Mellon Creative Residency Q&A: Laura Swanson
Visual artist Laura Swanson, whose work was included in last year's Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery exhibit What Can A Body Do?, will be on campus from Sept. 30 through Oct. 4 as part of the Mellon Tri-College Creative Residency Program. The program, now in its second year, is meant to ignite vibrant engagements between visiting artists, students, and faculty—inside the classroom and out. Swanson's residency, which includes the talk "Resisting Representation" on Oct. 2, will explore how bodily difference is visually articulated, objectified, and understood.
In advance of her arrival on campus, Swanson spoke with Director of the College Writing Center Kristin Lindgren.
Kristin Lindgren: Portraiture has often been viewed as a conservative form that encodes cultural norms. How do you envision your work playing with and expanding the possibilities of the genre?
Laura Swanson: I was exposed to a lot of media culture growing up. This was before the Internet, so I had many magazine subscriptions and watched a lot of films. Even though portraiture is common, I was struck by the power of certain iconic images. In school I was attracted to art history painting and loved learning about the coded meanings in portraits. Take the diptych of the Duke & Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca, for example. All of the accessories, their clothing, and the landscape behind them provide insight into their lives. And then when I saw the confluence of art history painting and the examination of cultural and social identity in the work of contemporary artists like Catherine Opie, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, and Kehinde Wiley, I said to myself, “I want to be a part of this.”
My first photographic series, “Sitcoms & Romcoms” (2005-2008), depicts my partner, Greg, and myself in staged tableaus of domesticity. They are evocative of promotional TV and film stills because I wanted to portray my everyday life in a fictional, hyper-stylized way to explore anomalies within conventional images of American middle-class life, the desire to look at different bodies, and the ways media culture instills a segregation of normality and difference. When that segregation is disrupted, the reactions some people have are pretty extraordinary. This work, in particular, was influenced by the constant encounters I have had with curious strangers and acquaintances who stop me to inquire about my personal life. These disruptions increased once I began a relationship with Greg, due to our physical differences. So these photos were my way of critiquing their questions.
KL: One of your series of photographs is called "Anti-Self-Portraits." How does the "anti-" operate in this series?
LS: “Anti-Self-Portraits” (2005-2008) is a response to “Sitcoms & Romcoms.” I was not prepared for the way “Sitcoms” operated once they were in front of the viewer. Some people assumed that I was not the photographer and that the character I portrayed was being exploited. Even though some of the photos are meant to be humorous, some people laughed at them in a way that made me question if they were laughing at the right thing. I began to feel uncomfortable with the idea that the viewer was misunderstanding my intention. Coincidentally, comedian Dave Chappelle had just quit his wildly popular sketch-comedy show due to concerns he was exploiting his race with adverse results. His outspoken interviews helped me clarify my own thoughts about the responsibility artists have, especially artists who belong to communities that have been and are still marginalized. While satire is often an effective strategy to confront discrimination, I was worried the underlying critique in my photos was being overlooked.
My concerns were also fueled by the fact that I was studying a lot of critical theory, especially anti- and post-colonial texts (in which I identified with the Other), and became inspired by artists working in response to social injustice, especially Alfredo Jaar. So “Anti-Self-Portraits” represents a turning point. These are portraits of an experience—the experience of an artist confronting the issues of exploitation and representing difference, but also the experience of viewing difference. The portraits are hiding in plain sight, so they are less about personal insecurities of the body and more of an examination of the desire to look longer at something or someone unconventional or unsettling, be it a faceless portrait or a small body. My acute awareness of this desire stems not only from personal experience, but also from the history of photography, which is riddled with images of the Other. This might be putting it too simply, but the title for this series could have been “Anti-Diane Arbus”, especially if I wanted to be didactic. Arbus is famous for taking portraits of people with conspicuous disabilities and physical differences in the 1960s. At its most critical, “Anti-Self-Portraits” is a response to the problematic images that gawk at otherness—images that continue to stigmatize many groups of people.
KL: How have your ideas about self-portraiture changed as you have moved from photographic portraits to working with sculpture and installation projects?
LS: Anything can be a self-portrait; it does not need to be limited to a photo or a painting. My decision to work with different mediums, however, was more about wanting to try something new. Also, “Anti-Self-Portraits” caused me to think more about abstract forms of the body, and I began noticing human attributes in inanimate objects. One day I was at IKEA to buy a lamp for my apartment, and I found myself standing between the floor lamps displayed on a low pedestal, and the desk lamps arranged on shelves. The lamps were of the exact same design; the only difference was the size of the vertical rod between the base and the shade. I felt compelled to disrupt the displays by putting the short desk lamp next to the tall floor lamp on the pedestal. This idea of disrupting the symmetrical height of objects on display came to life with “TOGETHER together” (2009) and “Display” (2012-2013), which are installations of store-bought objects referencing the conspicuous size difference between Greg and myself. Amanda Cachia, who curated What Can A Body Do? at Haverford last year, described it best, “Lamps are not subject to prejudicial associations regarding size in the same way that the human body is. These lamps are non-threatening; visitors, drawn to their luminescent glow, gathered around the installation like a campfire. In contrast, when people have gathered to look at exotic or 'other' bodies, particularly those of the 'giant' or the dwarf, it has historically been within the context of a 'freak show,' where they were displayed for entertainment purposes.”
While my photographs are visually confrontational because there is an actual human body on display, I think I am getting into darker territory with these installations. Because I am using objects, the narrative becomes more coded while the appearance becomes more innocent: “non-threatening,” as Cachia says. In a sense, I am giving the viewer permission to be drawn to and survey these objects. All the while, I am examining human curiosity and the pleasure in scrutinizing physical differences. If the lamps were the same size, they might blend into the background as part of the space and go unnoticed. But because the objects are anthropomorphized through asymmetrical heights and arranged side by side in a pronounced display, they call up the real practice of the theatrical comparison and contrast of different bodies, whether through the historical “freak show” or the contemporary reality TV show.
KL: What are you working on now?
LS: I am working on a multi-part project that deals with an issue that is becoming increasingly unavoidable—the experience of having unwanted photographs taken of me and other people with physical differences while we go about our lives in public. It is funny because there is a lot of coverage and creative projects being made about government surveillance due to the recent PRISM/NSA spying controversy, but my project is actually looking at the ways "citizens" use their phones to document others (ranging from people with physical differences and disabilities to depictions of homelessness) and share those photos on social media to amuse their friends. One part of the project will be a collaboration with my friend and fellow artist, Sophia Brueckner, who is currently at MIT Media Lab. We are going to design and fabricate devices for those who want to avoid having their image taken in public without consent. So not only am I getting further away from the camera, I am trying to prevent its usage! But I do still take photographic portraits. It is not so much a part of my formal art practice, but I try to find time to take portraits of friends and colleagues, as I still love the transformative, magical quality of the medium and the process of interacting with people sitting for me. It makes me happy to see how excited they become when they see their finished portraits for the first time. If I have time at Haverford, I would love to take portraits while I am there.