Mark Menjivar: Hey Jason. Thanks so much for agreeing to answer some questions. I have been following your work for some time now and we have had some email exchanges over the years, but we have never had any in-depth conversations. I have always been drawn to the way you provide space for people to be involved in your projects. When did you begin to collaborate with others in your art practice?
Jason Lazarus: First off Mark thanks for inviting me to discuss things!
In 2007, my friend Lindsey was showing me her scrapbook and she spent a fair amount of time discussing this image:
and elaborating on Josh (the subject) as the guy who introduced her to Nirvana. Infatuated with Josh (her older step-brother’s friend) she gushed about how much she changed herself to impress him, how influential his cultural interests were on her, and while half-listening to her I also kept enjoying the image as idiosyncratic, conventionally poor, and spiritually rich. It performed everything I loved about images that I was trained to as a photographer to avoid making. I asked Lindsey if I could have the photo for awhile and hung it in my studio (at that time my bedroom, above my bed, so I could gaze at it absent-mindedly). After some time, I thought ‘what if I asked people, Who was important as a cultural informant for them in their youth?’ and I quickly realized Nirvana would be a more specific prompt to employ, and I idolized them in high school anyways (nobody in Kansas City was sharing influential music/culture with me, everything at that time came from MTV). Once I started to ask friends and friends-of-friends, the entries started to come in, and a new engagement with photography began.
This new engagement has become very important for me…I believe in having two simultaneous modes of working, one for my own original image production, and one for found/vernacular/socially engaged image projects. They serve each other, and ask me to consider larger questions regarding photography in contemporary culture. Philosophically, they feed elegantly with larger questions of knowledge–what can I learn looking deeply inward, and what ideas, tensions, and profundity exists around me?
MM: I like the way you shift authorship by giving cameras to the participants of the Michael Jackson Memorial Procession project. On one hand I can see it being a solution to not being able to be in every car and on the other hand I see it as a continuation of your interest in vernacular photography and muddying the waters of authorship. Can you tell me how that project came to be and how you worked with the participants?
JL: A few words to set up the context: the Michael Jackson Memorial Procession (MJMP) was conceived as a re-imagining of the ad-hoc sonic memorial that occurred in the days immediately following Michael’s death. Many homes, businesses, and especially cars were blaring MJ’s music in homage, and as you moved around the city you constantly were encountering this sonic memorial tapestry. In the MJMP project (held on the one year anniversary of his death), participants were invited to meet at MJ’s boyhood home in Gary, Indiana (about 40 minutes away) where they were presented with a MJ silkscreened orange memorial flag for their vehicle (in the spirit of traditional orange flags that mark funeral processions) and a disposable camera. We decorated our cars with memorial messages honoring the anniversary of his passing (June 25th) and set out on a coordinated 5 hour procession throughout Chicago. My car had a pirate radio station that broadcast a playlist (curated by my friend and MJ superfan Emily Green of Chicago) to cars within 1-2 miles (in effect all the participants in the procession), and so the spectacle on witnesses to the event was 10 minutes of cars driving by, honking, yelling, celebrating, and synchronously blaring the same MJ song at the same time!
Of course an event like the MJMP is really unable to ever be documented in its entirety, so we see the event through the eyes and fragmented experiences of the various participants. The gritty quality of the point and shoot camera is a very specific vocabulary and a perfect fit for a project about collective fandom and legacy. Nan Goldin said she didn’t mind being called a snapshot photographer because those images are ones borne out of love. That really gets at the heart of the power of the images made by the participants in the project–it’s about a shared ecstasy, a sacred fantasy space. All of the participants gave back their cameras at the end of the night, and after developing the images, I picked a particularly evocative image (above) and distributed thank you prints to the participants.
MM: Many of the photographs you make outside of set projects are incredibly pregnant with meaning. The view from Anne Frank’s hiding place, Hitlers desired art school, Claire waiting for her HIV test results, the space above Freud’s couch…your use of text to set the context provides a great hook for the viewer to hang their own story on. How do you approach the pairing of image and text and are you specifically thinking about the viewer in that process?
JL: All of the images are images first–I understand them as things that are laid bare to be approached and scrutinized visually. Once (if) the viewer seeks out the title (context) they volunteer themselves to complicate the visual experience (once they know the context they cannot ‘un-know’ it). Both of these stages has a unique value and I see them as an interplay. Sometimes I conceive of a title and that instigates the piece, often the opposite is true. The titles undergo revisions over time as my understanding of them evolves. Time changes readings, and I look forward to that bending.
MM: A few of your projects extend over long periods of time and/or are repeated in different contexts. I have always been drawn to this way of working as it allows me to reflect, shift, include different perspectives, etc. How do you approach exhibiting works that have been shared before and have participatory elements?
JL: I embrace having a learning curve from one exhibition to the next. In a way, exhibitions are a sort of performance for the space, and for an anticipated audience, and any maquette or blueprint, or even a walk through is always a modest education vs installing in the actual space. First, for most of my career I haven’t had a studio, so an exhibition is a chance to actually see what you’re doing. Second, each site has a geographic, political, cultural, architectural, and formal context, so it’s a chance to reconfigure and add meaning uniquely for that exhibition.
I have always felt–and try to relay to my students–that strong work promotes itself. Once I have a few strong submissions to a new project that are encouraging, my motivation doubles and I use the strong images to reach out for more from wider audiences. When successful, projects tend to re-promote themselves as different audiences learn about them and share them with their social networks. Too Hard to Keep is a great example of the exhibitions themselves acting as an invitation to submit, and each exhibition of the project offers a chance for audiences to contribute.
MM: You often use the form of archive in your projects. For me, archives imply access. An archive is for the public as where a collection is more private. The word archive also implies a use value and I think that in the arts, we are able to really experiment with how that is created. How do you think about archives and why do you often use them in your work?
JL: I try to not overly define an archive. I try to engage or employ methods and strategies that are elastic relative to an institution’s bureaucratic methodologies. That is what is so fantastic about being an artist–the integrity in your practice comes from your own growing sense about what is right and a deep understanding of why you feel that way.
I think of archives as a bracketing of ideas or materials that have explicit and/or implicit additional value beyond the normal dispersion of the everyday. Sometimes, the initial bracketing (whether artist-made or institutional) is subsumed by other latent ideas that only emerge over time. For example, I was recently told about a Genizah (this is from the Jewish Women’s Archive):
The world of Jewish women in the Islamic middle ages is revealed to us through a treasure trove of primary source material found in Cairo at the end of the nineteenth century. A genizah is a storage room for discarded books and written materials. Jews do not destroy anything with God’s name written on it; such pieces of parchment and paper are usually buried. In medieval Cairo, this custom was extended to anything written in Hebrew, but instead of being buried, such items were stored in a genizah in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fostat (Old Cairo), where most of the Jews lived; the arid conditions preserved them.
The rediscovery of the Cairo Genizah, as it came to be called, by Solomon Schechter (1847–1915), in 1896 opened to scholars the possibility to piece together not only the life of the intellectuals, the rabbis, and the rich, but also the everyday life of common people.
Artists often employ a museological aesthetic to their archive practices, and with Too Hard to Keep I try to work somewhat against this tendency–nothing is behind glass, images are mounted directly to the wall and vulnerable to the viewer. I engage an ad-hoc filing system that actually encourages submissions I receive to become mixed up over time (although I add provenance markings on the back of some submissions so I may re-assemble them in the future if I wish). This archival slippage that I’m building into the archive helps the material evolve to meanings that are beyond their original ‘intake status and condition.
Archives are one of my strategies for knowledge building, research, and philosophical deliberation–they help me stay humble and wondrous regarding the act of making meaning.
MM: Thats nice that you are able to assemble the works in different ways as the archive shifts and grows over time. What are some of the other strategies you use for knowledge building, research, and deliberation?
JL: A new example is a piece that, as of yet, has no title. It’s a photograph of a traditional photographic gray card with artist tape carefully laid out in stripes, and when exhibited, it is displayed unmounted, hanging as a loose print just off the wall (I like to think of it as a floating signifier). Each time this piece is exhibited it will be unique (in terms of scale and tonal/color treatments) and most importantly, have a unique title specific to that exhibition context. So, for example, this ongoing gesture will debut in an upcoming exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (in Overland Park, KS which is part of greater metropolitan Kansas City). I’ve decided on a size and tonal treatment, and currently, I’m preparing a long title consisting of adjectives that have been used by historians, music critics, and musicians themselves to describe the Kansas City jazz scene as it flourished under corrupt Mayor Tom Pendergast in the last 1920s and 1930s. Additional stripes pieces in different configurations will be created over time as additional exhibition opportunities allow. This gesture treats the title field as an ongoing prompt for site-specific research–reconfiguring my conception and practice of the photographic–and applies pressure for me to evoke meaning as a literary vignette rather than a visual one.
MM: In your more recent work photography is present but takes a very different role. For example, in The Search a photograph is specifically not taken, providing a sense of privacy. In Phase 1 Live Archive photos are used as a reference to create physical objects. Do you feel that you try to intentionally keep one foot in photography when working on these projects? Almost like you can’t quit the medium.
JL: For me, photography is best approached with one foot inside the medium and one outside. Think about what we learn about photographs from Warhol or Richter for example. The Phase 1 Live Archive is, in part, about photography–we have a narrative-resisting phenomenon like Occupy Wall Street (OWS), it is presented online as a kaleidoscope of moving image clips and jpegs, and that reportage is then juggled by various powers to further a point of view. In the studio sessions and public workshops I’ve conducted to build this archive, we start with reportage in the form of a jpg (a lossy image) and rebuild it into a three-dimensional object again. The process is basically a sort of inverse photography that opens up the creation of literal and semiotic signs. Participants, by rebuilding these signs (including signs of wear and tear found in the original jpg) understand more deeply what it is to construct a literal and semiotic sign, the economy of protest materials (how can I speak loudly, cheaply, with power? how can I build solidarity?), and importantly their reading of the signs are significantly slowed (can you imagine someone looking at a jpg for an hour, which is the typical time to re-construct an OWS sign?).
Phase 1 Live Archive, Contemporary Jewish Museum, 2013
The Search is a complicated project–in short it’s a ziggurat-shaped stage-sculpture partially inspired by this Walker Percy passage in his 1961 novel The Moviegoer:
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
The outside is for curated public programming, the inside is for curated two-person conversations that are unrecorded (curated pairs simply sign a ledger that confirms they participated in the project):
The outside of the sculpture becomes a palimpsest of footsteps, artist interventions, and more depending on the curated programming that happens there. The inside is pointedly unrevealing visually and allows for the exchange of knowledge and ideas to happen privately and in situ–perhaps those ideas/conclusions may or may not radiate outward from that conversation. In the first iteration of The Search I curated many two-person conversations of Chicagoans who often did not know each other and programmed five public programs for the outside steps. Starting this summer for a year long tenure, The Search will be hosted by The Luminary Arts Center in St. Louis and, according to the project’s parameters, they will be responsible for curating both the public programming and the private, two-person, unrecorded conversations to happen inside.
MM: Many times in socially engaged art works there are meaningful interactions and conversations that need to take place for the projects to be realized. Some see this as a part of the artwork that needs to be communicated to a broader audience, often with great difficulty. How do you handle this aspect of your projects? Do you share them in artist talks, with friends or curators while speaking about the work?
JL: These kind of practices turn artist lectures, interviews, conversations, etc into part of the work itself. They are less annotation or addendum and more performance sans persona (at least in my case)!
MM: I have had one of your Try Harder posters that you give away hanging above my studio computer for a couple of years now. For me it functions very much in the way that I understand you intended it to–as a daily motivator. In Too Hard to Keep people are sending you photographs and in return getting an emotional release (I realize that is an oversimplification). How do you think about gift and exchange in your work?
JL: That’s a great question. The Try Harder posters are about creative culture camaraderie and are a sort of philanthropic gesture (btw, i just moved if anyone wants a Try Harder poster, please send an 8×10” self addressed stamped envelope to jason lazarus, 1516 n Kedzie #3, chicago IL 60651). I like the idea of art that has real value for the receiver while being free–the posters are a foil for other works of mine that are printed at significant sizes, in small editions, for prices at odds with your typical artist income. In my other projects that operate on some sort of exchange, the goal is simply to leave your collaborators and audiences with a good taste in their mouth. Baudelaire has this great quote that addresses this obliquely perhaps:
One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters; that’s our one imperative need. So as not to feel Time’s horrible burden that breaks your shoulders and bows you down, you must get drunk without ceasing. But what with? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.
There is an entire economy I’m constantly involved with that has nothing to do with money but more with poetics and poetic exchange–which leaves me with the question that faces other artists and their audiences as well–what are the myriad ways we can get drunk together?
(born 1975) is a Chicago based artist, curator, writer, and educator who received his MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2003.
Selected recent solo exhibitions include Jason Lazarus: Chicago Works at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Live Archive at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and THTK (Toronto) at Gallery TPW in Toronto, CA.
Jason is a Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Chicago Artist Writers, an online art criticism platform. Throughout 2013 and 2014 he will be screening internationally a feature length film comprised entirely of animated GIFS called twohundredfiftysixcolors, a collaboration with Eric Fleischauer. http://jasonlazarus.com/
is an artist and photographer based in San Antonio, TX. His work explores diverse subjects through photography, stories and found objects while emphasizing dialogue and collaboration. www.markmenjivar.com<