In rugged stoneware and luminous, scintillating prints, Brittany Nelson and Gabriela Vainsencher invent figments of an imagined history and future fiction. Slender necks and swollen stomachs taper to a point in Vainsencher’s layered photographs of pages cut from an archeological textbook of pre-Minoan crafts; recast in porcelain, these rearranged bodies rear and writhe from the white plateau of a low pedestal. Nelson’s gelatin silver prints capture scale transparencies of pages from a book of science fiction short stories. Written by Alice B. Sheldon under an assumed male name, the story speaks to a future in which alien characters could be equally the objects of erotic and romantic fascination as human creatures. Across these distinct bodies of work, the temporal terrain blurs with the false relics of future and past — Vainsencher’s ceramic forms could almost litter the expanse of Nelson’s Martian landscape, the shredded rubber of torn rover treads animating under the clouds of an alien sky. Writing time in material mutations, Vainsencher’s and Brittany’s works endure through the flickering transformation from page to photograph, ceramic surviving by brittle teeth, paper becoming and blackening under the wavering burn of a hand-held light.
Following is an excerpt of a conversation between Nelson, Vainsencher, and Kaack. For the full transcript, please follow this link. This conversation was held in conjunction with the exhibition SCIENCE FICTIONS.
Nicole Kaack: In the way that light functions in the book pages and the slow slumping of these ceramic figures, it feels to some extent that you are both introducing limitation or resistance as a means of production. There is this feeling of letting things happen in a controlled, experimental way, perhaps. Within parameters. Creating premises for something to exist.
I also would love to hear about what upcoming projects you’re both thinking about. I remember you saying something about time capsules, Brittany.
Brittany Nelson: We were talking about time machines. I’ll be spending the summer in Athens, which has brought me from thoughts on early photo history and science fiction to this idea of time machines. Being there has been a really strange experience with all of these ancient ruins and the Parthenon hovering over the city like the moon.
I feel like the closest we’ve come to time machines are early photo experiments. I’ve been reading a lot of writings by Henry Fox Talbot, who was one of the early innovators of photography and photo processes. A long time ago I read an article where I remember Talbot discussing a photograph he took of his studio window. The image wasn’t looking out the glass lattice, but was of the window itself. Just light coming through the window ended up being the perfect subject on which to test these photo experiments. Talbot talks about how, photographing this window, for the first time there were two images of the same thing at different times lying on a table together. It’s a simple idea, but the first time it happened it would be shocking and amazing.
Nicole Kaack: It’s interesting that the effect of it is contingent on that being the first instance of that event — the context is so important. We could do that now, but we are so used to stopping time. Nonetheless, there can still exist the feeling of being transported.
Brittany Nelson: Yeah. One other thought on the idea of time that I have had while in Athens has to do with the display mechanism at the Acropolis Museum. Many of the objects on display are these chunks of old marble. They display these by placing them on top of newer blocks of marble. I think that’s a time machine.
Nicole Kaack: Almost exactly two windows next to each other.
Gabriela Vainsencher: The marble itself is probably about the same age, right? In terms of stone age.
Brittany Nelson: You just complicated it! [laughter] Yeah, for sure. There’s just such a stark difference in terms of color, polish, cut.
Nicole Kaack: [to Gabriela] Are you going to keep transforming?
Gabriela Vainsencher: Yeah, so these are actually extremely new, so I may continue for now. I’m going to go to this residency in Woodstock in August called Byrdcliffe where they have a lot of ceramics facilities and I’m going to make some more. See where this goes.
Karen Hesse Flatow: Do you have a limited amount of the paper remains from your Hunter days?
Gabriela Vainsencher: There is a limited amount, but it’s a pretty big pile. The pile is about this thick and only about half of them are cut. The other ones are whole, so they’re just out of the book. Mathematically speaking, there are many combinations that I could still make.
Nicole Kaack: Are you reinventing the book with these?
Gabriela Vainsencher: I do want to make a book out of them. I started keeping the page numbers from the book. I thought it would be interesting to make a new book that retains all of the original numbers even though they no longer indicate a chronological order of any sort.
Karen Hesse Flatow: I had one question for Brittany. You talked about queer abstraction. Do you consider these works abstract within that paradigm?
Brittany Nelson: I do consider them that, though admittedly within a really strict definition of abstraction. In photo language, and if you Google “abstract photography,” you will end up with a lot of close-up photos of leaves. It’s a completely different definition from other media. For a while, I had been working really strictly within a non-representational language, mostly playing with these chemical experiments. Part of this project was about expanding my own definition of that. I am interested in things that get right up to the line between representational and abstract, things that exist in the liminal space between the two. This series has been new for me in that I used an actual image. I feel like images have some kind of weight to me again, and they didn’t for a long time.
Audience member: In relation to both of your practices, I’d like to hear more about reproduction, both in multiplicity and in transformation between clay, ceramics, and photography. Gabriela, you’re talking about potentially making a book out of these, which involves taking images of pages from a book, putting them into a physical form, and potentially bringing it back to the photograph. It becomes sort of an infinite process, right? You’re taking an image and it’s collapsing on itself and regenerating. In that process, is it just the act of searching that feels most important? Or is there something specific that you think about?
Brittany Nelson: For me, going back and forth with an image unhinges it from the time it’s stuck in. That becomes a means of getting away from the nostalgia of these 19th century photo processes. I’m not interested in the backward into that history, which is completely male-dominated. Going back and forth, using all the tools in the kit, I feel like the image becomes uncanny or unfamiliar. It is able to feel futuristic rather than nostalgic. On the other hand, with the rover, it is a futuristic, present-day photograph that I wanted to push into the past. In both cases, I am unhinging these things to make them more malleable in time.
Gabriela Vainsencher: I really love that so much of science fiction is simultaneously futuristic and old — the history is futuristic, is a bizarre time space. It’s more expressive of how people see themselves in that moment, and how they project into a fictionalized future. That’s such an encapsulation of how science fiction works as well, as a historical artifact later.