Donovan Wylie & Jim Goldberg: Candy & A Good and Spacious Land Interview

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“I had this image that the Colt ’45 was made in, say, Colorado, but no, it was made in Connecticut to conquer Colorado, to win the West.  So that opened up a way of looking at American history that I wanted to pursue:  ideas of westward expansion and the architectural structures of the gun factories with their strong pillars to hold all the machinery and gear; that talked about weight, and Empire.  But the factories were all in ruins and I couldn’t work with that, visually”. –Donovan Wylie

The mapping of a terrain or its people is a complex process for an artist, in particular an artist who uses his or her gifts to explore divide, native populations, measures of control and the general environment for which he or she is given access. Access is a familiar word that must also not be ignored, no matter the difficulty in ascribing its position within the mapping. Within the context of America, New Haven, Connecticut is a place that historically and in contemporary present measure creates a deluge of enforced modality of lived experience for its citizens in philosophical, economic and historical terms. The parallels, contradictions, and polarizations of interpretation surrounding these modes of account are the very categories that works like “Candy” by Jim Goldberg and “A Good and Spacious Land” by Donovan Wylie present as possibilities. Given Access to New Haven via a residency with Yale, the town’s most prestigious affiliation, along with the gun manufacturers of Colt and Winchester, we see New Haven as a sometimes Illusory location of discourse on the topic of American Utopianism, which are presented instead, not with Dystopia, but rather a realism (though not mustered through “document”) of a particular moment in a series of particular historical moments, which become bound in two incredible books exploring the American sense of place in the present through use of undefined (for the better) narratives and a largesse to reduce infrastructure to conceptual potential. I am indebted to Donovan and Jim for allowing me the opportunity to question their practice, Jim’s native town and the American way of decline. Their answers were personal and critical. Jim, a native of New Haven offers here his particular reflection throughout his acclaimed bodies of work as they tie-in to “Candy”. Himself a runaway from New Haven leaves scant chance a better voice can be heard through the place’s imagery. It is inherent and at a returnal distance for him. Wylie on the other hand, familiar with the way in which American loves its “Road Maps” convincingly carries forward his project “A Good and Spacious Land” to incorporate questions of infrastructural power paradigms within the landscape, also tying his own previous works to a different soil and a different vision of what power can look like in its build-up and its banality. Roads here are conduits to different theatres, not simply paths to adventure or home.

BF: I am trying to understand if these two books, apart from obviously working in parallel can be seen as one distinct project due not only to the time you both spent in New Haven for the Doran Residency at Yale, but in the way as Pamela Franks has indicated that “…from different points of entry, with Goldberg approaching the city through its people and Wylie through its highways”…it could stand to reason that this exploration of place in tandem, and due the nature of each individual’s previous work (Goldberg people, Wylie Infrastructure and Utility) has created a body of work on a specific location with each fulfilling the elements of place to balance the whole. I get the feeling that perhaps it was not even a discussion-that each of you simply began with your own visual compass and rooted the discussion in the cumulative sense of place. Can you give us some insight into how you began the work and perhaps whether or not this was indeed an unstructured working method or if perhaps there was as skeleton of a plan beforehand?

DW: Yeah, you’re right, we just kinda began…. We had a residency, not an assignment or even a commission; we could have just spent time in the library. But from the beginning we felt that there was something special happening in the place, that something was opening up in front of us and we had to figure it out. Fundamentally, for Jim it was always about coming home, and for me it was about arriving in a new place. But from that initial point on we didn’t really know what was going to happen. The writers for the books – Chris Klatell and Laura Wexler – came on board really early, and we all really collaborated together. Ideas just kept building for all of us, and we slowly found our individual voices in the context of our experiences, and the two books work individually, but can exist together beautifully. There was no effort in making them go together – you’ve got to understand, they came from the same place, we were living together, eating together, thinking together; they go together because they’re rooted in the same ideas and conversations and experiences.

JG: Well Candy started out about coming home. I left New Haven in 1971 (the same year Donovan was born), and made “Rich and Poor” in San Francisco. But although Rich and Poor was shot in California, the context to it is actually about my hometown of New Haven. The gap between the rich and poor was so huge in New Haven – I was on the poor side – and there were all these idealistic, well-meaning promises about overcoming poverty, and none of it worked . . . and that gap between word and image was really the genesis of Rich and Poor. I was wandering around San Francisco, looking for Connecticut. And just as I had sort of run away from New Haven, after Rich and Poor I made “Raised by Wolves”, a work about runaways. And now I’ve come home, full circle, to make Candy. So for me, you really have to look at those three bodies of work together. Candy looks back at the idea of promise and the betrayal of promise – not promises broken cynically, but good intentions that go wrong.  This was before the election, but it’s even more resonant now.  Hilary Clinton was on the New Haven green during the middle story of my book, and to me she kind of becomes this symbol of all those promises about improving the world kind of turning to shit. But I don’t feel cynical about it, not at all – I just think it’s fascinating, way more interesting than malevolence, the idea of good intentions betrayed.

“Well, I actually deployed roughly the same strategies with this work as I did in Maze, and the Towers series.  But I loosened it up somewhat.  For example, about 90% of the work has a highway cutting through the top of the frame, nearly all the images have this “cut” going on.  That was because I needed a boundary, I needed the road to sort of tell me where I could shoot from, so I was always in the same position. In Towers and Maze I always let the structures control my movement, because I wanted to reflect their logic.  Also, the highway cutting the top frame becomes oppressive, and you feel the weight, so I use that strategy of repetition to create a feeling”.   –Donovan Wylie

BF: New Haven has the very strange characteristic of being at the forefront of education, but also contains some debilitating realities peripheral to the University itself. Historically, and maybe this is a reference for Jim as he is a native, I can think of a certain American Gothicism attached to it from the Architecture but also by crimes such as the Josie Langmaid/O’Malley affair. As a city, that I have admittedly never visited, I am struck by an outsider, non-experienced vision of this place that extends itself to this strange duality of prestige and uncanniness in my imagination. When looking at your two books, one thing I have noted is that neither of the books are looking at Skull and Bones, opulent winter balls, nor much of the University itself. Was this intentional? Jim’s work is clearly about the inhabitants, whereas Donovan’s volume also poses questions about inhabitants, but looks at its prism through the hinterlands of the highway-these spaces that quite frankly, in places look like crime scenes. My question then would be, how important was it for each of you to abstract Yale itself from the picture, all pun intended?

JG: First, just let me say that it was an honor to be invited to be in residence at the Yale Art Gallery – in the town where I grew up as a townie.  It was fascinating, and sometimes a little nerve-wracking, to be straddling a line where I was once wholly outside the walls, and now I (almost) had a foot in each camp, but still felt more comfortable outside.  And really, everyone at Yale was great and supportive and open – I’d worked with Jock Reynolds on Raised by Wolves; Pam Franks was terrific; all the faculty, students, staff at the gallery, employees – everyone was open and great and just let me work. But it’s interesting that you don’t see Yale, because what I think you’re seeing is a townie’s view of Yale: walls you can’t see past. And the metaphorical walls of Yale are getting higher and higher and higher in this country, even though I don’t think anyone wants that to be the case – this project was looking for ways to tell stories that acknowledge walls and their shadows while also looking over and around them.

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DW: It wasn’t conscious for me at all to abstract Yale. It’s weird because in my case Yale is not in the work, but without Yale there is no way I could have made the work. It was a project where I listened to academics and students, and that enabled me to get to the next step in the creative process. I guess the only place that Yale comes into my work is that the central idea I was exploring – the concept of the ‘promised land’ that the Puritans thought they saw in America – is also tied up with the founding of Yale. The two “Moseses” in my story – Moses Cleaveland and Robert Moses, whom I follow on the highways west form Connecticut to Ohio and Oregon – both went to Yale.

BF: Dual interviews can be tough so I’m going to lead a little bit individually for a moment to make sure that each volume is covered. Please do not be constrained by this and do add if you wish to each other’s work. It can only be helpful for the summation of the working order of the 2-volume colossus on my table.

BF-DW: “A Good and Spacious Land” is an interesting title for the works inside. There is the obvious connection to working with the infrastructure of a highway or a road in that it leads one to a destination, but also an escape. Within Klatell’s text, we also find something, a certain something that I was looking for knowing a bit of your previous work-this interstate is not simply a structure for the ins and outs of New Haven, but speaks clearly about arms, munitions and erector sets. All of these elements are found in New Haven, the applicable metaphor of building and the military industrial commitment of America rise along with the poured concrete and rebar. The Colt factory, Winchester and the civil engineering of such structures alludes to, like Haussmann’s “renewal” of Paris into that of a functioning system in which the operative elements of militarized architecture become complicit with post-war America. It is also the key to monitoring its empirical decline. With endless war being waged afar, the collapse of the American infrastructure is beginning to show-the slow crumbling façade of what apparently made the country great-automobiles and non-native warfare. I am reminded of the building of the Reichsautobahn in Germany. We think of these infrastructures as a product of civil advance, but in reality, their mirror purpose is the continuation of the militarized society. Did you go into this project with this in mind or did it present itself to you? As an Irishman visiting a specific site, were you politicized in your view of these workings and their nefarious potential? I imagine that you are well-equipped to make the associations from urban renewal and progressive sloganeering to see through to what the historically complicit forms of violence are always inherent in civil service engineering.

“People think about the WASPs, but the truth is a recent survey found that New Haven was the most representative city in America, demographically.  Not any of the places foreigners like to imagine when they think of America, but New Haven, with its wealth gaps and its poverty its struggling middle class and its diversity.  All the thing the planners thought they could plan away in the 1960s”.  -Jim Goldberg

DW: So the title actually came pretty late in the project, and I will talk about that in a minute. We initially had a working title for quite a long time called “Weight of Empire”. I hated the title but knew it reminded me of the themes I was trying to talk about. Before the residency, I had come to Yale for a conference, and Chris Klatell and I had snuck into the old Winchester gun factory, and then drove up to Hartford to see the Colt factory. All the gun factories were in Connecticut, it was called the “Arsenal of Democracy,” and that obviously tied into my work on the architecture of conflict. And it really hit me, as a European – somehow I had this image that the Colt ’45 was made in, say, Colorado, but no, it was made in Connecticut to conquer Colorado, to win the West. So that opened up a way of looking at American history that I wanted to pursue: ideas of westward expansion and the architectural structures of the gun factories with their strong pillars to hold all the machinery and gear; that talked about weight, and Empire. But the factories were all in ruins and I couldn’t work with that, visually.
Then one day early on I simply noticed this huge road infrastructure being built in New Haven, and was completely visually knocked out by it. But to me it had nothing to do with Empire and Weight on first reading. Then I started researching about the American Highway system and was gobsmacked when I learnt the official name of the US road system is: the Interstate and Defence Highway System. I couldn’t believe it, given my practice has been about architecture and conflict for twenty years, here was a road system with an element of military defence to it. So, guns and road construction became the project for a while, but the meaning wasn’t quite there yet. The project then took a turn midway when I was with Chris in New Canaan. From the beginning I had been reading a lot about Manifest Destiny, and the story of Moses in the Exodus narrative, and the whole idea of the “promised land”, and Jim was working on the theme of Promise also. I had this image I made very early in the project of a guy walking under an underpass, and past what looks like a bush on fire. Laura Wexler really picked up on that image, and brought the whole idea of Moses and the burning bush into the project – it was a great moment, because it really opened the project up. So, Chris and I sat outside Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, and me saying we need a new title. We got the bible out and read the Exodus narrative, and it just stared at us, the words from the story of Moses…. A Good and Spacious Land. So, the cover of the book is a subtle re-reading of that narrative, and the book goes on to show a highway being built in Cleveland, as that city was founded by Moses Cleaveland back in 1796, who came from Yale! Then the book ends in Oregon, the promised land, before returning to the final image back in New Haven with the highway created, and young pine trees planted. In all of it people become metaphors of carrying that weight of history, of expansion and promise, and not just the pillars of the highway. It bears down on them, the effort of keeping it all up, and I wanted to show that weight. Chris and I felt like things were falling on our heads, too, the way that all started coming together. It really made me feel like I had been given a key for understanding something about this country.

BF: One thing that strikes me as different from this book from that of your other books such as “North Warning Systems”, “Outposts” or “British Watchtowers” is that the sense of austerity in the former titles and images suggested a minimal focus. The architecture of power-some used, some disused- held their ground and were, similar to the Becher’s work rooted in a system of typological study. With the New Haven project, the colossal and ever-developing interstate at times feels compressed-perhaps due to the elongated perspective and its status as agent against horizon. And yet, even when the road’s potential fades as an exit marquee to other places, other images within the book feel tightly compressed and there is also the element of chance encounters with people. This is not something I generally think of when I consider your works over the last twenty years. These confrontations do not feel forced, but rather somehow American. I don’t know if I can completely justify this statement outside of an elaboration for what I mean to exemplify the cinematic either through choice of camera or the grandiose everyday enlarged into wheat can be described as post-cinematic effect. Here is where the burgeoning construction is not completed and you are working on structures that have not fully materialized in their conclusion. Did this present a challenge to you to work with a structure of power in which the object of your fascination was developing as you made work as opposed to perhaps the complete and stoic nature of the watch towers or outposts, in which the structure and the paradigm of its power had already been at one point operable?

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DW: Well, I actually deployed roughly the same strategies with this work as I did in Maze, and the Towers series. But I loosened it up somewhat. For example, about 90% of the work has a highway cutting through the top of the frame, nearly all the images have this “cut” going on. That was because I needed a boundary, I needed the road to sort of tell me where I could shoot from, so I was always in the same position. In Towers and Maze I always let the structures control my movement, because I wanted to reflect their logic. Also, the highway cutting the top frame becomes oppressive, and you feel the weight, so I use that strategy of repetition to create a feeling. The entire work, and I only really noticed this during editing, is actually shot in three locations, I just kept moving around them, walking and walking. I got known by the workers because I was constantly retracing my steps over a three year period. But, you’re right the work is much less austere, and I needed and wanted to break that constraint, and yet keep something of it…. I am actually proud of achieving that, as I think I do, even though it won’t be noticed by many.

Also, don’t forget – the Maze is gone, British Watchtowers are gone, most of the Outposts are gone – in the pictures they may look solid, serial, but I was interested in the fact that they were in the process of disappearing. The photographs are all that’s left. And the highway construction is the opposite – I shot that while it was coming into being, but now it’s gone, too, effaced by a finished highway. You can’t see the places I made the pictures, the act of becoming. And that’s what I was interested in – the construction of the mythology, the stuff that holds it up.

One more thing: A few years before this project started I had been in Iraq, watching the withdrawal of the US troops. And I’m sitting there watching all these trucks move across the desert, and there were just too many of them – photography failed, I couldn’t make it show the idea of what I was seeing, the scale. Somehow, looking at I-95 and I-91, I found a way to grapple with that idea, visually. The pictures of the road in Connecticut really are also the pictures of the US army rolling across the desert in Iraq.

JG: Alec Soth told me A Good and Spacious sees the American landscape with more nuance and sophistication than any photobook he’d seen in ages, and I really agree with that. When you take the time to look, you see that Donovan’s really figured something out.

DG: Aye, but Alec said Candy was a masterpiece from the first time he saw it, and he’s right. Jim’s made a masterpiece, and every artist I know knows it. It’s going to take ages for people to realize what he’s done, to understand it – but people will be talking about Candy for decades.

“The grids are explicitly about Google earth.  I think history, memory and biography are always about mapping – Echo’s map is at the center of Raised by Wolves, and Open See uses migrants’ journeys to structure their stories – and in New Haven, that mapping function is tied to the Puritan version of the New Jerusalem”…-Jim Goldberg

BF: There is more to this story than just armament and the ambition of travel. The sites that you have photographed according to the excellent essay by Laura Wexler, the stage in which you concentrated also speaks of a dark colonial history. Where the interstate runs now were in parts places devoted to the Pequot Wars in which Native Americans were defeated, murdered, captured and sold as slaves. So, the course of transport here is much deeper and older than our contemporary understanding of the militarized industrial complex that firearms manufacturers have produced in New Haven. In a small way, you have created an Archaeo-document in which the sites that have been built over are now recorded, much like the unearthing of the temple(s) at Gobelki Tepli in Turkey. Each layer unearthed presents a layer of what was underneath. When you were making the images, were you confronted with this history or potentially at odds about which piece of string narrative in which to focus your attention or shall we see the pre-sets as all-encompassing?

DW: Laura and Chris brought the colonial themes into the work quite early on, I learnt about US1 and the Post Road, and the fact those roads derived from native routes. But I didn’t think about it too much in terms of photographing, because intrinsically I knew it was conceptually all there. It also comes from a history that’s entangled with my own history – the English and Ulster Scots were pushing the Irish West in Ireland at the same time they were pushing the Native Americans West in the US, and with a lot of the same ideological framing.

BF: Jim, I’m going to try and segue over to “Candy” now.

Leaves and Bricks-patchworks of metaphor of social engagement. All are mired in an optical illusion of working together with lines dividing their edges as they prop up an architecture both functionary (for someone) or fantasy-driven (for others). When I look at the long list of stereotypes in my head, I come back with east coast W.A.S.P-isms and ye olde skull and bones privilege and yet in your work, I find, apart from a few toned runners, none of my stereotypes working, thankfully. I have read a little bit about the “model city” conjecture that was complete failure in economic terms and that the delusion of New Haven outside of the Yale proximity, according to statistics of both pollution and family income is a complete fallacy once you leave the Yale economic circle. It was blog article entitled “Complete Self-Delusion in New Haven, Connecticut” by Francis Menton in 2015. It pinpoints the contradictions in the post-utopian statistical analysis of New Haven. You are a native, but left some time ago. Would you be able to elaborate on your own position, from memory if not statistic as to the larger changes you have experienced coming back? Do you see the failure of New Haven to uphold this mantle of “Model City”?

JG: People think about the WASPs, but the truth is a recent survey found that New Haven was the most representative city in America, demographically. Not any of the places foreigners like to imagine when they think of America, but New Haven, with its wealth gaps and its poverty its struggling middle class and its diversity. All the thing the planners thought they could plan away in the 1960s. So ‘model city’ means a bunch of things – it’s an entry point for looking at America more generally; there’s the utopian vision of the Model City from the 60s, which was explicitly based in New Haven; and for me it’s the model for everything I’ve done in America, the lens through which I see all of it. And yes, the walls are a big part of that – walls structure a place, they protect and divide, they form our sightlines and block off what we can’t see. The leaves are something different – leaves have this incredibly rich history in American literature, most famously with Whitman. But here, Chris and I were riffing off a Wallace Stevens poem, An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, which runs through the whole book, and especially the line “the area between is and was were leaves.” That’s what I was interested in catching – this vibrating space between is and was, between reality and myth, between promise and betrayal, between fact and memory, between text and image. I’m interested in the question of whether we can hold the aspirational utopia and the cold reality in our heads at the same time. I feel like when we drift too far from one or the other we get in trouble.
You know, I was with Robert Frank just after the show opened at Yale, and he read me a letter Wallace Stevens had written him back in the day. It was magical.

BF: Your work always seems to have an air of the auto-biographical even if the concern is for others. It could be the gestures of the hand of the artist working in writing and collage or perhaps even the close distance you have in making the images. There are a few grids that contradict this a bit on the surface from the position of shooting from a van roof, that remind me strangely of a bio-Google Earth aesthetic. This book in particular due to the location and the stories within are obviously very much about the returnal, going home, or maybe looking inward at something uncanny. I’m sure you have been back since leaving, but making a book must have taken you into a different headspace where the familiarity of self and environment must have been somewhat skewed. Can you tell our audience a bit of any particulars to that experience that was perhaps jarring, unnerving, or simply fascinating in terms of how the environment functioned actively against your inner-nostalgia?