ARSENI KHAMZIN is a visual artist based out of Vancouver, Canada. He is currently traveling through Africa and working on an extensive body of new work. He holds a BFA with a focus in Photography from Emily Carr University of Art & Design and has also studied at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York.
DARYA KOSILOVA is the art and photography editor of The Lab Magazine. She is a former painting and illustration student at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. She currently lives in New York City.
DARYA KOSILOVA—Considering we’ve known each other for seven years now, it’s a bit awkward interviewing my best friend…
ARSENI KHAMZIN—Yeah, but it’s not like we necessarily go into discussions about our artwork in this context on many occasions…
DK—So tell me about your artwork. For the record, I’m glad you’re back to calling it “artwork,” considering you were prepared to burn everything you’ve ever made a few months ago.
AK—It’s artwork because it’s hard to find a word that’s easier to connect to. I can call them studies or research, but it’s also something that eventually I do end up showing and that people do end up connecting with. I don’t really know if it’s up to me to determine it, because I think very little of what I make is necessarily artwork, but others disagree with that.
I’ve been taking photos for a long time, mostly because I have a compulsion to do so. For me it’s been an effective way to synthesize the world and my experiences into a language that more and more people relate to intimately. It’s a bit like poeticizing and putting a complicated subject into something that’s concise at a surface level but that also brings with it these plains of theory and aesthetics and history and calls up whole image histories.
DK—It’s interesting how you talk about intimacy in relation to a viewer. It’s hard to sometimes pinpoint intimacy in a photograph that isn’t a portrait. I’d say that 50 per cent of your work is portraiture and then 50 per cent is something that is a different kind of human portrait.
AK—I think that I bring up intimacy because I’m actually really torn about whether a viewer’s relationship with intimacy is sustainable for photographs in a digital age. I feel like more people connect with photography because we’re exposed to so many more images now than we were 10 years ago – cellphones and Facebook have totally changed everything for how images are disseminated.
I also feel that if you have such a flood of anything, at some point, there’s a necessity to detach yourself from it. You can only take so many things in at once. It’s the same with photographs, and eventually you need perceptual walls to come up so you can block them out and focus on more immediate things, but it’s really difficult to push those walls down after you build them up.
So I feel that as more people are getting exposed to photographs it’s becoming harder to really connect intimately with images, because they’re everywhere, at every moment, every day. I feel like the intimacy of photographs is waning. That the amount of time people spend with an image is getting shorter. That taking time to stop and really look at an image is becoming a lot for a cultural producer to ask of their viewers.
DK—I feel the same when it comes to the amount of images that we view daily. It’s almost as if we’ve learned to filter the world around us. And it’s not just with images, but also in life. Like walking down the street and seeing someone lying face down on the concrete and not stopping to wonder if they’re OK or if they need help. With ads, and Facebook, and Instagram, and all these other image-processing tools that we have today, we’ve almost lost sense of the real world. Sometimes a photograph will affect you more than the real thing.
AK—And sometimes that photograph is your barrier to the world because it’s too hard to confront the reality of a thing. But it can get too safe, for both viewer and producer.
DK—What do you mean by “it can get too safe”?
AK—I mean that sometimes the photograph exists so it can’t affect you. So that, for the maker of the image, the experience becomes less real – less affective. For the viewer of the image, the experience is removed, but the power of the image takes on a different affective quality. But each time we get inundated with photos from a natural disaster, we don’t start weeping – we desensitize. Every image starts as this affective thing, but collectively they begin to detach us more and more from what’s depicted. The affective images cause this psychological safety bubble to kick in.
DK—Do you think we’ll ever be able to reverse that?
AK—Well what would we reverse it to?
DK—Back to something intimate. Why would we want to produce images if they’re essentially becoming meaningless?
AK—I think that producing images and taking them in are very different experiences with very different motivations. Sometimes images are just about getting across information. Sometimes you’re trying to convey something intimate – something that records you, and all your sensitivity as an artist, on film. But once you put that out in this very public place, you give it up to your viewers. Your images become something at their mercy.
You never think you’re making anything meaningless. Everyone wants to make meaningful things, to touch other people. But that process is so dependent on who’s looking and how they’re choosing to look. And sometimes, you’re not sure if anyone is really looking at all.
DK—I think in order to have something meaningful, we need a lot of things to be meaningless. But please tell me about this trip that you’re planning on taking! Where are you going?
AK—I’m going to be traveling through Africa for an indefinite period of time. Starting in the South, going along the East, and up to the North. I’m going to be making things along the way, and mostly I’m interested in researching how capitalism manifests in Third World nations – how the franchises and aesthetics we’re used to in the Western world adapt in the cultures of developing nations, and whether those cultures embrace or resist this process.
DK—It sounds like you’re almost going to be doing a bit of detective work!
AK—Something like that! It’s following most of the work I’ve been shooting in the last three years in different parts of the world, with the exception of my recent portraits.
DK— I think that our society wants us to believe that these cultures are dying to embrace capitalism.
AK—I’m not sure if you can really distill the motives of “our society.” I think it’s just a really fascinating process and it’s happening everywhere in such a generic way. Asia, South America, Europe. You can’t just put a Starbucks anywhere on earth and expect it to make sense with what’s around it, but that’s what happens, and visually I think it speaks wonders.
I’ve been watching the same repetitive structures being built throughout the world: gas stations, shopping malls, hotels, fast-food chains, banks, entertainment franchises, and condominium developments. The structures begin to function as both totems and generic signifiers of this greater machine that’s just trying to reach for everything it can grab. But cultures have their own unique ways of saying, “Fuck you,” or really just loving it. And that’s what ends up looking different everywhere. And that’s the side of travel that no one shows you, too.
DK—I’ll never forget this one time when I was living in Italy, and one of my close friends there told me how Dunkin Donuts once attempted to build a location in Milan. Supposedly it was the biggest act of obscenity that had been seen there in a while.
AK—My favorite is when brands we’re so familiar with try to build up this image of their sensitivity to the conventions of another place. So, a highly westernized aesthetic starts taking on the ideals of a totally foreign culture. Like the image I have of Ronald McDonald with his hands together in a greeting gesture in Thailand. It ends up looking totally ridiculous to someone outside that.
DK—I want to talk to you a bit about crisis, specifically towards your own work. Recently, you went through a period of hatred towards what you did. Tell me about that time in your life.
AK—Well, that’s a pretty common thing with anyone who spends their life making things, isn’t it? A personal crisis made me start doubting and reconsidering everything I was doing. Photography bore the brunt of this reconsideration. I started making the recent portraits because I went through a long while where I had a lot of doubts about photography and whether it was enough to really investigate complex ideas or whether it was something that was working on more of a superficial level.
Making beautiful things was something that made me happy in the moment. It was my instant gratification. But then I began to wonder whether this was doing anything for my career or my own growth as an artist… I wasn’t sure whether making beautiful photographs was a good strategy any more – because of how immediate the beauty is. If you’re only looking at something for a fraction of a second then you’re going to notice the beautiful thing, but I don’t know whether you’ll actually want to go and spend the time looking for or thinking about anything beyond that.
I guess I wanted to see if beauty in photographs was legitimate enough. Or whether it was like fast food. Whether it was a good measure against the artists I was interested in; whether it could compel people. It became this exercise to make myself feel better and at the same time see if that was just a therapeutic experience or something that could also be used to explore a deeper understanding. I’m still not sure where I stand on this.
DK—I love that comparison, if the beauty in a photograph is like fast food. What does it take to get a home-cooked picture these days? That can be the title of your next book.
AK—[Laughs] I don’t know if my models would like to be related to fast food. The experience of photographing them definitely doesn’t come off that way. The experience itself is very intimate. But I just wonder about the result – about how it’s consumed, or lost along the way, or forgotten.
DK—Would you cease to be a photographer if you found out that the result didn’t matter?
AK—Well, I think that’s what’s happening. I feel like I’m becoming less and less compelled by photographs. I feel like it’s definitely not enough in terms of a finished thing. I feel like I’m most gripped by work that transcends mediums. That encompasses photographs, and videos, and installations, and experiences.
DK—So are you planning to pursue more multi-media outlets for your work?
AK—The work should be a meal, I think. It should be taken in by all the senses. It should be something that makes you stop and consider it. It shouldn’t just be a cheeseburger that you eat when you come home, fucked up after a night of partying.
DK—You must admit though, sometimes a cheap cheeseburger is what the soul needs.
AK—It’s true… I am planning to move away from photographs. Right now it’s hard because it’s such a huge part of my comfort zone. But yes, I want to make in different ways. I just feel like if you want to make it big in art history, you have to have something to say, and you have to say it effectively and in a way that people won’t forget. I forget cheeseburgers all the time.
DK—Cheeseburgers are good people too. Good luck in Africa, Arseni. Bring me back a T-shirt.