Plato’s Home Movies by Eric Carroll
I recently visited Eric Carroll’s studio to learn about his upcoming solo exhibition at San Francisco’s Rayko Photo Center. The show opens this Thursday, Oct. 27th.
M: What is the role of performance in your work and how you see visual arts?
E: It’s really a huge role, the performative aspect, I think because a lot of time, there’s a certain aspect to my work that’s very labor-intensive and very repetitive whether it be lugging a giant piece of cardboard in the woods and making large scale photograms, or doing these pieces now where I’m taking these pictures of the stars in the sky and spotting them out or drilling through stacks and stacks of photographs or something like that. But the performative aspect is usually hidden. I think it can be informative but I don’t think I’ve ever done a piece where I wanted the actual artwork to have me performing or doing something. Playing in a band sort of fulfills that role of really performing and doing that. There was one piece that I did that was sort of a weird hybrid. It was part magic-lantern show and part musical performance—we made some great images and strange music, but it when the lights came on, that was it. I think its accepted in performance art that it’s not going to last or you’re just gonna have to live it through the documents and ephemera that surrounds performance art. And maybe that’s why I kind of like that. It’s like, tough shit, that’s the nature of the beast, its not going to last. Which is why I find photography so intriguing because it fights against that at every part, and so I think what my work does, it tries to find a way that photography can exist without being permanent, or if that’s even possible at all.
M: I would almost go the devil’s advocate with you. Where does photography ever exist in a permanent way? At some extent, it’s all impermanent, right?
E: Right. It’s funny to read these articles dealing with museums and talking about archival standards and saying like, ‘oh you know, we’d prefer it to be on a medium that’s rated to last 2 to 4 hundred years’ and I’m like, it’s still a fucking piece of paper that’ll go up in a fire. We’re living in a time when even our buildings aren’t lasting more than 60 years before they’re torn down and rebuilt or just destroyed from disrepairs so, if you wanna talk about a permanent piece of art go to Rome and find these marble structures that have somehow lasted all this time, or at least go to Dia:Beacon. But don’t look to photography for permanence.
E: This show will be a resolution of a project I started making in New Hampshire last summer. It’s a series of blueprints, photographs and a projection piece that are all based around my time in the woods. The images are shadows of trees, large-scale photograms, and short films that I made of being disconnected in the woods. That’s what the pictures are of. The work is about photography, I mean all my work goes back to photography and its struggle to capture and hold onto things, or how it’s changed the way we experience the world. I’m using this experience that I had in the woods, specifically of being ‘disconnected’—like no internet, no cell phone service, no distractions. I became more sensitive to subtle stimuli. Like when a cloud comes and interrupts the shadows of dappled light. I started to recognize these as really precious moments and I’m trying to deal with how to share that moment without ruining or cheapening it. I don’t even know if that’s possible. Part of my exhibition is just trying to figure that out.
E: Kind of. You are partially losing your own moment of something because you’re trying to photograph it. I’ve written about how the act of photography gets in the way of experience, or if it’s a part of experience, or if it changes it one way or another. I don’t think there’s any question as to whether or not it changes it, but if it somehow discounts your experience of it is another question. I don’t believe in the idea of a ‘pure’ experience. Obviously, your experience is always changing. I think that an experience on the computer is just as relevant as one had out in the natural world or whatever. But that said, I still think it’s weird when I see people out in the world with really spectacular things happening in front of them and they’re busy changing the settings on their camera. That can be a frustrating thing to watch because I can pretty much tell them ‘you’re picture is not going to be that great’. It’s not going to, its not going to accurately describe…I don’t know how to say this… when I was teaching photography, I’d always tell my students that a good way to measure a photograph is if the photograph is better than the actual thing itself, right? And I feel a lot of times, the photography I see or make doesn’t do that, you know, I’d rather have the actual thing there. But usually, that’s impossible, right? Like, it’d be cool, I think, for your book, if you just had all the people that you photographed present in one room and these little vignettes were actually recreated with a certain quality of light, you know, if you could just have that all in room, that would be great, but you can’t, and so you take pictures of it because that’s the best you can do and then you present it as a series of pictures. So, from that point of view, photography is sort of a ‘settling’ of an experience which can be kind of sad in some ways, when you try to think back about the original experience and its gone—like a consolation prize, or a quote.
M: This speaks to your Sunburned project, where you took photographs of cliché subjects and tried to aestheticize them into something that would be better. It questions why, when you look at something really great and you want to take a picture of it, the process of taking a picture of it turns it into something cliché.
E: Right. It cheapens it and yet I don’t fault people for doing it because it is such a natural impulse to have. That’s just society at large–when we see something pretty, we automatically think that’d be a great photograph. We don’t just say ‘oh that’s really beautiful’, sit and stare at it for a few minutes and then move on. We take a picture of it and then keep going because we’ve got other stuff to do. So the act of photography is definitely a condensing and a compacting and a compression of real world and you definitely lose something in that. That’s definitely a large part of what my work is about–what’s lost in the process.
The work that I’m making at Rayko is continuing to change and transform. Basically it started in Brooklyn when I was playing with blueprint paper, which is a medium more or less obsolete, and I made images of these lonely sad Brooklyn trees. Then I had a residency and went to the woods and I fell in love with the abundance of nature—I went from having my studio right next to Vice to having my studio in the middle of nowhere. So for the Rayko show there’s a 50-foot wall of woods and they’ll be the original blueprints. Over the course of the exhibition, this will start to fade. If it gets hit with enough light, it will fade to white and pretty much disappear.
I like making something that changes over time because this is more similar to how our brain works and stores memories. Some things last longer than others and sometimes its really hard to figure out why. Like, why do I remember the lyrics to the Humpty Dance…all of them to this day, more than I remember the names of very close friends’ parents? Like, why does certain information stay preserved and other information just kind of goes away. I don’t know why but that’s how my brain works and so I wanted to manifest that because a lot of times the way we use our cameras is not how our brains work…not unnatural. It just doesn’t seem right sometimes. Using really temporary materials seems more right, as weird as it is.
M: So every time you do an exhibition of this work, the work is lost?
E: Exactly, a one-time-only kind of thing. I still hold onto the paper once the image fades away. It still stands for something even though nothing’s on it. It’s an object that has a history. Its not the object that’s depicted that makes it photographic. It’s what it recalls. In that way it’s quite performative.
M: This conjures the point that the picture itself essentially becomes irrelevant while that which it triggers is what’s important. Because you look at it and immediately make associations and connections with everything in your life. While there are some talented people who look at pictures and only see shapes and forms and colors, the majority of us insert our own narratives and experiences to create meaning and at that point what resonates with us is the culmination of those experiences. This suggests that pictures just trigger memories. Some pictures trigger memories that are really poignant to you and others don’t.
E: Right. So what use is a photograph that’s blank and doesn’t trigger anything except for the person who made it? That’s the struggle I’m facing. I’m having these kind of intensely personal and beautiful experiences out in the woods, you know, finding these really beautiful things and I’m documenting them but in sort of a half-assed way. So half-assed, in fact, that they completely fade away over time. People who come to the opening will get to see these images, but over the course of the following weeks as they’re blasted with light, they’ll start to lose contrast, become less impressive, and finally get to a point where they’re hopefully, just white sheets of paper. I think that’s kind of great. That’s what I’m excited about, I’m excited for these things to fade and just do their thing. Just go the course of how they should go, or at least how I expect them to go. So that’s the performance right there. Performing photographs…
It’s been a hell of a time trying to talk to galleries about this. They’re like, ‘oh that’s beautiful, we love it’ and then I tell them that they’re not archival and they say ‘oh yeah tell us when you make it at last’. That’s the response I get from a lot of people, which is too bad, because it’s been both disheartening and really energizing too. Okay, I’m obviously doing something that’s wrong and because of that, it’s kind of right. It’s both frustrating and challenging and so it pushes me to figure out what I value or what I want out of my art or what kind of experience do I want it to create.
The actual blueprint, the material that all this stuff is on is exceptionally fragile. Not only does it fade, but if any water gets on it, it’ll definitely leave a mark and if you’re aggressive, it’ll sort of take the pigment out too. It’s a dead technology, but you can still find it. This guy sold me all his equipment for like, 50 bucks, because he wasn’t using it anymore. You can still get blueprint paper because a lot of developing countries still use it. It’s really cheap. It’s totally not archival but its great if you really want to make big beautiful one-offs.
E: Yeah, which is kind of what my work is about. Hopefully this is giving you an idea of what the show will be like. I’m excited for it. I’m calling it ‘Plato’s Home Movies’ because I like thinking about how people looked at nature aesthetically pre-photography. Plato had the really great cave analogy.
E: Yeah—in his metaphor of knowledge and the philosopher, that’s all people had to look at. I’m working on a six-foot wide video that will shown with the blueprints. It is really meditative to watch and I love the way the projector just lights up the reds and makes them come alive. So in the woods I filmed the movement of the shadows for a while. Then I bring that video into the darkroom and project the video onto light-sensitive paper, which creates this image. For the last step, the video that created the image is projected directly onto it. It’s a confusion that I’m trying to create, blurring the line between still image and an ongoing moment. When does the photograph stop being a photograph and start being a film?
M: In some ways, the mood and feeling is really similar to the music we’re listening to today with sort of a slow pulsing and intensity. It relates to the mood that’s carried throughout your sunburned film and feels like it could be traced to a certain genre or type of music. Like, the visual attributes of a Shoegaze. It’s a subtle, yet has a steady intensity.
E: It’s focused and it’s repetitive but it’s also muddy. It’s definitely a type of distortion. Visually, I always thought of My Bloody Valentine’s cover for Loveless—I love the intense pink colors and the guitar. It’s such a beautiful visual for that album and that’s something that’s always resonated with me. That image is a perfect match to that album. Still, I always find myself being more affected by going to a live concert than a museum or an art gallery. I’ve always come out more affected. It just activates certain parts of me more than seeing art on a white wall has done and so I think that’s something I’m always thinking about. I’m making art in an attempt to trigger the same thing that music triggers in me and if I can’t do that, then I’ll switch to music instead.
Thanks Eric – Keep up the brilliant work!
More Q&A from our time together in the slide show below: