Julian Cox in conversation with Collection Connections artist Marco Breuer

In the midst of the 48-hour installation of Line of Sight, Founding Curator of Photography and Chief Curator at the de Young Julian Cox sat down with Marco Breuer to discuss his artistic practice.

Julian Cox: Tell me about the origin of the title Line of Sight.

Marco Breuer: Line of Sight is a starting point. It’s about having two or more objects interact within the gallery. Once you follow one of those lines of sight within the installation, you’ll see that it connects to others. Line of Sight is quite literally for me the starting point, thinking about how two objects relate, in this case one that I made and one that I found.

JC: Talk about the kinds of tools that you’ve used to create this installation and how you approach the space and transform it through different kinds of gestures or interventions.

MB: A lot of it is very straightforward, positioning the object and then creating relationships between the works. There are some, what you could call “interventions” into the space. I drill holes into the wall to reveal a layer underneath. I use pencils and markers to write on the walls. I made a couple of rubbings in the space, where I used the grates and a power sander to lift off a pattern from the floor that I could then pin up on the wall. So, it’s about finding connections between how I work in the darkroom or how I work in the studio and pulling that into the exhibition space.

JC: How does the experience of working at the de Young change or enrich your existing practice?

MB: Here, I had the challenge of matching my work with objects that already have a good deal of history behind them. So how does your own work hold up in that context? For the last fifteen years, I have made discrete objects that get shipped off to the gallery and from there on they have their own life—a life that I have limited control over. And so what I do here is take into account how these spaces are designed and what they mean and what the context of the work is going to be. And then I allow myself to address that right on the spot by writing or drawing on the wall.

JC: You came here to visit for a few days to look at our collections and you made some selections. Then you went back to your own archive and chose works that you felt you could establish a dialogue with the pieces from our collections. Can you describe how that relationship of selection works, the things you are thinking about when you’re matching work from your archive with works from our collection?

MB: There are essentially three parts to this installation at the de Young. The first part was going into the collections of the museum and selecting work. In selecting work from the de Young’s collection, my interest was in the life of the objects within the institution. Having access to the conservation lab and to the storage facilities, I was able to see objects in different stages of their “career” in the institution and that to me was interesting. I then made a selection of my own work in response to the de Young objects based on how I experienced them. I intentionally did not create new work in response to the de Young’s work, but instead went into my archive, going through the drawers, pulling things out. I was looking for destruction, abrasion; physical marks that in my mind related to the deterioration that is happening in the works that I selected from the de Young. I chose a lot of somewhat peripheral work from the de Young: the dress is deaccessioned, the painting is in mid-conservation, and so on. Once I had those two groups established, then the third component was to bring it all together in the present installation, working on the walls, writing and commenting on it. So those three parts make up the installation.

JC: I’m very interested in the physicality of your process. Can you describe how you approach your work in the darkroom and the way that you push the boundaries of the materials?

MB: Generally what I try to do with photographic material is to strip away everything that is not absolutely essential. By taking away the camera, the negative, by interacting with a simple light sensitive sheet of paper, I have already discarded a lot of the distractions that are usually associated with the photographic process. If I can reduce photography to the immediacy of a pencil drawing where it’s a direct interaction, where it’s my hand, maybe a tool, and the recording material and that’s it. I might work on a piece of already processed photo paper but then use that as a negative to make a contact print and rework that in the darkroom. It’s a quite fluid process going in and out of the dark. But it is all focused on the concrete physical properties of photographic material, what it is able to record, and what its sensitivities are. Photographic paper is sensitive to heat, it’s sensitive to pressure; it’s not just light sensitive. It’s able to record a lot more than what the package tells you.

JC: And you are constantly discovering new kinds of properties in those materials, correct?

MB: Right. The challenge changes over time because there’s a growing familiarity with every recording device. So every now and then I need to pull the rug out from under myself and shift materials. And so I worked with black-and-white for fifteen years and then I switched to color. Then I took a break from color and made some gum bichromates and then I went back to color. I’m interested in chance and I’m interested in a degree of openness in the process. If I feel like working on the piece is mere execution, I’m not interested in doing it. That’s just busy work. I want it to be a true negotiation between the material and me, where I might have an idea about the outcome, but I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be.

For the installation at the de Young, I obviously did have some preconceived notions. I made some sketches, I played through some possibilities, but I was very careful not to take that too far. I was very mindful to let the installation happen in the 48-hour timeframe that we set for it, so that I would remain open to discoveries and again, that it wouldn’t become busy work, but that it was truly a discovery. So when we drilled a hole in the dry wall, we found writing on the plywood behind it. I had no way of knowing that, but you have to accept these things. I often design a project with a set of limitations: a particular material, a particular process. The interesting part of the work is in finding the limitation, finding that point of friction where there is actual resistance from the material or the tool. That’s exactly when things start to happen.

JC: One of the objectives of the Collection Connections series is to create a more open-ended experience for the museum visitor. What are you hoping the visitor takes away from the installation that you’ve created?

MB: The installation is designed to function on a number of different levels. The way the works interact provides several points of entry. One might go in and pick up on some visual relationships, certain themes, like the circle or the gray scale, or ideas that repeat throughout but that can be picked up very quickly. If somebody really wants to spend time and find the connections they’re there. But I think it’s important to design it knowing that not everybody is going to spend an hour and a half in that space.

JC: I think of your work as being very suggestive and not declarative. Would you agree?

MB: In both the photographic work and the installation, there’s a sense of openness, and I think a trust that the audience will find what they’re looking for. It’s not my job to spell everything out. I think that’s illustration and that’s not what I do. I am interested in a degree of ambiguity.

Marco Breuer: Line of Sight is on view through October 2, 2011.

The entire installation process was documented and can be viewed below.