(an interview by email, never published – 2008)
What drew you to following the Iran nuclear story as it unfolded at the IAEA?
A few years ago I met a journalist working on this story and began to follow it myself because of this friendship. I have also been long fascinated with the area where the UN buildings are located in Vienna, an odd place.
I had made some paintings of panel discussions with art professionals, and there was something very solid and different about the space of them, but I had a problem with them being art about the art world, so eventually I came to the thought that I should shoot a press event, or a conference about some very heavy topic, like this Iran nuclear story.
A friend who works for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization presented my request to the IAEA, which they accepted and very much supported.
Was it hard to get access to the IAEA Board of Gov’s meetings?
Though it felt like a natural progression in my life movements, I am well aware that it must be a special thing, because of the reactions of some of the journalists, who wanted to know how I got permission to be there.
What did it mean to be an ‘invited journalist’?
The IAEA was aware of what I make. I am not playing a role; rather my technique has an essential relationship to journalism, and I try to follow similar ethical grounds. I try to connect the studio to my life and there is always the question of what my relationship is to this situation of experience vs representation. The stories I follow send me from one experience to another, and that includes the experiences in the studio with a canvas. The ideas from one painting can send me back out into the world as it did in this case. When I am shooting a press conference with journalists, I am not there on assignment, nor am I there as an artist the way of courtroom sketches to fill in for a photographer. I was there looking for an interesting visual story which would be suitable for a series of paintings.
Mine is a kind of inverse journalism, or maybe it is photojournalism, or probably not journalism at all. I am there to try to hold on to my subjective view, to try to experience the space and the event with fresh (inexperienced) eyes, and perhaps try to find the story that everyone misses because they are so deeply involved. The decisions that I make in that press area are not all that different from those I make in the studio. I am there looking for visual material for a painting, one that I have in mind, and hopefully many that I did not. It is a practice of constant decisions about when to be open and when to be closed, like a shutter on a camera.
Of course there is a balance point existing between my journalistic remove and my subjective artistic involvement. That is an element of what I consider painting to be about. I think journalism is also about a process of rapid, on the spot, decision making as well.
This isn’t the first time that you’ve blurred the boundaries between artist and reporter. Can you explain?
In 2005 I did a visual story for Interview magazine about the Paris Haute Couture shows. I was there on assignment, with tight deadlines, to cover certain shows, and with a mandate to give attention to the clothes on the models. I like this process, as it is very similar to the painting process for me. There is a fixed time and event, and every minute that passes I am making decisions that will affect my final output. A fashion story is so sexy, so glamorous, I thought it would be an interesting and revealing thing to force a comparison to the Iran nuclear story somehow. The journalists at the IAEA love the idea of me giving the ambassadors the same treatment that I gave Dior, Chanel and Lacroix. I still don’t really understand why it is ethically ok to sexy up one story and wrong to do it to another. So many stories are told in a way that reinforces a disconnection many people feel when they read the paper or watch TV.
Were there restrictions on you when you were sitting in on these meetings?
Nobody is allowed to actually be in the room while the meetings are in progress. My access is similar to what journalists have. It is a lot of sitting around and waiting. There is a kind of work area for journalists and there are never any chairs available, so I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor, going to the cafeteria, and talking to the journalists. I was taken at one point into a room that looks over the conference room during a meeting, which would certainly be a privileged access, which did make me a little nervous, like I might hear something that I did not want to have responsibility for.
What was the most surprising thing that you learnt listening into these
discussions, about Iran’s nuclear capabilities or otherwise?
I was not listening to these discussions as the meetings are closed meetings. I learned more from friends working in this field than I learned being there on the spot. There are plenty of press briefings, and it was kind of mind-blowing or rather mind-numbing to watch the repetitive interaction of Iran and the IAEA (and the USA) at this level, and to realize just how much must be going on below the surface and formality of this meeting. Something else that I realized is that this agency functions as a mediation point on what diplomatic topic is focused on in the press, and is really playing an important role in maintaining peace and balance, as more countries realize that nuclear technology can give them access to becoming a global player.
I would say that the most surprising thing I learned over the course of the year is something that I actually completely missed, was that a deal has nearly gone through for the US to be able to sell nuclear technologies and materials to India, a country that has never joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has also tested nuclear weapons. Somehow the US got a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group despite an initial veto from Austria, Ireland and New Zealand who were voting on grounds of supporting the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India had to give up nothing to get this, no treaty signed, no binding promise to stop testing or building nuclear weapons. The truly shocking part to me is that it is not more than a tiny little blip in the news.
How do you use your photographs to create your paintings?
For me the process continues in my studio, rather than begins. I deal with the photographs that I have taken and begin to sort through them to find interesting compositions. I use a projector in drawing an image onto a canvas that has been prepared with a single color. Then I begin painting without returning to the source material and the decisions are made based primarily on formal concerns, which of course make a few collisions with the subjects. Very early I realized that this subject matter (people sitting at tables in a boardroom) has such an implied boredom that it was very important that the color be more high-key than muted. The very last step is to reinforce the drawing with a black line, as the drawing is the primary structure that holds the painting together. After working with the images for a few weeks I often have more ideas for photographs so I go back if I can to shoot some more.
At some point I came across the problem of a flag, and the obvious decision. Of course I opted to paint the flags close to the actual colors, there is no reason to be disrespectful, though I have done an experiment to the contrary in two paintings of football fans, just to see what it feels like. That was surprising to me, the emotional impact of a flag especially in that setting. This has had a huge impact on the exhibition that I am putting together for Georg Kargl’s gallery, as I hope to be able to recreate that feeling. That was an example of stumbling across subject matter that has a strong conceptual resonance in juxtaposition with the style that I have developed, and hopefully it will translate to an emotional equivalent in the context of the exhibition.
What do you hope to achieve with your acidic palette and color
I hope to make a good painting, not a boring painting. It did occur to me that it could be interesting to see what this nuclear subject matter does to the way people write about my work. My colors have been described as acid, toxic, nuclear, radioactive, and I never know what to think about that, as it always sounds like an exaggeration to me. These descriptions tend to come more from Americans. In other countries my colors get a very different read, it is often thought that my bright colors indicate a very happy painting, which also seems like an exaggeration. But in this particular series, strong bright colors are really carrying the show, more than usual.
I think that has something to do with the space of these images, that space that I was originally after when I began this series. It has a strong relationship to graphic novels, there is just so much more flatness than I usually have in my work. I think it is because the architecture of the scenes are built for flatness, the podium where a press briefing is given, all of these rows that divide the way people arrange themselves in the conference room… I have a couple paintings from a power point presentation given by Iran to the press, and people tend to read the projected slide as a fixed sign, which, in the context of my work, reinforces the functioning of photography not painting.
What are your artistic influences?
My environment and the people that I meet are my greatest artistic influences. Lately I have been thinking a lot about a kind of Truman Capote or Tom Wolfe style literary journalism.
I don’t know. I am so deep in the middle of this one, and that usually means that I cannot see what is on the horizon. It has been a year or more of decisions about where to take this story, or to even figure out what it is. Do I follow the Iran story to the Security Council in New York if it goes there? Do I explore it more via alternate color schemes in the studio? Do I follow a lead and photograph at OPEC? I really want to do that one, if only so I can make a show titled “Oil Paintings.”