I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Since I first came across Lorna Simpson’s photographs in the 1980s, I have admired her work’s elegance and sense of restraint. Those enigmatic and alluring black female figures with their backs turned or their faces out of frame came to stand for a generation’s mode of looking and questioning photographic representation. Since making those ground-breaking works, Simpson has turned her fine eye to urban architecture and the ways that man-made interiors and exteriors evoke psychological narratives. Most recently, Simpson has moved into the realm of the moving image and is premiering two new film installations this fall. One piece, created at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, will be presented both there and in New York at Sean Kelly in September. The other, entitled Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty will be part of the 1997 version of In-Site, a group exhibition of public art works presented in San Diego and Tijuana. Curious about this recent shift in media, I decided to have a chat with Lorna at her home in Brooklyn.
Coco Fusco You have made a creative transition from photography to the moving image. What is the most important thing to you about this transition?
Lorna Simpson The interesting aspect in terms of process is that I ended up in a completely different place from where I began. That also happens to a certain extent when I work with text and photography. When I take a picture, I have an idea in my head, and I try to make it work. Then I play with language to get what I want. With my new work, I have to figure out characters and how they play off one another; I’m dealing with dialogue and how all the elements come together once actors are involved. I come out with a completely different idea by the end of the process, which I’m quite happy with, but I am constantly negotiating ideas in order to make things work.
CF In working in film, reality comes back at you.
LS Right. Fiercely.
CF When you were working on the piece at the Wexner or the one in San Diego, did reality come back at you in a way that you had not anticipated?
LS Many times. At the Wexner, I worked with actors who were students from Ohio State University, as well as art students. I mixed them with professional actors from New York. I did not rehearse with them until right before we shot. My method of preparation was to have written down an outline of the scenes describing what story was in what location, and the motivations of the characters involved. I did not work from a line by line script, which allowed for more room to play with the actors’ interpretation and delivery. One scene was supposed to be about a story that I thought Sandy Wilson, one of the actresses, had told me about another friend of ours. So, I said to her, “You must tell the story of so and so.” And Sandy looks at me and said, “What story?” I had to tell both of them the entire story as I remembered it, and at the same time try to be clear so that everybody could work quickly. There wasn’t much time for them to think about it.
CF You shot in 16mm black and white?
CF That’s costly.
LS Well, these were shorts, which makes them inexpensive, and we were able to do things fairly quickly in terms of setting up shots. A lot of it was improvised, but there were very distinct things that I wanted the actors to do, so that everybody could work quickly.
CF What about takes? Did you have to do a lot of takes?
LS Maybe four or five. I’m pretty loose to a certain extent, I want to see what people come up with. If it deviates from the way I want it to go, I try to keep in mind: Well, just let it go, let’s see what happens. I try to leave a space open for the actor to come into the situation.
CF Ultimately, the context is not film per se, but installation. Many visual artists have turned to media installation recently.
LS So, if you see one more video installation you might scream?
CF No, I’m curious about the phenomenon. Why are artists going back to a genre from the ’70s? How does this relate to our current obsession with virtual reality and simulated space? Sometimes it seems that the gallery world has turned into a giant cyber-bar, with everybody walking around in the dark. What does that genre give you? What do you get there that you don’t get in a photograph?
LS There is an interest right now in video projections in the art world and I think you see more of it now because it’s a more financially accessible medium for younger artists than it was 20 years ago, and at the same time there is an interest in artists who have worked in that medium over the past 20 to 25 years. My interests in photography have always been paralleled by an interest in film, particularly the way that one structurally builds sequences in film. Since my work has always played with the relationship of image and text and the way that the viewer interprets that relationship, film offers me a multi-layered version of that. In my installation, as you enter the room you see a big landscape, and in this landscape you see figures of couples and single people, in different combinations, projected onto the walls of the room. People argue, kiss, wave, walk back and forth in a culvert by a river. You try to look across the river, because there’s no dialogue and you can’t hear what’s going on. This is similar to the Public Sex pieces that I did before in which unseen activities are imposed upon an environment. Here, you stand in the room and see combinations of people, and all around you are empty interiors, six in all, but you can’t decipher what’s going on. There is a bathroom, a living room, a dining room, a bedroom. As the piece begins, one of the rooms becomes animated by actors, they dissolve into the scene one at a time. As that scene plays, the rest of the rooms are completely empty. And then that scene dissolves and another one pops up in another room.
CF Is there an implied narrative that links all the scenes? Are we supposed to see them as sequential?
LS There is an implied narrative about the relationship of individuals in each scene, but they are all taking place as separate scenarios. So they are connected by the content of their dialogues, and not in a literal sense that all the characters are part of one narrative.
CF What is the video installation format giving you? What propels you into this genre?
LS It’s a way to get back to the figure I’d somewhat abandoned in my photographic work. But video installation allows me to play with the artifice or the facade of the individual and what this individual represents. It’s still a way of working that’s not realistic. The stories are short and brief, but they’re all constructed. It allows me to have fun with the detail, and the glamour of using the figure within the moving image.
CF The figures in your photographs were usually cut off in some way, or they had their backs to the camera. In your new work we can see them, but we’re kept from getting too close by the way the shots are framed.
LS I don’t want to go back to the same formulas that I used before. But those other works did play with the viewer’s curiosity, with his/her desire to know who the figure in the picture was. I did that by not revealing the figure’s identity completely.
CF Now the barrier is expressed through limited access to dialogue and framing. We feel like voyeurs. We’re captivated by the stories, but we’re never really on the inside, so to speak.
LS You’re in a very intimate space, overhearing a conversation. The exchange is never so banal, or so fiat, that you feel it’s just a general conversation. It’s all very private.
CF Most of your photographs involve a singular figure. And much of this installation either has two people or an implied second person outside the frame. Is there something about motion that makes you think of dialogue and that makes you want to have two people? What do you want to do with two people that is different from when you were working with one person?
LS It’s nice to play with the implied narrative through a second figure. That’s visually much more dramatic for me. For this particular project I wanted to play with the texture of dialogue between characters, whose delivery charts these private conversations, as opposed to a first person narrative inside the character’s head. It’s also interesting to see how actors speak the text. I always wonder if the audience interprets the work as I do, which is almost impossible, but I always consider it. Sometimes in the shooting the actors would look at me like, I can’t say that, because it doesn’t roll off the tongue properly, so I opted to have them say it in their particular way. To watch someone else bring their mannerisms to it made it interesting to me as a writer.
CF Perhaps when there are two people in the frame, there’s more of a sense of a self-contained world, a sense that as a viewer you’re stepping into something, or past a boundary, of invading their privacy.
LS Text in relation to one person in an image is often presented as an internal monologue. With two characters in the frame, in dialogue, you as a viewer stand outside. When only one person is in the frame, the audience is more inclined to think about that person’s way of perceiving reality.
CF So what do you think about so many galleries becoming dark rooms?
LS There are some dark rooms I like, some by Stan Douglas and most recently an installation by Pipilotti Rist that I saw in Venice. Some are derivative of performance art and video pieces from the ’70s. And then the other end of the spectrum is that some look like music videos, which for me is the least interesting.
CF Many works leave no sync sound.
LS Silence immediately locks you in to a different kind of looking, there’s this sense of unreality when sound is taken away.
CF What are the implications of a general shift in the art world to video installation?
LS It’s nice to see how many different ways people are twisting the medium right now, and as you put it, the “general shift” of the art world in giving the medium more play, parallels a consumer familiarity with the medium on a day to day basis.
CF Tell me a little bit about the San Diego project, Call Waiting. Did you intend to deal with the suppressed presence of non-European cultures in that area? The stories from the Wexner project in Ohio seems less site-specific and less culturally specific.
LS (pause) Before I came up with the idea of what I would do in San Diego, I wanted to create a work with layers of language. San Diego, like New York or any other place in the U.S., is layered with language. I didn’t want to fall into a Tijuana/Spanish, San Diego/English binary. There’s much more going on in that region.
LS In America, people speak many different languages, receive calls, place calls, have their calls interrupted. So I felt that call waiting was a nice vehicle for expressing how we operate among all these different languages. People try to track people down by phone, or people eavesdrop over the telephone. There is a slippage, a space, between what one is saying on the phone and what’s actually going on. There is a pursuit of people via the telephone.
With the Wexner piece Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty, I tried to shoot the scenes with the viewer’s expectations in mind. You might think that a conversation between two women sitting in a tub would be of a sexual nature, but here the conversation is just about work. I tried to have the dialogue be about something other than what you would expect.
CF Because In-Site ’97 is so much about place, I am more inclined to think about your piece in terms of how it negotiates that space.
LS Yeah, I was hesitant to engage the place because I studied in San Diego and spent three years there and did not want to do a piece about San Diego. I wanted to do a piece that talked about a layering of the way people live, and about who lives in a place, without specifically referring to San Diego. Binaries such as Mexican/American in San Diego, and Blacks and Jews in Brooklyn are somewhat clichéd. Things are always more complicated than that.
CF Call Waiting also seems to be about an anxiety-laden relationship to technology. The technology offers us the possibility of having control of who we speak to; however, because of call-waiting…we do not always have that control.
LS A man who calls a woman who is just getting off the phone after trying to track down a woman for yet another woman. She’s speaking in Chinese and he’s cursing her out in Spanish because their relationship isn’t going well. His call is interrupted by one from another guy who’s talking about the woman that first man is having an argument with. The first man walks into the room with the cell phone and puts the other guy on the speaker phone and allows her to eavesdrop on the conversation about her. I’m dealing here with people who are using technology for their own devices and other people who are completely fed up with how much access that gives to their private lives.
CF The crossing of paths and languages is a theme that is very much identified with the terrain of California, not just the U.S./Mexico border. The other stories you present in your project for the Wexner seem less culturally specific, and less specific to place than Call Waiting. When you started out as a visual artist, it seemed that you were dealing with the absence of any real space for the black female subject. When you moved into doing photographs of architecture and interiors without people, critics took note, not only of your new subject matter, but they interpreted your shift as a move away from dealing with blackness. In your new work there is no conversation that specifically addresses black identity, except for the woman who talks about an agent who wants to cast a “lighter” skinned woman. Can you talk about the evolution of your interests?
LS I think that the work has shifted from photographic strategies and their relationship to the presence and interpretation of black figure/subject, to where the figure was absent altogether but is relocated in the narrative that accompanies the image of landscapes, like the Public Sexpieces. Throughout that work there is very little mention of the race or sex of individuals in the narratives. Therefore the viewer wonders, since this was quite clearly delineated and critiqued in the previous work, on some level, the identity of the individuals in the narrative is up for grabs. At this point, I didn’t want to rework paradigms or formulas from the previous work. Instead, this work acknowledges another side of the relationship that I have always had to my work—I guess people forget the level of intimacy I have with the notion of a black figure/subject. Therefore my interests in narrative, and what other sorts of devices and forms of narration that I can invent, do not necessarily entertain the viewer’s expectations of the past work.
CF When you started this new body of work, what was the first thing you thought of?
LS Oh my god, I’m working with the figure again and short stories.
CF The stories seem to stress the themes of desire and betrayal. There is a woman who wants to kill someone, and two women talk about having affairs. They aren’t melodramatic pieces, they aren’t fiery in the way they present things. There’s a kind of stillness, a distance.
LS For me, these pieces are hysterical. I cannot watch them without laughing. The conversation between Sandy and Sally on the couch and the way their conversation escalates, Sally’s fascination with monogamy… All that’s very funny to me. Those are the most interesting stories in terms of interpersonal relationships. I chose situations that were convoluted. I like the scene in which Jada is talking about killing someone because it’s much more about the other woman listening. They had an agreement about what should happen and Jada didn’t fulfill it so the other woman is completely through with her.
CF Why do the stories in the dialogues in both of your installations deal with desire and betrayal? What are you saying about couples, human relations, your generation, friends, etc.?
LS I wanted to make a piece that had two levels of voyeurism operating at the same time. One, you observe people from a distance to ascertain what they are doing or their relationship to one another; two, you are presented with several interiors with the same level of voyeurism, yet it is the story or the conversation that they are having rather than what they are doing that draws you in.
CF Why did you quote film noir in the lighting and use black and white? What did you want to do stylistically there?
LS Both of these projects have scenes that are set up for the characters—from a ’60s kitchen motif to a ’40s bar. I wanted a range so that they would appear as stylized vignettes. In both projects, Kimberly represents the Dorothy Dandridge character. That look is not consistent though. I wanted some stylistic jumps.
CF Would you like to make a feature film?
LS I’m really happy doing short films. I completely have control. You lose that if you make a feature film. I think that such an experience would probably disappoint me.
CF And what about moving to color?
LS Maybe. When I was shooting the second project I thought that it would have looked really beautiful in color. Black and white is easier to control.
CF It also gives you a different tonal range.
LS Well, I wouldn’t do a full color, it would be monochromatic at times. I would colorize black and white.
CF On a technical note, is it all going to be projected? Are the different projectors for the laser discs timed?
LS Yes, the works are projected on the wall via one or several projectors, and each scene of dialogue plays independently so that all these characters from different scenes are not speaking at the same time.
CF Do you feel that there are questions of identity that are exhaustible? Where can artists go at this point with those issues of identity that haven’t been dealt with?
LS As a black artist, the expectation of what you should be doing is always programmed for you regardless. There is a tendency to try to cubbyhole you that exists across the board in the art world. I would say in relationship to my white counterparts’ work, that when departures or new areas are explored, works that involve the figure are not questioned as to where the Caucasian figure went. People believe that you should have a particular signature for the rest of your life. I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of life that would be. I would not be able to do this work without having done the work I’ve done before. It informs, just like this work will inform future projects.
CF There’s a spirit in this movie that reminds me of Roy DeCarava’s photography. I’m thinking of an impulse…to humanize, to say that black life is about a range of experiences.
LS My question is, why does working with a black figure necessarily mean that the work loses a universal quality? Not to perceive its universality seems to me to be a shortcoming of the audience rather than of mine.
CF But when I look at certain traditions, different factions and different groups and different generations of black artists working in media—photography, video, film—there have been moves towards elaborating aesthetics based on specificity. Some artists have concentrated on working through the African-derived elements of their style; others have been more concerned with elaborating an aesthetic based on a local vernacular. And then there is another tendency which I associate with DeCarava that stresses the potential humanizing force of certain images, ones that do not stress difference. These images elicit a sense of empathy, compassion and openness, rather than insisting on radical altering between the viewer and subject. It seems to me that your work falls into this category. The conversations, the implied or illustrated conflicts are simply presented as that; problems that we have now.
LS I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do, regardless of what was out there. I just stuck to that principle and I’m a much happier person as a result. And I can’t imagine trying to satisfy any particular audience.
CF What is your position on the extent to which issues of identity are, or are not, exhaustible?
LS I do not feel as though issues of identity are exhaustible. The notion of identity, be it self-constructed or as an imposed ideology from outside, means to me that it is a complex and contradictory system. For me as an idea, structurally and particularly in terms of creating narrative, I find that whether I am making a critique about identity or constructing a character—this complexity, which is what I find to be the most interesting aspect, is present throughout the work. I feel that my critique of identity, which in the past work may be the most obvious, becomes the foreground or recedes given the structures of the text or the type of narrative that I impose on the work. I would not say that notions of identity are absent from the present work.
Coco Fusco is a New York based artist and writer, and the author of English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas (The New Press).
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee