MFA Thesis Exhibition: PERSIST

For the last few months, I have been so busy preparing for the MFA visual thesis exhibition. The exhibition is, in short, the culmination of my work in Columbia’s Photo MFA program. I have spent countless hours preparing and putting up the installation of my work, and in true deo fashion I gave myself way too much to do.

Leave it to me to go into a Photo MFA program and come out as a mixed media artist. My pursuit of the question “How do I photograph trauma?” led me to this point, because I figured out that different mediums can convey different things. Photography can be a mediated experience of trauma. Installation could use more than just our sense of sight, but also smell and hearing and touch. Video, found objects, and performance all have roles to play as well, and as a result my final exhibition became a gallery of different ways to reflect on childhood sexual abuse. My goal was to make something for everyone.

For my readers who couldn’t make it, I’ll give you a little walk-through of the space I constructed (with help– I had a lot of help!)

The installation was two rooms and the exterior walls. On the outside, next to the entrance to the bedroom I created, was the artist statement and my signature book. To the left of the doorway is my piece X Days and Counting, which is a series of Fuji Instax photos of bed sheets I have been collecting. This is only half of the piece, as I had the actual bed sheets in the bedroom (which you will see later.)

X Days and Counting is a project where I have been collecting one bed sheet for each day since I was molested as a kid. I need over 5,000 (and counting) at this point, so I have a bit of catching up to do.

The entrance to the bedroom was marked by a rainbow bead curtain, made with bear and heart beads. But I’m not showing you the bedroom yet– first imma show you the other exterior walls.

YAY TOUR VIA THE INTERNET!

 

 

Around the corner was a TV installation titled It Was All Because of the Bear, which featured 23 mins of me destroying a white teddy bear in 10 different ways such as:

  1. in a blender
  2. burying it “alive”
  3. drowning it
  4. slicing it with a razor
  5. setting it on fire
  6. blowing it up with fireworks
  7. dragging it behind a car
  8. hammering it with nails
  9. hanging by a noose in a closet
  10. via table saw

Perpendicular to the television set was over 150 small white bears, tacked to the wall, awaiting their turn.

Shout out to my mom for all of the sewing she did. I love you.

 

Now, around to the other side of my massive sprawling set-up were my still photographs I’ve been creating for the past year. I couldn’t just not include them– this is a photo program, people!

And I really love them. I used a lot of the same imagery and objects in the still photograph that I used in the installation, so their inclusion was apt.

Believe it or not, hanging the photos was more agonizing than anything else. Well, the plans behind them, anyway. You see, when you’re doing installation, you gotta take every last single thing into account. I knew I wanted to hang my still work on the outside, because like I mentioned at the start of this whole thing photos are a mediated experience, but I knew I didn’t want to hang them in a traditional gallery style in a linear line side-by-side. So I went with salon style, like how people hang family photos in hallways and living rooms and such. I went with simple black frames (sans glass) so the frames wouldn’t detract from the image, like with normal-more-ornate frames you find in grandma’s house.

I had to edit down out of like, 50 images, but the 11 that I decided on looked good together.

 

One of my images was even chosen for the promotional material. You bet your butt momma is getting this poster framed:

So, that makes up the exterior walls. For the rest of the installation, there are two interior rooms. The first is a bedroom, complete with bed, side tables, carpet, lamps, bulletin board, and reading nook. I had a few things hidden around the bedroom that hinted at childhood sexual abuse, some obvious like the razor blades and others that you really had to look for, like notes on the bulletin board or the text on the color guard flag. There were also more oblique hints, like the stacks upon stacks of sheets behind the bed (but no sheets on the bed itself, just a gross stain,) or the 160 children’s watches tacked to the wall.

 

 

Super-special-awesome shout-out to my BFF Christine Elliott, also known as Spooky Art Girl, whom I commissioned the wall paper pattern from. She’s amazing and she puts up with my insane demands so you should check out her work!

Here is her facebook!

And her etsy store!

The title of the watch piece is 160 Children Are Molested Each Day in the United States. This was a piece that I’ve been working on for over a year now, when I was like “Huh. Watches. Children’s watches. Broken. Lost time. Time stopped. TRAUMA.” Sometimes my thought processes are really elegant (ha) so I started purchasing watches and did research on how many kids are molested each day. I hung the watches in my studio for the past year, trying to figure out if the piece was just the watches or something more, and the answer was: it’s the watches. Children like to collect things, and adding the collection of watches to the installation built on the already existing anxiety I inserted into the installation.

I mean, massive amounts of things, everything organized in a rainbow, grids, lines… Whomever this bedroom belongs to, the child is obviously a very anxious one with systems of organization to abate the nervousness.

Okay yeah, I was totally projecting myself there.

The final room in the installation was the “closet.” It was much larger than an ordinary closet, but the entrance was marked by a closet rod and some clothing, which led into a dark room with black walls and a black ceiling. In this room played my video, titled A Controlled Performance Portraying an Event That Was out of My Control.

This piece was very difficult for me to create. As an artist, I want to incorporate all of myself into my art-making, and one of my skills that I hadn’t used was color guard. I was in my high school color guard for two years, and also a part of the Spartan Marching Band Color Guard at Michigan State University for 4 years, and a member of the State of Art Independent Winter Guard for a season. I coach this sport to high schoolers, and I love it. But I didn’t see how it worked into my practice.

Then I was like “eh fuck it yolo” and decided to give my body power. You see, my agency was forced away from me as a child. Using forms like dance made me more comfortable in my skin once more. My tale was very difficult to tell, as any tales of sexual abuse are, so I sought out flag and dance to share my story. Mitchell Clark, my amazing boyfriend, composed the music for this piece, which was projected in the dark closet. This was the part of the installation that shared my secret, my trauma, my healing.

I’d like to point out that the sound bled from the closet room into the other parts of my installation, so yeah, while walking around looking at watches and photos, you could hear the occasional sob.

Finally (yes, FINALLY) the last, and maybe the most quietly important part of my work, was the book I created.

Here is the thing about this book. I blogged about it briefly last fall, but then kinda gave it up, because I was told that it was “too much,” and “you don’t tell a stranger your entire life story.” Granted, I was kinda like “whatever I’ll do it anyway,” but I just didn’t make the time for it. However, I made some mock-ups of it and left it on a table during my final review last fall, and one of my professors picked it up and said “This has some serious potential.”

I’m so thankful for that professor (Paul D’Amato, you are a hero,) and to Kelli Connell, who helped me work on the book this past semester. The book will have it’s own blog post about it, but I wanted to bring it up because it is a 364 page biography about my trauma, starting with Kindergarten to when I disclosed the trauma in therapy in 2015. It’s super heavy, but I’m so proud of it as I feel that it is a good centerpiece to the sprawling installation I created.

 

I’d like to thank God, my mom, my Mitchell, my thesis advisors Alison Carey and Greg Foster-Rice, my professors, and Starbucks for helping me pull this insanity off. Special thank you to FeiFan Zhang and Sarah Hiatt for staying with me really late during install, and for my cohort who took this entire mess down while I was off messing around overseas.

OH YEAH THAT’S A THING I’M IN ASIA.

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR POSTS ON THAT.

HAPPY SHOOTING!

 

Times in Washington D.C.

I just realized I never posted the photos from my trip to Washington D.C. on this blog o’ mine!

In the middle of January, I hopped on a bus and traveled to D.C. to see my favorite nerds, who I went on a cross-country road trip with this past spring. My bff Sean lives there, and my other bff Dana flew in from Cali. It was literally two weeks of us enjoying each other’s company, but I made a lot of pictures.

We went to a lot of the Smithsonian Museums (because knowledge is power!) and went to some historic sights. The last time I went to D.C., I was in middle school and I was a little punk who didn’t know the Charters of Freedom were in the National Archives.

Embarrassing side-note: My friends and I went looking in the Museum of Natural History for the Declaration of Independence. I’m still disappointed in myself.

One of the most interesting aspects of the trip was seeing everything being set-up for the presidential inauguration. Barring how depressing it was going to be, I was still geeked to see the clash of classical monuments with modern day technology. It’s so funny to see the background work of the pomp and circumstance.

We also took a trip out to Arlington National Cemetery and Gettysburg.

While in Gettysburg, I visited the site of Alexander Gardner’s famous “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” photograph. I hunted around for the Devil’s Den for a long while, and when I finally found it, the lighting was awful, and I had to wait a solid 45 minutes for a cloud to cover up the sun. I was determined because DANGIT I HAD BEEN LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS AND GROSS HARSH SHADOWS WERE NOT GOING TO RUIN THIS FOR ME.

The famous photograph:

Image result for home of rebel sharpshooter

I got to see my besties, saw some historical things, created a photo series making fun of the future president… Good times all around.

Happy Shooting!

 

Coming Up Oranges

I spent the past 10 days in the Washington DC area, visiting some friends. Of course, news of the inauguration of Donald Trump was everywhere. While I was gallivanting through the city, platforms were being set up. Roads were blocked. Police were everywhere. So many portable toilets.

And, of course, I took the opportunity to make some work. I always try to make a narrative when I travel some place, a little something that isn’t too deep and something I don’t have to explain or think too hard about. So, here, have a little narrative, in dishonor of my country:

Bless my homies Sean and Dana, for posing in really tourist-y style photos and letting me Photoshop oranges over your faces (even though I do love the ridiculous faces hiding under the fruit…)

The last image, of the swear-in, was taken from Google. I added the oranges, of course.

I also took out my Polaroid Sun600 and shot with the orange and black Impossible Project Film, to make some “orangescapes.”

I’m not happy with who we have as “president.” I’m actually terrified. I cried for a long time after the results came in, and not just because who I wanted didn’t win the election. I’m scared for my future, the future of my friends. I’m afraid my rights will be stripped from me, that I will be less than a citizen. I’m appalled that this nation elected a RAPIST to be our leader, and, quite frankly, when I see Donald’s face I feel sick to my stomach. And we have to survive the next four years, some how, some way.

Making art is part of my survival tactic. I’m in a position where I can do that– but do not get me wrong. This is not some romantic “suffering makes art” bullshit. This is my way of surviving. I’m not a martyr, I’m not making myself out to be some victim. I’m just trying to live, and the only way I know how is to create.

I also made tweets, because Donald loves to tweet. It’s like, the best, believe me.

So, there you have it. I hide behind humor to mask my pain.

Happy Shooting and Making and Hell Raising!

Happy 2017!

I did a heartfelt thing.

On New Year’s Eve, I wore black, to mourn the end of 2016. And by mourn I mean celebrate. I was so ready and pleased to watch 2016 die. I invited some friends over for a small get-together, where we spent the evening eating pizza and counting down the hours to the ball drop.

Also, in true Deo fashion, I busted out the Instax Mini I got for Christmas, some silver sharpies, and some good intentions.

2016 sucked. Like, I see posts on social media that are like “It wasn’t just 2016! Life has always been hard like this!” And like yeah, sure, I’ll give you the second half of that statement, but nah. 2016 was especially difficult. There was a lot of negativity in this past year– so I wanted to start off 2017 with a bit of positivity. I took pictures with and of my friends and asked them to write onto their photos what they wanted and hoped for in the coming new year.

So, here is to 2017, a year that can and will be better than the last. There will be a lot of difficulties– things are especially going to be difficult in the wake of the new government here in the United States, and in my personal life I will be graduating from graduate school and entering the work force. There is so, so much to be anxious about, and even just two weeks into the new year I have moments where I want to curl in on myself and scream. But, I wanted to 2017 to “Be hopeful & sassy!!” I’m being hopeful.

And you bet your ass I’ll be sassy, too.

Bye, 2016. Bye, Fall Semester. It’s Been Real.

As always, graduate school has challenged me in new and exciting ways.

This semester I decided to get back to what I missed: making photographs. I checked out a view camera and got to work on my newest body of work, Hidden in Plain Sight. What was nice about this rendition of my ideas was I was able to combine some of the tactics I’ve been using the past year: color theory, installation, and construction. There was a lot of hit or miss with this project, and though I made a lot of photos, I will probably only use a handful moving forward– because that is what I am going to. I’m going to keep making pictures for this series.

So, here, have my best ones, for your viewing pleasure. You can click on them to make them larger.

Most of these photographs were taken with a view camera, but the last month of the semester I switched to a Hasselblad 150CM. Oh and a couple were taken with a Canon 6D… So I switched formats a little, still working out some kinks and all that. Constructing these images was a lot of fun, though, but man… Just looking at them makes me feel tired.

Oh and have an artist statement! On really terrible children’s stationary!

Each of my semesters ends with a final review, where faculty and visitors from the Chicago arts community come and critique my work. This year I had the pleasure of having Natasha Egan, the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and Adam Brooks, one half of the duo that is the Industry of the Ordinary. I also had Paul D’Amato, Dawoud Bey, and Peter Fitzpatrick, all wonderful faculty members, on my panel.

During my review, I had my photo project hanging on the walls, some reject photos on the table, and a video piece. I’m still tweaking the video piece, as I’m not ready to show it just yet, but when I do show it, trust me, it’ll show up on this blog.

I also included some side projects I did this semester, like the razor blades covered in glitter. It was one of those ideas that popped into my head that was like “Wow, this is a stupid idea… I’m gonna do it.” And I uh, did it. I also pulled quotes and poetry all semester and wrote them on children’s stationary, and they were usually quotes that were, uh, not kid-friendly. Because irony or something. (I swear I’m in grad school and I’m a very eloquent young lady… Just not right now, aight?)

It has been an interesting semester, with a lot of challenges. I learned that a view camera is a great tool, but I’m not the best at it and there are cheaper alternatives (hello, 6×7 format, you beautiful, beautiful thing, saving me money and sanity.) I’ve also learned that I love to take pictures, but I also love to make things. I did a lot of mixed media work last year, and I’m not going to give that up. My goals for the next semester is to find a new, interesting, and effective way to display still photographs while combining installation. I only have one semester left, so I better make the most of it!

Happy Shooting, friends!

Photography Is Traumatic: Alexander Gardner’s Constructions of the Civil War

Here we go again! Another attempt at making an argument and supporting it. Thesis practice, ahoy!


I previously wrote a short essay on Corinne May Botz’s series The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which were constructions of crime scenes made in dollhouses. I will now write an essay about a similar– but not at all the same– body of work made over a century ago by Alexander Gardner. His photographs of the American Civil War were constructed after the fighting was over, but with real corpses, not dolls. The Civil War was a very traumatic time in American history, as brother fought brother, medicine was anything but advanced, and the death tolls were devastatingly high. Photography was still young when the Civil War broke out, so it was nearly impossible to take photos of the fighting while it was happening, because, well, the photographer wasn’t going to be able to load the camera fast enough, and who wants to stand in the middle of a field with musket bullets whizzing past? So, photographers like Gardner had to have a hand in creating the scenes, to attempt to capture trauma after the fact.

Gardner and Botz are both photographers who photographed constructions of trauma rather than in-action trauma. What does it mean to photograph trauma en-post? Is a photograph still inherently traumatic if the scene is a construction or even, to some extent, fictional? Photography is a medium references traumatic language and distortion of time (often a side-effect of a traumatic event,) and therefore it can be argued that the medium can still be used to capture the traumatic, even if the trauma has passed or is in any way constructed.

For example, Alexander Gardner’s most famous photograph, The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, taken in 1863. The Museum of Modern Art succinctly explains why this photograph is relevant to the history of photography (and, well, the history of America.):

Alexander Gardner prolifically documented the American Civil War, which raged from 1861 to 1865. Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg is from his Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1865), a collection of 100 photographs of the conflict. The image represents the tragic aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg (which caused the largest number of casualties of the entire war) by focusing on a single dead solider lying inside what Gardner called a “sharpshooter’s den.” Later analysis revealed that he had staged the image to intensify its emotional effect. Though this practice was not uncommon at the time, its discovery made the photograph the subject of controversy. Gardner moved the soldier’s corpse and propped up his head so that it faced the camera. He then placed his own rifle next to the body, emphasizing the soldier’s horizontality and the cause of his death.

— MOMA (https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/alexander-gardner-home-of-a-rebel-sharpshooter-gettysburg-from-gardners-photographic-sketchbook-of-the-war-1865)

Image result for rebel sharp shooter

Even though The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter is staged, there are still components that make the photograph resonate the traumatic. The first and most obvious component is that Gardner (or one of his assistants,) actually dragged a corpse to into this position. The subject of the image is truly dead, a result of the battle at Gettysburg. Because a corpse is there, and based off of historical knowledge of the events that transpired at Gettysburg, it can be safely assumed that the subject of the image died in the battle– a trauma. However, as explained above, it was difficult to make photographs of the action of war due to the technological inhibitions of the time period, so Gardner had to make do with what he had. And, thinking about the language of photography, Gardner “shot” this image. He shot the subject in another way.

Looking back at my previous analysis of Botz’s work is helpful in figuring out how trauma is present in Gardner’s photos from the past. When talking about her Nutshell Studies of Explained Death, Botz speaks about photography’s relationship with time: “Some say photographs ‘interrupt’ the flow of time, yet taking pictures… made me feel like I was entering the moment, awaking the stasis, producing life… Like a person, the Nutshells appear to be continually changing– becoming more fragile, smaller, slightly larger, more obviously dead.” Comparing Botz’s photographs of constructions with Gardner’s, while keeping Botz’s words in mind, opens up a new understanding to how trauma and photography live together. Gardner may not have been able to photograph the traumatic events of the American Civil War while they were happening, but by dragging the corpse, setting up the camera, and capturing the image he was able to bring the trauma to life for people back home who were not fighting in the war.

When a constructed trauma is photographed, it transcends the boundaries of time, much like trauma itself.

Photography Is Traumatic: Corinne May Botz

Hey friends! I’m getting prepared to write my thesis next semester, so it’s time to look at some photography and make arguments about it. Here we go!


Photography denotes reality, but can it denote the complex reality that comes with experiencing trauma? Trauma results from an individual undergoing an event that is so distressing that their means to cope is eclipsed. Photography may not be able to fully capture the deeply depressing or disturbing feelings behind trauma, but it can evoke those feelings in a viewer, depending on the content of the image and the presentation. The nature of photography itself aids in the creation of the traumatic image; the photograph is created by mechanical means, to stop time and freeze it in a moment that can be revisited. The experience of trauma is similarly fixed and long-lasting, a moment that is forever imprinted in the mind of the traumatized. Because the nature of photography is so entwined with the actual experience of trauma, a photograph can “capture the shrapnel of traumatic time.” [1]

The experience of living with trauma varies from person to person, but there are a few characteristics of suffering that are universal. First, the “re-experiencing,” which can be a flashback, an intrusive recollection of the events, or a bad dream. Essentially, these unwanted images of the event crop up and distress the victim, who relives the painful experience. Photography also does this: it takes a specific moment in time and freezes it, making it a visual moment able to be revisited.  Barthes mentions that the photograph is “in essence, a memory but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes counter memory.”[1] Barthes essentially argues that the photograph replaces the memory itself, that we no longer remember the event itself, just the photographs of it. This is true for trauma as well, as the traumatized individual may not remember the specifics of the event and may have gaps in their memory, but a simple trigger is enough to send them into a flashback, to relive the images forever frozen by the event. “As Barthes puts it, the photograph may be regarded as a ‘temporal hallucination… a mad image.’”

Another characteristic of trauma that is similar to the nature of photography is part of the jargon associated with mechanical art. Words like “take”, “capture”, and “shoot” have violent connotations. Traumatic events have history invested in these words. Like being taken or captured, as a victim of a kidnapping; being shot at the scene of a crime or in the throes of war. It feels as though photography could be a synonym for trauma, as they share many of the same verbs. This is why photography and trauma go together so well—their natures are intertwined.

Corinne May Botz is an artist who explores trauma in her work. Her series, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death was a seven-year project where she photographed miniatures of crime scenes. But, these weren’t her own constructions: the miniatures were actually constructed by master criminal investigator, Frances Glessner Lee, who founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. She built dollhouse crime scenes based on real cases to train detectives with finding visual evidence. Botz explains:

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is an exploration of a collection of eighteen miniature crime scene models that were built in the 1940’s and 50’s by a progressive criminologist Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962). The models, which were based on actual homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths, were created to train detectives to assess visual evidence.

The constructions are disturbingly domestic, a somber reminder that traumatic events happen in all spaces, especially within the “safe” space of the home. The tableaus themselves are photographic, because “continuous action cannot be represented, each model is a tableau depicting the scene at the most effective moment, very much as if a motion picture were stopped at such a point.” Just like how a photograph freezes a moment in time, Lee created her constructions as a stopped moment in time for future detectives to investigate. This phenomenon of stopped time is very similar to the experiencing of trauma and lost time, as discussed in previous paragraphs.

The tableaus were created by Lee, but what of Botz’s photographs of them? Let’s take a look.

Three Room Dwelling (gun) These are just three photographs of many (she worked on this project for seven years– there are a lot of photographs,) and each one has elements that speak to Botz’s project as a whole. There is something beautiful about the colors, their childlike quality (as it is a dollhouse,) the floral decor, the toys… Surely these are not criminal spaces? However, the details give it away. The shotgun silhouette and the blood stain on the wallpaper that almost blends in with the floral pattern is one of the more obvious traumas. The tiny little shoe hanging off of a girl’s foot– why are her feet floating off of the ground? Is that a rope? Oh no, it seems that she has been hanged. The nursery, with the out of focus rocking horse in the foreground, the crib with the pink blanket, the matching wall paper with bloodstains splattered near where a child’s head should be… The constructions themselves are horrific, but Botz’s rendering of the scene with her lens makes them traumatic by cropping into a specific space– a frozen moment in time within a frozen moment in time– and gives the viewer the hints to what occurred in these imagined spaces.

As complex as trauma may be, photography is a medium that has risen to the challenge of denoting it. Trauma, in all of its forms, has always given humanity much to talk and make art about, and photography is a means to capture the nature of unfathomable events. Because photography is a medium that is referential, how can anyone resist the urge to create a means to talk about traumatic events, which are oftentimes so personal and difficult to put into words? Photography’s very nature, to its core, is reminiscent of trauma. Even though it is impossible to make someone feel the same trauma or experience that someone else has, and even though photography has its limitations, it makes sense that someone interested in portraying such difficult events would turn to it for assistance. Botz is just one artist who has taken art and photography and made it evoke the feelings of trauma. There are plenty of photographs of the trauma of war found in photojournalism and documentary photography, but these images shock the viewer—Botz’s work makes the viewer contemplative about the banality of trauma, how evil happens even in the most domestic of spaces– especially in the most domestic of spaces. Photography may be referential, but, as Botz proves, it can also be traumatic.

[1] Baer, Ulrich, “Spectral Evidence”, 52.

[2] Baer, Ulrich, “Spectral Evidence”, 54.

[1] Baer, Ulrich, “Spectral Evidence”, 7.