A conversation with Carla Gannis

Carla Gannis in her studio © 2015 by Chrysanne Stathacos

Carla Gannis in her studio, Brooklyn, New York  © 2015 by Chrysanne Stathacos

SUSAN:

I would like to start with a very general question. We now talk about something called “post-photography” and it would be interesting to hear what that means to you. I just saw the Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015 exhibition at MOMA and got an idea what that means to them, and I was a little surprised because it was more conservative in appearance than I would have imagined. They refer to the exhibition as exploring “an image-based post-Internet reality,” but despite the conceptual underpinnings of the works, they looked pretty much like photographs, photo-objects and videos. In fact, the most winning photographs were silver gelatin prints by the Lithuanian artist Indrė Šerpytytė. I would like to know how you define “post-photography” for yourself and how it differentiates itself from more traditional photography?

CARLA:

It’s really interesting because there are so many different “posts” right now. For our generation, first there was “post-modernism,” arising in the 60s and 70s and right now there is “post-photography” and “post-digital” and “post-internet” and none of the three seem to suggest that we are beyond any of the technologies described; it is just that now they are embedded within all aspects of our culture: business, art, academia, medicine, etc… But for photography, I think it’s more about our trust in the photograph. I think that is what has changed so significantly.

Selfie drawing 46 "Zelig" (All images unless otherwise noted courtesy of the artist.)

Selfie drawing 46 “Zelig” (All images unless otherwise noted courtesy of the artist.)

About ten years ago, I worked for a pretty famous photographer and I think that is when I first started developing a notion of what “post-photography” might be in relationship to media and to more popular photography. I was her retoucher and her compositor, so professionally I was working with the images that she would shoot—a group shot of several different actors, or models, or other single shots where I would be manipulating and changing them. And of course, there has been retouching and airbrushing since the advent of photography; I mean if we think of Stalin altering group photographs and even Louise Bourgeois, who had issues around her early childhood and her father’s affair—this woman traveled with the family and Bourgeois removed the mistress from all the photographs. So again our trust in the authenticity of the photograph has really never made complete sense, because there has always been a way to manipulate them. I think today, with 3D technology and the fact that people are starting to generate virtual worlds that are photographic, particularly with video games, we are simulating, and that projects us beyond the photographic realm into all sorts of interesting domains relative to simulacra and simulation.

The impressionists and post-impressionists were using photography in their practice, and it has been such an important tool for artists. I think it shaped early twentieth century art, in terms of decisions painters made, because of the verisimilitude possible with photography. Now, though, it seems with “post-photography” there is more hybridity, and in my own practice, I have been working in that hybrid space for some time now.

In the early 2000s, when I first started to show this one series of prints that I had worked on for several years called Travelogue, people were scratching their heads: “Oh, it looks like a photograph, no like a painting, no, like a still from a video game.” This was because I was combining digital manipulation, 3D objects and actual photographs that were stolen from the web or photographs that I had taken myself. So it became a more collaged experience, this mise-en-scène created a weird tension for people at that time because they weren’t as familiar with the digital fracturing of mediums. I’ve taken one photography class in my life, I have spent much more time digitally painting, as I am trained as a painter, but in this photographic way, so that people often associated my practice with straight photography.

SUSAN:

In those examples that you just mentioned, the final product appeared to be a flat, two-dimensional photograph?

CARLA:

Yes, so that kind of answers my categorization as a photographer. I have done digital C-printing, and that’s a photographic exposure of the paper and then I also do inkjet prints. You take it off of the monitor and you print it and it has this kind of photo resonance and people are going to assume it’s a photograph, particularly with the earlier work that was much more based in photography. I was either using myself, or other people—I did this entire series called Jezebel and even though I would manipulate the images to a great degree using computer technologies, it was with this photorealistic style and so the assumption once it got printed out was that it was a photograph.


video ©2015 by MOMMY

CHRYSANNE:

You mentioned earlier, when we were in your studio, that you stand at the computer to work and that as a painter, you stood too. What was the trigger that made you jump over from painting to computer generated digital work?

CARLA:

One was moving to New York. I come from a really small town down South and so I wasn’t exposed to a lot of art when I was a kid, and my dad was, interestingly, involved in computing in the 80s, and he would take me to these computer graphics conferences, but I was painter, an oil painter and I was studying classical piano. I was steeped in the nineteenth century. I went to undergraduate school in the South and then I want straight to graduate school at Boston University and there I was studying with some fourth and fifth generation abstract expressionists, and this was in the 90s. Funny. I knew while I was there that I wanted to expand and that there was a lot more that I needed to know, so I moved to New York immediately after graduating. I was twenty-four years old. I got a job data basing a library thanks to my dad, who sent me a program to learn from, and I realized that I had a propensity for digital technologies. I was also fortunate enough to get some studio assisting jobs and I ended up assisting Barbara Bloom and Judith Barry. These two women were so influential, because both of them were working in a “post-painterly studio” way—Barbara worked in her house, and I would come over and I would do research for her. She was working in Photoshop and Quark and producing installation pieces that involved books and printing on carpets and photography and doing digital collage, and I totally connected with that practice. So I threw away all of my paintings from graduate school. All these labored, thickly painted, dense oil paintings. They were all very dark and abject, and I threw all of them away. A bit of a Baldessari thing, although I did not burn them and keep the ashes like he did.

Selfie Drawing 42 "Bunny", 2015

Selfie Drawing 42 “Bunny”, 2015

CHRYSANNE:

Did you take images of the work you made?

CARLA:

Yes, instead of ashes, I do have slides still. I have storage space upstate with a lot of old technology and computers and discs and all of my slides, and I am hoping that everything is okay, I actually want to get up there soon. That’s something we have to deal with, obsolescence. Less so with film interestingly than with digital files, because the hardware and software is constantly changing.

SUSAN:

One of the sad things is that it is very expensive now to use film but it actually has longevity.

CARLA:

Yes. Well, it’s physical, it’s not binary.

SUSAN:

One thing we’ve spoken about before, because you use yourself in your work a lot, as I also use myself in my work a lot, is that someone told you that after a certain age, you shouldn’t be using yourself in your work anymore. I thought that was a really interesting comment and I wonder if you have any feelings about how people respond to images of you now vs. fifteen or twenty years ago?

CARLA:

I was wondering if this would come up. I thought about this today. It was when I was 36 years old, someone mentioned to me, a woman, that I was a little long in the tooth to still be using myself in my work.

Golden Shower, 2016

Golden Shower, 2016

SUSAN:

Just imagine what she would say to me.

CHRYSANNE:

Was this person an artist, or a collector or a dealer?

CARLA:

A dealer. And I am now 45, and I have returned to using myself in my work. At first, I was a little trepidatious about doing it. I mean I have used myself in my work since I was 36, but it had been about five years since the last “self project.” When I first began to do these “selfie drawings” I was not sure if it was something that I wanted to share online, but since then I have been sharing them and they have become performance—they’ve become social media performance in that I share them on six different social networks and every time I finish one, I post it and just let it live. I am a professor, and a woman over forty; I don’t necessarily fit the bill of someone who is taking selfies today. Although, just like my mother uses emoji as much as I do, a lot of things are more intergenerational than the media gives credit. Still, I don’t fit within the majority of people who are engaged in selfie photography. There’s a very graphic quality to the drawing, so there’s a bit of “agelessness” to them and maybe it’s more difficult for someone to suss out that I am a more mature woman. I’m curious with the video work, which is going to be more representational, more in the space of photography than the drawings, how people will respond to them just because I think as a society, we still have our biases. I have felt hesitant and uncomfortable with the process at times, but I felt like it was necessary to do it. I think this next step, taking it into a more photographic realm is, I don’t like to use the word brave, but it’s at least riskier.

Peer to Peer, 2015

Peer to Peer, 2015

SUSAN:

How did this recent project doing selfie portraits evolve?

CARLA:

I go back to the South to visit once or twice a year. It spawns new ideas, like a series I did based on Jezebel and a series inspired by Flannery O’Conner’s last collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. The last time I was down South, January 2015, I was making portraits of my ninety-nine year old grandmother, Pansy-Mae. She turns one hundred December 31st, 2015. I was drawing them on my iPad. I had recently gone through something that was personally traumatic that caused me to kind of re-access myself, and so I transitioned from making these drawings of my grandmother, to taking photographs of myself. I started looking at my iPhone pic and quickly drawing it on my iPad. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. Eleven months later, I am still working on this project and it has developed and I think the narratives have really expanded. But what is also interesting is that I am more like an actor in these spaces now. More than being self-portraits per-se, they are investigating selfie photography, the immediacy of that, the ubiquity of that, and the history of self-portraiture through drawing and photography. I really respond to hybrid forms of expression and I am fascinated by these collisions.

Selfie Drawing 44 "Golden Shower", 2015

Selfie Drawing 44 “Golden Shower”, 2015

CHRYSANNE:

The first time I looked at your piece The Runaways, I didn’t read the text. And the avatar, though very active, seemed more stationary than you did. Maybe because I am more used to looking at the physical body than a more cartoony body. What propelled you to do that and was there some milestone that came to you in terms of your own physicality. Were you measuring up against the avatar?

CARLA:

That is a good question. When I first embarked on The Runaways I had just finished running the New York Marathon. Funny, like the selfie drawings, this “feat” was in response to a traumatic event that had occurred in my life. I never like to talk about the specifics of personal trauma, instead I like to take action. And so, I decided to take a year out of my life to train for this act of incredible physical endurance. I was still gainfully employed, but I trained every day and I was running forty to fifty miles a week. I’m competitive and I’m competitive with myself and so I wanted to run a decent time at this marathon.

The Runaways, (single channel video), 2010-2011

The Runaways, (single channel video), 2010-2011

After the marathon I took a trip down South (I mentioned earlier how returning there often fuels me creatively). My parents live in a town of three thousand and there was not a lot to do, so I was spending a lot of time running or on Second Life. I had finished the marathon and that’s an incredible high, and the aftermath is like postpartum depression. Also, I hadn’t been making as much art while in training, which is not like me, because I am a person who normally just works constantly on my practice. So I am down there, and my avatar, Jezebel Langley is “down there,” and she is doing just fine (no postpartum). I can do anything with her, with me, and it’s interesting how porous all of this is on some level—she is me, is a representation of me that is manifest through code. She can be skinny, and she can be fast. She can teleport and shape shift, and she can be all of these things without the physical body. I realized that I was feeling competitive with her—I’m not kidding. I felt competitive with her, with me, with Jezebel, with this avatar that is the embodiment of me, of my mind, of my expressions, but in virtual space she can fly! and she wouldn’t even have to train for a marathon, she could just run it. So, I decided to stage this race as a metaphor for what was going on in my head.

Regarding your observation about the avatar’s movement Chrysanne, there were some limitations to the avatar that I was using. She doesn’t move the same way as a human moves. Even though there are advanced 3D technologies I could have used where our representations would have been more one to one, and that might be interesting, because that’s when you get more into the uncanny valley, I wanted it to be funny on one level, a little campy. I hope it is clear that this was really an absurd kind of endeavor, to be running against yourself, your virtual self.

SUSAN:

I actually loved it and I had seen it just a day before I read an article in the current New Yorker (The Doomsday Invention: Will artificial intelligence bring us utopia or destruction? November 23, 2015) about a group of scientists who are gaining credibility and who talk not only about the possible extinction of the human race but about A.I. and the possibility that artificial intelligence will surpass its human masters and decide to kill then off. Oddly, Ex Machina did not get mentioned once in this article. The article also talked about uploading one’s brain into a computer or some form of hardware, without one’s body, creating a format for that brain that would achieve immortality. And the scientist who was interviewed for this article, a man named Bostrom, has one of those bracelets on his leg, a tag to indicate that he should be filled with nitrogen immediately in the event of his death and stored until a time when science can revive him. I think Walt Disney also did this with much older technology. Which I also find interesting because the technology available to preserve or freeze the body will always only be as advanced as the technologies present at the time of their deaths and there is no reason to suppose that the technology will have been sufficient to the methods needed to revive them later, but they all do it anyway. So the avatar and you running against each other brought up all this other speculation about if and how we will be exceeded by other types of intelligences. Can an avatar become a human life form? Is it a human life form if we upload a human brain into something that is not sensate? If it is just A.I. and it becomes smarter than we are, is that human? And if they kill all of us?

CARLA:

I’ve been fascinated with our digital future(s) for a long time. I am also really into speculative fiction. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash ,1992, and Neuromancer by William Gibson, were formative works for me, (once I left the nineteenth century and got over being a “painter girl”), so avatars and virtual reality are significant interests. From 1999 through the early 2000s, I had an avatar, Sister Gemini, who I expressed myself through. She was a web hacker by evening and during the day she was a web designer (who was “me” because that was what I was doing professionally at the time). Sister Gemini would hack these websites via QuickTimes even though this was not actually possible technologically, but I imagined her and spoke through her in video and on the web, and I wrote through her. I still sometimes write through her. I have a secret blog where I post my writings. This year I released a few Sister Gemini stories, and they were published in the anthology DEVOURING THE GREEN::fear of a human planet: a cyborg /eco poetry anthology.

Faultline (Zelig), 2016 4K video (seen here in low resolution)

Faultline (Zelig), 2016 4K video (seen here in low resolution)

Anyway, I read that New Yorker article too, and I’m reading Bostrom’s book Super Intelligence currently. Today we have a plethora of smart machines, but we haven’t really achieved the state of super intelligence yet in another life form, we haven’t even been able to reverse engineer our own brains. Still there is much discussion about what is on the horizon, quite possibly on a near horizon. The New Yorker article focused on this and concerns arising over our creating an entity, or creating a race: robots, machines, other intelligences, that will supersede us. It makes me think of the speculative fiction of Marge Piercy. She was writing science fiction in the 70s through the 90s (she’s STILL writing political and feminist poetry today). Her work is so prescient. In He, She and It published in 1991, she was already pondering artificial intelligence and future beings that could be harnessed for war, because that’s what we always tend to do with technology. There’s the atom bomb, and even the internet was developed in response to the Cold War. It was created as a means of decentralizing our precious information storage in the event of nuclear holocaust. Technology is produced either in response to war or SEX. Already there are lots of people who have Real Dolls and other robotic sex dolls and they have developed relationships with these machines.

Little Green Woman, 2015 4k video (seen here in low resolution)

Little Green Woman, 2015 4k video (seen here in low resolution)

All of this is simultaneously miraculous and frightening. When people “pooh pooh” these speculations: “That’s not really going to happen,” and “why are philosophers and cultural theorists worrying about this kind of hokum?” I think those naysayers are being very short-sighted. Even William Gibson says that he no longer writes science fiction. He’s more like a trend forecaster now, writing just two to three years ahead. With Moore’s Law, if we continue to exponentially advance, we must think about the moral and ethical consequences of our inventions. There are technological pathways that could wreak havoc on humanity as a whole. That’s the core of what Bostrom, a trans-humanist, is concerned with. I do believe that an artificial intelligence, of the kind we have not seen before, will be developed, and we need to be prepared for its inception, for “it” or “they” to become conscious. I don’t think there is way to stop this inevitability, and I’d never belong to the camp that suggested we do so; however our technologists must be conscientious now about things other than industry, commerce and competition, if we plan to maintain autonomous space for humans in the future.

 

CHRYSANNE:

How do the self-portraits that you showed us and the work you have done recently connect to what you have just talked about? Is it possible to consider those images futuristic selfies? Also, there is a strong sense of humor in your work. Could you imagine an artificial intelligence with the kind of humor you show in your work?

CARLA:

I think my most honest work is the work that has some kind of humorous element to it. There are times when I think I need to be a much more serious artist and then the work flops because it isn’t expressed through my natural voice. Most of my work looks back and forward at the same time. After about 5 years of living in New York and reconciling with my Southern roots, (so this is around 2000), I began to incorporate into my work iconography, rather darkly absurd iconography, related to where I grew up. I created three bodies of works that were extremely “Southern Gothic,” but still infused with technological references, for example a female sex robot painting graffiti over a Civil War soldier in a bucolic Southern landscape. (That’s an A.I. with a sense of humor I’d say).

Selfie Drawing 52 "Powers of Ten", 2015

Selfie Drawing 52 “Powers of Ten”, 2015

I’d describe the work that I’m doing now as “Internet Gothic.” I’m reflecting “through a glass darkly” on digital networks and the communication tools that we are using. Even emojifying a Bosch, (I’m sure we’ll talk about this piece, The Garden of Emoji Delights) and having a lot of fun with hell, speaks to my tendencies. There are sweet, smiling faces confronting eternal damnation. What if that damnation is: “Wow, here we are on earth subject to a mediated ‘pleasure principle’ and we don’t even understand how we are being dominated and controlled.”

In terms of the selfies, as I mentioned, most of my work is infused with some incident or memory from the past, yet always looking toward the future and often reflecting upon the absurdity of certain things in the now. So a “past influence” on the work certainly comes from my mother. She is sixty-five now, and she still is a “diva.” In the 70s she did a short run as a Cher model look-a-like, and she’s always been into costumes and wigs. She would pick me up from school in a different wig every day. She loved to perform her identity. And there was a certain kind of humor in it too. She never took herself too seriously. Some artists don’t talk about their personal life but it’s just something that is the core of my identity and I was really shaped by those experiences so I kind of pay homage to them.

CHRYSANNE:

But how does your mother relate to your work?

CARLA:

Well she actually appears in some my work. When I was doing the Jezebel project, beginning in 2006, I was exploring and researching the history of the Jezebel identity. The assumptions about a “Jezebel” being a bad and loose woman, particularly in the American South, is derived from an apocryphal account of her in the Old Testament; she was the Queen of Israel, a mother and wife, and she was defending polytheism when the monotheists came in to wage war. She was not a wanton woman. In fact, she has been embraced in the twentieth and twenty-first century by feminists. That’s why I wanted to do this whole project that explored her through film, through references to literature, through non-fiction and through religious texts. So I asked my mother (the first Jezebel I knew !) to pose for some pieces and she just loved it. She has been a supporter of my work for so long—I am really fortunate in that.

Performance, which has arisen in various elliptical ways in my projects, is innate to me, I think based on what I inherited from my mother, growing up with her performing the way she did. And she wasn’t an actress, she wasn’t a professional—she just performed her life and she still does. She’s more active on facebook than I am, and that means she’s really active! So that said, her influence is something that fuels the work and has given me the latitude to explore this selfie project at the age of forty-five. I mean forty-five is young. We are living to a hundred. My grandmother turns one hundred soon. Still, there’s this idea that we should “behave” appropriately as we age, something fed to us by the media, and perhaps something that we just begin to feel; that we need to adapt to a more rigid positionality. My mother has NEVER sipped from this Kool-Aid however. Given that, Mom is a big role model.

Nude Descending a Staircase, 2015 4k video (seen here in low resolution)

Nude Descending a Staircase, 2015 4k video (seen here in low resolution)

In terms of the selfies representing future selves, and the sense of elastic identity that they convey—I think I mentioned that in the nineties I had this alter ego Sister Gemini (she was 1/3 artificial intelligence, 1/3 Barbie and 1/3 Native American) and Gannis is only my “artist’s name”—I have always been interested in the mutability and flexibility of identity over time and place. Obviously there are all sorts of things regarding class, and race, and gender that inhibit us in terms of how we can express our identity outside of creative endeavors. That’s why when you go online (and historically in the studio as well) you find that there is this kind of expanded identity realm. Today working digitally and post-photographically with identity performance aligns with things that are happening culturally in the mainstream right now. And by the way, many of the selfie drawings are depicting future iterations of some Carla Gannis self, should my brain be uploaded to an A.I., or my body be technologically augmented..

SUSAN:

Now that you have circled back to this, one of the things I found really frightening about that New Yorker article, and I could be totally off base, was that this A.I. and the people whose brains were going to be uploaded to this realm without a body, were going to be primarily, if not exclusively men. This is not explicitly stated but white men and rich men are the ones who are most engaged in these projects. Women are less visible in Silicon Valley, less visible in the tech industry in general, so the A.I. is going to be a male intelligence, and I found this really disconcerting because, however we define the differences, and even if they are entirely social constructs, they matter. And I also suspect that more men are wearing those little bracelets around their ankles than women.

But this reminded me of something you told me when we met. You talked about a networked community of women in chat spaces that existed online and I feel that there aren’t enough supportive communities of women. The fact is that women are not equal to men in the economy and in the artworld either, the buyers are primarily men, and that has a big influence. Anyway, I thought maybe you could talk a bit about how you discovered those spaces and what they are like and what they have meant for you as an artist?

CARLA:

I also had a similar response to that article. I am really interested in trans-humanism and future potentialities in terms of brain uploads and what happens with augmentations and cyborgs. Already in 1983 we had the Cyborg Manifesto written by a woman, Donna Haraway. And there are lots of women who have been writing speculative fiction or philosophizing about the future for quite some time. Recently, I bought a book, The Feminine Future, that includes science fiction writers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all women, albeit edited by a man, and I was fascinated to find these new voices. Since I was in my teens I have looked for female role models in art, science and literature. There has been a dearth of female participants in the technological revolution. And I was concerned when I read the New Yorker article and looked up Bostrom online. Another white guy. Aubrey de Grey who is studying aging and who speculates that we will all live for two hundred years without cellular degeneration—another white guy. Ray Kurzweil, etc. etc. The people who are driving this innovation, and the people who are likely to harness and control these technologies in the future will most likely be rich and most likely be men, because they have maintained their stronghold as leaders in this industry. I find this incredibly demoralizing. After all of the social justice movements and equal rights movements that have arisen in the past several decades, one gender, and only the top 1% of it, may (still) control our future.

Woman in Landscape, 2016 4k video (shown here in low resolution)

Woman in Landscape, 2016 4k video (seen here in low resolution)

SUSAN:

Once you don’t need women for sex, because you don’t have a body you need to make an active choice and based on past evidence the future prospects appear pretty grim.  It makes Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale look relatively tame.

CARLA:

This past summer, as Assistant Chair of Pratt’s Department of Digital Arts, I helped sponsor “Virtually Human: A Panel Discussion on the Future of Cognitive Machines.” It was hosted by IBM Watson. It was radical to get to see this “bodiless” artificial intelligence— Watson, and then to listen to scholars on A.I., such as Dr. Martine Rothblatt, Dr. Dan O’Hara, and Professor Steve Fuller discuss the implications of A.I. on “meat space,” the world we fleshy humans inhabit. But much of it centered on intellectual power dynamics, the potential that we will be unable to “keep up.” There was little discussion about love and sex and viscera… or art, which I mentioned during the Q & A.

Luke Robert Mason, the organizer of this panel, has gone on to organize a panel on Sex Robots and the intimate relationships humans are beginning to form with machines. If popular culture is an accurate predictor of the future (I hope not), women could indeed be replaced with sexy fembots. However, I’ll return to Marge Piercy for a taste of hope and terror. In 1976 she wrote Woman on the Edge of Time. In it, a poor and disenfranchised Latina woman becomes capable of traveling to TWO futures. In one, humans are technologically augmented, gender boundaries and frictions no longer exist, and we’ve stopped destroying our planet ecologically. In the other, a patriarchal dystopia awaits us, where women and robots serve as slaves to an elite society of wealthy men. The world’s eco-system is devastated and the rich live in hedonistic virtual environments. She envisioned all of this decades ago, before “The Future Is Now” of our own time. “Expanded humans” and additional cognitive beings on the planet actually excite me. I wouldn’t be frightened about the precipice we’re standing at right now if the biological human race of today was less patriarchal and more evolved morally and ethically.

But, my concerns are certainly not shared by all. For example, Elon Musk…

SUSAN:

That’s a scary guy.

CARLA:

Yeah. Well, he’s fascinating too, and charismatic and handsome and rich and he’s doing all of this innovation that actually addresses certain aspects of social justice and ecological awareness. That work I do respect. But, then listen to his ex-wife talk about him, and he comes off as a sexist pig. The tragic future scenario is one where women and persons of color are replaced by robots before we’ve ever gotten a chance to find proximity to equality.

Selfie Drawing 27 "Faultline, 2015

Selfie Drawing 27 “Faultline, 2015

So, getting to these online groups you asked about, there is one that I was more active on, in the past, but still check in on and participate on from time to time. It’s a secret facebook group, and it is intergenerational, although I would say that the people who are most expressive there are in their twenties, because, guess what, when you are in your twenties, that is when you are the angriest! I certainly was capital A Angry. It’s the first time as a woman you’re independently dealing with career impediments and overt discrimination. I love reading (listening!) to what they post. I’ve found that I hold back more, because I’ve learned that if I share too much, sometimes there can be consequences to that. I don’t think that’s a good lesson that I’ve learned by the way. Anyway, as I said, it is intergenerational and open to the trans community, so any female identified person can join in. But the one thing that does concern me about a platform like this is that although we have a place to safely commiserate, are we really capable of affecting change on a larger scale?

SUSAN:

No. I agree. But I find the piece sitting behind you, part of Non-Facial Recognition, 2011 to be addressing power. There was someone whose work I saw at Eyebeam who was also engaged in a sculptural version of this, creating masks that defeat facial recognition technology.

CARLA:

Zach Blas is the Eyebeam artist you’re referring to and his Facial Weaponization Suite. I began the Non-Facial Recognition series in 2011 in response to a few incidents. There was a person who was sending me photographs of themselves (selfies) every day, and I remember wanting to “erase their identity,” to control their infringement on my personal psyche. And then, more specific to the project, someone tagged me in a photo, and it was before I knew that I could turn off the facial recognition software on facebook, and more and more of these photos were just showing up of me. I realized that I had no control over when I got tagged in something, when I got recognized, and that felt invasive. I think a lot of people feel that way. And yet, we still participate readily, and for the most part happily, in networked culture.

Non-Facial Recognition, 2011 (installation images)

Non-Facial Recognition, 2011 (installation images)

I was just reading an article about the consequences of giving so much of our identity and data away, but the writer concluded that most users aren’t too concerned and have opted to “perform” online. Nonetheless, in 2011, it began to feel a bit sinister. Most of my work asks questions about our behaviors, instead of overtly criticizing them. Here again I’m working with dark humor and nodding to my complicity. For the Non-Facial Recognition project, I produced over one hundred portraits. I asked friends, and friends of friends, in my social network communities to send me selfies or profiles pics that I then scrambled and uploaded to a community facebook page. That is where I could test the portrait against the facebook facial recognition algorithms of that time.

The fact is, there are a lot of artists who are working with subverting facial recognition algorithms today. They are really concerned with computer vision, in terms of how computers are being enhanced and growing more intelligent in recognizing us. Definitely a concern I share, but also, I was relating this project to something from the past. Portraiture. Other artists code algorithms to automatically scramble faces, but I used my hand, extended by a Wacom stylus, to digitally paint each one of these portraits. The idea of having a subject, even though the subjects didn’t come and sit for me for a photograph or a painting, but just sent an image to me, was important. And they were all subjects that I knew something about. If they were a “friend of a friend,” I would actually try to find out more about them. So when I “scrambled” them I wanted to maintain or include something that would still keep them recognizable to the people who knew them well. It was my intention to demonstrate the differences in human vision and machine vision and our converse recognition aptitudes.

Regarding your question about power Susan, I was addressing power and control over our identities in this work, but I also touched on issues of trust. All participants consented to release images to me, as they do when they upload their image to a network, and they trusted that I would not misrepresent them, or abuse their content.

CHRYSANNE:

With your Good Fortunes, you have images of all these fortunes, have you pulled them up from Instagram, from other people’s posts? I was thinking of Penelope Umbrico, with her sun series and then I realized that I didn’t know where the images of fortunes are actually from.

CARLA:

I know. I love authorship questions. I have my students working on a remix project right now. It’s particularly dicey when they are in school because there’s remix and there’s appropriation and yet they are students and they have to produce non-plagiarized original work for their major assignments. All of these concerns come up. And nowadays, with platforms like Instagram and facebook, it’s hard to know when someone is posting their own work or posting a pic they found online, etc… In this instance these are all photographs that I took of fortune cookies that I purchased (3 for .25 at a restaurant across the street from where I teach) and opened and made into some kind of still life composition. Once a week I photographed a fortune, not really thinking about it as an art project. For some reason, I tend to need these side projects as personal rituals.

Good Fortunes Project, May 2013 - May 2015

Good Fortunes Project, May 2013 – May 2015

SUSAN:

It can be nice to have an ongoing project to turn to when you are not sure what you are going to do next.

CARLA:

Yes, and regarding the fortune cookies, I thought, “When will this end?” And maybe I will just keep doing it. Then I was asked to contribute a work to Entropy, an online literary journal, exactly one year after I’d begun the series. They actually asked me to submit a poem, and so I producd a “poem-picture” from the fortune photographs, and then I was done.

SUSAN:

One project we really haven’t talked about, and one that has been very important for you, and that has had a huge audience, is the Garden of Emoji Delights. I would like to ask where the idea came from. It’s a very funny project but also very compelling to look at and it’s a project that really seems to have a life of its own now.

CARLA:

I know we’ve spoken about what happens when a work goes viral, and I know, Susan, you know a bit about that from your own projects, and so the Garden of Emoji Delights was something that I embarked on in 2013, as an experiment really. There was a call for emoji art at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, and I had begun to use emoji in some of my digital collage work. I knew I wanted to participate, but I felt that I needed to produce something that was specifically “emoji art.” I wondered what that could be as I stood at my computer, and then I had a lightbulb moment. I decided to “emojify” a Bosch, his most famous work The Garden of Earthly Delights. I began with Hell, a small version of it, and I showed it at Eyebeam. I was really surprised by the response. The Garden….” has been a favorite of mine for a very long time, although it’s one I have never seen in real life. That really made it more interesting as a virtual object to recreate, and so I then decided to emojify the entire piece. I’ve made animations, I’ve made 3-D prints, I’ve done drawings. I inhabited a weird Boschian emoji universe for a year! I was initially afraid that no one would take me seriously as an artist afterwards, because it was so pop. It’s been really amazing, the response I’ve gotten to it and not at all expected.


Shrimp Mermaid Goddess (a video from The Garden of Emoji Delights)

CHRYSANNE:

And you still haven’t seen the original painting?

CARLA:

No. I still haven’t seen the original. And that was really the impetus to recreate that piece as an emojified version—I was working with this emoji language that is all about the internet and all about virtual communication and the piece I decided to recreate is very strong in the popular consciousness even though many of us have never seen the “real” thing. If you do a Google search, it is ubiquitous. It gets as many results as emoji do, and in the past couple of years its resurgence has been fascinating, you see parts of the Garden of Earthly Delights printed on combat boots, and purses and scarves, and so I was interested in it as pop iconography even though it is a master work too. At one point I was thinking of writing while I was producing the piece and inventing this sixteenth century female version of Bosch, I worked and collaborated with another artist on a 3-D printed sculpture of the tree limbed egg guy, with the people entering his ass, in the Hell panel. Some historians claim it is Bosch’s self-portrait. We made ours into a combined female/male post human chimera. There were times when I started to think about who Bosch was in the sixteenth century, and I’d re-imagine myself as him.

The Garden of Emoji Delights, 2014

The Garden of Emoji Delights, 2014

It’s really amazing how much Bosch still resonates with people. It’s such an idiosyncratic piece for its time, and I love that there is so much sex and folly and vice. I’ve created quite a few triptychs in the past that embrace the “Horror Vacui” aesthetic, so it makes sense that I could “handle” Bosch’s visual aesthetic. But I was still really surprised by the response and the popularity of my translation. Its taken on its own life online, and I’ve had some fun remixing things that people have posted about it, so it’s all been quite fascinating as cultural phenomena. I don’t think that I could make a career out of emojifying old master paintings, and one would hope that I wouldn’t want to (I don’t). But for a project that I thought was possibly too tongue and cheek, it’s been a fun ride for the past year.

SUSAN:

You have a show coming up. Describe for us what you are working on now.

CARLA:

For the past year I’ve been working on the Selfie Drawing series, that is now serving as the sketchbook to videos I am making for a solo exhibition, A Subject Self-Defined, that will be premiering at Transfer Gallery in late January. As part of the culture of selfie photography I have been sharing and disseminating digital selfie drawings online. I mean, is it a selfie if you don’t share it on your social media networks? It’s interesting, because today artists, even those who aren’t new media artists, function across two economies. We work with the “like (ubiquity) economy” where the more you upload, and the more likes you get, and the more public the piece is, the more value is assigned to it. Then there is still the classical scarcity model of the gallery, where the authentic art object, not its reproduction, is expected to have limited circulation, or circulation within approved institutions. For photographers and digital printmakers we work with limited editions, and the real remains discernible from the copy. It’s about the auratic, and so working between these two spaces with the drawings, I’ve been simultaneously sharing the digitally made drawings online and creating one-of-kind versions, overlaid with colored pencil and ink, as physical artifacts. I have done fifty drawings so far, and the drawing part of the project will conclude with fifty-two, for the weeks of the year. The show at Transfer will have 17 video works and they are transcriptions of the drawings placed into a more filmic space. They have time lines similar to animated gifs, so they are related to internet culture, as that is the space I work within.

I am also publishing a book of the 52 drawings that will be released at the end of the exhibition in March which includes a critical essay by Dorothy R. Santos. In collaboration with UNBOX’s #BehindTheFace project and Blippar AR technologies, the book will become a dynamic object, a serialized augmented reality “book object.” Using the Blippar app, readers can hover over a static drawing, and an expanded animated version of the drawing will appear on their screens – each augment is released weekly, as the book comes alive over the course of 2016 to its collectors.

Book Cover (front)

Book Cover (front)

CHRYSANNE:

To close, is there anything that you would want to say to younger artists who are embarking on a career? Or what you say to your students about how to engage in their practice.

CARLA:

I love teaching. Today, we actually had a critique in class and I was feeling particularly sensitive to what their experience is as first semester students. They are all working to establish a voice or refine their voices within the context of New York because a lot of them are international students. These are all students studying interactive arts in the Department of Digital Arts, and they are all women. My entire class is comprised of women!

 

 

SUSAN:

Has that ever happened before? I know that there are a disproportionate number of women in arts programs and that they effectively support men’s careers but all women?

CARLA:

We tend to have a male/female population that is about half and half, or just slightly more women, in the Digital Arts Department at Pratt. That happens in many colleges, but when they get into the work force you see the discrimination and the inequity begin. Still, this is the first time I have had an all female class. It’s pretty amazing. Particularly a class that is dealing with interactive technologies, programming and coding languages. Generally there is a dearth of women in this particular digital arts field. Woman, at least in the (recent) past, were not socialized to feel competent in coding, and the game industry is monopolized by men. I have one friend who is a female coder and she has been at conferences where men will say to her: “Who coded that for you darlin’?” And they will actually test her to see if she would have been able to code something.

For this particular class, a grad level Practicum class, one thing that I have been iterating and reiterating is to have confidence, to not apologize. To work on their self esteem. That was a real issue for me in my twenties. One of my graduate professors told me I was going to get eaten alive in New York if I didn’t stop being self-deprecating, one of my defense mechanisms at the time. So that’s one thing, to try to instill in them a sense of confidence and self worth in their practice. There are so many voices online telling you that you are great or that you are awful and I want them (and myself) to not be persuaded by those voices. It has to still be the inner voice first.

For a while now we have had the expectation that an artwork is only valid if it is deskilled and I happen to work in a department where there is a lot of skill involved in the students’ practice, sometimes at the sacrifice of concept. Still the skill involved to learn these applications, when applied to meaningful ideas, can result in breathlessly captivating art. So I talk to my students about their practices being valid, and that to be skilled and to express a complex idea is a truly amazing thing.

The idea that everyone can be an artist, the utopian idea as described by Joseph Beuys, takes on new meaning when we have reached a point today where anyone can reach micro-fame on social media or vimeo or YouTube. At some level that is really exciting but, on another level I think there are still criteria on which we can judge a work of art and if everything is art, then art is null and void. I talk about resonance as the main criteria today. Barthes talked about the punctum in a photograph. When someone sees something on YouTube or on a gallery wall, and they want to go back to it and they want to dig deeper, and you’ve created an experience where they can, that’s resonance. I think that is really essential to art.

Carla Gannis on her rooftop, Brooklyn, New York © 2015 by Susan Silas

Carla Gannis on her rooftop, Brooklyn, New York © 2015 by Susan Silas

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