Straight Talk and Just the Facts: an informal review of the Tahoe CoLab Retreat
The following is a series of reflections and critiques of the 2017 SPE Southwest and West chapter CoLab Retreat at Lake Tahoe from students and faculty at Pitzer College: Tarrah Krajnak (professor), Elizabeth Lee Freedman (undergraduate student), and Abigail Taubman (recent graduate).
Tarrah: Always drive to the regional. Always bring at least 3 students. Bring snacks. Leave the hotel as much as possible. Get up really early. Eat the breakfast. Get the free drinks.
Lizzy: Bring hard copies of your work to show and share! As a student, spend ample time listening. Look at more large bodies of water. Annually remind yourself of the spirit and power that lies in our landscape, maybe bi-annually. Only pack one pair of pants. If there is an opportunity during a presentation to be the volunteer participant, say yes.
Abigail: Embark early armed with donuts. Stop for bathrooms, tacos, and true natural phenomena. Leave the hotel frequently. Avoid conference drama. Embrace the free bar. Go on a baby hike — swim if you can. Always be ready for a snow.
Am I changed?
Tarrah: Just the smell of the pine trees changed my life. Road tripping is good for the soul. My students are amazing. They give me hope amidst these terrible times. Yes, these are terrible times. The Lake was so blue. Algae apparently. The 15 minute presentations were the highlight for me. They all made collaboration look so easy though. Mother daughters, lovers, friends, ghosts. Gazelle’s collaboration seemed most interesting to me– ghosts and poets. What is written on the land? What do we owe the dead? Lizzy also made a case for collaboration with ghosts. I wish someone had talked about when collaboration fails. My artist friend Liz Phillips once told me that “to collaborate is to give up.” I still believe this. I believe that when collaboration fails and we are pushed to the point of the irreparable, then maybe we have truly collaborated.
Lizzy: So many different representations of collaboration were discussed, but I agree that I would have been interested to hear a less sugar-coated anecdote about collaboration. The discussion groups I was a part of took a first step towards illustrating the complexities of photography as it relates to identity, collaboration, and ethics. These conversations were so important for me to sit in on. In some moments, they validated my own experience as an artist. In other moments, they challenged my perception of the intimacies of photography and the arts as a profession.
Abigail: The strange drive from flat, arid Carson City to Lake Tahoe — that vast sparkling blue encircled by watchful conifers was so unexpected, and thrilling. The temperature dropped a few degrees every mile, settling somewhere just below freezing. Maybe it would actually snow. Outside the car was like being buried under freshly felled wet pines. Overwhelming. The drive is what remains the most, the places it provided. Several artists, like Ariel, discussed the importance of the banal, how a seemingly mundane moment can lead to the most unexpected and important, and possibly your next art piece. SPE’s most powerful moments occur during the unscheduled and empty.
Tarrah: Social engagement is not for me. I’m not sure how much the work serves the community vs how much the community serves the work. I also kept thinking only a man can really pull this off. I’m not sure how much I need a community. I think my students need community, but I need space. I need mental space and quiet. Tahoe at 5:30am was good for this. On the way home, a confederate flag hung above the door frame in a bar in Lone Pine. My students didn’t notice it right away. I did. These are terrible times.
Lizzy: It was an incredibly encouraging and engaging experience to be a presenter this year! As an undergrad, I was so appreciative of how SPE nurtured my empowerment as an artist and professional development. I cannot express enough how important I think it is to involve yourself in organizations like SPE as a college student. Practicing simple gestures like filling out applications, creating bios, and developing a way to “elevator pitch” your practice to other working artists is incredibly valuable experience! To add on to Tarrah, students need to learn how to navigate and work in communities outside of their close-knit college programs. This is evermore so important in these terrible times, where we are occasionally isolated from the realities of our landscape by our institutional “bubbles”.
Abigail: I really enjoyed the 15 minute presentations, and wish there had been more. I enjoy listening to my peers, and even though that setting is formal it can be helpful, as Lizzy says, to work out and ‘pitch’ ideas that way to actually understand what’s going on. Sometimes complex projects don’t come across in casual dinner conversation. I thought Ariel, Lizzy, Kristen, Cintia and Gazelle had the strongest, and most nuanced understandings of collaboration, and in several cases the most sophisticated, subtle, and contemporary visions of photography that I’ve ever seen at SPE. I fully support more presenters whose work pushes the traditional photograph toward performance and photo poetics. More experimentation, more breaking the ‘rules’!
Regional vs National
Lizzy: Regional — I was able to attend every event! The chaos of conference hotels can be so off-putting. I think it can entirely depend on the theme though. For me, it was amazing to get to know the breadth of ways people conceive of and reference collaboration in their practice! I could envision this being successful at a slightly smaller scale national conference.
Abigail: National/regional — I enjoy SPE because it takes me out of my community and into one where I am an outsider. I observed at this conference that many people feel the opposite in that members return to SPE for its unique community (where many feel ‘at home’), as it is fostered through conferences and events. The national allows me to be both familiar and unfamiliar with its large crowds, chaotic schedule, and many events. I love the diversity of speakers at the national too. With that said, the regional is extremely unique and probably more memorable as an entire event. If I was a professor, I’d probably choose to bring my students to the regional given its format, locations, size, etc.