Interview with Adam Bork
by Sarah Klein
August 9, 2002
Adam Bork is probably best known for the album cover art he has produced over the past decade—but deserves equal attention for the expanse of his photography portfolio, his documentary filmmaking, his multimedia work, musical composition, and trademark finger-slide guitar. I met Bork too many years ago to count, in the parking lot outside a godawful fraternity party on the campus of Southwestern University, where he was then a student. Now he calls New york City home, and somehow I convinced him to grant the sought-after and all-too-rare Adam Bork interview, via e-mail.
You are originally from Texas, and Austin was lucky enough to have you for a good long time. You’ve spent the past few years in NYC. How’s New York treating you?
It’s okay. Don’t really like where I live though. The neighborhood is too far away from anything that I am very interested in.
What kinds of photos and films have you shot since moving to New York?
I’ve done a couple of music videos for this bandMedeski, Martin, and Wood. That was in the year 2000.
I’ve taken a bunch of pictures of myself by burned out and wrecked cars and other signs of urban decay, mainly in the South Bronx—these are a far cry from the desolate scenes one may be used to seeing in photos of mine from the past.
I took a trip to Hawaii in late 2000 with my little mannequins, The Explorers. I also just returned from a trip to northern Nevada and Southern California desert regions. There, I took some inflatable full size dolls with gray fur suits. Kind of like The Explorers but full size.
Last summer I filmed, along with a couple of assistants, the process of preparing a demolition derby car and the actual demolition derby this car was involved in. A girl named Sam from Honesdale, PA knew the demolition derby people and I saw the possibility of a film, so I pursued it. I think I’m going back there this weekend to try and do a couple more interviews to add a little more meat to the film. I’ve also done some video shooting around apartments I’ve lived in for possible use in a later film/video that may try to describe/explain the madness/futility/obsession with mannequins. Something that has affected my life for the past decade or more. Whatever that means.
What do you do to pay the bills in the big city?
Right now I work in a library at Columbia University. It pays very little and I am unable to do much creatively or otherwise. It is the art and architecture library, however, so I look, sometimes very carefully, at the art and architecture books that come across my desk. I’m actually the guy that makes sure the books are properly bound and have the right call numbers, etc. I like art and architecture, so that’s okay. Right. I was just looking at a 3-D archaeology book with genuine 3-D glasses. Really, just two minutes ago.
Tell me (more) about the last photo shoot you did…
After visiting my grandparents in Prescott, AZ for my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, I flew up to Reno, rented an SUV (Mitsubishi Montero) and drove up to the playa of the black rock desert. The playa is, I believe, the flattest place on earth. It’s a dry lakebed around 700 sq. miles. It’s where they hold Burning Man. I went a month before Burning Man so there were no humans visible to me.
I spent the night out there. Very dark, very quiet. I inflated the blow-up dolls I brought and assembled the creatures I had created for this round of photography. After this, I set them up using microphone stands and tried to take some pictures. They kept blowing over (this has always been a problem with mannequins and props and wind) and I kept getting angry, but in the middle of the night after the wind died down, I got some interesting digital video footage using the headlights for a light source. Haven’t gotten any of the still photography back yet, but I think there might be some good stuff.
This time around, I put myself in some of the photos for the first time ever. I was sitting in a lawn chair with a beer in hand and shirt off with three depressed-looking figures with gray fur suits and tape recorders etc. off to the side. The next day I drove down to the Trona pinnacles in Southern California near Death Valley. This was a fairly miserable time. I stayed out there all day waiting for the sun to go down because there was nowhere else to go or anything else to do and besides, I had already placed all of the mannequin/blow-up doll creatures up on a hill far away from my SUV, which incidentally had a flat tire for a few hours before I decided to change it.
I was 14 miles from the nearest paved road and it had been up to 114 degrees, but I was determined to stay out there until the sun reached a point in the sky that I would be happy with photographically. When the sun did start going down, I struggled with the 20 to 30 mph winds for a while. Those fuckers kept blowing over for a good hour or more. Finally, I got enough big rocks to weigh the mike stands down and keep them upright. I was very sunburned by this point and very pissed. I wasn’t giving up though. I thought I was going to have to spend the night out there. No one, not one vehicle, came through that park the entire day; that’s what I wanted of course because it takes forever to set these things up…
…When the sun was starting to go below the horizon, that’s when I freaked out. . .I got this all on digital video and super-8. I edited a little video when I got home where I slowed this destruction down a lot and put a nice Reader’s Digest “World’s Most Beautiful Music” soundtrack to it. I also smashed the little tape recorders that the guys had been wearing. I then bagged everything up and drove to Ridgecrest, CA for the night.
I just barely made it out of that place with any light left and it was all super off-road. That’s probably why I got the flat. Oh, that day was my birthday too. July 16, 2002. The first atomic bomb was detonated in the desert of New Mexico near Alamagordo on July 16, 1945. I threw all of the bags of mannequins and pieces and their clothes and shoes and tape recorders and goggles etc. into a dumpster behind the used car place there in Ridgecrest. I threw the suitcase in which I brought them away in Reno. I was happy to be done with that stuff and I leisurely drove back to Reno to return the rental and fly back to New York without the pressing need to pull over and photograph some mannequins dressed in fake fur suits.
Your photographs seem preoccupied with demolition. And fire. Technology. Combat. Plasticity. Why?
That’s a good question and one that I have been struggling with for a while. I think it mainly goes back to the 1980s and growing up in North Austin—I hated it. I hated the architecture, the cars, the people, the general feeling. I thought that the whole world was like
North Austin—a sort of collection of metal storage buildings, strip malls, subdivisions, fast food places, etc.
I was fascinated with the past and believed the quality of everything from the past (1910s to early 1960s, in my mind) was far superior to the ubiquitous crap that I dealt with in the 1980s in North Austin. Maybe that’s part of an answer to the technology part. Sort of a bleak future decorated with objects from the past pretending to be objects from the future—a dirty, worn-out future. Along the lines of Blade Runner, Brazil, Star Wars, 1984, etc.
The destruction part, combat, etc., I think that stems from my fascination with the World Wars. I watched war documentaries all the time from my early teens until just a couple years ago. There was always destruction in my mind mostly every day for years, probably just a carryover from the war imagery from documentaries and war books that I always looked at. That stuff has mostly gone away from my mind in the last couple of years. Just being aware of the massive destruction of the 20th century, even though I never had to deal with it firsthand, manifested itself in a lot of the visual imagery of my photography—at least into the mid-90s.
What’s up with the little babies in your work?
I don’t know. I like multiples of the same same thing. A lot of babies that look the same can be powerful in some odd way, kind of unsettling maybe. Not to me though.
Do you like real, human babies, or just plastic ones?
Just plastic ones.
Where did you get your mannequins, and where are they today?
The majority (originally 25 complete mannequins) I got at an antiques auction near Oatmeal, TX in 1992 for $250. Many of them are in a storage unit in Austin. A few I have destroyed, perhaps with fire. I have sold a couple as well. Three little kid mannequins are in my closet in New York here. Three headless complete mannequin bodies are in a storage unit in Queens.
Do they have names?
What made you want to photograph them?
I had been searching for mannequins to photograph for a while before I found them, so that’s the only reason I got them. I just had to. They don’t complain, they just fall over.
Color takes over your photography. In a good way. At least I think so. How do you get that effect? What do you shoot and process with?
I often shoot with color slide film. I usually use just standard 35mm but I have had a medium format camera. Had to sell it last year on eBay to pay bills. I have done a little cross processing (developing E-6 slide film as color negative-C-41) . You see that a lot all over the place now—advertising, MTV, everything. I have done some regular color negative as well. I’ve done black and white and hand colored that as well. I used to combine two or three slides—different skies etc.—to get an interesting dreamy but real effect. That was before Photoshop though.
What ever happened with all the demolition derby footage you shot last year? Did it ever become a documentary film? Will there be a screening?
I’m working on it. It’s a lot harder than I thought to put all that stuff together and make a good story from all the different elements. I guess that’s a lot of what documentary is about so I just need to keep on figuring it all out. I think I’m going back this weekend to get a few more interviews. It’s not really planned yet though.
How did the derby film come about, anyway?
I knew a girl named Sam that I had worked with at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. I saw a demolition derby with her the summer of 2000 in Honesdale, PA. She had always wanted to drive in one and it seemed like it might be a good movie to get a car, make it into a demo car and see what happens. There is some amazing footage. It still needs a lot of editing however, and I’m really trying.
Prior to making the derby film, you shot a documentary that screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival (where I recall enjoying myself immensely). Explain.
These guys I went to college with at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX had the idea that they would like to go find this fellow Tony Joe White in the spring of 1997. They asked me to go and we filmed the whole process of trying to find this guy.
He had some hits in the late 60s early 70s. “Polk Salad Annie,” “Rainy Night in Georgia,” some really good songs. Many of the nonhits are great as well. I was out of my mind during that two-week period. It’s hard for me to watch myself in that. It won Best Documentary at the Detroit Film Festival in 1998 and has screened all across the country. I didn’t edit that one. Joseph Strickland was the director and editor, Chris Chaput the main cameraman and producer, Matthew Johnson, sound, and I did some camera work and was called the art director. We were all onscreen talent as well.
What makes for a “good documentary film subject”?
I think anything can be a good subject if the filmmaker/crew is intensely or genuinely interested in it.
You also have a musical past. Reference the eras of Earthpig, Earthpig & Fire, and Li’l Cap’n Travis. Do you play music or write songs much anymore, with anyone in NYC or back home in Texas?
I made up a guitar style that is kind of like slide guitar but not really—I don’t use a slide only my fingers, but they do slide. I played open mics starting in1993. Kevin McKinney quit Soulhat in 1995 and volunteered to play bass, and a guy named Conrad Choucroun of Banana Blender Surprise moved to Austin to go to college in 1995 and volunteered to play drums. A few other people played in that band as well too, Miles Zuniga from Fastball, Brian Walsh of Soulhat, James Mann of Velvethead. We played at the Black Cat for a while Because Kevin and Conrad had played there with their bands.
I honestly never felt comfortable as Earthpig or Earthpig & Fire, but some people seemed to be entertained by it. I was always nervous before, during, and after every gig. Li’l Cap’n Travis I played keyboards and a little regular guitar. Those guys are doing pretty well in Austin, I hear. I made a video for them using demolition derby footage. I was never the best keyboard player, but I think I added some magic sometimes. Now they have a pedal steel player that is super good.
You once recorded a tune called “Pantyman.” Who or what inspired that song, and why does it thrill and give me the creeps simultaneously?
Nothing that I know of inspired it. I just used words that rhymed that went along with the rhythm—it all came out of the air. I don’t know why you respond the way you do. I wish I could come up with something.
Any plans in the works for films, bands, or photography sprees?
Conrad [Choucroun] and I live up here in New York. We plan on stuff for the future but we live too far away from each other to practice regularly.
Orville Davis is a guy that plays at the bar across from where I live on 204th and Broadway. Check out orvilledavis.com. He plays mostly classic country and some blues and honky tonk. I’m supposed to play with him at Bally’s Wild West Casino on August 24 in Atlantic City.
In November, I plan on destroying (via my patented $1-per-pop safe explosion technique I came up with while living in a mobile home out by Mnor,TX in 1990) a lot of the vintage televisions and mannequins I have in storage in Texas for one last beautiful highspeed camera-slow-motion montage with my music thing. You see, after that, I mean after I edit the last twelve years worth of photos together with film and digital video and the music I mean to compose for this thing, I believe I can move on and simplify my life and become a nice non-destructive, social, fun-loving person with nice things to add to other people’s lives.
These things have been haunting me for years and it’s about time to make the best thing I can (i.e. a film/video about what I’ve done all these years) and try to figure out why I’ve done it and if it was all worth it etc. etc. and try to move on and earn some money in the world and become a happy individual with a real purpose. Okay—whew! Stop the insanity.
Do you ever miss Texas?
I recently bought and am slowly restoring a very old house in a very small town between Austin and San Antone . . . How do you think I will fare here?
That sounds great. I’d love to do something like that. My parents live in Alpine now, out by Marfa and I like it out there. I’d like my own place. Good luck—I’m jealous. These Germans bought a town called LOBO out there for $20,000, they’re trying to make it into some kind of art village. Look it up on the internet.
Any suggestions for surviving the transition from urbania to Seguin?
No, just relax and settle in. A little boredom every now and then is good for the soul.
What do you think of basketball player Chucky Brown?
I know nothing of matters of this sort
I will conclude this interview in traditionalRash style. I’m thirsty. It’s Friday afternoon, 4:42 p.m. RC? Diet RC? Cherry RC? Pearl? Help.
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Sarah Klein is the editor of the Seguin Daily Newsin Seguin, Texas.
This article originally appeared at Rash Magazine