[NetBehaviour] absence / presence: a conversation with artist charles cohen

mark cooley flawedart at yahoo.com
Wed Sep 27 20:15:18 CEST 2006

absence / presence: a conversation with charles cohen

A conversation between Charles Cohen and Mark Cooley
conducted through electronic mail - 2006

For a hypertext version of this interview please visit

See Charles Cohen's work at:

MC:  I'd like to begin by exploring your use of the
"cut-out" in some of your most well known works.  I've
been covering your Buff series in various new media
related courses for a couple of years now, and several
questions and points of discussion are frequently
raised. Can you speak first about the dichotomy of
absence/presence at work in these pieces: How do you
wish this dichotomy to play out for your audience, and
what role does the content of the original image play
in this scenario?

CC: If I may, I’d like to dissect the viewing
experience into three “effects” which the cut-out
generates. The “first effect” is the immediate
recognition of the void; a mere observation, not an
intellectual reaction, per se. The second effect is
“the abstract effect,” which would be any subsequent
intellectual activity for the viewer. This sets up an
ideal and final “reflexive effect”.

The catalyst for the reaction is expectation. Because
we expect nudity (in the Buff series) the suggestive
poses of the subject and the conditioned responses of
the viewer confront the void. This disconnect of what
is expected with what is actually there has a variety
of reactions in viewers. After digesting the
experience, however, the question of what has happened
occurs. This question, a momentary wedge in a normal
viewing experience, sets up the “abstract effect”. The
viewer is questioning the nature of this particular
type of imagery as well as the effect of imagery in
general on the mind. It is no longer a transparent and
immediate experience, as it is so often in photography
where the experience is oversimplified. Finally, the
pinnacle for the artist is to create a third,
“reflexive” effect. The viewer dissects all viewing
experiences to the degree where the subtleties of the
construction of meaning are understood and, perhaps
assumes co-authorship with the artist.

MC: You mention co-authorship and I'm interested in
pursuing this concept because it echoes many of the
discussions I've had with students regarding your
work, but before we get into that I am interested in
how you came upon the source imagery for Buff and
analogtime (full title, Why I prefer digital clocks
and can no longer pretend to like analog time) — I'm
wondering if you could speak about  the significance
of the specific imagery in the two series. While the
cut-out seems to set-up a similar relationship between
viewer and image in both series, it also seems to lead
to very different results in terms of specific
associations or meaning.

CC:  The theme which my work tends to revolve around,
the presence of absence, first surfaced in two
photographic series, that and set (See linked
statements for that and set). This work was created in
1997-1999. As you may or may not know, the Buff series
starts with an appropriated image and the analogtime
series is from film negatives that I took and happen
to be in. The Buff work, which I am most known for,
preceded the analogtime series from the Drop Out show
at Julie Saul. Buff is an intellectual exercise to
dialog with the viewer about expectation and imagery
in general. I elaborate on this in-depth in the linked
statement. The text from Curve: The Female Nude Now
(by Sarah Valdez, Megan Dailey, Jane Harris) is also
related and interesting. The analogtime images are an
emotional exercise that follows the principles of Buff
addressing issues of attachment and lack. I have
embedded the intellectual mission of Buff into an
emotional narrative in analogtime. And by being
seductive and generic, the farewell scene sustains
some of the abstraction issues that I addressed in

The fact that the main differences relate to love and
lust were not planned per se but are certainly very
relevant and seem to be a good way to differentiate.
The white space in Buff would be a novel, retinal
fling (albeit with an important invitation to think)
and the analogtime silhouette would be the profound
long-term relationship with a pain/pleasure point of
entry. The similarity of the white space allows the
viewer to project a thought in both cases, but those
thoughts are very different for the two series. In
Buff, while the exercise for me is detached, general
and intellectual, for the viewer it may be more
immediate and specific, facilitating co-authorship.
While in the analogtime imagery the picture itself is
specific, narrative and attached for me, the viewer’s
involvement is contingent upon appeal—requiring more
participation from the viewer.

I never show the two series in the same room and
preferably not at the same time as the subtleties
compete in the experience. The analytical differences
are interesting but don’t translate to an effective

MC: I'm interested in touching on this concept of
co-authorship that you mentioned previously.  As you
know, many aspects of digital culture (from products
defined as fine art to those defined as entertainment
or mass media) are celebrated and formed around ideas
of "interactivity".  It seems unfortunate that
"interactivity", which suggests an opening for
co-authorship with the participant, often boils down
to a "user" clicking buttons to get to prearranged
content.  It has been pointed out many times that this
kind of "interactivity" is not fundamentally different
than flipping through a book or channels on a t.v.
remote.  Do you think our culture's fascination with
gadgets and clicking buttons has had any effect on the
kind of conceptual interactivity one can have with (or
through) static imagery? Relatedly, I've had many
classroom discussions in which I've posed the
question, "what is interactivity?" - almost
inevitably, responses tend to revolve around
manipulating gadgetry.  Technologies and
representations made with them tend lose their roles
as mediators between people and their ideas and become
ends unto themselves.  Communication and interaction
seem lost at this level.  Do you think that technology
sometimes serves to alienate or distance people from
conscious interaction with their environments?  I'm
also partly interested in this question because much
of your work seems to suggest or conjure simultaneous
feelings of intimacy and distance or alienation - not
only in your Buff and analogtime series, but I get
this sense in your set, that and Standard Double
series as well.  What are your general or specific
thoughts along these lines?

CC: Hmmm. That’s a great point of entry for me in
particular. I was raised on the tube. The effect of
the preoccupation (if you don’t mind) of the gadget
and related control/interactive devices depends on the
individual and has the potential for positive effect.
In the analytical realm, however, clicking should
never merit interactivity. Perhaps co-authorship is
the standard for interactivity.

I was just talking with a friend about a more recent
addition to the analogtime series that explicitly
includes issues of memory, narrative, projection and
therefore control. The name analogtime reflects the
multi-temporal nature of the images for which the
silhouette is directly responsible. By
“multi-temporal” I mean the image depicts the record
of a past event/gesture and IS an explicit revisiting
of that event in the viewing present as well as a
longing for something in the future. The silhouette
draws attention to the process of making the image as
well as the motivation, and draws the viewer into the
equation, making the narrative relative to the present
moment. This reflexivity within the image, for the
viewer and between the image and the viewer is

When you ask if technology causes alienation and
distance, I say yes, except that distance (and
alienation) can be an opportunity to understand the
way in which we process mediated images and to enhance
interactivity. It only takes the tiniest pause for a
numb moment to reveal profound, reflective insights. I
was an anthropology major in college and I identified
very much with an underlying principle in ethnographic
fieldwork – participant observation. That is, the
blending of analytical distance with whole-hearted
engagement. It is perhaps recognizing this in my own
thinking that drew me toward making art – for I feel
that artwork is an even more satisfactory resolution
of these contradictory thoughts than prose. I’ll leave
poetry alone except that de-contextualized and
duplicitous language has a desirable effect for me.

This contradiction or in-between state of participant
observation is something that is more difficult to
convey than language traditionally permits. If two
exclusive voices exist in our mental faculty, that is,
solely participation or solely observation, then it is
visual language that can set up an experience for
communication rather than a verbal account that simply
constructs the message for one-way delivery.

In the analogtime pieces I am attempting to blend
“account” with “experience” using conflicting modes of
time to address the same contradiction in the image as
well as that which sets up the image. The pieces
include active gestures like reaching or embracing but
they refer to something not there and therefore past.
In the set series there is also an underlying duality
– that of natural and artificial light. The images are
all taken at either dusk or dawn with an overlap of
outdoor lighting – betwixt and between. That one
cannot discern the time of day is intended to alienate
the viewer as well as highlight a form of beauty in
the lack of knowledge. The same goes for the that
series of billboard profiles. There is no face, or
information in the image — the original function
debunked as the viewer surrenders to questions, not

Ultimately my art and all contemporary art is perhaps
a projection of an inner duality that engages and
provokes thought in equal amounts.

MC: I'm interested to know what your thoughts are on
how the cut-out has been popularized in advertising
imagery in recent years.  There are numerous examples
that I've come across, but the obvious and by far the
most enduring is the iPod campaign.  It interests me
because it seems an ideal example of how similar
technical and formal applications can be initiated by
very different conceptual intentions and work toward
very different affects for viewer / participant - or
stated another way, an illustration of how context
determines meaning.  I'd like to know your thoughts,
if you've had any, on how the "cut-out" seems to
function in your work in comparison / contrast to how
it functions in commercial applications - specifically
the iPod campaign?

CC: I once scribbled, design is to “ooh!” as art is to
“oh?”. Design seeks to hook while art aims to cause
pause. Apple and its image makers don’t necessarily
want thought, only impulse. Sadly, this is what a
viewer often wants too. The viewer wants what the
image wants and we gladly cooperate. (This is a plug
for a great book, “What Do Pictures Want” by W.J.T.
Mitchell). With this difference between art and design
in mind, I try to take advantage of the seduction
dynamic with a little kung fu and some blank space. I
probably mean some other martial art, but I am
referring to the ability to redirect energy coming at
you, to turn an ad image on its head gracefully, like
Marx did analytically to a table, unlocking the
implied forces within and re-empowering the viewer.
Marx would clearly side with the viewer (if I haven’t
made him roll over yet), because it is the viewer that
constructs the meaning of the message. The result is
revolutionary. Like a French sabot, the silhouette
disrupts the fetish mechanism and unleashes a flurry
of thought. The ipod ad insidiously lacks who they
think you want to be (the silhouette). The message is
lack itself—you lack meaning without an ipod. The void
I emphasize simply asks the viewer for an idea and in
return grants authority to the viewer.

Regarding the silhouette, I often consider the
allegory of the cave and some general eastern thought,
i.e. that the world we experience is merely light and
shadow distraction interpreted by an ego mind. I hope
to transcend the fiction (rather than profoundly
reinforce it) by indicating the relationship between
one’s mind and the flickering shadows. My friend Max
who works in IT once said, “it’s amazing how much you
can discern about a communication only knowing that it
took place”. Perhaps, in looking at a silhouette, the
viewer, once implicated and engaged in the dialog,
knows the significance of his role and thus the
sensation of reality without knowing what in fact that
reality is.

About the artists

Charles Cohen (New York, USA) Currently represented by
Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York, Genovese/Sullivan
in Boston, Patricia Faure in Los Angeles and Imago
Galleries in Palm Desert, Charles Cohen participated
in the Core Fellowship program at the Museum of Fine
Arts, Houston after earning his MFA in photography at
the Rhode Island School of Design. In addition to
traditional photography Cohen uses video, digital
imaging and sculpture to explore various aspects of a
central theme——the presence of absence. Cohen often
finds or applies abstraction to mundane subjects in
order to complete the meaning of a piece by engaging
the viewer. His "Buff" series has been exhibited in
New York, Paris, Boston, Houston, San Francisco and
Portland. It can also be seen in two recently released
books: "Digital Art" by Christiane Paul published by
Thames & Hudson, and "CURVE: The Female Nude Now" by
Dailey, Meghan et al, published by Rizzoli.

Mark Cooley is a new genre artist interested in visual
rhetoric, forgotten histories and political economy. 
His work has been exhibited in many international
venues both online and off. Mark is currently an
Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and
Visual Technology at George Mason University.

contact info:
mark cooley

charles cohen

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