Interview: Sam Margevicius on numbers, chance and photography

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sam to chat with him about his work, his influences, and his solo show “444” opening this week. Below is our conversation.


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Nicole Bull: Can you talk about your use of numbers and how 444 became important to you?

Sam Margevicius: I think one of my, at times, debilitating modes of working is that I am really easily influenced. So that makes it hard sometimes. If I think I’m doing something, its not like a steady moving whale that’s got momentum, but its over here and over there.

I went to Chelsea just now, and there was a show at Dia:Chelsea that I had wanted to see for a while because its about numbers. I stood there reading the artist’s statement and the artist [Hanne Darboven] says that numbers mean nothing to her. And I thought that was pretty interesting because she talked about how they’re just like meaningless vessels.

NB: Do you agree with that?

SM: I agree that they can be. I really like vessels. Vessels in the sense similar to how the word ‘you’ or ‘I’  are kind of empty things. Its only available as something that means something when its contextualized through gesture. So, with 444, I have the story about how exactly the illustration of 444 came to me, and I’ve written it, but I’m always really scared of  those moments when everything just seems to come together perfectly and it feels like divine intervention.

A month ago I went to an artist talk between James Welling and this photographer named Jeff Whetstone at Julie Saul Gallery. Jeff Whetstone was photographing 4×5 on a bridge in Trenton, NJ and the bridge says “TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES.” He made all of these non-interesting photographs of the letters and the cars driving by and the seagulls, but then he composed them into these collages that are really interesting. They are contact prints, so they’re like big prints with medium and large format negatives. When I saw him talk I felt like this is everything that I’ve been doing because he essentially was making bricks and then he was going to use the bricks to build something. And that’s what I’ve been doing. His photos were not nothing; he wrote things with them, like poems in structured form and I was really excited. I wanted to email him and invite him to my show, but I chickened out and I couldn’t do it. But then, I saw him today! I talked to him and I gave him the card. And I’m having trouble breathing right now because its just too perfect, and I know that the impermanence of life is such that I will be proved somehow wrong about my feeling of perfection.

So, 444 is just this stupid number that when it showed up seemed super meaningful in that moment and the next day it wasn’t really. I kept thinking about it though and as I kept thinking about it and doing more research things popped up that I could tie together. That’s how you write a research paper, you start somewhere and then you go and find evidence to basically prove your point. So I did that, but all the evidence was so arbitrary. People in China and many east Asian countries avoid 4 like we avoid 13. There’s no fourth floor in the elevators, because it sounds like ‘dead.’ So that’s what I tried to avoid, becoming superstitious or essentially living my life based on actual rules that are not flexible and are not understood within a context. I used 444 as a starting point fully aware that it meant nothing but aware that it was an empty vessel that I could inject with certain qualities.

NB: You seem to be touching on ideas of coincidence or chance, and I am curious how much you are thinking about those.

SM: I got excited about the word chance and how it relates to the I Ching and creating a system so that its no longer in your control. Putting numbers in a hat and then drawing number, that is chance. Nayland didn’t tell us when our thesis shows would be, it was up to the powers that be. But of course sometimes I think I was meant to go second.

I recently found that what is more interesting about chance is that its actually quite unique to lens based art. Think of the ready-made sculpture, that kind of thinking was only possible because of photography. That is important because when you are painting something you as the artist have authority over every single mark that is made and you’re responsible for every decision. I do like to draw and I lost my camera for a long time when I first moved here and so I started drawing. I only draw from life, like still lives or on the train or portraits of people who sat for me. So in that case, you’re looking at what you’re drawing and everything that you see and decide to draw gets essentially developed onto your long exposure drawing. Photography doesn’t work that way, because in photography you don’t have control over those things. You can construct sets where everything was a choice that you made but you’re not in total control. With painting you can mix your paints, make your own paper, whatever, but photography is so much more industrial. For a long time I wanted to have that total authority but you can’t. You buy film that someone manufactured, and then you get your camera and cameras are always advancing in new technologies. So when you’re photographing something, that is actually exciting I realize now, because that means your camera is your independent variable. You set up a system that is your camera and then you frame it and you wait for something to happen there. You don’t even know whats happening in there, you see it later. So that’s what is interesting about chance. It just comes down to the science of developing silver gelatin prints and being consistent about your chemical mixing and your exposure and all those things so you can just identify the one thing that you need to change and thats how you have to work. So I just think of cameras as objects that measure change in that sense.

NB: What was your process like in figuring out what would be in this show and deciding how to arrange it? Because that is something that can’t really be left to chance.

SM: Yeah I know, and that was really hard for awhile because I wanted it to be chance. I mean, I wanted chance but what I really wanted was the kind of language that is mostly prevalent in filmmaking. In film you’re so responsible; its such a collaborative effort and the production value is so high. Every surface and what is in the frame is considered and it means something. Particularly in Matthew Barney’s films, the kind of imagery he uses is so specific to his own language. An image means something in the context of his work but it doesn’t actually mean anything. It just means something because you’ve seen it before and now you’re seeing it again in a little bit of a different way. Like with a song, the first time you hear the chords its one thing, and then the chorus is always the same but when you hear it again its a little bit different.

So I basically started thinking and I gave myself a division. Over the summer, I didn’t really make photographic work with film. I did a lot of digital stuff but I wasn’t working on my thesis. So when I came back I began working on my thesis. All of the stuff that I tried to do in the first semester was an attempt to do a very specific show and not just make a lot of work and then put it all together into something. I feel like I really did that with the book that I made last year. I had done all of the assignments in all sorts of crazy ways and I did everything I could in terms of making performance, sculpture, and far out shit. Then I put it together chronologically and that sealing it within two hardbound covers gives it cohesion. But for the show I didn’t want it to be a retrospective in any way; I wanted it to be a specific project. And so I tried to construct a system of working for myself that would carry me though that. But, the system became really boring immediately. And that became obvious because I actually didn’t do as much as I thought I was going to. I was procrastinating because I wasn’t really excited, and I just knew internally that this thing I’d set up was bound to fail. But I did end up making a significant number of photos and they’re all photos like Jeff Whetstone’s. They’re just bricks that I built with.

So, a real break-through happened a couple months ago. I basically printed out all my contact sheets and I just had this stack of all my pictures. I just went through and made selections and edited down and cut them out. I had all these little cards and started just playing around with them on a table. At that moment, I still thought that chance might still be a totally valid approach here. I started throwing pictures and I would examine wherever they landed. But then I realized that unless I just threw them all up and left them all exactly how they were, I wasn’t getting rid of this fact that no one was going to trust that it was chance. I had edited, I had curated. Being a photographer now more than ever is about curating. This program especially has taught me that. You can shoot everyday and its not necessarily going to help clarify what it is that you want to show or say. That was fun to play around with the opportunity of chance and how things came together randomly, but what really happened was I was just able to see everything laid out and look at the kinds of conversations that happen between the images. Then I set up sequences that were built out of structures made by pushing polarities.If I have one image then I thought about the opposite of that and I kind of built out from that.

Then I was thinking that this is a show that essentially has three gallery spaces: two galleries and the hallway. I want those to each serve their own kind of role. I’m less interested now in autonomous images, but for a while I believed in the sincere significance of context. I still thought that maybe I could make good singular images, and I don’t think that I can. I don’t really think that anyone can. I think that people only appreciate singular images because they like the photographer who made them. They understand why they like it, and that is all built on context. So its really hard to just walk in blind and see something. That comes back to music. I never could listen to music that someone hadn’t given me on a mixtape or from a radio station that I like. Its so rare to just hear it and feel like its amazing without having an understanding of why it holds an emotional significance for you. So, then I just started thinking about the three spaces and how hopefully one of them is really about the singularity of images. The images are printed at different sizes. Everyone in this program acts like every picture has it own proper size and I think ok, maybe. However, I spent a lot of time this year photographing things from the exact same distance, knowing that my camera had a particular ratio that I would adhere to. It works nicely because that was the intention all along, that they have that kind of equivalence. They’re all the same but then they’re not because some are higher and some are lower. Even if they were all the same size and on the same plane, some of them you like more for whatever particular reason. So in a sense it destroys hierarchy but it doesn’t really.

NB: You spoke a bit about bookmaking. I know that you’ve made several books and spend a lot of time with books, so I would like to know where books play into this show or just your practice in general.

SM: I think that the really important lesson from books for me is typologies. The way Ed Ruscha did Twenty Six Gasoline Stations is a way to make a book be one idea in a variation of a theme. I like books for different reasons than that as well because to a certain extent, that is easily exhausted. I like a book because its a really intimate experience reading a book and thats amazing. A book of text, like a novel, is not the kind of book I’m talking about, its not like a book object. That’s just a bunch of words that take you into an illusion of an image. With photo books you can run through them at whatever pace you want and you’ll never go through them at the same pace twice. You can stay on every third image for 20 seconds and one second for the other pages, but you still get this kind of narrative. I actually really like when I can pick up a book and get it right away, and I don’t actually even have to read it. People are always talking about closing down, you want to open up. I hear that, but I really enjoy that fleeting moment of understanding. Any good book is worth reading twice and any good movie is worth watching many times, and so its nice to live with the book and be able to open to a random page. There you have a nice chance operation. Roland Barthes, I believe, would pick up every book and flip to page 49 and decide from that page whether or not to buy it. You can read one sentence the way that poetry is maybe meant to be read where you analyze thoroughly whats going on in that particular micro scale. Then you can also pull back and think about the whole book and the chapters and the arc of it. That pull that you can have is really what I wanted to bring to a gallery show. Being able to think about the structure of the thing as a whole entity but also being able to go into a single spot and focus on that. For the longest time I thought I was going to have display cases with books in the show but I am really glad that I didn’t do that. It is a different thing than a book but it can be thought of through similar approaches.




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