At a time when we continue to be skeptical of spoken language and the written word grows desensitized, it becomes more imperative to look elsewhere for alternate ways of relating and moving through our surroundings. As dance and other rhythmic movement-based practices remain synthesized within an exhibition context, it also takes hold with the demarcations of the institution giving way to mutable potentials for establishing meanings. If a number of rising practices today like Anne Imhof's and Angelica Mesiti's, are foregrounded by physically inscribed forms of communication, then there’s a case to be made about reaching beyond words and known language. To a great extent, Toronto artist Camille Rojas’ budding practice leans towards these non-linguistic modes of communication adapting a shifting assemblage of sound, tone, resonance, sensing, and touch. Through the interwoven temporal format of dance, chance, pedestrian gestures abstracted with rhythm and repetition, Rojas mines from her own memory and personal knowledge to create a different idea of the self, one that is divided across time, space, desire, and affection. Her images capture the sculptural possibility of action between moments and she amplifies it in the affective space of cinema and installation. In our conversation, Rojas shares with us her approaches for creating, some of her early memories of working within photography and a little about her upcoming new feature for Erin Stump Projects; Competition. Please read below.
You recently completed your studies in Photography; how do you find your engagement with the medium evolve over the years?
I’ve only been out for two years and still feel like photography’s a new thing for me. Before photography, my main medium was drawing and painting. I took it seriously and went to a specialized arts high school to polish my skills. I entered my BFA aspiring to be a fashion photographer, but that quickly dissolved once I started my second year. During that time I used my background as a painter to create romantic painterly type of portraits à la Annie Leibovitz. I find that part of my life hilarious because I don’t think I was ever happy with trying to be a fashion photographer.
It wasn’t until the second half of my third year that I figured out how it was I wanted to approach my ideas. That was to film figures doing a series of movements I choreographed while delving into the world of “cine-dance”.
Can you recall an early memory of engaging with photos and wanting to create with it?
Flipping through family albums and visiting Wal-Mart to drop off negatives and pick up prints always excited me as a child. I felt this way because I recognized photography’s preservative qualities and that attracted me as a sentimental person. My desire to interact with it was solely to record the growth of myself and those around me. I never considered it as a tool for creating art.
I was exposed to photography because my high school guidance counselor thought I would excel in it because I was studying visual arts. She enrolled me in a class. The rest is history.
At times, the medium of photography seems secondary to your work as the performativity of your ideas takes center instead. Do you think one can exist in place of the other?
I can’t comment on the performativity of my ideas because performativity is a term I never fully grasped. I’ve heard different, loose definitions of it in art school, literature and lectures I’ve attended in and outside of the art world. The mere utterance of it gives me anxiety because I never know which definition is being said and if it is used correctly. The word has become murky, so far removed from its origin. I don’t know how to talk about it in art or consciously apply it in my practice.
Photography being secondary in my practice is no surprise. I am aware of it and what I can comment on is that the secondary nature of it serves as a way to isolate a critical moment and reinforce an idea.
Yeah, I can definitely see the confusion with that term especially you coming from a dance background. However, here, by performativity, I simply mean, 'doing' or 'enacting' the idea you are after through whatever medium. But I suppose, I asked assuming you work through ideas, but that might not be a priority to your work. Would you say you necessarily begin a project with an idea to which you see through with? Or do you approach working with an experimental hand and think about the work in retrospect?
It’s a mixture of both. I’ll have an idea with extensive research to back it up. Then I’ll proceed with production, edit the film + images and finally, leave room to meditate on what I’ve created before it’s public. It isn’t until the end that I know what the work really means to me and I think that’s the case for many artists.
That being said, I actually shot System of a Gesture a second time. The first time was in 2016 for my second semester senior thesis. I realized at the end of the term that I missed the mark somehow and I couldn’t figure it out until months after. So I re-shot it the following summer. I don’t think I could have gone to where I am if I didn’t invest time with the first iteration of System of a Gesture.
Could you also talk more about how photography helps in isolating of a critical moment and reinforcing an idea?
With photography, you are only offered a certain amount of information with what’s presented. In some photos, you have to trust that in that moment, that is the most important information. In the case of Free Stacking, which is actually a crop of a much larger image, it’s the quality of the connection between my hand and my dog’s that is key. It is firm but gentle. It establishes dominance. I isolated that because everything else around that takes away the power of that gesture.
In the context beyond my own images, this selection can say a lot about the photographer based on what they choose to show as the lack of presence of something often speaks volumes.
Role-playing, scripting, choreography are very much a part of your images, and what makes them interesting in a lot of ways. Why do you think you keep returning to that way of working?
It’s the most natural way for me to communicate and speaks to my desire to merge the performing arts into visual arts. I use figures in my work to bring to life the task of role-playing, scripting and choreography because I know that my audience can identify with the figures performing these tasks to some extent. There is also a storytelling aspect that I find more direct than other ways, but I know that is debatable.
Would you say that improvisation is key to how you approach dance? And does improvisation become useful in working with photography?
I wouldn’t say it’s key. Improvisation has a small role in my practice at the moment. Much of what I am compelled by are familiar pedestrian gestures which I build off of based on the trajectory of those gestures. So I work with that. Improvisation comes handy when I feel exhausted by the parameters I have set up for myself. Sometimes I have to break the rules because It’ll lead me to the discovery of shapes, and sequences that I have never considered before.
When it comes to photography, I imagine it’s useful in many forms, from the technicality of photo-making to the space in which a photograph is being created.
excerpt from System of a Gesture, 2017 Courtesy of artist
Non-verbal communication; communication, as inscribed physically, is very much a part of your work especially with System of a Gesture...How much of a generative space is it for expression?
I believe that it’s limitless. Your body says everything.
Do you ever see it as a potential for misinterpretation or misunderstanding as photography tend to do?
Absolutely. I have to be careful with what I do and in which contexts I place my figures in. This is why research and dialogue with the right people is a critical part of art-making for anyone.
Can you also talk about your interests in architecture and your decision making behind the physical spaces you include as part of your images?
The architecture and physical spaces that I film serve as an extension of my images. It’s never arbitrary or chosen out of vanity. The association of the style of architecture, what has taken place there or what could take place are key considerations for setting.
When I was scouting locations for System of a Gesture, I needed something that was reminiscent of an educational institution because the work deals with revisiting my burgeoning sexuality within the confines of school. I looked at major educational institutions in Toronto and found that they shared the same Brutalist style (U of T’s Robarts Library, U of T’s Scarborough campus and the Toronto District School Board Education Centre to name a few). It was a popular style for many North American university campuses between 1950-60. I also grew up near a high school re-built in that Brutalist style. In the 18 years I lived in that area I witnessed after school hangouts, a first or second kiss and confrontations. It was the perfect place to film.
The images I've seen thus far especially The Whistler has a great parallel to the allure of cinema, how did this way of image-making come to be for you? Was it conscious? What do you think helped inform these tendencies?
Cinema is particularly attractive to me because of its ability to amalgamate sounds, images, sequences and patterns into one package. Then there is the edit: splicing moving images together and creating relationships between them… there is so much power there. It’s the make or breakpoint in my process, and that fuels me to create good edits.
Choosing to work this way was conscious. I became increasingly jaded seeing my ideas manifested solely as prints in a frame and presented on a wall. It wasn’t enough for my work, and I often thought that the answer to my frustration would be through creating moving images. It was, and when I discovered it, I was finally happy. There was also this intense desire to move my body in front of a camera and to incorporate my background as a dancer into my practice. While a stills camera could absolutely convey a series of movements, I had to see it in one go, fluidly and without interruption.
What types of dance would you say influences how you approach your overall work?
Works that are task-based and pedestrian in nature appeal to me to most as of late. I guess you could say this would fall into the realm of contemporary or postmodern dance if we look at artists like Yvonne Rainer and the folks from Judson Dance Theatre.
On a side note, a few dance artists I’ve been looking at a lot lately include Ohad Naharin, Madeline Hollander, Alexandra Pirici and Ann Van Den Broek.
You are present in most of your images, to what degree is this presence necessarily about you or self-portraiture per se, and to what degree is your presence in these images mere convenience of you be the most available figure to work with…
It’s both. At the very root of my work is self-discovery so I feel the intense need to place my body in the images. If it’s better to use someone as a proxy for myself, then I will go seek them out. This is difficult though because everybody is busy and most can not afford to work for free. Toronto is a very unforgiving city that way. In my past works as a student, I’ve had the privilege of friends volunteering their time. However, moving forward (with finally being qualified for grants as it’s been a full year since full-time studies) I have to compensate for my figures adequately. Nobody should work for free or for an abysmal fee.
Where do you see your practice moving towards? It looks like you are also at work on a new project Competition which is a follow up to The Whistler, what can you share about this new work?
I definitely foresee creating live movement performances in the future. However, I do have stage fright and I’d be interested to see how and if I overcome it. Perhaps that is a whole project in itself.
Competition is a new series of photographs and films that are set to debut at Erin Stump Projects in Toronto later this year. At the moment I’m focused on two works that fit within the parameters of competition, one of which is a follow-up to The Whistler. With that, I am interested to see how my persona as a dog handler evolves while continuing the dialogue of conformity and representation of my cisgendered Latina body.
As well, I am researching the theatrics of the prestigious art auction and the ways in which women navigate this setting as employees and artists. I’ve decided to create a parody, Sothebae’s, as an entry point to critique the imbalance and frustrations from women-identified people in this competitive art world.