories of the individuals affected by this issue. Ilona is currently a member of the Duke Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).