Wavepool – Can you summarize for me where your interest in photography lies?
Sherwin Rivera Tibayan – That’s a tough one. And I feel like I have to say that because I probably spend a lot of time compartmentalizing photography. For example, one way that I like to encounter photography is through reading it’s written histories, especially how individuals and publics in the first twenty or thirty years after it’s official announcement tried to conceptualize or talk about it. But then that sometimes leads me into thinking about photography as a series of changing, improving, and competing technologies; a kind of ongoing post-industrial experiment in the west involving light, and optics – all seemingly in the service of recording linear perspective. But then what about all the serious social, economic, and environmental implications of photography? And then there’s the thing we call digital, and everything we can or want to associate with massive amounts of information and processing power.
In fact, I think I went a little off the rails for a time when I decided I would go through my regular day calling other activities photography. I’d be with friends and kick a small rock from the sidewalk towards some grass and say “photography,” just to see if it could feel right. I’ve since stopped.
So maybe I can say my interest lies nowhere in particular, but rather that I like spending my time thinking through the many ways that we’ve tried to claim that something is, looks like, or acts like photography. Sometimes these exercises serve as prompts to eventual projects.
Wavepool – Were there any instances like the rock kicking that actually held onto the “photography” declaration?
Sherwin Rivera Tibayan – You know, a part of me wishes that something did, like kicking that rock or maybe returning overdue library books. If something did fit, however, like really felt like photography, I don’t think I’d want to go about sharing that information with anyone! But what ended up happening, what the activity ended up being, was this silly way for me to momentarily displace my thinking of photography’s reliance to an image, and just consider it’s performative dimensions.
There’s a lot of human action in the act of photography. And it’s changed over time. I was briefly an adjunct, teaching photo courses, and the second thing I asked my students to do was to mime how they took photographs. The overwhelming response usually involved two hands arranged in front of a face, with maybe some twisting at the hips. But then I would ask them to act out the drama of using a large format camera, complete with an imaginary dark cloth, or a Hasselblad, with their heads peering down at a waist-level viewfinder, or more contemporaneously a selfie, with a single hand extended awkwardly in the air, heads and hair arranged to fit the framing of a phone camera pointed at themselves, instead of anything else in the world. If I were still teaching, maybe now I’d include a remote control action for drone photography.
Even the two hands in front of the face was an important thing for them to think about. I wondered how much it indicated my students’ and my own place or preference in the world of photography: as outwardly serious camera operators who still used eye piece viewfinders when many casual camera owners push their devices forward in order to compose with their screens. In any case I wanted us to think about context, intention, change and action before beginning the busy work of making pictures.
Wavepool – Does your practice usually work that way, with a camera (or other tool/medium) carrying out an idea that’s been carefully considered beforehand?
Sherwin Rivera Tibayan – The camera definitely shows up in the last act for many of the works. I tend to be an unstructured person but when I’m able to exercise some will power, I prefer measuring twice, cutting once. In a lot of those focused situations, however, the considerations show up because I’ve been surprised or confused by something I’ve seen in the world, often through repetition, and then just have to sit and think about it for a while.
For example, one of my first projects involved documenting blank billboards. I used to have a longish commute to Oklahoma City, along Interstate 35, and during a 6-month period in 2008, I noticed all these billboards showing up, all white and emptied of their images, which seemed weird and almost unnerving. It was just after the financial crisis began, so I was associating it with that. They ultimately ended up serving as markers for this mental space that I found myself in while I was driving. Eventually, all the associations I built around those material forms – Sugimoto’s movie screens, monumental sculpture, the then emerging rhetoric of austerity, road trips and the problematic visions of a contemporary American West, etc. – compelled me enough to drive around the country and begin making pictures.
It was the same with the Installation Views series. I remember watching several years ago someone install an exhibition of my photos for a small show. I was kind of mesmerized seeing her carefully place strips of blue painter’s tape, over and over again, on the walls to mark spots for hanging works. I had never seen an install before, so it was all new to me, and I really liked the look of the blue tape on white paint. Around the same time, I had this moment of confusion looking at Ryan Mcginley’s web site, because he had a column with a titled list of his projects on the left, including something called “Installation Views.” I don’t know currently, but the web site’s hierarchy at the time made no differentiation among the list of titles, so I clicked on “Installation Views” thinking it was a project of his, rather than photographic evidence of his physical works fully installed at various galleries around the world. So the first iteration of the series became the synthesis of these two moments, hidden or immaterial bookends for art’s normally prescribed physical encounter – the former an appreciation for the proto-life of an exhibition, and the later for its documentary aftermath.
Wavepool – With a lot of your work being referential, how do viewers that don’t come from a photographic background react to your work?
Sherwin Rivera Tibayan – Since I position a lot of my work online, I don’t really have opportunities to gauge reactions outside of short-lived metrics like shares, likes, or reposts. But when I’ve been lucky to have a conversation with groups or individuals, we usually end up talking around the work. That might sound unfortunate, but I’m usually energized when that happens. It feels like those conversations sync up with the fact that I make pictures about the stuff that surrounds and supports photography. In this way, we usually find common ground in the material, technological, or cultural and performative dimensions of photography.
That said, I showed a few projects to an artist I admire a few years back, and after he critiqued my work and encouraged me to continue, he asked, very seriously, if I was willing to have a small audience. So it’s something I do think about, viewers or potential viewers. And I do wonder to what extent the references might prevent or deter a person from spending time with a project. But I also think that the medium is familiar enough of a procedure and experience that someone without a specialized photographic background would not feel immediately outside the work. It’s the same with Index. That project is all about a dense network of references and relationships both familiar and obscure. The supporting structure of a book index and our familiarity with how one looks and functions is something that I hope provides the common ground for staying with the work.
I’d never argue that it’s necessary to quickly recognize the references in order to deal with the works. But it’s hard for me to even think of them as just references when they’re oftentimes the primary subjects of my projects; I don’t get to make the works without them. So if and when I think about a potential viewer’s reaction, it’s often in the spirit of trying to show myself as a viewer, too, as someone reacting to works I’ve admired, been confused by, or had difficulty accepting.
Wavepool – Who or what are some of your major influences?
Sherwin Rivera Tibayan – Here’s a list, including notes, probably in order of importance, and with some links for sharing.
Erased de Kooning – I’m drawn to the ambition and gall of the whole thing, but also need to temper its achievement in proportion to issues of masculinity and privilege, among others. Still, I can’t help and think of it when I consider a lot of the really interesting contemporary strategies that I see (and try to use) which involve digital technologies and extant images.
Bruce Lee – I loved him when I was very young, but in high school and college, I avoided him at all costs, mostly because its frustrating to be labeled or associated with him by others simply because of the dearth of Asian “role models.” But as an adult, my appreciation for him as a model has renewed, especially in learning more about what the physicality he expressed so fluidly was was trying to demonstrate: an inquisitive approach to mind and body problems that was rooted in deep reading and constant practice, expressed through media like books and cinema, and all with an awareness of his minority status.
Hiroshi Sugimoto – I can stand in front of his works for hours. He’s a scientist running experiments as much as an artist asking us to think about time.
Hito Steyerl – When I was in college in the early 2000s, there was this moment when I was transitioning from pop and top 40 radio to all this new music that was being uploaded and shared. I wanted in but couldn’t wrap my head around it all. I soon discovered the filtering power of friends with good taste, who burdened themselves with thinking about the state of music, had more energy for the demands of the task, and who then didn’t mind reporting back their discoveries. She feels like that friend, offering a picture of the picture of the world.
Erin Shirreff – Since discovering her work several years ago, she’s just been someone whose projects I’ve been amazed by and try to stay attentive to.
In Praise of Shadows – I have a paperback copy of this essay that I like to return to every few years. It’s beautiful to read and helps recalibrate my sensibilities.
Bouldering videos – I’ve been bouldering for almost 15 years now, which is a form of rope-less climbing. There are a hundred ways that I think bouldering and my art practice influence and support each other. When I can’t climb, I watch bouldering videos to stay motivated. This is a recent find.
In my G4 Over the Sea – I always listen to this when I’m working, including writing this response! It uses my favorite album as a base, so this mash up was a nice surprise when I came across it a few years ago. It’s fun and dense, and kind of feels endless.
Wavepool – I’d love to hear more about the back and forth relationship between bouldering and your art practice. What are at least a few of the direct connections between the two?
Sherwin Rivera Tibayan – I think in both cases what initially interested me was a chance to just use my body. I didn’t think too much about either activity. I just liked moving around. But eventually that motivation developed and sort of expanded into a more inquisitive space.
The one critical awareness my art practice has given me in terms of climbing is an attention to it as a social activity that’s oftentimes dependent on an individual’s economic/sexual/racial/class background. It’s asked me to think a lot more about who gets a chance to climb, is encouraged to climb, and has the surplus capital and time to climb. I’ve been very lucky and privileged to participate in both activities and try not to lose sight of this fact, hope that I can get more people involved, and remain thankful to everyone who has shared their experiences and supported me along the way.
Regarding how bouldering informs my studio practice, maybe a feeling for strategies is a useful way to describe it. I’m about a decade further along in my bouldering, so in a practical way, my climbing experience helps me recognize when and if I’ve put myself in a physical and mental state to give what I can to a project:
A feeling for style. Analogous to some of the stuff covered in that Bruce Lee interview, I think that pursuing and finding a personal style in climbing is a meaningful ambition, and when diligently and honestly applied, can be expressive of an individual’s surfaces and depths, especially as a desire to move in the world with grace, flexibility, and resolve.
A feeling for choice. There are so many types of climbing. Part of expressing or refining a style seems to come down to recognizing which types of climbs benefit from your style and which don’t.
A feeling for planning. A lot of times in the actual performance of bouldering, there’s not a lot of time for thinking. But in projecting or working out how to do a boulder problem, there is an opportunity go over all the details of body position, opposing forces, and potential sequences and difficulties that the climb presents. You also get to think about past climbs that required similar moves and try to recall how you did them. You try to juggle all this stuff in order to construct a little theory about how this climb might go down.
A feeling for trying. There is so much falling in climbing. It’s mostly falling, really. Getting used to falling, or at least expecting it to be a significant component of the effort, is useful in a sugary, self-help/stay-positive way.
A feeling for solitude. These days, I like to boulder alone. More often than not, it’s only after working towards solitude when the useful stuff finally begins to show up.
A feeling for rest. When I first started climbing, I had a lot more energy, climbed as much as I could, never once thought I’d get injured, and didn’t like the idea of resting. Now that I’m older, I rest quite a bit. It helps to prevent injury and, more importantly, gives the fewer attempts I do make a higher quality of effort. I think I left my MFA a little injured, and for a while didn’t recognize it as such. So now I think a lot about resting. I’ll be honest, it’s kind of scary to say that, because a lot of this can feel rushed and that time is running out or something, but after a group show in Chicago in May, my plan is to rest for a bit, to resist making new work.
To see more, please visit Sherwin’s website.