OPP: What is your relationship to documentary photography?
BRS: I began my career as a photojournalist working for the Knight Ridder Newspaper Corporation. So journalism and documentary photography are at the foundation of how I work artistically. I began my approach to art making by telling stories. These stories always had factual elements to them. I use that perspective as an entry point for most of my work. If I am telling relevant stories, I must think like a journalist. It’s not all about my vision or perspective, though that is definitely part of it. Any journalist that tells you otherwise isn’t being honest. But as journalists, we do try to remove our perspective as much as possible. I am no longer a photojournalist, so I incorporate more of my perspective into my work. I still leave the narrative open, so that the viewers can apply their own personal experience to the experience of the artwork. I also want to make my work an easy “read," but allow for there to be several layers to it as well. So while there are elements on the surface that people can easily recognize and relate to, there are also a variety of issues and questions raised upon further reflection. As I mentioned, I like for there to be significant factual elements in my artwork. I think that makes the work more relevant and more engaging. However, I believe it is important use one's imagination to build on the elements of life we experience on a daily basis.
OPP: Although I don't think I took an official prom picture, I fondly remember the the classic laser background from the 1980s. Are you using the contemporary equivalent in your portraits?
BRS: I create all the backgrounds based on conversations with each school’s student government. So the background represents that school and their students. The students are encouraged to express themselves in a commemorative fashion. These are not typical prom photos in the sense that the youngsters are allowed to pose however they would like. I encourage them to be creative, but also to be thoughtful because these pictures will represent them for years to come. I am very interested in how identity is formulated, expressed and perceived at the start of adulthood. The prom is still the first official adult night out for many young people in America.
BRS: Performance is a very interesting aspect of identity. We all have a way of wanting to be perceived by others. We perform these aspects of identity on a daily basis. We perform a different identity for our parents, than for our children, than for our business associates, than for our significant others. This becomes more clear when you think of celebrities who have a “public” persona versus a “private” persona, but we all perform identity for the different communities we are a part of and in different situations. This aspect of identity is amazing to me. I think you can see it very clearly when you examine young people performing their adult identity for the first official time and in a commemorative fashion.
However, the performance of identity can also be very subtle. I like examining identity and how it is performed by looking at explicit and implicit forms of this performance. Someone recounting their personal history for example, like in West Baltimore Lives, is more explicit. Recording someone’s favorite song and a memory they want to share, like in my boombox project Got The Power, is a bit more implicit. The way identity is performed is also interesting when you examine people’s preconceived notions about specific performances. A classic example would be racial profiling like in the Trayvon Martin case. You not only have George Zimmerman racially profiling Trayvon and it resulting in Trayvon’s death, but the police department participating in a similar form of profiling, where they didn’t think it was important to conduct a proper investigation, because Zimmerman’s “story checked out." Both the performance of identity and the perception of that performance can be extraordinarily informative.
OPP: You make a good point about the continuum of the perceptions of identity: on the one end, are the ways we perceive ourselves and choose to participate in performing our racial, cultural and gender identities and, on the other end, is the space of stereotype and prejudice, in which others are perceiving us and making judgements about our performances. In general, I would say your work focuses on the first end of the spectrum. Do you agree? Is that a conscious choice on your part?
BRS: To some degree, yes. I believe it fosters more critical thought and self reflection to allow people to realize their preconceptions on their own. It tends to resonate more when they discover it themselves as opposed to being told by an exterior force. That is why a lot of my work is designed so that it is activated by the viewers' personal experiences. When someone looks at an image from Our Kind of People and realizes they feel similarly about the white guy in the suit as they do about the black guy in the hoody, that means something to them. That is not something I can tell them, or even show them; it's something that they must come to on their own. Similarly, if someone hears a story in one of the Got The Power mix tapes that is similar to a memory they have, or they hear a song in the mix tape that is meaningful to them, they feel a certain connection or kinship with the community that created that mixtape. Somewhere in their mind they feel as if "they are like me." This feeling can't be evoked by showing them facts or statistics.
My work focuses more on the 1st part of the spectrum you describe than on the 2nd for this reason. But I also feel this is the more interesting aspect of the spectrum. It's at the core of individual identity, and, as Americans, we emphasize the individual so much. The other end of the spectrum is interesting as well, because it does not always manifest itself in overtly negative ways. Preconceptions aren't as simple as being good or bad. We need to understand them, why they exist and where they come from. We perform identity based on our roles in various communities. At the core of my work, I am fascinated by how people interact, both in the socializing we do on a personal level and in the social systems we create. Ultimately the way we envision ourselves dictates how we create and participate in these social systems and personal interactions. I think it is something that is at the core of how we evolve as humans.
OPP: You mentioned Got the Power, which is a public installation, sculpture, oral history, mix tape and a tumblir blog, all rolled into one. It's my favorite piece, by the way. There have been several incarnations of the piece in different locations, each one documenting the people of that community through their stories and the songs they contribute to the mix tape. Could you talk about why you chose the form of the boombox tower?
BRS: The boombox is an iconic object. So even younger people who never actually used cassette tapes recognize the boombox as an icon of traveling music. Personally, I believe there is also recognition of the boombox as an icon of community music. Remember, the proverbial B-Boy or B-Girl with the boombox was not only playing music for himself or herself. They were really playing music for everyone else in the vicinity, even though that wasn’t always by request. So taking this iconic item and using it as a vehicle for creating portraits of different communities through audio just seemed perfect to me.
The process of collecting the boomboxes was just as interesting as collecting the songs and stories. Next time I do this project I will document that process, too. Collecting the boomboxes can be rather expensive, so I always had to be very creative in order to stay on budget. The cost of boomboxes is actually the most significant obstacle to doing this project in more locations. However, I do have plans to expand this project to more locations in the coming year. Anyway, when collecting boomboxes, I find myself researching online and traveling to a bunch of different thrift stores, places that have old electronics, meeting boombox collectors, etc. I come across all types of people in search of them. The aesthetic works the best when the boomboxes are the classic ‘80s-looking boomboxes, but it also interesting to include a wide variety of them. I have seen people stare at the sculptures and count how many different models of boombox in the sculpture they actually owned.
OPP: I particularly love the idea of defining the diversity of a community through the musical tastes of its members. It's really interesting to think about the idea of how race, class, and gender affect our musical tastes, but because there are no images of the people, we have to wonder about our assumptions. I'd love to hear more about the process of collecting the contributions from the members of the communities. What are some of the challenges of making community-based work like this?
BRS: The biggest challenge is getting people to take the time to talk to me about their favorite song(s) and to take the time to share a memory with me. The average person doesn’t always understand that contemporary art can exist within their daily life, so explaining that you are doing an art project doesn’t always register, especially when it's a community-based, public art project. People tend to think art exists in a museum or a gallery, and often they don’t feel like they understand contemporary art.
The first time I did this project is was a commission for the Laundromat Project in Washington Heights. The sculpture was in a laundromat, so I would talk to people while they did their laundry. Even with that type of “captive" audience, it was challenging. I actually didn’t get anyone to share memories with me. I did get songs though. Interestingly enough, I originally had planned on this project being directly interactive, where people could actually walk up to the sculpture and play whatever they wanted. I soon realized that, even with the proper signage, people weren’t likely to do it. So I decided to take a more archival approach where I had people write their favorite songs on a list, and then I went out and got those songs for the “mixtape."
OPP: Was it easier to get people to participate in any of the other locations?
BRS: In Baltimore, collecting the stories was much easier. I worked with a colleague of mine, Raquel DeAnda, and we combined Got The Power with the West Baltimore Lives project. We used the music part of this one a little differently and had local musicians score the people’s stories about their memories. Collecting boomboxes in Baltimore was much easier than in New York. In Minnesota, it was the first time I created the boombox sculpture outside. So there were significantly different issues related to construction and weatherproofing. However it was great to be able to build on such a large scale! The Minnesota version was created for Franconia Sculpture Park and is still currently installed. So yay! It made it through a Minnesota winter. Since this version was in a sculpture park, I simply would talk to a variety of visitors and collect their favorite songs. This was probably the easiest place to collect songs. You know Minnesota people have that “Minnesota Nice” thing going. Collecting the stories was a little more difficult but not as challenging as in Washington Heights. I used an iPhone app to record all the stories and made sure I mixed them creatively and tried to make there be a correlation between the music and what specific memory was being shared. The other thing about Minnesota that worked to my advantage was that I was in a place, Franconia Sculpture Park, where people came to in order to experience art outside of a gallery. The park has a pretty good reputation in the Twin cities area, so most people I approached were pretty receptive. Therefore, the Minnesota Mixtape was the longest and most extensive. When I did the installation at the New Museum at the Festival of New Ideas, we basically moved the installation from the Laundromat Uptown to the New Museum. This was another case—maybe it’s New York—when I couldn’t get people to record memories. But people were very willing to share songs. Another aspect of this project that is very time consuming is tracking down the different songs people request. Though it is also kind of fun. The mixing is somewhat time consuming, too.
All in all, Got the Power is a very fun project to work on. I think people will find it interesting to listen to the various mixtapes and compare and contrast the musical tastes of people from different regions. Some of what people hear may be surprising.
I am also very excited about some upcoming photographing I am doing for my Gatling (America) project. I really like where this project is going and feel it can start some very needed discussions about guns and the role violence plays in humanity. These last two projects are not brand new, but there is still much work to be done one them.