Scott Patrick Wiener was born in Baltimore, MD, but spent his youth moving along with his family from one military base to another. He studied at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (BFA, 2001), the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (MFA, 2007), the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (Class of 2010) and a completed a 2009-10 DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Scholarship for Fine Arts in Leipzig, Germany. Wiener’s work has been exhibited at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts (NYC), Weill Gallery at 92Y Uptown (NYC), the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA), the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts (Boston, MA), and Kunstverein Weiden (Weiden, Germany). Curatorial projects include “All Our Tomorrows and Yesterdays” at Proof Gallery in Boston and “Remember Then: An Exhibition on the Photography of Memory” at the Center for Government and International Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA (co-curated by Regina Mamou). In addition to his recent interview with Hyperallergic, Wiener’s work has been profiled and reviewed in Big Red & Shiny, ARTnews, The Boston Globe, TimeOut Chicago, and Paper & Carriage. He currently lives and works in Boston, MA.
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Kirk and I met Scott in Fall 2013, and we immediately had the sense of “How have we never met before?” Our first introduction to his larger art practice was through his curatorial project “All Our Tomorrows and Yesterdays” at Proof Gallery in Boston, featuring the work of Sean Downey, Mary Mattingly, and Eric Petitti. When we saw his work in the “Brink v1” exhibition at the BCA’s Mills Gallery, which included the incredible ephemeral project “I Want the One I Can’t Have”, we knew that we wanted to do a studio visit. We were totally impressed not only with the work he shared with us, but the level of thought, insight, and criticality that Scott brings to his practice, as evidenced in our following interview.
Andrea Evans: Hi Scott, thanks for having us by your studio to see everything you’ve been working on.
Scott Patrick Wiener: Thanks for making the time to come by the studio!
AE: Has photography always been your central medium? You talked about how your education at MassArt and SAIC taught you quite different things about photography (and art in general), but that both had a large influence on your practice and ways of thinking. Can you articulate the specific influences that each institution has had on your work?
SPW: Yes, both institutions played formative roles in the way I have come to understand my aesthetic intervention into the medium of photography. MassArt provided a rigorous formal, technical, and historical model for my understanding and practice of the medium. They really nurtured my love for photography and underscored the need for the hard work and craft necessary to achieve the extra-ordinary, singular image in the context of a larger photographic narrative (or sequence). SAIC provided a substantial challenge to this framework. To be precise, the interdisciplinary/conceptual model of that school was less forgiving with regard to the documentary tradition in photography and provided a pedagogy that forced me to be accountable to and substantiate that position.
My graduate thesis project, Correlations, was the first result of that challenge. Using wood and dollhouse parts, I built a series of miniature interiors based on actual spaces from my memory and photographed them. The kicker was they were titled with the real addresses of the original spaces, so that the caption was describing something that wasn’t there; a reversal of the documentary impulse in photography that states that the image and its description combine to form the photographic depiction of truth, to paraphrase Beaumont Newhall. This work became the foundation for all that I have done since and would not have been possible without both a deep understanding of craft, work, history, and a mindset that directly works to undermine the supposition that what the photograph shows is an actuality that brings a viewer closer to the event in question. I follow Sontag in her writings about the technological image and war: the experience of the image in question is emblematic of distance from the event, not close proximity as is the more common social and cultural assumption.
AE: In the studio, we discussed many of your current works and then made our way to a single image, a medium-sized photograph of a strikingly beautiful snow-covered forest. At first glance, the image could easily be grouped into the general category of aesthetically-pleasing landscape photography, but the title and our conversations about the piece quickly shifted the lens through which this work is viewed. This photograph, “Southeast from Neutrals Camp at Bergen-Belsen” is part of a series entitled “The Luxury of Distance”: a set of images taken at the locations of different Holocaust concentration camps. But rather than photographing the concentration camps themselves, you turned your back to them and photographed the view in the opposite direction. What takes place in this gesture, in this act of turning away, and in supplanting the well-known Holocaust images with landscape photography?
SPW: The gesture here is a fairly aggressive one that is similar to the titling from the Correlations project. When I first set out to do this work, I knew that I could not photograph these places directly; the photographic language for this manner of representation is far too present and developed. So, I figured I would confront that geographic trauma with what I perceived to be the opposite of imagery born out of wartime – the depiction of natural beauty in photography. The more I made this work and the more I researched these types of images, the more connected they became for me, not only through their constitutive opposition, but most resonantly through their banality. The approach I used to make the images comes from landscape painting (German Romanticism, Dutch landscape painting, Hudson River School) and achieves its final commodified expression in photography as the postcard, calendar, desktop background, to name a few. In short, western/first-world cultures have an expectation of landscape imagery (produced technologically) be portrayed in particular way; even the most “surprising” works still abide by a predetermined idea of what beauty in nature should look like. The same is true of wartime violence on the opposite end in that there is a cultural expectation for what these images should look like as well; another predetermined aesthetic for representation. This banality is the connective tissue that binds these seemingly disparate image types.
What I have done is position a viewer between a text that describes the traumatized geographic location and an image that shows a banal form of beauty, effectively denying either an experience of the other while remaining conscious of both. (Text and image for me are mutually constitutive in the sense that when one reads language, an image is psychologically produced; when images are seen, one describes or produces text.) If there is to be an event, it is the subjective negotiation of both text and image at the moment of encounter. The central aesthetic I am after is one of fragmented and constitutive contradiction that is fully underscored by distance.
AE: In relation to “The Luxury of Distance” series, I can’t help but think of Alfredo Jaar’s “The Eyes of Gutete Emerita” and his other “Rwandan Projects” [Kirk adds: also Christian Boltanski and Charlotte Delbo]. In “The Eyes of Gutete Emerita”, instead of photographing the horrible carnage of the Rwandan genocide, Jaar photographed the eyes of a woman who witnessed the violent murder of her husband and sons. Your work and Jaar’s both speak to this inability and failure of photography, or representation in general, to speak to this kind of horror and trauma. Yet you both still use photography, representation, aesthetic imagery. Is there something these kinds of “turned away” images can get at that brings us closer to understanding some aspect of trauma, or is the intention simply about their clear inability to do so?
SPW: Politically speaking, for me it is closer to the latter. I am not concerned with using photography to bring anyone closer to an understanding of trauma or beauty as such; I don’t believe the photograph can do this. It tells us more about our understanding of the event based on the context of reception rather than the actual event itself. I am most concerned with examining the cultural demands that condition the technological image to somehow bring us to an approximate understanding of the representation in question. Let me explain, if there is a traumatic moment in viewing these events it is through their subordination to a 2-dimensional, paper-based referent; this position emphasizes distance. All one can hope to understand from there is the manner in which it is deployed and understood second-hand and attached to its context. Sure, awareness is at stake, but awareness is not action or immediate (without camera) experience. Additionally, the socio-cultural proliferation of imagery via the news media runs the risk of giving permission to forget by deeming awareness, or simply viewing, as enough (paraphrased from Zelizer’s book “Remembering to Forget”). In this sense, technological imagery is ultimately a paralyzing affect of a conditional, liberal position that sounds like “you know, therefore you do not have to do.”
I think of my work as a symptom of the contemporary state of photographic imagery that posits a fractured experience of distance, instead of closeness.
Kirk Amaral Snow: You’ve mentioned a few times the inherent quality of photography as always about some form of distance. In the days of analog photography there was definitely the idea of the camera itself being prescribed “witness” status, but the act of mediation that happens in the shift from positives to prints quickly negated this from a practitioner’s standpoint. In photojournalism there still seems to be this idea that images are intended to collapse distance. Do you feel this is a function that images can actually perform? Is this concept of “distance” where bodies of work like “Two Waterfalls” and “My Light Bulb Burns Gray” originate? How did your father come to be a collaborator on these projects?
SPW: I do not agree with the photojournalist or documentarian that insists that photographs collapse distance; in fact, they mark distance more than they bring us closer visually. Really, images do not collapse distance beyond what I would argue is the desire to have them do just that, especially with regard to politics and war. We want them to bring us closer so that our concern can echo through the chambers of the workday, which prevents the bourgeois consumer from acting on behalf of the discontent the image may produce.
The works you mention deploy this concept of distance as a more social and personal expression. In Two Waterfalls and My Light Bulb Burns Gray, I use my father’s travel archive to address my discomfort with the photograph as a stand-in for the past it means to represent. Memory (and history) embedded in the technological image is not as stable as the photograph might suggest. The former is entirely unstable, and every time a picture is viewed the original memory is altered by one’s psychological relationship to it in the present. In Two Waterfalls I use 2 images; one made by myself and the other by my father in the same place at the same time to address decisively similar and disparate ways of making a singular image. There is nothing terribly special about either image but when seen together as one, they create temporal distance between now and then, father and son, maker and made. None of these positions are certain, which is the most fascinating dimension of the piece for me.
My Light Bulb Burns Gray is less about a psychological relationship between family members. The images in this work were selected for their normalcy to coexist in fields of gray, which I used to neutralize the nostalgia that tends to accompany the viewing of a family travel album. They also abide by standard rules of composition that determine the look of landscape images in postcards, calendars, etc. with the exception of a few military images of airplanes. (My father was a career US Air Force man.) These pictures are formally very similar to the landscapes in the grid, but are included as a way to address the militaristic and politically motivated dimensions of image-making. I see the travel image, made by the vacationer, as being concretely about personal conquest. By using the camera, and the resulting technological image, one is able to prove their existence in that place, therefore conquering that place, with the evidence of that gesture precisely located in ownership and presentation of the image from a particular viewpoint. This is about exerting power over place, subordinating it to a culturally trained and asserted view, not much different from when the British sent their painters to South Africa after its annexation to paint it like their countryside.
Photographic attempts to collapse distance are impotent at best, and leave behind only the residue of that desire while becoming something far more sinister. The gray is a way for me to push back against the romantic notion of nostalgia that distracts from the gesture of ownership at play in the common, image-based expressions of place, which are symptomatic of an individualized, first-world colonialist gesture.
AE: In addition to your series of work that utilizes and engages with your father’s travel photographs, you have the “Landscape Acquisition” series that deals with issues of surveillance, landscape, and power. There are many areas of overlap between these two bodies of work, such as the distancing of photography (as Kirk previously mentioned), as well as questioning ideas of authorship, and interrogation of photographic “truths”, but there are marked differences as well. Could you elaborate on the larger issues within these works?
SPW: You are correctly identifying the conceptual connections between the two projects, so I will work to answer the questions of difference that connect them.
I approach all of my subject matter from a position of discomfort. This is most likely inherited from my younger, more angst-ridden days influenced by punk rock, local Boston hardcore, 80s/90s alternative, and late 80s/early 90s hip-hop. All of that music was decisively resistant to conservative cultural norms, whether social, political, racial, etc. That influence left its mark on me and ever since I have been unable to sit still for anything I see to be culturally or socially problematic. This found its way into my work, and eventually led to a sustained interest in Frankfurt School theory. Further, I think of all of my work as a challenge to photographic tradition that regulates meaning based on the reality of the depicted event beyond the paper. Meaning can be taken both from the image and its material conditions starting with an acknowledgment of the role the latter plays in reception. The paper is not a window to its subject. In all of its cultural manifestations, that reproduction is contained within the borders of a still, 2-dimensional surface and dependent on context for subjectively rendered projection. This brings to mind one of my favorite lines from Siegfried Kracauer’s essay Photography (1927): “In a photograph, a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.”
It simultaneously addresses both the appearance of transparency and the obscuring characteristic of the still, photographic referent through the metaphor of snow. It comes from water, a clear material made opaque by its environment, obstructing the experience of history while addressing it as entirely mediated and brought to bear by its abstract, material conditions.
KAS: When we visited your studio, we talked a lot about surveillance. I realized after we left that we were taking for granted that this process is so reliant on technology as a methodology. There has been a switch from the active human eye to the passive mechanical “eye” since the introduction of photography into these activities. The human portion has gone from agent/operative to analyst who has to sift through the mundane to find “actionable information”. Do you relate to the role of analyst? Is this where your love of Frankfurt School critical theory becomes part of the process?
SPW: First, I do not think that the mechanical eye is passive, as it is influenced, designed, and controlled by the human hand. No matter how present the human eye is, their hand is apparent in the positioning of the machine. The human eye is still active, but now from “behind the curtain” (Oz reference intended).
When I work both in and through an image, I consider the many ways I can problematize it upon reception. A portion of the Landscape Acquisition project uses ambiguous placeholder images orphaned from a documentary about airborne surveillance that echo Romanticism in painting. I then re-photographed them using high-speed 35mm film give them the sinister look of cold war style surveillance. (I chose “grainy” film as a material because it connects directly to archaic surveillance practices.) Upon viewing, the pictures betray the characteristics of beauty and violence as both contradictory and similar, much like the approach used for The Luxury of Distance.
Of course, much of the imagery is mundane, and conditioned by the search for tactical information. And even in this search we find expressions of the western tradition of landscape aesthetics, as seen in the Untitled (Spies in the Sky) images. Enter the analyst. Yes, I think of myself as something of an analyst who works to develop and display the relationship between seemingly disparate image types. More and more, my current work is shown as systems of images. This can be seen in the grid of My Light Bulb Burns Gray, and a new series of pictures that concentrate the development and examination of surveillance images. I consider these groups of images to be single pieces, which must always be displayed together in my chosen configurations (taking a cue from the Bechers and more current archival practices being explored in Germany by artists like Peter Piller). By grouping these images into systems from which they cannot be detached from one another, I am working to focus attention on the ways that specific categories can both express and undermine their content. This mode of working is also meant to question the authority of the singular image, which has also been a constant discomfort for me as it is emblematic of an incredibly problematic authorial gaze that determines meaning by prioritizing the maker as holding the key to all meaning. My systems are, like language, linear in nature, which assert the author as a dead fact of the past (Barthes and Foucault are both present here).
With regard to the Frankfurt School, they are a sustained interest of mine and many of their ideas permeate my work. My use of the medium is bound to Benjamin, and later, Adorno—I aim to hold the past accountable to the present. The condition of photographic object (still or moving) can reflect the past as an abstract object in the present. I can think of no better medium in which to invest my materialist interrogation.
AE: I am also curious to hear more about the relationship between your “Landscape Acquisition” project and the history of landscape painting, particularly those of the Hudson River School. Your “Spies in the Sky” photographs are grainy and achromatic, but their scale, composition, and subject matter certainly allude to the paintings of Thomas Cole or Frederick Edwin Church. These paintings developed while the American West was being explored and settled; we can certainly see a kind of connection to the idea of surveillance here. What about the concept of the sublime; is this something you think about in relation to the “Land Acquisition” project?
SPW: Yes! The the sublime is very important to my work. To paraphrase Kant, the sublime is the simultaneous experience of overwhelming beauty and horror in nature, quickly followed by the human recognition of the self as able to conceive of it as such. I’m not sure that that this is possible when confronted with an art object in the isolated conditions that designate viewing. The apparently contradictory experiences of image-based trauma and splendor are confronted simultaneously in a controlled situation that hinges on recognition. I will argue that this is not a sublime experience, but an experience of the idea of the sublime. This assertion means to sweep aside the authority of an aesthetic that is mastered from a refined, singular, and fully absorptive viewpoint in favor of one that calls attention to a dispersed field of references. The notion that photographs are systematically oriented, inherently limited, and alienating with regard to their depictions, is a constant subject of inquiry in all of my work with technological imagery.
AE: You are very conscious of photography not only as a medium, but as a material with a physicality, not unlike painting or sculpture. I think this comes into play especially in your recent piece, “I Want the One I Can’t Have” (nice Smiths reference, by the way). I really love this work for the multiple layers of meaning that arise from it, the ephemeral nature of the piece, and from its use of the most basic materials. It is “drawing with light” at it’s simplest. Could you describe this piece, and tell us more behind this work? Is this the first time you have worked with a process that is this ephemeral?
SPW: Ah, the Smiths… This goes back to my preteen and teenage years where my identity was entirely reliant on the music I listened to and the groups formed by similar musical interests. That song is about desire for something that cannot be fully acquired, which I saw to be analogous to the cultural demand for the photographic image to be the past, not just reference it. All of this came about during a time when I was completely unsatisfied not only with the direction of my work, but also with my inability implicate the material of the photographic, light-sensitive paper, and more commonly now, paper and ink. The paper-image was always kind of an arbitrary object, a given for photographic representation that hinged upon techniques designed to draw attention away from it with practices like color and contrast balancing. Even today, when I teach inkjet printing to intro photography students I tell them, “Make it look as close to reality as possible”. While this is a necessary skill to learn the medium, the approximation to reality never felt quite right to me.
The photographic object is an abstraction in the purest sense of the word. So, again from a position of discomfort, I looked for a material that would behave in a way similar to memory, something completely unstable, uncontrollable. At this time I was refining my language for material processes surrounding sculpture and painting through conversations with my peers and colleagues at Brandeis. And because I was using images taken from my father’s travel photographs, all made when I was a child, I began to think about construction paper, a child’s material, something not meant to last (and similar to every passing second of lived time—the present is always already the distant past). I did some experiments with inkjet transparencies, sunlight, and construction paper and after many months of failing, I found a way to get the appropriate detail on the paper so it looked like a monotone photographic image.
Going back to your question, it is the first time I used an ephemeral material. It is also the first time I discovered a way to make the material a visual and conceptual component of the photographic image, as the construction paper is so prominent it cannot be ignored. And, because all of the images are formally structured around landscape and emptied of people, the way that the photograph is traditionally used to stabilize one position of that past place is immediately disrupted by the transience of the material, which is always changing and fading, dependent on the light in the space. From my perspective, this is a far more adequate way to experience the work as the material behaves in a way similar to human memory, completely unfixed and freed of the demands of permanence. The images now live and die with us.
Thus far, the best iteration of the work was in the Brink v1 show at the BCA Mills Gallery in Boston curated by Lexi Lee Sullivan (2/13-4/13/2014). In that space the work was set up so it had immediate access to several, non-UV coated windows, which expedited the fading process of the initial 12 images installed on the adjacent walls. In front of the windows were three modules that that used the sunlight to duplicate the original 12 images. For me, this poetically underscored the human desire for the preservation of the past in the photographic image as entirely impossible. None of these images can be duplicated. No matter how scientific the process, the attempt to replicate them is futile at best, but the desire remains. Even though I can’t have it, I want it anyway—there is longing and sadness in this kind of desperation, but also optimism. The mnemonic situation of transformation and loss is embedded in an object that now situates the standardized, image-based experience of place as uncertain. In their material conditions of production and dissolution, the images in I Want the One I Can’t Have are released from the demands of the photographic depiction of truth and born anew as entirely fleeting and physically unattainable.
AE: In our conversations, I have been struck by the degree to which you push back at the common assumption of the photographer as the artist/eye/author behind the camera. Your work both uses and questions photography, but distances itself from the traditional form and the common assumptions we carry with the photographic gesture: ideas of truth, or being present in a particular place and moment in time, of “capturing” something unique, fleeting, and transient. You are an artist who clearly works with photography as both a medium and concept, but would you call yourself a photographer?
SPW: To be honest, not really. I haven’t actually “made” a picture in quite some time. And, my love affair with freezing the singular moment decisively has waned to the point of non-existence. Those types of representations depend too much on first, the authority and prioritization of the maker and second, the allure of the subject (seen past the paper) for my tastes. My aim is to implicate a viewer using recognizable photographic aesthetics that frustrate and destabilize contradictory image types and/or systems on display. For me this amounts to a kind of subversion of the priority of the absorptive and purportedly original image that unifies a central position from which to consume the work.
In the spirit of fragmentation, I also tend to have various and often dissimilar expressions within the context of larger projects. The ongoing Landscape Acquisition work is a case in point; at the moment there is a constantly expanding video component made with RC controlled drones, the aforementioned large-scale landscape surveys, another in-progress series of images showing military people analyzing images, and a still-life archive made to revise and interrogate the history of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This is somewhat at odds with the traditional photographic series in art photography, especially since the installations are meant to corporeally implicate a viewer beyond formal deployments based solely on organization and scale.
Rigorous analysis, interrogation, and critique of technological images are always motivating factors for me. These shifting circumstances determine the various forms and content of a given work or project. In my last two shows I used photography, video, and sculpture to produce installations where the space was set up to involve a viewer experientially at the moment of encounter. I think of myself as an installation artist who uses and abuses photography.
AE: What’s ahead for you? Do you have any new (or continued) bodies of work that you will be investigating? Any shows coming up?
SPW: After curating a show last Fall and putting up two shows in the Spring, one in January in NYC at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, the other at the aforementioned BCA, I am due for some much needed research, writing, and studio time. There are many projects, grants, and applications that require my attention! I am also looking forward to developing 2 new video works that were on hold while I did those exhibitions: one dealing with paper airplanes and the other using a full-scale, radio-controlled RQ-11 Raven drone. And, I have a new project in the works that continues appropriating my father’s travel pictures, but uses different transient materials, so stay tuned…
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For more on Scott Patrick Wiener’s work: