Patricia Silva visits BSGE

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Student drawings in the hallway, outside of the art room at BSGE, Long Island City.

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting 30 art students at The Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Long Island City. Gretchen McCabe invited me as a Visiting Artist back in January. We had an open conversation with the students about making work, the role of investigation, and the value of a multi-disciplinary thought process. I just hope I made some sense! Interesting that I began my slideshow with a black and white portrait of a friend who did Voguing back in ’94-’95 and ended with some photographs of the Rehearse/Resite performance, which featured—voguing.

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Some who stayed for more questions: Gretchen McCabe’s art class at BSGE.

I didn’t know this when I agreed to visit the art department, but apparently, the school is fantastic: ranked #1 best high school in New York State and #21 in the country.  Congratulations Gretchen McCabe and Lucas Sheridan for complementing a rigorous curriculum with the social and academic strengths of an arts education.

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Patricia Silva, Untitled (Angola Series), 2013. Slide from Visiting Artist presentation, BSGE, March 8 2013.

Juana Romero Interviews Patricia Silva: Rehearse/Resite

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An interview with Patricia Silva about her thesis show, Rehearse/Resite.

Patricia Silva interviews Sina Haghani

Sina Haghani, Glimmers of Contingency, Installation view, 2012.

Sina Haghani takes a moment after Norouz, the Persian New Year to talk about the creative process, and his MFA Thesis Exhibition, Glimmers of Contingency, which opened on March 15th, 2012.

Patricia: The basis for your thesis show, how long has it been in development?
Sina: It was around the beginning of spring last year that some sketchy ideas started to form in my mind. Initially, I wanted to make work about my own preconceptions and prejudgments about people whom I regularly saw in my daily life but had a very limited social interaction with, if ever: a Chipotle employee; a friend of a friend I hadn’t got to know deeply; or someone at school whose interactions with others were the only source for my perception of her. Later on, these merely first impressions evolved into more complex interpersonal thoughts, which came through shared experience with those people.

Patricia: When you and I met to talk about your work, we also talked about emotional distance between people, and situations of uncertainty. Do you think one is the cause of the other?
Sina: I think inaccessibility leads to uncertainty, which eventually reinforces discomfort in encounters. Because every encounter is kind of fraught, as it presents itself as a kind of demand as well as exposure. At times when uncertainty creates distance, difficult emotional states arise.

Patricia: So, how do you describe your work?
Sina: My work is both a critique and an acceptance of distance that results from uncertainty. I am fascinated by situations in which a variety of possibilities can be triggered in different people. Whether they are real characters or personnas that are perceived by others, these situations allow me to experience this sort of social manifestation of relativism. Our perception of signifiers and how we consciously/unconsciously lead ourselves to conclusions depends, to a great extent, on the specificities of our past experiences. My work looks at contextual influences on people and their subsequent judgments.

Patricia: How did you come up with the statements? What do they add to the emotional terrain you are exploring with the video portraits?
Sina: The statements are the presumptions I have had about people at some points in my life. However, the relation between the audio and the visuals does not conform to reality. That is to say what is being spoken does not necessarily match my speculations about any of the subjects on display. The interplay between the installation and the voice-over narration is supposed to challenge individual’s impressions about each other. The indexical language used in the narrated statements is in service of this function.


Sina Haghani, Glimmers of Contingency, Installation view, 2012.

Patricia: What has surprised you the most about working on these portraits? What does human stillness reveal when captured on video?
Sina: Because they come closer to being still, the tension between a still and a moving image enhances our sense of what we are looking at. I am exploring where doubts come into play: that strange place between our preconception and deeply knowing of someone. I look into this grey area by another intermediate state where a moving image mimics a still one. The stretched time in the video portraits avoids a brief representation of someone.

During the confrontation with the camera, composure breaks down after a while and reveals something about each subject. While the extended eye contact with the subjects is expected to make them easier to read, it might also induce an equivocal impression, which would make it further complicated to form a judgment. This idiosyncrasy of video portraiture is very engaging to me. For example, the sense of embarrassment a subject experiences in comparison to that of another who securely occupies the space in front of my lens creates an ongoing dialogue around power relations, privilege and any other political discussion that stems from social constructions within our culture.

I want my work to function as an interactive platform to expose the individual differences both among my subjects and the audience where they eventually come up with opinions while they are still aware of their own personal typecasts or shadowy prejudices.

Interview with curator Catherine Evans about women in the Photo League

What follows is an interview with Catherine Evans about the role of women in the Photo League, in response to The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951, an exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum. The exhibition was co-curated by Mason Klein and Catherine Evans, and will be up at the Jewish Museum until March 25, 2012.

Rebecca Lepkoff, Broken Window on South Street, New York, 1948. Gelatin silver print, 8 5/16 x 7 3/8″.

Patricia: What were the biggest challenges that women faced within the Photo League as an organization?
Catherine Evans: When we look at Photo Notes, the League’s monthly publication, with today’s post-feminist gaze, the drawings/cartoons announcing social events, are certainly sexist. The ever outspoken Berenice Abbott, a member from the outset, quipped, “Talk about male chauvinism, I never saw it so badly expressed as there.” But at the same time, several women whom I interviewed claimed completely the opposite, praising its inclusiveness. Sonia Handelman Meyer went as far as saying that she had “no consciousness of being a woman at the Photo League, never felt we were ignored in any way.” Abbott’s and Meyer’s diverging statements could well have to do with the decade or so that separated their time at the League, not mention differing world views.

Patricia: Some women were very well known, others dwelled in obscurity. Does this reflect varying degrees of involvement, shifting ambitions, or different priorities rather than exclusion?
Catherine Evans: Women’s social history and visibility have ebbed and risen according to political, cultural, and economic forces. Their participation in photography has run a parallel course, it seems. Women took up the medium in its early history, but have not received recognition in equal measure to men. With regard to the Photo League, family, marital status, a return to traditional gender roles after World War II, competition in the commercial market, were all contributing factors. An often repeated circumstance was women having to give way to family demands. About Kosofksy virtually nothing is known. Needless to say, the blacklisting had a devastating impact on everyone.

Since photography did not have high art status, it seems it was more accessible, learn-able, do-able. Yet Abbott and Model, among others, spoke negatively about limited opportunities and double standards, the former saying the “women did not wear slacks then; they wore skirts. When I photographed New York, I put on ski pants. Truck drivers yelled at me, ‘lady, take that off.’ It bothered me, it even bothered me when people gathered around as I was setting up my camera in the street” and Model complained that no other magazine besides Harper’s Bazaar gave her assignments, wondering if it was her intense style of picture making or the fact that she was a woman, that deterred them.

Patricia: Those smaller, portable Leicas enabled women to be out on the street, empowered to shape meaning out of what was seen. Any thoughts on how technology upgrades enabled women being out and about, shooting?
Catherine Evans: Some women learned photography as assistants in dark rooms, as printers such as Ida Wyman at ACME and Rae Russel, others came to the League to learn photography from the ground up such as Sonia Handelman Meyer. Rebecca Lepkoff remarked that there were few women on the streets with cameras and she was therefore not perceived as a threat. Most scholars think that Levitt learned about the right-angled view finder—which allowed her to seemingly be photographing a subject in front of her, but actually capturing something else entirely—from Walker Evans, whom she met in 1938 and with whom she shared a darkroom.

Even with all of the advantages a Leica offered, some women chose to work with medium format cameras (Meyer, Cherry) or Speed Graphic with cumbersome flash bulbs (Model). Abbott initially deliberately shunned the small format and even determined a specific format for each of 3 categories of picture should be taken—a Linhoff, a Rolleflex and a view camera (Yokelson, Berenice Abbott, Changing New York, The Complete WPA Project (Museum of the City of NY, 1997, 33).

Patricia: I’m very curious about Calomiris. What is known about Calomiris’ sexuality and the role it played in her cooperation to take down the Photo League?
Catherine Evans: Novelist and scholar Lisa S. Davis emphatically states that Calomiris was already out as a lesbian and that money was her sole motivation for infiltrating and ultimately testifying against the League in the 1949 trial, in which she named Sid Grossman and his wife Marion Hille as members of the Communist Party. According to Davis, statistics from the FBI files attest to how generously she was paid. Besides Attorney General Tom C. Clark’s black list (published in The New York Times on December 5, 1947), it was Calomiris, with her 7-year long infiltration of the League, damning testimony, and her self-aggrandizing best seller, Red Masquerade, Undercover for the FBI, published in 1950, who most materially contributed to the demise of the League in 1951.

Patricia: Vivian Cherry’s lynching game series was rejected by McCall’s for being “a little too real for magazine use”. Yet, Weegee was widely printed, and sensationally so. I can’t help comparing this definition of “too real” to the current American media infoscape, where we remain shielded from visual “realness”, despite shock factors constantly increasing. It’s acceptable to have two politicians on television yelling like brats, but to see unmediated footage of what is developing in politically charged situations, be it Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt…it is not possible. “Realness” becomes a problem.
Catherine Evans: One of the ironies in the rejection letter from the McCall’s editor is the use of the male pronoun throughout. I had hoped to include the letter in my essay, but space was a constant challenge. But more to your point, aside from being “a little too real for magazine use” Mr. Adams goes on to write:

“We try to identify the reader with the story, try to say to him that this is he and his problem shown in the pictures. I’m a little afraid he’ll refuse to identify himself with the people and backgrounds here, would prefer to see himself a bit idealized. It’s different, I think, from reporting the goings on of other people, where realism is fine.”
Walter Adams, McCall’s Editor

No small wonder McCall’s, whose readership targeted middle class women and had a huge circulation at the time, wasn’t interested. His last sentence speaks directly to the problem of realness and realism. Sometimes, under certain circumstances, it’s fine! Maybe that’s still the case. In the constant barrage of images, what picture does have the power to stop us in our tracks? Is it a generational issue? I can say as a curator, when I first saw Cherry’s lynching game photographs at Higher Pictures gallery in 2009 “Women of the Photo League” I was shocked. I still am.

Interview with Nandita Raman by Patricia Silva

Nandita Raman is currently finalizing her MFA thesis show, Remembering Absent Meaning, which opens on Thursday, February 2. Born 1980, Varanasi, India, she studied Graphic Communications before directing documentaries and managing the production of international documentaries and ad films.

Nandita Raman, 2011. Left: Untitled, 20″x24″, Inkjet print. Right: International Paper Hammermill Fore® Multi-purpose 99.99% Jam-FreeTM, 20″x24″, Inkjet print.

Patricia: How long have you been developing RAM?
Nandita:  I have been interested in the effects of temporality from the beginning of school in 2010. My interest in memory is an extension of this. I started working on RAM after spring 2011.

Patricia: You’ve outlined a visual structure that clearly begins with the psyche.  It then cycles through accumulation, lucidity, passage, absence.
Nandita: You as the expositor, as a retainer of all your past experiences and conditioning bring these words, these meanings to the images. It’s fascinating for me to see single words, distilled from all the possible interpretations, appropriated to each image. There is a loss that occurs in this process of articulation. I’m interested in that.

Patricia: What fascinates you about that loss?
Nandita: Well, it’s a constant contradiction that becomes a part of our existence. It’s our instinct to articulate, to pick out sentences from the mass of thought. If we don’t do that, we find ourselves in an extremely internal place without much communication with the external world around us. At the same time, when we do articulate, these few words become symbols of the entire thought, they start to represent one thought process, or place of thought.  That’s really fascinating to me.

Patricia: I’m totally infatuated with Thread, Cellophane Warp Around Glass (amorphous solid). I love looking at it. I see it as a contemplation on the fragility of opaqueness. A sort of damaged opaqueness, that is   t e n s e l y   hanging by a thread.
Nandita: In one of his talks, Vikram Seth mentioned his fascination with glass, especially its high viscosity; the property of being difficult to stir. This struck me. Two weeks ago, I realized that glass was an appropriate material to explore the amorphous nature of thought prior to articulation. The nature of glass, neither solid nor liquid, remains one of the unresolved questions in physics.

Patricia: There’s a parallel there, with memory also not being about total clarity or total knowledge.
Nandita: Yes, I agree. It’s true, there’s a parallel. It’s sort of an interim space, which becomes almost like a reminder that memory is not all that there is. That words are not all that there is.  For example, glass—the realization that it’s not solid or liquid, it’s neither. It doesn’t fit in either/or.

Patricia: Do you have photographic rituals?
Nandita: I’m usually not a ritualistic person. I like to change from one day to the next. Mostly, I like to read until some clear thoughts on visuals start to surface. These could be about images that I shot already or things that I would like to shoot.  

Patricia: How do you revive long-term projects? Do you need some distance or total absorption?
Nandita: I think I work slowly. I need time. I need to revisit the same place a few times to know what I want to do with it. So yes, distance and suspensions have helped foster projects.

Patricia: Did something come up while working on RAM that you were just not expecting?
Nandita: Mirrors—that was a big thing that came in. I had a clear idea about how I wanted to use and sequence photographs, but I felt like there was a thread missing somewhere. When I thought of mirrors as part of the installation, it all came together for me.  And it’s so funny. I’ve been working with mirrors since first semester, but not once did I think of using them like this.

Opening Reception: February 2 | Thursday | 6:00–9:00 pm
On View: February 3-4 | Friday–Saturday | 12:00–5:00 pm
ICP-Bard MFA Studios, 24–20 Jackson Avenue, 3rd Floor, Long Island City, New York