Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Elizabeth White: The TGP Interview

Elizabeth White is a photographer-turned-video-artist who decided to investigate the world of fashion and it's influences on women by bringing her video camera into the dressing room of a clothing store. There, she filmed herself trying on dress after dress, resulting in a film that is, at times, both comedic and tragic. She shows us just how awkward and confusing it is to try to create a public appearance that is in line with the way in which we want to be perceived. We asked Elizabeth a few questions about this exciting piece:

Dressing Room © Elizabeth White

TGP: You say in your statement that, "In our culture, women in particular are held responsible for learning the language of clothing and for developing the related but separate skills of shopping and dressing. Everywhere we go, our female bodies are regularly surveyed as meaningful territory on which social status, personality, and moral character are written." Do you think that women will forever be judged by the way we look? Is this something that we can change?

EW: As far as issues of appearance go, I think we’re in a time when both men’s and women’s relationships to their bodies are changing dramatically. One the one hand, our ability to alter our bodies is expanding, and as Cara Phillips discussed in her interview, cosmetic procedures of all sorts are increasingly common. In one sense it’s a continuation and amplification of the kind of power we try to claim in the dressing room: control over how others will view us. It can feel like freedom to be able to make those kinds of choices. So, I wonder if within certain economic circles the freedom to choose how you look becomes assumed, if then appearance may a
ctually become an even more important social signifier. On the other hand, we are also living in a time where we are increasingly disembodied. We live so much of our lives online now that I’m curious whether our physical presence will actually become less important as we take opportunities to construct our identities digitally and become more invested in our online networks. I think it’s an interesting moment for these issues, to say the least, and I really look forward to seeing how younger women respond to these social changes.

TGP: What lead you to make this video? How did it come about?

EW:I had been interested in the dressing room as a meaningful space for a number of years. Largely I was drawn to it by a desire to understand my own relationship to shopping, and to clothes, and to my body. I kept thinking about what it is that happens in these small strange spaces, and recognizing that this ritual, so easily dismissed as shallow, actually holds a great deal of depth.

TGP: How was the process of making this a video different from making still photographs?

EW:When I first started this project, I began taking still photographs, first of others, and then of myself. There was something that bothered me about reducing the experience to a single frame. It replicated too closely the form of fashion photography, reducing the experience of being a woman trying on a dress to a 2 dimensional, still image of a woman IN a dress. I realized that much of what interested me was in the process, and I liked the idea of showing the work of it, of drawing attention to the time we spend doing this. Working with video was of course, very different from working with a still camera. I felt less posed and more ex-posed. Literally. When I took stills I always shot once the dress was on, but video was always recording, which meant I’d inevitably sometimes be on screen in my underwear. Though a bit intimidating at first, I really felt it was the right choice. It did bring up some funny problems though… for instance, early on I realize
d that even though I was shooting on different days, if I wanted it to run the video as a continuous piece, for consistency I’d have to always wear the same underwear! Of course video also introduces the element of sound, which in this case I think helped reinforce the atmosphere of the space. You can hear muzak coming over the store’s speakers, and there are moments when you can pick up conversations between other women in neighboring stalls.

TGP: Why did you decide to focus on yourself as the subject? Why not ask someone else to try on dresses for you?

EW: Actually, when I first started the project, I d
id take photographs of other people trying on clothes (with their permission). It didn’t work well, however for a number of reasons. First, because most stores don’t want you to take pictures, so I’d have to find a way to sneak around. Second, because it was awkward. It’s a different experience to try something on for someone else than it is to try something on in private. I wanted the focus to be on the conversations and performances we have when we are alone. Reducing it to me and my reflection seemed to increase the intimacy of the project, which is what I was going for. Merry Alpern did a project called “Shopping” where she photographed in dressing rooms using a hidden camera. I see that work in a very different way.

TGP: At times, you get stuck inside a tight dress, or you can’t figure out how it is supposed to fit, and it becomes humorous. Was this intentional?

EW: I don’t think it was intentional, but I’m glad its there. I remember on
e dress in particular, a red knit number with strange elements to it that I just didn’t know what to do with... I think its part of the truth of fashion that sometimes things that we imagine to be glamorous just end up making us feel awkward.

Reflection Stills from Dressing Room © Elizabeth White

TGP: Did you ever feel like you were acting at the time? Did you over-emphasize the difficulties, or the way you responded to a dress? Or would you say that the final piece is an accurate depiction of the way you try on clothes?

EW: I wasn’t trying to “act” necessarily but what I was doing was performance. After all, I wasn’t simply documenting accidentally, but I went in with very clear intentions, setting my camera in a particular way, always trying on th
e maximum number of dresses allowed by the store, etc. And even the dresses I chose weren’t necessarily dresses I would have wanted to buy, but it was partly about the obsessive ritual of it, the trying and trying and trying. The patterns we make with our actions. I don’t think I over emphasized my responses, but I never forgot I had a camera on me.

TGP: Let's talk about the significance of the dressing room itself. Do you think the video would have the same message if you were trying on your own dresses in your bedroom?

EW: Trying on dresses in a store and in a bedroom are a somewhat different experiences. In a store, we try on things that are on display but which we do not yet own. We are searching through possibilities and determining which items we want to incorporate into our closets. In a way, it’s a kind of “edge” to our identity, a place where we experiment and set boundaries for ourselves. We enter a dressing room to evaluate clothes on our bodies and our bodies in clothes. We experiment. We question: Do
I like the style? Does it feel like me? ..Or the me I want to be? And, does it look good on me? Does it make me look good? Do I fit into this dress? Are the arms are too tight? Can I get it over my hips? It’s a kind of judgment room. As I wrote in my statement it is a private space we enter to consider our public reception. We imagine others’ eyes upon us, thinking about our own bodies as if we were outside them. I think, especially as women, we grow up with an understanding that we will be judged on our appearance. And so we sense that there is something at stake in how we dress. So, making decisions about how we present ourselves starts to feel like power, the ability to manipulate how others will view us.

There are certain elements of this when we tr
y on clothes at home, to be sure, but the experience is more extreme in a dressing room because there’s an immediate decision to be made about whether we are going to integrate an article of clothing into our lives, invite it onto our bodies, etc. The dressing room is much more of an in-between space, a structure of uncertainty.

TGP: The dressing room is also a very private space. Can you talk a bit about what it was like for you to bring this into the public realm?

EW: I was interested in making this space of privat
e reflection public because I wanted to bring what I thought was a powerful and complicated experience into a broader conversation. I wanted to make something that asked questions about our everyday habits. When I was developing this piece, I was thinking largely about an audience of women, and how women might relate to it. Admittedly, what I did not fully consider was how men might react to it differently. Making the piece public however, meant sharing it with both men and women, and I couldn’t necessarily control how it was received.

TGP: Did you ever get caught while filming?

EW: No, I never got caught. But I was nervous about it. Especially because an acquaintance who worked as a security guard in high-end retail told me that often times the mirrors are actually one-way glass, and that its perfectly legal for a same-sex guard to watch you in the dressing room. I’m not actually sure I was even breaking any laws, but just the same, I’m glad I didn’t have to explain myself.

TGP: The store you are in is sort of a discount chain, correct? How did you select this specific store? Were issues of socio-economic class part of the decision? Do you think the video would be different if you were trying on Chanel and Prada?

EW: I did go to Prada earlier in the project, when I was shooting stills, and it was a whole different thing. Part of what I liked about working in the discount chain was the anti-glamour of it: the fluorescent lights and ugly walls, the muzak and the plastic hangers on the floor. The desperate search for beauty and glamour is made all the more apparent in an environment that lacks it. And the fact that this is a discount chain store means that the stock is
made up of leftovers and rejects from the higher-end stores. There’s something sad and yet determined about shopping there. An acknowledgement of one’s financial limitations perhaps, but also a desire to reach beyond them. At the same time, by stripping clothes from their fancy environments, these discount stores also expose the hype that creates that aura of glamour in the first place. I like that they offer an intersection of worlds and that more women might identify with this type of shopping experience than would feel at home in a luxury retail store. It was also easier to do this project with a certain level of anonymity, without a personal attendant coming to check on me. The most interaction I ever got in this store was “Put ‘em back on the hangers when you’re done ladies!”

Dressing Room © Elizabeth White

TGP: Can you tell us a bit about how you chose to present the final piece? Why in a corner? And why did you decide to split the video into two halves (the real you and the reflected you)?

EW: Ultimately, I chose to present the piece as a video installation; running two projectors into a corner of the gallery, aligning them and masking parts of the projections so that the two videos could meet. The videos were shot with two separate cameras recording simultaneously. One had been focused on me directly, and the other on my reflection in the mirror. I allowed for a slight delay between the video feeds when projected, so that what at first seemed like a seamless, natural scene, was ruptured. The videos showed me trying on dresses, one after another, in an endless loop. I think the running time was about an hour or so. In deciding how to install this work, I wanted to create a visual that seemed to be ongoing; something that a gallery visitor could look at and then walk by again later and have the sense that the “performance” was repetitive and never-ending. Showing the video in a corner felt right to me because it seemed like the projections were seeking some sort of privacy, even in the open space of the gallery. And, more metaphorically, it felt accurate to suggest: “we’re backed into a corner and this sometimes feels like the only kind of power we have”.

The split between the two videos relates to the idea that as women we grow up learning to see ourselves from the outside as well as from within our own experience. John Berger, in his often-quoted book Ways of Seeing notes that:
“To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From her earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.” (p46)

TGP: You are the woman behind the blog Hot Art Action! It’s a great resource for listings of artist lectures and other art events. There are so many of these events happening all the time! What has been the most successful/compelling lecture or panel you have been to?

EW: That’s tough. I go to so many! I really enjoyed the curator slam event at The Drawing Center in the fall, and since this is The Girl Project, I also have to mention the great symposium held at MoMA last winter call Feminist Futur
es. All the audio is available online so even if you missed it, you can download lectures as MP3s. They have tons of other great stuff on there too.

Check it out:

This past April, MoMA also did a nice panel on gender and film with Chantal Akerman, Trinh Minh-ha, and Laura Mulvey.

Another stand-out is when I went to hear Beth Campbell at the Whitney in February when she had an installation there. She and I share a lot of interests, so it was really fantastic to hear her speak and hear more about her projects.

Part of what I like about going to lectures is that I get to learn about more art and hear it discussed in different ways, and I also just like getting a sense of who various artists are as people. How do they present themselves? How do they think about their work?

TGP: At what age did you start photographing? Can you tel
l me about your first experience with a camera?

EW: My aunt and uncle gave me a camera when I was in 5th grade. They always gave the best presents! I remember how empowering it was to feel like I could make my own images, totally separate form whatever my parents were taking pictures of. I’m not saying my photographs were particularly brilliant, but the important thing for me was that they were mine. They were photographs of my life from my point o
f view. When I was in high school I started to join the photography club, but then very lamely dropped out because none of my friends were in it. So I didn’t pursue photography in any kind of serious creative way until after college. I took my first class when I was 24.

TGP: Is there one specific photograph that has always been an influence on the way you see things? Which one? Why?

EW: Since I started studying photography fairly late, I didn’t have much knowledge of photo history until I started taking classes in my 20s. That said, in high school and into college, I, like most girls I knew, was big into cutting things out of magazines and making arrangements of clippings. That process of choosing and reassembling felt like a creative act, and more than that it felt important for expressing who I felt I was. I remember one moment in college when I looked around my dorm room and realized, hmmm.. every single image on my wall is of a woman looking into the distance. That felt significant to me. And I was surprised that I had been acting out such a consistent choice without even noticing. It made me curious, about myself and about my relationship to images. I started to pay more attention to what I was drawn to, and to ask more questions about the photographs I encountered everyday in magazines and popular culture.

TGP: Do you have any advice for young girls just starting ou
t in the photography world?

EW: Pursue things that interest you, even if your friends aren’t involved. And, if you feel passionately about something, stick with it. Even if you meet with criticism, there’s a reason you feel so strongly. Listen to the questions others’ raise, but keep exploring until it all clicks.

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