Chicago-based artist Robyn Day uses photography and all of its inherent complexity as a vehicle to explore and engage with queerness: identity, gender, sexuality, culture, and community. The work is conceptually driven and often attempts to subvert or reinforce perceptions about the nature of photography. However, Day is beholden to her craft as well. Because of this complex and nuanced interplay, it functions on many levels with multiple entry points. Although the nature of her exploration of LGBTQ issues has personal, social, and political implications, it ultimately never feels didactic. Instead, it encourages the audience to reconsider and reflect upon how their perceptions and beliefs have been constructed. In a recent conversation with Robyn on the heels of her solo show, Nobody Knows at Elizabeth Houston, we discussed the broader themes behind her work and her intentions.
Scott Turri: Photography has been and still is often thought of as a factual medium that records the truth. In BURY ME in SHOCKING PINK, your project in Germany, you frame it as documenting the queer lifestyle. What role, if any, do you see yourself having in shaping the narrative, do your subjects shape the narrative, or is it some combination of the two?
Robyn Day: It’s some combination of the two. So for me, that project was unique because it was more of a kind of immersion. I don’t want to call it a blind immersion (laughter), but it was more about finding out through photographing, whereas some of my previous work has been very narrative. I don’t know if you’ve seen those bodies of work, but they were driven more by conceptual frameworks; this one was more open in a sense – being documentary in the way of responding to what I experienced. I think the photographer always plays a role obviously in terms of just the person I am, the preconceptions I might have, the beliefs, and how I’ve grown up. So it’s always that way. You are an artist when you’re a photographer. So you are, in a sense, even what you choose to frame, you’re putting certain details in, and you’re leaving others out, and that’s either intentional or sometimes unintentional because it can’t be avoided. But I feel like speaking about photography as documenting just fact or truth is not accurate.
ST: I agree. The reason I mentioned that was more about the fact that some part of the population still sees it that way.
RD: Yes, and that can be dangerous, although that’s another conversation, and indeed there are probably photographers who use that to their advantage. But no, for me, that project was strictly documentary. I responded to what I was learning and experiencing on the job. I did not go in with a conceptual framework, a strategy that I might have used in the past with other work. So, for example, being in Berlin was interesting for me because and this is something I maybe didn’t know initially but they have some prohibitions around photography, actually in spaces. There are definite, historical reasons for things like this. And you might see it even amplified or heightened more in queer spaces in particular. So, I set myself up for a real challenge to try to make a photographic project in a place that was not always as welcoming or open to the idea of photography or being photographed. So, for example, you might see a lot of signage with cameras crossed out.
ST: Wow. Huh.
RD: So a lot of it was asking permission or gaining trust.
ST: Well, that leads into the next question. In a way, you describe your work in Berlin as an anthropologist; you state that privacy was paramount to the LGBTQ community, but you immersed yourself in the queer scene there. And you stated that privacy was paramount to the LGBTQ community, actually extending beyond into the broader culture. What was this like; did you get much pushback from being an outsider (not German)?
How did you navigate? Were you accepted?
RD: Yes, I think I felt accepted by certain folks in certain ways, and oddly, maybe it was very easy for me to make friends there. So I wouldn’t say it wasn’t welcoming, I but I would say regarding what you’re speaking to, in terms of being an outsider, not being known, I did experience in some instances, pushback, particularly in places as I said that had no photo policies. And there are ways of working around that. So a friend of mine, Masha, and I at Silver Future, a queer bar where they had this really cool wooden concoction which is like a camera that they’ve designed themselves at the bar and we use that for example, you might have seen that photo to take images in the space (laughter). So yes, for sure I’m very respectful. I started initially as a street photographer, and that’s way back in the day. Still, understanding that not everybody wants to be photographed or values privacy very highly was a challenge to navigate, but an interesting one too.
ST: Now I would like to move on to the Nobody Knows series, featured in your most recent solo exhibition at the Elizabeth Houston Gallery in New York City. By assuming the role as a type of archivist who digitally and physically manipulates these photos, you take on a more active role in shaping the narrative. Should this suggest that you are tacitly supporting the idea that archives are essentially a construct by those who have assembled them?
RD: (laughter) Yes, but I don’t think I would put it quite that way. Yes, they are assembled, and it’s important to know that there’s an actual person behind that or someone who’s doing it. We each bring different things regarding the way we perceive what we’re studying or thinking about or different preconceptions that we have. But I let me address something else quickly; in terms of narrative, it’s true that I’ve worked that way in the past. So if you were to go back, say a few years now, to work like Suburban Jungle or Naturescapes or Plaza of the Americas. I’m starting there with a narrative, and it’s telling a story that investigates something more psychological or emotional. And then, for this work, I’m not sure it’s a narrative as much as it is an experiment. So I do take your point about the construction of all archives. I mean, the construction of history is a particular viewpoint, and that’s not to say it’s divorced from reality (laughter). I wouldn’t take a position like that, but specifically, just thinking about queer history and how it has been presented; either it varies too, of course depending on where you are, how you’re thinking about it. But in legal or medical narratives or how it’s preserved, having to then go back to that and try to interpret it – what it means today or what it might have meant, there’s a lot to be pieced together. I guess the word I was thinking was rediscovered or interpreted. So this archive is not an archive really (laughter), in the sense that I’ve taken that approach, really to a drastic sort of end, which is that I’m constructing something for sure. I mean, I’m not telling a story, but I’m envisioning things, presenting them in a particular type of way. I think that way might be more mysterious, ambiguous, or enigmatic would be the way that I would see it or think of it. But yes, I take your point – all archives are constructed, and this one is maybe just an exaggeration of that.
ST: Well, I was thinking that when you were talking about if it was a medical, political, or legal archive referencing LGBTQ issues, then it would be constructed in a particular way. Were you trying to deconstruct those kinds of narratives? Or were you trying to create a counter-narrative? As if you were recontextualizing it and presenting it as an archive related to your personal experiences and their impact on how you navigate the broader culture.
RD: Yes, I think that’s a fair point. Deconstruct might be the right word or a way of approach or thinking about it. I put it more as queering the archive, the archive itself, being an assembling of knowledge, or that’s how it’s traditionally thought of or considered, and throwing that conception out the window a bit because it is nebulous. If you think of where history, and I’m talking in really broad strokes here, but I mean, it has been told in certain ways. We have records from court cases or things like that; it has been pathologized. And when we talk about identity, that complicates this, even more, I would think. And what I mean by that, I don’t want to think of it as being a-historical or trans-historical in this way. But I would say, and this might sound strange (laughter). Thinking of what I was doing as a kind of drag or performative. I want the viewer to know that something is being created and to be aware that it is being created. And yes, you could probably call it a counter-narrative. I think that would be fair and also at the same time and I don’t want you to think this is just me, dodging your question, but, you can see in it what is relevant or salient to you, and I feel that any viewer can do that with almost any art. So, I think you’re right in a sense deconstructing, and I would say queering the archive.
ST: Gotcha. So some are found photos and some you have taken yourself. Because of how you manipulated them, it feels like the photos are from a different era. They feel worn or just aged. This approach differed from your other projects where you used perhaps more traditionally based photography techniques. Here you used more physical processes to alter them. I found this to be very interesting, and I’m assuming that it had something to do with the idea of queering the archive, where you were bringing in your personal experiences and allowing yourself to work through something and this physical manipulation became part of it?
RD: That’s a fair point. I do think that I was more interested in the material in a sense and that there are a couple of reasons for that, but one is just very simple. I’d say some of my previous work had been very conceptual or abstract, and I wanted to work more with my hands. So I still see this work as very experimental, seeing what happens when you play with photographic substrates. But the other part of that, I think to your point is I think when some people look at photos, they’re not necessarily looking at the material or the photo as an object. In this case, I was trying to do that, pointing out that it’s an object. So, I think changing formats; there were digital processes and analog processes, hopefully, encouraged the viewer to look at and try to figure out how did this come about, or how was this made. Not knowing the answer to that or not figuring it out makes you approach a photograph as an object itself. So considering it in that way, not just as a window to the world, which goes back to the point you were saying about how some folks still view photographs as documents – in this way, these photographs are very constructed. So there’s that aspect, but I think it was also more personal because I just wanted to work with the medium, with my hands, and that sparked it initially.
ST: Sure. Yes, I think you are making it clear to the audience that these are objects because of this manipulation; the viewer can sense your presence as the artist who made the object. When you look at photographs and again maybe not me so much anymore, I think your point about how sometimes photographs, and in many ways, I think your series that we were just talking about, does this, you get a sense that you are just looking into a window. You don’t necessarily think about everything that went into it, which can be a very good experience. I think in many ways because, obviously, you’re not necessarily getting that intermediate step. You just feel like I’m there; I’m right there with the person or in the scene. With these photographs, you can tell you crinkled the photographs, or you used some chemical techniques to make them appear aged.
RD: That is part of it. But also, if I can expand the idea that they’re constructed but that all photos are constructed, they’re all viewpoints. And in this case, for this particular project that archives are constructed. I did want them to feel aged, though. You’re right about that just because I wanted it to be sort of not idiosyncratic or not anachronistic, just more broadly about queer history and what these things, terms, ideas, identities, or communities meant in certain times and what they mean now. And how we think about that, and there’s not necessarily an answer, it’s just more of a question that’s sort of posed. So talking about found photographs, really, I don’t love this conversation generally because sometimes people are a bit glib. They point to the fact that there are so many images or the proliferation of images, and I’m not thinking in those terms; that’s not why I started using found photos. For me, it’s looking at a history, discovering something, trying to imagine or reinvent something, or thinking about an image and wondering about its implications. It might stem in a sense from just being interested in history, reading about history, certainly in an amateur sense, not as a historian, but I do have those interests. I think found photographs are a way of thinking about or working in that capacity. There’s a continuity, and I think that’s a part of the work that I’m making right now.
ST: With the found photographs, did you mine certain archives? You don’t have to reveal your sources, but I was just curious. Did you have certain places that you went to gather these found photos?
RD: For sure, I was also just looking for them in unexpected places. So, for example, I mentioned I live in Andersonville, and there are many antique shops on Clark Street, which is fairly close to me, and one of them has this wall that’s just amazing. It’s just a wall filled with photos, family photos, some snapshots, just quotidian, but you could even think of it as an assembled archive. It’s not an archive with any intention, but it landed there and made itself. So there are all sorts of things to mine there that are really interesting but even just going through that and looking to see, can I find traces of queer history in them. So even that is a source, but there are official archives and things like that also.
ST: So in the example of the antique shops, you look through pictures and find photographs that you think might show something about queerness?
ST: So the notion of a family archive, where you have somebody who is photographing a family, their role and how they were thinking about recording what they were seeing, could be a lot different from somebody working as more of a legal or medical photographer. So that brings up a whole other set of variables that could complicate the equation or just make it more expansive (laughter).
RD: (laughter) Yes, and then to your point, the meaning of those photos or the punctum would be very different for them than obviously for me, but I think, and I don’t want to wax poetic, but there’s something poignant and maybe even a little sad about those kinds of personal moments just sort of being now, in an antique shop. Do you know what I mean?
ST: Oh yeah, sure.
RD: Because they meant a lot to someone but they can’t ever really mean the same to us.
ST: But they can still mean a lot to someone who doesn’t have anything to do with them potentially.
RD: Yeah. Differently, I think.
ST: Okay, so I have one question left.
ST: So you’re almost off the hook here. On your website, you mention that you are framing queer identities in response to hetero-normative assumptions, which makes sense to me, but if that is the case, then is this series a reactive approach? Or do you look at it more as an attempt to enlighten or educate someone who might have a very narrow view of these issues? Or do these things not come into play at all?
RD: No. It comes into play in all kinds of different ways, but it’s just so complicated, and there are so many answers to what I see is a few questions. But I would say I don’t want or think of my work as being reactive. I mean, folks have described it as a celebration in a sense, and I’m okay with them using that word. That’s okay. In terms of trying
to educate? It’s not pedagogical or anything like that. I think it’s more trying to get folks to think about things.
ST: Maybe bring it to light to make it more personal or personalized, so it’s not just an abstract concept?
RD: I think many artists are working in that way, and their concerns are primarily representation, and there is good reason for that. But I think for me if you look at my Wo/men series, there is a lot behind the scenes in thinking about certain things or studying certain things. Still, I do feel that many folks, not everyone, but they use these words, women or men, for example, without ever thinking about what does that mean? Or how do I define that? And is the way that I define that very different from the way this person does, or that person or a hundred people. If you start to think about it as a category, it undermines itself by containing its own contradictions. It’s not that I’m trying to teach somebody something at all. It’s more just trying to get folks to think about things that maybe they haven’t spent that much time considering in the past. I do think that’s important, and there’s a politics to it, for sure. And we could get into that (laughter). Maybe that would be for another conversation. I would say the work is to get folks to question or think about things such as gender identity or sexuality. It’s opening or raising questions, I hope…
Volume 36 no 1 September / October 2021