Conversation with Christopher Motta

NWAA Member Christopher Motta is an emerging artist based in Fall River, MA. Over the past 7 years his photographic work has been exhibited throughout the United States. In 2011 selections of his work were included in Constructed Spaces: Contemporary Color Photography at the Academy Art Museum (Easton, MD), a survey of works that also included Andreas Gursky, Edward Burtynsky, Robert Rauschenberg, William Christenberry and William Eggleston. Currently Motta teaches Photography at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth and is an active Visiting Critic of photography throughout New England institutions.

Christopher’s long term project 26.2 : Meditations will be exhibited at the NWAA in May 2012. 26.2 : Meditations examines the link between topographical mapping, movement, and mind, i.e. how consciousness shapes movement and it’s relation to physical systems that simultaneously dictate direction and posture. This project explores these concepts by plotting the actual Boston Marathon course. Coinciding with the exhibition, participants from the Delaware chapter of Girls on the Run will create and present their personal meditations on running in Wilmington.

26.2 : Meditations is an exhibition developed through Active For the Arts, an NWAA initiative which encourages the relationship between athletics, active culture and creative thinking.

Recently we spoke with Christopher Motta about his work and his experiences.

Where are you from and how did you initially get involved in the arts?

I grew up in Westport, a coastal town in southern Massachusetts.  My mother studied art, taught art for a few years before starting her own business, as well, my oldest brother paints, and early in my life my dad designed and built our house.  So I guess I grew up with creative expression.  I recall my mother always made photographs with her Nikon FM2, which I later acquired.  I had no real intuition for artistic expression early in life, where I took one studio art class during my undergraduate education, and had no thoughts about photography until the end of my bachelor’s degree.  The allure happened very quickly, I made pictures while studying outdoor education with the National Outdoor Leadership School in the Rocky Mountains.  That was when I first felt compelled to document an experience, and became aware of the gap between direct experience and photographic documentation.

Where did you attend school? What were those experiences like and how did they form your current practice?

I received a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts, and an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art.  In undergrad, I dabbled in Buddhist studies at Amherst College, along with other yogic and spiritual philosophy.  I was drawn to philosophy in general, in an effort to develop a practical ideology for living my life. And I suppose it was a similar attraction to the photographic medium; where pictures connect directly to life events, document experiences, yet trigger theoretical posturing and conversation.  In grad school I hoped to activate my theoretical background, but needed to work on my craft, so that’s mainly where I focused for the second half of my grad school experience.  It seems that my thinking is still philosophical/psychological, but the delivery is much more deliberate, rather than abstracted.

Much of your work deals with sequence and multiples, often approaching a “radial” understanding of events, place and community. Though often visually mundane as individual images, this process infuses your works with a sense of continual, evolutionary redefinition. How do you conceptualize activating still images through this nearly filmic methodology? 

My early work was largely informed by film theory, or at least direct visual narrative in the form of sequence and image within image layering.  Artists such as Duane Michals, Michael Snow, and Ed Ruscha were influential.  Ideas were contained within a cyclical format, the narrative felt linear yet the viewer entered in the midst of the story, where they might be unsure when it started and when it ends, a “thrown” into the middle of the story type feeling.  I still have thoughts about how to activate this thinking now, possibly using video, but I’m somehow discovering a connection to the literal/clearly defined image as of late, using more direct metaphor/photographic practice.

Your ongoing series “Untitled Surf Project” documents a vibrant, but perhaps unknown, micro-community organized through a shared interest in surfing costal New England. How did you arrive at this project? Do you see any connections or parallels between this close, active micro-community and the creative communities you have been a part of?

I had been thinking about documenting the small surf community in and around where I grew up, for several years.  I suppose I hesitated for concern of where surf oriented imagery would fit into my creative thinking.  Some of what has always stayed with me from various conversations about artistic process is the notion of honesty as it relates to work.  The risk of making for any artist is to realize his/her ideas within a medium, yet somehow be present in the work otherwise it may feel contrived or detached.  I am active in my personal life, running, climbing, and connected to surfing, so I decided to just go out in the surf community and shoot. I have always felt it quite rewarding to give myself the latitude to document freely, not tethered to some grandiose concept, instead allow for a narrative or visual thread to trigger some emotional/psychological response.  I believe that there are similarities between active connections and more artful/academic communities that I’ve been a part of.  It seems usual for people to rally around an activity or idea, a process that connects them to themselves in some way, builds a community of support.  These aspects are the same be it art or rock climbing.

The photographic image has almost always existed in balance between “truth” and “lie”, and perhaps even more so today with the advent and ease of digital manipulation. How does your background in philosophical inquiry inform your use of a medium that over its maturation has “blurred” its initial role as a vehicle for empirical information?

What I love about photography is that it still moves between it’s historical usage as a purveyor of truth, given it continues to sell products, document and expose worldly events, to the more subversive roles it takes on in the art world/theoretical conversations. The ontology of the photograph, i.e. “what is a photograph?” has been a primary thought form and influences everything I do photographically.  I don’t always find that my work reveals an ontological line of questioning, but the reality of a photograph still remain the question that I have in mind, and presupposes everything I do with photography.

Many of your projects are distinctly connected to concepts associated with lifestyle. Are there components of your personal life or experiences that you feel directly inform this interest?

The term lifestyle in relation to photography is a little slippery, where many commercial shooters use that term to represent branding between activity and product.  So I am uncomfortable with that term, and prefer to consider my work within a more abstract category, or risk losing value.  I’m not selling a product, be it running shoes or the beauty/cool factors associated with being a surfer.  I have my own reasons for living an active lifestyle, making food choices, clothing choices based entirely upon interest and comfort, values.  As I mentioned earlier about honesty, I find it most useful to reference my life directly, and use it to inform my work.  I studied philosophy to provide insights into my life, it was practical for me, and I don’t think that my creative life need be different.  It’s useful to interact with my interests and curiosities, probe into the inner workings of what drives my values, shapes them.

“26.2 : Meditations” is a project that presents a meditative exploration and visual record of the legendary course route of the Boston Marathon. While creating this project you physically walked the 26.2 mile course numerous times over varying seasons – without its famous spectators, television cameras and fanfare. How did your initial intentions evolve through this habitual solitary experience? What do you perceive the emotional or psychological difference is between the act of walking the route versus running it?

I have a good sense of the psychology of a runner, having been a runner now for many years.  Although when I first started shooting the Boston route it was an interesting perceptual shift from what I typically focus on while running.  I had to go out several times for longer distances, because initially I would shoot 3 miles or so at a time, and that simply was not long enough.  Like running, making photographs has a pace and I found that walking the full length offered a more consistent running perspective.  Also, the way my energy changed while walking the entire length of the marathon, shooting the whole way, by mile 12 I was pretty tired, having been shooting for 4 plus hours, just constant looking and seeing, exploring the peripheral terrain, framing constantly.  For days after shooting, I would be visually framing everything around me, which was an interesting result.  It was a similar perceptual adjustment to that of an all day climb, where coming back down to a horizontal experience would feel strange, as the looking up and moving up vertically left a deep impression after hours of climbing.

To comment about my creative thinking in general, and how it relates to this project, thinking back, I have been interested in perception since my early philosophy study, and that’s probably the challenge for me, to translate visually ideas of how we perceive the world around us.  So much of my work recently deals with movement, physical space, and the connect/disconnect of a body moving through an environment, where the mind interprets/frames that experience and later recalls.   I am perhaps most curious about the space in between where we are aware and unaware, most often known as the unconscious, as understood through Freud and Jung.  I recognize the basic psychology as referenced through popular historical understanding of the unconscious, and to be consistent with the theories themselves, I’m sure I have been influenced by them in some way.  What I am more curious about is the spiritual implications connected to the conversation of awareness/consciousness.  I consider the act of running a reference for a higher more mindful experience, where the body is preoccupied with a simple/natural movement, and the mind is allowed to spill out it’s contents.  These are beginning stages or aspects of meditation, and dreaming for that matter, where the body is occupied with base brain activity, and this allows the mind to focus or release.   

Thanks for taking the time to illuminate your practice. We are looking forward to sharing 26.2 : Meditations with the community of Wilmington.
Of course. Thanks for hosting the project. It will be interesting to see the area running and arts communities connecting at the NWAA.

(All images: Christopher Motta)

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