Category Archives: Art

Arne Svenson

“I am much more interested in the way light illuminates the turn of an arm or the back of a head, conveying an infinity of possible situations and emotions, than I am of capturing a face which, in all probability, when confronted with a camera will be shrouded in well-practiced, derivative expressions.”

Despite the public fervor whipped up over Arne Svenson’s telescopic intrusions in his watershed series The Neighbors, the photographer is certain that his images were never intended to be about surveillance—and the courts of New York agreed, exonerating him twice from claims of privacy invasion. Svenson argues that his act of non-consensually photographing his neighbors from windows was instead intended to capture the nuances of motion.

The right to photograph people in public has long been established legally. It’s the cornerstone for a surveillance regime that blankets practically every corner of our cities and leads to the adoption of new technologies like police drone surveillance. Many artists, Trevor Paglen for example, are trying to engage directly with the surveillance state and questioning its power and challenging its basis. But how does Svenson see his place among these artists? We reached out to Svenson in New York to try and explain this disconnect between how he sees his art and how the greater public might see it.

RUINS: We’ve seen your work labeled as “surveillance art,” a medium that Andy Warhol helped to popularize and which has historically been interested in the idea of privacy, national security issues, and the act of secretly documenting something. Your work, despite the mechanical similarities, seems to focus far more on gestures and moments rather than the political underpinnings around the work’s production. What do you think of this label and how it applies to you?
SVENSON: Given the nature of the work, I think it inappropriate: surveillance, and the topical issues surrounding it, was the furthest thing from my mind when I began shooting for The Neighbors project. My intent was to record the nuances of motion, or lack thereof, which reveal who we are, the tiny scenarios and gestures that define our humanness. Vignettes of quietude were what I was really searching for—those times when we are drained of action and contemplation becomes a visible, recordable event. I felt that the only way to capture these small ripples of emotion were if the subject was unaware of being photographed, hence my turning the camera to the building across from my studio.

Also, regarding the surveillance label: Throughout the series I was stringent in not revealing the identities of the subjects because to do so would have severely restricted the narrative possibilities inherent in the photographs. I am much more interested in the way light illuminates the turn of an arm or the back of a head, conveying an infinity of possible situations and emotions, than I am of capturing a face which, in all probability, when confronted with a camera will be shrouded in well-practiced, derivative expressions.

Shooting through windows gives the images a “painterly presence” that you seem to have pushed even farther with Workers. What do these overt connections between your images and academic painting mean to you?
I’ve long been interested in melding thematic, stylistic and illusionary aspects of painting and photography, but when I started shooting The Neighbors I had no idea that any such connections would surface. It wasn’t until I looked at the initial image playbacks that I realized the mullions of the windows created a Mondrian-like structure within which discrete visual narratives appeared. And when we printed the work, it became apparent that the dirt on the windows was refracting the light in such a way as to give a painterly cast over the photographs. After viewing these phenomena I started seeing specific paintings as I shot and certain unconscious memories of historical work by artists such as Hopper and Vermeer seemingly guided my eye.

With The Workers series I actively courted the painting reference by not only shooting through light-distorting dirty windows again, but by formatting the images as ovals, referencing the 17th century Dutch portrait paintings of Frans Hals, among others. I used the oval format as a framing device to signify a window but also to confer a class status not usually afforded those that work with their hands.

So where we experienced the subjects in The Neighbors at leisure in their luxury apartments, here we see the worker’s hands, elbows, backs and shoulders concentrating on the task at hand—building more palaces in the sky.

Will you continue to work in a similar vein or do something different —what’s next?
Currently I’m working on The Birds, a series I photographed in Scandinavia earlier this year. Though unpopulated by people, it is a further exploration of that amorphous region between painting and photography.

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The Caged Pillows

RUINS PRESENTS A FULLY LOADED TECHNICOLOR DREAMSCAPE IN THIS ORIGINAL ANIMATION FROM GALEN PEHRSON, FEATURING JENA MALONE, ROSE McGOWAN, GEMMA WARD AND JAMES FRANCO, WHILE SOUNDTRACK FEATURES MUSIC BY DAFT PUNK, DEATH GRIPS, FUTURE ISLANDS AND DEVENDRA BANHART.

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or our launch we commissioned director Galen Pehrson to create an exclusive hand-drawn animation piece that merges art and entertainment, and shatters the mold of traditional short formats. The resulting Caged Pillows is a pioneering medium that speaks to a highly interactive world where media and human contact are opposing forces, and, in turn, is a cornerstone piece for the tenets of Ruins itself—artistically and thematically.

“On the surface, The Caged Pillows is a story about the way we’ve come to communicate, removing ourselves from human touch, alone but together,” explains Pehrson, who was raised in the woods and off the grid in Nevada City, CA. “Screens feed us standards—from the media, from each other—and project images that define what success, happiness, and beauty look like.”

The psychedelic narrative follows the paths of Ediza (voiced by Jena Malone), a nocturnal teenage cat who lives in the suburbs, and Monday (Rose McGowan), a glamorous city-dwelling actress duck who represents the lifestyle of your dreams—James Franco lends his talents as a boilerplate upbeat talk-show host, while Gemma Ward is the siren song of a hypnotic late night commercial. Interwoven with Pehrson’s compelling imagery throughout is a soundtrack featuring music by Daft Punk, Death Grips, Future Islands, and Devendra Banhart.

The work was also crafted to be an interactive piece that extends beyond the video itself—it invites the audience to connect and contribute to the World of The Caged Pillows across social media and a unique 1-844-ASTRAL LOANS hotline, which launched with the exclusive release of “Trash” by Death Grips.

“As the director, I don’t offer the answers,” says Pehrson. “Instead I abstractly approach the topic as a media-oriented Guernica; I present the topics, characterize the subjects, and let the viewer create their own internal dialogue.”

Danielle Levitt

“I come from a place of acceptance and celebration. I don’t aim to tell anyone’s story, and I don’t aim to view any group through a lens of other.”

Photographer and director Danielle Levitt’s body of work includes editorials in the world’s top magazines and enviable advertising campaigns for corporate clients. Despite the breadth of her projects, everything she does is filtered through her unique worldview giving her work a powerful cohesiveness. The purest expression of this—no surprise—is found in Levitt’s intimate personal work, which explores the evolving landscape of contemporary American youth culture.

Her images of American youth movements—BMX riders, thrash core punks, beauty queens, high school footballers, Wyoming rodeo riders, teenage werewolves—inspires us to think differently about culture, place and identity. Here, we’ve studied and selected some of our favorites and chatted with Danielle about intention and process.

RUINS: We love the sense of place we get from your work. It’s like your subjects are part of the fabric of their surroundings. What drives you into these less-explored pockets of Americana?
LEVITT: I love passionate people, and I think that young people are less inhibited or refined—they can appropriate culture in a way that feels exploratory and fun. When you see someone who has found a sense of self and a family that is powerful because, on a very basic level, we all know what it’s like to be confused and seeking. So when you see a person or a group of people for whom that has been somewhat alleviated, that is very special. Also trends change, and morph, and go away. It’s important to record these things.

How do you approach your work tonally?
I come from a place of acceptance and celebration. I don’t aim to tell anyone’s story and I don’t aim to view any group through a lens of “other.” I offer a platform to people who I think are owning themselves and give them a chance to say how that feels for them and what family looks like, what cool is to them, and what is important.

Do you find the quality of light changes dramatically from one city to the next? How does this affect the images?
Ha, yes it definitely does. My work is about photographing people in their environments so my subjects don’t ever look divorced from the atmosphere. Of course, if I’m photographing goths in southern California, then the sunny warm light is an interesting contrast to what is expected. There’s always an intention to it.

How do you find your subjects in such far flung locales? How has the internet changed the way you work?
I have an amazing team who support me. With the advent of Instagram also, I am able to find these kids that before we’re not as easily accessed. Before I just traveled around, and spoke to everyone. I’m not shy, so if I see someone on the street, I’ll approach them. I also like to remain in contact with young people I’ve worked a lot with so they end up putting me in touch with or onto different young people or trends. Everyone sees people on the street who are different, or hears “crazy” or “inspiring” stories—this is just my job so I go after those leads.

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My Pacific Northwest

The cult actress turned filmmaker pens a poignant reflection on a turbulent passage during her coming of age in the rains of rural Oregon.

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y one and only school dance took place in a squatty brown building surrounded by pretty, forest-like grounds. Inside, the room was lit up with inappropriate mood lighting and cut-rate decorations. I was skirting the crowd trying to dodge Linda, my annoying Mormon friend, when I came face to face with Tracy Lariat, the most popular girl in eighth grade. She held a grudge and, oddly enough at this time, a chocolate truffle. She lifted her hand and smashed the chocolate into my face, then said, “That’s for stealing Mark!” I wasn’t upset about the ambush, I just remember trying to figure out who Mark was and why someone would bring truffles to a dance.

I was wiping my face clean when I heard a gravelly voice say, “Heyyyy, you wanna hallucinate?”

His name was John Fufrone, Jr. and he had a curly oiled mullet and that downy molester mustache young rednecks like to cultivate—kind of like perverted peacocks. It was clear this teenage drug dealer had been held back a few grades. He tore off a tiny piece of paper and told me to put it under my tongue. I had no clue what acid was, I’d never done drugs before, but I was all in for the adventure.

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he music started to pulsate off the rec room walls, and even the smallest sounds were being amplified in my head. I left the dance to wander the grounds; trees started to breathe, my soft young mind was on fire. Linda the Mormon took me home and unceremoniously dumped me on my front lawn. My mother dragged me inside the house and started to interrogate me, but the acid had rendered me mute. She was exhausting me with her questions.

I marshaled the strength to speak. I looked her in the eye and said, “Fuck. You.” It was like a silence bomb went off. Two weeks later I was locked up in a drug rehab center, and for the unforeseeable future my home was now the top floor of Sacred Heart Hospital in miserable Eugene, Oregon.

I told the doctors that I wasn’t a drug addict, that I’d only ever taken that one hit of LSD, and they would say you’re in denial and therefore could not possibly not be an addict. Hats off to them, there was no way out of this one. So I knew I had to take matters into my own hands, that there was no way I was going to spend months in that hell.

My first attempt at escape was disastrous. I made it out to the street and just ran wildly. No small feat considering I was wearing those flimsy hospital sock booties with little gripper pads on the bottom. I quickly made friends with a homeless girl. Later that day she introduced me to two older punk rockers named Slam and Mayonnaise.

It rained hard my first night as a homeless teen, so the four of us sought shelter in the cold dirt under a church porch. It was the oozing mud that woke me up first, it was seeping into my ears and distorting my hearing, but I could still make out warbly high-pitched screams. Slam the punk was on top of the girl, raping her. Mayonnaise was still asleep. I slowly slid out of there, inch by muddy inch, losing my booties in the process. My ears were killing me, my vision was starting to double. The only place I knew to get help was the hospital I’d just escaped from.

My father had told me to never befriend anyone with popcorn ceilings, but this was not the time to be elitist.

Barefoot and covered in mud, I ran into the emergency room
and saw a nurse with perfectly feathered hair, then collapsed at her feet. When I woke up, I was back in my room on the sixth floor rehab center. No one believed me—I tried, believed me, I tried.

One week and many educational drug movies later, I got away for good. My compatriots were begging me not to go; my roommate even gifted me her too big shoes. My first stop was a nearby coffee shop, where I met James. He wore a black turtleneck, a long black skirt, and Doc Marten boots—it was love at first sight. He turned to his female companion, a chubby goth named Amy, and promptly broke up with her. She burst into tears, her white powdered makeup running down her face. James turned back to me and asked if I’d go to Portland with him. He’d stolen a hatchback and was wanted for auto theft, necessitating his spontaneity. I took a dramatic pause and said, “James, I’d go to the moon with you.” His newly acquired hatchback took us from Eugene to Portland. We listened to The Cure the whole way while Amy cried in the back seat.

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eing homeless in Oregon is deeply unpleasant and inhospitable. There’s the rain, always the rain—gnawing hunger and wet jeans perennially clinging to my legs, that was my northwest. One night while piercing my nose in a coffee shop bathroom, I met a pasty Nancy Spungen lookalike with a mane of fried white blonde hair. Her name was Tina and she told me she was a stripper. I’d once seen a movie about Gypsy Rose Lee with my dad, so I was pretty sure I knew what her industry entailed. I asked Tina if she could spin her tassels for me and I was rewarded with a blank stare. She took me back to her place to stay. My father had told me to never befriend anyone with popcorn ceilings, but this was not the time to be elitist. Plus, Tina was nice, and gave me Top Ramen when she remembered. But then she told me I had to put in money for the heating bill. Shit. Money. Christmas was coming and even though I probably wouldn’t eat that day, I did want a roof over my head. In rehab I’d met a charming young burglar who told me all about pawn shops, so I knew exactly what I was going to do: I was going to rob my mother’s house.

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Chinatown, New York City.

I hopped a bus and made my way back down south to Eugene, driving through small green town after small green town. It was a weekday so I knew everyone was out of the house, but I still spied through a hole in my neighbor Babette’s bushes, just to make certain before I made my move. I crawled in through the cat flap, just as I’d done many times before when I was locked out. The house smelled like Christmas. Fuckers. I picked through the presents, still taking the time to be offended that none were marked for me. In the movies there would have been, and the runaway daughter would have stopped in her tracks, her eyes filling with tears, then her mom would have walked in the door, also crying, and embraced her.

But in reality, there was no sign I’d existed. Merry Christmas to me. I loaded up the wrapped presents satchel style and shimmied out the cat flap, like Santa in reverse. I thumbed a ride back to Portland in a Datsun 280Z with a guy that looked like Weird Al Yankovic. He dropped me at Pawn N Such, where I charmed the owner into buying some of my brother’s Nintendo games. I got $27, enough for Tina’s heating bill and a dry Christmas.

I was thirteen years old and punk as fuck.