Interview Your Oceans Are Not Big Enough For Me
Cydney M. Payton with Brett Walker
CMP: For your residency as Exhibition Artist-in-Residence at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, you made a number of photographs with the staff. Unpack these pictures in relationship to your performative experiments in the past.
BW: The images made at Kohler in Sheboygan are not unlike images I have made in the past where I encounter people and establish a rapport with them so that we can make pictures together. This is an open, situational process. With the time restrictions and institutional setting of the art center the process was more of a closed system. I wanted to make portraits through this weird occasion where I was in the position of being an empowered stranger. In the image with Mary, (Mary, 2012) who works in the Kohler office, hesitation and reluctance become a part of the process. In a way we were negotiating power. There was less play involved, more at stake, which resulted in a type of staging of the space animating it from play to work. Many of the people I photographed were on the clock.
In San Francisco, I mostly work with collaborators—my friends, co-workers, and family members—who are willing to enter into my artistic practice, under my conditions, and in my studio space which is also at home. There is a level of exhibitionism within all of us but it is easier for that exhibitionism to manifest in my studio setting than within an institutional setting such as Kohler. With the residency I could expand my interests in types of display by experimenting with various levels of comfort—physically and psychologically—during the process of being photographed. The studio space was essentially a displayed space where display could also take place.
CMP: Your Oceans Are Not Big Enough For Me represents three distinct ideas: addressing the terms of your residency looking toward the conditions of the site and its internal workings; photographing family and friends and making self-portraits; and capturing the landscape, nature, and vernacular architecture. How do these themes intertwine?
BW: For the longest time, I was working toward a mode of answering questions or articulating problems or concepts through the creation of fairly elaborate bodies of work. Projects and installations like Getting The Big Picture for the Berkeley Art Museum are what I like to call Art with a capital A. They are the projects where the obligation to make art surpasses emotional engagement. 14 Pictures From The Place Where Stephen Painted, made on Deer Island in Maine, was more casual. Lately I have been photographing young bands on tour and documenting a vintage baseball league in the Bay Area. These projects have developed more organically, as a response to a place and a time and the characters who occupy those moments. Oceans falls into this category as a project that arose organically yet is set within the conditions of place.
The structure of being in a place gives my work depth and meaning that I don’t get when I am making work to fulfill an idea or concept. In a way Oceans is a classic idea of picture making in that I am capturing things that I find interesting. It was a way of gathering experience from that particular situation.
CMP: This work seems to extend beyond the way you have explored intimacy through the process of making pictures of your immediate circle of friends and family.
BW: My work is centered on participation and ideas about performance within differing social structures. At Kohler I was outside of my normal habits in a dramatically different locale than my studio at home, working with people I had just met. This place had restrictions, imagined or real, on the way that I could perform the actions of being an artist and others could participate. There were not going to be any moments of getting people to strip down to their underwear to make portraits with me. In order for most of these photographs to happen, a certain level of comfort and trust needed to be established. This is actually one of the more important things for me. I would have loved it if I had been able to get people to feel comfortable enough to remove their clothes. Whether it happened or not, is less important than arriving at condition of comfort between two or more people. This body of work was essentially about making work in a public space. Even though we were down in the basement every so often someone—board members, donors, staff, visitors—would stroll down and to see what we were working on. Perhaps the restrictions enabled me to focus more. I thought was going to make classic portraits, more or less. In the end the photographs became more conceptual, less about my process as an artist. I began to put the shutter bulb in the hand of whoever I was making pictures with, giving them complete control of the camera and situation. They chose the moment they felt was right to click the shutter.
CMP: How does this relate to your critique of documentary photography?
It is less a critique of documentary photography as a genre and more of an observation of how photography is currently used, and as a result the proliferation of a certain kind of picture making. In the past, the camera was a tool used to document life, whereas we now live in an age of Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, where the camera takes on more collaborative roles. We "perform" for the camera now more than ever. We are aware of the consequences of the photographic document; how it operates in fictional or historical narrative. A photograph tells stories about the places we inhabit but it now also creates environments and situations where events unfold specifically for the camera. Pictures today are more about the appearance of casualness. Whether portraits or performative / theatrical events, the appearance of the final image wants to be seen as having been generated by spontaneity.
CMP: You are kind of a director or producer of these theatrical often comical or campy situations. They seem to be a direct response to the way that technology flattens emotions and has made image making bland.
BW: There is a general attitude about “making pictures” in this day and age, as if the picture didn’t exist before hand, but were going to go ahead and make one anyway. My response has been to work within that condition but to sometimes make it a staging of that condition, so that it is less reflexive but more in your face.
CMP: The image (Tellen Woods, 2012) of your daughter Elanor in her pink jacket caught from a distance standing in the woods offers dual readings. How did you arrive at making this picture and can you describe it for us?
BW: This image was made relatively casually. We were walking through the woods. It was not preconceived but somewhat intentional. There are numerous different outtakes from the same walk and shooting session, many with Elanor in them but other more abstract sorts of landscapes. I am often looking to make pictures that have an underlying intelligence, that aren’t so literal, or maybe they’re so literal that they suggest a possibility for something else to happen. These images often take the shape of more snapshot-like images, but often have a lot of the same sort of conceptual and theatrical nature as the indoor and preconceived studio pictures. I love making pictures like this one of Elanor, because it sort of happens naturally yet exists in this space where some of those other sorts of portraits exist.
CMP: San Francisco has a nostalgic character. How does your art speak to the Bay Area creative environment?
BW: When we moved here I was unpacking my books and realized that so many of the big name artists that I looked up to were from the Bay Area or California in general. There was Bruce Naumann, Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, the funk art movement, and Robert Arneson, the coolest artistic bad ass. Yet I never really understood all these artists as being so central to California Art culture.
I never imagined living in California. Like Las Vegas and Florida, it always seemed like one of those places to avoid. Yet somehow how I ended up here, and suddenly everything started making sense. It was amazing having my show at the Berkeley Art Museum last spring during the exhibition State of Mind. It felt so full circle, and made me realize how integral California and Bay Area art history were to my art practice.
I keep this work called “How To Make a Drawing” on my website. It is basically a series of pictures of me throwing a light bulb into the air, and documenting the resulting shape it makes when it breaks on the ground. I made this piece almost seven years ago. It is sort-of ripping off the Marioni tape measure piece before I understood how integral he was to the Bay Area art scene.