Dario Robleto with Kerry Inman

Dario Robleto, an artist with a layered, multivalent practice, is not known as a photographer, so it was a bit of a surprise that SPOT asked us to do this interview.

As we prepare to chat about the use of photography in his practice, Robleto returns from the third day of installation for his solo exhibition The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed at the Menil Collection, Houston (on view August 16, 2014–January 4, 2015).

Kerry Inman: How is installation going?

Dario Robleto: Great, but it’s always a bit stressful when there are so many people around. This is the culmination of three years of work and it’s exciting to see it coming together.

KI: We’re here to talk about the use of photography in your work. I thought it was a great question, because although you are not a photographer, you use photographs in your work, both as raw material, and as reference points.

DR: Yes, and I’m also very interested in the history of photography and more conceptual issues around photography. I’ve long had an interest in the use of spirit photography as mourning art for instance. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been researching the history of capturing an image along with the history of capturing sound. Those studies get to the deep philosophical issue I’m most interested in right now, which is how the capturing and preserving of ephemeral sensory experiences like light and sound have dramatically altered our conceptions of life and death and time. The radical nature of both photography and sound recording are somewhat lost on us today when absolutely everything can be recorded without limitation, but their power to challenge mortality itself, especially as grappled with at the birth of the technologies, still sends ripples out all around us.

KI: Tell us about the series Will The Sun Remember At All.

DR: Well, first, as you know, I’ve been working with record albums and album cover art since the beginning of my career as an artist. As a boy I was a music fanatic, and I’ve found a way to continue my fascination through my artwork. For these prints in particular, I scanned the images of album covers from the live albums of various now-deceased musicians, all posed—as is customary for live albums—on-stage and under lights. I re-worked the images, digitally removing the musician, the text, and any other information, leaving only the lights. As a young boy I remember so vividly having my albums laid out on the floor, many of them live albums, and either catching on TV or in a science magazine the latest planetary or solar imagery coming back from those first-generation probes we sent out and I was so struck by the similarity between them and the stage lights on the covers. My young mind got hardwired to associate the mystery and potential of deep space imagery with the mystery and potential I already deeply felt when discovering new bands and singers.

I worked more directly with space photographs for two other recent projects, one called Survival Does Not Lie in the Heavens, and the other called Candles Un-burn, Suns Un-shine, Death Un-dies. In those two prints, I was trying to make the image look like photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope–but I constructed them from individual stage lights sampled from hundreds of different live album covers. It occurred to me that we are always actively looking for “ancient” light headed our way over millions of years, but we don’t usually reflect on the idea that we are generators of light that is also headed on its way somewhere else. When we look at this ancient light, we fully understand that the star that produced it is long gone because of the time it took the light to reach us, but we are dealing with the light in the present and so it is, in a sense, still fully alive for us. Are not the stage lights that once illuminated Jimi Hendrix or Patsy Cline, for example, still on their way somewhere? And if something or someone were to turn their telescope in our direction, then every singer who has ever died is still “alive” in the sense that their moment on stage is preserved as light radiating out into space and still visible.

KI: And then there are the “Polaroid” prints….

DR: Well in those works, I wanted the prints to look like Polaroids because of the immediate reference to amateur photography that a Polaroid brings up…. In that series, I searched through thousands of found photographs to find the images I wanted to use as source material… I was looking for amateur fan photos from particular live concerts—you know, where someone was trying to capture the musician on stage, but just missed, and got mostly just the stage lights or their neighbor’s elbow, more than likely because they got bumped in the crowd. In this way, the photos are also documents of the bodily movements of the fan in a tight area, giving us a sense of the live experience that is a big interest of mine.

KI: Where do you get all those photos?

DR: You’d be amazed. Everywhere. Ebay, other online marketplaces, some specialty sellers, but lots are just boxes of photographs that noone wants anymore, and they are happy to give them to me or sell them for a small fee. But it takes a lot of searching to find the images I am looking for. After doing this for a while, I have a sense of what to look for…

KI: And you’ve recently made a number of photographs yourself, using the old cyanotype process.

DR: As you know I have had a long interest in alchemy and it’s evolution into the hard science of chemistry. The tradition of cyanotypes satisfies both sides of that equation for me: the sun’s power can be used in a more metaphorical/symbolic, even mystical way, while relying on hard science to actually get the chemical process started. In the piece The Dismantled Sun for instance, I asked myself, was it possible for the sun to reflect on its own youth? I often like to ask myself unusual questions to get a project started and this one seemed like quite a challenge! It occurred to me that humans have been trying to document the sun, through studying eclipses, for centuries. Before photography, this meant having to find elaborate ways to draw an eclipse as it was happening, which created this amazing situation where a small human with nothing but some graphite and paper, had to draw something occurring millions of miles away and which dwarfed them in power and age. Oh, and you have to do it in just the few minutes or seconds the eclipse actually lasted! Anyway, there are wonderful historical drawings that we can reference that document the sun through the centuries, all that lead up to the very first attempt to apply photography to this quest in 1845. So I wanted to use the current day energy of the sun to let it burn an image of itself from centuries ago into paper. In this way, both the past and present are in the images.

KI: Back to the Menil show. You’ve used photography and photographs in every aspect of this show, haven’t you?

DR: Yes, there are Van Dyke prints, daguerreotypes, imagery taken by probes and lots of historical photography. The show is about the unknown history of the quest to record the human heartbeat and it would not seem immediately obvious how photography played any role in this, but it did. The early history is a story of how to visualize, not audibly record, the hidden movements of the pulse and heart. These movements were long thought to be ephemeral, mystical and forever beyond our reach but the invention of photography opened the conceptual door to the possibility of actually capturing images of those ephemeral things. In 1853 when the first attempts to visually record the pulse were carried out, photography was less than two decades old and still quite a revolutionary idea. It is no coincidence that the early attempts with the pulse were called “pulse pictures” as the scientist who did it was clearly thinking in this new way. Once the technology of imaging the heart moved into registering the electrical signature of the heartbeat–giving rise to the birth of the EKG machine, arguably the most important medical tool of the 20th century and beyond, but certainly in cardiology–it was photography the scientists turned to for documenting such tiny signal changes.

KI: Thanks Dario. I know there is a lot more to talk about, but this gets us started

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