19 minutes with Charlie Engman
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published January 23, 2019
The idea of context has radically transformed since the mainstream inception of social media. So how did Chicago-born, New York-based artist, Charlie Engman, become cognisant enough to navigate around it? It’s a question we explore in our interview along with his ideologies of harmonising yourself with the present, including other topics that revolve around Engman’s art practice.
Mo: I want to start with asking how 2018 treated you?
Charlie: It's been a complex year. There was a lot of newness but also a lot of emptiness from trying to create space for myself to do and make things that were unexpected of me or that I didn't expect of myself. Previously, I had been overwhelmed with other people's ideas of who I was and what I was trying to do, so I had been sedulously creating that open space, and when I finally ended up with it, I had a bit of a crisis, because while I had been working really hard to create that space, I hadn't been working as hard on knowing what to do with that space. That aspect of it sort of withered in a strange way. [laughing] I had a moment where I went, "Okay. What is my motivation? What is actually worth doing?"
Mo: What do you think people have expected of you? Has that expectation always been the same since you started or has it changed?
Charlie: That's also something that I've been trying to articulate to myself. [laughing] I don't know if I have a specific answer, but people always come with expectations. Obviously expectations can be managed and built; the more things I put out, the more I can shape it. But I'm a little bit obsessed with undoing that, because I have a lot of different and often contradictory ideas of what's interesting and valuable, and expectation can be adversarial to that kind of openness.
Charlie: I'm really wary of over articulating what I'm trying to do through the things I'm making, but at the same time, I think it's important to have a sort of ethics that you are projecting through what you make. So it's about trying to balance all of those factors.
Mo: Inversely, what is something that you have expectations for that you probably shouldn't?
Charlie: Oh my god, like everything! [both laughing] Like I said, I have very complex feelings about it and obviously expectations are important - they help people navigate the world in a healthy and respectful way, most of the time. But I also think it's an easy way of closing a door that could be open. I think a lot of expectations are predicated on older modalities that are passively accepted and not necessarily analysed. I kind of feel that given the correct context literally anything can be valuable and interesting to pursue, but it's just about framing it in the correct way or finding the part of it that connects to something that makes sense.
Mo: I totally agree with you on that and I definitely have felt the same way since pursuing an art practice. I think sometimes the most dangerous thing is when you meet an expectation. Personally, I love when I have an expectation that's not met. That just means, as you said, that you're directing yourself through a very linear lens. It's almost like you have to have that expectation in order to not have that expectation.
Charlie: Right! But then I was thinking about this last night... I was at a party where there were a lot of people that I vaguely knew or had some connection with through work, so it was in that weird zone where it was like, are they my friend? Are they my colleague? Do they want something from me or do I want something from them, and what does that mean? And I'm someone who I think is incredibly bad at small party talk. I'm the most awkward dude to stand next to at a party. [both laughing] Sorry world! I realised that a lot of why I'm bad at it is because I'm projecting a lot of expectations onto the situation. What is the outcome of this conversation? If I engage with this person in a certain kind of way, how is that going to make them feel? How is that going to make me feel? Whereas the correct way—I think—to approach these situations is just to be available to whatever the moment is telling you to do rather than trying to negotiate a cost-benefit analysis of any given interaction.
Mo: There's so many layers to that I often think about. One, is the social currency between you and that person. Are they a buddy or a friend? A colleague or a prospect? Then you start to project.
Charlie: Of course! That's what an expectation is. It's a projection.
Mo: Exactly! And what you're doing within that, you're fighting yourself before that person even gets to be in the proverbial ring.
Charlie: You're giving that person a very limited space within which to operate.
Mo: And they don't know shit about that! So that's when I think that they're having the same battle I am. We're two parties probably worrying about the same thing and we're not voicing it.
Charlie: On top of that, there's a whole layer of sociality that obliges you to engage with a person you may have met at some point before. [laughing] You know what I mean? It's rude to ignore them. So what does that mean?
Mo: It's interesting within the parameter of working in art because there's so many discursive ways of how something leads to one another. I remember reading about how a friend of yours commissioned you to shoot a look-book when you first started, and what parameter that exists in. Like, this interview is the parameter of you and I's relationship right now.
Charlie: Yeah, my takeaway from it at this point, which is an evolving process, is trying to approach an idea of "radical honesty" where you're sort of upfront about your context and your position in that context – not necessarily in an articulate way of this is what I'm doing right now, but more-so engaging with your own process and trying to interrogate it. Just be available to interact with people in that space of transparency.
Milly Shapiro for Dazed
Mo: What's something you think you aren't available to that you could probably be?
Charlie: Everything! [laughing] This is why it's complex for me, because there are competing narratives, motivations, habits, or... I don't know what to call them. I have these two things about me. One is this radical openness: being present and available to whatever is there in front of you. I think photography can be amazing in this regard, because it forces you to confront some kind of external reality. But then at the same time, I'm a hyper judgmental person, and I'm constantly having a criticality about whatever I'm doing. And I say judgmental in a very value-neutral way. I put a layer of criticality into everything that comes into my life, and that comes with a sort of framework of expectation or projection. You're filtering whatever that thing is through your pre-existing matrix of ideas, opinions, and experiences. Those two things—openness and criticality—are competing values. But I try to find the venn diagram there, which must exist because I practice both.
Mo: Does the idea of it exist, though, rather than it itself existing?
Charlie: If the idea's there, then it's probably there, too.
Mo: You got me there. [both laughing]
Mo: Do you play into what people think about your work or do you try to surprise them?
Charlie: Yes and no. [laughing] When it comes to my work, I'm mostly interested in energy. In terms of thinking through my ethics and morals as they relate to my life and the things I'm putting out into the world, I think there is a certain wavelength of energy that I'm interested in and feel should be copied and shared, which I think is what photography is about—sharing and reproducing. Photography is also very much about an interaction between a subject and an author, and I think a lot of my work is focused on that interaction. Obviously the outcome is extremely important to me, and oftentimes when I make work that doesn't have the type of energy that I want, I try to instill that energy after the fact or use design elements to make up for the fact that I was feeling really crappy and couldn't get the vibe in the moment of shooting. [laughing]
Mo: I totally understand what you're getting at. When you look at time, such as four years ago when you made a certain photograph, you perceive that image differently through those four years of experiences that inform a new perspective. So I'm curious about what has surprised you the most about work you created years ago.
Charlie: Photographs need a context to exist. You see a photograph somewhere on some kind of medium whether that's a screen or it being printed somewhere... I am hyper critical of myself, so I try to have a generous eye towards what I was thinking and trying to do with past work. I'm not sure I can answer the question. [laughing] When I look back at photographs that I've taken, I usually see the road not travelled—the thing I could've, should've, or maybe would've done had I been in a different space. But I don't think that's a very productive headspace. It can generate a new approach the next time you approach something but I try to let that be.
Mo: What is something you try not to do when you're approaching your own work, regardless the medium?
Charlie: I don't have that. I'm the opposite! I'm like, "Everything is cool!" [laughing] If you're present with yourself and trying your best, whatever you feel is the correct thing to do is the correct thing to do. I don't try to prescribe any kind of thing.
Mo: Has it always been like that?
Charlie: I think so. Like I said, I try very hard to project an ethical framework into my work, which I'm not always successful at. [laughing] It's super hard to do. I'm trying to listen to myself and when something makes me feel uncomfortable then I try to avoid that in that moment.
Mo: What have you found the best practices to be cognisant of that?
Charlie: Honesty. You have to have a conversation with who you're working with and if you feel like that's unavailable then you have take a step back and have a conversation with yourself, you know what I mean? It's about taking a breath, which is really hard to do in photography because photography has a sort of inherent urgency, at least when you're dealing with subjects that are reacting back to you in real time. Photography is a time based medium, and sometimes that time is long, slow, and luxurious. Sometimes that time has to be extremely apt and quick. Oftentimes, at least in the area I work, it’s extremely urgent and rapid and there’s a high demand for attention and productivity, which can be really great or really fucked up. [both laughing]
Mo: Do you find that, that happens more in commissioned work rather than personal work?
Charlie: A question I often ask myself is: Do I approach my personal work in a way that I approach commissioned work because it’s a habit that I formed for myself? It's something that I think about a lot and try to be wary of. Sometimes the habits that I formed in that way are good and do helpful things, but sometimes they are arbitrary and have nothing to do with what I'm trying to accomplish. There's a distinction but they definitely affect each other because I'm making both.
Charlie Engman's mother
Mo: What is something till this day that doesn't make sense to you since you started pursuing art?
Charlie: I have a lot of ambivalence about the question of exclusivity vs accessibility, which is partially why I unhappily settled for a while into commercial photography. I felt like, for all its capitalist problems [laughing], at least it casts a wider net and the hurdles are much lower, purposefully so. I think that there is value in that kind of accessibility. On the flip-side it can be extremely frustrating when people are not engaging with what you're trying to do on a meaningful level. But then when we talk about art, which I think is mostly a contextual or institutional distinction, I often feel there is an exclusivity problem: who feels able to engage with it and have an opinion about it, who is actively motivated to investigate and pursue it. I'm always thinking ‘what would my mums book group think about this thing I’m doing.’ [both laughing] Not that I'm trying to appease them at all. In fact, quite the opposite; I'm trying to surprise them into a facet of themselves that they have left unexamined, maybe. But I still want to make things that they feel entitled to comment on and have some relationship to.
Mo: As it should be. There's almost some sort of performance in the exclusivity of the art world.
Charlie: Yeah, there are questions of context that need to be considered and I think some people are considering them. A while back I went to a Dana Lixenberg talk—Dana is a photographer who made work with a community in California that's very removed from a quote-unquote art context. She said that when the work was shown in a gallery, none of the people she photographed showed up, despite the gallery being very physically accessible to them. That really struck me. It's just a small anecdote, but what would have made them show up? Where and how should the work have been for them show up? If you being physically present in the work is not enough to make you show up then we have to ask some harder questions.
Mo: I'm assuming you ask yourself those questions when you're displaying your work.
Charlie: I try! I try to think of the context as best I can. Context is a moving target, especially with the internet. At this point, context is anyone’s guess. [laughing] I guess the context is mostly Instagram for one generation.
Mo: This might sound stupid, but maybe the definition of context has turned non-contextual.
Charlie: Yes and no, but the fact of the matter is that people will engage with it at some point in some very specific way. A lot of the work I see from my peers and people that I respect, I see laid down with my head squished into a pillow on a tiny phone. [both laughing] That's really specific! I can feel very differently about things in that space than I can when I'm standing on a concrete floor with fluorescent light over me. [laughing]
Mo: The work becomes more tangible in that space. There's this interesting intersection of tangibility and accessibility that Instagram has showed us. You can see how decompressed an image is on Instagram Stories, but Stories breed a disposable atmosphere. A post looks different on a feed versus a profile. You're fighting against all these contexts that maybe the photograph wasn't meant to battle with.
Charlie: I try to make a policy of not posting my actual work on Instagram. But then everything I do is actual work. [laughing] But I try to limit how much of my work that’s not made in the context of my phone is interpreted through Instagram. I make a lot of exceptions because Instagram first and foremost is about sharing and communicating, but I value that space of casualness that Instagram was sort of originally predicated on. It's changed, obviously, and people have adapted. People are very smart, generally speaking, about what Instagram is, how it works, what it's doing, and what the parameters are. I think people do inherently understand the difference between a picture on Instagram and a picture not on Instagram. It's more of a question of accessibility. Which one is more familiar, closer, and gives the feeling of ownership for you?
Mo: I think about how your website and others' become the only space for us to create a digital tangibility. But even there, there's limits where we can walk. You have different screen sizes and devices. Who's to say that you can't allow someone to look at your work for the first time through a 5-inch screen.
Charlie: We can only do our best. [both laughing] We're all tryin' out here.
Mo: What's one of the most exciting and challenging things you're waiting for in 2019?
Charlie: I'm trying really hard to get a publication of work that I've been doing with my mum out. There's not a hard deadline for it yet, but I'm trying hard to actualise it. It comes with a whole spectrum of emotions, because it's a thing I've been working on for a long time with someone that I obviously have a close and complicated relationship with. It's my first book so I don't know what that process looks like for me
Mo: Where there any other subjects or topics that you considered using for your first book instead of your mum?
Charlie: I really never thought, I want to make a book. Let's start the book and fill the box of the book. I kind of just make things and try to respond to my life. This was the first thing that made sense to me as a book. It begs the form of a book.
Mo: So does this align with an exciting or challenging facet of 2019?
Charlie: It’s both exciting and challenging. I have a lot of strong feelings and opinions of books because I'm a huge consumer of them. But they have very specific limitations and they have a history and whole set of expectations people bring to them, so I have to figure out what that means for me. Like I said earlier, you can guide that experience to some extent, but that's all subject to what the current moment and context is. I don't want to over-attach myself to some notion of book-making, especially in the photo book world which is a bit of an isolated and strange market that's not necessarily relatable to a lot of people. I don't want to overly project myself into that world because maybe it's a world that I don't feel comfortable in.
Mo: What have you personally observed is the general public's relationship to books?
Charlie: I've talked to some people who really desire a narrative approach, who want to be guided by the book and given some sense of trajectory or teleology. And there are some people who want books as references or raw material that can be picked up and looked at in a lot of different ways, like an encyclopedia. There's a million different ways people look at books – some people see them as mousepads. [both laughing]
Mo: I know we've talked about it briefly, but I want you to expand on your concerns for the art, photo, or whatever world you want to discuss.
Charlie: Everything is slower than one would wish but I have an optimistic view. People are having conversations and trying to address longstanding malpractices. Nothing is perfect and nothing will be perfect, but I think a lot of people are trying to look into what they are doing and what it means in a way that's valuable. Those questions are extremely subjective and vague by nature and you're not going to please everyone all the time, so I try to keep a very generous view of it. I think more people are trying to balance an idea of capitalism with ideas of inclusivity and humanity.
Mo: I think you're one of them.
Charlie: Oh, good! [both laughing]
Mo: One last thing I want to ask is what you find the purpose of your work to be?
Charlie: That's the question. [laughing] That's why my year has been so complex. It's me asking myself why would I make this? Or what am I doing and what's the reason behind it? On some level, you just can't ask that question. It will stop you. Nobody is ever going to have a crystal clear motivation. Everything is shaded with ego, status, desirability, whatever. Those are real and can be gross and dirty, but everyone engages with them and has to deal with them. It's a big question I constantly ask myself and at some point I think I need to stop asking so that I can just do things and they can be what they are. People can pay attention to them if they feel inspired to, or they can ignore them if they're not helpful for them. That's out of my control which is fine. I just want people to have a feeling.