Interview with Tyler Starr — Part 1 of 2

Tyler Starr received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. In 1998, Starr was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, Krakow, Poland. In 2011, he graduated with a PhD in Studio Arts from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts where he was a recipient of the Japanese Ministry of Education Scholarship. Starr was a 2011 Grant Wood Fellow at the University of Iowa, a 2013 Christiania Researcher in Residence, a 2014 OMI International Arts Center Resident and a 2018 Fellowship Artist at the Kala Art Institute. His work has been featured in exhibitions at Yale University’s Haas Arts Library, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Liège, Belgium, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan. He is currently an Associate Professor of Studio Art at Davidson College.

Tyler Starr at a printing press in the Davidson College print shop.
Tyler Starr in the Davidson College print shop. Image courtesy of the artist.

I was eager to talk to Tyler Starr because he is a consummate educator — he doesn’t mystify his practice, even as he makes poetic leaps and experiments with surprising studio processes. Starr thinks deeply about how and why he makes what he makes, and yet the work isn’t about itself; he investigates history and human nature through rigorous archival research, broad reading and introspection.

The following interview took place via email beginning September 19, 2021.

Levi Sherman: Like many of the artists I’ve spoken to, artists’ books are not your only studio practice. Can we start by discussing the relationship between your books and your other works? What makes something an ideal book project?

Tyler Starr: Much of my studio work results in one of a kind works on paper made from a painting/drawing perspective but incorporating techniques extracted from my studies of printmaking. My academic research included a focused study of intaglio with the help of a Fulbright scholarship at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, and I eventually received a PhD in studio art from the Tokyo University of the Arts where I researched contemporary applications of the Japanese woodblock printing process. The physical and optical effects of ink on paper, and the marks that come about via collaboration with the various printmaking techniques have always intrigued me. I incorporate pouncing (using an old sign-painter tool called the electro-pounce), chine-collé, and solvent transfer techniques along with standard drawing and painting techniques. One series of paintings on paper is a survey of Lover’s Leaps I visited. These works were influenced by engravings in the 2 volumes of Picturesque America (https://archive.org/details/picturesqueameri03brya/page/n9/mode/2up). Of course, print media is especially exciting for the ways it has historically worked to disseminate information to a wide audience, and I try to tap into this legacy with my editioned books and pamphlets.

Tyler Starr’s studio: works in progress on the walls, tables and floor.
Tyler Starr’s studio in North Carolina. Image courtesy of the artist.

My individual works on paper tend to be poetically ambiguous with free associations. The subjects are inspired by consideration of how my daily experiences might relate to more macro contexts like economics, geography, history, and societal constructs of race. To try to get a better grasp of these complex subjects I find excuses to spend lots of time reading or visiting archives to explore printed ephemera of a subject. I end up accumulating a constellation of material on a specific topic, such as the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, that I then edit and distill along the lines of information visualization. The book format offers a way to organize images and text to create accessible entry points into a narrative constructed from the research. My first artist’s books were three issues of a zine I made in the 1990s entitled A Buck in the Field that collected stories and dialogues from various factory temp jobs I worked. I bound those with a sewing machine. Lately I use a panoramic-like way of visualizing tragic incidents to acknowledge overlooked aspects of our history that are precedents for current events. 

LS: These poetic associations would seem to require a different mindset than the laborious archival research. How do you cultivate and balance both approaches? 

TS: Literature is always a helpful reference for me. I started to work with these two mindsets while living in Japan, which ended up being for about 7 years as the fortunate recipient of a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship. On one hand I was simply fascinated by daily strolls around the old downtown district in Tokyo where I lived with my wife between Ueno and Asakusa with sights of shrines, red light districts, street festivals, and great hole in the wall restaurants, while on the other hand there were traces of complex events around us, from the fire-bombing of Tokyo in WWII with the many casualties that occurred in the nearby Sumida River, current public protests of the U.S. military bases in Japan, and new construction of the Tokyo Skytree that we saw swaying during the aftershocks from the Tohoko Earthquake. 

I needed to read deeper about Japan to better contextualize things and encountered discussions of how narratives about history are constructed. Writers inevitably have agendas and make creative decisions about how events are presented. Within the classic books on Japan there is The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict which is written in a very accessible form that originates from her research initiated during WWII by the US Commission of War Information to create a guide for occupation forces on how to govern the Japanese after military defeat. Then there is The Mirror in the Shrine by the historian Robert A. Rosenstone in which he self-consciously inserts himself into the narrative wondering how he has personally been changed by his writing about the impact of Japan on Americans who lived there in the Meiji era. These are engrossing nonfiction works that evidence the artifice of animating scraps of information into a story. Purely poetic expressions can use artifice more blatantly in reaction to research and similarly offer insights into complex subjects, so I see both mindsets as comparable tools for gaining more thorough understanding of the world around us. 

From the art perspective, Kenzaburo Oe has been an important example for me as an author. His work includes self-reflective books based on reportage such as Hiroshima Notes using interviews he had with survivors of the bomb, as well as haunting fiction like Prize Stock that is a fantastical response to WWII. Both of his approaches helpfully acknowledge the continuous impact of traumatic histories on today’s events.

LS: How has witnessing the impact of U.S. violence abroad shaped the way you see it operating at home, historically and in the present?

TS: There are many victims, activists, and scholars that can teach us about violence caused by U.S. international and domestic policies. Positionality is one of the important lessons I gained from my time in Japan helping me to more clearly understand the limits of my perspective and my inherent blind spots. My awareness of controversies surrounding the U.S. military bases in Japan were heightened when I stumbled across a student protest in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. In this case student organizations (that clearly included alumni based on some of the elderly participants) employed hard hats and long formations of interlocked arms that snaked through the park. This technique of protest was used in opposition to the US-Japan Security Treaty from 1959-1960 and the choreography was refined during the anti-base protests and anti-Vietnam war protests of the late 1960s. The Research Center for Cooperative Civil Societies at Rikkyo University, Tokyo was an insightful archive I visited that has a collection of scrap books created by student activists in the 1960s.

"Attempted Fix: Dams, Bases and the Resulting Wobbles" open to an inside spread with collaged news images.
Tyler Starr, Attempted Fix: Dams, Bases and the Resulting Wobbles, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist.

As I started to read more about the anti-U.S. base movement in Japan, I learned about some of the large protests sparked by the Girard Case in 1957 in which a white U.S. soldier stationed in Japan shot in the back and killed Naka Sakai, a 46-year-old Japanese mother of 6 who was one of many local villagers gathering spent brass bullet casings on a military training field. Facets of the case show the complexities of post-WWII relationships between the U.S. and Japan, but at the core it reveals the violence that results from racist othering and dehumanization.

Two scholars that dig into these specific subjects are Chalmers Johnson and John Dower (with Dower being of particular interest because of his interest in using visual studies to punctuate his analyses). They show how othering and dehumanization are key for justifying military violence (for example resulting in the willingness to utilize two atomic bombs on Japanese civilian centers). This dehumanization of the Japanese by Americans continues to result in violence especially towards Japanese women around U.S. bases. 

Shortly after I moved to North Carolina to teach at Davidson College, I had the opportunity to participate in an ART in Odd Places exhibit in Greensboro. In preparation I began to learn about the city and came across the first use of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S. set up in response to the Greensboro Massacre. In this 1979 incident, 5 members associated with the Communist Workers Party were killed during an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally they had organized. The killers were members of Neo-Nazi and KKK organizations, and despite much of the tragedy being captured on film, no one was convicted. Local government authorities wanted to simply forget about it rather than address the conflicts revealed by the murders and an open wound remained in the community.

Accordion book, "Auto Record: Green Kill" open to show a vintage car on each panel.
Tyler Starr, Auto Record: Green Kill, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

The commission was organized in 2004 and in their final report, their number one recommendation for moving forward with healing was to clearly acknowledge the incident. I made a pamphlet that was distributed during the exhibit visualizing the two opposing motorcades involved in the incident based on the details in FBI documents. Through this project I began to learn more about violent white supremacist organizations in the U.S. and the Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, is an important resource (https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map). In this research, I encountered writings by white supremacists displaying their brutal dehumanization of people of color, Jewish people, and anyone who allies with them. 

This dehumanization aligns with white supremacist fantasies of the world descending into horrific violence that they use to justify their homicidal urges. We see this again and again in current white supremacist terrorist actions. This thread of racist othering and dehumanization is exemplified throughout domestic and international American policies.

LS: Books seem to share a mission with Art in Odd Places, extending art into the public sphere in sometimes unexpected ways. Brad Freeman calls his books “traveling exhibitions,” and your use of accordion structures especially seems calibrated to maximize the book’s potential for display without losing portability or intimacy. Is that why artists’ books appeal to you?

TS: I am fascinated by the panoramic effect of accordion books. They can be very immersive even when pocket sized. But rather than thinking of books as a portable exhibit, I admire Monique Wittig’s idea of a book being like a trojan horse. Fragments assembled together into a machine (of sorts) that heads off into the world to function in surprising ways. When I’m making a book, it is an assembling of information into hopefully engaging choreography. This collage-like approach to making art is beautifully expressed by William Carlos Williams:

A poem is tough by no quality it borrows from a logical recital of events nor from the events themselves but solely from that attenuated power which draws perhaps many broken things into a dance giving them thus a full being.

W. C. Williams, Kora in Hell

LS: Assembling fragments could also describe historical research. Is that aspect part of your interest in past events?

TS: My interest in past events is based on trying to better understand current events. When reading about the legacy of white supremacist organizations in the Southeast, I came across primary documents such as FBI case files. The evidence described in them was often poignant, but one must peruse hundreds of pages of roughly scanned pdf documents to find it. I extracted textual descriptions of evidence that reveal critical aspects of a case, and then I found photographs that offer accurate visualizations. For example, in my new book Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army (1992–1996), I scoured online auto classifieds in search for a matching brown 1980 4-door Chevy Citation the Aryan Republican Army purchased with cash for use in a bank robbery and left behind with a hand booby trapped hand grenade in the glove box. I find that visualization of information can offer engaging entry points into some of these now overlooked incidents that have direct correlation to events happening today. This imagery also helps me understand things, partly because I don’t have a great memory. The book format organizes these snippets of info and associated images eventually creating a narrative.  Additional meaning is generated through the proximity of images to each other.  Even the space between and around the assembled elements has a suggestive presence.  

"Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army (1992-1996)" open to an inside spread. A surveillance image of a bank on the recto and on the verso, the robbers' weapons, masks and car.
Tyler Starr, Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army (1992-1996), 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

LS: This idea of an engaging entry point seems especially important if you want readers to confront a history that has been hidden for a reason. At the same time, there is the risk of fetishizing or reinscribing violence. How do you find that balance? 

TS: Acknowledging traumatic aspects of our history is definitely fraught with potential problems, and my positionality is part of the complexity. With the works about white supremacist violence I use a hybrid text and image approach akin to brochures found at national historic sites with digestible nuggets of information. The hope is that providing overlooked information distilled from primary documents will offer an audience different opportunities to initiate their own investigations. 

I take a measured approach with respect and care towards victims, and I do fear causing additional harm to them. I use various approaches such as decentering the perpetrators to focus on victims, or looking slightly askew at the subject with a focus on objects like a sociological study rather than using the spectacle of violent figurative imagery. A useful aspect of the book format is that it tends to be non-confrontational and allows viewers to engage with it on their own terms. The visuals I provide try to move beyond headlines and provide insight into the tools (such as cars, weapons, and masks) used to project racist violence.  

A source of inspiration has been the Louisiana State University Cold Case Project that is part of their journalism program looking into unsolved civil rights era murders. They had a comprehensive website with links to primary documents from the various cases that they gathered through Freedom of Information requests (https://web.archive.org/web/20160331222458/http://lsucoldcaseproject.com/about/). We are of course now well aware that while the voice of journalists and historians are conventionally presented as neutral, they are actually imbued with agendas and biases.

Once my work leaves the studio I am sensitive to responses and modify my approach in efforts to increase positive impact and avoid contributing to the racist violence the work is meant to oppose. But my shortcomings are sometimes evidenced in my works, and I humbly learn from less successful attempts. For example, ambiguity is something I wrestle with. How much comprehensive context needs to be provided within the book itself, and how much nuance can be provided via the venue in which the book is shown? I am someone that will occasionally skip an introduction in order to get to the core of a book, but a detailed introduction can help frame a subject in ways to dispel misunderstandings. The intro to my most recent artist’s book is longer than my previous ones.

LS: This is a great transition to the question of reception — and readers. Can you talk about the different audiences you reach by creating both democratic multiples and lavish limited editions? And perhaps the role of institutions for each?

TS: The legacy of printed matter as a means of disseminating information is still powerful in the digital era. For example, printing presses and their ink-on-paper products are still being destroyed and confiscated around the world to limit communication of ideas. Recent examples include presses in Kashmir, Palestine, Belorussia, and Hong Kong. I often think about how the etching presses we used at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts had been wrapped in oily rags and buried in the ground to prevent the Nazi’s from taking them during occupation. 

With the outsourcing of printing, the cost and time of fabrication go way down, and the quantity increases. There is then financially less at stake with the individual publications, and they can be freely distributed or offered for pocket change to help cover shipping costs to anyone even slightly interested. I have placed stacks of publications in the free newspaper bins in cities to offer happenstance discoveries. Then the publications can find their way into the flow of daily life, and there is potential for them to arrive at surprising locations and hopefully germinate in productive ways. But I also appreciate the tactile nature of the materials being used — pigment, paper fibers, and binding agents. Physical properties of a book convey additional meaning. The tactile nature of washi papers can encourage different associations than a thick rag paper or red linen. When I do the printing, I take advantage of textures and ink properties, but then the variety of materials and additional time needed for fabrication results in more expensive books. I also work with my friend, the master bookmaker Britt Stadig (http://brittstadigstudio.com/), to create innovative book structures that a commercial printer would not handle. These fine art books function well with the help of librarians and curators in institutional special collections that offer space to engage with books in relation to other books. In this environment there are opportunities for cross-fertilization between publications and the ability to engage with the subtleties of a book’s construction.

Britt Stadig works on "Identification of Cars Participating in Klan Rally at Montgomery, Alabama, March 21, 1965" in the Davidson College print shop. The unfolded book runs the length of the room.
Britt Stadig in the Davidson College print shop at work on the edition of Identification of Cars Participating in Klan Rally at Montgomery, Alabama, March 21, 1965. Image courtesy of Tyler Starr.

In my classes, I refer to volume 56 from Kanen Iwasaki’s encyclopedic study of botany (Honzō Zufu, 1921) that I acquired for Davidson College’s special collections. Close inspection of the pages allows light to play off the forms created from embossment or white pigment made from shells, and negative spaces are activated with thin layers of woodblock printed mica. The modest subject of mushrooms becomes monumental and dramatic. Digital reproductions of these pages are drastic simplifications (http://umdb.um.u-tokyo.ac.jp/DShokubu/Honzo/honzo06.htm), and a precursory look at a book like this while waiting at a bus stop would likely result in missing much of its significance.

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