Jesse Chun, 'Interview with Erica Baum,' Der Greif, November 20 2015
Interview with Erica Baum
November 20th, 2015 – Author: Jesse Chun
The New York-based artist Erica Baum constructs visual poems using printed matter such as books and library archives. Baum’s interplay between photography and text results in lush new interventions of looking, reading and creating poetry. Her work is currently exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum’s Photo Poetics exhibition, and the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition Reconstructions: Recent Photographs and Video from the Met Collection.
Erica and I sat down over $2 deli coffee to discuss her work.
Jesse Chun: Let’s start with a brief biography of your life. You attended Barnard and studied anthropology. I see that this definitely has influenced your work, as it talks about the process of finding information (referring to the Card Catalogue series of library index cards) and that process becoming a discovery.
Erica Baum: Well I think it’s also because I think in terms of structures and institutions and the way people work collectively. I sort of have this visual sense of the way that structures exist in society and that is something you study in anthropology. And because you are studying different societies, you get a sense of it on a meta level. That’s what I think I mean when I talk about anthropology.
JC: You also lived in Japan and taught English in the United States. I know that Basho was your favorite Japanese poet. Who are some of your other favorite writers? I am curious since your work deals a lot with text and poetry.
EB: I love Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud and I also loved the French surrealists as a teenager. And Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Lorine Niedecker and Oulipo.
JC: Clearly language was a big part of your life. I suppose it was a natural transition for it to become a prominent aspect of your artistic practice.
EB: I always wanted to write, but always did art as well. And I was always a bookworm and read a lot. At Yale when I started working with text visually, it was really exciting to be able to draw upon everything.
JC: It’s funny because I always wanted to be a writer when I was young too. I apparently wrote my parents a novel as a gift, when I was 6 or 7 years old. When I became a visual artist working in the photographic medium, I began incorporating texts in my work. It’s like coming full circle.
EB: It’s great because you realize, wow I can do that! It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
JC: Right! So was it your time at Yale, that really shaped your work?
EB: Yeah, because when I started at Yale I was doing more street photography work that was an anthropological type of work. Then I started getting a view camera and got interested in language, and it was a great experience and challenge. There, I felt that you needed to find your own language, and that is really hard in photography. Especially now, because everyone’s a photographer.
JC: After all these years under your belt, I noticed that most of your series are still “on-going”. Do you plan on working on them indefinitely?
EB: Yeah, either they are on-going and I am actively working on them, or they are theoretically on-going, because I could still look at something and think, oh that could be a part of this project. I give myself a pretty hard challenge of what I think I want to investigate, and once I get in it I like to be immersed in it. So it ends up being a big series because I become immersed in it, and I don’t like to think that there is an end to it.
JC: Your work is also about the physicality of objects. Do you think that the digitalization of things will affect your work in any way?
EB: It’s interesting I think, side by side, there’s always going to be an appreciation for objects, and it seems as though with everything becoming digital, at the same time there is a parallel conversation going on about objects. Even in the New York Times’ business section, there was an article about Out of Print but not Out of Mind, which I didn’t really get to read but I think it’s saying that there is something about the physical experience of reading a book that can’t be replaced by a kindle. You can’t get a signed copy – you can’t get an author’s autograph on a kindle, things like that. So I feel as though the more we all go digital, the more it broadens the conversation about the object. However, I wouldn’t rule out that I could get interested in digital stuff, but I just really love the tactility of books and old fonts. It’s different when in digital, somebody chose the font as a graphic design – it doesn’t have the same feel to it because it’s not an artifact in the same way. At this point, it can interest me what people do with digital, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be necessarily for me.
JC: I understand. That’s what I love about your work too – the tactility and the layers becoming a space.
EB: And it’s very photographic. All the textures and layers.
JC: Exactly. Speaking of photography, how important is photography to your work? Is it just an instrumental purpose, or do you try to address the philosophical notions of it when making work?
EB: I think it’s all those things. On one hand, I like to think of myself more as an artist than a photographer, but on the other hand I really feel schooled in the photographic concerns. I feel as though it matters to me how I am addressing them in my work. For instance, the question of whether something is manipulated or not manipulated, and the idea of the “naked eye” that these things are found, and that they are a straight photographic encounter of a book. On the other hand, I love collage and the tradition of collage in general so I am not against those things. It’s just that I am very aware of its place in photography. I do think that photographic concerns are important to me, but I don’t want them to be a chokehold.
JC: Photographically, text also becomes an image in your work. The black, the curves also become an image. How important is aesthetics for you?
EB: It’s very important, and I love graphic art too. I always loved the look of an old magazine, and I always enjoyed those things. At the same time though, I like different ways that the works can be encountered. I don’t mind if they are just viewed online, and someone is getting a different experience of it.
JC: You said in an interview, that you are “letting an other poem emerge through found text”. I really love that. In the process of waiting for that encounter of a poem emerging, how do you deal with it? Because it’s not every day that you are going to find a poem with found text. Would you say patience is a big part of the process? And having trust in the material that you are invested in?
EB: Yeah, sometimes I will have an idea and I don’t actually know that I am going to find something, but I think, I will just keep looking and find something eventually. You don’t know what you will find, and you have to let yourself be ready to recognize it when it happens, because you can’t anticipate it. Actually, that is a very photographic quality. Because with certain kinds of photography like street photography, it’s about going out and encountering something. So there is a way in which my work traces back to traditional way of photographing.
JC: That process is what excites you though, right? The discovery?
EB: Yeah, that’s why I stay immersed in my projects, because they are fun. I don’t already know it. It’s a surprise to me.