Interview – Carmen Winant

Carmen Winant, My Birth, (Self Publish Be Happy & ITI Press, 2018)

Exhaustion, long distance runners, body language, pain, words, birth, found images, text, books, being an artist in the world are some of the topics I discussed with Carmen Winant.

Winant is an artist, writer and educator based in Columbus (Ohio, USA). Winant graduated from UCLA and is an alumni from Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, she currently teaches at Columbus College of Art and Design.

Her work has been exhibited at MoMA, Sculpture Center, Columbus Museum of Art, Kate Werble Gallery, and Wexner Center for the Arts, among others. In 2018, she published her monograph, My Birth, with SPBH Editions and ImageText Ithaca.

Carmen, when did you start your artistic practice and relationship with image making?

I started making my own pictures in earnest during college. I studied art at UCLA; I landed there because I was an athlete, actually, a long distance runner and happened into the art program. I’d worked in drawing for most of my life until that point; the moment that I started to make pictures was when I entered Cathy Opie’s class. Along with Larry Sultan, whom I worked with in grad school, Cathy changed my life. Through the rigour and generosity of her teaching, and proximity to her work, I sort of became convinced by pictures and left drawing behind.

I made my own images for years on a Hasselblad, which I snuck with me to every race, against my coaches’ wishes. I started by making pictures of my teammates (their bodies, their rituals) and then eventually started shooting my own. The first good pictures I made were of myself, on a large format camera; they were of my chest, scratched and red from the show. I still have them, actually; a few are hanging in my studio now.

Being: New Photography 2018

When you mentioned Opie’s connection with your development as an image maker and your pictures of your scratched and red chest, I can’t help but think of Opie’s self-portraits e.g. Self-Portrait/Cutting. How necessary and important was the relationship between your athletic and artistic practice in terms of exploring the representation of the body?

That connection between athletic and artistic practices is at the centre of my efforts. My history as a long distance runner isn’t always visible on the surface of the work, but it is everywhere, underneath; my interest is in the boundaries of the body, in its capabilities, its breakdowns, its ecstatic moments.

I lived through my body in this way for a long time. Even the way I work in the studio reflects this understanding; a muscle memory, for example, everything is done to the point of exhaustion with an emphasis on repetition and endlessness. I use images to try and describe the feeling of inside-ness, which is, of course, impossible.

I’m actually working on a book about this very thing; practice, or, the relationship between creative and athletic practices, lives, and strategies. In essence, it argues that ‘practice’, a term used but often disliked by artists, can find a corollary not only in the world of professional practice (doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc.) but also in athletic practice; a world rife with boredom, rehearsal, and endless failure as a condition of strength-building. So my research at the moment has me thinking about this quite a lot.

Boundaries of the body in relation to athletic practice, exhaustion and repetition takes me directly to the idea of verbal or non-verbal language of the body. Kathy Acker in Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body says: “When I reduce verbal language to minimal meaning, to repetition, I close the body’s outer window. Meaning approaches breath as I bodybuilder, as I begin to move through the body’s labyrinths, to meet, if only for a second, that which my consciousness ordinarily cannot see”.

How is your muscle memory working as a mechanism of repetition and exhaustion, to activate a process of verbal or non-verbal body language in the production of your work?

That is a text I am very close to—I am so happy you brought it up. It offered to me that rare experience; I am sure everyone knows this feeling, of reading something that you know closely but could never name. Much of Acker’s text is dedicated to this very idea that you propose in your question: that certain experiences live inside of our bodies, and fundamentally outside of language. She describes her daily encounters with weightlifting as having their own kind of manifest intelligence, even if it looks rather brute and un-intellectual to an outsider. I really identify with this; my years of long distance running offered me a way to come in contact with my insides… to know my body (and hurt my body) in order to potentialize it. I remain very interested in this idea in my work—a kind of embodied knowledge. It comes out in some more obvious ways—the subject matter I pursue—and some less obvious ways (namely, how I work in the studio).

Carmen Winant, My Birth, (Self Publish Be Happy & ITI Press, 2018)

Your answer kept me thinking about your book My Birth published by SPBH Editions and Image Text Ithaca. I find in your words: “…certain experiences live inside of our bodies, and outside of language”, a strong analogy between pregnancy and your past as a long distance runner in terms of experiencing those limits of the body. Tell us more about the gestation of this work.

It’s funny, I thought in some ways that my life and training as a long distance runner would prepare me for pregnancy and especially birth. I know how to manage pain, you know? I know how to absorb it, to use it, to pace it, to understand its rewards. But of course nothing prepares you. No amount of training (be it in a birth class or physical conditioning) can anticipate that kind of taking over.

In some sense, my training as a runner has helped me learn how to manage a life, not an event; I am extremely patient and rather even with my children—the day in, day out of it—as well as with the building of my creative practice. That is not to say I don’t get frustrated; I do, and often. But I have a deeper feeling that it takes time to build out strength and knowing. I understand how to overcome injury. I can gauge the limits of my body, which are farther out than we think.

Seeing the publication and the installation of My Birth in the show New Photography 2018 at MoMA, makes me think about the parallels you draw between the disposition of the images on the wall and the layout of the book. What came first; the installation or the publication? Is it something that happened organically while working on it? What decisions made you translate the display of the project into the layout of the book?

It’s a great question. They are, ultimately, two parts of a single effort, one project across multiple chapters. I conceived the idea for the book in the middle of the installation collection process, some months in, so in some sense, they ran parallel (the book was printed to be concurrent with the show; two protracted processes that were basically realized at the same moment). I think I had a sense, as I was amassing the many, many images that would populate the installation, that I needed a counterpoint—something more restrained, something more personal.

A selection of photographs of a pregnant woman.
Carmen Winant, My Birth, (Self Publish Be Happy, 2018)

We talked about the images as a leading part of the core in the project My Birth. However, in my opinion, the text is the strongest component of this project. Once you read it, the images become part of a personal and intimate experience as well as a universal vehicle of non-verbal language. All is activated because of your writing. How necessary was this connection for you?

I wrote that text before I started putting the book together. Actually, I had a clear understanding of how I wanted the writing to function; it needed to be a set of instructions, a proposal, a new application of language. I wanted to try and account for my own feelings of birth, to reach, to describe it through my own words and other people’s, and to fail. I wanted to use it to account for the way that time can collapse into itself. In this way, it actually served a similar end as the images. They needed to feel close, you know? To do some of the same work.

I’ve written for a long time but often struggled with how to massage language into the work, of how to connect it with images as even and equal content. To resist its capacity to ‘illustrate’ and ‘describe’. This project was the first time that happened for me.

Over the past decades, text has become essential for a lot of artists who wanted to activate their images to a new level of meaning, breaking the conception of a caption for their own photographs. You’ve previously mentioned that one of your upcoming projects is a full-length book of text. Can you explain a bit more about it? Are you considering to include images?

Oh, well, this is a different kind of project! That is a book of text that I have been working on for years. It is, as I mentioned briefly before about the nature of practice, a word we use so often as artists. There will be some images in that book, but only a limited few. I’m in the midst of it, so it is yet unclear how and where it will resolve.

Perhaps a better example would be a project I am working on right now with CONTACT Photography festival in Toronto. I am doing a series of twenty-six billboards across Canada. Each will picture a tight crop of language written on signs—signs of protest and communion, written by women—across these twenty-foot billboards. My last book, My Birth, really gave me the confidence in this way to work with text as content in its own right, as meaningful and easy to dislodge. Even if not my own text, these are all sourced from found images.

In your daily practice when working in the studio, how much time do you allocate between your writing and image making, in terms of production and research?

It varies and flip-flops. Before having children—you can probably relate to this, Pablo—I spent quite a lot of time in the studio, and writing was reserved for stretches in which I needed a break from using my hands and eyes in a certain way; it was a respite. Now that equation has inverted. Because my kids (who are 1 and 3 years old) are pretty consuming, I tend to not have the energy to work in the studio in the evenings. My relationship to writing as an experimental and rigorous form; something that need not always be a known quantity; has shifted. Now, out of necessity, perhaps, it is where I locate practice.

Carmen Winant, My Birth, (Self Publish Be Happy & ITI Press, 2018)

I know you have been teaching for several years in different programs and levels across the US. I imagine you encountered multiple types of students, and that has also reshaped you as an artist and educator. If you have to give a piece of advice to recent graduates that want to pursue their careers as young artists, what would you say to them?

I’m in my sixth year of teaching full time. I find it to be everything: rewarding, effecting, exhausting, moving (on the best days). The most formative mentors in my own life were those who demonstrated a vulnerability in their teaching, and curiosity. I try to model this in my own work, to show an understanding that vulnerability and rigor are informative and not oppositional.

As for being an artist, of course, there is no single formula. I suppose the most important thing for me is the need for community; for generosity between artists. More than studio visits with fancy curators, more than working in art-related jobs, it has been a community of friends and allies that has challenged my work, introduced me to curious people, and helped to prop me up. And I work really hard to do the same. If we are all just looking over one another’s shoulders at openings for someone we ‘should be’ talking to, we never establish real connections, you know? We need enter our relationships with no agenda other than curiosity, depth, and kindness.

Finally, I might add: I also emphasize the value of decentralization. We don’t all need to move to just three cities! I wasn’t able to get the chance to make work I cared about until I moved away to Ohio—where I could have space, resources, and time to actually make it.