An Interview with Terri Warpinski on Surface Tension
"I have known Terri Warpinski for years as part of my participation in Society for Photographic Education's National Conference. On Sunday morning of this year's conference, when the event was waning and most photographers were in standing in the checkout line and saying their last goodbyes in the grand lobby of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, I bumped in to photographers Margaret Stratton and Terri Warpinski. After my impromptu review with Stratton on her new project on Vietnam, Warpinski opened her portfolio to reveal an image filled with crosses. With the theme of faith on my mind for this issue, I was initially drawn to the work. In the interview below, Warpinski and I discuss some of the topics of this meeting and expand on her thoughts for the project Surface Tension." -- Melanie McWhorter
Surface Tension/US-‐Mexico: Juarez Crossing, copyright Terri Warpinski
Melanie McWhorter: In our conversation at the impromptu portfolio review at SPE, you mentioned the idea of personal responsibility relating to US national policies on the border with the US and Mexico and in the Middle East yet this is not directly addressed in your artist statement. Will you discuss this idea and your thoughts on your role in the separation in two very different regions?
Terri Warpinski: Your question points directly at my need to understand my relationship to the work I create. What is my authority to speak to the content I am conveying? How is this my issue? The day I recognized my complicity, in a sense, the moment I ‘awakened’ to see that although these two places are geographically distant they are united in suffering the effects of policies either put into place or supported by the government that represents me. Therefore, I am a participant in the circumstances allow these situations to occur.
On the role of separation, my thoughts are many, so here is an abbreviated response. I mention the issue of security in the artist statement for Surface Tension. We see this language used in the media time and again. Whether it is securing our own borders, or the assuring the safety of the Jewish settlers within the Palestinian territories it is a notion presented in such a way that is easy to accept, or, at least, difficult to question. The matter of security and safety is addressed in the US constitution. But, so too is freedom and justice. In my work I see these ideas all tangled up in the wire, concrete and steel.
Surface Tension/US-‐Mexico: Las cruces y Milagros, I, copyright Terri Wapinski
Surface Tension/US-‐Mexico: East of Naco [as far as the eye can see], copyright Terri Warpinski
MM: What was your previous project in Mexico and has this project ceased or continued with the new work?
TW: Starting in 1996 I embarked on a collaboration with artist and writer Natalie Sudman The project was based in the Pinacate Desert, part of the Gran Desierto of Sonora, Mexico. This is a roughly 600 square mile geologically unique area that has been the home of many peoples: the San Dieguito were the earliest known inhabitants; followed by the Amargosans, the most likely ancestors of the Pima and O’odham of historic times; the first Europeans arrived in the 1500’s looking for a passage to the Pacific Ocean; and then at end of the 17th century Jesuit missionaries came introducing Christianity and an agrarian lifestyle. These many layers of human activity etched their mark on the surface of this landscape and many remain reasonably intact to the present day. Over the four years that I worked in this area I witnessed the noticeable degradation of the Pinacate’s rich cultural resources, caused in part by an increase in recreational activity. The project was first inspired by the Salt Trail that leads through the Pinacate from the Gulf of California across the US-Mexico border and into the Barry S. Goldwater Range. However, early on in our research we became fascinated by the story of the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino as told through his historical memoir (handwritten between 1687-1711, translated and published in 1911). This led us to follow the trail of missions he established. We concluded our collaboration on the Pinacate-based project in 1999. My interest in the area continues and, in part, this is what led to my return to the area in 2009. It is also one of the reasons it has taken me more than two years to produce the work I began in 2009. My expectations and intentions yielded to a very different experience, to one that reflects the present rather than the historic landscape, and the photographs that speak to that experience.
SurfaceTension/Israel-‐Occupied PalestinianTerritories: Getting to Al Quds [around,through,within], copyright Terri Warpinski
MM: You received a Fulbright for your travels to the Middle East. What was your original concept for the project there?
TW: I was drawn to apply for a Fulbright (2000-2001) to the Middle East, and to Israel in particular because its landscape reveals both an established place and a dynamic process (just how ‘dynamic’ that process proved to be was not forecasted in the proposal I crafted in the summer of 1999). Operating from a base in the Arava Desert, my plan was to address the landscape as spiritual geography -- as a palimpsest inscribed with the traces of human activity related to the three major religions that, to this day, at least ideologically, share it as their birthplace and sacred ground.
Surface Tension/Israel-‐Occupied Palestinian Territories: Ramallah [tomb], copyright Terri Warpinski
MM: When you were in Tel Aviv, how did the 2nd Intifada affect your work and travel? Did you feel there was a threat to your safety? Did this conflict and your presence there change your opinion of the region, its policies or peoples?
TW: The outbreak of the 2nd Intifada occurred in the last days of September 2000. I was scheduled to arrive in the region in early October. Initially it was quite difficult to discern if I should cancel the trip entirely, postpone for a bit, or proceed as though it was not of concern. The U.S. State Department was at the center of communications for the Fulbright program, and although there were travel advisories issued to tourists, they recommended that individual Fulbrighters should stay in place if they were already there, and continue with travel plans if they were not. This recommendation came along with words that said something to the effect ‘ it is important, now more than ever, that these sorts of positive activities continue as they promote peace and cooperation’. So I went. What I learned quickly was that it is not possible to understand from afar what a day-to-day existence is like in such conditions. What can be read in the newspapers or is seen on television is generally from a very particular vantage point – it is highly selective. Oddly, it seems to both create and support the mainstream views of America. The conditions that led to the uprising and to the long-term repercussions were both palpable. Yet, curiously, it was entirely possible to insulate oneself from that reality. In parts of Israel it was ‘business as usual’ and everyone seemed unconcerned. In other places or at other times, one could feel under siege, everything would become, or at least appeared to be, chaotic. The continuous presence of military personnel set me on edge and kept me there, until I became accustomed to it. Driving behind an open-air military jeep with a gunman poised in the rear with an armed machine gun on sniper patrol can do that to you. Having lunch in a village park while a dozen Israeli soldiers play soccer with their guns slung across their backs is hard to understand as normal but eventually you hardly take notice. Being turned away from any road that led into a Palestinian community with no explanation can and did affect my plans. It was difficult, if not impossible, to get clear and accurate information about almost anything that had to with the Palestinians. When I conceived of the project for my Fulbright proposal there were no indications that I would encounter any of this, nor that it would be impossible to visit certain sites, such as Al Aqsa Mosque (Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock). Ariel Sharon’s action on September 28th and the Palestinian reaction on the 29th certainly changed all that and much, much more.
Surely I have been changed by the experience. And so was anyone who visited me. For example my parents joined me for two weeks and the effect on them was profound. They arrived fully charged with the fears and biases that so many harbor. They once had strong (and in their minds clear) ideas about who is right and who has been wronged. They quickly came to see that the entire situation and any of its theorized solutions are impossibly complicated. Imagine their surprise to meet the Christian Palestinians? And by the way, why don’t we hear of the Bedouin? And most potently, to see first hand that an extremist is just that. Extreme. Not at the center, not of masses, but on the far edge. Extreme. To let fear give way, to see that Arabs are as complex and diverse as any people.
Surface Tension/US-‐Mexico: Surveillance [ above and below], copyright Terri Warpinski
Surface Tension/Israel-‐Occupied Palestinian Territories: (Biet Jala, Settlers and Refugees), copyright Terri Warpinski
MM: What are the similarities and differences you noticed in the areas which were divided by the walls before and after the presence of their respective physical barriers?
TW: The most similar aspect of these two places of division is the severe hardship that is realized by one side with the benefits being realized only by the other - the families that are divided, the loss of land, loss of homes, and loss of access to work. These political boundaries, whether historic or modern, are largely arbitrary. There are places where the U.S. fence courses through tribal land that straddles the divide; where family graveyards are on one side, and the living relatives are on the other; where wage earners are separated from jobs they have fulfilled in many cases for generations. Similar conditions exist for the Palestinian population, and some that are far worse. In Palestine, the fence or wall (but mostly it is a wall) meanders deep inside the line on the map that designates the official boundary of the territory. Often it is devised to carve out the major roadways and watersheds - making life within even more difficult. And then the jurisdiction over the territory is still not easily understood, as over 60% of the land inside the wall is still subject to Israeli military authority, hence the word “occupied” used to qualify the Palestinian territories.
Ultimately, it was returning to both of these locations, to see the ‘before and after’, that has most affected me.
MM: Why choose to group your images in diptychs and triptychs? What sort of dialogue are you attempting to create with the images?
TW: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve grappled with this work for a couple of years. First I was intent upon continuing to work with purely black and white imagery – my habitual response. But I found myself unable to put aside the color work. These were the images I thought of as my tests and ‘note-taking’ while traveling. I made some initial attempts to incorporate color and monochrome photographs into a series, but it wasn’t resolving anything, instead it made it complicated (and not in the good way). Once I let go of that idea…and let go of the black and white work, I suddenly saw the thousands of color images I made quite differently. I became interested in them for their documentary qualities, for the archive they form, and the stories they reveal. At the time I began in earnest to edit the color work I was participating in a month long residency program called Playa in central Oregon. There, through deep and long conversations with my fellow fellows – the writers, scientists and artists also in the program - I came to see that forging direct connections between pictures was a useful strategy. It asserts relationships between images, both formal and conceptual, that combine to engage the viewer with the content in a manner that is more expansive and layered than I can achieve with a single frame. In the sequences I build I am interested in overarching concepts that occur through the accumulative reading of the images, but resist the tendency to follow any straight forward narrative structure. In each assembly there is a trigger, or, as Roland Barthes’ defines it, a punctum, that emanates from certain individual frames that become key images which invite or invoke the neighboring images. It may be a gesture that echoes in variation between the frames, it may be a color, or a specific object – whatever it is, it is unique to that particular construction of images.
Surface Tension/US-‐Mexico: Barbed Wire [red flags], 2012, copyright Terri Warpinski
Surface Tension/Israel-‐Occupied Palestinian Territories: Hebron Market, copyright Terri Warpinski
MM: Have you considered grouping the images from two different geographical areas together? Why or why not? Where do you see this project heading in the future? Do you feel it is complete or do you foresee it continuing and how?
TW: In 2009, the year I realized I must return to the Middle East to see what had come to pass with the separation barrier, the 20th Anniversary of the felling of the Berlin Wall was also being commemorated. I found that to be striking. That wall went up. That wall came down. And, since then, effectively, two more walls have been put into place. Would I live to see those walls come down too? So, not only have I considered grouping images from the US-Mexico border with images of the separation wall between Israel and Palestine, I have also considered incorporating images of the ruins of the Berlin Wall. I did spend a week photographing in Berlin in 2010, before flying on to Tel Aviv.
I feel as though I am in the midst of this work and not facing its completion. There is enough substance to it at this point so that it is a point where it can be shown, while at the same time my desire to return to both regions to continue the project is bordering on an obsession. In part, this is owing to my late-breaking epiphanies; I can work in color, and I can do work that derives from a documentary approach. So, to return with a newfound sense of clarity about what the work is, and what I am doing with it is compelling. Continuing to develop the parallels within the work rather than conflating them, and to more fully articulate the distinctions between the two are two concerns I have going forward. I do still imagine the ways in which other places - whether Berlin, or Belfast, or another - might add depth to the work. Or it might just make it more complicated, and not in the good way. And then there is the book…
Terri Warpinski has been a professor of photography at the University of Oregon since 1984. Her B.A. degree is from the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, and she holds an M.A. and M.F.A from the University of Iowa. Her work is widely exhibited in galleries, institutions, and international festivals including such venues as the Pingyao International Festival of Photography in China; the US Embassy in Jerusalem; Houston International Fotofest; the Oregon Biennial at Portland Art Museum; Center for Photography at Woodstock; and the University of the Arts Philadelphia. Warpinski served two terms as Chair of the national board of directors (2000-2008) for the Society for Photographic Education, held a residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar to Israel 2000- 2001. She is included in many permanent collections, has had numerous works commissioned or acquired through for Public Art Program, including a recently installed piece in the new Ford Alumni Center on the UO campus.
View more of Warpinski's Surface Tension below or visit her website terriwarpinski.com.