The Path and the Flash

A Conversation with Paul Pfeiffer

Sarah Workneh sat down with Paul for a quick chat, a kebab, and an unexpected exploding bottle of water.

During your summer as faculty at Skowhegan I noticed you had a particular way of asking questions at lectures—you seemed to start someplace very far from the point, going down this winding path of seemingly unrelated build up, and then finally—the question and the entire track becomes clear and seems absolutely necessary.

Do you think this is representative of your process of making as well?

It might seem like a needlessly circuitous route to get to the point but I’m retracing my own mental steps, connecting the dots between observations leading to an insight or question. I guess this reveals something about my approach to the creative process. The first step is about gathering information. I enjoy the process of gathering. I think I can be a good listener or reader. To me it’s an exercise in focused attention. In the process of listening or reading or looking, mental images begin to form in my head. I associate the moment of insight with visual thinking because flashes of inspiration come to me in the form of mental images. I don’t mean to say that that’s all there is to the creative process. Just that it starts there. The more difficult part is often finding a way to give physical form to the mental image.

You have been traveling since 2010. Were you working towards some specific works?

I was between the Philippines, Berlin, Hawaii, where my mother lives, and New York. In the

Philippines, I was working on a project inspired by a 1974 video by Richard Serra and Nancy Holt titled Boomerang. Similar to Live from Neverland and The Saints, I worked with a group of people in the Philippines—this time employees from call centers—to re-enact Boomerang as a chorus, the echo effect coming from their overlapping voices. Travel

is part of the accumulation of information that somehow filters into the work, which is taking place simultaneously even though I might not

know where it will wind up. It, of course, involves my own personal relationship to the Philippines, and my mother who is a choir director.

Are you letting the ideas behind the work and the research dictate how the piece ultimately is realized? Are you okay with the accidents that happen when things aren’t totally planned out?

The Boomerang piece has been a long process and quite difficult to orchestrate. In the end it may exist only as a sound piece, no video, no installation. I think the “accidents” help to define the final form.

I always enjoy how precisely edited your work is—there’s a real economy of moves, which somehow seems counter-intuitive to this accumulation and to the acceptance of accidents. How do you decide how much information to give the viewer?

It’s a process of condensing things down to what’s essential. Ultimately the piece has to be convincing enough to stimulate the viewer’s interest. You can’t force a relationship to develop. In the end the viewer has to want to meet the work half way. When a work is successful, I’ve created enough visual context to help viewers find their own way into it, and when it isn’t, maybe I’ve suppressed too much, or maybe given away too much.

I remember at Skowhegan you barely spoke during your lecture, you just showed images. But then you answered a lot of questions after. That reminds me of the conversation we had the other day with Walead Beshty regarding the benefit print project you’re working on for Skowhegan.

We were discussing how there’s more to an object than its physical attributes. Objects can also be symbols of exchange. A benefit print edition, for example, is meant to function as art object—that’s one kind of exchange— and it also has a particular role to play in bringing a group of funders together to raise money. That’s another kind of exchange. In a way it’s meant to function pragmatically, like a handshake. It’s an agreement of support between the artist, the buyer, and the beneficiary of the money raised. Walead suggested creating a benefit print that literalized the handshake in material form: a cast of the space between two hands in a handshake.

So what are you making?

I am still thinking about it. All of the stuff we talked about will inform what it is—but again, the flash comes first.