18 Opening Up Worlds of Possibility | Priscilla Briggs

My work, over the span of my career, has evolved from portraiture and an interest in individual identity to a consideration of cultural identity as it relates to consumerism. I’ve worked on projects that: looked at consumer rituals that are linked to holidays and scripted by advertising; the consumption of human narrative within the framework of the television talk show genre; and, after moving to Minnesota five years ago, I focused my camera lens on the Mall of America as an icon of excessive American consumption.  This work questions the nature of human desire and identity as they are shaped and reflected within the context of a capitalist society, believing that the systems in which we live shape us in ways we are often unaware.  In photographing consumerism, I am interested in the reciprocal relationship between cultural identities, the nature of merchandise for sale, and advertising images. Within any market, advertising influences the fluctuating balance between supply and demand in that it helps to create desire for merchandise. Within the global market, this dynamic is further complicated by sometimes surreal intersections of culture, as well as imbalances of national wealth and cultural influence. And within tourist markets, the objects for sale are often more a reflection of tourist expectations than an authentic representation of the toured.  The methodology behind my work has been to deconstruct a topic of interest so that I can then reconstruct the subject matter, framing it in a way that calls attention to the underlying issues we may overlook or take for granted.  My work is often critical, but also approached with irony or humor.  And while I work primarily with photographic images, the form those images take relates directly to the conceptual foundation of the work.

The artist’s professional life revolves around the studio practice and exhibitions.  The studio practice requires consistent effort toward creative projects as well as the active pursuit of exhibitions and grants.  Solo exhibitions (excluding retrospectives) generally present a body of work that can take years to develop.  Group exhibitions are usually curated or juried to include various artists whose work fits a unifying theme or concept.

My photographs of the Mall of America culminated in a solo exhibition in 2006 at the Art Center of St. Peter titled Market.  This installation contrasted two types of images.  Large prints (30” x 40”) of photographs of the mall environment were mounted to the wall.  These photographs show the mall patrons in silhouette while highlighting the stores’ name-brands to make a statement about individual identity overshadowed by corporate identity.  In between the large prints, plexiglass shelves held postcards with images of mall merchandise, displays, and advertising on one side and text describing American consumer habits on the other.  The form of the postcard was used both to reference the Mall of America as a tourist destination and to create images as mass-manufactured objects that can be picked up by the viewer and carried away. Text printed on the back of the postcards includes statistics and quotes that comment on issues concerning consumer habits.  The text also acts as an ironic counterpart to the image on the other side and is important in that it emphasizes the true meaning of the images and of our consumer habits as Americans.  This installation is one example of how the presentation of my work usually works within or helps create a conceptual framework for the images.  One photograph from this body of work was published in Light and Lens: Photography in the Digital Age, a book by artist, educator and writer Robert Hirsch.  And I was delighted to take my students on a little field trip to the gallery to view and critique my work.

Global Market, a solo exhibition at the Minnesota Center for Photography’s Project Room in 2008, expanded on the concepts and forms introduced in Market by combining photographs of the Mall of America with images of various markets in Thailand and Cuba, focusing on their status as tourist destinations, and incorporating postcards into the exhibit.  This exhibit was concerned with the idea of marketing identity whether it be the western ideal of beauty, the celebrity of Cuban revolutionaries Che and Fidel, or the ethnic stereotype of a Longneck Karen hill tribe villager. The presentation of the individual photographs worked to reference various marketing strategies. The prints face-mounted to plexiglass and the acrylic shelves on which the glossy postcards are displayed, created a slick, commercial aesthetic.  The central image, a mural print on vinyl, mimicked a billboard or mural advertisement. The postcards reference objects as souvenirs (two cards portray Thai hill tribe boys posing for photographs; their cultural representations are the product for sale) or fetish objects.   Due to the positive public response to my exhibit, the Minnesota Center for Photography invited me to give an artist lecture as part of their First Tuesday Lecture Series in April this past spring.  They also invited me to participate in their Portfolio Review program as a reviewer of other photographers’ portfolios.

I have also contributed to group exhibitions around the country, both invitational and juried.  Juried group exhibits are competitive, must be applied for and are often thematic.  Upcoming exhibits include: Fortune at the Hillstrom Museum in February 2009; ReGenerate, ReImage, ReFocus: New Directions in Photography at the Priscilla Payne Gallery in Bethlehem, PA; and an exhibition in conjunction with the McKnight Fellowship in the Spring of 2010.  Fortune will include images taken in China this past summer during an artist residency at Art Channel in Beijing.  I am interested in China as a country balancing communism and capitalism, poised to participate in vast, uninhibited consumerism.  I photographed at various malls and markets in Beijing and Shanghai, including the second largest mall in the world, the Golden Resources Mall (seven times the size of the Mall of America).  I also traveled to Wenzhou, a port city south of Shanghai, to research the many cottage industries in that area for a photo/video project that will focus on manufacturing and export from China to the U.S.  I will return to China in January and June of 2009 to work more on this project that will be included in the McKnight Fellows Exhibition in 2010.

Receiving grants is especially important for me because I usually make work that is installation-based and not very marketable.  Applying for grants and exhibitions requires research into what grants and exhibitions are available, writing project proposals (including an artist statement and sometimes a budget), documenting work and submitting images.  I have applied for numerous competitive artist grants in Minnesota on an annual basis since establishing residency in 2004.  I was a finalist for the McKnight Fellowship in Photography in 2004 and received a fellowship this year.  I have also twice received Research, Scholarship and Creativity grants from Gustavus.  The first was used to pay for exhibition materials for my solo exhibition Market in 2006, and the second will be used to pay for exhibition materials for my upcoming exhibition Fortune.

Artists often engage in collaborative projects for the purpose of community and/or to explore new directions.  In 2007, Nick Hansen, a Gustavus student, and I received a Gustavus Presidential Faculty/Student Collaboration Grant to work on a video project.  Nick is my advisee and has a self-defined major in Filmmaking.  For our project we created a series of five videos based on the performance/poetry of five different spoken word artists who are a part of the Minnesota Spoken Word Association (MNSWA).  We started the project by meeting with the group and presenting our idea for the project in order to generate interest with the poets, who are all young adults (high school or early college age).  We then met with each poet individually to identify a poem that would work for the project, conceptualize the video, create a production plan, shoot the video, and then finally to screen the video for their approval.  We presented four of the five videos at the Celebration for Creative Inquiry at Gustavus this past spring.  The videos will premiere in Minneapolis this fall (time and place TBA) and DVDs will be sold as part of a fundraising benefit for the Minnesota Spoken Word Association.

Curating exhibitions is also a professional activity in which many artists engage at some point.  In November of 2004, with the help of Nancy Hanway, I curated an exhibit of faculty photographs, including my own, from the Service Learning for Social Justice (SLSJ) trip to Cuba.  As an artist, I felt this visual representation of our trip would be of great benefit to the community.  The exhibition looked at the people of Cuba and their way of life in general, but we had one wall in the gallery dedicated to the propaganda that colors the Cuban landscape in the same way advertising colors our own American landscape.  In my own photographs, I focused on elements of tourism in Cuba.  We exhibited the photographs off-campus, at the Art Center of St. Peter, in an attempt to engage the larger community of St. Peter.  There was a great turnout for the opening reception, and the gallery director told me it was the most highly attended show to date.  The success of this exhibit prompted led me to curate a second exhibit of faculty photographs resulting from an SLSJ trip to Namibia.  This exhibit was organized to address various aspects of Namibia that we explored on our trip, as evidenced in the photographs: the environment, politics, the economy, and the people.

Artists, especially artist educators, need to keep current with what is happening in the art world by reading periodicals and critical texts and by attending exhibitions.  I try to see as many exhibitions as possible in Minneapolis, and every other January I travel to New York City to attend major museum exhibitions and visit galleries.  When I attend exhibitions, I photograph the work when permissible or collect whatever available documentation is on hand so I can show it to my students.

My professional work informs my teaching and vice versa.  As I grow as an artist, I also grow as a teacher and have more to offer my students.  My initial interest in photography was fueled by a fascination for getting at the essence of individual identity as it is visually represented in portraiture.  Working with students, helping them develop their individual ideas and vision, taps into this fascination and stimulates my thinking about my own work.  Discussing their ideas with them opens up worlds of possibility in my own mind.