Where the Future Can Meet

Blake Shell, Executive and Artistic Director of Oregon Contemporary, joined artists Marcelo Fontana and Katherine Spinella in conversation about their collaborative exhibition, Where the Future Can Meet, presented at Carnation Contemporary in August 2022. The following transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Blake Shell  I have a lot of things that I want to talk with you guys about, because of some of the things you touch on in your exhibition, and some of your methods of working—particularly around photography, digital photography, and mass photography—take away from the preciousness of photography. This is what a lot of my art-making was in the early aughts, so it’s of deep interest to me.

First, I’m going to ask a generational question. I’m Gen X, but a very narrow cusper. I got an email address in college and 9/11 was after my college days. I come from this window of not knowing anything about technology, but also this early millennial perspective that technology’s going to save us, and it’s going to be everything. I want to know your thoughts on growing up with technology, if that’s influencing how you’re making, and regarding this collaboration in particular. Have you all been talking about that?

Katherine Spinella  I don’t know that we’ve talked about that specifically, but I feel like that has influenced our relationship to technology. I grew up with that excitement for the internet, but not until high school and college. Maybe a part of me still carries that.

Marcelo Fontana  This exhibition is more like a portrait of the moment that we’ve been in. As for my personal experience, I have been deeply affected by photography. This is also my main subject matter. Photography was extremely important because my research is about that and the importance of creating images.

I remember the first time I was frustrated with photography was when I took my film camera on a trip, and I knew that I had just 36 frames for the whole trip. I took the pictures, and when the film was used, I thought, “Great, I’m going to have a film to show my dad and mom.” But when I opened the camera, there was no film there.

I went further into photography in school. I dove deeper into the pictorial process, using technology in a way. I wouldn’t like to photograph everything or digitalize things, but it was something more.

BS  To some kind of physically manifested print as the end result? Do both of you feel like digital art has always been a big tool in your work?

KS  I come to image-making through a background in printmaking and alternative process darkroom photography. I am very much connected to this physical part of the image. This traditional art-making background is connected to the history of the proliferation and mass distribution of the image, and now that coalesces with digital technologies.

MF  Now it’s just crazy. It’s so elastic, the whole process. There’s no specification for what medium you work with anymore.

In some ways I think that this is an outdated question, because you can do paintings on the computer, you can do photography, and It’s all kind of the same. What we experience now is kind of like a post-art era with all these new technologies, so it’s really hard to understand where we’re going. Having experienced this, like you say, we are all like this missing link because we grew up without technology.

BS  I feel like there’s these little hints in the show that speak to disillusionment. I was wondering if that was disillusionment with technology. I mean, we’re of course coming out of the pandemic too, so that’s in it; but there were a couple of things—like, you talked about advances and setbacks in your statement. Also, the poem, “What We Have Worked For,” can be read as pretty cynical. I wondered if I was just bringing in my own interpretations. We had some bigger promises from digital technology at one point, and I feel very divided on it, on a personal level. Siri does not do my email like I was promised; but also, we got to Zoom during the pandemic—which, as annoying as Zoom was, thank God for that. I can just be fishing and riding horses, and somehow working is just happening all around me, out in this cloud.

MF  I definitely have some disillusionment with this whole process we’ve been going through. When the internet became a thing, that was supposed to bring us closer to equality. There was this excitement, and then things went to shit, basically. Next thing you know, you are going to San Francisco because you want to vote a far-right president out. Bolsonaro’s victory has a lot to do with how images and information behave nowadays, and the fact that some of us don’t know how to decipher media or navigate the misinformation. I feel that it’s our duty as artists to create environments where people can reflect about some of these issues in a ludic and playful way.

KS  What we’re really focusing on in the exhibition is thinking about the proliferation of images and their loss of context. With this disillusionment that you’re talking about, there is also this poetic quality about it. It’s not all one way or the other, but this thing that loops, bringing us closer together and also separating us. It has these opposing forces to it.

We’re doing this thing visually (in the installation) where we’re overwhelming the viewer with images, and denying the whole of the image through the form. The poem “What We Have Worked For” by Heather Christle has a similar feeling of futility.

BS  There’s still beauty in that futility.

KS  Yeah, and there’s something to be navigated there.

BS  Right. The good part did happen; just all this other stuff happened too. It’s always both. At the beginning of the internet, it felt like only hope and only egalitarianism. But then the corporations, government, and nefarious things don’t make that other part untrue. There’s beauty in how we are able to connect, and that’s not been taken away so far; it’s just got these other complications.

MF  Because one of the things that we are thinking about, too, is how you navigate that. We had some words that we wanted to add to the show, and they were words like “lightness,” “clarity,” and more that were about how we can navigate this new reality and be more aware; how we can see a little bit further, you know? That’s why we have materials with transparency. When things are transparent, you can see how they relate.

BS  I was going to ask you about transparency and your relationship to abstraction in this work. I see pieces of cityscape and infrastructure, markings, the earth, and things in the sky. There were also other things that were obscuring them, like the folds and the overlaps, and even the translucency of the silk works. It’s like the transparency obscures in another way, because you’re seeing things behind each other at the same time. As you’re walking through, you’re experiencing things and feeling and looking, rather than making a more clinical observation. As you’re walking through, you might be getting these glimpses of little pieces, but some of it you’re not even able to recognize; so it feels like abstraction. It was definitely a big part of the overall experience. The pink glow, too, gave such a feeling as well. I want to hear your thoughts on abstraction and obscuring images, in this or in your work in general.

KS  I think abstraction becomes a placeholder for some emotive quality that I’m trying to create with a set of images. The images individually may have their own inherent meaning, but the context of it within the collage and the form of how that’s shown brings out the emotive quality. I was playing with that in these wall works with the folds, using images of something familiar and pushing it to that edge—where we see it, or don’t, or only catch glimpses of it. This was important for the feeling we wanted to evoke from the audience.

We collaborated on the images for both the canvas and silk works by sharing our digital archives to freely work from. We both made collages and co-edited things down, and made the prints from these. It was all very process-oriented, pulling from each other’s image archives. It’s really nice to hear your experience walking into the show, because that tells me it came through—this being overwhelmed by all the images, but in a way that wasn’t stressful, and letting it wash over you.

BS  Yeah, that’s smart. That very much affected it. How long were you sharing and working on those?

KS/MF  Like a couple of months.

BS   So you both were working in the folder, picking out things, and collaging them? Did you both work on all aspects together?

KS  There are some groupings of collages that Marcelo constructed more and ones I constructed more, but we looked at them all together in Figma, an online platform where we laid them out and made decisions. We would continue to work back and forth, swapping out different things. It was highly interactive and collaborative in that way.

BS  That’s fun! Sometimes people divide it up, and sometimes it’s actual conversations. Sometimes it’s just like a conversation within the process that’s happening, right?

MF  The word that I would use to describe it is organic. We knew the best qualities we could feature from both of us: the colors and strong aesthetic from Katherine, and then the installation and environmental aspect from my work. The inability to meet in person moved us to use a platform like Figma, where we could continue working side-by-side, and that was pretty cool. It’s funny, because it relates to that idea that we didn’t grow up in a digital environment, but this work was extremely digital.

BS  Right. You’re getting to have that online collaborative process, but then you also get to bring it into being in a physical space that you both have a direct relationship with and understand as individuals too. It’s a choice.; you’re getting to bring it in when it’s helpful.

MF  It wouldn’t make sense to do work that wasn’t constructed in a digital form because we’re talking about this environment. In order to translate it, it was important to work in that environment.

BS  That makes so much sense to me. I feel like I got pushback on my methods in early aughts. People immediately wanted me to take the image into some sort of physical space and get very crafty, or wanted me to have things stay online and be some digital purist thing.

MF  The problem of photography is not understanding itself as art, this concept that photography was a lesser art.

BS  Yes. It’s got a chip on its shoulder. Yes, and it’s still there. There’s more photo-specific galleries and nonprofit missions than any other medium. It’s weird, right?

There’s a weird thing where photography had to work hard to prove that it was fine art. They’re doing the same thing to digital. Some people say digital makes it “too easy,” but it isn’t easier, either; it’s just different.

MF  Like all the new machine learning technologies. This is amazing! I feel that craft is an important part of the process, but also craft can be the curatorial aspect of the process. It’s like generating images until you find the good one.

BS  Right! I want to play around with that stuff and see what it comes up with from what I say to it. We don’t even know what people are going to do with that yet. Right now, people think it is “too easy.” What that ends up turning into is how people use it. We don’t even know yet, right? It’ll take a while for it to absorb into our culture and for people to turn it on its head.

KS  We ran a few of our collage images from the exhibition through DALL-E 2.

BS How did it go?

KS  We had been thinking about using it to generate the collages, but ran out of time to do that and have them printed. We still wanted to try running our constructed collages through it. There were some interesting results. They became more abstract and eerie.

BS  I think about photography and how, backing away from it—the big picture—it’s very much an editing art, versus a careful, “every single move is going to show up” art. It’s your trash can art form.

I know you were working through these photo dumps organically, but did you have any kind of pre-editing in the sense of the prompts you were creating for the space? Like transparency, clarity: were those prompts for choosing the images in the photo dumps? How are you defining what you’re selecting to go in, or what you’re selecting to take out?

KS  It was in selecting from the files from both of us, and how they were constructed together, that I was thinking about these word prompts. My folder of images were a lot of scans from physical sources, like papers, or even cut-outs and rips of previous prints I’ve made. The folders themselves were more of an intuitive array of images. For the placement in the image collages, the treatment of the canvas prints, and how they were shown, the word prompts were the focus.

BS  Which speaks to what you’re talking about; It was “of this moment” as well, right? It was reflecting on that. Then what about you, Marcelo?

MF  I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time, but in different ways. I went to my archive, and I also had a whole show planned for S1 that didn’t happen due to the pandemic. I got ideas that would make sense with Kathenie’s work, trying to put myself in her shoes. That’s why the show went well. I think we are both altruistic; that’s why the collaboration was easy.

KS  I’ve done some collaborations before, but not so directly collaborative, so that was exciting and new! Yeah, as Marcelo said, we both came to this with a lot of openness. We were laughing about how the installation went so smoothly, versus our experiences with solo installation.

BS   That’s great. Do you feel the membership with Carnation helps this? From my viewpoint, it seems like this helps people have active and engaged practices within the community. I am someone who stopped making over time as I got deeper into arts organizations, which I don’t mind; it’s just another thing that I love. Thinking about strategy for growth is creative, but far from art-making. I feel like it is a thing that happens to folks as they get out of grad school, where there’s a huge reduction in making. It seems like the membership gallery that you guys have has been really supportive. I mean, everybody that is involved already had very active practices. Do you feel like it’s something that helps support you when you’re not necessarily represented or having major funding go into your art? Does it help to have this kind of membership community?

KS  I think so. It’s so hard to get your work out there if you’re not represented. Also, there can be limitations if you are represented, where certain galleries will only want a particular type of work you make. There is a freedom we have, being part of an artist group where you can allow your practice to change and grow in different directions.

For this particular cycle, we are all doing two-person shows, which is something we haven’t done before. It’s been really generative to see how everyone’s working differently together, and also to have that set up in order to work together.

I mean, we could just decide to work on something together, but I think setting up that parameter nudges you in a certain direction. With both of us wanting to work collaboratively, I feel like this cycle has been really generative.

MF  I like a sentence that says: “The good artists are the ones that stay.” You find that when you’re like a little bit later in a career, that you can actually go do those things. We all dream one day to be fully funded.

From the perspective of Portland, it’s really challenging when you don’t have a structured market and big galleries that push the culture forward. It’s really hard for them to even get by. We’ve seen this so many times: great galleries in town that close. It ends up falling on us, artist run-spaces and non-profits, to do this job of pushing culture forward. Altruistic initiatives like Carnation and Oregon Contemporary that are actually pushing the art here.

KS  Do you see your curatorial practice as a creative practice?

BS  Oh, yeah, for sure. I started working in galleries early and liked the curatorial aspect. I started having more curatorial control at the Archer Gallery, and a little before at the University of Arizona School of Art Galleries. I get a lot of creative reward from that. It is still different from making, but it is super rewarding.

I get to know work differently with different artists, but sometimes I’m heavily involved in conversations about what the art is going to be. Sometimes it’s more just being supportive, but I’m still getting to see the production at different stages and get engaged in that way. Thinking about how group shows come together is probably the most creative pursuit, on an individual level, for me. Like photography is editing, curatorial practice is too. I make thumbnail spreadsheets in Photoshop from people’s images, just like contact sheets. It always reminds me of deciding what I was going to print. That’s what I’m doing: getting to see people’s art in relation to other people’s, flat on a page, without any context, just to start that process.

Then it is like culling through, because I’ll pull out all of the cards that I’ve kept, as well as go back and look at what I’ve liked on Instagram. I go through and look at all the different places and make a batch of things. That definitely feels like a creative practice. I feel like I had a narrower approach in my art-making. My curatorial approach is much broader.

MF  I’m curious if you see the work of a curator getting closer and closer to an artist? There are some initiatives that I’m doing because they’re interesting to me, from the perspective of my own work.

BS   That’s such a good question. We had a talk with a few of the curators in residence the other night, and it was an interesting conversation. We were talking about how people worked curatorially. A few of the curators are heavily research-based. I think that connects with what you’re talking about in that they have themes and things that they’re diving into, not only in their curatorial approach, but everything from all aspects of their life. Then there was another contingent, and I feel like I fit more alongside it, although I appreciate all of it. The other side of it is very much about supporting the artists—picking artists and then thinking about what they have not gotten to do in other spaces. Even if you are represented, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have limitations. I often think about, “What can you do that you haven’t done in your commercial space? Or haven’t done because of funding, or because you didn’t have the physical space?” Even when I’m thinking about themes and connections with artists, unless I select an artist that only has one particular body of work that fits that theme, I usually am very open to what artists want to show. I don’t mind things being very loosely tied, so that it’s about presenting what the artist is most interested in.

There’s value in both of those extremes of curatorial approaches. If you’re serving the artist, that’s awesome. Things can be really fruitful, and it’s really interesting to see what develops, when people are connecting deeply to a particular vein of thought from multiple perspectives within their own world. That’s very cool to see.

I have a broader approach around “What can we make happen?” I usually do it from the perspective of, “I heard you were looking to do this, and then I heard you say there’s no way you could ever get this done, and I thought of a way that you could do a thing that deeply relates.” Trying to get inside the head and the heart of the artist is the goal.

KS  I like that. I like thinking about curation in those different ways. It’s really interesting to hear about that. I relate to that as an educator as well, thinking about how my research and practice is influenced by the people I work with and my teaching approach.

BS  I guess I do have one last question for you. Are you all going to collaborate again?

KS  I think so, yeah.

MF  We had the limitation of this base of coordination. It is a really good space, but it’s not huge, right? We could see breaking that show into individual spaces, where you have a place where you fold paintings together, where the installation is in one place if you’re in another.

BS  I think you should. I think it was a really special connection between your practices. I love your work individually, but I think you’ve got a cool collaborative thing going. You have a different kind of installation, and I could see this show being really scalable to different sizes.

photo credit: Mario Gallucci

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