Disrupting the Quotidien
KB: Larry, it’s great to connect with you after so many years. Thanks for taking the time to have this chat with me. Let’s begin with your time at the San Francisco Art Institute. How do you feel it had an impact on you and your art practice and career over all these years?
LA: That’s a big question. It actually started in Washington, DC. I had been kicked out of the Corcoran School of Art, for non-payment of tuition. I showed up one day to: “You're not allowed to be here.” I was totally depressed and didn't know what to do. But my printmaking instructor, Scip Barnhart, called me and said, “I heard you got kicked out of school. I'd like to hire you as my assistant.” When I showed up at the school, I felt like the administration was a little annoyed. But it was a beautiful gesture that he made that kept me involved in the community and connected to the institution and its tools, but most importantly to its people.
One day there was an art school fair in the school basement, with schools from all over the country. I don't know if they were recruiting for graduate programs or what, but there they were. I walked down with some work, and strolled around meeting people. Michael Grady, the Director of Admissions at SFAI at the time, was there and I showed him some of my work. I think I was working on portraits of friends and family that I took with a 4 x 5 camera, and then went back in and drew into the negatives—a combination thing. Michael said, “Oh, this looks interesting. You should apply for our Sobel Scholarship.” I think it was a full scholarship. So, I flew out to San Francisco.
I have always loved the city. My mother brought us there once when I was very young. Our hotel was in the Tenderloin—it was really wild. We arrived late at night and all kinds of crazy stuff was going on. My mother said, “We can’t stay here; we’ve got to go somewhere else.” But I was thinking, “This place is kind of interesting.”
So I was already infatuated with San Francisco, and when Michael invited me back it was a beautiful opportunity. I went out for the interview for the Sobel Scholarship and ended up getting it. It was amazing: to be kicked out of art school, but then have a person reach out and bring me back into the community; and then have Michael show up and say, “We'd like to have you come work over here.” Getting the scholarship and the full tuition grant —I think there was also a work study job as part of it—so I had a little bit of pocket money to pay rent and stuff like that. It was wonderful. At that point I had two more years left of school to do.
KB: Some of your previous school applied towards your degree at SFAI?
LA: Yes, I think I did two years at the Corcoran and did the final two years at the Art Institute. It's always amazing to think about the differences between now and then. I came out of school with $2,000 worth of debt, and to imagine now that art schools are running in the $40,000 to $50,000 per year range. It's a tragic thought to imagine going to art school now. I couldn’t advise my own kids to go to art school and come out with that kind of debt.
KB: It's unbelievable and quite a shift. We should have better and supported higher education in this country like they do in Europe!
KB: Did you get a BFA or an MFA from the Art Institute?
LA: I got a BFA.
KB: And the department that you focused in—can you talk about that and the influence of some of your professors?
LA: Definitely. I got into the photo department.
I think they tracked you, then you chose what your focus would be. The photo department was fantastic—terribly supportive; all the faculty I had there were wonderful. But somehow, I ended up taking a performance/video class. And there was just something about this one class that I took. I think it was Howard Fried’s class that I ended up in, the first performance/video class I took. And you know, you'd be sitting in class and the instructor wouldn’t be there. He’s there but he's not really there. That was one of the things that I found really exciting about the place—it wasn't just driven by the faculty, it was also driven by the students, and the energy that all of these diverse minds brought in with their desire to figure out novel and new ways to be in the world. The students were pushing the agenda forward in more radical ways than the previous institution that I had been in, which was much more traditional and faculty-driven. You know, they were the ones who had the knowledge and you sat and listened…
Larry Andrews’ SFAI Undergrad 1987.
KB: …the authoritarian hierarchy. And I think that's an interesting kind of thing about the Northeast versus the West Coast. I’m from the east coast and I guess you are you from the DC area.
LA: Yes, I grew up in Washington DC.
KB: The Northeast tends to be more traditional and historical. And the West Coast is sort of the last frontier; it's the Wild West. And it even translates to some of the movements that came out of there, like the hippies, the Beats, even Silicon Valley—a lot of different kinds of thinking. So, I think that was also manifested at the Art Institute.
LA: Yes, definitely.
KB: So, you shifted your focus from Photo to Performance/Video. (Now the department is called New Genres)
LA: I don't know if I ever officially shifted, but that's where my energy started to go. I don't really remember specific classes per se. You were just sort of “in the community.” I probably did take classes and I think I failed one class. I'm not going to mention his name; he'd probably grimace. And we're great friends now, but I can always tease him and say, “You know, you failed me.”
Gradually I drifted towards putting the majority of my energy into the Performance/Video department, which introduced me to film and video as mediums to work with.
KB: Instead of static still imagery you got more into moving image, and at that time video was actually a more economical medium to work in than film.
LA: Definitely. I didn't do anything in the Film department at SFAI. And more so, I think it was the merger, the connection between performance art and video. It wasn't so much video per se; that came later. It was more of the performative aspects and how video was used in relation to that.
KB: That makes sense, because it's not just like a production video-making class, it's this other synthesis of the two— video and performance. What about the professors in the department when you were there? Besides Howard Fried, did you take classes with Sharon Grace, Chris Brown, Paul Kos, Doug Hall, Tony Labat? Did you take classes with most of them?
LA: I took classes with all of them. They were all fantastic in their individual ways, and they all had so much to offer. I can think of gem moments in each of their classes where your mind expanded in beautiful ways—and you referenced those things repeatedly.
KB: And what about some of your peers? What about that dynamic?
LA: They were all wild and beautiful. And most of them are pretty well-known. Not everyone, but many of them are still very active in the world today and still producing work. I think of my class and my time there as being one of the more special moments in the history of the school. It felt that way to me.
SFAI Performance/Video Department Hockey Team, mid ‘80s.
KB: What year did you graduate, do you remember that?
LA: I arrived in ’85 and I graduated in ‘87.
KB: Can you talk a bit about where you've gone with your work since then? It looks like the SFAI influence really carries through to your current work. Can you can you talk a little bit about it? And also, about An I for an I, the piece got you the SECA award [that I wrote about for Shift Magazine many years ago that will appear at the end of this interview].*
Larry Andrew’s titled page for video An I For An I.
LA: I did get the SECA Award for that piece. It's hard to imagine today the complexity of making video at that time—you know it as a maker. The ease of it today compared to then—the incredible cost, getting access to tools and being able to use those tools in an effective manner—it was no small feat. That’s one of the things that I've always been very aware of: how to get access. And I remember I was at the Art Institute and a group of us was just sitting outside of Studio B, and one of my peers was talking about this place, BAVC, where he was interning. And I thought, well that sounds interesting. He introduced me to BAVC.
LA: And so that was something that I jumped at. It was this beautiful stepping stone between the Art Institute and remaining connected to a community and tools and the ability to work and to move forward. I think it was my last year at SFAI and I was being exposed to lots of different avenues. Also, in the evenings at night, from midnight until 6 am, I was working in the rooms at BAVC, because they had an online editing room. To be able to work in an online editing room at that time normally cost about $150 to $300 an hour.
KB: They had a moonlighting program that let artists have access.
LA: So, I was taking classes at SFAI during the day and interning at BAVC in the evenings and on weekends—making coffee, and sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms and sitting at the front desk. This was an opportunity to learn the tools so that you could support other artists. I had my eye on it because, (A) it would help me to pay my bills, and (B) it would give me the ability to produce work. I had my eye on the online editing room and I wanted to learn how to operate that thing. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane—buttons and knobs everywhere. And you walk into the room and you look at the editor and you're just mind-blown. How are they making this magic happen?
Larry Andrews’ photo stills from the video An I For An I.
LA: So that's what I was doing: sitting in that room all night long, trying to learn how to make the machines work. At the same time, I was using those tools to make my work. To be able to explore the language of a medium at that level takes time. And very few artists had that kind of time on those systems, to be able to just play in an online editing room for hours and hours and hours on end. It’s not like when you just sit in your studio with a paintbrush and paint, where you're not looking at the dollars and cents streaming by; you're just exploring.
KB: How did the SECA award come to be?
LA: An I for An I came out of BAVC; of having free and open access to explore a medium. And so, the work is structured around that open play space, where it opens in this very formalistic way. I was exploring what the language of video at that particular historical moment in time was able to do; looking at the aesthetics of it. But then at the same time I was also wrestling with my political awakening around major events that were happening in the world and trying to put those two things together. The work is sort of psychotic in that way. It opens up in this very dreary sense, I think. It's almost like an endurance piece that you've got to get through this very heavy formal exploration of the language of the medium, and then it hits you in a very hard way, like: “Oh wait a minute. Where are we at now?“ It’s this very heavy political space. And I think that a lot of my work—most of my work—has been heavily formally concerned. But at the same time, it’s tussling with current issues.
KB: And the result of getting that award, wasn't the work shown at SFMoMA?
LA: Yes, I remember showing An I For an I at SFMoMA. I had brought it into class. either Tony’s [Labat], or Doug’s [Hall] class. I can't remember which one; probably, both of them. So, I'm certain it was one of them who brought it to SECA. I don't remember applying for the SECA Award. Maybe you applied? I don't remember.
KB: I think that what's so interesting with you coming out of SFAI, with the combination of the aesthetic and the formal and the exploration of the media, but with some really important and issue-based content. It was art, and not just something for TV.
Maybe you could talk about what it's like for you coming out of SFAI, and where you are today with your own teaching.
LA: I'm teaching at UC Santa Cruz. I've been in the department there since its inception.
KB: Was Chip Lord there then?
LA: Yes. It was Chip and Eli Hollander, and me; I think it was just the three of us initially, and then Vivian Sobchack.
I came in as a part of the Theater Arts department. I think Chip reached out to me. At some point he said, “You know, we're hiring. Would you like to apply?” At the same time I had an offer from the Art Institute of Chicago, so I remember I called Chip and said, “Dude. We need to get this paperwork done, otherwise I'm going to Chicago.” And he told me, “Just hold on. We're going to fast track it through so that you know that you have a firm offer here.” So, the department started with just our small faculty group and 20 or 30 students. We were part of the Theater Arts department. Then we wrote a proposal to separate it out of Theater Arts and, long story short, now we are program with a PhD program, an MFA program and we have 500 undergraduate students. It's now called the Department of Film and Digital Media. It’s a massive program with multiple arms. I was chair of the department for three years. It's supposed to be a shared governance but not everybody steps forward to do their part. But I said, “Okay, I'll do my turn.”
I've had some offers from other places over the years, but I like the community where I am. I like the people and I know that it is fortunate to be able to sit at a table in a department meeting and not feel animosity amongst the faculty; that you just feel like you're in a good environment. I've stuck around there because it's felt supportive.
KB: I'm sure your department is dealing with new media and interactive work and probably the whole gamut of evolving media and technology.
LA: Yes, for sure, but I don't teach those classes that much. At the moment I’m supporting the core of the program more than the periphery because it's where I'm needed.
KB: What are some of the classes you teach?
LA: I teach pretty standard cinema classes, single channel video, basic production skills, a few topical PhD graduate courses and I teach in the Social Documentation MFA program. But at the undergraduate level there are so many students that want to make cinema. It's not an art school in the highly experimental way that the SFAI was. I really miss that sort of environment. The students here come into the program with more of an industry focus.
KB: That seems to be happening across the board because of the way the world is these days. Students feel like they need to come out of school and be able to get a job.
LA: Part of my job is to open their eyes to the expansive ways of being, because they have a very narrow notion of what it is to be in the world. So, my classes tend to support that area, more so out of need.
KB: But that still gives you a big range, as you say, from documentary to experimental to narrative to video art type of work. There's a huge range of styles/genres that can be explored.
LA: Yes, for sure. But the department is also wrestling with new media. I often try now to think about the corollaries between those early days of video, our moment in time, and now. Maybe the algorithm is the similar thing, where access is the thing that's difficult to get. What is required to have control over the algorithms that curate and deliver information is sort of a puzzling thought to me. There are, of course, people who are proficient in code, and who are also highly involved in the arts. I'm not one of those people nor am I in a program where I see large numbers of students who have that capability or even are thinking about it. At the graduate level yes, but not at the undergraduate level.
KB: I think people still want to be storytellers, whatever the form.
LA: Well, maybe code is a more abstract form of storytelling, but it is a form of storytelling.
KB: Let's turn to your work, and a couple of your more recent pieces.
Larry Andrews' photographs of the Medea Project Theater - We Just Telling Stories.
LA: I don't remember how I ended up hooking up with Rhodessa Jones and Medea Project. I have a feeling I just walked up to her one day and said, “I heard about you guys, and I would love to just learn.” And she graciously just opened up the door and said, “You're welcome. Come on in.” I spent about three months, 4-5 nights a week, with Rhodessa and a group of women. I was the only man in the room. We were there from 5 or 6 o’clock to 9 or 10 pm at night. It felt like the walls of that room dissolved. It was a very small room in the SF county jail with 20 or 30 women in it trying to come up with the content for a stage play while they sort of analyzed their lives and what had led them to being in jail at this moment in time. (Read more on NPR)
Larry Andrews' photographs of Rhodessa Jones and Medea Project - We Just Telling Stories.
LA: My role there was just as sort of a documentarian. And to figure out a way to make this process, the back end of the process, more visible. Because what the public sees is the stage play. At the end of the three months, the women gather and they put on a public stage play for a number of nights for the city. But what people don't understand is how the play got there, the process.
LA: I tried to structure the piece in a way that's disorienting. I was able to go to a number of the festival screenings, and I think one of my prerequisites was to try to figure out a way NOT to let people understand that the women are in jail. So, you come in and you think that these are just stories of life. But gradually you start to understand what the setting is. It’s a way to stop the audience from prejudging the women that they're witnessing on screen.
KB: And then they get hit with the reality punch line at the end.
LA: Right, exactly.
KB: And maybe it makes them think a little bit differently about women's incarceration and begin to understand some of the root causes of the situation.
LA: Yes, yes. Consider this. From 1977- 2007 the number of women in US prisons increased by over 800% and this number is twice the rate of increase of the male population. And 2/3 of these women are mothers.
KB: What about Owner Built, a more recent work?
LA: It’s not so recent; I think it’s from 2013. But that came out of one way that I often work. I start with an event— events that sort of disrupt the quotidien fabric of life and cause us to scramble as human beings to put things back together again in a way that makes sense. And that we can live with and move forward as a community. The event there was this senseless murder of a group of predominantly African American citizens who were trying to escape the flooding of Hurricane Katrina. They were crossing the Danziger Bridge and were basically shot at. Some were killed, some terribly maimed by police who were trying to protect a white ward that they would have had to move through to find safety.
I was starting from an event where I was also one of those people who was scrambling and trying to understand how this could happen. How do we move forward from such an event? I was using it as a space to stitch life back together again.
One of the things that I'm interested in is not having the subjects being reduced to some form of entertainment. In some ways, audiences use, quote/unquote, the authenticity of documentary films, believing that they are looking at something real.
Documentary contributes in … I don't want to say a perverse way … but I think I do—to deal with or hover around that word—authenticity. And so, I wanted to strip that away. Initially I had conceived of the work as just audio. It was just going to be an audio essay and it wasn't going to have animation at all. I even took away verbal authenticity. To move you a step away from direct access to the subjects was important to me.
So, I produced it as an audio work and sent it out into the world. But nobody was interested in presenting it as an audio piece. So, I was really committed to the work having some kind of exhibition life and unknowingly I ventured down this route of animation. I was just like, “Okay, that'll be a fairly easy way to get it out into the world. I'll animate it.” It’s a vast, vast, vast field. I think it took me a couple of years just to learn how to do what it is that I wanted to do.
Larry Andrews’ digital animated documentary project Owner Built, 2013.
LA: I found it was interesting, and it did raise a lot of questions for me in the way that algorithms and the speed and the complexity of computing technology is infiltrating into the photographic space. 60 Minutes just had a really interesting segment about this. We know about how algorithms are being used, but seeing it talked about at the level of 60 Minutes, where it's entering into the national dialogue where we are having this discussion about deep fakes is interesting.
Some of the technology in that sort of deep fake stuff was already part of the technology that I was using in the animation. You’re capturing data off of bodies. And then you're using the data, or data off of spaces and you’re using that data to put back into the work. Even though it looks like animation and it’s not photographic, it still has links back to the real world. I was also interested in looking at how documentary spaces are shifting towards these constructed virtual spaces.
KB: I don't know if you heard recently about the documentary on Anthony Bourdain where they used audio archives with Bourdain’s real voice to create part of the film’s narrative, they also used AI voice technology to create three quotes with Bourdain’s voice. And so the question of is it real or constructed— “is it live or Memorex”—sparked controversy within the documentary community. There can be a very blurry line there.
LA: Yes, definitely. In a way, the whole piece is tussling with those ideas; around the authenticity of documentary space. We’ve talked about these things since the beginning of documentary history and the constructed nature of it. I was just trying to put a more contemporary twist on it by being sensitive to what working through animation as part of this process allows. It also made me think a lot about photographic history, and the ways in which the artifacts of particular pieces of technology get lost. And then later on, historians come and try to piece the story back together again. There's all of this technological detritus that is getting washed away quickly as we settle on what the final forms of these things are going to look like for some small period of time until another disruption occurs.
KB: Right. And then the next event, the next phase of obsolescence, when we all have to learn something new again. What about any other recent work you’d like to discuss?
LA: The last piece that I did was an audio essay, mythicPotentialities.
I think I was flowing out of the animated work, Owner Built, and I somehow stumbled upon the courtroom drawings of Moses Wright pointing out the accused in the courtroom. Here is a link to a video I made of a conference presentation that deals with these ideas:
Video by Larry Andrews.
(Read more about The Emmett Till Trial, illustrated by Franklin McMahon, and more sketches from Chicago History Museum)
Wright Watches Emmett Till Case.
Pencil sketch of prosecution witness Moses Wright. Getty Images.
LA: I had all of these theoretical ideas that I was trying to continue as a thread in the ways that the courtroom drawings were used as verifiable evidence; that we accepted them as documents of what was happening. There was this through line for me.
The more and more I stayed with Wright and explored who he was and investigated it more, this other thing started to emerge out of it which was very small. But it just gnawed on me to no end, which is the way that he was characterized in history as this illiterate country bumpkin. And that couldn't have been anything further from the truth. (The Murder of Emmett Till)
And it gnawed on me. Even in historical texts that were so dear to my soul, like the Eyes on the Prize, which was something that I watched almost every other year from the first time that it impacted me. But even Eyes on the Prize described him in that way.
And so, it became this idea of excavation and thinking about what allows things like this to happen and how we fight against it. That led me to some very difficult philosophical concepts. I didn't study philosophy and haven't really read much philosophy in my life, but this project forced me into some pretty complex topics. I tried to use this work as a space to wrestle with in relationship to Moses Wright and the way that he was defined. (Read more about mythicPotentialities)
That piece is purely an audio essay. At the same time, I was thinking I was going to animate it so I did some animation tests for it. But I'm kind of resistant to going down that route of animation again. I'm also just getting a little bit exhausted with the processes of mediation.
Larry Andrews’ mythicPotentialities.
Test 2 (left) & Test 3 (right).
KB: I think we’re so tethered to our screens and it’s been amplified in the pandemic. People seem to be hungering for tactility, something beyond the keyboard. There seems to be a resurgent interest in art and craft, in the physical.
LA: Well, that's where my newest work is. Right now, I’m working on cultivating a farm. I bought some acres and I'm developing them. I'm trying to think through the farm itself and the act of engaging in it, the work of the farm. And then also the broader community and the context that it sits within. How does that process exist for me as what I would call art and not have to go through a process of mediation? When I have time, I'm planting trees and building fences and chasing wild pigs away.
KB: I know there are some art projects that have come out of people doing more of that kind of work. Creative Capital has supported some. And there's quite a bit of interest in eco art, where there is crossover between art, science. More tangible, physical things.
LA: Yes, for now that's my shift. I think I'm going in that direction. And trying to decide if media—media being film and video and sound—if there's space for these forms to exist in my practice. Or, If it’s something that I just need to leave alone for a while.
KB: Maybe that was that chapter and you're ready for something different. Time will tell.
Click LEFT/RIGHT to read the review:
Shift Magazine, Vol._2, No.4, 1988.
Review by Kathy Brew.
Kathy Brew is an award-winning filmmaker and artist/writer/curator/educator who spent 14 years in the Bay Area but returned to her hometown, NYC, in 1994. She worked at SFAI on two separate occasions – as Director of Public Relations and Publications from
1984-85 and then as Humanities Department Manager in 1990-91. She currently teaches in the MFA Art Practice department at the School of Visual Arts and most recently served as Guest Curator in MoMA’s film department from 2016-2020. Her documentary, DESIGN IS ONE, has been screened and broadcast internationally, and her very first video, MIXED MESSAGES, created while living in San Francisco, is available on Kanopy, was featured in the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam, and is in the catalog of the Simone de Beauvor Audiovisual Center in Paris. Her most recent film, FOLLOWING THE THREAD, about indigenous weaving communities in the Sacred Valley of Peru, was recently completed with support from a Fulbright Scholar grant, and has been picked up by Documentary Educational Resources for distribution.