Episode 300: The listener is the host (Insert “this is Sparta” joke here)

May 31, 2011 · Print This Article

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This Week: Our listeners take over. After a painfully silly intro with Richard, Duncan, and Claudine, we turn it over to those who recorded their own interviews at the MDW Fair 2011!!

Mantras for Plants: Heidi Norton talks with John Opera

May 27, 2011 · Print This Article

Heidi Norton. My Dieffenbachia Plant with Tarp (protection), 2011. 30 x 36 inches. Archival pigment print.

John Opera, Untitled (B-5), 2010. Anthotype (blueberry) 9.25 x 7.5 inches. Unique.














Artist Heidi Norton and I share an abiding interest in all things plants. During several conversations we had while I was profiling her for Art Ltd., we often talked about the relationship between art and gardening. Heidi incorporates living plant matter directly into her sculptures and has used various types of house plants in her New Age Still Life photographs, along with the more recent series of images shown in her show Not To See the Sun at ebersmoore last month. Heidi and I have continued to talk about the relationship of art, plants, and gardening, and as the next iteration of what has become an ongoing exchange, we’ve decided to conduct a series of interviews with other artists to further explore those connections. Voila: Mantras for Plants, a new, irregularly appearing series of posts.

First up, Heidi talks with Chicago photographer John Opera about his practice and his use of the Anthotype printing process. Opera recently exhibited his photographs at Andrew Rafacz in Chicago and at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, MO. He’ll be exhibiting his work in a group show titled “To Tell The Truth” at Monya Rowe Gallery in New York from June 17th-July 29, as well as in another group show at Statler Waldorf Gallery in Los Angeles that opens June 17th.

Heidi Norton: What is an Anthotype? Can you explain the process? How did you come to find it and how do you feel it fits into your practice?

John Opera: The Anthotype is a printing process that was invented by Sir John Herschel around 1832, five years after the first known photograph. It represents a moment right at the beginning of photography as a medium.  The discovery of the process was very much a part of the initial experiments that led up to photography, as it was eventually known in the 19th century, both in technical terms and in metaphoric terms as well.

In addition to his photographic research, Herschel was also an accomplished botanist and researched the chemical properties of light.  His experiments often crossed disciplines.  That’s how the Anthotype came about—it was an attempt to connect fixing a photographic image to photosynthesis.  Herschel discovered that he could make a rudimentary print emulsion using pigments extracted from plant material.  He made his prints by treating paper with the plant-based emulsion and pressing a negative tightly against the paper under a sheet of glass.  The prints are then exposed during the height of summer when the sun is very intense.  The printing process can require anywhere from a week to three weeks in direct sunlight.

For my Anthotypes, I used beets, blueberries, pokeberries, chokeberries and several varieties of lilies.  It’s pre-photography. I was really interested in that notion. There is a strange connectivity that the process has to the natural world.  It feels alchemical to me.  I collected some of the plants at sites where I made landscape photos in the past, specifically the pokeberries, so I guess you could say that some of the images have a connection to my past work, or at least they are part of a continuum.

John Opera. Meadow, 2006-2008. Archival inkjet print. 42 x 32 inches. Edition of 5.


The images in the prints are of drawings that I made in a glass bottom tray device that I designed which allows me to expose directly onto large format film without a camera.  There was no lens used in making the images.  They are essentially contact prints of ink in water.  For me, the prints point toward the fundamental principles of image formation in photography.  They are also still-images about liquid and its connection to the medium.

John Opera. Untitled (C-3), 2010. Anthotype (pokeberry). 9.25 x 7.5 inches. Unique.


HN: One of things that fascinate me is the relevance of light in this work. All photography is reliant on light, but the way light is utilized in these pieces is extreme. The “ink drawings” must be created in complete darkness. I imagine you sitting in a dark closet, dropping ink into a tray of liquid, flashing light to expose the latent image. The second process is actually making the contact print. Like you mentioned, at times the exposures can be up to three weeks in direct sun. Can you comment on this duality?

JO: Honestly, I’ve never consciously thought about that connection, but it is a really interesting one for sure.  A duality in the process like that is probably a good thing.  The pictures are about a balance in a lot of respects I guess—formally, conceptually.  The negatives are made in a traditional darkroom setting, while the printing process takes place under very different circumstances.  It can take up to 120 hours in direct sunlight to break the emulsion down enough to make a photograph. The image of the drawing is captured on film in less than a second.  I see what you mean by “extremes.”

During the printing process, I have to pay attention to the weather and monitor the prints daily. They can only be made during the summer months when the sun is a its highest point in the sky.  I suppose there is an interesting parallel between how the prints come into the world and witnessing plants in a garden do the same.  I’m reminded of Jeff Wall’s image Poppies in a Garden, which is in the Art Institute’s collection.  For me, that image is about the potential universe contained within the poppy.  It’s also an image that draws connection to the latency you are talking about in photography.  There is a delay between the time a photograph is made and when you see the negative or print. This is what happens to the gardener in the garden as well.  I suppose my Anthotypes are somewhere around there in that they are about something provisional.  I like to think that their point is also that they break from the observed world, like a hallucination.

John Opera. Untitled, (G-4), 2010. Anthotype (beet). 9.25 x 7.5 inches. Unique.

HN: Speaking of “hallucination.”  This break from the “observed” world, we can call a “secondary” experience or even a transcendence from the lived experience. Maholy Nagy uses of abstraction of light coupled with technology, exemplifies the idealistic and utopian thinking of a specific era. He coined the term “the New Vision” for his belief that photography could create a whole new way of seeing the outside world that the human eye could not. Is this a relevant conversation today?

JO: I think that every image is a secondary experience to an extent.  I feel like photography has reached such a point of self-consciousness that we can agree that any kind of photograph, whether it’s a documentary image or a photogram, occupies a secondary, or abstract position.

At the same time though, I think what you’re getting at is a transcendence of observed experience.  There is only so much that a lens-based image can describe, right?  I guess that it’s the reason I have periodically revisited abstraction over the past 5 years or so.  Despite their straightforward manner, I have always thought of my landscape pictures as being about a topography of interiority.  I couldn’t quite get there though.  I think I have always used abstraction to express what I couldn’t do with a straight photograph.

John Opera. Baraboo, 2007. Archival inkjet print. 42 x 53 inches. Edition of 5.

HN: The colors and images of the anthotypes have a “West Coast”/LA appeal to me. Perhaps it’s because I know they were made in the summer and we hung out a lot during the time of their creation so in some ways they resonant a certain level of nostalgia. But there is a history of west coast makers that use “west coast” light to influence their practices and works. I definitely make different types of work in the summer–perhaps due to the changes in color palette, a different energy, geographic location, longer days… Besides the fact that the sun is the strongest in the summer, I want to know: Does the sun and warmth solicit certain types of making practices or “types” of art for you? Is there such thing as summer art? If these were made in the winter, would they look aesthetically different?

JO: I’m not sure if there is such a thing as “summer art.” I thought about the Anthotypes all winter long!  Although, making the work has definitely made me more aware of the changing of the seasons and of the Sun’s position and path across the sky.  I feel like the process of producing the Anthotypes has really been a process of aligning myself with the seasonal cycle, probably a lot like a gardener or farmer would have to do.

John Opera. Untitled (D-2), 2010. Anthotype (beet). 9.25 x 7.5 inches. Unique.

HN: So I will ask you the same question I asked Barbara Kasten because it is relevant with your work (and I’d like to compare your answers). I feel we are experiencing a similar scientific/technological revolution in relation to how we capture and perceive light and color. How do you feel digital manipulation has changed the production, consumption and criticism of abstract photography? Do you feel that the abstractions inherent in the medium, particularly evident in your work, are enhanced or obscured by the further abstraction embodied in the act of digital capture/rendering and/or manipulation? Do you feel it’s important to explain this to people or ensure they know the works are not “manipulated”?

JO: Things are definitely changing, but I won’t say if it’s good or bad.  For me it’s just happening.  Digital is definitely erasing certain glitches and characteristics of analog photography, but it’s also creating its own set of peculiarities too.  Digital is actually very close to surpassing film in most respects.  What will eventually remain is the nostalgia for certain arbitrary properties—film grain, solarization, fogging, etc.

Actually, it’s not really important to me that people know how the images were fixed to the prints, although that is usually the first question people ask me.  So how are these made? I could have captured the images on a digital device—actually that would have been a lot easier.  There would have been fewer steps.  The important thing is that they recorded fleeting compositions—whether that was achieved digitally or traditionally is not important. The fact is that I had to scan the film in order to produce larger printing negatives, so there actually was a digital step to this process.  See, now we’re getting too hung up on process.

I’m not sure how abstraction is affected by the digital shift.  Abstraction in photography is like abstraction in painting—its meaning shifts according to context—always.  The way I use abstraction is different than how it functions in Barbara’s work and vice versa.

Installation view of John Opera's Anthotypes at Andrew Rafacz Gallery.


Heidi Norton received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. Her work has been exhibited all over Chicago in venues such as Monique Meloche Gallery, Dominican University, Northern Illinois University Gallery, and Andrew Rafacz Gallery. Nationally and internationally, Norton’s has been exhibited at the Contemporary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Knitting Factory in New York, as well as in Los Angeles, London, and Valenica, Spain. Norton was published in My Green City by Gestalten in 2011. This past year she had solo shows in San Francisco at Hungry Man Gallery and ebersmoore in Chicago. Her work will be included in the group show The World as Text at Columbia College Chicago, opening June 16th.



Between You and Me

May 27, 2011 · Print This Article

It’s easy to think of the New York art scene as a big, gay playground. Okay, maybe not a playground, but a place where gay men have had the opportunity to be relatively open, at least within the parameters set by the norms of their particular era. Think Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and sometimes Larry River who, although didn’t identify as gay, often took one for the team. In his book Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948-1963, Gavin Butt presents gossip as an alternative, let’s say queer, way of knowing. Butt proposes that when we consider an artist and his work (all the artists presented are male) that we consider more than just reception histories and textbook biographies. Butt suggests that we look deeper than that, showing how gossip informed the work these artists produced, as well as the way the public and art world received it.

Why is gossip important? Well, even in the comparatively liberal New York art scene, it was still the 50s and even if one’s homosexuality were “common knowledge” that didn’t mean it was accepted by the general public. Artists were often inned by galleries and the mainstream art press. Butt gives many clear of examples of this. He also uses the queer press as confirmation of alternative histories placing such publications as The Mattachine Review and Gay Sunshine Press on the same level as The New York Times.

In a chapter entitled “Dishing on the Swish, or, the ‘Inning’ of Andy Warhol,” Butt outlines the experience of a young Warhol, whom we now think of as a purveyor of prurient gossip. But at the beginning of his career, Warhol was the victim of gossip. In the hyper-masculine 50s, Warhol’s sissy demeanor was an embarrassment to the traditionally masculine artists (both gay and straight) in the scene. Warhol became re-invented, not as gay or straight, but as asexual. While the entire art world knew his orientation, Warhol and the media effectively maintained a beyond-sexuality public persona. We can see this same method employed today every time someone says an artist’s work is “universal,” or that his or her sexuality is “unimportant.”

Between You and Me lingers between art history and queer theory, which in itself makes the book queer. This is an older title, published by Duke University Press in 2005, and somehow it feels like it never really found it’s niche. Perhaps it is because of this inbetweenness, or maybe because the subject is gossip, which is inherently unserious. I highly recommend this book, not because of what it teaches about the golden age New York art scene, but what it teaches us about queer ways of knowing art today. Between You and Me is a serious academic book, but because of its subject matter left me with an overall feeling of playfulness. Good summer reading, if summer ever comes.


Int’view w/ Wave Int’l

May 26, 2011 · Print This Article

Not too long ago I was asked to participate in the second issue of publication and exhibition platform Wave Int’l. This iteration will be hosted by Oakland exhibition space Important Projects opening this saturday (the 28th of May) with an accompanying online publication. I was very excited to be involved with this initiative started by Chicago based artists and organizers Brian Khek and Jasmine Lee along with the talented work of Andre and Evan Lenox, Ben Schumacher, and Hayley Silverman. Wave Int’l issue02 will include essays, objects, conversations, projections, and installations represented both in physical space as well in a downloadable pdf. When initially asked to participate, I knew that I had wanted to be able to contribute a piece for the publication that would address some ongoing questions I’ve been workshopping about the over-simplification of the term community. Specifically I’ve been wondering how the academic vernacular of “the community” has effected an emerging field of artists working on or around network technologies.

The best way that I knew how to approach these concerns – one of the most developed ways I have grown into over this past year – has been through an interview format. I decided – with Brian and Jasmine – that being able to talk with Hayley would be a good use of my inquisitiveness, and hopefully allow for both of us to get out into the open some shared anxieties about our burgeoning field and the milieu of unresolved circumstances that screen-space and digital frameworks pose to our respective practices. Our conversation (which I will provide excerpts of in a bit) did provide for some interesting insights, but in a strange way, it also served as a reinforcement of how dire these unresolved questions are for myself, and in a way showed me how my own practice still had much room for growth.

One such instance came when we started to critically examine what it meant to work within a community and how I had come to expect a certain sustainability that a community maintains as a result of shared interests:

Nicholas O’Brien: … I’m curious about how you engage your community or what community means to you since community is such a large part of my practice. In other words, being able to engage like-minded people, making work for them, or about them, or with them is very important for me.

Hayley Silverman: Community is complex and usually related to my terrestrial coordinates. I would often think of my community as being the people immediately within my surround and whom I share lived experiences with. When I look at artists work online I process it differently. They are indexed as information.

I sometimes think of community as a veil for a collective understanding. That there is a presumption that we do indeed know each other. The social translated online creates an intense circulation, one that, as I said earlier, magnifies certain personalities. The second self, or the other self produced virtually, seems to be a contemporary project of redesigning “the old man into the new man”- contributing to an obsession with the relevant – the contemporary. Artistic production, curation, and reception will always be dangerously entangled with the social.

NO’B: Do you think the web, as an interface for highlighting the social aspects of creative production, allow for more transparency for these communities to intermingle?

HS: The web helps facilitate modes of engagement that do open up a dynamic space (one that is interlinked) but my primary vehicle in the production of my work is felt reality.

NO’B: Can you elaborate on the term “felt reality.”
HS: I privilege empirical knowledge.

Although probably not originally intended, Hayley provided me with a great insight that I think I had up until now taken for granted: makers and artists working online each have very specific reasons for interfacing with the web as a site of production and distribution. My more critical readers will probably think that this admittance is a sign of naivet̩ on my part, but instead being able to allow for this realization to wash over me Рto let it permeate some of the more immediate expectations I have from any given community Рwas (and continues to be) a powerful thing for my own sensibility to reconcile. I address this disparity later in my conversation with Hayley:

NO’B: I might want to move on to talk about the importance and relevance community plays within your work. Being able to engage like-minded people, making work for them, or about them, or with them is very important for me. What are some of your thoughts on how your peer group effects your work (particularly when you are often grouped together with artists that make work more directly interfacing with online technologies). On that note, I think one of the things I’d like to talk about is a concern I have about the limitations of any given community and how perhaps one of those limitations is revealed in the aesthetics generated through or around those associations.

HS: Communities form as the intermittent and transitory outcomes of coordinates whether that be through geography, gender, race, or a process of filtration. How do we align ourselves with particular subjects or movements? Is it to protect ourselves from the voluminous waves of information that wash over us? At some point we could use convention to narrow ourselves… It is as though identity is the condition of correct anticipation, given these restraints. I think the process of a thinker or maker is to invent places to explode to. 

NO’B: Communities then can be mobile?

HS: Well it depends on how you define mobility. Jung’s writing on “herd psychology” speaks about the rootlessness of modern people that results from a disaster not only of primitive tribes but of modern man, in effect, causing a collective psychic injury. The herding of people into major megalopolises caused social and mental pathologies; thinking in large numbers would result in the rise of “mass psychology” also known as mass-mindness. This dependence on the externalization of culture (materialistic technology, commercial acquisitiveness) would enable the loss of spiritual culture. Within this ideology we have never stopped being mobile – it has become extended to another frontier – in this case, cyberspace.

NO’B:  This injury is probably linked to how I’m skeptical of the overuse of the term ‘communities’ and how using that buzz term poses potential limitations. If we have constant mobility – or have a history of it – creative content would then suffer from a kind of transience. However, people latch onto momentary glimpses within that haze and form small niches around them. I fear these pockets of communication and exchange don’t lend themselves to further extension outside their immediate sphere. Do you see an inherent limitation within the establishment of these types of communities?

HS: I’m not sure that’s true. I do believe that people act as if history has ended. That nothing is connected to a lineage – which encourages people to behave not as historical actors but by living out their own demography.

My initial skepticism of the term community – which could be located in my own overuse of the term as a catch-all for a grouping of people that might only be working with similar technological approaches – was (and maybe still is) unfortunately contributing to misconceptions about net-based practices instead of undoing or realigning those expectations. In this way, I was finding ways in which the interview is not always a viable format, and was reminded of a quote from Guthrie Lonergan reacting to harsh criticisms that Bring Your Own Beamer events recently had undergone after mounted stateside exhibitions: “I think the real deal happens online for many.” I felt at that moment that what Guthrie was trying to express was that often times an exhibition or show (even ones with promising premisses and multiple iterations like BYOB) cannot possibly hope to resolve everything within their physical manifestation, and that artist find that the location where the dialog gets fleshed out the most is through shared networks of exchange and conversation (like message boards, comment thread, gchats, group blogs, etc.).

In this way, I felt that being able to re-evaluate my initial questions, and the intentions behind them, could still be an effective way for me to continue to foster my own creative practice. I hoped that doing so would also enable an exposure of my process with others. I decided while in the midst of editing the material for Wave Int’l to try and take these anxieties I was finding about my own sense of participation amongst the community of my peers and formulate them into new questions for Brian and Jasmine:

Jasmine Lee: I was thinking about how Wave Int’l is contextualized… within what “community” It’s difficult to locate, since it falls somewhere between an academic discourse, a critical discourse, and an artistic discourse.
Nicholas O’Brien: I think that these borderlands of discourse is something I struggle with, personally. Or not struggle, but feel anxiety about.
JL: There seems to be some understanding that those said discourses, or at least their titles, are somewhat arbitrary.
Brian Khek: Yeah, I feel our style of execution is something in an international context. Not representing any specific city, per say.
JL: Global, not international.
NO’B: That distinction seems important.
JL: It’s global in the sense that the discourse is united — our interests and what not — but we are still reconciling borders, names, nations, territories. Which is not far off from titles of “communities” or what/how individuals choose to align themselves with.
BK: Right. I feel like international assumes defined communities (i.e., nations).
JL: Yes, and those definitions are very important in distinguishing where the differences become similarities.
BK: Maybe that’s why the abbreviation in our name is more appropriate. I feel “int’l” plays with that.
JL: I think we’re… interested in illuminating, or hinting at distinctions; in structuring content, subject matter. The same way an abbreviation might.
BK: Maybe [the abbreviation of the name] recognizes those distinctions. I feel like the name is supposed to make you think of corporate identities but the abbreviation makes you question what it really means. It serves as an abstract to the familiar. I think it’s important or successful in that we get to talk about it so often.
JL: I guess that’s also what I meant by those distinctions of community/discourses being arbitrary.

Seeing how this distinction was important for the organizers of this project gave me more pause about the use of community – as Jasmine says – as an arbitrary grouping of persons. When I had initially decided that discussing community and shared experiences within a given material or environment, I had unintentionally accepted that the similarities within delivery of content would extend backwards into the original conceptualization of a project or work. To that end, I decided to explore an alternative route and was curious to see if acknowledging shared influences might be a location to discover how community and aesthetic are generated and supported:

NO’B: This kind of actually brings me to a question that I had early on in thinking about this project. In thinking about naming and drafting an identity, could you talk about some of your main non-art influences? For instance, how does “general web content” influence your practice?
My reason for asking is that I think when working online, in particular when working with a publication, there is an aesthetic that gets referenced both consciously and unconsciously.
JL: Well, to list off some recent influences off the top of our heads… Joseph Grigely‘s exhibition prosthetics, Katja Novitskova’s post internet survival guide, Kari Altmann’s r-u-in?s.
BK: With our exhibitions we try to extend the content/subjects in the publication and vice versa.
JL: We learned some really important things working with Joseph, in regards to protheses, which are not limited to general web content. In this way, it’s the careful consideration of all components of an idea as extensions of the thing itself, which is why we stress both the exhibition and it’s subsequent documentation. As well as the printed publication and the web publication.
BK: We try to make it clear that neither is the premier object of focus. We are as interested in presenting the physical works as we are a pdf or printed publication and I think we attempt to achieve a harmony between them to communicate something more faceted.
JL: Often times, digital work may be made to trump – replace – reconcile the matters of the physical, or material, or vice versa. We see all components as beneficial on the same plane, but I’m not sure if that is completely developed yet.

This last quote from Jasmine speaks very strongly with a concern of mine that I think other artists within the so-called netart community are also addressing through a movement back – or sideways – to more traditional frameworks and mediums. One of the best examples that I can come up with in recent memory could probably be observed in a group show entitled Rhododendron curated by Harm van den Dropel at W139 in Amsterdam. In this exhibition artists that have used the internet as a site for production and distribution in many early works have chosen to create objects using more traditional fine art materials (or have continued a practice that I am unfamiliar with from pre-net projects). This example is just one of many of the signifiers of a reversal of the potential “trumping” that digital contexts provide within the community that I aim to represent and be in dialog with.

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (5/27 & 5/28)

May 26, 2011 · Print This Article

1. The Stars Are Too High at Pentagon

Work by Casey McGonagle, Daniel Baird, Jake Myers, Jesse Avina, Spencer Hutchinson and William Bacarella.

Pentagon is located at 2655 W Homer St. Reception is Friday from 7-10pm.

2. Stop, Look & Glisten at Firecat Projects

Work by Jared Joslin.

Firecat Projects is located at 2124 N. Damen Ave. Reception is Friday from 7-9pm.

3. New Fiber at Monument 2 Gallery

Curated by Yuri Stone. Work by Young Cho, Erika Hanson, Bailey Sailsbury, and Micah Schippa.

Monument 2 Gallery is located at 2007 N. Point St. Reception is Friday from 7-10pm.

4. An Unmurmuring Turn at Peregrineprogram

Work by Tim Louis Graham.

Peregrineprogram is located at 500 W. Cermak Rd., #727. Reception is Saturday from 5-8pm.

5. M.16.2 at What It Is

Work by R James Healy.

What It Is is located at 1155 S Lyman Ave. Reception is Saturday from 3-8pm.