William Buchina: Low Information Settings
March 4 through April 24, 2021
By EMANN ODUFU, April 2021
2020 was a year for the books. It was one that forced many people to reassess their own mortality and admit their utter helplessness in the face of a pandemic, which shook our society to the core. The foundations on which many had built their hopes and dreams for the future had been exposed as being faulty. It had become blatantly apparent that the systems of leadership to which we had become accustomed to relying on did not have the answers that we were seeking and in this moment, there was no one coming to save us. Instead, we would be left to fend for ourselves. For many it was a time of reinvention, a time to reflect and reposition. The world as we had known it had entered a new phase, and what was at stake was the survival of an American way of life that seemed to be disintegrating in real time.
It makes sense that in this time of instability and uncertainty, that William Buchina, while conceptualizing his exhibition Low Information Settings, would choose to take his work in a new direction. Normally his work exists in a space that is steeped in mystery, that speaks to the human condition without getting caught up in the web of the current moment. However, this moment, one that felt as if we were living through history, proved to be too rich of a source of inspiration for William to ignore.
I first caught up with William in August of 2020, when he was spending a lot of time in Millbrook, NY, at the summer house of a mutual friend, researching and conceptualizing his future exhibition. The small village nestled in upstate New York had become a safe haven for William, who wanted to escape the eeriness of a NYC that almost started to resemble a ghost town. The once sprawling metropolis seemed almost abandoned as New Yorkers opted to leave the city for greener pastures, inflamed by the media reports characterizing the city as a Covid hotspot, and death tolls that were among the highest in the nation.
The time that I spent in Millbrook could be described as a crash course in William Buchina, his world view, life story and the ideals that shaped his work. All that was going on in the world at that time served as a rich foundation for our forays into various topics which ranged from the media and information we were consuming while in lockdown, to our views on the pandemic, the growth of movements like Q-Anon and the upcoming election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. The conversations between William and I during this brief excursion would serve as the impetus for the following interview which took place shortly after the opening of his new exhibition, Low Information Settings, which is on view at the Hollis Taggart Gallery in Chelsea until April 24th.
EMANN ODUFU: What's going on William?
WILLIAM BUCHINA: I’m okay, thank you. I just had to get the cats out of the room to do the call.
EO: All good man. Well, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I really enjoyed your opening last week. I’m just going to jump right into the questions because we both have limited time today and there’s so much I want to ask you about your work.
WB: No problem, question away.
EO: Okay. So the period we are in right now is called by many the Age of Information. Everyone is online, “content” driven, and we’re inundated with information to the point that we can’t easily determine what is true and credible and what’s not. It is increasingly difficult to sort through the unceasing barrage of information. However, your exhibition is called Low Information Settings, which seems to be in contrast to this reality. How did you arrive at the title of your exhibition and how does this title speak to your work?
WB: While I'm working in the studio I’m usually listening to audio books and long-form podcasts and various other recordings. One thing that I was listening to was a journalistic series that dives into more remote conflicts, remote to people here in the U.S., that don’t get a lot of media coverage. This topic was the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan and specifically about the Nagorno-Karabakh region where most of the fighting took place.
This is a land with a long history of conflict, much like everywhere, and has been a disputed region since the fall of the Soviet Union, with both Armenia and Azerbaijan claiming it and with proxies like Turkey, Russia and NATO getting involved. It’s a pretty poor region and quite remote and mountainous with limited infrastructure, internet and communication services.
So when this journalist was talking to people in the region about the unfolding conflict and its looming fallout, he said that it was difficult to express how it was being viewed by the outside world to them, because the people there were getting so little information. At the same time, so little of their viewpoint was going out to the world. He summarized this predicament by referring to the region as a “low information setting."
I thought it was a poignant phrase that worked well to describe this scenario, but also conversely, could be used for the opposite world that we live in, in which, as you've said, we have a never-ending inundation of content and media but by its volume, speed and lack of veracity it feels worthless. These two realities are so different of course, they’re seemingly binary opposites, but because they are both at such extreme ends of the spectrum, they nearly amount to the same thing, which they of course aren’t, but the title, I thought, could be applicable to both.
EO: This reminds me of Facebook and how you only see posts and ads that align with your viewpoints and those of people who think exactly like you. So even though there's all this information in America, in many cases we’re still not seeing the big picture and this results in our society also perhaps fitting the description of a “low information setting”.
WB: I think so, and I think it’s pretty clear that it’s designed that way, and very cleverly designed in some regards. It makes perfect sense for the business model. You hear people remark that, “I said something to my friend and then I saw an ad on my phone.” Of course. Why wouldn’t you see the ad for something you have shown interest in? Why would you be fed anything that you have not shown an affinity for whether it be a product or a racial stereotype or a religious doctrine? We do obviously receive information meant to sway us towards an alternative, but I think it’s more common and profitable to stick with what works, let others hack away a new path and then fall in line behind them if they do in fact gain any new ground. Through researching the sources and content for this show, I’ve found quite a number of information platforms that I was unaware of, but it’s clear enough that the largest companies are in control of how, when and what information and material we receive. I've complained, like many of us, about Amazon for example, and how it’s eliminating so many small businesses and places that I used to like to go, shop from and so on. But you know, I've accepted it and use it just like everyone else because the convenience and cost become factors that you need to be very committed in order to fight against.
EO : The setting of your work in this exhibition is mostly abandoned malls, factories and basically vacant settings where industry and commerce once thrived. To me these are all things associated with a working or middle class America. These industrial spaces almost represent a pathway into a middle class that is slowly dilapidating. It’s tied to Amazon and the growth of these mega corporations, but it also showcases an American way of life that is evaporating into thin air. Why did you choose to incorporate these themes into your exhibition?
WB: Well, on the surface level, at the start of the lockdown last year, for the first two months or so, it was extremely jarring to see New York City so desolate. I drove around and saw the emptiness and the closure of nearly everything, and like most people, I thought about what would come next. Would these places open back up, these restaurants and hotels and office buildings and gyms? I was trying to look back at this time from some point in the future and I imagined this being the time when an array of “ways” ended; ways of shopping, working, travelling, socializing. None of these things will end, but the infrastructure created around them might, and will leave its remnants behind. So what becomes of these remnants?
This got me thinking about shopping malls, the outdoor strip malls, and places like Sears, Caldor, Lord & Taylor, the department stores I grew up with. They have been dying slowly for years and I thought that this pandemic could be the final death blow for a lot of these types of businesses and as a result, for a lot of this architecture. What will then become of them? Will they be left as dilapidated structures? Will they be destroyed and repurposed? Will they become modern ruins? How long does a vacant and unused structure have to exist before its value is restored as something historical, a “ruin?" I was thinking about how long this process takes and what factors go into it.
EO: I want to bring the conversation back to the work you included in your exhibition. It is essentially a combination of two separate series - Scenery and Low Information Settings. Why did you decide to combine these bodies of work and how do you feel they are in conversation with each other?
WB: The Scenery series I started working on years ago and it's been this kind of sporadic work that I do in between other projects. At first this solo exhibition at Hollis Taggart was meant to be last June (2020) and it was going to be an entire show of the Scenery series. All the work was going to be on paper. When the pandemic hit everything went south and we cancelled it. We didn't know when it was going to be and what it was going to be. At the time it was very disconcerting, but I quickly thought it might be a really fortuitous opportunity to do something more topical since I have always moved away from overtly topical work, but I felt the times were very much shaping what I was planning, as I was planning it, so I chose to dig into that whereas before I most likely have purposely avoided addressing it. This was around the time that we linked up over the summer and had the chance to finally talk at length.
EO : Yeah, at that time I remember you were at a point where you were trying to figure out exactly what you wanted to do with the exhibition. You definitely seemed to be at a creative crossroad.
WB: Yeah, I realized that I didn't want to just do works on paper, the ideas I had for that show were just not what I was thinking about anymore. The Scenery and Low Information Settings works have a lot in common, I mean really the Low Info pieces are continuations of the Scenery idea in that those works are grounded, single setting narratives, for the most part, as opposed to a lot of collage-like works I’ve done before. The settings are these vacant malls, highways, offices that are repopulated by overlapping elements from real world events, conspiracies and rituals.
EO: When I saw that you were including redacted CIA and FBI documents into some of the pieces in the exhibition, something just clicked in my mind and I immediately connected it back to the title, Low Information Settings. Can you extrapolate on your inspiration for doing this and how these documents speak to the larger theme of the exhibition?
WB: When doing research for the exhibition, I kept coming across FBI, CIA, and state department files, memos, and memorandums. For some reason I kept going back to a lot of PDF’s for these documents and I would find that they're all filled with redactions. Redactions are basically the government's way of letting you have this formerly classified information while keeping out the key components of it that will imply any guilt on their part.
I started using them, excerpts from certain reports, because for years I've been painting gatherings of people with most of their faces covered by simple masks that are now ubiquitous, but also by more elaborate helmets and ornaments. In these artworks, you see what kind of activity they’re engaged in, you see where they are, but you don't see the key element to identify them which is their facial features. I do this because I want them to be figures in an act, because my work is about the act that's taking place. It's not about who this person is. I look at my paintings as sort of like a pictorial version of a redacted document where you offer a lot of information to the viewer, who could go on to further research and fill in those blanks by themselves, if they are so inclined. WM
Emann Odufu is a writer, artist, cultural critic and filmmaker hailing from Newark, NJ. His writing and film work have been featured in the NY Times, Huffington Post, Okay Africa and other leading magazines. He has spoken about his creative work at various universities around the country including, but not limited to Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and NYU.
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