Traversing a dynamic poly-directional practice ranging from films, photos, and installations; Columbus, Ohio’s Cameron Granger is steadily amplifying his voice as an emerging artist. He discloses his own vulnerability, agency as an artist, and knack for close observation in his varying works. And speaking with him it’s easy to see why. Granger fluently blends the social-political with personal knowledge and fictional with lived experiences to create a generative space for his stories and images. In our candid conversation with Granger, he shares with us his relationship with homogenous spaces like the white cube, how his personal creative pursuits are linked to his community, and how he continues to discover moving images as a means of asserting his authority as a creator. Granger recently completed ACRE residency and the celebrated Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Read our chat below.
by being the artist in the room you can really influence the conditions that the artwork shows in. I thought if I can show these works in these [homogenic] spaces, I can bring in the folks that I want to bring in. I can do more to bring in the people who look like me. [...] As I started to make more and more different things, I began to think about how the work could become part of the space. That’s where everything started; very consciously trying to be this act of resistance.
How do you reconcile the work you make for gallery settings with work presented outside of it?
When I’m thinking of a new piece, I’m thinking of what story I want to tell and what’s the best way to tell that. Is it going to be a twenty-minute short film that I want you to sit and watch in the theater? Or is it going to be something shorter that exists in a space where you’d have some sort of agency on how you want to engage with it? You know, where you can move around it almost as an object and decide at a glance that ‘nah this isn’t for me’. So I’m working in these different ‘schools’ of video; traditional narrative, commercial, experimental/art. And I think all these different schools that I work in really enrich each other. The more flexible and experimental thinking that my studio work demands feeds directly into my more traditional theatrical pieces and gives them a less rigid structure that I hope makes them more exciting to view. Conversely, having the technical and formal knowledge from my traditional film training to fall back has enriched the work I’m making in my studio.
Since you work collaboratively with your narrative-based works like in Blue Boy, as opposed to some of your studio-based works, how do you find the work changes when there are other voices involved in the creative process?
Behind the camera in most of my work, narrative or not, it’s really just me. There isn’t much of a crew, at least in the traditional sense. Even on a film like Blue Boy, it was always me shooting and either Jess or Shakir, my roommates, (neither of whom had any prior set experience) running sound. That said, I always view my actors as creative collaborators. Most of the people you see in my films are friends and artists themselves, like my friends Tyler Davis, Sarobali, and Dom Deshawn. When shooting wraps, I have them in the editing booth with me. During the making of Blue Boy specifically, Cudelice and Jake, the two actors (also artists) were present for almost every editing session. They’re always very vocal with feedback and I take a lot of what they say to heart. I consider them a part of my crew. There’s something special that happens when you have this small group of folks working towards something. It becomes so much more than just this random idea you had in the shower one night. It’s a very unique level of intimacy I haven’t really experienced anywhere else.
Can you talk about some of the work you were doing before Blue Boy?
Before Blue Boy I was making these pseudo-autobiographical works on ideas of love; either self-love or romantic love or familial love. They were much more loose and lyrical in structure than Blue Boy was. They didn’t have a real plot or even characters. They were more so a series of moments connected by one idea. Really, they were a lot closer in structure to the works I’m making in my studio now.
The Help, 2017
I guess I’m trying to trace back where this impulse to start creating moving images either narrative or otherwise came from. So can you think about how you got to this place?
Before I got into video work, I wrote and drew a lot. I was essentially making these autobiographical comics that were inspired by events in my life and the people around me. I guess they were kind of like journals. I had an English teacher, Ms. President, an incredibly talented black woman, who got me into writing. Ms. President also happened to teach my high school’s video class, that I took on the impulse just to be with her again. When I started making videos in that class I realized how I could synthesize these words and drawings into a moving image. It quickly became something I could be a lot more articulate in. It allowed me to tell my story and stories of those around me in a more accessible way. When I started to do my own work it started to take the place of those handwritten and drawn journal entries. And all the smaller projects led me up to Blue Boy which is a very abstracted retelling of some of my own high school experiences. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it totally does.
I like how you came from this image and text-based way of working to transitioning into moving images and the text becomes spoken. When do you think you started to think critically, be observant about yourself, your own experiences and channel that through your writing and images?
I think pretty early on. But I don’t think I knew that was what I was necessarily doing. I didn’t talk much coming up, but I was always very observant. I was doing a lot of watching and listening. I was absorbing the things I was seeing and these written and drawn images became a record of that. I was very much a passive person, and I don’t think I became active really until I started making films. That’s when the commentary started to come out. When you think about a video like Chain Heavy, its about a boy that I grew up looking up to who died as a result of gang violence. A piece like that couldn’t have existed when I was just writing and drawing because I didn’t know how to comment on it. I just watched it happen. I think I’m still just watching things happen now, but now, and when I made Chain Heavy at a point when I found myself at a point where I’m able to reflect and figure out how it all makes me feel. Video’s given me this whole new visual language to better articulate my feelings with.
... there are always going to be people that will look at the work I make and will boil it down to simply being an expression of black masculinity. How to confront that thought is a whole other conversation I’m not sure how to articulate myself in yet. As of right now, I feel confident when I say that the people that I really make work for can see it as more than that.
You mentioned Blue Boy in some sense talks about events in your life but you are including elements of fiction in it as well. So how does working within fiction and lived experience help you through narration?
I think it helps the work not be so wrapped up in myself and myself alone. The character in Blue Boy isolates himself from the world after his brother abandons him. He retreats so far into himself that only this imaginary friend he created can help him break out of that isolation. When I was younger, it took a whole group of friends to help me break out of my own isolation when I was dealing with typical high school feelings of inadequacy. Making it this surreal, fantastic kind of story outside of myself helps it be a little less self-centered.
Do you think you need that de-centering when you are telling your stories?
Sometimes. Not all the time. I think the distance is good. It depends on the story you want to tell. When I made earlier works I very much wanted to make something that was explicitly about me. With Blue Boy, it is inspired by myself but not necessarily about myself and myself alone. I’m hoping that that opens the door for people to see a little bit more of themselves in the characters and less projections of myself, the artist.
Do the works you generate for gallery environments also tap into fiction?
They’re much more rooted in reality.
Would you say in that sense, they are performative of the ideas you are after?
I think they might use more complicated ways to say simpler things. They are a bit more verbose than my narrative works. But they are saying a lot more simpler things whereas the narrative works are using very simple words to speak on a myriad of things at once. They talk about love, isolation, coming of age all these other different things. The studio works are generally hyper-focused on one or two things. Abandonment from the father, abuse of a people, refuge in music. Things like that.
Your video installations implicate viewers into looking at the work in a very specific way that maybe wouldn’t be the same for your more narrative-driven works. Can you talk about the choices around how you spatially present some of your images within gallery spaces—both formally and how that relates to the ideas behind the work?
When you make an installation piece for the duration of that show, the piece becomes an integral part of that space. It's foundational to it. For me, that’s almost like a power play. In some instances, I have to even be present for the piece to even exist. I’m really trying to create a set of conditions where my work and my body is integral to these spaces where they’ve historically been unwanted or undervalued.
When I started making video work with space in mind, one of the most exciting things for me was the viewer’s perspective and the prospect of playing with it. In a piece called Golden Boy, I made it back in 2016 I installed a three-channel video projection into three empty frames mounted on the gallery wall. Playing inside the frames were three shots of one film. The presentation of the piece, speaking on accolades bestowed on Black folks, and how it still doesn’t save us from being gunned down, was meant to mimic my grandmother’s wall where she keeps various awards I was given through school.
Another recent work called The Help has a video of a group of Black folks dancing in an abandoned lot shot with a drone. That video was ultimately projected onto the cement floor of the gallery it was shown at. At the opening, I got to watch Black folks treat the piece as a dance floor, while everyone else formed a natural wall around it, immediately registering it as art, and something not to interfere with. That’s the kind of experience that wouldn’t have been possible if I had just presented that in a theater.
I look at artists like Wu Tsang and Pipilotti Rist who are really using their video work to transform these spaces into locations with their own conditions, and I really admire that. It’s something I’m trying to work towards in my own work. There’s so much power in it.
I think it's interesting how you are asserting yourself and spatially reconfiguring how we move through the gallery space. I want to backtrack and look at how your awareness of self in relation to the gallery came to be.
I always felt the gallery was a very oppressive space. I grew up thinking that they weren’t for me or the people looked like me. Eventually, I started art school and doing the art school thing, it got to a point where I was existing in those spaces and having to navigate them, by necessity. Though the feeling never really went away. They became so prevalent that eventually, I wanted to mould them into the work.
How did you become critically aware of your relationship with a space like a gallery in so much as you wanted to then find your agency within that space?
I went to art school and, doing the art school thing, I went to all these galleries and I constantly found myself to be either the only black person in the room, save maybe a few friends. I was always very very aware that I was an anomaly. It probably not the same for every space but the space that I was going to, it was very clear that I was an anomaly and I didn’t want to feel that way again. And one of the ways I could help with that was if I was the one making the art in the room. By being the artist in the room you can really influence the conditions that the artwork shows in. I thought if I can show these works in these spaces, I can bring in the folks that I want to bring in. I can do more to bring in the people who look like me. That started the train of thought for me. As I started to make more and more different things, I began to think about how the work could become part of the space. That’s where everything started; very consciously trying to be this act of resistance.
So in a way, your work and your presence in art spaces are not necessary for your own interest by its linked to something broader.
Yeah, that’s a big part of why I do this. I want to be a bridge for folks who look like me that came from places like where I came from. To do that, I have to exist in these spaces. I’ve got to go to the openings, the artist talks, and discussions. There’s a lot of resources and a lot to learn and I want to be able to bring that home. I want people to be able to think they can be an artist if they want to. If it wasn’t for my mom very early on telling me that I could be an artist, I wouldn’t have known that I could be one. I never would’ve thought it was for me. For me, it’s about bringing these resources back home and also encouraging others to get their own resources when they’ve got nothing. They don’t have to wait for an opportunity.
So do you think the self—at least as it relates to you—will always be wrapped up with the community? And what I mean by that is oftentimes when POC folks make work, it gets reduced to their identity as POC, so do you think the self will always be linked to your community?
I’m a more than my blackness, but at the same time, I am who I am because of my blackness. And I do think I will always be associated with that community or those communities. There are always going to be people that will look at the work I make and will boil it down to simply being an expression of black masculinity. How to confront that thought is a whole other conversation I’m not sure how to articulate myself in yet. As of right now, I feel confident when I say that the people that I really make work for can see it as more than that.