An Interview With Artist and Critic Rose Vickers
With the recent group exhibition Future Starts Slow at LAUNCH F18, participating artist Rose Vickers and I took the occasion to discuss her artmaking an d extensive writing practices. Rose grew up in Australia and has spent time living and traveling through-out many regions of the world. Rose and I both discovered each other’s work through Instagram and followed one another for many years before finally meeting in 2018.
While many know Rose for her writing, which has been published in Mousse Magazine, Oyster, and Artist Profile among others, she in her own right is an incredibly talented visual artist. The way in which she views her subject matter has always stood out to me as an incredibly unique perspective. We began our conversation about her work and duality of her combined artistic practices and where throughout her process they converge.
SAM TRIOLI: Being both an artist and a respected critic, you have a unique connectivity with audiences. How do feel one or the other has shaped your art making or ideas?
ROSE VICKERS: I grew up on a beach in a regional coastal city in Australia, just north of Sydney, and my dad was (still is) a painter, so the studio is a very early memory. It had high unemployment and, perhaps as a result of spare time, a strong underground art and music scene; thriving grunge and rave microcultures and indie publishing. There was this sense of total freedom and it was very underorganized, anti-capitalist and anti-materialist. Zines were big, and of course with a zine there’s a strong emphasis on text in conjunction with image. I never really saw the distinction between a textual practice and an art practice.
I had some incredible mentors along the way (both inside and outside of academic institutions) who happened to have PhDs as well as strong creative practices, and I was lucky in receiving these consecutive research grants from the Australian government, many of which emphasized writing and artmaking.
TRIOLI: In Future Starts Slow we were delighted to be able to include your photograph Sunsets and Coconuts, a stunning black and white photograph captured in an abandoned building with a sort of disorienting perspective. Tell us about that moment, what was happening right then and there?
VICKERS: The photograph was taken on Gili Meno, which is a small, sparsely populated island off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia. The island is unusual for a few reasons — it was opened up to tourism only in the 1980’s after water was able to be shipped in. It’s still sketchy whether, under tribal convention, the area should never have been settled in this way. These particular ‘new’ ruins sprung up after an early wave of tourism didn’t work out — a few mega-resorts had been built, but then tourism declined after the Bali bombing, leaving just these shells.
Because it’s a small, very poor island no effort was made to clean up or remove the more permanent elements of these forms — like concrete and plastic — and at the time I was there, no-one had bought the land, which precluded any kind of gentrification or redevelopment. It took me a while to find out about the history of the area; the economic, spiritual and legal dilemmas that came with this ruin, and I was also thinking about the material nature of the environment, particularly Eve Sedgwick’s observations on plastic in her text Touching Feeling.
I was photographing it fairly consistently over a three-year period from when I found it. Because of the tidal fluctuations many of the ruins are on stilts. I was climbing into them in this very isolated environment, often shooting from the hip when I couldn’t get into them without the floor collapsing. I was so surprised when they came out.
TRIOLI: You were shooting all of these with a film camera, correct?
VICKERS: Yes, and afew different kinds of film — first with a medium-format camera and tripod, and then when that seemed too fussy just a 35mm film camera. When I started climbing up into things I did away with the tripod, and in a way I think that worked; that and pushing the film a couple of stops which allowed me to go into the more interior, darker parts of the structures.
TRIOLI: The formation of that image is beautiful in a variety of ways. It’s a ruin yet was not that old in the way one might naturally think of a ruin. With the idea of a ‘new ruin’ and the thought behind Future Starts Slow, Christin Graham (co-curator of the exhibition) and I were very much considering the idea that change, progress and cultural evolution all happen slowly, taking many different forms and not always in the direction we expect it to go in. Do you see your photograph as being a documentation of the past, or more of a symbolic gesture to the future?
VICKERS: I was reading a lot about the theory of classical ruin and the way this has been incorporated into more contemporary modes of representing site. These very broad ideas, from the eighteenth-century fashion for building fake ruins in gardens, to Speer’s idea of building for future ruin and ‘ruin value’, to Smithson’s revisioning of the banal in New Jersey, and the Romantic landscape painting of Hubert Robert; the conceptof new ruin as coming out of this rich tradition — it has to be a very open-ended thing, what a ruin can now stand for. And it’s a difficult question to answer, pinning down whatan artwork is about, but I do notice there’s an abstraction in the photograph which, to my mind, is tied in certain ways to the material reality of the island.
TRIOLI: When I think of your practice I connect it in many ways to music and song writing, an articulated language that you’ve crafted to know the best avenue for executing an idea. Between writing as well as art making, when do you decide that one idea is better suited in writing and another idea better suited to be captured in visual form?
VICKERS: There’s a similarity in that they can both take you someplace new. Landing adrift is usually a sign that I’m heading in the right direction.
Also, nothing is ever really finished, so texts and artworks can function as almost arbitrary landmarks for an ongoing trajectory of thought. At times text can be useful to explain something to yourself, at least while it’s being written; but then art-making has the same possibility. Perhaps they are more aligned than they appear.
A couple of years ago I started a doctorate in art history and made a conscious decision to only write for a confined period. Despite this some image-making crept in, which now, I’m happy about. I was telling myself that it was just an extension of my writing practice, or my curatorial practice — photographing these regions in Mexico and around Arles, in the south of France. And yet that’s a whole question in itself — you know, about art and documentation, and the informational value of a thing in relation to its aesthetic or conceptual premise. I’m interested in where these two paths converge.
TRIOLI: Do you have a routine for writing and creating?
VICKERS: There’s a writing method I use which was developed in the late 1980’s by an Italian mathematician, Francesco Cirillo. I’ll work in twenty-five minute blocks separated by five minute intervals; it’s called the ‘pompodoro’ method (pompodoro being Italian for tomato). I try and write every day, and if I can be at a beach I’ll swim every day. I occasionally send material to a couple of people I admire who find all the flaws. I’m into doing five or six drafts and consider this a luxury.
I try to think more than I write, so the temporal space between drafts is really important. Exploring ideas visually is usually a way of thinking through something that for whatever reason I can’t resolve textually.
TRIOLI: Learning people’s processes are so interesting — I’ve learned of many musicians who walk to write lyrics to their songs, or even the poet Robert Frost who would go for long walks through the woods of New Hampshire. Do you find you require that same process in your photography as well? Or is it more instinctual?
VICKERS: I like the idea of a return. See something, go away and read, go back. And going back to the same places over a number of years. I don’t really have any particular method for capturing material, but I do follow an editing process (for getting into images as well as writing).
TRIOLI: Similarly, we both share the passion of curating too. For me, I arrived at curating shows simply for the love of doing and organizing. What first got you into curating exhibitions?
VICKERS: I didn’t really think of it as ‘curating’ for a long time! It just seemed to be a way to share ideas — probably pretty common in creative regional areas. Then I started working with Native American art from a United States vantage, which was an unexpected but incredibly rewarding professional direction.
TRIOLI: Looking more outwardly, in your opinion, how do you think that history will look back on this current time period? What do you think humanity is telling us right now?
VICKERS: We’re in a time of multivalent realities and an exponential hybridization of culture, both real and digital. The opening up of private and institutional art worlds through technology coincides with a breaking down of barriers and roles between art administrators and artists. It feels like an exciting time.
TRIOLI: I feel like there is a lot of meaning and metaphor in the story you told about the photograph in Future Starts Slow. In looking back on that moment, what do you feel as though you ultimately captured?
VICKERS: Australia’s relationship with Indonesia was strained under Abbott, particularly Australian refugee law and policy. Being there prompted me to consider autoethnography in a new way. And it also presented a kind of, urgency of investigation, in terms of understanding what was happening macrocosmically (politically), and more microcosmically as these events played out on a local scale. The photograph is equally the product of certain practical frustrations that come with being on a small island; a determination to get something on film as a limited resource, the physical difficulties of climbing into and around abandoned buildings and the act of managing fear, to some degree.
TRIOLI: Form, space and even architecture have an important role in the perspective that a lot of your ideas disseminate from. What causes that spark, and that moment of clarity when an idea is formed for you?
VICKERS: In recent years I’ve been on the lookout for strange architectural anomalies. Occasionally these spaces can be vehicles for new ideas, or new ways of processing old ideas. But that realization often comes about much later, sometimes years later. It’s very rarely a case the Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment”, and I’m leery of this feeling when I have it.
TRIOLI: After spending time with your work, particularly your photography I feel as though there’s so much that you’re communicating or suggesting. Do you agree with that or can you expand more on that idea?
VICKERS: Probably not explicitly, although I do a lot of reading in the process of making.
TRIOLI: What still provides you with the most curiosity in the art world?
VICKERS: Meeting artists. Being in new places and reading. Difficult conversations. Strong edits. Indigenous and outsider art, and almost everything I have seen recently coming out of the South Pacific.
TRIOLI: Looking at the art world at large, are there any artists or movements that you feel are underrepresented or go unnoticed currently?
VICKERS: For a long time, Native American art was under-represented in North America, although this is changing — one example would be the recent Charles and Val Diker donation to the Met, and the allocation of a semi-permanent wing to these really stunning Native American artworks and artifacts.
TRIOLI: What lasting change would you like to see happen in the art world?
VICKERS: It would be great to see the prevailing interest in women artists and artists of color to be more than a blip, although I think basically everyone wants that. It’s nice to see academia making a home in the art world, with PhD’s increasingly opening to art practice and the production of popular texts drawing on academic voice. When it functions properly the art world is a wonderful refuge for thought.