This week I spoke with Kat Shannon about her ICP-Bard MFA solo thesis show You Belong Where You Are.
Liz Sales: Congratulations on a wonderful thesis show!
Kat Shannon Thank you so much! And thank you for coming by!
L.S. Is your exhibition title, You Belong Where You Are, a nod to the book, No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July?
K.S. I cannot deny the influence both of Miranda July and certainly of her title in coming up with my own, but the direct inspiration for the title came from an experience in Savannah, GA, where I studied as an undergraduate. There was a small painted portrait by my local grocery store there that said “DO YOU BELONG WHERE YOU ARE?” and I would notice it every day. In the years since, that phrase has always stuck with me, and in coming up with my title it felt most appropriate. I dropped the “do” and decided to make it a declarative statement to give it more power and authority.
L.S. The title speaks to the work. You seem to use art as an occasion for validation and intimacy. Is that a fair read?
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K.S. Yes, totally. I started experimenting with video at the beginning of graduate school at ICP-Bard. It was a new way to explore. It helped me close in on subjects I’m interested in, and intimacy was definitely one of them
L.S. What are some of the others?
K.S. Loneliness, longing, vulnerability, personal exchange.
L.S. Right, like in Single you and a man sit on a bed, facing each other, singing along to a song in earnest. What do you gain from these encounters?
K.S. That video was the first in an ongoing project. It helped set the tone for the overall experience I was creating with my work. My classmate, Matt, chose his favorite love song and I memorized the lyrics so we could sing it to each other. The moment was so intense in our commitment and sincerity to each other. It became a really lovely mutual exchange of catharsis.
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L.S. What compels you to document and share these moments?
K.S. In documenting them and sharing them I have the chance for a new way of analyzing the exchange. And I think many of my videos are humorous but people don’t really know whether they’re allowed to laugh. They balance a thin line between comfort and discomfort–I really like this.
L.S. Who are you singing Young and Foolish with?
K.S. Young and Foolish is sung with a man named Paul Kessel. He is an active member in ICP’s continuing education program, so we met through a mutual class there. Both he and Matt were nearly complete strangers to me when I asked them to participate in this project with me; now I am close friends with them both.
L.S. Did you chose these people because you wanted the opportunity to get closer to them?
K.S. Hmm, I hadn’t considered this when initially asking them, but I have no doubts that there was at least a subconscious attraction to that idea. I felt I could trust that they would enjoy this project, that they could approach it earnestly with me.
And I was right, I had a wonderful time with them both. It was very moving for me to be invited to their spaces and offered the chance to sing their prospective songs with them.
L.S. As someone who works in both still photography and video, do you automatically know which medium a project is destined for?
K.S. Something will hit me as an idea for a video or a photograph, and it’s only afterwards that I will consider how it could work the other way. I’ve been working with photography for so long that it seems more intuitive somehow. In that sense, when I’m making videos I’m much more organized and specific because I feel I have to be.
I think the show was actually the first opportunity I had to finally work out the relationship between my photographic and video work. I was able to see the conceptual overlap in new ways, which helped dig into my process of learning about how I make work.
L.S. Could you talk a bit about the photographic work in the show? It is a mix of images of family members and strangers?
K.S. It was a mix. I showed pictures of my family, my partner, my friends, and then also of myself with strangers. I realized that the core idea of my show is the relationship. I felt it was important to show the work I make both of relationships I experience more heavily or consistently, and ones I don’t at all. I wanted to show these photographs in an equal setting, a picture of Mother alongside a picture of three women I don’t know.
Kat Shannon, Mom, upwards, 2015
L.S. In some ways your images of strangers felt a little more intimate than your depictions of family members.
K.S. Yes, someone else mentioned this to me. I think it’s true in many ways. The work I’ve done with strangers felt like I was directly going to them to experience and then show our intimacy, while with my personal loved ones our relationships are much more complex, and therefore my ways of depicting our intimacy or their vulnerability are as well.
L.S. In Public Space / Private Space you fall asleep on other subway passengers. How did you select your subjects? Did you ever feel at risk falling asleep on strangers?
K.S. For that video I relied on the help of a friend to do the actual recordings. We entered each subway car together but as if we did not know each other. I tended to choose the majority of subjects just based on whether or not there were empty seats beside and across from them, in order for both me and my friend to work. It was important to try and show myself with as many people as possible; we rode the subway for hours that night to make it work.
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This video wasn’t so much scary as it was just nerve-wracking, but I was comforted by my eyes being closed. There’s at least something innocent about “falling asleep” that made me feel better. The most difficult project in that respect was the companion piece to that video, which is of me approaching people in the street to attempt some kind of physical intimacy.
L.S. You mean, the segment depicting you grasping strangers hands?
K.S. That part of the video required much more courage. I kept joking while it was happening that it was some kind of exercise in rejection. To physically and intentionally reach out and touch someone, especially in somewhere as dense as New York, can make them upset or uncomfortable, so each time I had to be prepared to be embarrassed.
L.S. I noticed that sometimes, when they held on, you let go. Why is that?
K.S. When people did let me linger with them I was instantly shy, I didn’t expect it. I would walk away wondering if I ruined the piece, but later I felt that that was actually a really important moment: it was the kind of display of my own awkwardness or confrontation with unexpected intimacy.
L.S. Agreed. Can you talk a bit about the project and title of the video ‘’Speaks Over Men’’?
K.S. That was the first video I made, actually, and it really jump started the liberation I felt using video. I initially just wanted footage of men speaking for the video, but I quickly realized that I had to have some kind of plan in order to get it. So I went to Central Park and ended up asking various groups of people if I could interview them on how they felt about the park, knowing that I wasn’t going to use their audio and that I would overlay it with my own. It was the first time I ever dealt with any kind of deception to my end intention when working on a project, and this video always stands out for that characteristic.
I wrote down the sentences I wanted to say, edited the sequence, and watched it over and over again on mute. Eventually I just recorded myself while watching it and trying to move with their mouths.
L.S. Oh, I couldn’t tell they were saying something other than the dialog you overdubbed. Nice syncing. Did you write the final dialogue or appropriate it? If so, where did it come from?
K.S. Ha, thank you! If you look closer, the video isn’t slick, you can see small moments where I’m not in sync with them, and those moments are important to me, I want it to seem slightly off.
I wrote the dialogue myself right before editing the video
L.S. Does the script articulate how you personally feel?
K.S. It came from a feeling in that moment in my life, but it’s not a reflection of all my relationships and certainly not speaking for women in general. I was thinking about the lines of interaction and communication in a relationship, and in that specific case, mine with a man. But I never wanted it to become particular to one moment in my life or really to my emotions in particular; as times has passed, it’s shifted and acquired new meaning for me.
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L.S. Why do you want to hear men say these things?
K.S. I actually wouldn’t say that’s what I’m after in the video. For me it’s more a portrait. I’m trying to communicate my feelings by projection while also trying to work out ones that I feel are projected on to me.
Kat Shannon, Ana the first time in New York, 2014
L.S. Could you talk a bit about your relationship with Ana and the slippage between having a partner who is your subject and a subject who is a partner?
K.S. I’ve been working with the people closest in my life since I began using photography and video, so naturally working with or making work about my partner was a clear progression. My interest stems from the desire to communicate or express the intensity of feeling I have for her. Also, I think she is so beautiful and she is always around me. The complications that derive from the subject vs. partner relationship we have with each other and with the lens is a complexity I’m most excited about. Most recently I’ve begun to consider what happens when it’s shared, which is what I wanted to do with the video of her and I eating an apple together. While the work still analyzes Ana through my projections, I’m now included in it. And similarly to the videos of me working with strangers on subways or in streets, my vulnerability is equally present.
L.S. Seeing the work you do with strangers coupled with images of your partner and your immediate family made me curious: are you in some way suggesting that your proclivity to vulnerable personal exchanges with strangers is tied to your upbringing and experience of family?
K.S. That’s a really interesting question. My work is a pursuit to visually render intimacy, and I have no doubts that both my upbringing and my notion of family inform my perception. However I think the core of what much of my work with strangers deal with isn’t wanting to project my experience or assumptions of closeness or affection on them but to ask what it actually means to and from them, and whether or not they’re willing to exchange it with me. In that sense when making the work I’m not attempting to link those categories as a way to promote meaning to an other, I view them as equal companions. The vulnerability and personal exchange I ask for from a man on a subway while I pretend to sleep on his shoulder is in many ways the same one I ask for from my Mother when I photograph her on the floor of her bedroom looking into my eyes, just in a completely different language.
This week I spoke with thoughtful New York City-based artist Sophie Barbasch about isolation, intimacy and family.
Liz Sales: I’ve just finished reading about your recent photographic project, Fault Line, and I had some additional questions about it and your work in general. For instance, you mentioned that you collaborated on this project with your cousins. What was their level of involvement?
Sophie Barbasch I started Fault Line in March 2013. Since then, I’ve been going up to Maine about three times a year to shoot. My cousin Adam helps me come up with ideas and he is a willing model, even in sub-zero temperatures. He’s young but he’s very intuitive about photography. My other cousin, Wes, is also game for anything–he scouts locations with me, poses for photos, and gives me the extra encouragement to take pictures. They tease me about asking them to do weird things for photos, like lie down in tide pools, swamps, and other similarly unappealing stuff. I usually laugh for a minute and then seriously propose that they go ahead and sit in the tidepool. Sometimes they agree! I show them my shot lists, contact sheets, and finished photos, and they help me figure out what works and what’s missing.
LS There is a sense of loneliness and isolation in these images.
SB Yes, I try to use formal elements to convey that people are not connecting. I stage subjects as if they are shut out of the house or alone on the road with no car in sight. They face away from the camera and they don’t look at each other. Sometimes, their eyes are closed or they are alone in the frame. When people do touch, I try to make it ambiguous. For example, in one picture, Sun Spots, Adam is holding my eyes and mouth in a way that could either be interpreted as caring or coercive. In another, “Junkyard,” Wes hugs Adam from behind. They are in a weird field, and it’s late in the day. The gesture seems like it could be protective, but because of the surroundings and the fact that neither of them is facing the camera, it’s not totally clear.
LS Why do you think you feel so disconnected?
SB I’m not sure if I’m more isolated than the next person or if I just think about it more. But I have experienced a lot of conflict in my immediate family. I was estranged from my dad for a while. Also, some of my immediate family relocated to Brazil, so there have been various separations over the years.
LS Is this project a way of bridging your sense of isolation by connecting to your cousins?
SB Yes, definitely. It’s comforting that we get along and we can share the experience of our particular upbringing. I think this is true of any group of family members, or anyone you’re close to–you don’t have to explain the backstory. There’s room for nuance in our relationships and in our perceptions of each other because we know all the details. Another way that this project helps diminish the isolation is that it directly involves all of us in the same creative endeavor.
LS Intimacy and a lack thereof is one of your overall themes. Is your performance project, I will read to you, still active? If I write firstname.lastname@example.org, will you email me a recording?
SB Yes, it is!
Sophie read me The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde
LS That’s great! I’m going to write you and ask you to read me a story. Is Goodnight Call still active as well?
SB It’s still active, though I haven’t checked the voicemail service associated with it in a while.
LS Do you want me to call you and wish you good night? Or are you specifically soliciting calls from men?
SB It’s usually gender specific, but I always welcome calls.
LS But your work does seem to explore something about gender relationships?
SB I needed to figure out some stuff about men.
LS Like what?
Goodnight Call, 2011, single channel video, 00:04:32
SB I made Goodnight Call right after a breakup. I wanted to know why the breakup happened, how it happened, and where it went wrong. I was spending a lot of time thinking about relationships in general, and I had the idea that if I could build a fake relationship in the context of an art project, I would gain some understanding about how real ones work. I was thinking about the arc, or phases, of a relationship. In its finished form, the piece is a 4-minute audio track of strangers from Craigslist pretending to be my boyfriend and wishing me goodnight. It exists both as a video and as an audio installation. In the process, I went through a lot of different questions and received about 300 messages over the span of 8 months. I asked for apologies, confessions, marriage proposals, dreams, encouragement, forgiveness–pretty much everything except a breakup message. I wanted insight into this random sampling of men, their motivations, their emotions, etc. In this sense, the project was about learning. My books also relate to this search for knowledge. The set of books is titled Training to be a girl and each one looks like a plain textbook.
Training to be a Girl, 2013
LS What did you learn about the dynamic between men and women?
SB Not to sound too cheesy, but mostly that we are strikingly similar. This was actually a surprise to me. Asking questions and making demands was a way for me to assert power. In the process, I came to empathize with these strangers who were willing to tell me things. The questions I asked came from my own vulnerabilities and obsessions, and the guys mirrored them back, reflected on them, and related to them. Though I did not become pen-pals with anyone, or even reveal my identity, I think the project is still an exchange–if not between me and the men then perhaps between the viewer / listener / reader and the men.
I have a new book called Women find love easily in which men from Craigslist sound off on whether or not they should be scared of women. They contradict each other a lot. But that is the point of the project. I am asking questions that don’t have real answers. My larger aim is to point at the futility of asking these types of questions. For example, the question behind my Craigslist-solicited, text-based book Tell me why I’m a good girl is a ruse, but the men who responded answered my question sincerely.
LS I know, I was surprised by how seriously they took your request.
SB That was my point: to get them to voice these really terrible stereotypes. It was important that the framework allowed them to think they were being constructive and helpful. This mimics a certain unfortunate, patronizing element that I encounter in my daily life. With this book, I was still playing a damsel-in-distress, but I was also trying to subvert the power dynamic and control the conversation.
Excerpt from “Tell me why I’m a good girl”: “OK, you are really a good girl because you leave it for others to show you how to be a good girl, that is very smart.”
LS Can you talk about the relationship between these crowd-sourced projects and your photographs?
SB I made books and audio work because I wanted to be specific about certain story-lines, and I couldn’t be specific enough with photography. In photography, my questions weren’t accessible to viewers. This started to be a problem for me. With the books, the questions are usually the titles, so they are pretty central. But my photos and books and audio projects are similar in that they allude to a kind of withholding. I am taking things out of context. In the books, the text floats on the page with no reference to the emails the guys wrote me, the email address, etc.; it is removed from its original context. But more than that, the actual texts, the excerpts, are just that–excerpts. Often, the misuse of punctuation suggests new meanings, or duality, in the mens’ responses. Sometimes even simple answers seem like they could mean more than one thing, almost like the idea is pointing in two different directions. This also occurs in the voicemails, where they say things like, “I love you honey, I want to marry you. Call me sometime, maybe.” I suppose I am withholding both information and clarity in the way I choose to decontextualize these elements. It’s hard to pinpoint in my photographs, but I am going for the same type of tension. I try to highlight the strangeness of mundane things that suggest duality and contradiction. In both ways of working, a big part of my thinking has to do with coming up against what I don’t know and trying to use photos or texts to figure it out.
How long does it take to forget a face, 2013. Softcover book, 8.5×11 in., 43 pages
LS Structure is another big element in your work. Your photobook, How long does it take to forget a face, is a sort of animated still image, like a flipbook. Structurally, it is almost the opposite of your video piece, Moving Stills, which freezes most of the action within a still frame. Could you talk about your interest in playing with structure?
SB I like the interplay of a very hard-to-answer question and the simplicity of this book design–plain white cover, 8.5×11 computer paper pages. The structure is sort of illusory. The book format has some authority, which maybe gets undermined by the difficult question.
LS Undermined how?
SB When you reach the book’s end, you aren’t any closer to answering the question–it kind of leaves you with nothing. The book is about making something into nothing. After looking at it, you still don’t know the answer. This is something I strive for in my work.
This week I had the pleasure of meeting with photo-based artist Sarah Palmer. Here in her studio at The Invisible Dog Art Center, Sarah arranges, photographs and re-photographs small assemblages to produce thoughtful, highly literary images. For me, Sarah’s insights into photography, literature and her current project, No Whiteness Lost underscore the importance of continually connecting with and learning from other artists.
Liz Sales: You have so many Polaroids here!
Sarah Palmer: I have hundreds more. I shoot 4×5 film with strobes, so Polaroids or, these days, Fuji Instant packs help me to pre-visualize my images. A photograph is such a different visual experience than real-life seeing.
Liz Sales: But these don’t always serve a solely utilitarian purpose, do they? You include Polaroids in your still-lifes —for lack of a better word.
SP: Yes,I like to include photographs as physical objects within my images. I think of them almost at mirrors that reflect inward, eliminating the elusive “viewer,” creating an almost disturbing psychological space.
Mirror Dance, 2014
LS: Is this something you’re exploring currently?
SP: Yes, in many different ways. I’ve been slicing up old prints and putting them back together. For example, this is an image of a balloon that I composited with a Hubble Space Telescope image of the birth of a star. I took the same image, inverted it and printed that, as well. I combined the images and re-photographed the collage. There is this hard shadow, cast onto the background, which a real balloon would never make. I think this non-indexical quality widens the gap between what an object is and what an image of an object is, which is an important idea in my work.
Nursery (Carina), 2014
Liz Sales: So, this is part of a larger body of work?
SP: Yes, this series is called No Whiteness Lost. I borrowed it from a line in The Descent, a poem by William Carlos Williams. He became one of my favorite poets, when I was studying literature in college.
LS: I’m not familiar with The Descent. Could you tell me about it?
SP: Williams wrote, “[N]o whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory of whiteness.” He wrote this poem as an older man, and, to me, it really articulates the way memories transform as time passes. I don’t remember events as vividly as I remember feelings and emotions. If you asked me about a novel or a film, I would be more likely to recall how I felt when I read or watched it, the color or formal elements, the music and the tone, than the plot. That’s why I’ve appropriated No Whiteness Lost as the title for my series – I’m interested in making pictures that create color/form, “music,” and tone rather than narrative.
LS: That resonates in Object (Swann), which references Proust’s idea of the fallibility of memory. Are literature and poetry significant to your work in general?
Object (Swann), 2014
SP: Yes, text is always significant to my work. While making this work, I’ve also been thinking about the lead light and empty horizons – a sense of ecstatic futility – in Beckett’s Endgame, as well as the whiteness of Melville’s white whale, as a metaphor for horror.
LS: Whiteness as a metaphor for horror in literature often references Colonialism and racial dominance. Is that idea relevant to your work as well?
SP: That is quite a complicated question for me. I resist the didactic in my work. I am politically concerned but have a complex relationship to activism, and I struggle with how to engage these issues in my work. Perhaps this will change over time, as I mature as an artist. Photography is such an easily illustrative medium and I thwart clear narratives; rather the “whiteness” I reference here has the power to blind with glare, to obscure, to create blank space.
Hence, I tend more toward philosophy, looking at artists and poets who explore ambiguous spaces, including Williams and H.D. among Modern poets; Samuel Beckett; my father, the poet Michael Palmer; the poet Robert Duncan and his partner, the artist Jess, (both were close friends of my father’s); the poet and painter Norma Cole, (also a friend).
I’m also drawn to contemporary artists who engage with photography in fascinating ways, including my husband Dillon DeWaters, Sophie Ristelhueber, Viviane Sassen, Gabriel Orozco, Sigmar Polke, R.H. Quaytman (herself, the daughter of a poet, Susan Howe), Leslie Hewitt (whose work engages in a fascinating way with history), my friend Lucas Blalock, the brilliant Paul Chan, Lorenzo Vitturi, whose work I just discovered, and I could go on for pages and pages. It is really important for me to be part of a community, even if is a community of influence, artists I don’t know. The smallness, the inter-connectedness, of the world makes it more engaging to me.
A Shadow is a Shadow, 2015
LS: That reminds me of a conversation I had with Dillon. He also stressed the significance of being part of a community of influence and the importance of artists, filmmakers and writers being in conversation with one another through their work. How does being married to and sharing a studio with another artist influence your practice?
SP: Dillon’s and my work are hugely influential on one another. When we met ten years ago, we were in love with photography, with the history of photography. For both of us, that relationship to photography has evolved and developed, has transformed, really, into a more complex and interesting one, into an art practice. Both of us have moved away from more traditional forms of photography, into ourselves and our psyches, finding sources in other artworks rather than just in the field. We also have a son now, which makes an art practice both far more difficult and incredibly, more necessary. We have had to make peace with our pasts, so to speak, and in my case, that involves embracing my love for words and the way words make my heart race, create electricity in my head. That’s what I desire from my work.
Polke 1969 (Perfume Picture), 2015
We also end up photographing the same subjects, from time to time, on our own. We are actually on the cusp of releasing an ongoing series of limited edition diptychs, Pyramid Editions, one a month in 2015.
LS: Congratulations! It’s also note-worthy to me that you mentioned empty horizons in literature earlier. I’ve noticed that your images tend to obfuscate the horizon line. For example, in A Spiritual Urgency, an empty stepladder seems to exist midway between Earth and the stars, with no distinct horizon line separating the two.
SP: The ladder is actually surrounded by fake “snow” which I created by blurring stars photographed by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. I have a memory of being backstage at the ballet while they were testing the fake snow for The Nutcracker—snow falling on an empty stage. It was thrilling, and it stayed with me.
A Spiritual Urgency, 2013
LS: That sounds like a wonderful memory, and hearing about it adds a tenderness to the work. Are you a romantic?
SP: I’m a bit of romantic, but not (I hope) a blind romantic. I’ve thought a lot about the Sublime, ever since reading Edmund Burke as an undergraduate, and have been searching for that heart-stopping and wonderful-terrifying moment, looking over the edge of the cliff (hence, Endgame, Moby Dick, The Descent – apocalypse, horror, facing inevitable death). As a result, my scale has gotten relatively small; I used to make landscape photographs.
LS: I don’t understand.
SP: In my graduate thesis, I was searching for the sublime in America to see if it still existed, post-railroad era—
LS: Oh! Does it still exist?
SP: Nope, not in the German Romantic sense. So, I started to explore the sublime inside my studio, and my scale necessarily condensed.
LS: It’s definitely worked out. In contrast to the small scale you’ve adopted primarily, you also appropriate astronomical images. Could you talk about your interest in space?
SP: What could be more terrifying than the vastness and unknowability of the universe and time, and our relative infinitesimal tininess? The terror I first felt at the idea of non-existence was not dissimilar from the terror of space and infinity, both around age 9. And yet, the Hubble has made these incredibly beautiful, knowable, picturesque images available to us. Even if they are romanticized data approximations, they are so late-80s and fantastic. Black light posters and smoke machines and raves. All-night dance parties.
LS: You’ve found a tension between fear and pleasure, which I associate with the sublime, especially in your depictions of people. Could you talk a bit about your decision to seat your subjects facing away from your camera?
SP: That’s a very good question. I rarely photograph people and I’m not interested (in this work, at least) in making portraits, but people have this inescapable quality, a particular-ness, in photographs. And, therefore, there is something horrifying about removing their faces, which I do with hair or masks or simply by turning them away from the camera. I like to treat people no differently than I would treat any other object in my studio.
Wove out of the dark, 2012
LS: I’ve noticed that you often use studio supplies, like ladders and buckets, in your work as well. Is that in reference to the artist’s process?
SP: I work intuitively and don’t have preconceived notions going into the studio, so I tend to use what is available. Also, I love the idea of turning something mundane into something uncanny or unrecognizable through context, use against purpose; re-examining ordinary objects, and somehow through that examination transforming them into something radiant. For example, people tell me this image, No Horizon, looks like a scribble, but it’s actually a photograph of gathered tulle.
No Horizon, 2014
LS: Oh, I did think that might be a photograph of a drawing!
SP: That’s what I love about tulle! It responds to light in a way that causes it to appear blurry or unfocused on camera. I’m always fighting against the inherent representationality of photography. It’s an absurd and impossible struggle; photography literally re-presents reality. I’m using a medium that is intrinsically representational, and I’m trying to move away from representation.
LS: That’s interesting, because even though you are pushing against the medium in many ways, I find your work to be inherently photographic, or at least self-reflective.
Red Burn, 2014
SP: Oh absolutely, this summer I started a project, making contact prints on construction paper, by leaving 8” x 10” negatives on the paper out in the sun. So, even when I am not using traditionally light-sensitive photographic material, I am still referencing photography. Literature and philosophy are important to my work, but it is always still rooted in the medium of photography.
This week I spoke with Amy Elkins about her recent exhibition at Aperture Gallery and the two projects it included: Parting Words and Black is the Day, Black is the Night. Both explore issues surrounding capital punishment and her correspondence with male prisoners serving death-row sentences.
Liz Sales: Congratulations on a fantastic show!
Amy Elkins: Thank you!
LS: The exhibition comprised two bodies of work that you submitted to the Aperture Portfolio Prize?
AE: Yes, I submitted two bodies of work that are directly connected, and they selected me for both. They thought it would be more impactful to show them side by side. I couldn’t have been happier with the way it all turned out in that space.
Poem excerpts from a man who has been in prison since the age of 13. He was retried as an adult at 16 for attempting escape and was sentenced to life in solitary without possibility of parole at a super max prison. He has taught himself to write poetry over this time.
LS: Could you tell me a little about each?
AE: Black is the day, Black is the Night is a project that revolves around direct communication, through written letters, with seven men scattered around the country. Most of them were serving death row sentences; two of them were serving life for non-murder crimes committed as juveniles. At first, this was just a writing project. It slowly developed into an exploration of concepts surrounding isolation, memory, distance and time-passing.
The project is made up of tangible pieces of evidence from our correspondence, like scattered letters, cards, returned mail and torn envelopes. It includes black on black text pieces that reflect the inaudible voice of a man who has been in solitary confinement most of his life— his words to me helped set the pace for the project. The remaining works are to me the most important. Portraits and landscapes created to reflect the time each man I penned with had served and how that time might have impacted their sense of self, others, memories and environments from their past.
LS: Right. The sublime capital “R” Romantic landscapes that are included in the show stood out to me. Could you talk a bit about how these images tie in to the rest of the work? They seem to echo the vast sense of isolation that might accompany incarceration.
AE: The landscapes are definitely meant to explore that vast sense of isolation, longing and loneliness of empty, open places. Early on in our correspondence, I had asked each of my pen pals a string of questions about what homesickness felt like, looked like, smelled like and sounded like. They were modeled after questions that a writer had asked me in regards to a show I was in years ago, and they made me really think about my roots. So each of them wrote back, and their answers were amazing, thought-out and full of regret and longing for a past they would most likely never see again.
Thirteen Years out of a Death Row Sentence (River)
A pen pal serving a death row sentence describes being baptized several years ago. The Father had to reach through the bars to touch him, even with such restrictions he remembers the touch as electric. Despite the act of the baptism he feared it wasn’t good enough to save him. He longed to do a full submersion baptism in a river, like Jesus had. This image was constructed out of his description of the river he wished to be baptized in using appropriated images which were then composited to account for the amount of years spent in prison.
I sought out imagery through google searches that echoed their descriptions and went from there. The first composite image I made was of the sky. I layered and layered the sourced material until I had as many layers as years he had spent in prison. Nineteen years, nineteen layers. It was made for a man who went into prison at the age of thirteen. He is now nearly forty years old and has spent over two decades in prison, primarily in solitary confinement. He was the first to write back about his homesickness, and his answers really struck me. His desire to see something as simple as the open sky stayed with me as it’s something most of us take for granted.
Nineteen Years out of a Life Sentence (Sky)
A pen pal serving a life w/o the possibility of parole sentence in a supermax prison (solitary) described being able to see the sky through a metal grated skylight in the small concrete exercise area he was permitted in alone for one hour a day. The additional 23 hours were spent in isolation. This image was constructed out of his description of the open sky he wished to see, using appropriated images which were then composited to account for the amount of years spent in prison.
Several other landscapes in the project were made out of descriptions given to me by the additional men I wrote with. All of which I found equally captivating, haunting, charged a river one wished to be baptised in, a forest once frequented as a child, a Texas death row inmates dying wish, a haunting memory of the ocean, a teenage hideout, the desert landscape.
LS: What was their take on the compiled images you made for them?
AE: They responded with a lot of intrigue and curiosity. Some decorated their cells with the images, and some seemed confused about what the images were, as if they were damaged in some way.
One response I loved getting, “I must admit to you that when I first received your letter two days ago I could not stop myself from feeling so overwhelmed by this longing of being in a place as lovely as that. I really do wish to convey my appreciation for [your] bringing these places to me right in my cell, where it makes my mind run wild.”
LS: That’s wonderful. As I understand it, of your original seven pen pals, one has been released, and two others have been executed. Could you talk a bit about how the lives and deaths of these men have affected you and your work?
AE: This is a question I could answer with pages upon pages. But to keep it short – the things that unfolded within my years of writing these men did take a hold of me in ways that I hadn’t foreseen. I was pretty blown away that within months of starting a project that looked to Capital punishment one of the seven men I wrote with was executed. Years later when the second man I wrote with was executed it hit much harder. We had several years of letter writing behind us and he had been fighting to the last minute with appeals in an attempt to save his life. It was the hardest part of the project for me and one I could in no way have anticipated. As for the man who was released, his letters started to taper off far before his release. In these letters, he seemed very eager to start his life again. We were in touch briefly after his release and it seemed he was doing great.
LS: You mentioned your roots. What is your relationship to incarceration? Where did your initial impulse to reach out to these intimates come from?
AE: I do have my own roots with the U.S. prison system. I’ve had several family members go in and out for various things, so it’s not something that is too abstract within my upbringing.
Ballpoint pen drawing on paper, folded into a card- sent from a then 33 year old man who has been in prison since the age of 13. He has been primarily in solitary confinement since the age of 16
Initially, I stumbled across this website for inmates seeking pen pals from various prisons around the country. It sparked my interest, but I had no project in mind. I was sort of haunted by that site for a while. I remember telling people about it. It made me feel really uncomfortable—this idea of clicking a button and finding thousands of men serving death-row sentences, all of them waiting for their execution to be carried out or fighting with appeals. I kept finding myself going back to that site and scrolling as if it were one of many social media sites we are all so drawn to. It felt very similar. The profiles were pretty basic, showing: age, location, religion, a profile picture, sometimes artwork. But below all of that, there were always links to their crimes and sentences.
LS: How and when did this project start to bridge the gap between life and art?
AE: It took me a few weeks, maybe even months, to decide what I wanted to do. I remember my boyfriend at the time warning me that it seemed exploitative to do a project about these men. I didn’t think so. I still don’t. I wanted to tell stories about men who have probably been forgotten and are far removed from everyday life, and that is what I attempted to do with BITDBITN. I have exhibited the work a little, but never in its entirely. The project is so dense I feel a book is the best way to share and get the stories out there. I have been working on getting one published and hope to have it out there in the world at some point.
LS: Your past work is concerned with our ideas of masculinity. This one seems to be as well. Why did you choose all male pen pals? What do you think is particular about the male experience of incarceration? How do you think this particular experience manifests in the work?
AE: Yes almost all of my work deals with masculinity and when I started this project I thought of it that way. The project of course became about so much more. But initially I wrote to several men in an effort to explore notions of hyper masculinity and their drive towards violence. What unfolded was so much deeper and poetic in scope. Rather than focusing on masculinity, we explored concepts that every human faces throughout various chapters of their lives: time, distance, memory, identity..
13/32 (Not the Man I Once Was)
Portrait of a man 13 years into his death row sentence, where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.
LS: I noticed that you use various visual strategies to obscure your imagery, like text, layering and manipulating photographs digitally according to the amount of time the inmate has been incarcerated. This could be read as a direct metaphor for incarceration, but I was wondering if it was also a response to the idea that the mug shot should be seen as a vestige of physiognomy because, in a way, by obscuring images of these men, you are returning your subject’s personhood.
AE: I thought of the various ways of obscuring as a fairly direct reflection of the memory collapse, imagination, notions of identity or identity loss, etc that couldn’t help but be muddled after being so far removed from the world. When thinking of how to approach making work about such concepts, it only seemed suited to completely obliterate, fabricate, construct or deconstruct the images in a calculated way. So each was distorted based off of direct sentences and ages of each man involved in the project.
LS: Parting Words are mug shots of men executed in Texas, recreated with text and gradations so that they appear as recognizable portraits at a distance but dissolve into readable text—these prisoners’ last words—as the viewer approaches. Can you tell me a little bit about these works?
AE: Parting Words was actually an offshoot of BITDBITN. My first pen pal was executed three months after we started writing. He was in the state of Texas. When I went to find more about his execution on the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice I found the other 400-plus men and women who had been executed, and my project was created out of that information—all provided by the state of Texas. Mug shots, last words, age, crime.
Ignacio Cuevas, execution #39, age 59
LS: What made you decide to incorporate the last words of executed men into your work?
AE: There was just something so damn haunting about being able to look up all of the prisoners who had been executed. It’s like reading an insanely mesmerizing novel that you can’t put down. You can start reading about the first man executed in 1982 and work your way all of the way to people executed last month, last week, yesterday. I would start by reading their last words, some of which were angry, haunting or non-existent. But some were just so heartbreaking. I would often feel compelled to read about their crimes. It took years to read through all of their last statements, make notes, dates, and pull quotes, etc because I had to work on this in small batches and take breaks often to keep from getting too worn out from the entire process. On top of that, just keeping the notes and dates, execution numbers, age, all organized. It was just a tremendous amount of work.
LS: It’s also layered and complex and very compelling. Thank so much for helping me unpack it.
AE: Thanks, I appreciate it.
While I’ve recurrently had the pleasure of crossing paths with the uncanny work of Amy Friend for a number of years, I have only just had the pleasure of speaking with the Canadian artist herself this past week. Amy is currently included in the exhibition “Under Astral Skies”which is on view at 555 Gallery in South Boston through February 14th. The Reception and Gallery Talk with the artists is on Saturday, February 7 5-8PM.
Liz Sales: Congratulations on being included in Under Astral Skies at 555 Gallery!
Amy Friend: Thanks!
LS: I’ve always wondered: Do the points of light in your work refer to actual constellations?
AF: I am not that literal. I’m playing with a more metaphoric type of astrophotography, alluding to something that’s gone. Many of the stars we see are long dead, like the people in the images I use.
LS: Sort of like how a photograph is composed of time and space but also removed from time and space?
AF: Yes. I’m wondering, what is the state of the stars whose light we are seeing now? What value does a discarded snapshot have a hundred years later? What meaning am I bringing to it?
Are We Stardust
LS: Could you talk a little bit about the meaning you are bring to these images?
AF: I’m adding light. Photographs are already made of light; I’m interested in seeing what happens when I add light to them over and over again. My titles are important to the meaning of the work as well. With my process and titles I am “playing” with the medium while using the imagery to represent possible interpretations. The titles hint at the history of the photograph and/or to the medium of photography
LS: Could you give me an example?
AF: “What is done in the darkness, will be brought to the light” uses a photo is from a river baptism. It specifically connects to the visual imagery but also to the processes involved in making an analog photograph.
And the light shines in darkness
LS: Were you raised religiously?
AF: I’m very much interested in the idea of the spiritual, but not so much in a concrete way. I’m not a practicing Catholic. But I remember my grandma running around the house with holy water: sprinkle, sprinkle. The darkroom is a sort of sacrament: Bring images out of the darkness and into the light. And my process is a way of giving images a second life. But sometimes anonymous people online respond negatively to my work, which I find interesting.
LS: How so?
AF: They say that using other people’s images is not a way of making art or they are offended that I am destroying someone else’s pictures. I feel that I’m honoring these photographs by giving them a second life.
LS: Exactly. I see your work as recycling material in the same way that you are recycling meaning?
AF: Yes, but each image also has its own story as well.
LS: Does it also feel, to some degree, like there is so much photographic material out there that it would be a waste to start from scratch?
AF: No, it’s more that existing images and other objects have a history and I’m interested in that history. For example, I’m starting a new project using some things that belonged to my great-uncle. My great-uncle was a bit of a hermit, but our family befriended him and got to know more about his life before he died. Many years earlier, his wife went in for routine surgery but died. She’d written him a letter before going in, which I have; of course, I’ve ended up being the keeper of the things from the dead.
LS: What does it say?
AF: Something like, “My Dearest Bill, Just in case things don’t go well, the papers are taped under the drawer in our bedroom. I love you very much.” It is very simple, but so sad. I’m trying to figure out how to make work with it and the other objects. I’d like to do something more than re-photograph them. I’m working towards an exhibition.
LS: Congratulations! When and where will that be?
AF: Rodman Hall in in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. It will open January of 2016 and is curated by Marcie Bronson.
Late summer evening Ontario
AF: …I think I might burn the letter.
LS: Oh, wow, that’s intense. And it also speaks to an issue central to your work: Do objects matter after there’s no one they’re significant to?
AF: Does anything matter when we are gone? Why? Why not?
LS: Is reading a significant part of your practice? I ask because sometimes your titles refer to texts and you are currently working with a letter.
AF: I love literature and yes, it is important, but at the moment, I’m focused on personal writing. I have letters written by my family, sent between Italy and Canada over a 40-year period, many during WW1. They’re all handwritten and so beautiful.
LS: Oh, interesting. Are you going to burn them too?
AF: No, but I think a lot of my work plays with the idea of what is seen. Do we need to be seen to have existed? Photography really messes with this thought. I’ve been asked, “if you could have only one photo taken of yourself, what would it be?” I love that question because it gets to the idea that in order to exist we need to be visualized.
LS: I’ll be looking forward to seeing how this all materializes. Thanks so much for chatting with me!
AF: Of course. It was nice to finally meet you.