In Conversation with Ruslana Lichtzier and Ryan Coffey
Anna Shteynshleyger spent most of her life and in and out of institutions. One day, after a weekly therapy session, she found herself wandering through the halls of 26 Court, a downtown Brooklyn building she had often visited. That day, following the office’s doors that lined the walls every ten to twenty feet, she began to capture them. After about a year, she had covered them all. The findings revealed that the building is populated by legal and medical practitioners. Depending on the abbreviations next to the name, a commodification of empathy takes place on a charged-per-hourly basis. All the doors are closed. They practice, I practice. Business as usual. The customer is always right. Please pay your bill on time. These doors are the subject of Shteynshleyger’s work on view as part of DOOR at Triumph Gallery in Chicago, curated by Ruslana Lichtzier and Ryan Coffey. A transcription of the conversation is below.
RYAN COFFEY: What is a photograph, Anna?
ANNA SHTEYNSHLEYGER: Oh my god, are you kidding me? No Ryan, don’t do this to me, I can’t.
RUSLANA LICHTZIER: Anna, did you do these photographs in large format?
AS: No, this was point and shoot. It was actually two or three different cameras. It was whatever camera I had with me in my bag. Some of it was DSLR, some of it was point and shoot. It didn’t really matter what camera it was because I couldn’t use a tripod, and I had to fit it under a jacket to hide the camera. I would hover in the hallways, which are not that large. And there are multiple surveillance cameras installed that on every floor. What is a photograph, Ryan?
RC: Would you consider the series to be selfies? I take it back, don’t answer what a photograph is. That broke the internet.
AS: Me trying to answer what a photograph is? I am not surprised. I do not know what a photograph is. A photograph has to do with experience. A photograph is lots of different things that are mostly banal, and most have been written about. The process of photographing is a distancing process and it is a very strange process, one of estrangement. I think it is wrong. It is a really wrong thing to do, morally and ethically wrong. It is just not right, photographing. Photographing is transgressing in the most sincere way, I would consider photographing as a great sin. Becoming a photographer, for me, has roots in the experience of trauma, sort of a banal defense. And it goes back to the concept of a transitional object, the so-called blanky, introduced by Donald Winnicott. Today it is often found in emergency vehicles, the stuffed animals, the teddy bears. “Here hold this”—I could not go anywhere without the camera. In Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom there is a moment where the protagonist, a photographer, is making out with the camera, kisses and caresses the lens, instead of his date. The camera is a prosthetic device, an extension of the body, yet a security blanket. It is a big tit, essentially I guess. Like a large breast. In Russian there is an express “Mama birth me back.” It is an expression of horrification, of being horrified, like “Oh, dear god, please save me.” That kind of, let me be born back and leave this world. Anyway, what were we talking about? What is a photograph. A photograph goes back all the way to the transgression of an image, or, perhaps, a transgression into an image from life. But there are many ways to take this phrase. Many directions you can spin this and interpret what I’m saying, so I guess what I’m saying is that it is always context weighted.
RL: What kind of image it transgresses?
AS: It goes back to the Second Commandment of the Torah, “Thou shall not make a graven image.” There is that distance between the lived experience and the creation of this double, a surrogate, a substitute. Maybe it also goes back to self-awareness of Adam Harishon (First Man). The sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge brought on the problem of self-awareness, which brought on death as rectification. Photography’s relationship with death is similar. It is a husk, a shell. Photographs are shells.
RL: How do you connect this?
AS: Photography is evil.
RL: Anna you went out of one religion, to your new religion, which is photography.
AS: Well, they came together for me—art and religion. But not in a prescribed conventional understanding of the how religion is largely understood in contemporary society.
RL: I want to hear more about the story of creation and how you connect that to photography: it being the story of self-awareness and death, it introducing death, which is what photography is.
AS: Well, self-awareness, Adam and Eve they were naked, there was lack of self-awareness. They were completely inside themselves, not aware of themselves, there was no doubling. It was just them, they didn’t know they were naked like a child doesn’t know they are naked.
RC: Like my cat doesn’t know she has a vagina.
AS: Who doesn’t?
RC: My cat.
AS: Oh your cat. Absolutely, your cat does not know she has a vagina. I’m not sure your cat knows many things. I’m not sure I know I have a vagina. Guys know they have a penis but women need a mirror to see the whole deal. Much more complicated. It is retracted deeper inside.
RC: Are cameras a vaginal surrogate?
AS: Camera-as-vaginal surrogate…that depends. It could be, for me it always was more a penis, I guess, or an eye. I always felt that photographing is like touching things with my eyes. I forgot who coined this term; a vaginal learner—like you can be a visual learner you can be a vaginal learner.
RL: A vaginal learner? What is a vaginal learner?
AS: You experience the world with your vagina.
AS: It is a primal foundation, basic terms of engagement with the world. You have to intercourse with the world. You experience the world by transacting it, or by photographing it, or by touching it with your eyes. The camera is more of a penis than a vagina because it is an act, I act upon things, rather than… vaginas are usually pretty passive. Holes don’t really do much. Or, perhaps it is both at once, a penis and a vagina. Or an elephant trunk, like an eye-hand hybrid. Horizontal and vertical.
RC: Have you ever had sex with a woman? Vaginas are not passive.
RL: She is talking about a hole versus a phallus.
RC: You have a black hole in space. You don’t have a black penis.
RL: So what?
RC: Holes can be quite aggressive.
AS: Vaginas can swallow you up and destroy you. That’s why vaginas are way scarier and way more threatening than penises. A penis can slay you, but a vagina will annihilate you. Phalluses manifest and holes recede. A hole will take you back to pre-existence with no evidence you were ever there in the first place.
RL: I want to talk about some things. As a photographer, you operate—with 26 Court and the ATMs for example—through a repetitive action on which you are insisting. And then, at the same time, you are doing landscapes.
AS: My work is connected to performing.
RL: How do you position then, The City of the Yellow Devil?
AS: Ok, it started with the Siberian landscapes that I did in 2002. I have always been interested in binaries: black and white, high/low, good/bad, funny/sad—you know, the extremes. I am not much of a middle; if I am Jewish, I am going to be an Orthodox Jew. I’m still learning moderation. Initially the project was inspired by my teacher in 9th grade, who spent years in the labor camps. Then I read Solzhenitsyn and The Kolyma Tales by Shalamov which is an incredible document of the camp experience. Anyway, the gulag. I already lived in The States and I was thinking about the opposites, what is across the Pacific Ocean. Far East Siberia was not just coal mining land but there was also gold mining. I became interested in it lately, when I started shooting the lawyers doors, once I started thinking about value. Ok let’s just retract, one minute. So I did the Siberia work in 2002, that’s when I started thinking about opposites and binaries, and about ideas of inversion. Then twelve years later, in 2014, I started photographing ATMs, and I started thinking about value: aesthetic value, ethical value, monetary value, all these intersections and representations of value and its liquidity. That’s when I became interested in the ATM’s role of facilitating transacting with architecture. Some of these are shoved into walls of buildings. They are also very sexual. As you face them, the corpus of an ATM is between the mouth and the genitals of the user, making it a private encounter. Anyway, I started thinking about money, and money as a representation of value lead me back to gold. The particle boards came out of that as well. It’s the shittiest material, but that is a side tangent. Anyway, that lead me back to gold, and that is when I remembered my 2002 idea of inversion and how I wanted to photograph these particular opposites, the inverted relationship between the Russian far east and the American west, California, the American dream, the land of opportunity, while Russian’s Far East, is where dreams go to die. So, there is that binary relationship. Does that make any sense at all?
RC: So, would you then consider a photograph to be a transaction?
AS: Yes, absolutely.
RC: Between whom?
AS: That is a good question. A photograph is a transaction I guess between the photographer and the photographed. In it you are making a double of reality and that becomes a surrogate of the real. In very rough terms.
RL: I think about it more as a deposit than a transaction, the photograph I mean. Because it is just there; its place in the world is strange. A transaction fulfills something.
AS: Transactions usually go both ways. My relationship with my children’s friends’ parents is purely transactional. I’ll pick up their kid if they pick up my kid.
RL: So, what is the economy of the photograph? It is a bizarre economy, it is an economy that always goes against you somehow.
AS: I have been thinking a lot about being late. I have a problem with time.
RC: I have not noticed.
AS: Ha ha—okay, the lateness, I realize that I don’t know if it makes any sense. Lateness is like hoarding but temporal. If photographing is an act that is between the temporal and the spatial, photography is located at the intersection of spatial and temporal hoarding. Not letting go of present moment, wanting to remain in it. Procrastination is common name for it.
RL: Oh my god, this is crazy. It is amazing that you did it. It is an amazing leap that makes total sense, instead of hoarding objects you are hoarding time.
AS: I realized. Believe me, it has been a problem my whole life—I have a problem letting go of things too. I had to get rid of stuff because of moving, and I had ten huge bags of stuff. I have recurrent dreams of schlepping things from one place to another. And why am I late, well I’ve also been thinking about hoarding, and I mean, it used to be in the DSM as one of the anxiety disorders, but then they took hoarding out of it. But it is like wanting to curl back into the womb and surround yourself with amniotic fluid and stay in the dark. So photography is the intersection of spacial and temporal hoarding, it is both. Yeah that’s anxiety. Like a protest, as in “stop all this.” Incidentally, darkrooms are dark and wet. All of us photographers, over a certain age, spent a significant amount of time in dark and damp environments. Or at least in the past we did.
RC: That makes perfect sense. I am going to pause it and ask something else. With the proliferation of cell phones and the ability to photograph constantly, the capturing time role of the photographer all of the sudden changes. Everyone now has the ability to do that. We are having this societal anxiety of time disappearing. So, where is the photographer in society? Because the whole fucking internet is photographs.
AS: In the art discourse, the photographer, to use Dani Bauer’s phrase, “puts his work on the couch” for critique. Normal people who just produce pictures, like masturbation, it just goes out there in the ether, whereas we…
RC: You sound like a painter at the beginning of the late-nineteenth or twentieth century talking about photography.
RL: I’m not sure, what I hear in what you are saying is that there is a difference between doing an act in private and insisting on doing this act in public; insisting on reflecting on it, and creating discourse around it. To take the same act to the extreme…
AS: Yes, exactly. Because with photography, we take the pictures and then we take it all the way through. Then we look at the pictures, we see what we are seeing, and we analyze what we are seeing. Lee Friedlander was asked once, what do you photograph? And he said “I have no idea until I see the pictures.” You do not really know what you are looking at until the pictures reveal it to you. The camera works in reverse; it shows you what is inside of you instead of what is outside. It’s an unconscious thing, it’s a compass, the arrow points north, you can use the camera like a compass. Only in reverse. When I started photographing ATMs and I finished the Eastlake Terrorce work, I was like “now what?” I have no idea what I am going to do. So, you go back to the basics, to the sketchbook. You take the camera, you go for a walk, day after day after day after day. And then I noticed a deposit box and took a picture of it without thinking about it. When I came home I was like “oh my god, deposit box, what the hell?!” That’s when I am like, “Oh is that what I am really thinking about?” It’s like a dream, when you wake up and realize that the dream revealed truer reality to you than you were willing to admit.
RL: It is a complete reverse. Lacan said, I think something like, “You dream reality, you live in a dream.”
RC: Let’s get eaten by money.
AS: Eaten by money? I love that. Oh yeah! So going back to the doors in Court 26, that came out of the liquidity of time, the representation of value, the billable hours, and all that crap. Quantification of empathy, “I’ll have a dollar twenty-five of empathy please.” You know what I am saying? Is it all a self-portrait? Of course, it is. But then, anything we do is.
RC: So, I missed a session with my therapist yesterday and I get charged for it. If I did not do my job, I would not get paid for it. If I did not show up, if I was supposed to meet a client to talk about doing a carpentry job or something, and they did not show up, I wouldn’t be able to charge them 100 dollars. Somehow, this person who is supposed to help me mentally and emotionally can charge me if I do not come.
AS: I know, it is unbelievable! It is a brothel, the whole building, 26 Court, is a brothel, the legal industry. It is unreal. It resembles certain aspects of visual art. It is almost as bad, because musicians and athletes, you know, actually have to manifest a skill, they cannot really fake it.
RC: We do not have Auto-Tune yet though.
RL: Yes, we do, Contemporary Art Daily is the Auto-Tune of art.
RC: I tell my students, “I don’t actually care if you do the project and it is not what I asked you to do, as long as you can lie about it correctly.” If they are doing that well, I think you did a good job.
AS: The is fascinating relationship between high and low. Artists can be charlatans, and artists can be prophets and visionaries. It’s a spectral phenomenon. In antiquity there were schools for prophets, you could get MFA in prophesizing. You could be a good prophet or a bad prophet. You can be a good artist and a bad artist.
RC: Is the ATM a good prophet or a bad prophet?
AS: Prophecy? I have no idea; I do not know if what I am doing is art. I think I make art. Art is when something comes into being that wasn’t originally there. Like the Golem, you speak into it and it comes alive and talks back to you.
RC: Back to what you were saying before, charlatans make art.
DOOR, the group exhibition of Dan Devening, Greg Bae, Jeff Prokash and Anna Shteynshleyger ran at Triumph Gallery was on view February 24–March 26, 2017.