I first met Marni Shindelman in 2002, when we were new faculty at the University of Rochester, Department of Art and Art History, and I have been honored to observe the evolution of her work ever since. Marni’s practice investigates the data tracks we amass through networked communication, locating the invisible to actual sites, anchoring the ephemeral in photographs. Since 2007 she has primarily exhibited and created work in collaboration with Nate Larson but recently embarked upon a new solo project, Restore the Night Sky, work as personal as it is political. Our conversation focused on the development of these images that exposes the rippling impact of detention centers upon the rural landscapes across the United States.
In advance of our interview, Marni shared with me the poem Home by Warsan Shire. In it, the line, “you have to understand, no one puts their child in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land” speaks volumes, revealing the foundation of what it means to feel secure. Shindelman’s work alters the landscape of a narrative we think we know documenting the interlocking stories we have failed, or refused to see.
Sarah E. Webb: You completed your undergraduate degree at Miami University in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies. Tell us about this program and how it informed your practice of making?
Marni Shindelman: My undergraduate experience was magical. It was a small, experimental, living-learning program of approximately 120 students (35 each year). We lived together, ate together, and had our classes together, all within the larger structure of Miami University, Oxford, OH. Our program was housed on the old women’s college campus, and named The Western College Program. We were isolated but also held within the larger university. The curriculum utilized the same model as Hampshire College and Evergreen, two nontraditional liberal arts programs. The premise was to engage students in research methodologies during the first two years of school. From there, we would explore other areas at the university and conduct individualized research for our last two years. My time at Miami changed the trajectory of my life dramatically and gave me the freedom, guidance, and foundation for everything I am today.
Interestingly, two years ago, I was sitting in a seminar on student development. They handed out a reading by Marcia Baxter Magolda, explaining her innovative research on college students at Miami University. They spoke about how clever her work was and how they tracked students throughout their undergraduate career. On the first day of college, I remembered receiving industrial binders, and it was explained that we were participating in a research study during our college experience. Each semester our professors would collect our writing in these books and use them for that purpose. We were to put every piece of writing in our blue notebooks. To this day, mine sits on my shelf. Something in the description of Magolda’s research and this faint memory made me think I was part of her research. I spent the rest of this seminar being a terrible student and scouring the internet for information on her scholarship. Sure enough, we weren’t part of her original research set, but were an entire chapter in her second book!
It all made sense, and I realized every step in my undergraduate career had been carefully guided to produce precisely the amazing experience I had. That night, I wrote to one of my professors and thanked him for developing such a beautiful curriculum, how special my time there was, and how it influenced my career as an artist and a teacher.
SEW: How did photography become integral in your approach to documentation? Was there a moment when you realized your approach to research could be expressed through visual means?
MS: My undergraduate research went in two directions: sociology of education and photography. At the time my photographic practice was more self-exploratory, and the two paths didn’t converge. When I graduated I had the choice to study photography, or continue in graduate school for sociology and research the education system. I decided to try graduate school for photography and said to myself if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to school for educational research. This path would still allow me to change the educational world by teaching.
In graduate school, I was one of the only students who took courses outside of our program at the University of Florida. I remember my art history courses seemed as if they were missing a larger narrative. This was in the late 90s, in the age of heavy post-structuralist theory, a sprinkling of Lacan, interspersed with feminist studies and visual culture.
I couldn’t understand how the texts we read fit into a larger picture until I took a studio elective in women’s studies and met a professor who understood my hunger to learn. She invited me to take a graduate seminar in feminist theory with seven other students.
One day in class she looked at all of us and said, “You don’t know where this fits in, do you?” Over the next three hours she framed feminist methodologies, explaining what a post-structuralist text looked like, what was a psychoanalytical text, a feminist text, an intersectional text, etc. It was the moment I truly understood research methodology, and that each discipline had its own. It was precisely what had been missing in my art history courses, but I couldn’t elucidate. It took me another ten years to understand I was utilizing research methodologies in artistic practices.
SEW: For over a decade, your artistic work has been most visible in tandem with Nate Larson, exhibiting photographs and immersive video installations under the pseudonym Larson Shindelman. It is work born from the landscape tradition of Joel Sternfeld to become its own 21st-century conversation: nesting narratives of geolocation enmeshed with isolation, place with displacement, and the ways we intimately encode ourselves through data. What have you learned from this experience?
MS: My collaborative practice has been integral to my development as an artist. It started with shared interests and developed into an ongoing 15-year practice. My father has always said Nate and I were the photographic version of John Lennon & Paul McCartney. I brushed this off jokingly for years until I read an article about their approach.
Most people imagine collaboration as shared space, shared ideas, and literally two people at the same table (or behind one camera). Nate and I work in the same way as Lennon and McCartney (thanks, Dad!): we play a game of academic ping pong. One sends a piece of information or an idea, and the other one thinks about it and lobs the ball back, twisting that information. It goes back and forth over and over again. For me, it keeps me motivated and validates ideas. I get a notification when a file in our shared Dropbox changes, and I think, “Nate is working on something tonight and I need to get to it.” It is wonderful to have one person you can let in on your process in the earliest stages and who works with you then to keep this spark of an idea going to full fruition.
Our most extensive body of work, Geolocation, has been a ten-year project, where we take individual tweets which have GPS coordinates in them, then visit the site and make a photograph there. We walk around with data clouds following us. We have worked this way long before we could access information from our iPhones or fancy coding. When asked if we fear our iPhone’s tracking capabilities, I always say that even the power company has already known when I was home. Our work illuminates these data clouds in various ways. It takes the idea of big data, and puts a concrete place with it.
SEW: How is your new solo work Restore the Night Sky either a continuation or an evolution from this collaboration?
MS: Nate and I utilize the methodologies of geography in many ways, first in our use of mapping, and second in human geography, the understanding of how people and places influence each other. My current work began with a fellowship from my University (of Georgia), which allowed me to return to being a full-time student. I spent the year studying geography, aiming to learn more about mapping and how to merge data and maps. My time as a student was both a return and a discovery of a new disciplinary home for me.
Restore the Night Sky stems from my interest in making visible what seems invisible or removed from our daily life. I want the abstract news stories we read to become visible when you know how and where to look.
The Geolocation series are images of landscapes with a disjointed text below them, but by adding the context of how (and where) the images are made, the reading of the work becomes more nuanced. It is the same way data works; you need context or analysis to give it power. Restore the Night Sky has a similar moment. Once you realize the context of the images, your stomach drops. These are quiet, beautiful images of the horrific things we are doing to other humans.
SEW: Tell us about the origins of your Restore the Night Sky?
MS: In one of my geography graduate seminars, I heard a graduate student speak about her summer research in Dilley, Texas, June, 2018. The Dilley detention center housed most mothers separated from their children, and Leanne Purdum had spent the summer helping these mothers with their asylum cases. She showed one image of the Texas sky at dusk, saying, “I don’t have any pictures of my summer because it’s illegal to take them, but this is near where I worked all summer.”
She began telling stories of what she had seen, stories that humanized and complicated the immigration situation at the border. What was most intriguing was when she told me detention was in plain sight across the region and, in fact, the entire country. She encouraged me to come with her to Texas, and so I made a trip with other researchers with the explicit plan to spend time exploring the surrounding small towns rather than enter the detention centers themselves. I wanted to see the indicators that I had otherwise been missing.
On my first trip to Texas, I stood on the roof of the ranch house I was staying and made several images of the light pollution from the South Texas Family Residential Center, about 300 yards away. My friend asked me to take a photograph of his favorite tree, which was behind us. It was beautiful, with two different color lights separated by a straight horizontal line. With the long exposure and the detention center behind me, I could see the reflection of the detention center on the entire landscape. The lights of these newly built centers are more powerful than older technologies, and the project for miles.
On my return, after sifting through hundreds of images and sounds, it was these night photographs that resonated most with me. Since then, I have begun an effort to photograph the night pollution at all forty-five private ICE detention centers across the United States.
SEW: Your artistic practice feels as organic as it is highly organized. How does the specificity of a site influence your approach to making?
MS: My research takes the form of photographs because there is something that can’t be captured in language. I speak louder in photographs. I repeat this to myself often, as I work between academic research and the less concrete process of making art. I usually work from a single story or experience that haunts me. For this work, the idea that “Detention is all around us” and that I just needed to know what to look for has become the driving force, and my job is to discern how to make an audience understand this by having that precise visual experience.
I was lucky to have a Hawaiian photography teacher (and mentor). He taught me to research, read, absorb everything as I do, then put that away as I take pictures, but bring it back into the editing process. I am forever grateful to him for teaching this Type A young student to embrace the process. That is how I work to this day. I read extensively from journals to websites to popular media, then I put all my research away when I’m behind the camera.
I do my best to impart this advice to my students, telling them to paint themselves into a corner, to find a way out, and through this process trust that they will make something amazing.
I built all the constraints for Restore the Night Sky through intense research, doing everything I could (as a layperson) to see the process unfold in front of me. I bonded people out of Detention, listened to the radio stations that surround the detention centers, volunteered at the bus station to aid people being released from the centers. I watched immigration proceedings in court.
I traveled to Texas with Leanne and met with every person who would speak with me and collected every artifact I could. I have sound recordings, shoes discarded from treks across the desert, rosary beads from inside the detention center, in addition to hundreds of photographs—all indicators of the asylum system. I still have so many items to process and other pieces to make. Restore the Night Sky is the first body of work to come from this research. These images are from the first three trips, with more to come.
SEW: It’s been a long time since you exhibited work under your name, Marni Shindelman, rather than as part of the collective, Larson Shindelman. In many ways, Restore the Night Sky is a restoration, a reclamation of your own voice. Can you talk about what it means to be the singular I/eye of a body of work? How do these images fit within the realm of the female gaze and the culture of surveillance?
MS: Returning to the studio alone has been an important part of this work. It is both scary and invigorating. For me, nothing is more terrifying than not knowing what I’m making, and yet nothing is more exhilarating than the moment when you start to see the work forming in your head. There is a point when the work has momentum, and you have a direction for the work. It is a dark, exciting place that you want to share and at the same time protect. Nick Cave describes this moment so eloquently in the last lines of his film 20,000 Days on Earth:
I love the feeling of a song before you understand it. . . the song feels wild and unbroken. Soon it will be domesticated, and we will drag it back to something familiar and compliant. . . but there is a moment when the song is still in charge, and you cling to it for dear life. . . it is that fleeting moment we chase in the studio. . . we cannot afford to be idyll. To act on a bad idea is better than not to act at all. Because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it. Sometimes this idea can be the most minuscule in the world. A tiny flame that you hunch over and cup with your hand and pray will not be extinguished by all the storm that howls about it. If you can hold onto that flame, great things can be constructed around it. Those are massive and powerful and world-changing. All held up by the tiniest of ideas.
Nate and I still work together, and there is a comfort in having a collaborator to share and help protect those tiny flames of ideas. Yet, there is also freedom and exploration that is new and exciting.
At times while working together, I have realized some of the gendered differences in our approaches. Nate and I often joke that he’s had the police stop him multiple times while photographing Geolocation, and I’ve had people think I’m a realtor just as often. I realize it has to do with both how our genders are perceived, and how we hold ourselves in the world. I am a more hesitant photographer, which stems from my understanding of the power the camera wields and the power I have as a white person holding it. I approached this project with that at the forefront of my thoughts.
As I’ve started to work out in the world alone, at night, I begin to see that there is work that women don’t make because it hasn’t always been possible. For example, I don’t photograph alone at night. I always take a friend, because I’ve never been comfortable photographing by myself. It stems from the years of learning to never walk home alone. But on the other hand, I can access spaces that a BIPOC person cannot because I am white. I can stand at these detention centers and make photographs because I am white and often because I am a woman.
I hold a lot of privilege and try to be careful in my use of it. I hope to illuminate the spaces I can see because of my whiteness to help those who cannot share their stories. I also aim to make visible how complicit we are in these stories.
SEW: In our original conversation, you and I spoke about the complicated historical origins of what US policies and the media have labeled as immigration crisis. Can you elaborate on what you have discovered?
MS: What brought me to this work was Leanne saying, “Detention is everywhere. You just need to know where to look.” She is correct. There are clues that I am now keenly aware of: from the specific 99 cent rosary beads that most people get in Detention and continue to wear, to the specific radios they can purchase from the center, to the manilla envelopes with the small label within which each person carries their precious paperwork. I’ve seen these items across the country. I’ve collected them in my studio. The asylum process is in every city, every rural town, every purchase we make. It is a twisted economy of privatized Detention.
As I research the legal process of seeking asylum and the history of the international protocols for this, I return again and again to the fact that these laws were set up in direct response to the Holocaust. There are many stories of boats and refugees being refused entry and sanctuary in the U.S. (and other countries). They were sent back to their deaths.
Contemporary Jews learn the words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Georige Santayana, 1905). In the liturgy of my Jewish origins and my education, I was taught never to forget. My work is my call to action. I have begun to research these people that were denied entry into U.S. ports and come to understand my direct connection to people currently seeking refuge from horrific situations.
I encourage everyone to read Valerie Luselli’s Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. The book is based on her experiences working as a translator for dozens of Central American child migrants who risked their lives crossing Mexico. In a 2017 NPR interview, Luiselli spoke about the 40 official questions children are required to answer which will determine their fate in the system:
While these sound simple enough — the first one is, “Why did you come to the United States?” — answering each is like passing through a doorway covered in cobwebs that can’t be shaken off. Question 7 asks, “Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?” Luiselli says that children rarely give an honest answer, not because they’re lying or evasive, but because the truth is too awful to tell. (80 percent of migrant girls and women who cross Mexico to the U.S are raped along the way.) “When I have to ask that seventh question,” Luiselli writes, “All I want to do is cover my face and ears and disappear.”
I can’t help but pause, because the stories Luiselli holds are eerily similar to those of Holocaust survivors. Stories I remember hearing as a child.
Statistics speak volumes. Let us remember that as of today, July 14, 2021, we are still housing over 2000 teenage asylum seekers in tent camps in the Texas desert. Most of these children have sponsors and are awaiting the U.S. government to verify their relationships to their citizenship sponsors. This process is taking too long.
SEW: As a working artist, you have always been an educator. How does teaching and studentship inform and affirm your art practice?
MS: For me, teaching is a form of service. It is a practice that helps me hone my creativity and a means to teach students to look around them at things that aren’t always easy. In 2019, I taught a course about human geography and art. Each student took a research subject and followed it for the semester through various assignments and eventually into multiple artworks.
I utilize my work with immigration as an example, sharing how methodologies from seemingly distinct disciplines can be applied to make art. At the beginning of the semester I shared the poem that begins this article. It scrolled across the screen as I sat in silence for the entire first class, becoming a quiet form of protest for those who have no voice. Later in the semester, over half the class chose to observe immigration court proceedings in Atlanta. There is power in witnessing, and one of my jobs is to point students in the direction of seeing.
Helping students find their means for making a difference in the world and sustaining themselves as citizens is an honor. It is the highest service I do. Easing students through moments of self-doubt and watching their voices mature gives me hope for the future.
During Covid, my role was to help them digest their situations and the world around them, as I was simultaneously doing this myself. I had the power to make an immediate difference in their day or week, and I felt this more acutely than ever.
SEW: How will you know when this work is finished? Do you have specific aspirations for Restore the Night Sky, or can you tell me how it ends?
MS: I wish I knew how it ended. Currently, I am looking for exhibition venues for this portfolio as they evolve. I think of Restore the Night Sky as part of a larger body of work I secretly call Credible Fear. This is the legal name and requirement for seeking asylum; proving you have a credible fear of torture or persecution if you were to be deported to your country of origin. There are many other aspects of this situation that I am working my way around.
I have two half-finished sound pieces, two hundred photographs of notes from detention volunteers, and a stack of items people in detention centers receive when they enter. I have a few other projects that will fall under the realm of this entire project. For now, I am backing myself into a corner with the promise to visit all 45 private detention centers and photograph their light pollution. As I drive, I hope the new work begins to form itself.
SEW: What is your favorite instrument of memory?
MS: In a surprising twist, music. Listening to music allows me to escape into another world, one that pushes me to write. Ever since college, I have always written to musical soundtracks. When I drive to detention centers, I will create a specific playlist, one that will help me get the courage to step out of the car in the dark of night, to make these pictures, and speak to the authorities that will surely show up.
Marni Shindelman’s practice investigates the data tracks we amass through networked communication. Her work ties the invisible to actual sites, anchoring the ephemeral in photographs. Her latest work Restore the Night Sky looks at the influence privatized immigration detention centers have on the rural landscapes they inhabit. As part of the collaborative team Larson & Shindelman, since 2007, their work has been shown at the Denver Art Museum, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the Portland Art Museum. Solo exhibitions include the George Eastman Museum, the Orlando Museum of Art, Blue Sky Gallery, and the Contemporary Arts Center Las Vegas. Numerous publications have featured their work including Wired, The Picture Show from NPR, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the British Journal of Photography. They have been artist-in-residence at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Light Work, and CEC ArtsLink in St. Petersburg, Russia. Shindelman received her MFA from the University of Florida and her Bachelor of Philosophy from Miami University. She is an Associate Professor at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia, where she heads the photography area.
From August 9th to the 13th follow Marni Shindelman as she takes over the @instrumentsofmemory account.
On August 28th join us for an Instagram LIVE with Marni Shindelman and Sarah E. Webb at @instrumentsofmemory.
If you are interested in learning more about Detention check out the following resources:
Innovation Law Lab: Their court watching program has led to exposing the discrepancies of the U.S. federal immigration court system.
Proyecto Dilley: Provides free legal assistance to help people pass their Credible Fear interview and start the asylum process.
Raices is on the ground, at the bus stations collecting data to make sure people’s rights are protected, bonding people out of Detention, and all around being fearless watch dogs.
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