Process Statement

C. Jacqueline Wood, FotoFocus Film Curator, August 2021

Insights is a new curatorial initiative produced by FotoFocus, which brought six up-and-coming artists together to create a virtual photography/film exhibition. The resulting work, Call // Response, addresses the unique challenge of creative collaboration during a time of isolation. The absence of in-person interaction imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic created a hardship on everyone. Yet, the project was created to see how these vulnerabilities could be used as an advantage––not a disadvantage––to the artistic process, and, ultimately, to transcend these historic limitations. Call // Response challenges how photography and film can exist in the virtual space, outside of a standard slideshow or play button. Insights was a singular opportunity to create a digital work that explores how art could be both created and experienced online.

The impetus of Insights was to address the socio-political moment in which artists faced a lack of opportunity and access to funding. During a time of unemployment and, often, personal and health struggles, FotoFocus supported six creatives to envision a new and innovative project. Insights was also a rare chance to peer into the daily lives of six young makers, capturing what they saw, felt, and experienced, when so much was in constant flux.

Sam Drake, Kearston Hawkins-Johnson, Ellis Johnson, Kyle Mace, Michael Sweeny, and Dev Thompson, along with myself, began meeting over Zoom at the end of November 2020 with the official production period lasting January through June 2021. Along with online group meetings, each individual artist met with me (virtually) on a regular basis, adding a mentorship component to the project.

After months of meeting on screen, getting to know each other and discussing our ideas, we settled on “time” as a concept to explore. During Covid, time stretched to the slowest pace and then sped up. Our bodies and minds were perpetually shifting our perception of time, how we measured it, and, as media makers, how we captured it. Once our theme was set, the next obstacle involved process. How do we make one piece of art with six people who had never met before and were unable to meet in the same place? We did not want six individual portfolios. We wanted collaboration.

The meetings continued. The creative inquiries progressed. Eventually, we settled on a visual “call and response” concept, which first started out as a visual game of “telephone.” We wondered, is there a way to connect and collaborate using only visual forms of communication? Can energy and information be transmitted without the use of language as the primary means of communication?

After a few exercises and prototyping of the process (as seen in the Prologue), the artists held six simultaneous visual “conversations” during April and May 2021. To start each exchange, an artist would make a “call” by taking a photo or video of something in their lives…something they saw, experienced, felt, or were moved by. This was sent to the next person on a predetermined (yet randomized) list. That artist then had 3–4 days to formulate a “response” image, reacting to whatever the initial call evoked. This was then sent to the next person on the list, and so on, for twelve rounds. Despite the structural framework, responses were totally left up to the artist. They had the freedom to react to content, theme, aesthetic, mood, composition…whatever spoke to them. Except for the start and end of each conversation, each image simultaneously represents both a call and response. But, during the two months of production, the artists were only aware of the immediate call to which they were to respond. Due to this unique aspect, being present became crucial. The entire network of six conversations (72 call/responses in total) were eventually revealed to them in June 2021 in a series of very memorable meetings.

I had the opportunity of seeing these conversations develop as emails in my inbox every 72 hours. As new links appeared, I was privileged to see the chains of communication grow. The synergy, synchronicity, and humor was striking. The six individual conversations (I–VI) reveal a variety of themes: experiences of travel, human interaction, joy, isolation, connection to nature, a capturing of the liminal spaces moving between work and home and back again. They are a time capsule. An imprint. As you scroll through Call // Response, you will notice that some responses have more than one component (designated by +). The artists were free to respond in more than one way, using a variety of mediums—photography, video, and fragments of text. And, unbeknownst to me, as the artists were getting vaccinated, they started meeting up in real life, shooting, exploring the city, helping each other, and even appearing in one another’s work.

Once the conversations were revealed, the makers then created a more robust response, reacting to any component of the project that moved them. Indicated by two slashes (//), these responses gave the artists the ability to spend more time on one concept or theme and really focus on their own voice without the fast-paced time limitations of the primary production period. These individual “branches,” as we came to call them, show growth and confidence and represent an important aspect of the project—each voice is just as important as the collective.

Since “time,” the concept that started this project, was of utmost importance in understanding the images, the chronology, and process of the work, I searched my emails and found the very moment of transmission for every image. The moment the “call” was made. The moment the email was sent. The moment the information was transmitted, and the message was received. The captioned timestamps show the fast-paced nature of the project. Call // Response is essentially a diary of images, a document of the creative process, and a record of the energies shared between each artist.

In May 2021, designers Chris Cliff-Perbix and Josh Mattie of We Be Team were brought on and tasked with designing the website’s content and interactivity. From the beginning, it was always our intention that the viewer’s experience of the work mirrored the process of creation. Can time unfold for the viewer, as it did for the artists? As you scroll, the images directly respond to what was shown before. Streams of information move past as you explore the connections and links within each conversation. Navigating between each line of communication, multi-component responses and individual “branches” form an intricate picture. In the end, it is these networks of media that reflect the very tool that made this project possible—the internet.

Decisions about Call // Response were made democratically. This was a slow project to build, but every choice was filled with thought and intention. From the collectively written artists’ statement to the artist portraits (which were taken with a Polaroid camera, tangibly marking the first moment many of the artists met in person), each aspect of the process was deliberate. We Be Team added incredible value, ably translating the intent and feeling of the project into a working piece of art. As artists themselves, Chris and Josh respected the process, the unique circumstances in which the work was made, and translated our vision into reality.

Insights was a lifeline during a specifically hard time in human history. I have witnessed the growth of these individuals, how their technical skills improved, confidence built, and, most importantly, how they connected and made lifelong friends. Ultimately, it was a good investment in the future careers of these artists. Insights forever shifted their potential, and it is the potential of an artist that demands respect. Although I am infinitely proud of the work that they made, I developed Insights to nurture the art they haven’t yet made, which in the end, is where the project’s true impact will lie.

Although individually the six artists represent diverse voices, collectively they speak as a powerful whole. I was only the architect, Chris and Josh were the engineers, and Dev, Ellis, Kearston, Kyle, Michael, and Sam built the building. With so much darkness in the last year, these artists called out and found the light. Call // Response is simply proof that we are listening.