A Correspondence with Bucky Miller
from Uniform Field Protection Services, 2013; iPhone photograph of museum security camera
You are a photographer working a day-job as a security guard at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. How has your time there informed or influenced your thinking about art?
The actual title is “protection services officer,” but yes, I’m a security guard. It’s the day job of day jobs–when I took it I wasn’t thinking about much more than employment, something to support my art habits. I’m at a stage in my life where I’m actively avoiding any sort of real career, which is something I feel very fortunate about. It just happened that I had some friends working within the organization who alerted me to the opening and could put in a good word for me. It came down to a choice between museum security and a position at a grocery store, so I took the museum job.
from Uniform Field Protection Services, 2013; iPhone photograph of museum security camera
My first day there I got tossed right into the fire–a closing reception for three exhibits. Which was fine, because the fire amounts mostly to asking people to stop photographing art. But then those exhibits closed, and I was left guarding one video art show for the rest of my first month. (For the record, video art is the easiest art to guard from a protection standpoint: there is nothing to touch or photograph. It is also the most frustrating art to guard from a sanity retention standpoint. Songs forever ruined for me by their use in looping video pieces include “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins and Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”)
During that downtime I was able to collect a lot of good insight on the inner workings of the art museum. Installation is fascinating. There is a huge amount of energy that goes into transforming gallery spaces for each new show. Watching the cogs turn, seeing the business that goes on behind the scenes, has made me approach museums in an entirely new way. There seems to be a bewildering amount of work that goes into putting art on the wall. It’s a very meticulous, high-stress environment. Honestly, I’m happy my duties end at unlocking doors and making sure nobody headbutts the Motherwell.
from Uniform Field Protection Services, 2013; iPhone photograph of museum security camera
Working security I get to see the art more than anyone– even the curators. A lot of art museums have different security policies, but SMOCA is small enough that the guards essentially roam around the entire museum all day. If it’s slow, there is plenty of time to digest the art.
I probably look at every piece in the museum at least five times a day, if not more, and I have the time to become incredibly engaged and incredibly critical. My opinions of some pieces change several times a week. Also, studying how guests interact with the art has made me think a lot about how I want people to look at my own work when it’s on display. Since I’ve started working at the museum my installations have grown more experimental. I’m enjoying trying to dissect how different arrangements can guide viewers around a space.
Has anyone ever headbutted the Motherwell?
No, but once I considered wearing a sign on my shirt that said “Ask me about head butting the Motherwell.” Thankfully there haven’t been any major incidents in my time there, although once I was concerned that a man was preparing to perform a wrestling move on a bronze sculpture. It turned out he was just posing for a really inappropriate photograph.
It’s a very hands-on museum, security-wise. We’re encouraged to banter with visitors if we want. Everyone brings their own ideas to the art, and it’s fascinating to watch how people engage, or don’t, with different pieces.
Installation view from Destroyer by Bucky Miller at the Night Gallery, Phoenix, AZ, 2012
You say that your own installations or ideas for installations have grown more experimental since you’ve started working at the museum. Would you elaborate? Do you dream of a radical redefinition of space?
Working at a museum has made me realize that very few people enter a gallery and take the path around the space that you expect them to. I’ve begun experimenting more with how to engage viewers.
In my last show I abandoned the initial sequence altogether and spaced the pictures out very sparsely around the room, so that each photograph demanded attention on its own. The hope was that pieces would resonate with each other across the room as opposed to side to side. I’m not sure it was very successful, but it was a different way of looking at things. I love the idea of a radical redifinition of space; it’s something I’d really like to achieve. I haven’t gotten there yet.
Do you feel like these spatial challenges you’ve observed in the museum as well as in your own shows affected how you take pictures? I mean, do you find that you’re thinking of each image as its own private Idaho rather than as part of a sequence?
Ideally it’s both. Or somewhere in the middle. Working at the museum has confirmed my suspicion that no piece in an exhibit can ever be an island. It’s always going to be received in the context of what’s around it. Even if you built a hypothetical isolation chamber that people had to enter to view the piece, it’s still going to be seen in terms of the chamber.
A film being screened in the museum’s multipurpose space can influence somebody’s reaction to a piece on the other side of the building in a totally unconnected show. I’ve seen it happen.
On the other hand, every piece should be able to stand alone to some extent. I used to be more forgiving in my own work of photographs that might not be the strongest individually but acted like adjectives to the sequence. The more I work and rework groups of pictures the more I learn to cut the fat.
I still think it’s important to have modifiers–they break up the rhythm of a group in a nice way and can really drive in certain feelings/ideas/concepts–but now I hold out for the really strong adjectives. There might be a bit more leeway in books–not much–but it’s especially true in the context of a gallery, where the division of space is the guiding force to almost everything.
I don’t know if it’s changed how I photograph, but more how I look at my photographs. I’m probably more critical. I might be a little more conservative with my shooting now too. Which is good, because even with digital cameras it’s possible to take too many pictures. Digging through useless files is emotionally exhausting.
When it comes to sequencing, the first big challenge is being able to initially grab someone’s attention. Sequences don’t make verbal sense, so it’s difficult to reel in viewers using text. I’ve done it, but it’s hard to avoid redundancy and I’d rather entice a viewer with photographs.
I mean, words are great, and I’m a big fan of the combination of words and pictures, because they both do things the others can’t, but especially with an exhibition of photographs I don’t want wall text to be the thing that attracts people. Working at a museum has taught me that people generally read the text after making their initial judgment about the work.
The second challenge is in arranging the pictures in a way that suggests relationships around the room. There are a lot of ways to do this, and probably not a best way. It depends on the work, the space, how I’m feeling, what I want to emphasize, and probably other things.
A Form Near a Truck Stop in Central California, 2013
I picked up on the internet somewhere that you’re named after Buckminster Fuller and that you count him as an influence. Is this true? I’m curious about how you think of him in your work, life, museum-job experience.
It’s true! My father is an architect and my mother really liked the name Bucky. I went a long time having only a vague knowledge of Fuller, but eventually I came across a book of his, And It Came to Pass, Not to Stay. It’s essays written in what he called “ventilated prose,” which is a sort of free verse poetry structure that includes math equations and the occasional diagram. The first essay, “How Little I Know,” immediately blew me away and remains a piece of writing that I return to all the time.
“How Little I Know,” is great, and a bit awkward. It’s in no traditional way a perfect anything. He makes up words left and right, and at times falls into these little mumbly dancey parts (“A one and two/three and four/Me –You,/Thee–they/And more/Thine and mine/Sweet citizen.”) But then he’ll counter the gibberish with something incredibly clear and profound.
The part that I tend to remember the most says, “And I have confidence/In the importance of remembering/How little we know/And of the possible significance/Of the fact that we prosper,/And at some times even enjoy/Life in Universe/Despite the designed-in littleness/That we have to ‘get by with.’” The really incredible thing about it is how all of these elements, the silly and the poignant, intertwine, so that when you’ve finished reading it seems like you can feel exactly how Fuller felt writing it. It’s a mix of moods, it’s non-linear, it’s evocative, it’s scientific, it’s childish, and it feels like existing. It works with a system of disjunction that I was trying to get at in my photographic sequences before I’d ever seen the book. It’s a great thing for me to read when I’m trying to put order to my pictures. A mental warm-up.
Collaboration was on my mind at the Little Brown Mushroom Camp for Socially Awkard Storytellers–where I met you last summer. At one point, you asked me to listen to a voicemail a friend had left you–about a dream she had. It reminded me of how collaboration occurs simply by acts like this, by making, conversing, leaving someone a note. Fuller, in the essay you mentioned, talks about all people as living in “exquisite syntropy.”
Yes, collaboration is so much more than just a group of people working together on some specific piece. I just finished a book with my friend Anthony Cinquepalmi, called Catalog of Meteorites. Anthony wrote poems as responses to a group of my pictures. Then I went back and revisited my sequence, modifying it a bit based on what he wrote. It’s very obviously a collaborative project.
from Catalog of Meteorites, poems by Anthony Cinquepalmi and photographs by Bucky Miller, Hermitag/e Press, 2013
There are other times when Anthony and I collaborate on ideas that don’t really manifest as anything other than fuel for us to go forward with whatever bigger thing we’ve been working on independently. The same is true for me and other writer friends, photographer, illustrator, and painter friends. There’s some sort of spark that happens, some energy or excitement when my friends and I realize that we’re onto something. It’s a matter of really getting to know someone, to become extra perceptive to their weirdness.
But there are also more incidental collaborations, things with strangers where everything just lines up. I just posted a print of mine on Facebook asking people to trade me for objects. The responses I got were amazing. One of my favorites was a bizarre disjointed string of messages from somebody who had been up for 45 hours ghost hunting and couldn’t think of anything to trade. I’m not sure that this collaboration will ever go any further, but it still feels important in some way that I can’t really be sure of right now.
Exquisite syntropy indeed! I love that concept, by the way. A friend of mine – actually the same one from that voicemail message – once told me, quite aptly, that my photographs were fueled by entropy. It’s nice to balance that feeling with syntropy, with these collaborative relationships.
There’s something about exquisite syntropy too in your choice of day job: being a watcher watching others watching art works, and listening in on them inside the museum space.
The act of looking at people look at art while I think about making my own art is possibly the point where syntropy and entropy meet. It feels totally chaotic. At times it leaves me mentally exhausted and I leave work feeling like my brain is flat. But there is definitely a feeling of elation attached to the experience. It’s rewarding to connect with somebody through their interactions with artwork.
Your friend Anthony Cinquepalmi–did you mention to me that he’s one of your friends moving to Iowa? If yes, I’m curious: did a knowledge of parting spur your collaboration?
Yes, Anthony is in Iowa. We actually collaborated on the poem-photograph pairings over a year ago, before he knew he’d be going to graduate school, but never really did anything with them. We knew it should be a book but we both had a lot of other things going on and didn’t find the time to actually produce it. When he was about two months away from moving we decided we needed the physical object. So yes, in a way Anthony leaving spurred the collaboration–it at least jostled it out of hibernation. Realistically we should have done it sooner because we were REALLY rushed, but it all worked out.
This Cinquepalmi poem referencing Wallace Stevens and your photograph of the hospital bed have me thinking of a “rage for order.” Perhaps it’s the chill in this poem/photograph pairing–”rage” seems like the wrong word for the one in Catalog of Meteorites.
Anthony and I both love Stevens. Stevens was actually introduced to me by Bill Jenkins, one of my photography professors at ASU and one of my favorite people on the planet. Bill teaches an amazing class called Photography and Language and every week he begins class with a poem. There was a lot of Wallace Stevens involved. Bill has this remarkable reading voice that kind of contrasts with the way he talks about photography–it’s difficult to describe accurately, but it’s something like getting segments of each of his two minds.
Listening to Bill read Stevens was a really clarifying experience in that it delineated how the type of photography I’m invested in is after essentially the same thing that poetry is after, but approaches it from the totally opposite direction. It made me realize that photographs and poems have a lot of potential for working in tandem–the combination is a pincer! The danger is when one begins to simply describe the other. It is far more effective when the reader’s mind is allowed to rattle around between the words and the pictures without ever being made to settle on either.
I actually sort of like the word “rage.” Not all-out blind rage, but I think there is some sort of aggressive terror involved in the process–whatever that means! Aggressive terror with a lot of laughter along the way.
from Catalog of Meteorites
Aggressive terror and laughter–are they both part of what you’re after in the experience you want to make for a viewer (in addition to how you experience the process of making in collaboration)?
Trying to describe the drive behind making pictures is hard, because it is so distinctly not a verbal process. I’m conjuring a little bit of a thought of a trapped animal, kind of a nondescript snarling animal that is acting defensively aggressive out of a combination of fear and confusion. Mostly fascinated confusion, which can be scary. But the animal, who I guess is me, even though I feel like this is a silly analogy, instead of snarling is just cracking up. The animal is just rolling around the floor laughing, but isn’t really sure if he is laughing because what is happening is funny or because he is totally panicking.
I think Don DeLillo is somebody who is really good at handling this feeling. The most classic example could be in White Noise where a character talks about his desire to be immersed in American magic and dread. There is a tradition of this in photography too. The New Topographics people, who inadvertently birthed so many contemporary photo movements, were starting to get at it. Lynne Cohen does a great job with her interiors. My friend Mike Williams is doing it wonderfully with an iPhone camera. I think as time goes on and technology gets more sophisticated photographers are finding new and more thorough ways to approach this feeling, which is also probably growing stronger due to it.
I like to think the feeling exists in my work in variable amounts depending on the specific group of pictures. So yes, if people come away from my photographs feeling something like any of that I’ll be a little satisfied. But if someone comes away feeling the total opposite, though I might be confused as to how they got there, I’d feel just as good. I think the most important thing for me is to communicate some sense of the unspeakable thrill of being present, which is always really subjective and, at times, terrifying.
Would you tell us about any current projects you have?
As far as new projects go, it’s sort of hard to say. I don’t like to think that something is a project prematurely, because then I feel like I get trapped in a certain form of picture-making and it is hard to move forward.
I took on a new job at the museum. It’s an assistant preparator position, which means de-installing and installing artwork. It’s a short-term thing that I’m hoping will let me save enough money to travel some more once the next round of shows is set.
Going to Little Brown Mushroom last summer made me realize how much more productive I am on the road. I ended up with so many pictures from the drive to and from Minnesota – way more than I’ve made in Arizona all year. I feel like I can’t really access my photographs that are really specifically Arizonan. I’m pretty sure that it will take moving away for me to process what is going on in those pictures.
The other big thing for me right now is trying to find an outlet for Destroyer, which is the last sequence I made. I need to get it out of my head, so I’ve been researching self-publishing methods. I don’t feel like I’m going to be able to truly move on to the next thing, which there are already a lot of pictures for most likely, until Destroyer is a thing. Catalog of Meteorites became a thing, and now I don’t think about it anymore. Finishing something is like mental housecleaning. It’s similar to how I can’t leave a dish unwashed, I guess.
Bucky Miller was born in Phoenix, Arizona. He has a BFA in photography from Arizona State University. In early 2013 he completed a residency at the grassroots arts institution Tempe Museum of Contemporary Art. He recently returned from the Little Brown Mushroom Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is currently probing the country for photographs and other things. At the time this correspondence began, he was working as a protection services officer at the Scottsdale Museum for Contemporary Art. More of his work can be found at buckymiller.com.