Cloaked in a rhetoric of commercial promise, Joseph Desler Costa’s pictures appear, with glossy sheen, fresh off an assembly line. At first glance they present a seemingly impenetrable surface of salesmanship, a mere costuming over the artist’s searching through his own memory for products of promise that have shaped his upbringing. Costa finds an inseparable link between aesthetics and desire, allowing his own pictures to succumb to that aesthetics as a means to reveal the inner workings of them. In his pictures, consumer staples like Nike shoes and McDonald’s fries are mixed with sparse fragments of recreated memories rendered with foggy vagueness. What Costa produces is a masquerade of a masquerade, subverting the idealist promise of commerce and blending memory and desire into hypnotic echo of an echo of the real. What things may satisfy us? What convinces us of their satisfying qualities? How do pictures sell things, or inversely, how can a picture not help but be an advertisement for itself? And what of our own desire really belongs to us, and what has been implanted via the stealthy pointy end of a well-made picture?
Dream Date, the title of Costa’s solo exhibition at ClampArt, opened on March 5th, 2020 and has been sadly cut short due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The following conversation began via email shortly after stay-at-home orders were placed in New York City.
Gregory Eddi Jones: So I want to talk about your current exhibition at ClampArt called Dream Date. To start, what inspired the title of the show?
Joseph Desler Costa: As I was making the work, I began to realize it was about this idealized and smoothed out mix of nostalgia, visual memory and desire. A lot of those memories are from my teenage years, and as was I thinking back, this very teen idea of imagining a perfect partner or activity you might do with someone came to mind. We live in a world where everything is curated around us and for us—algorithms curate social media and news feeds to our tastes which in turn influence our future tastes. We’re caught in this circle where we seek out and expect perfection—an ideal partner, place, job and life.
Idealized and imagined reality leave little room for what is actually happening. This is the way that way advertising works, so rather than fight this, I thought, why not embrace it and let it creep into the pictures.
I also realized it’s become more difficult for me to remember things or events from past without looking through the warped media and commercial lenses that we are coerced into using to look at the present. I’m afraid I can’t remember my life accurately, just in the same way I can’t remember phone numbers anymore. I can’t even masturbate without looking at my phone. Do I lack the imagination or am I lazy?
Everything is done for us. Imaginations are dulling because they don’t get the same workout they used to before the internet ran everything. Dreams are provided on-demand, and maybe that works backwards in time as well as forwards. Dream date also refers to a time before the internet, perhaps when dreaming and remembering were easier.
GEJ: I can fully relate to what you’re saying. It’s really difficult to rationalize the sheer volume of images we consume that make promises of something better, cleaner, more orderly, and more beautiful than real life experience. And it’s even more difficult to understand just how this condition shapes our psyche and sense of desire. It’s a condition brought on by commercial photography and the role it plays in sort of re-mapping contemporary life with a heightened idealism. Commerce is now performing our dreams for us, dictating what we should be striving for, but they are ultimately more perverse, less imaginative, and spiritually empty. Your pictures seem to succumb to that emptiness, but in a subversive sort of way.
I really connect with your work because of this, and because you’re using tools and aesthetics of commercial images in almost a mechanical way. They are human-less photographs in a sense. Or maybe renditions of an imagined kind of automation in commercial image production, pictures that are more machine than man. Am I reading into these pictures accurately?
JDC: That’s spot on. I’ve always striven to make my images look like they been machine-made. The final photographs (or products) after they’re laser cut, printed on high-gloss aluminum, mounted and framed, look like they’ve rolled off a factory assembly line. A photograph is infinitely reproducible, so why not produce them to feel that way?
I grew up in post-industrial Pittsburgh, where although most of the factories were closed, the idea of industrial production was all around me. Also, when you’re from Pittsburgh, there is always Warhol, who believed making a unique work of art was impossible and considered art making a sort of consumer production.
For me, making pictures about a false and idealized reality, into durable, machine cut objects, makes the fiction a little more real. The fabricated image becomes a solid. The dream becomes real in a way that you can touch. Like kicking the tires on a new car fresh off the factory line; solid, sleek and strong.
I want the pictures to be precise, solid and shiny. And expensive looking. What does it actually mean to say something looks ‘expensive’? What sort of requirements does an object have to have to feel ‘expensive’ ? I think these are things dictated to us by commercial photography and advertising. We’ve been taught without realizing it what aesthetic and formal qualities equate to value.
GEJ: The fabrication of your work gets me thinking about art as a product, and on how art pictures essentially act as advertisements for themselves. In one sense you’re making pictures to sell, they are shiny, alluring, and “sleek”, if I might borrow a term that’s been beaten to the ground. Your pictures fictionalize their own performance of selling the products within them. At the same time, it’s still not entirely ineffectual promotion for those products. Your pictures could still very well prompt a viewer to go buy a pair of sneakers or some fries from McDonald’s.
The images of your work online become ads for the actually product of your work, the prints themselves. Your pictures also sell ideology, and warn about what I see as a spiritual poverty of mass-produced aesthetics. But then the production of your work mirrors mass-production, both participating in and critiquing the same notions. Your pictures critique modes of commercial aesthetics by demonstrating that they themselves succumb to its gravity. It’s got my mind running in circles, and I feel like it will tire me out and make me just go buy some french-fries.
I wonder: Do critiques on commercialism ever make a difference, or do they just contribute to the fabric of the spectacle? And that’s not a criticism because I think it’s nourishing to me that your work prompts that question in the first place.
JDC: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot actually, that my pictures are advertisements for themselves or for something. But then I ask myself: what am I advertising? I like sneakers and I like french fries, but what I am more interested in is how these things pull on us. How wanting something informs most of our decision making — from what we look at, eat, aspire to be and live our lives. And unfortunately for me, I feel this way of looking at pictures — where they invoke their will upon us to be unsatisfied with what we have, where we are etc. — has not only affected my present, but has started to affect the way I remember things. These pictures are about that, the way the aesthetics of advertising are merciless and have polluted my own memories and understanding of my past and present life.
Photography allows us to picture an idealized version of everything, which is dangerous right? Or is it? I like that you say ‘spiritual poverty’ and I agree most of this type of imagery leads to a sort of emptiness. But on the other hand, what’s wrong with believing? Believing actually feels like a fullness rather than an emptiness.
How is this different than what we expect from religion? If we talk about spirituality, we have to talk about faith. I think we are now in a present where image making offers a sort of faith in the idea that there is a better reality out there; a better version of ourselves out there. This is a pillar of how capitalism works, but isn’t it also a pillar of how faith works? It’s true the pictures can be a warning to the hollowness of commercial aesthetics, but they can also use its tricks to make us make us believe something better is out there and possible. Or allow us to gloss over painful things from the past. I guess in a way I’m using these tactics to idealize heartbreak and wanting in the pictures in Dream Date.
Unfortunately, in the world we live in you need money to buy, but you don’t need money to believe. It’s confusing and depressing. Especially now that we are in the midst of all this virus-related hopelessness. I’m stuck in my apartment. I want french fries. I want to watch basketball. I want Earth back. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking about faith. I have to believe it will get better. I have to believe another reality will present itself. Otherwise there’s no hope.
GEJ: That seems to be the paradox. There’s never been a time when we’ve consumed more aesthetic beauty in our day-to-day lives, but packaged in most beauty is an undercurrent of salesmanship. Whenever we scroll through Instagram it’s hard to decipher what pictures are free to chew on, and what might just be bait waiting to ensnare us. Or maybe it’s all bait to some extent. This gets away from talking about pictures, but I always find myself at an impasse on the notion of faith and the omnipresent hope or dread of “things” getting better or worse. It’s something that’s rooted solely in imagination, and you have me questioning if there is any difference between faith and imagination. As future continues to become present, the question remains: How can things be better? We each have our own personal rendition of paradise, and much of that is likely in competition with the imagined paradise of others. Maybe we’re all victims of ego in some respect, but I agree with you on the value of hope. Nothing would get done without it, and what richness we do enjoy in life would remain unmade and unfound.
JDC: Faith and imagination are lovely concepts to think about at the moment. Especially as we are all locked inside our homes waiting for the virus to pass. This odd triple threat of hope/faith/imagination that we somehow landed on is actually so present in contemporary photography. Photography has shifted away from being about specific moments in the past and seems more and more capable of picturing a possible future. I impose my imagination on my pictures rather than relying on them to document the past. Snapshots of what can be rather than snapshots of what was. Even on Instagram, when someone posts a selfie, it says ‘I am here’ not ‘I was here.’ This time shift is so beautiful and so full of potential.
GEJ: I think it’s wonderful that your work opens the door to such tension and wondering. While you give your pictures the masks of commodity to perform behind, viewers would do well to not assume that the gloss of the surface exists in the guts of your pictures as well.
JDC: I appreciate that you say that about my pictures. I have been criticized by other artists and even in reviews for making work that is too cold and lacks emotion. I had an exchange with a friend once where I told them that I had poured my heart into my work, and they responded that they wished they could see it in the work. I was dumbfounded. For me the pictures in this show are the most emotional and honest work I have ever made. The fact that the surface is thick and glossy doesn’t mean the images are impenetrable. When I said earlier that I impose my imagination on my pictures, I should add that it’s likely my imagination is polluted by all the visual information I have been digesting my whole life. And it’s even more likely that this visual information has been created for me with the intent to sell stuff to me. I’m aware of this fact, but it still is leaving a heavy influence on my work.
Maybe that is what feels cold or emotionless. And maybe I am acting like a salesman in a sort of way. I hope the pictures attract attention beyond a ‘like’ in a scrolling feed. I want them to work fast and slow. Catch you and keep you. At least for a pause or a breath. Salesmanship is important when making art, not in the sense of actually selling a piece, but in the way you package an idea or feeling. Attention spans are short. Pictures are one of the few things that we have become good a reading quickly and intuitively. At least most of the time. Knowing a picture is trying to sell me something doesn’t necessarily make it less effective.
GEJ: How are things looking on your horizon?
JDC: The future was looking and feeling much different about 5 weeks ago before the COVID-19 crisis reached us. I had a solo show about to open here in NYC as well plans to show work in Italy, Spain, France, Pittsburgh and Alabama over the coming six months. Unfortunately, everything and everyone is frozen. I have no concrete understanding of what is going to happen to humanity and society as we know it, let alone my art career. I fluctuate between thinking everything and nothing will change. Planning has become difficult. I run a small publishing imprint called Silent Face Projects and we have some things in the pipeline, but again planning is so difficult. Book fairs are canceled, printers are closed. There’s no toilet paper.
I realize I’ve been waiting for an email or text message to arrive with some exciting or good news to pick me up. But then I started to realize that whatever happens to the art world doesn’t have anything to do with the art I make. My work is independent of whatever art world fallout comes. Sure, it’ll be affected but my ability to create is not dependent on any market. It was liberating and for the first time since the bottom fell out, I feel a bit of motivation.
Other than trying to cling to that motivation while hoping this crisis passes— I’m going to cook, hang with my family, continue teaching at SVA and ICP, and probably absorb too much news and too many images on my phone.
Joseph Desler Costa is an American / Italian artist working in photography, video and new media. Costa’s practice explores consumerist dreams, pop culture, nostalgia and desire. Employing multiple exposure, re-photography, as well as laser-cut, layered prints, Costa produces almost machine-made looking photographs and films that question and embrace the offerings of commercial culture.
Costa currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He holds an advanced degree from ICP-Bard College (MFA) and attended the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV) in Cuba. Exhibitions include Eden, Metronom Gallery, Modena, Italy, Them!, Transformer Station, Cleveland, USA; The Drowned, Alabama Contemporary, AL , USA; Thread Count, Unseen Photo Fair, Amsterdam, NL; Photography is Magic, Aperture Foundation, NY, USA; The Art of Now, The Hearst Galleries, NY, USA; and Expanded Geographies, Lianzhou Foto, Lanzhou, China.
Photographic works are included in the permanent collections of the Leonard Lauder Collection, the Cleveland Clinic Art Collection, BNY Mellon Collection, the Bidwell Collection and the collection of the International Center of Photography.
Costa has curated and organized a number of exhibitions, books and zines including group shows at Baxter St. Camera Club of NY and Foley Gallery. In 2014, Costa founded the imprint Silent Face Projects. Costa is currently a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York and The International Center of Photography’s Creative Practices program.
Dream Date is/was on view at ClampArt, March 5 to April 25, 2020.
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