BRITTANY NELSON / GABRIELA VAINSENCHER
Moderated and Text by Nicole Kaack
June 29, 2018
Karen Hesse Flatow: I’m very happy that Nicole and I have had this collaboration, hosting these conversations and now putting on this show that Nicole has curated.
Nicole Kaack: It’s been such an honor to work with Karen. We have shared a real excitement for creating space such that artists may give language to their own work. This show and conversation certainly function within that series of things.
It would probably be best to start by giving some context to each of these projects, because they both come from extended thinking about formal play on each of your parts, but also are very particularly oriented in their content. Perhaps you could both introduce the narrative of these particular projects and how they figure within the larger trajectory of your practice. We’ll start in the past and move towards the future.
Gabriela Vainsencher: First, I wanted to thank you, Karen, for running this really beautiful space and having us. I’m just so happy to have my work here. And thank you, Nicole, for bringing us together and thinking of this show. It’s really a privilege.
Nicole Kaack: An honor to work with both of you.
Gabriela Vainsencher: My work is in the front room and on these pedestals. It really starts from the photos —which I started working on a little over a year ago— a project which I now call Back Dirt. ‘Back dirt' is the archaeological term for all the shit that is discarded when an archaeologist finds something and lifts it from the ground. It is the stuff —possibly dirt or other archaeological matter— that they deem not historically important enough. Detritus, the waste of the archaeological process.
When I was doing my MFA at Hunter, there was an area where people could put all the stuff from their studios they didn’t want, like tools and materials and whatever, so that others could take it. I found this stack of cutout pages from a 1950s archaeology book of Bronze Age pottery, stone tools, metal workings from Knossos and around that area. The pages already had all these holes cut in them because someone —who was actually two doors down from me in the studios— was trying to make collages out of them though they never ended up happening. So he threw out all the pages that were left.
I thought they were amazing documents as stacks. I did a back page commission for Bomb — for every issue they invite artists to do a site-specific piece for their magazine. I brought in a work from this series; the corner is torn off, and it almost looks like you could leaf through the pile of pages. There was an archaeological magazine torn up inside Bomb Magazine, for that one page. So I started making photographs of these stacks. Not collages, but just photographing stacks and then redistributing them into new stacks and photographing them.
I can talk about the sculptures later, maybe.
Nicole Kaack: [to Brittany] Did you want to introduce your series of pages?
Brittany Nelson: The book page images, these six pages here, are torn out of a book of short stories by this author, Alice B. Sheldon, who was writing under a male pen name, James Tiptree, Jr., in order to get published in the ‘70s. She wrote really radical feminist science fiction, using Tiptree’s voice to talk about her clearly closeted sexuality and writing through these really blatant metaphors about aliens expressed through the voice of a male narrator. She had to insulate herself twice in order to kind of talk about these things at the time period — a male narrator written under a male pen name.
The photos contain the full story, but you can see the front and the back of the page at the same time. It’s called “And I Awoke and Found Myself on a Cold Hill’s Side,” which pulls from a Keats poem where this sailor who gets sexed up by this fairy woman and is left all devastated on the cold hill side. Tiptree writes the same story, except he’s a space captain at a port, and he’s talking to this young journalist, saying that humanity has become sexually obsessed with aliens, and basically says, “You need to get out of here, man.” Don’t even come near. Reading it, I was like, okay, this is what being a lesbian is like. For me, it was a really blatant, clearly read story, but I can see how she could write it at that time and have a mostly male audience in a completely male-dominated genre of science fiction would read this at face value. So I very reluctantly cut out the pages from this book and exposed them on photo paper with a flashlight. I thought of it as mirroring a kid hiding in his room reading a Playboy magician by flashlight.
This large image over here is taken originally from NASA. All of NASA’s images are public domain, so you can see all the images that the rovers have taken. I’m a little obsessed with this one rover, have over-personified it a bit. It’s called the Opportunity.
This is my sad soap opera: in 2004, NASA sent two rovers —the same model— Spirit and Opportunity to opposite sides of the planet. Their shelf life, if you will, is about 90 days. Spirit ran for 90 days and then died. But Opportunity continues, and is still operational 14 years later. Super sad shit. Its twin dies, they’re never to meet, on opposite sides of the planet. Opportunity is rolling around, slowly, completing all of these unplanned missions.
Amongst the documentation, there are these images where NASA has turned the camera around and Opportunity has photographed its own tracks through the landscape of these unplanned missions. I collected all of them — this bizarre geometric outline is from the NASA archive. It’s multiple lower-res images all stitched together, making these weird shapes. I put the photograph through this 19th century pictorialist photo process called bromoil. Essentially, you replace the silver in the photograph with ink so you can see these roller marks from the ink. It’s a super romantic process —1910s, 1920s era.
Nicole Kaack: On that note precisely, something that is consistent between each of your projects is this formal interest — how the process literally re-enacts the explicit content of the projects. In your case, Brittany, I am thinking specifically of the relationship between the roller and the idea of the wheel traversing this landscape.
Gabriela Vainsencher: I see that in the photos — having something completely in pieces that then gets put together. Or the eye forms an image, then breaks it down. It’s very similar to both the archaeological process and to cutting up and reconfiguring.
There is also an idea of truth, right? What’s the right angle? Is it right side up? Is it the back or the front of an image? It’s not really clear. In archaeological findings, it’s the same. They put something together and interpret “this was the altar, the shrine.” Then someone disproves it later and says, “Oh, no, these are three different pieces from three different eras.” I was definitely thinking about that.
Brittany Nelson: For the book page photographs, I tested a lot of different flashlights. The cheap ones are better though they leave these weird rings. But it’s interesting that the thing that exposes the image —where the flashlight hits, the center of the light— burns through it. The exposure is too dense and obscures the page. All my previous work was in abstraction, and so I was thinking about expanding my definition, or the definition of abstraction, into language. You can’t read the pages. You can read pieces of them, but they’re mostly illegible. Then you have this materiality of the flashlight which is acting like an enlarger, exposing but also obscuring at the same time
Nicole Kaack: Especially with the flashlight, it looks just like liquid which seems to be just a part of the chemical processing, but it’s actually the light itself that is creating that look.
Brittany Nelson: Absolutely. It’s just the falloff of the flashlight with the rings. But there was choreography that had to happen to expose these. I had to practice it before I would do them. And there are a lot of them which I edited down from. It was a dance.
Nicole Kaack: I like what you were saying earlier about the purposeful misdirection of the eye. Those shadows could be interpreted variably in ways that feed into this narrative of a future or past experienced through the present.
I think that is also something implicit in the media themselves, which is something that you both toy with very intentionally. Brittany, do you want to talk about using digital images with traditional photography?
Brittany Nelson: I work mostly in 19th century photo processes. I have no nostalgia for them though, and I really try to avoid romanticizing. A lot of these processes have been resurrected in the last decade and are posed as preservation of history and perpetuation of tradition.
It’s usually this very Roland Barthes way of looking back at the past. My interest in science fiction comes from trying to figure out how to project these things into the future. Or unhinge them from that history. This bromoil process on the Mars rover is from the pictorialist era.
A short photo history. Shortly following photography’s invention, the medium came to compete with painting to be considered an art form. The debate on photography was deeply divided between camps that considered it a scientific tool for record-keeping or an art form. Pictorialism emerged as the photo medium trying to look like painting with this soft focus, painterly style. Lot of brushstrokes and things like that in order to persuade people to accept it in an art context. That still is happening now. This bromoil technique wasn’t a technological advancement, serves no real function. It was really just this a pictorialist, romantic way to render a photograph so it wasn’t so scientific.
My process is this back and forth. From this image, I created the digital negative which I print analog in bromoil, scan it to make a digital file, and then print again analog. The final object is a gelatin silver darkroom print. All of these stages feel important to alleviating the nostalgia and creating a new dialogue with the material.
Nicole Kaack: [to Gabriela] This dialogue is in parallel to the conversation that you and I had about the different lenses and mediations that lie between the original pre-Minoan vessels and this print, which the viewer engages completely differently both as surface and dimension.
Gabriela Vainsencher: Especially when, the scale slides upward. I mean, they’re all blown up, but one is expanded quite a bit. You can see the way the photos looked in the 1950s book, how that book has yellowed with age, then you see the grain of the paper, the ink dot matrix of the printing. Then, in the big one, you see a little bit of pixelization — the image starts to disintegrate because it’s too big.
Nicole Kaack: Another mirror between those moments. [to Brittany] For you, this is a much more representational show than others you have done in the past.
I’ve been thinking about the literal components of the word “represent.” We might think of how “to re-present,” in the sense of making present again, speaks to both of your work. Maybe this is a moment, Gabriela, to explain these sculptural forms acting as fake relics?
Gabriela Vainsencher: Yeah! I also want say that, since we’re a very elite club here today, you’re allowed to touch them gently, if you’d like. A lot of people are asking what they feel like, which is very different from the way they look. I heard rubber and skin and bone. But they are porcelain. Porcelain and paper porcelain. Can’t believe it’s not whale bone! [laughter] What did you call them, fake relics? I think that’s great. They were all inspired by and start from some of the shapes in the photographs.
After beginning on the photographs, I went away and started making drawings these funny, flat line drawings of these vessels. They all had amphora bottoms, you know, with the tip. And on top, they would be shaped more like a fertility goddess. Sometimes they had ears or some other body shape for handles.
When I came back, I felt that I needed to study the vessels that I had been drawing. I went to the Met to look for them and after about two hours, I realized, I made that shit up. I hadn’t realized that I’d been putting unlike shapes together in my brain because of how I’d been working on the photographs. I realized that they were fake relics.
These sculptures are a later incarnation of those drawings. A lot of them have bottoms, or what I think of as bottoms. One tip looks like the bottom of an amphora. Sometimes that tip has become a double tip, a vagina tip. Then the upper part is shaped like a body or an animal. I learned from these book pages is that there is a type of drinking flask called a “rhyton” where the top looks like an animal. You would be drinking out of a deer head, for example. Or a bull. There are a lot of bulls and horns.
Nicole Kaack: With this particular body of work, you’re engaging a different series where you had played with material constraints. Do you want to introduce that as well?
Gabriela Vainsencher: You’re talking about how they’re finished and the way that they’re buckled? I’ve been working in ceramics for a few years. Instead of doing what porcelain wants to do —be perfect and white and flawless and crackless— I’ve been making these objects that buckle, fold, collapse.
In the series I was doing before, they all started as cylinders and then would fail somehow.They would never stay upright. They all had to survive the process of their making. In this series as well, most of the pieces don’t make it intact through the steps of being a flat surface, to getting cut up, and then to being manipulated. I basically lift them up and try to have them stand on their own. And if they crack while drying, don’t make it through the kiln, or through the first or second firing, then they go to the trash. So they have to survive the process.
Audience member: Brutal.
Gabriela Vainsencher: It’s kind of brutal. [laughter]
Nicole Kaack: Within the context of the show, it seems that our ideas of both distant future and past are really about survival to some extent.
Gabriela Vainsencher: The tragedy of survival.
Nicole Kaack: Exactly.
Brittany Nelson: Damn, you guys, this is getting dark.
Nicole Kaack: In relation to archaeological remains I think about the fact that we deem these object significant if only because we’ve encountered them at all. On their own they are not necessarily meaningful. What will have been the things that have 'made it?’ There’s an aspirational element. This is something that you are also trying to think through, Brittany?
Brittany Nelson: That comes up with the rover, which is going to all of these places it wasn’t supposed to. I think I relate to the rover a little bit too much. I have written a little in direction relation to the book pages, the story, and this term that’s been thrown about in the last handful of years: “queer abstraction.”
This is really trying to find ways to talk about these things without actually depicting the queer body or sex so that the representations of these identities can’t be commodified and then exploited. I see this in the Tiptree story and also in the image of the Mars rover as this accidental image taken by NASA that relates in weird ways to what I was saying about pictorialism. It exists between scientific tool and art media.
I have no idea who the photographer is; someone is sending the signal to the rover to turn the camera around, deciding when to pause, and using a lot of resources to take this image.
Many of these are really amazing panoramas, images of the sunset on Mars, some celebrating how many days —on Mars, days are called sols— that the rover has survived. This image was taken 3,969 sols after the rover was supposed to die. The image acts as a bizarre kind of record.
Nicole Kaack: Continuous. Just now, when you were talking about the short story again, I was wondering about how the audience functions in determining the work. For a certain audience it’s an aspirational thing, and for another, it’s a cautionary tale. That’s another valence, maybe, of how these are queer works, in their resistance to definition.
Brittany Nelson: I think so. The metaphors in the story—trying to relate to and having sex with something alien while literally set in space — are all very obvious to a certain audience. Many people can take some generalization from that. But then Alice Sheldon has other stories, one for instance called, “The Women Men Don’t See.” In the story, these women choose to leave the planet with these space aliens, with no idea of where they’re going, just to do anything they can to get away from these horrible men.
There’s a forward to that book by a famous science fiction author, Robert Silverberg, who basically writes, ‘everyone knows that Tiptree is a man.’ And at that time, no one knew that a woman had written these stories. Silverberg writes about the ineluctable masculinity of the writing, even compares the author to Hemingway. Ironically, he takes on precisely the male voice that narrates so many of the stories.
Nicole Kaack: [to the audience] I’d like to open it up as well to all of you, since we’re such an intimate audience today. Please share any questions or thoughts.
Audience member: I have a question about the artist’s hand, which is sometimes present in the work. For example, with the flashlight which you would have been holding, right? I am interested in hearing about your decision-making with that motion or with these physical prints — this feels like a thumb in this piece. Out of these relics, are these archival or documentarian objects? Art objects or photographs? Can you talk about your hand in the decision making in that production of the work?
Brittany Nelson: That decision-making is important, especially with the Mars rover. I feel like all of the works for this particular exhibition are about trying to look for something in something else. You can do that literally with a flashlight, but at the same time, the light obscures the image. I usually work more or less scientifically, making a lot and editing down. I tested out every flashlight you could imagine, every variable is tested. Of course, it is sometimes almost arbitrary which images are chosen. A lot of it ends up being decided by how much of the text is visible or sharp.
But I think it’s important that the viewer knows that somebody is making these things. Or how, depending on the way something is photographed, you can feel someone standing behind the lens or not. These particular images have a certain quickness.
Nicole Kaack: Like a drawing or a gesture.
Gabriela Vainsencher: In these ceramic pieces, there are definitely traces of my hand, sometimes literal palm marks. Porcelain has a really high resolution as clay — it takes up any texture. So, when I knew that my body print was going to be left on it because I had to support something until it hardened a little, I actually tried to use my arms. Handprints and fingerprints are so recognizable. I tried to hold it so as not to leave a legible mark.
That said, I think these pieces are, in themselves, so bodily and expressive. They have their own motion, but also carry the imprint of the pose that I used to support them. In a certain sense, they are the negative of the motion that I used to support them. My hand is very present. And, obviously, they all started as drawings on a flat piece of clay, that was then cut and manipulated.
Nicole Kaack: Your resistance to fingerprints is mostly about how recognizable they are?
Gabriela Vainsencher: Yeah.
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.
Nicole Kaack: [to the audience] If you have any questions, now is the time to jump in.
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.
Nicole Kaack: I’ve been thinking about the aesthetics of what we think the future will look like. Cultural renderings of space ships always look smooth and aerodynamic, which is absurd. There’s no friction in space. There is a glinting, scintillating look to it all.
Brittany Nelson: You can use very few moves to get to sci fi. Make something all white and angular, you’re there.
Nicole Kaack: Thank you for that question. And thank you all for coming tonight. It’s been so lovely to share these words with you.