writings
 
How I Done It
-19980715

It was not long after becoming an art major at the University of Louisville that I found photography. I was instantly fascinated with the process - the way light and chemistry mix to create an image.

Zack 12, 1995, C-print, 16"x20"
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Pushed to experiment by my professors, I began manipulating negatives with paint and scratches then collaging them together. In addition to the heavy influence of Don Anderson and Suzanne Mitchell at the University of Louisville, I found inspiration in artists like the Starn Twins, Judith Golden and Holly Roberts. I saw these artists pushing the boundaries of photography and their experimentation thrilled and suited me. The majority of my undergraduate portfolio consists of heavily manipulated, pieced-together negatives printed as single chromogenic prints. This work was quite cutting-edge in Louisville, Kentucky. Ready for graduate school, I decided to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago. The urban setting, thriving art community and openly gay faculty seemed like a good fit. In addition, a strong conceptual emphasis would complement my process-based background.

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Imagine walking down a road with many diverging paths and signs pointing in different directions. All paths lead to the end, but the goal is to reach the nicest place by making all of the right decisions along the way. While others have trudged the same path before, every individual journey offers a number of unique possibilities. I believe artists have a special responsibility within this model of life. Possesed with a visual acuity, artists leave the signs and clues; they notice things others miss. Holly Roberts, an artist whose work I have long admired, put this into words for me. “Artists are the canaries for society, we are on the perimeter. We are bringing in all this information and it is our responsibility to show the information as accurately as possible.”1

My first-year graduate photographs were literally puzzles documenting my journey. A puzzle guarantees its completion as long as all of the pieces can be found. It is my responsibility to figure out how these pieces fit together. The problem is that I do not always get to complete the entire border first or even solve a whole chunk. When I think I have completed a portion, I find a piece hidden in my sheets or in the closet that has to be accommodated with the rest.

Upon entering graduate school, I continued working in the style to which I was accustomed — collaging manipulated negatives. My life had dramatically changed and these ‘puzzle’ pieces investigated my feelings of isolation and loneliness coupled paradoxically with a new sense of freedom and excitement. The first pieces I completed in Chicago deal with moving and adjusting to my new life. There are two photographs in particular from this period I would like to discuss.

Making Kool-Aid is a 30-inch by 84-inch chromogenic print. For a change, this piece did not include myself as the subject but rather my roommate and friend Wendy. This piece explores the pains of uprooting oneself to a new environment. Wendy moved to Chicago with me and experienced the same sadness and nostalgia as I for the comforts of home. The central focus of the photo is a large image of Wendy looking forlorn with images on both sides of Wendy Making Kool-Aid. Along the top is the Louisville skyline with Wendy walking towards it.

Making Kool-Aid, 1996, C-print, 72"x30"
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My Own Private Darkroom, 1996, C-print, 54"x30"
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Kool-Aid is a symbol of childhood. Upon first arriving in Chicago, the best way for me to feel comfortable was to surround myself with objects and memories that centered me. Nostalgia for good times makes new situations more bearable, even if it prevents one from moving forward.

My Own Private Darkroom is a 30-inch by 72-inch print which also deals with nostalgia although more specific to my situation. The background image is my darkroom from the University of Louisville created from pieced-together negatives. Surrounding the darkroom is text from erotic stories taken from gay porn; there are other porn excerpts throughout the piece. Finally, there is an image of me outlined by the number ‘1’.

This piece is centered around the multiple meanings of the word ‘darkroom’. In photography a darkroom is used to print photographs, whereas in gay circles a darkroom is a room, most often in the back of a bar or in a bathhouse, where men meet for anonymous sex. In the photograph my darkroom is empty. I found it frustrating to move from a place where I had worked hard to establish my sexual identity to a place where I was completely anonymous. There is a tension here between wanting to return to the comfort I had before and moving forward into the unknown.

In Making Kool-Aid and My Own Private Darkroom an important element is the number ‘1’. I use this element repeatedly to represent individuality. Retaining a sense of self while adjusting to a new environment is very difficult. To me the ‘1’ acts as a reminder of my self-dependence.

While these two works stand to me as an important document of an art student’s life, there is something lacking. Entering a new environment showed me that to understand my work one had to know my history. The ‘puzzle’ pieces are personal and document my life, and while together the photographs are a cohesive body of work, individual pieces suffer outside the larger context. My interest in the World Wide Web led to a natural extension of my work up to this point. Over the past seven years, the Web has grown from a small network of universities and government agencies to a network of millions. Today anyone with access to a computer has the power to publish. The explosion of the Web has been compared to the invention of the printing press and I like to think of personal web pages as technological folk art. The number of people willing to share their stories with the world is impressive. Feeling the limitations of telling my story photographically, I embraced the possibilities of narrative on the Web.

My first website, 1997.
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On January 20, 1997 I launched This is Zack on the Web.2 When visiting personal websites, I seldom felt kinship with the creator. I wanted to offer more than a website with a list of CDs or favorite movies. In addition to basic information — how old I am, where I go to school — I published a journal. By providing dynamic content, I hoped the user would gain a greater understanding of who I am and what I am about. The response I received was unimaginable.

The World Wide Web provided a forum for my story and I found that people were very interested. The Web allowed for a deeper picture of my life. A visitor to This is Zack can read about daily activities, view my artwork, read my thoughts about being gay, and visit my favorite websites. Since the website was launched, I have received e-mail from many people who appreciate that I share my anxieties so openly. Specifically, I respect the many gay teenagers who contact me, many of whom live in rural areas without the freedom to be open about their homosexuality. These young men enjoy reading about my experiences and see, perhaps for the first time, that they are not alone in the world. A few have since come out to their families and found very satisfying relationships. The satisfaction I received from This is Zack is something that I had never gotten from a single photograph or work of art. The Web is a fitting place to piece together my puzzle. Completely satisfied with the response from This is Zack, I was ready to leave my previous style of photography and push my artwork in a new direction.

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The world of design has exploded over the past two decades as artists trained in other media have entered the field. Just as David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg helped push photography into uncharted territory, this new crop of designers are expanding the vocabulary of design and adding a new visual dimension to the field. Interested in the the power of communication contained within a single book cover or poster, I began looking at design work, partly on the Web, but primarily print work. My interest in design was not new, but came to a head as I entered my second-year of graduate school for several reasons. Having minored in design at the University of Louisville and my work on This is Zack, helped me get a design internship at Neoglyphics Media Corporation, a Chicago web company. There I was immersed in a creative environment doing design work for clients. Being part of a working design process gave me new insight into my artwork.

Design is communication of an idea using conventional signs and symbols and good design must be focused and clear. The design process necessitates a larger view as a designer must always be aware of the intended audience — from the initial concept to the finished project — and design accordingly. This seeming limitation gave me a greater understanding of users (or viewers in the case of visual art) which I took forward into my new work.

At this same time, I participated in Geisto, a group exhibition in Berlin sponsored by the School of Art and Design at UIC. The class was organized with the idea that twelve students would take two trips to Berlin — the first to experience the city, the second to install an exhibition at a gallery in Berlin. I left for Germany with no preconceived notion of the work I would create for the exhibition. I wanted to study feelings of uprootedness and uncomfort while in a foreign place and allow the experience to shape the direction of my new work.

Keeping an eye on design, I noticed many differences between America and Germany. An elegance and sophistication to the treatment of type and images ran through everything from billboards to street signs. This could best be seen in the identity programs established by the government for public services. Commonplace signs informing public transportation users of possible construction delays were obviously created by a professional designer. This was a welcome change from the unsophisticated design employed by the Chicago Transit Authority. The attention to design in Germany reinforced to me the idea that simply putting information out for the public is not sufficient, it must be communicated effectively.

On the first trip to Berlin, the Geisto group traveled to Kassel, Germany to view Documenta X, a large exhibition of contemporary art. At Documenta I was both discouraged and encouraged. I was discouraged by the amount of work from which I felt removed. The highly conceptual strategies of many artists exhibited distanced me, whether through a lack of understanding or an impatience to try. Much of the work was dry and uninteresting to me. Three artists in particular, however, piqued my interest.

As part of a larger installation, Richard Hamilton and Ecke Bond adhered the names of common typefaces such as ‘AGaramond’ and ‘Helvetica’ to a wall. The stickers were the same color as the wall allowing the viewer to slowly discover their presence. This aspect of the installation reinforced the transparency of design in the world. But it was Suzanne Lafont’s Trauerspiel that most impressed me. A series of posters glued to corridor walls in a public underground passage traced the path of migration from Turkey to Germany with single posters marking important cities along the path - Istanbul, Belgrade, Budapest, Vienna and Frankfurt. The work communicated the political and socio-economic ramifications of this mass migration. The effectiveness of LaFont’s simple, well-designed posters inspired me.

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All people function within many different communities all with distinct cultures. There are established academic communities, art communities, design communities, and gay communities. Rarely is one able to float between these communities without making certain adjustments and compromises. How do these different communities affect the individual? My trip to Germany exposed me to an entirely new set of communities of which I became a part, even if only for a short time. I was completely removed from the comforts of Chicago and forced to cope with unfamiliar situations. When I returned to Chicago I carefully studied my snapshots, journal and audio recordings to nail down exact feelings about my experience. By examinining my feelings of dislocation in Germany, I was able to draw comparisons between the familiar and unfamiliar and extrapolate my uneasiness in Germany to a general feeling of dislocation within all of my communities. Inspired by the European openness with sex I focused my work for Geisto on sexuality and its place within larger gay communities.

I created a series of seven 30-inch by 40-inch color photographs using a combination of my travel photos and appropriated images. Each photograph has two layers — a background image and a white overlay — for a total of fourteen elements within the series. The background images are anchors while the foreground layers are designed to float on top, cross-referencing one another and drawing associations with the other background elements. The foreground layers are meant to simultaneously explain and complicate the background images. In Wig, the background image is a family snapshot from my youth, the overlay is an outline of a thermometer. In Uncut, the background is taken from a German gay porn magazine and the overlay is the outline of a computer SCSI port.3 I use other elements such as construction cranes to signify a period of rebirth and train tracks to show a path forward.

Wig, 1997, C-print, 30"x40"
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Uncut, 1997, C-print, 30"x40"
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In Tracks, an image of an ancient Borneo tattoo design overlays the aforementioned train tracks. There is an inconsistency between the ancient design and the symbol of the Industrial Revolution. However, one could read the design as simply a pointer offering passage forward or backward along the tracks. The tattoo design gains more power when viewed in conjunction with the background image from West of two young people smoking. These ‘hip’ young people would likely have this tattoo. The same tension occurs between Wig where the image of what appears as a young girl (actually a young boy in a wig) is overlaid by a thermometer. The thermometer can be interpreted as a symbol of sickness or as an indication of sexual arousal, especially the latter when associated with Uncut where the background is a large uncircumcised penis.

Each photograph can stand alone, but there is a greater sexual tension created when viewed as a group. Each element is straight-forward and easy to understand allowing the multiple layers to complicate the simplicity and directing the viewer into unexpected places. The Geisto series investigates the sense of confusion felt in life’s progression. The focus on sex shows one aspect of life that is constantly challenging, especially for homosexuals. The series explores one man’s struggle to feel comfortable with himself, but this is not a struggle foreign to anyone.

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Advertising is ingrained in our consciousness to the point we rarely notice it. Further, we have little recognition of the investment behind the ads we see. What happens behind the scenes? Designers rely on stock images to communicate ideas and there are millions of carefully constructed images from which to chose. Most receivers of advertising do not realize the abundance of stock photo usage because there is no reason to doubt that thumbnails next to product testimonials are not legitimate. But most interesting to me is the heterosexual scope of these photos.

Contemplating the heterosexual emphasis of stock images led me to reconsider an essay I had written about unity within the gay community and the natural inequality between gay men and lesbians related to differences in sexual practice. Gay men see sex centered around the penis and have difficulty understanding lesbian sex and vice versa for lesbians. This natural division is rarely discussed but rather hidden under a guise of gay unity. Pretending to be unified instead of opening a dialogue only reinforces misogyny and further division within an already male-dominated gay community. My essay discusses the work of lesbian photographer Della Grace who photographs lesbians engaged in ‘gay male sex’ — her subjects perform fellatio on dildos, engage in anal sex and revel in sado-masochism. There are few sexual practices strictly reserved for one sexual orientation and Graces’ ‘new lesbians’ bridge the gap between outdated proprietary sexual categorizations.4 But where do heterosexuals fit?

The Let’s Fuck Series was produced for my thesis exhibition at Gallery 400 and consists of six 30-inch by 40-inch chromogenic prints. I used stock photos of joyful heterosexual couples usually in an embrace as background photos with text overlaid on each. The ‘natural’ heterosexual quality of these stock images is subverted by placing them within the context of gay handkerchief codes, popular in the 1970s as a way for gay males to identify one another. The hanky’s color signified the wearer’s particular sexual practice and depending upon in which back pocket worn, whether he preffered giving or receiving the activity. For example, a blue handkerchief in the right back pocket meant the wearer enjoyed receiving anal sex and vice versa.5 Reading these signs was an easy way for gays to recognize who they might like to hook up with on any given night.

Golden Showers, 1998,
C-print, 30"x40"
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Anything Goes, 1998,
C-print, 30"x40"
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Let's Fuck Installation, Gallery 400, Chicago

Each of the individual photographs in the Let’s Fuck Series resemble large posters and are printed monochromatically signifying different handkerchiefs. Fist Fucking is printed red, Anything Goes is orange, Golden Showers is yellow, Hustling is green, Anal Sex is blue, and Piercings is purple. The title is overlaid in the bottom right corner of each in white type. While hanky codes are still around today, their use has diminished as gay visibilty has improved. My interest was in taking a part of gay history and exposing it in a heterosexual context. While implicating these couples in explicit sexual acts seems scandalous, they appear perfectly content never changing their joyous expression. That is the nature of the stock image.

There is a great sense of gay pride within the series as the colors mimic the Rainbow Flag, a symbol of gay pride. However, the Let’s Fuck Series appeals to a heterosexual and homosexual audience. The photos reinforce that no sexual practice is exclusive to a sexual orientation. I enjoyed the response from straight viewers unfamiliar with hanky codes. By combining aspects of gay and straight cultures, commonalties and differences can be seen more clearly. The Let’s Fuck Series promotes a sense of pride in all people despite sexual orientation with a hope that straights and gays can gain unity through mutual understanding.

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It intrigues me to think about how we learn things. Some things we are taught, some things we learn on our own. We are taught mostly physical practices — going to the toilet, doing laundry. Although we often look to others for insight, emotional growth is primarily a solo endeavor. We learn to deal with our emotions through experience. Some look for guidance in self-help books, others therapy, some retreat to spirituality. I believe much about the human condition can be gleaned from song lyrics and much of who I am can be pinpointed to certain songs.

I had pondered a photographic series for a few years based on lyrics and their influence on me. However, I could never visualize a final photo piece. My final semester at UIC, I was a teaching assistant to Julie Zando for her “Performance Art and Video Installation” class. This class exposed me to many video artists and in particular Alex Bag. I was impressed with Bag and her portrayal of real-life twentysomething experiences. Her work deals honestly and humorously with the plight of a younger generation facing the world. Her work spoke directly to me and my experiences inspiring me to produce my ‘song project’ as a video.

My video concentrates on the mix tape and the cultural icon it has become to my generation. A friend of mine once said that when someone gives another person a mix tape “they know what it means.” In a recent issue of the Madison, Wisconsin, weekly satirical-tabloid, The Onion, a front-page article proclaims “Mix Tape Expresses Subtleties of Long-Term Relationship”.6 The songs on the tape express feelings the maker cannot admit openly. There are platonic mix tapes too, but reading between the lines offers volumes. The songs are precious to the maker offered to another in hopes of better mutual understanding.

Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? Installation,
Gallery 400, Chicago

Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? is a video mix tape made by me for my viewers. The idea is very simple. I sing along to 18 different songs divided into two sides - “This Side” and “That Side”. My hidden meaning, my message to the viewer, is in the song lyrics. I use a combination of songs that have special meaning to me. The songs are a timeline of important music in my life - Fleetwood Mac was always playing when I was a child, 10,000 Maniacs got me through high school, Patsy Cline represents my rural Kentucky upbringing. Every song has a special significance that I share with the viewer.

With one exception, all the songs feature female vocalists. I was interested in the shift in meaning that occurs when a male sings from a woman’s point of view. Many of the songs deal with common pop song themes of broken hearts and unrequited love. When a woman sings, it is assumed the song is addressed to a man. This association changes when a male sings the song encouraging assumptions of homosexuality.

The first song of a mix tape is an important one setting the tone for the entire tape. Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” introduces the first side of Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? chosen for her recognition as a strong female figure. Reddy’s anthem traces the rise of women through an oppressive society. Sung by a male, the song conjures up images of drag queens and exposes parallels to the gay liberation movement. The title could easily be changed to “I Am Gay” and the meaning still holds. Helen Reddy sings with devotion and there is power in her words.

Video stills from Are You Sure Hank Done It
This Way?
, 1998, VHS, 62 minutes
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The songs on Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? address issues basic to being human. Fiona Apple sings about a lost love in “Shadowboxer” and Lady Kier and Deee-Lite share their views on loneliness and the search for Mr. Right in “Somebody”. The Cranberries point out the importance and oppressive nature of family in “Ode to My Family”, while in “The Trouble with Me” Lois struggles with her self-image. The Spice Girls stress the importance of friendship in “Wannabe”, Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs wax nostalgic for childhood in “Stockton Gala Days”, and in “Dress Code” Phranc proclaims herself a lesbian and says she can dress however she wants.

Not unlike my Geisto photographs, Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? is a collection of multiple layers that intertwine and mix offering multiple interpretations. The songs reinforce the hypocrisy of simultaneous strength and weakness felt when confronted with a challenge. There are inconsistencies between Helen Reddy’s idea of strength and the Spice Girls’ idea of “Girl Power”. But there is an emphasis on self-sufficiency common to all the artists.

Of course, the video could be self-manufactured fame. Multiple interpretations are encouraged and reinforced in the video. However, unlike my previous puzzles, Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? has a more distinct conclusion. The video is purposefully bracketed by the first and last songs to show a completed journey. The first and last songs of a mix tape are equally important. The first sets the mood and the final song summarizes the experience. The video ends with the title-song “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” by Waylon Jennings. The song traces the life of a young Waylon Jennings first going to Nashville to pursue his dream of a music career to an older, wiser Waylon who has done and seen everything. Waylon asserts that all people have a unique perspective and promotes strong individuality. Even if he and Hank Williams sang the same song, despite their similarities, the end results would be vastly different. This song not only concludes a single video piece, but also closes my two years at UIC and as I mentioned earlier, mix tapes provide a voice for the maker articulating feelings in a way the maker never could.

Graduate school is a two-year stretch of road — a small piece of a much larger puzzle. There are benefits to an extended period of study within any discipline and no doubt has my artwork moved in a positive direction, but one always has doubts and fears as a new chapter of life begins. Within the academic art community there is an oppressive undercurrent of thought that “everything in art has been done” and however untrue this may be, the thought is still present. The same could be said about music. Waylon begins “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” with “Lord, it’s the same old tune, Fiddle and guitar, Where do we take it from here?”.

Where does a twentysomething artist go from here? Moving forward is frightening when less than two percent of MFA graduates can expect to support themselves as an artist and about the same percentage can expect to get a teaching position. Exact numbers are not available because few MFA programs keep statistics on graduates, but the existing numbers show the goals of graduate education in fine arts are up in the air.7 It is up to the individual to define his/her own goals for graduate school.

Buying into the “everything has been done” train of thought promises a dismal future. Waylon Jennings was not content to spend his life in the shadow of Hank Williams; he was ready to make a change. Young artists like Alex Bag embody a new and exciting attitude about art emerging at this time. There is power in the way younger artists look at and absorb the world with influences coming from anywhere and everywhere. At the same time, media divisions are finally falling apart with painting and sculpture influencing design just as much design influences photography. It is an exciting time to be an artist.

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With the growth of the Web throughout the 90s, a lot of cultural theory revolved around the loss of identity on the Web where anyone can be anyone. In my research about online journals, I discovered an emerging personal honesty on the Web that rejects role-playing and facades.8 I cannot say that this will be the way of the future and that everyone will value honesty. However, I do and it unifies all my work over the past two years.

I try to be honest and open about my life and never pretend to be someone I am not and, as an artist, my audience will always appreciate that. Graduate school has honed my intellectual strategy and focus on art. At the end of two years, I feel centered and in control and I approach my artwork and design with a new found confidence. I move forward excited about art and ready for the challenges ahead.

 
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