Embedded Art: These Are Some of the 2024 Villa Albertine Residents to Watch

Mathilde Lavenne, Claire Houmard and Tarik Kiswanson are among the brilliant artists, creatives and scientists chosen for this year's exploratory residencies.

A woman wearing red lipstick and a black jacket poses in what looks to be an art gallery with spiral stairs
Mathilde Lavenne. © ClaireLuna

I met French filmmaker Mathilde Lavenne in Corsicana, Texas, on the day of the total solar eclipse. On the roomy rooftop of the 100W Artist & Writer Residency, Lavenne adjusts her camera and ND filter. She takes her time to stabilize the equipment, aiming at the right angle amid footsteps vibrating the roof. The building is old, nested in a former 19th-century lodge of the Odd Fellows fraternal order.

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Lavenne, with felt hat, leather booties and eclipse sunglasses in hand, is giddy. “Do you want to see the sun?” she asks 100W residents and friends there to observe the growing obscuration of the sun. We comment out loud on alterations in lighting—more desaturated, eerie—and on the cooling temperature. When the eclipse achieves totality, I am reminded of our discussion the previous night about seances and Lavenne’s uncanny encounters with the esoteric world. We witness the sun’s disappearance for a few minutes, a suspended time interrupted by our collective gasps at what feels truly magical.

In Lavenne’s work, astrophysics and esoteric practices are approached as forms of seeking and storytelling, two modes of inquiry into how science is validated, scientific hierarchies fabricated, in which women involved are chronically under-recognized. One such woman is Annie Buchanan, a Black psychic born into slavery in the late 19th Century. In an interview from the 1950s, Buchanan posited that she could see the past as much as the future. Her skills earned her a diverse clientele, and the Corsicana seer allegedly assisted early industrials in pinpointing the first well of the Mexia oil fields in 1920, thus spearheading an oil boom and the advent of commercial oil extraction in Texas.

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Spending time between Corsicana and other locations across Texas, Lavenne interrogates the role of women in science and the occult, both contributing to “making the invisible visible” via experimental film. In clear-skied Marfa, she records light phenomena and interviews women scientists in partnership with the MacDonald Observatory, following a desire to look more closely at a universe that resonates with our shared experience of the solar eclipse.

The artist, who first encountered Buchanan’s story last year, is one of the international creatives selected in 2024 by French cultural institution Villa Albertine for one of its exploratory embedded residencies. The organization, established by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs in 2021 in the U.S. to promote arts and ideas, launched this year’s cohort of fifty projects-in-residence in twenty-six cities after a juried selection presided by MoMA Director Glenn Lowry. Projects span locations, disciplines and interests ranging from sustainability to multicultural dialogue interrogating legacies, spirituality and fragile ecosystems in partnership with international and local institutions. The residents have backgrounds in film and the visual arts, music and other performing arts, museums and heritage, design, literature and research.

Lavenne is using part of her Villa Albertine residency to engage with the local community and institutions, among which are Corsicana’s MLK Center and the Briscoe Center for American History in Austin. Together they excavate archival materials recouped with interviews to shed more light on Buchanan’s vibrant life at the intersection of race, gender, and mysticism. “It was important to return,” she told me. She plans on using Virtual Reality—based on 3D scans of Corsicana—to connect more deeply with Buchanan’s psychic talents and to use film to experiment with “shifting” to other worlds.

An overhead shot of people working on an archeological dig
The Nunalleq Archaeological Site in Alaska, where Villa Albertine resident Claire Houmard works with Yup’ik people to preserve cultural heritage. Photo Credit: Claire Houmard. Courtesy of Villa Albertine

This dialogue between art, science and community is also a core tenet in other residencies supported by Villa Albertine. For example, archeologist Claire Houmard is pursuing a multi-year conservation and excavation project in the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak, Alaska. The nearby 16th-century site, abandoned after an attack, was at risk of coastal erosion off the Bering Sea coastline. Research efforts spearheaded by Houmard will inform on pre-European encounter lifestyle and the effects of climate change on this community while providing material evidence to a rich oral culture that is still honored by today’s descendants.

Many artifacts, of which over 100,000 remain in the village, have been digitalized as part of the Nunalleq Digital Museum. They include objects of daily life, often made of driftwood, such as kayak paddles, arrow points, vessels, toys and jewelry, as well as more ritualized objects. Young people have recently begun reviving formerly forbidden ceremonies, such as those involving masks and dances, which had been frowned upon during Christianization.

A wooden mask peeks out from mud
Mask emerging from permafrost at the Nunalleq Archaeological Site. Claire Houmard. Courtesy of Villa Albertine

Scientific collaboration such as Houmard’s helps promote Yup’ik cultural heritage and engage with oral traditions, connecting the past with present community members whose traditional livelihoods are endangered. Houmard will be joined in the summer by journalist and former Villa Albertine resident Charlotte Fauve to chronicle the archaeological digs, ecosystem and stories of the Yup’ik, with the view of raising awareness of the dire socioeconomic challenges faced by the community. “They know that they will have to move in the next thirty years,” Houmard tells me. “It’s a hot topic.”

From obscured futures to complex historical legacies, this year’s Villa Albertine residency is also hosting 2023 Marcel Duchamp Prize Laureate Tarik Kiswanson. His interest in sculptural works and incarnated memory inspired a project that involves following the steps of two cabinetmakers active during dark chapters of American history—specifically the Jim Crow era and the internment of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II.

A table attached to the ceiling supports what appears to be a giant oblong egg
Tarik Swanson, Surge, 2022; Museum display cabinet, fiberglass, resin, paint;
490 x 220 x 93 cm. Vinciane Lebrun / Courtesy of the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg and carlier l gebauer, Berlin/Madrid

A freed Blackman from Virginia, Thomas Day established a well-respected cabinetmaking workshop in North Carolina in the 1820s. His business grew; his creations are still on display and in use today. But what sets him apart is that his complicated life—he owned slaves but moved in abolitionist circles—evades linear narratives about antebellum social roles.

“If he wanted to be in the practice of using slaves, he could have had hundreds. He only had a few. And according to our family lore, he purchased these slaves to rescue them,” one of Day’s descendants told NPR.

Decades later in 1942, woodworker George Nakashima was sent to Camp Minidoka in Idaho, along with his family, under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which affected more than 100,000 people of Japanese origin. In the camp, he mastered Japanese woodworking joinery techniques with other interned Japanese, which would elevate his craft when he designed unique pieces upon his release. His house, studio and workshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, are now a National Historic Landmark. For Kiswanson, the production of these historical moving objects testifies to the links between the intertwined histories of design and violence, as well as the need to understand the broader conditions behind craftsmanship.

Lavenne, Houmard and Kiswanson will be joined by dozens of other residents from around the world, including the African continent, on projects unfolding in Atlanta, New Orleans, DC, Miami and other locations where Villa Albertine is active via its “antennas” or through a broader network of partners. Among whom, Louisa Babari, a recipient of the 2023 AWARE award for female artists, will document a fictionalized dialogue between two characters from former soviet communities in New York City to reveal entangled legacies and narratives of exile, while Arash Nassiri will immerse in “Tehrangeles” and the extravagant Iranian diasporic mansions erected in Beverly Hills. A strong sense of place and dialogue with communities define this year’s diverse cohort. The young program, now in its third year, has bright days ahead.

Embedded Art: These Are Some of the 2024 Villa Albertine Residents to Watch