Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Look Here! Project: An Interview with Marc Tasman and Clayton Haggarty

The Look Here!project is an experiment initiated by the UWM Libraries and aimed at encouraging artists from the community and the UWM Peck School of the Arts to work with and create art from our digitized cultural heritage holdings – archival materials, photographs, maps, prints, rare books and other objects. Look Here! asks artists to propose projects that reimagine, transform, and engage with these objects in ways that were unimagined before the digital turn. The project will culminate in a panel discussion at UWM Libraries in spring 2018, and an exhibit at Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in summer 2018.

Marc Tasman and Clayton Haggarty are working together on a piece for Look Here! Theirs is the first in a series of interviews with the artists participating in Look Here!

What collections are you using or did you begin to use for your project?

We visited the archives shortly after the project began, and then had a visit with Abbi Nye, Head of Archives, at the DH Lab. We were really taken by some of the images in the online Polonia collection – the crash images specifically.

How did what you found in the collections influence your work?

We agreed that those crash photos are captivating – seeing the city the way it was and the crazy
Undated street view of truck crashed into building
situation of the wreck and its documentation. It’s an opportunity to rubberneck, to slow down and see the accident. But there are also the wounded, battered people, who were also probably in car accidents, because these images were taken/collected for insurance purposes. 

So we want to look at what it means to be wrecked, and then to be documented. It’s also fairly personal – I don’t know if they are still dressed from the accident or dressed up for the insurance photograph. But it’s an airing of personal, intimate, vulnerable moments.

And then this ends up in an Archive where others can find you years later.

The project is in part about society today and how civilized or uncivilized we’ve become; we’re looking at issues of immigration and acceptance and community. Part of what we’re interested in is the trauma of the journey of the immigrant. In Oscar Handlin’s book, The Uprooted, he details how bad life must have been in the old country to endure the really unpleasant voyage here; people taking advantage of you, seasickness – we see it today with the Syrian refugees risking everything to get here. And then they get here and have these new traumas happen.

We’d like to connect the experience to the neighborhood itself, too. We went back to see the actual building and location where this car crashed. It hasn’t really recovered – there is still some kind of wreckage, coming undone there, even for the current occupants it seems.  We’re also potentially interested in mapping connections between the Polonia crash images and other parts of the city, and institutions – to here at RedLine, the UWM connection, to Villa Terrace. The March on Milwaukee collection is another collection to potentially explore now, given the marchers relationship to the south side, over the 16th Street Bridge, to Kosciusko Park (note: these are the neighborhoods documented in the Milwaukee Polonia collection).

How does having so much content available digitally affect the work you're creating? 

Having access to the digital image lowers the bar for creating art with it – there are a lot of steps that are already taken. It’s an interpretation thing, too – in this case, working with negatives. There is some work of interpretation done already through the digitization process – it’s like translation when it’s converted to positive digitally. It was an opaque object before and you can’t read expressions as well in negative as positive.

Also, the crashes aren’t something we might have discovered by going and searching through the boxes of glass plates. It’s not just that it was easier, but it *is* about access – these insurance photos are not a form of documentation we might otherwise have encountered or known we were interested in. The documentation itself, that it occurred, allows us to access this. You know, the invention of photography got a boost from the French government who wanted to use it for mugshots, for surveillance – so another kind of archive; another database to do with wreckage, incidents, and pummeled faces.

And now that we know there are insurance photographs – can we track down the files, the insurance company? It raises new questions, or possible paths.

And materially, these images are glass plate negatives, so coming in off the street to see them could be a big deal. The entire collection weighs 1.5 tons, we’re told. So I could only look at what I could carry. Using both hands. It really wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to us to look at these if they hadn’t been digitized.

It also deformalizes the relationship to the object and takes away some of that preciousness. It’s easy to get the image, so the work becomes locating the actual physical place where the event in the image took place. Having the digital image encouraged industriousness because it meant we could put the legwork elsewhere. We can feel free to remix the digital files because it’s reproducible by its nature. Being digital has to encourage reuse and transformation. It’s part of the nature of the digital medium.

The digital image is also not in the real world in the same way that a monument (for example) is – it needs to be excavated in a different way. We could have a more visceral reaction to the image and begin to create a body of work that inhabits a physical space. The image provides evidence that this thing really happened.

One question the digital raises for us as artists is, why hasn’t a new form of art emerged from this? In the 60s and 70s the new thing was experience – that the experience was the form of expression, and it was tangible but ephemeral. We’re in a shift from the previous information epoch – what are the new codes that will transform the way we make art? We’re in an age of distraction – one image leads to another and another; what kind of discipline does an artist need…?

And ultimately, when will creative media and art – work that encourages remix – when will that stop being just an analogue of the old art – rectangular, in a frame – and when will we truly transform that work the same way the digital has transformed these cultural objects?

Our project is ultimately transformative – we’re converting the digital to experience by bringing it into the Villa Terrace space, where we’re also reusing and reimagining that space. And in it, looking at how things have and haven’t changed over time. As artists, we’re still stuck to some extent on this idea that art is objects, but we’ll get to that point where artists will be curators of experience because we can’t keep making stuff. That’s what digitization has taught us to do – we can let go of some of these things. Not that we’re happy to give away all of our books or records. But what’s meaningful isn’t the paper, it’s the experience. But that includes the smells, the way you have to place the stylus on the record. So those kinds of things are different. But with the wreck, we want to say, “look!” – these are the things we cared about 20, 30, 80 and more years ago. These are familiar concerns. Let’s not remake human civilization by not being empathetic, being callous to the way people feel when you tear down buildings or push people out. So it’s not anachronistic, because we can have that empathy across time. Is it really out of place – that wrecked car in this beautiful mansion? It will be interesting to work out how to make the piece so the wreck isn’t just jarring and strange, but to say that we’ve all been in wrecks and we’ve all been wrecked, so it’s a shared experience across time. We aren’t alone in being alone.

Marc Tasman is an Intermedia artist focusing his research on the strength of social technologies to create meaning in culture. He is currently director of the Digital Arts and Culture Program and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Tasman is also  co-director of the Jewish Artists’ Lab, a consortium of six Midwestern cities founded in Milwaukee, and senior artist member of the residency program at RedLine Milwaukee. Tasman has screened work at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and published photographs in the New York Times Digital Edition, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, and Tablet Magazine. The first edition of his electronic, interactive book, Internet Culture was published by Great River Learning press in 2017.

Clayton Haggarty is a Milwaukee-based interdisciplinary artist who earned his BFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2015. His work, which ranges from painting on canvas, to non-traditional forms of printmaking and public art, focuses on issues of social justice, climate change and the relationship between human beings and technology. Haggarty was the recipient of both the Laurence Rathsack Art Scholarship as well as the Elsa Ulbricht Memorial Scholarship for his work in the field of painting and drawing. His paintings have been included in multiple group exhibitions in the Milwaukee area at venues such as The UWM Union Art Gallery and Kenilworth Square East. Additionally, he briefly studied in Florence, Italy at the Santa Reparata International School for Art where his work was exhibited at the SRISA Gallery of Contemporary Art.

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