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Womyn Power: Catherine Opie's Personal SASSAS Playlist


In quantum mechanics, it's called the observer effect. When under observation, an experiment will perform differently than when it is not being observed -- meaning that the mere presence of scientists' eyes can affect the subject of their gaze. The camera of photographer Catherine Opie often has a similar effect; the subject confronts the looker - the photographer and the viewer - returning the gaze in a defiant and proud stance.

<em>Self Portrait/Nursing</em>, Catherine Opie, 2004, C-print, 40 x 32 inches (101.6 x 81.3 cm), Ed. of 8.The camera lens of Opie isn't just an ordinary object; it's a veritable magnifying glass, revealing minute details and hidden truths of a subject caught in Opie's unwavering eye. Her portraits of high school football players, S&M sub-culturists, and members of the LGBT community, offer classical composition with contemporary subjects; creating still-lifes of people frozen in poses, but also alive. Her documentary photography offers slices of life, depicting surfers dwarfed by an expansive sea or Los Angeles mini-malls, speckled with a polyglot of languages adorning storefront signs. Opie presents life, examined.

This Sunday, Opie will join Michael Ned Holte and Stephen Prina at the Society for the Activation of Social Space through Art and Sound's listening party benefit where she will play a handpicked mix of music. Artbound recently caught up with Opie to discuss how photography and music interface with nostalgia, and to get a rundown of the songs that made her mixtape.

Photographs and songs are very tied to our own senses of nostalgia. When you look at a photograph of a certain life event, you can remember all the textures of that experience. You can smell what it smelled like, and evoke many senses. But a song does that too, you can remember right where you were -- and who you were with -- when you hear certain songs. What do you think elicits a more visceral response, photos or music?

Both of them have a very interesting cognitive link. I think that's a really good point. I've never really thought about that before. But it is true that in photography a certain picture can evoke a memory very easily, especially personal pictures and it shares different times of your history. Music does that as well. Music is very much this moment where you reach back at your memory banks and you can almost feel the summer air of you on your bicycle like singing a song out loud as you're riding. I think of different music in relationship to what I played when I was a kid in Ohio. And when I hear those songs, it's almost as if I feel the air of that time again, you know? It's a great thing how music does that and how often we just forget until it comes up. Like Jim Croce song's "Photographs of Memories," right?

What was your approach to making this mix?

I wanted to give an homage to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. So all of the actual music are all people who have performed at Michfest through the history of this gathering. I went two summers ago and it was the first time "on the land," as they call it. It's one of these amazing events where there's like over 5,000 women gathered together for a week listening to music. It's been going on since 1976.

When I was in San Francisco, all through the 80's, my friends would go off to Michfest to work for the summer. And it was always just such a part of the community dialogue. When my good friend Tammy Rae Carland started Mr. Lady Records, The Butchies and Le Tigre and everybody was like performing it at Michfest as well.

It was always this thing that was like "Oh my God. I can't believe I've never been to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival." So, a couple of years ago, my partner Julie and I went and met up with a bunch of friends from New York and we just camped for the full five nights on the land and just loved every single moment of it.

There are also other women's music festivals. What makes this one so special to you?

Well because it was really founded early on in relationship to women's music being important. I also think it's interesting in terms of how they've held a separatist idea, that they want to create safe place for women and that all these issues are still discussed but still plague women today in terms of abuse and rape and so on. And what it means to create a safe space for women is I think very, very, powerful. And there's no other event that really does that in the same way that Michfest does.

Margie Adam | Photo: Donna A. Korones, www.margieadam.com

Margie Adams - "Woodland"

"Woodland" is just a really simple piano piece and one of the things that I really love about that kind of music from the 70s is that it just is, that it really reminds me of what I listened to when I was a teenager in my room. So, I was always really into The Carpenters, John Denver. I also listened to a lot of musicals. So, I wasn't one of those kids listening to the Grateful Dead or kind of rock 'n' roll. I was always interested in kind of ideas of melody, so I start with a piano piece by her because I just think it's a really nice way to open the segment of 33 minutes of music.

I'm interested in the idea of listening to music alone as opposed to playing it for other people. Is there a difference between the music we listen to by ourselves and the music we play for people?

Yeah, I think that I usually listen to music alone. I mean it's usually in the car. Often because of Los Angeles, [we are] spending so much time in the car. Very rarely actually is there just music going in our house. I mean, when we have a dinner party or something like that, we have music going but even when I'm working in my studio, I very rarely have music except for every once in awhile, I'll just put on a playlist I kind of want to hear because I'm just trying to think some stuff out and it ends up helping me a little bit, in terms of just filling the void with something else than my own thoughts.

Holly Near - It Could Have Been Me

The next piece is Holly Near and it is titled "It Could Have Been Me" and it almost feels a little bit like cabaret to a certain extent. Holly Near was one of the very first performers at Michfest back in the 70's as well. So I thought it was really important to put her in. I actually listened to Holly Near in the early 80's in San Francisco.

Sweet Honey and the Rock - Meyango

I know, Sweet Honey in the Rock is a great name and it's an African tune called "Meyango" and it's a very tribal, kind of African beat. I think they're Midwestern but I'm not quite sure where they're from. They played in the 70s as well at Michfest. One of the great things about Michfest is that it's not just music, it's also comedy and it's an incredible array of women of all shapes and sizes and color and that is all completely culturally embraced. So I wanted to put Sweet Honey in the Rock in there because that is so important to how MichFest is, embraces "the other" at all times. Except for transgendered "other." They're very bad around the transgender issue.

Oh, really?

Yeah. They don't allow non-biological women.

Tribe 8 | Photo: www.tribe8.com

Tribe 8 - Lesbophobia

Now we do a jump up to the 90s and it's one of the hottest punk groups from San Francisco called Tribe 8. Their song is called "Lesbophobia." So we just go right in there in terms of the idea of the 90s and the culture wars in relationship to homophobia and AIDS and a punk band, Tribe 8.

When was the first time you heard them?

I heard them probably in 95 playing in, you know, some crazy place in San Francisco. Maybe it was a club. I don't really know but I photographed members of the band. I'm friends with members of the band still.

Phranc - "Bulldagger Swagger"

After Tribe 8, I go back to an earlier, a Los Angeles iconic folk singer which you can't do the idea of Michfest without playing any of Phranc. So we have Phranc's "Bulldagger Swagger," which is a great Phranc song. I like it because she really talks about being butch and what it is to be butch and be a bulldagger and this great melody and rhyming words. She's just hilarious. One of the best concerts I've ever seen in L.A. was a performance that she did in the 90's where she did only Neil Diamond, where she basically performed as Neil Diamond. It was like brilliant, in the leisure suit and everything. She went for it.

Sia - "Breathe Me"

After that we have a very popular kind of pop star and that would be Sia, and its "Breathe Me." So it's the idea that, you know, again, just like Tribe 8 that there is this kind of certain popular music that happens. Sia was going out with JD Samson for a really long time and she performed at Michfest the year that I was there, so I wanted to put her in.

Le Tigre - "Hot Topic."

Classic. You gotta do "Hot Topic." That was, you know, one that people always loved at Michfest because of this incredible song shouting out, you know, great women in history.

Pink - "Dear Mr. President"

Following that would be Pink and it's the song "[Dear] Mr. President." I wanted to play that song because I want to remind people that even in a political election year that we have to be thoughtful in terms of who governs our country and the ideas around it. I chose her because of the relationship to the Indigo Girls. They, Amy Ray and Pink and all of them like really are very out there in terms of their politics and that they were brave enough to actually face the government of George Bush through their music. I just think that that's a very brave thing to do. I've always liked music that has a political bend. So, you know, "One Tin Soldier" was one of my favorite songs when I was a kid. Like, I would play it over and over and over again.

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Top Image: Jenny (Bed), Catherine Opie, 2009, C-print, 37 1/2 x 50 inches (95.3 x 127 cm), Edition of 5, 2 AP.

About the Author

Drew Tewksbury is a Los Angeles-based cultural journalist, editor, photographer, and multimedia producer. Tewksbury is the managing editor / co-producer for KCET-TV's Artbound, a transmedia project providing in-depth arts/cultur...
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