Interview – Kate Levy
I remember the first time I saw one of Kates’ family photographs. It was the one where her sister Allie sits on a couch between their two dogs, which are fiercely barking at each other. In the background are Kate’s parents — they look distracted, with their eyes almost closed. I remember I could almost hear the noise the two dogs were making and the echo of that sound reverberating in the big room. I wasn’t sure whether I was afraid of these dogs or not, and it would be just later on that I would realize how common that feeling was every time I looked at Kates’ work: to be unsure, confused but also comfortable to find yourself in that space. The violence of the animals’ interaction is almost annihilated by the sweetness in Allie’s expression and this tension between violence and an inherent affection is always present in Kate’s photographs. I guess this is inevitable when your work is about your family but also about the role this type of family has (and used to have) in the affirmation of a system reflecting that particular 1% of American population. And it’s symbolic and very meaningful that the city Kate grew up in was Detroit, a place that ironically and sadly becomes the metaphor of a sick and corrupt administration of wealth and power. Money, race and family are issues that are very hard to avoid when your work is about today’s America, and it’s refreshing to see how clever Kate is in dealing with such oversaturated realities. Her work developed over the years and kept on changing, constantly (in terms of medium and aesthetic). Just one thing is always present, and that is Kate’s obsession with taking pictures of her grandmother, who becomes the symbol of her political fights and the embodiment of the tension between love and hate, at the same time a timeless contention and the core of many contemporary debates — both artistic and political.
Hi Kate. In this interview I would like to focus on your ‘family’ images and ask you some questions about the relationship you have with them and the role your hometown (Detroit) plays in your creative process. Why don’t you start by introducing your family? Who are they?
I am half jewish, but raised as secular on both sides. My jewish grandfather built a substantial living, that is, enough to take care of and help the careers of 5 grandchildren who are artists and teachers, with relatively little income. He was an industrial auctioneer, as was his father, but my grandfather, Norman, was the one who started Norman Levy Associates, an industrial auction and appraisal company in Detroit. The business would liquidate assets of factories and mom and pop retail shops. The businesses would need this service for a variety of reasons—retooling, going out of business, divesting from a certain industry, in need of cash, etc etc. This is interesting to me because we moved from Detroit to the suburbs (along with the majority of other whites) right when my grandfather started liquidating for larger corporations. And as most are aware, the flight of manufacturing from Detroit was the first of many flights of manufacturing, and has a lasting effect on the landscape today. I never met my grandfather. He died when I was in utero.
My grandfather also started collecting art with my grandmother. I can’t help but think that’s a reason why I became an artist; while we were not religious, my parents and grandmother instilled in me nearly as extremely as religion that I am an individual and I should do good, but do what makes me happy. They stressed individual merit as the sole foundation for any future success. Artistic talent was considered an example of this type of mentality.
When did you start taking pictures of them? Do you remember the first image you took of them?
I started taking pictures of my family when I was 14. I took a photograph of my great grandfather on my mom’s side in a rocking chair—it was a hero type of shot—with his wrinkled hands resting on the arms of the chair, his face in focus—with enough detail in the pants and shoes and mantle behind him. My grandfather was a tool and die maker in the type of factory that my paternal grandfather would sell off. I was in high school, making black and white pictures in the darkroom, as many high schoolers did. But that was it.
Your family sounds fascinating and it’s interesting how you describe and look at them with critical eyes. Your photographs are both a vivid representation of your family members and at a political revelation. It seems that taking pictures becomes for you an indispensable act of stepping back and seeing yourself and your surroundings more objectively. Have you always considered the work you make as ‘political’ or is this something that has grown slowly into your practice?
In fact my work has not been overtly political, but, as a person who thinks structurally about my surrounds, by living in Detroit I have become acutely aware of the role my family (as most families have) played in regional racial segregation. My personal neuroses and emotions feel of much less importance when you are living in a place where the suffering of others is overt, and your own fated fortune is even more explicit. When I was in graduate school my work was ‘political’ in the sense that it was responding to a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the world, but I turned inward, rather than to analysing power structures and the people who participate in these structures.
In graduate school, I literally engaged the process of creation and destruction on a much more material level. In NYC, I wasn’t living amidst the extreme polarisation of wealth and poverty that sculpted my neuroses from my childhood onward. I was insulated in graduate school, not required to look at the extreme wealth that fostered my ability to be an artist. Now I am seeing this contrast daily, so I don’t feel the need to physically destroy myself and my work as part of the process. Now, making work has to do with a different type of destruction—articulating and dismantling the narratives of the environment in which I was raised. This practice includes looking at my family, but it also means dissecting the political forces of the region (that my family is part of) and amplifying the voices of those with the most complex, and first-hand understanding of power in the region.
The images of your grandmother are the most powerful. There is something in her sight that makes her very much human and calm. Clearly she is the muse of your art and the person around whom your conceptual ideas gravitate. I think that the power of your images lies in the fact that within most of them you successfully balance some intimate and innate love you feel towards the people depicted and at the same time a feeling of not belonging there or not agreeing with that specific history. But you can’t do that much to change the past, can you? Is that why your work is moving into a more political space? And would you tell me a little more about your grandma and the inspirational role she has had?
I couldn’t agree more with you, and in the manuscript I presented for my recent show, I articulate this through my grandmother’s words, when she talks about the simultaneous feeling of love and hate. But for me, this feeling is just an allegory for a larger problem— being dependent on the short term gains of a system to the expense of its long-term harms. In Detroit, strong activists balance empathy for the fact that pensioners have worked their entire lives for a system that ends up failing them, and the analysis that corporate use of pensions has long been a way to eschew worker ownership and union bargaining. Pensions also buy into damaging private equity firms. We are all complicit on some level, and if I had been like my grandmother, and said, “I can’t change the world, so I am just going to try to escape it through art and familial love,” I wouldn’t be doing the work I am doing. In a lot of ways, I resent my grandmother because there is nothing she is more protective over than her family, and it’s the notion that one must ‘feed the family’, that enables people to contribute to a system that pits people against one another. Yet of course, my work is directly fuelled by the decisions she has made.
I used to be inspired by my grandmother because I felt her poetic nature and free-spiritedness was admirable. Now I see this as a form of apolitical escapism. This in itself inspires me because I feel that too often, that is the expectation of the artist in society–to be apolitical and free, rather than political and self-contextualising.
Your family becomes everyone’s family and Detroit is everyone’s city. They are examples of how problematic and corrupt our system is. They become in a way a metaphor of american life and that american dream that once was at the centre of a prosperous photographic tradition is now re-proposed in your images through a dark and pessimistic lens. It’s as if you didn’t believe in redemption. Do you think that your generation, our generation, is dealing with issues such as money, race, family and commerce — backbone of the US national identity — in a different way or are we going to be trapped in the same system that your parents and grandparents found themselves in?
My family is not everyone’s family—they have far more resources than 99% of families in the US. They are better equipped to navigate the system you speak of. My question is, then, what is the nature of a belief set that enables ‘well-intentioned’ families who benefit from this system (the number of families who benefit, of course, becoming less and less), to keep buying into that system? At what point does the belief set blind people to the fact that the benefit is outweighed by the cost? I think it’s clear to many activists and thinkers at this point understand that racial and economic segregation keeps those who benefit from understanding the experiences of those who don’t, and vice versa.
And of course, the notion of ‘benefitting’ is wrapped up in what we think is supposed to feel good. But, as a good friend has said to me, ‘wealth is traumatic, too’, It’s our definition of trauma that is warped. Not to sound as though I see people with power as victims in the same way that I see people with relatively less power. I think that people with more resources ultimately have more control, and are primed to change the system — but don’t because a key element of being comfortable is the belief that the system that helps us can help anyone if that person is willing.
This series is also about history and generational gaps. You point your camera back to the past (your grandma, your parents) and in doing so you are trying to understand the present. I wonder if this is somehow therapeutic for you and helped you to come up with answers for some of your questions.
The series is about generational gaps, but it is also about gaps in value systems. Both my grandmother and father hold dear the belief that the way to make money is to work for it. Because I am second generation wealthy, I have been able to pursue a liberal arts education and a documentary practice that taught me how to analyse structures. Simply put, I used my resources to learn about the world, not to make more money. This is the generation gap. The value gap is that during this education and time spent making documentary (about things other than my family), I learned that it is not always those who work the hardest who make the most money. This belief contrasts with my family’s and that is why I make pictures of them–to show them this. In the picture making process, the therapeutic part is me trying to understand the relationship between how much I love my family (because I do feel intensely attached to them), and how much I disdain their values.
Detroit is a symbolic city. It became a dystopia-place and sadly the result of bad administration and corruption. Why did you decide to move back there? If you had to describe the city and its history in the past years to someone who didn’t know anything about it, how would you do so?
I have a lot of hope—as I am sure many people in generations past did—that our generation will begin to see through and create an alternative to a system of capitalism, sexism, racism and imperialism (environmental imperialism, and neocolonial imperialism in this era), as well as our basic belief that financial markets are natural, and not constructed by humans in power. Living in Detroit reinforces this for me. Right now, we are engaged in a struggle to make sure that people who have political power in Detroit don’t make the same mistakes for short-term gain. That is a real struggle because the foundation-backed ‘renegades’ and ‘radicals’ are actually repeating the same patterns of subsidizing stadia and attempting to create housing markets in the ways that failed policy makers did in the past.
The thing that I think is most important to understand about Detroit is that it was not city elected officials who took Detroit down—down, as in completely inoperable as a contender in this current race where governments compete to be the most ‘business friendly’ (i.e. to take scraps from corporations who headquarter there, offer next to no jobs, and extract resources from the space that the government is supposed to protect.) What took Detroit down (in that sense), was decades of corporate, state and federal disinvestment, municipal bond redlining practices, austerity cuts, and a series of foreclosure and eviction crises that decimated the city’s tax base. How the elected officials responded ranged from desperate measures to fraud, but pale in comparison to the fraud committed during the 08 financial crisis by those with the most power—the directors of banks.
Your work is at a verge between visual art, journalism and activism. I can tell that researching takes a lot of time in your creative process. In your practice you also mix medium that come from different areas — video interview, appropriation, audio etc. I am fascinated by this multi-cohesion of materials and backwoods. How would you describe your creative process? How do you decide to start a new work?
I think you described my creative process quite well. I decide to start a new work these days when it is necessary—I.e. when I find or record something that I know is a lie, or deserves context that has been omitted.
What are you working on these days? Do you have any projects coming up?
Right now, I am working on several short documentaries for the ACLU of Michigan, about the flaws of Emergency Management in Michigan. I am also working on a project about the Detroit water shutoffs, by synthesizing data and video work. I am working on an interactive map about people who have managed to keep their homes through various waves of bank and tax foreclosures. This will be live in a few weeks, but you can see some of the videos here. I am also working on a project with some people at U of M and Wayne State through this organization called the Leonard Kaplan Education Collaborative, that maps school policy changes on top of other data about water shutoffs and home foreclosures, and training youth to document personal stories, school changes, community organizing and home foreclosures in their communities. The beginning of the film part of this project can be seen here. The mapping project will be finished in about a year – we are just beginning the grant writing process. Finally, I am working on turning my most recent installation, The Fate of the Machinery, into a sort of ancestry.com for deindustrializaiton where people can add their stories about the now closed businesses I found in the industrial auction ads that my family business published every Sunday. Accompanying this is a video interview series with young white people who have moved to Detroit, who are attempting to dismantle decades of implicit racism in their families and themselves. This last project is ongoing, and gonna take a while.
Interview by Alessandro Teoldi / Published 4 November 2015