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Introduction by Alexander Uhr
Interview with Marcella Beccaria

Peter Garfield interviewed by Marcella Beccaria

at his Brooklyn studio on October 16, 1997
Marcella Beccaria is a writer and curator based in Milan

MB: Having seen your “Mobile Home” photographs, I’m curious about how you make them.
PG: That’s something I’ve been reluctant to go into.  I’ve never intended the process to be a concern for the viewer.  When I look at art myself, I ask why something was done, not so much how.  And I assumed that was the way others would respond to my images.  So I was a little surprised when people started asking me, “How do you make those houses fly?”

MB: It’s a logical question, isn’t it?
PG: Perhaps, but I still have trouble with it.  I’m a lot happier when people react to the actual image.  One day I was at the lab printing, and this kid with a skateboard stopped in front of my picture.  He just stared at it, and then he said, “Wow, that’s so radical!”  He was really blown away.  And I was blown away by that.

MB: I don’t blame you.  Can you describe what it really entails, dropping a house out of the sky?
PG: It’s actually pretty straightforward.  A question of coordinating different teams of people — consulting with engineers during the planning stages, then the construction contractors, the helicopter and crane operators, and the clean-up crew.  That kind of thing.

MB: Where do you get the houses?
PG: You’d be surprised how easy it is, actually.  I get most of the houses from big commercial and industrial projects.  Whenever a mall or a new highway interchange, some big public project like that is in the works, it often means some old residential neighborhood has to go.  Take “Split-Level.”  That house was from a site in Babylon, on Long Island, just off the Sunrise Highway.  They were taking it out to put in a new car-wash and mini-mall.  But I didn’t like the congested background, I wanted trees.  So we dropped it on a field nearby.

MB: Judging from the series, you’ve been doing house-drops all over the country.
PG: Well, I want the series to have a universal appeal, so I’ve tried for a real variety of regions and climate zones, and different types of houses — ranches, colonials, split-levels.  That’s where it gets difficult, because most of the houses I find are pretty boring.  I often end up repainting them and doing a lot of carpentry touch-ups.

MB: Sounds like quite a labor-intensive production.
PG: Yes, and it’s the elaborate preparation which interests me.  I really like the idea of this uselessly massive effort which you don’t even see in the final photographs.

MB: But I’m fascinated by the details, such as the actual release of the house.
PG: That phase is an interesting problem.  It has to be done in such a way that the house is freed on all sides simultaneously, so it doesn’t roll as it falls.  We tried different techniques, and we finally chose two methods.  One’s a rip-cord system based on military parachute technology, and the other involves small remote-controlled explosive devices which break the harness at precise points.  It’s a simple concept, but a lot of math and physics goes into the preparation.  I worked out those details with a couple of engineers.  I really enjoyed that part.

MB: Doesn’t it seem wasteful in some way, going to so much trouble when you don’t intend to include the production as part of the artwork?
PG: I don’t consider the production as a vital element in the public’s experience of the actual photographs.  Something about the arbitrariness of excluding the process appeals to me, and anyway, omitting the process is essential to the way the photographs are experienced.  If that element of omission isn’t present, at least covertly, I don’t think the work would resonate in the way I want.  Ultimately what counts is for the viewer to be engaged with the suspension in the final image.  It gives people less distractions or less options.  Spared all the technical baggage, it becomes this solitary relationship between the viewer and the incongruous event.  I guess I’ve always been most affected by art that’s about what’s not there.

MB: Yes, but how much control can you exert over how your work is received?
PG: I never have complete control, of course, but it often boils down to simple practical decisions, avoiding the temptation to show too much.  There’s one image, “Brainstorm,” with a man in it in the foreground, and there were some great details that I cropped out.  I hated to do it, but it couldn’t be avoided.  Your overall vision has to dictate what you give to the viewer.  Sometimes you just have to be a bit merciless.

MB: I sense a certain menace to your work.  Did you have a happy childhood.
PG: Yes, absolutely.  The suburbs really were pretty idyllic.  And the work is very much about that.  And about coming of age, leaving all that.  The disillusionment.  Like awakening from a dream.

MB: Why the disillusionment?  How does that inform your work?
PG: I’ve always had trouble approaching my work head-on, trying to explain my intentions.  Most of my decisions aren’t really consciously made.  In the beginning I have to depend on what I do having some sort of pre-cognitive resonance for myself.  It’s only later, when I talk or write about my work that I begin to make sense of it.  What usually happens is that I begin talking about things that I’m thinking about at the moment, which might be totally unrelated to art in any way.  But it’s invariably those unrelated things that inform my work, often in a very indirect, even subliminal way.  The oblique approach helps me in some way.

MB: What are some of the issues that motivate you, that influence you?  Are formal aspects secondary?
PG: Well, formal considerations are important to my work, but I tend to take them for granted — or at least I want to be able to take them for granted.  I consider formal issues but I don’t want my work to be about form, even though I do want to arrive at a formal completeness or resolution, so to speak.  For example, I’m very much concerned with history, especially twentieth century — current events in a historical context.  The way in which we are influenced by history — personal, local, global.  Immersed in history — nothing you do can escape from it, even though I think we’d all like to be able to step outside of it.  Think of all the revolutionary and utopian rhetoric of the Italian Futurists — from their manifestoes, it’s clear that they thought that they were breaking out of history; but from a late twentieth-century perspective their writings seem so naive, even quaint.  I see history as a kind of epic novel-in-progress, in which most of us are minor characters, and we have no control over the plot.  There’s such an immense scale to the changes in this century — clashing political ideologies, the industrial revolution, and now the information revolution.

MB: So your work deals with issues of social and economic upheaval, rather than direct autobiographical issues?
PG: Well, autobiographical only in the sense that I happen to be the person filtering all these changes, being influenced by them.  It fascinates me, the sheer scope of the changes, and the lengths to which certain people go to influence people and events.  You think of Hitler.  The Kennedys.  And now the information guys like Murdoch, Ted Turner.  Bill Gates.  It’s all about manipulation, on a vast scale.

MB: Your work seems to have a lot to do with manipulation, control of the flow of information.
PG: Well, it’s a truism that the artist is a manipulator of perception.

MB: In light of your feelings about manipulation, it’s interesting that “Mobile Homes” involve complex coordination of many different elements, yet the results are deceptively uncomplicated, pared-down images.
PG: Well, uncomplicated in the sense that they’re suspensions of a moment that only hint at its genesis and its resolution.  It’s too easy to consume something if you have all the information — consume, digest, excrete, forget.  That process is speeding up exponentially today, it seems to me, so that life is becoming all surface, just immediate sensory gratification without any interval for reflection.  And that’s the moment I try to allow to exist in my work.  Relating my images to my sense that the accelerating pace of transformation in this century is out of control.

MB: Our era has been called “The Age of Anxiety” or “The Age of Extremes.”  People seem baffled, even terrified, by the wild swings of the socio-political pendulum.
PG: So much destruction, due mostly to political error and miscalculation.  But for me   the cause of all the chaos is ultimately self-righteousness, intolerance of one kind or another, whether it’s religious or secular.  For example, at the moment “free trade” and “the global market economy” are articles of faith in what amounts to a secular religion: CEOs as high priests and the new class of professional consumers as the congregation.  When I think of going into one of those mega-stores like Disney or Warner Brothers or Niketown, there is something so megalithic and awesome about them.  We’ve spent so much of this century trying to kill off fascism and communist totalitarianism, and it’s right back at us, only it’s coming from the inside now.  Not a very uplifting picture.

MB: Do you fight against those insidious elements or do you perpetuate them?
PG: That’s a good question.

MB: Does an artist have any responsibility — to an issue, to the
public, to the truth, to anything?
PG: There’s no question that responsibility, for the artist, is immeasurable.  But it’s our job to deal with appearances.  That's why Philip Guston was so great.  He assuaged our guilt about not acting responsibly.  I love that painting “Bad Habits,” with the guy in the hood flagellating himself.  Guston definitely addressed issues of power.

MB: Deconstructing power relationships, that was so big in the 80s.  Has it influenced your views?
PG: Sure.  Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer.  Their work was so subversive to me at the time.  Unavoidable.  But I wonder, in the end, if it helps change anything.  Artists have been attacking the power structure since forever, but it’s never stopped the rest of the world from falling in line behind destructive maniacs.  The wish, the willingness to be swept up by something, no matter how crazy — we all have it in us.  And that is baffling and scary to me, but it’s also fascinating — there’s a part of us that needs to believe in something, and we’ll fall for just about anything.

MB:  Too true.  But let’s get back to the specifics of your imagery.  How do the larger issues relate directly to your work?
PG: Well, the connection is actually pretty direct.  Without the context of the Cold War, Us versus Them — which actually slowed down the rate of change, except, you know, in the nuke field — there’s a scramble to find some organizing principle.  My “Mobile Homes” relate to that.  There’s a universal sense that everything is hurtling headlong into the next millennium.  Life is getting faster, more out of control, at the same time it’s becoming more efficient and more homogenized.  I think a lot of people are apprehensive.

MB: But is that apprehension new?
PG: Well, it’s a post-World War II phenomenon.  It’s very much related to television.  The advent of the  “global village,” where nobody is secure or separate anymore.  Everything comes through the TV into your home.  Vietnam, the first television war.

MB: You remember seeing the war on television?
PG: My first memories of events in the outside world were the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the Tet Offensive, the body counts, all that.   I had a childhood friend who was terrified of “them,” the soldiers, coming to get her.  She didn’t know the violence was on the other side of the world.  As far as she was concerned it was happening right in her living room.  That’s a literal, child’s perspective, of course, but I think it applied on some level to adults as well — everything being piped through the box into your life.  And now there’s so much corporate effort to control the media.  Radio, TV, internet.  An interesting issue.

MB: You see it purely as invasive?  Not opening up new possibilities?
PG: Not really.  It’s just one aspect. 

MB: Your work seems to be about the adjustment, or the failure of adjustment  — to our brave new world.
PG: Yes.  It’s some distinctly American psychology — how the residue of the 50’s morality — “family values,” et al. — that provides some structure, security, identity, can also be seen as producing some sort of national neurosis, some conflict as the ethnic makeup of the country shifts toward non-European.

MB: Are political considerations in your mind when you are actively doing your work?
PG: Not at all during the process.  But I do think there are unavoidable issues.  How I see them comes out in the work.  A couple of years before I started my photographs I was doing abstract paintings, and, in a way, even that was a political act — in the sense that they lacked any engagement with what was going on outside my studio.  A hermetic act in a way, whose categorical denial of the political itself was political.  One can make a very strong statement in that way.  I think of  Morandi or Joseph Cornell, for instance.

MB: What precipitated the shift to your present work?
PG: It was really during the whole euphoria of the Gulf War.  It was all very disturbing to me — the flags, the yellow ribbons, the same shot on CNN every night of that smart bomb going down the chimney of some Iraqi factory.  I felt I had to make some changes in my mode of expression.  It just took a couple of years for the direction of the changes to surface.

MB: So it was a radical change for you, going from being the solitary artist struggling over abstractions in your studio, to work which is in a real sense, engagé.
PG: That’s true, but in the end the abstractions and the photographs are quite similar.  In both, the final result is a two-dimensional image.  But similar in the approach as well.

MB: Are you saying that the process of your abstract paintings is similar to that of your photographs?
PG: There’s a sequence of negations in doing a house drop, which is what I see in abstract painting, really in Abstract Expressionist painting.  I think of deKooning in particular.  Rejection, failure, destruction, reconstruction — and if the realization of the negations is successful, you wind up with a coherent, resolved picture.  In a sense that’s what I’m trying to do when I make a “Mobile Home.”  I work with a large group of people, I take a condemned house, lift it, drop it, destroy it, reconfigure it, drop it again.  I do this several times until the object is pretty much completely destroyed.

MB: So then you actually have a record of the destruction of the given house which in some way transcends your catalogue of negations?
PG: Yes, there’s that aspect to every project, but there’s something less tangible, which has to do with working with a group of  particular people.  I mean, we all create a lot of useless work together.  Aside from my final image, what is there to show for all that effort and expense?  Garbage, wreckage, a huge mess that has to be cleaned up, enormous bills, etc.  But you’ve also created something that supplants the destruction and the mess.  It has to do with the cooperation and coordination, the interaction of a group.  It’s very rewarding.  I’m basically a people person, anyway.  I’m not describing it very well.  But, yes, it’s very rewarding.