Parsons Paris

Kathleen Ritter on Art, Work and Everything in Between

I had the opportunity to sit down for a talk with Canadian artist and Parsons Paris faculty professor Kathleen Ritter. 

When and why did you decide to become a professor? 

I’m from a family of teachers and it runs in the family. I feel like teaching and having a creative practice go hand in hand. It’s a way of working through your ideas in front of a really interesting audience of students, and it gives you an opportunity to research new directions and to try out new things. It’s also nice to be around young emerging artists and designers because they have a kind of energy and outlook on the world where everything is ahead of them.

Which one of the different courses you teach interests you most?

I like “Integrative Studio” because I think it’s one of the most important courses you can take at Parsons Paris. It is combined with “Integrative Seminar” and teaches you to work between thinking, making, research and writing. Our assignments are always shared between both courses and you learn that what you research in Seminar feeds into what you do in Studio and the other way around. This is an important thing for when you graduate because you’re always being asked as a creative producer to articulate your ideas, as well as to be able to demonstrate what it is that you can make. Having the facility to do both things together is a rare skill, and the fact that we do it in the very first year I think is really important. It is also a really fun course to teach because we are not teaching specific skills, we are teaching creative problem solving. Students direct what it is they want to make, how they want to make it and the medium they want to use. We help troubleshoot the kind of methodology behind the way the students are working.

Which value or idea do you try to transmit most to your students?

I believe it’s important students make work that is not just about themselves but about the world at large, so I’m often asking them to orientate their view to look at how their own interests tie into larger social, political, environmental issues, to give their work context but also to give it a larger social import. 

Students at Parsons Paris are going to be influential. They are in a position to be leaders in their fields, so to that end, I often show the work of artists who have some sort of socially conscious message in their work, whether it has to do with a very pressing topic around lets say gun violence in the US or climate change right now.

Kathleen Ritter, Meaningless Work, 2013, watercolour (detail)
A series of watercolour drawings based on a piece of earth taken from Walter de Maria’s
New York Earth Room.

For your Piece “Meaningless Work” from 2013, did you really take earth from Walter De Maria’s New York “Earth Room”? 

I did and I interviewed Bill Dilworth, the caretaker of the “Earth Room” for over 30 years. His job is to take care of this large pile of dirt that sits in the middle of Soho in New York City on the second floor, and I found his job fascinating. He thinks about the meaning of this large pile of dirt all the time, and so he has all of these philosophical reflections on it, but also his work is actually quite physical, he has to break the dirt, water it, pull out anything that grows on it, it’s labor in the very traditional sense. 

I grew up in a working class town that manufactured General Motors cars and almost the whole town was basically employed by the factory. Everybody would sort of operate according to the factory hours. And so, it’s something that very much influences my thinking around art and labor. I think art is really interesting because we refer to everything as work, “a work of art”, and yet artistically I think that is something that is really hard to define. When I am in my studio thinking, what kind of labor is that? When I’m drawing in my sketchbook is that a kind of labor that we consider work? What’s interesting about Walter De Maria’s work from this period is that he was really trying to ask the same questions, and the title “Meaningless Work” is from an article he wrote in the 1960s. 

What was your intention behind making the shift from Walter De Maria’s huge scaled land art to this minimalist floating one piece of earth in watercolors? 

I think that’s one of the issues that I have with land art from the 60s and 70s. Often from a feminist lens, looking backwards, we see a lot of male artists creating grandiose and often aggressive gestures towards the environment, such as Robet Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” or the “Glue Pour”. We look at these gestures now and we think that they’re obnoxious in terms of their relationship to the environment, so I was approaching this with more of a modest approach. 

Kathleen Ritter, Hidden Camera, 2008
pigment inkjet print, 122 x 91.5 cm

A document of a not-so-hidden video camera placed in a black purse, carried under the arm, and used to furtively record the settings of performances.

Can you tell me more about your installation “Hidden Camera”?

It was from a series of videos that I was actually shooting when I was in grad school where I was doing these kinds of performative interventions within the space of the city. At that time, video cameras were pretty big. It wasn’t quite as easy to be discrete and it was important that what I was doing would not necessarily draw too much attention, so I devised this way of hiding a camera inside my purse. What I found so funny about it was that the camera was actually not hidden at all, it’s perfectly obvious but nobody noticed it. I filmed in airports, grocery stores, embassies; it astounded me that nobody saw it. In the end I think that it was this problem of signification, where the significance of the purse was so much stronger than the camera. People didn’t notice it because they associate the purse with a kind of femininity and not being particularly threatening, and so the camera essentially went unnoticed.

After that experience I decided that the object itself, the camera “hidden” inside was actually a very interesting object. It was during a time that I was particularly interested in the anti-spectacular, things that were deliberately underwhelming. For me this was part of a larger feminist question of looking to margins rather than to the center.

Kathleen Ritter, Untitled (The History of Art), 2008
found object mounted in double-sided frame, 25 x 25 x 3.5 cm
A small cheat sheet found in a lecture theatre after a Modern Art exam written in the smallest possible script. It is double sided and highlights all major art historical movements of the 20th century.

Was your statement meant to be humorous in “Untitled”?

I think my work uses humor a lot but not presented in a way that looks particularly goofy or funny. There is a kind of irony that is embedded in a lot of it. I actually found this object to be in itself hilarious, that somebody would have the ambition to transcribe the entire history of modern art onto a one inch piece of paper on the front and back in order to make a cheat sheet for an art history exam. But then, I thought it was even funnier to present it as a work of art itself, as a found object framed in the traditional way. 

With which artist would you like to collaborate in the future?

My brother. I like working with people outside of my skill set, and my brother is a musician. I love working on music and projects with him because he brings a completely different set of skills but also a different frame of reference. At the same time we are very similar. We have similar ways of working and similar ways of procrastinating. 

We started a project several years ago, where we did a residency in the far North of Canada in Dawson city. We interviewed people to talk about what was their idea of “North”. The inspiration for this was a 1967 radio broadcast by Glenn Gould, the pianist, who had done all these interviews about what the North is but largely with people who just traveled there briefly and returned to the South. At the same time, there were innovations happening in music and Glenn Gould had taken all these voices and interviews and overlapped them together so you hear them all at the same time. 

These questions are interesting in a country like Canada that is geographically massive, and so we are interested in basically picking up where Glenn Gould left off.  We are planning to do something with this although we haven’t figured out what form it will take. Something that can bind these interviews and music together.

Kathleen Ritter, Camoufleurs, 2014
wall mural, dimensions variable, public artwork in Toronto, Canada

This wall mural is based on the disruptive camouflage patterns used on naval battleships during WWI. The theory behind disruptive camouflage is that, while it technically makes an object more visible, it distorts the perception of movement, speed and direction, making a moving target much harder to hit. This particular pattern is drawn from an archival photograph showing the Women’s Camouflage Corps painting an example of dazzle camouflage on a landlocked boat used as a recruiting station in
downtown New York City in 1918.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement yet?

If you had asked me that question two years ago I probably would have had a very different answer, but I think seeing my daughter dance before she even took her first steps was very moving. She loves music; her whole day seems to be oriented around sounds, rhythms and musical patterns. So I don’t know if I would call that an achievement, but it is the main thing that inspires me today. It’s really lovely to sort of meet the world again through somebody else’s eyes.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Hopefully still teaching. I would like to develop a bigger studio practice where I’m working in more of a team of people, I imagine developing my practice in a way that’s much more collaborative.

Is there a secret talent you would like to share?

Probably drawing. For many years I didn’t show drawings as part of my own practice because I didn’t have a good reason for making them, so for me it has always been an indulgence. I got into art school because I could reproduce a photograph in pencil and it was very convincing, but in art school I realized lots of people could do that. I still don’t know if I have a good answer. A recent sort of discovery and inspiration has been the work of Vija Celmins. She makes these incredibly labor intensive drawings with graphite often from photographs. Her work raises a lot of interesting questions around this idea. I also used to be a competitive swimmer, a lifeguard, and I used to teach swimming. 

Kathleen Ritter, Siren, 2014
single-channel video projection with sound, 26’24”, looped, streamed from wireless network device

Siren appropriates a controversial scene featuring Hedy Lamarr from the silent 1933 film Extase and marries it to the soundtrack from George Antheil’s 1924 avant-garde composition Ballet méchanique. With the climax of the footage timed to coincide with the sound of a whirling hand-crank siren, looped endlessly and played back on a streaming wireless network, the installation is affectual response to Lamarr and Antheil’s landmark invention of a “Secret Communication System,” widely known today as frequency hopping, the basis of wireless communication technology.

What book, Play, movie, TV show most inspires you?

I read an autobiography by Hedy Lamarr, an actress very famous in Hollywood in the 1940s and she was strikingly beautiful. Reading the story of her life is actually quite crazy because as much as she was on the surface this kind of Hollywood starlet, who presented herself as brainless, in her spare time she would devise these military inventions, especifically around espionage and radar. In 1942 she patented a secret communication system which was a way of sending a message without being detected. This patent was totally ignored in the 1940s because she was a woman and because of her reputation, but if anybody had paid attention, this could probably have changed the course of World War II. 

I made a piece about this called “Siren”, a video installation of a woman breathing and having an orgasm, a scene from her first film in the 1930s called “Extase”, the first non pornographic film to show a woman having an orgasm. I took the footage from it, looped it and played it over a wireless network so that it would introduce all of these glitches to honor her and her invention. 

Would you ever leave Paris and if so, where would you go?

I’m always tempted to return to Vancouver where I spent 15 years because I have so many good friends and colleagues there but particularly because the air is so fresh and it’s beautiful. On one side you have the mountains and the other you have the ocean.

To see more of Kathleen Ritter’s work visit

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