007 / 08 August 2014 / FEATURES
The Songs In My Head That You Can't Hear
Photography by Conan Thai
In Conversation with Charlie Tatum
Conan Thai's biography claims he always chooses "D. All of the above." It's unsurprising that his photography seems to best described in a similar manner: his fashion editorials often hint at the sinister and psychological, while his use of physical space finds poetry in the mundane and abandoned. Here HEJ Curatorial co-founder, Charlie Tatum, talks with Conan on everything from the meaning of objects and utilitarianism to Tumblr.
Conan Thai: I’ve been thinking a lot about creating an object. There are different ways to approach it. You can create something that's functional. You can continue on along that path and create something that's extremely perfect, something you would consider a craft. But you can also have something that rejects its original intent, its function, and is unusable.
Charlie Tatum: —or what different types of uses might there be: an aesthetic use or a philosophical use? You just picked up this mug, and I think about this mug being somewhere between a utilitarian, utopian object—the perfect, most useful mug—and a completely unusable thing. Objects are teetering in this space. I just started taking a wheel throwing class.
C TH: A wheel throwing class?
C TA: Yeah, everything about a potter’s wheel is so engrained in technique that you have to approach it from this utilitarian side before you can expand into aesthetics. All I’ve been able to make so far are small squat cylinders.
C TH: Which is entirely fine! It's something you can use.
C TA: Even making these little cylinders takes so much patience, but it's been an interesting exercise in function and form and aesthetics, because so many people in the art world have seen ceramics as craft because it comes from a history of utilitarianism, and art has seemed to morph itself into the opposite.
C TH: Lately, we've been seeing institutions accepting ideas like the selfie. It introduces people into a setting and makes [the institution] more approachable by using something that is potentially banal.
C TA: A big question now is how to create these points of access while still protecting this aura of the artwork. Is a selfie debasing the art, or is it just a new way of interacting with it? Where did those conventions of going up to a painting and having a rapturous one-on-one experience with it come from? I'm not exactly sure how to feel about it because that's how I grew up learning to look at and to appreciate art.
C TH: These things catch our attention, and as we know more about where they came from, we know more about what they are trying to say and the larger picture.
C TA: And that's a very art historical way of looking at it. But it's so hard to isolate one object. You think about a computer screen; you're seeing so much sliding past you. It changes the way you think. You go to a painting, and then it reminds you of all these other tabs open in your mind. Or you interact with it in another way, like, “Oh, I would look great standing in front of this.” The way artworks move is a lot messier.
C TH: But do you think that's something that’s been constantly going on? It's not something that’s entirely novel to our generation. It's something much more apparent now.
C TA: Maybe it’s the culture of hyperlinking. I think this sort of messiness is something that's been continually changing but has been rapidly evolving with computer use.
Something that struck me a lot in the photographs I saw on your website was that a lot of these people are in an in-between space, somewhere between poses—the fashion pose and a more natural, real life pose.
C TH: Subject awareness to a degree.
C TA: You’ve been able to capture these models on the brink of subject awareness, intentionally or not, but I think it comes out in the forms of the people in slightly awkward or contorted poses.
C TH: I’m far from where I'd like to be in terms of my photography. I need to be more in the moment rather than coming at each set of images with a concept. For the magazine, I originally wanted to have a series of images that dealt with the idea of objectivity within certain forms and whether or not they can take on a more sinister role or become fully inert. At the time, I was thinking about this one experience when I was walking towards the Financial District, and I came across this homeless person pushing a shopping cart. He didn't catch my attention at all until he stopped at this open space in the park, went into his cart, and pulled out a baseball bat. From then on, the situation became loaded. He pointed toward the skyline, and then his baseball bat was pointed as well, and he took a couple swings. In the context of a baseball game, that's an expected action. When you take that object out of context, it takes on a more sinister role, and objects have this accumulated history. So let's take a backpack. A backpack's a backpack. It's entirely ubiquitous. You see it every day on the street, but take it into current events, like the bombing at the Boston Marathon. In this distorted fashion, it takes on a more sinister role. Give it a couple years and that's going to disintegrate.
C TA: We were talking about this idea of utilitarianism before: how do you reduce something like a backpack to a form, as opposed to something that’s loaded with personal histories, political histories?
C TH: Or if I were to shoot a plain old product in an almost e-commerce fashion, a straight-up flat shot that you can do nothing with—
C TA: —or do anything with! Like stock photography—
C TH: —an object at its innermost state—
C TA: —which is itself a form that came entirely from commerce. It’s only in that space because it's an object for sale. That photograph is your relationship with the product. Even ten years ago people were so wary of ordering things online. “Oh, I don’t know if this will fit; oh, I don’t know if this will look good on me; I don’t know if this backpack is ergonomic.” Photography is your first point of access.
C TH: What are your thoughts on fashion? Do you feel as if you're a fashion consumer? Do you go through magazines very often?
C TA: I actually use spaces like Tumblr more often. It’s a space that's much more nebulous. There are all these images gleaning past you.
C TH: You're saying that you see the images as more relatable because they are not coming from a position of higher authority?
C TA: But the images are, at some point.
C TH: But they're left out in the world for these people to pull from and add to their blog.
C TA: It at least has the illusion of a democratized form in that the person who is sharing the images, collecting the images, curating the images is often not the same person who is producing the images. Which is how people like Tavi Gevinson became so famous. A twelve year old with a blog creating her own curated content. It was so engaging because it felt like it wasn't coming from a paid position, but she's obviously paid now.
C TH: Her voice may still be authentic, but we don't know.
C TA: The whole fear when Style Rookie started gaining momentum was what if this isn't a fashionforward twelve-year-old girl? What if she—
C TH: —is masquerading—
C TA: What if Tavi is catfishing us?! I think that this question becomes moot. I don’t know if I care.
C TH: You're giving trust to anonymity because it’s something that doesn't have a background or a history.
C TA: I think it's very exciting, enthralling.