Interview: Teresa Hubbard & Alexander Birchler: No Room To Answer
by Elizabeth Dunbar
Austin-based artist duo Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler have been working together since 1990, when they were both in residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada. Countless solo exhibitions of their work in photography, video and sculpture have been held in the United States and abroad, most recently Hello Darkness at K21 Düsseldorf (2008), House with Pool at the Miami Art Museum (2006), New Spaces at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Münich (2005) and Editing the Dark at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (2005). Their work is represented by Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin and Galerie Bob van Orsouw, Zurich. On the occasion of their first major touring survey exhibition in an American museum, No Room to Answer at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Arthouse Curator Elizabeth Dunbar (who organized Editing the Dark in 2005) talked with the artists about the way their work has unfolded over the past eighteen years.
Elizabeth Dunbar: Let’s start from the beginning. What led to your decision to begin making work together as a team and how did that differ from how you had been working as solo artists?
Theresa Hubbard: When we met as artists each with our own practices, we were both making sculptural installation work. Alexander was working with models, replicas, collections and the idea of the double or the 'doppelganger'. I was working with words and water, building objects reminiscent of Houdini's escape tanks. Alexander has a background in painting and drawing and my background is in literature and writing. We both had an strong affinity for the staging of history and the orchestration of space and objects- we both loved going to natural history museums and shared an interest in how narrative functions and how a story can be physically pieced together and pulled apart.
Alexander Birchler: In 1989 we did an exhibition together with our individual work called, Liquid and Solid. At that time we were both fellows at an artist residency, the Banff Centre in Canada. The beginnings of our collaboration were organic in the sense that it wasn't a 'decision' but something that developed and grew along with our personal relationship. Teresa and I have often both talked about the excitement of working toward a third voice or third place in the work. We came to photography foremost by documenting our sculptures and increasingly we got excited about the photographic frame and how our ideas looked from the vantage point of a camera.
ED: Your early photographic work together is very cinematic, so in retrospect it seems only natural that you would eventually gravitate towards making moving images, especially given your backgrounds in sculpture, writing and then staged photography—all the components needed were already there. What finally spurred you to make the leap and what were you hoping to achieve through moving images that you didn’t think was possible through stills?
TH: That's a great question. From the beginning, we've always perceived one medium in relation to, or through another. Maybe that's because of our different backgrounds, but most likely, it's because we collaborate - and collaboration (at least our kind of collaboration) encourages that. Since the beginning of our collaboration, we've worked in a multitude of mediums, including video. One of the very first video works we made together, in 1991, involved a female character who had been struck by lightning.
ED: The bolt of lightning that moved you into a new medium...!
TH: Yes... the sound of being struck... for example. There is an incredible temporal and spatial extension, as well as contradiction, that sound can bring to an image. We want to use and push that potential.
ED: Actually, it’s interesting that a trauma victim inaugurates your video work. Psychological damage, trauma and tragedy have appeared regularly in the work since, as does a pervasive mood of melancholy. Your work has always reminded me of that of Edward Hopper and Alfred Hitchcock. Like them, you have a special ability to plumb the depths of everyday human darkness. Are there certain artists with whom you feel an affinity?
AB: Of course—we draw an endless amount of inspiration from other people's work: from Meredith Monk's music and mood of archeology in her work, to the writings about projection and darkness by Alexander Kluge, to the atmospheric attunement in Edward Hopper's paintings...
TH: ... from Beckett's ideas of what he called the “pre-math” or the “pre-traumatic,” to Michelango Antonioni's films and what he called “dead time,” to the writing of Raymond Carver and the way in which many of his characters are a broken circuit, unable to bridge motion and emotion...
ED: In your overall body of work, one of the recurring themes is the idea of absence. In some of the early photographs it comes across not only in the implied narratives, but also compositionally through the use of “strips”—black voids that separate things metaphorically as well as physically. This also occurs in the video works, especially Eight and Single Wide. Can you talk more about the importance of the void in your work and how it relates to your interests in cinema?
TH: With our backgrounds in sculpture and an affinity for film sets, we’ve always been interested in exploring and exposing the physical attributes of film for its architectural properties. For instance, on a strip of film, the black strips separating two frames, in many of our projects, becomes an emotional threshold or boundary.
AB: The threshold for us is a place fraught with contradictions: as a temporal and spatial void; interior versus exterior; singularity separating togetherness; darkness separating light; the “before” separating the “after.” In works such as Stripping, Single Wide, Detached Building and Eight, this strip becomes a trope that is continuously marked by the protagonist's struggle.
TH: We're fascinated with the analogy of a camera as architecture, architecture as a camera and their proximity and relationship to each other.
AB: For example, Le Corbusier’s proposition that a house is a system for taking pictures, or that the outside is the result of an inside. I think of a movie theater as the reverse architecture of a camera: this is what has drawn us to photograph and film cinemas over the years. It's what led us to one of our newest works, Grand Paris Texas.
EB: Could you describe this new project? It's one of the longest video pieces you've made to date, right?
TH: Yes—it's 54 minutes long and we spent over a year researching, filming and editing it. Grand Paris Texas interweaves the physical and social space of a dead cinema, the inhabitants of Paris, Texas, and a narrative about Wim Wender's film, Paris, Texas, which used the name of the town but wasn't shot in Paris. The video follows four narrative threads: a film crew while they film the bird-infested interior of the Grand Theater; interviews with Paris, Texas, residents who reflect on cinema and filmmaking; the local resonance of Wenders's film and a partially-erased video tape of his film discovered at the local video store.
ED: Spoken dialogue is a fairly recent addition to your work. You take this even further in Grand Paris Texas by introducing footage of unscripted interviews with town residents. In some ways, this would seemingly make the narrative more defined than in earlier works, which depended solely on visual images and sound.
AB: It's always surprising how certain ideas come back to us again and again. One of the very first pieces Teresa and I made collaboratively was called Small Town (1990). The project incorporated a labyrinth which we built inside an empty building in downtown Banff, Canada—as a museum of doors. Each constructed passageway led to a door, which was accompanied by a photograph and a text which, like the doors themselves, swung back and forth between genres of fiction and documentary.
TH: Another early piece, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure (1991) also mixed fiction and documentary and included dialogue. That project was also a museum—which we built inside the Anna Leonowen's Gallery in Nova Scotia, Canada. The elements in the museum looked like a natural history museum and interwove the lives of two childhood friends who were collectors—Malcolm Spaulding, a collector of birds’ eggs, and Geraldine Ruskin, a collector of books. It's interesting to think about dialogue in those early works and how that connects to dialogue in Grand Paris Texas as well as another work we just finished for the Tate Museum for the Liverpool International Biennial.
AB: On the first research trip we made to Paris, we met a man named Markus Roden, who is a funeral director in Paris. He has buried most of the people who worked at the Grand Theater. Markus talked with us about his ideas of the similarities between directing a funeral and directing a film. It was very exciting for us meeting and talking to him and other people while we were researching the theater. We subsequently made numerous trips to Paris, specifically to schedule conversation sessions. We invited people to come in to talk to us about filmmaking, the Wenders's film Paris, Texas and the importance of the cinema in their town. We also had a lot of phone interviews, email correspondence and spent time at the Paris Community College Library and history archives. From these exchanges, it became apparent that dialogue, in some form, should be interwoven into the structure of the project.
TH: In the interview with Andrea Karnes in the catalogue accompanying our current exhibition in Fort Worth, No Room to Answer, we talk about how the dialogue in Grand Paris Texas feeds the structure of the meta-narrative—that there's always another frame beyond the frame. For example, there's Paris in Texas; then there's another altogether different Paris in France. And there's the film Paris, Texas. In the town of Paris, Texas, we found a single VHS copy of the film for rent, but because a previous renter accidentally taped over the ending the film, it's not clear what happens in the end to the hero—if he makes it to Paris or not. The frame goes on and on...
Elizabeth Dunbar is Curator at Arthouse in Austin, Texas.