About the Artist
with D. K. Broderick, June 2018
Perhaps we can begin with your understanding of art making as “sociopolitical release.” Why is this approach important to you and how does it materialize in your practice?
I've always been a bit political and, until recently, I think my art has just never really aligned with being political. Once I got into grad school, I started to think of ways to deal with these things that have always bothered me in the world, and express it somehow. And then 2016 happened, and it seemed like I really didn't have much of a choice. Much of the work I'm doing these days is reconciliation as to how to deal with the world, how to move through it, what it means to be an artist, operating and having the advantages and abilities to publish things while some people are so disadvantaged and don't have a voice. It's just becoming so polarized and so magnetic towards certain fields. I feel like now it's getting to the point where I just don't have a choice but to respond to my environment in a way that I never had before. It’s cathartic in a way. But if I looked at myself two years ago and projected into the future, it's not at all what I thought I'd be doing. Shaped by the environment, I guess.
What are the differences between the work you're producing now and the work you were producing two years ago, before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election?
I came into grad school as a painter, and then I started evolving into a more digital-based practice. But along the route I also became really specific. In grad school I was looking at power dynamics and what power composition looks like, and it became very generalist across the board. And now I've really been moving into more specific territories and looking at the mechanisms that drive this country — what it produces, exports.
Can you be more specific about the “specific territories” your are moving into?
Right now, I'm doing a long project that looks at James Comey, the recent FBI director that was fired under the Trump administration. I grew up with my father in the FBI, he was an agent his entire life — he's also conservative, and we've always disagreed politically. But there was this moment during the US testimony with James Comey where it was like, who are you siding with at this point? It's this odd dichotomy: do you choose your life's work and the FBI, or do you choose Trump and your political agenda? It was this really strange, fascinating moment because it seems like that type of dichotomy should've never happened in the first place. It's so weird that everything is misaligned now. So there was a little bit of an autobiographical connection to start with, but then I started thinking about Comey as being this agent with all of this contingency and all of this power to potentially sway the election, who’s kind of universally hated by all sides. It's interesting to look at somebody like that and think about how he is going to be remembered. Is he going to be memorialized whatsoever? I think he's entering into politics in 2020 and it's really fascinating that he denounced the Republican party. Can a centrist be in power anymore? Does that even work? I've been having fun biographically following somebody and trying to reconcile where we are in the world by using one person as a locator around a system.
Why is it important that human imperfection is framed, and why have you decided to make that process the basis of your practice at the moment?
I think it stemmed from the idea of being able to understand people who just try to take advantage of others. I just have never really gotten how power dynamics operate. There's this incredible disconnect in the world that marginalizes so many people and it's, again, just a way to work through that and figure out what that looks like. One thing that I really wanted to develop was that so much of that stuff is either tacit or swept under the rug, so I really wanted to figure out a way visualize it. Start building things that actually gives it a shape and a form so you can aesthetically see what these types of relationships might look like. I do think that, ideally, you could sympathize and relate to every human being in the world, but there’s a disconnect that makes that impossible.
How do you make this disconnect you’re discussing visible? And does visualizing these power relations allow one to develop sympathy, or not?
That's really interesting. So I started turning to digital space, because I thought that there were a lot of really odd potentials and vacuums there. Something that is really unique is that it has infinite scale and direction — it's limitless in its possibility for construction and because of that, there's this whole new set of parameters that can be built. Coming from painting, it made sense to turn to a space like that and use it metaphorically to figure out how we would physically place ourselves within that system.
In regards to your really good question about whether or not this allows one to develop sympathy, I have no idea if it does or not. The current project I'm working on right now takes this question as one of its starting points. I've been going through Comey's Twitter feed and all of the items that I have been building has been based specifically off of everything he publishes. I've noticed that in his feed here are these moments of reflection where it's, "Here's me standing by this waterfall." These moments make me consider him as a human and that he might actually really be trying to reflect on how to be a better person.
So, I've been reconstructing those scenes digitally and animating different paths through those spaces. In a way, I'm really trying to unlock the fixed perspective of somebody's view. Hopefully in pivoting around and navigating those spaces in a different way and affording access to different variables there is the potential for one to develop a certain perspective. I don't know if that's technically a sense of sympathy, but ultimately I'm trying to unlock a different way of viewing.
Everything seems to be delivered to us from a very calculated and fixed perspective in media, so it's been really fascinating to try and purposefully move away from that in some type of parallel realm.
It's fascinating and it's also discomforting. Digital space has the potential to situate “someone” in the position of “something.” A thing to be pivoted around. Do the ways that we move around in digital space crystalize one into an object or do they help to dissolve these divisions altogether?
That’s a really good point. When I've been building these things and pivoting around them it doesn't really instantiate anything. It doesn't make Comey's location real but it does unlock it in a normal and discomforting way. I wasn't really sure if that would happen until I built it and then I was like, "Wow, it's really weird to look at the Potomac River from the other side looking back at the point where he was. It's an odd moment especially thinking about landscape in 2018.
How is a work like that experienced by a viewer? How is it shown in a gallery or an institution or elsewhere?
Right now I've been doing a lot of immersive projection. I'm a bit new to animation but the first few that I did were shown on monitors. Now I'm working almost exclusively with large-scale projection. I purposefully work within black box spaces so that it looks like the projections are sort of hovering and floating in space. I've also been working a lot with architectural elements, projecting into where an architectural element could be. I’ve shied away from VR. I get incredibly motion sick every time I put one on so that's been a deterrent. Along that line, there's something incredibly immersive about virtual reality that I'm almost not willing to go take on. I'm really more drawn to the idea of giving somebody a non-immersed perception, yet at the same time creating collective experience. This trompe l'oeil push and pull sometimes gets lost in VR. There's too much absorption. I've always been interested in special effects and baroque immersion.
Earlier when you said you were interested in thinking about landscape in 2018, my first thought was the [Hudson] River Valley landscape. Now I'm thinking about digital landscapes. We also talked about the current and recent political landscape in the United States of America as well. Why does aggregating these different notions of landscape into a single immersive derivative interest you and in what ways is your work dependent on it?
I had a really interesting experience where I moved to the Emirates for two years. I was running an art residency in Abu Dhabi. When I was researching the area I was looking up the existing architecture. Abu Dhabi Google Image search is full of so many architectural renderings and once I got to the actual place I realized that all of these buildings that I thought existed were actually not built. It was really amazing because I do a lot of rendering myself and I was completely deceived. I had absolutely no idea. There was something really odd about that perception and translation of information.
After living there for a few months, I couldn't figure out why everything was so strange to me, and then I figured out there are no weeds in Abu Dhabi. Everything that grows there is 100% intentional. Everything is irrigated. Everything is calculated. And so it's really surreal going from something like that to something like Wassaic where everything is in such a natural state. I'm not going to be able to articulate why that's so important to me but that kind of buoyancy — that back-and-forth — became relevant. That's why being here at this residency so far has been so amazing. The best parts are when I'm going jogging down the street, and the forest is unlike any experience I’ve had for a long time. There's a moment of clarity that comes from that in an otherwise hyper-saturated world of image and information. There's something really significant about landscape as a self-reflective point. It's immersive in its own right.
I've been back from the Emirates since last January and I'm really glad I went. I met some amazing people. It's 85% expats that live there, so it's a true melting pot of the world. A lot of people can seek refuge there so you get to meet people that have come from disadvantaged areas. I've taken a lot of that with me and I think my work has developed as a direct result of that.
It was also really interesting to move back right after Trump. It was so weird to watch everything happen across the world and then say, "Ok, I'm American, I'm coming back to this — what does that mean exactly?"
Given that we just touched on landscape, perhaps we could spend some time talking about your shift from painting to animation, from the surface of the canvas to digital space.
At first when I was moving into digital space it was all about doing CAD and rendering constructions so I could then project them into paintings and make paintings based on those digital constructions. That's really where I started. But then I became really used to the instant gratification of being able to do something so much faster on a computer and actually visualize things so much better than I could on painted canvas. That said, it wasn't palpable, it didn't have a physical presence. So it was really about trying to come to terms with giving myself permission to leave painting for a while in order to really explore digital space.
That said, I've always had an innate desire to continually return to painting. I always go back to it. I'm not really sure why, but there's something about the physical presence of painting that I'm really interested in. In a certain sense it is a way of justifying my production. It's a really funny experience to sit at a computer all day and be really productive, but then you turn the computer off and you walk away and feel like you've done nothing. With painting there's always something there, in the room, with you. This sense of permanence is something that always haunts me. I haven't found that in the digital world yet.
Before graduate school I was working for an artist and I was doing nothing but architectural drawing for three years straight. I knew nothing about architecture and I really just learned the language of architecture by drawing it over and over and over again. I came to school with that so ingrained in what I was doing that I tried to purge myself in the beginning, but it ultimately came back and hasn't left since. When it came back it came back as a desire to try and unlock perspective in order to think about the potentials of navigating space differently. The differences between the Brunelleschi linear perspective that we've evolved from to where we are now. You can go everywhere, and everything is completely unhinged from physics. But what that means for painting, I have no idea.
Somebody once told me that painting can be a way of making an image that you otherwise achieve through any other means. During my final pursuits of painting, I tried to think of it as image making and not as painting. I'm really just trying to arrive at a physical image which doesn't mean that I'm necessarily going through the history of painters and painting in the way that real painters do.
Ah, to be a "real" painter!
Yeah, totally. There are some people that just die for it. And I totally get it, but I've never been able to bring myself to that place, even if I've always been envious of it. I'm trying to figure out what it means make images in 2018.
Photos by Walker Esner