absence / presence: a conversation with charles cohen
A conversation between Charles Cohen and Mark Cooley conducted through electronic mail - 2006
For a hypertext version of this interview please visit http://www.flawedart.net/interviews/indexcohen.htm
See Charles Cohen's work at: http://www.promulgator.com
MC: I'd like to begin by exploring your use of the "cut-out" in some of your most well known works. I've been covering your Buff series in various new media related courses for a couple of years now, and several questions and points of discussion are frequently raised. Can you speak first about the dichotomy of absence/presence at work in these pieces: How do you wish this dichotomy to play out for your audience, and what role does the content of the original image play in this scenario?
CC: If I may, I’d like to dissect the viewing experience into three “effects” which the cut-out generates. The “first effect” is the immediate recognition of the void; a mere observation, not an intellectual reaction, per se. The second effect is “the abstract effect,” which would be any subsequent intellectual activity for the viewer. This sets up an ideal and final “reflexive effect”.
The catalyst for the reaction is expectation. Because we expect nudity (in the Buff series) the suggestive poses of the subject and the conditioned responses of the viewer confront the void. This disconnect of what is expected with what is actually there has a variety of reactions in viewers. After digesting the experience, however, the question of what has happened occurs. This question, a momentary wedge in a normal viewing experience, sets up the “abstract effect”. The viewer is questioning the nature of this particular type of imagery as well as the effect of imagery in general on the mind. It is no longer a transparent and immediate experience, as it is so often in photography where the experience is oversimplified. Finally, the pinnacle for the artist is to create a third, “reflexive” effect. The viewer dissects all viewing experiences to the degree where the subtleties of the construction of meaning are understood and, perhaps assumes co-authorship with the artist.
MC: You mention co-authorship and I'm interested in pursuing this concept because it echoes many of the discussions I've had with students regarding your work, but before we get into that I am interested in how you came upon the source imagery for Buff and analogtime (full title, Why I prefer digital clocks and can no longer pretend to like analog time) — I'm wondering if you could speak about the significance of the specific imagery in the two series. While the cut-out seems to set-up a similar relationship between viewer and image in both series, it also seems to lead to very different results in terms of specific associations or meaning.
CC: The theme which my work tends to revolve around, the presence of absence, first surfaced in two photographic series, that and set (See linked statements for that and set). This work was created in 1997-1999. As you may or may not know, the Buff series starts with an appropriated image and the analogtime series is from film negatives that I took and happen to be in. The Buff work, which I am most known for, preceded the analogtime series from the Drop Out show at Julie Saul. Buff is an intellectual exercise to dialog with the viewer about expectation and imagery in general. I elaborate on this in-depth in the linked statement. The text from Curve: The Female Nude Now (by Sarah Valdez, Megan Dailey, Jane Harris) is also related and interesting. The analogtime images are an emotional exercise that follows the principles of Buff addressing issues of attachment and lack. I have embedded the intellectual mission of Buff into an emotional narrative in analogtime. And by being seductive and generic, the farewell scene sustains some of the abstraction issues that I addressed in Buff.
The fact that the main differences relate to love and lust were not planned per se but are certainly very relevant and seem to be a good way to differentiate. The white space in Buff would be a novel, retinal fling (albeit with an important invitation to think) and the analogtime silhouette would be the profound long-term relationship with a pain/pleasure point of entry.