28 12 2014
Interview by Christine McFetridge
There are a lot of actions we don’t think too much about on a daily basis. Taking a breath, having a conversation, or utilising technology meant to make life more convenient—turning on a light, for example. But for Daniel Shea this seemingly innocent gesture encouraged a desire to know more about its social and environmental consequences. Informed by Wolfgang Tillmans, Roni Horn, Isa Gensken and Richard Serra, to friends, peers and his background in punk, Shea’s work examines the effects of extreme industrial development and decline on communities and the landscape. Most recently, Shea released Bilsner, IL (published Fourteen-Nineteen, 2014) at the New York Art Book Fair. A pseudo-sequel to earlier work Bilsner, ILL., this new edition continues to engage with the post-industrial Rust Belt in America. Subtitled An Index of Work As Labour As Work, Bilsner, IL specifically considers the detriment of rapid de-industrialisation on the working class of a small town. Significantly, Shea opening identifies the project as a work of fiction. Bilsner, as a geographical location, doesn’t actually exist. Rather the series is a construction of various points of reference that borrow from different places that aren’t imaginary; manipulating the mythologising processes of history for a greater social cause.
What initially motivated your interest in documenting mining and the post-industrial Rust Belt?
Years ago the first major project I made was a straightforward social documentary project about the coal industry, and it really started with a basic proposition. I was interested in what was behind an everyday gesture like turning on a light switch. For me, and many other people, we’re really far removed from the processes that create the energy that allow us to do things like that. I was living on the east coast of Maryland at the time and through some research discovered that coal was being mined, mostly in West Virginia, and that’s what we were using to generate our electricity. I was also investigating the history of landscape depiction in photography and painting and decided that I would go to West Virginia and live there and make a project about the changing landscape as it was affected by the coal industry because of surface mining. And it became an obsession from there.
There’s been a deliberate shift in your image making from the coal work to Bilsner, in terms of pictures made in that landscape tradition to pictures that are tightly cropped and induce a feeling of claustrophobia, and where the imagery operates more as metaphor and recurring motif. What considerations in the decision-making process lead to this?
I wanted to make a work that felt like it was authored almost by an entirely different person to my first book. So one of the first things I could do was photograph in a different format with different tools. The whole book is basically photographed with 35mm film and an extremely telephoto lens. I thought this would be an interesting way to undermine the landscape – to photograph everything with a tool that is meant to condense space in this claustrophobic way and render a descriptive type of image. There’s only two proper landscapes in the entire book, and one is on a mural, because it’s meant to feel claustrophobic, it’s meant to condense space and it’s meant to describe surfaces more than anything.
In creating the fiction of Bilsner, did you want to acknowledge that ultimately anything a photographer constructs (in a narrative, documentary format particularly) has a fictional element or is a work of fiction by nature of its intentional construction? Or was it separate to this? Why did you decide to openly identify the work as fictitious?
I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of a general philosophical line of enquiry. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction is pretty arbitrary and it’s something that is pretty rigidly applied to documentary photography and literature. Writers have been talking for a long time about that and I think it’s still an interesting move to make as a photographer, because there’s a little bit of a push back, but on top of that what I was really interested in with fiction was the ability to recreate the kind of mythologising processes of history. I was interested in understanding how these kinds of grand narratives are told about a place and an industry over time and how the specificity is lost. If I could successfully convince somebody that all the pictures in this book are about a single place and that they condense some type of chronology about this place, then for me I’m able to render that process. So fiction, I’ve said this a lot, but I think fiction is a device more than anything. I don’t think politics get lost in translation, I don’t even think a certain type of specificity gets lost in translation but it allows the artist and the audience to reframe the work and reroute their expectations of what the work is about or what this place is about.
The passing of time, and how it affects your subjects, is crucially important to the photographs but you’ve also said of your work that it’s the ‘presentation of a suspended moment in time’- could you talk about how these ideas are reconciled in the work?
I think there’s two interesting ways that this book, and a lot of bodies of work in photography deal with time. They allude to the passage of time through relatively simple devices; the depiction of aged surfaces, the use of artefacts, found photography, recreating found photography or photographing the same thing multiple times in different ways. There are all these subtle, but basic, ways that photography deals with that and everything was photographed within a very specific window of time. So that’s the present moment. Even though it speaks to all these historical moments you have to believe me that the book is a book of photographs made between 2011 and 2014, which calls out photography for what it is. It’s a series of illusions. Which I think is poetic and beautiful and a very interesting way of dealing with history. I’m going there at a specific period of time in order to present a chronology.
The formal qualities in your photographic work are often very sculptural- is this reflective of your sculptural practice? Would you say there are parallels between the two, or that they’re symbiotic?
Yeah, totally. I think I qualify the sculptural work more in the language of photography than vice versa. When thinking about sculpture, I often think about the index and how to generate an interesting fiction or history of the object as it relates to its providence. Which as we’ve just talked about, photography does the same thing. So there’s a suspension of disbelief when I’m presenting you with a sculptural element. I don’t necessarily actively think about the photographic work being explicitly sculptural. I deal with objects a lot and I’m interested in their formal qualities and translating that to photography but dealing with objects sculpturally is more difficult than photographing them.
What do you mean by that?
In a basic way, you have to deal with an object in space. There are ways to control a way a viewer approaches an object in an exhibition setting or wherever but in general photography presents a very specific point of view of that object by default and so it’s an exercise in control where in sculpture you have to really deal with object in a deeply ontological way to consider how it’s presented as an object itself. You lose some of that control, it’s more difficult to make it more consistently interesting or something.
Does the photobook format appeal to you in that it is an art object?
Yeah, I’m interested in engaging with the photobook as a work and as a medium, that’s my goal. Photography serves that purpose, and that’s why in my practice photography serves the art. It’s not really much about me being a photographer. The conception of the project is how the work unfolds in a book format, which is a relatively rigid structure.
So you would conceive of a project as resulting in a book then?
That’s been the goal for five years. With the coal work I wanted to make work for the wall. That’s how I envisioned the project and then one day I would imagine maybe doing a monograph in the traditional sense, where it would contain the photographic work. But then I wanted to make books, which is totally different. I basically wrote the first book before I photographed it. I had a mock up of it, and for the most part I hand wrote the type of pictures I wanted on every page. But that was also a way to do something very different, and re-energise my practice a little bit because it was so far from where I’d come from.
How did you set about how you constructing the narrative in Bilsner, IL?
It was pretty deliberate. The first book, I don’t know, I don’t think it’s very good anymore but the idea at the time was to actually play with the photobook format and allude to different things like the monograph and research document. I wanted to use the essay in that book as a device and not necessarily in the way an essay is conventionally used. So I was interested in all these formal kind of fucking arounds in that format, and then with this book embracing the conventions of the photobook genre and starting from there just because it was a different set of problems to deal with.
And finally, what’s next for you?
I’m working on a script for a film. I’ll just leave it at that because I’m not really sure what I’m doing, but I’m working on it. It will loosely be a narrative piece about an individual citizen’s fight for land, and he’s in this bureaucratic mire in a city trying to hold on to his land. I’m also working on a photobook that deals with gender. It’s a book of portraits and that’s based in the studio. Which for me is as far away as I can get from the post-industrial landscape and still find a similar set of issues to deal with, even in these completely different contexts.