After wandering through Pilsen, Becket Flannery and I returned to ACRE Projects, where Grant Ray had finished hanging his work for The Uncanny Imagination. As Becket installed his collages for Frontispiece, Grant explained to me his interest in using the photographic medium as a means of documentation, of using scientific processes to present seemingly mundane information and consequently create a social, cultural dialogue.
The following conversation proceeds from that explanation and is the second part of my interview with the two artists as they prepared for their exhibition opening. Read PART I here.
Jenny Lam: How and when did you first become interested in this kind of documentation?
Grant Ray: About a year after my undergraduate studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York, I was really influenced by Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall. I came from a street photography background in which I took photographs of things as they existed, and I got not bored with it, but interested in how I could use photography to tell a story that didn’t necessarily exist. So I started playing around with photo narratives, and they were really hokey, like they were really fictional and had over-the-top studio lighting, and through exploring that, I started to get interested in some of the early photographic documentation of supernatural events. There are two photographers in particular: William Hope and Albert Notzing, who took photographs of ectoplasm. I was really intrigued that they were so obviously fabricated, but some people actually took those photographs as real evidence, like this is the proof that ghosts and the ethereal exist. I was interested in the duality of that photographic medium, between fact and fiction, so I wanted to start making work that actually addressed specific issues that I was interested in—to not make up goofy narratives, but actually talk about specific things.
In the case of this work, the prime interest for me was, specifically in response to photography and landscape photography, that there’s this sense of manifest destiny the early photographers who went out there; the landscape has always been a projection of human desires and politics. I became interested in the question, “What would happen if nature could talk back to us?” In this performative experience, we know that nature can’t talk back to us, but if we could suspend our disbelief and just think, “Well, maybe there are constellations in the woods,” or when you start doing these Rorschach tests, maybe you can see some sort of symbol here that led you to interpret a plant in a different way. It’s a way to talk about engagement with the landscape and nature and the environment.
The overlying theme or concept behind my work is the exploration or search for marks and traces or phenomena that can be construed as signs, and that act of photographing it, that act of finding it, that act of invention as poetic gestures, of trying to come to terms with or find meaning or significance in the everyday. It’s through ACRE, the show I did at Spoke called If Nature Could Talk, and even before when I did a residency at Harold that I really began to explore the environment or landscape as the new direction that I wanted to move forward in.
I felt passionately about this idea, and I’m by no means an expert, but the conversation about the environment and landscape has a binary: “OK, we’ll have this technology that’ll help us reap the benefits of raw minerals, and we can do whatever we want to the environment and we’ll fix it later,” while the other side of it is “We can’t do anything to the environment” and “We don’t even let humans into the environment and the landscape.” I wanted to talk about how, of course, again, nature can’t talk, but maybe we should be thinking differently about it.
JL: Is your interest in the natural world prompted in part by living in the urban environments of New York and Chicago, or did that interest come about another way?
GR: I grew up in the northern area of Missouri, and when I was about 11, we lived in really small towns along the Mississippi side of Missouri. For weekends, my dad would take us hiking, and he was an archeology buff as well, and we would be looking for arrowheads, and we’d always be finding paintings or glyphs in caves, which was really awesome, so I always had this interesting relationship with nature. My grandparents also lived on a lake in a little house, so that, for me, is just my history—of playing in the woods as a kid—and those were like the earliest toys I had.
When I moved to New York—when I first started photography—it was street photography. I was really interested in industrial decay as a way of talking about the entry of America into this postindustrial society, so I went to New York because it seemed like that’s the best place to go to really talk about industry, and the city was much older than St. Louis was. When I came back to Chicago, it was mainly for several reasons: one, I was looking for grad school here; two, I was very interested in the art scene that was happening here.
Nature has always been with me, but I haven’t returned to it until this work, and it just felt right like the right direction to go, so not until this work did I go back to the rural.
JL: Simply being in the rural setting of southern Wisconsin must have awakened something.
GR: Yeah, the funny thing is I had some specific work in mind that I wanted to make when I got out there, but because of seasonal flooding, a lot of the places I had mapped on Google Maps to photograph were underwater. Even so, at ACRE you’re very much in the woods. This last photograph here [titled Steuben, Wisconsin: Ursa Major (big dipper) Constellation] is at the end of the driveway, and it’s already pretty wild. I come from the plains, where cow pastures had very short grass, but at ACRE the weeds would be six feet tall, and you’d hear cows meandering through this dense brush. The woods are really dense there, and it did kind of awaken a lot of childhood memories, but they’re much different from the woods that I was used to.
I have another project that is actually developing out there; I left a few books in different places, in wet and damp areas where moss can grow, and, at some point, I think maybe in August, I’ll go back and see what’s happened and if they’re still there. They’re all books on the environment. One’s on the supernatural, but I’ll see what nature might do with it. I’m looking forward to it, as long as they’re not underwater.
JL: Had you always been doing photography or do you work with other media as well?
GR: Photography was actually the backup medium for me… That’s the wrong way to describe it, but I didn’t get interested in art the normal way that most people do, I think, where you have art classes in high school and then decide that’s what you want to do and move forward. I had horrible art teachers in high school who told me that I should find something else to bide my time with, so it wasn’t until the first couple years of community college that I started taking ceramics, specifically hand-building and sculpting with ceramic material and stoneware.
Before that, to go back to my childhood, my grandfather owned a junkyard, and he’s one of these guys who can fix anything; if it’s a lamp, he’ll find a way to make a brand new lamp out of just materials sitting around. So I had an interest in sculpture and finding everyday material to make things out of, which goes back into this later work.
When I got into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I spent the first year studying sculpture and photography, and I had a moment at the end of the year where I was looking at the sculptures I was making and I was looking at the photographs I was making, and the photography was much better, so I was going to focus on photography.
That’s also when I became more interested in how photography allowed me to get into a process; I really loved this idea of process and building things together, while also still doing the sculptural things that I was interested in, but having the two work together to reflect the ideas I was interested in, one being photography as a medium of fact and fiction, and that, at the same time, everyday objects are used in ways that are surprising or unexpected to reflect back on their use in society.
And again—I was talking with Becket about this—the interest with using the evidence now is a new direction for me, like at the Spoke show I tried to actually show the inventions, which I didn’t really think were conflicting with one another, but I think, with the evidence, it felt like a right move. And also going back to a sculptural quality in a way, where you’re showing the actual object with the photograph. I think they’re working well, but I have to wait and see what other people have to say about it. [Laughter.]
JL: Other than nature itself, do you find inspiration in art historical movements and other artists?
GR: The interesting thing is my inspirations are not just art. In a lot of ways Mark Dion’s process, how he works, and how he presents the work that he makes. I’m interested in that pseudo-history he creates through his presentation. William Lamson, for his performative engagements where he goes out and has this performative element that he does with a landscape or whatever he’s working on, and then the photography as the document of that, yet he still references the act. He has a piece where it’s a brick and he’s taken two yellow helium balloons and he’s put it in front of a CCTV camera so it’s blocking the view, so that kind of whimsical intervention with the environment, yet it also references the person who did it, like we begin to think about an unseen character. And then finally Ghosthunters for how they’re using technology to try to discover these things, whether ghosts exist or not, that belief and willingness to do all these experiments through tireless hours.
As for art history movements, postmodernism, to just use a very large umbrella: photography that’s about photography while it’s also about something else. This all harkens back to the photographic medium and its interesting relationship with fiction and fact. There are a lot of contemporary artists that are doing storytelling, are using narrative, like Jeff Wall and especially Christine Shank and the way that she actually constructs these miniature dollhouses and rooms and then takes photographs. I’m really interested in the way artists use process, and you can kind of see the process of the artist or the person that they’re supposed to be documenting.
JL: I’m finding many connections between your and Becket’s work. Did you two collaborate at all while you were at the residency, or did this partnership come about serendipitously?
GR: We didn’t actually do any collaboration while we were out there, but we spent a lot of time talking about each other’s projects, and the intersection was the use of narrative in our work, and we thought that it would be great to showcase against one another our practice under that umbrella, specifically fictional-based narratives. We didn’t collaborate; I think the reason for that, at least, for me, was part of my process, because I didn’t have a car at ACRE and I would get up in the morning and just walk in any direction. I would just pick a direction and go, so I was gone for most of the day, and by the time it’s nighttime, there are great lectures or artist series or you just sit around and talk, but we had a lot of great conversations about each other’s work, and automatically found that we had common interests, common ground.
BF: I also was reading a lot about nature and politics of geography when I was there, so I was connecting with [Grant’s] work, on an intellectual, political level. We collaborated on dance parties. [Laughter.]
JL: You should have a dance party in this space.
GR: [Laughter.] Just the fact that you’d be in the woodshop and it’d be midnight, in the middle of nowhere, and you’ve got the moon on the horizon, the lights set up where the Christmas lights are strobing with the beat, somebody’s DJing on a laptop, and you have the wild field and the neighbors’ five miles away and would call and be like, “Turn the music down!” Those were fun. Warm weather… what’s that?
BF: One of the things that all the residents did at the beginning of the residency was presentations on our work. I actually took ten minutes like we were supposed to; I think [Grant] did half an hour or something. [Laughter.] I disciplined myself. But I was really impressed with what Grant was bringing to the table and loved the work that he showed and what he was talking about in his work. It was funny because, at the residency, I was making collages and not really thinking too much about the narrative elements, but as I took the work home, I started thinking a lot more about these frontispieces for unwritten text, how that gives an ambiguity because there seems to be a text to relate to the image, but it’s an unwritten one.
That reminded me a lot of what Grant was doing with his images, because in his previous series, he has these inventions that have inventors, but the narratives for the inventors are fictionalized, or these [current] pieces where you have, again, this idea of a narrative, and you have this evidence and you’re searching for this language. It’s like there’s a missing language that’s trying to be elicited, so that’s one of the things that I was thinking about that Grant was already thinking about. Maybe [Grant] made me think about it. [Laughter.]
JL: A lot hinges on the interpretation of your work’s viewer. Had you always been developing that kind of dialogue, or did that come about through the process of working on these pieces?
GR: A lot of stuff developed my last year of undergrad and the few years afterwards when I was still working as a freelance editorial photographer in New York before I came back. At the time, I was interested in making photographs that were so theatrical that you’d be like, “Oh, it’s theater; it’s not a document.” I had just read Barthes and Benjamin and I was so hung up on that fact, like “This is photography and I’m going to make work about how a photograph is not necessarily always truthful,” and at that point I was making intentionally ambiguous photographs because I was interested in getting the viewer to try to interact with the work and try to decipher what was happening in the photograph. The problem was that the content was ambiguous at best; it was like this narrative that had no adjectives. That was something I knew that I wanted to work on and develop.
So in the work that I’m doing now, there obviously is a specific content, a specific message that I want people to get, but I’m interested in how there’s an investigation that’s required on the viewer’s part; I can present this information, but they need to walk up to it and see where, for example, this constellation is in this piece [titled Steuben, Wisconsin: Triangulum Constellation].
For me, the photographic medium is always slightly ambiguous because of its nature. The way that we understand the photographic medium today in post-digital editing technology, there’s always that moment where you might think it’s real but also might potentially think it’s fabricated. One of the ways that I kind of begin to combat that was the use of text, specifically to anchor the content and put brackets around what the content is, as well as to steer interpretation.
The other thing that I became interested in was the use of text as photo caption, which, for me, mimics photojournalism or documentary photography, or even if you go to a natural history museum the captions always give you the facts, and so one of the things you’ll always find in my work in the last several years is the location and the thing I want to point to specifically.
So I’m very much interested in mimicry of photojournalism or documentary visual tropes, not to diminish or say that documentary photography fails at sharing verifiable facts about the world, but just as a way of suspending disbelief, because of course most people are going to look at this and be like, “This isn’t real,” or, “This is impossible,” but I’m not necessarily interested in that. What I’m interested in is the investigation or the poetic gesture of actually trying to make these things work, to engage with the environment and nature on a level that we can. We’re always separated from nature; we’re part of it, but we’re also very much separated from it.
They may not be believable, or some people may actually believe that they can happen—and either side of the coin I’m interested in—but ultimately they come away with thinking about somebody’s attempt to do these things. The interesting thing about this work versus some of my earlier work—the first year I started exploring this, it was all very supernatural, because I wanted to talk about the metaphysical search for meaning through supernatural stuff, like with Ghosthunters—is those were all very much heavily manipulated using digital editing technology, but all these photographs over the last three years are real inventions. There’s no digital trickery, so if you’ve visited [my] website, there’s this photograph of the CDs [titled Chicago, Illinois: Fleetwood Macs Greatest Hits, 5:05pm], and all of that is using the photographic medium as it exists, and the same with this [current work]. All these actually happened. They’re real, tangible, practical experiences and experiments that people can replicate if they want to. Anybody can walk out into a field and start looking for constellations. One of the other layers that I’m hoping the work triggers is that people might think about this and then the next time they walk outside they might look at something and be like, “That kind of looks like a constellation,” carrying away that whimsical play, humor, as a way of bringing up dialogue.
JL: Other than your book project, is there anything else you’re working on that you’ll be showing in the near future?
GR: Yes, there used to be a town outside of St. Louis, Missouri, that was completely abandoned because of toxic waste. It was demolished and then they scraped off all the earth—down to two inches—put all that into an incinerator, and turned it into a state park. So I want to go there and make some work and find any traces of the town it’s left.
I’m also working on a project called Morning Divination, and it’s toast that I make every morning, and basically I’m photographing it and seeing—very similar to my plant Rorschach tests—if are there any symbols that can come up in the everyday of the toast.
For me, the process is I come up with the idea and the concept, and then I execute the work, in some cases actually making the work, or in this case finding it. I’m really looking forward to getting into the studio on a full-time basis and making work. It’s hard to work on the constellations and plants and more natural stuff; it’s basically pretty nil in the environment here, at least.
JL: Where’s your studio in the city?
GR: My studio’s up in Andersonville, so Foster and Broadway. It’s nice; it’s a good space.
JL: There’s a good artist community up in Andersonville.
GR: There is. There are a few small galleries that are operating on Clark Street, and also if you go into Edgewater there are a lot of great artist spaces opening there as well, and that’s one of the reasons I might just dive into that. One of the reasons that really attracted me coming from New York to Chicago was specifically the opportunities for artists here, and, of course, there are tons of opportunities in New York, but in Chicago there seems to be a thriving emerging arts scene that’s not just in name. It’s really easy for people to say, “We have a great emerging art scene,” but if you don’t have the space to show art and present new work and new ideas, then your “emerging” scene becomes stifled, and it’s just a bunch of people and they can’t get their work out there to be seen.
It’s happening especially in Edgewater and the Pilsen area, all these places that are doing that, which are really great. You’ve got to start somewhere, right?
JL: Did you ever consider staying in New York or did you decide, “Definitely Chicago; I’m leaving this place!”?
GR: [Laughter.] It’s funny, actually, because I still hold a thought in the back of my head that, at some point, I’m going to go back. So two things happened that brought me to Chicago. First, I was very attracted to some of the stories of the emerging art scene I was hearing about, and emerging art galleries as well. It reminded me of… one of the reasons that attracted me to go to New York was the School of Visual Arts, with Stephen Fraily teaching there—I definitely wanted to work with him—but I also fell in love with that art history myth story, of 1970s SoHo, where basically people didn’t have a lot of money, or maybe they did, but they were taking really raw spaces, and through those raw spaces you had a whole generation of really amazing artists getting their start. I remember hearing stories from friends that were still in Chicago talking about artists getting together and renting hotel floors or hotel rooms and having hotel gallery spaces. I couldn’t find that in New York at the time. [Second,] I knew I wanted to go to grad school; I had my eye on Columbia College in Chicago, and as soon as I got in, it was the perfect storm, the two coming together.
I really like where I’m going in Chicago and I love the community here; it’s so engaging. There are so many talented people. It’s extremely supportive, which is great in and of itself. But at some point I might think about going back. I mean, it was hard to leave. New York is New York, and you can’t compare it to Chicago, because Chicago will just pale in comparison; it’s like comparing apples and oranges. But I would love to at some point possibly go back to New York if I could, and the goal at some point, as I think every artist would say, is to slowly build up a reputation and then hopefully send out artist packets to galleries in New York that would be interested in picking up the work.
The goal is to move towards the national, but I definitely want to get established in the local area of Chicago just because I want to be part of the community and be a part of that dialogue. And what I mean by establishing an emerging arts scene is where there’s a venue where you have young gallery directors, young art directors, curators that are still in programs or are just out of programs wanting to develop their practice… where you get the perfect mix of all these people working together, and they’re all starting at the same level. That’s what’s good about the ACRE space, [with founders] Emily Green and Nicholas Wylie. They’re not emerging, but they are just getting started with what they want to do with the art community. It’s that perfect blend.
Again, it reminds me of 1970s New York, or what you read about 1970s New York, where you have people like—I’m trying to remember her name—the young gallerist who basically wanted to open up a gallery, and just through that she meets Basquiat, and then the rest is history, and now she makes millions and millions of dollars. Now, SoHo is Jeffrey Deitch and all these really high-end galleries that show amazing work, but it’s definitely not 1970s SoHo anymore.
JL: Yeah, the community here is very young in terms of age. I’m always surprised at just how young people are and they’re directors or owners.
GR: Which just makes you wonder, where do all the older ones go? Or are they still around?
JL: That is a good question!
GR: [Laughter.] Probably New York.
[Grant and I watch and chat with Becket—about Rahm Emanuel, döner kebabs in Berlin, taking the PATH to New Jersey, and everything in between—as Becket continues to install his pieces.]
JL: Becket, you’re going to staple your installations into the wall?
BF: Yeah, that’s my idea for now. Staples are pretty easy. You’re not going to see the staples; they’re going to be under the folds. In the end, it’s just wrapping paper. I’m going to rip it off and spackle the walls, so really it’s not very intrusive, relative to tape which might peel the wall.
GR: It also references this temporality, the ephemeral, where it’s one shot. You can do the piece again but it will change. So that’s kind of interesting.
BF: Yeah, with this work, with the show, it’s up for a weekend, so why not? Let’s make something that literally would not stand up for more than 24 hours. Give these ribbons more than 24 hours and they’ll fall; they will finally flatten out and they won’t be good. This will stay up for, frankly, four hours.
JL: What if someone wanted to purchase your piece? What would you do?
BF: I would laugh and laugh and laugh… I would tell them that I would build them another one. I would say, “If you really want it, I would build you a replica.” This stuff is not built to last. Haven’t given it much thought, frankly. [Laughter.]
GR: That’s why you say, “Prints on request!”