Stephanie was born in Grass Valley, California, in 1984. After a childhood of frolicking in the woods, riding horses, doing community theater, and generally raising a bit of hell, she became punk-ish, politically active-ish, crazy-ish teen with an interest in photography, social inequity, and beer. These interests followed her through undergrad at Humboldt State University, where she met her future husband, a bekilted Viking that followed her to a graveyard and told her dirty jokes to woo her. She graduated with bachelors in anthropology and art in 2007, while studying “abroad” in Baltimore. From Baltimore, she and her now wedded Viking, Jeriah, moved to Chicago so that Stephanie could attend graduate school for photography at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After two years of indoctrination and madness, she received her MFA in 2009. Since then she has been teaching, writing, curating, exhibiting, and making work in Chicago. In the beginning of 2012 she began a tenure track position in photography at Harold Washington College. When not doing art “stuff” she likes to hike, backpack, moon gaze, target shoot, bird watch, read, imbibe with comrades both new and old, and sit on porches, watching the sun go down (and sometimes up) with good friends.
Parlour Room: I have had the pleasure of knowing you for the past few years and have often described you to others as a powerhouse of artistic energy. Can you talk a little about your various roles in the art world and what being a creator, curator, critic and teacher has meant to you and your practice?
Burke: Over the past five years I’ve performed most of the roles one can in Chicago’s art scene. I came to the city originally as a student, to attend the MFA Photography program at SAIC. At the school I was introduced to the greater Chicago art community, and decided that I needed to make myself a part of it, in an active way. I began writing a weekly listing (which I still maintain) of everything opening in the city, and just started pounding the pavement every Friday night. This initial activity, both the writing and the gallery crawling, opened up most of the other opportunities I’ve had for participation in the Chicago scene. Being out all the time, and acting as a human clearinghouse for exhibition info, provided me with the opportunity to meet with, and eventually work with, a lot of people. I’ve written columns on the Chicago art scene, written catalog essays, organized and curated exhibitions, and spoken on panels, all as a result of connections I’ve made initially while out gallery crawling.
Teaching has been a part of my life since undergrad. I worked as a TA beginning in community college, and continued through graduate school. I’ve always enjoyed teaching and knew that post graduate school, I wanted to pursue it as a career, not by default as a money making avenue, but because I actually loved doing it. The act of teaching and engaging with the Chicago art scene in so many ways keeps me on my toes. I constantly have to consider my opinions and outlook on historical and contemporary art, and this inevitably affects my practice.
PR: Documentation is defined as “Material that provides official information or evidence or that serves as a record.” Can you speak about the role of documentation in your work as a whole and specifically in this series?
Burke: A great deal of my past work has involved documentation in one form or another. My practice in heavily influenced by the observational nature of cultural and forensic anthropology, adapted to a narrative style I use when making work. This body of work functions as a record for posterity, a series of images recording the final state of a house that holds historical significance foe me. It is not, however, a “straight” documentary series. I’ve transformed the space through the introduction of materials that serve as physical metaphors for my feelings toward each space. Thus each image is a temporal and emotive document of a space.
PR: There is a beautiful handwritten version of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem,The Haunted Palace in your installation at The Parlour, is this the first time you have used literature as an actual element or inspiration in your works?
Burke: No, literatures, or at least documents, have been influential on many of my previous works. Again, anthropology, and specifically the way in which an ethnography is documented and written, directly influenced the structure of my series “Baltimore.” My two bodies of work, “Well, It Happened Like This…” and “Synonym/Antonym” are interested in looking at how language can be translated visually, either in the form of a fractured narrative or linguistic oppositions, respectively. In the series currently up at The Parolur, I wanted to explore how a pre-existing written narrative could provide a point of balance for a visual narrative, as well as providing an additional point of access for viewers in deciphering the piece.
PR: Can you walk us through your creative practice a bit? What inspires you to make-work and how do you go about transforming an idea into a finished product? Are there any certain rituals or circumstances that you find yourself performing/needing in order to work?
Burke: I have not rituals, per se. I find it hard to make work in Chicago, so I wind up doing moth of my shooting while out of the city. I bring everything back home and prepare it for printing, by the actual visual grunt work happens elsewhere. As far as what inspires me, part of it is seeing so many people making work around me, and part of it is just a drive I’ve build up over the past twelve years of making art. I just became something I do. Sometimes I have to force myself to work, but most of the time it’s just something I love, and a way for me to dialog with the world around me.
PR: I think it is fair to say that the installation of your work at The Parlour, which includes 7 images and wall text, is meant to be experienced as a whole. What are your feelings about how one shows photographic series, would you exhibit just one or two of the images form this body of work and why or why not?
Burke: This exhibition was an opportunity for me to show all the work together with contextualizing artifacts. I have shown individual images from the series, and alone they function in a visually pleasing way, but the effect of them together, with the text and the snapshot, adds to the context. To return to the anthropology thread of thought, things, images in this case, exist in a matrix. The matrix informs upon the individual particles within. An artifact can be appreciated outside its matrix, but understanding of the artifact expands exponentially when seen within a matrix.
PR: What projects are you currently working on?
Burke: I am currently working on collaborative sculpture and video projects with my husband Jeriah. I’m also working on a series of images using The Devine Comedy as a reference point for my interactions with places I spend time.
PR: Thank you for showing in my parlour. If you were to be immortalized as one object what might that be and why?
Burke: A horse skull mounted over the fireplace. Cus’ Mary and I both know horses are AWESOME, and we both are horses deep down inside. It’s has to be a skull because, have you seen that fireplace? It needs a skull hanging over it.
Parlour Room: What is the role of process in your work, and your relationship with technology when creating?
Cossu: Very generally - I begin with a research period, gathering. I start with straight photos, things I’m familiar with to some extent, or text passages, books i’ve been enjoying, and then a furious study for more information similar to a daisy chain. It’s in this period that I’m interested in exploring connections, overlaps, misunderstandings, and how others have have represented the same things. After I have some familiarity (I never feel I have enough), there are several stages of figuring out just what I need to make. Though photographic media are where I feel most comfortable producing, significant portions of a project may be best produced using sculptural media, in specific relational or performative venues. I wish that the actual process were as clearcut as I’m making it sound in this description, it’s actually filled with indecision, false leads, and back tracking!
Technology plays a crucial role in my process. Around the time I was in college my process involved film and chemicals in the Photography Department, I also spent a lot of time drawing, and making intaglio prints, screen prints, and woodcuts but those processes weren’t changing… photo technology was, fast. At that point in time, ridiculous and boring conversations debating the merits of film versus digital photography dominated our educational discourse. To me, It was never a matter of pitting the technologies against each other, but rather the larger implications of how we create using a technology, and how evidence of that process would be present in the outcome.
As an artist I simultaneously have the most freedom to use any technology I wish, and access to very little without the support of an institution. I’ve had to be fluent in technologies available to me and able to quickly learn the benefits and limitations of materials and technology which become available. I’m sensitive to some chemicals in analog photography so I’m really happy to have the option of ink-jet printing on a large scale, and happy to have had the experience of running a service bureau to perfect fine-art photo printing.
At the end of any technology is the human user, and it really has to be something that feels right after satisfying the conceptual requirements of the work.
PR: What do you think it means to be a photographer in today’s world? And what advice do you have for someone hoping to work in the medium?
Cossu: I’ve learned from my years in chicago that I still can’t really be called a photographer. To use a common classification from the 1960’s conceptual artists, I’m an artist who uses photography in my work. This explanation seems to prevent the misunderstanding that I make work that sells some object, or documents important events such as weddings. This seems strange since I have such a similar skill set, and much of my work depends on those notions of photographic vision… Alternately, this explanation also satisfies the reaction that I have when I see something that moves me. I find tremendous value in existential narratives found in fiction, and the complexity of experience, the playful misuse of materials…all found in art. Outside of the art world, this is still the best explanation, but I’m open to suggestions, and curious about what other artists say when they find themselves without too many peers around.
If I had to give some sort of lasting advice to a photographer it is that one must look at everything, and try to understand who interprets these things in what way. Since the worry of controlling the scientific portion of this endeavor (the image making part) has been mostly solved for you, try to delve into the humanistic qualities. To artists I add, you are not beholden to convention!
PR: How has collaboration influenced, added or detracted to your practice? And how do you choose what types of collaboration you participate in?
Cossu: Collaboration is an amazing catalyst to begin a new project, or change communication, or never work in that way again. I suppose it’s most like an intense one on one study, we should all try. Sometimes, it’s an absolute necessity to accomplish a project in the scale and breadth I envision.
With Midas Eyes, I was working on for a long time intermittently, and always privately. I never had any intention of collaborating since this project depended so much on introspection. You, Mary, introduced me to Kristen Crouse who responded with the perfect combination of intensity and introspection to what she saw in my work with a poem for the accordion fold errant Tetris shaped book I wanted to make. We’ve been working together for three weeks now? It’s very different than other collaborations which rely on physical proximity. This has been a really interesting to send off my work from Chicago to California in emails and images, and wait, and then we talk, and she sends work, and then we talk. It’s surprisingly orderly sounding, but not by way of making-in-unison, which is how I find myself imagining “The Perfect Collaboration”. I find myself thinking about what might happen if we ever meet in person. Would that even work? Right now, as I print our books, I have the opportunity for her work to really sink in, printing the phrase “The sky is ashamed, cannot grow or Push up Crocus.” over and over feels like a very natural part of the work, less in me, more stable in the world. Her presence also releases me from some of the preciousness of a work, the force that keeps my work secret and unfinished for way too long.
PR: What is the role of inspiration in your work? Where do you find your sources of inspiration?
Cossu: Though you may not see a narrative conventions evident in my work, it is stories, historical accounts, and documentary photography that really strike a chord. I will see any lecture on any thing, it works like collaboration - fuels creativity.
When asked to list the inspirations present in my work, it’s easiest to make a list of books. Since I was turned on to Rebecca Solnit, and Annie Dillard, the structure of their written work infiltrates my visual work. It’s never the same twice, but I try to keep a list of artists whose work has been deeply influential to experience. It’s much more direct to say that reading is incredibly important.
The first photograph that really moved me was Andres Serrano’s The Morgue (Knifed to Death II) the one with the cat eye shaped cut in the wrist, and the ink still on the fingers.
The exhibitions that resonate the deepest with me are a performance from The Cloud Seeding Circus of the Performative Object, photographs from Joel Sternfeld’s Sweet Earth, visiting Michelangelo’s Prigioni , and Olafur Eliasson’s Take Your Time, oh and right now I can’t get the Scrovegni chapel ceiling painted by Giotto out of my head, it comes in waves.
The artist I was so nervous to meet because of how much I love and respect her work was Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons.
The documentary I show to all of my students is Jennifer Baichwal’s The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia.
I’ve mentioned the research part of my process. Specifically for this work, Some of the most relevant things I’ve viewed, if not ingested yet -
The Edge of Vision:The Rise of Abstraction in Photography by Lyle Rexer,
Light Matters: Writings On Photography edited by Vicki Goldberg,
and Luisa Lambri’s light and window studies…
PR: Can you talk a bit about the idea of abstraction in your work? What does it mean to use abstraction in a world of crystal clear images that keep getting more high def?
Cossu: These Midas Eyes works were me figuring out a way to use my digital technology in a way that satisfied the pressure of finding the perfect subject.
Over the year of time that these grey beams of light kept appearing mixed in with so many other image files downloaded after shooting, I was searching for a subject with “enough meaning” to begin another project. I like to think of my work evolving more meaning over a long period of time. One reasonable way to exercise that meaning is to thing of making documentary work or work like the Dusseldorf school, with the formal requirements of historical accuracy. At that beginning point I was placing an unrealistic requirement on myself that the subject that I was searching for should stand on its own, and be complete with just one frame Another part of this “One photo to rule them all” goal I was starting with, came from teaching Digital Photography to students who presented me with hundreds of photos and lots of subject matter. Deep down, I also felt that I needed to make my work relevant to my students.
Later, making this project, it seemed less like abstraction and more conceptualism. It never occurred to me while piecing together these frames that kept popping up over that year, that abstraction had anything to do with it. Where the light fell was an indication of the transformative power of photography, not that this subject was obscured from immediate understanding. With Midas Eyes I have ended with straight photos about value in the form of light, attention, and conceptual worth. Abstraction happens through my selection, arrangement, and ultimately the viewers perception, but not though any photographic manipulation of the image. I’m exploiting the means of sight, confusion for an experience in understanding. It’s one of the more challenging things to find balance between working with a digital medium and not fall into excessive manipulation in postproduction to achieve the results. It was important try to make it work in camera, first.
PR: The process of seeing is something that influences the creation of the work, what role does it have in how you choose to present the final product?
Cossu: Usually this type of contemplation of vision manifests itself through installation, making these photographs as distant from the analogy of window or mirror, and more the perception of the dream. Sometimes I’ve used the installation to talk about the mediation of images through institutions, and this time through lens of a gathered experience. Ideally I want you to be in it with me. I hope it’s very contemplative, an experience of interiority. That’s another reason for the making the accordion fold book. Also, why your Parlour Room was a wonderful experience.
PR: What upcoming projects are in the works and is there anything that we can keep an eye out for?
Cossu: I have role in the curation of a pretty exciting exhibition about creative process, collaboration, and technology featuring Kinetic Sculptures from 8 internationally renowned artists, as well as workshops, and discussion panel. It’s happening this Fall at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery in Chicago.
Look out because the collaboration with Kristen has been a potent catalyst to both of our work. I think we’ll be collaborating on another project. I’ve just sent her three images… I keep up these things up on my twitter feed @cedarknee mixed in with things my students may find interesting.
PR: Thank you for showing in my parlour, if you were to be immortalized as one object what would it be and why?
Cossu: Thanks for having me! It’s really a pleasure to have such a special place to show. Way to sneak the hard question in, with a compliment. I’ve never considered being an object. Alternate realities yes, animals, plants, insects, basically the spectrum of life forms, including alien….but never even considered an inanimate! You’ve stumped me… Gasses probably don’t count, do liquids? Oh - Glass? Did you lead me here?
Melissa Dettloff is a artist living in Ypsilanti, MI. She co-runs the Shadow Art Fair and is a modern renaissance woman; creator of fiber sculptures, web designer, artistic performer and more.
You can read all about her creations, adventures and projects at hooray forever: all things Melissa Dettloff in one handy place!
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