December 24, 1983
Pago Pago, American Samoa
Raised in Kentucky, USA
School in Ohio and Chicago
Currently lives in Chicago, Illinois, USA
Interested in the ways in which we accumulate. Interested in power, in how power is manifested, in how we consciously and unconsciously materially represent ourselves in the world and in how we connect with the world around us.
Interested in Autopoiesis and the Electric Universe.
Heavy leanings towards socially engaged practice and performative actions recorded with a camera.
Interested in Queer identity, and the implications of queering as a practice which is ultimately connected to ideas of Decolonization.
Interested in astrological systems as ways of stepping into discursive forms predicated upon the universal within the highly subjective.
Affinity in the Tall Grasses of California
In 1996 Cannabis was legalized in California for “Compassionate Use.” Patients had formed collectives connected with doctors who were advocating for its usage for people with chronic health problems. Those suffering from AIDS were directly helped by Cannabis, in some cases because the medicine they were taking to heal was actually making them sicker and Cannabis helped that.
Today it is still considered a federal offense to possess or use, despite over half of the states having legalized it. I have taken pictures of my own experience cultivating and interacting with Cannabis over the course of several years. The work intentionally avoids the representation of people and communities directly, in the interest of not wanting to potentially endanger anyone involved. Ultimately the images are poetic contemplations shot in an evidence-based format which are interested in the beauty of a plant long maligned by power.
It is maligned because it is powerful, and beautiful, and asks the people who take what it offers to reconsider the oppressive systems which we navigate daily.
Could you lend us some insight on how you came to pursuing this project?
Accidents, boredom, being queer, and a psychic. And sexual attraction if I’m being honest.
What are your earliest perceptions of marijuana? Did you imagine that your artistic practice would intertwine so much with this substance?
DARE to keep a kid off drugs had me thinking that your brain was an egg and that smoking weed turned you into a skater and destroyed your soul. But eventually, I realized that it’s not drugs, but capitalism that does that. I think I was 15 or 16 when I realized this? But I knew early on that plants aren’t bad. Basically ever. They can’t be.
As for my artist practice, I tend to start with something kind of documentary and then use those images as entryways into more conceptual stuff. I’m interested in using the creation of art to create access points for the world that I already live in. We can be living in the same house and be living in different worlds, you know? The art is then a node, like a little receptor that allows us to connect with each other, the artist, the ideas. I also think all of us are a bit like little centrifuges, like stars with a kind of gravity that pulls at the debris. Quantum physics is pointing towards consciousness as the attractor for this debris. The ethical and existential implications are enormous, but basically, I find this at the very most basic interesting. That being said, I never had a day where I thought “I am going to work with Cannabis.” But my work is predicated on thinking about the ways in which the natural world is an access point for the divine, and this is incredibly palpable with a plant like Cannabis. The way we trash land, we trash ourselves. And I see it as connected, intimately to trauma, which is connected deeply to history and the ongoing traumas of disconnection. My practice considers ways in which we can transform our relationships to the natural world as a gateway to transforming our relationships to each other, and vice-versa in these positive feedback loops. So Cannabis is kind of a shoo-in. It’s a plant which transforms our relationship to space and to the world around us and can help us find the beauty when sometimes we maybe fear that we can’t. It’s a pressure release in a world which is pressurized. I believe it’s here to do work, and I’m looking forward to continuing to doing work with it.
Can you briefly describe how the Medical Cannabis Movement began, and the individuals who are currently working on these farms?
Cannabis was criminalized first on the heels of racist anxieties about immigration between WWI and WWII. People living and dying with AIDS had a kind of chronic wasting effect from the virus. Nobody was really sure why this was happening. So they were losing a lot of weight mysteriously and on top of that, the cocktails of meds, sometimes up to 20 pills a day, were actually killing people faster than the virus in some cases. The mixtures were really hard on the digestive system and made holding down food next to impossible. Very loosely put, consuming Cannabis in some way – usually smoking – allowed the pain to subside and allowed the appetite to return. It also improved the mental states of patients and was found to even have medical benefits in fighting the cancers associated with HIV infection. It was the Queer community which realized this first, as it was the Queer community which was hit first and hardest by the epidemic. Patient collectives formed, and medical doctors got on board in San Francisco. People launched direct action campaigns, literally setting up scenarios which were intended to get themselves arrested and thus take the case to court in the pursuit of a lawsuit or a legal case which could legalize pot. Eventually, through a series of said interactions, a bill was opposed – Proposition 215 – which advocated for the legalization of medical Cannabis. And it passed.
There has been so much historical antagonism and fear towards LBGTQ individuals, and, thankfully, many contemporary efforts to remove these negative stigmas. How do you think your photographs of the Medical Cannabis farms will create a greater sense of cultural acceptance towards these communities?
I’m not interested in using the camera to elicit sympathy. It’s not what is on my mind when I am making the images. I’m interested in an important piece of history, and of Queer and Trans history, being on record and it being very clear that it’s coming to me, so it’s not like an objective fact-based history. It’s my own take on the thing. For me, though, I am interested in the layout of the place and the time. Light bounced off of this. It was there. It looked like this. Beyond that, I’m interested in communicating ideas visually, about portraying relationships to power visually. And about the fact that this important connector in my life will one day be more mechanized and thus the fabric of the community will change.
History will default to the story told and agreed to by whoever was in power, and that’s usually determined by the people in power before them. There are things that carry over despite what things might change. I am dreaming of horizontality. I want it to be remembered that AIDS legalized Cannabis, to hold the fact that it was years of suffering, of unfair incarceration which targeted black and brown people the most that were consciously used by power to hold up power. It was queer brilliance and resistance which legalized Cannabis. Washington and Colorado are sending citizens money just because so much has been generated from Cannabis. This is because of actions that are taken BY the Queer community. I want straight people to know this, and to talk about it, and to celebrate this fact and be grateful.
Can you explain your decision to interweave performative and documentary images of people working on the farms? How does the inclusion of your physical presence within the photographs impact this body of work?
Queer culture is performative. We have drag, we have camp, we’re all up in the theaters historically, we chewed up the idea of gender as real and put it on. We perform. So having the images be documentary-style but also performative feels true to life not only for the Queer community but also for life in general, as in some ways I feel that conceptually within Queerness: everyone is queer. In practice, though, if you claim queer as an identity but you have no participation in the sexual culture or practices which made anyone ever “queer” or gay or lesbian or whatever, then I’m suspicious. I am suspicious of what it means to you and why you would say you are queer (the noun) versus being interested in queering (the verb). I’m also, beneath all of this, not very much interested in thinking of labels as real. They are important, but I’m not attached to any of this thinking. My moon is Virgo so I get off on thinking about these things.
“Documentary” is not actually scientific, especially not anymore. It served an important role as evidence once upon a time and allowed people but nowadays it’s a different kind of photography which does this.
At first, I just thought the pictures would be cute like 20 years in the future for posterity. You know, “this is so and so 20 years ago when they were just a little baby and etc…” Then I started to hear about the history of the stuff and thinking that, at least for me, it was a story that I didn’t want to get lost in the dust OR, perhaps worse, retold by someone who was going to get it wrong. Not to say that I was going to get it right, and I don’t know if I have even gotten close. But I know what my story is, and when I look at the images and that’s always the best place to start I think, with your own experience. I don’t really want to use the camera to represent anybody besides myself anymore unless we are both very consciously making an image. It’s both ethical to some extent and also just practical – I am actually quite bad at keeping up with that kind of thing. People changing their contact info and whatnot. It’s just a mess. Me putting myself in the image, in that case, gives me more control and lets me do more. But if it’s just me it’s boring. The beautiful part is the community. So I struggle with that I guess.
You have been working on this project since 2011- can you reflect upon how your photographs and insight into these farming cultures have matured and changed over the years?
I saw a post on Facebook recently that said: “The point is not that radical content requires radical forms, but that our lives demand it.” I think I’ve been really dissatisfied with the creation of images. All the backstory on the image, all of my emotional investment in the image *I* took, nobody cares about that. And it’s unfair to think they could, or should. I think for awhile I wanted to Queer the way that we approach and look at images but ultimately what i feel like I was doing was being really selfish, and self-centered, which doesn’t really Queer our way of looking or using the camera. We are, at least historically and theoretically, one big family. I want to make pictures in a way that does that. Dunno if I do or not really.
The other things I am thinking about in this way are that my original interests in photography and photographers were people who used images almost like evidence. I got a grant last summer to go back to California and continue making this work and used that time to also begin making a video. This idea has grown into a desire to make a feature-length film, which is something I have never done but have an enormous energy for. Shooting began last summer, continued into the fall, and is going to pick back up this summer. I am looking to release a limited edition self-published book in about a week which will hopefully get more folks looking at the work who might be interested in helping to fund the film.
To see more of Whit’s work, please visit his website. His series, “Affinity in the Tall Grasses of California,” will be on view at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, IL from November 15, 2016 – February 26, 2017. Whit will also be exhibiting his work at the Satellite Art Show in conjunction with Art Basel Miami 2016 later this year.
You can also support the completion of Whit’s new body of work and his exhibition at the Satellite Art Show here.