I spoke with Tom Souzer recently after we asked him to capture photographs of the Bunker Projects board at work. Our conversation was about his process and experience as a photographer working predominantly in and with Downtown Pittsburgh as environment and subject.
Reese McArdle: Tom, what compels you to shoot?
Tom Souzer: I think there are a few things that compel me to shoot. The main one is to document what's around me whether it be a strange moment or a fleeting scene. I enjoy the hunt of looking for the next photo as well.
R: How do you recognize your subject, when do you know to point your camera and capture?
T: I guess the short answer is when it feels right but I guess I'm looking for some type of feeling in what I'm shooting. Whether it be a moment between a group of people, a facial expression, some type of funny, strange, or exciting scene happening in the street, I love it. It’s an addictive habit.
R: Do you know Saul Leiter?
T: I do know him, I don't know a ton of his work or have any of his books. But what I've seen I really enjoy.
R: You know he's a Pittsburgh guy? I think he's gonna he's gonna have another moment once people discover that. People in this town go crazy for people from this town.
T: Have you seen the Elliot Erwitt book of Pittsburgh?
R: Oh they're totally fantastic, yeah
T: They're so great. He just wandered all over the city. I love it. His book “Pittsburgh 1950” is incredible.
R: He catches the city at a certain point of transition and now we're at another point of transition. And you're on those same streets capturing similar scenes 70 years later. How is the city changing now?
T: It’s changed a lot. I've been here eight years now - and it seems like everything's changed. The people are different. They’re not as old. It’s a younger crowd downtown during the day and I guess to add to that some of people that are left aren't always in the best circumstances. It also seems like a lot of businesses are moving out and fancier places are moving in. I mean there's still like the OG Pittsburghers, the Yinzers and whatnot but there are less and less of them I think as time goes on. I hope Pittsburgh doesn’t lose its identity.
R: So, with your subject being people in and interacting with the urban environment I imagine you're well tuned to feel changes in people's behavior be it from seasons changing or from global pandemic... what's going on, what are you seeing?
T: People are even more to themselves than normal. There's more tension when taking photos downtown as of right now because a lot of the people left down there are sadly in a rough situation. There aren’t a whole lot of people either. I was downtown today and it was like a ghost town. I mean I made a few pictures but I think it’ll change how I do things. Social distancing and getting close to people doesn’t mix real well so I switched to a longer lens for the time being. I’ve been focusing more on signs about the pandemic, people wearing masks, photographing from the car and just in general things I wouldn’t normally look for.
Conversation recorded Monday October 21, 2019 at Bunker Projects
Jessica Beck: Hello, I'm Jessica Beck, the Milton Fine Curator at the Andy Warhol Museum and I am joined here today by Kevin Clancy, in his installation “Utopia or Oblivion” at Bunker Projects. It is Monday, October 21, 2019. Kevin, I've known you now for probably about five years, and I've always admired your practice, and because of getting to know you earlier on I've also had the pleasure of seeing how your work has evolved over time and how you've kept some of these core ideas of community and social engagement at the center of your practice, and what those concepts mean today while technology has started to intervene in our everyday lives. The installation that you did at the Mattress Factory in 2016 played upon ideas of intimacy and technology, and sort of kitsch ideas of these cat sculptures, but for me that just really enhanced this kind of idea of intimacy with the computer and kind of coziness that we now have with the computer where we take our laptops to our beds at night or use our phones as our alarm clocks and then tend to look at social media or the news or our email, so maybe you could start with the evolution from the beautiful installation that you did at the Mattress Factory and here now we have an even larger immersive space that we're sitting in at Bunker Projects and how that evolved but what are the ideas that you've taken with you since that moment.
Kevin Clancy: It's very much an evolution, and it's kind of the longest I've worked on a body of work in my life. Typically when I finish a project, I’m either bored or I just want to go in a completely different direction, so I think my work up until this point, I think there are threads, and I think you pulled out a lot of them in your introduction, but it's always been kind of like moving around from different disciplines and mediums and strategies, and this does feel like the longest I've spent with a body of work, which is kind of weird but also exciting. I think it's because it's so close to our lived experience, our daily experience, and what I'm going through, and what all of us are going through at this moment. I think there is something shared and very intimate and very communal about this experience that I think everyone kind of knows. If I can refine these gestures, I think people see themselves in it - either directly reflected in the screens, in the mirrors, of the installation or they internally recognize these gestures. So, it's definitely working with the same ideas as IRIS_SIRI, my 2016 installation at the Mattress Factory, and a lot of the materials are the same or elaborations on the materials I began using in IRIS_SIRI. I'm still using this dichroic window film, that I kind of use on everything now, that started at the Mattress Factory where I covered all the windows in that film so I had these gradient shifts of color through the filtered sunlight. I did the same kind of thing here at Bunker Projects, but I used these fluorescent vinyl films which are slightly different but there's a fluorescent pink on the front windows and fluorescent yellow on the back windows. I figured instead of using the gradient of the dichroic film on all the windows, I would break it up and a gradient across the whole space so there would be one room that was more of a pink and one room that's more of the green and they would filter into each other. They are also mimicked in these dichroic LED lights that have kind of the same spectrum from magenta to neon green, so especially in the daytime there is a gradient glow in the space, but the works themselves are also internally illuminated by the LED lights. The Mattress Factory show was a fresh take on how I experienced myself using my phone and laptop a lot more, or just the amount of screen time that I was feeling. That was 2016, and like a lot has changed since then in the world, and the way that technology can be used to confuse and control us, the way that it is monetized, the way that it's used to form psychographic profiles on us, there's a lot of crazy and weird stuff happening with tech companies. So it's the personal examination of what these technologies are doing to us physically, emotionally, and societally, and then the larger forces that are at play - looking at the utopic futures and dystopic futures that can arise from that and how it's a convoluted version of both and all times.
JB: Some of them, at least when I'm looking at them, I get this sense that they're holding a piece of sharp glass, and I don't know if you're going after this, obviously you’ve talked about the dangers of all this, but the idea of this technology having two sides to it of connecting and then also isolating people. So it’s sort of the sharp edge of this technology with the body, and the bodies are broken up into various pieces, you have floating heads and floating hands in the other room, so I'm wondering if you're thinking about how this technology is impacting our bodies? I guess a more specific question could be why have you isolated the hands, why have you focused in on the hands?
KC: Yeah, a lot of people have asked that, and to me it seems like the most direct point of connection between the body and the screen, as a portal to the internet. Fingers, even more so than hands, are highlighted as the point of connection between the physical and virtual worlds. I think a lot of it is considering where we are in time and the technological arc. In a way, I’m making these artifacts that could be looked at from a distant future - in some way asking if we will be proud of the legacy we will leave behind - just trying to get any sense of how we'll be remembered by history, if we are, what the future will hold, how this moment in time will be viewed. So part of it is thinking about speculative technologies of the future, like how small can things get, how embedded can things get, where is the line between human and machine, and will there be a moment of singularity where we become the machine? I think the screen and the hand and the finger are always pointing to that sense of separation between the body and technology, and simultaneously melting and merging into it, and the tension between those two things.
JB: There is one piece in particular that has a child’s hand, or a baby hand, which I think we talked about in the studio, which is one that I really enjoyed because there is so much now to think about with younger generations and the level at which surveillance of this technology will sort of hover over their entire life. You have young parents sort of freely putting up baby photos and every funny instance that happens in a toddler's life on their social media, and sharing these images with the world. I don't think we're at a point yet to know what dangers that might lead to, with just having that many images of yourself accessible to a vast public, let alone marketing agencies, government agencies, and any other entity that may use those materials for harm later on. So, I think that one note is subtle and sort of quiet, but it speaks really loudly with all the other adult or young adult hands that you have in the mix here. Another thing that I think is interesting, I think we talked a little bit about this in the studio as well, is your choice of display which reads to me like a marketing product or store display, somehow this cross between an Apple store and the neon of a trendier American Apparel. I'm not sure if you're thinking about the traps and the setup of marketing now with this technology, because it's interesting to me that over the lifespan of social media and what we’re consuming through these phones, the level of marketing has increased each year to the point that it's almost hard to tell the difference between marketing advertisements and images of your friends or actual news stories, so we are kind of lost now and sea of options. So, I'm wondering if you're thinking about the dangers of marketing and the display of consumer culture that's kind of taking over?
KC: Yeah, it's there, I don't think it’s as prevalent as some of the other themes. I think the grids function in that way, and I am trying to make this space that is positioned awkwardly between future Museum of Natural History and an electronics store. It’s definitely playing with what the gridwall signifies as a commercial display, but I also use it for it’s functionality and it's ease for balancing these compositions, so it's form and function. It’s a structure I haven’t gotten bored with yet. I like it aesthetically, I like how quickly I can swap objects between grids. There's something about this balancing of the grids, that each object has it’s own power, it’s own weight, it’s own frequency, and part of my job after making all the sculptures is figuring out the arrangement of them, what the different grids are about, what the content is, and how these objects coexist together. So a lot of time goes into the making of the objects, and in the back of my mind I have a sense of what piece they're for, what cluster they'll be in, and what the title of that is, but then once I'm in the space it becomes clear and things kind of just gravitate and find their way.
JB: You've brought in the element of cast faces, are they all your face?
KC: Yeah they are all mine, I couldn't ask anyone else to sit for it.
JB: Are the hands yours as well, or are they a mix?
KC: Most of them are. I have been inviting people into the studio to make new casts for this show, which has been nice. I want more diversity and more variation in the hands, and I personally like having the memory of friends embedded in the work. I've done that with other projects where I embed friends into the work, and it's nice when the work travels, or when you spend so much time with it that your friends are there with you. So it's nice for me to look around and remember the process of making each one, and who’s energy is captured in each sculpture. I don't want it to be so narcissistic that it's all my hands and all my face, so it's been really nice to open up the process to other people. There's a level of trust too; I can envision how I want the sculpture to come out, but then we're also working together to figure out what gesture makes sense to them, and then they're doing a casting for the first time so it might not even come out the way that either of us planned, so sometimes nice surprises that come from that too. Most of the early works are on my hands because I didn't want to burden anyone, or sometimes if there's a complicated pose where I know exactly how I need to wiggle out of the mold and how I need to hold the gesture I'll still do it myself. It's good to have some variation.
KC: It's actually informed the work a lot. He was my first choice to commission a sound score, and I had been listening to his new record a lot in the studio. I knew I wanted an audio element from the very beginning when I was conceptualizing the project. I also knew I wanted to cover the windows in colored film, so I knew those variables were important. So I had been listening to his record a lot while making the work in the studio, and envisioning what the work was going to feel like in the space. He sent me the first draft of this track, and it was a lot more morose and toward the Oblivion side of the ‘Utopia or Oblivion’ balance. I was thinking about that balance a lot in the making of this work, and we discussed this balance while editing the track, like what is the proper ratio? Is it a 1:1 ratio of Utopia to Oblivion, or is it a 1:3, especially given the times we are living through. I think we were both tilting toward Oblivion, and we both tried to tilt ourselves back, at least to a healthy balance between the two poles. I think the score adds such a layer of texture and focus to the work. Part of what I want to accomplish with the light environments and the sound is to create a space that is unlike the real world - that is either hyperreal or just slightly askew to the point where when you come into this building, you are not where you left on Penn Avenue and you're in a place where there are alternate possibilities and you can examine things with a different lens than you would in your typical life. I think the sound adds to that quality and it helps me to be more focused and introspective into the works.
JB: Yeah, I think it adds that dream sequence element to it because the gestures are almost set up in a sign language kind of way. Coming up the stairs you get hit by the soft glow of the light and the audio has it sort of softness about it as well, so I think it definitely adds to the immersive quality of the work.
KC: Another point of reference for both of us was the Dream House in New York, a light and sound environment by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. The MELA Foundation made it like a permanent installation. You walk up three flights of stairs, leave a small donation, and enter this pinkish purple carpeted space with a droning sound composition. That was a point of reference for both of us in terms of thinking about how the sound and the light would affect the space and yeah hopefully be inviting to people and encourage people to stay with the work for a while.
KC: I'm glad you bring it up because I sometimes, and maybe a lot of artists do, have a hard time seeing the whole body of work as being cohesive and going in the right direction. I think sometimes you just have to produce a lot of work and then step back to look at it all together and realize that it actually does make some sense. That utopian impulse has been there since the very beginning. The first project I did right after undergrad, Portable Utopia, I went to Johannesburg, South Africa and made this mobile library that I pushed around the city, which had an inflatable geodesic dome that invited people in to talk about their visions of utopia, what that word could mean in their daily lives. Then I made WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR DREAMS, the blanket fort that we were talking about earlier, which was the next iteration of that body of work of making these mobile expandable social spaces. That was a large quilted blanket fort that went on slumber party tour around New England, and then further around the country. Those projects were exploring deployable architecture, creating a space and a structure for social relationships, but in a sense creating social spaces that were completely outside the normal structures of street life or what you would typically encounter as a gathering space. I think my job as an artist was to create fantastical other spaces for people to enter and occupy that made them creative and inspired just by entering the space. The next layer was creating structures for topics and discussion, and facilitating those interactions so that it goes somewhere. In a way that part is the same, but it's not deployable architecture, it's creating new spaces inside of existing architecture with environmental modifications of the space. I think the Mattress Factory residency was a turning point because they just gave me complete freedom, they had full faith in my practice. Whatever I wanted to do would be supported and was legitimate and worthwhile, and I hadn’t really experienced that level of support up until that point. I think that's when I really delved into sculpture again, and just focused on making art instead of trying to develop a social practice component - which is still important and I still care about - but I think I was also a young artist trying to check some boxes.
JB: I think what is interesting is that the world has radically changed in the last three years. You know, the moment that you were doing the Mattress Factory project you have this sculptural pyramid of laptops with these cat sculptures sitting on top of them, and at that moment the idea of cat memes or cat videos felt very comforting and funny, and social media could still feel friendly, not so dangerous, now we've gotten in three years to a point where it's radically different our understanding of it. Social media, the way in which news and media is disseminated now, has rapidly transformed to a degree that it is now impacting democracies, not just here, but abroad as well. So in some ways it's interesting now to see you keep going with this idea of the body and technology and community, whereas in 2016 it still felt like it could be a friendly idea of sharing cat videos or watching cat videos online. Now we’ve gotten to the point where children are on social media, and what does that mean? What does it mean after you die and your material is still online? You have some of these skeleton hands mixed in here as well, but really these pieces where the screen looks like a blade in the hand, so it's really become a cutting tool, a dangerous tool in many minds, but it still remains part of our daily practice. It is interesting to think about how society has radically changed with this tool, and how the work is kind of speaking to the morbid and darker side of it because I think we're living more with the darkness of technology now.
KC: Looking back, I think the darkness was there in that work too. Much of it wasn't so explicit, it was more veiled. I used color gradients and abstracted representations of going down the wormhole of social media in those pieces, but it was very much inspired by the dark forces of police brutality that we were seeing at the time. Scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, you can't really control what comes up in your feed, and how that's going to emotionally trigger or annihilate you on a daily basis; just seeing cat videos juxtapozed with state violence in a split second it is just like such a complicated emotional process. That is our world, I think that's an accurate representation of our world. All of these things exist at the same time, and it is a form of chaos where you don't really control what rises to the surface in the flow of information. Infinite Scroll, also made during the Mattress Factory residency, was about the mindless droning of social media, how we fall into these loops where we're not even looking for anything in particular, like we kind of forget what we're even doing or why we're doing it. What is the purpose of this is for us, just chasing little moments of dopamine release? I think that balance of the dark and the bright side was always there, but maybe I was a little more optimistic at that point. I think the other thing that comes out of this moment, where things have radically changed in such a short time, is that it gives us the vision that things could radically change in the direction that we want. At this point, it would be so defeatist, to like, return to a status quo where things are just comfortable again. I think now is a time to push really hard for the things you want in the world and to believe that anything is possible if you're prepared to push for it and be committed to it. In that way, I think we live in a very profound time. Utopia or Oblivion is a bit of a mantra for me. It is a prompt to sit with each day - which future are you contributing to and how do your actions contribute to either Utopia or Oblivion?
JB: That's a beautiful thought. One of my final questions was about the title. I was going to say earlier, I don't know that it was you being more optimistic or not; I think the world, and the way in which that work is sitting in time was a little more optimistic about technology and what this means for families. Even if you think of the lifespan of Facebook, which is really not that old and just in a few years you have grandparents setting up a facebook page to follow their grandchildren. Now I think we've gotten to this point where Facebook is already in the middle of the next campaign. What is their role going to be in this election, and what is their role and legacy going to be in our democracy?
KC: All of them too, Twitter, Instagram, even the ones that nobody is really using, they're all being exploited. It's interesting to know where the CEOs of those companies lie on these issues, what their responsibilities are.
KC: Part of the process from the very beginning of conceptualizing this show was to attempt to make a show that was both utopian and dystopian at the same time; that delved into both sides and had some balance to it. I think where I wound up was more bleak and dark, but it is always kind of both at the same time. There is a piece in the show called dark web bright web, and in some ways I can't even tell which one is which anymore. I intended for them to be very distinct; that one was clearly dark web and one was clearly bright web, but dark web actually has more of these radiant screens and these radiant mirrors. It is kind of jumbled and confusing and complex. There is no clear delineation in these boundaries, but I do think that's an accurate reflection of the world. It is confusing and messy and many things at once and hard to name, so in some ways it is like a reflection of the time and experience. I think with more time and focus maybe I can just refine that, and continue to provide an open mirror so that everyone who sees this work and participates in this conversation isn’t steered or push too hard into one direction. It remains very much open to everyone's internal feelings about these topics. I'm shaping it, and I'm giving my experience of it, but then it's also completely determined by who's coming at it from what angle. I think I couldn't continue to refine it. I’m always aiming to make work that is more bright and uplifting so that people leave the show excited and ready to put in the hard work, and not to be completely beaten down by it. So, I think that's ultimately what I want; I want levity and I want brightness.
JB: Well, I think that is a beautiful idea that maybe we should end on. I just want to say that it's just been really nice to watch you evolve over this time, and to become more immersed in some of these ideas, and more confident with the ideas, and to see you still experimenting and still reaching with the work. That's been really nice to see, and I'm excited to see what comes next with it. Maybe one day you will bring back the social practice element again back into the work, but I am inspired by how you still maintain a positive, warm environment even when you're dealing with heavy and darker issues of technology. I'm excited to see where you're going to go, Kevin Clancy. I just want to say that I think Bunker Projects is doing a great job here in Pittsburgh, and giving artists like you this opportunity - just like the Mattress Factory historically did - to give someone a blank canvas, and let them do what they needed to do as an artist, and I can only hope that arts institutions continue with that kind of leadership.