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February 03, 2021

Language Independence, Media Performance, and Accessing Contextual Specificities for Livelihood: Carlos Franco in conversation with Katelynn Dunn

by Katelynn Dunn

This is an interview by writer Katelynn Dunn with 2020-21 Ground Floor artist-in-residence Carlos Franco.

Carlos Franco (CF): I am actually interested in how to think outside of language. What spaces can be opened up that are not bound by the rules already set for us? I always think that we could use the same words to explain radically different realities, so it’s always tricky with an interview, or just conversations in general, specially if they’re leaning on linear. 

Katelynn Dunn (KD): I went to your website, and the whole page is covered with a lot of artworks. I wouldn’t call them videos.

CF: See, that is what I am looking for. This is where language fails.

I work project to project, and definitely wouldn’t call myself a video artist. The videos you’re mentioning from my website are pieces from earlier this year. They’re usually one second long loops with content sourced from Instagram, mainly ads, and then dropped back into that bucket. I do them on my iPhone, which like for most, has become the space to be throughout the pandemic. You know, social media, the seedy spot that’s the only one open after hours. That workflow and distribution feel right. I think they deal with attention span. Not quite sure, words are failing me. 

I’ve enjoyed working from my mobile devices these last years during the in-betweens of life: commuting, before zzz, the bathroom, in the mid, between more time/space consuming projects. I’ve been inclined to play around with these devices for a while now, but from around late 2016, I was traveling a bit and started investing more time in them. The earlier projects that share the same genealogy as these, used to last up to 1:00 min, which has now collapsed into 00:01 sec. Got rid of all the saturated fats. 

That series, which has overpopulated my website, as I had mentioned, was created throughout the pandemic. I like that it has overtaken the site. It’s like a mob, and it reflects the design approach to this iteration of the website: a democracy, a digital flattening of my work, no hierarchical values in the relation between things, just stuff.

KD: I think there is an overall wave of a narrative when we view the condensed clips together. However, each one of the smaller pieces works individually as well. They all seem pretty critical of our social situation.

CF: I see them as micro essays. The content and information being so collapsed into each other creates an interesting cognitive effect where the relation between signifier and signified gets scrambled. Recently, another curator, Margot Norton, called them paintings, which I find interesting. It makes me think how that gap between the static and the moving image can collapse: at the end of the day it’s either your eye moving or the image, but there’s always movement, even when seeing a painting or reading a page. I love to use a phrase: ‘how many moments are there in one second?’ I think these pieces start to reflect that.

It’s been a whole thing about how to present these works outside of the social media context from which they’re created. In April, Galleri Nos in Stockholm commissioned an exhibition for their Instagram account of this work, which I quite enjoyed working on from the comfort of my bean bag and couch while quarantined. More recently I was working with a curator to have them in a show in a monastery in Rome which got cancelled, or postponed, who knows these days. The structure was based around a media player I designed which is linked to a folder on the “cloud.” Each time a person comes into a spot, the media player gets triggered and chooses one of the pieces from this folder at random and loops it until that person leaves the spot, at which point it goes blank, until: loop.

I don’t want to treat any of these videos as objects by themselves, or treat them as is usually done with art pieces: precious objects. These, I want to treat as a full set. The relationship with the video ends up being a mathematical or data set. Currently there are about 170 of these videos, give or take.

KD: The presentation of the multitude of fast flashing images makes the work feel a bit larger than life. You throw a lot of content and information at us. The images are disassociated enough that they then create new associations as they are presented, and it happens so quickly that we might not even realize what is being shown to us. There is also the sense that you don’t allow the media to limit you, which also speaks to your approach to language. The way you use material now, utilizing the digital content, is much different than your other, I would say, physical, pieces. What is your perspective on materiality and medium?

CF: The medium is the message. To put this into context, we could refer to media theorists Marshall McLuhan, Friedrich Kittler, or more recently John Durham Peters. If you put a video on an iPad, it will take a lot for me not to see the video as a sculpture. Even more so if it is in a white cube. I remember Sharon Grace once telling me “There’s no innocent space, everything is designed.” If I’m going to put an image on a wall, that has its own history including the architecture and the act thereof, then I think about how to acknowledge cultural cues as well as interesting ways to contextualize them within theoretical frameworks from which to work. Nothing happens in a vacuum, we are the vacuum.

Referring to my work, S.01, Ep. 02-03 (2020), in relation to media specificity, I ask the questions, what does it mean to keep time? What is a landscape? How do those two relate? Connecting those two is basically the basis of modern societies, or agrilogistics. I think about Hesiod’s poem, Works and Days. I think about how much of societal structure was choreographed around the seasons, about harvesting, about surplus of grain. Then I extrapolate that to the country of my origin, Puerto Rico, where season means a wholly different thing. There is hurricane season, and that’s about it. I think about those first Europeans in the Americas and how they contended with the phenomenon and the concept of these massive storms; how European ideologies made sense of American ecologies while sidequesting into colonialism… so on… so on.. so on.. and now binging.

Those “stories” emerge from the node that is the work S.01 Ep 02-03, which at the end of the day is a clepsydra. This is just a fancy word for “water clock.” However, I wouldn’t expect any viewer to make the same connections or have the same experience. I’m reading what I see within the space such as water tanks and plantain trees from my own nexus. This goes back to media specificity. How do you create a space for brains, and sometimes bodies, to play within? In the most obvious sense, that depends on awareness and capacity to frame these materials and their composed realities. I used to compare my work to designing video game levels. For example, you have a world that is built and designed. It seems competently coherent, but it’s up to the player to find her or his way through it. I would never say that my work aims to be coherent. That is too easy. However, I do aspire to nourish agency within the viewer by creating work that is captivating enough to entice the viewer to enter it within their own “within.” 

KD: I like the idea of thinking about non-physical space, and this touches on your point about what kind of systems we work for. Spaces are also for thinking, imagining, or perceiving things, which is a reason why I wanted to conduct these interviews. I wanted to hear from artists how non-visual space is shaped in times where our physical capacity is restricted, and how these impediments in movement affect our abilities to create. I also want to know how artists are devising their own spaces for creating right now.

CF: That’s a good leeway for one of the projects I am working on which may be my last “media as media” project, because I need to back away from my mind. It is a VR piece which will allow you to have a new kind of relationship with a media library, with a tint of my own style spread into the mixture. I don’t want to talk too much about it.

 

Image caption: installation view of Carlos Franco’s ISCP studio in the Ground Floor Program, November 2020.

Image alt text: In the front of a white rectangular room, a long, disorganized wooden desk is visible with a computer, laptop, monitor, water bottle, glasses, phone, and other items. To the left. a rectangular fence with rounded sides holds 6 funnels each with different color soda bottle connected to clear tubes filled with soda. A rod is suspended horizontally in the center of the room by a yellow chain. Close to the rod is a plant in a white plastic bucket. Three geometric posters hang on the right wall. In the back of the room, a black curtain covers the bottom half of the wall, with an air conditioner hanging above.

February 03, 2021

Examining Narrative from the Inside Out, Censorship in the Art World, and Re- looking Formulated Imagery: Sara Cwynar in conversation with Katelynn Dunn

by Katelynn Dunn

This is an interview by writer Katelynn Dunn with 2021 artist-in-residence Sara Cwynar.

Katelynn Dunn (KD): The piece, Modern Art in Your Life, 2019, was a work commissioned by MoMA, so how did you navigate the institution while also developing a critique of the art historical canon within their collection? 

Sara Cwynar (SC): It was the title of a show in the fifties in this period of more optimistic or public good oriented shows at MoMA. They also had shows like The Family of Man, 1955. They had more of an ethos about the greatness of humanity in progress from the perspective of Western culture, in which there was a lot of othering of other cultures. The whole spirit was to show how great America was, and MoMA was an extension of America. I was trying to play off this early institutional history of MoMA as something that had a very clear political bend to it while very much thinking it was being objective. I didn’t have too much difficulty navigating the institution. They seemed ok with me being a little bit critical of them and pointing to all the biases in their institutional history. They’re trying to parse that themselves in the current climate where finally people realize that the history of modern art is just one specific history that could have been another way, and that it might not necessarily mean all that much.

You realize, and this is something I realized working at The New York Times, that these behemoth institutions of our culture that we think are handing down things that must have been thought through and decided on by people who knew, or the whole notion of expertise, is kind of falling apart in our time for better or for worse. All of our older institutions no longer have authority. Working at the NYT, I realized this too. People are figuring out things as best they can and making a lot of mistakes. MoMA is obviously exactly the same. That was cool to work through, although I don’t think I had as much access to the failures as someone who is actually in an institution.

KD: Did you have any particular inspirations?

SC: I was also thinking about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, 1972, which is one of my favorite projects ever. I refer a lot to these really early first encounters with these sorts of visual culture theories that a lot of people get in art school, and I found them on my own. I did graphic design school, which is not art school. I obviously didn’t make Ways of Seeing, but I wanted to make this [commissioned work] as ambitious as I could. It seemed more exciting than making something for a gallery or even making something for a physical space within a museum. 

KD:  On your website, it says that your book, The Kitsch Encyclopedia, looks at the way that an idealized image world has been constructed on top of the real world and has in many ways subsumed it. Do you view the act of making this book, and the usage of the kitsch aesthetic in your works, as a confirmation of the “idealized image”?

SC: I think the use of those types of images is trying to walk a double line or something. It is sort of a confirmation of those types of images. I am thinking about kitsch in a specific sense of it, as the sort of images and objects that we, and social movements, and religions, and all sorts of things, attach ourselves to for seeing the world as more aesthetically pleasing, more palatable, and easier to navigate on an existential level than it actually is. I realize that images in this sense are sort of cynical in that they are perhaps blocking the more difficult parts of reality from our view.

KD: How did you come up with, or determine, the “idealized image” in your artworks?

SC: That book [The Kitsch Encyclopedia, 2014] and a lot of my early encounters with theory came with what Kundera was describing as kitsch, which is this sort of image world that you quoted that has subsumed the real world or has in some way become more real to us. I think this is increasingly truer now, especially as we can’t even enter the real world that much. I was looking a lot at other theorists, like the simulations by Jean Beaudrillard and mythology by Roland Barthes, and really kind of seminal almost undergrad early theory text that also pull apart the way that images work and the way that they present the world as more cleaned up and paired down and simplified than it actually is. I started building an idea of the idealized image through those early theories, and then it’s just been something that’s grown and changed in my work. It has kind of morphed to absorb a lot of what Instagram has to offer and a lot of the ways that we experience images now as opposed to the more closed off ways that Roland Barthes saw advertising work. By closed off I mean that there wasn’t as much material to sift through. So, it’s kind of a changing definition.

KD: What pieces of the aesthetic would be ironic or a critique of the idealized image in this sense, and would you consider any part of this aesthetic to be “true”?

SC: That’s one of the core questions I’m always trying to sort through. There is so much truth in those images. The quote from Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved together, with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” That is a quote I say every time I do a talk pretty much, because I feel like it sums up this sort of truth, and then the reversal of the truth, in having a sentimental aesthetic experience. You are sort of first there in some aspect of it that has to be moving. Then you get caught up in seeing all the images that you have already seen and seeing with a collective eye or a shared idea of how you are supposed to see.

Now I’m thinking a lot about how we’re supposed to be able to parse whether anything is true or real in our crazy internet world of news, and that question is very generative in my work and very impossible to answer. I can’t tell if I’m acting in a real way or if I’m reacting in a way that all the images and news and things I read, and people’s opinions I absorb, are telling me to react. It becomes very difficult to figure it out.

KD: Considering your research that deals directly with the notion of restrictive beauty standards as well as the critical eye towards images and image making, how do you define limitation in your creative process?

SC: I think my personal neurosis I find limiting includes that my work might be too aesthetically pleasing for some people to take seriously, and that it might be too gendered. Then, there are the classic limitations of trying to figure out how to be and what to say. Everyone is being more careful, maybe too careful, with everything that they say and do publicly right now. I think most of that is a force for good, and I also try to be extremely careful and sensitive in my work anyway. Everyone is being so conservative. Like the Guston show being canceled. We are in a moment of a lot of limitations that amount to censorship that are maybe coming from not a bad place. It’s just too stressful to be doing anything in the public eye right now.

KD: Are there practical methods that you employ to break through these, or are there visual elements that you encode?

SC: On a purely practical level, I always ask a lot of people’s opinions about everything that I put into the world. That usually helps me to know that I’ve done everything that I could. I usually trust myself if I feel like something is good or at least worth putting out there. And I also make sure to ask a bunch of people so I’m not only speaking from my own experience. That’s kind of the best thing you can do. I also try to make a lot of stuff, so I keep practicing the feeling of exposing myself.

Image caption: Sara Cwynar, Ali from SSENSE.com (How to Marry a Millionaire), 2020, archival pigment print mounted on Dibond, 30 × 24 in. (76.2 × 60.96 cm).

Image alt text: A woman is standing behind a contraption that holds a hand-sketched Marylin Monroe pink dress cutout with the following text on the bottom right: ‘How to Marry a Millionaire, 20th Century, 1953’. The woman is wearing a blue dress shirt and pink heels with her left hand holding the contraption on top of her head and her right hand on her bent right knee. Behind her left leg is another contraption holding a print of a hairy leg. In the background, a Renaissance painting of Adam and Eve is held up by green tape. 

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