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Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Octavia Bürgel

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Spring 2018


Bridget Conway: Do you have an artist’s statement or intention for work that you’re working on right now, or work that you’ve worked on in the past?

Octavia Bürgel: Well, I don’t have an artist statement currently that I’m proud of, but I make work that’s largely photographic. I’ve been doing photography for eight years at this point. I mostly do work that talks about race in some capacity, as it directly relates to my experience. Recently, I’ve felt like my most comfortable ways to talk about that have been through abstraction, although the majority of my work is largely representational or figurative. I’ve been dealing a lot with ideas of identity and construction and how we can represent facets of identity through abstraction, but also through the repetition of specific motifs and imagery and ideas.

BC: What are some of those abstractions or other motifs that you rely on in such a representational media?

OB: I’ve been doing a lot of things with image distortion. So mostly distorting images to the point that they’re unrecognizable, and then questioning whether or not those images can realistically be called photographs. I think a lot of my real interest in photography is also embedded in the physical technique, the literal techniques and processes that are required in order to make a photograph. And so I think my work is very process-based because it’s consistently informed by whatever—however I’m printing or distorting the image. So recently, this woodblock that I just printed is like this photograph of a bunch of Oberlin baseball players in the 1800s. I’m trying to distort that to reshape the narrative about the importance of education, because this is like our school. And I think there’s a real way that sports and white maleness lend themselves very easily to glory and celebrity. And I feel like we talk so much about the “great American sports” and all of these things, but also this project for me is really about being like, yeah, OK those things are interesting, but like specifically at Oberlin, the legacy that we brag about has directly to do with the legacy of slavery. I feel a lot of my work is a constant sort of questioning and hopefully the work itself can be a process of answering.

BC: Do you want to speak a little bit about the work that you either brought or that you wanted to bring?

OB: Yeah, I’ll talk a little bit about the work I wanted to bring. So, I think for a long time—and this also very much coincides with my experience of growth and developing a sense of self and identity, in my college career. Because I think my earlier [work] or the work at least that I was doing when I… first started doing photography, it was just very simple. You know, you have a camera and you take pictures. And that’s just like what I did for years. Then I took a couple of photo classes here and there and the projects that I was doing were sort of related to identity, but more through like space. And then when I got to Oberlin, I started talking about my identity in this way that was mostly through self-portraiture. And I’ve found, oddly enough, that self-portraiture is a thing that I feel very comfortable doing. I think because you just need one person to do it. So more and more, as I’ve been in school and reading a lot about many of the Black artists who have come before me and who have been dealing with ideas of Blackness and abstraction, and Blackness as an abstraction, as a state of nothingness and death, I’ve been very much starting to be pulled in a more abstract or theoretical direction, and so I did this piece… last semester, it doesn’t have a title, but I was thinking a lot about landscapes and specifically urban landscapes, because every time I would go home to New York I was walking around and there’s just textures and colors and sounds and everything. And I was just like, Oh my God, you can’t synthesize a place into a photograph.

I have a lot of thoughts about photos in general too, but I think photographs, people usually think of as being reductive in some sense, as being a flattening of a real experience. And I definitely buy into that idea to a certain extent, and so last year I was really starting to think about landscape and textile. And so I did this piece that was—making these prints, both photographic and screen-printed—images of basketball courts because they’re just… I think that there’s just so much to be said for the basketball court as a symbol, as a graphic symbol. First of all, just because it’s so recognizable automatically, but also the court in so many Black communities is a really fraught space where it’s at once supposed to be representative of freedom and joy and the ability of movement and, I guess to a certain extent, the awareness of having a body is directly tied into any kind of physical activity. But then on the other hand, it’s also for many people a source of life and hope and the idea that… I don’t know, it’s just so much, it’s such an image of success, and I think that I just really wanted to trouble that invention. I was using a variety of media, and I was taking these images, of basketball courts and kind of… oh, I was distorting them! Oh my god, I didn’t even realize, but I was messing with them so they would print a little weirdly.

I have a lot of thoughts about photos in general too, but I think photographs, people usually think of as being reductive in some sense, as being a flattening of a real experience. And I definitely buy into that idea to a certain extent, and so last year I was really starting to think about landscape and textile. And so I did this piece that was—making these prints, both photographic and screen-printed—images of basketball courts because they’re just… I think that there’s just so much to be said for the basketball court as a symbol, as a graphic symbol. First of all, just because it’s so recognizable automatically, but also the court in so many Black communities is a really fraught space where it’s at once supposed to be representative of freedom and joy and the ability of movement and, I guess to a certain extent, the awareness of having a body is directly tied into any kind of physical activity. But then on the other hand, it’s also for many people a source of life and hope and the idea that… I don’t know, it’s just so much, it’s such an image of success, and I think that I just really wanted to trouble that invention. I was using a variety of media, and I was taking these images, of basketball courts and kind of… oh, I was distorting them! Oh my god, I didn’t even realize, but I was messing with them so they would print a little weirdly.

Before that, I guess the piece that sort of […] thinking a lot at the end of last year about race and that was really the first time that I was directly talking about race, because before that, my work that was mostly self-portraiture and it consisted of exactly that. But I would kind of just be like “Oh, this is about identity,” without putting any real kind of term onto it, because I think my experience of being half white and half Black always made me into a weird kind of thing that nobody really knew what to do with, where I felt ostracized from my white family and also ostracized from my Black family, and just didn’t really know if it was even remotely possible for me to talk about race because I didn’t know what I was. But also, I think so much of the experience of being a Black person and the experience of being a mixed person or any kind of person who is somehow “uncategorizable” or an anomaly, is feeling literally ignored and fully invisible. And so it’s really important to me that people actually have to be able to look at the work and engage with the work and not brush the work off. 

Image by Octavia Bürgel

Yeah, it took me awhile to figure out. So I started making work about Black masculinity, because I just had been thinking so much about all of these relatives that I had, and family members and friends. And all of these ideas are coming directly in a time when police brutality is, it’s constant, it’s everywhere. It’s impossible to get away from. And so not working within some kind of response to that or some kind of very emotional feeling about the way that this constant stream of murder was affecting me, felt, I don’t know, a little bit disingenuous. So I started making this work about Black masculinity by just sort of compiling archived family photos and printing them using a nineteenth-century photographic process. And I was printing on silk and that was the first time that I had ever printed on a material that wasn’t photo paper and it felt really, really exciting and freeing to be exploring different types of material. And so, for that piece specifically, it was really the silk that was so important to me because the whole “I can’t breathe” slogan was just everywhere and so I was just —these images need to be able to breathe, they need to be able to move. They can’t just exist as this flattened thing, and so now I feel, I’m very much in this phase of trying to understand how photography can be not a reductive thing but an additive process. And how can you make photos and prints and these very two dimensional objects into some construction of a life or an identity. 

BC: Where do you see your work going from here? What are your next projects planned for you know, senior year? Different media or continuing with photography? 

OB: I feel like I’m always going to be using photography in some sense… I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the times that I’ve taken extended gaps from any kind of photo-related work have felt really, really weird…there are a lot of ideas that I’ve really been trying to work through this semester specifically about mixedness, of being mixed of any background. And I have been really fascinated because we’ve been doing a lot of readings in this printmaking class and also in this translation workshop that I’m in here. They’ve been mostly kind of theoretical texts, but they examine the ways that, for example, in translation, the way that there’s this dichotomy between the original and the copy, and the original and the facsimile. And the same I think can be said for printmaking. And photography too, you have the original moment and then you have a photograph, or you have the matrix or the drawing or whatever the idea is, and then you have the print. I think that that applies really well to a mixed race identity because there is the feeling of being other, and the feeling of being uncategorizable comes from being viewed as a copy, in a sense. But I do really want to start getting more sculptural and definitely less… I don’t want to say less figurative, because also some of the ideas that I—one of the main ideas that I want to do is fashion-related. And I think that there’s just so much to be done with fashion in terms of making it into art, and I also think that there’s so many ways that there can be fashion that is specifically for an outsider identity, and how does that represent us. So that’s kind of what I’m going to be working on next year, but I’m also working on a lot of other things.