Brooklyn-based artist and photographer Elizabeth Bick was trained in classical and modern dance, and her work frequently displays the influence of that education. The Yale MFA graduate has had her work shown recently at SPRING/BREAK art show and the University of Texas Visual Arts Center, and she is preparing for an upcoming solo exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography. In 2018, Bick was on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue photographing when she had a chance encounter with B. Hawk Snipes, sparking a friendship and artistic collaboration that continues to this day. B. Hawk and their mother can be seen in the photographer’s contribution to Public Art Fund’s Art on the Grid exhibition (through September 20), a group show featuring works by emerging artists on bus shelters and LinkNYC kiosks citywide, produced in response to the converging crises of the pandemic and systemic racism in our country. In this interview, Bick discusses how her art has changed since March and why it was important for her to work with B. Hawk again.
Can you describe how you created work during the shutdown? Did anything change for you? If so, how?
Elizabeth Bick: In the summer of 2014, I embarked on a decade-long work that requires me to travel annually to the Pantheon in Rome, Italy, every June on the summer solstice. Italy closed its borders to Americans this year after the pandemic struck, so it was impossible for me to be physically present. Instead I rented a camera at a local shop in Rome and solicited the help of two residents there to photograph with me over FaceTime. On the solstice, we worked as a team: one of them held the live video chat from the vantage points I requested and tapped the other when I said to take a picture with the rented camera. I also photographed my computer screen of the FaceTime session at the exact time I said to take the picture. The basilica was nearly empty, with only a rare figure masked and gloved.
I made a composite of a photograph I made over FaceTime and a photograph taken at the same time. The result is an eerie, spaceless reality, somewhere between low-fi internet static and a well-made picture.
Also, in March, I traveled to Houston to escape the escalating situation in NYC and visit my family. There I made a choreographed piece of my mother and father. I asked them to perform in head-to-toe medical-grade pandemic-protective clothes. We created a score in which they measured six feet with a measuring tape. Following that, my father, who is just short of six feet tall, in his seventies and susceptible to bronchial illness, lay on the ground in a corpselike pose. The term six feet has often been connected to burials, and has now taken on a double meaning—on the one hand a distance that prevents us from getting illl; on the other, the depth of bodies buried underground. The resulting work is a multiframe piece.
How has New York City informed your work? Has that changed in recent months?
EB: After returning to New York City in early April, I saw this period as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to photographically respond to the state of the City. I find the visual landscape to be fascinating in the way that it is rapidly transforming daily, from the boarded-up architecture and the emptiness of what was once a visually chaotic urban environment to the anonymous masked faces braving the streets. I feel a great need to photograph as we transform into a new and stronger city that I very much hope survives this global pandemic.
As a contributor to Art on the Grid, how do you hope your work will be perceived? What thoughts or emotions would you like to evoke in the viewer?
EB: As an artist who studies physical presentation and movement in public, I’ve seen a sharp shift in the pedestrian space since these crises emerged. Since the pandemic, racial injustice and social unrest, in combination with the multitude of systemic inequities in our country, have been brought to the forefront and altered our public gestures. I have noticed the externalization of physical bodies conveying a great deal of fear, anger and dread. I wanted to counter this mood with an image that is tender and warm.
I approached B. Hawk and their mother, Mary Snipes, for this image, as they are two people I have been photographing for the last two years. After candidly photographing B. Hawk on the street in 2018, then approaching them, they have become the subject and final component to a work of mine entitled Movement Studies. The work centers around B. Hawk’s public and private life as they transition from identifying as a gay man to a nonbinary femme trans activist.
The impact of public art is in its public nature. As such, public works invite an unanticipated audience and a democratization of looking. I thought it important that I use this commission to once again work with B Hawk and to make a beautiful image of a native New Yorker and their mother who have grace, beauty and pride.
What has given you hope and sustained you over the last few months?
EB: The theme has been quality over quantity, slowness over quickness. This is counter to typical life in New York City, and a state of being I was not accustomed to before I was confronted with so much uninterrupted time. I find the recent quietude of New York City calming. It is a period for reflection, organization and planning ahead. I’ve reconfigured my studio in Williamsburg, slowly and with purpose. I’ve also revisited some works that were set aside for various reasons. Finally, I’ve connected with close friends and colleagues to discuss the issues we face and foster deeper connections.
For more information on the artist, visit erbick.com.