Alana Riley is a photo- and video-based artist currently living and working in Montreal. She holds a BFA from Concordia University in Montreal (2004) and an MFA from the Roski School of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (2015). Riley’s work has been exhibited in solo and group shows in Canada, the United States, Europe and China. In 2010, Riley was nominated as a finalist of the “Emerging Photographers of Canada” by the Magenta Foundation. The same year, she was awarded the “Pierre-Ayot Prize” by the Ville de Montréal and the Association of Contemporary Art Galleries (AGAC). Riley has participated in artist residencies in Quebec, Ireland and Germany.
– Looking at your photograph “Wet Blanket”, we think about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s words ‘it is not a picture of a hat’. However, unlike the narrator of the “Little Prince” you did not give up on your career as an artist. Can you please outline your creative path?
I was always interested in art and all creative forms of expression but I had not always considered it as a “career”. It is only when I took off four years from university to work and travel that I fully understood my interest in creating – creating in the very mundane sense of making things. During my free time, I would take classes, trying my hand at sewing, ceramics, and print media; but it was really photography that excited me the most. I then decided to move to Montreal to pursue my BFA in Studio Art and Photography at Concordia University. This was an amazing time for experimenting, working in different media, and learning to understand what making art meant to me. After graduating with a double major, I spent the following eight years exhibiting and working as an artist, in photography and video – alongside numerous jobs and freelance contracts. It was during a residency in Germany that I decided to go back to school to pursue my MFA. At the time, I was feeling very unsatisfied with working in the medium of photography and, once again, felt that I needed to immerse myself in an environment that would allow me to experiment more, challenge myself, and receive critical feedback. I was fortunate to be accepted into a small, fully funded MFA program in Los Angeles at the Roski School of Fine Arts. This proved to be a rewarding and challenging time of deep reflection on my practice. During all these years, I can say, I have frequently questioned my path and my work, but I have also come to realize that this is a part of who I am. Much like the “Little Prince”, I do keep asking questions. So, yes, I have not given up on being an artist – at least not yet!
– Alana, your series of photographs “Support System” and “The Pressure between you and me is enough to take a picture” emphasize the relationship between photography and performance, by making the moment of closest physical contact between you and your protagonists culmination. Why this initiative is important for you?
Those series were done at a time when I as just starting to explore portrait photography. Prior to that, I had been photographing people’s belongings and their home or work environments. I began to realize that I was actually not comfortable photographing people. When I created those series of photographs, I was thinking a lot about the relationship of the photographer to the subject. I really don’t like having my photo taken, so I was sensitive to putting other people in this position. I felt that by positioning myself in the camera with them, I would, in a way, be confronting this relationship of subject and photographer – through a very direct physical manifestation, of course. This work was really important for me in that it deeply challenged me and helped me to address my anxiety around asserting myself as a photographer, in relation to my subject. As much as these were challenging projects to execute, there was also a lot of fun in it, in the spontaneity of it and in not knowing what I would get out of it. That aspect of “not knowing”, or not being able to control the outcome, is what drives a lot of my interest in working with others, particularly strangers. Even if I define rules and parameters, every person brings something new and different to the interaction. That is the part I love most and in which I am most interested.
– Your imitation of Newman’s monumental painting “Cathedra” blends borders between everyday life and art. Why did you choose this particular painting and what is your main message?
This project was developed after I had finished a residency in Ireland, where I produced a video piece entitled “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Grey?” which was a play on words with Barnett Newman’s famous series of paintings “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue”. In this video, I am seen mopping the passageway of the Factory space where I had my studio – the video was a reflection on everyday labour, the act of mopping echoing that of painting, playing on the monumentality of works of art such as Newman’s colour-field painting. While doing research on my computer, back in my studio in Montreal, the image of Newman’s “Cathedra” appeared on my screen; looking up at the Kettler ping-pong table that doubles as a work desk in my studio, the aesthetic parallel felt uncanny. In that moment, the ping-pong table appeared in a different light. I thought that was a curious parallel, and I became a bit obsessed with its implications.. The project evolved into a life-size recreation of the original “Cathedra” (9’ x 18’) as a large-scale photograph of a detail of my ping-pong table, a smaller photograph recreating an archival image of the artist standing in front of his painting, and a video loop. I don’t know if any of my works have a “main message”, I definitely think there are layers to it, but I would be happy if these works made some people consider aspects of their everyday environment and work and leisure activities in a way that takes them out of context, making it possible to see them in a different light and maybe appreciate them differently.
– Working in Germany, UK, States, what does Montreal mean for you as an artist ?
The residencies I did were very rewarding and definitely allowed me to open up my practice more. Being away helps me to think about things a little differently than when I’m navigating a place I know so well already. I think it’s so important to get out of your comfort zone – to experience other cultures and different environments, but those stays, no matter how long they were, were temporary. Montreal has always been my home base. There is a strong community of artists working here. Montreal is one of the more affordable big cities in Canada, and hence, great for artists; we are also fortunate that Quebec offers generous financial support for the arts, another factor that has contributed to creating the thriving art scene here and throughout the province. As an artist and freelancer, having a community is very important. I have come to realize and appreciate this even more since having been away so much.
– In his essay “The Death of the Author” Barthes suggests that writing and creator are unrelated. Although we often see you from your back, your presence in your works of art is crucial. Does it mean that an artist is a participant and not the creator? Or maybe quite the opposite?
When I am present in the photographs, I am trying to be less noticeable and I try to remain neutral in my expression. I don’t want the images to be about me personally or my experience but more about what I represent – a woman, a photographer, a stranger to some. The tension definitely lies in myself being both the participant and the creator, since these works are, in part, about the relationship between the subject and myself in this double capacity.
– Multidisciplinary has become a keyword in your art. For example, you have been incorporating props in your video installations and photographs. What does Alana have planned for us this year?
Well, I’m back shooting film with my medium-format film cameras so you can expect to see more still photographs again – and likely portraits, of sort. I’ll be part of a group exhibition in Montreal next year on photography. The last years, my work has really focused on video and installation. After a bit of a hiatus from incorporating photography in my art practice, I have recently rediscovered what it was that I was missing so much – the relationship I have to shooting film and the slowness inherent in this process (stopping to change film rolls, reading the light, etc). I had been working in digital photography primarily the last decade, and obviously there is something to be said for the ease and affordability of shooting, but I realized that, for me, the slowed-down process and way of working with a medium-format camera influences the outcome of the images –or at least it is inspiring my practice again. Although much of my work is conceptually driven, my interest in making art has always been the process – the process of making something. I’m always looking to learn and discover along the way. I find shooting film extends the time and process of creating the work, and right now this slowness feels more conducive to how I want to work.