Daniel Phillips

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DANIEL PHILLIPS

Artist-in-Residence

 
 

My Time In Wassaic

 
 

Please write a paragraph (or a few!) about your time here in Wassaic. You should say a bit about yourself, where you came from, how you got here, what media you like to work in typically, and what you chose to work on while you were here in Wassaic. Then talk about what Wassaic means to you, how it influenced your work, and what you might want others to know about Wassaic. Write from the heart and write in natural language. We want people to get to know you through this work. Be sure to embed hyperlinked words within these body paragraphs, so that we can link out to your portfolio site, exhibitions, movements, etc. Have fun with this!

 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Interview

By Drew Broderick, June 2018
 

Where do you call home?

New Jersey.


What is one good thing that has happened in the past 24 hours?

I went swimming.


Why do you make art? Have your reasons changed over time?

I make art because it feels liberating and transformative to create something that did not exist before. I don't think my reasons for making art have changed over time.


What is a song that you never tire of listening to?

"Hard Times" by Baby Huey.


What have you been reading lately? Thoughts?

I have been reading the book The Overstory by Richard Powers. I just started reading it but in general I am drawn to books that combine human narratives with a deep knowledge of the natural world.


What drew you into the contemporary art world?

When I finished art school, a gallery approached me and wanted to show my work, that was my introduction to the contemporary art world.


How would you describe your work/practice to a total stranger? To a friend’s 5 year old child? To a grandparent?

I use vacant and abandoned buildings and properties as my studio, and create video projections and installations in these buildings to share with the public.


What are your studio essentials? What is something unexpected a visitor might encounter?

A building, a landscape, a photography camera, a tripod. A visitor would encounter a building that used to be empty now being used to make and exhibit work that uses imagery about that building and surrounding landscape.


Influences: we all have them regardless of whether or not we acknowledge them. Who or what currently inspires your work?

I started making art when I took documentary photography classes in the evening at the International Center for Photography in 2001. I was very drawn to conceptual photographers who played with narrative like Larry Sultan, but also street photographers like Gary Winogrand, and landscape/social/historical photography like Joel Sternfeld, Eugene Atget, Cartier-Bresson. I also love the self-portraits of Francesca Woodman, Mike Disfarmer, and August Sander. I was trying to make documentary photography projects about Central American immigrants in New York, which wasn't working. Then I read that Cartier-Bresson actually stopped doing photography later in his life, and just made drawings, and said that he was most influenced by literature, and also that if anyone wanted to really understand photography they needed to study visual art. Around the same time I saw the auto-polaroid portraits of Lucas Samaras in his show Unrepentant Ego at the Whitney in 2003 and they were transformative in how I thought of photography and painting. I started to do experiments burning film, painting on film, and then decided to go to art school to study drawing and painting. I have always read a lot of poetry and books, often that examine the human condition and uncover the hidden truths and mysteries behind the mundane. Raymond Carter, Philip Levine, George Saunders. I love film too, documentary films like Fire At Sea and Muhammad Ali: The Greatest by William Klein, who is also a photographer and plays around with twisting documentary photography. I love Robert Smithson and the way he writes about the landscape as a photograph. I loved the Robert Gober show at the MOMA last year, and also the Mike Kelley show a few years back at PS 1 in Queens, but I don't know if my work is really at all related to them. I often love work that I know I could never make. I think Taryn Simon's Book An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar is amazing, as are her portraits in The Innocents. I don't exactly know how to connect which of these artists influences my work most directly, but I think that's maybe okay. Hopefully someone else can help me figure that out. I love music too. Delta Blues, Haitian, Colombian, Hip-Hop, the soundtrack for Moonlight. Okay I'll stop now.


What were your intentions for this residency and how have they changed since being at the Wassaic Project?

Prior to getting the residency I was given permission to use an old barn at the end of main street to make work in throughout the summer, which is very exciting, but it will be a lot of work. So instead of trying to create something in that large space in just one month, I focused on creating smaller work in the studio that the residents were provided with at the Luther Barn.


What role does community play in your work, and how has community shaped your experience of this residency in particular?

My studio practice is a solitary one. I am one person trying to document filthy, polluted spaces, and create something beautiful by making imagery that temporarily brings the buildings and surrounding landcape to life. While I am working in a building, curious people will often approach me and ask me what I am doing, and I very much welcome this company and enjoy talking to people about their knowledge of the building I am working in and also their relationship to place around the building. So I think my community engagement happens on this very small scale individual level. When I have worked for awhile in a space and finish an installation the space draws more visitors from the outside. When I can I have made posters and people have helped me promote the opening of these site-specific installations. I really enjoy sharing the work with people in these spaces, and if they want to ask me about it that's great, but if they want to just come look that's very nice too. The community in Wassaic has been extremely helpful getting me into a more regular studio practice in a conventional studio where I can make smaller scale video and sculpture. Taking on a whole building and property is an exhausting and long-term endeavor, and there isn't a steady rhythm to creating work. You are at the mercy of the elements and the condition of these properties does not usually allow for a stable studio practice. Having a functional space with the company of other artists creating work in the Luther Barn has been nurturing to me.


How has place influenced your time at the Wassaic Project, and where is your favorite “spot” in Wassaic?

I am hoping to deepen my relationship with Wassaic over the summer, but so far it strikes me as a special place, a hamlet in a beautiful valley with long-time residents and a relatively recent influx of Wassaic Project artists, which is very unique in a rural setting. My favorite spot so far is the swimming hole next to Bob's (Two Beards) property called high rocks. I can walk to it from the Lodge where I have lived during my residency. My second favorite place is the Lodge. I really love the people I live with and the fact that it is a house. Although my bed needs a new frame.


What will you take away from this experience, and what will you leave?

I will take away how important it is to try and be nurtured by fellow artists amidst the bustle of everyday life where we often get disconnected from our practice and from other artists. I will also take away that having a more conventional studio practice can actually help me develop work I have started to create but haven't been able to finish because much of my time and energy making work over the past several years has been taken up by gathering footage of the spaces I am working in and preparing them for large-scale installations.

 
 

If I feel insecure at anytime I instantly lose it when I start working.
— Ruth Freeman
 
 
 
 

Why is creating something that didn’t already exist in the world important to you? Are you committed to this type of thinking?

I basically heard somebody say that, it might've been Lin-Manuel Miranda who said that writing is a form of magic because you're creating something that didn't exist before. But it might've also been a visual artist. Basically the point , regardless of who said it, is that whether it's an object or an idea, it's something that hasn't been considered before. For me, that's the joy of it all. Coming from a documentary background, you're using what's available to create something, to create a perspective on something, that's new.


So it’s not as much about creating something new as it is about considering something anew and then sharing that perspective. How does this sentiment relate to the ways in which you reclaim and reactivate pre-existing spaces? Why are you drawn to vacant and abandoned buildings as sites for your artistic engagement?

I can offer educated guesses about what draws me to them. Growing up in New Jersey, North Jersey near the Meadowlands, I always saw the Meadowlands on the train. They're this beautiful swampy area that's near airports and industry, they're overgrown with these invasive weeds which are really beautiful. I grew up with that landscape as an image, and always feeling like I wanted to be in that space but never being able to. It wasn’t accessible then. I mean, it is now, if you want to research it, you can actually explore the Meadowlands, but at the time I was young and I think that was a landscape that I felt like, “Oh, there's nature here but it's in the middle of industry, all the trains, highways, planes and I can’t get to it.” I felt like you're not allowed to go there. So that's maybe what drew me to inhabiting a space that you're not supposed to go to but is very charged, and has this strange interaction with nature. I was coming from an urban space, so this space was a total disconnect.

The other reason would just be the allure of these ruins. Everyone, for the most part, loves walking around abandoned buildings, seeing the paint peeling off the walls, and I guess I am drawn to that but I thought maybe to offer something more to the space than just showing up, photographing it, having that momentary.... What if you spent time there, what would happen?

And honestly, from a pragmatic standpoint, I want to work in big spaces, but I can’t afford it. I got out of art school, I'd made a huge mess in my studio and people were always complaining, and it's hard for me to work around others in a conventional studio because I use a lot of masonry, stone, dust. You know, I'll make a mess to figure out what I'm doing. There was a gallery interested in my work and they said, “Where do you want to work?” and I said, “Well, could I get onto a construction site? Could I get into an abandoned building?” And they managed to find a guy who was into it.

To get access to these spaces can be very tricky. There’s a lot of luck involved. Anyway, my practice grew from there. I managed to keep getting access to these types of space. But it's exhausting to work in these spaces. I think I'm excited too about having collected footage from this site recently that I made work at but that the public wasn’t able to access. The site's under construction and there's a lot of money involved in trying to create this art production center, and there's all this legal stuff going on because it's a brownfield and they're cleaning it up and getting through that process. It's nice in a way now to have all this footage of this space but not be able to show it in the space, and as a result to not necessarily be so tied to the site. But at the same time I like the idea of putting roots down, not being this itinerant, and going to wherever there's an available building.


You’ve expressed that the elements and conditions of the sites you work in don't usually allow for a stable studio practice, at least not in the conventional sense. How does this instability -- the instability of the places you temporarily inhabit -- influence your work and the reception of it?

It becomes this constant struggle with trying to make the site relatively habitable and usable when it really doesn't want to be. I address that by making photographs that are very aesthetically pleasing. For me, I'm not necessarily exploiting the place by doing that, it's a labor of love where I'll be, like, standing in a freezing river all night because there's a beautiful full moon that's going to cast shadows on the building and look wonderful. And I don't necessarily need people to know that, but it’s part of the fun of it. I do whatever the site allows me to do. So the imagery I can make, a lot of it is imagery, probably because that's the one thing I can do without necessarily having to deal with crumbling buildings or toxic materials. I can just set up a camera, sometimes I don't have to be there, sometimes I do have to be there. I created this system where I make imagery, I activate these buildings, but beyond that, while I'm there, there's not as much that I can do in terms of sculpture or sketches or drawing. I have kept journals, but it's limited materials.

And the instability for other people, I feel like much less people see the work at the sites I'm making it at. But the ones that do, it's this interesting and very special interaction. There've been some occasions where there’s a public gathering at the site, but it's usually this very solitary and intimate experience. It's very small scale in that way. It's a large scale space, but it's also there for just a little while, and not that many people get to experience it. To address this reality, I then sometimes show an aesthetic document at a later date in a different space.

When I work in a studio, I've created things that I never would have created on site. The site is where I make sketches, then I can execute more developed work when I'm home, on my computer, and it's warm... or if I have a show to get ready for, I'll manage to find a space that's more usable to create the objects for the show that reference the displaced site. For example, I made a work out of hanging slabs, that felt to me like I would've never been able to make those at the site but they were directly related to it and informed by it. This process feels more creative to me than just working on site. Where you're like, “Okay, I'm photographing today, I'm figuring out how to get power today, I'm figuring out how to get the pump in the river to create this reflecting pool.” It's like it makes me more of a laborer than an artist.


These ways of working make you more of a laborer than an artist when you're on “site” or in general?

Yeah, maybe both. Granted I'm making things that are not functional in the sense that I'm not preparing bricks so the building can function again. There's some imagery of me working to dig to make this mini reflecting pool at this site while this construction crew is blacktopping the rest of the site, and I loved that. I felt like that would be so great, in an ideal world, if every construction site has an artist that explores the site as it's changing. And all the guys, the managers are like, “Oh, who's the artist on this project?” That was actually the dynamic at this space in Brooklyn. I was very close with the environmental remediation crew, they were really interested and amused, but also felt like, “Oh, this guy is allowed to photograph what we're doing?”


The artist can do what others cannot?

Yeah. And then you get into a conversation about the idea of the artist as laborer. Like in that video where I'm working with another worker as a way of making another work, a document that I thought of as labor and as art.


Since you mentioned that you're from New Jersey, and aspects of New Jersey have influenced your thinking, what’s your relationship to the work of Robert Smithson and through Smithson to his dialectic of “site/non-site” and more generally to “Land art” of the 60s and 70s? Is this a lineage that you situate yourself and your work within?

I'm fascinated by Robert Smithson, I think his work is great, and I'm equally fascinated by how he talks and writes about his work. He didn't really like maps, the most interesting maps to him are on the scale of 1 to 1. When I saw his work, it was transformative in terms of having treated the landscape as a drawing, in a photographic way, he was very aware of how the site read as a photograph. He has these essays which feel more dated now, like the Monuments of Passaic, you read it now, and you're like, okay, we're so aware of industry and what it does, but at the time, he's saying that this pipe, this monumental, beautiful thing. It's very much like how I'll look at a building that used to be a place where they made boilers and I'm like, this is a cathedral of some type of master sculpture, even though it was a functional thing. So yeah, there's definitely a connection to that. But there's a lot that's different that's going on with how I'm aesthetically interpreting the landscape and how I'm having people view it.


Based on the documentation that you've shown me, there appears to be a certain limit to what you allow yourself to do to a site. You're not actively reconstructing or deconstructing walls etc., instead you're projecting imagery of the site back onto its various surfaces. Why is it important to you to have this type of ephemeral engagement with the site as opposed to something more permanent?

A lot of it has to do with the fact that I would probably not be able to access the site if I fundamentally changed it. I'm a little at the mercy of the people who... it's a little like I'm a parasite.


It sounds like you take an extremely opportunistic approach to art making.

Yes, it is and I don't know how I feel about that. I think a lot of it's dictated by wanting to have a relationship with the site long term. And then maybe to a degree it's also about respecting the property, and respecting what's there, because I know it's about to be changed. But yeah, if you think about Gordon Matta-Clark and what he did, I think that's so cool, he knew a place was going to be demolished so he just treated the whole thing as a formal exercise and a laboratory. I think that kind of approach is awesome.


But to return to your question about my engagement with the site, maybe I could do something more sculpturally or architecturally interventionist in a building with the imagery, if it’s slated for demolition. I've never been in a site where it's like, you can do anything you want because it's gonna be demolished. If that was gonna happen, I think I would definitely also show projections, but there would be much less of a concern for how the building was and I would be more active in my treatment of it.

It can be constraining at times, in a way, to be like, “Oh, I can be here, I have access, but I can't do whatever I want.” When I was creating the ice on that building that I showed you, it got massive. I'm testing the limits, and I do test limits a lot. Recently, I rediverted the river into my space using a sump pump because I wanted to create a reflecting pool as a canvas to make imagery of the site, and then I redirected the water back into the river after that. But that's definitely not legal.

Yeah, so I'm trying to get away with as much as I can to try to make what I want to make. I like how Smithson, towards the end of his life, he was writing to strip mining companies, he wanted to use their sites as a place for another project of his, they were all like, “No we're not interested…” But just the idea that these site's have already been so compromised that I can sort of do whatever I want is an interesting one to consider.

 
 
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Vestibulum id ligula porta felis euismod semper.
— Daniel Phillips
 
 
 

I’d like to pick up on the comment you made just now about “limits” and the way that your work often tests the limits of a site, its developers, and/or the legal systems at large. How do these constraints in turn dictate the potential of your practice? And if there were no limits to what you could or couldn’t do on these sites how would you work differently?

The thing is, I know this about the sites, I know that they have limits, but I still choose to work on them. I think there's a often an unaddressed domestic component to the work I’m doing, where I'm trying to make these sites into a space that feels like my space.


To make them inhabitable?

Yeah, but inhabitable for myself. So maybe if there were no limits to the site I’d just turn it into my site. One of my teachers in art school described my process as an animal nesting. Where they're collecting materials and creating a shelter that satisfies their personal needs. So maybe I do actually choose spaces that are not necessarily totally unstable, in terms of their future, because there's a certain level of comfort in that. Granted that they're, at the same time, they're severely compromised and poised for massive change. But there's probably a reason why I'm not finding spaces that nobody cares about at all.


Another thing I was thinking about while you were talking is the way in which your reactivations of these sites position architectural structures, as filters of and supports for the “natural environments” around them. Why is this important to you?

There's such a weight and impenetrability to these spaces, they're so massive and beautiful but they dominate your experience so much. In a way, it's like trying to create new space out of this space that you're never gonna escape. So the natural environments, the rivers and stuff, are often, like, you cannot go into it, you don't want to because you know what's happened there, it’s absolutely toxic. So it's like trying to make the spaces, at least in your imagination, more inhabitable or more malleable rather than just being like, “Wow, they must've done a ton of stuff in here, look at these bricks.” But I'm obsessed with that too, I could talk about what's there...


Just the materials...

Even like this barn that we’re in right now, I could show you all the parts of it, but then it's kind of like, “Alright, what do we do with it now that it's not a barn anymore? How do we think about it now?” It's almost like wanting to make it something other than what it is, but only temporarily, and using what's already there as a way to do that. I think that relates to the way that documentary projects tend to create narratives out of truth, out of what's there by making it their own.


Or at least what the “documentarian” perceives to be there and what they then present as their subjective truth.

Yeah. But the truth is too that you have these amazingly beautiful and formally set up spaces. It's very inviting to be like, "Oh yeah, this would be a great patina, like look at what this paint is doing." But, I do like the idea of doing something more than that. That's why I was interested in not just photographing a site. Even though there are beautiful photographs of places like Detroit and Cuba, the question remains, “What do you do with it now?” That's the easy part right, to photograph it, of course it’s gonna look good. So hopefully my work does more than that, does more than just representing a site visually. But I'm definitely drawing from that and using these sites for their beauty, as a tool.


When you say you're using the beauty of the site as a tool, in order to do more than generate a beautiful photograph, what is it being used to achieve? How do you wield the beauty of a site and to what end?

I guess to create something that feels like it's as beautiful as the space but is something else as well. When you see a great movie you're like, "Oh man I wanna go make a movie now." Hopefully when someone is in one of these spaces that I've made they feel the same way like, "Oh man I wanna go make a space like this." A lot of times I'm thinking about what someone might not see at the site and I'll try to document it and then show it to them in a different form through my work. That's a meaningful way to experience the space, especially when you can only be there for a few hours at the opening.


So are you interested in your viewers experiencing spaces differently as a result of experiencing the spaces that you've reactivated? Say for example, I go to an opening of yours at one of these sites, are you interested in me looking at abandoned buildings in the future differently as a result?

Yeah. I'm not interested in someone thinking, "Oh I have to pay more respect to abandoned buildings" but maybe more thinking like, "Oh that space that's abandoned could be used not just to break into, loot, and destroy."


From the perspective of a development company, it can sometimes become a liability to not acknowledge the histories of the sites under development. If I’m taking a cynical perspective, it's now "good business" to hire a team of cultural historians and artists and community leaders to tell the history of the site as a means of making the otherwise exploitative practices stomachable. Aside from seeing potential in these spaces and sites, is it also important to you that their histories are made visible and their stories remembered?

Yeah. That's something that I think about a lot. I heard the term "spatial memory" recently. That was powerful to think about and I've been wanting to explore that further in terms of what that actually means. As I was saying earlier, I'm more interested in exploring the charges of spaces than their histories. I don't do much research on the sites but I do love to talk to people that have worked in the spaces and listen to their stories. But I'm not sure that actually shows up in the finished work that I produce. But I guess if it makes you wonder about the histories of these sites and think about their stories that’s good too. But again, I'm not really trying to address the specifics of the histories of these sites in my work, that's not what I'm after. But maybe it will be one day.

 
 
Quisque iaculis facilisis lacinia. Mauris euismod pellentesque tellus sit amet mollis.
— Daniel Phillips
 
 
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Photos by Walker Esner