I had the pleasure of daytripping back to the studio of the rad Okay Collective in the Junction, this time to pick the brain of multidisciplinary artist Greg McCarthy. McCarthy works primarily in collage and photography, exploring issues of promotional advertising in the music industry, tourism in the Niagara region and most recently issues surrounding historic depictions of national identity in Canada. The artist constantly rummages through old archives and photo albums, on the hunt for parallelisms and stories once forgotten, but when brought to contemporary light, redefined and relevant. We chatted about his influences, bringing the past into the present and the role of nostalgia in his work.
When did you start making art?
Both my mom and my grandmother are music teachers, so I grew up with music and really liked art in elementary school. There wasn’t very much of an art scene in St Catharine’s at that time so I wad doing a lot of illustration-y stuff. I wrote graffiti for a while as well.
Do you remember a specific moment where something clicked and you realized you wanted to pursue art?
I guess so. I had just finished high school and was questioning what I was good at. I could have gone into music, but saw no careers in music at the time so I decided to go into illustration at OCADU. It ended up being the wrong program and I guess I’m in Fine Arts now. (laughs)
How did you find your overall school experience?
Super good, actually. Even if I was in Drawing & Painting I ended up drifting off into every other aspect besides it. (laughs) There’s also a lot outside of school that you need to learn on your own time.
Self discipline is key. Do you find that ‘marketing’ yourself has affected your work?
I’ve definitely gotten typecast as the ‘orange tape guy’. Mostly everything I’ve been doing lately still has tape, but now I’m really questioning how to break away from that. I was talking with this fashion designer a while back and he was saying something similar: how, from show to show, he would have to keep something the same but also break away as to not get stuck or have people lose interest. Trying not to stagnate can get really hard after a while.
Especially with everything moving so quickly, trends last days instead of decades.
Like all of those Drake video memes. (laughs)
What initially drew you to working with photography?
I like the idea of photography being a record. I work with a lot of film and negatives and the fact that someone stood in front of the photographer and posed… the relationship between the photographer and the person in front of them is the coolest thing. They created this tiny performance, this tableau vivant right in front of the camera.
Candid photography hadn’t entered the scene yet.
No, it was totally before that stage. People used to cram as many people as they could into one take. Back then, there weren’t many people doing fine art photography besides Alfred Stieglitz who played a big role in that. Before then, it was mostly commercial. Notman would photograph the queen and then portraits for middle to lower class families. Both would have portraits with the same guy.
How do you find your snapshots? I know there’s one series you did with family portraits.
Yes. I’m always going through eBay and vintage stores to build an archive to work with and it’s always strange to see these family photos totally disjointed from people’s lives. There are boxes and photo albums and everyone has these tangents from when these photos come off into the ether. So suddenly I’m going through a box of photos just floating around and find something related to something else, or a certain event… It’s really cool. I always wonder what would happen if I just put my entire lineage out there, full disclosure.
I’ve noticed you don’t usually incorporate text into your work. Why is this?
I actually try to keep away from writing because I like the work to sit on its own. I try to keep artist statements super broad… always focused on what I’m trying to say but with enough room to breathe. One of the best things ever is when somebody comes up with an idea that’s totally different from what you initially pictured but you also like it.
Why do you think art exhibitions can feel intimidating to some?
I don’t know, I hate that. You can totally just go, soak up the free wine, talk to people and even if you just approach one person and ask them to explain it, they’ll try. Or react like “Oh my god, a new face! This is awesome!” You get used to seeing the same hundred people everywhere and no-one talks about art at art shows so it’s a nice occasion to actually talk about it (laughs).
In your opinion, how can art can be a force for social change?
That’s a really good question. I’ve actually been reading up on this recently and am super interested in that point when art stops being about art and more so about other elements influenced by art. I came across Antanas Mockus, who was the mayor of Bogota, Colombia for some time and read about all of these small interventions he would do that caught people’s attention in different ways. Maybe that’s the way to go about doing things.
Going into the public sphere?
Right. Like he would do larger, performative, sometimes funny and usually artsy gestures.
A gesture goes further than aesthetics most of the time.
My thesis, for example, was about this old photographer William Notman who shot these super Canadiana staged studio portraits of guys Caribou hunting and such, but the snow on the ground was actually salt or sheep’s wool. I recreated them to show how staged the prints were and while I was working, I kept thinking: These are weird, outdated photographs. So that whole social change element started coming into it. How do these photographs function? How can we relate to them now? What do they have to do with us?
What’s the biggest change you see in photography in comparison to the past?
Now with the iPhones and such you click, click, click; but it’s that weird disconnect between actually experiencing and enjoying a moment and wanting to record it because you have to curate your online presence and all that now. People at concerts with their phones out recording it instead of being involved in it are the bane of my existence. (laughs)
It would mostly be used for documentation and archiving purposes?
Yes, everyone would have this precious archive of photos because you could only have so many due to the cost. Looking at poses is also interesting. For example, Kodak invented the ‘smile’ for a photo. The Kodak smile, it was a branding scheme and you can totally track it if you go into old photos! That moment when everybody got their little Brownie cameras, started shooting that 127mm film then send it back to Kodak to get developed and all of these smiles started showing up. Before, people would just stand there stoic.
Why do you think film photography and a more ‘tangible’ experience of shooting is making its way back into the picture?
We have this crazy nostalgia thing going on now which is really interesting. I’m not sure where it plays into my work but everything is so cyclical, right? We all rebel against our parents and when we’re at the age of creating things we crave something familiar which is why we end up going back. You see it in everything! There’s a whole romanticized idea of the past that just shows up again.
It’s crazy how each time there’s less of a gap between the nostalgia and the period that nostalgia is going back to, just because everything is advancing so quickly.
Especially because the archive of almost everything is online now. Before you had to travel, find a specific book, figure it out… now it’s so simple! If I want to look up photos from the 1860s, I’m there in twenty seconds. Our ability to do long, in-depth reading is slowly fading away. It's crazy.