Interview: Justine Kurland
Cover Image: Matthew Leifheit
All Images Courtesy of the Artist
Res is an artist and activist whose work revises social documentary traditions by situating the larger collective struggle within the context of a family album. “Towers of Thanks”, published by Loose Joints in 2017, is made in collaboration with their mother who was the construction manager for Trump Towers. They chronicle Barbra Res’s pioneering work in construction and her subsequent actions, speaking out against Trump during the 2015 campaign. The conditions of Res’s family life force the feminist mandate—the personal is the political— into a new collision. Using multiple photographic strategies including archival materials, social media, staged narratives, and snapshots, Res exposes the exploitive way myths of masculine power perpetuate systemic oppression.
Justine Kurland: We met at Yale a few years back when you were still a student. I remember that you were both outspoken and well-spoken. It struck me that you were a new kind of Yale student, more politically engaged and community driven. What made you interested in photography? How have your interests changed?
Res: I started photography when I was a sophomore at Smith College. I was a Sociology major and used the medium then as a way to investigate my sociological interests. At the time I was making work in homosocial spaces, fraternity houses, locker rooms etc. The work I was making was very theoretical and didactic more like ethnographic studies- it was boring.
Shortly after, I had an affair with a classmate of mine. We would use the darkroom as an excuse to spend time together. We would stay up all night getting to know each other, making prints and looking at photographs–it was all very romantic and that is when I fell in love with Photography for the first time. That formative experience, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, created this lasting idea about photography for me- I wasn’t as invested in the spaces depicted in a photograph as I was invested in the way the spaces depicted were described and seen by the photographer. When we were in the darkroom I was looking for her in the way she photographed, it was part of the seduction and it still is today.
Whatever it is I am photographing my engagement with the material has to be personal. When I was photographing in Trump Tower for “Towers of Thanks” there were so many other photographers taking pictures, making political work, going to the source – I couldn’t do that. I was in Trump Tower making work for a very different reason. I was there because Trump Tower is a part of me, and that is an important aspect to my work. I am not an opportunist; I am not chasing a story–I am making work trying to make sense of my own.
Justine Kurland: I have similar story about falling in love in the darkroom during high school. Maybe the goal both in love and photography is to know yourself so you can be known by others. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard compares the act of writing to a true story about an Algonquin woman and her baby. They were left behind in a winter camp, nearly starved to death. There was lake to fish, but she couldn’t dig for bait because the ground was frozen solid. So the mother cut a strip of her own flesh to fish with; she saved herself and her baby. After that she can use the guts of the first fish for bait. Maybe that’s a more brutal way to describe what you mean about your work being a part of yourself, but also pointing outside of you.
“Towers of Thanks” is a series you made, published by Loose Joints in 2017. Can you tell me about that work?
Res: That is a beautiful way of speaking to the process of working (and loving) authentically, thank you for that reference.
I do think it is fitting that you bring up Dillard’s use of the metaphor of a Mother’s sacrifice to speak to, amongst other things, what is required to begin a project. The idea that if you put a little bit of yourself out there on the line that something will catch. But of course an archetypal Mother’s work is different than any others in that it is required for survival, it is heroic but unpraised, often unacknowledged and unseen.
My mother, Barbara Res was the manager of construction on Trump Tower and Executive Vice President of the Trump Organization for nearly 20 years. In the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential elections she developed an oppositional and public stance against Trump and his candidacy.
“Towers of Thanks” engages my mother’s work with the Trump Organization and addresses the impact of that work’s legacy on both my mother and me now in Trump’s America. “Towers of Thanks”, which gets its name from the Cartier bracelet gifted to my mother by Trump on the completion of Trump Tower, blends archival imagery of the Trump Organization with my photographic interpretations of my mother, of Trump Tower, and the ways in which photography contributes to myths of power and success. I started “Towers of Thanks” the day after Trump was elected with my mother’s hard work and unacknowledged or perhaps better stated, aggressively dismissed sacrifice in mind.
Justine Kurland: It must have been incredibly rare for a woman to land such a high-ranking job in construction at that time. What was it like for your mother to work for Trump? What did you think of Trump growing up?
Res: It was incredibly rare, she the first woman to oversee the construction of a skyscraper in the world, she was certainly a pioneer. In fact, just a few years prior to Trump hiring her to do Trump Tower in 1979 women were completely barred from construction sites in New York.
The story of my mother’s time with Trump and building Trump Tower is a mythic story to me. I was a child when my mother worked for Trump. I have delicate memories of watching her get ready for work in the mornings- her black chock full o’ nuts coffee, the sound of the news under the blow-drying, the face she would make while putting on her make up and smell of her burnt hair but beyond that the bulk of the visuals of her working from that period came from the drafts on her drafting table and the books and magazine and newspaper interviews we had in the house that she did throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Justine Kurland: It’s hard to believe, bizarre, that someone like Trump would give an opportunity to a woman. How did she end up working for him?
Res: All the images of her and the images of Trump Tower I saw through the lens of her power and strength. Her image and her work (Trump Tower) were completely her own in my mind, they had nothing to do with Trump and beyond that her story was that of a feminist American Dream. Not only did I see Trump Tower as emblematic of her hard work and success I saw it as a monument to the promise of a more feminist future. Can you believe that?!
My mother was very young when it all started with Trump. She was 31, the same age I was when I started this project as well. (It is an odd and haunting coincidence that Trump was elected on my 31st birthday.)
As the story goes, Trump hired her on the spot when he found her yelling at a bunch of male construction workers who were refusing to work for her while he was touring the renovation of the Grand Hyatt hotel in the late 70’s. He saw a real fight in her and gave her an incredible opportunity to oversee the construction of his first project in Manhattan, Trump Tower. She became his right-hand man as they say, and according to my mother he was very grateful and treated her well and she was incredibly appreciative of the opportunity.
Justine Kurland: Why did she leave?
Res: I have memories of her being incredibly upset and angry because of the trauma she endured working in the construction industry. I also know that working for Trump was very difficult and often he got in the way of their progress, as he was moody and petulant. He would have temper tantrums, he was constantly lying, he was never prepared for meetings and never read her memos or briefings; he thought he was invincible and that he didn’t have to build to code… he was a big baby and like any person caring for a baby she knew how to work him. She knew how to pacify him, she knew how to keep him in line, she knew that often in order to get things done she had to convince him that her ideas were his ideas and brilliant one’s at that. She was running his ship in the way women often do because they have to, she wasn’t going to get her own ship. But my mother was not in a place to resent him, or at least she couldn’t be conscious of that resentment, she had grin and bear it.
Towards the end of her time with Trump, he started acting differently. I think because he knew she was going to leave. At this point he started making inappropriate comments about her weight and began power playing her; giving her projects and then taking them away. She wanted more and I think she was exhausted from all the emotional labor so she left.
Justine Kurland: The Cartier bracelet appears in two of your photographs, one where we can read the inscription, “Towers of thanks” and the other more troubling side where it reads, “Love, Donald.” The bracelet makes Trump’s terms of employment clear; he’s willing to hire a woman but insists on treating her only his arm candy, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” styled bondage.
Res: I do think it is reasonable to assume based on the way we see him today that he could have potentially treated her only as arm candy but that read is a dangerous one in that it over looks or side steps the real abuse in a situation like hers. Trump really relied on my mother (and other women at the time like his wife Ivana who ran his casino) and he made that clear. I included his declaration, “Barbara is an extremely talented and no-nonsense person who tackles tough jobs and gets them done. I have entrusted with two of my most prized possessions – Trump Tower and the Plaza Hotel – and she has worked feverishly hard to translate my dreams for those two great buildings into a reality”, in “Towers of Thanks” to highlight that he wasn’t exploiting my mother for her looks, he was exploiting her for her labor. He says this in relation to her, “men are better than women but a good woman is better than 10 men”, as if she were a tractor and as I’ve discussed that work comes at a great cost. You get worked, pushed, ignored, beat down and when you are most exhausted you are then praised, taken care of and pampered by the same hand, you get a company BMW and “Towers of Thanks”. It is an abusive manipulation and it is how those with the power maintain control in this country. They make us think we need them.
I was in Trump Tower making work for a very different reason. I was there because Trump Tower is a part of me, and that is an important aspect to my work. I am not an opportunist; I am not chasing a story--I am making work trying to make sense of my own.
Justine Kurland: Your mother’s achievement is the stuff of legend, and yet nobody wins. You convey that so well in your photographs of her; she is at once powerful and completely broken. One of the strengths of this work has to do with complexity and contradiction. You use different styles of photography (documentary, archival, staged, etc), but the single image is also incredibly nuanced. I’m thinking specifically of the photograph where she sits in the corner with her coat still on, tentatively touching her hair. Can you talk about that image?
Res: That image titled, Mom, November 9, 2016, was made the day after the election. It shows my mother upset and scared, and yes I do believe broken. When I began showing “Towers of Thanks” the reactions I got to this image were mixed and a lot of women actually, especially those of my mother’s age questioned my inclusion of that photograph in the series. For many, including my mother, they couldn’t reconcile why I would show her in this way, in their minds as powerless.
But that construct is deeply steeped in a particularly toxic masculine ideal, an ideal that I have a very intimate relationship with. I grew up witnessing my mother uphold it all though her time working in construction; in these spaces she couldn’t be vulnerable, she couldn’t be scared, she couldn’t show her rage. If she did she ran the risk of losing everything she worked so hard for, losing her credibility. It was always very precarious for her and that type of performing is not sustainable for anyone or anything; it always breaks. I think part of our trouble is that we refuse to hold on to the complexity of strength. We deny that strength includes weakness and I am pointing to the consequences of that denial in “Towers of Thanks” at both a personal and national level.
Justine Kurland: That reminds me of Zoe Leonard’s piece, “I want a dyke for president,” that hangs on the wall in one of your pictures. Leonard also sees a vulnerable President as a stronger one.
The pictures of your mother follow a trajectory, from heroic worker, to disillusionment, to resistance. In the final photograph in your book we see her exuberantly holding up a sign, proclaiming herself and protesting Trump. There are two pictures that suggest a male figure, is that your father? Where was he in all this?
Res: It was a very intentional decision on my part to limit the presence of Trump and my father in “Towers of Thanks”. Trump is never physically depicted and my dad’s presence is merely hinted at in one photograph, “I Cherish Women”, which depicts him as a spectator, a passive actor watching my mother outline Trump’s sexism on MSNBC.
I have worked with my father on other projects, mainly Thicker Than Water, a series that explores our relationship, his transition into older age and his struggles negotiating his relationship to masculinity. I have exhibited “Towers of Thanks” and Thicker Than Water together and the combination is a very relevant portrait of an American nuclear family especially as it relates to the limits and detrimental ramifications of restrictive and reductive gender roles.
Justine Kurland: Two pictures seem to stage a reversal, where you and your mother trade places. In one picture she appears at your side in your instagram feed and you are dressed identically. The other is a self-portrait where you seem to be dressed up as her, or at least with the kind of corporate makeup and bra she would have been required to wear. Can you tell be about making these pictures? Were you trying to embody her?
Res: I made the photograph, Me as Mom, during a particularly difficult time. My mother was struggling. I developed a fantasy in which I could become her, to take on her pain for her. That is where this photograph began. It is clear from the image that the attempt to trade places was a total failure- I am in drag. This failure serves as a way for me to let the viewer in on my queerness; I cannot become her and as a result I cannot tell the story as her. I can pull from and interpret my mother’s experiences but I cannot live them. So, I see these images functioning less as trading places and more a description of our separate positions with moments of overlap. And within those overlaps you find what I believe to be the most hopeful and future focused aspects of the work.
This idea is most evident in, #womansmarchonwashington, the image of her holding a phone with an Instagram photograph of us getting ready for the Women’s March on Washington. That march was the first time we went to a protest together, which is a uniquely special thing as my mother and I have different political objectives and different approaches to showing our resistance. There is something about this political moment that is allowing us to see each other better, work with each other better, and support and fight our different political battles together, better.
It also references a hugely significant event that occurred at Yale around the time this photograph was made, the renaming of Calhoun College. In the photograph on the screen behind the phone you see The New York Time’s article from February 11, 2017 that reads, “Yale Will Drop John Calhoun’s Name From It’s Building”. John Calhoun, who served the United States as vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war, and as a US senator, was on of the most influential champions of white-supremacy and slavery.
Justine Kurland: When I asked the question about role reversal I was thinking about Roland Barthes’s writing about his mother in Camera Lucida, “During her illness…she had become my little girl…I who had not procreated…engendered my mother.” But your answer is so much more complicated (especially in looping the Calhoun protest into those particular pictures). You take the root of the word “engender” to a much more radical place. Can you talk about how your perspective as a queer artist informs your work?
Res: My queerness seeps into my work in so many ways I am not going to attempt to speak to it all here as my queerness is so deeply a part of me it’s impossible to wrangle all the ways it takes form in my practice.
In “Towers of Thanks” it was very important to me to tell this story and speak to my mother’s experience through the lens of 2017 as a queer artist in Trump’s America. As is clear from our conversation, I approached addressing the complexity of this story in many ways including formally, by juxtaposing archival imagery with my present day interpretations, to include a discussion of the way meaning is constructed over time and through photography. The conditions and constructs of feminism in the1980’s and 1990’s are not the same as today, but it has been my work to engage feminist ideals, scrutinize them, honor and dishonor them with the insistence on a future without gender, racism, capitalism and colonialism.
The constraints we face today will not be the same we face tomorrow. I work towards a world where constraints no longer define us or determine meaning. I am guided in my work and life by queerness as described by José Esteban Muñoz, from Cruising Utopia, “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’ domain.”