In Conversation – Seth Lower and Brice Bischoff

Seth Lower, Diamonds Are Forever exhibition view; Brice Bischoff, Bronson Caves, C-Print

Seth Lower, Diamonds Are Forever exhibition view; Brice Bischoff, Bronson Caves, C-Print

WEEKEND artist Seth Lower talks with artist Brice Bischoff regarding Seth’s show, Diamonds are Forever, their respective work, and converging interests. Seth’s show at WEEKEND took place from July 1st-24th, 2011. Brice Bischoff is a Los Angeles artist specializing in photo-based work. His most recent project focuses on the Bronson Caves located in Griffith Park and their relationship to cinema. He has an upcoming show at the Kopeikin Gallery in Culver City, and you can find his work here.

BB So should we preface the conversation by mentioning where we are, which is underneath a set of stairs? I always like to feel the environment, since our voices are kind of echoing off the architecture.

SL Yeah.

BB So, Seth, I know you spent a lot of time installing your show, making sure that the orientation of your photographs to your floor piece and to your video allowed each piece to play off of each other and communicate in a way that was meaningful. Do you want to go into that a little bit? What were some of your hardest choices in installing your show, and what were some of the easiest?

SL The content comes from my job as a product photographer and digital retoucher for a jewelry company downtown. So a lot of the work is photographic, but one of the main things I wanted to think about and bring into the work was the feeling of being in the actual space, as well as the more conceptual aspects of the job and the location of the building itself, and so on. So the sculpture piece ended up being important, as did the video in order to help build this feeling of context. The floor piece is based on the flooring of the company’s foyer, which has this strange decorative flower and pot and also serves as the buffer zone between the outside and inside spaces. That piece became a way of marking the move to the gallery space. The video was also key, for one thing because the text in the video laid out the conceptual underpinnings of the show, as well as providing a sense of my involvement.

BB I think one of the main things that I really appreciated about the video piece in the context of the show was that it interjected your personal experiences into the work at large. You were at this job photographing jewelry, but you were also taking a lunch break and you were going up in an elevator and you were using a key card to get access to the building. By doing the video you were able to imagine yourself, and the various realities surrounding the work that, in a way, really began to take a more literary non-fictional narrative. You know, photography is a documentary medium. You were there, you experienced these things, and then you were able to bring it all together in a way that stressed the nonfictional aspects of your experience but also brought these literary tones into the show. Do you think about that when you are making that kind of work in general?

SL Yeah, I like sort of situating my practice between being the totally research-based or documentary and creating a more subjective experience. There’s a weird thing that happens when you’re viewing most visual art, in the sense that you have this set of understandings that you maybe wouldn’t have toward a writer. It’s kind of assumed that in doing projects like this, which are based on research or some kind of personal narrative, that they’re going to be 100% truthful, whereas with writers, an audience may not be able to assume that. So that’s the balance I’m always trying to figure out, in terms of allowing myself some creative room. And yeah, the video became really important for me because I had all of these experiences that were incredibly ironic and weird in reality and couldn’t have been invented, but then if I just present them as dry facts it’s all somehow less meaningful. Trying too hard to prove something actually makes it less believable or relatable than if I put it in a context where it’s not just about, ok, ‘I observed this thing happening’ so much as ‘this is what I was thinking about as this was happening, and also, is it really important that it actually happened?’

BB I don’t know if it was the tone of the video paired with the music, which was like something that you might experience in an elevator, that was part of the show—no matter where you were standing you heard that music from the video, you know, that melodic elevator-type music. And then through your experience in going to lunch, and having no one talk to you the entire time you were working there. To picture you as this protagonist, at the center of this small world—you were working within it but you were also very against it in a way.  And seeing the diamond work and how you removed these very precious luxury items from the content of the photographs, it blossomed into some sort of poetry for me. That it was a secondary source to your experience of being the loner in that situation. That was poetry visualized by having these very beautiful items being completely removed from the photographic subject.

SL Yeah, when I first starting working in this area, which by the way is right near Pershing Square in downtown LA,  there was this weird thing of not being used to Los Angeles and this districting of areas, and suddenly as soon as I arrived I started working in the jewelry district. So I was being immersed in that world and being surrounded by all these layers of different communities that I’m walking through as I’m going from my apartment through the neighborhood into this building. And then there were the elevators. There was this cross section of people who were either going to the courtrooms or going to buy jewelry. Eating lunch in Pershing Square was a really meaningful and strange act of distancing myself from my co-workers who all ate together in the lunchroom, and also of finding out more about the other people in that area.

WE Why didn’t you eat with them?

SL I guess because I felt kind of uncomfortable eating there. So as soon as I had a chance I would disappear and get some air. But there was also this whole other community outside, which was so fascinating. And I was gathering resources and materials for the show, too, and witnessing the ways that space changed from day to day. I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to do a show about all of these things, or how I would go about it, but these issues of the courtrooms and other communities led me to think about using the photos for something other than what they were intended for, taking them from the raw source into this polished luxury image. There’s something in that process of transformation which wasn’t being recorded in the final document that they use. And so I wanted to be able to save that process for myself. The removals came about because I had to become quicker and quicker at editing, and there were all these keyboard shortcuts to speed up the process of actually manipulating the photos.  And so these accidents started to happen from time to time where I would miss a button with the shortcut. Instead of doing one thing I would do another. Instead of deleting the background to make it white and clean, I would delete the object itself, the jewelry.  And it would always be a bit shocking to see that.  So I think for me that was really the first big realization that what I was interested in doing there was something else, different from what anyone knew I was doing there.  I was essentially getting paid to secretly accumulate these things and have these experiences that were going to be meaningful and poetic on levels that weren’t part of the job description, I guess.

BB I want to touch upon your feelings about the photographic medium as being somewhat newly introduced into the digital realm, and how your work is responding to that whole movement. I feel like it’s such a clear example of working within the newer realms of the photographic medium.  And then being able to make something that’s artistic and has an idea behind it that can be thought of in a very poetic way, but which has a digital backing and is completely computer based. There is nothing happening within the real world other than taking the photograph of the object.  All of the magic or mysticism is happening within the computer and then you’re presenting these documents of that action.

SL It’s interesting to think about magic and what it means to intentionally produce something poetic or magical. For my boss the word magical is very different from what the word means to me. He has jewelry to sell, which contains all of that magic, and everything else in the digital image realm is just trying to match that.  But for me maybe the scraps that are left behind are somehow more meaningful.  So like you said, with the digital process you don’t really have a visible record outside of the process itself.  There’s no remainder, there’s nothing materially left over after this. That was another interesting thing, thinking about what happens psychologically when something is deleted. And in looking at these artifacts of that process of removing, and just imagining where these deleted things end up, and trying to do something which isn’t really automatic in the digital realm.  I mean if you make a mistake you just don’t save it, because nobody wants to waste hard drive space.

BB Well it’s almost like you’re inverting the logic of your job, and the fact that you’re taking something that’s very valuable and then inverting that logic and showing the background itself and the things that surround it, which, thinking about the other pieces in the show, with that peripheral space around the diamonds, including your experiences in Pershing Square or your studio setup, or looking out onto the LA skyline to other buildings, that you’re inverting the logic of the end result or the end product as a high contrast photograph in a magazine.  Whereas your end result in this process is an empty space representing the diamond and everything peripheral surrounding that object. I think that’s kind of powerful when you think of it that way—that you’re inverting the logic of you’re job.  You know, day jobs are something that people have to contend with and find art within.  I think that’s a beautiful way to make art.

SL Yeah, some of these more subversive tendencies I was feeling there really came about because I was so frustrated with this work environment and just feeling like it was such an unhealthy psychological environment to be in.  I needed to make work about it, which I guess is kind of cathartic in a way. I got excited about doing things that quietly went against what they were asking me to do. I think we both have to contend with that day job issue and the frustrations that come with it.

BB Yeah, I think so too.  The economics of creating something—in our cases it’s photographic work… there’s an economics there that we have to deal with, so we can’t just make a photograph these days without there being a semi-serious economic backing behind that.  It costs money. Inkjets are expensive, etc. So if you get to that point where you are confident enough to make something at all it’s just amazing, in my experience—that you’re so confident in something that you want to put it out into the world. And there are so many reasons why it should be left in a digital realm completely. You know, why would you suck it back into a material form from a digital form? Why would you suck it back into reality? So you have to have that day job. It enables you to do that. It’s just the forum that we’re in that respects material things over the internet or internet forums. There’s this push and pull between what we’re experiencing now with photography and photography as it exists on the internet.

I think we should talk a little bit about the fact that we’re studio mates and that we’re sharing a space and looking at each other’s work, and what that means in the realm of creating things.

SL Yeah, definitely, I think we have a lot of overlaps both in terms of our influences and in what we’re working on.  I was thinking earlier about some of those overlaps and it seems like there’s something about absence or mysticism that maybe we can both relate to.  I know you’ve worked a lot with remainders in some of your performance work, or some kind of history within those spaces.

BB Yeah. Photography is a medium very much based on deliberation. You’re deliberating every step of the way, and I feel like it’s changed over time so that within new aspects of the medium you’re deliberately doing everything you see in the final product.  And including yourself or not including yourself in that is a very important part of that process. I think we both use a performative aspect in our work that doesn’t exactly highlight ourselves but highlights our absence in the imagery we’re presenting.  We’re in control of what is in the photograph to the point that we’re actually creating something to be looked at.  It’s not just us taking a photograph of the world and recording that verbatim.  We’re actually controlling what we’re seeing and what everyone else is seeing when they look at our photographs, so that our performance within that work is integral to what we are seeing.  The work that I’ve recently done about the Bronson caves in Griffith Park is an example of that, where I’m performing this work with all of these sheets of brightly colored paper in this place that’s rich with cinematic history, but you’re not seeing my body presence per se—you’re seeing the effects of that presence.  It’s something that is very relatable to your work in that you’re seeing the effect of your presence in that environment by removing the diamonds. You’re essentially there with the mouse, dragging over the borders of the diamond and removing it.  And then in the Bronson Cave series I’m literally wearing colored paper, dancing and moving and wearing dark clothes so I don’t show up.  And these things really define my absence but insist that I never show up, so that you only see some kind of residue of the action.  I think that’s where the deliberation of the photographic medium lies—that’s where the weight involved in what we’re doing is. You don’t just take a photograph of something anymore.  There has to be some sort of idea or conceptual backing behind what you do to really elevate it to art in a way, because the medium is so ubiquitous.  You also don’t really have to teach photography anymore.  Everyone has a camera. It’s the ideas behind it that elevate it to art.

SL Yeah. That’s interesting. I’m curious if your involvement in terms of performance is coming from more of a direction of having or needing a personal response, or a personal expression, or if it’s more from the side of just being weary of this idea of authorship within photography. Like the practice of walking around with the camera and shooting everything else but yourself.  Or maybe it’s just the combination of those two elements.

BB It’s more of a combination of the two because authorship is really important in the history of the medium.  The fact that you’re in control of what’s inside this rectangular viewfinder you’re looking through—that you’re very much in control and the author of this world that people are seeing.  And it becomes a really amazing marriage between performance work and photography.  It’s like they’re meant for each other in a way.  Because all those stories about mindless photographers shooting rolls upon rolls of film, editing down to that one moment where things were coming together—the light was great, the composition was great, and that was that moment. You know, that’s a performance piece.

SL That approach relies so much on chance, too. It seems like when you get more into taking control in these projects that question of chance takes on a different tone and maybe you have to reintroduce that into the process in a different way, since you’re not necessarily investing part of the composition and meaning in what other people are doing.

BB I think the main difference between what we’re doing and what’s going on as far as walking around in the traditional way—walking around until something happens—is  that we’re more in control of content.  They were waiting for the miraculous. We’re creating the miraculous, in a way.  It’s a decision process.

WE I find it interesting that both your works deal with the medium itself specifically.  You could make a film of what you are doing that would still be a film but you couldn’t do a drawing of what you’re doing and have the same result.  And Seth, you couldn’t make a film with what you’re doing, really.  It’s like it can only be digital because that’s conceptually where it comes from.  And with you (Brice), with the slower shutter speeds, you couldn’t get that with another medium.  I find that interesting about both your works in that it isn’t a concept outside of the medium.  It’s a concept working within the medium and the rules of the medium itself.  It refers to the medium and talks about the medium.

SL Yeah, I’ve worked through these different approaches to the medium, like I had my street photography phase and my large format phase and all this, but I have a really strange relationship to photography where at this point I kind of feel like I need a reason to go out with a camera. I feel like I don’t have permission somehow to make art that’s based on what I’ve found without acknowledging my presence in that space.  So in a way this project came around because I needed a job, but for me it was kind of fortuitous looking back, in that it gave me permission to be self-reflexive about my presence in a situation, a socio-political situation, but also to look at the medium in the way that it’s being applied now in terms of advertising or art photography and so on.

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