In her first museum exhibition, Tabitha Soren puts her finger on how out of touch we can be in a digital world. The germ of the idea came when the grime on her iPad screen struck the Peabody Prize-winning journalist as a sort of Franz Kline painting. Soren tapped the same technology Ansel Adams used while photographing Yosemite in the 1920s to capture the smudges—including some thanks to her son playing Fortnite—over images found in her inbox and internet search history: photos dispatched from friends’ vacations, Amazon browsing and reports about natural disasters and police shootings. We went deep with the artist, whose Surface Tension is on display at the Davis Museum through June 9.
What’s your relationship with your hand-held devices? I think that I use them more than I want to. Sometimes I use them for so many uninterrupted hours that I feel woozy when I get up, but where I live, being screen-savvy or having good screen hygiene is something everyone’s grappling with. There are people who don’t use phones at all, there are people who don’t have televisions, there are people who are anti-technology in general. I’m certainly not that. I rely on it too much, but I am very weary of the effects that it has on my distractibility, my memory, my feeling of anxiety that I’m not getting enough done. All of that, to me, is related somewhat, not entirely, to technology use.
Why did you decide to use a view camera? I think one of the main issues with technology is that it moves our lives at a speed that we’re not all necessarily ready to keep up with—or at least not wanting to have life happen at that speed seven days a week, 24 hours a day. So for me, art is an antidote to the fast pace of the world around me. And I can slow things down even further if I am using analog technology and loading one negative at a time.
How does your journalism background influence your artwork? Well, I think that the best journalism in my mind tells you about the five W’s: who, what, where, when and why. And that’s a very specific kind of truth, and my artwork is not as concerned with any of that. It is concerned with an emotional truth, what is happening psychologically, how are we in tune with our motivation and our intention. The idea of touch in each of these pictures, there’s scientific evidence that if you’re touched positively, your cortisol levels go down, so your stress levels go down. For an NBA basketball player, the more that they positively touch each other, there are studies that say that their actual points go up. So there are reasons to be intimate and not replace people with screens. This project is more about how we’re moving through the world rather than the who, what, where, when and why. I’m really good at production managing these large, very expansive series as well. I don’t think that somebody who wasn’t a reporter first could have handled following around 20 baseball players for 15 years. It takes a certain type of brain, but it’s my least favorite part, the logistics.
What’s your favorite piece in the series? My daughter, instead of calling me to say goodnight on the phone when I was out of town, she just picked up her iPad before she went to bed and blew a kiss into the camera and then emailed me that kiss. I feel like that picture, not only is it tender, but the surface grime on top kind of looks like bubbles—which I suspect might be a video game imprint of the fingers, I’m not really sure. But for whatever reason, the light connected with the grime, I feel like she’s almost blowing bubbles at the viewer. And in addition, I feel like it’s a metaphor for our world becoming much more visual than verbal. I feel like we communicate whole social relationships with emoticons. You know, an “LOL” is not a real laugh, it’s a funny kind of laugh, but it’s still something that communicates an incredible lot of information at this point, and I feel like that picture gets at that in all different ways.
You’ve been working on this series for five years, and you worked on your book, Fantasy Life, over the course of 15 years. I imagine that was a very different speed compared to your journalism career. What was it like to have the time to sit with what you’re working on? That’s a very good question, good in that it’s just insightful, because that’s definitely all by design. I think that yes, I had been running around as a reporter since I was 18 and felt sort of like I wanted to do something else. But I think the main aversion to continuing with a journalistic career was the sort of willy-nilly schedule changing all the time. Breaking news; chasing it; having my plans upended; just all of that pace and noise and not having control over my schedule. And when you are trying to be a mother at the same time, children are already causing much chaos and havoc in their own particular worlds, and I just didn’t feel like we could both sort of have emergent schedules every day, and art gave me much more control over that. That said, chasing around 20 baseball players for 15 years, trying to keep track of which teams they were on and where they were traded and what games they were playing and all of that, that was not easy. But what I did do was not 12 months out of the year. Baseball season doesn’t last that long anyway, but it is a pretty long season compared to other professional sports, and I just would sort of drop in and out. I would cram a two-week trip into a year and then catch them when they came to Oakland otherwise. So I do feel like there’s a certain amount of sitting in my studio and reading books and looking at other art in a contemplative, silent way that really allows the work to get better and for me to express more specifically what I want to say. And that slowness, I don’t know if anybody ever feels that—maybe if you live in a rural place or something at the turn of the century—but I just think that it does feel like I’m going against the grain by doing that. But even the art world has tons of things that, if I truly wanted to be the most networked, the most exposed artist in the world, I would be at something every night. I would be at every art fair. There’s a whole level, the whole marketing of your work that could also have you running around in circles, and I think you have to make a conscious decision to do that or not. So I do use art to slow my life down and to be able to pay more attention to each day, each single image. And I used to shoot 30 frames a second, and now I’m shooting one at a time. And I do feel like that’s a metaphor for a larger life choice. That said, I also had 80 million viewers before, and now I have like 80. So it doesn’t come without a cost.
When you transitioned from your journalism career and applied for a fellowship at Stanford, why were you interested in studying art and art history? I wasn’t. I went there to learn how to make documentaries in a way that was not [fear-driven.] I felt like a lot of the long-form news I was doing at NBC, for example, was kind of fear-driven. Like, “What’s happening outside your community that could make you nervous?” Or, “Heroin, it’s sweeping the country, it’s an epidemic.” And I just felt like there must be something between that and the sort of sedate, purely historical approach of Ken Burns. Like, what’s in between? Is it an artistic direction that you show just to a small audience at film festivals, or what’s happening? And I knew the Bay Area, and Stanford had a great documentary tradition. So that’s what I went to do. But I was sidetracked by falling in love with photography in the first photography class that I took and then I got very attached to an art professor named Alex Nemerov, who happens to be Diane Arbus’ nephew and Howard Nemerov the poet’s son, and he sort of took me under his wing and acted like a mentor and taught me all about all different sorts of periods of art that had nothing to do with photography, and one thing lead to another. I don’t think I would’ve gotten chosen for the journalism fellowship had I said, “Oh, and by the way, I’m going to change careers at the end of it.” And I didn’t even feel like I was making a career change, I was just trying out something else. Honestly, I didn’t have the confidence or the chutzpah to think, “Oh, this is going to become a real thing that people put in galleries and museums,” and I guess that’s one of the exciting things about having my first museum show at the Davis.
Photo: Caribou Migration I by Subhankar Banerjee / Lannan Foundation
■ Breeze on over to the Peabody Essex Museum, where Nature’s Nation examines artists’ depictions of the environment. The 100-plus works span three centuries, from a Thomas Moran landscape of Yellowstone that led to the region being named the first national park to Robert Rauschenberg’s 1970 poster for the inaugural Earth Day. The exhibit, which runs through May 5, also taps the museum’s collection of Native American artwork, including a Chilkat robe stitched of cedar bark and goat wool, and displays a 10-foot plastic balloon usually used to ward off wildlife—one of 26 that flew 50 feet above the Arizona/Mexico border for Indigenous artist collective Postcommodity’s 2015 project, Repellent Fence/Valla Repelente.
Photo: Delivery (Red)
■ While surveys of Liz Magor’s four-decade career—which includes a 1984 Venice Biennale appearance—have traveled to France, Germany and Switzerland, Blowout marks the Vancouver artist’s first solo institutional show on the East Coast. Walls were literally built at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts to accommodate this commission, which explores our castaway material obsessions. Reconfigured stuffed animals mix with tattered blankets, threadbare socks and—yep—rat skins, as dozens of shoes scavenged from thrift stores are preserved inside boxes Magor constructed out of Mylar, typically used for commercial toy packaging. Witness objects’ permanence through March 24.
■ Get schooled at Kingston Gallery, where Chantal Zakari’s study of defunct universities, Cogent Message, is on display from Feb. 27 to March 31. The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University professor printed 14 postcards on a Risograph press—a hybrid of a Xerox machine and screen-printing—to mimic those hawked by Curt Teich, a German immigrant who found success producing “Greetings From” snail mail. Zakari manipulated images of bygone institutions such as the former Alliance College, now a Pennsylvania prison that today is training some inmates to become certified opticians.
Photo: Grocery Store by Aaron Siskind
■ At the Addison Gallery of American Art, Harlem: In Situ burrows into a century of the neighborhood’s artistic influence, from a 1928 linoleum cut print by James Lesesne Wells to early 20th-century street photography by Aaron Siskind and artists walking those same blocks today. That includes Kehinde Wiley, who invites subjects to re-enact Old Master portraits, as in his Officer of the Hussars, which sees a denim-clad subject sporting Timberlands and toting a saber while on horseback a la Théodore Géricault’s 1812 portrait on view in the Louvre. Head uptown to catch other works by former Phillips Academy artist-in-residence Dawoud Bey and Bostonian Lorraine O’Grady, on display from March 30 to July 21.
Photo: Alessandro Trincone’s Annodami collection by Gioconda & August
■ New York Fashion Week may have just added its unisex/nonbinary category, but we’ve been blurring that line for much longer. For Gender Bending Fashion, the Museum of Fine Arts goes back to the 1920s garconne trend and ’60s peacock revolution, which brought patterns and color to menswear. Suit tails worn by trailblazer Marlene Deitrich in Morocco are on view in one of five galleries outfitted with 60 designs from the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and Alessandro Michele for Gucci. From March 21 to Aug. 25, spy get-ups rocked by Jimi Hendrix, Janelle Monae and Young Thug, including Alessandro Trincone’s Japanese-inspired ensemble the rapper sported on the cover of his No My Name Is Jeffrey album.
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