Jérôme Sans: Many writers have projected the discourse of surveillance into your photographs.
Sam Samore: I continue the photographs as one of my projects into the 1990s, but for me these pictures encourage the idiosyncratic, unpredictability of the viewing subject. They open up a space for the imaginary to roam, sans frontières. The large photographs, about the same size as our bodies, have a physical presence, but are the big and empty, like the dark cinema and absorb the projection of our desires, our fears. There is pleasure of the body — so I can linger on eyes, lips, ears, noses in all their infinite variety of sensual, fetishist, fantastic worlds. These photographs display a mixture of the surreal and the real. The small photographs measuring only a few centimeters are lost in the actual space of a wall, attached directly, with no distancing of the frame. I must put my face into it, my nose pressing against the piece of paper. Does it have a smell? Does it have a taste? To be devoured, these delectable crumbs are at the limits of visibility. I see people, but I cannot make out if there is a drama. Perhaps if I stare long enough, something will happen. There is hardly anything there in front of me, but obsessively I keep looking.
Sans: Why all this interest in the subjectivity of the individual?
Samore: For a number of years, I studied with Harry Harlow and Leonard Berkowitz at the University of Wisconsin. Beginning in the 1950s, among the many different behaviorist psychology projects with monkeys, Harlow researched the effects of using surrogate mothers (constructed from pieces of metal, plastic and hair, with the face painted to look like mom) to nurture their offspring. Starting in the 1960s Berkowitz researched the social psychological effects of Hollywood movie violence. He analyzed the reaction of subjects to the screening of film clips such as the famous scene in Champion (1949) where Kirk Douglas ruthlessly pummels the face of his opponent into oblivion during a heavyweight-title boxing match.
Sans: How did you come to the word pieces?
Samore: I don’t give specific titles to the photographs. Each is called Situation or Lips Triptych — so if you want to talk about a particular picture that is not in front of us, you have to describe the people to me. What kind of language to use? A listing of physical characteristics only? Something more to give a mood — an interpretation of what someone in the photograph may be feeling? Is there a story linking the people to each other? But how did I arrive at these words? Why do I see an erotic exchange of intimacy when it just as well could have been an accidental regard? From the beginning I collected these observations. This initial research has led me in the direction of projects where I place words on transparent surfaces — like windows, mirrors, screens, curtains — by way of etching, silk-screen, sandblasting, vinyl letters, paint. Let me tell you about them. In Descriptions I collect information from various sources in the manner of a content analysis. I compile endless lists based on ethnicity; sexual preference; chest-waist-hip measurements; age, height and weight data; adjectives describing personality and body features. Through the language of “objective” classifications I construct someone from the reservoir of my own subjectivity. And perhaps my friends look at the same material and build someone different. Like a portrait painter, like a biographer, in Portraits I research one individual. I gather information from press conferences, hagiographies, talk shows, psychological case studies, autobiographies. Sometimes I can interview this person, and with their permission talk with their acquaintances. Sometimes I present a group of words as in a survey and you select the adjectives that best represent who you are. In the end, I arrive at a list of words about this person. If it is a commissioned piece, must we both agree on what to include/exclude on the list? I am interested in how the individual arrives at who they think they become and what we believe them to be. Complexities beyond oppositions. Are these words only abstractions without an odor? Representation and no touchable body? Once the words are assembled they can be installed anywhere — in someone’s private home, in their car, monogrammed on their clothes, tattooed on their body. Can this list change over time? Maybe he or she “grows older.” Maybe they have a “multiple personality disorder.” Maybe she or he choose to forget everyone they know, and start all over again. In Names I gather names and their corresponding phone numbers as they are listed in the phone book of a particular city (New York, Stockholm, Paris, etc.). Names connected by genealogy, or names picked by alphabetical order, or names selected by ethnicity, or names culled at random, or names determined by profession, or names differentiated by gender, or names chosen because they are magical, or names triggered by memory, or names reflecting onomatopoeia, or names harvested by numerology, or names gathered from the same neighborhood. Or I discover a group of identical first and last names as they are listed in the phone book (sometimes the same name can be repeated twenty or more times), each assigned their singular phone number. Each name representing one particular individual, each with their unique memories, relationships, stories.
Sans: Do you call these people up?
Samore: No. In Rainman, Dustin Hoffman memorizes the names of people in the phone book, until he has completed the entire volume. But it appears that he has little attachment to any particular name. On the other hand, every so often someone tells me they know a person I’ve gathered from the phone book. They can describe to me what their friend looks like, the kinds of clothes they wear, the sound of their laughter. Well, I hope the experience of Names can happen like this — to trigger a specific memory, to spin a fantasy. But this project is also another means of psychological, ethnographic research about how someone is free to inhabit an independent identity, yet remains linked by the histories, habits, attitudes of a family, of a clan, of a culture.
Sans: Do you only put the words on transparent surfaces?
Samore: Like words, windows and mirrors are the transparent membrane I pass through, to experience other worlds. It all depends on where I am, what I am doing when I’m near a window or mirror with words on it. Maybe the place with the windows is stationary and I am in motion — swimming, running, moving around in a wheelchair. Maybe whatever it is I see through the windows/mirrors is moving and I am stationary — lying in bed, standing on the sidewalk, sitting on a toilet seat. Perhaps I make an installation where the place itself moves about, like a bus, a car, a glass elevator, and I’m inside the place, or watching it go by. Events, things, scenes, people I see and hear and smell through the windows/mirrors — all this gets incorporated into the words, amplified by the words, changed by the words (and vice versa, getting all mixed up, mixed in with my memories, immediate feelings, forgettings). My interaction with this piece is a constantly changing experience.
Sans: What is the substance of the window/mirror pieces? Are they about the metaphor of painting known in art history as a window open onto the world?
Samore: For me, the materiality of these pieces includes the words; the windows, the mirrors, the transparent screens and curtains; the architecture of the interior/exterior space; the outside/inside “parade” of people, places, things; the viewer’s perceptions and behavior. In this way the window/mirror pieces exist as any other object with its surfaces and contours and volumes, but not under the control of the illusionist space of Renaissance painting. With a floating word to momentarily arrest your eyes, the actual window/mirror allows you to meander, and who decides where and when to stop? And what if I stick my head out the window or inside the mirror? I agree with Susan Kandel when she wrote that one of this work’s implications is how, “imagining is more fortuitous than imaging.”
Sans: Maybe that’s why you started introducing the fairy tales, the stories for the cabaret and the radio, the lectures — to go deeper into the narrative meaning of things, rather than always approaching it elliptically through fragments of speech?
Samore: In the first episode of the Docteur Freud Cabaret (there will be perhaps six), Herr Freud meets Barbara X., the most famous Parisian stripper in memory. She schedules a session because she finds herself no longer able to disrobe in front of her adoring audience. Apparently a transference takes place, Dr. Freud stripteases, and Barbara X. resumes his psychoanalytic research. Produced by Catherine Baò, and performed by Nicolas Peper and Valérie Leboute, this premiered during the winter of 1993, as part of an evening of cabaret at Pigalles, a nightclub in Paris. In this episode, I want my Dr. Freud to have a public body erotic. Let your hair down Sigmund! Who’s afraid of psychosis! As the psychoanalyst, Barbara X. combines the talking cure with the dancing cure. As for the lectures — sometimes I am invited to talk about what I do — for the university, the museum, the symposium. So I hire actors. I send them a script, and I encourage them to improvise. Perhaps I ask one person to lecture, perhaps as many as three. To be sure, the actors must speak the language of the place where the lecture occurs. This is what is going on right now with our interview. Underneath, hovering around, to the side of, these sentences on the printed page, you sense the fabric of my personality. However, if a woman who is called Asian-American presents a lecture to an actual audience as me Sam Samore — is there something different that happens when you consider my work and what I am about — if you think me to be a white Western European man? I have always told my nephews and nieces, my friend’s children, bedtime stories. I started to write them down, and while one goal is to have them published as illustrated books, it is important that they are spoken. I’ve written so many different kinds of fairy tales — lately I have been asked to consider various “themes” — like the idea of time, of food, or the ideal place. In general, I do not think in this way. I let myself wander, and something gets written down. Children understand what my fairy tales are about, and sometimes parents are afraid of the ideas that get introduced. Why? There is something dangerous when children are invited to listen to the telling of one of my stories? Maybe because there is some forbidden boundary we cannot cross together? Like many trickster tales, mine can be very explicit in their sexiness — like many fairy tales, mine can be brutally violent. And once a child hears the story she or he has to “live with the very real consequences” — and so do I as their parent, every day that I am alive. We know this — fairy tales are presented to children, but intended for and coveted by adults — since we adults are the ones who are first telling the stories to our children. At least in the beginning, before they go to school, before they watch television . . . We know there is a whole lot of writing going on in the deconstruction of fairy tales, and the rewriting of history. What if I decide to tell my reconstruction of “Cinderella” and this is the only version my children know. Why did I choose this way and not that way? Or I present all the many versions of “Cinderella” (or as it is called “Mossycoat” or “Aschenputtel” or “The Suit of Leather” or by whatever title a culture calls it.) — and mine is one more added to the mixture?
Sans: Do you mean you want to invent “new” myths?
Samore: An “uncomfortable” question, since must I always announce in advance where I intend to go before I get there? If I say yes, does this mean I have a grand strategy, another master narrative? No, this is not what I am about . . . I enjoy asking questions. And as part of this I take pleasure in the playing, in the participation, in the doing. My fairy tales, cabaret, radio stories gambol around in the plain of fiction, so anything can happen? My characters do not have to obey the rules of conventional social behavior, nor the theories of political correctness? I can rewrite and publish the stories again and again in an infinite variety of ways. But my characters are always asking themselves and each other: Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going?
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