( internal d i a l o g u e )
I hope you’re well, and having a good week. Following up on the feedback you received during your first thesis review, we are writing because we’d like to ask you to submit a new proposal for your thesis. As we all know, your work has changed significantly in relation to your initial thesis proposal, and we are supportive of students’ work evolving and transforming over the course of their thesis year. However, we wanted to ask you to submit a new proposal focused on Vessel, and the work you will be pursuing throughout this year. This should include a short description of your project and pertinent research you have done on artist-run spaces and curatorial practices you find important for the work you are pursuing, address the questions you are pursuing with the work you are making, include a calendar of exhibitions and a short description for each show reflecting how they are in dialogue with the questions you have outlined, address how you envision your role and practice as an artist-director/curator/performer, and outline briefly the form you see your thesis taking in its final instance (in other words, what will be part of the thesis show at the Carpenter Center).
Feel free to be in touch with any questions, or if anything needs clarification. Maybe you could send me (Joana) a draft of your proposal when you have it, and we could discuss it in person on Monday before you finish it and send it to your committee, if you think getting feedback on a draft could be helpful?
For people who aren’t familiar, what is the Vessel?
These are questions that are at the core of it. I cannot tell you what it is; I grapple with that question all the time. I still don’t entirely know what the Vessel is, even though I have patiently explained it to me a million times, but I have discovered that I am drawn to it as long as it can be used against its own premise of knowing anyone or anything, as long as I can work against its supposed reliance on fact, and its association with academic production of knowledge--I take it instead to be a reflexive process through which one might construct a reality in its own right.
What are you making at the Vessel?
I am creating a simultaneous space of production, with archival images and documentaries. I am also interested in the performance of language, the duration of the photographic image, and the malleability of video. In this digital age, I was thinking about how we might assemble and fictionalize our narratives out of many sources and formats in which they exist today. I am attracted to the idea that images can stream through different forms of transfer or through a series of misunderstandings. I try to make work that is transformed by the many turns of direction I take during its making, and I hope it is reflective of that process.
Can you address the questions you are pursuing through your thesis?
Yes. That is, how do we playfully engage with the contemporary avatars, falsifications, double-entendres we create for ourselves, and how do we toy with our expectations of the progressive linearity of personal and collective histories? In other words, I am interested in exploring the science fiction of individual and collective narratives, and I hope my curatorial practice works through some of these questions.
How does Vessel engage with these questions?
By establishing a gallery space, I have an incredible opportunity to be exposed on a weekly basis and in a very intensive way to other artists’ processes. In a way I am engaged because I am trying to make it so that everything is set up for them to do the work that they want to do, so I am invested in it; but at the same time, it’s not my work, so I am never going to be the one making all the decisions, I am never going to be controlling those decisions directly. So I am a participant-observer, to use a strange social sciences term. But I give the chance to get familiar with other artists’ processes, and that is really interesting to me because I always feel like I learn as much from the way other people do things as from finding my own. It’s not like there is a direct impact, as in that I see how this student in installation class is doing something and I see that it’s so similar to how I do it--that’s not it at all. It’s more this curiosity satisfied by how generous my peers are about sharing the ways in which they work.
Can you be more specific? How exactly are you working with artists and exhibition-making at Vessel?
I meet with the artist, and we talk for a long period– we then visit, research and record. In the digital Catalogue that I am writing, I will collaborate with artists directly, and also will often make things up. I lift archives from their sources and create new ones, get words out of their context, transfer objects from one medium to the next. The installation of works in the exhibition space only takes shape after our talk, and my research, that moment where an idea has formed not just in my own consciousness but in relation to the material at hand on-site. I always make work that has a dialogue with a specific real site. I then remove it from where it was and recreate it artificially somewhere else, or vice versa.
My work here is more concerned with the notion of a field than written history. Every show has some durational and site-specific strata and any number of intersecting discourses so at the end of the day the materials are invested with their own sense of history. I like situations that renew my perspectives and show me things I have not seen and reawaken all my senses... Kinetic connection to artists is really important to me.
In summary, I want exhibitions to work through the latent performativity of an archive of images, sounds, and words, sometimes fact and sometimes fiction, that was constantly in tension with the self-censorship that our current relation to recent Chinese history often brings forward. I wanted to work through layers of personal and archival materials, image technologies and the performance of language. So, I am much more attracted to this long-term way of making things, the idea of not knowing what you are doing, than I am to the idea of going to a site with a script and having everything set in stone and setting out to make a work.
How do you envision your role as an artist-director-curator-performer?
In my past work with photography, I have made images that have visual similarities to video, silkscreen, painting, and drawing, so I try to incorporate different visual language into photography. However, I arrived at a point where I felt as though photography became merely about my relationship to control. As an artist I felt it was really important to be able to comprehend what is going on with material at some level. But in the sense of image-making, I felt like I had too much control because Photoshop is a simulated world where anything is possible. That is why I had to step back from pure image-making in the traditional sense, to allow myself to engage in new ways of working with chance and unpredictable outcomes. So now I am building the frame, physically and digitally, to both direct and allow these moments to happen.
At the Vessel, I don’t record, I don’t have a composition. I have an idea. To realize my idea, I work with both documentary and fictional elements. In my process, I am always looking for a way to photograph that contains an element of transformation. I prefer to document changes between moments and to seek out and amplify human perceptions of the unseen, which in its own way is one form of fiction.
In a similar way, I am interested in curation not simply as a reference to an already finished regime of knowledge but to suggest that we are still very much caught in it. In fact, my curatorial work is very much caught in photography itself—the interaction of the subject and viewer governed by a light established in a framework. Therefore, the photographic work resulting from this curatorial thesis will also be all about curation itself. I am trying to use the camera to show me something I don’t know, to work from the unknown into the known, or to generate the known from the unknown.
Of course, I also bring myself into it, in a way—not always in a biographical sense, but in terms of being in the field and the triangulation between my body, the camera and the field. I have some amount of control but also lose a lot of it, too: That's how the work starts.
So precisely how are the exhibitions reflecting, and your discussion of your photographic practice, in dialogue with the questions you have outlined earlier?
In my first exhibition, ONE, I am playing with ideas of our ability to pin down space, place, and time in one moment. It’s constantly shifting, and it’s also collaged, so that there is no single place, space, or even single perspective. Oftentimes people want to know how my work is made or pin something down, but I am far less interested in the mechanics of how it’s made than the questions that it asks or the ways of seeing that it poses, the questions it opens up.
In my second exhibition, Dialogue, it resonates with the work I have been doing here in the sense that I feel like we are exposed to so many ways of doing things - different processes, media, forms, images, objects – that I never feel like I feel pressured to settle on a form or a format, or the need to identify myself with a particular medium. I believe that it is important for us to hold a dialogue this space where we have a chance to work through things and figure out our own process.
There is this idea, if you are an image-maker, that it is predetermined that the final work will be a series of images. That idea used to really bore me. Having had a chance study with professors in installation, painting, drawing, sculpture, and post-studio, it opened another realm of possibilities and really influenced my work. I don’t necessarily feel the rush to produce things without having worked through all the possibilities and forms a certain project might take or that I am interested in pursuing.
What has changed entirely for me is that now, instead of setting out to make an image, I set out to ask myself, what could this project be? What are the different forms it can take? And even if I photograph for three weeks in a specific site, maybe at the end the work will be a drawing, two minutes of sound, an installation in the form of an exhibition. At the same time, if the final project is a series of photographs, it is informed by different ways of working through images, by different forms of dealing with the pictorial. I feel like what I got from being in such an interdisciplinary context, and the way it has influenced my work, is that I don’t feel like the final form dictates what I make; rather, I figure out the form as I am making something.
I am still unclear about what it is that you are doing. Can you state the facts of the matter? And also what is the role of The Catalogue?
I will write about my own work. I will write my thesis about the exhibitions I am making. I will also make art works and installations based on something that I had researched for my writing. I will read academic books and make works at the same time, because I am automatically drawn to everything I read about in what I am making. I will have no critical distance. Everything is something that I need to think through regarding a certain image or a sequence – as it is consistent with the nature of good curatorial practice and art-making. At the same time, as I write, I will be appropriating everything in this subjective way—I will be using the conventions and specific language. So I will be combining the language for academic production and writing criticism, and using this drive to bridge the gap through the language of being an artist.
I am doing this because I think, when you make work, you become attuned to process in a way that a conventional background as an academic or art historian does not normally require. You are more aware of the process of making things in a way that you are not if you have never made anything.
Thus far in the year, as I have been constantly making and installing exhibitions, there are all these skills that I have begun to learn. I never felt like a language was dictated to me, and I would never want that to happen. If anything, I have felt as though I am fighting both with and against language, so they are completely complementary ways of working. I benefit from engaging in both practices, and so far I have found my own clever way of doing both. Yes, I believe doing both is possible. I really admire people who are hybrid artist-scholars. I am working towards that as a VES concentrator at Harvard College. Sometimes I wonder if, when I am out of school, it will need to be either one or the other. But that is not my concern right now.
So what is it like to be doing a thesis in this grey zone, this dual-space?
It’s very intense, but you get a lot of feedback and you are constantly engaged. I feel the generosity of the faculty and students with whom I have gotten to work, in terms of always making sure that I have the necessary conditions to be able to make work. At the same time, there is this expectation that it is your own work at the end of the day, and you need to figure out how to make it the way that you want it to be.
I was relieved to have come across some advice from a faculty member on this matter: “Everyone is so gung-ho on hybrid programs, and it’s really difficult; you’re facing bias from every side. If you make films, academics think you’re not a real academic. If you write, artists think you’re an academic artist. You can’t care. You need to just keep doing your work.”
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Zhuang, V. (2012). Portrait of an Artist: Sharon C. Harper | Arts. [online] Thecrimson.com. Available at: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/10/2/sharon_harper/ [Accessed 9 Nov. 2017].
Stevenson, S. (2010). Karthik Pandian: Porous Reality, Timeless Architecture - Interviews. [online] Artinamericamagazine.com. Available at: http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/interviews/karthik-pandian-whitney-museum/ [Accessed 9 Nov. 2017].