6. David Shannon-Lier
Willis Wharf, Virginia // April, 2016
David Shannon-Lier is a good friend of mine and – by happy coincidence – absolutely one of my favorite artists. The photographs of his that I find most affecting belong to a series called "Of Heaven and Earth," in which he painstakingly calculates the arcs and angles of different astronomical events, carefully determines how those lines will intersect with a particular landscape, and then uses sticks, stones, chalk, or a little trench to connect the two. The photographs in the series are long exposures that document this complicated interaction, collapsing time and space into a two-dimensional juxtaposition of enormous motion and profound stillness. What I find so moving about these pictures is that they manage to simultaneously consider both a person's place in a landscape and that landscape's place in the cosmos; viewing them can feel like looking straight through the earth.
David and I met on an artist residency in Vermont several years ago; on one of the first nights we were there, he gave a public presentation of some of his photographs and I was so taken with the images he displayed that I immediately and successfully bullied him into letting me follow him around for a few days so that I could write an essay about his work. In the course of that process, we became great friends, and since then we've managed to frequently cross paths all around the country: we’ve intercepted each other in Idaho, North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, Wyoming, Maine, Oregon, Montana, and probably a few more places that I can’t think of at the moment.
One reason this has been possible is that – as we'll discuss below – David’s wife is a physical therapist and for years she worked a traveling job that compelled the family to move to a new state every three months. Since the time of this interview, however, the Shannon-Liers have settled more permanently in Livingston, Montana, where David teaches photography over the pass in Bozeman at Montana State University, his wife practices downtown, and their son can now attend the same school for more than three months at a stretch.
David and I recorded this talk in early 2016, just after they had begun one of these three-month stints in a tiny town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a sort of bonus section of the state that hangs down from eastern Maryland and Delaware. It’s directly connected to the rest of Virginia exclusively by way of an enormous chain of bridges and tunnels that moves traffic north and south across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. As you'll hear us discuss, the Eastern Shore is broad, flat, lush, and damp, and reminds me more of southern Florida than it does of anywhere else in Virginia.
So here's a rambling conversation that we recorded back then. We talk about David's work, about the places where he and his family have had the opportunity to live over the past several years, about what it was like to be in each one for such a short period of time, and about a few of his more general feelings about how art and experience can most effectively intersect. More about David's photography is at his website, and I encourage you to check it out.
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David Shannon-Lier: [checking microphone] …check, check. Pah. PAH. Sssskuh.
Ben Cosgrove: Yep, it’s all looking good. There are your levels.
DSL: Very nice. Is that a – a metronome?
BC: Yeah, we can probably do without that. [sounds of scuffling/adjustment/clicks] This will be a free-ranging, unmetered interview.
DSL: Some real free jazz. [laughs] So you’re already recording all this?
BC: Yeah, we’ll leave this in. The truth is, as you can see, I don’t know how to use this software at… at all, so I’m always worried that if I try to restart, it won’t work at all.
BC: But okay. So! Where are we?
DSL: Well! I’m glad you asked. Right now we’re in Maryland–
DSL: Right, we’re on the eastern shore of VIRGINIA, I’m sorry. On the Delmarva Peninsula. I said Maryland because it sort of seems like it should be Maryland. But there’s this little stalactite of Virginia on the bottom of that peninsula, and that’s where we are.
BC: I guess, in your defense, we should point out that you’ve only been living here for literally four days…
DSL: That’s right. And before that we were in downeast Maine, and before that – what was before that? – New Mexico. And Montana, Idaho, and Vermont before that. For the past couple of years, my wife and son and I have been traveling the country: she takes jobs as a traveling physical therapist – they each run for three months, each job – and then my work as an artist and a photographer kind of fits snugly into that.
BC: Right. I think that’s what I find so – well, the photographs you make obviously tend to be a lot about land and place, but in a way that kind of puts those things in a much larger framework. And I wondered about how much of that is influenced by the fact that you’re able to move around so much. I know you started making this particular work when you were relatively stationary, but does moving around so frequently help you to see these landscapes as more emphemeral and impermanent?
DSL: Right, that’s an interesting question. You know when I started – especially with the work you’re referring to, with the moon and the sun passing through those terrestrial scenes – it was such a difficult process to nail down, just logistically. And so I didn’t really stray too far from my home; I went out in kind of concentric circles from where I lived.
BC: Which was Phoenix.
DSL: Yep – Phoenix, Arizona. But to go out and make this work, which takes, you know, a day and a night, and then to have it not come out – be underexposed, or misaligned, or whatever – which it often was in the beginning, I didn’t want to be traveling across the country to make something that might not work.
BC: When I first talked to you about it, you told me a little about how the idea occurred to you because, well, you’d grown up in eastern Massachusetts, and when you’d point in that direction when saying to people in Arizona where you’d come from, you found that you’d have to adjust the angle of your pointing to account for the curvature of the earth.
DSL: Right! Below the horizon. And it was kind of that shift in scale and place that kind of… well, obviously you always know the world is round. And if you dig down you’ll get to China, or whatever. But just to have that slowly become... apparent, like viscerally apparent, as you travel and literally experience the curve of the earth, as we did when we drove from Massachusetts to Arizona… that experience kind of opened my curiosity. I wanted to think about how someone might describe that feeling in a photograph.
BC: Yeah, that’s an interesting way of putting it. It’s sort of like you’re taking the ultimate three-dimensional experience and finding a way to put it into two dimensions.
DSL: [laughs] Yeah! Yeah. I like that. And kind of trying to point to this, this… well, I actually think photography is kind of the perfect medium for this, because of that ability it has. It’s this flattening of space and time.
BC: Yeah. It takes those concepts and collapses them into something we can take in all at once.
DSL: Yeah! Which I think is something we do, just to, you know, remain sane. We always kind of flatten things – in memory, or narrative, or whatever.
BC: We frame them, or tell stories about them, all by isolating specific elements of them.
DSL: Right, right.
DSL: But, you know, I always – early on in the work, I always pictured it being geographically diverse. Even though the earliest pictures in that series were made in the southwest, I knew it needed to have more places represented to really get at what I was trying to do with the work. I started in the Arizona desert because that’s where I was – and obviously, there it worked out well because it’s almost always clear…
BC: [laughs] Yeah, for the benefit of the listeners, we should say that – well, for one thing, I’ve known you for a while. But yeah, when I met you, we were both on a residency in the cloudiest county in all of Vermont, and you a spent a lot of that time being mildly frustrated.
DSL: What! [laughs] Well, maybe a little. Actually, in my memory of that time, I appreciated the challenge of, you know, trying to figure out something new to do that would relate to the other things I was doing but while working around the obstacle of… never seeing the sun. [laughs]
BC: That’s right! You made that installation – I totally forgot that you did that.
DSL: Yeah, it was an experiment! But yeah, I spent a month describing the paths of all these… well, I made a sort of three-dimensional map of the night sky over the course of a night, on the walls of my studio. So it had the arcs of all the stars and planets as they moved across the sky. So it was kind of… planetary and neat, but it was also a way to compel people to think about just… well, the way the heavens move around. We don’t often see that, you know? We can grasp it intellectually, but not really perceive it.
BC: Yeah, I guess it’s that same thing about collapsing time that we were talking about. You were expressing – or capturing – a series of gestures that wouldn’t be apparent in realtime, just as with the photographs.
BC: And it was cool! It was – well, it was this big, white room with empty walls…
DSL: Right, yeah, the studios there – or my studio anyway – was large and white and had these sixteen-foot-high ceilings. And so, you know, I used a giant stepladder and made these marks all over the walls. And as I recall, you and I drank a lot of beer during that time. [laughs]
BC: Ha, I can verify that, yeah.
DSL: But yeah, I feel like I’m drawn to things that… that are tedious and kind of close to impossible? Well, not impossible; I always know that they’re doable, but I am attracted to work that requires a lot of meticulous attention and tedious, diligent work. I don’t know why I’m drawn to those things…
BC: Huh, that’s funny – I was just talking to another friend about that.
DSL: I mean, I would say you’re a little this way too – no?
BC: I mean, I have a little bit of it. I think it’s maybe especially common among people who are… self–employed? You know, not just the whole work-ethic thing about gaining meaning and self-worth from your work, but – maybe more importantly – using it as a way to impose a little structure and stability.
DSL: Yeah. Yeah! You have a thing to churn away at and it gives your life a little more shape.
BC: Exactly. I mean, in my own projects, I love the part where I’ve already kind of, you know, conceived of what I’m going to do and then all I have to do is grind it out, fill in the spaces. Copying parts, or editing, or any of those tasks that don’t require, you know, a lightning flash of creative inspiration. It’s satisfying. But I don’t know about it needing to feel… impossible.
DSL: Well, yeah, impossible wasn’t the right word. But at least in… well, in the visual arts, it doesn’t seem to me like a super-common personality trait. And so I wonder if in part I’m drawn to it because it’s something that, while it may not be impossible, it requires a process that is annoying enough that no one else is willing to do it. No one else wants to sit there and kind of, um… well, generate big piles of photographs that might turn out to be failed and useless, or to spend hours calculating angles.
BC: Well yeah, and the willingness to all of that specific work does help to make the resulting work more uniquely an expression of, you know, your particular brain.
DSL: Yeah. Ha. That’s true.
BC: Well, this is a pretty good point of reentry back onto the path that we detoured from a little while ago. So you began making these particular pictures, as you say, when you were in Arizona, in grad school, and then have continued to make them as you move around. And do you think that has affected your thinking about– well, let me back up and get into it like this: I feel like your lives, with the three months here, three months there, would be considerably more disorienting than my life of constantly driving around is.
BC: It seems like three months would be enough time to start to get settled, but only enough that it’s got to be jarring when you’re suddenly uprooted again—
DSL: Yeah! That’s interesting. It is a little bit… as you say, the end of that three-month period is just when you’re kind of starting to…
BC: Click into the place?
DSL: Make… friends… [laughs]
BC: Well, yeah! And I guess what I was wondering earlier is about whether that affects your own feelings about the landscapes that appear in your work. Obviously your pictures show these big, sweeping celestial motions, and for me one effect of that is that they make the landscapes that frame them seem… well certainly not irrelevant, but much tinier than we might be inclined to think. Secondary, you know, to these much more massive, all-but-eternal, and universal things happening in the background. It seems like it may be a helpful and – I’d like to have a better word here, but grounding view on the world to take, if you’re constantly going through that process of attachment and upheaval. To cultivate a sense of ballast by focusing on the things that are common to all those places.
DSL: Right, right, wow. I mean, yeah, that was my original idea with this project, from the beginning, even when I was starting out with it in Arizona. I felt like I really needed to make it geographically diverse, to emphasize those things which are held in common across those different places. Which is this larger world – the movement of the heavens – these things that are constant, or as close to constant as we have a conception of. And the way to show that was by making pictures where that constant can be seen in places that would otherwise seem unrelated.
But yeah, it’s that thing of – no matter where I go, and no matter how long I do this, long after I’m dead, these things will be doing pretty much the same thing. Over and over and over. And yes, there certainly is something comforting about that.
And I think – well, when I was making those marks as well, the alterations to the landscape that appear in those pictures – it was important to me that those marks were somewhat ephemeral.
BC: Ooh, yeah. You mean the lines of stones, or the trenches, those things.
DSL: Right, exactly. And at first I was thinking of things like Spiral Jetty and I thought, like, “yeah, I’ll get like, big bulldozers!” or like, I don’t know, “I’ll build a giant… brass… sculpture that’ll be there forever.”
BC: That’s a free idea for anyone listening.
DSL: But it didn’t quite feel right. The more and more I did it… well, I started small anyway, just because it was easier logistically. Like with the traveling, as we were saying, I started small because I didn’t want to do these huge, expensive things if they weren’t going to work out until I had my methodology down. So I started with, you know, things from around. Reeds and stones and stuff.
But it began to feel a little more right, a little more human in its character, this mark, just as it was. Because if I look out at the night sky, or, you know, ponder my own mortality… well, you know, you’ve got just this incredibly immense universe that we live in. And the more that the Copernican Revolution expands to include not just our solar system but the universe and even concepts like time itself and matter, the more it becomes clear that we’re of… of very little consequence in the universe. And so having these marks in the pictures that are, you know, fragile and impermanent… that felt completely appropriate.
BC: It seems like it’d be so easy to respond to that idea – that we’re of such vanishingly little consequence – with, well, nihilism. But obviously, you don’t. Can you talk about that?
DSL: Right! I don’t, because I think that the other way to think about that is… well, on the other side of that is this constant and unshakeable notion that the things we do are important, right? I’m really interested in that push and pull between… well on one hand, here’s this thing that’s overwhelmingly immense and basically incomprehensible. And I think that in the face of that, there’s this very human impulse to try and grasp that, to contain it, or make their mark on it.
BC: To make it align with our tiny, lived lives in some way.
DSL: Ha, literally, in this case! But yeah, people have been doing things like this for millennia.
BC: Yeah – and I mean, this is what I think is so cool about this particular project of yours, that it so elegantly and directly ties all these tiny, scrappy human actions to these giant, graceful patterns of movement that should feel beyond all of our control. To things that could easily be thought of as separate, but aren’t.
DSL: Yeah, thanks! Yeah.
BC: To shift gears though, I wondered if we could talk a little about the places you guys have lived during this sequence of three-month chunks over the last few years. Can you walk through that a little bit?
DSL: Yeah! So, I was in Arizona, like we said – I went to grad school there – and I was there for three years. And that was the last… well, before that we were in Boston for five years and that was the longest we’d lived anywhere. But Arizona holds second-place.
BC: How long did it take you, after you moved out there, to adjust to the desert? Because man, I… Phoenix, to me, is an extremely difficult place to be a person.
DSL: Ahhh, I actually found it not so difficult an adjustment, for whatever reason. I remember right before we went down there, when we were still in Massachusetts – I’d lived in Massachusetts for my entire life – I would regularly wake up in the middle of the night like “OHMYGOSH. HOW ARE WE GOING TO DO THIS? WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?” You know? Like, “how are we going to take our dog for walks?! It’s going to be a hundred and nineteen!” But I think in my mind it was worse than it actually was – I mean, it’s hot and it’s dry, but it’s okay. Maybe it helped to have my expectations calibrated like that.
But also the finite nature of it. I mean, we knew I was only going to be in grad school for three years, not forever, and that made everything seem easier and more manageable. I mean, you probably think that way on a day-to-day basis. [laughs]
BC: [laughs] Oh, you may think you’re kidding, but... I mean, yes. You’re 100% correct.
DSL: But yeah, it’s really… it’s almost like another planet out there; there’s truly no other landscape like it – in the states, anyway.
BC: You’re right, though; the Sonoran desert especially, parts of it really do look precisely like… well, Spaceman Spiff.
DSL: [laughs] Yeah, exactly! I was going to say Dr. Seuss or something, but Spaceman Spiff is dead-on.
But anyway, I was able to revel in it down there without necessarily feeling like it was my home, or that I was trapped there or anything. And that feeling – again, I think it helps us really take advantage of all the places we’ve been since. So after Arizona we went to… ah, Vermont. We lived in the center of Vermont, in Rutland.
BC: Rutland, the traffic light capital of Vermont.
DSL: [laughs] Yeah, that’s true, that’s definitely true. But you know, I love New England, and I loved living in Vermont. We never – we’ve never lived in any big, cosmopolitan cities during this stretch, it’s mostly been smaller places like Rutland, or… here.
BC: Here in Maryland.
BC: But yeah, that’s a thing that has been – it seems – a neat perk of this thing you guys have been doing, with Alison’s job moving every three months. It seems all the places that it’s taken you, or at least all the places I’ve visited you–
DSL: Which may be all of them…?
BC: Ha, not quite, but almost! Anyway, they’ve all seemed kind of…
DSL: Peculiar. [laughs]
BC: [laughs] Yeah! Off the beaten path; not somewhere you would have thought to make your home for a little while. And it seems like it’s been a good opportunity to see what life is like in some corners of the country that you might not have stumbled upon otherwise.
DSL: Oh, that’s absolutely true. I mean – well, after Vermont we went to Idaho, where we lived in Idaho Falls. And Idaho Falls, as you know, I mean… the city is really kind of depressing and not super interesting, but—
BC: But it’s near a lot of very cool stuff.
DSL: It’s near a lot of cool stuff! Like Craters of the Moon – you and I have hiked through there – or the Sawtooths, to the north. Or the Tetons.
BC: Yeah, I’ve met you there at least one or two times, too. We managed to throw you down a mountain.
DSL: Yep, yep, I still can’t quite fully explain that one, but yes, for the listeners, I had a very snowy, ungraceful tumble down a hill out in the Tetons last winter, while Ben watched and laughed uphelpfully.
Anyway, we were out there but then we moved to Montana – Livingston. And Livingston was really, really awesome. I mean, it may be my favorite of the places we lived. I really liked Livingston the town – you know, it feels very small, but it’s got Bozeman a half hour away, and there are a bunch of breweries and things, and it’s right near all these extraordinary places. You know, you’re right at the foot of the Absaroka Mountains.
BC: Not super far from the Crazy Mountains, either.
DSL: No, not at all! Wait, didn’t you write music for a documentary that took place out there?
BC: Yeah, some friends of mine made a really cool – actually, if you get back out to Montana I should introduce all of you; you’d all get a kick out of one another.
DSL: That would be great.
BC: But then wait, after Montana was… New Mexico?
DSL: Farmington, New Mexico.
DSL: [laughs] I mean… well, oh right, I guess that’s where your car exploded, wasn’t it?
BC: Ha, yep. A few months ago. Two days after you guys moved away, too. Well, it really blew up a couple hours outside of town, but that’s where it went to get “repaired,” and I had a lovely time walking around Farmington waiting for news from the mechanic and kind of… staggering around as various existential crises, ah... crashed over me like tidal waves. [laughs]
DSL: Didn’t… jeez, yeah, and wasn't this like, precisely when you were going through a big break-up, too?
BC: Sure was!
DSL: Gosh, I’m sorry. It really is unbelievable that we missed you by about 48 hours. But yeah, I mean, I probably liked it better than you did, for various reasons. Again, the city there is nothing to write home about, but it’s just surrounded by these unbelievable landscapes. In fact, that area of New Mexico may have been my area of most… productive work during this whole period. Just in terms of finding landscapes that really spoke to me. The Bisti Badlands, which obviously you weren’t able to get to, sadly—
BC: Yeah, ha – I was… busy.
DSL: [laughs] Aw jeez, I so encourage you to give the Four Corners region another chance. Because seriously, the Bisti Badlands, I felt like I was driving out there almost every day to make new photographs. And I feel like I came away with a portfolio of work – work that was apart from the other work I was doing – that I’m really proud of. I mean, I really found that landscape inspiring.
But yeah, again, the city is just kind of… ugh.
BC: I mean, I do have to say, I think there is something kind of otherworldly and magical about that region – something that feels different even from other parts of the southwest. It’s someplace that really does fascinate me, even if right now I have these unpleasant associations with it. But at the same time – again, I’m sure this is colored in part by the particular circumstances of my most recent experience out there – but something about that landscape seems unusually foreboding and inhospitable and sort of thrillingly… well, almost scary. You feel very exposed.
DSL: It’s also that it’s so far away from everything. I mean, between there and other biggish cities, there are just giant stretches of… not much. Road and dirt and sky and rock. And in a certain respect, I think it reflects something about just what our cultural idea – maybe just as northeasterners – of what the southwest is. Just, you know, this barren, arid, landscape with crazy rock formations and high temperatures.
Anyway, from there we moved to downeast Maine.
BC: WAY downeast.
DSL: Yeah, Machiasport, almost all the way out. Almost the northernmost and easternmost part of the Maine coast. We actually lived in an old sea captain’s house, which was something. And we had you play a house concert there, shortly after we arrived!
BC: Yeah, that was a blast. And interestingly, you were there from December to February, which is… well, to put it mildly, an unusual time to be voluntarily hanging out in Machiasport.
DSL: [laughs] Yeah, maybe that was a weird decision. But no – every winter we tried to go somewhere with snow.
BC: I mean… success.
DSL: It really wasn’t so bad; this was a cold winter but not a super snowy one. But yeah, we’d spent three years in Phoenix and we missed the snow, so we spent this winter in downeast Maine and had been in Idaho the year before that. So, although it may seem insane, we did go there for the winter on purpose.
BC: Good accents out there, though.
DSL: Oh man, yes.
[several redacted moments of both men performing horrible impressions of a downeast Maine accent]
BC: I’ll be sure to trim this out in the edit.
DSL: [laughing] Yes – please, please, please do that.
But yeah, we really loved it up there too. Just, we lived in this town – although now I guess we’re in a town that’s even smaller – but the town we lived in up there was… maybe a thousand people? Fifteen hundred?
BC: It’s pretty hard to get to, as well; you’ve got to—
DSL: Yuh cahn’t get theah from heah!
BC: [laughs] Exactly. So did that have the effect of making you feel more isolated? Or cozy? Or what?
DSL: I wouldn’t say isolated, but it made us be more strategic about how we would go get stuff and share the car and that kind of thing. It’s out on this little peninsula – I mean, I guess everything in that part of Maine is on some sort of peninsula or another – and it’s a pretty serious project to get elsewhere. I mean, coming back up there after the holidays in Massachusetts I think it took us six or seven hours?
Anyway, here we are now in Willis Wharf, Virginia. Which is actually a village of 150 people, so we’ve beaten our record for population size. [laughs]
BC: I’ve actually never been to this part of Virginia before, and it’s – well, it’s not what I expected. You and I were talking earlier about how much it feels like… well, like a pinier version of the Everglades or something. In the sense that in a lot of places it’s almost hard to tell what’s land and what isn’t.
DSL: Yeah! Yeah. It’s very flat and very wet and very lush, verdant. Swampy.
BC: The flatness is what surprised me the most. I mean, where we’re talking right now, it’s yawningly flat. Just like, a hard horizontal line, which I hadn’t expected at all.
DSL: And the water, just being… well, everywhere. There is water everywhere.
BC: Yeah, that’s a good point. Or sort of weirdly blended with the land, at least. I mean, it’s interesting how, on a map, the ocean is really far over that way [points], but in reality – in practical reality – pretty much everything in between here and there is neither fully land nor fully water.
DSL: Huh! Yeah… yeah, you’re right.
I’ve enjoyed it here so far – like you mentioned, we’ve only been here for a few days – but I think it will be an interesting time. And to be honest, I didn’t even know it was Virginia over here until—
BC: Until about twenty minutes ago!
DSL: [laughs] Come on! But no, I didn’t think at all about the other side of the Chesapeake Bay. Or I just passively assumed it was Maryland or Delaware or something.
BC: Yeah, I don’t actually know why this bottom section of the peninsula belongs to Virginia… I’d suspect it has something to do with Virginia holding a lot of cards and political clout relative to other colonies at the time that its borders were being drawn. And a desire to control the whole mouth of the Chesapeake.
DSL: Huh, yeah, that seems very reasonable. I’d imagine that had something to do with it. Thomas Jefferson throwing his weight around.
BC: What, no, it would have preceded —or ha, yeah, maybe Thomas Jefferson is eternal. He set that up right before he built that twenty-mile bridge.
DSL: [laughs] Indeed! By hand, I've heard.
BC: Thomas Jefferson, titan of major twentieth-century public works projects. That really is a crazy bridge, though – have you been over it yet?
DSL: No, but how many times does it go underwater? Three? Two?
BC: I just came over it the other day – I think there are two tunnels? And then it touches down on an island up on this side. So there are… three, no four separate bridges. Four bridge spans, and the whole thing is, what, 23 miles? It's unreal.
DSL: Oh, man. Yeah… I wonder why they—I mean, I know why they built it, so you can get from here to there—
BC: That’d be my guess, yeah.
DSL: [laughs] No, but I mean – it doesn’t seem like there are a ton of people that live on this peninsula. And it’s just such an outrageous piece of infrastructure. It just seems… disproportionate?
BC: Well, I mean, it’s also… if you’re coming from Philadelphia or something to Virginia Beach and you want to skip all the Baltimore, DC, and Richmond stuff, it’s a second, non-95 route up the coast.
DSL: True, that’s a good point.
BC: But I don’t mean to—you raise a good point, about how thinly-populated this part of this peninsula is, relative to the rest of the state, or even to Maryland and Delaware. I wonder why that might be. Maybe in part because there wasn’t a bridge until the sixties?
DSL: True. But I think now… well, I was surprised to learn this, but apparently Virginia Beach, just on the other side of the bridge, is the most populous city in the state. And I wonder if there are now a bunch of, you know, fancy rich people who live up here on the Eastern Shore and commute down into the Big City. Which would also explain the existence of the bridge a little bit better.
BC: Yeah! That is wild, that it’s not the DC area, or even Richmond. I guess there’s a ton of military stuff down here and all that. But your point is well-taken, that the bridge does seem kind of ridiculous… I don’t know.
I will say, it’s a pretty wild sensation to be out in the middle of it and just, you know, surrounded by double-digit miles of water on either side. You’re just on this strip of road, surrounded – surrounded – by water, and then… you plunge into a hole in the ocean, into a tunnel.
DSL: Right! Right! That must be the craziest, most surreal… what a weird thing. I was going to say something about how vulnerable that thing will be to sea level rise, but I suppose that by the time that bridge is underwater, this entire peninsula will already be long gone. [laughs grimly]
BC: Ha, because we’re standing now at an elevation of like, one inch. Yeah… I mean, like we were saying earlier, it seems impossible not to feel very... well, intimately tied to the ocean out here.
DSL: Yeah, certainly. We’re surrounded by it, and it’s pressing in on all sides. Again, where we just were in Machiasport, we were on a peninsula there too – which was even tinier, even narrower – but I didn’t have that same sense of the ocean just being… everywhere.
BC: Do you find it disorienting to move around as much as you guys do? I mean, we talked a little about this, but do you ever find that you crave… something more permanent? Obviously I know you’ve enjoyed it, but I know you’re also casting around for some academic jobs and I wonder if there’s part of this whole lifestyle that might be wearing on you.
DSL: No, actually! No… I mean, yeah, you’d think so. But I think, again, knowing that all these spots are impermanent is more helpful than it is exhausting. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but there’s something about knowing we’ll only be here for a little bit helps me to, you know, put up with anything. It’s made us more adaptable, and more able to kind of… stretch and expand to fill a handful of different spaces. To find ways to take advantage of those things which might seem unfamiliar or challenging.
Like in Maine… Maine was actually one of the trickier spots, because Alison had to use the car for work and we only have the one car. So I was stuck at that house, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, you know, most days. But because I knew it was, you know, three months, I thought basically, “oh, okay, I’ll just… this is fine.” And so I’d go out with my camera and walk along the beach and make work along there. Which wouldn’t ordinarily have been where I was exploring, but I would up with a bunch of work from there that I’m quite happy with.
But yeah – each individual part of the travel has been good. You know, “okay, I can definitely do this for three months.” And the same goes for the traveling position itself – we knew from the start that we wouldn’t do it forever, you know, we’ll be looking for schools, that sort of thing. And I think that helps. And you know, our day-to-day lives stay roughly similar, from place to place – you know, all three of us are there – so that keeps it from being too disorienting as well.
BC: Huh, yeah, that’s a good point. That’s sort of relevant to that “sense of ballast” thing we were talking about earlier, with regard to your sun-and-moon pictures.
DSL: Well – huh. Actually, I would put that same thing to you: is that a thing you think about a lot? I mean, how do you preserve a sense of ballast as you’re moving around all the time? Because you really – you really move! And you’re a solo… person, a solo performer.
BC: Ha. Well – and I guess we sort of, ahem, alluded to this earlier – and not to get too far into it, but for a long time, I guess I sort of… well, I sort of hung all of that on one person. The feeling of home, or of… you know, of who I was as a person and as an adult, all that kind of thing. Which obviously isn’t a fair or a reasonable thing to do, but nevertheless, in retrospect I guess I did it more and more, pretty much unconsciously, for years and years. And we saw how that worked out.
DSL: In... total emotional devastation? [laughs]
BC: [laughs] Yep, all accompanied nicely – poetically! – by an exploding car. But I don’t know, in the time since that all happened, I’ve been thinking hard about that. And sort of… well, like we were saying: looking for things that are constant, both within myself and in the broader landscapes I’m moving through. Things that I can safely lean against – multiple things, you know, like how climbers talk about three points of contact? – even as everything around me is changing all the time.
Which I suppose may be one reason your work speaks to me so loudly, particularly recently! It highlights a consideration that I think we would all benefit from thinking more about, but which has special resonance for where I’m at.
DSL: Well, jeez, thank you for that; that’s high praise. And sorry, I didn’t mean to—
BC: Psh, no worries at all. I mean, thanks for asking. I’ll be certain to take out all my own maudlin navel-gazing stuff out if and when I edit this.
DSL: In that case, I’m sure I’ll have a few edit requests of my own. [laughs]
But anyway, yeah… we kind of thought from the start that we would do the traveling job for two years and then wind down, and that’s about what we’re getting to now. And I’m sure that knowing it’s a two-year project has helped it to seem less frenetic as we move around to all these different places. In fact, I’m kind of scared of what it will be like when we stop, you know? When I might have… whatever the opposite of that feeling is. Where I can’t work around a challenging situation by thinking, “oh, I’ll be somewhere else soon.” Or even – well, not being able to indulge my own…
DSL: Wanderlust! Yeah, the feeling of “I need to see a new landscape.”
BC: Yeah, I can relate to that, for sure. I feel like that’s how I’m able to live the way I do. Having the luxury of being able to look at everything without the weight of knowing you’ll need to live with it lastingly, good or bad.
DSL: That feeling of “This is my life. This is all there is.”
BC: Yeah! Yeah, that. But I wonder if we both might be… and this is pretending to have more self-awareness than I actually do, but maybe we're both a little overly, irrationally concerned about that.
DSL: Entirely possible. Yeah! And I’m completely willing to believe that, you know, we’ll settle down someplace later this year and I’ll be completely satisfied with everything about it. But yeah, I guess – it’s an unknown, you know?
BC: But I know what you mean. It’s not just the freedom to feel like you can experience a place without committing to it – there’s also something about the pressure you feel to get as much as you can out of a place if you feel like you’re only given this one, brief, special opportunity to see it and be a part of it.
DSL: Yeah! Yeah. And you’re right – you used the word “luxury” earlier, which seems right. I feel very lucky.
But, to answer your original question, from way back, I definitely have found it disorienting at times. Some things… I mean, even just moving from Boston to Arizona I found that I was mixing up my internal sense of east and west. Because I always thought of “east” as... well, where the ocean is.
BC: Huh, I’ve heard of that happening in more coastal places – and I did it all the time in Oregon – but it’s… it’s surprising that you were thinking about the ocean, or that you had a conception of where the ocean was, when you were in Arizona! Can you say more about that?
DSL: Yeah! I mean, I know it’s weird. But I kind of zoom out in my mind and I have this map – I’m doing it now, even here, and that’s what I was picturing earlier when we were talking about being surrounded by water. But I could see the ocean, in my mind’s eye, off the coast of California, and I’d think… “oh, that’s – that’s towards LA, that’s east.” And then I’d have to correct myself.
BC: I wonder why that’s such a common thing! Maybe it’s that it’s more important, according to the most basic navigational equipment at the bottom of the most lizardy parts of our brains, to have a sense of where the water is, rather than to comprehend abstract ideas about cardinal directions. So when the situation is confused, our brain automatically defaults to the first thing.
DSL: Huh, maybe. Maybe. But in any case, now that we’ve been changing locations so frequently, my sense of that has become even more… challenged. And I mean, right now, the ocean is east, west, and south relative to our current location! So it’s hopeless. [laughs]
But in reality, I kind of enjoy that disorientation. You know? It’s a sort of luxurious place to be in, headspace to be in, if nothing like, you know, survival is riding on it.
BC: Well, and it seems like you’ve found a way to… you’ve taken on projects that make it so that your work can be a continually grounding – ha, literally grounding – activity for you. It forces you to critically engage with each new place you arrive in.
DSL: Yeah! Yeah. Right! And the project only works, in a sense, because I’m constantly adding to it from new places.
BC: Right, and all the while you’re simultaneously highlighting the things that make these landscapes distinct from one another, and pointing out these big and important commonalities between them. I hadn't thought of it as you sort of training yourself to reckon with all these new spaces, but maybe that's part of it.
DSL: Huh, yeah – yeah. A bit, actually.
I mean, the sort of philosophical and conceptual impulse behind a lot of that work is… I mean, it is that, but it’s also… a kind of broader desire to keep my work tied to something that’s… outside of it.
BC: Yeah, can you say a little about that?
DSL: Well, yeah! I mean, you and I have talked about this, but you know, one interest I’ve had throughout my entire life is an interest in science, and it’s been important to me to use that in my work. I think artists – I think good artists, artists that I like – work in this way a lot.
I mean, I find art as a topic in and of itself actually quite… boring?
DSL: And I feel like you probably come up against similar things in your work, too. But I don’t – I’m not super interested in art for art’s sake. Well, I shouldn’t say that, because I actually do think art is valuable in and of itself. But I think good art – or rather, the art that I’m interested in – takes its cues and its inspiration from a multitude of different sources and disciplines and interests. Which I’m sure is one reason that you and I get along so well.
BC: Ha, perhaps. I mean, I tend to agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I definitely find my own work to be more gratifying when I’m kind of using it to kind of... process something nonmusical. There’s a lot that can be gained during that process of... translation.
DSL: And yeah, I mean – now I feel like I may have mischaracterized my own thinking here. I love art, and I go to museums and galleries, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not interested in... art that doesn’t have entry point or an exit point. Art that is self-contained within the world of art holds less interest to me than art that enters another sphere. Because I really think – yeah, as you suggested, one of art’s great powers is to describe the world. To hold a mirror up to the world, like that quote says. And it can be self-reflexive, but I don’t think that’s when it’s at its most… potent, maybe.
BC: Right, although, also… one major type of bad art in the taxonomy of bad art is the kind in which the exit point is too prescribed. Or where the journey between the entry point and exit point doesn’t add anything to the observer’s thinking, if I’m understanding your use of those terms correctly. You never want a direct translation...
DSL: Right! Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s no… that’s no fun either.
But, I mean, this is all to say that I’ve had a long interest in things like astronomy, and in things related to space and time – the physics of space and time. And I think at my core, although I’m an artist and I love thinking about art and I love making art, I would rather read a book about astronomy than I would about… about, you know, art history.
BC: Ha, yeah! We really are weirdly… analogous people in our respective fields.
DSL: A continually satisfying discovery! But yeah, it’s always true that I’d rather read about some subject that isn’t art and then take whatever I glean from that and work it into my art. But that being said! I’m not knocking art history at all! I do feel very strongly that a conversation between present and past is very important and I don’t think that you can make good work without being conscious of the things people have been talking about in the centuries before you arrived.
BC: I mean, we don’t need to apply a universal rule, but it does sound like it’s more fulfilling for you – as it is for me – when you’re able to bind your art to something more… seemingly distant from it than its own traditions, even though an understanding of those is necessary.
But! You and I also happen to be operating from positions where our most passionate interests happen to fall outside of the fields we operate in; it seems like a photographer could make deeply interesting, unimpeachably work that’s purely about photography if that were truly where his or her deepest interests were – it would honestly reflect that person’s view on the world. By making photographs that are tied to astronomy, like the way I write music about landscape, you’re doing what I think is the most important thing, which is making work that invites people into the peculiar workings of your own brain and showing how it processes the world. You’re honestly representing the inside of your own, broadly-informed head and hoping that might resonate with people.
DSL: Ha! But yes. Right, right, right – exactly. I like that. And this is all... I mean, I am obviously deeply interested in photography and the history of photography and the philosophy of photography, all of which I think my work reflects also. I do feel like it’s in conversation with the history of the medium, and that feels important to me. If it were just that, it wouldn’t feel like good work or a satisfying project to me, but as you say, that’s… that’s me.
BC: Yeah, and I wouldn’t be happy as a musician if I weren’t constantly trying to find ways to make it relate to the other, unrelated interests that I have. But, you know, at the same time… well, Bach wrote music about music and it’s some of the most amazing, affecting stuff ever made.
DSL: That's true.
BC: Well, maybe he might have said that even that music was also about math, or religion, or something. Anyway, I think in your case, and mine… I don’t know, making any kind of artwork requires so much of your life and energy that if it were at all divorced from your enthusiasms, your passions, whatever those may be, I feel like... well, that it'd be impossible to put into it what it needs.
DSL: Right, right… yeah. I mean, while I’ve got the projects we’ve been talking about, which reflect my interests in science and astronomy, there’s another ongoing project that’s about my family, you know, which you've seen. They’re all about the things that I think are… well, some of the things I think are most important about being a person in the world. I wouldn't feel good about being an artist if I wasn't... well, if I wasn't doing that.
BC: That seems like a good note on which to wrap this up. I mean, we should absolutely keep talking, but I can kind of tell we're about to spiral off into a–
DSL: Ha! You're probably right. Several hours of us just rambling.
DSL: Great, though! Did we do okay here, for your thing?
BC: Oh yeah, absolutely. Thanks tons for doing this.
DSL: Of course! You're welcome. Although, really, this was good for me – I've got those job interviews coming up, so selfishly, I've been looking forward to this as an opportunity to help get myself ready for all of those.
BC: Ha! I should talk to you again afterward. You know, after you're a pro at these.
DSL: You may have to. [laughs]
[END OF TAPE]