Interview: Julie Anand
Conducted February 2014
Issue No. 3 – March 2014
Julie Anand is a professor of photography at Arizona State University. An interdisciplinary thinker and desert lover, she studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology as an undergraduate before becoming smitten with photography. Having replaced the burden of proof with the celebration of subjectivity, her mixed-media and photographic artworks draws on the ecological principle of interdependency. Julie questions conventional boundaries, including the one between bodies and their environments. Her work often uses history-rich materials like wood, soil, and water to speak to the unity of things through the cycles of matter. She can be found online at 2circles.org.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: Your early educational background was in evolutionary biology and the ecological sciences. What led you to transition to the fine arts world?
JULIE ANAND: I see all my choices as being part of one circuitous, continuous stream. I have had the privilege of living a life in which I can follow my interests, and these interests flow across disciplinary boundaries. A short story version of how I came to be a working artist would go something like this: A poetry teacher in rural Virginia introduced me to metaphor when I was nine years old and it changed the way I saw the world. In natural sciences courses in high school I had two parallel threads in my notebooks—the facts the courses covered and the metaphors they raised for me. I remember learning in astronomy that the heavy elements of our bodies are formed at the centers of stars, making us all stardust. Moving art to the center of my life really meant moving closer to the poetry inside the science that I’ve always loved.
BA: One of your exhibitions, “A Peculiar Intersection of Matter and Meaning” featured a series called “Landskins,” a collection of digitally manipulated maps of New Mexico, which leave an aesthetic impression not unlike that of human skin. How has your scientific experience informed this connection between the geographic environment and the human body?
JA: The poetry teacher in Virginia once showed me where she scattered her husband’s ashes underneath a tree in her garden. It was a very real way to connect with the idea that we all become earth eventually. Many years later as an undergraduate, I researched a bivalve organism that hasn’t changed its form in millions of years so it’s called a “living fossil”. I examined growth rings, light and dark brown bands of color, by analyzing the luminance of transects drawn across many shells and found a seasonal pattern. I remember presenting this research at the Geologic Society of America— establishing the meaning of the pattern meant that fossilized bands could provide insight into climate change throughout time. This is actively practiced using tree rings as biological calendars recording environmental information. The world has constantly reminded me that our bodies keep records, are in dialog with, are formed by and eventually become our environments. Likewise, the earth looks like the palm of your hand from an airplane. The earth’s surface is subject to many of the same forces and is likewise keeping records.
BA: You’ve spoken in interviews of your fascination with photography as epistemology; the struggle, as Susan Sontag suggests, between beauty and truth-telling, the latter a legacy of the sciences. Would you say your art uses photography to question scientific knowledge, or do you use science to question the supposedly authoritative knowledge produced by photographs?
JA: I chose to relieve myself of the burden of proof opting instead for the celebration of subjectivity. I understand the scientific rigor of approaching objectivity as a practice toward saying things larger than oneself. ‘Truth’ and ‘objectivity’ are unattainable abstractions, and I bet most scientists would agree with me on that. But approaching these ideals through self-disciplined scientific method lends rigor to results that are understood to be the latest draft of what we think we know. I admire that. I simply find the total surrender to the idea that human perspective is like a hall of mirrors to be personally much more fascinating. I choose to spend my time in a world that works from the assumption that we can talk for hours about a picture before us because we don’t understand it in the same way. I think the work of challenging the authority of scientific knowledge systems and the authority of photographs is very important and Joan Fontcuberta is exemplary. But I’m not sure that I do either. Sometimes I draw out the poetry in the science, speaking through metaphor about what’s also and already ‘true’. We ARE all stardust. Learning how carbon is formed is one way to arrive at that conclusion.
BA: In a 2013 panel discussion with Ann Kinzing you speak of the sometimes dangerous limitations of verbal language. What do you mean by that? Do you believe that photography can transcend such restrictions?
JA: We were told we would have a spontaneous conversation on the meaning of the word ‘value’ for ten minutes before a public audience. They paired an artist (myself) with a scientist (Ann Kinzig). We’d never met or spoken before. I think the organizers wanted to see where the overlaps and points of divergence might be between people from different disciplines. I started out by talking about how slippery language can be since we were asked to define meaning of a word. Certainly definitions can be dangerous in very concrete ways as in the case of miscommunications whether in the kitchen or in the United Nations. Often people assume that the meanings of words are fixed and we have texts that attempt to fix them. We have no such basic reference books for defining picture meanings. It’s not that pictures are less slippery, just that we don’t assume fixity. If anything it’s the open-ended complexity of communicating through images that attract me to working with them as a language. Literature is likewise built under the assumption that there are as many reads as readers. That’s what makes communication fascinating and human. I imagine that one day we’ll have synch cords for our brains and for some people that will be a new chapter in the anthropology of art making. But that day I may hang up being an artists since I’m interested in working between the gaps of understandings.
BA: You have a longstanding collaborative relationship with fellow photographer Damon Sauer, as can be seen through a shared web portfolio at 2circles.org. How has this partnership affected your understanding of art and authorship? What benefits do you feel the collaborative process can offer that a solitary process cannot?
JA: Our first collaborative effort was curating a two-person show of work from our solo practices together for Rhode Island College in 2004. We created a catalog illuminating the intersections between our works. I had a sense that we were working on similar questions from different angles—the interconnections between things assumed discreet or fixed and the porosity of boundaries. We also both often used process as metaphor (my wet/dry cycles of print-making in Landskins mimicking the erosion forces working the earth surface; Damon’s rubbing ash into prints by hand as a memorial treatment in his Death Rubbings). Working together became an extension of our interest in negotiating boundaries and in making the process of making art central to the metaphors the work carries. We describe our relationship in terms of the Venn diagram (2 circles) wherein we use the resources of our hybrid joint combined power as well as the differences we each bring.
BA: Since 2005 you’ve served as a professor of photography at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. Do you feel being a teacher has altered your approach toward photography? In what ways have your students informed your work?
JA: I’ve worked hard to maintain the quality of foundational education in photographic tools within the excellent photography area of the School of Art while at the same time creating new opportunities for interdisciplinary cross-pollination. I developed an Experimental 16 mm Film class open to all majors and have had students documenting performance art, incorporating film into video, creating hand-painted film, textiles of film, etc…My team-taught Systems, Ecology, Art class with Professor Claudia Mesch (Art History) explores the relationship between art and environments. At the same time, my studio is at home now and I don’t have the same access to interdisciplinary tools and materials as I had as a student, so in part because of that working condition my own work has become increasingly photographic. I spend hours each week in conversation with my students sharing ideas and reflecting back to them what I hear and see. I think my own abilities and sensitivities for interpreting art have sharpened quite a bit through my work as a teacher.
BA: Speaking as an educator, what do you consider the essential texts a young photographer should read?
JA: Photo-philosophic classics like Camera Lucida (Barthes) and Ways of Seeing (Berger), a good contemporary survey like The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Cotton), a good photo history survey like A World History of Photography (Rosenblum), The Contest of Meaning (Bolton), and pepper that background with a regular dose of online reading for emerging portfolios and stories: 1000 Words Photography, Afterimage, Flak Photo, Fraction Magazine, Conscientious are a but a few…
BA: You’ve spent a significant portion of your life working and exhibiting in the Southwest. What about this landscape do find most appealing? Why is the Southwest a good place for photographers to work?
JA: I spent my first 18 years in the Southeastern US and now an equal number of years in the Southwest as an adult. I think as an eighteen year old deciding where to go to college, I was attracted to the Sonoran desert as a radically different environment from the woods and hills of Virginia and the kudzu fields of Georgia. In the desert I learned to read rocks to tell the story of a landscape and learned that the desert is full of life and full of organisms so highly adapted to the most challenging of circumstances. In part because of my knowledge of this environment, it feels like home now. But any place is a good place to make art. Being away from major art centers on the coasts has its advantages too. I’ve been grateful to have this landscape to draw from and I can stand on top of a cinder cone and become the only human being for miles.