In Conversation: Denis Farley
Denis Farley uses photography to explore elements of nature alongside concepts of measurement, observation, surveillance, and data transmission. In his latest work, made primarily under Covid-19 lockdown conditions, Farley returns to past projects for inspiration. We invited Denis to participate in an email Q&A to discuss his art practice and how it led to his two latest series, Cosmologies and R&D.
Hi Denis. Tell us a bit about your background.
Photography was part of my life early on; since I was in high school. I’m self-taught for the most part. I pursued studies in science and graphic design before engaging in fine arts, and completed an MFA at Concordia University in 1984.
After completing my master’s degree I began working as a professional photographer documenting artworks, architecture and design objects. That’s something I still enjoy doing today as it is a very stimulating environment to work in. I am also a part-time lecturer in art and photography at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montreal).
Your fascination with surveillance and data-capture technologies is timely. How did this interest develop?
In fact this interest in “systems of vision” rather than specifically “surveillance” emerged as I finished my master’s degree with an exhibit in which I drew parallels between invasive surveillance cameras and dramatic landscapes and rock formations. One could see and imagine eagle-like silhouettes represented in those large vertical B&W photos. That was in 1984/George Orwell territory!
Illustration of Johannes Kepler's tent camera obscura of 1620
I found reading books like Techniques of the Observer, by Jonathan Crary, 1992, to be very stimulating; questioning the role and stature of the observer/photographer. This led to other experiments. Naturally I became interested in the camera obscura phenomena to create new photographs in which I could show simultaneously what is being observed, just like with a surveillance camera, and the ground below my feet. I had designed a tent camera obscura similar to Kepler’s tent camera obscura that he reportedly used for surveying land in the 17th century. Being in the tent in the dark, looking at the surroundings in the city, is very much like being in a surveillance control room. To see everything without being seen, like Orwell's Big Brother from 1984.
Your new series are called Cosmologies and R&D. What are they about?
Those series (in progress) are very much connected with the camera obscura series I made some 30 years earlier. I decided to work in my studio using objects that were kept over the years, ranging from parts of installations, apparatuses, terrestrial globes, scientific and optical objects, etc. I create different arrangements in order to suggest or simulate, in some cases, something out of a scientific lab. I am thinking here of those inaccessible labs in which companies are experimenting in order to improve or invent technologies associated with telecom and satellites. The advent of the satellite era made us aware of an incredible amount of information about the earth and about us, this is what cosmology is about in some way, although it is much more encompassing. It is fascinating to consider how the concepts of cosmology over the ages made an incredible impact on culture in general.
Behind the scenes making the series Cosmologies, 2020
In these series I wish to address some references to different cosmological representations in order to create a pseudo-scientific imagery that will hopefully prompt the viewer to fill in the gaps and imagine his/her own fantasy experiment/world.
How do Cosmologies and R&D expand upon the wider themes you explore with your work?
As I mentioned they are intimately connected to the camera obscura series but also to other series like the “Network”, the “Parallel Network” series, and the “Cloud” series.
In those series I explore different ways to address the subject of information and its flux in a global communication system. It takes different shapes and it is visualized in very different ways, but it is always about information in transit from Point A to Point B -- or from Point A to an infinite possibility of destinations. Another aspect has to do with the notion of the relative position of the observer, which is present in most of my bodies of work. The “Calibrated Landscape Series” for example, is all about measuring the scale and the relative distance between the observer “A” (camera), the reference target “B”, (myself dressed with a red and white checkered suit), and the landscape.
My studio is relatively small and the installations to be photographed have to fit in it. Eventually I may rent another space to work on a larger set-up. For now, I generally install some elements on a backdrop and make some tests; shoot some photos with preliminary lighting. A few days later, I’ll make changes, add new parts, and work on more specific lighting. Using various light sources -- flashlight, tungsten lights, different color lasers, slide projection, etc. I prefer a slide projection rather than a video projection because the video projection creates a very distinctive pixel grid that does not work so well for my purposes.
Behind the scenes making "Cosmologies No. 20, Blue", 2021
Most of the time I work for a few hours alone, and I have to control all the different aspects at the same time. I manually create the movement, check the lighting, orient the laser, take the photos, check the first series on the computer then shoot a second set and so on.
Behind the scenes making "Cosmologies No. 20, Blue", 2021
Normally I try to have all the effects prepared for when I shoot and avoid using photoshop manipulations except for some image adjustments and occasionally sandwiching images to create a composite. I tend to like that the scene has to relate to the real experience I have envisioned, when I shoot.
Is there a specific intent to imbue a cinematic feel to the compositions in Cosmologies and R&D.
That might come down to how I make these photographs. I either use a motor or I manually move the glass or slate surface, which sits on bearings, and I use a relatively longer time exposure to capture the movement. It is fun to figure out the combination of both parameters. The world is in constant movement and it seems quite natural to want to represent these scenes in motion. I get a lot of satisfaction from doing that and to see what comes out as a partial surprise… The “chance” factor has to play a role in the creative process.
Coming out of a confinement period like everybody else, I hadn't much choice but to concentrate on studio work. That was an opportunity for introspection and to look back at earlier work.
In the coming year I look forward to seeking out additional locations that will relate to these new series. I will probably start with university research facilities that are more accessible, and then see where that will lead me.
In terms of exposure and exhibition projects, there are a few venues for group exhibits planned, but as you know everything has been pretty much on hold for a while. I think it is time to connect with other artists, curators, and gallery dealers to discuss the possibility of organizing solo or group shows and publications.
Learn more about Denis Farley and shop a selection of his photographs at FFOTO.com/DenisFarley