Billie Clarken: Eyeing the Cheese in the Trap

Interview /  October 2023

Billie Clarken: Eyeing the Cheese in the Trap 
by Jacob Barnes

Jacob Barnes: I know you, but can you please tell me a little bit about you and your practice?

Billie Clarken: I'm Billie Clarken and I am an American, Berlin-based artist. My work has been developed from a photography background, but it largely analyses the images that make up the culture that we're living in, its signs and symbols, and to examine how we create images beyond ourselves. I'm trying to use pop- and celebrity culture to consider representations of life and eternality (or by extension, immortality). Ultimately, my photography is often turned more into an installation of images, which recreates [some of] the frames in which images live in.

JB: I’m interested in knowing a little bit of your origin story: You grew up in Virginia and then you went on to [Virginia Commonwealth University), which is notable for its fine arts program. But then there was a gap between you graduating and you moving to Berlin and pursuing your MA. What was that interim period like?

BC: I was studying photography and working in fashion, interning for a fashion photographer in New York. A lot of his work was around the combination of documentary and commercial photography; he was my mentor, and with him, I was constantly facing this struggle regarding the lifespan of images, the narratives that are layered over fashion spreads, and how fast that cycle of imagery is. As soon as you created an artwork, in this case a fashion editorial, it would be swept up with the next issue or trend. I went to go see a Mike Kelley exhibition with [the fashion photographer] because he had gone to school with [Kelley]. I was so inspired by how grotesque and surreal and imaginative the narratives that Kelley created were. But they were tangible, and they lived longer than [other kinds of] images — they were like objects that had already lived a life before. He was revisiting imaginary trauma and associating stories with things that already existed. This felt close to what I was doing in fashion with clothes or prop design.

The photographer I was looking at the show with didn't really get it. I realised then that I wanted to make contemporary art with a kind of coded language that lived longer than glossy advertising images, or at least fashion images. So I finished school and moved to L.A.. I was always obsessed with L.A. because I was a huge Lauren Conrad fan, and of The Hills. I wanted to go to go be an intern at Teen Vogue, and that didn't work out for me, but I still needed to go to L.A. So I moved there and worked for a up-and-coming art gallery that was super successful at the time and. Through them, I had an opportunity to come to Berlin to do a pop-up, and I was starting to fall out of my love affair with Los Angeles, because I realised that the subject matter, specifically the celebrities I was using in my work, became a little too close. As in, it was harder for me to critique this imaginative, film set world when I was actually needing to function inside of. It felt like I was inside of the trap and that I couldn't really escape it and create meaningful art. So I was like, “Fuck L.A., let's go to Berlin.” I didn't know anything about Berlin or speak any German. I didn't know anybody here, but the second day I was here, I knew I was going to stay. I quit my job and just didn't come home.

JB: So you quit your job from afar and just stayed in Berlin?

: This gallery that I was working for in L.A. did a pop-up here for a month, so I was supposed only to be here for that time. Although I was an assistant director, I felt like starting over in Berlin was the right move for me.

It was a party [in Berlin]. I did artists assisting jobs and freelance photography; literally every job there was that I could get my hands on. I was also in German school. I ended up being in the position to be a photographer still, but having more freedom to do my art practice at the same time, which I didn't have the ability to do in either New York or L.A. [In New York and L.A.] you had to choose one thing and only do that thing. Berlin is a better place for making art for sure, because you have the space to make it in your mind.

JB: Yeah, 100%. I think that’s one of the great benefits of Berlin. I'm curious because your photography is still a major factor in your work, but you talk about this Mike Kelley exhibition that maybe unseated the primacy of photography as a medium for you. Can you tell me how you came into a more multidisciplinary approach?

: I was taking a lot of still life photography or making still life images in school while I was doing the fashion stuff. A lot of these still-lifes were very surreal; very Tumblr. It’s must have been around 2009; I got really, really Tumblr famous from this one image that ended up on the site. Someone reblogged it without crediting me, and it became so big that people printed it on shirts and used it for album covers and concert promotions. It was completely removed from me, and I realised that I had no control over a digital image. It lived a life of its own. So a now much of my practice is now based on trying to control one's image, not necessarily in the context of a piece of artistic property, but as in your own image, and how everything is photographed now. Your identity is essentially a culmination of digital material that has no leash on it. I was trying to then turn my interest in creating still lifes into something else — in many ways, the installation works still represent the same thing.

That’s to say, it evolved into a broader concentration on what images are, what sculptures are, and what truth is in creating a sculpture for an image or a sculpture for a museum that is eventually photographed. A spiral of trying to figure out what's permanent and what's ours.

: You had such a wide ranging body of work, and it seems like you've tried all of these different ideas. Do you still have things that you’ve pulled back from when the time wasn’t right?  You’ve made so many things that I’m eager to hear about what hasn’t been done.

: I mean, totally. I have so many. My professor used to call them “pies in the sky”, for when I got the right money and space. I mean, my museum show in 2022 was a good example of that – I got make these large sculptures I hadn’t had the opportunity for previously. I had drafted many of them maybe drafted six years ago, or I had had them in the back of my head as things that could be. But you can’t always have things of that size or nature in the studio: a bunch of couches and swing sets and smoke shelters. But that was part of why I really enjoyed prop houses as a photographer. Photo sets: choosing the look of how we’re going to present this narrative. I'd love to go to prop houses and look at things that could potentially be pertinent. I'm working on a film now that I'm really excited about, but. It takes the team to make something happen. When the right team comes together, that's when the big ideas come to be.

JB: Finally, how do you consider Berlin as an art context, and do you feel the city gives you what you need from it? Why is it a centre for art? What is it about the city that keeps bringing people?

: I'm having trouble answering that question more and more recently because it's becoming such a tech hub. I used to love Berlin because there was like no social media, there were no influencers, you couldn't take photos in clubs. I'd never experienced a place where photos were restricted other than like certain museums. I’ve always loved Hito Steyerl, (who being based here, was also a major reason I decided to stay in Berlin). I interpreted her thesis, 'to be invisible is to be unseen' and related texts to be how I found Berlin to be so enticing. That compared to America, I could really embrace the magic of invisibility and freedom from my own images. It felt like it was a haven for artists to live and create without creating as performance of itself. That’s not so much the case anymore, but it's still is a great place to be an artist because there are so many exhibitions to see, and it's very easy to connect with other artists. Yeah, the studio situation sucks and things are getting more expensive. But regardless, Berlin has more freedom and less pressure than other cities, while still maintaining a certain level of competition that continues to accelerate artists to pursue their vision, all while keeping the art community open and supportive.

Image Credits:

Image 1: Photo by Nicole Medvecka; Courtesy of Billie Clarken
2-4: Courtesy of Billie Clarken