An Interview with Stephen Slappe
Artist and PNCA faculty member Stephen Slappe talks to Kristan Kennedy about his recent project We Are Legion.
Stephen Slappe creates a never-ending army of costumed youth in a web project that mines your photo albums for evidence of what the artist calls “contemporary cultural indoctrination.” Collecting images of you and yours in Halloween garb, Slappe will string these images together into a scrolling defense line of masked society. Slappe’s work blends humor, absurdity, and anxiety in order to reflect upon notions of home, transience, and physical and psychological escape. Slappe was interviewed by Kristan Kennedy, Visual Art Program Director, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. We Are Legion was on view at The Works at Washington High School, September 3–October 18, as part of PICA’s 2009 Time-Based Art Festival.
Kristan Kennedy The photos you are collecting for your scrolling army We Are Legion are being edited in small ways. Can you talk about the removal of information and how that changes the context of these images?
Stephen Slappe By removing all extraneous contextual information in the photos, We Are Legion creates a virtual space where all of the images are equal and more or less outside of their original time. Including depictions of a 1970s living room or a 1950s front porch would pull the individuals apart when my intent is to unify them in order to reveal commonalities and trends.
KK You have mentioned to me that halloween costumes act as cultural literacy. What do you mean?
SS Masks and costumes have represented cultural literacy since they originated in prehistory. Ancient cultures used masks for communicating with deities, frightening evil spirits, healing the sick and other important rituals. Masks allow the wearers to step outside of themselves, to take on a role or create a new identity. When this project began, my question was “what do our masks say about us as a culture?” Halloween costumes are considered benign by most Americans, religious kooks aside. I love the playful prankishness of Halloween and the act of dressing up is harmless fun. That being said, costume choices reveal more than personal taste, particularly when worn by children. For example, the photo in the TBA catalog depicts two children, me and my younger brother. I was dressed as Gene Simmons from Kiss and my brother was dressed as Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. This single photo speaks volumes about the type of cultural information we were receiving at the time and possibly reflects who we have become as adults.
KK Legion comes from the word “legere” or to choose, for your project people can choose to “serve” by adding their image, why was it important to have an element of participation? Will the conscription of this legion ever end?
SS The conscription will continue as long as viewers send images! The participatory nature of the website brings others into the visual conversation and examines current technological and social trends: rapid file exchange, personal image sharing, social networking. I see this project as a way of playing with “the archive” as an idea full of creative potential, as opposed to a brick and mortar repository housing dusty information. Thanks to technological innovation, the archive can be decentralized with nodes reaching from my website to others’ computers to every photo album buried in closet. We Are Legion, like Facebook or Flickr, encourages us to remove our personal images from one context (desktop image folder, family photo album) and to insert them into a typology that reveals something about the collective. Obviously, We Are Legion is more specific and blatantly aestheticized but the mechanism is similar.
KK What is this legion fighting for, or what is their line of defense?
SS We Are Legion is meant to be both humorously nostalgic and potentially disturbing. It’s hilarious to see Darth Vader hanging out with Big Bird! Recognizing ourselves (literally if you’re a contributor) in this parade of costumed characters is evidence of our shared experiences, for better or worse. There is nothing inherently right or wrong about the costume choices but there are questions to be asked about the society which made the choices available. The legion isn’t really fighting for anything and maybe that’s the point.
Stephen Slappe is an artist and curator whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at the South Carolina State Museum; The Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow; The Sarai Media Lab in Delhi; Artists’ Television Access in San Francisco; and The Art Gym at Marylhurst University in Portland, OR. Slappe was the recipient of a Couture award from the New American Art Union in Portland for Shelter in Place, 2009.