From the TELEPHONE Interview Series.
Maya Peniazek in Conversation with Dan Starling
(Dan Starling, "The Shortest Shadow." etching and graphite. 22.5 x 15 inches. 2018. Photo credit: Dennis Ha)
Maya Peniazek: Thanks for making time for this interview!
Dan Starling: I was thinking that this is the most interesting of the meetings, because we don’t actually know each other. I assume everyone else kind of had some prior knowledge of the other person they were interviewing.
Totally. I was rereading some other people’s interviews and realizing a lot of people had written, you know: “I sat in my kitchen with a cup of tea and my oldest friend and we chatted.” I was interviewed by a very good friend of mine. And what was super exciting for me was looking at your work and thinking, “Oh! How lovely that I get to speak to this person whose work I think is awesome!”
Well that’s very kind of you!
I was just like “Okay, Dan Starling is the person I’m interviewing. Wonder who that is!”
I actually have a bunch of questions for you about your work because I was really fascinated by it and it brought up so many questions for me. Specifically, how many mediums you work with, but that it's all also driven by research was super exciting to me. I found myself feeling like this interview would be super easy, because I want to know all these things about you! But I also wonder if you could just describe yourself artistically, kind of introduce yourself.
I’m a Canadian artist. I’m from Vancouver. I really enjoy all the facets of art making. So, I’ve tried to investigate as many as have interested me and as many that I felt I could attempt to work in. A lot of the mediums that I’ve attempted to use are not things I have experience in. But that process of discovery is very exciting and interesting to me. I enjoy the process of learning new things about the creation of artwork. And that has led me to also want to go into teaching, where I’m engaged with the process of learning art and collaborating in a certain sense with a group of people, where ideas are being discussed in a productive way. There are lots of different ways to think about art, and I enjoy the cross interpersonal-interdisciplinary kind of conversation about what we want to do with art, where we can take it based on history, and things like that. You asked me to introduce myself, I guess that’s kind of why I’m interested in making art. It just fascinates me, and so... I just kind of keep wanting to do it.
It’s a super intense question to be asked, like “what do you do?” Especially for someone who works in mostly interdisciplinary settings. It’s also fascinating to hear people’s hesitation and someone’s answer, because it kind of tells you—when someone is like “oh, I do this.” Or someone’s like “whew, well… What I do? I don’t know, I do this, I do this, I do this, I try to find intersections...” So, I was curious to hear what you might say.
I looked at your website and the interview you had and it seems like you’re working across different disciplines as well. We seem similar in a sense where, when you’re making a costume for a performance, how is it that much different from making a sculpture for an art exhibition? It’s just the context which is different. Those disciplinary boundaries are part of the history of the educational institution or different sorts of institutions, but practically as an artist, there’s more overlap than differences.
Well, actually, that’s funny because that’s always something I like to hear from people who work across disciplines—people’s relationship to the medium they’re working with and the narrative or concept they are working with, and if there’s a go-to medium for people—for example, your Sans Sans Soleil exhibition, which I loved. That was the first thing I looked at and then realized how many disciplines you work within. Thinking back to that exhibition where you’re talking about the Internet being kind of antithetical to cultural memory, like the preservation of so much information, it made so much sense to me that you would have these drawings. That you would work inside of that medium. I’m just curious when you’re working conceptually, how that process happens for you, in terms of deciding what to work within.
(Dan Starling, "Sans Sans Soleil." HD video, etching and graphite prints. Installation view at WAAP, Vancouver 2018. Photo credit: Dennis Ha)
There’s two things I would say there. One is, for me, different people have different kinds of entry points into art. They come more from a photography background or performance or movement or something like that and come into art. For me, I came into art through drawing. It's a love of mine but it’s also my primary mode—thinking in terms of two dimensional representations. The second aspect is that in order to address questions that I think are important, to think about the way in which history is recorded, both in terms of information and in terms of its aesthetic recording. There’s a certain moment of tension, let’s say, or specific kind of context that reveals something important about how history is recorded. I’ve just always found it productive to work from those more specific cases and to talk about them, bring them to light, and explore them. Because it makes it more obvious why certain aesthetic decisions are chosen over others at certain times. For me, this has always been part of the critical practice—finding those moments where it could go this way, or it could go that way. It reveals something about the process of recording itself. Something like that.
One of my interests in my Sans Sans Soleil project was thinking about the idea of digital memory. The premise is: you've watched this film years ago, and now when you went back to watch it, it was a totally different film from the film you watched before, and it was like the film had totally mutated into this other thing… but you couldn't ever remember what the film was like before in order to recapture it.
I’m curious what you might say about something like “what's the effect of the Internet on a traditional gallery, or live performance?” Because it’s such a huge, unbelievable development that there is this platform where the sheer volume of images and videos are accessible to anyone that has the equipment to view them.
I think that's why I really resonated with that particular body of work of yours because I talk and think about this all the time… about accessibility to art and information via the Internet and how it simultaneously makes things like live art and performance and dynamic spaces that much more sacred. It is an opportunity to create things that demand people's presence. Which is why I try to make things that say, “This thing exists only once, and fleetingly. And cannot be documented the same way twice.” That's my interest in doing looping pieces of theatre that happen again and again and are never the same way twice. And walking away from experiences like that and trying to describe to people and thinking “you had to be there, and walk through the space.” I think that’s what gets lost with the Internet sometimes. What I like about the Sans Sans Soleil series is the illustration of people in static places, doing a thing where, wherever their mind is taking them, it is not actually absorbing… which to me is just the representation of where we are at with the Internet.
For sure! The live performance, the community that is created in that moment, the people who are seeing that in the same space at the same time is a very interesting.
But I also think the value of looking at a static image has changed and the way I tackle my frustration with people’s disinterest in showing up in the “real” is through performance and live experience. But I think that sometimes people feel almost humbled, like they are making some kind of form of return when they are standing in front of a piece of art, like an object, or a static image, and are able to lose themselves in this non-moving thing. I think there’s so much value in doing both. And it seems like you think the same way, because you also work in film, like with The Kidnappers Opera.
(Dan Starling, "The Kidnapper’s Opera." HD video. 1hr30min. 2013)
I read your bio and I wondered if you could almost translate some of it for me? It’s so eloquent and so beautiful but I also want to know what that looks like in a piece you’re working on. You say that “you play with the conventions of narrative through intervention extrapolation and reconfiguration to produce juxtapositions that ultimately deal with historical and contemporary and aesthetic forms and how they frame the narratives that influence how we see ourselves individually and collectively.” I wondered if you could take me through that process when you’re thinking about a piece you want to make.
The Chorus is a good example of the process and easy to talk about because it is an intervention into a pre-existing cultural product which is a film, Star Wars. I was reading a book by Nietzsche called The Birth of Tragedy where he’s trying to discuss why the Greeks invented theatre. He goes through this process where he says that originally there was just these festivals where people would gather as a collective and they would dance and sing songs and at a certain point, a group of performers became a smaller subset of this larger collective group, and then after that they decided to have the performers in front of a stage with the actors. The character of the chorus is very interesting in that they are a group of people but kind of act as one person. They all have the same lines. It is also theorized that this was important in terms of democracy, because they are a representation of the people, within the world of the play. There’s also a lot of speculation and interpretations of their role, like they're kind of an in-between between the spectators and stage actors, from Aristotle. But the most interesting thing to me about the chorus is that when Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire took over from the Athenian democracy, the character of the chorus was eliminated from the plays. I thought this was very interesting because it shows that there is an aesthetic correlation between the loss of democracy in Athens and how the play was structured and performed. I think it makes sense because you don't need to have a character that is a representation of the people within a dictatorship. It doesn't make sense anymore to have them. Our contemporary theatre is a descendent from things like tragic theatre, but we still don't have this character of the chorus today. So, I thought that by reviving this character, it might say something about our kind of democratic discontent. The aesthetic form has some relationship to the political practice that's going on.
That was the motivation behind intervening with this character into this pre-existing cultural product. My chorus is not a character within the narrative of Star Wars. They are this separate thing. They talk about themselves as such and this idea of democracy and the current state of affairs. The interesting thing is that a movie like Star Wars uses all these tropes from Greek theatre, like Anakin (Darth Vader) has these visions of what will happen in the future, so he tries to stop it but in doing so makes it actually happen; You can't escape your own fate and the characters who try to escape their own fate actually make it happen. That is just straight out of Greek tragedy. That still happens, that actually exists today, but we don’t have this character of this chorus because... well, the state of democracy. So, I would use that as a way to illustrate that long sentence that you mentioned. You know I’m trying to condense all of that into one sentence!
(Dan Starling, "The Chorus." HD video. 2hr50min. 2018)
But I think that when you read that and then look at your work it makes sense. I read a quote in an essay you wrote, which was—and I’m very much paraphrasing—essentially that it’s the artist’s job to really understand a thing and put it into context for anybody anywhere. And I feel like you say these things in your bio about conventions of narrative and juxtapositions and critical engagement and how historical and aesthetic forms completely inform the way we navigate our lives. I feel like reading your essay and then looking at your work and reading your bio helped me put all of that into context. For me, it’s essentially putting into context things that are very much driven by your research and understanding of this history but being very deliberate about how you’re presenting it aesthetically so that the message that it has today is relevant. My interpretation of your work was very much about, and tell me if I'm wrong…
I’d be happy to hear it, yeah
I saw a lot about conditioning and complacency and the idea that there are things we adopt that are put unto us, or put into the world that we carry with us sometimes without question and it manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Even in The Kidnappers Opera, the idea of the American dream, these notions of success and wealth and fame that we’ve been conditioned to accept become a part of our narrative in such a way that we don't see the history that built its foundation. That we accept our narratives as who we are, and don't see our own complacency and don’t see the opportunities for reconditioning. I saw that with your Burning Man piece as well. Even the idea of memory. Feeling like every time I take a picture on my phone I’m holding onto a moment, but when detached from the context of lived experience, is it a memory? Or is it a file I have on my phone and does it actually lead me to be less present… what is it? Presence is the mother of memory? Some line. I got that in a fortune cookie to be honest. But I like that. That we just buy what people sell us in terms of culture. Now you can remember everything because you have a phone. Now I remember nothing because I’m on my phone. So that was my interpretation of your work, looking at that through the lens of different historical moments, and also cultural phenomena and capturing people in their mode of having been complacent and conditioned to accept those things. Which I really appreciate because for me it can be kind of hard when I’m doing work driven by research, to divide the aesthetic importance—what I want a piece to look like technically, and its conceptual importance. How to push both without losing either of them. And without hitting people over the head with a concept, so much so that the work can’t speak for itself. So, I'm wondering if you can talk about research and how it manifests itself visually?
I think that part of it is just being open. That’s what I meant by “I’m kind of fascinated by all of these different forms of art making.” I’m kind of open. I don’t know what the aesthetic manifestation of something might be in the beginning. It’s only when I find this piece of information I think is interesting and it would suggest what the mode of the aesthetic product is. It’s driven by the research and then the aesthetic forms kind of come afterwards. It is difficult because not all the time do I find things I think are interesting to make work about, so it is kind of unpredictable in a certain sense.
I guess one of the things I'm curious about, because I read in your interview that you say you’re a storyteller, right? Obviously, lots of artists are storytellers. The thing is, I’ve never thought of myself as a storyteller. That’s why I’m operating in the way that I am. Because I don't know what the story is that I would tell, if I had to tell the story. I’m looking at the stories that already exist and saying, why do these stories exist? Why is this story popular over this one? Because there’s thousands of possible stories that we could tell ourselves.
That's so interesting because I work backwards. I make a thing and then learn the story and do the research. It’s so interesting to start with a story and then find ways to contextualize it.
I think that's great. People like yourself that have their stories. You're generating those stories which we need to have. You know, that's a huge aspect of creating art. But for myself, I just never thought that that's what I was doing.
I think you are a storyteller. But I think you’re telling the story of today against the backdrop of this history. I am just curious what you’re working on now?
I just finished working on this series of images based on a Rembrandt print of the crucifixion of Jesus. I'm utilizing this etching that Rembrandt made of the crucifixion scene but treating it as though it were a documentary image and playing the narrative forward in time by drawing new scenes upon the previous scene and then printing it and drawing more and printing it and so on. It’s a narrative sequence of images of the landscape that changes over time. I’m now trying to make a graphic novel that is a story about its own deconstruction. It’s about using the basic elements of narrative story to try to keep the narrative going when it becomes very abstract.
(Dan Starling, "After Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses." drypoint. 28 prints - 20 x 24 inches each. 2020 )
About the Artist: Dan Starling’s work plays with the conventions of narratives through intervention, extrapolation and reconfiguration to produce exciting juxtapositions that encourage critical engagement. Based in research, Starling’s work deals with how historical and contemporary aesthetic forms frame the narratives that in turn influence how we see ourselves individually and collectively. Starling studied at Emily Carr University of Art + Design and Städelschule, Frankfurt, and has exhibited his work nationally and internationally. Starling’s work was most recently shown at Wil Aballe Art Projects, VIVO Media Arts Centre and the Libby Leshgold Gallery in Vancouver.