Carmen Winant: A Composition Filled With Clues

Can you describe the sourcing process: where do these images come from, what are the criteria for cutting it out and selecting it for the piece?

That is a common question and the answer is not so clean. I wish I had one person, one collector who fed me this stuff, but the truth is that I am constantly having to seek it out. It become a bit obsessive—piles all over the house—and I try to avoid just randomly buying things on the internet. So much of the process is about touching the thing, opening it up and prying through it, figuring out the look and feel, particularly as I am now dyeing images and need porous paper. I’ve gotten to be really expert at going to used bookstores, estate sales, garage sales and I can scan one hundred books and just know, even by the spine sometimes, which are the appropriate books, though there’s a lot of looking through the books and sometimes magazines. I know if I go to a bookstore, I’ll look under the women’s section, puberty section, sports section, parenting section, if they have them. I can get my bearings immediately, knowing a sense of what I’m looking for in terms of category but also materiality.

So, if you’re in an estate sale and there’s a line of one hundred books, what’s a title that stands out?

Titles like, “weight lifting for women” or “fitness training for women” or “how to water train your baby” are appealing, but to be honest it’s much more about the look and feel of the book than the title. I fantasize about teaching a workshop on this type of thing, I don’t know how many other people care about it.

Analog sourcing.

There’s so much discharged material now. The digital world is expanding and the analog world is contracting. Libraries are purging; it’s a really good time to be collecting. There are better and worse places to do it. We used to live in Maine for the summers and that was sort of like a collector’s graveyard. People set up bookstands on the side of the street in central Maine. It’s a little harder here in Columbus, and I do find myself collecting online more than I used to. I’ll only do that if I know exactly what I’m looking for: if a book is part of a series or I want multiple copies of one book. Every so often I’ll just cross my fingers and buy something; it almost never works out. It’s ill-advised and expensive especially when you collect as much shit as I do and it piles up, both the material and monetary expense. The sourcing really takes as much, if not more, time than making the work itself. Of course, in some sense it is making the work, but a different kind of labor.

Is there an inventory system, like you cut out your person and these are all, for example, the nursing ladies or dancing ladies?

Yes and no. A few years back, there was this video circulating of John Baldessari in his studio and he has this immaculate organizational system. It’s like, here’s a drawer of cowboys riding on horses behind Indians, here’s a file of cowboys touching Indians’ hands. It was neatly subdivided from there into hundreds of sections. I was agape! I could never work that way. I do generally have piles, under groupings like “ecstasy,” or “lactation.” So organizational systems are not totally foreign to me. But, in part because of my personality, I don’t think I’m capable of being that meticulous. My process engenders a kind of spreading out. Sometimes you can’t even see the floor in the studio. There’s actually something quite generative, and even logical, for me in being disorganized: I can pull from things and the results are more unexpected. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fantasize about having a Baldessari type of approach but I know myself enough to know that something far more disorganized is more befitting to my creative ideation.

Perhaps this happens when the floor is covered in images: now that you have the cut-outs, what does the arranging look like, does it begin to happen on the floor and then move to the wall?

Usually. In this last bout, my knees just about gave out! At some point it is a little destructive to the body. I am really deliberate in doing this though: I am interested in exploding the cuteness, the narrative and compositional quaintness, of collage. I can give you an example: this body of work I made for Volta was all about Anita Hill. I’ve collected almost one hundred original images of Hill from her 1991 Senate Judiciary testimony. My initial plan was to make a discrete, super coherent body of work. But when it came down to it, I just couldn’t make these neat arrangements as planned. They felt too uncomplicated. I had this pile called “injury” near the Anita Hill images, and I noticed how the injury images of hands were also raised demonstratively, as with Hill’s testifying hand. They all ended up being massaged into the work.

At the end of every studio day, and every body of work, I’m most interested in creating explosive narratives that aren’t so clean, that aren’t immediately legible: ultimately those Anita Hill collages became much more expansive than Anita Hill. She was at the center, but S&M images, documented injuries, and found images of female civil rights leaders all became folded into these collages. Arrangement isn’t linear and how these hand images relate to one another in terms of testifying is complicated.

I saw Pictures of Women Working here in Columbus, but didn’t see it at Skibum MacArthur where it ran the perimeter of the gallery.

What did you think of that? It was a bit of a departure for me.

So, in a way you can’t help but think about linearity with that one. I know for certain that if I were in that space I would be anxious about where to start. And you sort of deny us a starting point because it spans the entire space, even covering the door. I’d be interested to hear how you arrived at that compositional change.

There were still one thousand images in the show, but I wanted to see if it was possible for me to do something more restrained, to test how it might be read in a linear capacity. Was it still possible to overwhelm? I was flirting with a little more legibility.

Or even cyclical, or perhaps comparing figures from across the room.

Yes, the gallery wasn’t set up in this way, but if I had my way it would’ve been a complete circle of images. That project continues to evolve: I am showing it again at the Ross Museum at Ohio Wesleyan University in this coming year, and still thinking about how I can continue to augment the piece, pervert it a little bit, destroy it as I go. That’s something liberatory about the work: as it evolves it becomes less and less precious, and a little more fucked up.

Are these collages or installations, in your own words?

I’ve always described these works as collage. Recently, I’ve started calling what I do working with found images or found pictures. I want to start thinking about the work more directly in terms of photography. My background is actually in photography, in making pictures; I very slowly migrated into collecting them instead. This past year of showing has been revelatory for me: it sounds sort of trite to say out loud, but I am in love with the world of pictures and fetishize pictures as much as any photographer. I’m as committed to pushing these images into the world as any photographer. I certainly wouldn’t call myself an image-maker, but identifying this work as found pictures is a slight but meaningful pivot for me from identifying myself as a collage artist. Maybe this is my aversion to the cuteness of collage that I described earlier?

I mean, I don’t think anyone could say that your work isn’t making pictures.

Right, I am definitely operating in this in-between space. I recently have been nominated for some photography awards, like ICP Infinity Award and the Baum Award in San Francisco, which initially shocked me! I thought they must have misidentified me. But eventually that gave me license to co-occupy that world without claiming that I exactly belong.

 

So, I’m thinking of Pictures of Women Working. Is there an aim to either reveal the invisible work of women or to totally reframe or reconstitute the work of women?

Yes. All of the above. I started that work somewhere in the middle of Hilary Clinton’s campaign and of course anticipated a very different outcome. In the beginning, the work came from a much more celebratory place. I collected a lot of shit during Hillary’s campaign knowing that it was a historic moment but also really germane to my work. I didn’t expect the work to shift so much from under my feet, but that is what has happened. It feels more like an elegy now in some ways; I often cry in studio visits talking about it, which I know is not very couth.

What else? I had been reading about Ivanka Trump’s “Women Who Work” brand and thinking about this attempt to make capitalist and marketable an old feminist principle of finding liberation though work outside of the home. I had just given birth—literally gone through labor and was dealing with all the private, gendered work that is having an infant. I was generally thinking a lot about the labor of women as being visible and invisible, competitive and communal, and even as slavery and emancipation.

The last thing I’ll mention is that I was re-reading Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks during this time, she has an entire chapter in that amazing book about women and work. She reminds all of us that second-wave feminism excluded poor women, often non-white women, by proclaiming that liberation could be found in the workforce. As if most poor women weren’t already in the workforce. So the work wasn’t designed to be only celebratory of the work of our supposed soon-to-be president. It also had a less visible, and less uplifting, underbelly.

 

You definitely see it in the images.

I got a few reviews that were like, “sisterhood is powerful,” and I feel that way and I’m glad it was in the work, but, as with my Anita Hill work, my hope is always to create a complex portrait of what women laboring looks like, what the historical record has been. It’s a piece that I’m still working on, and probably will for a long time. I’ve been thinking more and more about women’s labor given my newfound parenthood, my full time job, my creative life. I am always seeking out individual images that contain all of these impulses, not only working to create them through larger compositions.

It happens for me with some of the images of the women posing or dancing or modeling, it flips three times: there they are, are they forced to do this, what about their agency in doing it anyway?

Right—the best images are often the ones that are the most confusing. Like, is that woman being choked or engaging in mutual pleasure? A handful of images I used in that body of work were from a bizarre book where the women breastfeeding were posed with beaming smiles—they’re the weirdest images, I am not sure how to feel about them. This has not been my general experience of breastfeeding—it’s often felt like a chore, and it fucking hurts. That’s the kind of image that I’m interested in: where it’s unclear how to read it in terms of pleasure, pain, labor, responsibility.

What do you notice about the clothing and style of the working women? Is there a working woman’s uniform? I picture some: suffragettes’ skirts, Rosie the Riveter’s jumpsuit, and now pantsuits and pussy hats. Some of course create limiting or problematic narratives of working women.

It’s an interesting question for a couple of reasons. I was talking to my sister recently who went to an all girls middle school where they were required to wear uniforms. She only told me years later how liberating it was to not have to wake up, pick out her outfit, labor over what she wore. She never had to waste energy in her appearance. That was sort of revelatory for me, I never thought of the potential of a uniform like that, I always considered them regressive. You mention the pussy hats: I was at the march in DC and I didn’t know that was a thing until arriving.

 

Where did they get them, where are they from?

People made them, knitted their own. I heard that the factories ran out of pink yarn, the demand was so great. I don’t know if that symbol itself is so potent, but I will say that I still see people around town wearing them, and there is something—I never thought I’d be saying this—in being able to identify an ally and feel less alienated in this bizarre landscape we find ourselves in. I don’t know how sustainable that is in the long term as a form of activism, but there’s something about it that comforts me right now.

Most of the books that I collect are from the 70s and early 80s, there is something that is decisive and identifiable about what a nurse wears or what a factory laborer wears. It becomes a marker of a certain kind of labor in a way that doesn’t quite exist now. It offers all kinds of clues as I’m trying to create a composition filled with clues.

What would a world without men be like? What kind of world: a work world, an art world, a civil world? Do any worlds without men exist already?

That title came from a lesbian separatist manifesto. There were a number of feminist separatist communities that formed in the early 70s that disavowed men and were intent on new world-making. In some cases, like the group the Van Dykes, you couldn’t even have a boy child. As I read some of these manifestos, particularly that of Womyn’s Land, I kept thinking about how the premise of these communities were at once so utopic but also exclusionary. Those are irreconcilable charges, which is exactly what interested me.

There’s something that is very appealing to me right now about an all female collective, discharged from this current landscape. I mean, I’m straight, I live with a man, I have a brother and a father who are compassionate feminists but it’s hard not to feel deeply angry and disturbed at the state of maleness—both aggressive and complicit. The movement eventually imploded, but it’s still so wild and appealing and I wonder what that would look like now, though I doubt something so extreme or cut-off could be organized in this way. Sexism—real, deep sexism—exists in a much deeper and more profound way than we allow ourselves to believe. Part of my work is intent on making visible some of those problems, contradictions, the fear of violence, the fear of pleasure, that live inside of that condition.

 

Carmen Winant in conversation with Marisa Espe