Andrea Robbins and Max Becher

Three German reenactors outside Cologne dressed as Native American Men Everything worked out fine in my schedule, and I was able to get into Boston to attend the PRC lecture given by Max Becher and Andrea Robbins. I’m so glad that I was able to go.

I really liked their way of thinking and world view, which is incredibly cerebral (without being academic) and delightful to look at. They began by showing the “transportation of place,” in particular how colonialism and diaspora — not to mention tourism — create the most unusual doplegangers: Germany in Africa, Holland in Michigan, the Alps in Washington, Native Americans in Germany, and so on. They identified several axes, spectra, and dichotomies, such as “push vs. pull” (the forces behind how places resemble others) and a “spectrum of authority” that passes from original to planned derivatives to completely coopted aculturation. In many of their series, they present the reorientation of the familiar in a foreign place into alien amid the local. People and places recreate themselves by copying the other. [1]

Robbins and Becher also spent a lot of time describing “shifts” in time, place, and physics: the differences between Star Wars action figures of 1977 and 1997; freed slaves who resettled in the Dominican Republic and whose decendants still speak English and consider themselves American; the incredible and unbelievable physical effects at the Oregon Vortex; and a poverty theme park that puts favelas and shanty towns in America’s Georgia; just to name a few examples.

All of these ideas come together to examine overlapping histories and places via dislocation and signifiers. They find it more interesting to photograph a place indirectly. To photograph France, they visited St. Pierre and Miquelon, a French territory just south of Newfoundland. To examine strip mall culture in America, they photographed big-box stores outside Toulouse, France. And to look at Lubavitch Hasidim in Brooklyn, they traveled to Postville, Iowa. (In the latter case they also took aim indirectly at Middle American values.)

It’s an interesting intellectual pursuit combined with beautiful images that spring from a love of travel. During the informal Q&A — which was as interesting as the semi-formal presentation — they talked a bit about how travel prevents (or clears up) our “cultural blindspots.” And it was intriguing to hear how two artists work together, often with one person making the exposure and the other doing the editing, cropping, and sequencing; sometimes with so much input that they can’t remember who actually “made” the image. They said that it’s also refreshing to hand off a project to someone with a similar vision when you’re sick of it. (That I can totally understand.)

[1] – I know those are terribly constructed turns of phrase that may sound like pseudo-intellectual art babble, but if you look at enough of their series, it actually makes a ton of sense. Now shut up and drink your Kool-Aid.

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