Chris Fraser received a BA in history from the University of California, Davis and an MFA in studio art from Mills College. His work has been exhibited at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Vitra Design Museum, Disjecta, Highlight Gallery, and the Palazzo Bembo as part of the 55th Venice Biennale. Chris is a recipient of the Jay DeFeo Prize and was recently awarded a Eureka Fellowship by the Fleishhacker Foundation. Using the camera obscura as a point of departure, Chris Fraser pursues an experience of light that engages the unseen in everyday phenomena.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. I make environments where light enters a darkened space to create an altered, immersive vision of what is nearby. My background is in photography. I spent many unsuccessful years trying to explore perception through photographs. I eventually gave up photography but I kept the camera.
What happens within the eye also happens outside of it. As our bodies extend outward through the senses, the spaces we inhabit alter and amplify their reach. In the camera, the boundary between self and other becomes murky. Architecture becomes a prosthetic, an extension of the body that lacks only tactile sensation. We see in sympathy with the room and gain insight into vision’s abiding strangeness.
How did your interest in art begin? Art was my first love. My mother taught me to draw at an early age. As an awkward child, it was something I could take pride in. But as I got older and the kids around me became more skilled, I gave it up. I thought art had to be life drawing, and I wanted revolution. So I pursued history, philosophy, and literature instead.
By the time I finished college, I was burned out on academia. I took a photography class on a whim and was immediately hooked. At first, I thought I was killing time. But it soon became clear that I was filling a void. Photography became an obsession, a way of being. Through pictures I could escape logical, linear, verbal thought.
Tell us about your work process and how it develops. My process is fairly slow. A project will often begin with a specific observation. As I go about my day, I may notice something interesting – a color, a reflection, an interaction. When the thing can be photographed, I take a picture for reference. When it can’t, I describe it in my notebook. If I notice that thing often, if it starts appearing everywhere I look, I will imagine ways of sharing the experience with others. A notion must have longevity before I even try bringing it into the studio.
What do you want a viewer to walk away with after seeing your work? I hope to share a sense of wonder through my spaces. As our devices become increasingly complex, as they demand more of our attention and create a state of constant urgency, I seek focused spaces of physical rather than virtual presence. The sophistication of my smart phone borders on magic. I prefer a clockwork universe of simple interactions with complex consequences. I make room for curiosity, inviting viewers to speculate about the nature of the world and their relationship to it. To quote Oscar Wilde, “the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
Who would you ideally like to collaborate with? Collaboration is a bit like a conversation. For it to be good, both parties must be committed to the process. I’ve had mixed success in the past working with artists I respect deeply. Collaboration can’t simply accommodate two separate visions. It must arrive at new vision through play.
I’ve consulted with a local artist named Paolo Salvagione on several of my recent projects. We have an easy way of working together, with a lot of give and take. We have been talking about working on a joint project soon. It would be wonderful to make something unexpected.
How has living in the Bay Area affected your art practice? The Bay Area is a curious place to make art. It has always been at the periphery of the art world, providing a degree of freedom from market pressures and good taste. But it has recently become hostile to the poor. San Francisco has just about the highest rent in the country. For several years, artists have been fleeing to Oakland. But that is no longer safe haven. Rents are almost as high here. Many of my friends have left for LA, some for Chicago, fewer still for New York.
This insecurity is finding it’s way into my work. I did a small project at the Asian Art Museum last year about memory and civic responsibility. The museum is housed in the former Main Library, with markers here and there of the building’s previous life. Long-term residents bring this history with them when they visit the museum. But their numbers are declining. The young and wealthy live in a parallel city without memory. My hope was to highlight this disparity through an architectural intervention. But it is difficult to point at the circumstantially visible. Many could not see the work.
For my upcoming show at SF Camerawork, I have designed a structure made entirely of doors that pivot. Visitors will rearrange the space as they move through it, altering the architecture for future patrons. The gallery is located in mid-Market, a neighborhood in transition. Most buildings are zoned for single room occupancy, but the city has made it possible for Twitter and other tech companies to call it home. The rich and well connected are moving in; the poor and disenfranchised are being kicked out. A city must change to remain vital. But this transition seems particularly cruel.
What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? I am currently working on a commission for the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. They do a program on the intersection of art and architecture in Arizona. On my initial trip to the state, I made stops at Arcosanti, Biosphere 2, and Kitt Peak National Observatory. Beyond their scale and relative isolation, these sites appear to have little in common. But in doing research on Paolo Soleri – visionary architect and maker of Arcosanti, the experimental city due north of Phoenix – I began noticing how each structure presented a vision for the future. During the post-war years, wealth of space and a frontier attitude made Arizona an unlikely sanctuary for radical experimentation.
For the project, I will be making a campus of observatories, perceptual environments that seek to integrate the viewer with the view. I am looking back at a point in western history when notions of utopia, cybernetics, and space colonization were topics of serious debate. This focus may reflect a generational attitude about the future. I grew up at a time of optimism at the thought of a new age. We expected to go to Mars, cure cancer, and end world hunger by the year 2000. But that kind of ambition has become embarrassing. We approach the world piecemeal. We develop actionable solutions. We assess fragmentation and market share. This may be realistic, but it feels a bit cynical. For all of their failures, I look back on the utopias of the 60s and 70s with nostalgia. Though fatigued, my sense of history remains aspirational.
What artists are you interested in right now? I’m looking mostly at architects right now. Though my work deals with the built environment, I only recently started thinking about my relationship to traditional architecture. While artists have come around to the notion of embodiment in recent decades, architects have been working in this realm since antiquity. Buildings are for people: we live in them, gather in them, work in them. They are also for the senses: we see them, hear them, walk them. These are all artistic concerns.
I’ve been looking at a lot of mid-century utopian architects. Paolo Soleri served as my introduction to the genre. Soleri believed that compact urban living would not simply solve our social and environmental problems, it would also animate the universe, creating god through a willful act of evolution. I like that kind of hubris.
My current obsession is Architecture Principe, a collaboration between architect Claude Parent and philosopher Paul Virilio. They described their work as an architecture of the oblique. All walking surfaces would be uneven. Comfort would give way to exertion, carelessness to attention, solitude to awkward social interactions. Bruce Nauman was making very similar perceptual environments at around the same time, and I find the sense of synchronicity between disciplines comforting.
What’s your absolute favorite place in the world to be? I love used bookstores. I‘m an avid reader and fan of the hunt. But I also like the sense of community and history that emerges from a used bookstore. When I’m in Berkeley, I find mostly academic books. There is a well stocked section in Moe’s for every department at the university. When I visit Nevada City, I look for books on the back-to-the-land movement. I got The Dome Cookbook and a couple nice Whole Earth Catalogues the last time I was in town. When I’m in Sacramento, I only expect to find bestsellers. Suburban bookstores teeter between the universal and the placeless.
What are you reading right now? In preparation for my show at SMoCA, I’m immersing myself in books that embody aspects of millennial fervor. I just started Commitment and Community, a sociological study of American communes through the early 1970s by Rosabeth Moss Kantor. I came across the title twice while researching Biosphere 2, a gigantic greenhouse north of Tucson, built by a mystical commune in the 1980s as a test site for future space colonization. A strange variety of beliefs and practices runs through mid-century utopianism. Kantor is able to show how ecology, complex marriage, and a host of other notions intersect in the desire for a greater connection between people.
Any current or upcoming shows we should know about ?
San Jose Museum of Art
Title: Momentum: An Experiment in the Unexpected
Dates: October 2, 2014 – February 22, 2015
Title: Revolving Doors
Dates: February 5 – March 21, 2015
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
Title: Looking Back
Dates: October 3, 2015 – January 10, 2016