Admiral Grey photos by Violet Shuraka
Admiral Grey is an artist, musician, playwright, and performer who creates music and extraordinary live spectacle. Heather Morgan, painter extraordinaire, interviewed her for issue #11 of Cheap & Plastique.
Heather: Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of your work. When I feel frail and overwhelmed by the grind of artmaking in the metropolis, going to see one of your boundless creations is as revitalizing as a trip to Xanadu. What are some of the sources of *your* inspiration, what goes into the stunning array of characters you create?
Admiral Grey: I have been stockpiling each and every experience or person or moment or artwork I’ve ever witnessed into an enormous Atlantis deep within my consciousness. I build the inner city with these materials. A beautiful castoff seen on the street, a stolen moment or expression on a stranger’s face, the fantasies inspired by pieces of music or an image or story can become another 5 square miles. When it’s time to create I just head there and go shopping. I can walk down one of my streets and enter a strange building and take a picture hanging off of the wall of a woman I met 7 years ago and run my fingers through the groove in the frame, or open up a drawer and pull out a tapestry from a scene I witnessed as a teenager and smell it. Like most artists, I am voracious. Not just for books or works of art but a walk to a bodega, being in transit with millions of other humans, or an extraordinary experience in a foreign place—these are all equal as far as the richness they have to offer to inquisitive brains. New York alone is such a diverse and smart place, my peers and neighbors offer no end of inspiration in the ways they express themselves.
Heather: I lose count of how many bands you are in, and your persona in each is as wildly different as the sound. Your plays also frequently have a musical element. When you come up with different themes and characters, which comes first, the sound or the story?
Admiral Grey: When writing music, I nearly always start rhythmically first. Although the instrumentations will certainly feel necessary when they arise out of the ether, at first my attitude is almost always nearly that the notes don’t matter; the rhythms of each line, how they work together percussively or how they are syncopated is really what makes each piece different. There aren’t that many notes, right? Music is really about how the notes are being made, what they sound like, and the layers of rhythm in which they are placed. If there are words, they nearly always come last, and often feel almost unnecessary. But as a writer, I care to make this part just as rich.
With theater there is often a germ of inspiration —for example, with Flowerama I was asked by Sparrowtree to write a short ‘fairy tale’—so then I researched and researched what exactly made a story a fairytale, what are the parameters…and what makes a great fairy tale? And then I sat down to writing, reaching into my archives of ideas. With plays I always write a very long backstory, a history, and outlines of the histories of characters and the whats and whys and wherefores. Then I set to writing a script. With Flowerama, and since you know that one I use it as an example—the backstory is much longer than the actual show, which, anyway, had no words! For theater I write the music last, or alongside. Put one down and pick up the other. That adds the fourth dimension.
Heather: Tell us about some of your different secret identities.
Well, then, they wouldn’t be secret anymore now, would they?
Admiral Grey: I have had a lot of names over the years. It’s something people bring up often but that I never had any forethought with, just something that I naturally desire to do and enjoy. I assume it comes from a need to compartmentalize, since I’ve used aliases and nicknames for different times in my life and different creative projects and jobs since a very young age. I’m pretty sure I operate under only two now publicly—Admiral Grey being my formal title, I suppose, as an artist, and Lillie Jayne for a long time now being my pen name and a name I tended to use when acting. Each has their place. I have made solo music under three different titles [Duck and Swallow, I Feel Awesome, Enjoyment] and could not count the amount of names I have used in my life. It makes me hard to track—people every so often realize, for example, that I was the bassist in Drayton Sawyer Gang who organized the Bushwick Blast music festival in the mid-2000’s, because at that time I was using the name Dr. Victoria Kominsky—things like that happen. I recently discovered a quote from one of my favorite writers, E.M. Cioran: “We should change our name after each important experience.”
Heather: Of all of the different roles you play in making a production come together—writing the play, composing a score, designing costumes, making props and animations, singing and acting—do you have a first love?
Admiral Grey: As a child, all manner of creation/performance that I was involved in felt natural, as it does for a lot of kids. My first ‘claimed’ identity was as a writer, around the age of 8. I found a voice in a new town once I was in a well-funded public school where the support is greater for creative skills. As a female kid, people commonly support one in being a dancer, singer, actress—but to be recognized and encouraged as a skilled instrumentalist or writer, among many other things, is more rare, or was. At the time it seemed like so many kids were recognized in scholastics, in music and performance and sports, but to be singled out as a good writer felt very important and exciting to me, and I latched onto it. When I was acting I was embarrassed to be called an actor and told people I was ‘really’ a writer; later on I would be bashful to use the descriptor ‘artist’—but I don’t give a damn about that stuff anymore. ‘Writer’ felt like a good catchall for someone like me who works in a variety of mediums—alongside prose and poetry and plays, one writes songs and writes music…designing or expressing visual art, creating costumes, choreography—it’s all a form of ‘writing’, no? Dare I even say drawing or painting is writing on the canvas? Perhaps not in your company.
Heather: Your play, Flowerama, was painting on air.
How do you feel about having complete control over all elements of piece, as you do in some of your plays and solo musical endeavors, to collaborating with other artists on their work or playing in a band? Do you have a preference?
Admiral Grey: I love and loathe doing everything myself. It’s stressful and time consuming, I am so particular, so picky and obsessive when it comes to my own work, I can take forever (I’ve had a three act musical play and a solo album on the backburner for years). Oh, but the absolute control! On the other hand I have several collaborators that are very dear to my heart and mind, and all of them are brilliant and talented, and what we create together can only come from that specific relationship. It’s sort of like having several marriages, several intellectual lovers. So I love collaborating as well. I think if I had more time and more money, I might work alone a little more, and pay smart people with certain skills to enhance the work. But the balance between ones own mind/ego and the input or collaboration of others seems essential to good work with enough oxygen in it.
Heather: When some were talking about Gaga like she was some kind of gift to avant garde performance, all I could think was “what is new about a blonde popstar with her pants off?” Your inventions, whether pants on or off, do not seem to conform to specific rules about what is acceptably feminine or titillating, and so your choices are often surprising. If I may lift the veil, how does erotic expression fit into your presentation?
Admiral Grey: On the outside of it—performance is by nature a type of eroticism or sexuality, because of the gaze of the audience, the intensity of energy, the connection between the subject of pointed attention and their hyperbolic expression towards and with a group of people, whether it be five people or millions. That part can be so acutely erotic, even if it’s abstracted, that that side of energy is released whether or not it’s in the subject matter.
I feel like I have never really been terribly interested in expressing any overt sexuality or eroticism in my work. Perhaps it’s the Catholic girl in me, but I nearly always shied away from that concept in the top of my mind, though what actually comes out in performance sometimes is another thing entirely. I always avoided being gender-identified, and in a way felt a bit Victorian about artistic expression, so perhaps it felt like slumming to bring sex into art in any overt way because it runs the world anyway, mammals that we are. “SEX” is ever-present in art, entertainment, advertising, people’s every waking thought. If anything seems under-expressed sometimes, at least in popular works, it’s non-sexual ideas and thoughts—things outside of our base animal desires, ones that aren’t necessarily hard political ideals, either. Just humanist. In your [Heather Morgan] work, although the first visual it is erotic, there are many layers woven in, so the eroticism is more of an active and intellectual player in the universe of your paintings—but as we all know, for a lot of what’s out there, it’s pretty much just the same tedious unevolved expressions of lust portrayed through the age old agressions/submissions, war-like conquerings, manipulations, smoke and mirrors, sport, S&M…hot dogs & hamburgers. Not much interesting or actually stimulating in a larger sense mixed in. I prefer to let eroticism and sex exist in the universe of my work as much as anything else, which is how I see things, anyway. Of course sex is great, alongside all the great things in life—sex can also be horrible and a weapon, just like anything else. My sense of humour and my sense of myself is far from chaste or puritanical—but that’s also part of the private me. And then, I am not uptight about clothes or physical performance, so this has been eroticized or seen as me actively being erotic, though I’ve always been more of a kid about that—just not that uptight about what clothes I wear or whether I wear much of them at all, or sometimes wanting to just wear lots and lots and look like a clown.
Heather: Is there a medium you have yet to try? Some discipline you wish to incorporate into your work in the future? I can easily picture you ice skating while playing a lyre.
Admiral Grey: Well, yes, of course, I want it all, and more! I want the money for a large studio and one of every instrument and time to play them, and an art studio and all manner of paints and pens, and a dance studio and time to dance and choreograph, I want to be an electrical engineer with a junkyard, a carpentry, a welding room, a good camera and editing equipment for films and a room full of fabrics and materials and all the tools to build with. Rehearsal spaces and recording studios…are you writing this down?
I guess I mean to say that if I had the time and money, I would probably try to express myself more fully in any medium I could get my hands on, and develop more definitively in the mediums I already work in. I work so bare-bones now out of necessity. As far as the mediums I haven’t truly tried—I’d be interested to learn real technical painting skills. I am intimidated by the minutae of the world of paints. I’d like to write in another language—as of now I have piddling skills in French and Spanish. This summer I’ve gotten my hands on a violin and every once in the while I try to get back in shape on the trumpet…we’ll see if that leads anywhere.
Heather: You are very active in recording music and producing albums with your myriad projects. As far as the visuals, do you place a singular stress on experiencing these performances live, or are you interested in documenting and being able to revisit these spectacles?
Admiral Grey: It would be great to have better documentation. But it is so rare—live performance really is just that and there is no way to replicate it. In the past, I was laid back about posterity—I did visual art, sculpture, land art, installations, etc, for a time that I didn’t really document and therefore, in this day and age, may as well not have existed, especially since I tended to create these things and not tell or show too many people, or they would be small exhibits, or not exhibited at all. So now I try to be more conscious of trying to document stuff. But here I am, I have footage from some of my theater pieces and I haven’t done much with them. I need an assistant one day—they can handle that. I hate having to futz around with something once it’s already been performed. In that way I have a hard time revisiting—it’s over, it’s the past. Live performance is ephemeral and I embrace that. But, of course, I get sad about all the people who haven’t seen them, and how the videos don’t do them justice.
Heather: Considering your involvement in so many projects, it seems you are constantly striving. Describe a moment in your recent work when you felt, “that was it, I did it, and it was perfect.”
Admiral Grey: Often. I accept and love the finished product when it has been deeply worked on and embraced and developed and released with skill and honesty. I feel blessed to be very good at working within extreme time and money constraints, working with the present and available environment, and working with the frightfully brilliant and talented people I get to work with. My auteur theatrical projects felt very, very good, and I am exceptionally proud of my last two music releases, Cellular Chaos’ and Ecstatics’ debut albums. Each live set is different, some of them do truly feel perfect or close to that. And this type of ‘perfect’ rarely, if ever, has to do with technical perfection, it is more about the overall performance and the energy, the hundreds of micro moments. I can look back to theatrical pieces and imagine how I would rework them, but that’s different. I’m always looking forward to what I can do next and better, and what work I have that I haven’t truly allowed to shine, and how I can do that.
Heather: Does satisfaction with the performances give you the energy to create so much output, or is it the work itself that fuels you?
Admiral Grey: Post-performance is always a come-down. There is always post-partum depression. It must be true that a lot of my creation comes out of frustration and despair; but I would never actually be able to create without my feelings of absolute joy. I don’t think that the work I make is terribly dark, and quite often it is full of ecstasy and wonder. But it is certainly a way to take all of the injustices and sadnesses of human existence and reprocess them into new forms that now create a real and interesting, possibly enlightening, pleasurable or cathartic experience for the people engaged with it. All of us, in our attempts to stay sane—we all have cleansing processes where we take the junk inside of ourselves that is weighing us down and recycle it into different expressions of creative energy, whether we get it through our jobs or sport or relationships or building or handiwork or art. By transforming the despair or frustration into something else, a shared experience that is outside of of ourselves, it loses its power. But, of course, within the work itself, it is the underlying frustration and despair that enables people to connect with it, and to also feel that cleansing or catharsis, whether through laughter or crying or screaming or dancing or whatever the hell they choose to do while engaging with the work. I hope to never be performing or creating ‘at’ anyone, but sharing it as something we are experiencing and even creating together, because everyone is a part of art, that is the nature of it. It is a reflection of the world back upon itself through a funhouse mirror.
I believe all art, even, say, black metal, actually comes from a place of love.
Heather: What are you involved with presently, and what can we look for in the near future?
Admiral Grey: Well… I’ll blast you with a rundown. I’m excited about a lot. This spring I debuted a new theater project with The Nerve Tank (Chance Muehleck and Melanie Armer) at LaMaMa—I was flattered to be the first outside artist that they collaborated with on a production. They are unabashedly hyper-modern. Our show The Maiden was inspired by the myth of Persephone. I composed the music and performed in the show, and I also was enabled to make bold experimental sound design and musical direction choices—I wired up Melanie’s set so that the performers could participate in the playing of music and sound samples in the scenes by touching certain parts of the set, dialogue was turned into songs or raps or rhythmic tonal and gestural chants, like children’s hand-claps almost…working with them was really wonderful because they say ‘yes’ to anything untried and they really push the envelope. We developed the show as an intimate trio (and of course once in rehearsal, through much work on the part of the actors and the other designers) as they are a writer/director team, so these moments where we each inform each other’s choices and are directing each other and finding inspiration in each other was very big and exciting and resulted in something marvelous.
Shortly after that I was gifted another great gig which was acting and singing in Feather Gatherers, a re-interpretation of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat by The Drunkard’s Wife (Craig Flanigan and Normandy Sherwood) which was reimagined through many filters, one of them being Yugoslavian Black Wave film. This was part of the Ice Factory festival at the New Ohio Theater. We had this divine orchestra playing Stravinsky and Balkan music and an exceptional cast performing just the most clever and poetic script in a luxe lo-fi set. Like The Nerve Tank, but through the looking-glass, The Drunkard’s Wife is essentially a power couple duo just really pushing the envelope verbally, musically, visually, performatively in exceptional ways, and I feel very honored to have worked with them.
Presently I am puppeteering on the show The Pigeoning, which is a tragicomic Bunraku-style puppet show that I have been on the team of for a year and a half now. Robin Frohardt is a brilliant puppet and set designer who has assembled a crack team of artist/puppeteers, and the show is set to a fantastic score written and played by Freddi Price. After several runs in New York and elsewhere we are back at HERE in SoHo for a six-week run. We are so happy to have gotten a great review in the New York Times last week—we’ve been honing the show for a while and are very proud of it. With puppetry it’s all in the littlest details—we are constantly working and reworking little moments, because the tiny nuance is really what makes a good puppet show. I’ve learned so much about this medium working in this group, and now it feels so wide open to me as an option for expression. So five days a week that’s what I’m up to!
As far as music—I played a couple of rare shows this summer with my band Ecstatics when my partner Matthew Dunehoo was in town, which was wonderful; I’ve been collaborating with Chad Raines (The Simple Pleasure) on a new hybrid project called B Roll, playing shows and working on videos for that; and writing a new album and playing some shows with my band Cellular Chaos, which will be going on tour again for a couple of weeks in September. On my own…I’m really focused on getting a few very fun music videos finished this summer, I must! Because at least two of them are summer jams. And I just started writing a piece for four horns that will each play a different paragraph of text that I will have translated into a unified score using a secret code. That’s going to be a beautiful disaster. I can’t wait.
I had a studio visit and photo shoot with Brooklyn-based art director Tonya Douraghy last month for Cheap & Plastique #11. Then we had a nice chat about living in Greenpoint, travel, inspiration, and design via email. See more of Tonya’s work here.
C & P: Where are you from?
Tonya: I grew up in beautiful Almaden Valley in San Jose, California.
C & P: What made you leave the West Coast for NYC?
Tonya: I left San Francisco for New York in 2008 to get my MFA at the School of Visual Arts. After that things sort of fell into place professionally, and I decided to stick around.
C & P: Now you are living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. How long have you lived here?
Tonya: Three years.
C & P: What do you like most about living in Greenpoint?
Tonya: I think my little corner in north Greenpoint is just about perfect at the moment. I love living a block from the water, and the views of the Manhattan skyline are spectacular. There’s a unique energy to the place, partly the legacy of disused industrial spaces. And so many hidden gems.
Tonya’s desk in her studio.
C & P: What are your Greenpoint favorites? For dinner:
Tonya: Five Leaves, Paulie Gee’s, Alameda.
C & P: For a whiskey:
Tonya: The Pencil Factory is a old standby.
C & P: For design/artistic inspiration:
Tonya: Going for a run through the neighborhood.
C & P: For relaxation:
Tonya: Taking in the view where Java Street meets the East River, with the feral cats.
C & P: Did you always know that you would be involved in a creative field when you were young?
Tonya: I suppose so, but I always thought it would be in journalism.
C & P: When did you decide to study graphic design?
Tonya: Freshman year of college, after being disappointed in the journalism classes I was taking. I was lucky enough to be at UC Davis, one of the few public universities in California that had a design program. The fact that my program allowed me to study both textile and graphic design in tandem was hugely appealing.
Art direction and design for Vanity Fair. Typography by Alex Trochut.
C & P: You have worked at a variety of magazines in NYC over the past few years and you are currently working as a freelance art director at Vanity Fair Magazine. What led you to want to go into editorial design?
Tonya: It was a very unconscious decision on my part. I sort of fell into it after I got my MFA and grew to love it. I think my interests and attitude are well suited to magazines, though I don’t really think of myself as an editorial designer.
Art direction and design for the Design*Sponge Summer Newspaper, in collaboration with Alanna MacGowan.
C & P: You also take on freelance design assignments through The Dye Lab, a 2 person design studio you run with your friend, Alanna MacGowan, who lives in Seattle. Tell me a bit about the Dye Lab. How did you decide to form this studio with such a far away friend? How long has the Dye Lab existed? What is your design process like when working on a project together?
Tonya: The start of TDL was very organic. It grew out of our close friendship during college. At school we were both more interested in textile design than visual communications, and we were the punks breaking into the dye lab at night, silkscreening on any kind of surface we could think of. Now Alanna and I live 2,856 miles away from each other, so collaborating on projects has been a great excuse for us to hang out together virtually between Seattle and Brooklyn. And I think our talents complement each other pretty well.
C & P: What is inspiring to you design-wise at the moment?
Tonya: I’ve been a little bored with what’s going on in graphic design, but there are definitely some standouts. Spin, the British studio, is a perennial favorite. Every issue of IL Magazine is pretty spectacular. I think most of my inspiration comes from seeing what friends in the design scene are doing outside of their jobs, just for the love of making things.
Editorial design for New York magazine.
C & P: Is there a certain time of day when you feel most creative?
Tonya: In the morning, after a good night’s sleep.
C & P: Who are your biggest artistic/design influences?
Tonya: That’s tough to define. But some important ones, in no deliberate order: Orson Welles. Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Herb Lubalin. Twen Magazine. Terence Conran’s vintage interiors. My dad. Sheila Hicks. Gyöngy Laky. Zadie Smith. Plants. Ceramics. And just the weird unexpected moments that happen every day.
Editorial design for New York magazine. Photograph by Platon.
C & P: You have traveled to many far away places over the past couple of years. What is your favorite thing about each place? Turkey?
Tonya: The mix of so many cultural influences all in one place. It’s the best of everything.
C & P: Morocco?
Tonya: Tiled courtyards in old houses. Walking through the medina.
C & P: Thailand?
Tonya: The people. And getting Thai iced coffees made on the street.
C & P: Cambodia?
Tonya: Temples in the jungle. Stories of tigers.
C & P: Iran?
Tonya: Family. The feeling of being connected to a place that is so different from my everyday life in New York. The traditional architecture in general and my grandparents’ house in particular.
C & P: Do you feel that travel inspires you as a designer?
Tonya: Of course.
C & P: What is your next travel destination?
Editorial design for The New York Times Magazine.
C & P: What are you working on right now? Do you have any creative non-design-related side projects?
Tonya: For better or worse, for me everything is design-related in some way. I recently took up watercolor painting, a good excuse to get away from the computer.
C & P: What would you do if you were not a designer?
The G-Unit, 2011, oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm. Photo: Andreas Wünschirs, Leipzig
An interview with Leipzig Germany-based artist Tobias Hild for Cheap & Plastique #11. See more of his work on the Emmanuel Post Gallery website here. Issue 11 also features interviews with the artists Admiral Grey, Tobias Faisst, Tonya Douraghy, Shane Lavalette, Ted McGrath, Emilia Olsen, Lisa Vanin, Hidde van Schie, & Mickey Z, all articles will be coming soon to this blog.
C & P: What first got you interested in illustration/painting?
Tobias: I think it actually was an art teacher in high school. I had serious problems with other lessons and was happy that someone told me, “It´s ok what you are doing here. Go ahead.”
C & P: Have there been key experiences in your life that have impacted you and your work?
Tobias: Four years ago I went to Solothurn in Switzerland for two months. My intention was to leave the studio, be outside, and make some drawings. Since then it has been really important for me to get part of my inspiration from everything I see. Just simple things like trees, lakes… It sounds old-fashioned but drawing outside is a great chance to surprise myself and find new ways of expression.
C & P: Many of your paintings depict unsettling narratives. Tell me a bit about the bizarre worlds you create in your drawings and paintings. How important is this narrative element in your work?
Tobias: It is an important aspect but I don´t have a special story in mind before I start working. The setting of the figures and landscapes constantly change and so does the story. It´s more like that at some moment the work is finished and I am surprised at what happened to the picture. If I see a figure developing on the surface I try to bring it in contact with the rest of the setting, but at that point it is not a decision for the final narration of the work.
Pilatus, 2010, oil on canvas, 290 x 400 cm. Photo: Andreas Wünschris, Leipzig
C & P: Your images bring to mind fairytales (albeit slightly sad and/or upsetting ones) that one might remember reading in their youth. Do any of your works reference specific fables or fairy tales?
Tobias: No, there is no specific story or fairytale that has influenced any of my works, yet. I sometimes look at illustrations from the Middle Ages because I like the simple way figures and landscapes were painted during that time. But there is not a specific German writer that has influenced me. It’s more the music I’m listening to in my studio that comes into my work with a gloomy influence, but there is also light and humor in my paintings—it’s a little bit of both in almost all of my works.
C & P: Your subject matter consists of a mix of elements from both real and fantastical worlds and your painting style is also a mélange of the cartoonish, abstract, and representational. Many of your paintings depict natural settings, such as the woods or bodies of water, but these tend to be painted as dark, foreboding places, where aggressive animals such as wolves and bears lurk. These animals sometimes take on human qualities and exist alongside strange animal/human/robot hybrids as well as cartoonish human figures. Are these the scenes you imagine could be taking place deep in the woods after dark? Are they meant to be nightmarish versions of reality or surreal interpretations of impossible narratives? Or a bit of all these things?
Tobias: I feel comfortable with the idea that all this could be taking place in the dark woods or similar places. My first professor for painting in Leipzig, Sighard Gille, often told me that he thought that I was constantly working on a comic-nightmare-trip of my own life. I am not sure if that’s true, but I do like to use parts of my memory, for example, drawings I made as a child, or the interior of my parents house, as inspiration or a starting point for my work. Not all of those memories are totally happy but I am not trying to overcome something that happened to me in the past through my work. I’m not interested in confronting people with photos of my 9th birthday or something like that. Nobody wants to see these things. The most boring thing to use in a painting is a family album or found photos.
Tunker, 2011, oil on canvas, 220 x 280 cm. Photo: Andreas Wünschirs, Leipzig
C & P: Even though there are sinister undertones to some of your paintings they can also be very humorous. In the painting Tunker, for example, a giant green octopus has plucked a boat out of the sea and waves it angrily in the air. But because the octopus looks slightly cartoonish—being ridiculously oversized (larger than the mountains poking out of the landscape behind it), bright green, and possessing a robot brain—the scene does
not seem as dire for the tiny humans on board as it is ridiculous. How important is humor for you? Has humor always found its way into your work?
Tobias: That’s an interesting question because most of the people who look at my work for the first time think that a lot of what I’m doing is dark or even sad. My sense of humor is probably a little bit sarcastic. But, as I said, I never start with a special intention, like… today I will make a funny picture. I think it is important to use humor as a form because it helps not to take yourself too seriously as an artist. German artists like Werner Büttner or Albert Oehlen always have this humorous place in their work and are amazing painters as well. But if you are not a very famous artist it can be difficult to make a painting like Tunker. For some people it is hard to see it as a painting, because they think there is this guy just making a joke.
C & P: What is the inspiration behind your work? Are you influenced by German folklore? Any particular writers?
Tobias: When I gave up studying illustration I was a little bit fed up with the fact that I always had to read something before I was allowed to touch a brush or a pencil because we had to bring in some ideas for a story that was already there. But I am really interested in early German and European history. I mentioned the paintings of the Middle Ages. There are many ideas from stories and sagas that I’m trying to incorporate into my work. It is fascinating to see that this history is still present in chapels or shrines, for example in the Swiss Jura Mountains. I’m definitely influenced by such things. I like the dark aura in those works.
Der Letzte Versuch, 2012, oil on canvas, 190 x 240 cm. Photo: Andreas Wünschirs, Leipzig
C & P: What artists have been the biggest influences on you? Do you like Asger Jorn? Philip Guston? Do you feel a kinship with any artists commonly referred to as the New Leipzig School?
Tobias: I like Guston because he had many periods of experimentation before his work ended up in his famous, illustrative style. I saw a big retrospective show in London nine years ago. Just amazing. But I also like earlier painters like Corot or Courbet a lot…too many to mention. Of the so called “Leipzig School” I like the work of Christoph Ruckhäberle. He is working with painting but also in genres like drawing and printmaking. It’s always easy to recognize his work. I think that is a great thing to achieve for an artist and takes a lot of work to do so.
C & P: Does living in Leipzig influence your work? Are you influenced by the geography of Leipzig? What do you like most about living there? Least? Is it a city which is friendly to artists?
Tobias: When I came to Leipzig in early 2005 the huge hype over the Leipzig School painters was just occurring and everybody was talking about what a great opportunity to get a studio/place at the academy was. But it was difficult for the generation of painters who came after them. It was a fight amongst the students. Who gets the best studio and who is first to sell a work to famous collectors, who came to see the graduate shows. The situation was unreal. Fortunately that has changed a little bit but it took me some years to get used to all this because I had a different idea of working at an academy of visual arts. But the city itself is still a friendly place for artists. You’re able to afford a bright studio and you don’t have to go three hours by train to get your colors. I like that. That definitely has an impact on my work, because I simply get more time to be in the studio. Leipzig is the place to get focused on what you really want to do.
Bärenbahn /// a with two dots on top ///, 2011, oil on canvas, 160 x 110 cm. Photo: Andreas Wünschirs, Leipzig
C & P: Describe your process of creating a picture. What are the different stages you go through before you feel a painting complete?
Tobias: It’s hard to define the moment when a picture is complete. There are many stages during the process of creating my work. I often start a painting by using only fingers or big brushes to create an uneven surface, which gives me the opportunity to react. I don’t like working with a plan. I try to let things happen by chance. Sometimes I also take a look in past sketchbooks to see if anything fits into the scene of the new picture.
C & P: Does most of your work grow out of observable reality or do you sometimes begin from an idea in the studio? Is the starting point for a composition or narrative usually taken from a sketch you’ve made of something or do you sometimes begin from other sources? For instance, do you ever begin a picture from a purely literary source or from researching or looking for inspiration online?
Tobias: No, I haven’t been using any material from the internet so far. It is still hard for me to work on one single topic but I am contemplating trying to do so in the future. Whatever this will be… I could definitely imagine getting some inspiration online, but on the other hand there is so much crap going on in the internet it sometimes is just a distraction. If you’d ask me now, I didn’t know what type of material I would pick. I think it’s an easy thing to do and a lot of artists like to deal with pictures they find online but at the moment I still find it more exciting to see a painting emerging from what I feel or what surrounds me.
Stiefel, 2013, pencil, crayon, and acrylic on paper, 23.0 x 33.1 cm.
C & P: How do you choose which medium you will work in for a particular piece? How do you know one piece should be rendered with pencil and another oil? Is it a process of experimentation?
Tobias: I don’t feel a limit between those disciplines. At the moment I’m even trying to use pencils within the oil paintings.
C & P: I noticed that you often utilize crayon in your drawings. Have you always worked with crayon? Is there any particular reason that you use crayon? Do you like that this medium evokes memories of childhood?
Tobias: There is no particular reason for me to using crayon. It’s just a very pure form of working which I like very much. I understand that memories of childhood come to mind when you look at my work. But it’s not my ultimate intention to make my works look like drawings made by children.
Geweih, 2007, oil on canvas, 155 x 195 cm. Photo: Andreas Wünschirs, Leipzig
C & P: Some of your works seem to be comprised of a build-up of scribbles, such as Geweih from 2007, also referencing a child-like technique. Is this scribbling somewhat controlled or do you hope for a happy accident and for certain forms to emerge with the accrual of marks on the paper?
Tobias: I think it is really a kind of searching for the happy accident. It is a special moment that is hard to describe. The paint on this particular painting is very heavy. I worked on it for six months, when I was preparing for my degree show in 2007. It was such a strange period in my life because I felt quite alone in Leipzig and had no idea how my work was going to look in the future. You can see this feeling of being insecure with almost everything. But in the end it happened to be a very good painting that I still like and that was sold to the Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts this year. At the moment I’m very much trying to get back to this way of painting because it gets a little bit away from this narrative style I have been working within over the last one or two years.
Untitled, 2008, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm.
C & P: Your color palette is very diverse, some work is rendered in a brightly colored palette with pinks, greens, and yellows, while others are comprised solely of blacks, whites, and greys. How do you assign a palette to the scene or narrative you want to depict? Is it more dependent upon your own mood while working or on a built-in mood you want the picture to convey?
Tobias: I wouldn’t say that the pictures that come to surface have something to do with the mood I’m in when I paint them. I often carry an enthusiastic feeling into my work and it just ends up in a total mess with me being really doubtful whether I should go on with the picture I started in the morning. That might be the reason for most of my works looking a little bit dirty. When I don’t have any idea how to go on I just love to take a very big brush and destroy everything I worked on for days. This can be a relief or the birth of an idea for a completely new work, which I never could have imagined before. I think the mood changes more frequently during the working process than it does before entering the studio.
Burgund, 2011, oil on canvas, 190.5 x 242 cm. Photo: Andreas Wünschirs, Leipzig
C & P: You went to undergraduate college for illustration and then switched to fine art later, what brought about this desire to change focus?
Tobias: I spent almost one year in London in 2004 with an exchange program between my school in Essen and a college in South London. The first day at this college was totally disappointing because they were just offering lessons like “broadcasting” or “fashion design”. I didn’t have a studio so I came up with the idea of creating a visual diary with one drawing a day. On most days I would hop on a random bus and get off the bus when I came across what looked like an interesting area to work. I happened to see some dark areas of London, but it was a fantastic time, because I ended up with 300 drawings in my bag, which I used to apply at the academy in Leipzig. I was quite nervous, when I first met the professor and hoped that I might get a chance to spent half a year in Leipzig, but after some minutes he wanted me to be in his class, which was just a beautiful ending of this diary I started in London. I’m still grateful, that he took this quick decision that gave me the chance to be here and learn so much about what it means to be a painter. From that point on he appeared once a week in my studio and told me things like: “Why do you always use black. Try to change it with a color, maybe green”! It’s simple, but that’s the support I needed.
Trommler, 2008, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm.
C & P: Have you shown your work in Germany or abroad?
Tobias: I haven’t been showing with any galleries in the United States. That’s something I’d like to do in the future. I had several exhibitions in Germany and the Netherlands and it would be good to go one step ahead. I think my work has changed a lot over the years and it is still evolving. I hope that more and more people become interested in what I’m doing now and what I will be working on in the near future.
C & P: What are you working on currently? Any future plans?
Tobias: I’m currently working on black and white drawings that nobody has seen yet. As I said, I want to go back to a form of abstract painting. But I’m not totally sure what this is going to be. I think I will keep on working on all this stuff for the next half year or so and start with new paintings based on the new drawings.
I had a studio visit* and photo shoot with Brooklyn-based artist Emilia Olsen last month for Cheap & Plastique #11. Emilia was nice enough to give me a quick tour of her space, pose for some photos, and answer some questions about her work and the neighborhood via an email interview after the studio visit. See more of Emilia’s work here.
*One of 3 studio visits with artists working in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for the current issue of
Cheap & Plastique.
C & P: Where are you from?
Emilia: I’m a peace corps baby, so I was born in South Africa, but I grew up in Madison, WI.
C & P: You currently keep a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and used to work as an artist’s assistant in the neighborhood as well. How long have you been doing art-y things here?
Emilia: I’d been working my day job in Greenpoint for almost three years, but I only moved into this studio myself about a month ago.
C & P: What do you like most about Greenpoint?
Emilia: It reminds me a lot of when I used to live in Italy. It has this subtle old world charm that hasn’t been completely eaten up yet.
C & P: What is your favorite spot in Greenpoint?
Emilia: I like Broken Land on Franklin.
C & P:For music?
Emilia: My friends will gasp, but I’m not really a big music person. I only really go to shows unless I know someone in the band. I’m more of a talk radio person.
C & P:For food?
Emilia: Salted chocolate chip cookies at Ovenly! And salami sandwiches and rose tea cookies at Cookie Road.
C & P:For artistic inspiration?
Emilia: Local studio visits! And I wish Beginnings was still over on Meserole… That was such a fun little space.
C & P: You studied at the Corcoran School of Art and then moved to NYC to pursue a career in the arts. How different do you find living in D.C. versus NYC?
Emilia: DC is a weird place to live, especially when you’re not interested in a government job or politics. It was really interesting being so close to the White House (the Corcoran is located just steps away). I attended Barack Obama’s Inauguration, and I was able to do a teaching artist project with Michelle Obama on a local army base. I painted a bench with her and a little girl and we talked about Katy Perry.
I think that there’s more space for artists to spread out in DC. It’s not as cutthroat as here, but it’s not really less expensive. I do miss the free museums a lot. I think anywhere you live is what you make of it, but it just wasn’t the right place for me. The metro isn’t good enough.
C & P: Was there an art scene in D.C.?
Emilia: There IS an art scene in DC! DC doesn’t get enough credit for its contemporary art scene—there’s a lot of people doing interesting things down there. I have a particular soft spot for Transformer Gallery. I’ve shown there in the past and I’m part of their flat file program.
C & P: Did you always know that you would be involved in a creative field as an adult when you were young?
Emilia: Yes, pretty much.
C & P: What is your process like when creating artwork in your studio? Do you work on multiple pieces at once?
Emilia: Yes, I do tend to have multiple canvases going. I usually have one canvas that I’m using as a paint palette, and I do that until I feel like there’s enough paint built up or I’m waiting for another painting to dry, then I’ll start working on the palette canvas so it can become a real painting.
C & P: What medium do you most frequently use in your paintings? Oil? Acrylic? Is there ever an element of collage in your work?
Emilia: I used to only work in acrylic, but I switched over to oils completely a few years ago. I just love the texture and richness of color that oil paint produces.
I don’t really do collage very often, other than occasional googly eyes.
C & P: I noticed a lot of your new paintings had small multiple eyeballs painted on them or in some cases had google-y eyes stuck to them. Why have all of these eyes worked their way into your canvases as of late?
Emilia: More then anything it was intuitive. A lot of that work is kind of a manifestation of me applying little personalities to plants, and how funny it would be if they were watching us all the time from their habitats. Rolling their eyes when we do embarrassing things because they can’t look away.
C & P: I also some some older canvases that you painted of females and in your new work you have been mostly focusing on plants as the subject matter. Is there any reason for this shift or did you just want to try something new? Do you think you will ever go back to painting figuratively?
Emilia: I was mostly just really bored. I’d been out of art school for about a year and still making similar work as I had when I graduated, like paintings and drawings of sad girls with long hair. It’s really as simple as thinking, wow I am so bored, I need to change it up. And I’d been getting really into plants and gardening and was like, well I really like plants so I’m going to paint them.
I don’t know if I’ll go back to figurative works—I’m strictly on this experimental, light hearted work trajectory and I’m just going to stick with that for awhile and see what happens.
C & P: Do you keep a sketchbook?
Emilia: I used to keep them pretty habitually, but I don’t really anymore. I still draw a lot but I just work on individual drawings. So I guess those are kind of like my sketchbook now.
C & P: Who would you say are your biggest artistic influences?
Emilia: Jonas Wood, Yayoi Kusama, Erik Parker, Allison Schulnik, Daniel Heidkamp, Guy Yunai, Ellen Altfest and Mat Brinkman are a few favorites.
C & P: Is there a time/place that you would rather live in than the current?
Or one where you could be transported back via time machine to spend a few weeks hanging out and spying…
I think I’d rather see the future than the past! Unless it’s bad. Then maybe I’d skip it.
C & P: Do you feel that NYC is still the best place on the planet to pursue a career in the arts?
Emilia: Again, I think everything is what you make of it, but it’s hard to beat the amount of galleries, artists, and museums that are at your fingertips here all the time. But it’s not for everybody. You have to hustle to pay rent and also keep making your own work a priority.
C & P: Would you consider moving elsewhere?
Emilia: I think I’ll be staying put for awhile. I can’t really think of any place I would really rather live right now. I do miss traveling though. I would really like to go back to Africa.
C & P: What would you do if you did not make art?
Emilia: If I was going to do a complete 180, I’d probably go to med school. Really.
An interview with Providence-based artist/comic Mickey Z for Cheap & Plastique #11.
See more of her work here. Issue 11 also features interviews with the artists Admiral Grey, Tobias Hild, Tonya Douraghy, Tobias Faisst, Shane Lavalette, Ted McGrath, Emilia Olsen, Lisa Vanin, and Hidde van Schie, all articles will be coming soon to this blog.
C & P: What first got you interested in artmaking and comics? Have there been key experiences in your life that have impacted you and your work?
Mickey: I don’t know why I got into drawing—I used to draw a lot of dinosaurs and sharks and then later I wanted to draw stuff like X-Men or Garfield. People considered me “the best at drawing Garfield” in elementary school for awhile, but then this other girl started drawing Garfield better than me and I was very bummed. Then I saw some Anime, like “Unico and the Island of Magic”, the visual cues were different and it looked really bonkers compared to regular US cartoons. One time I rented an animated movie called The Mouse and His Child about a wind up mouse and his son, they’re trying to find a purpose or something—at one point this turtle tells the mice to find infinity, which is subsequently illustrated on a can of dog food, as a wacky dog holding the same can, and the wacky dog on that can holding another can, and so on….it completely deconstructed my existing perception of reality at the time (I was ten years old or something). I just found a link to the whole thing here (minute 50 for the infinity scene). I guess that’s impact in terms of visual and conceptual…life impacts tend to affect stuff less obviously maybe.
C & P: You work across a variety of mediums including drawing, painting, and silkscreening, producing comics, commercial illustration, and design work. Do you prefer working in one medium over another?
Mickey: No… I like to do all the things! If I do too much of one thing I start to miss the other things. Comics is the thing I definitely do the most, in terms of visual stuff, maybe I like it the most because it has an extra depth that the other stuff doesn’t have because there’s also a narrative. I love screenprinting but I haven’t screenprinted in awhile…. that is maybe the most “fun” thing. Each process for each thing is different, so it’s hard to like one better than the other.
C & P: Many of your drawings are very chaotic and dense with texture/line/color/text. Has your work always been produced in this frentic, loose style? How did this style develop? Do you ever draw in a more controlled, precise manner?
Mickey: Ahh this “style” developed mostly out of laziness! I don’t like to spend a lot of time on stuff, and I like stuff when it is “done”, because when it is done I can go outside, or stare at a wall, or go to a coffee shop and stare at a wall, or socialize or ride a bicycle or something. When I draw bigger the drawing gets more controlled on its own… just because the page gets bigger but the drawing implement stays the same size. So I can scribble all I want, and when you step like 4 feet away its just gonna look like a nice gray blur anyway, or whatever it’s going to look like.
C & P: You often draw animals such as wolves, snakes, goats, and eagles. What draws you to these slightly sinister creatures that many associate with the darker aspects of life?
Mickey: Yeah I don’t know? I’ve never liked drawing people…. and I’m really into “woods” or “the woods”, and all these things maybe live in “the woods” except for maybe goats? Goats live in the mountains? Walking through the woods can be difficult, it’s easy to stray from the path… or you think you’re on the path when you’re not, or you are walking around in circles and have no idea… meanwhile there is lots of life in the woods…. maybe they are symbols of the unknown? Or danger or temptation or something… or maybe they’re just watching you walk? Maybe I am just bullshitting? I definitely started drawing snakes though because one day I thought, “Man, I am terrible at drawing snakes.”
C & P: I really like the handdrawn type on your posters. Sometimes the information is hard to read but it makes the poster more intriguing, I like that the viewer has to work a little bit to figure out the message. Has anyone ever refused one of your designs because of illegibility? Or do most people who commission you to do a poster expect and appreciate this style?
Mickey: I’ve overheard people talk badly about the posters when they’ve been up somewhere advertising a show or whatever and I’ve had people refuse my offer to make a poster for something or other, but other than that people seem to know what they are getting into, I guess. People seem to understand that it’s much harder to accommodate their bizarre nuanced desires mid-process when screenprinting as opposed to working digitally or something.
C & P: How do you choose which medium you will work in for a particular piece? Is it a process of experimentation?
Mickey: It’s more the medium dictates the work than the other way around. If I have to make a comic, I do the thing I do to make a comic. If I have to make a poster, I make the layers for the screenprint the way I usually do. They’re all pretty separate…if it’s to be a screenprinted thing, it’s to be a screenprinted thing, there’s not another way to do it. But there’s usually room for stuff to evolve…. and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
C & P: Your color palette for your silkscreened posters is very bright and your drawings (and comic books) are mostly black and white. Why is some work so colorful and other work monochromatic? Does the printing technique influence the coloration in your work? What is your preferred printing technique? You mention that you have been using a Risograph printer lately, what do you like about Risograph printing? Where do you print most of your comics?
Mickey: I think I said before, screenprinting is fun. Throwing on extra layers is very simple to do and also a blast, and not particularly time consuming since I usually don’t do runs of more than 40 or 50 prints (it usually takes less than an hour to print one layer on 40 or 50 prints, not including set up). It’s a physical process so it’s not boring, and it’s visually stimulating (because of the bright colors). Alternatively, printing comics is boring. Making comics can be great but I print them on a machine (the Risograph), in my house, usually in my pajamas. It takes way longer because the runs are larger and there’s just generally more stuff to print. And then the collating! Ugh it’s terrible. Since it’s such a bore to print the comics… I am not necessarily interested in putting more time in to make them look brighter! Although when the comics are short and the runs are small, like in the instance of What Does the Garbage Man Say? or Haunted Forest, it’s slightly more appealing to do multicolor stuff.
C & P: How often do you produce the comic series RAV? Could you tell me a bit about it?
Mickey: RAV seems to be a twice-yearly endeavor. It’s an ongoing underground romance drone comic. Some stuff happens, a lot of stuff doesn’t happen. It keeps going. People spend a lot of time walking through the woods. If people ask me to describe it, I tell them it’s a little like Alice in Wonderland.
C & P: Could you tell me a bit about the one off comic What Does the Garbage Man Say? I have read through it a few times and it is very funny to me. What made you make a comic about the garbage man—a figure in our society who doesn’t get much love. Have you had many run-ins with your local garbage man, is this comic based on a true story? Are most of your comic tales based on real life experiences?
Mickey: One time I was cleaning out this building, putting lots of plaster and cement scraps in a little dumpster. The truck didn’t take the dumpster on it’s scheduled day and when I called to find out why, the lady said the dumpster was too heavy for that style of truck to lift it. If the truck tried, the cement scraps might fall out and kill the driver (it was a front loading truck). When I asked if she could send a different truck, she said there were no other trucks that could empty the dumpster. So I asked her what I should do and she said “you’ll have to empty the dumpster yourself”. And then I spent an afternoon in the rain emptying all the stuff out of the dumpster and into my truck bed, which felt so insane and backwards and wrong in this completely indescribable way. I guess that was why I made that comic. Most of my comics aren’t about specific experiences I’ve had (“garbage man” comes the closest), but I guess they are about living experiences generally.
C & P: I think the first time I saw your work was in the centerfold of the Dirt Palace 10th Anniversary zine. I was there a couple of years ago interviewing Pippi Zornoza, for the C & P blog, and she gave me a tour of the space, it is incredible, well equipped and sprawling. What was your experience like when having a studio space there? Was it an inspiration to be immeresed in that creative environment? Do you ever collaborate with past/present members of the Dirt Palace collective?
Mickey: It was certainly, without a doubt, an inspiration to be immersed in that zone… I loved being there and doing stuff with a bunch of other people, lots of different kinds of energy, different ways of doing stuff, that kind of thing. I love Pippi and Xander, obviously. I learned a lot, the most important stuff being not art related. some of the people I am closest with I met while I was there. Also Xander introduced me to the Risograph! I used to print all my comics on her Risograph (then I got my own).
C & P: How did you make your way to Providence, did you grow up nearby? Does living in Providence influence your work? What do you like most about living there? Least? Is it a city which is friendly to artists? Is there still a healthy art and music scene happening in Providence in 2014?
Mickey: It definitely has influenced my work…I’ve lived here for arguably my entire adult life so, inevitably, of course. Most people here have a pretty brutal work ethic, people work hard at whatever kind of work they do, most people do more than one thing, like play music and draw comics, or electrical wiring and halloween coordination. There’s a lot of skills floating around and most everyone is happy to share what they know in exchange for a grip of tacos. One time I helped someone design a website in exchange for a cassette deck, etc. The city itself is friendly to artists I guess… Rhode Island is a small state, so getting grants and stuff like that isn’t a complete pipe dream, you don’t have to be Damien Hirst or whatever. It’s cheap to live here, there aren’t too many good jobs but it’s also very possible to “make your own job”, sometimes. it’s more of a working-together vibe than a competition vibe—“Come check out my thing.” It’s pretty small-town though… which can be frustrating, but it’s also part of what makes it so nice. And it’s still pretty healthy over here in 2014. And of course……. there are whole worlds of Providence I’ve never experienced.
C & P: What other activities do you enjoy pursuing when not making music or art?
Mickey: I mostly like hanging around, staring at a wall (I think I mentioned before)…happy to stare at a wall in public as well as private. I like going to the beach in the summer. I kind of collect radios, just regular radios… but I’m into cb radio stuff too, I mostly listen, but sometimes I bark. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a heavy priority right now, it’s been slowly absorbing more and more of my time… also i’m really into recreational ceramics but i don’t get to do that very often.
C & P: I see that you run a cassette tape label called Price Tapes. How long have you been running the label? Does the label only put out bands from Providence or from all over? Are you also a musician? Are you in a band at this time?
Mickey: Maybe I have been doing the label for five years? That seems like way too long! I think I started the label to release music by friends that don’t really play music, just to see what happened..since around that time I had started playing music for the first time, and was excited by the idea that I could just pick up whatever and just do it, and therefore anyone I knew could just pick up whatever and just play music too. And what came out of that would probably be fun and bonkers and genuine. That never ended up really happening though. But Price Tapes stayed pretty true to the relaxed, positive, experimental vibe. The label ideally releases music from everywhere, but it’s pretty heavily Providence because those are the people I see everyday… and see them perform or hear their music the most. I’m a musician, I guess, my project is called “Dungeon Broads”.
C & P: What projects are you working on currently?
Mickey: Working on finishing RAV #9, Youth in Decline will be publishing a partial RAV collection in Spring 2014, so I suspect I’ll be working on that sometime soon. Working on getting the Price Tapes dubber fixed, it broke. Got to draw Graveyard Ducks for Mothers News, I’ve been slacking on that! I’m trying to chill out a little bit… I ran around a lot this year.
C & P: What could you imagine doing if you did not create art?
Mickey: Ah anything! I like to do lots of things, I’d really be happy doing whatever—sweeping—I think is an ideal. Also have always wanted to work at a marina.
An interview with Berlin-based photographer/graphic designer Tobias Faisst for Cheap & Plastique #11. See more of his work here. Issue 11 also features interviews with the artists Admiral Grey, Tobias Hild, Tonya Douraghy, Shane Lavalette, Ted McGrath, Emilia Olsen, Lisa Vanin, Hidde van Schie, & Mickey Z, all articles will be coming soon to this blog.
C & P: Where do you currently live?
C & P: What do you like most about living in Berlin? Least? Is this where you grew up? Are you currently attending university there?
Tobias: I’m currently studying communication design in Potsdam. By the end of the year I want to do my bachelor thesis. I have been living in Berlin for almost 4 years now and I have never felt so comfortable in a place. Berlin has become my new home. I truly feel that I will never completely be through with this city, there are things here that surprise and amaze me every day. I can get on the train or drive 20 minutes and find myself in a relatively unknown terrain. In short, Berlin seems very familiar to me but there is always something strange, a feeling that remains with me, and makes this place interesting and exciting to me. The disadvantages of the city are probably similar to those in any metropolis. So far there are no disadvantages for me in Berlin.
C & P: Did you imagine that you would be an artist/photographer/designer in adulthood? How long have you been taking photographs? What drew you to the medium and why did you choose to pursue it seriously?
Tobias: I was excited by graffiti and urban art at 14 years old. Over the years I have kept a sketchbook and also painted graffiti under village bridges and behind power stations with my friends. I photographed a lot at that time, but very unconsciously. I was recording my youth with an analog miniature Leica that I got as a gift from my aunt for my confirmation. I was shooting typical snapshot photographs—the fact that one could use this medium in an artistic way was still unclear to me at this time. At 16 I unsuccessfully applied for training as a media designer. I knew very early on that I wanted to work and earn my money through design, but I waited 10+ years until I could complete my desired course at university. My photographic interest leveled off quickly after my early teens. The second time I came across photography was while I was spending an extended period in Birmingham (UK). I took a job there in a Jamaican jerk paste factory and worked as a media labratory assistant. I developed my first prints in the darkroom. I also documented my stay as a tourist with a digital point and shoot camera. Even then I was not aware of the possibilities of photography, for me it was just a medium for memory collection. A few years later I completed on the job training as a media designer and photography was a small part of that education. At that time, I was building masks made of different materials to photograph on models in my spare time. The human underneath the mask was not the focus of this set up. I continued working on the mask theme for over two years, during which time I gained some technical knowledge.
At 27 I started studying communication design at university. In the second semester I enrolled in a photography course. I figured out by the end of the course that I had no clue about photography, all I knew was that I was very passionate about it, so I continued training and honing my skills as a photographer. I became more familiar with the theoretical side of photography. I became completely absorbed in photography and the photographic process. I chose to pursue photography seriously at this time, out of passion for the medium.
C & P: Do you find that being trained as a graphic designer informs the photography and sculptural work you make?
Tobias: With communication design, image and text goes hand in hand. In college you learn to explore your environment and give your actions context.
Perhaps studying design did influence my style in a different way from what would have happened if I had studied photography only. A graphic designer thinks a lot about proportions, lines, spaces, colors, and shapes—this does come across in my photography. Since photography and graphic design are both two dimensional mediums.
I want to extend my form of expression with my sculptural work. Graphic design is very top-heavy, working on a sculpture gives me room to decide things quickly and viscerally. What I have learned in my studies always stays with me in the back of my mind, sometimes a decision is an unconscious one but other times it is something extensively thought about and planned.
C & P: Does your designer eye draw you to make images where color, pattern, and form (as an abstract/non-representational subject) are the main components of the image?
Tobias: There is the pure visual representation of “being” by color, shape and time. With a really fantastic picture this is only the basic framework, really great photos have another meta level for me. That could be many things—I’m looking for humor or a curiosity in a sculpture or an installation. With my sculpture, I am mainly documenting set ups which I create, so perspective and position play a mayor role with these works. Also, I find the idea that everything has the potential to be an artwork very exciting. The underlying theme with the installation work is more about my perspective on my surroundings and a theoretical dispute with art and photography. My photographs are always part of a grander scheme—they are rarely just the visual representation of something that has appeared before my eyes. Many of my images have to be seen in connection with other specific images to recognize what I am trying to communicate in the entire body of work. The whole is not yet complete and continues to evolve but the longer I photograph forms and add to the various photographic series the more the work makes sense to me.
According to prevailing opinion, photography holds more relevance in our current time period and is considered by some to hold the same importance as painting in the not so distant art historical past. I treat my photographs as pictures painted with my eyes of topics that are interesting to me.
Human action is manifested in our everyday environment. Perception, design of urban spaces, the random are all recurring elements in my work. I study these ideas and elaborate upon them, in my personal language, through the medium of photography. One could say that my design training influences my final images as well as my way of looking at things, it sets the outer frame for the image. The content is generated from an artistic point of view, however, and I’m trying to question the dogmas of my studies and to break them if need be.
C & P: Are the images of your found sculptural works documentation of the process of creating the work or is the final photographic image the artwork itself?
Tobias: When I speak of sculpture and installation that I “find” in a urban environment, I mean that I create their existence as artworks through my photography. I am aware that the city is full of these types of random scenarios, but because I say this board is now art, it becomes art by my classification of it as such. Before that it was most likely just a board. Obviously, I’m not the first to say this and am referencing well known artists of late art history. The limit of the frame of a photograph has a strong influence on our perspective. And I’m using this fact for my work. What I also find particularly interesting is that something I’m photographing sometimes only needs one or two “interferences” and then, through these, others can immediately recognize that someone has interfered with their surroundings or environment and sometimes this reconfiguration of their surroundings leaves them in a state of incomprehension or amazement. I try to make visible that which already exists but is hidden to the eyes of many. Every day I discover many scenes and situations that if they were shown in a “white room” there would be no doubt about their artistic authenticity. The only difference is that these arrangements are brought about by chance. Therefore, one can say that my sculptures form a symbiotic relationship with the photograph of them. The sculpture/installation does not exist without the photograph documenting it and vice-versa. I believe that the installation speaks for itself and doesn’t need to be created physically, the documentation is statement enough. I have the disadvantage that a photograph does not generally provide a physical experience as powerful as an installation in a white room. But my role as an artist is to identify these types of situations in an urban area and lend them this artistic contextualization. I would also like to emphasize the idea that one can see great art anywhere. I question where and when art should take place. What frame (setting and parameters) does art need?
C & P: How do you choose what will be the subject of a photograph?
Tobias: As a photographer, you wander through the world seeing it as one continuous photograph. You walk through the world with a constantly running automatism which feeds the brain with simple information—good picture, very good picture, no picture—which works for me. Obviously what I shoot is based on my viewing habits and interests. The one disadvantage of moving through the world with an intense focus is that there is probably a lot that I do not see. In my case, it is probably the more interpersonal situations.
Do you ever scout out locations for a photo series? Do you randomly travel somewhere and wander the streets with the hope of finding something interesting to shoot?
If the weather is good, I ride my bike to the train and get onto the first train that arrives. Anytime the urge strikes me, I get out of town. I also enjoy aimlessly riding for hours through the city. I try to ride through as many backyards as possible because I often find my pictures there. If I find something interesting, I climb over a fence or walk onto the premises. I find the best photos where I am not supposed to be. Often it is the same sort of places that attract me—industrial areas, places that are under construction, or places which are about to disappear. When I enter a building site I have similar feelings as when visiting an exhibition in a museum. I think construction sites are generally very inspiring, the colors and textures of the randomly stacked building materials are very interesting to me.
C & P: Are you always looking for an image to capture no matter where you are?
Tobias: A good photographer knows that if there is nothing to photograph and your shoot is unsuccessful, it can also be a positive experience. Photography has a lot in common with hunting. Some photographers shoot anything that moves and do not see the deer in the woods they are actually striving to capture. I often know what images I want to capture very quickly, in the city as well in the countryside. A good example is my series “Mitteltal”, which originated in my home village in just two days. For me there can also be photographically dead sites—places without corners and edges, clean and without character. Usually it’s those places where crews of people with cameras around their neck are running amok.
C & P: Is there any one thing that always attracts your eye (and your camera)?
Tobias: The curious and the strange. Kitsch and geometry, and, of course, the sculptural.
C & P: You most often shoot outdoors, scenes that most people might just walk past and not notice; a white square painted onto a tree, a stain (or shadow) on a cement wall, a motorcycle with a weather tarp… Have you always had a heightened sense of awareness of your surroundings enabling you to notice these non-places/non-subjects?
Tobias: My studies have changed my perception greatly, like as if I had poor eyesight and then got a pair of glasses. My perception is altered and more focused. I sometimes notice that when I am taking a picture and a passer-by will ask me what I am actually photographing. Then I wonder if I have a heightened perception or if I am just crazy because something banal can inspire me. I think that perception is a question of training and, as with many things, it’s a talent that can be improved upon and repetition plays a major role. A person who is trained in a specific technology will naturally look at the world very differently than me. His perception has been altered in a whole different way and he is seeing the world through another set of filters. When an engineer and I look at an industrial complex, his focus would likely be on its technological aspects and mine on its external appearance. Thus, one type of increased perception can result in a blind-spot when it comes to other aspects of something.
C & P: Why do you find the banal photo-worthy? What draws your eye to such ordinary things?
Tobias: For me, the magic lies in everyday things that get less attention, where there is still room to discover and explore. The obvious, everyone can see, and that can be boring to me. People tend to see beauty only in small socially defined frameworks. A sunset is beautiful and kittens are cute because these scenes are defined to us as such from an early age. With photography, I’m able to question our standards of beauty. I would not question the beauty of a sunset but it can still bore me. I want to show there are other worthwhile subjects to be photographed. Often, when I look at other people’s photographs of something like a vacation, I wonder if they have merely been somewhere and viewed that experience only through their preexisting stereotypes. You can google two words and get the same results as the photographs, whereas a commitment to what’s interesting in the everyday requires focus and an eye for detail. There is a nice quote from Viktor Sklovskij.
“To restore to us the perception of life, to make things tangible, the stone stony, there is what we call art.”
C & P: There is also an element of humor to your work, in pictures such as the one of a snow plow with a cover, whose headlights take on some sort of video game creature’s characteristics, images of 18-wheeler trucks with airbrushed bears and/or the grim reaper on the side, a manicured office garden park where one of the very green shrubs looks like it is about to fall over and die… Some of the found sculptural constructions are also humorous. Are your images evidence proving that the world is just one large, ridiculous, imperfect place?
Tobias: Perfection does not exist in my opinion. There is only striving for it. Perfection is also subjective. The curious things that are often imperfect or embody surprising deviations fascinate me and usually have a humorous side. I like art which, despite its seriousness, also has room for humor. In my case, this is usually a sense of humor that is subtle and not immediately accessible. Humor, especially in photography, can also be very specific to an individual. If I use an image of truck airbrushed in a certain way, I do not think the driver has chosen those images because he thinks they are funny. It’s likely the opposite in that he feels proud and that they embody his personality and his work. The question then is whether the image as art is making fun of a subject or rather just admiring the craftsmanship of the airbrush. This is another example of how multi-faceted photography can be and how much it can tell us about individuals and human nature. My photographs ask questions even if they just appear to be funny.
Are there any artists who use humor/wit in their artwork that you admire?
Martin Parr and Joel Sternfeld come to mind right away. Not many other photographers immediately come to mind. Maybe because photography is still taken very seriously, perhaps too seriously.
C & P: Most of your pictures are people-free. Do you prefer to photograph places that are void of humans?
Tobias: The human as a physical subject plays a minor role in my photography. I think the human figure, perceived as an individual, would be more disruptive to my imagery than complimentary. When a human appears in a picture, that picture can often become primarily about the person and the environment becomes a backdrop. Combining an environment and man in the same image increases the difficulty of a good photo for me. Quite often, one or the other element will end up lacking definition because of how time effects them differently. Architecture and environments are very patient and I appreciate that, whereas the image of a man cannot usually convey exactly what is in my mind. When I photograph a street or an urban environment, the context I’m trying to lend the image is about human beings as a whole and not about any individual. Inevitably, the focus is on my culture and my surroundings and my perception. In another way, however, I am always photographing people, just through the actions and influence, even if they are not physically present.
C & P: Have you ever shot portraits or made images where people were the main subject of the photograph? Why do you think you are drawn to one type of imagery over the other (if in fact you are!)
Tobias: As strong as my personal interest in interpersonal situations may be, my interest in portraying this in my photography is minimal. I’m a pretty normal guy with a normal life in a safe country. This means that the interpersonal situations I find around me are not very exciting to me in a photographic sense. I’m not a Nan Goldin or a Mapplethorpe type photographer, able to show glimpses into another world. I don’t even travel extensively. So I am not someone who hangs around street musicians from Eastern Europe for a half an year, and then documents that through my photography. I do, however, admire people who do and sometimes wish I had the balls to do the same. Often I ask myself why I repeatedly photograph the same things over and over again and it probably has a lot to do with the experiences from my childhood. Art is always a subconscious processing of one’s past. There is a lot of room for interpretation if someone is building phallic sculptures from scrap and likes cloaked objects. You can assess these tendencies, but only after decades, and I may likely be interested in something completely different a year later. Ultimately, I think it would be difficult for me to successfully capture the banal aspects of human relations that interest me in my photographic work. I think if anyone seriously wants to photograph people, you must have something to say, otherwise one can drift off very quickly into the trash or end up producing images that have already been seen a thousand times.
C & P: How do you feel about the influence of blogs in the photography world?
Tobias: This is a very contemporary question. Blogs have become a part of my daily routine. Generally, when I observe the development of this trend, I have two minds to it. On one hand, the photo world is growing closer together. More talented artists from around the world have the opportunity to present their work to larger audiences and this creates a greater exchange. Every day I discover new and exciting photographers. On the other hand, one gets easily lost in the crowd. I take pictures for myself as well as for other people. Without the internet, I would store my pictures on my computer and possibly 100-500 people would end up getting a chance to see them through a small exhibition. Now, I can reach 10,000 people on a well visited blog. But this raises the question—what value does the work have for the viewer if they have already looked at a thousand other pictures that day online? Therefore, printed images still inevitably end up better remembered. Just yesterday, I was looking at a photo book by Thomas Ruff and it’s a very different kind of experience. Ultimately, I do think showing pictures on the web can detract from their value, because they are just one tiny part of a huge flowing medium. On the other hand, why not use that medium and be part of the great whole. Only giving a fuck about the traditional, stiff, conservative art world and being afraid to show your work or process on the Internet because you might not be taken seriously as an artist is equally sad.
C & P: A majority of people now see photography mainly online—on the computer screen, at a relatively small size, with only a few images representing the photographer’s work—versus viewing multiple prints in a gallery setting. Do you feel that there is something lost by seeing an image only on the computer screen?
Tobias: I do not think anything needs to be directly lost from working with the online medium itself. What concerns me is the amount of images that we now fly over in a day. The effect of a photograph is entirely different in a book or a museum. The place, the frame, the size and arrangement are real factors that can cause a work to be viewed in a completely different light. Each recombination of these factors can tell a new story and there are many more “knobs” for an artist to adjust to create the specific environment you want for your work. These options on the internet are far too limited. Viewing photos online has something of a fast-food quality to it. Everything blends into a digital mush. Maybe this is the beginning of an important discussion about quantity and quality in the digital environment. I show a lot of pictures on my blog that would not make it into an exhibition or a photo book. But you get a better feel for my process and my work. Without this online component, you would only ever see the drastically edited final results and completely miss the route to that destination that can be equally as interesting. Or you could miss a whole cosmos of artists and work that exists outside the art world on the internet.
C & P: Do you think blogging is changing the way we view images? Are pristine photographic prints becoming a presentation method of the past?
Tobias: I would say no, I think the printed image will still be around for a long time due to its physical existence alone. A photo needs a tangible condition in order to utilize its full value. On the internet, time is a different element. Since photography banishes time, it needs a situation in which the levels of time come together. That is how I see it. Blogging changes photography extraordinarily, but one could write a whole book about that.
C & P: It seems that a lot more “serious” photographers are using Instagram (at least in the USA) as a tool to get their images out into public view now, whereas a few months or a year ago they were a bit more hesitant to post their work in that forum. How do you feel about Instagram?
Tobias: I personally do not use Instagram and will probably never use it. For photographers, it’s another way to present their images, so I can understand this step. Personally, I don’t like the basic idea. I don’t like the filters and the whole smartphone thing. For me, it seems like a kind of modern day diary that responds to the self-promoter in all of us. I’m only able to make up my mind up as an outsider but my sense is that Instagram is mainly about narcissism rather than photography. What I find interesting about Instagram is the fact that people crave analog looks, but those filters are produced with modern technology.
C & P: Do you utilize the platform? Do you feel that it is not as popular in Germany as it may be in the States?
Tobias: It is also very popular in Germany…for selfies, your lunch and your great life. In my opinion, Americans have a more open attitude towards social media than Germans. But Germany will probably catch up over the years.
C & P: What is your photo editing process like? How do you choose which images should be in a series in a gallery or in a photo book or only on the web? Or in all places simultaneously?
Tobias: My blog acts as more of a sketchbook, since I have no official website. I know that is very unprofessional, but I can’t find the time to do otherwise whilst studying. For exhibitions and books, I put the images together by feel and I do this relatively quickly. One could spend days, months or even years doing these things, but I have trained myself to make these types of decisions quickly and intuitively due to the top-heavy nature of my process. Otherwise, I would probably never get anything done. Every week I look at my own work and know pretty much what I want to show, what I don’t, and in what context. I also decide intuitively which pairings of images will lead to a good dialogue.
C & P: Have you created any photo books of your work? How do you feel about the re-emergence of the photo book as a popular medium in the art world (especially the photography world)?
Tobias: I’ve created 3 photo books/brochures so far. My 2012 series Mitteltal and Hornisgrinde. I wouldn’t necessarily consider these real books though, since I think I have only really understood the possibilities of photography for the past two years. A real photo book for me is also a manifesto that includes a certain amount of time spent on quality. The resurgence of photo books is a very good development I think, especially the idea of self-publishing. I don’t think there is any money to be made really, but it’s always nice to see good work in photo books.
C & P: What type of camera do you shoot with? A digital SLR, a film camera, or both?
Tobias: I use both. But I use analog rather rarely as it is too expensive for me as a student and I’m too impatient. I also find the whole technical side of analog rather exhausting. Sometimes I wish that I had a little more patience for the analog because I think it would benefit my work. Maybe if I could devote myself exclusively to photography I would be more likely to devote the kind of time and money needed to analog photography.
C & P: Do you use the computer as a tool when creating your photographs? Do you ever use Photoshop to edit images when finalizing a body of work?
Tobias: For me, digital editing in photography is essential. What did Ruff say? “As little retouching as possible, as much retouching as necessary.” I see things exactly the same way. Retouching is a tool which, if used correctly, can provide a picture with exactly the little thing it needs to bring the whole statement behind the image to the front. I could talk for hours about the process of digital editing.
C & P: What artists/photographers do you find inspirational? Contemporary?
Tobias: I like photographers that show me things and viewpoints that are hidden to me. I like photographers who devote themselves to topics for which I don’t have the courage or patience to take on. I won’t mention any names since they fade very quickly in my internet spoiled brain.
C & P: What could you imagine doing, if you didn’t do what you do?
Tobias: Honestly, I’ve never think about it much. I have worked in perhaps twenty different occupations in my life. Never particularly long at any one, but still long enough to get an impression. However, I was already sure I wanted to be a graphic designer when I was 16. I am very grateful that I can do something I like for work. Sometimes I want a job with more adventure and travel opportunities, but maybe I can combine those things with what I do later.
IO Echo is tonight’s photo editing soundtrack.
First video directed by former New York City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied.
untitled, 2004, 23.6 x 19.7 in, from Beaugrenelle
I am bringing back some of my favorite past interviews as I prepare to release issue 11 of Cheap & Plastique. C & P interviewed Berlin-based artist Georg Parthen for Issue 10. See more of Mr. Parthen’s work here.
C & P: You live in Berlin currently. What do you like most about living in Berlin? Least?
Georg: The city is exciting and inspiring, yet life remains relaxed. “Always changing, never twice the same.”
C & P: Do you frequently travel outside of Berlin (and Germany) to find subject matter for your artmaking practice?
Georg: Traveling puts me in a state of heightened awareness and allows me to clearly focus on a body of work. For some projects it is a crucial part and I could not produce a series like Landschaften without extensive trips to find these locations.
Enklave, 2009, 37 x 63 in, from Landschaften
C & P: How do you choose/scout out locations for future photo series? What is your conceptualizing process like?
Georg: I change my process according to the work I am producing. Partially I know the locations for my photographs from previous experience, partially I visit locations based on research. Sometimes I intuitively choose a region to travel to which I hope offers physical representations of ideas for images I already have in my head.
C & P: Has your work always consisted of digitally constructed, altered images? Or was there a time when you made more straightforward documentary photographs? Are the images in the series Carports strictly documentary and not digitally manipulated? Did a shift in your work occur or do you work on both types of series simultaneously?
Georg: I started out using photography traditionally, shooting 35mm and developing my own film. Since then I have moved through a lot of different formats and techniques slowly shifting towards digital tools. This evolution has expanded my understanding of the medium and allows me to make my work with far less compromises than traditional techniques.
Kuppeln, 29.6 x 48.9 in, 2007, from Landschaften
C & P: The images in this series Landschaften, such as Kuppeln, Enklave, and Dorf, are not real places, they are constructed. Could you talk a bit about your process of creating a series like Landschaften? Where do the individual elements, such as the Buckminster Fuller style domes in Kuppeln, that populate the landscapes come from? Have you shot all of the elements used in the photographs yourself? Do you ever source bits and pieces of imagery from elsewhere (image banks, the internet, etc.)?
Georg: Thus far I have been photographing all elements for my images myself, mostly for practical and partially for technical reasons. Before I find it I usually I do not really know what i searched, so I heavily rely on the world to provide what I am longing for. The moment I am physically present in front of one of these buildings or landscapes very much defines the shape of the work I am going to make from it. I like this romantic idea and don´t want to replace this with an online image search. Also I need a certain technical quality for my sketches I don’t think I could source currently.
Usually I make trips to a certain region or location to photograph for my archive which consists of anything from image fragments to complete shots where most of the final work is already inclosed. Later in the studio I construct the Landschaften from those. Often I work on two different versions of the same image side by side to trying to carve out different elements until I can decide which one feels and functions better.
Berg, 2009, 37 x 70.5 in, from Landschaften
C & P: The landscapes (from the series Landschaften) bring to mind Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, is he an influence on you? Are your images constructed in a manner similar to how CDF worked, piecing together many different sketches to create one final picture?
Georg: When first starting to make the Lanschaften I did research Caspar David Friedrichs’s work. There are more differences than similarities to our works and approaches though, even though I also make my images in the studio from sketches I compile in nature. Apart from the great manual difference between painting a canvas from drawings in a sketchbook and montaging photographs on a computer Caspar David Friedrich heavily encoded meaning into his work through a use of elements and symbols to the point where a certain color represents a certain emotion, something I have no interest in.
Also not all my landscapes are pieced together; sometimes I make one from a single capture, adding or changing certain elements. I would not hesitate to include an image in the series that has not been altered at all if it would evoke the same doubts in me as the others.
Firma, 2010, 41 x 29.6 in, from Landschaften
C & P: The architecture that makes its way into your landscape pictures, in the series Landschaften particularly, tends to overtake the natural landscapes and look somewhat foreboding, the structures do not look like they belong in the setting, the complete picture sometimes does not seem to make sense but one is not sure why. The architecture also looks somewhat futuristic (as in the work Firma). There are no roads leading up to these architectural constructions. When constructing these imagined places are you visualizing a land which may have once been inhabited and has now been deserted and left to decay? Are you interested in architectural ruins in this work (or any of your work)?
Georg: No. My use of architecture is not single-coded. Usually I work with structures that are not signifiers of a certain location but rather of a time and vision. I want a contemporary appeal yet I am interested more in the image than the the individual structure that was in front of my camera. The architecture stands loosely as a metaphor for the different conceptual layers of construction I wish people to contemplate. Here the structural construction of the architecture and the fabrication of a realistic landscape in the work, there the photographic transformation and your process of creating meaning in the world.
C & P: Are you imposing (utopian) ideals of the 20th/21st century of progress, growth, and building with the placement of huge man-made constructions/formations in the midst of these natural, untouched landscapes?
Georg: Definitely. If you look at my work from recent years I too am progressing towards the future regarding the historical references of the individual works. I started out with work about baroque architecture, then made the the Beaugrenelle series about a Parisian quarter which had been envisioned as a vision of urban life in the 1970s. After Beaugrenelle I made work about Multiplex cinemas built in the last two decades and have pretty much reached the present time with the Novae series and the recent video works.
Multiplex XXVIII, (Cinestar Dortmund), 2007, 23 x 18.1 in, from Multiplex
C & P: A documentary photographer attempts to produce truthful and objective images on film (or with a digital camera), however, making a photograph that represents the truth may be an impossible goal—as there may not be a way of representing universal truth and reality changes from moment to moment. Do you feel that an image can be truly objective or is it always subjective? How do you feel about the idea of “the decisive moment”?
Georg: “Compared to a painting the photograph loses its own reality more and more as it renders the other one. That way the only ‘reality’ of a photograph is its own unreality, its not-being-there is its actual quality.” (badly translated from: Gerhard Richter: “Text”, pg. 114, letter to Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 1979).
I do not think an image can either be objective or subjective and I am not even sure what these attributes really mean. As artists working with photography we ponder and argue about these questions all the time, especially with curators and art historians.
A photograph is always a pretty severe abstraction from what happened in front of the apparatus and we are all more or less consciously aware of that.
In my work there is no decisive moment. There are only moments, sometimes hundreds in which the shutter of my camera has fired. My images do not refer to an instant of time stretched infinitely but rather to have no time at all, as paradox as it sounds. This is their reality—an indefinite moment.
C & P: You use the techniques of a documentary photographer but with a completely different goal for your end result. Are you are questioning the role of the photograph in society as a document of truth, considering that photography also has the ability to be misleading and false (and is often used for these means)? Do you believe all reality is constructed in relation to photography?
Georg: I do believe that all reality is constructed in relation to photography. But all meaning is constructed in regards to reality.
Multiplex XXXIII, (Cinestar Köln), 2007, 21.2 x 15.8 in, from Multiplex
C & P: What is it about the blurring of the line between construction and documentation that interests you?
Georg: When an image does not affirm what you already know you will try to make sense within the system of all your knowledge and find a meaningful place for the new bit it just received. If these incongruencies happen over and over again there is a chance that you start to reconfigure your system, recontextualizing everything you know. Working this way I hope to create an emotional and rational tension where my work can actually change how the viewers perceive their world.
C & P: You have said, “I would love to see imagery that is so normal or so boring or even so bad that I can hardly stand looking at it.” Do you have any examples of images that have succeeded in this task? What is it about the concept of an image being boring, hideously beautiful, or just plain bad that interests you? Do you like these images?
Georg: I feel these qualities are often easily discounted but can be used for artistic inquiry in many ways. Boredom and annoyance are strong qualities of a work that can create a disturbance or even an annoyance.
untitled (ecs 1), 2010, 20.5 x 15.4 in, from Novae
C & P: You photograph the interiors of stores that sell electronic-based consumer goods in the Novae series, such as televisions, mobile phones, stereo systems, dvds, and music discs. How do you feel an individual’s desire is shaped for these electronic objects when the environment one purchases them from is so sterile (to almost a surreal degree)? Are you interested in the creation of desire for newer and newer technology? Are you critiquing the rampant consumerism of today’s world in this series?
Georg: Novae is definitely a comment on these spaces but I did not intend it as a critique of consumerism. I am filled with wonder when I spend time at these stores and perceive them as the “Wunderkammern” of our time. Their visual abundance is beyond what the human mind is able to compile and the natural response seems to be—buy something, then leave immediately.
untitled (mmk 1), 2010, 20.5 x 15 in, from Novae
C & P: Could you tell me a bit about the process of creating the images of the superstores in Novae? The images of these interiors seem hyperreal, the objects within the spaces look sculptural. Are you lighting the space in a certain way while shooting to achieve this hyperreal effect, are the images enhanced in Photoshop, or is this a relatively accurate representation of how the goods are marketed to the consumer—stacked, orderly, well-lit?
Georg: As most of my works, the images in Novae are montages from several images to create a rendering that I hold specific and true to these spaces. It took me a while to figure out how to deal with these spaces and overflow of visual information. After shooting for a while I realized that not to get lost I made these strict image compositions, concentrating on the the sculptural qualities of the store displays.
I decided to embrace that and make the images where all the small fragments demand your attention equally and only the sculptural order provides some emotional resting place.
Plateau, 2007, 29.6 x 39.8 in, from Landschaften
C & P: Most of your pictures are people-free, do people/figures ever make an appearance in your work?
Georg: For my questions of inquiry figures have not [yet] been important.
C & P: You mentioned that lately your work is growing less and less “project-oriented” or “pre-visualized”. You are creating more video works rather than still images, such as the Modul series and untitled (AFX). Could you talk a bit about how this shift occurred and the direction you see your work going in in the future?
Georg: I grew tired of working from my preconceptions of the world. Working with a concept has the benefit to know the boundaries of a project and it speeds up my working process. However, I felt it also limited my possibility for true discovery, which I wanted to allow in my work to a greater extent. In the past two years I have shifted my process towards a more circular way of working where my work acts as a source for itself, which dictates the form and direction it is going. The introduction of video work is a direct result of this shift.
C & P: In your Modul videos, you’ve focused on long static shots of noisy generators against backdrops where elements such as tree branches and leaves jostle minimally in the breeze. Can you talk about what type of buildings these generators are servicing? Are they residential properties? Do the structures, largely unseen in the work, for which these machines exist, play a role or is the generator itself the central focus of the work?
Georg: The buildings they are serving are schools and office buildings; not unlike the one I used in Firma. On recent trips to the U.S. I grew aware of these “black boxes” that create the background sound of our time, yet remain mostly unnoticed. As with many technical devices we need to rely on abstract knowledge in order to understand what they are doing, in this case these “modules” serve as cooling devices for the houses. Besides their main function they also consume a lot of power and produce noise and heat.
Modul 1, 11:40 minutes, Loop, HD-Projektion, 2010
C & P: These generators are objects that the average person would pass by without ever taking notice of or considering. With the videos focusing on them so intently, it seems to me that the objects take on a whole new set of traits or characteristics. I don’t want to make the jump of saying this humanizes them but it does seem to lend them an individuality or even a personality that is born wholly of the unusual attention being paid to them. Is this an intent of the work, that we consider these machines outside of their usual context of purely functional objects? Similarly, we can look at these videos and see very little actually going on that is immediately visual. However, when we think of the purpose of these central objects, to provide power and electricity to buildings housing or servicing large numbers of people, it is also possible to imagine a multitude of lives and stories unfolding behind the scene.
Georg: Transferred into a representative work my “Modules” become absurd functional objects; their purpose not to cool the building they are servicing but to represent themselves and by doing that generating heat and noise in the exhibition space. On second sight one might discover a strangeness in them which could be result from the fact that the videos are montaged but also could be a quality of the objects themselves.
C & P: Did you have any desire for these seemingly straightforward shots to serve as referential devices in this way or as a means through which to contemplate the relationships between people and their environments?
C & P: Is the noise the generator is creating an important aspect of this work? Have you ever worked on sound pieces in the past?
Georg: It is important, no I have not worked with sound before.
untitled, 2004, 23.6 x 19.7 in, from Beaugrenelle
C & P: Have you been looking at any artists who do work with sound in their art practice as of late?
Georg: I just finished watching Mark Leckey’s GreenScreenRefrigerator which is amazing. His work disturbs and inspires me.
C & P: You mentioned to me that you are collaborating on a set of digital sketches about ideas of image construction with Christian Hellmich, who is also featured in the magazine this issue, could you tell me a bit more about this project? What prompted this discussion and exchange? Will you be showing the final outcome in a gallery setting?
Georg: The exchange with Christian is an experimental dialogue. We send each other files and working instructions and collaborate on images in a way that each image goes back and forth between us several times until one of us decides that it is done. The initial motivation was a mutual interest in each other`s concepts of perceiving an image based on our rooting in different media. There is no intended final result and thus far it serves as a well of inspiration and basis for arguments and discussions. We exhibited one work in a group show in Munich but besides that we have no plans for exhibiting the work yet.
C & P: Tell us what else you are working on now. Do you have any exhibitions coming up in the near future?
Georg: For more than a year I have been working on a set of constructed still-life images and an accompanying publication, to be finished in the summer.
Part of the Novae pictures will be shown in a group show in the Goethe-Institut in St. Petersburg in April and May.
C & P: Where can we find your portfolio website?
I am bringing back some of my favorite past interviews as I prepare to release issue 11 of Cheap & Plastique. C & P interviewed Pittsburgh-based photographer Ed Panar for Issue 9. Ed was featured in TIME’s Best of 2011: The Photobooks We Loved and was also picked by Alec Soth for his Top 20 Photobooks of 2011. Animals That Saw Me is available here.
C & P: You currently live and work in Pittsburgh, PA. What do you like most about living in Pittsburgh? Least? Is this where you grew up?
Ed: I just moved back to Pittsburgh earlier this year after spending the past few years in Brooklyn. The town I grew up in is about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh so I didn’t grow up here, although it shares some similar qualities with the town I’m from. It wasn’t until I lived in Pittsburgh for the first time in late 2005 that I came to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the city. It was also the first time I actually started to understand how the city is intertwined with the rugged topography of the area. I really came to appreciate this quality very much. There are a lot of things I love about Pittsburgh. I love its range of moods and atmosphere. The labyrinths of streets and neighborhoods scattered along the hills, rivers and forests. All the bridges, narrow alleys, and hidden staircases. I could easily go on. Since moving back it’s been really wonderful so I don’t have too many complaints at the moment!
C & P: Is Pittsburgh bustling with creativity since it is a relatively inexpensive city to live in? There seems to be quite a few arts spaces there, are you affiliated with any of them? Do you show your work anywhere in Pennsylvania or the US?
Ed: I don’t know too much about what is going on locally at the moment, so I can’t really speak about that. But I am interested in working on a lot of different projects while I’m here and hope to help contribute something to the local scene. A new photography bookshop and project space called Spaces Corners just recently opened in Pittsburgh and the founder Melissa Catanese and I are working together on a series of photography events and programs for the upcoming year.
C & P: I went on a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh a few years ago, to go to the Andy Warhol Museum, and ended up being pleasantly surprised by the city. I found it to be a very photogenic (I loved the nighttime fog) and friendly city, I ended up taking a ton of photographs while I was there. Do you shoot mostly in Pittsburgh or do you journey outside of the city on shoots?
Ed: I always photograph where I live, and every place has its own unique photographic possibilities. But Pittsburgh is definitely one of my favorite places to wander around and take pictures. The possibilities of taking pictures here feel endless. I already have quite a few photographs of Pittsburgh from when I lived here previously and from visiting over the past few years, but I am looking forward to adding to them and working on the next chapter.
C & P: I also ventured out of the city to Braddock and some smaller surrounding towns. I had never been to a place quite like Braddock before, where everything was just shuttered and in a state of decay, even the churches, it was eerie. Have you been to Braddock? Do these semi-abandoned, depressed, ex-steel mining areas hold any interest for you as a photographer?
Ed: These places absolutely hold my interest as a photographer. I haven’t really spent much time in Braddock, but I’m familiar with it and many other towns that share the traits you mention. I grew up in Johnstown, which is also a former steel town. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, it always seemed as if every town you were in was a former industrial town of some sort on the decline. The post-industrial landscape has always had a sort of mythological presence to me as well and I’m sure part of my attraction to these types of spaces is due to my personal relationship to them. As a kid it was easy to imagine these sites as some kind of ancient ruin for a visiting alien population, or as the backdrop for any of a number of stories. So these types of places and spaces are something special to me. But I don’t really seek out the empty areas specifically, although they aren’t hard to find. I’m also interested in the old parts of town where people still live, where life goes on just like anywhere else.
C & P: How do you scout out locations for photo series? Do you research places on the internet? Or do you randomly travel somewhere with the hope of finding something interesting to shoot? Or is the location of where you shoot unimportant to you, are you always looking for an image no matter where you are?
Ed: All or most of the above at different times. As I mentioned, I’m always shooting where I live, so most of my explorations start from there. I spend a lot of time on Google Maps scoping out future photo expeditions, learning about where things are, and what streets lead where. (My urban explorations are always on foot or bike.) I try to have at least one camera with me at all times. I try to keep a simple and open approach to shooting, which usually means not thinking too specifically about this or that project. When I’m in the places I live, chances are what I’m shooting might be considered for a project I’ve already started working on.
C & P: Is there any one subject/thing that always attracts you (and your camera)? Something that you have 100+ photographs of?
Ed: There are many recurring types of pictures in my archive. My latest book, Animals That Saw Me, is an example of a project that came from a pile of recurring pictures I had of surprise encounters with animals. There are a lot of things that I always seem to be taking pictures of no matter where I’m at: streets, paths, houses, rivers, forests, and the seasons, to name a few. Overall I’m interested in the different types and arrangements of objects you find in different places.
C & P: The scenes that you most often shoot are of subjects that most people might just walk past and not notice; an oil stain on the ground, a pipe with a soda container sticking out of it… Have you always noticed these non-places/non-subjects and found them special/photo-worthy?
Ed: Sometimes I think I’m trying to work on a type of photograph that is about the background and edges of things. I’m curious about how this can be done, or even what those terms might mean in this context. What would a photograph of our peripheral even look like? First I would have to figure out where the peripheral begins, and then decide how a photograph might make you aware of the edges between things. Someone once described my work as “ambient photography” and I really like the idea of that.
C & P: Many of your pictures are people-free (although not always animal free!) Do you prefer to photograph places that are void of humans? Have you ever shot portraits or made images where people were the main subject of the photograph? Why do you think you are drawn to one type of imagery over the other (if in fact you are).
Ed: I have always been more drawn to spaces and objects than people in my photographs. I do sometimes photograph people and there are many occasions where humans appear in the scene. But I do have to say that I’ve never really been drawn to photographing strangers. I don’t really know why, but because of this I guess it’s safe to say that I’m more interested in the non-human world. I try to challenge myself to keep making interesting photographs no matter what though, so I don’t feel like I have any hard and fast rules when it comes to what I will or won’t shoot. I try to leave room for surprises.
C & P: Do you purposefully shoot imagery so that it is not linked to a particular time and place?
Ed: No, not at all. Most of my pictures are sorted in chronological order and sorted by place at some point during the process. Some years I make work books collecting together new pictures by month. Some projects are completely place specific too and the location is a big part of the work. But I also like to play around with the sense of place and time and mix things up. On my tumblr blog, the pictures are only identified by the year they were made and nothing else is revealed. Some projects, like Same Difference, are collected from pictures from lots of different places. The titles for the pictures are of an actual place, but sometimes it is such a specific neighborhood or street that if you still might not know where it is, even though I’m telling you.
C & P: You have published two photo books with two different publishers, Gottlund Verlag and J&L Books, how did these collaborations come about? Could you talk a little bit about the process of creating these books?
Ed: I really enjoy the collaborative effort that it takes to realize a book project. In both instances, I was approached initially by the publisher with the idea to do a project. The process varies from project to project, but in general there is a several month long period of going back and forth with the pictures and thinking through all of the different aspects that will make up the final book. You want to spend enough time with the edit and sequence so that you feel like all the pieces are there and in the best place. With every publisher I’ve worked with it has been an incredibly rewarding situation so I’m very grateful for that.
C & P: You have said that creating books and having a website—with a lot of work on it—helps you to edit your images. How do you choose which images should be in a series or in a printed book? What is your editing process like? Do color palette, location, subject matter, etc… factor into the edit?
Ed: I find the most important thing that needs to happen in order for me to be able to edit better is to simply know the pictures I’m working with. It’s all about spending time looking at the pictures. Sometimes it can take a while for it to become apparent which individual qualities of the photographs matter most to you. In order to help me get to that point I try to spend a lot of time simply looking at my pictures and sorting them in different ways. Sometimes a project starts when you make a new folder and start putting things together in a new way. Editing is something that I really enjoy so I do my best to keep adding new pictures to the pile. Each project develops its own parameters that determine which pictures will be included.
C & P: I am pretty sure I recognized a few images of NYC on your website, do you like shooting in New York? Does it feel different to you to shoot here rather than in Pittsburgh? Have you photographed in any other countries? Is that experience different for you? Is there any place that you would love to photograph?
Ed: Like anywhere else, learning how to take pictures I was happy with was initially a challenge in New York. But I found myself really excited about the work I made there by the end, and I am hoping to continue shooting there over time. I found myself making pictures there that I’m still thinking a lot about these days. This is one reason I enjoy learning how to make pictures in new places. I find that through the process of learning how to shoot in new places I recognize certain patterns and tendencies that I acquired over time. It’s still too early to say what might come out of this work, but I’m excited to spend more time with this project in the upcoming months.
C & P: Did you imagine that you would be an artist/photographer in adulthood? How long have you been taking photographs? What drew you to the medium and why did you choose to pursue it seriously?
Ed: I started taking pictures when I was a kid. My best friend and I had a ‘detective agency’ and we needed photographs to aid our investigations. In high school I started taking pictures on a regular basis and I haven’t stopped since. Now I feel weird if I’m not taking pictures on a regular basis. I’m interested in other things as well, but luckily photography provides a wide window to the world. It can be about so many different things at once. It feels like a riddle you can never quite solve, and I love that.
C & P: What type of camera do you shoot with? A digital SLR or a film camera?
Ed: My primary two cameras are film: an Olympus Stylus Epic for 35mm and a old Pentax 67 for medium format. I also use my camera phone quite a lot ever since I got my first one in 2004.
C & P: Do you use the computer as a tool when creating your photographs? Do you ever use Photoshop to edit images when finalizing a body of work?
Ed: I scan every single frame I shoot, so I spend a lot of time on the computer with my images. It’s definitely an important tool in my process. I don’t normally use Photoshop to do anything other than make color corrections and things like that. But I have always enjoyed playing in Photoshop and probably have a few folders of strange collages lying around somewhere.
C & P: There is definitely an element of humor to your work, I laughed out loud a couple of times while looking through your website. Are there any artists who use humor in their work that you admire?
Ed: There’s quite a few. A lot of the time it’s not so much an artist who is ‘using humor’ as an artist that allows a bit of humor to enter the scene. That’s when I like it the most. In photography, Jason Fulford instantly comes to mind. I love the way he plays with collections of pictures and text in his work. I also have to say I really enjoy watching comedy, so shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and East Bound & Down might not be a small influence either.
C & P: What artists/photographers do you find inspirational? Contemporary? Past?
Ed: Too many to list!
C & P: What could you imagine doing, if you didn’t do what you do?
Ed: I’d probably still be working the night shift at the McDonald’s in my hometown. Maybe making ambient music on the side. Who knows? But I can’t really imagine doing anything else. I’m just trying to imagine ways of doing it better.