The Better Bombshell is a project about female role models, so we often use this blog to feature writing for, about, and by strong women. Today, though, we’re doing something a little different.
In our forthcoming book, we’ve asked twenty teams — each consisting of one writer and one visual artist — to redefine the female role model. Our teams have worked in collaborations of all styles, from very close dialogue to working separately toward similar ends. Some teams enjoyed the process of dialogue so much that they’re continuing to publish together in other places! One writer even flew across the country to visit his artist. As we reflect on the process of putting this book together, we’re appreciating the value of collaboration deeply. Today, Michael Raudzis Dinkel speaks to the value of a different collaboration between writers and artists.
Being both a visual artist and a writer, I have often dealt with ideas that could have merited from a variety of expressive forms, including writing. As it was, many of my visual art projects grew out of my writing and vise versa. Sometimes I showed work accompanied by these narratives, as it allowed a balance that often enhanced the work and added to the content of it. Learning from this I began to add other things, poetry, or maybe a piece of newsprint containing a story of some related or unrelated idea.
Working this way led to experimenting with collaboration and the discovery that two or more artists reacting to each other’s work produced a refreshing amount of nonconformity. By this I mean art with content. Artists collaborating and reacting to each other’s work seemed to have more potential for exploring new territory. Where I live, any kind of content in public art is rare so I began thinking about way to explore this idea. I decided to put together a kind of community collaboration.
I did this by assembling a group of twelve pinhole landscape photographs, making forty sets of them and sending them to writers and artists, most of whom were from the state of Alaska, with a request for written reactions to one or more of them. I was hoping this would combine the two forms, landscape and narrative art, to possibly stimulate thinking that might enhance them both.
These small portfolios were accompanied by a short essay explaining the project and the request for a response. The general direction of the request was to somehow address the profaning of our natural landscapes but from the writer’s own perspective. The seed of the idea came from a statement made by Curtis White, writing in the magazine “Orion” where he says, “Second perhaps only to toxic landscapes, the most thoroughly degraded aspect of our culture is its art. This is so obvious that it hardly needs comment.” He goes on to say that it is art that has the potential to keep us from “accepting the death of the world we were born into.” White’s idea of art that matters is not simply the passive observation or contemplation of art in a museum but an active process. The underlying subject of this invitation would be an attempt to begin a conversation about our individual perceptions of land and landscape, to allow for the writer to approach the subject from their unique and personal position.
This project was a combination of two somewhat archaic artistic traditions. The first one is obviously the pinhole camera and the second is mail art, in which a set of photos, intaglio prints, or other easily reproduced pieces of art are shown by sending them directly to the viewer, bypassing the established art world of résumés and galleries. In this age of the digital image, where even devices that function only as cameras are becoming obsolete and every small thing is photographed and sent over the internet, the idea of a set of pinhole images arriving in the mail was on the edge of being preposterous, but it turned out to be surprisingly reassuring and inspiring.
To make reproduction feasible and affordable the obvious choice was to use photographs for the images but there were considerations. Because it is so pervasive in today’s society, photography carries a lot of baggage. It is seldom considered art, or too commonly referred to as such. Because photographs are so prevalent, we should take a step back now and then to consider what they are. Susan Sontag writes in the book On Photography, that “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit the natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capabilities to subjectivise reality and to objectify it ideally serve these needs and strengthen them.”
Even though we understand the manipulated projections such as media’s image of women, or the pastoral scenes on our industrial food products, are fabricated, we still know how quickly we can succumb to them.
I did several things to distance my project from everyday commercial and personal photography. I used black and white pinhole images made from scanned medium format negatives. As you can see from the images, they are different. There is an expansive foreground which pulls the viewer into the work, making it a shorter step to being involved in the work. This is the opposite of the average landscape photograph and the ever-present horizon which leaves the viewer wondering what is, and looking, beyond. Another important thing about these images involves time. My digital Nikon shoots at speeds up to 1/4000th of a second while some of the pinhole negatives were exposed for as long as 16 seconds. This extreme difference in the use of time affects the emanations of these photographs.
These are three of the images; they were left untitled to avoid interfering with the writers. The first is a view from the Philip Smith Mountains in the Brooks Range facing the Beaufort Sea. The second is from the same location, facing south to the divide, and the third image is of the Kenai River. In the mailing, I had asked the recipients to think of it as collaboration when they worked on it but to also keep themselves in it. This is what I know from working in the arts. The most important thing to put into your work is what you see. It is nothing to try to do what others have already done. Alan Ginsburg said to “notice what you notice” in the world. Tell that and it will be your truth, the truth. Let the world know what only you know and what might be missed otherwise. Do not wait for someone else to say it and do not imagine someone has already done this. Be yourself and have the courage to recognize that self. This is the only thing that needs to be written and you are the only one who can write it.
How did all of this end? I found out that people don’t suddenly become radical nature writers when asked to react to a photograph of the Brooks Range or Kenai River, but they did speak of things close to their hearts; family, childhoods, and even their love of the land. Contributors were happy to part of something outside of their own work, and I think it was the act of responding that was most significant. There were a surprising number of responses, and it was exciting to consider the idea of them, that this art was being made in so many places and yet was still connected. The community was making this big strange project and, for that time, it was working. The writings and the photographs were only the record of our collaboration. The project’s true life was when we were thinking and writing from our own separate places. This interaction, communication, was the most rewarding part. For this time we were a living community of artists and it was then this process was truly alive and it seemed like we were shining.
Michael Raudzis Dinkel is a writer and artist who lives and works in Southcentral Alaska. He studied art and creative writing at UAA and at St. John’s University in Collegeville Minnesota. He is married to a beautiful woman named Karen and, after 25 years in Alaska, is still sometimes haunted by the memory of mourning doves calling from certain wild plum orchards and the sweet smell of dog days on old Lake Osakis.