Liz Zito with Laura Parnes

© Liz Zito 

© Liz Zito 

“I’ve performed and created characters based on diary entries. Courtney from Wolf’s Canyon originated from being nostalgic for teen horror shows. I wanted to become the opposite what I am now.”

Liz Zito

The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Liz Zito.

Laura Parnes: Courtney is a cliché of the teenage film and you seem to play around a lot with clichés. Is there a parody that goes on when you’re riffing on these popular references to adolescence?

LZ: I still relate to shows that are aimed at teenage girls–taking a closer look at what is presented to them–and it’s definitely a reflection of what has formed the person I am today. But I get frustrated when people think Courtney is an alter ego or has something to do with me. I’ve had a lot of conversations about how similar Courtney and [Nick Aliciati’s] Darlene are, but we have completely different relationships with our characters. People really like Courtney (I don’t like her) and want me to dress up like her and be this thing.

LP: I’m curious how you developed and wrote your projects, specifically Wolf’s Canyon.

LZ: I come up with a basic story line just so it’s not insane [laughs]–wait a second, it is insane–but, a beginning and an ending, so it’s almost followable. And I like working with non-performers, without set lines in the script, who can be lost and not exactly know what’s going on. I don’t really know what’s going on! If someone in the cast or crew has a better idea, I want to do the better idea–the funnier thing–and to allow for interpretation.

LP: However you set up the situation, you’re also in it, so you’re kind of pushing or controlling the direction of the scene in quite a few ways.

LZ: When I’m in the scene it makes people more comfortable but when I’m off camera I’ve had to prompt what is going on. I will feed lines if people don’t like improvising. Even in bad acting I’m surprised when it's a great performance. The performance is authentic in a different way. I feel like every character, at the end of the day, has taken a drug and they don’t remember what happened the day before or previous episode. Everyday is a blank slate. I’ve never asked anyone if working with me in this way is fun; I think it is. People keep coming back.

LP: I really didn't realize it’s mostly improv. The way people perform, they already embodying those different adolescent shows they’ve already seen. It feels like the lines are going through them.

© Liz Zito

© Liz Zito

LZ: It helps when their names are directly from the shows. If we’re talking to Mr. Fitz, the teacher from Pretty Little Liars, and it’s your friend Stephan performing, it feels like you’re talking to that television show character. Plus Stephan is a really good actor.

LP: And that mirrors playing out ideas of childhood, of acting out shows and scenarios, which took up quite a bit of time for some of us when we were kids. It seems your process, in terms of refining things, happens much more in the editing room, which is sort of different from when I’ve worked with animation where there’s not a lot of leeway in editing afterward.

LZ: I don’t know if it’s a result of an improvising comedy background, but editing is one of my favorite parts of the process. A joke doesn’t always necessarily work until I edit the piece together. And that’s the exciting thing. I also like the episodic. It leaves people wanting more–I don’t know if I’m going to give it to them–but it allows me to take a break while having material to come back to and re-edit. There’s a great gym scene that has yet to be released.

LP: I’ll waste so much time if I’m shooting extra stuff. For some projects I’ve controlled the script beforehand and pretty settled into what I wanted. But [for funding] I was constantly getting notes and rewriting. Those notes were based on what other people were telling me. So I let go of all of that and decided I could make it on bare bones. By turning it into an animation I could go back to all these crazy things I’d put in before that I didn’t think I could realize in film. It was a really freeing moment for me to give up the process of trying to get the financial backing you need to get for a feature film.

LZ: How do you know when something’s finished, like Tour Without End? Is it every going to end?

LP: It’s never going to end! No, I envision it being six hours. I recently went to Houston and did a show. It happened that one of my characters was in Houston and I shot another scene there at Sean’s Hair Salon. It’s an ongoing process but I’m sure something will tell me “you've got to stop.” I do have a lot of fun shooting it. It’s totally guerilla style. Whatever happens happens. There’s a rush of like me saying [to the actor], “now go in to that hotel and book a room” and “if they say this, don’t respond” and “don’t leave until it’s absolutely necessary.” We have a lot of fun doing that and everyone’s into it. It would be really different if they were like “I'm really uncomfortable” but they’re like “yeah, where can we go next?” We’ll get tired at some point. And since it’s about process, how long can my characters take working on this. I’m sure that will inform part of it but then there will be a deadline of the show where I just have to get it together.

LZ: One of the most exciting things for me is coming up with an idea–when the light bulb goes off. It sounds really dumb to say I don’t like performing, because I do it all the time, but I find it really difficult and exhausting. Sitting in front of the camera and having these rules for myself. I find it satisfying when it’s done and I know I have the right take. It’s like “whew, I don’t have to do that again.” It’s weird, but maybe it’s the high I get after a performance. And knowing that if I get a good take it’s exciting. That’s it; I don't have to do this anymore. Torcher!

Now I’m in the process of writing a film where I’m not in it at all. I’m taking a step back to trust other people to be the characters I’ve developed. I want to have control in a different way, to focus on other things I wasn’t able to when I was the performer. I’m at the point where I’m kind of a little sick of watching myself on the screen. I want to think about other things, like writing the story and developing the characters. Even for Wolf’s Canyon I’m talking to someone else about playing Courtney in the future. With the absurdity of the project I can allow someone else to step in.


Nick Alciati with Laura Parnes

© Nick Alciati

© Nick Alciati

© Nick Alciati 

© Nick Alciati 

“From the time I was little, I would develop characters. Around five years ago my brother and I created Darlene and Mildred, Southern sisters in their forties. Growing up gay in Syracuse was difficult as it is a sports town and all my friends were straight jock bros. It was really hard to find my place so I escaped to my bedroom where I could be whoever I wanted to be, which was often times, a female pop singer. I recently thought about my childhood and from there Darlene transformed into a pop star very much rooted in the fantasy.”

Nick Alciati

The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Nick Alciati.

LP: Did I understand correctly, that the interior monolog that went on in your head, as a kid, was a forty-year-old woman?

NA: No, well, it was more like seventy. But about five years ago my brother and I developed these middle-aged women, Darlene and Mildred and they were obsessed with Jesus, Diet Pepsi and Wal-Mart. And Darlene always had auburn hair. So when I began graduate school I bought a wig and started to visualize her. At first I thought I could do makeup to look forty but then I thought why not just be a hot 1990s pop star. For me it was finally about being comfortable.

LP: Do you think your character Darlene exists in 2016?

NA: I’m kind of struggling at times because I’m very much present in 2016 and being comfortable with my own gender but I wanted to bring it back to those moments when I was growing up. The songs I’m referencing in the videos I’m making are from the late 1990s. That’s the time when I was developing as a young person.

LP: You have a very personal relationship to your characters. How important is that to your process?

NA: Over the past two years of developing Darlene, we’ve developed a relationship with each other. Sometimes, as Nick, I’ll even think as Darlene. My project came from a place where I was questioning my gender and sexuality so I felt the best person to play that role was myself. Also the empowerment of wearing a wig and heels is a high. And I’m much more confident being Darlene than being Nick. Since becoming Darlene I think Nick is becoming more comfortable with himself. It’s been a weird journey. At this point I’m kind of sick of Darlene and I think we might be breaking up after school. But it’s been really fun having that control as a performer.

LP: Some performance artists act out specific characters over and over again. Michael Smith’s Baby or Kalup Lindsay with his soap opera personalities. This is the case with Darlene, but once the audience becomes familiar with a specific character they feel like they can embody it too.

NA: I recently brought people into the studio to give me their best Darlene while I was playing 90s pop music. It was fun to see how people posed. Some of the males were really into it. I saw that feeling I get “this is different and fun.” And at other times some people were really freaked out.

LP: Have you performed as other characters besides Darlene?

NA: I bought a blonde wig and became a new character. Nicki’s the badass high school version of Darlene. Darlene’s the angel on my shoulder and Nicki’s the devil.

LP: How do you approach making work? Do you have a preconceived idea and then you set it up in a shoot or are you experimenting while you’re shooting?

NA: A lot is experimenting; I don't write anything out. It starts with songs; trying to recall memories I had at home alone in my room singing in front of a mirror. From there I’d research a certain female star and I think about the clothes and the location. I go through the whole song and lip sync and have someone helping me film. As I’m thinking of the music videos I'm thinking of the aesthetic and how they were originally made. The process ends up being this really repetitive thing until I have an Ashanti song stuck in my head forever.

LP: You just shot something in LA. Is that how you did it?

NA: Yeah. I really love performing on location in public–seeing people around me–and then watching myself on the screen. It’s definitely a little narcissistic. But if I was going to be reflecting back on the music videos of the time then it had to be multiple scenes to have a narrative. Lip-syncing is really difficult when you’re cutting between shots having to go back and redo it multiple times. There’s always a love/hate relationship at every stage of the process.

LP: Your work seems really connected to your own adolescence but also plays off of images and stereotypes of teenage girls as they are represented in popular culture. Your choices seem very specific in terms of what you reveal

NA: When I started visualizing Darlene I imagined her being completely female and as close to these singers as I could get. But growing up very much male–born and raised playing football–there are parts I can’t get rid of. So Darlene went from being this fun humorous pop star to me delving into ideas of gender. Suddenly I found myself wearing mid-drifts and letting my belly hair show. And, I’m not that great in heals. But I let those moments–those slippages–enter because I think it’s important to blur the binary. I think it’s important to tell that aspect of the story. Even as I’ve developed this character, I’ve developed my own gender identity. Darlene has allowed me to be more comfortable with myself.

LP: Do you think she’d ever play football?

NA: That would be fun.

LP: I’m curious about the blending or slippages you describe in relation to gender.

NA: I’m building a bedroom installation [for an exhibition] and I’m blending all those things together, [starting with my early years as a boy obsessed with Barbies, to me trying to blend in by playing football, to Darlene being a fantasy and eventually making her a reality…I’m blending both of us as characters but also as valid identities.] The next video I’m making is going to be Nick and Darlene going back and forth. That was informed through me shooting and realizing I can’t dance that well in heels, I do have traditional male body hair and I don’t tuck away any of my anatomy. I keep all that just there because it’s just me bring into question the constructs of identity and subverting that.

LP: It’s important for people to be aware that it’s not full drag.

NA: I don’t want to be passable as a female. I’m not trying to impersonate the stereotypes fully. I thought that was what I wanted at the beginning because it was fun. It was like I get to play dress-up at 27 and I could never dress up as a female when I was growing up. So it started with the baseline of “it’s fun to wear a wig, do my makeup, wear heals.” Then it moved more into delving into ideas of gender. That’s why I don’t call her a drag queen but an alter ego.

LP: There can be a power in that and an importance to it.

NA: In my experience of “high fishy drag,” as they call it, it’s more like the Hell’s Kitchen queens are lip-syncing to Britney Spears or Kesha or Madonna. They’re trying their best to be really feminine. Verses a lot of my friends in Brooklyn are sort of subverting that and not so much being the archetype of female but exploring more of an identity in a character through their performance.

LP: It’s interesting to hear you speak about an alter ego as opposed to drag.

NA: Traditionally it could be called drag but it’s much more than a performance at a bar or club. And a lot of queens have more than that as their personas.

LP: Well there’s a personal element in this character that distinguishes Darlene from just lip-syncing. Although lip-syncing to Keisha!

NA: There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s fun.

LP: It can be important too.

NA: Absolutely, it’s important. It’s important for drag to allow people to feel empowered, not to just be what they were raised to be. And escapism–having this fantasy world to escape to and seeing people do that. When I became friends with a bunch of queens I thought, “I could do this.” They’d help me with my makeup and it turned me into feeling really empowered.

But Darlene is very rooted in me being myself. To some people Darlene might be vapid. She’s more than that to me. I struggle with getting beyond the humor and these fantasy videos. I want to delve deeper into where she’s rooted.

Forrest Grant Davis with Laura Parnes

© Forrest Grant Davis

© Forrest Grant Davis

“Most of my character development comes from people watching, being slightly introverted and sitting back in social situations, and having an acute awareness of what’s going on around me. Characters are built through trying to make sense of people’s actions.”

Forrest Davis

The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Forrest Davis.

LP: The protagonist in your feature film defies viewer’s expectations in that he refuses to transform no matter what situation he finds himself in. Was that your intention?

FD: The goal in A Watched Pot was to show a character that’s fairly quiet and unlikeable. I was interested in how we connect with a lead character that is pretty reserved.

LP: In terms of story structure there is a cyclical element to it. It starts in the way that it ends.

FD: It is built around questioning if he has the ability to change or not. In traditional films you see a character go from point A to point B where in real life I don’t think that happens. With him it’s left ambiguous whether he has changed or if he ends right where he begins.

LP: What is your process of writing a script?

FD: I start with a stream of consciousness of writing, but with the understanding that in this scene, I need to cover certain points. Then inevitability I begin walking around and saying the lines to myself. From there I send it to an actor I’m working with. That’s when most of the improvisational work comes in, when we get together and read the lines. Then ask, “What doesn’t sound right?” “How would you say this?”

© Forrest Grant Davis

© Forrest Grant Davis

LP: You workshop it?

FD: Exactly. I’ve always worked with actors to try it the way we’ve rehearsed. But then if there is something else we want to say, or a certain emotion we want, we’ll try another take and see what happens. That’s where things change and come together. There are situations where something is still off and we’ll rewrite it right there. Being open to working with stuff that is staged but also being open to working with improvising to the extent to push so it doesn’t feel like actors are just reading what’s on the page.

LP: It definitely brings out more realistic dialogue, and it becomes a collaborative process, especially if you’re working with a talented actor who can really add something to the character.

I love improvisation. The activity of a groupthink, where everybody is working together and very interconnected. The writing process afterword is the real battle. It requires a lot of room for experimentation and the possibility of failure. It also requires lots of labor! I have to be steeped in this other world and focus large amounts of time and somehow know it backward and forward. Then I can finally solve the puzzle. It’s a struggle but it’s a fascinating struggle.

FD: My process is much more traditional. I like writing. It usually starts with a certain person or person’s action I saw and can’t understand. I’m trying to figure out what was in their mind that made them do it and build a story around that. The next piece I’m writing started with a specific shot. It was like, “How do I incorporate this into a story?” The whole film is based on one shot being placed at the most pivotal moment.

I also like working with the same people, primarily professional actors playing the main characters in the film where smaller parts are often played by non-actors. The merging of these two creates an authenticity that I believe an all-professional actors cast cannot bring. The actor I worked with for A Watched Pot has become a good friend and I'll write specific things for him now that we have worked together. We understand what each is looking for but are still willing to challenge each other.

LP: I like writing for specific people too. Right now I’m working with musicians and it’s a little like herding cats. They’re really brilliant and hilarious in front of the camera but you can put as much tape as you want on the floor and they won’t necessarily hit a mark. It requires having multiple cameras and being prepared for the unexpected. Sifting through things and to find that one performance gem is an essential part of process.

FD: Inevitably, when working with scripted material, going from paper to shooting is where some of the biggest struggles occur. But of all the satisfying moments, one is during production. It’s the moment when you’ve set up the scene, you have all the lights, you've done the blocking, and you just sit down and look at the monitor. It’s that realization that the picture you had in your head is really happening–the words you wrote–and every time you sit down and look, it gets very real all of a sudden.

Being able to recognize that the script is not necessarily going to be what I shoot exactly. It’s going to change. Trying to recognize where the character is going, or how the actor is working while shooting, can be where major changes need to happen. Scaling that back in post is where it becomes closer to what was written. When I’m editing, it’s not as much adding anything to the character, but taking things away. It’s wiping away dialogue and using more silences to get a character.

© Forrest Grant Davis

© Forrest Grant Davis

Yi Yi Lily Chan with Laura Parnes

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

“I don’t consider myself an activist; I’m too quiet a person. I work intuitively and don’t script things beforehand. Character is formed through questions I ask. The reporter in my work is me, but I consider it more of a disembodied character where it could be anybody. You can see throughout the piece that I’m self-conscious about my position as an artist.”

Lily Chan

The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Yi Yi Lily Chan.

LP: The characters in your work are related to the alter ego, via the artist-as-reporter, asking questions and not necessarily getting answers. It mostly starts with an intuitive process. Do you start by experimenting with the camera or do you have a set activity?

LC: I began with a question but I don’t know who to ask or where to project it specifically. There would be images that come up in my head and they linger to a point where I feel like I have to re-enact them.

Extract and Repeat, a performance I did in response to a crazy woman in the subway [viral video footage on the Internet], is about people and public places and the reasons why they break down under different social structures and political pressures. I question what it is to be like them, which I decided to only investigate in physical gesture. I don’t want it to come off as parody, but instead question the act of distanced shaming and quick judgments, as facilitated by the Internet. I wasn’t fully empathizing with or trying to justify her; I was just wondering what these bodies go through, and why people react the way they do.

LP: Do you think it’s searching for empathy?

LC: It’s very much about empathy but it didn’t start that way. My empathizing came after making the work and realizing that certain physical intensities cannot be reached without a mental state that is on par. I felt terrible about her position and I didn’t want to judge her, but question what puts us through these physical gestures and traumas.

LP: The trauma of someone having a psychotic break, or a toxic episode caught on tape and then amplified by the Internet, it’s an interesting way to develop a character and attempt to create empathy for them.

There are performance artists who feel the need to embody specific public figures because of their own relationship to them. It’s hard to think of you not personally being invested in the character based on your process.

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

LC: It’s personal but it doesn’t illustrate a personal trauma. I don’t need that to address the questions I'm posing. Because I work intuitively, most of the time it feels like I’m creatively constipated. When it does flush out there’s often no time to plan or delegate extensively.

In your film Blood and Guts in High School a lot of the characters actually came through, for me, in the editing, the time you allow them to pause and subtle kind of things you do with framing. To what extent do you storyboard your shoot? Are they products of improvising? What is your process?

LP: Blood and Guts was a very choreographed. I blocked out everything. There was always a rehearsal and if it wasn’t in the actual space it didn’t really matter. What really mattered was the framing. The movement is really important. Stephanie Vella is an amazing actress and brought a lot to the role and incorporated certain performance elements that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought.

But some of the people were non-actors and I had to choreograph everything and be very controlled with framing–tell them where to stand and exactly how to deliver their lines, often reading the line to them or feed them lines. In some ways it relates to theater like The Wooster Group. They often feed each other lines through a headpiece. You get this other kind of worldly voice. It feels disembodied and that’s very important to that piece in particular. The slowness, the blocking; it would be really funny if all those scenes were sped up. Because they are intentionally slowed down they give you no relief. Being so formally controlled and structured is part of that kind of suffocating feeling.

LC: I’m not tied down to a specific process but satisfied when my random thoughts, suddenly come together and make sense. It isn’t satisfying when I shoot something perfectly because I don’t get anything new from the process and I like working with accidents. I always have a vague idea or an image I’ll act out and because I never script what I do, the raw footage will tell me what I’ll do next. Of course I might have to go back and get more material, but it’s constantly changing. Change happens in the editing room by what I give accent to. It’s always a discovery.

But editing can be terribly lonely. Sometimes I watch the footage I’ve collected, or randomly put together, and think, “Okay this is a new lead.” Then it suddenly becomes interesting. The loneliness is gone. I would not have made some of the work I did if I gave myself strict rules to stay true to; to the character I had in mind from the very beginning.

LP: You’re often not fully in the piece. With the reporter character, it’s just the microphone you show. When we see performance artists in their own pieces often it is about seeing their face–their persona. Your performance is first person–seeing through the eyes of your character.

LC: That comes from seeing the self-conscious that’s increasing in degree. Because of my race, because of the questions I’m posing in this particular work, I don’t want to limit the reach of those questions and have them skewed towards identity politics. It’s not about my cultural background but more about a globalized peripheral question, a homogenizing experience. Inevitably if I put my whole body and face in it you’re going to read it a certain way, unfortunately. There are certain contexts in which I have to avoid that in order for the work to reach more people. This removal is not about habit or comfort, but what the work or the questions I pose in the work necessitates. I don’t have to rely on my face or my body to establish personality. Meanwhile, I put myself fully in front of the lens in the aforementioned Extract and Repeat, because the work is partly about navigating identity, ethnicity, and challenging what people expect from someone of my upbringing to say on issues of border politics and territorialized experience, all boiling up within the same national and racial framework.

Faculty Member Wardell Milan in Conversation With Tiffany Smith

There’s something about the demeanor of Southern men that often seems a bit more at ease, gentler, open. Meeting Wardell Milan was a refreshing affirmation of the most positive attributes of the “Southern gentleman” archetype. He spoke to me about his background and practice, and our shared professional challenges and the intersection of our respective work. He offered insight on establishing a practice through his experience in several mediums, including painting, photography and printmaking. Following are some highlights from our chat.

Tiffany Smith:  Where are you from?

Wardell Milan: Knoxville, Tennessee. When I was asked “where you're from?,” it was that little cadence or something makes it feel like you're from somewhere in the South.


TS: Yeah, from the deep South. . .


I was born in Miami and raised in both Nassau, Bahamas, and my folks are from Jamaica and Trinidad. There is a mix of cultural influences in Miami; if anything that made me keep closer ties to the Caribbean community because that culture is very strong.

I wanted to lead with that question because it’s something I address in my work—that experience of being asked where you're from is loaded. Usually the follow up is going to be where are you really from?


WM: You can pretty much discern that after a few seconds, just in the tone of voice or tilt of the head. Depending on whom I'm talking to, I’ll say Knoxville and certain folks will be like, where? Then “Where are your people from?” People think, “Are you Dominican? . . .” “No. I'm not Puerto Rican . . .”

TS: I feel that when people don't know where to place you on the brown people scale they always say Dominican.


Tell me more about being from Knoxville.

WM: Knoxville is a medium size town and, looking back, I had a great childhood and early adulthood. Growing up in a mid size Southern City greatly aided my creativity. With the city providing a limited amount of cultural and civic diversity and stimulus, I developed a keen imagination, and the strong desire to a creator.  


TS: Your work doesn’t place your identity at the forefront. There's a lot of work by black artists that is unmistakably black and a lot of work that is not, it’s more abstract. As an artist who is representational and outwardly projects notions of identity, I'm compelled by an introverted standpoint.


WM: I've always made work that's a bit coded. I’ve used family members to make portraits, obstructing their identity in some way. For a while I really questioned abstraction and if I should be more representational of being a person of color. But I just wasn't interested in speaking about that in a very direct manner. I wanted to create narratives that were slightly autobiographical, and then about black culture, and then perhaps my mother, and also race cars! There were so many ideas I wanted to speak about, that I felt I couldn't really make work that was more about my blackness. I've questioned that, but I never felt the urge to make work that was about my culture in a pointed way. I'm a black artist but it isn't “black” art. Or is it?


TS: Why can't I just be an artist? Why do I have to be a black artist?  Not every artist makes the choice to address their identity in their work, but you should have that choice instead of being categorized as a black artist in a limiting sort of way.


WM: When I was saying that, I was thinking about writers and how often when they're writing about artists of color they say, “Tiffany Smith, black artist” or “Christine Kim, Korean artist.” It's never Sullivan Smith, white artist. There's never that classification.


TS: It can sometimes affect the way people interact with the work because they're searching for deeper references - it must be about politicizing the black body, for example. People get all hyped up on buzzwords.


WM: Maybe it's not about that at all - it's just your friend and she happens to be Asian or Indian. Somehow whenever the black or brown body is inserted it becomes political. It's the same if you think about a ballet. It could be Swan Lake but as soon as the lead dancer is black it's something else.


T:  Black Annie! Forget it.


WM: Anyone who's not a straight white man has to have a double consciousness. Thinking about W.E.B. Dubois’ ideas about double consciousness, you as a black woman have three consciousnesses—woman, black woman, and you. You're absorbing how you exist in space and in the world but you're also reaching out and trying to learn how to better maneuver. If a person doesn’t have these complexities in their consciousness then that person may not take the time to consider how, for example, a woman of color living in New York has to maneuver through life. There's a level of understanding that some people just may not have because they don't have to know. It’s about being aware of communities that aren’t so immediately you and yours.


TS: Your work allows for different reactions—it puts you on the precipice of being enticed, and at the same time being repelled because you don't want to perpetuate certain stereotypes. Particularly the “Smooth Girl” collages.


WM: I'm interested in the idea of dualism or “twoness.” I want people to be simultaneously repelled and attracted. Most people believe the tulips are really beautiful and inviting.  Which I believe they are, but what inspires me about these flowers is their history, specifically the 17th century financial collapse of the tulip trade, now popularly termed Tulip Mania.


TS: The botanical illustrations make me think about classifications—comparing how we classify people and plants and how they are represented visually. That process of creating an impression of the thing that’s not actually what it looks like.


WM:  I began making collages that developed into a body of work titled Smooth Girls after walking with my friend Isolde Brielmaier through Harlem and looking at the magazines displayed on the newsstands. The magazines tilted Smooth Girl, XXL, The Source were in prominent locations. Isolde said, “Hank [Willis Thomas] should do something with those images.” “Why would you suggest Hank? I replied. And we both laughed. As we continued walking I looking at some of the women walking through the Harlem neighborhood, we witnessed how the images illustrated in these soft porn magazines, were being re-interrupted and/or reflected on the streets. To us—these women—they didn't seem to be disrespecting themselves or asking for unwanted sexual attention, these women seemed empowered.


TS: Was it a conscious choice to just use brown women or did you ever think of using other women?

WM: For the Smooth Girls body of work, just brown women.

TS: I want to talk about coming out of a graduate program and that first post-grad year.

WM: There's no prescription. When I graduated, Leslie Hewitt and I got a large studio space in Long Island City that was relatively inexpensive. There's nothing like that in New York anymore. One thing about working in New York as a creative is there is never really a lull in momentum.


TS: That's exactly why I came here—that momentum and drive. I went to SCAD and I didn't want to move back to Miami. I knew I was going to have a difficult time staying motivated.

WM: We want to be a part of that constant kinetic energy. How does that affect the work, hopefully in a good way?


TS: It's funny. My references to tropical locations have developed since I've been away from it.  That notion of longing comes up. I didn't think I would be here this long—I thought I could last three years; I'm going on nine. It's hard to think about pulling away, but I always dream about going somewhere else.

What was your experience of residencies like Skowhegan and the Studio Museum?

WM: Skowhegan was okay—nine weeks is too long to be on a farm. When I was there, I was with William Cordova. Whenever Cordova and I and the other brown artist went to town we would get unwanted attention. Skowhegan residences would ask “Are you from Africa?” “Jamaica?” But during that time I had a breakthrough in the studio, which led me to create the dioramas and the work I continued to make.

At the Studio Museum residency I was working with Christine Kim, Thelma Golden and Naomi Beckwith. These women are amazingly smart. Also working with Titus Kaphar and Demetrius Oliver, the other two artists in residence, was a nurturing experience—full of affirmation and encouragement. I encourage artists to apply for residencies even if you don’t feel a hundred percent ready for the opportunity. It's good for certain eyes to see the work.


TS: Applying to residencies definitely helped me be prepared to discuss my work.

WM: I applied three times to the Studio Museum. The process of learning how to put together a strong grant or A.I.R application can be long and difficult. It can take a while to get the language right and describe, in a smart way, the visual content. New York is a lot different from when I finished school. When I first moved here (before attending Grad school) I live in a studio located in Bed-Stuy, worked at Zara, had an internship at Blackbook magazine and would make small drawings and paintings in the evening.


TS: I have personal challenges in networking. I'm socially awkward especially around people that I admire. I have to push myself to speak to people to build connections.

WM:  I know a lot of artists who believe they’re socially awkward and become intimidated by those they admire. If I’m at a social gathering and begin feeling uneasy or timid I tap into the performer in me–pulling out and display a more self-assured Wardell.


The Poetic License of Alec Soth by Natasha Chuk

Alec Soth, Instagram photo posted May 4, 2015

Alec Soth, Instagram photo posted May 4, 2015

I was first drawn to Alec Soth’s Broken Manual series, a group of images he made between 2006 and 2010 that captured the hidden, largely unphotographed parts of America and its inhabitants.

It wasn’t the subject matter that resonated with me, rather the way in which these images seemed to defer meaning. Berenice Abbott once said ‘photography helps people see’, but Soth’s images resisted the urge to help me see anything definitive. They didn’t tell me what I wanted to know, or what I thought I should know. Landscapes lacked action; subjects appeared bewildering; and portraits were sometimes blurred. It was as if the very manual – the ‘ways of seeing’ – engrained in our visual culture were, essentially, broken. The promises of a photograph’s assistance with helping me see didn’t apply to this work. Narrative certainty also was tossed. The images instead invoked William Klein’s sentiment when he said, ‘What would please me is to make photographs as incomprehensible as life.’

The degree to which Soth’s work employed a sense of hiding in plain sight forced me to accept, even embrace, their collective emphasis on abnegation and resistance. They don’t seem to play well with others, the way some images do. Where others might try to focus the viewer’s gaze, these images seemed to veer mine in a different direction, off by just a small margin, but nonetheless somewhere unexpected to find or examine that other detail. In that sense, they directed me to a lost place, conferring importance on the thing that really isn’t a thing but is valuable nonetheless. These images drew me close, an effect similar to how the scrivener’s preferring not to has a way of keeping you around to find out why.

Their effect on me stirred my imagination and, it turns out, this was deliberate on Soth’s part.

I had an opportunity to talk with him about Broken Manual, his general approach to photography as well as his influences, and working in the slippery place between fiction and non-fiction. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.

NC: When I think about a series like Broken Manual, it seems that you are placing people, places, and things in a place of physicality but also in one’s imagination. There isn’t resolution or closure. I wonder if you could characterize your work when you take into account the inclusion of subjects in work like this.

AS: The strategy in Broken Manual was an attempt to further push it away from the subject-documentary approach. For me, it’s that slippery place in the middle that I’m most excited about. I have such an awareness of how even when I use [a photo} in the confines of journalism, it’s already fictionalized. I just don’t have a ton of faith in the image in that way.

There’s an issue with working in this way, and in any way there are these ethical issues, but fundamentally when it comes to real people I am kind of using them for my semi-fictionalized universe that I’m creating, and that’s not necessarily what they signed up for. So it is problematic. And you know, it troubles me. It does. [But] I am happy to be thought of as working in that way. Werner Herzog talks about the ecstatic truth – this higher truth that’s achieved through fictionalizing things. I’m not really comfortable with that kind of bombastic proclamation, but I actually love Werner Herzog as someone who also works in that slippery place in between.

NC: What do your subjects get, or what do you hope they get, in exchange for being photographed?

AS: I think what they primarily get is the encounter. A healthy chunk of what I’m after is the actual experience of being out in the world and having encounters. So they get the encounter, which is unique and not part of everyday life. They get a certain amount of attention and acknowledgement of being worthy of attention. Sometimes they get a print. They get something that I send to them, but I never knew if that was of any value to them. But it’s an experience to be depicted.

NC: You talk about the importance of the encounter, the experience and attention your subjects are getting when they work with you; what role do you think photography plays in shaping visibility in your work?

AS: It’s so problematic because, for starters, I have this encounter and I honestly explain what I’m up to, and I say there’s a chance this could end up in a book or exhibition. First of all, I don’t know if it will be because I take lots of pictures and a vast majority of them don’t make it in there, so I can’t promise [anything].

The funny thing about Broken Manual is my whole idea for that project, in the beginning, was I wasn’t going to photograph people. I was going to photograph these places. I was fed up with all these ethical issues for myself, and I hate bothering people. It’s such a part of my job, and I really wanted to break from it. But then the work, I just realized, [was] flat. It’s so energized by that tension.

NC: It’s almost like your subjects’ privacy, in a broad sense, is maintained through what is being held back, through what your images don’t reveal. There seems to be some resistance to reveal who they are.

AS: That speaks to my increasing interest in not showing faces or people slightly turned away or obscured or something. One thing that I think [and talk a lot] about is a book called Understanding Comics written by Scott McCloud. He talks about [how] in the world of comics, the simpler face you identify with more, and the highly detailed face is another person. I think there’s something similar that happens with grainy, black and white photography that can be more identifiable than highly detailed, large format work. I become more interested in reducing detail at certain times so that you identify more with the subject. Just giving little pieces of information about the person.

For me the whole game of photography is limiting the amount of information so that the viewer, or myself, can [be projected] into that space. It’s why I always use the analogy of poetry rather than novel writing, and leaving these large gaps, so that the viewer kind of finishes the poem rather than having everything described for you.

Natasha Chuk is a New York City-based writer, scholar, and curator. She wrote about Alec Soth’s work in her book Vanishing Points Articulations of Death, Fragmentation and the Unexperienced Experience of Created Objects (Intellect, 2015).