Brian Dettmer takes books to a new level

We’ve all experienced books, seen them shaped on paper and screen, and felt them shape us. But never like this. Haverford, prepare to experience books in a whole new way.

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Sculptor and book enthusiast Brian Dettmer comes to Haverford College on October 22nd. Catch him on in the INSC Rotunda on Tuesday the 22nd and Thursday the 24th while he carves a brand new work of art out of his choice material—books. Stop by, watch him work, chat for a while.

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Dettmer will also be giving a walkthrough of his exhibition Elemental on October 25th in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery. The walkthrough begins at 4:30, with a gallery opening at 5:30. Catering, as always, will be provided.

The artist gave us some insight into his work for us in a brief interview. Check it out:

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Do books ever surprise you as you work with them?
I usually try to approach a book without a specific agenda—to let the book itself dictate the theme or concepts that will emerge. So, I give up the control at a specific point because of the rules I put into place. This can be very freeing, allowing me to discover the book and to make the work about the subject or about the idea of the book rather than about me or about an agenda I want to push. Since I have been working with books for over a decade, I now have a pretty good sense of what a piece might feel like before I begin, but the specifics are always a surprise and hidden themes often reveal themselves in unexpected ways.

Can you give an example of a text that offered something you were not expecting to the final sculpture – that directed your work or blocked your plan in some productive way?
The series on game books was interesting in this way. The idea of a game was a strong metaphor for the way I work. I was intrigued by the charts, matrices and images that come from game culture, but I hadn’t thought about how appropriate and elastic the language of games can be as well. In Bridge Complete, a book from the 1960’s on the popular card game Bridge, beautiful sequences of hearts, spades, diamonds, and clovers line up with other forms and letters to create a matrix of patterns as if events over time are compressed in a single image. On top of that, the language of the game became poetic and took on new meaning when isolated: “When, however, you hold a hand … RESPOND… passed the desirable partner will, of course, carry on … he will find out but he will be possibly a losing Heart.”

How has making these book sculptures changed the way you read?
I think in the same way the Internet has changed the way I read. We have trained ourselves to focus on a linear narrative over several hours in order to read books. It didn’t come naturally. It took training and patience. Now we are allowing ourselves to hunt and peck online in a mode that is much more intuitive and doesn’t require the patience and persistence. Nicholas Carr talks about this in The Shallows. I have never been a good storyteller. I remember people, objects, images and events but I have never been good at constructing them into a strong and engaging narrative. Iprefer to isolate and examine the meaning within each element or event. I suppose that’s part of what I am doing in my work. I have trouble reading for long periods on a screen or in front of a screen but I still find diving into a book without any other distractions around one of the most enjoyable and enlightening things I can do.

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To see more of Dettmer’s incredible artwork, visit his gallery.
And make sure to stop by the Cantor Fitzgerald gallery from Friday, October 25th, through Sunday, December 15th to see the work up close and in person.

See you there,

Marissa Gibson
Media Assistant
Mellon Creative Residencies Program

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Mellon Creative Resident Interview: Laura Swanson

Mellon Creative Resident Laura Swanson, the first of the 2013-2014 year, will arrive at the end of September. Formally trained as a photographer, her work examines representations of the body on display. In the run up to her arrival, sponsoring faculty member, Kristin Lindgren, sent Laura a few questions about her work.

Portraiture has often been viewed as a conservative form that encodes cultural norms. How do you envision your work playing with and expanding the possibilities of the genre?

I was exposed to a lot of media culture growing up. This was before the Internet, so I had many magazine subscriptions and watched a lot of films. Even though portraiture is common, I was struck by the power of certain iconic images. In school I was attracted to art history painting and loved learning about the coded meanings in portraits. Take the diptych of the Duke & Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca, for example. All of the accessories, their clothing, and the landscape behind them provide insight into their lives. And then when I saw the confluence of art history painting and the examination of cultural and social identity in the work of contemporary artists like Catherine Opie, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, and Kehinde Wiley, I said to myself, “I want to be a part of this.”

 

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Cooking (from “Sitcoms & Romcoms”)

My first photographic series, “Sitcoms & Romcoms” (2005-2008), depicts my partner, Greg, and myself in staged tableaus of domesticity. They are evocative of promotional TV and film stills because I wanted to portray my everyday life in a fictional, hyper-stylized way to explore anomalies within conventional images of American middle-class life, the desire to look at different bodies, and the ways media culture instills a segregation of normality and difference. When that segregation is disrupted, the reactions some people have are pretty extraordinary. This work in particular was influenced by the constant encounters I have had with curious strangers and acquaintances who stop me to inquire about my personal life. These disruptions increased once I began a relationship with Greg, due to our physical differences. So these photos were my way of critiquing their questions.

One of your series of photographs is entitled “Anti-Self-Portraits.” How does the “anti-” operate in this series?  

“Anti-Self-Portraits” (2005-2008) is a response to “Sitcoms & Romcoms”. I was not prepared for the way “Sitcoms” operated once they were in front of the viewer. Some people assumed that I was not the photographer and that the character I portrayed was being exploited. Even though some of the photos are meant to be humorous, some people laughed at them in a way that made me question if they were laughing at the right thing. I began to feel uncomfortable with the idea that the viewer was misunderstanding my intention. Coincidentally, comedian Dave Chappelle had just quit his wildly popular sketch-comedy show due to concerns he was exploiting his race with adverse results. His outspoken interviews helped me clarify my own thoughts about the responsibility artists have, especially artists who belong to communities that have been and are still marginalized. While satire is often an effective strategy to confront discrimination, I was worried the underlying critique in my photos was being overlooked.

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Coat (from “Anti-Self Portraits”)

 My concerns were also fueled by the fact that I was studying a lot of critical theory, especially anti and post-colonial texts (in which I identified with the Other), and became inspired by artists working in response to social injustice, especially Alfredo Jaar. So “Anti-Self-Portraits” represents a turning point. These are portraits of an experience – the experience of an artist confronting the issues of exploitation and representing difference, but also the experience of viewing difference. The portraits are hiding in plain sight, so they are less about personal insecurities of the body and more of an examination of the desire to look longer at something or someone unconventional or unsettling, be it a faceless portrait or a small body. My acute awareness of this desire stems not only from personal experience, but also from the history of photography, which is riddled with images of the Other. This might be putting it too simply, but the title for this series could have been “Anti-Diane-Arbus”, especially if I wanted to be didactic. Arbus is famous for taking portraits of people with conspicuous disabilities and physical differences in the 1960s. At its most critical, “Anti-Self-Portraits” is a response to the problematic images that gawk at otherness – images that continue to stigmatize many groups of people.

How have your ideas about self-portraiture changed as you have moved from photographic portraits to working with sculpture and installation projects?

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TOGETHER together

 Anything can be a self-portrait; it does not need to be limited to a photo or a painting. My decision to work with different mediums, however, was more about wanting to try something new. Also, “Anti-Self-Portraits” caused me to think more about abstract forms of the body, and I began noticing human attributes in inanimate objects. One day I was at IKEA to buy a lamp for my apartment and I found myself standing between the floor lamps displayed on a low pedestal, and the desk lamps arranged on shelves. The lamps were of the exact same design; the only difference was the size of the vertical rod between the base and the shade. I felt compelled to disrupt the displays by putting the short desk lamp next to the tall floor lamp on the pedestal. This idea of disrupting the symmetrical height of objects on display came to life with “TOGETHER together” (2009) and “Display” (2012-2013), which are installations of store-bought objects referencing the conspicuous size difference between Greg and myself. Amanda Cachia, who curated “What Can A Body Do?” at Haverford last year, described it best,

“Lamps are not subject to prejudicial associations regarding size in the same way that the human body is. These lamps are non-threatening; visitors, drawn to their luminescent glow, gathered around the installation like a campfire. In contrast, when people have gathered to look at exotic or “other” bodies, particularly those of the “giant” or the dwarf, it has historically been within the context of a “freak show,” where they were displayed for entertainment purposes.”

While my photographs are visually confrontational because there is an actual human body on display, I think I am getting into darker territory with these installations. Because I am using objects, the narrative becomes more coded while the appearance becomes more innocent: “non-threatening,” as Cachia says. In a sense, I am giving the viewer permission to be drawn to and survey these objects. All the while, I am examining human curiosity and the pleasure in scrutinizing physical differences. If the lamps were the same size, they might blend into the background as part of the space and go unnoticed. But because the objects are anthropomorphized through asymmetrical heights and arranged side by side in a pronounced display, they call up the real practice of the theatrical comparison and contrast of different bodies, whether through the historical “freak show” or the contemporary reality TV show.

What are you working on now? 

I am working on a multi-part project that deals with an issue that is becoming increasingly unavoidable – the experience of having unwanted photographs taken of me and other people with physical differences while we go about our lives in public. It is funny because there is a lot of coverage and creative projects being made about government surveillance due to the recent PRISM/NSA spying controversy, but my project is actually looking at the ways ‘citizens’ use their phones to document others (ranging from people with physical differences and disabilities to depictions of homelessness) and share those photos on social media to amuse their friends. One part of the project will be a collaboration with my friend and fellow artist, Sophia Brueckner, who is currently at MIT Media Lab. We are going to design and fabricate devices for those who want to avoid having their image taken in public without consent. So not only am I getting further away from the camera, I am trying to prevent its usage! But I do still take photographic portraits. It is not so much a part of my formal art practice, but I try to find time to take portraits of friends and colleagues, as I still love the transformative, magical quality of the medium and the process of interacting with people sitting for me. It makes me happy to see how excited they become when they see their finished portraits for the first time. If I have time at Haverford, I would love to take portraits while I am there.

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J Henry Fair talks art, consumerism and responsibility at exhibition opening

Last Friday, photographer J Henry Fair spoke about his exhibition “Extraction and the American Dream” at Swarthmore’s McCabe Library.

No, wait. Last Friday, environmental activist J Henry Fair spoke about the dangers of consumerism and waste at McCabe Library.

Hmm, no. Last Friday, journalist J Henry Fair visited Swarthmore’s McCabe library to discuss his experiences documenting environmentally hazardous energy and extraction businesses along the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast.

Any of these introductions would be apt descriptions of the lecture given by J Henry Fair at Swarthmore last week. As much as Mr. Fair’s visit marked the opening of the exhibition of his simultaneously fascinating and horrifying work of environmental disasters, the part-artist, part-activist spent much of the 40 minute talk discussing the circumstances that create these scenes.

An image from Industrial Scars, a series by J Henry Fair

Mr. Fair highlighted the modern disconnect from the consequences of our decisions. Looking towards a lamp near the speakers podium—which he avoided standing behind, preferring to stay to its side, hands in his pockets, head slightly downturned—he asked us to consider “Where do we get the magical juice that powers a light bulb?” and “What are the consequences of the magical box (the iPad) in our hands, that we paid just $300 for?” The consequences of our consumption are staggering, as his images of vast landscapes, darkened by drilling and dumping, illustrate.

In talking about his work, Mr. Fair came to the question of whether he is a journalist, activist, or artist. “What you see is what was there,” he said, explaining that he had not manipulated the images in order to intensify a message. Instead, the photographs are a narrative representation of a crisis that many of us choose to blithely ignore. When asked what about the intention of this narrative, Fair asked us all to consider, “Are we citizens or are we consumers?” The question, which draws a line between informed participants in the life of our society, and mindless shoppers buying up whatever brands we identify with the most, is one of many that the exhibition evokes.

J Henry Fair’s visit marks the first Mellon Tri-College Creative Residency of the spring. It is sponsored Richter Professor of Political Science and Chair of Environmental Studies, Carol J Nackenoff. Mr. Fair will return for the second part of his residency February 18th, where he will work with Environmental Studies and Fine Arts students and faculty. To catch a glimpse of the exhibition, visit Industrial Scars.

 

 

 

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Bring Your Kids, Bring Your Wife: Mellon Residencies are Everywhere

Clear your schedules, throw out your New Years resolutions, and forget about watching Walking Dead this spring, kiddos: The Mellon Residencies have returned.
Last fall, the Mellon Tri-College Creative Residencies Program made its formal debut with five residencies that included the participation of a dozen faculty members from seven departments on all three campuses, and the involvement of approximately 400 students and community members. Guests included choreographer and mathematician Karl Schaffer, sonic artist Christine Sun Kim, obituary writer Tim Bullamore, performance artist and environmental historian Jenny Price, and the dance company Carbon Dance Theatre.

This spring Mellon Tri-Co programming will double, with nearly a dozen artist visits on all three campuses. Events start this week, with a visit and exhibition by renowned photographer J Henry Fair. Next month, documentarian Louis Massiah will begin work with students from the French and Film Studies programs at Swarthmore in the development of their own film. Jenny price also returns for the first two-weeks of a four-week residency to collaborate with students and faculty from Environmental Studies, Sociology, and Political Science, on all three campuses in the creation of a Tri-College wide art event.

In March, in conjunction with the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery exhibition of work by Hank Willis Thomas at Haverford, we will host the first of two panels on the issue of race, sports and commercialism. Later in March, we will welcome distinguished calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya for a series of lectures and workshops with Political Science and Arabic Students. Also that month, the program will host award-winning filmmaker Judy Irving in a residency with faculty from Anthropology, Political Science, and Art History that will feature screenings of her work as well as class-visits.

In April, filmmaker and festival curator Shari Frilot, working with students in Gender Studies, Film Studies and History, will begin a month long residency that will include a partnership with the Schuylkill River Center. At Swarthmore, the program will support visits from numerous filmmakers to explore the issue of film and politics, including Jon Cohen, screenwriter of the sci-fi thriller, Minority Report. Finally in April, we will welcome prominent graphic novelist Jessica Abel for a series of class visits with English and Fine Arts students, lectures and a workshop with students and members of the community.

The spring promises expanded collaborations between faculty and students at the Tri-Colleges, and a plethora of opportunities to engage with world class artists from a wide variety of mediums and at different levels of intensity. Also, the spring brings the promise of real, honest-to-God updates on all of our events, including summaries and photos. To see a full schedule of events visit the main Mellon Tri-College Creative Residencies page, or contact residency coordinator, Tom W Bonner at tbonner@haverford.edu.

 

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Welcome to the Tri-College Creative Residencies

I have a LinkedIn profile. Don’t hate. LinkedIn is a great tool to connect with colleagues and develop professional connections—and it’s also handy for creeping on people when Facebook gets boring. Anyways, if you visit my profile, in the section titled “Skills and Expertise”, you will note that one of my skills is “creative problem solving.” LinkedIn gave me the option to put this, and at first I listed it almost as a joke. But, as I consider my new position as the Tri-College Creative Residencies Coordinator for Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore (not necessarily in that order), I’ve come to think of that ability as being invaluable to my work. In fact, my entire professional life, whether as a director, production manager, stage manager, or producer, has been about bringing together the right people and resources to solve challenges.

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