Last year I got to spend two days working with New York’s Katelan Foisy, photographer, salonista, publisher, model, artist and author. If you’ve read the introduction to (life:) razorblades included you’ll know that she changed the way I approach art completely and left an impression that will never leave me. Recently she’s been working on some amazing collaborative projects that push the way we view art and the written word and the nature of place. With thanks to photographers Emily Poole and Veronika Von Volkova, I got to speak to Katelan and her collaborator, the poet Mike Lala about their work together, and the importance of New York.
KF: New York is a mishmash of beauty and grit. It’s the city I love to hate and hate to love. But it’s also the place I call home right now. New York is an odd place to be. There’s really no city quite like it. One minute you’re walking down a really nice block filled with trees and gorgeous buildings with decorative balconies and the next you’re passing abandoned buildings with broken glass on the street. It makes no sense and absolute sense at the same time. You can ask Mike I’m as jaded as they come. I’ve seen the Chelsea Hotel lose its soul, CBGB’s close down, and Coney Island become the land of Fischer Price toys. But I’ve also been privy to amazing underground parties, absinthe and hookah with the best of friends, and met amazing groups of artists and performers that inspire me on a daily basis. I could probably do without the scent of piss and garbage in the summertime though.
OK, I’m gonna ask that question some more ways. New York always seemed to me as an outsider to be about its buildings more than or at least as much as its people. So are you and Mike part of the skyline, are you creating graffiti to claim your place as part of that skyline, or are you putting on your finest seduction clothes in the hope that one day you will be part of it?
KF: I don’t think about the skyline much although I look at it fairly frequently. When I first moved to New York in 1997 I was fairly certain I like the buildings better than the people. I wasn’t much of a people person and frankly I was a little upset I had not walked into NYC of the 1980’s. But certain buildings like the Chrysler and the Woolworth caught my eye. The Woolworth was based on neo-Gothic architecture and constructed by Cass Gilbert. Mr Woolworth paid $13,500,000 all in cash for it. This was constructed from 1910-1913 so you can imagine how crazy it was. The Chrysler building is art deco and frankly the sexiest building in NYC. It was designed by William Van Alen and took 2 years to construct. The original design consisted of a glass jewel like crown. It was also supposed to have giant glass windows with wrapped glass corners giving it the illusion of a floating building. This proved to be too costly and advanced and the building was redesigned to what you see today. I considered these buildings my allies. These days I’m more interested in the people. The streets here have changed so much that I barely recognize them sometimes. So many of my favorite places have lost their leases or bought out by other companies. So now I focus on the people. My life has changed drastically since I first moved here. I have more of a connection to people now so I think my projects reflect that. Lie & Indite reflects that and my new project NY Stories reflects interpersonal relations within their environment. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of the skyline. I don’t think I ever will be.
ML: It seems fair to say of a city that it’s skyline is a more permanant fixture than it’s people, but I don’t know if I can fully agree with you that it’s less about the people and more about the skyline, iconic as it is. New Yorkers have a reputation which is wholly separate from any other American city.
I think it makes sense to think of Lie & Indite in architectural terms though. Maybe it’s less about creating graffiti as a claim to place, or trying to be a part of a particular place, than it is about internalizing certain tropes (many of them architectural), then reorganizing them on the body using text, context, setting, etc, and then having a photographer document that new organization.
As a Brit New York is many things to me and almost certainly every one of them is little more than clown’s make-up. But one of those things of course is CBGB. And that got me thinking about the black and white pictures of you and Mike, and about some of the great punk pictures of the 70s and I was trying to think whether I was more reminded of Sid Vicious or some of the early CBGB pictures of Blondie and I just couldn’t decide. Which made me wonder about punk and place, and whether it’s rooted in particular places or transcends place.
KF: One of the reasons I moved to New York was for CBGB’s. I’m not sure I remember the first or last shows I saw there. All I remember is touching the walls. I like the history of places and this one was filled with it, especially the bathroom. I remembered seeing pictures of the Ramones and Blondie there. I wanted to stand in the places where they stood. CBGB’s was one of those places that had history ingrained in it. I was devastated when it closed in 2006. John Varvatos moved in two years later and preserved the walls but it just doesn’t have the same vibe when you’re looking at a $2,000 jacket. The black and white photos of Mike and I in front of Mars Bar and the Punjabi restaurant are meant to have the same feel as the old punk photos by Roberta Bayley, Bob Gruen, and Jill Furmanovsky, they knew how to capture a moment. I asked Emily Poole to photograph it because she knows my aesthetic. I knew she’d give me exactly what I needed for this shoot. I found out the Mars Bar was closing a few months back and wanted to get one last shoot with it before it closed it’s doors forever.
This city kills me sometimes. When the city says they’re closing businesses to make way for “low income housing” they’re actually saying luxury apartments. The Mars Bar like CBGB’s is a big part of my NY history. It was actually the first place we ever brought the typewriters for Knickerbocker Circuses social experiment. I’m sad to see it go but glad I at least have a small rememberance of it. I don’t know too much about the punk scene nowadays. I’m not even sure NYC has one anymore. The late 70’s early 80’s NYC and London was where punk lived. By the time I got here Coney Island High was on it’s last legs and CBGB’s had a few years ahead. C-squat puts on shows as well as ABC No Rio. They’ve seemed to sustain themselves over the years. You have to travel to the outer boroughs to get to a show these days.
ML: I don’t know how much can be said for punk in Manhattan anymore.
OK, zooming out – or in. Katelan, you say “Part of the process is letting things happen naturally, not to force them, and letting art create itself” but I wonder to what degree that’s possible in the situation you created and how much of a problem you found with it? The poetry is there, on your skin, for days, and yet the shoots are limited to a tiny part of that time. Would you have liked to follow the words’ decay and evolution or was it important to have the limits you did?
KF: I think you can plan and still have art happen organically. I’m not that worried about time or the finished product. I know that it will work out exactly the way it needs to. We only had two hours to do everything when we shot with Balthazar and that included set up time. So we really rushed through. A lot of the pictures of me thinking or joking with the crew. We managed to shove four people and a bunch of equipment in the hotel room. Mike had just finished writing when we got the knock at the door. Cleanup was basically dumping a bunch of alcohol on a towel and wiping me down really quick. I was still covered in writing when I got home. It lasted a few days, it always does.
The Shoot we just did with Veronika von Volkova was another example of letting the art take it’s own form in the time we had. We took over a hidden garden. We did six shoots in one day. One for a new project I’m working on called NY Stories. Mike came in the middle of that shoot, we finished, I stripped and we got started. By the end of that shoot I was covered in mulberries, dirt, and ink. Veronika helped me wash the ink off later. She brought the camera.
As far as decay and evolution, I think there’s a little of both in this project, Either way there’s always a part to be documented. Each progression is interesting in it’s own right.
Take a half hour segment of a shoot and describe to me how the power shifts within the room, how the roles of subject and object and active and passive slip between you and Mike and the photographers.
I’m more “Let’s just see where this goes.” and Mike is like “I want the foliage behind her.” He’s pickier than me. If I want a certain angle I’ll say it but mostly I’m interested in the photographers take on my projects.
On the last shoot with Veronika we weren’t sure when or if we’d get kicked out of the garden. Mike was pretty hellbent on having the garden as the background. So when we started the shoot we just got straight to it. Shahriar Shadab was there from the NY Stories shoot. He ended up staying providing input as well. But it really depends on the project. For the first NY Stories shoot with Emily Poole I was definately more adamant about the positioning and look of the entire shoot. Mike was a reed in the breeze. In the end the photographer is the one with most control.
ML: I seem to get picker and pickier every shoot we do. Whether it’s with the photographer (“Please get this angle.”) or with Katelan (“So does your arm not bend this way?”) I think what distinguished the shoot with Balthazar from the last one, and our lost first shoot, was my presence in the photos as a subject, and the focus on the process of creating the images rather than the final product. That’s an exciting idea, but I’m also excited to extract myself, and therefore, I think, certain implied meanings and distractions, from the next round of shoots.
The moment the poems finally wash off intrigues me. Is that a moment, Katelan, when you feel death or birth?
Neither. There’s usually a camera set up in the bathroom and I’m laughing hysterically because I have a team of people who help me bathe after the shoots. Mostly my housemate or whoever is crashing at the house for the time being. I’m covered in rubbing alcohol and soap and have one or two people scrubbing me while the camera clicks away. It’s terribly amusing. I like when a bit of the writing stays and I have this faded script on my flesh. It makes me feel like a vintage love letter.
Hearing Mike talk about the fact skin has only one side (like a torus or a klein bottle) makes me think of all the ways I would want to push that (I’m thinking fingernails, eyelids, even ingestion). Was the one-sidedness of the body a given at the start of this, or was it something you wanted to explore?
KF: When I first had the idea for Lie & Indite I was really thinking about my back as a canvas. I like my back, I like how it curves. And then I was really thinking about the rest of my body and where I’d like to have writing and where I wouldn’t. Mike is really good at designing the text to fit my body and what I’m wearing or not wearing. We discussed eyelids once but it would definitely have to be liquid eyeliner to write with or something very washable. Fingernails could be really interesting with the right kind of camera. Ingestion, no thank you. I met Wafaa Bilal a few months back and was intrigued by his own skin exhibitions. He was tattooed with a borderless map of Iraq covered with one dot for each Iraqi and American casualty near the cities where they fell. The casualty tattoos were done in permanent invisible ink, only seen under a black light.The red dots represent the 5,000 dead American soldiers and the 100,000 Iraqi casualties are represented by dots of green UV ink. During the performance people from all walks of life read off the names of the dead.