Tania Franco Klein’s Obscura Curated commissioned drop of Subject Studies is a collection that recontextualizes narrative and the mechanics of othering by taking an anthropological approach to the perception of the gaze. Klein examines the gravitas of a “Subject” by maintaining constants through location, composition, and lighting. The differentiating variable is the person in the photograph and the viewer’s projection grounded in their own unique worldview. We as viewers experience how our own subjectivities shape the meaning, story, and intention within each scene. In essence, Klein holds up a mirror to reveal one’s own personal history, cultural gaze, preferences, and traumas. To distill the body of work down to a quote by writer Anaïs Nin, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
ARCHER: With the cinematic quality of your work, who were your greatest influences and what inspired you the most that left an imprint on who you are as an artist today?
KLEIN: For my projects I try to draw inspiration from different backgrounds. I have a very strong academic influence from thinkers like Byung-Chul Han and Marc Auge, which gives me a structure to think about my projects in universal ways and to dig deeper into topics that I am very interested in portraying in my work. I am certainly inspired by various photographers from different fields like Harry Gruyaert, Larry Sultan, William Eggleston, Jimmy De Sana, Stephen Shore, Nan Goldin, Jo Ann Callis, etc. That being said, I also have a strong connection to multimedia—video artists whose work deeply inspired me, like Tony Oursler, Bill Viola, and Pipilotti Rist.
ARCHER: Describe your creative process. Your work has a “film still” quality that is both orchestrated and voyeuristic, full of melancholy and mystery. How do you find these eerie scenes that evolve into a playground for your narratives to unfold?
KLEIN: My work carries a very strong visual narrative in formal terms, but at the same time, it carries with it an ambiguity. The logical thing with such narrative visuals is to try and make a story out of it. There isn't a linear story in my work, and to be honest I've never seen it as film stills, as that is not how the conceptual part of the work is preconceived. It is more of a Universe which exists all at the same time and repeats itself with no beginning or end. It has its own logic of existence around the context of the psychological world of my characters, —which in their own line of thought feels infinite. This fragmentation is a key component to the execution of my projects and my favorite separation between photography and cinema. I like to think that there is always a component of absurdity inside my practice, which assimilates more accurately into how we experience life, rather than knowing there is a linear narrative that is encapsulated into a certain story.
I try to keep most of my characters anonymous throughout my different projects to allow the viewer to project themselves into the emotional and psychological essence of the work instead of thinking of the singularity of the characters per se, even when there are only traces of a character on an image and the character is not physically present. In the past, I have used a lot of elements into how I make installations of my pieces or in the case of my book “Positive Disintegration” how I sequence the work, to constantly avoid the creation of the narrative from the viewer, and to allow the whole project to exist simultaneously all at once in the mind of the spectator.
That being said, I think another very important element of my work is the performative side of it. My approach is based on playing a lot. Creating my images is a very ludic performance. I carry a lot of props and elements, then I use one of them as a starting point and improvise from there. Most of the time I don't have a clue what the final result will be once I start playing, and it is exciting. I get to discover the work in the moment. Although, I almost always start producing images consistently for a project once I understand the concept of the series that makes sense with my curiosity of life at the moment. Most times with the making of the images, the concept itself matures and grows in ways I would never even imagine in the beginning stages, and that's my favorite part. Is almost as if the project takes a life of its own.
ARCHER: This series, Subject Studies, is a fascinating viewpoint on the weight of the subject in any given narrative, and the viewer’s unconscious bias on how they chose to interpret that story. In such a divisive time in America, does this body of work stems from a reaction to the growing polarization to challenge one’s prejudices? Was that at all the intention?
KLEIN: Subject Stories is a series that deals with our own preconceived ideas of what “the other'' represents, and how that concept in each viewer may change the reading of the image as a whole. I wouldn't say the main reason I did this work was about America, polarization or about prejudice. The beauty of the series itself is that it allows people to bring the work home, in your case America, and find an inner subtext to it. That act itself is why I wanted to make this work. It is as if I just made enough conditions of various things to happen, that someone is able to project themselves into. For that same reason, I didn't want to reveal which country the images were made, or the background of the characters.
ARCHER: I see this body of work akin to a Rorschach test, sifting through similar but different images and asking the viewer, “What do you see?” Does this resonate with the groundwork you have laid, to ask more questions than it answers.
KLEIN: Definitely, I think this whole exercise is about giving people the space to find in themselves different questions about their own cultural background, personal history, and not about me or my own interpretation of a narrative. For example, “Why do I feel more vulnerable / repulsed / interested in the image when I see this character instead of this one?” “Why do I feel more attracted to the image when this certain person is on it vs. another, considering the framework and context of the work is identical?” Sometimes it is not only that we have a certain cultural background or an economical point of view of how things are, but maybe I have a personal story with someone tall and bald in my teenagers, which generated certain shock, and for that reason I associate that personal story and project it into how I read anyone that might be similar to that someone who created trauma for me. For that reason the way I read a particular image might have a different emotion and narrative than if I see someone that looks like me on it. It can also be a good experience, on how we read what is attractive, just to give a few examples.
ARCHER: By intentionally casting a wide array of subjects to replicate the exact same pose, you highlight one’s subjectivity. Why does the body language of a man in the same pose evoke such vastly different emotions than of a woman of the same age? Does this also serve to challenge our preconceived notions of femininity and masculinity?
KLEIN: We are constantly exposed to having to read images from all this baggage. We do it every time we are exposed to any kind of imagery. But the interesting part of the project is that because now the spectator is exposed to the same image repeatedly with different characters, the viewer is forced to face what preconceived ideas they carry everywhere. Now this becomes an exercise of realizing it in a more conscious way, rather than an automatic way without giving it a second thought.
ARCHER: Back in 2018, Netflix released its first interactive film for adults based on its series Black Mirror titled “Bandersnatch” It invites the viewer to make key decisions on the narrative of the film and changes the outcome, and it was incredibly prolific for its time. I would liken that thought process to your brilliance here, with your Subject Studies collection. Does the quality of piecing a story together in different order with different characters resonate? Are these characters connected in some way, what is the thread that connects them?
KLEIN: I haven't thought about the connection before! Thanks for pointing that out. To be honest, I never watched that film but I did hear about it. In a way, yes, the viewers have such an important influence picking one of the frames from each type of image to bring them into the sequence of 4. That being said, the interesting part comes next, the sequences in a formal way might actually be the same. How each person connects the dots will be different even with the exact 4 images chosen into the same sequence. So it is not up to me to decide what is the connection between the characters.
ARCHER: Do you feel your fundamental intentions as an artist are more about coping with loss, or rather seeking an escape?
KLEIN: I think we are constantly doing both in life in no particular order. But, in a way, both things are part of how we cope with the human experience.
ARCHER: Your work has this timeless, dystopian quality that pulls in the viewer, connecting you with the characters inextricably. They are placed in another time, and seemingly present. Where does this take place from your perspective, is the series meant to be timeless?
KLEIN: I work in such an eclectic way to leave enough room for interpretation, and some pieces I have contain more of a clue about a particular time than others. I have always pursued the lack of detailed specificity to open more possibilities for my characters to live in which allows for such different ways that each viewer sees them. I like the idea of something being timeless and simultaneously containing certain elements of nostalgia, without turning it into a period image.
ARCHER: How have you navigated the NFT world alongside the traditional fine art world, and what challenges have you faced?
KLEIN: I have more experience in the traditional fine art world because I have been working with galleries since I was 25-26 years. To be honest, the traditional art market is tough, but I have been lucky in a way because I have been able to sustain myself by exhibiting my personal work for a long time. But I know it is not the most common. And even when I started I had absolutely no expectations of that even happening. I guess I was so OK with thinking of the idea of the starving artist that I had no expectations and so anything that came my way surprised me fully. But in a way, I guess the idea of needing someone else to show your work for you to even have a shot can feel like a lot of pressure in things that sometimes you cannot fully control. And I really love the autonomy and the possibilities around that that NFTs bring with them. I love to be able to have my work exist in different ways and platforms. Still I would ever give up on doing prints and books, hopefully in a few years I can say the same about my work as NFTs. And I think I will.
ARCHER: What are your thoughts on virtual galleries like onCyber vs a traditional fine art gallery space, and what pro’s and con’s arise for you as an artist?
KLEIN: I wouldn’t like to say that it is one vs the other but mostly how one complements the other. I know best the experience of physical galleries and I have a background in architecture so I have always had an obsession with the physicality of my pieces, from the moment I am making an image to how my work exists not only as an image but as a physical object too - which paper it uses, what's the size it has to have a certain impact. Installation is actually a major part of my practice. The way the different senses get to walk through a space and encounter a piece is priceless if done right and in a thoughtful way. That being said, the truth is because of the amount of time a show is up in a gallery and the geographical constraints, it gets very hard and is rare to get to see curated solo shows of your favorite artists in a lifetime!
On the other hand, virtual galleries are accessible everywhere and there is no time or geographical constraint to them which I love! The only downside for me is that I have seen several virtual exhibition spaces of people displaying collections, and I notice all of the works are shown equally. I guess for some PFP projects and for artists that is fine. But to be honest, I think a lot about the proportion of my work within spaces, and thinking about how someone might throw it into a virtual space of one work after the next, as if they had the same meaning, scares me a little bit. Every time I am going to do a physical show I do physical and virtual models of the show, and they really are an amazing experience even for the virtual models. Thus far the virtual galleries I've seen lack a lot of thought. I hope I get to see more well curated installed works virtually as I've seen physically. I am very keen to bring one of my virtual models of the past to the future shows I'm doing in web3.
ARCHER: What are you most excited about with what the blockchain offers for artists and what Obscura is doing in partnership with your future path?
KLEIN: In terms of the blockchain, I love the idea that the work can finally be linked to the creator in a major database that is decentralized and it is just there, everywhere, not to be lost. The internet for photography always felt like putting something valuable outside of a building knowing anyone could pick it up and you lose trace of it. You almost had no choice, and I feel like web3 really allows for artwork to be celebrated and shared without losing the trace of it. That amount of autonomy is truly unbelievable for artists, and I cannot wait to see how it keeps maturing and growing into things we have never imagined before. As for what Obscura is doing, I truly have no words to express, without being cheesy, how amazed and thankful I am for what they are doing.
In the past I have encountered a lot of organizations or people claiming “they help artists” but how? There is always a trick, the paperwork, and amount of time you have to spend doing applications can be exhausting. But Obscura is ACTUALLY helping photographers. Supporting artists, providing the opportunity to create with full trust on the creator, generating the perfect environment for magic to happen, and getting people excited about supporting artists and being part of that process. That is truly empowering as an artist! In my case, I had this project idea on the side for a while, yet I knew I needed more production to do it than how I usually work. Obscura makes you think bigger, and I really wanted to embrace that. I hope to see more artists flourishing and doing amazing work thanks to initiatives like this one.
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