Joyce Campbell

Joyce Campbell’s interdisciplinary practice challenges the conventions and limitations of landscape representation. Harnessing a phenomenological power and sophistication, her work is simultaneously, and persistently, political. Campbell’s photographic engagements with land, water and place challenge the Romantic construction of landscape as genre, interrogating the systems of power so often embedded within them.

In her 2002 series ‘L.A. Bloom’, made while living in Los Angeles, Joyce Campbell obliquely interrogates the politics of water availability and poverty through thirty-two Ilfachrome photographs. Swabbing plants from a broad range of Los Angeles neighbourhoods, Campbell cultured these swabs to produce bacterial growths from which she made direct contact prints. The resulting body of images, at first glance an experiment in photographic abstraction, instead function as a material transcription of place.

The organic processes used to create these images allowed the organic world to assert its own presence, mapping the relative bacterial health of a city in which water is a contested and politicised resource. Access to water is a fraught issue, too, in Aotearoa New Zealand, where it is inflected sharply by the forces of colonialism and its contemporary ramifications. In her ongoing series ‘Te Taniwha’, Campbell explores these ideas in relation to the mythologies and ecologies of Waikaremoana in Te Urewera.

Until late October this year, at Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery, NZ, a significant exhibition of Campbell’s work, ‘On the last afternoon: Disrupted Ecologies and the work of Joyce Campbell’, curated by John C. Welchman, acts as both a mid-career survey and a deep dig into her archive.

On show simultaneously is ‘Te Taniwha: The Manuscript of Ārikirangi’, a project Campbell has been working with alongside long-time collaborator Richard Niania, kaitiaki and interpreter of the document, and curator Christina Barton. The show will exhibit, for the first time, the sacred nineteenth-century manuscript of Māori leader and founder of the Ringatū church, Te Kooti Ārikirangi Te Turuki, alongside Campbell’s photographs.

What have been the most formative influences on your practice?
My practice has been formed by close relationships, and the places I have lived. I’m not particularly influenced by other artists. I’m interested in certain philosophers, but I’m also aware that we tend to tap into a very narrow intellectual strand when we depend on published work.

In relation to the places you have lived, what extent has the process of working between the US and Aotearoa had an impact on the way that you work?
A huge impact, as these are such deeply contrasting environments, politically and ecologically. I sought out that contrast in my life – possibly not consciously, but quite consistently. I went to a place (Los Angeles) that was very foreign to me. I was attracted to its profound difference, and I sought out places in Los Angeles where that difference was amplified.

However, moving to LA wasn’t a rejection of where I was from. I love my home town and its environs and I’m particularly struck by the rich world views maintained in places like Wairoa, quite possibly because they get to remain relatively undisturbed by the accelerated change striking the cultural centres. I’m not suggesting they are not buffeted by change, only that it is coming a little more slowly, and a little less is being lost in the process. There are distinct advantages to being on the edge of things – caught in an eddy rather than washed away by the flood.

You could argue that we’re living within a visual flood, partially due to the prominence of digital media – which is slick, fast, virtual, profuse. As a result, a growing number of photographers are returning to the earliest days of photography’s development. I have such a love for the early days of that history, for the physicality of the processes, the lack of clear disciplinary boundaries and the experimentation of it all. What is it about these early techniques that draws you back to them?
Chance. I hate knowing what my work is going to look like. Or rather, I can’t motivate myself to make anything I already understand or can fully predict or control. The problem I have with digital media is that it largely does away with chance. It is very easy to know too much before the work has a chance to become itself. I don’t want too much control. I want to be surprised by my work. I am in dialogue with it. I don’t want to make it so much as facilitate its making or becoming. That is harder, though not impossible, with digital work.

My Flightdream (2016) and Company Stream (2017) videos are made digitally from start to finish, but they were working with innately unpredictable forces: an eel in a stream in the case of Company Stream, and colloidal silver dropping into suspension in a darkened tank of water in the case of Flightdream. In neither case did I have very much control at all. It was just a matter of looking, waiting, setting up scenarios and hoping that something amazing to me would happen.

There’s been a lot of coverage lately in response to a Creative New Zealand and New Zealand On Air survey, which confirms that it’s challenging and precarious to make a living as a creative professional here today. Your thoughts?
I believe in my discipline. I think that in fifteen to twenty years we will need our discipline more than ever – for two reasons. Automation is going to shift our conception of work in a huge way, and what constitutes human worth is going to be really challenged by that change. I think we will find ourselves falling back into a history of making and doing that we have only just forgone in this current techno-capitalist moment, which is infinitesimal within the lifespan of our species. The second reason is that this work we do as artists is not in fact what most people assume we are doing. We’re not in the business of making pretty things for your walls. What we are actually doing is producing a philosophy of objects and images. It is our job to interrogate, expand, understand and influence the utilisation of objects and images on this planet.

Clearly the global culture is choking on an excess of objects and images, and artists are uniquely situated to think about how this came to be and what might happen now. There has perhaps never been a moment when we needed more urgently to attend to our compulsive consumption of images and objects. Where many of the other disciplines produce these things uncritically, it is our distinctive task to critically examine their production and use from every conceivable angle. 

This interview was originally published inArtist Profile, Issue 48, 2019

Joyce Campbell: As it falls
5 September – 10 October 2020
Two Rooms, Auckland, NZ

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