June 2009 - Artslant's Chicago City Editor, Abraham Ritchie, met up with Brian Ulrich and talked about recent work, process and shopping. The following interview is taken from that conversation.
Brian Ulrich is a recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship. Ulrich is currently showing "Thrift and Dark Stores," in New York City at Julie Saul Gallery, New York, May 28 - July 3, 2009, and "Retail and Dark Stores" at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, New York, June 27 - August 22.
Abraham Ritchie: Let’s begin with talking about your new work, which is part of the larger “Copia” project.
Brian Ulrich: Sure, the Dark Stores, Ghostboxes and Dead Malls.
Brian Ulrich, Dominicks 1, 2008, 11" x 14." Edition of 15; Courtesy of the artist.
AR: I was looking through the images and I was wondering, on a basic level, how do you even get access to these places? Plus the lights are all on. Are these places still lit at night?
BU: A lot of that is timing and doing a lot of research. Often when places get into really dire straights, they let go of the security at these abandoned places. At that point, anyone could do anything in there. There’s homeless people living in there, there are all sorts of things happening. The least of anyone’s concern is the guy with the big camera. People who are there ask what I am doing, but not because they’re threatened but because they are curious. They understand specifically why people would want to look at that, because they have to live everyday in these abandoned stores and malls. They think about the economy in such a different way, but they really get it.
Early on, I found I didn’t like taking ‘no’ for an answer. In the beginning when I wanted to take pictures in big box stores I knew those places would say no. So I figured out a way to do it without asking them, doing it candidly with a medium-format camera. If they ask you to leave you can just walk out of that store and walk into the next one, I mean there are so many of them.
Brian Ulrich, Chicago, IL, 2002; Courtesy of the artist.
AR: And they all look the same on the inside, essentially.
BU: Oh, completely! When I started doing pictures of the thrift stores it started getting easier. I could call ahead, they would give me permission and they were quite happy to do that and that someone was paying some degree of attention to their plight. Most of the thrift stores are run by community service organizations or Christian-based organizations. They understand why someone would want to come there and look. Then recently with the malls, it’s kind of a situation where I am surprised what people will let you do when you ask, because often they just say yes. Though I have had cases where I have, for instance, flown to Dallas and I can’t get access and there’s nothing you can do. I find something else. There are so many subjects out there, all I have to do is be patient.
AR: That answers the access to these places, but I am still wondering if they are lit. In some of these images the stores have full lights on, it seems. It’s a very eerie and haunting effect, it looks like business-as-usual but the stores are out-of-business, closed and there’s no one there.
BU: The terms that I am using for my work, dark stores, ghostboxes and dead malls are actually retail industry terms that I have co-opted.
BU: When a store goes ‘dark’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s totally vacated. For instance, a K-Mart might go dark if that store is underperforming, but if the corporation feels like that area is valuable and will turn around later, they just close the doors, take out the merchandise and make it quiet for a while. Potentially they will re-lease the property when it’s worth more, or move back in and open it back up. So in order to keep the place secure, they leave the lights on, which was also surprising to me in the beginning. It makes sense though, it’s better to leave the lights on for safety. A ‘ghostbox’ is when a building is totally dark, no lights, it’s a vacate space. And at the dead malls they have to leave some lights on, if they are open at all, like for security personnel.
The other thing that I have been doing with some of the pictures, since some places are so dark, I use flashlights with long exposures, sometimes half an hour long. I bought a police flashlight that plugs into a car’s cigarette lighter, like the kind they shine on you when you are in trouble, and I just “paint” with that thing. Over half an hour that can really bring out some details.
Brian Ulrich, Dixie Square Mall, 2008, Editions of 15 and 7; Courtesy of the artist.
AR: So when you say paint, you mean you move the beam of light around in the frame with an idea of how it will look in the exposure?
AR: What are the images that you have produced with this kind of technique?
BU: A lot of images have utilized this method. There’s one of the Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois, [seen immediately above] that is one of the most famous dead malls, in a way. Its been abandoned for forty years, and they used the mall to film Blues Brothers the scene when they have that big chase scene and they drive the car through the mall. It has been celebrated by some web/cultural enthusiasts.
AR: So it’s become a piece of vernacular culture now, like the Berwyn Spire?
BU: Exactly, but even bigger. Anyways it’s still sitting there, so representative of twentieth-century problems and inner city mismanagement. It’s totally dark. It’s so dark you really can’t see at night. I’ve been there several times, and in August we went back for the third time. It’s a difficult and wide space, using a flashlight is the only way you can really see anything. I mean I could do a three-hour exposure, but then the sky would be blown out. So using the flashlight in this way is the only way to produce these pictures.
AR: Your website is titled “Not if, but when.” Which seems to me to allude to some sort of apocalyptic happening and I have my own ideas about what you are referring to, but is there anything in particular that you are referring to?
BU: Well I lifted that phrase from the newspapers some months after 9/11, when the mood in the country had shifted from consolidation and healing, to one that was based on the tried and true fear-mongering tactics. This fear of a glorious invisible enemy that was constantly looming. The phrase “not if, but when” starting showing up in headlines and newspapers all over the place. I think the phrase was on three newspapers at once one day, with references to anthrax and this and that. It made me so angry that, one, people would stoop to these fear-mongering tactics and, two, that the public would believe it. But it really preyed upon peoples weaknesses and fears, and I thought about that phrase and I thought about how I could co-opt it and use it in a more ambiguous sense and with a sense of foreboding and warning. I basically wanted to use the phrase in a different sense, like if we don’t think about things clearly what will happen?
AR: Applied to your work “not if, but when” seems to take on more economic overtones, rather than in the original use. Obviously 9/11 was a major world event and I agree that after that the nation was so focused on this, as you put it, “invisible enemy” that could strike at anytime, anywhere. So were we distracted from something else? The phrase that we are hearing now more than “terror” is “economic meltdown.”
BU: I should clarify that the work isn’t really about 9/11 itself, rather the events it set in motion.
BU: Many of the ideas of the twentieth century set into motion things that culminated in that moment on 9/11 and we’re reeling from the effects of into the twenty-first century. In certain respects this happens at the turn of every century: there’s a huge amount of uncertainty about the future, intense technological advancements, strife in the global social, economic spheres and it all culminates together. Look at the turn from the nineteenth to twentieth century; there were a lot of similarities. Maybe it’s the media or maybe it’s our own justifications, but we love to give everything a title: “economic meltdown,” “anthrax,” “terrorism.” These things are all connected to much bigger and deeper problems in this country and in the world. This has been going on for a long time, and have we been distracted? Well yes, I mean we could go back centuries to find the answers how we have been. I mean the entire pathos of this country is about “get off my land,” not about community or anything like that, it’s about individualism, and that’s a distraction.
We’re constantly being told what to be afraid of and if we can just put a title on it, then we know what to avoid. For instance: “I won’t open the mail,” or “I’ll open the mail but with gloves on, then I will be ok,” “If I take my shoes off at the airport, I’ll be ok, nothing will happen.” It’s illogical, but we follow along to feel better.
AR: Like you were saying, it’s not really 9/11 itself, but your work examines the events afterwards. Several times you have cited then-President Bush’s admonishment to the nation to get back shopping, just barely two weeks after the twin towers fell. I remember that statement very clearly myself because it was disgusting in the wake of the tragedy, but at the same time uncomfortably practical because the economic engine is so tied into Americans’ lifestyle and well-being.
BU: It actually clarified that for the first time ever and in a sense was really bold to say that. The President made it clear that the quality of our lives was only dependant on how much we have to spend and how much stuff we feel we need. The President making that statement was so unusual because everyone always alludes to it, but no one comes out and says that. He basically said, for Americans, the whole meaning of your life is your credit card and whatever limit you have on it.
Brian Ulrich. Circuit City, Ponderose Steakhouse, 2008. Editions of 15 and 7; Courtesy of the artist.
AR: I was trying to find the exact source for that quote from Bush but eventually ended up finding a New York Times review of your exhibitions, which had an even better quote from then-Vice President Cheney. He stated at one point: “The best way for Americans to gouge the eyes of terrorists is to go shopping.” I thought that was hilarious, no one would advocate eye-gouging except for Cheney. Isn’t it a very illegal wrestling move? It’s not allowed in any legitimate sport. . . So here’s an “easy” question, what are Americans to do? What is patriotic? Are we supposed to get back shopping?
BU: No, getting back to shopping got us here. [Laughter] It’s not working.
The main thing is that this country has a huge amount of potential, you know? We just have to let go of some pride and maybe this is making us a little more humble. If we realized that all these little regions throughout the country are really powerful communities. These regions have the potential to support each other in profound ways. Are they going to be unique in a global perspective? No, but in a global perspective nothing will be unique again, and that will require letting go of some pride. Everything is connected now. The economic crisis is just another thing that has shown us that everything happening here is rippled everywhere else, and things that happen there ripple back.
I think that even though it’s such a buzzword and trendy word, sustainability is key. It’s not that we have to stop using toilet paper or something, but we have to start thinking about the words “sustainability,” “frugality,” and “community,” and start thinking about the effects of things. It’s incredibly frustrating to go to the grocery store and realize that no matter what you want to buy, it is probably is made of plastic, and that stuff is going to be here forever. A lot of it is floating in the Pacific Ocean. It’s so frustrating to want to buy something that is biodegradable but not be able to. Why is that? Why aren’t people talking about that? We’re really good about holding people accountable when we’re actually pissed off, the thing is we’re so complacent most of the time, it’s hard to get us to that level. If we were as active as watchful about things that matter like public corruption and mismanagement, as we are about getting our super-saving coupons or whatever, then this country might transform into something amazing.
AR: I was looking at the photo essay you did for Time, which was great. I thought it was kind of funny and a little misplaced, that they introduced in this way: “Brian Ulrich presents the haunted shells of America’s devastated retail landscape.” Which to me was a little more memorializing and uncritical than the images are.
BU: Well that’s why I do it, for the workers. It’s not about the buildings, they don’t matter. I’ve said before that I would love to stomp them into dust, it’s a bad idea and it’s a terrible model, I mean a box with a fancy doorway? I mean c’mon can’t we do better than that?