One of the best perks of my job is getting to work alongside a substantial collection of formidable makers and thinkers. There are few times that this is more publicly evident than when the MIAD Faculty Exhibition rolls around. I just missed participating last time around due to lousy timing and a conspicuous lack of work coming out of my studio.
I wasn't going to let that happen this year.
I have a tendency to get wrapped up in facilitating the work and vision of others. It's why I teach, and why I love to work collaboratively with other creatives. I think it helps keep my mind out of echo chamber that can form when only focusing on my work. However, lately I've been increasingly compelled to express my voice exclusively. Enemy of the People (tweet, tweet, tweet) is the first work I've shown in over a decade that is non-collaborative, and entirely motivated by my concerns and sensibilities. You can see it in the rather excellent 2018 MIAD Faculty Exhibition on display until October 8th.
I got a little political.
Since this my first solo work for a while, I feel I should talk about the way I choose to deal with politics and art. In conversation with people about my entry in the exhibition, many expressed a desire that I post a statement explaining what the work is doing, in mechanical terms. (The work emits sound, and the method of generating the sound certainly contributes to the meaning of the work). Up to now, I’ve been reluctant to explicitly explain all the components of this piece, fearful that it becomes a definitive statement on my personal politics regarding one person, rather than the result of an ongoing topic that I’ve been struggling with for a while.
So if you will be so kind as to indulge me, I’d like to start by talking about my approach to art, activism, and polotics first. At the end of the post, I‘ll explain what the thing is doing in terms of mechanics.
My work has always been the result of a personal inquiry into power structures. Specifically, my relationship with power as an American born, middle aged, hetero, cisgender, white dude that lives in a suburb in the mid-west. I have opinions, struggles, and lots of conflicting thoughts on the matter. I also have no interest in even suggesting to other people what their politics should be. I have even less interest in making art that preaches (to the choir, or anyone else) in an attempt to persuade.
Mostly, I don't think it works.
I find that a great deal of Political work (capitalization intentional) tends to be a blunt object that bludgeons the viewer with a particular message or intent that leaves no space for them to question their position. Making art that simply says "The Pro-Life movement is rooted in misogyny." or "Capitalism is destroying the planet.", with no room for negotiation or exploration, is really only asking one thing of the viewer: "Agree with me."
When confronted with this type of work, one of two things tend to happen.
Both scenarios are equally beneficial for the reputation and career of the artist, and neither really changes anybody's mind about anything.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with this. We humans take great comfort and find power in communing with those we agree with. I do it all the time at dinner parties... "I can't believe that [Public Figure] said / did [something I don't like]." Others at the party will agree, tutting along with how the world must surely becoming to an end, all thanks to [Public Figure] and the people that support their agenda. At the dinner parties I tend to get invited to, dissenting voices are rare. Not because the statements are true, but because of the whole "birds of a feather" thing.
I'm cool with that when hanging out with friends, but I don't want my work to function that way.
This doesn't mean that Political work can't precipitate change. It certainly can, and has. It can provide a forceful, self - evident voice to the disenfranchised, or act as proxy for those who aren't in a place that can make these kinds of statements publicly. I'm not saying this kind of work is bad, simplistic, or unnecessary. Quite the contrary. I very much admire artist - activists that produce work from a place of sincerity and genuine desire to make a specific point.
It's just not me.
Having said that, I'm compelled to say something, even if it's only to myself. That's what Enemy of the People is. This is me expressing that I'm uncomfortable being a middle aged white male being confronted with the seemingly inevitable erosion of power I hold in society. I'm also uncomfortable with the manner in which many of my fellow white males are react when dealing with this trend.
I think of it as a hangover. Essentially, white men have been throwing one hell of rager for the past 1500 years or so. Like most raging parties, a lot of people had a pretty good time, but a lot of stuff is trashed, some people got hurt, some are in jail, and almost everyone feels like shit the next morning. When waking with a hangover, people tend to either make a pledge to themselves to never drink that much again (I swear!) or, head to the fridge for a little 'hair of the dog'...
This work is an attempt to express all this without getting preachy, and without telling anyone what to think, or how to think. This is me, attempting to apologize for grinding nachos into the carpet, and for obnoxiously hitting on pretty much every girl at the party.
I wasn't myself. I was drunk with power.
Okay, on to what this thing is doing.
The device is a 3D printed object that looks a bit like the kind of bombs that were once dropped out airplanes during the first and second world wars. There is a small computer Inside the device that reads the twitter feed of Donald Trump. When it reads a tweet that refers to the media, fake news, the failing New York Times, etc., It translates those tweets as Morse code. This is the ticking sound the device produces.
This work isn’t intended to be about Trump. I want it to be more about what I mentioned earlier, and function as part of a larger series of work (that hasn’t been made yet). Trump is a foil to the intent to this body of work. This is why haven’t explicitly explained how the work is doing what it is up until now. I say the words ‘Trump’ and ‘Twitter’ and the work becomes a comment on his presidency, and it absolves the rest of white men in power (including yours truly) from their responsibility in contributing to the mess we’ve made.
I've always loved working with people and helping them realize their creative vision. I think it's important to regularly be involved in something that's bigger than yourself, that expands and challenges your thinking, assumptions, and helps break you of stale creative habits. On the other hand, I have an uneasy relationship with collaborative work. It's easy for the result to be diluted and ineffectual. Or, for the voice of one collaborator to totally overshadow the other(s).
Recently, I had the opportunity to work with Maggie Sasso to create some photos to be part of an upcoming exhibition featuring her work. She created an amazing hand-woven sail for the exhibition and was looking for images of it washing up on a beach. One of the images will be printed and accompany the weathered sail in the exhibition this coming August.
I've done photo work for other artists before, but it's usually pure documentation of their work. This was a little different. Maggie put a lot of trust in me to make these images, and was open and welcoming to my ideas. Fortunately for me, she was a true delight to work with. We started by sitting with the sail in a room as we worked out the location and time of the shoot based on the story she was wanting to tell, and how I hoped the lighting would best work to support her vision.
On the day of the shoot we arrived at the beach just before sunrise (the shore faces east), and got to work. I shot, showed her some images, we chatted about what she was seeing, and I adapted.
The shoot started out with me pretty much completely controlling all aspects of the images, and Maggie reacting.
This wasn't exactly what she had in mind. Craft is a huge component of Maggie's work. The nature and quality of the weaving itself is integral to the meaning of the work, not to mention the drama of taking an object that consumed untold hours of labor to produce, and tossing it haphazardly into Lake Michigan. These first shots were all about the photo, not the sail.
This called for a shift in thinking.
Maggie was happier with this, as the photos did show off the nature of the sail washed ashore on the beach. I was less sure. My concern was the sail 'overpowering' the image to the extent that the drama of the story was getting lost. I also felt that these photographs wouldn't function well as artworks in their own right. They would be dependent on the impressive physical presence of the sail to have any impact on the viewer. When making an installation that is object + image this can be the appropriate approach, but I wasn't convinced it was what Maggie was really looking for. Why have an image that just repeats what the sail is already saying on its own? This installation deserved an image that could stand on it's own, and provide a context that the sail can't do by itself. Maggie and I talked about this, and we decided to try to find a scene that provided the drama and context of 'my' images, and still placed the sail in primary importance found in 'her' images.
By this time, a fog was rolling in, causing the light to change completely. I waded out into the lake (brrrrrrrrr) and repeatedly tossed the sail into the water, and shot as it slowly sank. This was closer, but I still wanted to find the shot that showed the vastness and solitude of a 'deserted' shoreline.
In the end I think we both got what we wanted, without compromise. This shoot wasn't really a collaboration in the common usage of the word. Maggie was paying me to create images that told a story that was entirely her own creation. I used my experience as an image maker to support her vision. She is the author, and I am a contributor to her work. However, I feel the reason the images wound up working well was because the process was collaborative. During the shoot, our discussions weren't about what she wanted, or what I wanted. All we talked about was what the work needed. That, and the cold. This shoot served as a reminder that as a creative practitioner, your first duty is to the work. Take care of that, and the rest will sort itself out.