S.3 E.3: “Impossible Is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus artist and art professor Priscilla Briggs.
Posted on August 24th, 2020 by

Photographer Priscilla Briggs, professor of art and art history at Gustavus, talks about her photographic project in China, her most recent exhibit, “Reading Between the Lines,” her approach to her work, and the importance of art to undergraduate education.

Season 3, Episode 3: “Impossible Is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

A quick lead-in about this episode. In the last 10 minutes, I refer to the internment of Japanese. I’m of course, referring to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

A few years ago, I found myself looking intently and admiringly at a photographic print by my colleague, Priscilla Briggs, professor of art and art history at Gustavus. In front of me was a large blue earth, each continent, a different solid color suspended from an industrial looking ceiling, thick with steel beams and trusses. It looked familiar, yet I couldn’t place it. “Where was this taken?” I asked Priscilla. “Legoland at the Mall of America,” she replied. And indeed I could now clearly see the earth in front of me was made of Lego pieces, and I had beheld at once when visiting the mall. This striking image perfectly and subtly captures a recurring theme of Priscilla’s stunning photography, production and consumption in the global capitalist marketplace.

A native of Maryland who earned her MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Priscilla has explored this theme and related questions of as she puts it values and identity both locally here in Minnesota, at the Rosalux Gallery in Minneapolis and elsewhere. And internationally in China, Thailand, India, and Cuba. Provocative and mesmerizing, her work has appeared in numerous exhibitions in the US and abroad, and also in her terrific book titled, Impossible is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism.

Priscilla has held residencies in China and received awards from the McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Gallery Fund. An accomplished teacher as well, Priscilla teaches courses in photography, interactive media and video art. She has also team taught January term travel courses in Thailand and Ireland.

I wanted to speak with Priscilla, not only because her work is so interesting and compelling and full disclosure, my wife Kate Wittenstein and I are the proud collectors of three of her prints. But I wanted to speak to her also because of what her work says to us in this new context of the raging and ravaging COVID-19 pandemics impact on global production, consumption and inequality. Welcome, Priscilla. It’s great to have you on the podcast.

Priscilla Briggs:

Hi, Greg. Thank you so much for having me.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. I want to say at the outset for listeners since we can’t, we aren’t showing your work, listeners should go right away, as soon as they listen to this podcast, or even maybe while they’re listening to it the second time, to the Gustavus Adolphus College website, and then your own profile page, where they can see your work, which is really, really quite, quite impressive. So, thanks again.

Greg Kaster:

I thought we’d begin by talking about the beginning. You attended Carnegie Mellon. And I’m curious how you chose that school. And were you already an art major from the start or how did you come to be an art major?

Priscilla Briggs:

So, I actually was not an art major as an undergraduate. I came to the arts in a very convoluted roundabout way, which really was more about following my passion than thinking about a career. And so, like a lot of students, when I went to school, I didn’t even consider an art major because it didn’t seem practical. So, I think I’m living proof that an art major is practical. And there’s a good argument for it. But I actually, I went to Carnegie Mellon. I actually, I applied to numerous liberal arts colleges. And Carnegie Mellon is a university which has a very different curriculum.

And so, originally, I started as a graphic design major, which is especially at Carnegie Mellon, was seen very much as something completely separate than fine art. And it was a completely different department. Whereas at a lot of schools, especially liberal arts colleges, graphic design and fine art are part of the same curriculum. And so, but what I found at Carnegie Mellon was that with your specific major, you had to take four out of five classes a semester within that major. And so, I actually ended up changing my major a number of times because I really wanted to study everything, and I just didn’t find room within their curriculum to do that. And so, what I ended up doing eventually it was creating my own major, which was geared toward the publishing industry and combined graphic design, computer graphics programming and creative writing.

And then after I’ve finished college, I had a number of different experiences. I moved to Tokyo and taught English there. I moved back to Pittsburgh and managed a photo gallery. And I was taking classes on my own as continuing education classes in photography. And I put a portfolio together and ended up getting a job as a teacher of photography at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh. And so, I would say that that’s really where I got my undergraduate degree in photography. It was a really amazing community arts center that was started by Bill Strickland in the north side of Pittsburgh, originally in a row house as a place for young people to come and make art and exhibit their art, and just be immersed in an arts environment as a way to really, to get them off the streets and out of a cycle of violence and gang activity.

And it was a very successful endeavor that grew into a much larger institution. Right. Or not, well, not really institution but organization where they had an afterschool and in school program for art. And they had a really, a nationally recognized jazz concert program. And then they eventually built a partner organization for adults for literacy and the culinary arts. So, it was a really dynamic and vibrant organization. And they had a lot of funding. And so, I was able to experiment a lot with photography there and ways that I probably would not have been able to do otherwise. And even in Carnegie Mellon, there was only one class in photography.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Priscilla Briggs:

It was an introductory class in black and white dark room photography. So, really before graduate school, I had only taken two courses in photography, one in black and white and one in color that I took at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers. So, that’s how I arrived at a career in art. And I went from the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild to graduate school.

Greg Kaster:

I just love these stories. Occasionally, a faculty member I speak with, I guess this was my own case when I think about it. Occasionally, there’s a straight line from undergraduate to career. But more often it’s a roundabout journey or path, as well as in your case, and with a stint in Tokyo teaching English. And it’s just a reminder to people listening that you don’t need to have it all figured out at the start, right? Of your undergraduate career. It’s okay to explore. And really, you were potentially majoring in all kinds of things, it sounds like. And then, ultimately creating your own major, which is a possibility I could say this as well. I know some students who’ve done that. Had you taken photos as a kid? I mean, had you played around with cameras any more than any kid would?

Priscilla Briggs:

No, my mother gave me a camera when I was in high school as a, I think a birthday gift or something. And so, I was at a very small Catholic school. And my art teacher didn’t really teach me photography, but she allowed me to do that during class time. And they had a dark room. And so, I taught myself how to take photos and process the film with a lot of trial and error. So, I have to say originally, I had no idea what I was doing. And so, it took me awhile to figure that out. And I didn’t do anything really interesting as a high school student. But then when I had some more professional instruction in my one class within my design curriculum at Carnegie Mellon. And then after that, I actually did a few photo projects for other classes. I think one of my English classes, I did a series of portraits as part of an interview assignment. And I really just loved the process of portraiture, which is actually where my practice started and has evolved a lot since then, obviously.

Greg Kaster:

I was going to ask you about that because, so you weren’t focusing on consumerism the way you are now at Carnegie Mellon, it’s that come out of your portraiture work? And how did you get to that project?

Priscilla Briggs:

I think that was more in graduate school where I was asked to really think about the portrait as a study of identity. And I started to think about, well, so for example, I was working with a large format camera where your negative is four by five inches. You put it the camera on a tripod and you have that black hood that you put over your head. And it’s a very slow process. And so, what I would do when I made the portraits, was to set the camera up. And it’s very much like a podcast where you talk a lot with the subject. So, I think with portraiture in general, you really need to spend a lot of time warming up to your subject and getting them to relax into their environment.

And so, and I specifically was making what you call an environmental portraits, in which the subject is positioned within an environment that they have created, usually their home. And so, the environment is a reflection of who they are as well. And so, then I started to think about, well, all this stuff that we surround ourselves with, and how not just the things we surround ourselves with, but the society that we grow up in and all of its systems help to shape who we are as people. And so, I started with that and then eventually that grew into… We live in a more global world. So, how does globalization as a system like a global system affect the way that we live and who we are and what our values are. So, that’s how the work evolved over the past 30 years.

Greg Kaster:

Let’s pick up on that, and maybe with specifically in the context of your work in China. You’ve been to China numerous times, both as an artist and residence, and also wandering around taking photographs. But what have you learned through your work? What do you think your work expresses about who we are in that global marketplace against that backdrop?

Priscilla Briggs:

So, when I first went to China, it was as a segue to the work that I had done at the Mall of America about consumerism. And that being somewhat of a reflection of American culture as a capitalist culture that drives consumerism. And I read an article about this, it was like a mall boom, where they were creating or building all of these malls around China, just like 500 within a few months. So, every city wanted to have their own shopping mall as a reflection of their growth and pride in their new economic status. And so, this was all part of a government engineering of a middle class. So, the Chinese government specifically was engineering the economy and subsidizing the building of these malls to create a marketplace for the middle class.

And so, I initially I went to photograph at these malls. And so, I would say just in general, my working methodology involves identifying a subject that I want to explore. And then, the work itself is very exploratory, because I don’t know what I’m going to find when I get to a location that I’ve identified to photograph at. So, it is very much one of research, visual research. And sometimes the ideas don’t actually evolve into what I would call a visual language. And so, they’re unsuccessful. So, there’s also some trial and error in terms of what’s going to work and what’s not going to work, in translating ideas to an image or a series of images that speak a visual language about a topic.

So, I went and I photographed at the malls and I did a whole project about that, that really looked at it similarly to the project about the Mall of America, about what we buy is a reflection of what we value, especially within the context of a capitalist society. Which what was interesting about China is that it’s what the way the Chinese government describes their economy, is it’s… Oh, what was it? It’s capitalism with Chinese characteristics or something like that. But what they were doing were experiments in capitalism in what they called special economic zones, where they would allow trade within certain specific areas that were designated by the government. And part of what that did, was create these pockets of wealth. And then in the countryside where you saw people farming, they’re still very poor. Anyway, what I discovered was a really complex and fascinating economic structure that also includes the migrant workers coming from the countryside to work in the factories, which created a very transient culture that was very different from the kind of traditional social structure of China.

So, after the mall project, I became much more interested in the manufacturing of all of these things that are sold in the malls, and the fact that China was creating most of what we as Americans purchase in our own marketplaces. So, then I started to investigate a lot of these manufacturing areas. And so, in this way, there were a lot of ideas that I would generate that were organically growing one from the other. And so, I ended up going to China four times, I believe, for a month each time to continue new projects, that would be started the last time I went and I wasn’t able to finish.

Greg Kaster:

What was it like being in China and photographing, were you on your own? Did you have a guide? Did you feel monitored? Or you just showed up at a mall or one of these manufacturing plants and started taking pictures?

Priscilla Briggs:

Well, the malls were very easy. And because, of course anybody can go into a mall. And they’re in the big cities. I was in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen. And these are all huge cities and they’re very international, and a lot of people speak English. There was no way I was going to learn Chinese. It’s very difficult language. And so, that was really easy.

It was more challenging when I tried to do work in the manufacturing areas. And so, for instance, I did a project in an area in Shantou, where they manufacture a lot of lingerie. And this came about because when I was in Beijing, I met this American guy who had biked from Shanghai to Hong Kong. And he told me, we were having a conversation about these towns where there were all these factories that would make one thing. So, I decided to go start going to these towns and photographing. The first one I went to was not very photogenic. It was just zippers and buttons that they were making. And I took a lot of photos, but none of them were really that captivating, or it was difficult to get the subject matter across.

And so, then I met this guy in Beijing and he told me about this town where they made the lingerie, and how he had biked through it. But and it was, there were just these billboards of women in lingerie everywhere. And so, I was like, well, that sounds a lot more visually compelling. And so, I asked him where it was and he couldn’t remember. And he said, “Well, I’ll look on my blog and see if I can figure out where, the general area I was in during that time.” And so, he told me it was between one town and another. And I was like, “Okay. Well, I’ll just take a bus in that direction and see if I can find it.”

And it was unmissable, because literally for like 50 square miles, there are three towns that manufacture lingerie. And it’s really like walking through a 3D Victoria’s Secret catalog. There are pictures of women in bras and underwear on every surface. There’re stickers on the sidewalk. There’re posters on the telephone polls. Every sign you see, just everywhere. And so, that was much more visually compelling. An example of an area where they just manufacture one thing.

And so, then I was, my next step was to figure out how to get into these factories. And so, I did have an interpreter with me who was actually a British woman. And so, she went with me. We got a hotel room. And we walked out of the hotel and I was like, “I don’t know how we’re going to figure out how to get into one of these factories, but let’s just investigate.” So, we walk out of the hotel and within five minutes these two guys came up to talk to us, partly I think because we were the only non-Chinese people in the town. So, we were pretty obvious. And they were curious. And they also wanted to practice their English. And so, they worked at one of these factories and I said, “Oh, well, can I come and take photos?” And they said, sure. So, within five minutes I had gained access to a factory.

Greg Kaster:

Just serendipitously, I mean, not planned obviously.

Priscilla Briggs:

Right. Yeah. And so, it was, I mean, because every single structure there was geared toward this business. It was actually much easier than I had anticipated. So, that’s how I got into that project. And then, I also did another project about an area where there are about the oil painting export business.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, good. I wanted to talk about that. That’s fascinating. Go ahead.

Priscilla Briggs:

And so, there were two that I knew of. One was in Xiamen. And that’s how I ended up doing a residency there, because I was going to go there and I thought, well, it’ll be easier to find a place to stay if I could just get an artist residency, than if I go and try to find an apartment. So, I just did a Google search for artists’ residency in Xiamen. And there was one, and I applied for it, and was accepted. And that was through the University of Xiamen. They have a place called the… I forgot what it is, the CCEC or something like that. Anyway, so I went there twice actually, for a month, each time.

Greg Kaster:

And what are these oil, tell us a little bit about these oil painters? I mean, they’re artists and yet they’re workers. And you’re photographing them, is that right? As they’re doing their work.

Priscilla Briggs:

Right. So, the painters, it’s a multibillion dollar export business where they export these paintings all over the world. And initially, when I went there they were mostly located in one neighborhood. And that was before there was as much online access. And so, the painters would get orders from these middlemen. So, for instance, they’d give them a picture and they’d say, “Okay, please make a hundred copies of this.” And then the painters generally got paid by the square foot of the painting and depending on what their skill level was. And they didn’t get paid very much.

And then the second time I went, which was a couple years later, the painters were a little more independent, because there are these translation apps that they could use to communicate and have a more direct line of business. But still, because it’s an export industry they would work through middlemen a lot of the time. And so, there are these warehouses full of oil painting, canvases, just stacks and stacks of them that are exported around the world. And a lot of the time the paintings would be sent to tourist areas, let’s say Las Vegas or different tourist areas in Italy. And the painters would sign like an American name or an Italian name, so that it looked like it was made in Las Vegas or Italy, or what have you, because people generally wouldn’t want to buy a painting from China. And so, there was a little bit of a, I don’t want to call it a scam, but it’s like a marketing technique.

And so, I was fascinated by the whole industry, but also the fact that these painters get paid so little. Then for them to make an oil painting, it was almost what I would pay to make a photographic print of the same size. So, I had this idea to make a comment about the cost of labor, and especially in a global market where I made portraits of the painters, and then had them paint the portrait. And I paid them to paint the portrait. And it was just slightly more than I would pay to have a photographic print made. So, that the painter becomes almost like a printer per se.

Greg Kaster:

So, it’s a photograph within a photograph. I’ve seen them. I loved them. Great idea.

Priscilla Briggs:

They were actually presented as paintings, as I would exhibit the oil paintings.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, okay. I see. Are they all men or are there women as well doing this?

Priscilla Briggs:

It was mostly men. There were a few women. And I think within the series, I only have one female. Yeah. But it was mostly men.

Greg Kaster:

And I mean, do they see themselves as artists or just production line workers who happen to be doing oil paintings?

Priscilla Briggs:

It really depends on the person. It was all over the map. There were some that were real aspiring artists. There was one guy who was very funny because his paintings were all black and white. So, they had this dark civility. And he was a very morose person. And he was like, “I hate painting. I only do this to make money.” So, they were all over the map. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Did some of these people go to school, art school, or they were just picking up the skill on their own?

Priscilla Briggs:

Not usually. So, there were actually, well, not like an institutional art program. But so for instance, the painting that I have of the female was actually a student. And so, one of the painters who was more experienced, he had his own little school where he had 10 to 20 students at a time, and he would teach them to paint very informally. And so, the university system in China, where they’re just a few top universities, where the blue chip artists come from. But there are a lot of artists who, one, can’t afford to go to school or aren’t able to get into a program because there are just so few. And so, the opportunities are very narrow, I would say.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. The other thing you were doing in China, I don’t know if it was at the same time, but the other series of photographs that I just love, anyone who’s looked at them loves, are those photographs you took of, I don’t know if they’re the Chinese photographers are portraits, but where Chinese people go to have their pictures taken, photos taken of, maybe wedding photos. You can correct me. But against these, are they cloth? These backdrops of scenes that look-

Priscilla Briggs:

Yeah, they’re actually photo backdrops.

Greg Kaster:

Photo backdrop. Okay.

Priscilla Briggs:

That was a fascinating thing that actually came from one of the painters I was working with and spending time with, who showed me and my interpreter around the painting neighborhood. He and a friend were commissioned to go to this wedding studio and build some sets. And because there was also an outdoor area as well. So, they were just going to do some painting there. And he told me about it and said, “I think you would be interested in this. Do you want to come with us?” And I said, sure. So, we went to the wedding studio, took a whole day. I don’t know, we took five different buses. And they had trouble finding their way. So, I was like, “I could never find my way back.” But it was a really fascinating place because this man had built this enormous wedding photography studio underneath of, it was like the basement of a Buddhist temple.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Priscilla Briggs:

And there were literally like a hundred different sets with different backdrops. And so, that’s where I made all of those images. They were all in one place because-

Greg Kaster:

And these backdrops are huge. Right? At least they look huge to me.

Priscilla Briggs:

Yeah. Yeah. It was an enormous place.

Greg Kaster:

I remember the first time… Go ahead

Priscilla Briggs:

And then he had another area that was outside as well.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I remember the first time looking at your photographs of those backdrops, and then people in front. I think one was maybe of a train station or I remember a train. And just, it really, it takes a while. I mean, at least for me, it took me a while to realize what I was looking at, that the background is in fact a photograph not real. Is this a pretty common tradition or practice and for people getting married head off to have their photographs taken that way?

Priscilla Briggs:

Yeah. And it’s also, so if people who have a lot of wealth, they actually go to really beautiful locations. So, this is for the middle to lower classes where you go and you pretend you’re in this place. But the wedding photo industry is huge there. And it’s a really different process where people generally, they do their photo shoot months before they actually get married. It’s not the same day that they get married. And they have all these costume changes, and they get their photos taken in many different backdrops. And they end up with this huge portfolio, that’s almost like a fantasy of what their future is going to be like. So, the wedding photo industry in China itself is just really fascinating.

Greg Kaster:

You could do a whole project on that alone, it sounds like, easily. What about the book that’s filled with photographs from China, your photographs, the Impossible is Nothing book. The subtitle is, China’s Theater of Consumerism. And I know you answering this already, but say a little bit more about what you mean by that subtitle, Theater of Consumerism is, I mean, is it about the performance of consumerism, the display, all of the above?

Priscilla Briggs:

Well, the wedding photo industry is a good example of that actually where there are all these constructed environments. So, if you think about the Disneyfication of things, so to speak. And so, a lot of the malls or the wedding photo studios, they create these unreal environments. And so, the title, the Theater of Consumerism is about that the artifice. And so, for instance, and I’ll just make a comparison with the work that I did in India, where in China there was an eraser of the past, first through the cultural revolution, and then within the industrial revolution. They wanted to make everything new and shiny. And so, for instance like in Beijing there were the Hutong villages there that were very old, historic, or just raised and built over. And some of these quaint old marketplaces, the same thing, where they built something similar, but it was new. And then there are just a lot of examples of building these things that have like a basis and fantasy, very similar to the US. Right?

And so, just as an example, when I went to India, I was thinking I would address the same issues there, but they look really different because the culture is so different. And there isn’t that erasure of the past, the past in India is very steeped in the past and the history. Whereas China is more future oriented, and they build this image of what they want to be. And that is omnipresent in all of these new structures that you see everywhere. There’s a lot of new, huge, monolithic building projects that happened in China, specifically because the government can make those happen because it’s a communist government. Whereas in India, it’s so diverse and not nearly as cohesive an economy and the structure of the economy. And so, it looks really different. Does that raise any question?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. But in both cases artifice is there, just showing itself differently, it sounds like. Is that right?

Priscilla Briggs:

Well, actually, no. I would say in India, there’s less of the artifice.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Priscilla Briggs:

So, that’s why in China that book Impossible is Nothing, it’s very much focused on the idea of the constructed reality as it shows up in many different environments.

Greg Kaster:

And so, in India, I was wondering, it’s not a constructed past. That’s what I was wondering. It’s more a reflection of a real past?

Priscilla Briggs:

Yes. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Well, this theme of artifice is, I mean, it’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about as I was looking over your work in preparation for speaking with you. And it seems to me, one thing COVID-19 has done is just shown how artificial so much of what we take for granted and really in some way, so much of civilized society is, whether it’s fragile and artificial. So, this idea that there isn’t grotesque inequality. It’s all been laid bare, it seems to me. And I just wonder, this is a huge question, I realize. If you would read your work any differently in the context of the current pandemic?

Priscilla Briggs:

Not so much the work that I’ve made in the past. But I guess my most recent project was addressing a lot of the inequities that I see in the United States.

Greg Kaster:

That’s the Reading Between the Lines Project?

Priscilla Briggs:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Priscilla Briggs:

And I think what the pandemic has done, it’s laid bare the artifice of our democracy, really in so many ways. And the project that I did, Reading Between the Lines was started and the title comes from, the idea came to me when I was reading the New York Times. And there was an article about the war in Yemen, and this was maybe two years ago, I don’t even remember. But it just struck me how, in one part of the article they talked about how many bombs the US was selling to Saudi Arabia. And then further down the article, they talked about how the US government was not happy with the way Saudi Arabia was bombing Yemen and the situation there.

And there was never any connection made between the fact that we were selling them bombs and the fact that they were bombing. And I thought that makes absolutely no sense. So, this idea that you have to read the news and then come to your own conclusions, because it’s not forthcoming within the actual news. So, that’s where the idea came from. And then a lot of the work is very different from the previous work I’ve done, in that there’s a lot of collage. It’s all appropriated material. I didn’t take any photographs for that work. It’s materials based. It still has some of the same topics or content, a thread of content from the previous work. But it’s very much looking at how information is presented to us as a consumer.

Greg Kaster:

It seems more of that work too seems more, I don’t know if you feel this way, to me more overtly or intentionally political than your previous work on it. One of the things that strikes me about the photos of the malls and, I mean, I take it you’re commenting critically on consumption in the artifice of it. But the photos themselves are, I mean, they’re not heavy handed, they’re not polemical. They’re almost light. And I actually, I love that. I mean, there’s a way to look at those photos of maybe the mall. I’m thinking of the photo of the mall in Thailand. I think it is with all the balloons. And we’re looking at the [inaudible 00:44:02]. Are they umbrellas? I think it is. Anyway, to look at that and just be entranced by the composition and then to think about, “Well, what am I really looking at here?” But in any case, do you feel your work has taken more of a political turn or overtly political?

Priscilla Briggs:

Yeah. I think you’re right that the former work is very light. And intentionally so, I like to really play around with ideas and present things in a way that’s very open ended, so that people can sit with the work and come to their own conclusions. And I do feel that the work that I did in this last exhibition is a little more heavy handed. But I think I was also just feeling much more intense about it too.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Priscilla Briggs:

And that a lot of the issues that are addressed are immediately relevant and need action. And so, it’s almost burdensome.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Looking at the Reading Between the Lines, that’s exactly how I felt, the sense of urgency that is definitely not there, at least not overtly that I’m aware of in the earlier work. And I think that must reflect what we’ve been through. Right? And we’re still going through.

Priscilla Briggs:

Yeah. And I would say that this work was made before the pandemic. And thinking about what is it going to take for people to feel like we need change. I mean, I think a lot of people already felt like we needed a lot of change. But I don’t think it was as obvious to the general public how fragile our systems have become, especially economically. And so, I really wanted to create conversation about that. And just, for instance, the series of diptychs called the Gap, is it compares numbers of basically the winners and the losers in our society. And generally, the winners are corporate and the losers are the people. And there’s a lot of text. So, that was another kind of, I think heavy handed part of it.

But hopefully, the diptychs themselves kind of draw people into make them curious about, well, what do these numbers mean? So, for instance, one, let’s see, is about the amount of money that the Sackler family made from the opioid drugs. And then, the other part of the diptych is about the number of people who’ve died from this drug. And so, that whole dynamic and what it says about the power of corporations in the United States, well, and really globally. But I remember thinking about that when I heard on NPR in an interview with this woman who was in jail, because she was a single mother who was getting by, by selling drugs. I don’t remember what kind. But I think she had sold some that might’ve had fentanyl or something in them, and five people had died. Anyway, she was in prison.

And I was thinking, the Sackler Family, knowingly sold these drugs that are highly addictive to millions and millions of people. And thousands of people have died. And they’re not in prison. So to me, that was just a gross inequity.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a gap.

Priscilla Briggs:

Yeah. There is just so many examples of that, that we’ve seen come to light.

Greg Kaster:

And is that exhibit still up? Was that at Rosalux?

Priscilla Briggs:

It was at Rosalux. It was actually, it was open for one day before it was closed due to the pandemic.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Ironically. Okay.

Priscilla Briggs:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, people can see it online though, if they go to your… which I urged them to do. Yeah. It’s just another example of how your art, your photographs, like many works of art are engaging with issues of the day, even as they’re just, I think just beautiful to look at. Sometimes it’s [inaudible 00:49:06], it’s really beautiful. What about the role of art and art history and the liberal arts college settings, specifically Gustavus? You not only make art, you teach it. And you’ve chaired the department, you’ve chaired the art and art history department. What is the role? Why should students take courses in art and art history?

Priscilla Briggs:

Well, I might be biased, but I really feel that art is the hub of the liberal arts in general. And it’s a naturally intersectional place of study, where you can take any other discipline. And many of our majors are double majors. You can take any other discipline and take the ideas that you’re working with and process them through the creative process as well. And so, I think it’s just a very rich territory for, one, just learning the creative process, but also for expression and understanding different ways to express the same idea. And learning the creative process or how to think creatively is so important for anyone regardless of your discipline. In the same way that learning empirical thinking, maybe in philosophies is important to any discipline.

Yeah. I think there’s a very good argument for everyone to be involved in the arts. It’s something that society cannot live without. And there are many practical and social functions for art. One, beauty is very important, right? So, we want the things that we live with to be beautiful and everything that we use is designed. So, just understanding visual language, I think is really important too, especially because we’re surrounded by images much more so than ever.

So, visual literacy is hugely important because it can be so influential, and especially in a time where there’s so much propaganda and people wonder what is real anymore. The ability to think critically both with what you read, but also what you see is really important. And to be able to understand how to demythologize imagery as well. So, how can images be altered for instance? Or speaking about representation. Identity and representation is a hugely important aspect of our visual culture in terms of how different people are represented and what stereotypes that might perpetuate.

So, for instance there’s a film, it’s a documentary called Reel, it’s spelled R-E-E-L, Reel Bad Arabs, how Hollywood vilifies Arabs. And I showed that to my video art class and speak about the ethical responsibility of representation within video art, and how Hollywood has created these Arab characters that are villains. And for decades, how that over time creates this stereotype that helps to manufacture consent, for instance, in our wars in the Middle East. If you can vilify a certain people and that’s embedded in our subconscious, it’s much easier to move in that direction.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And they’re a pair of precedents for that, of course, when you think about the way the Japanese were portrayed as they were being interned in this country, and of course, as we were fighting them during the war. I think the stuff about visual literacy is so, so important. A few summers ago, I had a national endowment at the Humanities Institute on the visual culture of the civil war, where I learned to really appreciate what visual culture means, how important it is, and how to begin to unpack it. And I do think that’s incredibly important in, as you say, our image saturated world, and where we’re manipulated or can be easily manipulated too easily by those images.

I wish we had more time to continue about content, but I think we should for listeners who are especially interested in photography talk just briefly about the kind of cameras you’ve used in your work, and usually the big box camera. Which makes me think of you when Matthew Brady across China or something, doing your Matthew Brady. But I mean, how has technology informed your work or does inform your work? I mean, are you using an iPhone to take some of these pictures? And also maybe a little bit about what happens in the dark room as well.

Priscilla Briggs:

Okay. So, yeah. Okay. I’ll just start from the beginning. So, I started with a little SLR camera that shoots 35 millimeter. And then when I started working at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, I gained access to some of these medium and large format cameras. And that’s where I learned to use those. And the processes are really different. Like a small SLR, you can carry anywhere. It’s very mobile. Whereas a view camera, which is what we call it a large format camera, which are generally a four by five or eight by 10 size negative. That’s a much slower process because it’s heavy equipment to take one image. You have to set the camera. It takes like 15 minutes to set the camera up, make all the adjustments, do a test, that kind of thing.

So, it can really impact, the kind of camera you’re using can impact not just what your photo looks like, but what your working process is. So, for instance, the reason to have a much larger negative is that it’s a more high quality image. So, you think about when you increase the size or enlarge an image, which is what happens in the dark room, you put the negative in an enlarger, you shine light through it. So, it creates a shadow onto a piece of paper. And the further you move the enlarger from the paper, the bigger that shadow is, and the bigger your print will be, but also the lower the image quality. So, if you have a bigger negative, you’re going to get a higher quality image on the same size paper, than you would with like a 35 millimeter negative.

And of course, we’ve seen a huge shift from film photography to digital photography, which has changed everything. And for me, I started to use digital photography because it was just more convenient and I can work faster. Especially, when I’m traveling, there’s just much less to work with. So, for instance, with film you have to be concerned about the temperature of the film. And when you’re going through security, is it going to be x-rayed? Is that going to ruin your film? That kind of thing. And then you have to carry it around. Whereas if you’re working digitally, similar to an SLR, it’s just much more mobile. But it took a while for digital cameras to have the capacity to create a high quality image file, where you could enlarge it beyond, like eight by 10 inches and still have a really nice quality photograph. And now the cameras are very much able to do that.

But I’ve also worked with toy cameras and film. So, there is a camera called the Diana camera. And I think they still sell them. Which you have very little control over the image. There’s just one button you can push, and you can either push it and let it go or hold it down for longer. It’s much more experimental. And the image is very… There’s a lot of vignetting. But it creates a certain look that is really, it’s just fun to experiment with. So, I’ve worked with cameras like that.

And I feel like in making art, there are just so many ways to work. And you can make art with anything, right? So, sometimes I tell my students, well, if you don’t have money for supplies, just go to the recycling bin, that’s a material. But with photography as well, you can take really good photos with your phone. And I have fun with that, mostly just posting things on Instagram. I haven’t really used any photos from my phone. But now there are a lot of apps that you can use to do some really interesting things. And I have to admit it, I haven’t experimented with those very much. But I’ve even had students make some video work using their iPhone, especially during the pandemic and teaching remotely. And it’s the iPhone or smartphones are really good for certain things. And more if things are close up, you can’t really zoom in on something very well. So, it’s limited, but every tool is limited in one way or another.

Greg Kaster:

It’s so interesting to think about the role the technology plays, but also as you said toward the start, really just how much you have to, and in your case, at least, I don’t know if it’s true of all photographers, but just go and see, right? Literally, and wait and take lots of photos. And that you’re not necessarily going with the idea in mind, but that the idea might emerge out of all those photos taken with whatever camera you happen to be using.

Priscilla Briggs:

Yeah. So, I generally start with an idea, like a very loose idea. And then the concepts that I work with emerge from the work. And so, for instance, when I have students who they have a creative block, my advice is to just make anything. It doesn’t have to be good, right? You just start somewhere and that will take you through a process. So, there’s a lot of trial and error. And I think a lot of students their creativity can be paralyzed by this idea that they have to make something good, that they’re going to get an A on.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Same with writing, I think.

Priscilla Briggs:

Yeah. Yeah. And so, usually what I do with them at that point is I’ll sit them down and say, “Okay, why don’t you just make a list of ideas? Whatever comes to the top of your head, don’t worry about how good of an idea it is.” And then I’ll sit with them and go through the list with them. And inevitably, there’s something in there, a seed of something that we can pull out that they can work with. And I feel like I really approach my own work in the same way, where I’m really open. It’s not prescribed at all. And because I feel like otherwise what’s the point in making it. It’s always a process of discovery and research, looking an analysis. So, it’s a very analytical process, at least my own working processes.

Greg Kaster:

Well, again, I wish we could continue. I’m going to urge listeners once more to go to your website, take a look at the photos. And do so, I hope with the podcast in mind, maybe even listen to it again, with this episode in mind. And prospective students listening, please, please take a course with Professor Briggs, you won’t regret it. So, Priscilla, it has been great. Thank you so much. Look forward to more photos, and hopefully, to you getting back to China when it’s safe to do so.

Priscilla Briggs:

Okay, great. Thank you so much, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

You’re quite welcome. Take good care.

Priscilla Briggs:

You too.

Greg Kaster:

Bye, bye.

Priscilla Briggs:

Bye.

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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