TILLBAKANÄSTA

A conversation with emily roysdon

TEXt: Svante larsson, publicerat 2016-11-08

Emily Royston: If Only a Wave at PARTICIPANT, INC show i NYC. Installation images: Rona Yefman

I want to start by focusing on your photograms although that might be doing your practice an injustice...

Well it is a particular lens, but in this case it makes sense.

But if we were to focus exclusively just looking on them we would actually lose a lot.

Do you mean if we just talk about what we see in the photograms themselves, instead of what they mean to me and how they relate to other things in the series, yes.

Yes, because when I look at them and read the text material connected to them, specifically the poster Uncounted, there is a lot more...

Absolutely.

...it resonates on a very poetic level.

That’s what I wanted (laughter)...so thank you...but no, I don't really see them as totally independent and distinct. I think of them as intimately related to the language and ideas in those texts. In exhibitions that is why I have all of these different objects, images, languages that influence each other.

So you really can't pick them out, they are part of a whole.

The only way that I would isolate them is because the first things I ever did in artmaking were photographic, so there is that line that you could trace backwards which is distinct from say how these photograms now sit with the last few years work with the texts and the clocks. Because there is that longer line that goes back to camerawork and darkroom which is what I first loved.

So if we start there, just to give a background to the readers, how did that come about? What were those first encounters with darkroom and photography?

I was at college and I was studying international politics. I thought that I should be useful to the world and be something like a diplomat and I had some teachers that sent me to a writing workshop. They thought that I wrote in an interesting way, but said 'it's as if we should be trying to understand you. You´re still in college, you should be trying to make yourself understood.' So they couldn´t quite tell me it was wrong but it wasn´t correct sense-making essay-form. So they sent me to this writing workshop and that person was like, why are you not an artist?
And I said 'I think I missed the boat', I had friends who very arty and stuff and I thought I had missed the boat. And she said, you´re twenty, you have not missed the boat! So I took a photography class.

I had this great, really fun teacher, Delilah Montoya who was like a fish out of water (her words). She was a Native American artist from the American southwest who was up in New England and teaching at this exclusive women’s school down the street from where I went. I went to a radical hippie school. She and I tuned into each other immediately and she was very supportive and let me do weird stuff. One of the things I did for her in that first class was that I took a picture of a bruise on my friend’s outer thigh, near her butt and photocopied it three hundred times on cardstock and sewed it into a dress and she was just like, ok were going to go there...

And from the very beginning I was printing from multiple negatives in a very undisciplined way on the same 11x14" sheet, so I never quite did things right. She was totally fine with that. She never told me to print with a better black or anything technical like that... She didn´t try and discipline me... And that was my first class... non traditional...

Emily Roysdon, Untitled (Calendar), silver gelatin photogram,
courtesy of the artist.

You got rid of the traditional burden before it even got a hold of you...

Yeah, I came into the art department a little bit late unlike others who had studied three years already and I came in from another angle and didn´t have that step by step education.

I think that might be what you´re touching upon in "If only a wave" in that it is undefined, out of the rigidity, the restrictions, still in a flux...

Maintaining that energy you mean, yes, absolutely...

Looking through your works that is the one continuing thread, the will to become, to remain undefined...

Yes, that´s interesting, an artist friend of mine, when I saw her this summer, said something that she liked about my work was that I was so generous to the audience because I let it be so undefined... She said that she always felt that she needed to direct the audience and be much more concrete, more narrative. I feel that as an artist there are ten thousand things that you choose all the time and then there is all the stuff you don´t choose, that it´s just the way that you work/think, for me, that´s just the way that I work.  I didn´t choose to be generous to an audience or to be totally bathed in abstraction and poetics...it’s just my head.

There´s not a plan.

She makes narrative paintings but I didn´t really have that kind of dichotomy in my head like sometimes people do. For me the poetics have always been there from the beginning.

Uncounted poster designed with Carl Williamson
http://www.stedelijkstudies.com/beheer/wp-content/

It follows, because it makes me think of the quotes you have on the poster “Uncounted”, specifically the one from Virginia Woolf's “A room of ones own... “

I love that one.

There´s a fluidity in that, in the way she formulates that which has to do with water, thinking and movement...

Yeah, the water and the walking and that she gets lost in the pace of her walking, it’s so simple but such a clear image.

The words really can't capture it. When you try define it with words it eludes you, when you try to pin it down it moves away. I was about to label it with the word potential but that really doesn´t grasp the experience...

But in a way that´s the poetics, there´s something that I love in that openness...

That´s where I want to return to the photograms, because when it comes to my own schooling, my preconceptions in looking them, coming from a background in teaching photographic history myself, there is the immediate visual historical reference point in the likes of Moholy-Nagy and that historical burden which comes from the steps of 1 to 2 to 3... of historical schooling... And that´s probably what a lot of people will see, abstract pieces of photography referring back to abstract photographic history.

Yeah and I´m good with that...yeah (laughter)...

Yeah, but that is also sort of reductive isn´t it...?

I am very aware of that and I love that tradition, that early abstraction and the photograms. When I make my lineage of being an artist I say I love David Wojnarowic and Yvonne Rainer but you could put that in there, those very early abstract gestures and specifically Moholy-Nagy and the photograms but I don´t like to wear that on my sleeve. It’s more like this exercise in the darkroom. In Uncounted, I´m using this word “to discompose”. And that´s where that whole project started for me. I was interested in that word but also you know, a kind of formal photographic way. This question of frames is so important to me in this idea 'to discompose'. It’s all about a frame, what´s in a frame, outside of a frame... Then I´m thinking about movement and stillness, I´m thinking of capturing, I think about photography. So I go back into the darkroom. But the reason that I love the photogram is because no matter what I do in there...  And you know each photogram, the calendars, and the other ones which I call the discompose series... Let’s say there is 25-40 exposures on each one and no matter how hard I try, I´m going to mess up even if I try. I love that! To me that´s the discompose-factor. I put all my thought and effort into it, I try to stay organized and know what I´m doing and I´m not going to do it right and I really like that. It takes it out of my control in a way.

 

There´s always the moment of chance...

Absolutely and it is one of the only mediums I can still find that with. I mean I do it in live performance... But that´s why those two things are connected for me.

In comparison to performance where there is always the aspect of fluidity and time is actually moving, when it comes to photography, whether it’s a snapshot or a photogram, it’s always a moment of frozen time.

The capture.

There´s that paradox with the element of chance and the fact that its still, still.

Yeah, then it’s done, taken… That´s what I love...

And that´s one aspect of your relationship to time then?

I think that one of the first things I saw and got invested in were the still photos of Judson Dance Theatre, Yvonne Rainer and many others performing vernacular movement, doing dance projects in NY in the sixties, political projects...... But I liked the still images of it...
I just loved those captures of the movement. For me it’s always been that relationship between the stillness, the frame and the movement because it’s like a perfect kind of loss. Everything, all of that excess and loss that´s outside of that image but then I love the image. but it’s in no way finished.

Metaphorically that´s like a coin where the topside is the potentiality of it and the flipside is the loss and the photograph is that frozen moment of the coin on its side which is what we see...

Yeah that´s fun, it holds both. I did never want to refuse the image or the capture as much as I loved everything which wasn´t there - the relationship between movement and the image.

Movement like in dance or...

Yeah, its grounded in that way but I also think about it socially and politically. The very first video I made was called "Social Movement". I studied the history of social movements before I became an artist so it's always coming back to that for me. 'Movement' I keep as this category unto itself. I like it as a word and all the things it signifies: experimental, political, abstract.

Stills from: Original Way av Emily Roysdon, link, You Tube.

That makes me think about the video in "Our Short Century", because it´s so related to early silent movies, like Maya Deren and Jean Epstein but it also turns in onto itself through the reveal of the process, the tricks and that updates it and it even goes further at the end when the performers leave the stage and goes out into their ordinary day-to-day lives outside of the stage.

Exactly. That´s maybe a good selection to talk about too because that was where I most specifically was trying to take this question of time, most literally in my sight. The first part is in total darkness, abstract time, and when we pull the camera back and reveal the theatre, that is historical time, and then I wanted it to come out into the vernacular, daily life.  For me it started in the abstraction, you have this leg like a piston, almost mechanical, it very early proto-cinema kind of stuff and then I reveal the act of putting the sock on the leg. I want to reveal how simple it is to make that illusion/abstraction.

You´re the magician showing the tricks…

Yeah, yeah...

And there´s nothing more to it...

Yeah, you just put the sock on and pull out the camera. That work, that and the photogram calendars happened in the same ten days. I have worked very quickly, I´ve been lucky and I got commissions for many years and I wasn´t really living somewhere like the way I am now and I would be on the road and I would go and I would do the project and I did this in Austin Texas... and they have this huge Texas sized darkroom and nobody was in there. Like 50 enlargers and nobody working there and I thought I can work in here! And then I made the photograms and the video in ten days. I didn´t plan to go in there and make these photogram calendars but I had these props, these objects that I was using and thinking through and I knew what the questions of the project were, about this idea to discompose, performativity, and time. The title of that was “Pause, Pose, Discompose,” so it was also this pausing, posing, like stillness...
And I shot some images - when I shoot photos I have 3 cameras around my neck: a digital camera, a medium format Hasselblad and a 35mm Yashica T4 Super... I figure one of them is going to work...

Covering all bases...

Then I went into the darkroom with the negatives and there were some actual photographs that I ended up using - proper negative prints that were part of the show. But that was where the photograms came from. I knew the project needed something else, another layer and I was in the darkroom and I figured that out.

And the selection of props was just done intuitively in the beginning then.

Yes – both practical and intuitive. I already had the props, objects, textiles, ideas for the video, so I brought them into the darkroom and applied a different use, one of necessity, abstraction.

That is similar to the process that Virginia Wolff actually describes, that flow.

I think that I had to force myself into that, in those years around 2012, I had to force myself into letting process be the thing. And I knew that about myself, and that´s why I would create these very limited conditions of 'must make a Texas-size exhibition in 14 days' (that place was huge and three stories tall.). Why would I do that, that´s not a very good idea (laughter).  I made a twelve-minute video, 23 prints, and a 6 color screen-print. I like forcing myself into honoring the process. I have theorized improvisation...but then I force it on myself. I´m going to improvise that whole show.

That is also similar to the circumstances with the performance at Tate then, which also ended in a movement with the same kind of emotional impacts as in Our short century. At the end when the camera moves outside of the limited room...

When they go outside...yes, I never thought of that, yeah that´s funny...

Stills from: Daniel Linehan – BMW Tate Live: Performance Room - Link: You Tube.

It’s the same sort of emotional movement when the performers leave the stage and the camera reverse cuts to the stage... That open feeling...

Yeah, it's how do you end that image, at the Tate its more political because they offered me this one thing, a little room right next to the famously huge Turbine Hall, and I was like isn´t there a door here...because when you are in Turbine Hall you see a door that I knew lead to the space that they had offered me and I knew there was a door taped off. As a younger artist this was the biggest institution that I had worked with and you´re offered one thing and it’s always fun to ask for more... So this is a piece about how we take shape, how we create a room with our bodies in here and then we´re going to break through into this place where we were not invited and see what that shape looks like out there...That was fun...

I really liked that, specifically the openness of the end, the enjoyment and joy of it.

Yeah those people, that was live shoot and we had never done it before and I like that kind of thing, where we talk about what were going to do and when we do it the first time its live there is an audience and if you forget then you talk to the person next to you.

Back to the present, at the Gwangju biennale now, that´s being curated by Maria Lind, what are you showing there?

The clocks and the calendars, the photogram calendars and the wave clocks, so those two things which have been traveling for a while. I´ve shown the clocks without the calendars but not the other way round...
And then I have a show in October in NYC at a gallery called Higher Pictures. The director is a real photo specialist. We´re going to show all the photographic works salon style, going back all the way to my very early works, not all the way back... but all the works that I´m still connected to, and can trace this thread we've been discussing.

 

Svante Larsson är konstnär och lektor i konst med inriktning på fotografi på konstfack.

From left: Discomposed photogram 1, Discomposed photogram 3, Discomposed photogram 27, Discomposed photogram28.