In Conversation With: Laurel Johannesson

Laurel Johannesson is a Calgary-based artist who uses technology and photography to create synthetic spaces that evoke the mystery and unpredictability of natural phenomena. Her photographic-based works use moving, generative, interactive, and still images to create “simulations” of scenes and landscapes that primarily explore temporality.

Her current series, Situations, explore beautiful yet uncanny landscapes that are combinations of celestial bodies with her own body on shorelines in Greece. Inspired by the “day for night” filmmaking technique, Johannesson reinterprets our understanding of what it means to inhabit a liminal space and how photography can break down the barriers of physical reality in favor of a psychological landscape. 

Emerald Arguelles: How did you begin photographing?

Laurel Johannesson: I was obsessed with cameras as a child. I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t have a camera. I started taking photography lessons with a very generous photographer when I was around eight or nine and later ended up as his assistant while I was in high school and university. However, all during this time, I was mainly using photography as an investigative tool.

EA: What helped you find your style and how did it evolve?

LJ: I suppose it was just a natural progression and accumulation of technical, conceptual, and philosophical information. 

I’ve always had an interest in technology, and early on, that technology came in the form of SLR cameras and photo-based print techniques. I’d spend a lot of time setting up scenarios, using myself as a subject, just experimenting with the camera. I have a background in painting and drawing. In fact, the majority of my undergraduate studies were in these areas, along with my main focus, printmaking. Almost subconsciously, photography often, if not always, played a role in the prints, paintings, and drawings that I was producing. Then, at the beginning of my master’s degree, I started working with computer technology, and I was quite nervous about it. It just wasn’t very accepted amongst printmakers at that time, and I had been labeled a printmaker. Then I went to the Royal College of Art, and I received such great support and encouragement there, and I felt free to pursue this tool that was so attractive to me. 

Ultimately, the various modes of production that I’ve investigated over the years—painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, and computer technology—all work together to realize my still images, moving images, and interactive moving images. 

For many years, I’ve also been researching philosophies of temporality and their relationship to art and technology. These ideas show up in the work in both a technical sense and also in the concept. Looking into these theories led to my thinking about the beach as a liminal site. 

Cinema has also affected how I construct an image, in the sense of developing a series of images that work together as a non-linear narrative. I also want the scene to feel familiar but at the same time foreign. I play with light and space to elicit a sense of the uncanny. Something that I believe that I was attracted to as a child while watching films. I can recall suddenly becoming aware that the otherworldly night scene on the screen was actually shot in daylight using the ‘day for night’ technique. Although I don’t use this exact technique, I do employ the aesthetic experience of it.

EA: How has your environment impacted your work?

LJ: I can think of my environment in a few different ways:

First, I’m part of a very academic environment. So, I’m constantly discussing concepts, the theoretical, the philosophical. It creeps into my work in all sorts of unexpected ways. 

Second, I live in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. The vastness of the space is almost overwhelming and can provide interesting ways of thinking about and perceiving time, light, and expansiveness. 

Finally, I long for the sea, and I spend a lot of time in Greece or Italy. That is where the origin of the work begins. The obscure locations that I choose are usually challenging to reach, and frequently I’ll be led on a journey to a hidden spot out of a chance meeting with someone. I’ve also been fortunate to be an artist in residence at a number of institutions in Greece, Italy, Iceland, and France. Each one has provided a doorway to some new temporal experience with the landscape, and its surrounding waters.

EA: Can you discuss your introduction to Greek mythology?

LJ: I’m not sure I can pinpoint when I was introduced to Greek mythology. Perhaps sometime during grade school but more likely, and with more impact, through looking at art. Titian painted Danae, Hercules, Bacchus and Ariadne, and many other mythological narratives. Picasso spent years exploring and obsessing over the centaur and the minotaur. Yayoi Kusama gave us the Narcissus Garden. 

However, it was later, when I first visited Greece, that the idea of myth and legend really connected with me. I was amazed at how alive mythology and storytelling are there. I really fell in love with this idea of accessing mythology to aid in the desire that humans have to explain our exterior and interior worlds: the battle of good and evil, or our otherwise inexplicable feelings of love or desire. These stories provide a form of reasoning for the unreasonable or inexplicable. They could perhaps explain our longing to forget or our inability to remember. For example, Lethe was one of the five rivers of the underworld. Also known as the river of unmindfulness, the Lethe flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the underworld, where all those who drank from it experienced forgetfulness. 

Recently, I’ve been reading about some episodes of collective dreaming that have occurred on the island of Naxos over the past two hundred years. It’s a fascinating tale of temporality. All dreams are curious specimens of temporality, and I’m sure these island dreamers will play a part in some future work. Notions of oblivion, forgetting, dreaming, and remembering are very evocative concepts for me, and each of these abstractions is prevalent in mythological narratives. Perhaps, at a certain point, you start to create your own personal mythology.

EA: How did Situations come about?

LJ: After many years of underwater photography, I noticed that I was becoming more and more interested in what was happening on the shoreline, the liminal space of the beach. So, with an ongoing interest in temporality, I produced a series of works entitled The Oblivion Seekers. In The Oblivion Seekers, I was exploring the concept of oblivion or forgetfulness. Remember the waters of Lethe and the cave of Hypnos? 

Toward the end of this project, I was invited as an artist in residence at Palazzo Monti in Brescia, Italy. There I began working on the Tondi per Palazzi series, where I started employing some digital collage as well as my usual hand-painted layering techniques.

At the beginning of 2020, I was starting to plan a return to the Aegean to explore some new ideas. Then the pandemic hit, and travel was out of the question. So, instead, I returned to what I already had on hand, archives full of source images that I’ve shot over the past ten years. The collage work I had been doing at Palazzo Monti on the previous series provided a natural progression. Now, with Situations, I comb through folders and files, like a memory bank, deconstructing and reconstructing spaces out of real and imagined scenarios. It’s like a strange form of time travel. The memory of the place becomes the reality of my mind. I’m immersed in the place while I’m there, reacting to the elements, the sharpness of the rocky shoreline, the negative ions, but a transformation continues when I revisit the image back in the studio. I’m once more immersed in the location, but this time with a memory of the place that is triggered by studying every detail of the photograph. Sometimes, I find things that I didn’t initially see, and that sets off another narrative. The finished image is a psychological landscape.

EA: What is your connection to water and why did you decide to use it in this body of work?

LJ: I can’t entirely explain my natural connection to water. It’s innate. I definitely believe in the “blue mind” theory. Swimming and diving have long been a part of my life, and I feel most comfortable either near, in, on, or underwater. I started making work about the temporality of the beach after many years of underwater photography. For a long time, I was totally focused on the perception of suspended time when you are underwater. However, over the years, I began to notice people at the seaside and how they stare at the water, seemingly mesmerized. There is often something in their posture and expression that conveys longing—or that I interpret as longing—for something unreachable or unknowable.

EA: What inspired the decision to get in front of the camera?

LJ: For as long as I can remember, I have used myself in a lot of my work. I suppose it started in those early days of exploring what the camera could do. Using myself to experiment with motion, timers, long exposures and so on. I’ve always been comfortable using my own body as a subject, perhaps due to many years of dance training and swimming. Now, with Situations, the images are so much about my perceptions or deconstructions and reconstructions of the experience of a place that it seems to be somewhat necessary. I do occasionally use others when the terrain or elements warrant, but those “others” are ultimately a stand-in or proxy for myself.

EA: Who has inspired you in your journey?

LJ: Inspiration can come from unexpected sources and sometimes in covert ways. Some wonderful teachers and professors, many artists, my students, people who encouraged me, people who discouraged me, strangers that I’ve crossed paths with in my travels, and, of course, the people that I love.

EA: What advice would you give other artists/photographers?

LJ: Stay curious.

EA: What would you like people to take away from your work?

LJ: Perception is not the same from one viewer to the next, and beyond that, each viewer’s perception of work is a step removed from the artist’s intention. I can only make the work and hope that it resonates in some way with someone, somewhere. Our experiences and perceptions of solitude, aloneness, euphoria, desire, vulnerability, strength, oblivion, longing, passion, discomfort, and so on are all unique. We can only recognize the sensation that resonates with us from our own point of view or perhaps on a subconscious level. The somewhat apocalyptic language in Situations is open to interpretation. As the viewer makes their way through the unfolding series of images, they create their own narrative based on what’s in front of them. I can only offer my constructed imagery and let the viewer examine and determine if it connects with their sensations.

To view more of Laurel Johannesson’s work please visit their website.