Bad at Sports

Interview with Tammy Rae Carland

By Bad at Sports October 26, 2010

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


Image: One Love Leads To Another, 2008; digital C-print; 32 x 50 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

Tammy Rae Carland was born in Portland, Maine, in 1965. She received her MFA from UC Irvine, her BA from the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, and attended the Whitney Independent Study Program. She primarily works with photography, experimental video, and small-run publications. Her work has been screened and exhibited in galleries and museums internationally, including venues in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berlin, and Sydney. Her photographs have been published in numerous books, including The Passionate Camera; Queer Bodies of Desire; and Lesbian Art in America. Her fanzine writing has been republished in A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World. From 1997 to 2005, she co-ran Mr. Lady Records and Videos, an independent record label and video-art distribution company that was dedicated to the production and distribution of queer and feminist culture. Carland is an associate professor at California College of the Arts, where she also chairs the photography program. Here, she sits down with the artist Chris Duncan, gallery dealer Kent Baer, and Brian Andrews and Duncan MacKenzie of Bad at Sports as part of a collaborative series of interviews between Bad at Sports and Duncan that took place October 8 and 9, 2010. The following is an excerpt from their conversation; the interview in its entirety can be heard at Bad at Sports.

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Bad at Sports: Tammy Rae Carland is chair of photography at CCA and an artist with a expansive history of work that includes making ’zines and running a record label. Most recently, she has a show on view at Silverman Gallery entitled Funny Face, I Love You. Tammy, could you describe the show for us?

Tammy Rae Carland: Materially, it’s a series of six, large-scale photographs, some works on paper, and a sculptural piece. The work has to do primarily with my interest in female comedians. That’s my jumping-off point, something that I've been interested in a long time. I started collecting standup-comedy records when I was in high school; it was this geeky thing that I did way back then. I would actually sit around listening to these records. So it was always something that was a part of my life in some way. And I have also participated in sketch comedy troupes, so I’ve had some experience performing, but I am mostly interested in comedy as a site of rebellion, of aggression, and acting from a place in which social and political material oftentimes can't be put out into the world. That you get to perform and say something with the idea of it being a joke. Which goes both ways, right? It also can produce hostile aggression, as well as aggression that is a response to say, sexism or racism. I'm interested in those acts of transgression.

The photographs are of females. Some of them are real comedians and some of them aren’t. I photographed a lot of underground female comedians who aren’t included in the work that I put into the show. I ended up really attracted to the images in which the face and the identity of the actual performer is totally obscured and you're not really sure who you're looking at. And sometimes the gender is ambiguous as well. Then I'm dealing with the blackness of the stage and the lack of specificity of location; the bodies are floating, and slightly obscured in different ways.

BAS: As I was staring at them, I thought, “What is the joke here? I don’t understand how that one woman ends up doing a handstand. What is that the punch line to?” I mean it’s funny, but it’s more confounding than funny.

TRC: I wanted to do things that were abject. I was into the idea of being caught in the climax of the performance, hence the black. There is a woman who is in a banana costume crawling around on all fours on a black stage. Either end of the image is left up to the viewer’s imagination—the onus is on the viewer to decipher what the joke is, or the performance or the gesture.

The other thing I should say is that none of the images are culled from real performances. They choreographed everything and I costumed everything. There is one image of a woman upside down on a stool with her legs up in the air and all of her undergarments exposed. That’s actually a re-creation of a photograph from the back of a Bette Midler record cover. But only I would probably know that. I'm interested in making work about performance in which the performance is withheld and the actual performer isn’t fully revealed.

Accompanying the photographs in the show is a series of jokes. In listening to this huge collection of files that I have, I just sat there and transcribed with a manual typewriter entire monologues by people like Joan Rivers, Bette Midler, a lot of Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, Gilda Radner, and Moms Mabley. I would transcribe the monologue and then choose what I felt was the punch line. In some cases, it was the universal idea of the punch line in that particular joke, but in others, it was my idea of the punch line. The text is covered up with a mat, and there’s a window cut into the mat so that the punch line is revealed.

BAS: Those are interesting because some of them read as jokes and some of them don’t. And so there’s moments where you think, “Oh, they're jokes,” and then go back and think, “That wasn’t funny!” And then try to piece it back together.

TRC: In some cases they are actually not very funny. Even in their entirety. In some cases, they're genius. Some of them are fifty, sixty years old and there are a lot of things about housework and housewifery and childrearing by these female comedians from that time. For them to get up there and completely rip on that was a pretty radical act. By today’s standards, it’s the norm.

Somebody like Phyllis Diller or Joan Rivers was constantly talking about her appearance and how hideous she is. I took out a lot of what would be the joke on them and tried to find the part where they were actually playing the joke outward from their bodies. I was interested in what Roland Barthes writes about the punctum. It’s a thing in a photograph that translates beyond representation and beyond what is the universal reality in a photographic image. It’s the thing that is unique to any individual viewer. So a person looking at a photograph would be drawn in. He calls it being pricked. Literally, being pricked or wounded by something that holds you and captures you. I was thinking about the punch line in terms of the punctum in a photograph. On the one hand, when jokes are written, they're written for an entire audience to end up at a particular moment together, but I'm one of those people who are laughing before, or after, other people. Because I actually find certain points in the delivery or the monologue beside the punch line just as funny.

BAS: So are you a hard audience for a comedian then? Like you're not following along exactly.

TRC: I'm easy. I'm super easy.

BAS: You’ll laugh at anything.

TRC: I see comedy as one of the most vulnerable kinds of performance. The idea of getting up there by yourself, without props in most cases; you don’t have a band, you don’t have a troupe of actors with you, you don’t have a support system, and your dependency on the audience for reaction, approval, and success is so profound. The idea of actually doing that is unimaginable.

BAS: It makes me think about Bill Hicks, a comedian who does encapsulate the transgressive and progressive sensibility you're talking about. There’s that two-minute clip on YouTube from the end of his career where he just melts down at a heckler and becomes so hateful. The pressure of being that guy who has to do this thing in this way, and represent all these values to the audience, just gets to him and he falls apart.

TRC: Have you seen the Joan Rivers documentary?

BAS: No, I have not yet. I've been looking forward to it.

TRC: It’s pretty genius. There’s a scene in which she’s heckled. She gets incredibly emotional and starts to fight back in a vulnerable way, and then gets hostile toward him, and then turns it into a genius joke, and then the whole audience is back there with her. The thing is that she was actually making a joke about a disability, and this man in the audience said something about having a child with a disability. She completely lost the audience, but then managed to bring them right back to her. It was a very interesting narrative moment.

BAS: When I was a teen, and in my early twenties, comedy was not something that had become acceptable. I grew up as a punk-rock kid, and comedy was all about stereotypes and playing off things that were not nuanced enough to be acceptable. It’s funny to think about these women whose positions are ultimately very transgressive, and really progressive, but ultimately also relied on reinforcing stereotypes as they were making jokes.

TRC: I don’t know if you're familiar with Moms Mabley, but she’s somebody that I did a lot of research on. Her jokes are in my show. She’s this really interesting African American woman who was the main influence for Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. She was somebody that talked about sexuality, race, and class, and used vernacular and subculture. She was radical in talking about sexuality and sex.

BAS: I'm curious, then, to hear your opinion about contemporary comedians, such as Sarah Silverman. Maybe specifically in the way that she’s gained her fame by turning it heavily back on herself. And there are a lot of people who are following in her footsteps.

TRC: I think most female comedians have made their careers by being the butt of their own joke. I’ve heard so many horror stories from photographing them; they tell me what it’s like to tour the circuit, and be the minority in that world. But you look at somebody like Roseanne Barr or Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, and they've always been the butt of their own joke. Either their appearance, their lifestyle, their marriage, or their failures as a mother— it’s constantly how they get laughs.

I actually think Sarah Silverman is a really smart entertainer. And I have moments where I feel implicated in what she’s doing sometimes because she pushes the envelope so severely, where you're not sure—okay, this is really funny or racist, or it’s a funny thing about racism. Her thing gets really intense. And while she does do things about her own body and her own identity and Jewishness, she also can be broad in her daggering. Nothing is safe with her.

BAS: I think that’s always the funny space of comedy. That space where we as the audience are implicated and relate entirely to the vulnerability of the performer. That their experience is our experience. Because we’re all a little bit neurotic.

TRC: I think we are.

BAS: I want to bring this back to your work, which I first experienced at your first show with Silverman Gallery, An Archive of Feelings. It blew my mind because there was a photo that was all gifted mixtapes of yours—that is very much a moment in time. Probably a decade and a half—at 

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To hear the full interview, listen to the podcast on Bad at Sportsavailable Sunday, October 31.

best—of different generations of people could have participated in that culture of tape giving. I have a soft spot for that, for sure. And then, as I started to pay attention to your work, there was always a level of nostalgia that I found to be very tender and fully relatable. It didn’t offend me, as nostalgia often does. Within this show—Funny Face—that nostalgia is completely lacking for me. After hearing your description of the show, I am curious to hear your reasoning for not taking pictures of your records. Did that ever come into play? Because that’s how I know you. And I don’t know you, but that’s how I know you. You have a very keen sense of taking these tangible objects and documenting them so their impact and weight is heavy, not just for you, but for a lot of people.

TRC: I was actually taking baby steps around this work about comedy while I was creating Archive of Feelings, and somebody asked me, “What’s the connection?” That show had to do with—I don’t want to say something so absolute, but I can't think of another way to word it—the death of analogue. And with the death of analogue, there are all these crossroads with the death of photography. I feel that I wanted to focus on the death of analogue, not so much in the materials of photography, but in relationships. So the love letters, mixed tapes, and evidence of friendships, relationships, intimacy, and family structures would disappear because everything is going electronic. So looking at my own house I thought, “If I was twenty as opposed to forty when I started making that work, what wouldn't exist in twenty years?” I had a box of love letters just from one girlfriend. That would never happen, ever again. 

In the photograph that you're talking about, I photographed absolutely every mixed tape that a boyfriend or girlfriend or totally intimate best friend had ever given me over probably a twenty-year period. I had ones from when I was eighteen. I photographed them individually, titled them, and made this huge mosaic photograph. You look at it and it’s clearly a complete biography of an individual. There’s also that relationship that exists for a particular generation with a style of communication. But Archive of Feelings in general was somehow touching on theories for affecting grief—how an object can be a memorial for a particular feeling or relationship.

My interest in comedy also has to do with the flipside of that. When I say that most acts of comedy are abject or acts of aggression, they're often playing out wounds. This is written about a lot in terms of theory about comedy. The lifestyle is abject too, and it attracts survivors. To read the biographies, everybody is a tragic alcoholic. But I don’t know if I answered you about the records. I made three different projects with the records. And all failed in my estimates. I mean, one really failed. But I actually did photograph the records. They ended up feeling just way too specific than the other ones that I wanted to put in there. Because the jokes were about not revealing—the photographs withheld a lot and the records just fell like a hammer.

BAS: Was that editing process hard for you, or was it a mile marker in a sense? Taking a deep breath and saying, “Okay, folks, know this about me. I've presented these moments in this capacity before. And this time I'm seriously—I'm walking away from that. I'm not giving.”

TRC:  Yeah. I think the two shows look very different to people. Except all the objects are floating on the backgrounds and they're completely ungrounded, not in an environment. And in the end, that’s what I did with the bodies of these performers, without even being aware I was doing that.

BAS: Chris [Duncan] and I have been talking about your mixtape photos. And that space of affect that is the mixtape—that you make a mixtape for someone because all of those songs affect you in a certain way and create a certain emotional space for you, in which you desperately wanted to resonate with that other human. And I feel this is an experience that is totally going to be stripped from our kids. The generation of people we teach now have no relationship to the mixtape.

I'm Dying Up Here, #5 (bent banana), 2010; color photograph; 30 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

TRC: It just isn’t the same.

BAS: No!

TRC: The record art is really important. Like the cover, and then the boyfriend or girlfriend who is really lazy about the record art, and it’s a good song list, but the cover …

BAS: But also, you only take mixtapes from people you love a lot or people you want to love you.

TRC: Right. Or they love you and you don’t love them.

BAS: Well you might accept those, but you never really listen to them, and you never internalize them, right? Because it was a way of getting to know people, a way to get to know their affect. And the idea of getting to know someone else’s affect strikes me as urgent and interesting at this point.

TRC: It’s really narcissistic, right? Because it’s also the exposure of their idea of you. The song lists and the titles, the sequencing—all of those things say a lot about what they think they like about you. I'm just thinking about getting a tape from somebody, and if there are lyrics in there that say, “I love you.” and it’s only been two weeks, you think “Whoa …”

BAS: Not only that, but the order is important, and the effort. The covers freaked me out because I had terrible handwriting and couldn't draw. So I had to make a whole collage because otherwise, you know, it was not going to work out. If you go for it with some tape and some cut paper and some glitter, perhaps! It could be ugly, but it has weight. And I concur that, hey, if someone gave me a tape and was a little lackluster with the packaging, then I thought, “Maybe—we could go once around, perhaps. Perhaps.”

TRC: I have them all in one box. I tried to purge them several times in my life, or at least some of them. And I just couldn't. Actually part of photographing them were to just let them go. Digitize the ones that are really important …

BAS: I made the mistake of digitizing a couple of them, and it’s such a way to deflate that object. Because then it become like annotated mp3. It doesn’t quite work the same way.

TRC: Mine are unplayable because they're just so stretched. You start it and then …

BAS: I actually just went to Best Buy and bought a boom box with a cassette recorder because I have a lot of old demo tapes from bands—pre-record, pre-vinyl, before bands put their first record out. And then I have a ridiculous amount of old cassettes. What blows my mind in regards to the history and the layers and residue that those mixtapes put on me is that I could hear a song on the radio—The Cure, for example. "Inbetween Days" comes on, and the song after "Inbetween Days" on a mixetape that I was given in 1989 is in my mind, so I'm waiting for that moment. And that moment doesn’t come. It almost hurts me a little bit.

I wanted to ask you where are you from?

I'm Dying Up Here, #4 (upside down), 2010; color photograph; 30 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

TRC: I grew up in Maine. Most of my childhood was in Maine or South Boston. That’s primarily where I come from, and then I lived in Washington state for college. I went to Evergreen State College in Washington. When you were supposed to be there.

BAS: Wicked riot grrrl.

TRC: It was really formative—both going to Evergreen and being with these particular people who were starting record labels and bands, and wonderful artists. And I started a non-profit gallery, which I think really cemented part of my practice—until very recently when I became a parent, I always had a parallel thing. Had a job and then I had this art thing I did, and then I had other things I did. I was really active in the ’zine thing for a long time and a record label. At first I started a video-art distribution thing, and then I started a record label that merged, and I think that is important in terms of the idea of producing culture for other people. Kind of like what you guys do. I think there’s a connective tissue to my own practice.

BAS: More than a decade has gone by since Bikini Kill records began to surface and the Cabbage Collective, when that scene started to fully erupt, and there was that substantial connection between D.C. and Olympia. I'm curious to know if you have any criticisms of how things have gone, or maybe some of your peers in regards to those scenes—where have they taken themselves.

TRC: I think it’s fair. I sincerely don’t have any critiques around any of that. I think what was exciting and interesting for me was watching people—including myself, but it was much easier to watch others than myself—try to adapt with maturity. You know, as our values became more concise, and as our long-term desires in our life became more concise and mature. To watch people make decisions and be able to hold on to core values. They still have them, and then some of us sometimes really screwed up. But it was really exciting to start that record label I had and have Kathleen [Hanna of Bikini Kill] decide where to go. I wanted to start a band, and she was starting this, we trusted each other, and decided to do it together. I thought, “Okay, let’s put out one record,” and we got to put out three records. I consider it a gift to get to work with them, and it was really exciting.

BAS: Yeah. It was an exciting time. Even for a white dude. Let me just say. For a white man—it was fucking really exciting to participate. I bought some records that you made. It was totally revolutionary.

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