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A Conversation on Transnational Identity and the Subtleties of Being Seen

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By Michelle Dizon and Gina Osterloh

LA-based artists Michelle Dizon and Gina Osterloh have had concurrent residencies and exhibitions this summer at 18th Street Arts Center and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE). In both spaces the artists were invited to develop work on-site over an extended period of time while making their processes available to the public - giving them a unique opportunity to consider their ways of working and intentions for their art practices. Both artists are also, coincidentally, first-generation Americans with families from the Philippines, a background that informs both of their work in nuanced and potent ways. Pilar Tompkins Rivas and Sara Schnadt recently spent the day with both artists, visiting Michelle's project at 18th Street Arts Center, and Gina's project at LACE, to facilitate a discussion at each site about the artists' work and thinking. This conversation is the result.

On Imagery

GO: When we first met at 18th Street Arts Center, you discussed how you gathered your video footage and the process you went through to create Perpetual Peace. I wanted to ask more about your decisions, especially the decision to feature a projection of footage of traveling down a river in dense tropical foliage to the viewer.

MD: One of the things that the piece addresses is the idea of time. This looped projection of a journey down the river in the jungle is quite extended at seven minutes long. I wanted to offer it as an understanding of one's body within time, the duration and experience of time. When one sees jungles and rivers one can't help but think about Western colonial encounters, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, etc. In retrospect I understand that this work has a lot to do with a journey into the "heart of darkness" but here, it's the way that American colonial legacies continue into the present.

river shot2 from Michelle Dizon on Vimeo.

GO: Experiencing Perpetual Peace, I felt that perhaps extending the land and the landscape through a multi-channel immersive video installation was very generous on your part, an invitation for the viewer to enter. For me personally and as a viewer I felt very much part of the dialogue you are inviting us to participate in. I didn't feel like you were pointing fingers or saying "hey you American, this is why you can eat fresh fruit and amazing seafood for really cheap." However, this is a fact. I feel we are all inextricably bound to the Philippines, meaning all U.S. Citizens. Perpetual Peace renders visible the forces that deny and shape representation of the Philippines.

MD: It means to work at the threshold of that which conditions visibility, which is to say it's not necessarily about making the invisible visible, but about asking what kinds of structures and systems produce that line, that division. I would love to hear more about some of the questions of vision and visuality that are present in your work.

GO: I am committed to seeing the process of articulation. In my photographs and other video projects, I am interested in making visible a moment or posture that the body occupies before articulation. Where a figure is just recognized as a body. With the shadow works in this current show, for everyone the figures are anonymous except for the person who has been traced. So the person who was traced might recognize their profile or shape. It's riding a line between anonymity and articulation.

MD: Every single point on the picture plane appears important to you. It seems like a democratic undertaking, a real undoing of both a Cartesian way of looking at an image, and the kind of subjectivity that is involved in that.

Michelle Dizon, Perpetual Peace (production still), 2012. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

GO: I feel an incredible responsibility to what I am representing in the photograph, and I want to take responsibility for every point in the picture plane. I consider the backdrops active and having equal presence as the figure. I want to see the role of my hand in every corner of the picture's construction, rendering both the setting as well as the figure.


On Concepts

MD: Where does photography fit into these questions? I understand that tracings were among the first photographs, but where do you situate this project as well as your larger body of work within photography?

GO: For about a month participants from the public were coming into the gallery and against this wall I had a singular light source that projected onto visitors, and created everyone's shadows that I traced. I am interested in the shadow as one of the original photographs or types of photography: the illumination from the sun projecting an image of self or another person onto a surface. The act of tracing the shadow makes it permanent. So it's the act of tracing that allows us to see the shape of ourselves, and one another. I was also attracted to the shape of the shadow because of the reasons I am attracted to the photograph. The photograph collapses spaces; it can collapse the space upon which the body stands; it can flatten a figure onto the background or ground. When viewing the shadow we don't know if it is the front or back. The act of tracing became another way of me seeing the figures that I had been working with, and in turn a new way to see the construction of my photographs.

Gina Osterloh, New Family, 24 x 30, photograph, 2012. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist, François Ghebaly, Los Angeles and Silverlens Gallery, Manila.

MD: You have an image with red dots on a black sheet, and more hands than the body would have, and I find those hands very important and the color of their skin. You talk more abstractly about bodies, but I wonder if a race and gendered body is very specific within the work as well.

GO: My first clear experience of race was consciously realizing difference, literally looking in the mirror. It was a distinct moment, and I wonder if compared with other stories of experiencing race, it arrived a bit late. I remember in the first year of high school, standing in front of the bathroom mirror at home, and realizing that I looked different. It was almost an out of body experience. Of course at that age, one can't articulate that it's race they are experiencing, external illogical race constructs. Growing up in Ohio with mixed race parents there was a literal calling out to me in school "hey are you white or black?" At the time I wasn't aware of any mismatch between external identity and internal identity. Later when I moved to California after undergrad, I was introduced to mixed race studies, while also taking photography classes. I suppose in my first set constructions, Somewhere Tropical, I wanted to respond to that question "Hey, what are you?" with a visual blank and interrupt the call-and-response process itself. The first set constructions I made for photographs were an attempt to disrupt portraiture's innate calling to the viewer - to name and identify its subjects.

Gina Osterloh tracing York Chang's shadow during her residency, 'Group Dynamics and Improper Light,' at LACE. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and LACE.

MD: Like you, I was born and raised in the United States, so the experience of the Philippines came to me as stories, as my family migrating, as a place that was very real but also something that I had experienced mostly within the cultural life of home, as it came into conflict with and was at the same time shot through with all that lay outside of home. In retrospect, what I would come to understand is that there were really no languages available to describe the complexity of those tensions. I found more of a way to conceptualize these ideas when I was in college, when I started taking classes on postcolonialism, reading works in ethnic studies, studying American photography of the Philippines during the Colonial era, and delving into questions of history. Out of this experience, I came to understand that part of the challenge is to break open the languages that do exist, languages that curtail or foreclose possibilities for how we understand ourselves in the world. This question of the Philippines has always remained and it is not something that I can get away from. Not only as a nation or a culture, but as an inheritance. I don't think that it's just material goods or monetary value that is passed between generations, but it is also experience, storytelling, wisdom, and a ground.

GO: I'm realizing now that when you speak about duration- duration is the force that sticks with me when experiencing your work and after leaving the exhibition.

On Perspective


Michelle Dizon, Perpetual Peace (production still), 2012. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

MD: I know that you've spent time in the Philippines, but you've also shown work in Hawaii. It seems very important that your energy is focused towards the Pacific.

GO: In one aspect it's just a fact, it's where I stand. I'm very excited about the contemporary art in the Pacific Rim and the Philippines right now. I was just very happy when we met because you understood that, where even other close friends when I left after grad school for the Fulbright, they would remark, "Where are you going?" "Why?" or an automatic response of, "Oh, I see you're getting back to your roots." A large part of my reasoning to go was to research contemporary art practices in Manila, but I suppose there were personal reasons too.

MD: I relate to that. It wasn't about going back to the roots. Roots are a very small part of going to the Philippines. It's not like the Philippines is frozen in time. In fact, it has very valuable things to teach us.

GO: I think the slowness of creative peers, and the larger art world in the States, to recognize what is going on in the Pacific Rim is only to their detriment. There are many art institutions that are aware and are supporting the Pacific Rim's art scene, especially in Australia, Europe, and Asia.

MD: You curated an exhibition?

GO: Yes, the exhibition was titled Minimum Yields Maximum. It was a group exhibition at Monte Vista Projects here in Los Angeles featuring work by artists in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Los Angeles. The artists in Minimum Yields Maximum work through a conceptual lens and pared-down material. It was a call to shift art history, to consider a conceptual and political art model that includes the Pacific Rim.

How do you see yourself working as an artist in the Pacific?

Gina Osterloh, Woman Stretching (Holding Pattern), 30 x 40 inches, archival pigment print, 2012. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist, François Ghebaly, Los Angeles and Silverlens Gallery, Manila.

MD: There's a way that ideas about Europe and America still define a lot of discourse. Whether it be the practices that one is exposed to in an Art History class or when you open up the newspaper and see what stories have most exposure. So I think looking across the Pacific, even more specifically thinking of the condition of the postcolonial Philippines, is an attempt to challenge the way that knowledge is formed and to think from the underside of history. There's no way to do that from afar because that kind of information is not readily available if you don't go. You have to do work, you have to understand, you have to try, especially if you're not living there, or from there. So my commitment to the Philippines has to do with thinking about it in a global way. Places like the Philippines that are at the center of what makes globalization run. I'm really interested in that and I think of it as something that's necessary for the future of how we rethink the way that the world operates. As it is now, it is absolutely unsustainable. When you put it in that light, the stakes of "going back" are not at all about roots, they're very much about what future we want to imagine for our world.

GO: It was a coincidence that we're both in residencies right now in Los Angeles. It's not like 18th Street Arts Center and LACE were talking to each other beforehand and planning this.

Michelle Dizon, Perpetual Peace (production still) 2012. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

MD: I think in a way what we have been speaking about is how the Philippine-ness of our experience and backgrounds can't be used as an excuse or a way of thinking about ourselves or our work. Our frameworks are much more nuanced. On one hand I think you were talking about racialization and a picture that would refuse that kind of naming and categorization. I was talking about maintaining the complexity of political history. When you take identity and lift it up and talk about that one thing, and you take it outside a really complicated framework that it's always embedded in, then you depoliticized it as a question. So I think we've been coming back to the idea of not accepting that depoliticized notion of identity and maybe creating room in our work and the way we think for something different. It gets us into a hard question, maybe we need to reframe the question, the idea of two women working on exhibitions at the same time in LA--is that really the question? Maybe there's another question.

GO: The question might address some of the forces that we are talking about when we talk about the structures that render who, what nations, what individuals, what groups are visible, and what groups are not represented. We're both interested in the actual forces of representation. I really like how you provided this viewpoint of perpetual return to the Philippines, not going back, but through duration forging new possibilities, new spaces for the viewer (and reader) to consider for the future.

MD: It is a historically situated transnational idea of identity, one that, I think the languages that exist have a hard time wrapping their minds around.

Gina Osterloh, Somewhere Tropical (Looking Back I Accepted Your Invitation), 40 x 40 in, photograph, 2006. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.


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