Janet CarsonOften referred to as an 'anti-photographer', Carson analyzes the social, political and personal functions of photography through performances and illustration. She is perhaps best known for her drawings of photographic lenses.
Exhibition : "new work"Along with her recent lens drawings, S.H.Contmeporary presents a new performance piece by the acclaimed contemporary artist, Janet Carson. Titled 'Pose III', the work involves the artist going around the gallery with a digital camera during the exhibition opening party and asking people to pose for pictures. Like in all of her performances, no actual pictures will be taken. A video of the performance will be shown during the exhibition's entire run. Building on her controversial pieces 'Pose I' and 'Pose II', in which she maintained a constant photographer's stance in front of tourist sites for hours at a time, Carson, is interested in exploring how people behave with or in the presence of cameras.
In FocuS: The ‘Activities’ of Janet Carson
For Sweet Dreams by Seth High
“I find gardening much more satisfying than making art or music- and you’ll see why if you try one of my organic strawberries.” -Janet Carson
Janet Carson (33) is an American artist and musician who currently lives in Shelbyville, Kentucky, a small town located east of Louisville that is most famous for its vanilla ice cream and unusual hat museum (the museum’s collection includes Napolean’s bicorne as well as well as the sweat-stained bandana George Michael wore during the ‘Faith’ tour). After spending the majority of her youth in suburban New York, Carson moved to Chicago in 1993 to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied photography under Rick Nomura and Barry Callahan. As a graduate student, her colorful and technically impressive work, which consisted of surrealistically photographed fast-food and other pop culture icons (titles included ‘Dad’s Dancing Fries’, ‘The Illegitimate Children of the Burger King’, and ‘The Rolling Stones as Rolling Stones’) was selected by the faculty to represent the photography department at the 1999 Chicago Triennial of Photography. The day before the show opened, she destroyed not only the photographs that were to be exhibited, but every photograph she had taken during her art studies, replacing them with minimalist pencil drawings of the camera lenses she had used to take the pictures. She wrote in her artists’ statement…
“Photography is an oppressive and self-defeating act. In addition to creating a false and intimidating world, photographs make us blind to the beauty of reality… The circles you see exhibited are the blinded eyes I wore from 1993 until 1998.”
In ArtNews, she elaborated on her new work, “Basically, taking photographs equates to the male act of wanting to fuck something, the urge to produce and dominate. Thus, a camera is a substitute penis, which is something I don’t want or need.” These kinds of statements gained her many supporters within the wider art world, especially among feminists, but upset and alienated Carson from the photography community that she came from. Among those who felt betrayed was her then-husband, the famed ballet photographer Ahmad Stevens, who said, “In the space of a week, she went from a charming and ambitious young artist to an incomprehensible hippie.” Within 3 months of the exhibition, Carson found herself divorced and living in rural Kentucky. While she still puts on the occasional art exhibition, Carson has spent the majority of the past 8 years gardening, writing, and working as a tour musician (she plays guitar, piano, lap dulcimer, violin and banjo) for bands and musicians such as Smashing Pumpkins, Will Oldham, Kylie Minogue and the New Jackson 5.
Last autumn, several minutes after e-mailing Janet Carson about the possibility of interviewing her for Sweet Dreams, I was surprised to find a reply in my g-mail inbox… “Sweet Dreams, what a great name for a magazine! Is it real? It sounds so sexy! Why do you want to interview a boring farmer like me? Do people know about my work in Japan? Do they want to know about my ‘sweet dreams?’
Though skeptical at first, after being convinced that Sweet Dreams is an actual publication, Carson agreed to be interviewed. However, she stated 3 intriguing conditions for how the interview must be conducted- “1. We will conduct the interview using Skype for exactly 20 minutes. 2. During the interview, I will tell 1 lie. Even if you catch it, you are not to acknowledge it in the interview. 3. I get to edit the final manuscript of the interview.” Later, as ‘payment’, she also asked me to send her some “yummy Japanese mayonnaise” and a rice paper umbrella. The following is her edit of our interview. As for her lie, your guess is as good as mine.
INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTSH: First, I want to ask you about your conditions for granting this interview. What did you mean when you said that you are going to tell 1 lie?
J: It might sound like a joke, but I am absolutely serious. At some point, maybe even right now, I am going to lie to you. Knowing this, you are going to listen closely for my lie, but unless you have been incessantly googling, yahooing and wikipediaing me, you won’t know what it is. Therefore, when you publish this interview, you cannot say to your readers that it is 100% factual and true. This gives me the creative freedom to exaggerate and your readers a fresh way to interpret my words. And you, you don’t have to do any fact checking. I am saving you time by lying. I mean, come on, let’s have fun with this. Bullshit makes great fertilizer!
SH: So, in this interview it is your intention to blur truth and fiction?
J: I don’t need to. What people call truth always blurs and changes over time, and fiction is usually based on something real anyways. Truth and fiction depend on and support each other. Imagination, the act of dreaming, the songs we sing, even the events of our daily lives are full of both truth and fiction, especially in hindsight. This is a good thing! Even though my science teacher said that oil and water don’t mix, I still shake the salad dressing.
SH: And what do you put it on?
J: It now being the beginning of winter, a salad of carrots, red cabbage and celery.
SH: And you grow all of these?
J: Organically. Not to mention potatoes, carrots, okra, watermelons, winter corn, cauliflower, broccoli, strawberries, and even some long-grain rice.
SH: So that is how you’ve been spending your time. Have you also been working on any art or music projects?
J: I don’t really like the word “project.” It sounds so scientific and ambitious. To me, “project” means staring straight ahead at some singular target, something that must be completed. I prefer to take part in ‘activities’, which are more circular and dictated by my moods, the seasons, not to mention by the people I find myself surrounded by. You know, the process being more important than the product.
SH: I think that’s a good perspective to take. I use the word “project” way too much. Sorry about that. So what kinds of ‘activities’ have you found yourself taking part in?
J: Well, let’s see. Actually, I have been doing a lot of writing. In fact, I just finished my first real novel. It was something I was working on, you know, off and on over the past several years. To my surprise, the first publisher I sent it to, DoubleDog, decided to put it out. I am a little nervous as to how it will be received.
SH: Can I ask you what it is about?
J: Well, it is kind of difficult to explain, as the book is set in different eras and jumps around a bit. I guess you can call it historical fiction. It involves sunflower farming as well as the historical development of the microwave oven and how it’s existence changed people socially, economically and psychologically. Main characters include Wim Wenders, a talking goat and the famous art thieves Vincenzo Peruggia and Stephane Breitwieser. And as unlikely as it sounds, the novel is also a love story. Is that confusing enough?
SH: Wow. It sounds like a must read. Was it inspired at all by the drawings you did of art thieves? I really like those by the way, how you combine your lens drawings with other subject matter…
J: Actually, the drawings I did were inspired by the writing. Several years ago, I had the sudden desire to put something into my circles, or lenses- not to frame the subjects, but to represent the act of ‘focusing’ on something. At the time, I was researching the history of art theft, so I naturally started drawing the thieves, who in addition to having interesting stories, were downright handsome! Why have almost all of the great art thieves been such good-looking men? (laughs)
SH: Do you have a favorite art thief?
J: Peruggia and Breitwieser are both favorites, which is why they are in my book. These two men are so intriguing. Peruggia lived for 2 years with the Mona Lisa in his bedroom. Money was never his motivation in stealing it. He truly loved his country of Italy, where he believed the Mona Lisa rightfully belonged. After finally getting caught, he was only given a 3-month prison sentence and remained a national hero until his death. Stephane Breitwieser, on the other hand, actually fell in love with the artworks and had to make them his own. Over a 5 or 6-year period, he stole 239 works from all over Europe, re-framing them and putting them up in his mother’s house, creating his own personal museum. Did you hear about his girlfriend?
SH: No, is she also in the book?
J: Of course. She served as a lookout for Stephane when he stole the works. She would often start screaming or doing other strange things- like faking seizures or acting like a monkey- in order to divert the attention of the museum workers or security. They did this for years. Touring Europe, stealing art, drinking fine wine and making passionate love. At least that is how I like to imagine the two of them.
SH: I sense there is a little ‘art thief’ inside of you. Is this interest in art theft at all related to your original lens drawings, which many people have called ‘anti-photography’ and ‘anti-art’?
J: No, not at all. I never really have been anti-anything. I love art. The hype surrounding the ’99 Triennial was almost all exaggeration and misunderstanding, both on my part as well as by the writers covering the event. I didn’t really want to make some grand statement about art or photography. It (replacing photos with lens drawings) was actually much more personal than people think. When I was preparing for the exhibition, I was spending 15 hours a day with works I had already spent years making. They bored me. They upset me. I wanted to move on. I was tired of looking at life through a lens. Thus, the lens drawings were the end of a chapter as well as the beginning of a new one. I admit I was a little overly dramatic in how I made my statement, but I am glad that I did. I still agree with much of what I said back then, you know, about using our own eyes to see things and about the tendency humans have to overproduce and especially about how cameras intimidate people. I still love the lens drawings- I mean, I’m still making them- I just don’t like how people think these works are so feminist and anti-art. It’s just not that simple.
SH: In what way were your lens drawings personal?
J: In every way, I guess. I have always loved both circles and lenses. That was actually one of my original attractions to photography. Though I don’t remember him ever using it, my father had an old SLR, a Nikon F3 I think, in his home office. He also had several different lenses that I would play with. I remember holding the lenses up to my eyes, marveling at the thick and rounded convex glass. I also loved the black metal lens barrels, which seemed so heavy to me, and how the lens glided so smoothly when I zoomed from 70mm to 200. It was thrilling. The names too, all lens names- Nikkor, Zeiss ZF Planar, Summicron- they are straight from science fiction!
SH: So, in a way, your decision to give up the pictures for the equipment was a return to your childhood?
J: Well, not as much to my ‘childhood’ as it was a return to my instincts, to a time when I didn’t have to respond intellectually to everything. Actually, Just before I did the lens drawings, I read Robert Rauschenberg’s famous quote that went something like, “If I ever get an idea to do something, I stop myself from doing it.” I drew the lenses before I ever thought about doing them, and they just seemed right. Whereas the photography I had been doing was so premeditated and planned, it wasn’t much fun even when the results were praised by others. As I knew what I wanted when taking photos, I seldom surprised myself. I didn’t want to become one of those artists who continuously repeats themselves yet gets praised for their ‘style’, when it is merely just forced repetition. Almost all artists, musicians and creative people are eventually pressured into doing this. With the lenses, here were some nice circles that could be interpreted in so many ways. They are very open. They represent the person looking as well as the person being viewed. Lenses are about possibilities. Write that in your article. Quote me, “Lenses are about possibility.”
SH: As you wish. So you have truly never taken a photograph since 1999?
J: I do take up a camera quite often. I just don’t use it to photograph with. I guess you can say that I ‘perform’ with it. I gesture. I point it at people, things and places. I see how they react. I observe. I then go home, draw the lens, and write down the things I pointed at. To me the act of observation is what is most important, not proving that I saw something or that my view is unique.
SH: But doesn’t that go against your belief that cameras violate people and stop us from appreciating what is not seen in the lens?
J: No, I do it to point out exactly that, to emphasize such things. That is why I call it a performance. As I said before, I like cameras. I even like most technology. I like that we have the choice to photograph. However, I don’t like the fact that we hardly discuss how photographing and being photographed affects us, our society- the psychology of it all.
SH: Before we hit 20 minutes, I want to ask you about your musical activities. You have played with so many amazing musicians. How did that get started?
J: I grew up in a very musical family. My mother was an opera singer until my older brother was born. In fact, I have never not played music. So after leaving Chicago and separating with my husband, I had to make money, so I just starting touring with different bands. I had made many musical contacts in Chicago, both with musicians as well as with labels and promoters. As a student, I had also done a lot of photography for bands such as Red Crayola, Fight Fight Fuck Fuck, Microphones and the Smashing Pumpkins.
SH: Is it true that you don’t like to work in studios?
J: Yes, for reasons you can probably guess. But I don’t avoid them altogether. I can take small doses.
SH: Any upcoming plans to tour?
J: I keep bugging Laura O’Neil to take me with her to Japan, but I doubt it will happen. Actually, last autumn, to my great surprise, I was invited to tour Europe in the spring with Leonard Cohen. Though it was an honor to be asked, I had to turn down the offer ‘cause I can’t stay away from my garden during the entire planting season. I guess I will just stay home and play violin to my two golden retrievers, Molly and Dancy. I will also be playing a few dates with the New Jackson Five and Rickie Lee Jones in March.
SH: What were your favorite albums in 2007?
J: I can never answer these questions. Actually, I hardly ever listen to anything new these days. Can I say Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions? I have found myself Youtubing their 60’s TV performances a lot lately- so smooth and sexy! New music, let’s see, I totally dig Geoff Soule’s ‘A Dialogue Between Feminine Wisdom And Masculine Uncertainty’ as well as Stuart Moxham’s ‘Huddle House’. Oh yeah, despite the crack smoking and bad clothes, I have a real sweet spot for Amy Winehouse. Does this put us at 20 minutes?
SH: I’ve got us at 18.
J: So how about asking me one more question?
SH: Let’s see. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
J: Here, there, and everywhere. Not to be a smart-ass, but I just don’t think that way. It should never really be ‘what’s next’, as its always ‘right now’. Like I said before, I don’t have any grand ambitions or plans. I have learned not to push things too hard. I can tell you that right now I get the most pleasure from gardening- producing healthy and delicious food. I really do find gardening much more satisfying than making art or music- and you’ll see why if you try one of my organic strawberries. Of course, I also enjoy writing, sharing music and marijuana with friends, drawing occasionally and maybe traveling, but never for more than 2 or 3 days a time. I can’t see any of this changing, but it probably will. That’s the nature of time.