dennis adams

Peter Doroshenko: What specific roles do your photographic images and architecture play together?

Dennis Adams: I'm interested in their incompatibility as different languages. It is through this forced dialogue that I hope to engage the viewer. I want the architectural structures to operate as perverse instruments of display, exceed the limit of efficiency, and rework the photographic images they support.

Doroshenko: How do you develop a project? Do you begin with the photographs or the architecture?

Adams: You've hit upon the little crisis of my operation. I never know where to begin. So I start from one end or the other. For me ideas don't spontaneously combust; they begin from desperate sources and perceptions and then come together slowly.

Doroshenko: Do your works contain a fantasy architectural quality, or are they structures for the future?

Adams: No, quite the opposite. They are more anachronistic than futuristic. They quote and rework the given architecture of the street. For me these urban sources already embody a sense of tragedy and loss. The amenities of public space are by nature displaced, without origin. They are the imaginary screens for the flâneur's projections. They invite memory, speculation, and intervention.

Doroshenko: In a city such as New York where many buildings are crumbling, decaying, streets in disrepair, what dialogue do your public works carry on with the structures around them? What do you hope to create with your dialogue?

Adams: It depends on the project. Each work develops specifically around the context in which it is situated. In general, I am attracted to the decaying spectacle of urban spaces. I like the layering of history and memory that reveals itself at the level of the city street. The street is by nature the site of danger; however, there's a difference between the streets of New York and other volatile places I've worked. In Jerusalem and in Derry, Northern Ireland, I have recently completed public projects. There the streets take on the character of a morality play. Lines are more clearly drawn. Urban life becomes a highly coded network of territories. In a place like New York there is more seepage. Violence is more random and abstract, more identified with being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Doroshenko: How has your work developed? Were you always interested in issues of history and memory?

Adams: From the very beginning my work has been obsessed with selective memory. In my early twenties I produced a series of works that confronted my family's history as it was represented in photographs and film. At one point, after viewing and reviewing hours of home movies, I realized that my mother's sister, who was retarded and still lived with my grandmother, was absent from all the footage. It was so strange because I remember her being present at every family function. I knew she had to be in those films somewhere. So I rented an analytic projector and went over the films frame by frame. There I found fragments of her body in the margins of frames, between the sweeps of the camera. There were her shoes, her lap, a piece of her crocheted hat. Her full image was simply not compatible with the visual territory of the bourgeois family, yet she was the real subject of those films.
        Looking back, I think it was from that moment on that I began to focus on the notion of exclusion — what is being left out or unsaid. And then on the other end, behind the camera, there was my father. He was also absent from those films. It's fascinating how those in power and those outside of power share the same condition of invisibility.

Doroshenko: How did this use of personal history develop into an investigation of larger socio-political themes?

Adams: My next series of works touched on subjects that were tied to my first encounter as a child with media images. As you know, I've situated numerous works around cold war imagery. At one point it became important to come to terms with the period of history in which I was indoctrinated. I became fascinated with the language of my parents' generation and how it was being translated through my body.

Doroshenko: Obviously you are not so naive as to believe that art can make a social change. Why do you choose to work with socially loaded images?

Adams: I try to bring forward what is being left out. I'm fascinated with the politics of silence. To me that's not about changing people's minds or instigating a program. It's about visibility and fair representation.

Doroshenko: Yet confronting some of your works almost makes one feel guilty. Is it your intention to play on this emotion?

Adams: If the subjects I choose touch on illicit guilt in some of my viewers, it's really their issue. I would never think of playing on guilt. I'm not a Catholic in any sense of the word.

Doroshenko: How does the functional aspect of your work relate to the social issues you try to address?

Adams: I'm interested in function as a kind of ruse. It sets the work up. The viewer is invited in and then something else presents itself. You get a little more than you bargained for. Maybe I was never properly socialized: use value is something I prefer to transgress. I don't follow the party line with regard to functional public art. The whole spirit of it is benign. I'll hold out for an art that is still dangerous.

Doroshenko: Your photo images and methods of presentation could almost be read as an advertising or mass media campaign. Does this make the work more effective?

Adams: I appropriate structures and display methodologies that are part of the places where my works are sited, and this, of course, includes the architecture of advertising. I'm interested in setting up a confusion of identity. I want my works to slip in and out of place.
        I believe that it is through a crisis of identification that we approach the ethical.

Doroshenko: Does your work address censorship?

Adams: If you mean of the Helms variety, no; but I am interested in the ways we are all potentially self-censors, or beyond that, how the culture at large constructs a mythology of identity that conceals darker social networks.

Doroshenko: Has your work ever been censored?

Adams: Oh yes, definitely. I'm invited to many places to do proposals and sometimes these proposals don't go for various reasons, one of which is the nature of the subjects I've touched upon. That's one reason I'm attracted to small-scale temporary public projects where I'm working with one or two engaged sponsors who have strong knowledge of the sociopolitical dynamics of the place. This allows the work to have a more radical program and actually get realized.

Doroshenko: What do you feel is your most successful piece to date?

Adams: I have a few favorite pieces, but I don't know that I could pinpoint any one in particular. I tend to be extremely critical of my own work. Nothing is ever quite right. Even if the overall effect is satisfying I tend to obsess over small details. In general, however, I like the works best that fall into their immediate surroundings and then slowly leak out. The less spectacle, the better. But how do you find that critical edge, that's the problem. How do you develop a small voice that is not lost in the woodwork — a voice that is cutting and sharp even as it approaches invisibility?

Doroshenko: You've done numerous public projects in Europe and you've spent a lot of time there. Is it more accessible there for an artist's ideas than it is in the United States?

Adams: Europe has a long tradition of artists making temporary public projects. The idea of the "temporary" by its very nature embodies a practice that is more experimental. In America, unfortunately, most public art has been permanent. Once you are tied into the bureaucratic networks of a place there is no room for the "outspoken." Every voice begins to counter and argue against the experimental zones of the work. Except for New York and a few other strong urban centers, the United States is becoming more and more of a strip culture. The road and the mall collapse into a single image. There is nowhere to go; everything is homogenized. So for an artist, where is the point of entry? In Europe it is easier to identify arenas of social unrest or privileged sites where history and place still live on the surface of things. But I've been thinking about working more in America again. When I came back from living in Berlin last year, it looked so devastated and beautiful. At this moment we are on the other side of the stick. The place is getting very dark and strange.


Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.