Seth Price: “Working with Energies”
Seth Price on absent bodies, social codes and the schizophrenia of images. A conversation with Monika Bayer-Wermuth.
Seth, you were born in 1973, part of the last generation that grew up without the internet and smartphones. How did, in the early 2000s, the computer become a central part of your practice as an artist?
I actually didn’t own a computer at the time, but I was around a computer at work. It was a tool that was available for me there. I was trying to make art out of nothing, really, since I didn’t own any property, didn’t have a computer, didn’t have a studio and couldn’t afford art materials. So in that context working with freely available information and images was one of the only options that was available me.
How did you come to employ such a broad range of techniques?
I started with drawing from very young age. Before I could write. And I have a lot of interests and absorb things into my work. I tend to understand things by using them as materials in the work and maybe misreading them, converting them, manipulating them, and even destroying them sometimes. It is a way to understand something by fighting with it. You can also say it has the violence of an erotic relationship. A sensual relationship when it comes to material, and a perverse relationship when it comes to meaning. Once this becomes a way of grasping something that you are attracted to, repulsed by, or thinking about, then anything can come into art. It is only founded on interest.
Especially since there are so many methods and media circulating in your work, I would love to hear a little bit about your process…
The process is always about experimentation with material. Whether it is plastic or wood or data, (in the case of the collector website), it is always about experimenting with processes and manipulations of material. I’m not really thinking about the connotations. I think if you are working with materials, information and ideas in a way that is sensitive and human and full of repulsion and attraction and all these forces and energies then of course you are going to collect ideas. Almost as if you drag something sticky through the dirt. It collects things. But I can’t think about the process when I’m working on art. That’s like the enemy of art. I’m just trying to work with energies and my own feelings about these materials. And if you can freeze the energies in the artwork, then of course naturally ideas come along. Sometimes they are stupid ideas, but you can’t avoid them.
A work that always fascinates me is the “Vintage Bomber” (2006). It is part of your series “Vacuum Sculptures”. In a way it freezes something that is usually in flux, it creates an imprint of a certain moment. What is the story behind that sculpture?
I had been making “Vacuum Sculptures” out of human body parts. And those I cast. I made moulds and casts in my studio. And I thought I would try to step away from the body in that direct way and work with something that refers to the body. That’s why clothing was interesting to me, and also the codes in clothing. For example, the fact that the bomber jacket is originally a military jacket worn by fighter pilots. It seemed it has a lot of ways into the work and out of the work. There wasn’t one entry and one exit.
When I see a bomber jacket, I usually associate it in the first place with punk culture or other subcultures, and see its identity as a fashion object more than its military origin… What role does that story of the object play in the work?
I like that it is the military connotation which originally allows it to become attractive to youth subcultures. And then they claim it. And then the recoding of it in subcultures – the way you are reading it – that makes it then attractive to all kinds of designers to make very high priced versions. These codes are getting picked up and carried along.
When the jacket is hanging downwards it always looks like a pistol…
(laughs) I know what you mean. That was not on purpose. I just arranged it. I had to freeze it somehow to work on it. I had to paint it with shellac to make it entirely hard and I had to cut the back off so it had a flat relief quality. It had to be processed heavily.
And the year 2006? Why was it important for you to have the date so present on the object?
Because first you have something that is very suggestive. You could say it’s an image. And you already have suggested some readings or energies in this image. So clearly it suggests things and provokes things. And then you have another kind of information which is numbers, a date. It’s quantitative. It doesn’t suggest, it tells you something very concrete. The image is not quantitative, it is extremely qualitative. And the numbers are a different order of information. With the date of production, you give somebody something extremely concrete, almost tautological. I don’t know why I did it in the moment, but it just felt right putting together an artwork which caused energy, tension, friction. It opened the doors.
The “Image Rights Style Bag” (2012) also contains a kind of antagonism. The work looks like an envelope but then a sleeve is coming out on one side of the object. Not only its pattern from the logo print also its unstable appearance is reminiscent of clothes. How do you think these aspects together?
The work is a soft sculpture. It’s variable, in that it can be installed in a lot of different ways. It’s something that I started playing around with in these plastic mylar works in 2005. The work can be reconfigured every time. The image rights envelope could be a flat work on the wall but it can also be piled on a platform. Something that you can keep on figuring out. When it is piled on a platform it is more like discarded clothes on the floor of a bedroom. And these image rights, this Corbis logo, I just love this logo. It looks good and I figured there is just something about how words came back into clothing in the biggest possible way after the 90s. The incorporation of language as something abstract, not just as a logo, was something that felt interesting to me. I just wanted it to be part of that.
This idea of instability or variability has something ephemeral to it, something the works from the “Silhouettes Series” have as well. The templates for the outlines are taken from Google image search results for eating, speaking, and communication. So they are showing scenes of human interaction, but the bodies are pictured purely through the space between them. They themselves are physically not represented. Why did you choose to keep these figures absent in the work?
It was a solution to the question of how to work with images. How you translate something from the immaterial world to the material world was one of the big questions of the last 15 years for artists and maybe for culture more generally. It became so pressing for people because all of a sudden everybody, especially after the introduction of social media, has a life in this immaterial space. It’s in the device in your pocket, part of you. It’s a schizophrenic feeling and it is something artists immediately started to work on. Photographs are one of these things which used to have a very material quality, because they lived on photo paper or in books as prints. In the last fifteen years they suddenly vanished. At the same time they became everything and everywhere. How you make something material but you also reflect on this problem of presence and absence, between material self and immaterial self, I think this is part of that question.
Looking at images not only with our eyes but also touching them and manipulating them on our phones became an evident part of our social media activity and culture. Even though the images are immaterial or virtual…
The relationship has become more complicated. It is not that it became completely immaterial, nor that it was completely material before. Those categories have their arms around each other and you almost can’t take them apart anymore.
I really like the moment of the kiss in this “Silhouettes” work when the form opens up, dividing the work into two parts. This is so immaterial. I would say that this is a very telling moment…
I think that it actually came out of a formal problem. If you have a form of two people touching, shaking hands or kissing and you take this negative space from around the people, the fact that they are touching necessarily creates two shapes. If you have two people who are not touching each other, you can represent the shape between them with a single continuous shape. But it was part of the challenge that it was composed of two physical pieces and if you don’t put them together in the right relationship on the wall the artwork means nothing. If they are shifted only a couple of inches you lose the image entirely. It is part of the work that you have to remake the image every time you rehang the artwork.
This idea of “absence” comes up again and again in your work. Let’s take the “Vintage Bomber” for example: the vacuum form depicts the imprint of the jacket, but the jacket itself is not there. The “Silhouettes” show scenes of human interactions that are represented through negative space. Or in the “Mylar Sculptures” that include imagery from internet-circulated Jihadist execution videos. The images in this case are there but the works are installed in a way that the images are obscured. In all of these objects, interactions or images are simultaneously present and absent. Is this a strategy you pursue deliberately?
I think it is not a strategy or a deliberate move. It comes of an inclination when I am making a work to find out what makes it interesting for me or challenging. And it has to do with putting opposed forces into the work. So it could be about immaterial and material, or it could be also about making something that is ugly but also beautiful, things that force the works against themselves. That is, for whatever reason, more alive for me as a working method than working with something unified.