Saturday, November 12, 2005

Zev Tiefenbach, the interview, part one


Back in August Jackie Mabey and I interviewed Zev Tiefenbach before his exhibit here. Apologies for taking so darn long to get it transcribed, but... I'd like to thank Jackie Mabey for not only doing the interview, but for also transcribing it, and Christina Malfi for her help in editing it.

If you'd like to listen along while you read, click here. (stream it) [34:07 minutes, 31.2MB]

If you would like more information on Zev's work, please click here.

If you'd like to refresh your memory about Zev's show, try this, or this, or this.

Zeke: My first question relates to the title of the show, "Binary by Submission." You have made it obvious that you do want it in. I can see some reasons why the title fits, but I prefer to hear your explanations, ideas behind it and thoughts.
Zev Tiefenbach: Well, for me it feels synchronized in a lot of ways, it works for me on a number of levels. In one sense, I've always approached photos not as a photo purist, but as very much a photo technician/artisan, where my dark room time was very important and my manipulations in the dark room and outside the darkroom were really about manual interventions, that sort of emphasized the physicality of being and interaction. So, for example, cutting and pasting photographs, feeding photographs through typewriters, silk-screening through photographs. Those are the kind of interventions that I really sort of got off on, in a certain sense. So for me, the fact that this body of work is produced digitally was sort of a recognition that I am submitting to binary protocol, I am sort of acknowledging the conveniences and efficiencies of binary intervention, digital intervention. So on a very personalized level that's where it arrives at. The phone system to me also is sort of a social reflection on how...you know, I work in an office, I spend most of my days on the phone talking to and manipulating digital menus, and to me I think this is sort of a social work, a social body of work that sort of addresses the way that our society is shifting and changing. And sort of rather than, for me, sort of taking my hat and going on the road, I'm kind of saying, "OK, if I understand, this is the way that society works, how can I work with that, critique that, and understand that." So I'm submitting to the binary with the hope of being able to critique it. On a thematic level, "Binary by Submission" also works for me in the sense that, photographically, I think there is a lot of this or that. I think people tend to get pigeonholed into different sorts of identity brackets and so on. And I think with that between the texts that I'm working with on the audio files and the images I want to sort of...the work tries to find itself within that, to try to challenge and address those sorts of things, gay/straight, up/down, happy/sad. So it's not happy work or sad work, it's work that sort of tries to fluctuate between those different kinds of polar extremes.
Zeke: There, to actually get back to the photographs themselves, besides the actual scanning of the typewritten text, what other kinds of digital manipulations have you done to them?
Zev Tiefenbach: Just a lot of the standard Photoshoppy things, contrast, brightness, spot toning and combining images. A lot of it, too. Stuff that I had always tried to do and had done in the darkroom, but it's just much more appropriate to do outside of the darkroom.
Zeke: Why do you think it's more appropriate? Because if you are doing just standard issue stuff that can be done in the darkroom, why do you think it's much more appropriate on the computer?
Zev Tiefenbach: Because it...what I was trying to do with some of the images in terms of the spectrum of the exhibition was to say, "This isn't an exhibition of 35 mm shots taken between Preston, ON and Montreal on the road." It's about working from my archive, it's about selecting multi-format images that say different things. So the digital intervention allows a greater flexibility to say, "I want this image and this image together." And being able to paste images together. Whereas in the darkroom, setting up your easel, exposing it, masking everything up and then exposing it beside it again is a near impossibility in terms of getting a clean image. So the digital intervention allows me to look at my archive in a way that's much more flexible. Much more apt to my intervention, I don't have to deal with the image in a linear sense.
Zeke: OK. You talk about how the pictures were taken between Preston, ON and Montreal. Can you give me some background on when and how, and what was - if there was - an overview of what was going through your head while you were taking them?
Zev Tiefenbach: The pictures weren't taken between Preston and Montreal. But the images here are ones that crawl through a lot of different stages of my life, personally, and of social geography, generally. I sort of really wanted to reconstruct a narrative that respects or addresses the multiplicity of living. So, I've got images here that are in a roommate's bedroom in Montreal on Hutchinson out on Mile End. I got images from suburban Toronto, like Scarborough images, I got Etobicoke images. I got images from the coast in Nova Scotia. Images that are personal and not personal. Images that are social geographies.
Zeke: What's the time frame?
Zev Tiefenbach: Time frame would span between 1997 and 2005, about eight years of work.
Zeke: OK and how did you decide which pieces you wanted to include in this show from your body of work during this time frame?
Zev Tiefenbach: To me, whenever I try to look at my work, I try to understand the images that I'm working with as a system. So, in this body of work I felt like I wanted to work with images that were suggestive of something that had a lot of implications, but that were sort of devoid of definitive marks or statements, so images that left a lot of ambiguity. And I didn't want them all to seem or feel a certain way beyond that ambiguity. So I wanted to have a lot of things suggested but also in a lot of contexts. So for me it's really important to have a lot of question marks in this work, but to have a diversity of question marks, a diversity of "What the hell is that? Where is that?" So that people looking at the images will have opportunity to say, "What is the narrative?" And that, to me, was really about having the second layer, which is the phone system. As they're sort of asking, "What is the context or subtext of these images?” because there is a lot suggested but very little said, they will be drawn towards or looking for answers in the phone system, the text and the phone system.
Zeke: OK and when did you make the switch from the images with the text on them to the non-text based images?
Zev Tiefenbach: I think what happened was, it was my little brother, who's an aspiring audio artist in Toronto, and I sort of commissioned him to take the text I was working with and develop them into audio pieces. Everything was status quo for me, I had a series of images with text on them and they looked good, everything was fine. And then when I heard his first sampling of his recordings, the first seven pieces that he had done, where he was able through the audio pieces to evoke a lot, to evoke a certain set of sounds that evoked intimacy, that evoked an expansive life, and expansive array of living, I was really, really, compelled. And I thought, "Jeez, I gave him an initial set of images and an initial set of text and he bounced it back at me and I felt like I had an obligation to keep the work organic and alive, and to respond to what I was hearing and what I was working with, in terms of generating ideas based on his ideas and what had been there, too keep the work alive and organic and together." So based on what I was hearing from his tracks, immediately images started to pop into my mind. "Oh my gosh, he's got this sound and that sound works really well with this kind of image or this image in particular." His system of work just really sort of created a sort of flush of images that I felt were really important to compliment it and create an organic system of the work.
Zeke: This being your first show, what are your goals to go from here?
Zev Tiefenbach: I think I've always seen my track as two particular tracks. One is an archival track, in the sense that I go to different places, I try to travel as much as I can, and I'm fascinated by social geography, I'm fascinated by the remnants of human existence in different locals. I get super excited to go to really banal places, like Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, or Squamish, BC, or wherever it might be. St. John, NB or Bangor, Maine. To be there and see what remains, the residual sort of effects of human existence in those sort of places and photograph them. And I keep them organized by local, by social geography. So on one track I have this very, very long term goal of photographing as many social geographies as I can to mark the residue of human existence in these different places, and to keep that archive and display that archive when appropriate. And the complimentary aspect of that is I love to take those images and work with them strictly as images, and create new systems within those contexts. So to me this is a good example of breaking into that archive that I have of images from all over the place and recreating a more personal narrative with them. So, whether it's a personal narrative about my family or my love life or about post- Holocaust angst, to me that's the residual effects. And with that I give myself the liberty not to show the images necessarily formally, though I can. But also to allow myself to cut up the images, put two images together that are jarring or funny, to really focus on who I am and how I understand the world, and putting that out there as well. So there's the archival/social aspect and recreating the work as personal documents for me.
Jackie Mabey: I was actually wondering, when we were speaking previously, you were saying that after Concordia, you took off, what, eight years? You just couldn't...you felt kind of uncomfortable doing the artist's game in Montreal? So I was wondering, do you look at the show not only as a beginning, but also as a kind of working out of those years, so that you can go forward?
Zev Tiefenbach: I think it was actually four years that I've been out of the ball game, pretty much altogether. I'm not sure where I would be if I had continued at that point. I think what those years predominately have done for me is to sort of put me in a situation of crisis where if I don't continue to produce art, where I don't continue to produce regularly, if I don't finance the expenses of making art by making art, then I'm going to have a long term personal crisis. You know, it was four years where I was still making art, still photographing, still working on my archives, but sort of realizing...so I think those four years, rather than it being a period of reconsidering my work altogether, it became a period of understanding my personal imperative of art in my life. And also, in a very pragmatic sense, because I was working, having family, my ability to spend countless hours in the dark room was really mitigated. So, as an issue of convenience, I started to digitize my archive and work digitally as a digital artist because I could do that in my living room with my home studio. So in a pragmatic sense I would say in those four years that was the biggest shift.
Jackie Mabey: I'm also wondering, for this piece, because there is...how many other people are involved in it? Three or four? Do you consider it a collective work or are they, let's say, artisans on what is, essentially, your piece?
Zev Tiefenbach: Yeah, that was an interesting tension, because when I initially, say, wrote a cart for promoting the show on CKUT I had written it as "Art show by Zev Tifenbach, with collaborators Mark Heckman" - who did the IT system, the phone system - "and Dov Tiefenbach" who did the audio engineering of the pieces. And he sampled from his own personal archive as well. And Mark Heckman kind of approached me, and was like "No, no, no, no. I'm not a collaborator, I'm a technician. I'm the paid help," more or less. It's an interesting tension for me. I kind of viewed the audio pieces - and maybe not in the context of this show because it's built into the system - but I view the audio pieces as stand alone pieces, and I would hope to re-collaborate with them at another point, where they would have a different weight. Obviously, in the context of this show they're weighted a little bit differently, they're weighted as secondary to the physicality of the gallery experience, where the images are here, and they compliment the images and they're part of the system in that way. Maybe in another reincarnation, when the audio work is released as a CD and maybe there are a couple pictures that accompany it, it will give it a different weight and that will be recognized. So I viewed the audio work as a major piece, but it's a piece, and in this system, this is my system that I've developed. When I recollaborate with my brother and re-release the CD, if we do that it will have a different weight that we'll negotiate. And as far as Mark Heckman is concerned, he really viewed himself as a technician in that sense. Maybe an artisanal technician, but he himself did not self identify as an artist. I guess that rings true into the extent that he was commissioned, did the work, and makes the adjustments as we feel appropriate and really tried to remove himself from editorial discussion on content or on the questions of access or functionality or whatever.
Zeke: Speaking of that, where you view this as an ongoing process that can be seen in a variety of different ways, whether it's a CD with the pictures added in or a physical show, can you please explain the differences to your work when placed in the context of the gallery.
Zev Tiefenbach: To me that was also part...when I listened to those seven audio tracks that my brother gave me and I was flush with images, I was also thinking, "How can I put forward the strongest visual display possible?" So I really wanted to focus on images. When I was seeing the images I was really seeing them in the gallery context, as being able to walk into a gallery without hearing any audio and having a sense what the whole work was about, by having images that were as visually compelling as possible, that were as rich in texture and nuance as possible. So, for me, there is this whole component of being able to walk into the gallery...my whole goal in terms of the images I've selected, is to walk into this space and feel this really strong sense of visual presence, and I'm really, really hoping that once we unwrap the images and stick them on the wall, they'll have a really, really strong visual presence in the gallery, that would be in sync with he audio tracks and the whole essence of what I'm trying to do here. But certainly, certainly creating something that will really stand on the walls, that will really take people's breath when they walk into the gallery, is a really important part of what I'm working on. If I imagine these images as postcards in a CD, then it's a really different sense, it might even be a different set of images that I would work with, that wouldn't need to take your breath in the same kind of way. Also, there's a size element that I've never really worked with, in terms of working and doing my own images in the color dark room, the largest size I've ever really worked with is 16x20, and so now I'm dealing with images that are 20x24, which is really exciting to me, and create a different kind of visual impression than what I've been able to work with before. So I'm really thinking of these prints that are going up as gallery prints, and derive a different standard than what I'd done as a student.
Zeke: When you're talking about the work as a whole, with reflections of the audio and images, when you listen to the audio how do you envision interacting with the specifics, like, how do you chose audio? Because initially you said you didn't want to chose and you were going to leave it up to chance or Jackie and myself, or something else. And now you're coming back- what was that sort of twig that said, "Oh, I got to do this," and are there any specific things with reference to specific pictures or specific audio tracks?
Zev Tiefenbach: Yeah, I think that's really important...yeah, to me this is like - I guess we open the show in six days or whatever - and I feel like I'm just starting to understand the work. But the way I've seen the work up 'til now is I've got two systems that are really complimentary, and I can really feel and sense that the two systems work together, they're reflections of each other and they really compliment each other. And what I've just started to sense as I'm riding my bicycle home from work or whatever, I'll have an image stuck in my head and then I'll have a text going through my head at the same time, and I realize that's an intersection, a meeting point of those two systems, so I think maybe I've arrived at those three to five nodes where I have this image, I have this text, and that's a node, they really come together at that point. I still view the systems as independent and mutually complimentary, but there are those nodes where I see those birds and I hear the text, "Too many birds caught in the storm," and I know, "Oh yeah, that makes it all very clear, that ties it together." If you've got two nets, that's where those nets are knotted together; you know that they're really one system with these two big pieces.
Zeke: Going back, and crossing over and hitting those nodes, with the images that do have text on them, how did you decide on the text to go with those images?
Zev Tiefenbach: Some of that happened five years ago and, basically, the process that unfolded was I had a stack of proofs on my desk, I had a typewriter, and just firing 8x10 proofs into my typewriter and hacking on them. And I was hacking all kinds of crap on them, you know, I was hacking up about my girlfriend, blah blah blah, you know, anything I could hack on them. And as I was hacking on these images I sort of stumbled on a really strong connection to this text I had written, actually, called at the time "Binary By Submission," and a series of images I had taken in Toronto in 1999-or December 1998, actually. So I had this consistent set of proofs, taken on the same day, with the same film, that were really, really read similarly together, I was in a certain head space when I took all those pictures, and this extended text I had written, that also had a space. And I think that that space really, really worked well together. It was basically an epic postmodern love story, about identity, and visceral experiences versus the banal, and trying to come to grips with the banality of life along with these strange and perverse desires and confusions. And the images, for whatever reason, have a lot of shadow; it was taken on a sunny day. I almost always shoot overcast, so to me these images were very different from a lot of the others images I had because there was a lot of shadow. And they were shots of entirely public things. And so what I saw when I initially put that text with those images, was this sort of internalized narrative, that was very personal and about what it is like to live, impose upon the very, very public landscape, upon public things that everyone sees, and that really worked for me, it sort of became a piece or series of work about how peoples' public worlds manifest in the physicality of the world. You can almost imagine...one of the shots, for example, was of sheet metal manufacturing facility, and you can almost imagine someone coming out of the side door with a garbage bag slung over their shoulder just throwing out the trash into the dumpster, thinking, "Is that chick...are we gonna fuck on Friday when we meet for dinner? What's her deal with that?" And to me that was a really strong sort of connection that these internalized thoughts and experiences do manifest into the public space, the sort of sense of public and private as distinct discourses or spaces is a manufactured reality. People do sit on public transport, thinking these things; it does enter into the public sphere. If they're mumbling to themselves, even if they're not mumbling to themselves, that to me was really why these works really worked together, and as I expanded the visual element of the work I was also very deliberate in choosing works that, again, sort of confused and collided the personal spaces with the public spaces, that so when you walk into the gallery and you see this it's not about the public, it's not about the private, it's how, when you walk into the gallery, you're exposed to both the very intimate, you know, a girl naked on a bathroom counter looking at the little bumps under her eyes, as well as a car on St. Dominique under six feet of snow, those are both the reality of the gallery, you can chose to focus on the public or private, that they're one in the same.
Zeke: Although there, I do feel very strongly with a show or exhibition, there's got to be a focus, and the tighter the focus the better the show becomes. If you get very diffuse there's no sort of obvious linking and given the nature of the gallery, the nature of the gallery space and the nature of exhibition, you're directing people into what to look and how to look and how to see, and at which point, by opening it up that's where I get very sort of, "Hmm, what's happening here?"
Zev Tiefenbach: There is certainly a school of thought where...and something to think about at some point, if I numerically code all my negatives, and then feed them into a random numeric generator and select my images in that way, which I think is really interesting in and of itself, in that that's something to think of doing in terms of addressing archived work, then I would have a display of work with some outtakes, some weird stuff, some this, some that. But I think the fact of the matter is with this body of work that was chosen, the images for me were carefully chosen to create a balance, so rather than me being inherently didactic, me saying, "I want to lead you here," to me it's more lyrical, you know, "I want you to hear this kind of tune, I want you to hear this kind of melody." And I felt like I could do that because I had the audio as background, which provides a very consistent narrative, there is a clear narrative to the show which is this, basically, rampant postmodern sex thriller, which is what the audio track is more or less about, to me it ends up being the illustrated postmodern sex thriller, without it being obscene, for sure, with it being overtly lyrical. To me there was this lyrical sense of wanting this narrative, and wanting to illustrate the narrative in a very lyrical way, and I thought that it was reflecting some of the work that was done aurally, with the audio work. Within the text itself I think that that's replicated. Like, there are moments that are very banal, moments that are very quotidian, and then there are just obscene...
[cont'd in part two]

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