Amanda Tiller’s work addresses the pervasiveness of popular culture and our ability to retain facts and information. Whether she’s working on her Movie Poster series or Facebook Portraits, her work is always characterised by laborious and time-consuming working processes. With her Genogram series, Tiller takes a famous celebrity and weaves a web of connections between their real and fictional families. The faces of the figures are all stitched by hand. The interview was conducted at the artist’s studio in Chelsea, New York.
Your work is set in antithesis to our current ‘information age’, your focus being on your personal repositories of knowledge. Your Genogram series are a useful illustration of the themes you address. How did they come about?
Genograms are usually used by medical professionals or social workers to diagram families and relationships, so it’s not your typical family tree. I started with the idea of one’s relationship to fictional characters, which stemmed from a conversation with a friend. We were joking around at a bar one night and she asked ‘who would be your TV dad?’ She said that hers would be Bill Cosby, but for me, it would be Bob Saget, who was the dad on Full House. Bob Saget was actually the first work in the series I got started on but my diagram got to be so gigantic that I realised I had to get started on a smaller one to sort out the technical issues. That’s why Bill Cosby was the first in the series. Bob Saget, or Danny Tanner, the name of his character, was more of a dad figure in a sort of stereotypical way in that he’s really not anything like my father but he encompasses everything that you think of as a television dad. He’s kind of embarrassing, a little bit nerdy, always trying to impart the morals whereas Bill Cosby’s character felt more like a real person. When you think about these people you’re really thinking about their characters. When my friend said Bill Cosby, she didn’t mean Bill Cosby the person, she meant Cliff Huxtable (his character on The Cosby Show) and when I said Bob Saget, I meant Danny Tanner. In reality Bob Saget is the complete opposite of Danny Tanner. His stand-up is extremely vulgar and especially shocking if you’ve grown up with his character. We feel like we know these people but we don’t.
Hence your decision to blend these fictional characters with their real families into one diagram.
Exactly. There’s no difference to me. When I think of Bill Cosby I think of Cliff Huxtable because they’re the same person to me. His family on The Cosby Show mirrors his real family too. He has one son and four daughters just like he does in real life, and their ages are similar so it gets even more confusing!
A unique part of your process is that you won’t research the fictional or real families on the internet. You’re very strict about making all your preparatory diagrams from memory.
Well that’s key to all my work. It’s about my personal relationship to a broader culture. Thinking of things from memory started out as a bit of a lark while I was at graduate school. I was known by my friends as being a fount of useless information. We didn’t have smart phones, so if we were sitting at a bar and my friends were trying to recount a movie fact they would usually ask me. I’m really good at remembering stuff that doesn’t matter! Something useful like artist’s names, which I really should know given my field, I can never remember. But ‘who was so and so’s wife in that movie?’; I can remember that. No one remembers these kinds of things now because we don’t have to. You can just pull out your iPhone and go straight on to Wikipedia. No one needs to remember anything anymore.
Even if a viewer didn’t know about your working process, that you insist on creating the diagrams from memory, your choice of media complements the personal nature of the work. The figures are very skillfully stitched by hand but up close look appropriately awkward, much like a hazy memory. It reflects the fact that the diagrams are purposely imperfect.
I feel that it’s important to do things by hand even though the planning of my work is done with computers. The diagrams for the Genograms are laid out in Adobe Illustrator and the faces of the figures are broken down in Photoshop into simplified colours for the embroidery. But when I make the piece, I do it by hand and it’s really labour intensive. It requires a lot of focus, which isn’t something that happens much these days. I could easily get these machine embroidered but I’m not interested in that. I like the look of a wonky character when you get up close to it.
Why did you choose Fred Savage as the subject of the second work in the series?
I will always start with a character I grew up watching who is a member of a well-known family. They tend to be from television rather than movies because of the prevalence of sitcoms. Even if an actor has played several well known roles, I’ll pick one who I know of as one character. I always think of Fred Savage as Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years even though he’s been in other TV shows. Sarah Michelle Gellar is another one I’m going to be doing soon who to me is always Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m also going to do Carrie Fisher. Carrie Fisher will be interesting as she’s got an old Hollywood thing going on with her mom being Debbie Reynolds and her father married to Elizabeth Taylor. There’s going to be a lot of people going up on there!
How do you express the connections between the figures? What are the meanings behind the coloured lines and symbols?
The dark grey fluid lines relate parents to children. Sometimes a line will rise up from a figure but I can’t remember or don’t know who their parents are, so they’ll end abruptly. The lighter grey, thicker lines are marriage lines. One character could have five or six marriage lines depending on how many characters they’ve played. Red slashes over marriage lines denote divorce and black slashes are for deaths.
On average, how long does one work take to execute?
I started Fred Savage in June 2011 and finished it at the beginning of December, but of course that’s not all solid work time. Bill Cosby took about the same. That was all done by hand whereas for Fred Savage I used a sewing machine to start the lines.
I imagine that you divide up the time you spend on individual works?
If I have a deadline for a piece, I’ll really focus in on it. The wonderful thing about my studio’s location, which is also near where I do my day job, is that I can come and go early in the morning or in the evening and get a couple of hours work in. On a full studio day, I have to break up the time as the work can be physically exhausting, especially the eye strain. The Facebook Portraits help me break up the time and they can be executed quickly. The preparation for those is the hardest part.
For your series ‘The Facebook Portraits’, you essentially recreate a friend or acquaintance’s profile picture from handwritten sentences which describe everything you know about them. The better you know an individual, the more detailed their portrait will be. How many individuals do you plan to draw?
The plan’s to cover all of them. At last count I had something like 390 friends so I’ve got plenty to go. I’ve started with those who I haven’t got current contact with in any real way, so I won’t be learning anything new about them. Many of my friends don’t show up on my feed because of Facebook’s algorithm deciding who my friends are. So I’ve mainly focused on high school friends and friends from college.
How do your friends feel about being drawn this way? Have you met with any opposition?
This is the one project I haven’t listed on Facebook. Usually I like to get feedback on what I’m doing. The whole point of Facebook is to network so it will be interesting to see how those whom I’ve only met once will take it, especially if they’re artists! I do have links to my website on Facebook so some people have found them. Usually friends say ‘oh god! I can’t wait for you to do mine’. Those who are the most worried about it, well, their information will be practically illegible because there’s going to be so much of it.
Do you find their discomfort paradoxical given that they are happy to upload photographs of themselves and surrender personal information online, though they balk at the idea of the drawing being physically present in a gallery?
If you put information out there it’s not private anymore, though much of this information is not on Facebook; it’s stuff that I know and has stuck.
The drawings really capture the conflict between the public and the private. Most profile pictures are highly choreographed. There’s always a graduation photo, someone with a pet or their kid. Here you lock private information into its false contrivance.
The profile pictures all follow a basic formula. They show people in their most flattering light or when they’re trying to be funny. It’s a personality that they want people to think they have. I use that as a springboard to reveal how I personally perceive them to be.
Let’s talk about your movie posters. Would you say that they are your most labour intensive production?
Perhaps. Most of my projects are. It’s the recall of information that’s always the worst.
Your movie posters are created by recounting the entire plot of a movie from memory, printing a copy of its publicity poster and then overlaying your text upon its surface. You’ll then painstakingly scalpel out the area around your text from the poster’s surface so that the image bleeds through the words.
Yes. It’s definitely labour intensive. I could just print out the work, and I have done a print series, but I enjoy the laborious process of it. At least with the embroidered works there are minor victories along the way such as when you finish a face. With the movie posters, it depends how long the text is. Sometimes I can’t recount as much. The Karate Kid was in my rotation of movies I watched as a child so I know it very well! When I get to working on the actual poster I listen to audiobooks a lot, there’s a nice focus and meditation on the task, especially living in New York City. Everything’s go-go-go-go-go, always. There’s very little time to really sit and focus. I rarely get to read books because I feel like I don’t have enough time, except for on the subway. That’s the only place I allow myself to sit down, relax and read.
I find your work is characterised by an affection for film and television, that you enjoy expressing the memories of what you’ve seen and know. Other artists such as Fiona Banner produce huge canvases documenting everything that happens in a movie scene for scene, which are completely banal by comparison. Intentionally joyless. Whereas you’ll try to infuse joy with mundanity. Personalising the impersonal.
There’s a degree of ridiculousness in everything that I do too. It’s an absurd project to be spending four months or so scratching out the surface of a movie poster. It’s The Karate Kid. We’re not talking Citizen Kane here! It’s not a good movie but it is a good movie. It’s not a good film but it is a good movie, if that makes sense. It’s the same with the celebrity stuff. I’m not one of these people who cares about celebrity gossip. I never buy US Weekly or any of those magazines, though I may glance at them in the store. There are more fictional relationships on the Genograms than there are real ones. Of course, there are well known connections you can’t avoid if you have a computer or a television. You know about what happened between Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie and all those kids. You can’t help it. And that’s part of it too, my ambivalence and mixed feelings towards this culture. I love it but I also hate that I love it. I hate that I know all these things. It’s the stuff that just sticks. But that’s okay. It’s a love-hate thing. I work at this poster tediously, even though it doesn’t matter. I still love the movie. It was one of my favourites growing up. I dressed up as Johnny from The Karate Kid for Hallowe’en. I love nostalgic eighties movies because of the community it builds. It’s part of popular language. It’s part of what’s right about our society and what’s wrong about it.
Your most grandiose, absurdist project is ‘Everything That I Know’. Could you describe it and your intentions for it?
It’s a series of books that I’ve made where I’m literally trying to write down everything that I know. The books are catagorised into different genres and are colour coded. For example ‘People and Places’ are blue. It’s all based on the Trivial Pursuit categories. There’s also ‘History’, ‘Science & Nature’, ‘Arts & Entertainment’, ‘Sports & Leisure’ and orange is the ‘Wild Card’ category, which is for anything that falls in-between.
Have you set yourself an end date for this or will you work on it continuously?
It’s an ongoing project. I’ll keep working on it in the studio. I don’t think it can ever be sold. I’m just going to keep working on it ‘til I’m done. I’m drawn to its Sisyphean quality. It’s only facts. There are no opinions written down in these books. It’s part of that idea of the quest for self-knowledge. This would be my encyclopedia. Though they’re broken down into categories, there’s no order in the books. I just write from stream of consciousness.
Do you consciously infuse your work with a performative element? You’ve previously worked on the books in front of members of the public.
It was the project of my MFA thesis show which is how this all started. People walked into the gallery and the only things there were a shelf of the books on the wall, myself at a small writing table and a larger table for visitors to sit and read. People could watch me filling up the books with information or take one off the shelf and read it. When it comes to secrets about friends which I’ve been told in confidence, those get put down into a book labelled as Secrets. When they go into one of the other categories they will be blocked out. ‘Performative’ is the art term for it, for me it was more of an activity. It wasn’t a performance in the strictest sense. Usually when you watch a performance you can’t talk to or engage with the performer, unless of course that’s the intention. I didn’t want that to be the case at all. People came up and asked me questions.
You’re keen not to aestheicise the action?
I didn’t want to put in any cues about what people are supposed to do. If people asked to take a book off the shelf I would say yes, of course. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t suggest it. Sometimes with Performance art, I can feel a little pressured. It ends up detracting from the piece if you have to make people feel engaged, unless your idea is to make people feel uncomfortable.
As much as I sense an affection for the trivia you have amassed, you also express regret. Your work is a commentary on the inanities we’re surrounded by every day.
That’s definitely part of it. In The Everything I Know project, the pink book, the ‘Arts & Entertainment’ category, is the largest. The first book that I made was Every Movie Quote that I Know. It was a hundred pages long and I filled it very quickly. I can’t deny it. With the ‘Science and Nature’ section, which really interests me, I found I couldn’t recall as many specific facts with confidence. With the movies, I can even recall specific song lyrics. It’s information that’s stickier for my brain. Friends would see that and say ‘you’re so smart!’ and I’d say ’…um…not really! Is this smart? Is knowing the plot of The Karate Kid really smart?’
Are you ever shocked by some of the things that you are able to recall?
For a long time I’d be carrying around a grey, non-specific category book where I would write down information which I’d later transcribe into an appropriate category. The order of things that I remember is really interesting. I’ll be sitting with a friend and writing down a fact about them and then that would generate another fact and so on. There are weird pockets of knowledge that are somewhat important. I know a lot of facts about the U.S. presidents that all goes back to one class I had in elementary school. People would deem that more important knowledge than the plot of The Karate Kid because it’s history. By putting the knowledge into categories upon a shelf, I’m treating them equally. Does the fact that the movie quotes are in a thicker book make them more important? I try not to pass judgement. I present the information and let people decide for themselves.
Though you address weighty art historical subjects such as memory and the use of text in art, you seem to purposely devise an idiom that will appeal to a broader range of viewers, beyond the confines of an ‘art world’ audience. Is that fair to say?
I think so. I don’t know if I’m doing that intentionally or not. The subject matter happens to be popular culture. But I do like how relatable the work is. I’ve had people look at the Bill Cosby piece at a few shows and they love to examine it. To work out what’s going on. That doesn’t happen with most artwork. There’s an eight second rule, even in museums. There’s very few things that make people stop and pay attention. That’s not necessarily the reason I do my stuff, but it is a good effect.
Amanda Tiller’s website: http://www.amandatiller.com