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Interview with Moyra Davey

One way to think about Moyra Davey’s way of working across photography, film and text is in terms of economy. Economies of production: photograph in the home, or occasionally on the street, where time and ‘material’ are your own. Send work in the mail to galleries, or more often, friends, replacing large insurance costs for the price of postage stamps. Her piece ‘Copperheads’ focused on the scratched profiles of pennies, one per photo, in a grid of 100. It was 1990; the art market bubble had deflated, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and Lincoln’s face had lost its nose through casual circulation.

 

Economies of class – for the signifiers of Davey’s work are very middle. Things in her images include: dust under the bed, spines of old books, coffee cups, the corners of rooms, an open medicine cabinet, her dog taking a dump, herself in downward-facing dog pose – the entropy of domestic disorder. Some of these subjects are of the kind you now see on Instagram—the everyday, self-reflexive mundane—but Davey’s been taking analogue photographs since the eighties, of what Chris Kraus called ‘the texture of spaces fully inhabited’. They have a literariness, without any heaviness – in 2012 she sent a series of aerograms, her preferred format, to the writer Lynne Tillman to be paired with text snippets or unconventional captions, before her exhibition at Murray Guy in New York. ‘Indolence. Torpor. Ill-Humour’ was the title – like every artist’s struggle against stagnation.

 

Economies of reading: Davey asks how much one should consume in order to produce, and whether it’s OK to be greedy, rather than worthy, in one’s choices. And economy of expression: write in fragments, respond in terse statements – as she does here. Given that her practice is itself epistolary, my request to communicate via snail mail was presumptuous. She writes towards the end of our exchange of self-censorship, and in writing back rather than speaking out loud she had indeed censored herself in a way that is less possible in dialogue. Put differently, she did the edit.

 

The materialities: I wrote directly on pale blue paper, full of crossings-out. She used writing paper from the HOTEL LANGLOIS (3 stars), where she had been staying recently in Paris. About two-thirds of the way through, she switched to the stationary of a Las Vegas casino, with gold embossed letters. Besides my letter I included on a postcard this quote from Edmond Jabès’s The Book of Questions: ‘The written replaces the spoken, not the better to fix or formulate it, but, on the contrary, to enjoy its explosion as each part is exposed to reading at its various stages, its different levels of sense.’

Q

Hannah Gregory

— 10-11 December 2014, London

 

 

Dear Moyra,

 

I wanted to engage with the foregrounding of the materiality of books, paper, and photographic image in your work, and particularly in your 2014 book/exhibition Burn The Diaries, which you begin with Genet’s description of the tactility of paper: ‘the ochre and the translucency and the whiteness may all possess more reality than the signs that mar them.’ This suggests both the inadequacy and the uncleanliness of the written word, dirtying the clean sheet.

 

On what material or with which tools do you write?

A

Moyra Davey

— 20-23 January 2015, New York

 

 

 

Dear Hannah,

 

I write on a laptop (mac), and not at a desk: couch, bed, kitchen table. I also keep notebooks and journals and for these I often use fountain pens.

 

Q

Hannah Gregory

— You have used the ‘material’ of psychoanalysis as a source for your work—for example in the film Fifty Minuteswhere there is the idea of things surfacing from the unconscious. Do you relate to Genet’s gut feeling of the dirtiness of words, as opposed to the innocence of paper?

A

Moyra Davey

— It’s a bit childish, but I only think words are ‘dirty’ if I don’t like what they reflect back to me: clichés, usually.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— Is the unraveling of words a catharsis, or could it have a therapeutic role, for you?

A

Moyra Davey

— I wouldn’t say ‘catharsis’ but sometimes (as Louise Bourgeois said) you find ‘solutions’.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— A focus on the analogue materials of reading and writing might seem fetishistic, but your habits are not precious; you write of cutting books in half, a violent act. How would you explain your relation to your books?

A

Moyra Davey

— I only cut cheap editions to make them easier to read; I would never destroy a beautiful book. But in general I see books as tools, not as collectibles.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— Your relationship with reading is a productive process, one that leads you to make work and write. In ‘The Problem of Reading’ you speak of an accompanying anxiety: ‘Where is the middle ground between production and anxiety, gratification and toil?’ Is this anxiety to do with a kind of inter-textual burden – the paralysing weight of what’s-been-read?

A

Moyra Davey

— The question from ‘The Problem of Reading’ had to do mostly with what happened to ‘reading just to lose yourself’ vs. always reading at the service of something.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— Or is this anxiety to do with the kind of accumulation of writing that might occur? I’m thinking of this Michel de Certeau quote from The Practice of Everyday Life: ‘Writing piles up, stocks up, resists time…’ And then I’m thinking of your anxiety towards the stock-piled fridge in Fifty Minutes. Could you say something about the relation between consumption and production in your work?

A

Moyra Davey

— Oof, this is a big question.

 

I think it has to do with a fantasy of a 1:1 ratio of consumption and use/production, not wanting to be burdened by waste or excess.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— If reading passes the time, and writing produces it, then photography—your first and primary medium—captures or freezes time. Do you consider photography to be a kind of reading?

A

Moyra Davey

— Photography is a type of reading in the sense that it absorbs information. It is a reading/writing machine, but as Sontag said it requires a very different type of investment and energy of the maker than does writing. The stuff of photography is already in the world whereas the writer must produce material from purely internal processes. (Sontag paraphrase.)

Q

Hannah Gregory

— At what point did it become evident that photography and writing would need to coexist in your work?

A

Moyra Davey

— I started combining writing and photography in ‘The Problem of Reading’ then the written piece ‘Notes on Photography and Accident’ became the clinch when I realised how generative that dual process could be. It’s a two-way street in terms of ideas/images in one medium creating opportunities in the other.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— Do you feel more comfortable with the role of ‘artist’ than with that of ‘writer’? Do you see your texts as ‘art texts’?

A

Moyra Davey

— I refer to myself as an artist, sometimes add ‘writer’. I think ‘artist’ can encompass both. I do see the texts as destined for a pretty small audience, but not in any exclusionary way. I’m low-key about their dissemination, and have never tested a more mainstream audience, so by default they circulate amongst artists, art writers, and curators.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— In ‘Notes on Photography and Accident’, you write: ‘I want to make some photographs, but I want them to be seeded in words.’ It’s the inverse to the creative writing exercise of starting from an image. Are you conscious of making your photographs in some way writerly?

A

Moyra Davey

— I think when I wrote that I was looking for some grounding, because I was at a bit of an impasse with photography. Now that I have more of an image-flow again I don’t feel quite so in need of the writerly connection.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— In this same essay you write of a ‘flânerie of reading that can be linked to a certain flânerie of photographing,’ which again makes me think of Michel de Certeau’s ‘Walking in the City’, where the walker is a productive reader of the city’s streets. You seem to be getting at the chance element of your approach to both reading and photography – that progressing aimlessly, as a flâneuse, is a way to happen upon new directions… Do you walk a lot in the city? Do you support the idea of the itinerant encounter?

A

Moyra Davey

— I do walk a lot in the city. Unfortunately I can rarely escape time in my hometown, but I strive for that when I travel, for instance, on this recent trip to Paris I walked from the Hotel Langlois in the ninth to the Cernuschi Museum in Parc Monceau with the explicit intention of losing myself in that house full of ancient Asian art. I totally believe in the ‘itinerant encounter’ but I need to cultivate it more.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— In the text ‘The Wet & The Dry’, you write that the ‘Paris of the mind is preferable to the real thing.’ Are you referring to the influence of literary or filmic representations that turn the city into a mythical place? You visit this literary mythology via the writers’ gravestones in your film My Necropolis.

A

Moyra Davey

— No, I literally meant that sometimes thinking about Paris from afar, or staying in your hotel room, is preferable to negotiating the real thing. I lived there twice in my life, once when I was 18 and again when I was 50. It’s definitely a kinder place now than it was in the late 1970s. 

Q

Hannah Gregory

— In Fifty Minutes, the fixed time window of a psychoanalysis session dictates the duration of the film. In this case, how did the rigidity of the timeframe direct or form the content of the work?

A

Moyra Davey

— When I make a video especially, I am always searching for structure (sometimes praying for structure). At the onset, the video (or the script) was not called Fifty Minutes; once I got that idea everything seemed to fall into place.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— The rhythms of Fifty Minutes, within this prescribed length, are embedded in the everyday. Is this a practical strategy, to enable you to make work, or reclaim time, within the domestic realm, amid chores and non-artistic responsibilities? You’ve written of taking refuge at home, which then invites viewers to inhabit the intimate details or daily schedules of your work.

A

Moyra Davey

— The domestic realm is a refuge. It’s convenient, it’s within my control. I’ve made it workable for myself and as long as I can find ways to re-invent it then it’s a positive thing. There is a persistent little voice that says: get out – which I did with the Subway Writers (2012), and years ago with the Newsstands (1994). These forays shake things up in a good way, but they also go against my nature and produce anxiety.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— In your photography you prefer the vernacular and the quotidian to the grandiose. Do you think that over-staged or highly produced photography is less sincere, more of a fallacy? Is this why in ‘Notes of Photography & Accident’ you take issue with large-scale photography, preened for gallery display?

A

Moyra Davey

— Most of the jumbo stuff holds little interest for me. In that essay I mentioned a few exceptions, like Hannah Wilke’s ‘Intra-Venus’ series and Kerry James Marshall’s mural-size photos. They stand out because even though staged, the content is so personal and explosive and gutsy and ‘in your face’ that the size seems irrelevant, or justified.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— You seem to take active strategies against monumental photography – hanging works with scotch tape, bearing the marks and wear of having travelled through the mail. Is this also to make the work feel closer to its place of making, closer, in some way, to home? How do you feel about the work’s changing of status within the gallery setting?

A

Moyra Davey

— As I said, my work is produced at home, like: at the kitchen table and on the couch. I have an office/studio within the home, but I’m a bit allergic to it and use it mostly for storage. The gallery or museum wall is often the first place I experience the finished work, so it’s always a revelation on some level. Using the P.O. is about simplicity and convenience. I’ve had a few go astray but mostly it’s incredibly reliable.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— In relation to your preference for non-grandiose photography, I came across this quote (via Jennifer Higgie’s curated women in art and literature Instagram feed) by the writer Elizabeth Bishop: ‘Why shouldn’t we, so generally addicted to the gigantic, at least have some small works of art, some short poems, some short pieces of music… Some intimate, low-voiced and delicate things in our mostly glaring world?’

A

Moyra Davey

— Elizabeth Bishop was brave to point that out. The cravings for the grandiose and the spectacular will never go away because they hark back to childhood (fairground memories?), not to mention all the Freudian motivations you could cite for wanting to make it big.  Maybe the ‘awe’ factor is hard-wired; for me it’s not that I resist bigness, I just instinctively gravitate towards Bishop’s desire for smaller, shorter forms.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— In writing, the equivalent to this kind of anti-monumentality would be the fragment – diary entries, letters, analogous to the ‘found’ quality of a photograph – pieces of thought that resist linear narratives of time. Does constructing text in fragments allow a kind of slow-build, or make it easier to manoeuvre around your ideas? For Burn The Diaries, how did you decide what would leave the diary?

A

Moyra Davey

— Using the ‘fragment’ has definitely enabled a kind of writing that would not have happened otherwise – you can get away with a shorter attention-span. In terms of what leaves the diary, I use the Burroughs method – drop lines into a text-in-progress, somewhat randomly, and see what plays. The threshold is often ‘TMI’, to use the vernacular expression. There’s a fine line I try not to cross, or cross too often. My new video Notes on Blue is actually a lot about that, about the whole idea of ‘confession’ as articulated by Borges in his magnificent essay ‘Blindness’.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— How are the processes of selecting images, editing film, and editing text

(dis-)similar?

A

Moyra Davey

— I’d say the processes are similar in that ‘editing-out clichés’ applies to images, film, and text equally. Selecting still images is a bit more freeing as a process – more material gets past the censor’s door than with video, say, where it’s more of a captive audience situation, and I want every shot or scene to be motivated and able to hold its own. Editing text maybe sits somewhere in the middle: letting the id or risk-taking impulses have some play, but still with a mind not to overstep certain bounds of disclosure.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— In the case of autobiographical material, editing can mean self-censorship. I read in one of your texts how you admire Genet’s debasement through language, speaking the gross… a kind of writing that takes shit into account, that embraces the abject. There you said you wished you could expose more of yourself in writing. Do you find your conscience self-censoring too much?

A

Moyra Davey

— I probably do self-censor too much, it’s my anal retentive side. I was just at a conference in Paris called ‘The Library of Libraries’, where I showed three of my videos in a row and had an intense feeling of shame after and during the screening. Later, Will Holder, one of the participants, said this hilarious thing to me. He said, ‘maybe you just need to take a giant shit on camera!’ – or something like that…

 

What an appropriate moment to switch to this stationery from Vegas that I’ve saved since 1987! The night I lost $200 playing blackjack…

Q

Hannah Gregory

— {I think of Davey’s friend Alison Strayer’s question to the artist in My Saints: ‘Is it a money and shit thing?’}

 

We come back to the idea of words dirtying the page, and related to this question of dirt is that of class. Genet was part of an underclass, or, he positioned himself as an absolute marginal. Whereas, if you’re part of the middle class, which the signifiers of your work suggest you are – a home library, a large fridge, psychoanalysis – it is maybe harder to speak of the abject, about sex and shit and so on. Would you agree?

A

Moyra Davey

— This is a good point about Genet and class, and I think you could say something similar about Chris Kraus, whose writing has always been a model for me. I come from a middle-class family, but I am one of seven and had jobs starting around age 11: paper routes, baby-sitting, etc. And I struggled financially until my late thirties. The psychoanalysis was a training analysis which means you don’t really pay – you pay with your time, your willingness to show up 4-5 days a week. I should have gotten more of this money/shit out with the shrink but I was too anal! I broke off the analysis and made an attempt at termination via Fifty Minutes.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— Linking the ideas of dirt, time, accumulation, and the fragment is dust, which often features in your photographs­ – on your desk, under your bed. What is mesmerising about capturing dust on film? Is this a resistance to the pressure to constantly wipe it clean?

A

Moyra Davey

— Yes, I think there is a special irony to photographing dust, the arch-enemy of photography. Folding, writing on and mailing the prints is another way to free yourself of the strictures of traditional approaches.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— Before I sign off I want to come back to the question of reading, or mis-reading – I noticed your slippages in Fifty Minutes: ‘pleasure’ for ‘present’, and your mis-recollection of a quote by Marguerite Duras on writing: ‘To be without the subject for a book, without any idea of a book, is to find yourself in front of a book. An immense void…’ Why did you choose to leave the mis-readings in the edit?

A

Moyra Davey

— I left in as many slips as possible because it was the only way to combat an otherwise drone-on, memorised monologue. You absolutely need that kind of spontaneity.

Q

Hannah Gregory

— Do you write to remember, or to forget?
A

Moyra Davey

— Ultimately I probably write to forget, to vacate certain things from the psyche. But also to connect, and to play. That was the counsel of a very wise poet/writer friend, and it’s the thing I always try not to forget.

 

Moyra

 

P.S. And thank you for the Edmund Jabès.

 

 

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Hannah Gregory is a freelance writer and editor, currently based in Berlin. Her writing on contemporary culture has appeared in Frieze, Apollo, Icon  and The Wire.



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