Tra Bouscaren [Interview]
California-based Tra Bouscaren, represented by N2 Gallery in Barcelona, was selected as the ARC: Artist Residency Chattanooga artist for the 2018 Chattanooga Film Festival. His installation included multiple screens, cameras, lights, and floating sculptures. The installation was highly emotive as the viewer was pulled between two spectrums, that of horror and play. The screens functioned as filters of society collecting our images and actions; cross layering digital frequencies, unveiling the bitter sweet truths of surveillance and America's obsession with consumer culture. Tra used live cameras for the viewer to be projected onto the work, and continually added and deleted footage of his environment therefore creating a palimpsest of actions, sometimes recoding footage from recent surrounding events. Viewers could be surprised to find their image appear on the screens revealing the previous evening’s karaoke exploits. During the installation in front of the live feed, viewers skipped across the floor and swung their bodies upside down smiling by mere happenstance when they discovered their bodies’ hidden reflections. Concurrently, the repetitive sounds of the oil rig meditatively refocused the viewer into the works subverted political and social undertones. Lastly, the ghostly sculpture hung silently in the corner and confronted it’s audience with their bad habits and addiction to creating trash. Zizek would call this the stain of our society as our objects of past desire are left to haunt us. - MH Curator Claire Bloomfield
Interview with Tra
MHM: Can you tell us about the materiality and structure of your installation? What materials did you choose to work with and why?
TB: My work begins in the trash. Waste presents a negative portrait of the society that produces it. Material in the dump is also interesting because it’s culturally levelled. All of our waste goes into the same pile. Aaron Cowan, the guy who invited me to Chattanooga, works at this great billboard printing place. When we realized we weren’t going to be able to source the kind of trash we were initially looking for, these huge pieces of offcut billboard vinyl presented themselves as a near-perfect alternative for projection. The cuts we got were massive - over 300 square foot screens each - and they were free because to the billboard company they were just trash. I only wish we had more time to work with them. Almost as soon as we got them rigged up in the ceiling, the show had to open, and all the 2.0 ideas about how to shape the material not as screens but as sculpture just flooded in. I hope there will be a next time.
MHM: What are some of the experiences from your past that lead you to this point in your practice? Is there anything in your past that still influences informs your practice?
TB: I don’t really know how to answer questions like that. I never had some epiphany after being thrown into a pile of my own trash from a great height. As artists I think we mostly just work through what interests us, and then somehow twist it into some arched position. Right now I’m working through what American spectacle means, and how it intersects with waste culture in the context of the surveillance state.
“Pollution is in fashion today, exactly in the same way as revolution: it dominates the whole life of society, and it is represented in illusory form in the spectacle.”
--Guy Debord, "A Sick Planet"
MHM: How did you learn to manipulate technology, and why do you choose to work with it as a physical and conceptual medium?
TB: From a technical perspective, I’ve taught myself most of what I use at this point. From a methodological standpoint, I’ve also picked up some stuff by working with other artists. Learning the value of collaboration has been great for me. I think too many artists work alone, cut off from one another. I did that for a long time and feel my practice would be much more advanced at this point if I had just gotten on with collaborating earlier.
MHM: Being under observation by the screens as I am observing reminds me of our current technological state and the internet. It seems like your work is informed by Foucault’s writings about Panopticism and what it feels like to be looked at in a controlled environment. This is a haunting feeling as the eye of the camera becomes the unregulated/regulated “gaze”. With all of this I have to ask what is your relationship to power and the internet? How do you feel about your image being captured?
TB: Not good. I do what I can to keep pictures of myself (and my young son) off the web. While there is no longer any way to control that completely, I try not to invite surveillance upon myself. Like many resources we think we can take for granted, privacy is already scarce. If we want to have some it’s best to pay attention to how that might work...
MHM: How much data have you collected for your installation? What do you do with old collected data/ images?
TB: While I (mis)appropriate a variety of surveillance techniques, I do very little recording of anything. Most of the feeds I capture are taken live, and deployed algorithmically in real time. While a lot of people assume that I'm recording because I’m using security cameras, I’m not actually recording at all, just pulling the live feeds. When I do record video in and/or around an event--usually on my phone--I only record that video in order to then deploy it almost right away as part of the installation. After I pull down the work from the show, so goes those videos. I delete them. Beyond what I need to represent the work in terms of documentation--mostly stills--the only data from my projects I’m interesting in preserving only lives in my memory.
MHM: With the images you collect- what are you looking for? Have you set up any rules or parameters around collecting images?
TB: What working site-responsively means for me is working with what is at hand. I’m mainly concerned with pulling live feeds from within the space of exhibition, such that anybody who’s there becomes automatically implicated into what’s at stake. Your presence is made manifest, clearly, in the current content of the video as it's bring projected in real time. In a more traditionally ‘material’ sense, my focus is on the collection of materials local to the project--but most of what I gather is just trash, material trash, and/or video trash. I say ‘video trash’ not because I don't value the people who are there--I don't throw them away--but I do throw away the live surveillance capture of them because I'm not recording it. Sometimes I pull pieces from Youtube, and consider them to be sourced much like material is sourced from the street--like a found object. It's just there, in public. It's easy to simply pick it up for a little while and use it if that makes sense. Even those videos sourced from YouTube are never just played straight in a show. They're always being modulated by other video streams, usually the live feeds so whatever questions of "authorship" that are going on are blurred. But what I’m ultimately interested in is that it's your live video image that illuminates the trash that you see before you. Your presence is projected onto the trash, which is in a sense your trash--it’s our trash--because it was pulled in the local area surrounding the exhibition. By collapsing the viewer and the viewed, I want people to think about how they are implicated in what they are seeing.
MHM: Other than ARC, what other residencies have you spent time with? What were those experiences like?
TB: I’ve done a few residencies, and have learned from all of them. Mostly I think I’ve learned that no matter where I go, I still have to deal with my own bullshit. So moving around can be kind of good that way, because as the scene changes, my own bullshit is easier to spot. As it becomes a little more obvious, and hopefully I can work on it.
Tra Bouscaren CV
2018 Guest House Cultural Capital Residency (GHCC), Washington State University, WA
2017 Visiting Artists and Scholars in Residency Program, Columbus State University, GA
2016 SCRAP, Santa Cruz Recycling Artist Program, CA
2015 Free Radical Artist-in-Residence, Fort Mason Center for Art and Culture, CA
2014 Artist-in-Residence, University of Texas at El Paso, TX
2014 IsolAIR Artist in Residency Program, Praia, Cape Verde, Africa
2010 Djerassi Resident Artist Program, Visual Arts, Woodside, CA
2004 Licht-Turm Residency, Berlin, Germany