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Talking With Fear: A Conversation with Matt Austin, Pt. 2


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Matt Austin discusses how residencies and travel influence his work.

The following is part two of the interview, Talking With Fear About Dying Tomorrow: A Conversation with Matt Austin. Read Part One HERE. This conversation happened in light of Matt Austin‘s solo exhibition at Johalla Projects, which opens March 4th, 2011. While the first part of the conversation focuses on how photography worked its way into Austin’s life and the ways his ideas manifested themselves, part two discusses how artist residencies and travel have influenced his work, the role that writing plays in his practice, and the fear in the book and exhibition title, Talking With Fear About Dying Tomorrow.

Steuben Sign. August 2010. (Image Courtesy of Emily Green)

Tempestt Hazel: Before ACRE had you done any other residencies?

Matt Austin: Outside of the Hopkinson House/Drawing Room Gallery Artist Symposium this past weekend, ACRE was my first and only.

TH: What is it that you get out of the residencies–specifically the ACRE residency, that you don’t necessarily get from the school experience?

MA: I think it’s a number of things. First, it’s the isolation. ACRE was in Steuben, Wisconsin and the Hopkinson House was in Beverly, neither being very far away. The experience of being in a place you’ve never been before and with people you’ve never met before creates this whole new world of thinking. And not to mention the fact that the only reason why you’re there is because you want to be there, and all of you think in an intellectual way about your creative ideas. So, I feel the first thing it does is create this kind of “meeting of the minds dynamic.” It makes me think of the Frankfurt School philosophers chatting on Sunday [and] running your ideas by everybody. Then also, because you’re not in your usual setting of making work, you don’t feel the need to abide by [the] situation that you’ve created for yourself. In both situations I’ve done completely new things that I [usually] don’t do as my normal practice.

TH: Like what?

MA: At ACRE I was going to random thrift stores and I would find in the fifty cents record rack the most ridiculous album covers. Then I would go back and cut them up with an X-Acto knife and make weird collages. I don’t think I’ll ever use those for anything but it was this kind of weird therapy for thinking differently and allowing myself to get a little weird, which I think residencies are really good for.

The other thing was that I met Bryan Lear. He showed me how he collects cassette tapes then he uses a mixer and a loop pedal to make loops with his findings. He taught me the process of how you go about doing that. So, at ACRE, we ended up hosting two dance parties with 90s cassette tapes that we would make DJ loops out of, live.

Beau, Matt and Bryan in the studio with sound equipment. August 2010. (Image Courtesy of Emily Green)

Also, down that musical route, EJ Hill who was my roommate at ACRE introduced me to the entire concept of making music. I brought a half-broken harmonica with me that my friends Mike and Asher had given me when they came into my class and did a performance for my students. They gave us harmonicas that we could keep–it was yellow and plastic, and is cracked and broken now, but I brought it anyway because I thought, “Who knows? It might come in handy.” So, I ended up playing harmonica while EJ played guitar. He taught me how to tune a guitar and play a little bit. We ended up playing music every day.

They had a recording studio at ACRE so EJ and I went in there on a couple days and just played. To make it more comfortable for each other, he would choose an instrument that he’s never played before and I would choose an instrument that I’d never played before. He played the drums and I played the electric ukulele, I think. Actually, I don’t even know what it was. It was a four-stringed something.

TH: How did it turn out?

MA: It was awesome. We played for four or five hours one day.

When you put a bunch of people in the same place that all have brilliant minds and let them mingle, it feels like this crazy explosion of new ideas that happens. ACRE is seemingly taking over the world right now and it’s kind of incredible. Okay, not taking over the world; but I’m a big fan of the things that they’re doing.

TH: Was it hard to come back?

MA: I went on a road trip for thirty-five days after ACRE, so I don’t know what it’s like. [laughs]

TH: You planned it like that?

MA: Yes. I made a point to do that in that way. [The Hopkinson House] was only three days–or two nights, and not very much time. And also it wasn’t as many people–I think it was thirteen or fourteen. Also, Beverly is in a neighborhood and in Steuben we were on a farm in the middle of nowhere. It creates a different dynamic. With Hopkinson you’re thinking, “I’m going to go back to work on Monday,” while with ACRE you’re thinking, “I’m going to be here for a long time.”

It’s like a vacation for the things your brain doesn’t like dealing with. For me, it was even more so this way because after ACRE I was going to be gone for much longer.

Matt Austin, Leaving through the back door (first photograph of the trip), 2010. Photograph, from 'Talking with Fear about Dying Tomorrow'. (Image courtesy of Matt Austin.)

TH: For the road trip, where did you go?

MA: I started at ACRE in Steuben, WI, then I went up to St. Paul, Minnesota, then Minneapolis, then Melrose, Minnesota. I stayed in–slept in a high school baseball diamond. It was a half campground, half baseball diamond. Then went to Fargo, then a place called Mandan, North Dakota, which is on the Missouri River–camped there. Went to Butte, Montana. At some point I went to Yellowstone; I went significantly South and out of the way, which was a really impulsive decision. I was going to go to Seattle, but I realized I was making good time so I went to Wyoming and stayed in the mountains–the first night at 8,000 feet and the second night at 6,200 feet because the first night was freezing. Then I went to Montana–I went to Butte and Missoula, then Seattle, then Portland. From Portland, I went down the coast of California. From San Francisco, I drove through the night to Reno and picked up my friend Graham. Then, we went to Burning Man for eight days—every year my birthday is the last day of Burning Man. So, we basically go to Reno and party for a night because the hotels are like $8 a person because they expect you to gamble, which you do. [laughs]

Then I dropped Graham off and drove from Reno to LA on my birthday, stayed in LA for four days, then went to Vista, California to pick up Trev. We worked on his cousin’s farm a little bit for two days. Then we went to San Diego for a day, then to Las Vegas, then Sante Fe, then Tulsa, then Springfield, then home.

TH: You were making photographs along the way?

MA: Yes. Photographs and writing. And I also had my guitar with me because I bought a guitar in Minneapolis, the first day of the trip from a pawn shop.

TH: Do you have any particularly memorable on-the-road experiences?

MA: I would have to say the quantity of angry dads–there were a lot of angry dads along the way.

TH: Whose fathers?

MA: Just families that have angry fathers in them. [At] every campground that I went to [or] gas stations near tourist locations there were angry dads yelling at their children. It’s kind of a funny realization, I guess, because one of the main reasons for the trip was that I’d never really camped before. I think the only other time I’d ever camped was with my friend’s family in 6th grade where there were fancy showers and vending machines 20 feet from our campsite. So, I wanted to scare myself by camping alone. In the experience of camping alone, where I thought I was going to have to potentially deal with bears because I was driving through “bear country”, or storms, or just the fact that my car’s odometer is at 130,000 miles and something bad could happen–the only thing that was ever really nerve-racking were the people that I ran into. Whether it was angry dads or suspicious neighbors on the campground in Melrose, Minnesota at that high school baseball diamond.

Matt Austin, Richie's House on Christmas Day, 2009 – Present. Photograph, from 'Wake' Series. (Image courtesy of Matt Austin.)

TH: Why did you sleep in a baseball diamond?

MA: I just followed the signs for the campground and it ended up being a baseball diamond.

TH: The photographs that you did end up making, did you have an approach or did you just carry around your camera throughout?

MA: That’s what’s kind of cool now in looking back on that perspective–the Matt that was on this trip, because it was so intuitive. I don’t remember making the decision that I’m going to make a photograph about this. I didn’t think about it very much. Now, looking back it’s amazing how focused the work seems. Most of the photographs are of a sign of someone being somewhere. Like an etching or a drawing, or some kind of vandalism, but it’s all these little pieces of someone’s voice, but engraved into the world–which will be the photographs in the show and in the book. It’s all the ways that we have been simultaneously trained to interact with the world and also the different variations of how these different voices can be considered taboo, like vandalism or a tattoo. It all deals with the ways we were raised to be. Like when you go to some place that you haven’t been before, you’re supposed to get your picture taken in front of it so you can show other people. I don’t know when that started, but I never really do that. I made photographs of that happening, though. Making your own little way of interacting with that place.

For example, there’s a photograph in the show of this Civil War reenactment site or battlefield where there’s a cannon. And there’s this guy pretending to hold this cannon like a gun–positioning his body as if he’s shooting a gun with this over-sized cannon. His companions are laughing and photographing him doing this–this was his clever move, thinking, “There’s this thing here, how can I make this my own way of interact with it? I’m going to try and make it look like a gun.” As much as it looks stupid, when you think about how we each have our own interactions with our environments, all the stuff we choose to do is pretty much in the same genre of interacting. As much as you can look at that guy and think “Real funny…,” you can look at what any of us do, as artists or non-artists, and say the same thing. We are each just trying to make sense of being alive in a way we can understand it.

Matt Austin, Journal Entry (1), 2010. Scanned journal entry. (Image courtesy of Matt Austin.)

TH: When did writing first start to appear with your work, and what part does it play?

MA: I’d say it started back when I was just beginning to get really serious with photography and thinking about photographs in a critical way–the first semester of my second year at Columbia when I was using a view camera and in the studio. The classes that were still at the basic stage, but I wanted to push myself to do something that wasn’t restricted by the basic nature of the class.

Trev and I were living together at that point in Noble Square—eight people in a three bedroom, so it was a party house. We would have huge parties every month. That got exhausting, and [Trev and I] decided that we just wanted to pick a state every weekend, and on Friday when class got out we got in the car and drove to that state and we were back in class on Monday.  I’d say that my writing began with writing the names of people that I photographed, their locations, and little things that would help me remember who they were. I think that went into another interest of mine, which is philosophy: I wanted to make my own philosophical writing, so I started writing like that but it would be intermixed with these meetings of people. At some point, I got really bored with my own writing, so then I changed the dynamic to be more of a novel or narrative and started writing in a way that I didn’t know how to write. It [ended up] being this unrestricted, free-thinking kind of writing, which is what I started doing with all of the travel photography.

That writing transitioned into the Wake project. From the trip [after ACRE], there is a huge amount of writing.

Matt Austin, Journal Entry (2), 2010. Scanned journal entry. (Image courtesy of Matt Austin.)

TH: Is this all from the trip (referring to the compositional notebook full of writing)?

MA: This is the journal that I used on the trip, which is at this point, half the book is full, but I still have to write the rest of it. I learned by day 12 that I found myself pretty much canceling out real, new experiences on the road by putting the trip on pause to write down what had happened previously, and I found that to be really stupid. Some days I would record with a voice recorder while I was driving alone and use that as a form of documentation instead of writing. I think I got to California and then I stopped because I realized that I was just sacrificing having a genuine experience for trying to keep up with what had already happened, and that didn’t really seem right. Instead of the experience just being a trip or a project, it naturally became me being alive in a car and driving. I forgot about this idea of putting something together. Instead of it being like, “I’m going to be back in a month” it was, “I’m here, I don’t know what the hell is next.” It becomes difficult to make a project out of something when you don’t see it as a project, you just see it as living.

TH: Is that an issue that you’re having creating the show?

MA: The show is coming together. I’ve found myself talking about it more easily now because of the collaboration in making the book with Brandon Alvendia. I think the work is not going to be this huge thing that I’m going to hold onto for a while; you know, like with Wake, I am still working on it and have been for two years. For this work, I think it’s going to be this book, this show, and then on to the next thing. It’s going to be this moment, then keep going, which is conceptually tied to this idea of traveling or going to an artist residency like ACRE—it’s an event and then you keep going. It’s not everything. It’s not the big thing, but it’s a significant catalyst.

TH: So, talk about the book.

MA: I’m making the book out of some of the photographs from the trip and all of the writings from the trip. The way Brandon and I are going to be putting this together is it’s going to be presented as a collection of information. It’s not going to be telling you how to do anything, or asking you to think of me as some authoritative figure that just made a book.

Matt Austin, Collar Tab, 2009 – Present. Photograph, from 'Wake'. (Image courtesy of Matt Austin.)

TH: Is it an art piece in and of itself?

MA: Yeah, I think it is. Brandon describes his design as looking at the book as a sculptural piece. The way we are looking at the book project is that basically it’s more of a perception of an experience, just like my photographs are perceptions of these little marked voices in the world.

Given the circumstances of our current world–economy, time, all of the things that make our generation what it is—when you think of any generation you tend to ask, “What did they do with that?” I tend to think about that question while considering my family’s experiences with the recession and the universal concept we all have in trying to figure out what to do with our lives. On this mostly solitary trip, I think I was subconsciously making observations that answer that question in a literal way, with physical evidence of someone doing something. So, I made these photographs of different people’s gestures, whether they be funny, clever, or even scary sometimes, and wanted to look at them more closely and attempt at understanding the significance of their messages. I choose to look at what I found like this: many of us have made attempts at talking or saying something but they’re kind of, over and over again, overlooked or abbreviated, and often uncertain, unclear, or misunderstood. Though, I guess that is the inherent nature of putting your efforts and ideas into the world to be taken and interpreted how they will be. It’s a vulnerable position, but all you can do is deliver your own messages out as best as you know how. After that, it depends on how people will receive them. I’m not necessarily talking about art, I’m thinking more along the lines of just being a person in society.

In Santa Fe, we found this completely bashed in, horribly trashed car. The airbag had obviously blown. The windshield was beaten in by a baseball bat. The airbag had been stapled back together by a staple gun. Then, we opened the car and there was just two pieces of paper on the seat. One was an envelope from some kind of bank in New Mexico, and it just says in really delicate, cursive handwriting, “Cruz is gay.” Given that evidence you can only piece together your own story, in which mostly everyone’s interpretation of that would be different.

Matt Austin, Mark's Sentence ("Kindns is being nice to other pepul"), 2010. Photograph, Talking with Fear about Dying Tomorrow. (Image Courtesy of Matt Austin)

I think that’s a part that the photographs play. All these different voices that we’ve made to leave in the world for people to find and how we go from there, I guess, based on our circumstances. Or, what does that mean? It’s almost a question more than anything. Here’s how we talk. Here’s how we leave a reminder. Almost always, these messages are left anonymously and it’s easy to make a quick assumption. But I guess I feel like the more important moment is when you can look past the inarticulate nature of something to find the simplicity of the message, like the photograph of the text that was probably made by a kid who is maybe 4 years old or something: “Kindns is being nice to other pepul.”

Other photographs are funny. In San Diego we went to this coffee shop and, in the parking lot, people’s parking spaces were designated by chalk written on the wall in front of the parking space. So, it would be somebody’s last name and an arrow in chalk pointing to the parking space. One of the people’s last names was Broner, so someone cleverly erased the ‘r’ with their hand. For you to be walking on the sidewalk and see this opportunity to cleverly change this thing…my head just puts together this [story of someone thinking], “I’m on my way, but before I go to this place I’m going to make this joke that will live on for a little while.” And that person will have to park in that spot is going to have to look at that and think, “Really funny, dude.”

All these different gestures are going to be the main focus of the show and the book. Usually when someone makes a book, I think it can pose this authoritative, intellectual reputation. Whereas, if you read through the writing that I did, it’s not trying to convince you of anything, it’s not trying to persuade you in any way. It’s just my little voice. It’s my form of erasing the “r” in “Broner,” and leaving it for someone to find. For me, it was more of a practice in addressing my fears and learning from them. The reason why I took this trip is because I didn’t know what would happen if I did something like that alone. But I feel that now that I’ve done it, I’ve learned more.

Matt Austin, Self Portrait as an Artist that could Die Tomorrow, 2010. Photograph, from 'Talking with Fear about Dying Tomorrow'. (Image courtesy of Matt Austin.)

TH: Where does that come from? It seems like you have a desire to explore and test yourself. Have you always been like that—exploring different places and putting yourself in dangerous situations? Maybe I don’t want to say dangerous situations, but there’s always a certain amount of risk.

MA: Vulnerability, I’d say. I don’t think I was that way as a kid. I never really asked any questions when I was growing up. I feel like I listened and didn’t contest anything. I think the first time I started asking questions was that first year of college, thinking, “This sucks. Why should I keep experiencing something that sucks all the time?” I wasn’t even traveling then, I didn’t start traveling until I came to Columbia. Maybe it was the art school thing and the whole idea of, “Why not?”

In reality it [makes] me more aware of myself and what’s around me, the things that you see and experience. Maybe somewhere in there I became hyper-aware of what fear is and what you become afraid of. And when you are aware of that fear you can identify it. And once you identify it, you can sprint straight towards it and dive right in. Maybe that’s it—I spent the majority of my childhood being too scared to ask questions or challenge anything. Once I was able to identify the things I was afraid of I realized that fear is one of the great propellers of doing anything. I guess that’s why I’ve been focused on fear as an education [tool] because I think it’s the best way of learning. You don’t need an institution. If you can identify what you’re afraid of and charge at it—that’s one of the best lessons you can get. I think it’s because your heart beats faster when it’s happening and it sticks with you.

The name of the book [and the show] is going to be Talking With Fear About Dying Tomorrow.

TH: Great title.

MA: Thanks.

Talking With Fear About Dying Tomorrow will be on exhibit at Johalla Projects March 3-5, 2011. The show will run through the weekend with special Class Session on Saturday, March 5th at 4pm as part of HomeSchool, a traveling institution for experimental pedagogy created by Matt Austin and Brandon Alvendia.  The exhibition and HomeSchool Class Session are free and open to the public.

Learn more about Matt Austin by visiting his website at Learn more about ACRE at

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