Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Conversation with Laura Napier

Laura Napier and I met during our Cooper days. She was a painter and just as she was leaving school , I started to see her around the darkrooms. Over the years, we've bumped into each other at Print Space and invited each other to shows. Laura's had a busy year showing and I was able to make it to some of her shows. I saw the following video projected on a wall in a darkened room at PS122 earlier this year and was really taken by the ethereal quality of the imagery. I am excited to share Laura's work with you. Enjoy!

Intersection, 2006
color video (appears B&W), sound
duration: 5:26
with software by Zach Poff
© Laura Napier

Uses video footage overlooking Astor Place; a frame differencing filter has been applied that only reveals things that move through the frame (mostly pedestrians and cars). This video was installed as part of the solo show, Spontaneous Formations, at PS122 Gallery, in the Classroom, April 2008.

Nymphoto: Tell us a little about yourself.

Laura Napier: I've lived in New York City for fourteen years; I took the Greyhound bus here to go to go to college. I've lived in many places in the city, coincidentally often within a few blocks of where the marathon runs every year.

I made mostly drawings and paintings in undergrad, so sometimes when I run into someone from that time in my life they ask me about it. One of those people is Rona. Some of my work still has a stripped down quality, and people who've known me for a long time point out similarities.

scan from a sketchbook, 1997 © Laura Napier

Also, if you are in a public place and you see me and introduce me as a photographer to someone I will interrupt you and tell everyone that I am an artist, not a photographer. This can prove embarrassing to everyone.

Sixteen, Color C print, 40 x 60 inches, 1999, from the series California © Laura Napier

NP: How did you discover photography?

LN: Someone gave me a 110 camera when I was maybe eight or ten years old, the kind that used double reeled plastic film cartridges. The camera was a rectangle shape and fit into a box that originally had checks in it. I had another box like it around the same time with a fragile lizard skeleton inside. I took lots of photographs of plants and flowers in the little garden that I had planted; this was back in San Diego. I don't know what happened to those photographs, but I like to think that they are probably in a shoebox somewhere. For years I couldn't figure out what to photograph, this really started in my pre-teens when I was enrolled in a class at Southwestern College; I remember taking a photograph of some scrub oak or something, printing it in the darkroom, and wondering, why? This crisis continued in college. I was (eventually) good at learning technique, the OCD-rewarding practices of professional photography: studio work and printing work, but I still needed to find a subject or a way to work with the medium that made sense for me.

Also, for years I worked in the photography industry, at a rental color darkroom, printing for a few artists and other clients, assisting on the side, and later was employed at a university lab. I was fortunate enough to be working at a time during the transition of photo towards digital, so I am really comfortable with a variety of cameras and mediums, and also taught digital photography to total beginners for a while.

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

LN: I am a creature of comfort and love a good cup of coffee, hanging out with my cat, reading contemporary fiction, seeing friends and doing studio visits, and watching movies. These ordinary things keep me going. Also, I like candlelit dinners and long walks by the beach, in case you were wondering.

I really like to see what others are doing around me; I love evesdropping on curators who really dig artists' work, I like going to lectures at the New Museum, I went to Creative Time's Democracy in America show at the Park Avenue Armory - twice. I was really inspired recently by the work of Lilly McElroy, a friend let me know about her work and I was talking about it for at least a week.

Photography as a practice was finally redeemed to me by the book The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960-1982 (which is a catalog of a show curated by Douglas Fogle at the Walker Art Center c. 2003-4). It shows sculptors and other artists using photography integrated into their art practices. I'd come of age, as it were, during the height of the popularity of artificial, staged, sometimes even commercial-photo-as-art in the late nineties, and I needed to see alternatives, and a history of the medium beyond the late sixties in order to work in it. For me, a photograph does not stand with integrity on its own as a 'magic window' to look into; I think any photograph has to, must, also do something else in order to deserve to exist.

Photograph of nothing #2, Color C print, 16 x 20 inches, 2004 © Laura Napier

NP: How did this project come about?

LN: I went back to school, and I was still like, what is this photograph for? I tried to take photographs of nothing, for example, which is an impossible task. But in the meantime, I spent the first summer at grad school looking at one photograph, Exchange, 2003, trying to figure out what it was that was special about it and how I could move forward. I knew it was interesting, I just had to define why. Then I brought in a second photograph, Crowd (after Kerry), 2005, the next summer - it had an unusual perspective from above. Meanwhile, to the frustration of the faculty, I was taking a long time to work things out! I believe it takes time to figure out a meaningful course of action, and you can't rush - it'll show.

Exchange, 2003, Color C Print, 16 x 20 inches, from the series Crowd Formation / Street Architecture © Laura Napier

Crowd (after Kerry), Archival photographic inkjet print, 13 x 19 inches, 2005, from the series Crowd Formation / Street Architecture © Laura Napier

Finally I decided that I was really interested in looking at constellations of people in public space; and that the strength of the project lay in how they looked staged yet weren't. So I tried to find and photograph interesting crowd formations, those formed by street architecture, proxemics, and social norms, in New York City and on trips to Los Angeles and Peru.

Express Bus Line 2008, Archival photographic inkjet print, 5 x 7 inches, from the series Crowd Formation/ Street Architecture © Laura Napier

There are places in New York City where certain crowd formations can be seen again and again, and I eventually realized that anyone could go to the same places to see them, with a little guidance. So, I made a brochure listing seven places where crowd formations predictably occur at certain times of day, week, and season. Take Me There, a field guide to crowd formations is meant to function as a self guided tour, and has no photographs, only text description. You can download one side of the brochure or I can mail a printed copy (free) to you upon request.

The work I am doing now has to do with trying to highlight and change how people reflexively behave in public through using my own behavior. project for a street corner explores how simple actions can change the behaviors of others in busy urban public spaces. For example, what happens if one walks in a tight circle on a busy street corner for two minutes, regardless of how many people are gathering there to cross? What happens if one stands completely still or walks against the flow of a crowd; suddenly turns around or doesn't move aside when people approach; or if one lies down?

I recently got a group of high school students to form a circle with me in front of the PATH Station at the WTC site. We were out there for about twenty minutes, pushing our circle against a regular stream of commuters to try to shape them into a smaller column. Every once in a while someone would walk through the circle. The students would applaud every time.

project for a street corner, still from video document of an event, project supported by LMCC's Swing Space program, 2008 © Laura Napier

In October, I did a series of actions on 14th Street, working with a differerent partner each day, on three late afternoons for the AiOP show Pedestrian. We took photographs of each other, in order to to halt whoever was about to 'walk through the picture'; got passerby to look up towards the sky by looking up ourselves and pointing; and (for fun) used a strip of caution tape to cordon off the sidewalk so that those walking by had the opportunity to do a limbo under it. Many did. The experience of the event is becoming primary, and the photographs and video serve as secondary - documentation.

promotional image, project for a street corner, for the show Pedestrian, 2008 © Laura Napier

causing people to stop or go around by taking a photograph, still from live video feed document, project for a street corner, for Pedestrian, 2008 © Laura Napier

getting people around us to look up by looking up ourselves, documentary photograph, project for a street corner, for Pedestrian, 2008, photo courtesy J. C. Rice

NP: What's next?

LN: I'd like to expand project for a street corner, through funding, so that I can work more intensively, through commissions and other means. For example, it'd be great to collaborate with an arts institution that can help round up enough audience participants to do a series of crowd intervention events, similar to the circle recently formed in front of the WTC PATH station with twenty people. I'm also looking at funding to travel to India, as I'm really interested in the low tech new media and performance work that is going on in New Delhi and other cities, and would also like to see what behavior in public looks like there. See Raqs Media Collective, the Sarai Institute, and Blank Noise for examples.

My other big plan is to obtain a set of flat files, which I am really looking forward to.

Upcoming events:

Film screening at Brooklyn Arts Council's gallery at 6 pm tonight! (Dec. 4th)
The screening is a program associated with the exhibition Creative Cartographies in the BAC Gallery. Seven short videos by different artists. Artists in the screening: David Brody, Rob Carter, Maria Dumlao, Emcee CM Master of None, Grady Gerbracht & Claudia Vieira, Laura Napier, and Adam Shecter. Curated by Jeanne Gerrity.
Brooklyn Arts Council is located at 111 Front Street in Dumbo on the second floor (F to York Street, A/C to High Street).

122 for $122 benefit at PS122 Gallery, opens Saturday, December 13th. (Disclaimer: I am on the artist benefit committee). Worth supporting, as they often provide a first show to emerging artists; my first solo was there in April.

$10-30 Anti-Intellectual Art Sale & Holiday Party, hosted by myself and artist neighbor Blanka Amezkua, who also runs the Bronx Blue Bedroom project, Sunday, December 14th.

For more work, check out Laura's website. Thank you Laura!

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