Interview: Adam Schreiber
by Mike Osborne
Austin-based photographer Adam Schreiber recently completed a new body of work based around the DeLorean DMC-12, entitled Diminishing Return, during his three-month residency at Artpace San Antonio. Mike Osborne sat down for an illuminating conversation about his process and the genesis of this project for …might be good. The International Artist-In-Residence New Works 10.3 exhibition is on view at Artpace through January 9, 2011.
…might be good […mbg]: Congratulations on your new Artpace show. You're showing a new group of photographs that revolve around the DeLorean and its peculiar history. How did the project come about? Serendipity? Research? Serendipitous research?
Adam Schreiber [AS]: It’s difficult to say. Probably I’d call it accidental research. I think the long answer begins with this really beautiful Katrina Moorhead piece lodged in my mind. It is of two plywood replica DeLorean doors laying on a gallery floor beneath an off-white enlarged text replica of the first page of Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon, in which the author recounts an institutional daydream he had in the early ‘90s. I love that piece and I always wondered about the origin of the doors.
A few years later I was reading about General Motors and came across the story of John DeLorean. I was surprised to find that he had quit General Motors to pursue the realization of this vehicle. The enterprise was short-lived; about 9000 cars were manufactured between 1981-82. I soon discovered that a Houston-based entrepreneur had purchased the stock surplus parts in 1997 and eventually opened a facility in Humble, Texas in 2008. I went there in May and met with the VP of the newly incarnate DMC. After touring the warehouse facility, I proposed that I come and make pictures. For reasons I still don’t understand, he went from saying “absolutely not” to giving me free reign. I returned soon after and it was true: not only did they leave me alone to make pictures, but also many of the employees went to great lengths to make the pictures possible with the help of forklifts. It kind of evolved from there.
…mbg: A lot of your past work has drawn on subjects that you've encountered in various archives (the Harry Ransom Center, the LBJ Library, etc.) Other pictures relate to a recurring preoccupation with technology and obsolescence. You entitled your show in New York earlier this year Anachronic, which I took as a reference to the way in which both an archive and a photograph pry an object or its image away from its native temporal context. How do the DeLorean pictures relate to these various threads in your work?
AS: There’s a dual aspect to the warehouse of parts. On the one hand it functions as the reservoir for the creation and servicing of new and existing DeLoreans. On the other hand it’s an archive of original parts, many of which will never be used because they are damaged. The inadvertent preservation going on there is conspicuous and rather interesting. It’s similar in ways to the LBJ Library, where thousands of items are preserved by virtue of association to the former president. The contingency of most of those items is glaring. It’s a controlled mess inside. But the mess is useful as a default collection that conceals some deeper institutional dysfunction.
I like to think of the DeLorean pictures as part of a more diffuse collection of images that I am developing. I have framed them as unused pieces of an incomplete catalogue whose existence in time has for the most part been marked as aftermath. The pictures were made with the knowledge that the parts are specific to the car, but they remain partially non-specific, disconnected from the whole.
Generally, I’m interested in this re-organization of objects as a constellation of signatures, non-chronological and in process. In a sense, the tension between image and object, date and design, integrity and debris, unhinged from their contexts, allows for a selective organization of contents without meaning into a collection.
Collections are the evidence of misremembering, determined by chance and seizure. The implications vary, but technology is integral to this fluctuating syntax of value. Despite shifts in it, I think the Proustian model of recollection is most apt: the present unfolds unexpectedly in the future, while the past holds the present hostage and shapes it. By that logic, I expect the DeLorean pictures to change in relation to other pictures, past and future.
…mbg: At least three pictures in the show were shot in the exhibition space. The first image, of a DMC-12 shot from behind and framed in relation to the architecture, is a knockout. The picture's virtual space connects to the physical space where we stand to view it, but there's also a temporal blip in this recognition: when we turn from looking at the picture, the car isn't there. Alternatively, the picture seems to offer up a kind of fiction—as though you were giving us a glimpse into the gallery-like garage of some Russian oligarch in a William Gibson novel. Tell me about the decision to shoot in the exhibition space and about the process of making this picture. And whose car are we looking at?
AS: The car in the picture belongs to the new incarnation of the DeLorean Motor Company in Humble. It was recently built from new-old stock parts—meaning newly assembled from parts manufactured around 1981.
The picture came out of thinking about how to use the exhibition space as a framing device. It was clear to me at the beginning of the residency that I wanted the exhibition space exhibited in some way, and to have the DeLorean there without having it there. Eventually I was able to organize the delivery of a car from Humble. I made several pictures, eventually settling on the most idiosyncratic view of the space: the view one has upon entering. I installed this photograph on the immediate left as one enters, as that’s the picture most typically passed over. One sees it most clearly on exiting.
Before Artpace came into being, the building was used as an automobile showroom and garage, so there was an architectural incentive to open the garage door and drive a vehicle in. The architectural history was something I thought about a lot during the residency. There are subdued marks everywhere in the live/work space from past projects. In this way, temporal displacement is built into the residency. The new-old stock DeLorean seemed to fit an architectural change from auto-shop to art container.
But I prefer your fantasy of a Russian oligarch. It really is a garage-like gallery.
…mbg: The other two pictures shot in the space are nearly identical and displayed as a diptych. They show the car, very tightly framed, with its gull wing doors up, apparently in the process of being photographed by a view camera. A studio strobe is slightly visible in a reflection on the view camera's ground glass. The second picture differs from the first only in the inclusion of a bit of fog or smoke in the lower right corner. Can you talk about these pictures in terms of their theatricality? Are they shot differently from the other pictures in the show?
AS: They were shot digitally, whereas the others were shot on large format film. It matters to the degree that the diptych is a clunky reflection on the technology of representation. But that would be true anyway, digital or not. I think something about the similarity of the two images references the digital format.
In a way, it felt so excessive to have a DeLorean in the space that it seemed wasteful to not also have a smoke machine. And then, it seemed pertinent to attach this secondary act of viewing—positioning the view camera to be seen—and then to double it. In retrospect, it was a series of gestures that reenact the vanity of the objects self-consciously.
Both the gull wing doors with leather straps and the elaborate adjustables on the camera outfit seem overdone, theatrical, hollow. Both are machines of specific vintage bent on ideas of refinement and control. In the stiff theatricality of the frame, they become synonymous. Their function for the picture is vanity. The DeLorean was designed for a 6’4” driver. It’s very difficult for shorter people to drive it. Its surface is stainless steel, which records every hand that touches it. Everyone in the DeLorean community agrees that the hardest part about owning the car is cleaning its surfaces.
The pictures were hung close together to make it difficult to look at either individually, reinforcing the viewer’s need to differentiate or choose. When shooting digitally, choosing is inseparable from exposure. The pairing is thus a deliberate redundancy.
…mbg: When you first arrived at Artpace, we were exchanging some emails and you mentioned to me: "The rooms have cable. Robocop is on right now. Forgot how many times I watched that as a kid. I remember going to a movie theater birthday party of a friend when that came out. I never noticed […] there are a few scenes where you see the skyline of Detroit out of windows and it's literally a gray architectural model." And you attached a jpeg of Storage (Southeast), Humble, DMC, 1980-, which shows a bunch of stainless steel exterior panels and transmissions lined up on some heavy duty shelves. There’s something anthropomorphic about this inventory. If you're resistant to the idea that the work is topical, to what extent is it autobiographical, steeped in the time-travel of Back to the Future, the dystopian sci-fi of Robocop, Terminator, etc., and birthday parties at Milwaukee cineplexes?
AS: I remember being traumatized by Back to the Future. I was eight years old and couldn’t wrap my head around a past that would suddenly cease to exist. The absurdities of the movie didn’t register at all: I was pre-judgment, the perfect sponge for a rift in the space-time continuum.
One of the best things about photographs is that they are never strictly autobiographical. One can always refer. But they simultaneously bring up the mystery of recurrence. And they do shape a sense of biography through the associative language of reference. They are as messy as any pre-demeanor, despite the thin perfection of their surfaces.
…mbg: Also, did you notice that Robocop's streets look very similar to Dallas, circa 1985?
AS: It’s funny that Robocop actually was filmed in Dallas. At the time, it was a very futuristic looking city.
Mike Osborne is an artist based in Austin, Texas.