A Conversation with Justyna Badach

Justyna Badach, refugee, Philadelphia-based artist and museum professional, has brought her work to Syracuse. Badach’s Land of Epic Battles solo exhibition, on display now at Light Work, explores the hyper-masculine world of Islamic State group recruitment videos and exposes the futility of war.

Being able to create art about violence and masculinity is important to Badach, both as a woman and as an immigrant. Land of Epic Battles is a series of large, handmade dichromate prints composed using film stills from IS training videos. The Daily Orange talked with Badach about her work before her February 1 opening reception. The exhibition is on view through March 2, in the Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery.

Jony Sampah: Can you please tell me what you’re working on?

JB: Well, I’m still working on the Land of Epic Battles series. There are a couple images in that series that I’m working on printing. And then, there’s a couple of offshoots of that body of work that I’m developing currently.

JS: How would you characterize your art? What is the mission of your art?

JB: Well, I have a research-based practice that involves looking at masculine tropes and how they’re communicated through popular culture. So, this is sort of the foundation of my work, and also I am looking at how I, as a woman artist, fit into the long history of masculine tropes within art.

Untitled Video Still (Palmyra #2), 2016

JS: What influenced this project?

JB: I actually have been working with appropriated imagery for a bit. In 2001 I had another body of such work in a solo show at White Columns. It was called Untitled: Epic Film Stills. And those were from movies like Wyatt Earp and Young Guns. I was also going through those films and looking for the single frames of landscape that appeared to be unclaimed, and primarily I was interested in that because I am an immigrant, a refugee, and the space of those films was very macho. It seemed to be very much tied into how I could access that space, both metaphorically and physically, as a woman and an immigrant, and kind of appropriate that history for myself. I was looking for these landscapes that were empty and I was picking up the single frames out of those movies. So I was working both as a censor and an editor within the context of those films. What I found is that these films seemed to fall into several categories, like mountains, plateaus, sunrises, and sunsets. And the images tended to look very similar from one film to the other. So those were then arranged into these kinds of sequences and printed (they were color, kind of very bright colors reflecting colder color). At that time it was still filmed that was being used, so very much a palette of Hollywood cinema. And then they were printed and mounted to curved aluminum so that they look like sculptural forms that float in space, resembling drive-in movie screens. I had a solo show of that work at White Columns in New York City that opened the Friday right before September 11th. So this show had been open for three days when the bombing occurred. The gallery is on 13th street, so the show closed, and I always felt like the work was cursed. The pieces were purchased, but they weren’t really shown again after that. I had put that work aside and started another body of work that involved the interiors of men’s homes and how they create these museums of the self.

Untitled Video Still (Killing the Apostates in Revenge for the Monotheists, Khurasan), 2016

JS: What are your long-term goals as an artist?

JB: My long-term goals are to continue making work, to push the boundaries of the medium, and to also push the boundaries of what kind of work is considered acceptable for a woman to create. A lot of the work that I do, the response that I get is like, when I was doing my bachelor series, people would ask me if my husband was okay with that, as if I need permission. And with this work, a lot of people ask, “Are you scared?” The idea of a woman working with subject matter that is violent, or to some extent threatening, is not readily out there. I think if a man were doing this work, it would have a very different response because there is this tradition of glorification of war. Most of those tableau-type paintings were done by men and it was, again, geared for a male audience. As a woman, I’m interested that we also live in a world that’s affected by war and violence. So I think it is important to have the female voice in that conversation. And so for me, that’s my goal: to really interject the female voice into what is essentially a global situation that we are also part of and yet oftentimes we are left out of the conversation.

JS: How did your relationship with Light Work start?

JB: I had a residency at Light Work in 2011 and that was the start of the relationship. I spent a month there working on printing the bachelor series and they’ve been tremendously supportive throughout my time as an artist. They’ve printed for me and John Mannion, who’s the printer there, is a huge resource. I just find them to be very open and willing to take on challenging work. I think because they’re a non-commercial space. They don’t have to worry about work that might be challenging or confrontational and yet important in terms of the dialog. I get their publication, Contact Sheet, and I just feel like they are a beacon for really important work that’s happening. They’ve had a lot of foresight in terms of recognizing artists who are doing important work and getting their foot in the door and giving them support at really critical stages in their careers.

JS: How do you think Light Work has helped you bring your art to the world or achieve your goals as an artist?

JB: For me, when I did the residency, it was a huge help to have a month to work on just my own work. I tend to be pretty rigorously focused on work but having the time to just be there, seven days a week, working on things, was really great. I tend to think that I could get more done than I do and so sometimes I’m really frustrated. Because I have all these ideas for work that I can’t produce as quickly as I have the ideas. So having the support of their staff was really crucial. And I did have a lot to do with that body of work, more than I thought before I arrived. And out of that residency, I basically had a traveling solo show and a publication and an artist’s book. So, they were hugely important. I think had I not had that residency, it probably would’ve taken me a year, maybe even a year and a half, to finish all the work that I did in a month there. And then in this case, I feel like we’re in a precarious time right now due to this discussion of ISIS and the global network of terrorism and what it means, and also of men, and how the social changes are taking place now in terms of where men fit into society, and what drives joining these groups and getting immersed in this dark culture on the web and becoming consumed in it. I think it is an important discussion to have. Because there are clearly changes happening in the social fabric on the global scale and these terrorist groups are symptoms of that. I feel like much of the discussion revolves around government propaganda or trying to calm the masses, yet it’s not really addressing what’s driving people to join these kinds of groups. So I think that Light Work, rather than pushing work that’s decorative or easy, has taken a huge step. And again, the catalog is a huge thing for me, to have the work together in book form along with this larger body of work. Because the images are not singular. They’re meant to be seen as more than one or two images. So the opportunity to have a sequence of images together, which is how I tend to work, is really important to understanding the work overall. And it’s really important, what they’re doing for me as an artist now that the work has come together as a body.

“Land of epic Battles” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

“Land of Epic Battles” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

JS: Let’s talk about gender. You previously mentioned how your work is influenced by you being a woman. How do you think being a woman makes you view these things differently?

JB: There’s a philosopher, Alain de Botton, and in The School of Life, he talks about changes in current society in terms of rituals that propel people from being children into adults. So, he says that, traditionally, mandatory military service in Eastern Europe served as a kind of ritual as you went from being a child to being an adult and marked a certain stage. Once you passed through this stage there was a level of respect and belonging, but now many of these societal spaces have been dislodged. That military service no longer exists for men. For women, he also talks about how marriage and childbearing are no longer important. But he says that women have adapted better to the breakdown in these social norms and in many ways they have benefited women. But men somehow have kind of become boys who are lost. So, they’re looking for a sense of belonging. Botton says there are actually two places that men could go: either to this global consumerist, competitive market that’s essentially about making money and accumulating wealth, but with no point. You’re just accumulating and competing for the sake of competing, but there is no meaning attached to it. Or you drop out. And he talks about the many boys who drop out and what they’re drawn to. The body becomes this point of sacrifice. It’s something that’s basically used up. And so, in that respect, as a terrorist somebody can easily say “okay” to blowing oneself up, since the body is this useless thing to be sacrificed, it has no meaning. That could be something attractive for somebody in that frame of mind. As a woman, I think often times I’m somebody looking from the outside in at a violent culture and trying to understand that. And I think in many ways, as I said before, women are fundamentally affected by male culture because we’re still living in a male culture. And so, the decisions that men make about wars, about conflict, women suffer the consequences of that and yet have very little voice. And I think there’s a cultural glorification of conflict and consumerization of conflict. Even reality TV is all about driving conflict, right? As a way of selling to audiences. I’m trying to understand all that, and as a woman, I feel like it’s just such a dangerous territory to be slipping into culturally and socially.

Untitled Video Still (Ahmed al-Rifi Shrine Ta Afar), 2016

JS: Why did you choose to bring your art to Syracuse?

JB: I think amazing art happens in many places. If I were interested in a commercial gallery, Syracuse probably is not the place because there just isn’t the collector base. But you guys here at Syracuse University have an amazing art history program. You guys have an amazing school of journalism, there’s also an amazing art program. You guys are actually in a place where there is a lot happening. This kind of belief that art only happens in big cities, I think is foolish. I don’t think that big cities are necessarily the best places to make art. And I don’t think that the audiences for art are necessarily the best in big cities because you’re essentially competing with so many different things. Sometimes work that’s more difficult and requires a little bit more time of the viewer is just going to get glossed over in a big city because there are flashier, easier things to see. So, I think Syracuse actually is a really great place with a lot happening. There’s a huge intellectual community, and it’s very highly respected, and a network of people who are doing really great things. So I’m really excited to be here.

JS: What is your opinion on the NEA/NEH/CPB cuts and how do you think they affect people’s attitudes towards the arts?

JB: I actually am a museum professional. I work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So, the Trump budget on the arts affects me on so many levels as an artist, but also as somebody who is entrusted with caring for the cultural heritage of this country and keeping it safe and visible for future generations. The NEA has been an easy target for ultra-conservative politicians and groups since the 1980s. It’s very sad because, I think on many levels, how a society treats its art programs and cultural programs speak volumes about who they are and what that society values. If you look at countries that have corrupt governments, or governments that are weak and falling apart, they also tend to lack art, funding. And in many ways, the arts are intricately tied to innovation and to intellectual development in this country. People come specifically to the United States because of the arts. People go to museums, they want to go to the MET, they want to go see Lincoln Center. And so the cuts are a huge step backward. But I also think the arts are an easy target because it is easy to say, “Well, the arts don’t serve a purpose.”

Untitled Video Still (Killing the Apostates in Revenge for the Monotheists, Khurasan), 2016

JS: My last question is, how do we get people to care about the arts?

JB: I think dialog is important. There will always be people who are not going to care. Art is a little bit like a gift, and the person needs to be ready to receive it. You might be giving them the gift today, but they might not be ready to receive it until ten years from now. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it to them. Because in ten years they might have this awakening and say, “Wow, I remember when I saw that and that’s what that meant.” So I think it’s important to engage people in the dialog. And it’s important to have art that not necessarily just about them.

I know there’s a push for creating work that people see themselves in and, yes, that is important. But it’s also important that people see others in the work because they need to step outside of their own mind and be able to step into the mental space of somebody else. It’s just as important that they inhabit a world that’s completely unfamiliar, foreign, that they didn’t realize existed. That’s how you expand yourself and your psyche.

Justyna Badach’s family arrived as refugees in the United States in 1980. She currently resides in Philadelphia, where she is an artist, educator, and museum professional. Her work has been exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad and is in the permanent collections of Cranbrook Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, Museet for Fotokunst Brandts, Odense, Denmark. Her artist book is in the Special Collection at the Rice University Library, Houston, TX, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA and Haverford College. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including; Queensland College of Art Griffith University in Brisbane, Art Wonderland Space in Copenhagen and the Temple of Hadrian in Rome to most notably in the US at the Corcoran Gallery, D.C., Portland Art Museum, James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA, and Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago among others. Badach participated in the residency program at Light Work in 2012.

A Conversation with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s One Wall a Web is an exhibition that gathers work from two discrete photographic series that he made in the United States, Our Present Invention (2012-2014) and All My Gone Life (2014-2016). The resulting show at Light Work and accompanying issue of Contact Sheet comprise two distinct strands of photographs: the first, a series of appropriated archival 4×5” negatives; the second, a series of original photographs. Wolukau-Wanambwa says of this exhibition that it “attempts to address the normalcy of fear, separateness, and violence in a moment suffused by them, but also in a culture riven by the habitually limited prescriptions of images.”

Shane Lavalette: I always like to ask other artists how things started… For you, how did you get interested in images? What were the influences and ideas that compelled you to work photographically?

SWW: I honestly don’t remember, but it must have been when I was very very young. Images have always been an active part of my life, in both the visual and verbal sense of the word. I can say that I picked up a camera for the first time with the intention of going out into the world and making photographs with a capital “P” after getting seriously interested in film, and that burgeoning interest was tremendously affected by my subsequent discovery of the work of the first generation of Magnum photographers in my late teens and early twenties.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Spreads from Contact Sheet 189: Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

SL: As a photographer you are in some ways still channeling a “documentary” practice, but you work in multiple modes of image-making and collecting. Can you tell me a bit about the impetus for each of the two bodies of work that make One Wall a Web, and the idea to bring them together?

SWW: I’ve never felt the urge to disavow the term “documentary,” or to position my work in some other terrain or mode. I consider the work across both series in all its forms to be documentary photographic work. I think that the way in which the term “documentary”—and its associated meanings—has been sequestered into a narrow and disingenuous relationship with “reality” is not a reason to abandon it, but an imperative to reclaim it in all its myriad complexities. So I’ve never felt myself to be at war with either the documentary mode or its traditional canon. In many ways, I think the work in both Our Present Invention and All My Gone Life reflects a slow process of working out the influence of someone like Walker Evans, on the one hand, and Christopher Williams, on the other. A close look at Evans’s “Tin Relic” photographs in American Photographs makes it easy to see that genealogical connection.

I owe the idea of drawing the two series together to Roger Willems, who sat with me and looked over them and suggested that they could and should be interwoven. I had treated them as two separate consecutive entities, which in many ways they still are, but they have deep filial ties to each other, and my hope is that they enrich each other on the walls and on the page in useful ways.

The earlier part of that question is much harder to answer, though. I think if I’m honest, the work flows from a mixture of rage, incomprehension, reverie, deep-seated fear and very, very fragile hope. I discuss some of the genesis of the series in my essay in the issue of Contact Sheet that accompanies the exhibition, but the impetus in the strict sense was most powerfully a feeling that our conventions are failing us and have been for some time, and a belief that, while some of the divisions that separate us from one another have gradually or rapidly been sundered, others are retrenching in fearsome ways, and a great deal is at stake in the mess of all that. Those instincts figured strongly, and then there were, of course, the gradual revelations of the photographs as they came in fits and starts and sent me back out into the world to try and look again.

But I think you’re also asking me what the work itself is about, and I would say that it’s an attempt to look at the ways in which we are separated from one another, an attempt to look at the various forms of violence and fear that that separateness produces, an attempt to think through the usefulness of violence and fear, the arbitrariness of it, the pitilessness of it, its history and its irreducible links to the complex agency of the photographic image, and to patriarchy in a broad sense.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Untitled archival negative, from the series “All My Gone Life” (2014-2016)

SL: Yes. We’re living through a tumultuous moment, in many respects. As an artist and teacher, I’m wondering if you can speak to your feelings about this, and your roles in creating and participating in important conversations.

SWW: Unquestionably, the place where these issues are most urgent for me is in the classroom, where I’m responsible for trying to figure out how to help a generation of students learn to question the legacy they’ve been presented with, as well as the ways they’ve been taught to see it, and to encourage them to stake a claim to finding their place in all this tumult. The most profound risk in that endeavour is that they become apathetic or begin to despair, but the odds are extraordinarily steep—especially for public school art students like those I teach at Purchase College, and, as we know all too well, particularly for students of colour.

The students in my classroom embrace circumstances in which whole tectonic plates that undergird their worldview are pulled apart, and they do so regularly. That takes a certain kind of courage sorely lacking in those who have the power to effect systemic change. I feel an obligation to try to meet that courage, not only in the classroom but in my work, whether written or photographic, and it’s an enormous privilege to get to do those things for a living.

I do sometimes worry that my mission statement for teaching hasn’t changed much since I applied to graduate school five years ago, but then I read that Mike Ditka had said. . .

My choice is that I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on. I see opportunities if people want to look for opportunity. Now if they don’t want to look for them, then you can find problems with anything, but this is the land of opportunity because you can be anything you want to be if you work.

. . . and I’m reminded that the question of seeing matters a very great deal, even—if not especially—in art school. I remember in a roundtable organised and published by Artforum at the height of the debacle at USC Roski, Frances Stark said that art “is a magical technology.” I believe that wholeheartedly. I believe it more, paradoxically enough, even as images act as a pretext for, and a retroactive justification of the murder of unarmed people of color at a pace and with an abandon that’s extraordinarily hard to fathom. Art can make us present to ourselves and to each other in tremendously complex and visceral and—perhaps most exciting of all—timely ways. That seems like a worthy task, and a goal worth fighting for to me.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“One Wall a Web” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

SL: Most definitely. It’s not necessarily that there are more awful things happening around the globe today, but as we have become increasingly visual and increasingly instant, images and videos have become so present in our consumption of news. It’s powerful and amazing, and often difficult and distressing. We never want to find ourselves desensitized to these images and stories, and yet it seems that daily we must find a way to process them.

SWW: I think in relation to the proliferating videos and images of forms of state and non-state violence, the struggle is to meet the kind of model of spectatorship that Ariella Azoulay outlines in The Civil Contract of Photography. In it, she argues that photography makes possible a set of social relations that demonstrate the implicit existence of a civil contract between people that is not mediated by the state or any other institutional force. Her book identifies in this “civil contract”—and thus in the sociality of photography—a “civic duty toward the photographed persons who haven’t stopped being ‘there,’ toward dispossessed citizens who, in turn, enable the rethinking of the concept and practice of citizenship.”

That might sound a little abstract—at least as I’ve poorly paraphrased her work—but if you think about the radical reversal in the kind of looking we can bring to JT Zealy & Louis Agassiz’s slave daguerreotypes as against the mode of looking they were intended to produce, it quickly becomes clear that we can address ourselves to those people depicted in—and subjected in—those images in a way that Agassiz and Zealy would have rejected. We can do so precisely because we can respond to a humanity in them that the photograph reflects, even if it was disavowed in the political orthodoxy of Columbia, South Carolina in 1851.

That’s an instance of us responding to a “duty toward the photographed persons” which in turn enables us to “rethink the concept and practice of citizenship.” It’s especially relevant in contemporary terms in relation to the systemic inequities that separate those who enjoy the rights and protections of full citizenship from those who do not, whether we think in terms of race, class, gender or religion. The inequities of American citizenship are being revealed in this relatively recent and unceasing stream of videos, and they present a tremendously important challenge to us in terms of the responsibilities and pressures that go along with citizenship and looking.

Azoulay’s is a high bar to meet, particularly because the frequency and the pitilessness involved in these murders—as I would often describe them—is so devastating and impossible to absorb. In that sense, one might argue that her idea is too utopian, but I’d argue that we live in country—the United States—that is reflecting back to us in increasingly lurid and distressing detail the limitations of a set of conventions that have been failing for some time, and that have been killing people by the hundreds and thousands in the process. What good is conventional imagination in those circumstances, and how is its adoption not an implicit endorsement of the status quo? On the one hand, it’s easier not to be utopian if your identity doesn’t constantly leave you exposed to the imminent risk of death. On the other hand, as David Graeber has argued, the neoliberal project was never economic but socio-political, and one of its principal victories has been the radical dismantling of political imagination. Pictures can help here, I think.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Spread from Contact Sheet 189: Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

SL: You studied Philosophy and French at Oxford University in the UK, before completing your MFA in Photography from Virginia Commonwealth University here in the US. America is very much your home now, yet you straddle the ocean. How did being a “foreigner” to the US inform your perspective, and your photographic process?

SWW: Not to be funny, but I obviously realised before even moving here that I could very easily be shot dead for doing nothing illegal or inappropriate whatsoever, and that I particularly ran that risk in interactions with the police, and that I could hope for little to no institutional support in such circumstances were I to fall victim to them. That thought—and the attendant terrors and risks and accommodations it requires to live with it daily—is never all that far from my mind in this country.

But I remember this very questionable line from Edward Zwick’s 1998 film, The Siege, where Annette Benning’s character, who has worked in the Middle East as a CIA operative for many years, says that Palestinians “seduce you with their suffering.” Leaving aside the troubling reversal of power dynamics implicit in that description of Palestinians’ power over the American government, I think it would be fair to say that I fell in love with the art that suffering has produced or inspired in this country long before I had ever visited it. I’m thinking of the wound in Billie Holiday’s voice, for instance, or the fire in Nina Simone’s, or the “incipient delirium” Tod Papageorge identifies in Robert Frank’s The Americans, or the zealotry of De Niro in Taxi Driver.

It seems to me that where other European nations might understand themselves as brute historical facts, America conceives of itself as a project, which makes history and the future significant in a distinctive and remarkable way. It’s a place permanently in process, not as an incidental feature of how time works, but as an explicit and integral feature of this country’s DNA.

In Fred Moten’s 2003 essay, “Black Mo’nin’,” he quotes extensively from a book by Nathaniel Mackey called Bedouin Hornbook, in which Mackey writes the following about the use of falsetto in Al Green’s music:

[T]he uncanny coincidence is that the draft of your essay arrived just as I’d put on a record by Al Green. I’ve long marveled at how all this going on about love succeeds in alchemizing a legacy of lynchings—as though singing were a rope he comes eternally close to being strangled by. … [T]he deliberately forced, deliberately “false” voice we get from someone like Al Green creatively hallucinates a “new world,” indicts the more insidious falseness of the world as we know it. (Listen, for example, to “Love and Happiness.”) What is it in the falsetto that thins and threatens to abolish the voice but the wear of so much reaching for heaven? … [T]he falsetto explores a redemptive, unworded realm—a meta-word, if you will—where the implied critique of the momentary eclipse of the word curiously rescues, restores and renews it: new word, new world.

I think these are the sorts of experiences—incubated in periods of extraordinary distress and injustice—that have been “alchemised” into much of the American art that I love, and they first drew me to the United States. Then there’s the vastness of the country, the compendious nature of it, and the impetus that that vastness provides for constant curiosity, which is essential for a life in the arts. The word “possibility” is certainly fraught in our times, but it seems more sayable in a country obligated—in however limited a fashion—to be positively disposed toward transformation and the future if it is to be itself at all.

As to how being a foreigner here has affected my process, it certainly makes certain interactions much easier because people in many parts of the country are unused to meeting black men with posh British accents. That certainly buys me a little time, and it often mitigates people’s scepticism to some extent, or transforms it into curiosity, which is so much easier to work with when you’re out trying to make pictures of the world. I am free to claim ignorance in many situations where one might reasonably expect an American to know better, and I do so quite often if it gets me closer to what I want or need. Though it’s utterly ridiculous to do so, many Americans take me more seriously because of my accent, which is especially hilarious because British culture falsely prides itself on not taking oneself seriously, which means we are experts at talking shit, and I do this as often as I can.

But at the same time I have a certain freedom that I treasure in making work here that comes from my ignorance, and the license it gives me not to accept a particular order of facts or a particular history as the thing against which to measure whatever hypothesis I’m attempting as I work. My friend Bryan Schutmaat introduced me to Richard Hugo’s essay, “The Triggering Town,” five or so years back, and Hugo’s argument about the small town a poet needs to write from has stayed with me ever since:

The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another. The reason for that, I believe, is that the stable set of knowns that the poem needs to anchor on is less stable at home than in the town you’ve just seen for the first time. At home, not only do you know that the movie house wasn’t always there, or that the grocer is a newcomer who took over after the former grocer committed suicide, you have complicated emotional responses that defy sorting out. With the strange town you can assume all knowns are stable, and you owe the details nothing emotionally.

What that means for me as a photographer and a foreigner is that I need not be hidebound by biography, or by some instinct to conform to objective fact in attempting to get at something true and significant. I think Philip-Lorca diCorcia said in The Genius of Photography that “a photograph can tell you something true, just not about that particular person or place,” and I tend to believe that that freedom is essential, and that that complexity has everything to do with where and how we encounter one another as strangers in this world. So I’m intent on working in that gap, or attempting to embrace the inevitable contradictions that come along with that sort of ambiguity, and I find I can do that quite instinctively here, because America is a town I’ve “just seen for the first time.”

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“One Wall a Web” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“One Wall a Web” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

SL: I’m curious to hear more about your process, both of image-making and the collecting of found 4×5 negatives. Are you exploring antique stores or watching online auctions all of the time? And now that you’ve woven these projects together, are there moments where a found negative has sparked your interest in going out to find a photographic subject, or vice versa, where a photograph you’ve made has sparked a profound connection with one of the found negatives?

SWW: I actually acquired all the archival negatives online without leaving the comfort of my own home, so I’ve not had to step foot into a thrift store or go to a flea market to obtain any of the appropriated photographs in All My Gone Life. In that sense this work emerged from a diametrically opposing methodology to Tacita Dean’s FLOH, for instance, where she collected vintage photographs from flea markets over a number of years and then culled them into an elliptically sequenced run of images in a beautiful book.

But All My Gone Life also includes a series of my own 4×5” photographs alongside these appropriated negatives, and eBay made it possible to search for and acquire negatives specifically, rather than prints. That distinction was important to me. It meant embracing an equivalence according to which my photographs are of no greater significance than those I’ve appropriated, and it meant reckoning with the photographic rhetorics I have inherited from the past. As I make this work, I understand myself to be participating in a history in which I’m implicated and imbricated in a variety of ways, and that history shapes my sense of the choices available to me. That’s one of the fundamental issues that the work across both series attempts to address: the extent to which the environment in which we live acts on us, and the extent to which we act on it, the extent to which our choices are shaped by disavowed but fundamental forces, whether historical or contemporary… So there was a resonance there that seemed meaningful, and working with archival negatives also offered me the opportunity to think about voices and authorship as they’re invoked by my subject matter in a polyphonic way.

As to your question about influence, it’s tricky to be certain about how the archival negatives affected the production of my own photographs as those two strands developed in parallel. I’m not denying for a moment that they had a reciprocal impact on each other, but it’s difficult to be sure about how to disentangle those things…

The most clear recollection I have of the differing emphasis that the archival negatives produced in my sense of the work was in the way they made me think and feel much more acutely and consistently about the body. Rukeyser’s “Despisals” poem draws an equation between one’s body and the city, and argues against the dereliction of either one. I think I hadn’t really delved into the complex forces that cut into and through the body, and their relation to our sense of self and of place quite as much as I could have by the time I finished the first series, and the archival negatives impelled me to redouble that effort in the second.

As I made my own photographs and acquired the negatives of other photographers, I started to notice certain resonances or productive tensions between the pictures, but I didn’t read the appropriated negatives as roadmaps for new photographs to make or, conversely, my own photographs as an inventory for new negatives I might acquire. I’m most interested in, and excited by, the unexpected ways in which the pictures resonate visually, and I’m intent on trusting my faith in the notion that visual meaning is an expression of other equally significant meanings, and therefore I trust that the pictures can lead the way. It might seem an odd thing to say, but I find I’m most thrilled by the interconnections between the archival negatives and my own photographs when they strike complementary “notes,” and begin to sound like they’re meant to be phrased in relationship to one another, so I try to hold onto that instinct as I move between the two.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Untitled archival negative, from the series “All My Gone Life” (2014-2016)

SL: These projects and the exhibition itself draw their titles from the writing of poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser, in particular her poems “Waterlily Fire” and “Despisals”, which you have quoted. What powerful texts. How did you first encounter her writing, and in what ways do you see it in conversation with your images?

SWW: I have to admit that I discovered Rukeyser’s poetry in the most anodyne way. I have had the Poetry Foundation app on my phone for a number of years, and on occasion when I’m waiting for something or someone, I use its “random” feature to discover a new poet and start reading their work. I did that in 2011, and I stumbled across Murmurs from the earth of this land”, and was dumbstruck. I couldn’t recall the last time I had experienced that sort of force of recognition and estrangement. She seems able to collapse space in on itself, and draw astonishingly eloquent, utterly illogical links between those everyday concepts that mould the limits of our everyday reality.

It was a while before I read “Despisals”, which is the poem that gave me some amorphous but powerful sense of direction as I made the first series, Our Present Invention, whose title comes from a stanza in the poem where she writes:

Among our secrecies, not to despise our Jews
(that is, ourselves) or our darkness, our blacks,
or in our sexuality wherever it takes us,
and we now know we are productive
too productive, too reproductive
for our present invention —

Rukeyser crafted something that struck me as both beautiful and forceful, most especially in her insistence on the interdependence of opposites—on their dialectical relationship—and on the porosity of the physical and the retinal. It seemed to offer me a way in at a point when I was fumbling around at the edge of nothing much.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Untitled photograph, from the series “All My Gone Life” (2014-2016)

SL: I love that, when the world just quietly presents something at the right moment.

SWW: I’ve been fortunate to go out photographing with Irina Rozovsky on a couple of occasions over the past few years, and it’s incredible to observe how unerringly unusual things happen when she’s out working. I’ve only ever seen a squirrel tamer when wandering around in her company while she’s making pictures…

I think there’s something to the notion that you can lock in to some numinous frequency at which the world offers you up gifts utterly germane to what your work is about. I think that it happens if you keep going out, and keep attending to what your photographs seem to say and need. I think photographers are always in a dance with luck, and while for some people, the extent to which fortune plays into photography undermines the creative act itself—or our claims to it—I’d argue that it’s creative to set about being in the world looking in the way that we do, and that chance is something to be embraced wherever possible.

Manuel De Landa introduced his book, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, with this Lucretius quotation that really gets at the virtues of steering off the beaten path and welcoming chance and deviation as constitutive parts of life:

When atoms are travelling straight down through empty space by their own weight, at quite indeterminate times and places, they swerve ever so little from their course, just so much that you would call it a change of direction. If it were not for this swerve, everything would fall downwards through the abyss of space. No collision would take place and no impact of atom on atom would be created. Thus nature would ever have created anything.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Spread from Contact Sheet 189: Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“One Wall a Web” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

SL: There’s an unsettling humor about One Wall a Web, especially in the way you’ve sequenced and paired photographs. While flipping through the image selections the other day, you really couldn’t help but laugh out loud at a few of them. It seems that sometimes the humor found in certain images is brought on as a way of dealing with the absurdity and juxtapositions. Recognizable characters like Shirley Temple and John Wayne are interspersed with portraits of everyday people, still lifes, and landscapes that are—though sometimes subtly—politically and socially charged. Can you talk about the humor in your work, as well as the gravity of it as a whole?

SWW: I remember reading Fredric Jameson’s essay on Hans Haacke in the Unfinished Business catalogue five or six years ago, in which he discusses Haacke’s approach to making political art in the era of simulacra, and he argues that “it is no longer possible to oppose or contest the logic of the image-world of late capitalism by reinventing an older logic of the referent (or realism). Instead, at least for the moment, the strategy which imposes itself can best be characterised as homeopathic: ever greater doses of the poison—to choose and affirm the logic of the simulacrum to the point at which the very nature of that logic is itself dialectically transformed.”

That essay is thirty years old at this point, but if you think of the political satire in Haacke’s Taking Stock, for instance, and consider Donald Trump’s candidacy for President—and the very, very real possibility that he might win—it’s apparent that we have not transcended the challenges of a neoliberal political and cultural order driven by spectacle. Or, to put it another way, I’m opting for “first as tragedy, then as farce.”

The fissures that my work points toward, or tries to unpack are visceral, often deadly, and of deep and urgent significance. I don’t take them lightly. But I think any number of the profoundly entrenched conventions that undergird patriarchy are both arbitrary on their face, and utterly ridiculous upon close examination: Cliven Bundy and his posse can confront federal law enforcement officers with automatic weapons in a standoff after refusing to pay grazing fees and emerge unscathed, while unarmed black men obeying police instruction are fatally shot in the back at traffic stops or while climbing the steps to their homes. While three drug offenses can get you life in prison, evidently Bernie Madoff masterminded a $65 billion fraud that bamboozled the regulatory infrastructure of the US government entirely on his own

The game is patently rigged, and that fact is both tragic—in the devastation that it causes daily—and farcical—in its patent inconsistencies—at the same time. I remember listening to Slavoj Žižek a year or two ago arguing in a lecture or an interview that the best strategy of resistance against neoliberal capitalist conventions was to find points of weakness where its hypocrisies could be clearly seen, and to exacerbate that weakness until the logic is robbed of its powers of normalcy or self-evidence. I’m after something similar in the work’s use of humour, albeit I don’t mistake picture-making for collective political action of the sort that is clearly and urgently required in great measure.

My hope is that the groupings and sequences of my photographs can exacerbate the intrinsic hypocrisies of the cultural conventions that they address—perhaps in comical or at times dyspeptic ways—and that certain things which are typically understood to be diametrically opposed can be shown to exist in proximity—or better yet interdependence—with one another: terror with desire, visibility with erasure, civility with subjection, fantasy with reality and so on…

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Spreads from Contact Sheet 189: Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

SL: The issue of Contact Sheet that accompanies your Light Work exhibition has been an opportunity for you to experiment with your work in book form. Is this something you plan to elaborate on at some point, maybe as a monograph or artist’s book, when you feel the projects have reached a close? Where are you going next with this work?

SWW: I’m basically finished as regards making the work. There are less than a handful of straggler images that I feel driven to make so I can sleep easy with leaving the second series behind, but I’m already itching to photograph other things, which feels like as good an indication as any that it’s time to move on. I hope to have a chance in the coming couple of months to tie off those loose ends, and I also hope to publish the two series in a single book at some stage in the near future. The generous invitation from you and the team at Light Work to show the work feels like the beginning of a process of putting it out into the world, and I’d very much like for a book to be a central part of the work’s entry into the lives of other people.

I’m also certainly very eager to put the work up on the wall, and the show will be a wonderful chance to see how those who are utterly unfamiliar with me, or with the series, might encounter and make sense of these images and read them in the context of their own daily lives. I relish the distinctions between the discursive context of the photographic book and the exhibition space, and after four years I have a fairly large number of images from both series which can be put to work in different ways, depending on whether they’re destined for the wall or the page, so that’s something I’m really excited to try out. But it does feel like where I want to go next with the camera is someplace quite distinct, and I hope that I can grapple with new and better problems as I do so. That’s something I’m only in a position to hope for because of the platform this work has given me as a point from which to look out toward something new.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

“One Wall a Web” exhibition, Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, Light Work, Syracuse
Photograph: Julie Herman

Shane Lavalette is an American photographer, the founding Publisher/Editor of Lavalette, and the Director of Light Work in Syracuse, New York. He holds a BFA from Tufts University in partnership with The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Lavalette’s photographs have been shown widely, including exhibitions at the High Museum of Art, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Aperture Foundation, The Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, The Center for Photography at Woodstock, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and Musée de l’Elysée, in addition to being held in private and public collections. His first monograph, One Sun, One Shadow, was published in 2016, and a solo exhibition was presented at Robert Morat Galerie in Germany. The exhibition is slated to travel to Kaunas Photography Gallery in Lithuania and Le Château d’Eau in France in 2017. Lavalette’s work has been featured by The New York Times, TIME, NPR, CNN, The Telegraph, Foam Magazine, Hotshoe, among others, and his editorial work has accompanied stories in various publications, including The New York Times Magazine,The New Yorker, Esquire, Bloomberg Businessweek, Vice Magazine, The Wire, Wallpaper, Monocle, and The Guardian.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is a photographer, writer, and editor of The Great Leap Sideways. He was an artist-in-residence at Light Work in 2015, has contributed essays to catalogues and monographs by Vanessa Winship, George Georgiou, and Paul Graham, written for Aperture magazine, guest-edited the Aperture Photobook Review, and is a faculty member in the photography department at Purchase College, SUNY.

The Bungalow, 2014

Anouk Kruithof Talks Books, Travel, Feminism & More

Anouk Kruithof is a Dutch artist currently based in New York City. She has been exploring and questioning the picture-plane, image, materiality, physicality and philosophy of the medium of photography for over a decade. Her multi­­-layered, interdisciplinary projects take the form of photographs, installations, artist books, text, sculpture, ephemera and performance. Kruithof was an Artist-in-Residence at Light Work in May 2013. Her new book, The Bungalow, was recently published by Onomatopee. She recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for her forthcoming book, AUTOMAGIC, which she worked on while in residence at Light Work.

Below, Kruithof and Light Work’s Jessica Posner engage in a conversation about The Bungalow, AUTOMAGIC, travel, feminism, and more.

Jessica Posner: Hello, Anouk! You were an Artist-in-Residence at Light Work in May 2013. Can you tell us a bit about what you worked on during that time, and what you have been up to since then?

Anouk Kruithof: During my Light Work residency, I spent the first week on my book Pixel Stress, which was published by RVB Books in September 2013. The other weeks I worked on my upcoming book, AUTOMAGIC. It is a very extensive project containing work from 2003 through 2015, which I started working on in May 2011. Readers can check out my Kickstarter to learn more about AUTOMAGIC.

In 2013, I made the solo show Everything is Wave in gallery Boetzelaer|Nispen in Amsterdam, Netherlands. In the Spring, my small solo exhibition Within Interpretations of a Wall opened at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. I did nine months as an artist-in-residence through ISCP in New York. This summer, I started my publishing platform, Stresspress.biz. I’ve published two more books: Untitled (I’ve taken too many photos / I’ve never taken a photo), self-published, and The Bungalow, published by Onomatopee. Shane Lavalette, the Director of Light Work, basically checked the first dummy of The Bungalow in May of 2013.

In the past year I’ve traveled a lot too: Jamaica, Mexico, LA, and Europe. I’m currently living in New York City, and I just found a new studio on the Lower East Side. I am crazy about it!

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

JP: It sounds like you’ve had an amazing two years. Congratulations! I’d like to start off a conversation about The Bungalow by asking you about a phrase that you use in the introduction of the book, “screen-reality.” Can you expand on that term?

AK: The world by now is dominated by photos. In this world, people function as processors of an ongoing stream of images. For many of us, it has become more normal to look at the world through a computer or iPhone screen, than seeing it in physical reality. We filter reality by means of a screen, and thus experience life in this way. That reality is limited to a rectangle, even though this screen-reality is ascribed a “full view.” But the real full view, the context, fades when we take in such large quantities of photos through a screen. Photos have become pieces of evidence of entities. By this I mean that a thing that has been recorded only exists because the photo shows us it’s there. For many, a photo is proof that what is depicted exists for real, even without physically or consciously having seen the object in reality. Seeing in the physical sense has been degraded because of this. Seeing is the only sensory process remaining, while the other sensory experiences—smelling, touching, tasting and hearing—have no role to play in screen-reality.

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

JP: In The Bungalow, it appears as though you are very assertively colliding a history of what appears to be manual collage with a much newer imagery/language of digital image editing softwares like Photoshop. Can you tell us about this?

AK: Instead of the physical environment, the computer screen provides the frame in which you play with objects. Within this screen-frame, you slide the new entities (the photos) into, behind, and/or across each other. We do so consciously in Photoshop, or unconsciously by opening multiple photos or windows simultaneously. By making a screenshot of this compilation, you create a digital still life. A new entity comes into being, with its own origin on the screen (versus originating in physical reality). “Screenshot-photography” is born. In my view, this is a way to record the screen-reality in which we live.

JP: I find myself lingering on the spreads in The Bungalow in which you are abstracting bodies engaged in what appears to be sexual or physical power play. Though you are abstracting specific content through the process of collage, the images of bodies performing through restraint, obfuscation, or other forms of manipulation persist.

AK: The bodies of those women are clearly acting some kind of scene between bondage and wrestling, and were literally cut out by my hand and a scissor. An empty void fills them up, their forms becoming sculptural. I find the forms more interesting. The imagination provides more to wonder about. Spectators are given space to visualize what they want to see or desire. I, for example see a white form vacuuming. But, actually, the vacuum was the body of a woman. To me this is funny and raises questions.

The white shapes let one focus more on the environment, the backdrops, and the furniture; rather than the acts those women are performing in the original photographs. Removing the women’s bodies also means relieving them from the previous situation. Maybe it was a power play before, but I don’t know. I wasn’t there when the pictures were taken. Neither do I know how those women felt when posing for those pictures. So I see it as a symbol of liberation.

There is so much female nudity in the history of photography, and often as a gesture of dedication and appreciation for beauty and female body. But to me it’s usually tiring, banal sexiness. Women are seen as objects to look at, and photos are sketches of surface.

This chapter does raises some questions about the position of women, the mystery, the funny side and the never ending intelligence, strength and power of women. At least that’s what my intentions and thoughts were.

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

JP: Your response makes me curious to ask if you consider yourself a feminist? Does that play any role in your art practice?

AK: Of course I am a feminist, which woman isn’t a feminist? Maybe the ones who don’t know what feminism means. Luckily, I am surrounded also by male friends who are feminist as well. I don’t necessarily manifest feminism through my art works directly, though, because I like to think about making work and striving towards a more holistic universe of equality. I feel that’s a huge task to think about. It’s what makes me depressed at times, like, “what to do?”

I have so much energy… what’s the richest and most valuable way to transition this energy for a bigger cause? But the thoughts are overwhelming and bring me in a deep dark black hole, because one can only do just a little. The best is to be honest to yourself. Do what you love and believe in this. Hopefully, it resonates when it’s truly sincere. Even if you don’t know what it actually is, you give what you can give. Bring it out there.

JP: Do you see the work you do as political? To me, presenting a critical, visual story divergent from more traditional or popular modes of presentation and representation (which you articulate above) could be interpreted as a political act. Was this ever your intention?

AK: My work is not political. Socially engaged, for sure. I strive to make rather layered work because I appreciate work which leaves space for people to engage with it by raising questions, leaving gaps, and intervening thoughts on different layers. It’s about respecting that people with different ages, cultural backgrounds, different emotions, and experiences will take something out of a work. What matters to them, what makes them wonder? My work isn’t a one way road with no space for u-turns.

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

JP: I realize I’ve gotten a little off track, and maybe this is as good a time as any to make a u-turn to return back to The Bungalow. There’s something really sweet and strange about this spread with the skeletons. Can you tell us about it?

AK: From what I know about the photos I chose, those skeletons are the ones used in hospitals or classrooms in biology or anatomy lessons. It looked to me as though some people are fooling around with them in a basement, treating them as a real persona. The old ladies are laughing, the man dancing with them could be a doctor or biology teacher. They are just dancing with the skeletons, carrying them around. I think the people in the pictures are drunk. Those photos were probably taken by amateurs, and made me laugh out loud. I could not quite get how this situation would appear.

Isn’t that not the most interesting thing when you look at photos? They should be like question marks. That’s almost the only way I get hot from a single photo, if its embedded with some question mark behind the surface of what we see. Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel is maybe the best example of what I’m trying to explain. Some of the images I chose from Brad Feuerhelm’s collection remind of, and relate to, that work by Sultan and Mandel.

JP: It’s almost as if the question mark, or that open ended unknowing, is your punctum which connects all of the images you choose to work with.

AK: If a photo does bounce this question mark towards me I have already passed by. There are too many photos. They are everywhere. One needs to develop a personal filter system to not drown in the image-ocean we’re living in.

JP: Are there any other chapters from The Bungalow that you’d like to tell us more about?

AK: Command Shift 3: New Photography is the chapter where you see some images opened in Photoshop and then re-photographed by making a screenshot. It’s a digital way of making a still life photo, screen-reality is a reality too. It’s like taking of a trip and stepping into some sort of parallel world. And like in a trip, I don’t want to see some images, while others enrich me.

I do not want an overdose of photos, and the abundance of photos must not make me forget the distinction between reality and screen-reality. Like a drug addict, I assume to have my photo-consumption under control.

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

JP: In looking at The Bungalow alongside your other books, it is easy to notice your incredibly vibrant and adventurous colors choices. Can you talk about how you arrive at specific palettes for each project or book, and what that decision making process is like?

AK: I filter life through color. Its broad pallet is brimming with strong mental qualities. This is most of all the case with indeterminate hues. While I mainly work with photography, I tend to manipulate, filter, order, and work with colour in ways that might seem to make more sense if I were painting or drawing. For example, Happy Birthday to You is printed on dirty mint-green paper because that is the colour I saw on most of the walls and in the isolation cells in the mental institution where I was doing the project. This color is supposed to have a calming effect on patients, although I think it might just be a placebo effect. When the institution was being set up, the powers-that-be decided to paint most of the walls this color. So, in this case, the specific color adds something to the project’s content. In Becoming Blue, I used blue because of its art historical and psychological meaning.

I deliberately remove color as well. The combination of black and white is a statement. Part of A Head with Wings is in black and white. A huge part of Happy Birthday to You is too, even though the images are printed on dirty mint-green paper. I also made a wallpaper diptych Der Ausbruch Einer Flexiblen Wand (hart/weich) in black and white.

I choose colors for specific reasons. Organizing things in color is a strategic way to create order within chaos, mostly because I’m always overwhelmed with material. I take too many photos and I’m an obsessive book collector. I always have too many things on hand. Working with color or non-color calms me somehow. It has a meditative effect on me and adds a specific aesthetic quality to the work. You might notice this more than I do, since for me it feels natural to work this way.

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

JP: Several times, you have used travel as a metaphor while talking about your work. It seems travel is a really important part of your life and art practice. How does travel feeds your practice as an artist?

AK: I love to be in the air, in the ocean, deep down under, or on the road. Movement is important. It’s what makes my life, and maybe my work, dynamic. My worst nightmare is to be a “real” studio-artist. I could never live/work within four walls, working only with materials and my own mind. That being said, I do need to work in a studio. Working with interventions on the street, traveling, interviewing people, and collaborating are important for my practice as well. Photography, video, and text make a connection with the outside world, which next to my digital persona, makes life interesting to me.

JP: If you could go anywhere in the world for any length of time, all expenses paid, where would you go, and for how long?

AK: What a question! I would love to be and work in New York, actually, this amazing place with people of all nationalities in it is unique. I feel it’s the place where this hunger for a more holistic universe of equality comes closest of all places in the world. The energy and drive this creates is fascinating and makes me not want to go anywhere else. But my visa expires mid-September, so maybe this plus my love (who lives in Europe) will make me move back. But I don’t need to think about this yet! I just moved into my new studio and have three interns coming to work with me until the end of June. I love being in New York. In this eccentric place, everyone is slightly insane.

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

The Bungalow, 2014

From The Bungalow, 2014

JP: I always felt at home in the city when I lived there as well. Although, I do find that as an artist eccentric contexts crop up no matter where you land. So, what’s up next for you?

AK: Finally publishing my AUTOMAGIC book! I’m also developing my photo-sculptural practice, which will be shown at Art Bruxelles at the end of April. In September, I have a solo show with my gallery, but I have no idea what I will show.

I’m also working on a project around surveillance, anonymity, the representation of the self in media networked realities, and indexing/anti-indexing. It’s a huge collaborative project where I make simple photos of the back of heads of people posing against a simple one-coloured wall or piece of paper. It’s sounds boring, but it’s going to be thousands and thousands of pictures—heads becoming pixels. Brains and thoughts of people of all nationalities will be captured in there. Maybe it’s going to be statement on the failure of human encyclopedic unity.

JP: Thanks so much Anouk! One final question: What’s your favorite cocktail?

AK: The “Angelita” from the Experimental Cocktail Club, which is super close to my studio!

One of the most remarkable experiences in my life was diving the Cenote Angelita (a sinkhole) in Tulum, Mexico. You dive through a gas cloud hanging between saltwater and freshwater. When you’re lost in this gas cloud, looking up to the sun, it’s as if being in cosmic energy, as if the whole spectrum of color surrounds you, as if you’re breathing the roots of the tree. Once you go deeper through the other side of this gas cloud (~150 ft. deep), you see this bizarre set with a tree and the edges of sinkhole. It’s like caves surrounding you. It’s an outrageous experience. You have to walk with your diving gear through the jungle quite a bit too before you arrive, and you have to love diving and not be afraid of depth and small spaces. After the dive, you’d better smoke a little to emphasize the experience. I did this dive with an independent, hippie instructor who holds his gear in a van on the beach and we had a super high time together! When drinking the Angelita cocktail, I dive back in this memory.

JP: Thanks, Anouk. I, of course, want to encourage our readers to buy all of your books and check out your Kickstarter for AUTOMAGIC. I’d also love to encourage them to check out the wonderful video documentation of your books online. I love watching the way you handle the books.

AK: For me a book is an experience, an intimate meeting as well. I like to walk through a book with my fingers the same as how I explore the world traveling.

To learn more or support the publication of Kruithof’s AUTOMAGIC, visit her Kickstarter page.

Anouk Kruithof‘s work has been exhibited extensively throughout New York, Europe, Asia, and Australia. She has published seven artistbooks. She is the recipient of the 2012 ICP Infinity Award from the International Center for Photography and the winner of the 2011 Grand Prix Jury and Photoglobal prize at Hyeres, festival international de mode et de photography. Her work is in the collections of FOAM Amsterdam, Het Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Fotomuseum Winterthur Switzerland and Museum Het Domein Sittard NL, MOMA library, ICP library, Pier 24 library, and the library of Het Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Jessica Posner is an artist, Communications Coordinator at Light Work, and Adjunct Faculty in the Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University. You can contact her at jessica@lightwork.org.

Black Radical Imagination Curators Amir George (right) and Erin Christovale (left) with featured artist Jeannette Ehlers (center) with UVP Everson projection of Ehlers' Black Bullets.

Urban Video Project: Interview with Curators of Black Radical Imagination

Light Work is pleased to announce a series of special posts from our affiliated program, Urban Video Project (UVP). UVP is a multi-media public art initiative of Light Work and Syracuse University, and an important international venue for the public presentation of video and electronic arts. Operating on the Connective Corridor cultural strip in Syracuse, NY, UVP’s flagship site UVP Everson features year-round, outdoor public projections onto the facade of the I.M. Pei designed Everson Museum of Art. UVP is one of few projects in the United States dedicated to continuous and ongoing video art projections. For more information about the Urban Video Project, please visit UVP’s website.

As part of UVP’s 2014-2015 curatorial program, Celestial Navigation: a year into the afro future, UVP, parent organization Light Work, and the Community Folk Art Center recently hosted Black Radical Imagination I and II, a two-part screening of experimental short films and video works curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George. Inspired by the emergent discourses of Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism, Erin and Amir have organized three programs of films by contemporary black filmmakers that represent a radical departure from mainstream cinema.

UVP’s current exhibition at UVP Everson, Jeannette Ehlers: Black Bullets, is one of many works included in the Black Radical Imagination (BRI) programs. Jeannette Ehlers: Black Bullets will remain on view at UVP Everson through March 28, 2015.

Tiffany E. Barber and Jerome P Dent, Jr. are scholars who engage with Afrofuturism and its critique. They conducted a brief interview with BRI curators Erin and Amir over email to learn more about their curatorial approach and future projects. Below is the interview transcript.

Tiffany E. Barber: How did Black Radical Imagination first come about?

Erin Christovale: Black Radical Imagination first came about when a mutual friend introduced Amir and I because we are both young, black film programmers in our respective cities, Los Angeles and Chicago. Being in this unique position, we started a conversation about our love for black independent cinema and emerging visual artists who use new media to create film and video works. At the time, we were also reading Freedom Dreams: Black Radical Imagination by Robin D.G. Kelley, which chronicles various liberation movements by black folk and suggests that without the concept of imagining a new future these historical movements would not have been possible. We wanted to apply that philosophy to the cinematic realm, in hopes of creating a new center of thought-provoking and experimental cinema outside of the larger entertainment industry that typically casts black characters as harsh stereotypes and takes ownership of their stories. From there, we created a program of seven short films that challenge normative ideas of blackness and that also celebrate the philosophy of Afrofuturism.

Black Radical Imagination logo

Black Radical Imagination logo

BRI II Screening at Community Folk Art Center

BRI II Screening at Community Folk Art Center

Jerome P Dent, Jr.: How do you two define Afrofuturism? It’s such a broad term now; how did it shape your first series, a celebration of the philosophy of Afrofuturism as you say, and open onto the second group of films you two curated – Black Radical Imagination II?

EC: Afrofuturism is a term first coined by Mark Dery and is essentially “recreating the past to imagine new futures.” In Black Radical Imagination, we adopt this term in a cinematic way, selecting shorts that defy a mundane or oppressive future by inserting black bodies in space, time travel, and new dimensions. I think the narratives presented in our first program really align themselves with the experimental nature of the program we wanted to highlight.

Still from Mae's Journal by Amir George

Still from Mae’s Journal by Amir George

Still from Black Bullets by Jeannette Ehlers

Still from Black Bulletts by Jeannette Ehlers


JPD: The second iteration of BRI centers on Afrosurrealism and the third iteration is a move away from the thematic structure of the first two. Can you tell us how you two conceive of Afrosurrealism and about your approach to the current BRI program, which isn’t explicitly linked to terms like Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism?

Amir George: Afrosurrealism is a term coined by D. Scot Miller, a writer based in the Bay area. It revolves around a mystical and spiritual context. Our approach to the current program expands on the reclamation of the black body.

EC: Yes, the term was inspired by Amiri Baraka who describes Henry Dumas’s stories as Afro-Surreal Expressionism. Baraka says, “Dumas’s power lay in his skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one…they are also stories of real life, now or whenever, constructed in weirdness and poetry in which the contemporaneity of essential themes become clear.” In this spirit, the films we screened as part of BRI in 2014 program revel in the transfer of African spiritualities to the Americas and how that relation continues to shape our Diasporic culture.

Still from Moonrising by Sanford Biggers and Terrance Nance

Still from Moonrising by Sanford Biggers and Terrance Nance

Still from Field Notes by Vashti Harrison

Still from Field Notes by Vashti Harrison

Still from American Hunger by Ephraim Asili

Still from American Hunger by Ephraim Asili

TEB: You’ve said that BRI was inspired by Robin D.G. Kelley’s work, and UVP is hosting a panel discussion on Afrofuturism as a platform for social change in a few weeks. Given recent national protests – #BlackLivesMatter for instance – do you two consider BRI a way of life that has political implications now?

AG: I think BRI is more of a school of thought that has gathered audiences interested in discussing the themes being presented within the films. Our platform has given other voices the chance to be heard and allowed for open political conversations about the current state of things.

EC: In LA earlier this year, we were able to use our platform at the LA Book Fair to facilitate a conversation between Black Lives Matter and Printed Matter (the non-profit that hosts the book fair). With the films in the program as a backdrop, I think we continue a black radical tradition as artists and creatives who support larger direct action of community organizing.

TEB: What’s next for you two – individually and collectively?

AG: We have a new program that we’ll be screening throughout the year, and I’m working on a new short film.

Amir George and Erin Christovale at Community Folk Art Center for BRI II screening and Panel

Amir George and Erin Christovale at Community Folk Art Center for BRI II screening and panel

Black Radical Imagination Curators Amir George (left) and Erin Christovale (right) with featured artist Jeannette Ehlers (center) with UVP Everson projection of Ehlers' </em>Black Bullets</em>.

Black Radical Imagination Curators Amir George (left) and Erin Christovale (right) with featured artist Jeannette Ehlers (center) with UVP Everson projection of Ehlers’ Black Bullets.

Erin Cristovale is a curator based in Los Angeles focusing on film/video within the African Diaspora. She graduated with a B.A. from the USC School of Cinematic Arts and currently has an exhibition at the MoCADA Museum called a/wake in the water:Meditations on Disaster. She also works with a collective of creatives called Native Thinghood promoting emerging artists of color.

Amir George is a motion picture artist and film curator from Chicago. His video work and curated programs have been screened in festivals and galleries across the US, Canada, and Europe. In addition to founding The Cinema Culture, a grassroots film programming organization, Amir George was founding programmer of Black Cinema House, a residential cinema space on Chicago’s south side. He currently teaches and produces media with youth throughout Chicagoland.

Tiffany E. Barber is a scholar, curator, and writer of twentieth and twenty-first century visual art and performance with a focus on artists of the black diaspora living and working in the United States. Her essay on artist Wangechi Mutu and Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred is forthcoming in Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astroblackness (Lexington Books)

Jerome P Dent, Jr. is a graduate student at the University of Rochester whose work sits at the intersection of critical race theory, philosophy, and speculative fiction and film with a special focus on black imaginative labors.

Event photography by Matthew Pevear.

Barber and Dent will continue this series of afrofurist posts for Urban Video Project on the Light Work blog in coming weeks. Please stay tuned! Barber and Dent will also participate on the Speculations event panel on April 7 in celebration of the world premiere Cauleen Smith: Crow Requiem at UVP Everson. Join the event on Facebook.

Andy Adams

Andy Adams on Photography, Supporting Working Artists, and Light Work’s Benefit Auction

Light Work invited Andy Adams, Editor of FlakPhoto, to curate our first ever online Benefit Auction through Paddle8. On occasion of the auction’s launch, we spoke with him about photography, supporting working artists, and his selection process. The auction runs from Nov. 25 – Dec. 10 and features a variety of limited-edition prints and signed photobooks. Read the conversation with Andy with below, then check out the auction.


Light Work: You clearly understand the importance of supporting artists and their work. Can you talk about some of your motivations for FlakPhoto and the work you do to give exposure to artists working today?

Andy Adams: It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been producing FlakPhoto for nearly a decade. The project has evolved steadily over the course of the past ten years but my goals have stayed the same — to bring attention to photographic image-makers whose work I admire and to provide a place for people who care about photography to come together to celebrate its various forms. This is a thrilling moment for photo/arts culture. I don’t think there’s been a better time to be into pictures.

We’re happy you’re such a fan of non-profit photography centers. Can you talk about some of the reasons you support organizations like Light Work?

The work you do for photographers is inspiring and incredibly important. It’s not easy to be a working artist. Places like Light Work are sanctuaries for creativity. Making time to do the work — to find a project’s focus — is more than half the battle. For artists, the opportunity to explore and realize ideas in the company of creative colleagues is a gift. Residency programs like Light Work’s are essential for visual artists.

Raymond Meeks,  Lara, Nova Scotia

Raymond Meeks, Lara, Nova Scotia, 2013

What are some of your favorite prints in Light Work’s Fine Print Program? Which would you love to have up on your wall?

There are so many — I’ve selected some of my favorites for the Paddle8 auction. I love this Raymond Meeks picture, is it his daughter? Who’s she running to (or is it someone she’s running from)? The Susan Worsham and Elijah Gowin prints would make a surprisingly perfect diptych: those hands are wonderful! These women will make sure everything turns out all right, I’m sure of it. I’ve been looking at the Christian Patterson pictures for days — I’m a sucker for bold expressions of color. Light Work has one hell of a print collection.

Christian Patterson,  Prarie Grass Leak

Christian Patterson, Prarie Grass Leak, 2009

You’ve made an exciting selection of signed books for the auction. How did you go about selecting them?

Easy. They’re books I’d like to own! Nathan Lyons’ Return Your Mind to Its Upright Position is on my holiday wish list and you can’t go wrong with John Gossage. I can vouch for Keliy Anderson-Staley’s On A Wet Boughit is terrific. I can’t really help myself—the others will end up in my home library soon enough. It’s only a matter of time.

Photobook Lot, curated by Andy Adams

Photobook Lot, curated by Andy Adams

Andy Adams is an independent producer + publisher whose work blends digital communication, online audience engagement, and web-based creative collaboration to explore current ideas in photography and visual media. He is the editor of FlakPhoto, a website that promotes the discovery of photographic image-makers from around the world. In his spare time he hosts the FlakPhoto Network, an online community focused on conversations about photo/arts culture. Visit Light Work’s Benefit Auction at www.paddle8.com/auctions/lightwork

On Being “The Photographer’s Wife,” an Interview With Laura Heyman

On Being “The Photographer’s Wife,” an Interview With Laura Heyman
Laura Heyman and Jessica Posner

Laura Heyman is a photographer, Light Work Lab member, and Associate Professor of Photography in the Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University. She’s been working in the Light Work Lab in recent months in preparation for her current exhibition, Render, at Artspace in Raleigh, North Carolina.  The exhibition features a collection of images from Heyman’s ongoing project, The Photographer’s Wife; and is on view from Sept. 2- Nov. 5. 2014.  Below, Jessica Posner (Light Work Communications Coordinator) interviews Heyman about her work, process, subjectivity, humor, and more.

Jessica Posner: You’ve been in the Light Work Lab a lot in recent weeks preparing for an exhibition. Can you tell us a little about the project you’ve been working on?

Laura Heyman: I’ve been printing images from The Photographer’s Wife, a project I began in 2003. The photographs present a female character as the central subject, often gazing intimately at the camera, suggesting an artist making images of their lover. The locations in the photographs vary, but many of them are domestic interiors, further adding to the feeling of intimacy – viewers get the sense they’re seeing something which is essentially private.

Untitled from The Photographer's Wife, 2006

Untitled from The Photographer’s Wife, 2006

JP: In these images, you are both subject and object; but not in the sense of a traditional self-portrait. You are mediated by a fictional character. Can you talk about how you play with the position of the subject/object in this body of work?

LH: The model/subject’s job is always performative — she must be able to portray both a true and idealized self. But in the case of these photographs, the problem is slightly more complicated. As the model/subject, I must convey not only this multiple subjectivity, but also reflect back to the viewer an imagined photographer husband.

JP: Would you care to go a little deeper into one of the images (your choice)?

LH: There’s an image I made in the bathroom of an apartment in Florence this summer. The location had a really strong pull for me – it’s a beautiful room, with amazing light that’s also kind of harsh. There’s a strong color scheme, and the space is a little strange, because the bathtub looks like it was made for a small child.

Untitled from The Photographer's Wife, 2014

Untitled from The Photographer’s Wife, 2014

I knew I wanted to make an image in the room, but wasn’t sure what exactly what to do with it. A week before returning to the States, I found a color photograph from a 1940’s magazine showing a woman sitting in a very similar bathtub. She had her back to the camera and was looking into a small hand mirror, hair piled on top of her head in a bun. As soon as I saw the image, I knew that was it.

I began imagining the conversation/negotiation between the artist and model that could have brought them to that pose, and other iterations they might have tried but ruled out.  I spent a couple of days looking for an appropriate hand mirror, observed the light in the room over another couple of days, and at the appointed hour, set up the shot. I filled the tub with water, approximating the pose from the magazine over two rolls of film, stepping in and out of the tub to set the self-timer and wipe the water off the floor in between shots. On the third roll of film, I changed the pose, leaning back against the wall to face the camera. I’d been up late the night before and it shows –  the light in the room accentuates the circles under my eyes and every crease on my body. It’s a strange picture. When I saw the contact sheets I almost didn’t recognize myself. There were only a few of the non-mirror images from the shoot, but these are the ones I was most drawn to, and what I ended up using for the exhibition.

JP: Can you give us a little insight into your working process? Both conceptual and technical?

LH:  On the technical side, I’m usually shooting medium or large format film. Up until a few years ago, this was true of both still and moving images – I shot 16mm film rather than video. Now I shoot mostly analogue large format film and video.

Conceptually some projects are very simple – there’s something happening that I feel should be recorded. This was the case of The Last Party, which documented the final days of Ocho Loco, a warehouse I occupied in San Francisco from 1990 – 2003. In 2003 the building was slated for demolition (to make way for live/work lofts). My roommates and I wanted to do something to commemorate the space before it disappeared. So every band that had ever played there was invited back for one last show, which lasted almost 24 hours. I drank a lot of coffee and photographed the party from beginning to end.

Bagdon (Left) and Maggie (Right) from  The Last Party , 2003

Bagdon (Left) and Maggie (Right) from The Last Party , 2003

With other projects, the process is a little more complicated – it may start with a question, something I’ve been turning over in my head for a while. The Photographer’s Wife was partially influenced by a story a friend told me about the wife of a well-known photographer in San Francisco. In college, I’d seen the requisite images of Eleanor Callahan, Edith Gowan and Bebe Nixon that were part of any photography student’s education, and I had always been fascinated by them. I wondered about their lives, wondered what they thought about the images we’re all so familiar with. Then I received this sort of inside story detailing what it was like to be a strong intelligent woman involved in the creative process in a very direct way, but without any of the rewards that artists normally expect or receive. I realized these women weren’t the romantic figures I had imagined them to be when I was younger, but they weren’t tragic or exploited either. I had been making some images of myself, not self-portraits, more like performance stills, and hearing this story made me see those images in a new light, moving the work in a very different direction. I began thinking about and researching performance, reading biographies of artists, and looking at a lot of work that explored questions similar to the ones this research produced for me.

JP: Is there a thread that flows through all of your work? What is it? Where do you think it comes from? How do you see it manifest in this body of work?

LH: I don’t know if I could say there’s a thread that runs through all of my work. It tends to change a great deal from project to project. But there are definitely themes I return to; one is an interest in narrative structure, and the ways that narrative can be transmitted to the viewer. The narrative form that drives a lot of my research is cinematic, in part because film has the ability to colonize human experience and memory in ways that are almost impossible to quantify. So some of my work borrows from cinema’s use of art direction, set design and location. The second constant in my work is performance, which is of course inherent to the medium of photography; any subject who stands before the camera is arranging and editing not just their appearance, but also their persona. But I’m concerned with the performance taking place on both sides of the camera, how power can shift between photographer and subject, whether the image resulting from this exchange is more a representation of one or the other, and to what degree.

Untitled from The Photographer's Wife, 2009

Untitled from The Photographer’s Wife, 2009

Part of this interest comes simply from being a female artist who, as a student, learned about art by looking at images of women created by men. I’ve always been interested in the lessons art history teaches women, specifically those regarding the female muse. I wonder if it’s possible to internalize these lessons, and if so, what effect does this have on one’s own production?

This question became really significant to The Photographer’s Wife, alongside the question of whom I was performing for when I stood in front of the camera. In performing for this imagined figure (behind the camera, operating the camera), I began to think about who that might be and how to conceptually occupy both of those spaces and perform both of those idealized roles at the same time.

JP: Does humor play a role in any of this current body of work?

LH: I think so, but maybe I have a strange sense of humor. I find the performance of frustration or exasperation that occurs at certain points in the work very funny. Likewise, moments where the attempt to portray a feminine ideal is problematized or falls short, where the model is not seen at her physical best, but projects awkwardness and exhaustion instead of the expected languor and appealing, flirtatious sexuality – people often laugh when they’re uncomfortable, and for me these images are like a joke the viewer isn’t sure they should be laughing at.

Untitled from The Photographer's Wife, 2007

Untitled from The Photographer’s Wife, 2007

JP: I recently had the opportunity to meet your son Ace, age 10, who told me that looking at a photograph is like looking at a past life version of himself. It made me wonder what life is like in your house. What books do you have lying around? On your bedside table? On the coffee table?

LH: We’re big readers, so there are books all over the house. Most photo books live in my office but there are a few at home, among them The Wedding by Nick Waplington, which has been a favorite of Ace’s since he was baby. On my bedside table at the moment are A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Changing My Mind, by Zadie Smith, The Testament Of Mary by Colm Tóibín, and My Teachings by Jaques Lacan. Although I have to confess that last one was purchased at the end of the summer when I was feeling particularly relaxed and ambitious – I have yet to crack the spine.

JP: What are you working on now/next?

LH: For the past several years I’ve been working on two long term projects – The Photographer’s Wife, and Pa Bouje Anko: Don’t Move Again, both of which are pretty intense. So I’ve been researching ideas for something different, and this summer started collaborating with an artist named Michel LaFleur, who’s based in Port-au-Prince. The project is just beginning, so it’s pretty loose at this point, but the main ideas are based around language; the power and play of language and the written word. Michel is a sign painter, and we’re working with lists, titles and translation, producing  videos and a series of small paintings. It’s been great to work with another artist, and in another medium.

JP: Details about the exhibition?

LH: The exhibition was the start of a season-long examination of the use of the figure in contemporary art. Curator Shana Dumont Garr wanted “to explore the iconic relationship between the depicted and the depictor…. the ways that staging and self-consciousness may affect viewing experiences.”

Exhibition Details: 
Render: Laura Heyman and Leah Colie Wight
September 5– November 2, 2014
Raleigh, North Carolina

Untitled from The Photographer's Wife, 2005

Untitled from The Photographer’s Wife, 2005


Laura Heyman was born in Essex County, New Jersey and received her M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI.Solo exhibitions include Palitz Gallery, NY, NY, Silver Eye Center for Photography, Pittsburgh PA, Philadelphia Photographic Arts Center, Philadelphia, PA, Deutsches Polen Institute, Darmstadt, DE, Senko Studio, Viborg DK, and Light Work, Syracuse, NY. Group exhibitions include Laguna Art Museum, Laguna, CA, United Nations, New York, NY and National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Heyman has received grants and fellowships from Light Work, The Silver Eye Center For Photography, Ragdale and NYFA, and her work has been reviewed and profiled in The New Yorker, Contact Sheet, and ARTnews. Heyman is an Associate Professor of photography in the Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University.


Jessica Posner is an artist, Communications Coordinator at Light Work, and Adjunct Faculty in the Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University. You can contact her at jessica@lightwork.org.  

Catching Up with Hannah Frieser

During her eight years with Light Work, many have been impacted by Hannah Frieser‘s generosity and commitment to the organization’s mission of supporting artists. On behalf of the staff, friends, and a host of artists, we want to say a warm thank you to Hannah for the energy she brought to Light Work, and wish her the best in her new pursuits. In the following interview, we catch up with Hannah from the road to hear about some of her fond memories, what she is currently working on, and what’s next.

Hannah Frieser
Hannah Frieser, Berlin, 2013 (photograph by Adam Magyar)

In your eight years with Light Work you worked with over 100 artists in the residency program alone. I’m sure there are many great memories looking back, but do you have a favorite?

I have countless fond memories of working with artists in the residency program. Few experiences are as inspiring as seeing artists get the support they deserve and letting them get to work. During my time at Light Work, the residency program brought a constant stream of fabulous artists to Syracuse, each with different projects and different needs. Every arrival would bring a new set of shared conversations, art discussions, soul searching, and good old fashion roll-up-your-sleeves art making.

I especially remember KayLynn Deveney’s last minute plea for help with her book project. Our residency program was already full, but the staff voted unanimously to help her out. She worked tirelessly, shifted from c-printing to digital prepress at record speed and in the end produced one of the most poetic books celebrating the quiet beauty of aging. Then there was Lucas Foglia, whom I met at an SPE conference where he showed me one astonishingly excellent series of work after another. At the time he was beginning the Rewilding series. During his residency Lucas created a tight edit for his photo series, which was then beautifully placed into context by Ariel Shanberg’s essay in The Light Work Annual 2008. Lucas has an unerring instinct to capture moments of human interaction in the perfect framework of color and composition. He is going to go far.

Christian Patterson's Redheaded Peckerwood maquette, 2010
Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood maquette, 2010

Christian Patterson is another artist who comes to mind as someone we got to make a difference for at just the right time. Christian arrived at Light Work with an idea for a book. This turned into a hand-made edition created entirely in Syracuse, followed directly by a trade edition that is now in its third run. What a success story. Or the time Karen Miranda-Rivadeneira experienced a major set-back with her project and reinvented her residency on the spot to create brand new work. The resulting images are charismatic and refreshing – just as the artist – and they are sure to strike a cord when they appear in the next Light Work Annual with Elizabeth Ferrer’s thoughtful essay. And then there was the time when Elwira Jaglowska arrived at Light Work with a long laundry list of props she needed for her photo shoot. The staff immediately jumped into action and found every last item on her list, including rusty chains, an old guitar, dead fish, a tree (from my garden), a skull (from a local biologist, not my garden!), and more.

The list goes on and on, but one of my fondest recent highlights of the program was introducing John Chervinsky to Nathan Lyons to request some guidance for the sequencing of John’s first book project. Nathan gave John a quick overview into the art of editing a book sequence and then he took John through the process step by step. In closing Nathan turned things around and showed John his current project, explaining the sequencing as they looked at the book mock-up. So many special moments, and I could name so many more.

Barry Anderson, UVP projection, 2009
Barry Anderson, UVP projection, 2009

Is there an exhibition or project you feel will always best represent your vision or curatorial voice in the medium?

Well, there are my two expanded exhibition projects that included lectures, billboards, and more. While working with Suzanne Opton during her residency, it became clear just how timely and relevant her photographs of soldiers from Fort Drum were. Considering the global impact of war, my thoughts were to develop an exhibition that would reach beyond the gallery walls. Suzanne and I came up with the idea for billboards as a means to get the images out into the world. I was able to raise the funds for the billboards and to invite Vicki Goldberg to give a lecture and write the essay for the catalogue. A few years later, I saw another opportunity for an expanded exhibition project with Barry Anderson. I wanted to show Barry’s video art as installations, rather than video panels on the wall. So I talked to many art organizations and different departments at Syracuse University about a citywide collaboration. In the end, the project included over a dozen exhibition venues, outdoor video projections, fifteen billboards and more. Instead of a postcard we printed a map to announce the exhibition and all its venues. The project is also an excellent example of the level of collaborations possible in Syracuse.

Pipo Nguyen-duy
Pipo Nguyen-duy, installation view, Community Darkrooms Gallery wall, 2006

Some ideas can also expand beyond the single exhibition. In 2006 I decided to create an exhibition with Pipo Nguyen-duy’s East of Eden series, most of which were photographed in the United States after 9/11. However I also really liked some of the newer images photographed for the series in Vietnam. The former stayed in the psychological realm of imminent danger, while the latter addressed recovery from unthinkable violence that has already occurred. In the end I decided to stick to my original idea, but to mention the new direction of his series in my introductory essay. A few years later I was able to invite Pipo back to Light Work as part of the 2010 Syracuse Symposium for the Syracuse University Humanities Center. We showed five of the Vietnam photographs in a smaller exhibition and flew Pipo in to give a lecture about the series in the context of the Symposium’s theme of “Conflict: Peace and War.” He has since received a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue the Vietnam images.

Hannah Frieser, detail from Tortilla Wall, 2008
Hannah Frieser, detail from Tortilla Wall, 2008

In the coming months or years do you plan to focus more on your own work as an artist?

I plan on spending more time on making art, but not exclusively. Currently I am doing general research for my next art projects, which I hope to work on intensively in the fall. My last big projects focused on cross-cultural heritage and Mexican-American identity. I have a number of artist books planned to continue the series, but I am also preparing for a related project on Little Mexico, a neighborhood of immigrant families that existed in Dallas through the 1980s. These ideas are developing on paper right now. Soon I’ll have time to put those ideas into action. It’s exciting to think about spending more time in art making again, but it will always be a balance with my curatorial and administrative work. I live in both worlds and one feeds the enthusiasm for the other.

Adam Magyar, Frazier King, and Hannah Frieser at Houston Center for Photography
Adam Magyar, Frazier King, and Hannah Frieser at Houston Center for Photography, 2013

What projects are you working on now? What’s next?

I am working on multiple projects that I have been planning for some time, while also traveling to meet with curators and artists. I just wrapped up a 2,500 mile road trip by car through the US which included a stop in Houston for the opening of the Adam Magyar exhibition (Contact Sheet 170). Now I am in Europe doing the same by train. I already have plans to travel through Germany, Switzerland and France. And I am laying out plans for the next big leg of my adventures, to travel to Latin America later this year. Basically I am filling my head with art and meaningful exchanges, which will lead to a number of essays, lectures, and the launch of my curatorial research project which will showcase international art centers, their curators and their photographers. Along the way I am reviewing portfolios and jurying exhibitions.

It’s all been quite a whirlwind of new impressions. But I am about to lay low in Zürich for a while to work on two essays that will be published in late summer, sit on a jury for an exhibition on emerging European photographers, and remotely jury another competition in Latin America. A good friend helped me set up a blog before I left Syracuse, but I have yet to find time to add content. So maybe I will be able to do some writing for this as well. Then it is on to the Les Rencontres d’Arles festival in France and other projects after that. I expected things would slow down for me after I left Light Work, but the opposite has been true. I have kept extremely busy, and I continue to add new ideas to my red moleskine notebook. My list keeps growing.

Hannah Frieser's notebook

A Conversation with Jason Lazarus

Jason Lazarus: Too Hard to Keep (Syracuse)
April 4 – May 31, 2013
Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery
Gallery Talk: Thursday, April 4, 5pm
Reception: Thursday, April 4, 5-7pm

In 2010 Chicago-based artist Jason Lazarus initiated a living archive of photos deemed “too hard to keep.”

Too Hard to Keep is a place for photographs, photo albums, photo-objects, and even digital files to exist when they are too difficult to hold on to, yet too meaningful to destroy. Participants have dictated whether the photographs submitted to the archive may be shown freely with other pieces of the archive, or if they are only to be displayed face down, adding to the charged significance of individual objects.

With the exhibition Too Hard to Keep (Syracuse) Lazarus shares a slice of the larger archive and invites anonymous local submissions in a carefully considered installation at Light Work.

Shane Lavalette: The idea of being the one responsible for all things “too hard to keep” seems daunting! What compelled you to start this archive?

Jason Lazarus: First, it needed to happen; I am the type of person who would participate in this project! Second, over the past few years I have been increasingly been interested in the vernacular—collecting, editing, curating images for additional meaning as I encounter them. For me it’s as urgent and compelling as making my own original image with a camera, and my photographic practice simultaneously embraces both these days.

This project, once conceived, grew organically as I reached out to my immediate network, and the earnestness of the submissions invigorates the labor and care needed to administer them.

SL: This ‘earnestness’ is palpable in viewing the archive. One can feel it. I’m always amazed at how over the course of an image’s life, our feelings toward it can shift from joy, to anger, indifference, or deep sadness. Of course it’s different for every circumstance, but how would you characterize this overwhelming need to part with an object, and more specifically, a photograph?

JL: One note about the presentation strategy: I want the viewer to feel my relationship to the images as well—that this is not a distanced, museumological, and sterile archive but an artist-run project that has a feeling and imperfect hand guiding the materials. Regarding parting with things, we’re always an amalgam of our past, the present, and our idea of our future—objects come and go as we need them. Letting go of photographs is more about the future than the past…

Jason Lazarus
Jason Lazarus: Too Hard to Keep (Syracuse) at Light Work

SL: Do you find yourself conflicted when installing such personal items in the context of an art exhibition?

JL: No, I’m more conflicted with how to create strategies to relay the tension of each entry. Sometimes installation strategies can undermine the whole project, and other times they underscore the epic qualities innate to the archive

SL: I love the fact that you’ve allowed certain images or objects to be exhibited but concealed at the request of the former owner—in the case of photographic prints, by just showing the backs of them. How do you see these in conversation with the other images?

JL: The images submitted as private and therefore exhibited face down are vital—they say as much about the owners (and the rest of us) as the most potent images we get to see. Quietly, and still visually, they have much to say. They are activated by the public images, and vice versa. The audience is asked to consider them as placeholders, as open narrative, as truly charged and thus, in a way, dangerous.

SL: Charged? Dangerous? Interesting use of words… Can you elaborate?

JL: They are symbolic of our own worst fears… they can be projected upon without limit.

Jason Lazarus
Jason Lazarus: Too Hard to Keep (Syracuse) at Light Work

SL: How would you describe the themes that arise in the archive? Do you find patterns, oddities, clichés?

JL: Yes, they couch everything from singularity to cliché as any large group of vernacular images might. Their unifying thread in this archive, the fact that they are “too hard to keep,” folds the familiar patterns and tropes of the private vernacular into a refreshed tension—they are taut…

SL: What have you found to be the most moving submissions? Is there one in particular that continues to strike you?

JL: My relationship with the archive and all of its contents is always in flux. Landscapes in the archive can be phenomenally powerful. To have an outdoor expanse implicated is for me fascinating and I can relate to this sometimes more easily than an image of a person who I don’t know. The private images are always moving to me when installed. They are obstinate, they refuse to bore the viewer with content, they are completely elemental in this project—all charge, no window.

SL: I’m glad you touched on this. There are certain images which may be hard for some viewers to imagine why they are “too hard to keep”—a landscape, a building, an abstraction. I find these to be the most powerful…

JL: Yes, there is a sort of slow violence about the most static images.

SL: You recently opened the archive up to digital submissions, and even offered your personal cell phone number for anyone to anonymously text images to you. In what way are these submissions different than the physical ones?

JL: I’m not sure yet, as I’ve only been receiving digital submissions for a relatively short period of time. Certainly I miss the objecthood of these entries, and the stories the photos-as-objects may have can’t be immediately seen (yellowing, wear and tear, handwriting, etc). On the other hand, receiving them unexpectedly on my phone, in the middle of a normal day, out of thin air, is poetically very rewarding. Someone’s personal narrative literally interrupts mine. It’s an unexpected shock, a signal, a moment of camaraderie…

Jason Lazarus
Jason Lazarus: Too Hard to Keep (Syracuse) at Light Work

SL: This makes me wonder… How do you view our relationship to, say, ‘photo albums’ on Facebook to the dusty ones in the closet? Can we have the same sentimentality or pain result from a digital file as a photographic print?

JL: It’s not for me to say. I feel lucky to be living at a time when one image paradigm is leading to another, and I can actively question both from a sense of heightened awareness and perspective.

Now that personal photos are digitized, it’s interesting to watch them, like water, effortlessly find their way quickly into new crevices and reservoirs far from their original source.

SL: What is your process of engaging with a local community, for example Syracuse?

JL: When possible, I will make myself available to a community for one day of personal pickups. I’ll dedicate 8-10 hours of being on call so community members can submit to the project in person without much effort on their part. Going to where the photos live is, for me, a unique and rare opportunity to understand their history and context better, even if the eventual audience is not privy to this information. It helps me become a better curator and artist within the archive’s parameters.

SL: Do you see an end in sight, or is the Too Hard to Keep archive a life-long commitment?

JL: T.H.T.K. is a life-long project, and I have found a colleague, Aron Gent of Chicago, to take it over in case something unexpected should happen to me. This way I can ensure some continuity to the archive and its format, as well as reciprocate the faith that the public has put into the project.

SL: With Too Hard to Keep (Syracuse) the site-specific installation of selected images and objects from the archive will also live on in publication form, as an issue of Contact Sheet. How will these images change when reproduced in the pages of the book? Who do you hope discovers this catalogue?

JL: I’m not sure actually, as the project hasn’t been published yet. I have instincts about what may happen, but it’s a puzzle—I’m interested in finding ways to keep the tension alive and complex when the actual object is no longer at arms reach.

Unlike a lot of other contemporary image based work where you significantly benefit from having studied photographic history and theory, the audience for this project starts with everyone…

Jason Lazarus
Jason Lazarus: Too Hard to Keep (Syracuse) at Light Work

Jason Lazarus is a Chicago-based artist, curator, writer, and educator who received his MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2003. Lazarus has actively exhibited around the country and abroad while teaching photography at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Selected exhibition highlights include Black Is, Black Aint at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, IL; Image Search at PPOW Gallery, New York, NY; On the Scene at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; and solo exhibitions at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Chicago, IL; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL; Kaune, Sudendorf, Cologne, Germany; and D3 Projects, Los Angeles, CA. Notable honors include the John Gutmann Photography Fellowship, 2010; an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship award, 2009; the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award, Emerging Artist, 2008; and the Emerging Artist Artadia Grant, 2006. His work can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Milwaukee Museum of Art, and the Bank of America LaSalle Photography collection, among many others. Lazarus is represented by Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Chicago, IL.


Interested in submitting to the T.H.T.K. archive?

Drop off your print anonymously in the drop box located at Light Work during the length of the exhibition. If you are not local, you can submit to the artist directly by following the instructions at toohardtokeep.blogspot.com