PRACTICE: Purple Time Space Swamp is a digital treasure trove of images. How did this project get started and what were your aims with this Tumblr-based archive?
SEBASTIEN BONCY: Houston is a specific place that lacks a specific visual presence in the national or even Texan imagination. I was craving images that manifested the city in the same way that we have music that does this, but I found very little. PTSS is an attempt to generate those images, and serve a desire that I am trusting is widespread. We want to see our homes and lives represented. I believe it plays in to our ability to imagine ourselves with more richness and more strangeness. Most of my projects are composed of images made in Houston, but I wanted these to be Houston images, to prioritize the modifier. It made sense that this should belong to the public so I downplay authorship and explicitly dismiss copyright or any such personal claims of ownership. These are everyone's images. If they want them.
Do you consider archives as nostalgic warehouses of the recent and distant past? Can they serve an anticipatory, future-oriented purpose?
I want to say no. For me they are a way to think about the present. When I look at my two most important models, Atget's Paris photographs and the FSA archives, I never feel nostalgic about the time spent with them. I want to say no, but I cannot forget that Atget's archive had a nostalgic impetus, I cannot deny that many people use the FSA archive as a nostalgia pool, and I have to accept that since I leave the uses and meanings of PTSS wide open that people might want to use them to reminisce first and foremost. I find archives lovely for the possibility they offer to recognize actual patterns and form new ones, the increased ability to see and the refreshed opportunity to dream. There's also a gluttonous side to it: why look at 20 Atget pictures in one sitting when I have 200 on my shelves; Roy Striker himself spoke about the narcotic pull of putting together the FSA archive. I'm here for gluttony.
Houston is a sprawling, car-centric metropolis. What’s your experience been walking the streets, photographing this place you call home?
My first seven years in Htown, 96 to 03, I did not drive. The Houston described by my friends did not always match the one I lived in. Distances, schedules, activities, landmarks, a lot of it felt like we were living parallel lives. My buddies would speak "freeway" (610, 59, 10) while I spoke "metro" (#2, 82, 17). It meant that I was spending a significant portion of my day in close proximity to strangers, the working poor (that's who uses public transport in Houston), going through neighborhoods where I had no business (because of the circuitous nature of bus travel), and either daydreaming or eavesdropping through long distances. To this day these are all things that impact the way I photograph.
For your upcoming poster installation at Practice you’ve assembled a collection of images drawn from your experience in Houston. Can you tell me more about this particular selection?
I came across soccer fields. Apparently put together by the immigrant communities in the adjacent apartment complexes from constructions scraps and old American football turf. I found them to be fascinating spaces in the way that they implied community action (possibly anarchist organization), they visualized the syncretic nature of the Americas, and they looked beautiful and strange all empty like that. I try to put the images together in a way that obliquely suggested those connections and that context.
You self-published a print-on-demand version of PTSS earlier this year. What brought you to choose self-publishing? Do you consider self-publishing to be a central part of your overall practice as an artist?
As soon as affordable print on demand became a thing I started playing with it. I made a few books and loved it. But those are still expensive on a per-unit basis. I switched to the zine format for PTSS because I envisioned it right away as an open-ended series. The books and zines feel like the most complete and definitive things I've ever done. I don't see myself stopping, and I love that I need no one's permission or blessing to make it happen. I love collaborating with good people, but I ain't about the call-up.
At the local level in Houston, is there a so-called zine scene? Have artists initiated things like zine fairs, reading rooms, and/or collaborative models to support artists who make zines and books?
We have some art zinesters and music zinesters and comix zinesters of course, with all kinds of overlap. We have a yearly zine fest founded by the late Shane Patrick Boyle. The Zine Fest Archive now resides at the University of Houston Library. I've met a couple of the current organizers and they are way hype and supportive. https://zinefesthouston.org/ Every once in a while you'll see a group of friends get together and make books and share skills for a while. But nothing is centralized in Houston and it's hard to keep up with most of it as a spectator rather than a participant, circles stay pretty small and life cycles can be pretty short. It's like these quick blooms across a vast expanse, it's hard to keep a field going.
What’s your take on the level of institutional support in Houston for artists who self-publish? Are local museums, galleries, and arts organizations responsive to local artists who are making printed matter? You'll also find events at some of the local institutions like Menilfest that make space for independent publishers. Houston Center for Photography, Lawndale Art center, CAMH, the Blaffer, Hirsch Library off the top of my head have hosted events, exhibitions, workshops, etc. in the last few years that benefitted independent publishers. But I don't personally know of any one institution that's playing a key role in the local zine culture.
What role does your digital and social media presence play in distributing and circulating your material?
It comes first. This is how I put most of the work out there, this is how I make it accessible to the greatest numbers, this is where it generates the most dialogue, and this is where I meet new people. The print and exhibition aspect are important to me, but they are definitely secondary to the screen. This was not a planned thing, or a particularly structured one. I've become something like a digital naïf and I'm fine with it.
What’s on the horizon for PTSS?
More pictures of course. There's plenty more of the city that I have not explored, there are specific views that I want another shot at. I am currently lining up guest editors for issues 4 through 6 of the zine; folks I trust and respect, to see the archive processed differently, and because I like collabs. I've been installing some of the images in bus shelters around the city, they are perfect guerilla galleries, they are designed to meet the audience at home, and maybe give them something physical to keep. I don't know how they go over but I'm currently rethinking the speed and scale of the bus installs: more images, more of a plan, and a tighter schedule.
This e-mail based interview with Sebastien Boncy was conducted by Philip Tomaru in July 2017.
“Hallowed”, a poster installation by Sebastien Boncy, will be on view at Practice from Aug 1-31, 2017. Practice is located at 292 E. 3rd Street in New York City’s East Village.
See Sebastien’s photography at Purple Time Space Swamp: purpletimespaceswamp.tumblr.com
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