Their photographs, almost always created in series, interrogate stereotypical images of women from fine art, popular culture and media.
By taking turns in front of and behind the camera, they raise questions, not just about representations of women, but about women’s role (and power) in the artistic process. In this interview, they provide some insight into their collaborative working process.
Sharon Mizota for NUEVA LUZ: Why do you work collaboratively?
WILKA: Working independently I am stuck in the role and position of artist and photographer, whether behind the camera or in front of it. It is only through collaboration that those roles can be separated and given a voice. You could say I began collaborating so that I might split myself into two, so that together we may play both roles and be in both positions at once, and therefore better articulate those very separate but interrelated perspectives in the process of art making. From there, we discovered that working collaboratively we tap into concepts and ideas beyond our expectations and original intentions, and that sharing that process of art making informs and strengthens our projects. The collaboration becomes an entity unto itself, a third party with its own agenda that we consider, respect, and pursue.
TARRAH: I think there tends to be this myth about visual artists: that we exist in some kind of hermetically sealed bubble, alone in our studio, eating paint and waiting for an epiphany in order to tap into the creative genius that flows through our veins. Well, it never worked like that for me. I need people. I need a community and I don’t think that just because I choose to live in Vermont and not New York that I can’t have this. The art I make and the people I tend to gravitate towards are also not in New York, but all over the place. So, I collaborate as a way to make my own community, as way to be around people that think like me and make the kind of art I want to see in the world. Wilka was my friend first and then we had a “crazy” idea—hey, let’s make art together. We dance together; we eat together; we have a similar circle of friends; we think alike, so why not? Musicians do it all the time, right? I think I am jealous of musicians that way. I wanna be in an “art” band…ha!
NL: How would you describe your process?
W: Our process is structured to some extent as we start out on any given project or idea. We research our ideas and topics extensively, together and separately. We report to each other and discuss our research and ideas over email and on the phone. This gives us a rough outline of possible projects.
Once we’re ready to execute our ideas, the process becomes a lot more organic, intuitive and spontaneous. This part we do when we get together. We place ourselves in the context and circumstances, with our ideas and concepts, costumes, props and equipment, and then we respond to all of that and to each other through the work we make. This is the core of the collaboration.
On the more practical side of the process, we “divide and conquer.” Our individual strengths and skills are very complementary, so we each take care of different aspects of production, management, etc.
T: Wilka Is BY FAR more organized and detail oriented than I am. I tend to think of her photographic style as being more responsive to the idea than the actual physical spaces we shoot in. I’m more “intuitive” in my own process and as an individual photographer I have always been interested in the photograph as an object of beauty. So I tend to shoot in a completely different style—more focused on formal issues, responsive to space and light. So when we come together, we’re great! I am able to channel what would normally be more “unfocused energy” on an actual GOAL (set by both of us) and Wilka is able to “let go” in the shooting process. This translates into an open, healthy working relationship and a balance between the idea and the aesthetics of the image itself. We can get SO much work done in such a little amount of time! I think the reason is because we’re BOTH focused and organic. I seriously am surprised sometimes that we get along so well. We’re opposites in many ways and yet this works.
NL: Do you ever disagree? and if so, how do you resolve those disagreements?
W: Yes, as individuals we disagree, and we go through the human process of talking, listening, and coming to an understanding. Funnily enough, most of the time when we think we are in disagreement it turns out we are actually talking about similar things and just expressing them very differently. It might take us a while to get that, and that process ultimately improves the original point of departure. It is interesting, though, and reassuring that in collaborating there is room for many different perspectives and ideas, and what we do is figure out how to integrate those different elements into our process and our project. And when we are working, we usually don’t interrupt the process, we try a lot of different things and make critical decisions later.
T: Yes, of course we disagree. Ariel Shanberg at the Center for Photography at Woodstock brought up an interesting point to us about collaborations. He said, “Eventually everyone wants to be the rock star.” I suppose ego has a lot to do with this statement and ego has a lot to do with the reason why many working relationships ultimately fail. I think Wilka and I have something very special because we’ve found a way to BOTH be rock stars. In fact, Wilka tells me this on a regular basis! She’ll call me with some news about a show or panel talk we’ve been asked to do and she’ll think it’s the BEST thing ever. “Tarrah, we rock!” she’ll say. I respect this about Wilka and the fact that she is genuinely a positive person and has a confidence and energy that is just so addictive. I love this. I feed off this energy. It’s exciting to be making art with her and exciting just to be her friend. I remember a particular conflict while in residence at CPW and we got to this breaking point where we had just been working too long, and both were exhausted, and feeling tension. Ultimately it had nothing to do with the work itself, we just needed a break—we’re human. So, I think we went for a bike ride and then to the movies that day and that is how we “resolved” the issue.
NL: What does it mean to be women photographers when women are more often in front of the camera than behind it?
W: An integral part of our collaboration is that we embody and give agency to both positions. One of the reasons we started collaborating was our shared experience with the stereotypical response to works by women artists that perpetually, if indirectly, place the woman in the preferred (more tolerable?) position of object/subject rather than agent/artist. We’re talking about the negative connotations constantly reaffirmed that works made by women artists are nostalgic, aesthetically pleasing, self-indulgent and overburdened with emotion. We wanted to take a stab at that through our work.
T: This question is the same one we continually ask ourselves through the work itself. Part of the reason this work exists is because even before we started collaborating we shared a similar critical experience as a reaction to our own independent work. A well-respected critic gave us the same exact critique using the same exact phrase, “As many women who turn the camera on themselves, your work is overburdened with emotion.” This sent us on a search to understand WHO we are as artists NOW. As we researched, as we archived, as we analyzed both historical and contemporary images of women we simply had more questions. Our collaboration became grounded in our interest in the complex relationships that exist between artistic intention, responsibility, and power. We are constantly asking ourselves what it means to be an artist today—women, collaborative, minority. The work we do is all about asking these questions and perhaps finding the answer in the visual language and the rhetoric behind both historical and contemporary photographic images.
NL: How important is it that viewers know that you are the ones taking (as well as posing in) the pictures?
W: This is an essential element in our project, and I hope that at least this part is obvious in the constant repetition throughout the series. In all of our works, we are ourselves as Tarrah and Wilka as well as stand-ins to represent the various aspects that we are exploring. We are using ourselves as well as acknowledging the power of the artist/photographer, the subject/model, and the art object.
T: It is absolutely essential for the same reasons Wilka lists above. I think it is quite obvious as well.
NL: Are you concerned that your work might reproduce the stereotypes and tropes that it critiques?
W: At first we were. But the way we designed each of the series in our project and how they relate to each other was our solution. We feel strongly that the work within the context of our collaboration goes beyond the stereotype and that our critique of it is what persists. The strategies we employ in our project are meant to support our intention to disrupt and interrupt the passive consumption of the image.
T: The work is entirely dependent on the language of the archive—the images hold meaning through their relationship to one another, through the multiple, through repetition. I think if you extract one image out of context then you can argue that it may in fact reproduce stereotypes, but that is why the project is simply NOT about the singular image, but rather about a sort of aggressive repetitiveness that ultimately breaks down the belief system that underlies it.
NL: What are you working on now?
W: We’re examining the art institution. We started thinking about doing this as we were getting ready to do our residency at the Center for Photography at Woodstock last summer. We presented our ideas to the wonderful and supportive staff of CPW and we were lucky enough to get connected with the Samuel Dorsky Museum in New Paltz [they house CPW’s photographic collections]. With their permission we were able to begin this exploration through performance and documentation, and this lead to the start of our series “Aftermath.”
T: Literally, we did so much work at our residency last summer at CPW that we’ve been involved in post-production for several months. We’re looking forward to making new work with a scheduled live performance that will interrogate the institution itself and the power play between artist, curator, critic, audience. I’m also excited about our collection of video footage we’ve been accumulating for years and personal correspondence that may ultimately be the start to something new. www.tarrahwilka.com
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