“A Massive Force Like That of Miracles,” an Interview with Emily Chiavelli

Yang:
Tell us a little about yourself.

Emily:
My name is Emily Chiavelli. I grew up in Boston, lived in Kentucky for a couple of years, then lived in California for a while, then went back to Kentucky before I came to New York for this program. I have a BFA in photography from Northern Kentucky University. Right out of undergrad I enrolled in grad school in Baltimore. Maybe a month before the program started, I decided I wasn’t ready for grad school, so I spent a couple years working at coffee shops and an auction house before I decided to go back to school, which is how I ultimately ended up here. When entering this program I was doing documentary work, now I’m not. I think if I’d gone to grad school when I first enrolled, I’d still be doing documentary work. 

Yang:
What is your show about?

Emily:
The title of my show is A Massive Force Like That of Miracles. It’s from a book by Gilles Châtelet called To Live and Think like Pigs. Basically to really oversimplify it, he’s talking about something emerging from a chaotic system. I think that’s true of my work and the way I work, but when I thought of this title I was also thinking about the fact that I have no idea how airplanes work. It literally feels like a miracle to me. It makes no sense. Why don’t they fall out of the sky? Probably a stupid question to ask, but I really don’t understand it. I don’t know how it works. I don’t know how many things work, really. It’s really amazing to me. Obviously we all just take all these things for granted; we don’t really understand what’s underlying everything.

Yang:
Why Planes?

Emily:
I’ve watched a lot of these low-view-count videos. I could give a more complicated answer to this, but the reality is, I really like looking at these ones most. For me, first of all, it felt like a very childlike happiness, watching them fly, kind of like when you’re a kid and try to make shapes out of the clouds. When I was initially watching them, it was a simple idea that I could be on that plane, I could go on vacation, and I could get out of my shitty apartment. However, the longer I watched them, the more it gave me this anxiety that they could crash at any second. It freaked me out. So it’s kind of soothing, kind of terrifying. 

Yang:
Elaborate that?

Emily:
Because they all have no definable start or end point, none of them were like, “here’s the plane taking off,” or, “here’s the plane landing.” The videos were all shot when the planes are already suspended in the sky. And most of them were filmed on cell phones or point and shoot digital cameras, handheld. The motion is very jerky and unsettling.

Yang:
What’s on your mind during the process?

Emily:
I have been doing a lot of work using appropriation. I was specifically searching for videos that no one had ever watched. All of the videos in the show were found on YouTube and I did screen recordings of them. They all had only under five views when I found them. It’s kind of sad and poignant, I think. I’ve muted all the videos, but some of them had the audio with the person filming would say like, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” And there’s something really sad and scary from a perspective of an artist, to make these images or videos that you think are really cool, and you put them out there, hoping other people think they’re really cool too, and then nobody cares at all. Furthermore, the process mirrors my reality. My parents are really into antique malls and thrift stores. All the decor we had growing up was someone else’s old stuff. In college I worked in a thrift store, after that I worked at an auction house for five years. And now I work at a thrift store again. So my whole life has been dealing with other people’s cast-offs. Last summer I really got into video appropriation because I was so broke and it was free, and a way to really pass the time. 

Yang:
Your works remind me of the word Remnant.

Emily:
Yeah. It’s like leftover stuff that nobody else was using that I scooped up. All this stuff online that everyone abandoned, you know? Earlier I was making work pulling photos from this old image hosting website called Photobucket, I think that both those and these videos are, like, visually very strong. I started thinking about this weird relationship I have with photography, and maybe in a cynical way. I started thinking that there’s no point taking any more pictures, because so many exist and there are so many good ones. Everything’s been photographed. And I think that like, it feels like sort of a weird privilege to call myself an “artist” or a “photographer” when everyone is doing it now, and everyone is making visually really strong works. What makes someone a “photographer” now? I really don’t know. 

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