Casey Kauffmann

Artist Interview

August 14, 2020
Casey Kauffmann is an interdisciplinary artist whose digital and drawing practices address the contemporary performance of self as it relates to her experience of femme representation, social media, and reality television. Longform video, drawings, and screen installation works will be presented in her upcoming thesis exhibition, Who Do You Think You Are I Am. Comprised of GIFs, videos, and still images, Kauffmann’s digital works are rooted in collage practice and the classical net art process of the online search, aggregation, and manipulation of “poor images.” In artist and writer Hito Steyerl’s Seminal essay, “In Defense of The Poor Image,” she describes poor images as low-resolution images that have degraded in quality due to their consistent exchange through online image economies and networks. This degradation indicates an alternative system of valuation based on popularity and shareable file size rather than resolution which Steyerl characterizes as an inherently classist and elitist metric.

Hello Casey, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background?

Hi, yep I can do that. My name is Casey and I’m 31 years old. I was born in the San Fernando Valley and am from a family of 4 outspoken hilarious women. My mother is a pageant queen from the Valley and my father is a former hippie activist turned Ad executive who worked for Mattel for 30 years making Barbie commercials. I feel like that reveals a lot about how I came to my practice and my sense of humor. I realized how deeply the influence of Los Angeles, the Valley, and my loud crazy family had impacted me when I went to the Evergreen State College for undergrad in the woods of Olympia Washington. Though I absolutely love it there and being in nature, spending time somewhere I felt so out of place helped me to really discover what I find compelling. I just graduated from USC with a Master’s degree in Fine Arts and sadly no thesis show as it was postponed due to Covid19.

How would you describe your work to someone who hasn't seen it?

Well, it really depends on which aspect of my work we are talking about. I would say that the themes that unify my entire practice are an interest in the intervention and examination of the representation of women as I’ve experienced it. When it comes to @uncannysfvalley I would describe it as an overwhelming continuum of sparkly, pink, Lisa Frank style digital collages experienced through my Instagram account. The densely packed images are comprised of found online material and play with themes of frivolity often associated with femme-identifying people. I think the best words to describe the collages are dense and anxious, I like to imagine them as stuffed to the brim with content and intense feeling. I would describe the drawings as highly detailed works in charcoal and pastel which look at the history of the representation of women's emotions within popular culture (particularly reality television) and art history. These depictions often come from perspectives of men and I’m constantly trying to find the line between what elements of my expressions of emotion come from me and those aspects of my own expression which are a performative compilation of the culture I have consumed. I would describe the drawings as exhibiting rich linework and excessive detail. The labor-intensive nature of their creation is reinforced in the pained expression of the women I draw. The thing that unifies all of my work is the exploration of themes which address the contemporary performance of self as it relates to her experience of femme representation, social media, and reality television.

Can you tell us about your Instagram project @uncannysfvalley? How did you come up with the name?

In 2014 I had just finished up undergrad and I was back in LA living with my folks in the Valley. I was going to art shows and meeting other artists and generally felt like I was on the outside of a world looking/ wanting in. Even at that time, there was still some resistance from the serious and academic art world against the impulse towards self-promotion which social media is often used for. At this time I was heavy into Tumblr as well, where I still source much of the material I use in my collages. Someone had posted Jordan Wolfson’s Female Figure with a description of the meaning of the term uncanny valley and I was totally enamored with both. In short, the uncanny valley is a measure in the study of aesthetics relating to a subject's level of discomfort when confronted by the image of a robot enacting human behavior or movement.  I use the reference of uncanny valley in my Instagram as an indication of people’s discomfort with expressions of emotion and a desire to be loved through digital platforms. Kind of saying that the connection between the “thirsty” behavior that these platforms elicit from its users is connected to a very base desire for understanding and community. The rawness of that desire tends to make people uncomfortable in its digital form. I began @uncannysfvalley with perhaps an overly utopic view of what is a corporatized heavily controlled site for digital engagement. Yet at its outset the account was meant to subvert the most commonly exchanged online femme representations. The goal of @uncannysfvalley was to use images that already exist to create new meaning, to attach and express deep emotion, humor, and often rage to the infinite flow of online image economies I was engaged with. I wanted to carve out a place for myself where I could connect with the art world while simultaneously and unabashedly expressing my desire to be loved and understood. In many ways, this goal has been achieved. Most of my exposure and connection in the art world has been through this Instagram account and eventually led to my admission to the master’s program at the University of Southern California.

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How did your digital collage style come about? In what way do you want your work to impact the viewers?

My style came about as a very natural impulse to me. I grew up on a steady diet of Disney princesses, Spice Girls, Britney, and Lisa Frank later followed by reality television like Real Housewives and Flavor of Love. My entire life I have been exposed to and consumed culture with a very narrow and binary representation of femme identity and much of my adulthood and artistic practice has been about both the fascination with and rejection of those elements of visual culture. I believe that collage can be described as the making of meaning through compositional arrangement. Taking things that already exist in the world, decontextualizing them, and recontextualizing them in a way that makes new meaning. Which is a function of much of the image sharing, meme culture, and structure of communication which is prevalent on social networking sites. My style employs what I describe as a pink, sparkly, Lisa Frank aesthetic as a reference to the superficiality and surface quality that is often attached to femininity in popular culture. Upon deeper consideration and looking, these images often belie a darker more precarious reality which is the same way I feel when I look back at the popular culture I have consumed and loved for so many years. It’s a joke that makes you laugh and then you sit back and have to ask yourself but why do I think that's funny, what does that reveal to me about myself and the place I inhabit in the world? I want viewers of the work to at first notice it’s glossy sheen and sense of humor and then be confronted with a kind of anxiety. Formally, with my collages I definitely try to convey a sense of depth with the images I create using perspectival techniques I have come to understand through my drawing practice. I like the idea of world building and I think a lot of my collages incorporate that into their style. Again, all of these stylistic impulses and formal effects are all achieved through careful decision making in composition which is something I love about collage. This practice has taught me so much about making meaning through arrangement and the relationships between images.

In your statement, you mentioned the process of aggregating and manipulating "poor images". What do poor images mean to you and where do you find them?

In a lot of ways, I say this as a warning to those interested in exhibiting my work or commissioning me for pieces. Everyone always wants high-resolution images as the resolution is a measure of quality and therefore value in digital image-making practices which is exactly the point of Hito Steyrel’s seminal essay In Defense Of the Poor Image. She states that there is a classist valuation system applied to measurements of image quality. The techniques required to make high-resolution images exalt expensive gear, techniques, and skill sets which are often only available to those who can afford it and require constant updating. Yet poor images, low-resolution images whose degradation in quality is the result of their popularity, retain the material quality of the practices of exchange which has led to their mass dissemination. These collages cannot ever be high res because all of the images I’ve used in their creation have arrived to me through their circulation through online image economies. They are filtered, traded, exchanged through a variety of applications, sites, and technologies and even through my practice of decontextualization, it is my hope that the material quality of their degradation indicates a kind of aura or trace of exchange. When I talk about aggregation and manipulation of poor images this is a reference to the historical precedent for this kind of work in the history of net art. Surf Clubs and collectives like the Nasty Nets created sites with the specific purpose of a communal aggregation of visual content. Yet mere aggregation or collecting can be seen as a kind of ethnographic process while the manipulation or imprint of the maker on a poor image through its remixing indicates more of a process of creation. The way I source my images is through popularized platforms of exchange such as Tumblr, Instagram, Google image search. Finding images I like through those sites often sends me down rabbit holes of other random sites where I can find weird, funny, fucked up stuff.

Can you tell us more about your video collage piece Knowing Others and Wanting to be Known?

Knowing Others and Wanting to be Known is a video collage piece created using found video, After Effects, and a variety of phone-based applications. The video consists of a series of short thirty seconds to three minute long narratives strung together to create one long piece. This creates a long-form video work that functions as an episodic continuum open to the infinite addition of narratives, similar to a social media feed. This creates a binge-watching experience, one suited to the Instagram sized attention span. Knowing Others and Wanting to be Known seeks to create a viewing experience in which someone can engage for thirty seconds or they can sit there for thirty minutes and, like a youtube rabbit hole, consume a large amount of information and stimulation. The use of a timeline construction of the video references the archival nature of the online performance of self. Posts happen in and reflect real-time, they serve as an archive of the content creators experience. Working in this episodic way results in the continued historicization of my practice and the ability to create my own personal mythology over time. I can curate chunks together, mix and match them, and show part or all of them. Just like @uncannysfvalley I have created a system of working and conceptual framework that can last a lifetime which serves as both an archive and body of work.

Knowing Others and Wanting to be Known is both an extension of my Instagram practice in construction and my thesis research in conceptual intent. My thesis paper titled Social Media, Reality Television, and the Contemporary Performance of Self unearths the coevolution of reality television and social media within post 9/11 surveillance culture, demonstrating their undeniable contributions to the contemporary performance of self particularly for femme-identifying people. This video serves as a meditation on representations of gender in art history and popular culture within these unprecedented corporate architectures developed as platforms of self-representation blurring lines between public and private experience.

What is your process like? How do you store and keep track of all the digital materials you found online?

When it comes to keeping track of my images I don’t. Most of its stored on my phone but I have a lot also backed up on an external hard drive. I just have thousands of images on my phone. Some of it goes into folders like, backgrounds, or transparent effects (like sparkles and fire and stuff), or new shit which are images I haven’t cut out yet. I sort of intuitively know where everything is at this point. I try not to reuse images and I can usually remember if I’ve already used something in a collage. As for my process, a collage usually comes about in two ways. One way is that I will come across an image that absolutely needs to be made into a collage either because it is hilarious to me or I can perfectly picture how it would fit into a collage once I see it. The other reason for me to make a collage is an emotional impulse, something that's going on in my life or currently in the world around me. You’ll notice that my last few collages are about Covid19 because I’m absorbing the circulation of images that are being exchanged at the moment and speak to my own experience. I often find one or a few particularly compelling images and build a collage around that.

What are you working on these days?

I just completed my MFA thesis show, Who Do You Think You Are I Am, which was experienced in a primarily virtual setting through Instagram and a ton of Zoom and Facetime walkthroughs. The show included a video installation, drawings, and an installation of monitors with a series of GIFs. Given the circumstances I was very satisfied with people’s ability to engage with the work. I also just completed putting up my personal website where you can find documentation from the show and a bunch of other work you would have to dig through my Instagram to find otherwise.

Who Do You Think You Are I Am, 2020 (Photographed by Jackie Castillo)

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How does the internet affect your life? How did it change after months of social distancing?

More than anything the internet gives me a great deal of joy. I know a lot of people associate the constant consumption of online material with unhealthy habits but I have turned my unhealthy addiction into an artistic practice so I don’t really feel guilty about it. For me the internet is a place where I can feel understood and seen and I’ve devised ways to use what I consume as a means of expression which feels more effective to me than a lot of my IRL interactions. Though my work is sometimes censored, and subject to corporate surveillance etc., my experience of consuming and producing online content is overall a positive one. It helps keep me informed, entertained, and connected, even though some might consider those connections to be somewhat surface. Social distancing has only led to a massive increase in my time spent online. I do get some retina burn and definitely feel a bit fucked up when my phone tells me my average screen time. I will say that constantly being confronted by my own image while I talk on Zoom or on Facetime is a bit uncomfortable. I am appalled at all the crazy faces I make when I’m talking or gesticulating, it’s a lot.

What tools, programs, and apps do you use to make your work? How do you choose them?

When I started this work I didn’t have a computer and this is something that I love about phone art. My studio is portable and fits into my pockets. It costs me nothing to collect and store my materials. The app I use to create my collages, Photolayers, costs $1. I choose apps that are user friendly because I find that a lot of the iPhone apps I use are far more intuitive than Adobe suite. Some other apps I recommend are Gliche, Videoleap, and Pixaloop. A lot of these apps do cost a bit of money but they cost a lot less than Adobe Suite. I choose them because they are easy to use and not too expensive. I think for these reasons, making art on a phone can be a workaround for the often classist, expensive world of digital art. Which I think makes a lot of sense for those of us who want to talk about the communicative systems developed online rather than aesthetics associated with digital art like shiny robots. In its most optimistic manifestations, the internet is a democratized site for building community and really a lot of subversive humor so having a populist accessible process to making that work makes the most sense to me.

Do you have any daily rituals that get you in the zone? If so, what are they?

Not really if we are talking about my collage work, that happens when I’m in the opposite of the zone. It occurs at it’s best when I’m totally relaxed and I’ve completed everything else which feels like a chore in comparison. There is probably no place I’d rather be than in my bed eating junk food, binging on reality TV, while I make a collage on my phone. When I draw I like to watch reality shows that I can really check in and out of because they are so banal. I highly recommend Love Island for this; it is banal but also truly hilarious. Looking back on this answer I guess watching reality TV is what gets me in the zone haha. I have ADHD so being stimulated in multiple ways simultaneously is actually what helps me to stay focused.

Have you seen/heard/read anything lately that you would like to share?

Yes! Everyone should check out the People’s Budget Los Angeles and demands to defund the police and reallocate resources towards the betterment of underserved communities. You can learn more here this is obviously specific to Los Angeles but there are movements towards similar actions nationwide. Also check out The Breathe Act by the Movement for Black Lives which is a bill that seeks to divest taxpayer dollars from discriminatory policing and invest in community based public safety practices. If you don’t already you should be following Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who is by the way an incredible artist and graduated from the MFA program at USC. She co-founded an art collective and gallery with other members of her graduating USC MFA cohort, Alexandre Dorriz, and noé olivas called the Crenshaw Dairy Mart which is definitely worth checking out. Their artistic programming and community outreach make them one of the most inspirational art spaces I’ve ever experienced in Los Angeles, they are doing amazing things Finally, I am reading Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble which is about the often hidden ways in which the algorithmic structure of sites such as Google reinforce racist social constructs and enact new forms of racial profiling. Highly recommended.

Do you have any bad habits? How do they affect your daily life?

I am going to negate all the overly positive things I just said about the internet to say I just got into TikTok and it’s sucking up way too much of my time. Time spent on Instagram feels like research but I’m really not into being the star of my own show so producing content on TikTok is not for me. I am totally addicted to watching other people’s videos and it takes up a lot of my time. Also my e-cigarette, I used to have a Juul but I quit for a second and threw it away but now I’m on the Puff. It hurts my chest and makes me think I have the rona all the time!

Is there anything else you would like to share with us? Any fun facts our readers can learn about you?

Nothing really about me except, know that anyone's continued engagement and support of my work really does mean the world to me. A message to myself and everyone else out there is to please take care of yourselves and don’t be too hard on yourself in this unprecedented moment. If there’s a day when you don’t get anything done that’s ok, let your small victories fuel you. Drink water, wear a mask and wash your hands. Stay informed and active but veg out too.  Breathe.

For More of Kauffmann:  |  @uncannysfvalley