For this conversation, I talked with Rebecca Copper, who I met for the first time that day on Zoom. She lives in Ohio with her son, partner, and mother, and I live alone in rural Tennessee.
I was initially interested in talking with Rebecca since we are both lens-based artists, but looking more closely at her work, I noticed several threads connecting our practices: care, preservation, and intention. Our conversation brought new insights into questions that have been rolling around in my mind throughout my first semester in the program: how can photography be truly collaborative? How can art help people connect? How do we care for each other?
In this interview, we talk about her project the Single Parent Archive, which centers the multiplicity of experiences connected to single parenting; how her practice is changing, and the possibilities of working slowly.
Morgan Hornsby: How do you describe yourself?
Rebecca Copper: I would describe myself as an introverted person, a deep thinker. I really don’t do well with surface level conversations. But I’m also very interrogative and investigative, like into perception and reality, like, why do we do what we do? Why is it that we exist? But also caring. I am a very caring person and easygoing, most of the time.
Morgan: How would you describe your practice?
Rebecca: My practice is in flux right now. It’s definitely something that I use to interrogate my experience and develop a better awareness of what’s happening around me, which can also then acclimate how I respond. Since graduating, I’m not removing myself from a social practice engagement, but I am leaning more into the lens-based questions that I have. Within my last year of the program, I was able to connect the way in which I use the camera and how I approach social practice. But now I’m investigating, like, what is the technology of the camera? How does it collapse the things that we experience, something that’s three dimensional, and flatten it into a two dimensional representation? And how does that affect how we engage with people in real time? Especially as someone who’s using a camera to either capture a person or an object or a landscape. What is the implication behind that relationship of the camera and what you’re photographing?
Morgan: How do you explain social practice to non-artists?
Rebecca: I explain social practice to non-artists as an artistic practice that isn’t based on the outcome of physical objects, like a sculpture, photograph, painting, etc. These things can be a part of social practice, but what is considered the “art” is engagement with other people; like the development of a relationship or learning something together.
Morgan: You mentioned interrogation and care in how you think of yourself. I thought that was interesting, since I see those threads in your practice as well. Would you want to talk more about that? How do interrogation and care work together in your practice?
Rebecca: I think it comes from a concern— a concern of the systems that we live within and the lack of care in them. So that interrogation comes from that concern. I think most people do care. So how do we shift the way that these processes or these algorithms that have developed over time that manifest how individuals can live or restrict the ways in which people can live? How can we work to shift the ways that these systems work? To show that they can be a foundation of care? That’s more of what I’m interested in.
Morgan: I see. Did working on the Single Parent Archive teach you anything different about care in the context of the system?
Rebecca: Most of my adult life has been as a single parent. I connected with my collaborator for the project, Marti Clemmons1, through that experience. Once I graduated, I needed space to regather everything and refind myself away from the program. That taught me that it’s okay to approach projects in a slow manner. Within the art world in general, we’re encouraged to produce quickly and produce a lot. Coming from that space of care, I think that moving slowly opens up space for moving intentionally.
Right now Marti and I are doing this slow communication— we’re actually letter writing back and forth like, Okay, what do we want to do with the archive? What do we really want the archive to unfold as?
So we’re doing the slow form of communication, as we both have to maintain care for ourselves and our families, which takes time. And to be able to push the archive along, you need resources, you need time and effort. But it’s really hard to maintain both, especially something that can be so exhaustive of your time as creating art or developing an entire archive dedicated to single parents, and then making sure that you can provide something that is supportive to the single parents that you’re engaging with.
The Single Parent Archive has definitely helped me recognize that it’s okay to move slowly and it’s okay to even prioritize someone who is the creator, that you also need care in that mode.
Morgan: Absolutely. How have participants responded to the Single Parent Archive?
Rebecca: Well, I’ll give you two examples: one where one of the parents was like, “This was great” and then another, which was more like, “This was really hard.”
My first single parent that I collaborated with, Amy Schuessler, contributed a tri-series collection she had already been working on. The writing was a narrative. It was quasi nonfictional, but also quasi fictional— it was this blurring of reality, like an illusion. She used a muse to represent herself and her own experience of what it felt like to be a single parent, which was a desire to be able to breathe underwater, and feeling like everything around her was suffocating her and that she was drowning. Then she created a collection of drawings that were based on this idea of triangulation. Then she took her own photographs of water in different spaces and then collected a bunch of found photographs of domestic housing that was being flooded.
What I was able to do with her was to organize the collection and have it reviewed by an editor. Then we published it into a book, like a formal physical book, and she has copies she is able to give to people, and people can also buy them online for like $10. And so for her, the project was able to take something she had been working on and manifest it in a really tangible way. She said it was a really nice experience for her just to be able to do that.
Then, I was working with Peter Freeman, who became a single dad later in life. And his children, two daughters, are older. His daughters interviewed him about their experiences, starting with the basis of food. His family was very traditional in a Western kind of view in the sense that he worked, and his wife did all the cooking and cleaning. When she died, he was like, Oh, I can’t cook. How do I make things other than grilling meat on the grill outside? So he used his wife’s recipes and kind of developed his way of cooking. So it started with that as like the foundation of the conversation and it kind of bled into other things.
But he emailed me and said that it was a really hard discussion, which is something I didn’t read; I had found it touching and magical. And after, when I was talking to one of his daughters about it, it sounded like there were a lot of tensions that came up that they didn’t really address, things like him getting remarried. But for him, it was something that forced him to have to revisit those tensions that maybe hadn’t been really spoken about. But also do it in this manner where the audio is being recorded, and then transcribed and edited, and then also made public. I had to pivot in how I was viewing the way I was working with people. Each time I would work with a parent, I would ask them what the ideal way to house or showcase whatever it is that they were sharing, whether it was a drawing, a poem, or a photograph. Then I would have them review it and approve it. I wouldn’t share anything that wasn’t something they approved. But it was interesting that the process in general was difficult for Peter to deal with.
Morgan: In this project and in your practice, I see how you often start from personal history and shift to more communal history. Would you want to talk more about that?
Rebecca: Thinking about being an outsider and preservation, there are historical ways in which institutions will say, Oh, this is a value to us. So we’ll take it and we’ll put it here and then we’ll study it. So for me, my only expertise can come from my own experience. So rather than trying to be an outsider moving into someone else’s experience, I start with my own. And that way I can build on that and then see how that can relate to other people– even if their experience is wildly different, maybe there’s one connecting point.
Morgan: How do you see the relationship between care and preservation?
Rebecca: I think historically, preservation in the form of archives, museums, or even educational textbooks, has been aggressive and violence-based. The mode of preservation through an archive, historically, has been to take an object and remove it from a community and put it in a space where that community doesn’t have access.
These are ideas that I read in Ariella Azoulay’s book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, which really kind of transformed the way that I viewed taking photographs. I also come from a background of working within a textbook through an educational textbook publishing company. So knowing the process of how educational materials are created, and the things that they pull from historically, I’m interested in how we can approach preservation, because I think it is important. Things that exist in other places, outside of our own experience, are important. But is it okay for anyone to go to a different place and extract from that community? Especially if it’s an object or an experience that is sacred or even useful to that community?
With that in mind, how do you preserve something? That’s something I’m still investigating within my own individual practice of taking photographs— like when I create a photograph, even if it’s not with a human being, let’s say, a tree, I’m still taking something from that experience. That tree can’t communicate with me, but what am I doing when I’m doing that? And I don’t know if I have an answer, necessarily. But I think just even asking the question can open up an avenue for finding out what that means.
(1) Marti (they/them) is an Archives Technician at Portland State University’s Special Collections and University Archives located in the Millar Library and previously worked as the Archivist for KBOO Radio. They are interested in using archives as a place for Queer activism.
Morgan Hornsby (she/her) is a photographer and socially engaged artist. She was born in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky and currently lives in Tennessee. Her photographic work has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, NPR, Vox, The Guardian, New York Magazine, and The Marshall Project. www.morganhornsby.com @morganhornsby
Rebecca Copper (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist based in the occupied lands of the Shawandassee Tula, Myaamia, and Kaskaskia people (Cols. OH). Her practice centers lens-based theories and socially engaged art praxis. She is an alumni of Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Most recently, her short film, Colitis (2021), was chosen for the Film Diary NYC 2.0 2022 film screening in Bushwick, NY and she was awarded a curatorial residency at Wave Pool in Cincinnati, OH. https://rebeccalcopper.net
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program