Thursday, April 24, 2008

Transcript for FreeFlow #7 Forum by Paul Kohl & Shannon Castleman (watch this space for further updates of the Q&A session)

Paul Kohl: Hi everyone,

My name is Paul Kohl, I’m American. I was educated in the San Francisco Institute in California. For my undergraduate work I went to graduate school at the Purdue University. Lafayette, Indiana, a big school for engineering, agriculture and has a very small art department. Which I thought it is good because I was at that point, matured where I won’t like a lot of external supervision.

I was in New York city, I was in the army for a while, I was a nurse… Kind of a nurse, in Vietnam in the prisoner-of-war camp. After the army, I started photographing. When my works came to be what I thought as my own.

Right, so this is my first body of works that I recognized to be fairly unique to me. It’s hard to see here, but the surface of the print is very grainy. They are intentionally over exposed, over developed. I did whatever is necessary to make the surface of the prints as important as possible.

A phrase constantly buzzes in my mind,

“the map is not the territory… the map is not the territory… the map is not the territory…”. And what it means to me is that photography has been used as a map, when u take a picture, you intend to refer to something. But I was determined to take something, where the images lose their referents. I wanted the audience to look into the prints and not think about where it came from, what it means, what-has-been. But to think of them as only an experience, contained and fixed onto the surface of the print. Nothing else.

So in order to achieve that, I gave as many things as I could. I chose papers with textures and make the images as grainy as I could, to stop the break-down, that recognition of the referents. These works continued, until, I got a national endowment arts grant to work as an artist for a year. I took that money and went to Japan. I’ve been interested in Japanese culture, I was practicing the martial art aikido in San Francisco, I’ve been wanted to get out of the United States.

So I went to Japan and started making pictures. Photographs like this.

These images are pretty much the same kind of image I was making in United States. The difference was that, when I was in Japan, I didn’t have the same kind of chemicals as I would have in the United States. So, I have to change the way I was making pictures once I was in Japan for a period of time. And I started working with square films, 6 x 6 negatives. The process became much simpler.

As you can see here, my images before was much of a landscape, where now, I was taking an interest in symbolism. The pictures I’m making, I don’t want them to stuck on the surface, I want them to go inside and work on the sub-conscience reaction. So, I think they are not about photography, more about emotions. I’m not sure where these objects I’ve photographed go, but they are not the surface images like what I was doing before.

I lived in Japan for about four years, working as a linguist teacher. So I was taking pictures and having a good time. It was in the middle-late 70s, when Tokyo hasn’t had that bubble experience. Before the bubble, Tokyo still had that experience coming out of the Second World War. They are still recovering, and Japan hasn’t seen itself becoming top of the world. It was quite a wonderful place to be.

I eventually went back to the United States, went to graduate school and began working in color. I’m not going to show whole lot of these, as the next exhibition I’m having here, they’re going to be color prints coming out of this series. But just to give you a taste of it, it’s from the vernacular landscapes through exploration on foot in the cities and country-sides of United States.

My shadow, starts to crept in a lot of these pictures, which I couldn’t keep myself out of (hehe).

My wife is Japanese, we had two children. We lived in the United States together until about 1995, I taught at art school from United States, the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. But in 1995, the economic situation became tough and we had to return to Japan thereafter.

Then, I was working on this body of work, it’s called “Two Fish, Out of Water”. There’s a couple of images here, and this little thing right here, is called a “fugu”, the blowfish. The Japanese love it, they’ll tease themselves with death and eat it even if it’s poisonous. It killed a couple of people every year, from eating contaminated blowfish.

Two Fish, Out of Water

Anyway, this is the fugu, and this is me. And these are the two fish. Both of them are out of the water. And it’s my reaction once again alien, being in a culture not my own. Being sort of outside, photographing from my point of view. Again, my shadow’s in a lot of these pictures. They’re taken mostly in Otaka, Kobe, Yokohama, some western parts of Japan.

Very often when I start a new body of works, I’ll end up changing the camera that I use. That helps me to get a fresh viewpoint. From 35mm to 6 x 6, to 6 x 7 and back to 35mm negatives, all I can do to mix it up, to question my way of seeing. To change developers, whatever I can do to retain the process fresh.

Also, I’ve sort of moved from darkroom printing, to digital imaging. I still do shoot with films and scanned them with a film scanner and print them with large Epson printers. I love films, and to me, they are still sort of a safety net.

So I moved from “Two Fish, Out Of Water” to the series you see on the walls. Once again I changed films, to 645 negatives, but its printed on using digital process. What u see in this series is that, I put it on very special paper. Each sheet is handmade, in Japan, by the Origami paper company. And I went to stay with them for sort of a week, in helping to put on a coating for the papers.

It’s really really beautiful. So I came to realize, that whenever people look at these photographs they say “Wow! The paper’s great!” (laughs) So it’s like getting a new suit and walking out of your house and everybody says wow! Your suit’s wonderful! (it’s not you), it’s not the pictures it’s the paper so, you’ve got to walk the fine line around here and not let the paper take over the imaging. But, for me, I’m happy. It works.

The print was wonderful, had a great time working on it. The next show, the color show, will be printing on a different kind of paper. So you’ll be seeing the images, not just the paper (laughs).

So, we were in Japan for about ten years and my kids graduated from high school and then went back to University in United States. They’re out of the house, so my wife and I decided to just leave Japan. We came to Singapore where I’m teaching in NTU. Hopefully, I’ll be here for a few years, even though I have to live with Singapore heat.(laughs)

Kay Ngee: Why B&W for Japan? Especially when coming from such a colorful city…

Paul Kohl: You think so?

Kay Ngee: Of course….

Paul Kohl: When I was in the country, I walked around all the time and I thought nothing around was colorful. I saw only Black and White, I saw Japan as only beautifully graphic places. There is always the sense of being arranged compositionally, even though just casual architectures. But still I see no colors, even the people there... They don’t dress so colorfully, they wear very subdued shades of greys, browns... The most colorful thing was the pachinko corners, the big orange, reds and yellows.

Of course, I really love Black and White. Another issue is that, for me I want to do as much as I can to be in control. I can develop my own films, I can control the exposure during printing, and also control how the images go.

Kay Ngee: I have a second question to ask, but we’ll continue later. Let’s hear from Shannon first.

Shannon Castleman: Alright, now, just a question hm… how many people here saw my photo exhibition in this gallery before?

Hanoi về đêm

(laughs) Yup… I didn’t have much to say about the history of me, so, here I’ve got two bodies of works with me that I think they’re kind of relevant to Paul’s. The rest of my works, I shoot more of people.

But I guess, I’ll give you a little of my history. I went to my undergraduate at the Tisch School of Arts in New York. And their program is fine arts and commercial and kind of a mix, and after graduating, my works were very, kind of staged documentary. It was at that time when it was very popular with Nan Goldin and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

I never really plan to be a commercial photographer, but the works I was doing in a fine arts context was very commercially viable. So I suddenly thought about working as a commercial photographer, I kind of worked in the fashion. I thought that was really great, because I was doing the work I loved and I could do my personal work if I do paid work.

For about eight years down the road, I had a crisis. It felt wrong…so very wrong. So I had a trip down to Cuba, with a group of students from San Francisco I taught. I really want to practice and go back to grad school. So, this is a project I did in grad school, called Relevant Case Notes.

Relevant Case Notes

When I first moved to San Francisco, I don’t know how many years back then, but there were very huge human death cases. San Francisco is a place where everything’s politically correct, everyone does everything right and also everyone pretends all these people aren’t there. And once I have this experience of where a human being just died in my arms and nobody seem to care. I was terribly affected by it.

And the ENP was saying that 200 people died a year on the streets in San Francisco, they were very cold about the whole thing. So I started researching on this whole issue and this is the same time I was really struggling with school project, like what I can work on, I’ve always photographed people. I don’t really know what kind of projects I wanted to do, so I started research on this interesting thing that I was concerned why everybody was ignoring.

So I came across something call the human death report, it states cases of where all these people have died in the last couple of years. And I had the information of one two lines about the last moments of their lives, how they died, how they were found, and so, that was the Relevant Case Notes.

Using these Relevant Case Notes, I’ll go to the locations and sort of became the interpreter of their last moments that occurred there, at the exact time of their deaths. Which was always known when they were found, so this is one body of works…

Here, I began to use lightings, kind of using the lights to structure what happened there. These were shot with 4 x 5 with very long exposures opening the aperture to nearly an hour, very long.

In the beginning, when I was doing more of an installation, I would put the case numbers down and show them in a filing cabinet. The angles were much more dramatic. People could go to the filing cabinet to find the case.

I hope people could begin to see all these places in San Francisco were the last moments of someone’s life. For me, San Francisco is mapped with all these stories, all these people who wouldn’t be here anymore. How we don’t really think about these spaces when we walk over it, all that could have happened there. So, it’s the history of place as well.

This is one of the ones, the later ones that I did with lightings.

Sometimes, when I go to these places I can really imagine where this person has been.

This one says Wilken Berkeley, the MRT there.

It’s not like shooting here or even Hanoi at night, there is danger in San Francisco at night. So it was a very difficult project, because most of these places are inhabited by violent populations. To be there working in the alley, is very dangerous.

Paul Kohl: Are these the years?

Shannon: The year and the case number.

This one was violent, it was a knife stabbing. For many of them, they were alone.

This one in particular, you can really feel someone has taken the place. It happened in 1998 and I took it in year 2005. How many people have laid in the exact spot since then?

Nothing changed.

A lot of buildings have changed, places have changed, it’s kind of tough to find the exact spot then. So I have to sort of interpret, almost use my guts to sort of feel it.

Ok… not a very up-beat project (laughs), but it paints the way I look at things.

Peripatetic Entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia 2007

It affected my last project I did in Hanoi because I became very aware of the history of the States and what has gone on before there. So, I’m just going to show you a little bit of this, to contextualize why I was in Hanoi. This is a long term project, where I have a grant through the ADM, School of Art, Design and Media, where I’m also a lecturer, to work about mobile businesses and sort of the space of mobile businesses.

Particularly, mostly focusing on Hanoi and Mumbai, but looking at how as these places are becoming obviously mobile and more consumer culture that more of Hanoi are getting phased-out. So, this project will involve media film here in Singapore and some sculpture elements, but, we’ve been in Hanoi documenting these businesses.

And, these people are photographed whenever in we’ve been in Hanoi all the time. We constantly photographed, the beauty of photographing with a 4x5 camera, my camera, is that people they love it, because they’re so comfortable in front of it, because you’re not behind it when you’re photographing. And I’m shooting in Polaroid, and they actually get the prints. And it kind of draw the crowd and it ends up being something that we do together because they see and want what they like to see.

This project has a lot of different aspect, but the first part of it was photographing people and also to use that to get something for the grads. So this project was on my mind when I was shooting the works that was in this gallery. So, early in the evening we will work on this.

I love this film, I’m going to start making it. It really changes street photography. People who were photographed, received this little print. And I have the negative, so I just take away.

So, this is the last project, I really was looking at the changes in Hanoi. So I did this really to have a show for this gallery, so this was… their fault (laughs).

Hanoi về đêm

I was also thinking much about this space, but it really was different if I knew what kind of a life it was going to have at night afterwards. But I was thinking about kind of my last project in San Francisco in the history of a space. At the same time, looking at the streets and the landscapes, how the space, the streets and the people I’ve photographed in the early parts of the day were chained. So I was really looking at the whole business of consumerism in the backdrop of the old world landscape in Hanoi.

So all these were shot between midnight and 4am… My husband and I would drive on the motorbike around for hours and hours until I found them. Sometimes I would see them the night before and think about it the next day. I was really more of a hunter, finding the exact spaces that I wanted. Articulate what out of some of these places I see in Hanoi.

So things, buildings that have always been down there where everyone has their own little restaurant, but now we’re seeing Coca Cola, being used as covering for the restaurant. So there’s this juxtaposition between this new consumerism and corporate culture with small entrepreneur where it’s still happening there.

Audience: Did you create the lightings?

Shannon: Ah… this one is natural. The only one down here at the bottom, I still use the motorbike lights. Because there were motorbikes that were going by, and I really liked that light. And the other beauty of the 4x5 is that you can close and open the shutter, so I still have to avoid a lot of traffic by shut and open, opening and shut.

This one also has an added light at the bottom. But there was a construction site going round here, so this area’s lighted up by the construction area.

Hanoi is really a unique city and I’ve always liked photographing at night. There’s no one around at night, Hanoi is so busy and vibrant during the day. At night, there’s nothing. It’s like the streets closed down, there’s not a single person, everywhere in Hanoi. It’s a very safe place, but they think is dangerous. So they put everything away, to make sure nothing is stolen. But comparatively with shooting in San Francisco it is safe here (in Hanoi), other than I can’t communicate if somebody tries to do anything (laughs).

As you can see these numbers everywhere on the walls… is anybody curious about what these numbers are?

KC: Advertising for properties?

Shannon: Yup. They’re advertising for home improvements.

So as Kay Ngee’s pointed out… I don’t know if you were here for my exhibition opening, that I am an American. So I would definitely notice my culture kind of coming in. And to go back to where my crisis started in photography… my crisis in photography started in Cuba. Also, my American culture in New York.

(to be continued, watch this space for further updates of the Q&A session with Paul Kohl and Shannon Castleman)


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