Interview with Karen Knorr by Rosa Maria Falvo (June, 2014)

RMF: There is evermore debate about the real purpose of art and the motivations behind it. Who or what is an artist?

KK: I think an artist is someone who is part of an artistic community, which includes contemporaries and peers engaging critically through whatever chosen medium film, performance, photography, painting, etc. – with the world and the community they live in. Art is part of everyday life and creativity can be found everywhere, from ordinary domestic gestures like rearranging your home to ambitious initiatives in public spaces. It’s certainly not limited to a gallery space. Since the Fluxus movement, there are so many forms it can take, from agitprop to playful, and more recently a do-it-yourself aesthetic and collaboration between artists is coming to the fore again. Contemporary art is still hindered, in my opinion, by patriarchal attitudes. Very few women are given solo shows in museums and major galleries compared to men. And art by women doesn’t appear at the top of auction sales. The ‘Guerilla Girls’, an anonymous collective of feminist artists formed in the 1980s, have long since pointed this out with humour.

Artists have a responsibility to engage with audiences beyond their circumscribed communities of class, gender, and race. To be an artist is an ethical position that constantly strives to take into account the “other”. I believe we have a duty to think critically with others, beyond personal expression or “art for art’s sake.” The artists I admire most were and are activists, striving to change the world and its prejudices, showing us the everyday in a new way. This is always “conceptual”, working through the process of making material or immaterial work. Being an artist in the UK, although difficult financially, is still a great privilege. One should never take for granted the freedom to explore and research how the world becomes meaningful. In this sense, I think art is both philosophical and spiritual.

RMF: What brought you to art, and why is photography your preferred medium?

KK: My mother collected art, from expressionist painting and pre-Columbian work through to the folk Santerias of Puerto Rico. So I grew up surrounded by it in the 1960s. Our next door neighbour recorded musical sessions with renowned cellist Pablo Casals and our neighbours included the opera singer Maria Esther Robles. I was of- ten invited by friends to Casals’ festivals and I simply loved to draw. I consistently dreamt about it as a child. I would vividly dream about drawing an animal and then wake up and attempt to do it. Growing up in middle class affluence, accompanied by art and immersed in the 1960s counterculture certainly shaped my character and re- sponses to creativity. I became a tomboy, I remember being rebellious and questioning everything. I have clear memories of being surrounded by art, music, books, and magazines called “fotonovelas”. Television was also formative. So I had a very stimulating environment. Our neigbourhood was full of children of a similar age, and we became great friends.

Photography is one of the most accessible forms of art. It’s all-pervasive, democratic, and now easily dissemi- nated through the social media. It can be many things to many people all at once, crossing and even blending the boundaries between different art forms. I acquired my first Brownie Kodak camera at the age of nine. So pho- tography has always been a central part of my life.

RMF: Your celebrated ‘Fables’ series (2004-2008) refers to European heritage sites and references epic tales from Ovid and La Fontaine, alongside contemporary narratives from popular culture like Disney and Attenborough, where animals are protagonists. How have your viewpoints and perceptions evolved over the course of your work?

KK: I have always initiated each photographic project based on my understanding of the historical and political contexts of what I am photographing. For instance, even earlier on, for my Gentlemen series (1981-1983), I began researching the gentlemen’s clubs in Saint James which started off as 18th century coffee houses. They were places of free discussion for the landowning, male upper-classes. I was interested in how Empire, “clubbability”, and notions of chivalry had all merged into the concept of the “gentleman” in 1980s Britain. Even the structure and design of the architectural spaces in these clubs confirmed them as real “seats” of male power. Women were not allowed in smoking rooms, and special entrances were designated for female visitors. Servants always entered through the back stairs. I read pa
rliamentary speeches in the Hansard and used those debates on the role of women and the Falklands/Malvinas war as the basis for the fictional tex
s captioning my imagery. My readings included Empire literature by Conrad, Kipling, Fleming, and Boy’s Own magazines (1855-1890) in order to mimic, in writing, a particular white male British upper-class voice.

During the early 1980s, I considered myself an activist artist using photography to explore the various privileges, contradictions, and abuses of male power. I realised power was a complex matter, since women are an integral part of this dynamic with some vested interests in supporting it, just as Margaret Thatcher herself had done. So I began using humour and irony strategically to address the contradictions of patriarchy and class privilege in conservative Britain. The concept of interpellation, the way we internalise cultural ideas unconsciously as our own, became very important to me and the text accompanying a very early work Belgravia (1979) was also autobi- ographical.

Today I’m still investigating the discourses of power and class, and how they’re legitimised through the founding narratives of India, pervading its aesthetics, architecture, and gender relations. There are certain feminist issues that I continue to explore allegorically through the use of animal characters. I now think of myself as a cultural entrepreneur, so that my imagery aims to engage in a dialogue with an artistic community that’s both local and global. I also feel it’s my duty to help and support members of that community. For instance, I recently founded an artists’ project space called ‘Chandelier’, which runs from my studio in London.

RMF: Globalisation obviously contributes to the erosion of ancient heritage. And you often talk about the politics of representa- tion. Your stylised juxtapositions, which seem to me deliberately romantic and exquisitely transfixed on “beauty”, equally spotlight the contradictions and social decay to which we are all, at least to some extent, complicit. What would you say is the common thread running throughout your oeuvre?

KK: My ongoing concerns include feminist interpretations of aesthetics, the study of beauty and taste, animal studies, postcolonial theory, and critical theory informed by continental philosophy, which underpin an analytical engagement with documentary photography. Photography is for me an honest method of critical enquiry.

Having studied the history of art, I became aware of the exclusions that distorted art culture in Europe and the United States to privilege Italian and Greek canons, with the Renaissance and Hellenic periods considered the high points in Western art in traditional art history. This model of art history has been challenged since the 1950s by feminist inquiry. I became very interested in aesthetics and the philosophical ideas that give rise to no- tions of beauty, and I came to see how limited and prescriptive our Western perceptions can be, particularly in relation to women. Taste and beauty are ideologically determined by class, race, caste and gender. Immanuel Kant, for instance, gendered the “beautiful” as feminine and the “sublime” as masculine. I think such categories still influence our views on beauty today and are constantly reproduced in fashion and design.

Animal Studies has also been a crucial area of interest for me. It could be argued that humans are only as civilised as their treatment of animals. In Jacques Derrida’s article The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), based on a ten-part address he gave in 1997 before his death that was published in book form posthumously, he critiques man’s dominion over animal life. He’s not the only philosopher to have pointed this out. Carolyn Mer- chant in The Death of Nature (1980) linked the domination of women to the domination of nature. Ecologists have been yelling out for some time about the dangers of the reduction of the biodiversity of our planet. Species such as elephants and tigers are disappearing in the wild and, incredibly, are still hunted as trophies in parts of Africa.

RMF: India is one of those magical places that typically evoke profound and unforgettable sensations in travellers, especially on first impact. Your ‘India Song’ series originated some time ago and evolved into an ongoing body of work concerned with reinterpreting famous havelis and royal art from a contemporary angle . With your outsider’s perspective, why was Rajasthan so significant for you?

KK: In 2008 I travelled to sixteen different historical sites across Rajasthan, which I planned using the internet, including Ranakpur, Udaipur, Dungarpur, Jodhpur, and Jaipur. This was life-changing because I discovered a complex and syncretic culture that totally fascinated me. I observed that India was undergoing rapid develop- ment and that animals were already being cleared out from cities. Cows, monkeys and street dwellers where swept away during the preparations for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. I had read William Dalrymple’s White Mughals and Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. And I admired his commitment and what he was doing for India. I felt that perhaps somehow I could do the same kind of thing visually.

I also read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children back in the 1980s, and the Latin American magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marques’ One Hundred Years of Solitude was the literature I grew up with in Puerto Rico. I have since been reading India’s foundation stories, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. So my self-imposed challenge was to find a modern visual equivalent to miniature painting and to identify the architectural sites across North- ern India that reflected this kind of hybridity.

RMF: Your titles and subtexts often include some sort of ironic allusion or twist. Does your “visual methodology” support a certain mission or particular aspiration?

KK: Each series I have produced since the late 1970s has engaged with identity and its origin myths, whether it’s about family, domesticity and class as in Belgravia, the club, Empire, and patriarchy in Gentlemen, taste and beauty in Connoisseurs and Academies, and more recently caste and femininity in India Song. Yet my work is consciously ambiguous, meanings are not fixed, and beauty and splendor are not trans-cultural but take on different forms. Humour is determined according to the culture it’s positioned within. I hope that my work entices and seduces viewers to think critically about the way identity and subjectivity are engendered and sustained through mediated representations, of which photography is one particularly powerful form. And I delight in different kinds of beauty, colour and play.

RMF: How have your own “nomadic” and multicultural experiences made a difference to your art?

KK: My father, Richard Knorr, was an entrepreneur and my mother, Betty Luros, was a photojournalist. Both had worked on Stars and Stripes, the American newspaper for overseas servicemen and women. And they were multilingual, ambitious, and curious people who enjoyed good food and high culture. My mother had covered the Nuremberg trials and the denazification of Germany after the war. She worked for the Red Cross and was stationed in Stratford upon Avon towards the end of the war. She met my father, a first generation American (Polish) in Hoechst, Germany, and they married six weeks later. I was born in the American hospital in Frankfurt am Main, as was my older brother.

Taking advantage of “Operation Bootstrap”, my father decided to set up business in Puerto Rico and we moved there in 1958. It was quite an epic journey. We took three weeks to reach San Juan, travelling on a cargo ship laden with animals and everyone’s possessions. I distinctly remember roosters crowing, a priest delivering his sermon, my mother suffering from sea sickness in her bathrobe, and the persistent smell of cattle onboard.

We arrived on a tropical island, which had still undergone little development. Our property was 500 metres from the sea and I spent many happy hours combing the beach for shells. We moved into a neighbourhood that was very multicultural, with Corsican, Italian, Spanish, and American neighbours, not far from Isla Verde and Loiza Aldea which is an important hub for music. La Plena, an Afro-Caribbean musical form refers to the everyday life of labour and news events of ordinary working people. La Bomba, a freestyle dance form originating in Africa synced to beating drums is also preformed in Loiza Aldea. I arrived speaking German, which soon faded out of context, and I quickly replaced it with Spanish and French. I still have many dear friends from those days, and I visit Puerto Rico as often as I can.

After high school, I studied for a year at Franconia College, an experimental liberal arts college where there were no grades, just a pass or fail. This countercultural experience stimulated my first dedicated experiments in image making. I took a course in photography and creative writing with Eileen Cowin, and we explored alternative pho- tographic processes such as gum bichromate, cyanotypes, and silk screening. During that time I experimented with lith film images suspended over other photographs, giving three-dimensional depth, so I was actually pro- ducing something more like objects rather than photographs.

Then in the early 1970s I lived in the Latin Quarter in Paris for three years. This was an exhilarating time for me. I studied at the American University there and then art at L’Atelier, Rue de Seine, often visiting the neighbouring Beaux Arts for life drawing classes. It was in Paris that I developed a certain discipline for prolonged and critical observation that served me well later when I studied photography at the Polytechnic of Central London. My rich experiences in London as a photography undergraduate quite literally changed my life and creative outlook. The photographic and filmic art BA Honours course I completed was renowned for its emphasis on theory based photographic practice. Rather than typically focusing on one main theory it covered many, which opened up a fascinating and syncretic dialogue with film and cultural studies, semiotics, literature, and psychoanalysis. This kind of multidisciplinary exposure to critical theory became a catalyst for me to finding a new way of bringing politics into documentary photography, in a less didactic and much more playful way. All these fully immersive cultural sensations fed into my work and lay the foundations for my insatiable curiosity. I say immersive because of the strong bonds I have formed with people and their ideas, as is the case with my recent experiences in India.

RMF: So do you feel more identified with a specific culture and political stance?

KK: I am an American citizen, an ex-pat living in London, with a mix of European origins including Norwegian, German, and Polish. My identity seems forever displaced and yet I’m very attached to the multi-cultural toler-

ance that London promises when it shows itself at its best. Puerto Rico was my first taste of this idea of multi- ple perspectives with a non-European culture infused with music, sounds, smells, and colours, not unlike India itself. I’m appalled by the increasing polarisation between rich and poor in Britain today, especially the heartless abuse directed at the weak and vulnerable in the current neoliberal climate. And I remain proud that my taxes pay for its pioneering welfare state and the National Health Service.

Since my youth I have felt strongly committed to a form of democratic socialism that includes feminism and full equal rights for all people, regardless of race, gender, and class. Although raised in affluence, I continue being anti-royalist as I feel that this entitlement is fundamentally flawed in today’s context. I haven’t moved to the right like many of my contemporaries in politics and the arts. I continue to be ‘utopian’.

RMF: Did you draw any inspiration from surrealism, and are you interested in hyperrealism?

KK: It depends what kind of surrealism we’re talking about. There are many interpretations and the one I like least are some of the facile references to its most popular artists such as Dali and Magritte. The Surrealists’ polit- ical inquiries and their interest in psychoanalysis were indeed revolutionary, but I found their ideas about women misogynistic. Women were regarded as muses to male genius.

Georges Bataille who wrote Story of the Eye in 1928 interests me more. He really pushed the boundaries, explor- ing ideas of transgression, desire and the “impossible”, influencing another very important thinker Jacques La- can. I’m definitely not “inspired” by hyperrealism or photorealism. I don’t feel I have anything in common with many of its exponents. I find Jean Baudrillard’s treatise on Simulacra and Simulation (1981) far more stimulating since it actually questions the truth effects of the photograph.

RMF: What personal significance, if any, do dreams and legends have for you? And would you say there’s inherent meaning in what happens to us both unconsciously and in the course of our own history?

KK: Dreams are incorporated into legends as wish fulfillments of a country, region and its people. Stories and narratives that have been memorised over generations naturally change over time. They’re constantly revised, reinterpreted, and reconfigured as they’re passed down in oral and written forms. Epic poems in Europe such as Beowulf, Iliad and the Odyssey don’t distinguish between fictional elements and historical facts; they’re intertwined, much like the origin stories of South Asia. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the two great Hindu epics, aim to teach the main goals or facets of human life: the workings of karma, artha or purpose, kama or pleasure, dharma or duty, and moksha or liberation. These stories attempt to explain the relationship of the individual to society and are re-enacted in traditional festivals. Storytellers have a fundamental role. They exist in order to help explain our world and our place within it, encouraging us to develop as individuals, to discover meaning, and to teach and nurture future generations. They also create argument, discussion, and debate about how to live the good life.

I think everyone’s life has inherent meaning, despite our increasingly polarised society under neoliberalism. French philosopher Jean Luc Nancy is one thinker who consistently addresses the question of “meaning” head on, without really flinching at the metaphysics. In Being Singular Plural (2000) he writes: “There is no meaning if meaning is not shared, and not because there would be an ultimate or first signification that all beings have in common, but because meaning is itself the sharing of Being.” And for me, particularly as an artist, that “Being” is community, and we are all part of the “sharing”.

RMF: The possibilities for representation are boundless, especially when you combine the powers of imagery and text. How impor- tant do you think symbolism and metaphor are in today’s visually saturated world?

KK: Artists are today’s storytellers, kindling the ability to think and learn creatively. For me allegory is visual rhetoric, which is very important, and it’s what my work is constantly dealing with both on a practical and poetic level. Allegory tells one story through another, and in photography it works as a narrative construct where an image may have literal meanings but simultaneously holds symbolic truths. Images are polysemous, that’s to say they have several meanings and may quote or echo texts or other images. So they become poignant and meaning- ful to audiences who are familiar with those cultural references. In India Song, the birds and mammals inserted in my photographs link the Ramayana culture of Northern India to allegorical representations of femininity and masculinity that aim to disrupt the spectator’s expectations, creating visual ‘disturbances’ in rooms and palaces, some of which are now private museums. For instance, in “The Flight to Freedom” an elegant white egret strides gracefully through the Durbar Hall of an old private family palace in Dungarpur. She flees her gilded cage and her presence is transgressive in this exclusively male space.

RMF: You’re one of the few photographers working today who has succeeded in juggling past and present. And your “portraiture” captures actors on an historical stage who consistently comment on our cultural assumptions, especially about “decorum”. What’s your general approach to history and impermanence?

KK: Art is not a religion or dogma with answers, but at its best it explores the ambiguities of existence and be- ing. We’re all a product of history and its discontents. My India Song work references the Ramayana and Pan- chatantra in order to highlight the eternal, irreconcilable conflicts between human and non-human life, between nature and civilisation. It aims to celebrate Indian cultural heritage, not only the buildings but the landscape, the flora and the fauna of this extraordinary country. Animal life is as important to me as human life, and in our life- time we’re all guardians of the world’s heritage which belongs to everyone. I have always tried to use what I learned from conceptual art to create a new critical documentary style, using the aesthetics of fine art print pho- tography with a deconstructive, often humorous textual strategy. I feel it’s an optimistic approach to imperma- nence.

RMF: To make this body of work you used a large format Sinar camera for resolution and detail, and then separate photographs of animals at high shutter speeds, freezing their movements, and then inserting them into various architectural interiors. I imagine it’s a fairly meticulous process. What’s your attitude to using technology in photography?

KK: Technology as technique is always a means to an end, not an end in itself. Since India Song my work has hap- pily completed the transition between analogue and digital photography. Previously in Fables I shot on film and then scanned the negatives or positives, converting them into high-resolution digital images. With this post-pro- duction process, images taken at different times and places are brought together. This breaks with what Roland Barthes called the “that has been” aspect in analogue photography that’s linked to its indexical nature. So these multiple applications embed different layers of time in my digital images: the time required to photograph the animals in their habitats; the slow timing of photographing the interiors; and the time it takes to assemble all these elements together on a computer screen. I now work only with digital cameras, but the process is similar. This method is like photomontage, as one image is cut out and pasted onto the other yet the edges are woven into the architectural space that “receives” the animal figure. I don’t use appropriated media imagery. I photo- graph all the animals and interiors myself, using very different ways of capturing the raw files which I manipulate with Photoshop. My images often take months to complete and several people to help retouch them with me. This combination of composition and manipulation allows me to explore the metaphors while presenting my critique.