In Conversation is a project.
In Conversation is like much of what we do, an experiment. At THEOFFCENTER we feel it is our duty to document what we see, who we are, who we are inspired by and how all of those often intersect. As part of this project we mean to present voices in dialogue. Devised as a cross-section from the start, our hope is to capture interested dynamics amongst interesting people. A couple of friends, talking, – like they do – and exchanging war stories, questions, all the while challenging each response so as to find the thing we all seek – an “in”, a sort of door into the mind of the other.
As first of a series, we engaged Mica Sigourney, local performer maker, drag socialite, writer. He in turn set to interview Robbie Sweeny, TOC’s resident photographer, an artist with some success in far away lands as a photo journalist and photographer.
In Conversation seeks to investigate what is found in a few moments outside the way in which we normaly interact; what is revealed outside of the pretense or the expectations of a stage. No lights here, just two people we know taking time.
I want to thank both Mica and Robbie for jumping head on in yet another experiment. Also i want to thank you, whoever you are reading this, for your interest. These are interested people, with interesting stories. I invite you to take the time to get to know them a little more. See what they have to say, be challenged by them and their choices and sure challenge them too, write to them, engage. We all need it.
In Conversation Mica Sigourney and Robbie Sweeny.
Robbie Sweeny is “Some Irish Fag”
M. Why do you like photography?
R. Photography is so many things to me, its my memory, its my stamp and its my voice. It’s a way with which I feel I can communicate with people where other forms fail me. I remember, many years ago when I was living in Ireland, going to a photography exhibition of images from Dublin’s city centre from the turn of the 19th century. There was the familiar background of the city with these faces that were long gone, it just really hit me that that single fleeting moment in these people’s lives was captured forever, they were made immortal and they may never of known. Here, over 100 years later, was some Irish fag, killing time looking at an image of them. That’s why I love photography.
M. You said “I feel I can communicate with people where other forms fail me,” What is the strongest reaction someone has had to your work?
R. I was exhibiting as part of a group show at Tate Britain in London. It was a project about and by immigrants in the U.K. I had created a photographic slide show with which there was to follow a panel discussion. I am a VERY nervous public speaker; it is something that fills me with the strongest dread. So here I was on a panel of 4 in front of well over 100 people at the UK’s premier art institution, needless to say I was pretty damned nervous. So we viewed my slide show and I gave a brief talk about the piece and then the floor was opened up to questions. Straight off the mark I got questioned about the symbolism of an egg that was in one of the photos. The egg was never intended to mean anything, and I explained this to the person, but he was adamant that I had subconsciously placed it there in reference to the symbolism of the egg in art history. I said it was possible, but the guy would not let it go and kept probing me in front of all these people about this egg. It was a real eye opener, firstly as it has really made me think about the symbolism of every element in a photograph and how it could be misconstrued. Secondly it showed me that, as with all art, once you have opened it out to the public, it takes on this whole life of its own and can become this whole other narrative.
M. A lot of your work for THEOFFCENTER is about performance, what other types of photos do you like to take and why?
R. I think performance plays a huge part in most of my photography; weather it’s a live show or whether it’s a studio shoot. People know that they are under the microscope, so its all a performance. I think my studio work is what means the most to me, as I tend to only work with people who I have come to know and feel comfortable with in such a setting. It also feels less of a solitary environment and more a collaboration, which is where I feel the best work grows from. Apart from studio shoots I try and capture the life that goes on around me. I always feel that if I have not photographed a moment, then that moment is gone, I can never get it back. I know its quite a materialistic way to view life, but I guess its my way of securing that I will have a closer connection to my past in my future. It’s my way of not forgetting.
M. Do you see yourself as a documentarian or an artist?
R. I see myself as both. I don’t think of my work as solely a factual document of events, there is no one way with which a story can be told, there is no one truth. I can only tell my version. Some of my work is more about me as an artist but then there is my work with the off centre and Squart, which I feel is more me as a documentarian, I put my own stamp and style into my images, but the real artistry is in the performance, my job is to just try and do it justice.
M. What would your dream photo shoot be?
R. I would love love LOVE to get all of San Francisco’s queer performers together into a huge space, like the headlands, and to have one huge directed photo shoot. One in which we all work together to come up a single narrative but which we incorporate the performers own identity’s and character traits into the shoot. I think it would not only be a dream shoot for me, but a great document to have of this amazingly exciting time in the cities performance scene.
M. What have you learned from photographing performance in San Francisco?
R. I think the most important thing I have learned is that you really do not need a big budget to put on a great show, just a big imagination. It seems a pretty obvious point, but I have lived in places where there is a mentality of “well if you don’t have some sort of budget or funding, then there is no point in putting on a show” where as over here, there is a “can do” mentality. People do not necessarily have to make money from what they do, the aim is to just get your work seen, everything else is just details. For me, my aim is to just get my work out of my apartment, if I sell something, great. But I think before I came here, I was focusing too much on the money factor, that was my barometer for success.
M. Why are you here in San Francisco? What keeps you here?
R. San Francisco is my escape. Its my never never land, its where I don’t have to “grow up”, its where I can be who I have always wanted to be, and be accepted for that. I see San Francisco as this cocoon, a safe space that feeds and nurtures me and helps me to become my own ideal version of myself. I stay because I feel that this is my home. I feel that I can breathe here and that although I am broke most of the time, my life has become this rich tapestry of amazing, inspiring people, friends and lovers. I feel I really have very few wants and that my needs are met in ways with which I never thought they would be.
M. Where else have you lived and what have you gained from those places?
R. I have lived in Ireland, the U.K France and Spain. But the latter 2 were when I was a teenager where all I learned to do was drink and smoke, important lessons, but not a story for here. Living in London makes you a little bit fearless. It can be a rough town; especially where I lived (Brixton) you need to be a bit street smart in your day-to-day life. I think the main thing I picked up from living there is a sense of endurance; you really need a lot of energy there, as it’s such a huge town. I created the groundwork for my photographic skills there, I realised that I was interested in photographing people there, as that’s something London has no shortage of. The night there is its own world. And as a photographer you just blend into the background and are anonymous. Its different here, if you have a camera you are seen and noticed, so it can be difficult to get an off the cuff shot.
Ireland is quite the opposite; I found that I really had to look for things to photograph. This is a skill in itself as it helps you develop a keen eye for observation and to give everything a second look.
M. What are some of your favourite photos that you took this year ?
R. There are 3 sets of images that jump to mind, one being a shoot with Minna Harri and her dancers, I showed up not knowing what to expect to a shoot and was just blown away by the imagery they came up with. Squart in the headlands was overwhelming in so many ways, the venue, location, the artists, everything. I have been working most recently on a series of images for my show “Metamorphosis” (22nd June Public works) in which I am photographing inspiring figures from San Francisco.
M. What are some of your favourite photographic moments of the past year by other SF Photographers?
R. There are so many too chose from, one person who just blows me away time and time again, is Jody Jock. ( jodyjock.com/ )His work is consistently incredible. He is definitely one of my great inspirations. I remember seeing his work for the first time in 2009 and being so fucking jealous and intimidated by his talents. There is also Keith Aguiar (brotherbramm.com)whose work is from another planet, I’m convinced he’s spent time on other worlds. Cabure Bonugli (“Shot in the city”) is another photographer who’s work I look at and think “how does he do it?” along with his many other styles, he photographs a lot of drag performance in the city, but he shoots it in such a way, that it has this technically amazing and dramatic element that is normally associated with a studio shoot, but here he is shooting these shots in a crowded nightclub, its just amazing, I wish I knew how he does it.
M. You mentioned the styles of other folks, what characterizes your style?
R. With my portrait work there is a sense of somberness and elegance that I try to achieve. Sometimes I might add some humor, but it is a very dry sense. For some reason I have never liked seeing myself smile in photos and I think that has crossed over into my photos of others. My nightlife photography is a lot more chaotic. I try to infuse those images with the energy of a night. I slow down the camera so as to capture movement and motion blur, this is also a reflection of my own experiences of nightclubs, they were always a place for me to loose myself and memories became these obscure fragments that I would have to decipher. I have recently stopped drinking after a realization that it was becoming a problem, so as I move away from this part of my life, I feel this characteristic of my photography is also moving on.
M. I noticed that the three SF faves you mentioned are queer men, are you in a particular photographic scene in sf? Is there one?
R. Its funny that you point that out as that is something that has been on my mind lately, how easy it is to ghettoise yourself in this town and I think that I have been guilty of doing just that since I have moved here. I think when you first move to a place like San Francisco, as a queer man you are literally surrounded by queer men, you throw yourself into that world. I guess the trick is to create a sense of balance, once the novelty wears off you find yourself gravitating more towards people who you share a sense of self with, regardless of gender. I don’t think that there is necessarily a photographic scene in San Francisco, more so there is an artist community where you encounter the same people. So that does influence you.
M. Who/what influences your work and in what way?
R. I think my biggest influences are the people in my life, fellow artists who I can bounce ideas off and get a different perspective off. I remember back when I just started at University, seeing what I thought at the time were these amazing images taken by Andres Serrano for his collection entitled “Nomads”, it was a collection of images of homeless people photographed in a studio. My then professor talked to us about how he saw these images as manipulative and exploitative. Sure they were interesting, but what are we gaining from seeing these people who have been fucked over by life in this slick photographic style? Is this not just another time where these people are being taken advantage of by a system that has long failed them? I can honestly say that I walked away from that conversation a changed person, and it has stuck with me ever since. I refuse to take images of people in compromising positions. Sure we all see interesting and shocking imagery on the streets, but who is it helping by photographing people who are already down on their luck? I think that’s why I enjoy photographing my friends, performances and collaborating in the studio. I feel that there is an agreement between us all, they can trust me and I can trust them to inspire me. So it is my friends and people I respect that influence my work, I have at times taken images that I will come back to after a conversation, and I will see how it could be interpreted as problematic, so I then make a decision not to use that image anymore. I feel like I am constantly forming an aesthetic social conscience, where as at one point I just wanted to create an image that would have a high impact, no matter what the costs, I feel that now I have a sense of responsibility to be aware of how that impact my effect others.
To see more of Robbie’s work click on the following slide show
Robbie Sweeny is an Irish born internationally published photographer, curator and artist. Having exhibited extensively throughout the UK, most notably part of a group exhibition at Tate Britain in 2009, he then relocated to San Francisco in 2010. He works closely within the performance art community of San Francisco and is the resident photographer for THEOFFCENTER. His work deals with personal issues such as sexuality,queer identity,the Irish diaspora and the remnants of Catholic guilt.
Robbie’s work can be seen locally at the following spots:
Work More! at CounterPulse.
Runs from 1st -31st July
With: Cabure A Bonugli, Eric Harvieux and Robbie Sweeny
Metamorphosis At Public works
Runs from 22nd June- 4th July
Curated by and featuring Robbie Sweeny
Art of Photography At the Lyceum Theatre (San Diego)
Runs from 13th Aug – 16th October
Mica Sigourney As a student of theater and performance for 25 years, Sigourney has specialized in physical theater, improvisation and site specific performance. 6 years ago he fled the proscenium stage and traditional venues and refocused his energies on go-go performance installations and the populace stages of the nightlife. 2 years ago he created drag persona VivvyAnne ForeverMORE! and since has performed on stages and festivals in San Francisco, L.A. New York, and London, and in the deYoung, the New Museum (nyc) and Yerba Buena Center for the arts.
Sigourney produces the WORK MORE! series, a twice a year drag production featuring nightlife performers presented in a “real” theater context, where their processes are exposed, and their boundaries pushed. As a writer his work has been featured as part of the Radar Reading series alongside San Francisco’s Poet Laureate.