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Testing Thresholds: An Interview with Jan Tichy, Part 1

Installation view of East Gallery. Jan Tichy, Installation no. 15 (Siskind), 2012. 3-channel HD video installation, 11min. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

“What they put on view says a lot about a museum, but what’s in storage tells you even more…”
– Fred Wilson at The Sackler Conference for Art Education, 2010


When anyone brings up the idea of an artist occupying a museum and mining the collection my thoughts almost instantly go to artist Fred Wilson. His 1992 project Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society is often cited as a catalyst for the turn of a critical eye to cultural institutions and how they relate ethically to their staff, their collections and the public they seek to educate or connect with. Now, twenty years later, the invitation to artists from institutions has far from expired. Some, like Wilson, have used it as a chance to offer a form of institutional critique. Others, like Maria Pinto, use it as a chance to place their work within completely new and unexpected contexts. Somewhere between those two intentions lies the work of Jan Tichy. His recent collection-mining exhibition 1979:1 – 2012:21: Jan Tichy Works with the MoCP Collection calls into question the true meaning of accessibility for a museum collection while at the same time using his own work to push the boundaries of authorship. Blurring the lines between his work and that of contemporary masters, Tichy has reimagined the MoCP’s collection from the position of artist, curator and viewer simultaneously. Just before the exhibition closed this past December, Tichy took some time to look back on the year he has spent becoming familiar with the collection and how the exhibition came together in the end.  The following is part one of a two-part interview.


Installation view of East Gallery. Jan Tichy, Installation no. 15 (Siskind), 2012. 3-channel HD video installation, 11min. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Tempestt Hazel: I’m curious about your decisions for laying out the East Gallery with the videos. How much of this was your decision?

Jan Tichy: All of it. Everything was my choice. It was clear to me that this was the darkest space, and many times when I’m doing work in these dark spaces people relate to them as these dark photographic spaces in which images are being created. It felt natural to create something like what you see here with Installation no. 15 (Siskind). And even the relationship between the street, this gallery and the other gallery is a sort of camera obscura. But I wasn’t interested in recreating that. I’ve had previous pieces dealing with that specifically. But here there is the notion of the dark space that the image is being created in, like in a camera or in our eye.

I did think about the space specifically because it’s not a typical white cube. There is this presence of a wall, and it came together with Siskind who was taking pictures of walls. There were a couple of things that came together [with this space] that made me work with Siskind and these particular pieces. I love abstract expressionism. When I do my own projections, if they are totally abstract like the piece that is now at the Art Institute, or if they work with photographic images, I’m accustomed to working with spaces, entire walls, floors, etc. So, it was different to come into a collection of only photography where the photographs can be very small and the biggest one is actually not so big. There is something interesting with abstract expressionism where you see these painters with these huge canvases. Then there’s always Siskind there with his small frames. There was a frustration in the 20th century photography with the size. So, I started thinking about what would happen if you really blow it out. I was looking at his work and the pictures of the walls, the murals—some from Chicago. I worked a lot with architecture and urban environment.

But there is something very flat with these works. They need light to bring out the textures in them. But they aren’t really images where you feel the light there. It’s all layers of marks—the human marks and the marks of weather and nature. What I’m doing here technically is a technique that I evolved a couple years ago of changing digital thresholds through a digital image.

TH:  What do you mean by digital thresholds?

A digital image has 255 shades of gray. If you open levels in Photoshop and look at the histogram, the histogram goes from zero to 255. There is a feature in Photoshop called thresholds. When you use it the image becomes black and white, no grays. So, you decide where the threshold is between zero and 255. Everything lower goes to black and everything higher goes to white. [For this video], I took this image and exported it 255 times from Photoshop.

TH: And that’s what makes up the 11 minutes of the video—the transition from black to white through the thresholds?

JT: Yes, I bring it into a video editing software frame by frame, making each frame 2.5 seconds. I can control the speed. I could make it faster. But there is a revealing, exposing and erasing happening at the same time.

TH: I appreciate the slow reveal of the layers. It forces you to take time to look deeper into the piece and it mimics the way the image was made in the first place—the layering and building of different marks over time.

JT: This technique worked because of how the grays are distributed, and they can create something else. In this piece it reveals the layers that were created over the course of time. All of the information from the original picture is there, it is just distributed over time which hopefully allows [the viewer] to see more.

Jan Tichy, Polaroids (Warhol), 2012. Single channel HD video, 20min. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

TH: You talked before about abstract expressionism. Within that movement, a lot of the work employs the use of larger scales to accentuate formal ideas. One of the dilemmas of photography, as you brought up, is its use of smaller scales, which may spark the desire to work larger. Whether you’re transforming an entire gallery space or creating an installation in a building, you tend to work on a large scale. Did this limitation of material have a hand in pushing you to work in this way or is it simply the content that informs the scale?

JT: Well, I don’t really think about scale on its own. Usually it [arises] from the concept and the content. Sometimes it’s obvious why it happens [that way] and sometimes less obvious. If I’m looking back on how I developed as an artist or art student, when I started it was still analogue photography. I come from the dark room and small papers. There was the image, the small image, but before it grew in that sense of scale, it first [expanded] into time through video. Then into space with sculpture and installation work. I think it grew naturally with me and with my projects. As a photography student, I didn’t have a studio. I was always working in the darkroom. Then, I went from the dark room to working on computers digitally. Then, when I went to get my second degree, I got a studio—physical space. That’s when the first sculpture happened. And now, today, it is very different because somehow I am able to make things that are really big. I feel much freer in deciding [what to make].

TH: You went through the 12,000 images of the MoCP collection digitally. What methods did you use while looking through all of these images?

JT: There was just one method possible [given the state of] the website when I came here a year ago. The only way to go through it is alphabetically by artist. There was no way to search [keywords]. You would just have to know what you’re looking for, which made me realize that it is not accessible. So, I started going alphabetically. It wasn’t hard in the sense of concept, because, for me, it was an artistic decision. It was my decision to go through the 12,000 images. I didn’t hurry it. I was, from time to time, going through it at night.

The only feature the website had was that you could save images that you like to a folder. I was using that when I responded to something. My first thought after months of doing this—before [one] even begins to look at the museum—–was that if you want your museum’s collection to be accessible, it has to start here, with the website. I’m not an expert [on websites] so I proposed to work with a group of grad students. This relates to me not just being an artist, but also an educator. As an [educator] I have different ways of depositing knowledge. And it’s not just to pass the knowledge. But if we do things together with our students they can learn so much more through real artistic processes. Project Cabrini Green was done exactly like that—it wouldn’t have been possible in any other way. The amazing thing that happened there, because the idea was so powerful and charged, was that the students gave themselves. It was an amazing experience to work with them.

In the case with the grad students and working here it was a little bit different trying to get them to think about how to make digital collections accessible. You know ACRE? I’m on their advisory board and I go every summer to do lectures and studio visits. When I went [to ACRE for] the first time, there were grad students from all of Chicago’s institutions there. [After seeing that], I thought it would be good to offer [this opportunity] to all grad students and create a group [to develop the site] that would be mixed. And it worked.

At first, I pushed them to explore other collections from museums, like the Brooklyn Museum, which is really good for allowing the public to interact with their collection and be a part of it. The first thing we realized was that [each piece] needed more information attached to it to make it more searchable. One of the first things we did was install tagging software. Then I would give them different tagging exercises. We were learning how to tag and what the themes were, and we eventually came up with a list that could help [improve the website]. In the last part of the project, we came up with a proposal for the museum. They said that it sounded good. We met with the designer, and now there is a new website.

Installation view of West Gallery, collection pairings. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

TH: I remember navigating the website when I was a student at Columbia because I requested they pull work from their collection several times. I definitely remember having to know what I was looking for going in. Was this the first time you used your practice to make improvements on the function of an institution?

JT: On a scale like this? This is the first time. The first time I worked with a collection was at South Side Community Art Center. There it was interpreting the collection. Eventually we created a teaching kit for elementary school art teachers. That was also about the function of the collection and making it accessible to the local community. I worked with Reavis, one of the elementary schools on the south side, also.

TH: The museum staff alternates between the piece by Robert Frank and the one by Ann Hamilton on a daily basis.  Did you do that because of indecision or was it more than that?

JT: It was a couple of things. As an artist, I’m editing my work all of the time for presentation. Here, suddenly, I was editing this and most of the couples were made before I pulled them physically out. I already had them conceptually paired from the digital files. When I pulled these, I couldn’t decide. I felt like [everything] was so different with each of the pieces—not just the [Unknown, Untitled piece], but the entire wall felt different. With Ann [Hamilton], this is the female wall. But when you have [Robert] Frank there, it is something totally different. It is more about portraiture. I found that interesting.

Also, it was about me checking how far they would go. I asked [the MoCP] if I could switch a photo every day, which is something I wouldn’t think about doing in other museums. But since I worked with these students who work at the museum and worked with me on installation, it’s actually possible. In March, I did a project at Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut and I did one piece with their collection. When I later told them what I was doing here, they said, “There’s no way we would let you do that!”

TH: Considering all of the things you’ve done with this exhibition, the switching of the two pieces seems like a small request in comparison. How did you develop the pairings of work within this room?

JT: First, I was thinking how to define a collection. What can I say about this collection? Is it a big collection, small collection? What was the first piece? What was the last piece? What does it mean to show the oldest and the newest pieces of the collection, or the largest and the smallest pieces? You know, these arbitrary decisions about how we sort things and think about things. Sometimes things happen among them or in between them.

When I was teaching photography, I had this one exercise called the duet. I asked my students to make two photographs that work together by telling them that if they put these two things together it has to be one plus one equals three—meaning it has to be more than the sum of the two [photos]. And this [reminded me] that, as I’m suddenly playing the curator, the act of pulling out something from the collection, putting it on the wall and putting something next to it is the basic act of curating. You put things together to get something new. With the pairs in this room, they just came together;, there is no definition or description. They came together for many different reasons.

Installation view of West Gallery, collection pairings. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

TH: Did you find that some of them came together for formal connections, or more so because of the content?

JT: Each of these photographs became a portal into the collection, which can be said about any of the photographs in the collection. But for this exhibition I picked photographers who I think are important cornerstones in the collection, or are somehow very much related to me. But, there are [also relationships] that can be formal and everybody sees that.

TH: What was the process of pinpointing the photographs that were more autobiographical and beyond just your own aesthetic preferences? In other words, what cues made you dig deeper and want to find out more about a photograph?

JT: It could be so many things. It could be a response just to the visual. But you also have a little bit of information about the images with each of them. [That’s] how I discovered that one of these photographers was Armenian. Sometimes I looked to see who donated the piece to the museum because sometimes that’s the only information that is relevant to you.

Click here to read part two of the interview.


1979:1–2012:21: Jan Tichy Works with the MoCP Collection closed on December 23, 2012.  To see more of the exhibition, visit the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s new website.  To find more work from Jan Tichy, visit his website at

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