Wavepool – Your practice seems to be highly intuitive and ever-changing. Would you agree?
Peter Happel Christian – I’m happy my work reads that way. I agree. Over the course of the last four or five years I’ve been consciously trying to work more intuitively and let my studio practice evolve in a more organic way. It’s a strategy that’s funny to me – to try to be intuitive, to plan to not have a plan – but it is a way of working that I found myself wanting. One reason I started to work in this way is that I grew tired of the idea of having a project to work on, to name the thing I wanted to make and then make it. Maybe that has something to do with the world of art photography or grant writing or applying for things where I felt like I was naming projects before I really knew what they were.
Something I tell my students when they’re developing work, and that I end up telling myself, is to think about going to the grocery store. Most anyone goes to the store with a list. If you go to the store and just buy the things on the list then you haven’t really been at the store. You’ve only completed a task you knew you would complete before you arrived. There’s no adventure – no new foods make it in your cart. That’s really how I think of my studio practice. Go to the store with a list, but always buy a weird thing – something not on the list. For me, that’s how I try to preserve intuition in my practice. I want a sense of adventure in what I’m making. If it doesn’t have that, then I feel like I’m just executing tasks on a list. I’ve also grown comfortable with not knowing what I’m doing all the time – I no longer put that pressure on myself. Letting go of that has been pretty great. It’s good to not know sometimes. Again, that’s the adventure. I know that anything I make will lead me to the next thing and so on and that those are all related to one another. In that way, work will always have meaning. But as the maker it’s up to me to speculate on where the meaning lies and if something compelling is lurking in that process of making and thinking. That’s not to say that I make work out of thin air. The ideas come from different places and areas of interest, but often the physical making of things is largely intuition and reflection.
Wavepool – Much of your work makes reference to geographic, historical, or scientific ideas. Does preliminary research play a significant role in the development of a project? How do you go about starting something new?
Peter Happel Christian – Yeah, preliminary research often plays a significant role in how a body of work develops and evolves. An older project of mine, Near The Point of Beginning, was really heavy on background research and focused on a more singular idea that in retrospect paved the way for a lot of new work. In the research I do I usually come across a reference to another book or author or artist in the footnotes of a book or essay I’m reading. Those little details have been really significant at times. For instance, when I re-read Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams a couple years ago a very short passage in the book about the Claude Glass, or convex black mirror, really stood out to me. It was maybe a paragraph of information. From there I dug into the history of that object, made some of my own mirrors and let it take over my studio practice for a little bit. A lot of that work was in a show called Sword of the Sun this past February at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. That’s one way I go about starting something new – chasing down a curious detail and finding ways to open it up and connect it other things I already have in the works.
Another way I start something new is by making a lot of things and then sifting through what I’ve made. That fluid process is usually going on while I’m reading stuff and somewhere along the way things fall into place. I don’t want to make it sound so casual, but it really is a bounce between making things I’m drawn to on an intuitive level, letting those things live in the world while I try to understand why I made them and then make more things with an informed mind and sharpened focus of intention. Most often, the stuff I make that I am initially fuzzy about are the photographs I enjoy the most.
Wavepool – Can you tell me a little bit about your collaborative venture Clear As Day?
Peter Happel Christian – Clear As Day (CAD) is an irregular collaboration I have going on with Phillip Andrew Lewis (http://www.phillipandrewlewis.com/). It’s something that was born from failure! Phillip and I started collaborating when we were colleagues at Youngstown State University in Ohio. CAD originally started out as an idea for a group exhibition in an abandoned hotel in Youngstown, Ohio – the name came about as a response from the present-day clear skies of Northeast Ohio where the soot and smoke of the steel factories used to dominate the region. The name of the exhibition was going to be Clear As Day and we thought it would’ve been an interesting way to acknowledge the history of a place while capturing its contemporary state. That basic idea of looking back (into history) and looking around (in the present) is how we’ve subconsciously developed projects as Clear As Day. We were really ambitious about that exhibition and laid some groundwork for it, but it never materialized for one reason or another. After all that dreaming and planning we realized we wanted to keep working together on making things and so we did! We’re drawn to similar subject matter and both have an interest in the natural landscape as a complex social space – plus working together has always been really easy. Sometimes we meet up to physically work together, but nearly all of our collaboration is done remotely. One of the best parts is that early on we agreed to not have rules and not assign individual authorship to anything we make as CAD – it’s an incredibly fluid process that has definitely impacted how I make decisions on my own projects. We haven’t lived in the same town for years so much of our collaboration has been in the format of a website and now a tumblr that we use as a way to talk to each other. We periodically remind each other that “nothing is something” – that seems to be a little bit of advice we feed each other. Anything has the potential to be something.
Wavepool – You’ve been working with Conveyor Editions to publish Half Wild, which will be released soon at the New York Art Book Fair. Was this always a goal for the project?
Peter Happel Christian – Pretty much! Early on in the making of Half Wild I imagined it as a book. As I made more and more photographs and grouped them together at various times it started to make sense to me to build the project with a book in mind. I’ve been working on it by name, as Half Wild, for over three years although there are some pictures in the final edit that came before and also one or two that lean forward into newer work. In that way, the book is something very much independent of an isolated project and it’s a part of it that I’m really excited about. It is its own thing, but it also captures broader parts of my studio practice. The final edit and the book itself has been an incredible collaborative process – so satisfying on many levels.
Wavepool – What aspects of the publishing process have been the most exciting? Have there been any major challenges?
Peter Happel Christian – Hands down the most exciting part has been working with other people who have a vested interest in the project. Letting the project become something I couldn’t imagine or make on my own has been an exceptional part of the process as well. Also, laboring over a body of work for so long and seeing it materialize in the format you desire is really incredible – the translation of ideas and effort into a succinct, tangible form is pretty mesmerizing. I’ve also learned things about my own work along the way – stuff I couldn’t see because I was too close to it that another person might readily pick up on. I tried to stay out of my own way and let the process and the good people around me take over. I’m happy to say there haven’t been any major challenges. I think that is mostly to do with working with Conveyor Editions – Christina and Jason are great collaborators and have wonderful people working on their end of things. Only one thing stands out as a challenge. Early on in the process of editing the very final group of photographs and sequence was a little tricky for me. I had looked at a certain sequence of the work for so long and had let it become something on my own that when the editing and sequencing really started happening for the final version I had to let go of some of it. But the letting go opened me up to what the book could become – rather than trying to stick to what I already knew it to be. That’s the beauty of the collaborative nature of making a book in this way, rather than self-publishing where the process is so different and monocular in comparison.
Wavepool – What’s next after the release of Half Wild? Any big plans?
Peter Happel Christian – Well, we’re aiming to do some book signing events and carry Half Wild out in the world as much as possible. I’m hoping the book will translate into new opportunities for me – I haven’t shown a lot of the work in the book and working towards some exhibitions would be great. I’m also working on another book with Mystery Spot Books, based in Minneapolis, and we’re working towards a November launch. It’ll have twenty photographs in it and won’t be as expansive as Half Wild, but I’m super excited about it. Starting in January I’ll be on an academic sabbatical for a semester so my big plans are to keep making work, experiment and do some reading. Like almost anyone, I never seem to have enough time for everything I want to do. I also have a residency at Coast Time in Lincoln City, Oregon in June so I’ll be preparing for that and hopefully building some momentum heading into the time and space of the Pacific coast. I’ve never done an artist residency so I’m curious to sink into that mode with the ocean nearby.
To see more, please visit Peter’s website.