Liz Cohen: Don’t Retreat
Photographer and performance artist Liz Cohen (American, b. 1973) is best known for her project BODYWORK, in which she transformed an aging East German Trabant into an American El Camino lowrider, and herself into a car customizer and bikini model. Cohens earlier work CANAL, a series of black and white photographs and performances, documents sex workers on the fringe of the Panama Canal Zone. In her more recent work, HIM, she depicts an ostracized poet through black and white photographs, weavings, and collaged textiles. Cohen’s work has been characterized as examining immigration, nonconformity, and resistance.
Kat Davis: We’re on! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Liz,
Liz Cohen: Of course! I’m happy to hear from you again.
KD: So, let’s get started. I’m excited to learn more about your creative thought process. Because you do pursue a lot of different ideas, not all of them are self portraits, some of them involve other communities and other individuals, how do you know when you want to pursue an idea to the depth that you do?
LC: It’s funny, it doesn’t always happen in a way that’s so clear cut. But – I guess the things that I think are important in terms of like, my values and when it comes to producing artworks, I mean it has to do with having something matter, you know? Matter to me, right? That I think something’s important. There needs to be that urgency there for me. That’s the sign that it’s worth pursuing.
For me, those things have had to do something with the tremendous efforts people go through – including myself – to belong in the world. And it can be so complicated, because how we see ourselves is often, well it’s always different from the way others see us, but that difference can be awesome (gestures and expands hands widely) or it can be tiny, right? And it depends on how divergent it is. That can be quite painful. Those problems of how we belong, and how we find love, and how we relate to people, and how we exist in the world are the things that I think have driven me to explore the world through producing art.
KD: I think it’s interesting, kind of exploring this idea of belonging through the lens that we’re both women of color, who address that in our work. But you don’t always address your own experiences when you deal with other subjects. When you’re photographing others who might have very divergent experiences, what is your sense of responsibility? Does it shift? Does it feel different from when you’re doing self portraiture work, or even photographing people who have experiences that align more closely with yours? Like for example, with the body of work Him, where you both move through life very differently but you collaborated on that work together?
LC: So, I think that there are a couple of those problems that I mentioned earlier that come into play, in terms of belonging and projection. How we project ourselves, how others can project onto us. I think it’s not surprising that I gravitated to photography as my primary medium, or the medium from which I understand, really critically understand image making. Those issues around projection and being projected upon are so interwoven and integral into what this field is. The moral dilemmas that are created by photography are all the same moral dilemmas that are created by just being in the world! (laughs) And so, you know, these issues around voyeurism are really the issues around curiosity, and the difficulty of relating to another. How do we really relate to another? I don’t like using the term “other” because I feel like that implies such a difference. I like to acknowledge that we’re all part of the human family, you know? Even though we can be very different from each other. But, I mean, the subjects I gravitate to are all people who have experienced great difficulty in that effort to belong.
LC: I would say I’m very attracted to, or interested in, radical self expression. When being one’s authentic self is challenging, and someone does it anyway. I’m interested in exhibitionists. I’m not interested in trying to photograph people who don’t want to be photographed, I’m always very transparent about what I do. That enables the voyeurism in a way, so that I can exercise that curiosity in a pretty flamboyant way. With Him, where Eric has in some ways had a reclusive life, and in other ways has a very gregarious life as a Hari Krishna, and is a person with many friends and a family. In that work, for me, it was very important not to sensationalize the person. And also, I was dealing with this idea in my work (I don’t know if this is too much of a segue) which I think is another critical problem in photographic works, is the issue of work being read topically first, before it’s read formally or conceptually, right? So I had that frustration – like with my work around the Trabantimino, or the work around the Canal, or even a much earlier work called Tattoo, Fuck You. I feel like they’re very easy to just give them a first read, and it’s my responsibility as the artist [to bring you deeper]. Maybe that shows where my initial curiosity was, right? Like, that top layer is the factual story, for lack of a better word, it’s like the topic.
KD: Yeah, it’s like the thesis statement on top with so many layers that you could delve into that aren’t necessarily always apparent at first glance.
LC: Right. And those layers might be more important, right? So the goal was, with Him, how do I bring those more important parts to the top? And so, if I’m going to characterize another, how do I do that in a way that’s not totalizing, that’s not sensational, that brings maybe more of a sensibility than a narrative or a story. How do you get away from the story, and have a relationship, and get towards a feeling? I don’t know if it’s successful, but that was the attempt.
KD: At least for me, I think it was successful (laughs). I love that you expanded that work beyond the photographs themselves. There were the weavings and the tapestries… And I think they were made of raincoat material, right?
LC: Yeah they were, beyond the fabric pieces.
KD: I love that, and the different metaphors that were built into that work, that really helped to expand it beyond “here is this image that you’re being presented with.” I think you did a beautiful job creating the different fabric pieces, the different napkins, and then combining that with his choreographed movements, and having that entire experience play out, and then the final images that were representative of that performance, almost. I think there are lines between a lot of what you do and performance work, too. So I guess my question here is, for students, or for people who are interested in exploring photography alongside different mediums, how do you navigate pursuing a simply photographic project, or incorporating other elements…?
LC: I think that different projects require different things, and then the process starts to dictate a logic for the work. I always try to follow that internal logic. I always start with a framework – usually something that seems a lot tighter than it is, but they’re usually pretty loose frameworks. And the work starts guiding me through an experience, and that experience can take you to places, and can put you in different circumstances, and that might give you, I guess for lack of a better word, materials available for you to express something that might help follow the logic of the work.
LC: So for example, the first time I ever did something performative in an overt way was with the Canal work. But I was already thinking of street photography as a performative act. I was really interested in the work of Robert Frank. He’s a very persona-driven artist. I think you get a lot more out of Robert Frank when you know the details of his family life and his story. And so, I was very aware that a Robert Frank photograph was just that – connected to Robert Frank (chuckles). The act of walking with the camera, his photographic practice was performative. So I already had that in mind.
LC: When I started working with a group of people that did something very different than I expected them to… I mean, I had an idea for an artwork, but then it turned into something very unexpected. I met a group of people that I hadn’t expected to meet. At the time I was really interested in the Dusseldorf school of photography, and this kind of like, deadpan picture that’s very beautiful, and my subjects wouldn’t behave! (Laughs). I had to find a way to use their performance, you know? And that rubbed off on me. I started thinking about that interaction that we were having, and the unexpected camaraderie that we started to develop, and the ideas around wanting to belong, and then one person wanted me to dress up! And it just happened. It was serendipitous, I guess.
LC: And, with the Him work, I was at Cranbrook. Cranbrook is one of the best American centers for craft. I was surrounded by all of these beautiful objects and work that was very materially driven. I was around beautiful tapestries and looms… I was living it and breathing it for almost 10 years, you know? I think that coming to Eric in that context, and my in-laws, my husband’s family, sells fabric…
KD: Oh really? I didn’t know that! Definitely serendipitous.
LC: Yeah! I was surrounded by it. And they had raincoat fabric… I actually used it for a costume for my son first, but then it became something bigger… The colors matched a very Hari Krishna palette, the raincoat material seemed very appropriate for a body that required protection…
LC: In terms of knowing when and how you’re going to add something else to a photograph, I think those things are circumstantial, and if you, as an artist, are open enough to let the work’s logic speak to you and now that other things can fit onto it, it can happen.
KD: I like that. Just being open to the possibility.
LC: Right. But it has to work within that logic, you know, you can’t force something.
KD: For sure. […] We’ve addressed most of my questions, so I kind of just want to chit chat if that’s okay.
LC: Of course!
KD: I’m kind of just thinking, in light of everything that’s going on right now, do you have any advice for artists, or just people in general, about embracing their identity in an environment that may not be so welcoming? Or even finding people that could be there to support you?
LC: In terms of being yourself, I mean, the way I see it, there’s not a choice, right? The alternative is a delusion, right? It doesn’t work. In some environments, really being yourself is much harder than in others. And hopefully we’re entering into an era where we can take steps towards shedding some histories of oppression.
And of course we can’t “shed” histories – but maybe building new histories that are more supportive. That help people flourish. I want to create a world where people can flourish and we can see each other in our full glory. I guess my advice is to produce works that make sense to you. Produce rituals in your life that create meaning. I mean, making artwork, producing things, is a ritualistic activity, you know? It’s like going to a church in that it provides a structure and meaning. So I guess my advice is to be observant. To use the world around you. Say what you mean. Talk about the things that feel urgent to you, and don’t feel pressured to do it in a specific way.
LC: It’s so hard to say anything simple right now. I feel like we’re in such a critical situation, and the oppressions that people have experienced in this country aren’t new, but people can see them more clearly right now. I’m encouraged that this moment where the clarity is here, and is being sustained. I feel like we go through cycles where things get talked about and then it just kind of goes back.
KD: Yeah, for sure. It’s the news cycle, where something else big happens and it’s easy to get distracted.
LC: Yeah. but this conversation has been sustained now for months, and there’s a lot at stake. I mean, there always has been a lot at stake! That’s why it feels weird saying too much, because it feels like acting like this moment is so much bigger, in terms of issues of identity… It’s not so new. It’s just put in full.
KD: Right, it’s not new, just blatant.
LC: Which is a blessing maybe, because it’s crystal clear. I don’t know. Maybe the opportunity here is to speak with clarity. There’s no formula, but I think it’s important not to retreat. The context of this clarity, in a moment where we also have to protect ourselves with social distance, I think it’s important not to retreat.
KD: I also want to take a moment to thank you. As far as finding acceptance, as someone else who is, quote unquote, not in the mainstream, I really appreciate your work. It has such a sense of welcoming and non-judgement. Especially when you’re working with people who do have very divergent identities from yours. It’s hard to do, and I want to just highlight that I think that this is a big opportunity right now for other artists, to use their works to foster a sense of community.
LC: Thank you. I do have, as an artist, an ethical position that is strong, about working with photography. When I do look at another that I refuse to, and this might sound counter-intuitive, because my work does have a strong politic, but I do not come from the idea that I’m producing a critique. You know? Which, with work around the Trabantimino, and the bikini photos, I think that work can be misinterpreted as an attempt to critique. And it’s not! It’s an attempt to belong. … I’m not interested in making a point at another’s expense. That’s not a position I’m comfortable taking, and that’s not how I want to walk through the world.
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