Interview: Efrem Zelony-Mindell — Strange Fire Collective

Efrem Zelony-Mindell (they/them) is a curator, writer, and artist. … They write about art for FOAM, Unseen, DEAR DAVE, Musée Magazine, SPOT, and essays for artists’ monographs. Their first book n e w f l e s h, published by Gnomic Book, is now available and has been collected by many international libraries and archives.

KHB: Efrem! Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me about Primal Sight today!

EZM: Keavy! The pleasure is mine! I’m excited to be in conversation with you. I really adore the way you make photos and think about pictures.

KHB: The images in Primal Sight range from abstraction to document, from flattened grey washes to starkly contrasting shapes — sometimes right next to each other. Besides the formal, what drives some of the pairings in the book? Do you have a pairing that you feel particularly fond of, or which still forces you to consider if it was the right choice or not?

EZM: It would be easy to brush a broad stroke over the process of sequencing. But the reality is sometimes there are very definitive conceptual ideas and reasons behind some spreads and edits and other times . . . this is a process deeply rooted in what’s visually available and is incredibly reactive. It takes a lot of time looking, till one sees what’s inside the pictures. What is capable is bound to what is present. Taking time, A LOT of time, trying different things and new ideas is key. There’s a lot of trial and error in this process, and research. But not necessarily research just into the pictures and the artists who made them, but into the everyday world around us. Sequencing a book, or an exhibition, is like eavesdropping on a good story you overhear on the street. You don’t stop.

There aren’t any pairs or sequences that leave me second guessing, but there is something that happened between Primal Sight and running to the edge of the world, an independent publication I organized and produced during this same, that does blow my mind:

I swear I’m not just saying this because it includes your image, Keavy. Something truly mystifying is happening between these two spreads that I never would have expected. I’m not even sure if anyone would catch it if I didn’t say anything, but these spreads become INCREDIBLY familiar if not strangely identical. I’m a real big believer and appreciator of Carl Jung’s theories behind the Collective Unconscious. And I’ll be good god damned if it doesn’t bring me ease to see how these images dissolve and converse with and into one another. Here are four different artists, four different pictures, and somehow there is something poetically and visually identical about their visual language that makes them universal.

I don’t want to totally reveal what I find here because I prefer to invite folx to draw their own conclusions as opposed to telling them what to think. Even if that means they completely disagree. But what I would like to say is, making these choices leaves behind a residue that we as individuals have an opportunity and duty to recognize. Sequencing Primal Sight didn’t just happen linearly in pairs and spreads. I wanted to push the potential out of this book. I sequenced this book so, sometimes, images on the right hand side speak to one another and images on the left hand side speak to one another as well. So that the act of page turning should start to correlate to the pages before it. There’s all kinds of layering and formed motifs that I hope will cause viewers to flip back and forth. A shaved head becomes a seated moon, which turns into a shadeless lamp that rises with the turning page like the morning sun. What I wanted to make happen is what I like best in books. I didn’t just want a straight shot. I created an atmosphere, an environment, a treasure hunt inside the covers driven by the images differences and similarities. The camera is a very dangerous object when unchecked, under researched, and used simply because it can be used. Exploring and understanding the potential of the thing and the world around us is key.

KHB: The pages of Primal Sight are a deep black. Can you tell me a little bit about this decision, formally and conceptually? How do you feel it changes how one looks at the images in the book?

EZM: Primal Sight is about pushing limits of both black-and-white imagery as well as how we engage and perceive photography. I mean for the narrative to be unusual, alarming, and terrifying — or uncertain. Printing on black paper felt like a solid way to create a tenor inside the book. Usually images are printed for the darks, but here we printed for the lights. Inside that subtle, seemingly backwards, gesture is all the mystery that one could possibly hope for.

Your question, “How does it change the way one looks at the images in the book?” triggers an old memory I have. In middle school I remember during a Science Fair assignment one year I came up with the idea to see how reading speed and retention may be affected by the color of the paper a story was printed on. I remember inviting people to read a series of short poems printed on red, green, blue, and white (there may have been another color or two in there) paper. I’m not sure the experiment yielded anything in terms of concluding if a different color paper could help with reading speed or retention, or helped secure me a decent grade, but what I do remember standing out was how people said the paper influenced the way they read into and felt emotionally towards the poems on the pages. Somehow the paper color allowed them to soak into themselves and the relationships they made with the words deeper and more genuinely.

I’m interested in how turning formal decisions upside down can allow viewers access into themselves and their feelings more organically.

KHB: How does this project differ from other curatorial projects you’ve done? Were there challenges specific to working with only black-and-white materials that you weren’t expecting, or pleasures that you found along the way?

EZM: The real blaring difference is the amount of artists. That may seem obvious but this project is more than double any amount of people that I’ve worked with and I am still navigating that space. It’s very important to me to make things personalized. I want to work directly with the artists. I don’t send chain emails, maybe one or two, but for the most part it’s all very individualized. It’s important to my practice and the things I make to run my business this way.

That said, sending hundreds and hundreds of emails is — more exhausting than I ever could have imagined. However, it never ceases to amaze me how much this process rewards me in a very personal way. It is slow and it is tedious, but to see the result not only in the object that is produced, but in how the artists interact with me and one another is more than worth the effort. This was my idea, but this is our project. Embodying that in my language, presentation, and to other people is very important to me and brings me the same pleasure that I feel when I make a picture or a painting. In that space I’m totally free.

KHB: You’ve made the entire PDF available online, at no cost to the viewer. What led you to that decision?

EZM: I don’t need anyone else’s standard. I don’t need to covet. I don’t need to perpetuate a system that I know is broken, flawed, unsustainable, and upholds the supremacy and violence of white cisgendered men. Sharing Primal Sight is in line with the mission of the publication, but deeper than that it’s time to start trying different ideas, forming different models, and seeing what the results are. Frankly creating availability like this isn’t some new idea that just dropped out of the sky. There are so many people in my life that I’m honored to call friends and colleagues who share their work and ideas and it’s in them, and others, that I want to push myself, the folx I work with, and the standards that have become too familiar and exhausted to all of us.

Making the book available felt anxious because I’ve been trained by systems and institutions, and white culture to defend what’s mine. Like the work I make is some sort of club to buy into. We’re told to buy into clubs, that somehow a house of exclusivity will bring people together. I don’t care about clubs; we need open dialogues and conversations where we can challenge ideas and one another safely so as to reach our potential. I’m exhausted by stages to just perform on. We need to recognize borders too; they are a tool of supremacy. There are no borders. There never were. Primal Sight is an opportunity for conversation. I’d be a fool not to take an opportunity to extend that conversation to anyone who wants to participate in it.

KHB: There are a couple of well-known, classic photographs in the book, including photographs by Duane Michals and Aaron Siskind. How did these images make it into the book? Are there other photographs of this ilk that you thought about including?

EZM: Well, to be frank, I acknowledge the position artists like Duane and Aaron hold one hundred percent, but it’s important to have those artists with us for a few reasons, perhaps first and foremost because of how clearly ahead of their time they were. They make the case that imagery like what’s inside Primal Sight isn’t just some alien that landed yesterday. It’s the reason why other artists like Roger Ballen, Zeke Berman, Meryl Meisler, Jill Freedman, and Allen Frame are included. I was working on getting a Roy DeCarava picture, but finally hit a wall unfortunately.

The presence of these artists is further significant because they sing to the present. They’ve always sung to what’s ahead. Their echoes and influence live inside the folx that are working today. Their histories are well documented, but their future is in our hands now and there’s no reason to think they are just an influence on current conversations, when they’re still a part of what we interpret now. Their work is capable of being reimagined and reinterpreted. Thanks Duane, thanks Aaron, we’ll take it from here. Seeing these artists who are of a certain age and from a certain time in conversation with artists working today is totally exciting. I think the presence of their work happens very effortlessly in Primal Sight, and that’s the point. They’re not separate; we aren’t separate from one another. We sing together through vernaculars and lexicons that are familiar, engaging, and significant to us.

KHB: You’ve since worked on another project, running to the edge of the world, (which, in the interest of full disclosure, includes my work). Did the process for these two publications differ wildly? What were some commonalities, in your mind, between the two?

EZM: Not to be smug, but in the spirit of acknowledging everyone, I also produced the seventh issue of the theretherenow quarterly featuring the work of Widline Cadet, Rory Hamovit, and Keisha Scarville and also produced a twenty artist group show at Ohio University.

The process of working on all of these projects at once was… in ways, they did absolutely differ. But I’m far more interested in hearing how they differ to viewers who aren’t me. When you get locked into a focus juggling four projects at once life just becomes an endless day in the studio. I realize this may sound idealistic, but there isn’t a moment of my life, especially in the last five plus months/last year really, where I didn’t feel like I was in the flow of making art. Thinking, emailing, organizing, sequencing, meeting with artists (via zoom), watching, listening, being present to anything and everything that has been made available to consume, reeducate, and expand me and the work I’ve made.

I’m not a big fan of thinking about making art in terms of projects, periods, or portfolios. I’m an artist, I make art. I don’t stop. It’s not my job to cubbyhole or divide things from one another. It’s all the work. If other folx want to do that, I’m open, eager, and excited to hear those interpretations. It’s exciting to see how the work disseminates, translates, and lives outside of me and the people involved. But to me it’s all the art, the work, ways of communicating narratives that fascinate me, and the community that’s capable of existing.

KHB: What’s next for you? Is there anything inspiring you at the moment that is leading toward a new project?

EZM: There is something leading me towards a new project. But I’m not going to talk about it. What I really need now, more than anything, is to allow myself to heal. I’m going to promote Primal Sight into the world, in the way that I do, and at the same time recognize that I need a break, a relief. I need to square away certain realities in my private life, my health, and my sanity. The last two years have been a lot. I’ve worked very hard and had an incredible amount of privilege and opportunity that I’m grateful for, especially during this time. But I’ve not allowed myself to recover and to reward myself in a truly necessary and meaningful way. I’m really looking forward to relearning how to bask in that reward that the body very much needs. I’m worthy of that, we’re worthy of that, and so is the work.

Originally published at http://www.strangefirecollective.com on April 1, 2021.

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Keavy Handley-Byrne

Keavy Handley-Byrne

Keavy Handley-Byrne is a photographic artist, writer, and educator who lives in New York City and works throughout the Northeastern United States.