Briefly describe the work you do.
I work with images. I make large scale photo installations engaging place and community in addition to online projects. Working in photography since 1989 I’ve amassed a 25 year archive: SUGAR IS COMBUSTIBLE: Photo Diary 1989-2014 http://thomashellstrom.blogspot.com/ . Containing over 20,000 images that collapse all genres of photography the archive documents the revolutionary development of photo technology from film to early digital cameras to smartphones, forever changing the notion of ‘photographer’. My projects respond to this condition. How do people make and use images to form community online? What is the nature of the new visual literacy the internet produced?
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
After 18 years working in New York I relocated to Milwaukee. My work shifted from a market based practice to a social practice actively soliciting community participation. The work’s focus is now the fundamental exchange between the artist and the viewer. In 2013 I launched two exhibition programs engaging community and place. The ‘Xeno’ program (English translation of Greek ‘stranger’) resulting in exhibitions in Reno and Milwaukee and ‘LM:+43-87’ an ongoing study of Lake Michigan photographed at Milwaukee’s GPS coordinates.
Considering my unfamiliarity with the storied American West Xeno:Reno took the form of ongoing correspondence prior to the exhibition at the University of Nevada, Reno. Casting an open call to Renoites I requested photos of the region to which I responded individually and archived online http://xenoreno.tumblr.com/ . Upon arrival a photo installation responding to the Sierra Nevada landscape was constructed from the archive while meeting my collaborators and seeing the West for the first time. The exhibition transformed a tumblr photo-wall into physical space.
Xeno:Mke 2013-2023 simultaneously occurred at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, featuring historical documents from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Library’s LGBT Archives Collection, the photo archive from Milwaukee’s oldest LGBT cocktail lounge This Is It! (est. 1968) and over 100 portraits produced in a free portrait studio throughout the city. The contents of the exhibition were conceived as a time capsule to document a historic year for LGBT rights. Unexpectedly couples who sat for portraits were married in Wisconsin June 2014 completing, in the future, the historical significance of the project. http://xenomke.tumblr.com/
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
Contemplating how images travel online I am experimenting with Facebook as an exhibition platform. Part of the research for Xeno:Mke 2013-2023 involved sourcing photos from the Facebook page of Milwaukee’s oldest LGBT cocktail lounge This Is It! http://www.thisisitbar.com/ Facebook suddenly became essential to the work. I conceived a simultaneous project documenting the summer sky daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day as my Facebook status. What could be more universal than the sky? Also it stood as a metaphor of ‘the cloud’ where we communicate.
Last January I launched FB: 365/2014. I post images daily to Facebook to create an indexed archive of 365 images to be exhibited in 2015. The only criteria is the image is made on the precise day, documenting the quotidian. The aim of the project is to test the limits of the photography. What will the images mean? How do images prompt memory and meaning? How will that meaning change?
For FB: 365/2014 the studio is nowhere and everywhere. For installation works I prepare prints in a small office. Since relocating to the Midwest the studio has been the exhibition venue. I install extemporaneously activating both the architecture and the viewers physical response to the work.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
As an art student I never envisioned collaborating with the public. The ‘Xeno’ projects facilitate social interaction. In this respect I see my unique role bringing people together to make something. During the opening receptions there’s been sense of celebration among the participants, a sense of belonging to something greater. Art has always facilitated communal experience however ‘Xeno’ makes this sense of connection the subject of the work.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
Working with unconventional online platforms like Facebook opened my work to instant, global communication. Lately I don’t know when I am not working.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
In the summer of 2012 I produced a survey exhibition: SUGAR IS COMBUSTIBLE: BCC MKE Photo Diary 1989-2012 at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center. Consisting of a 17×30 foot installation containing over 100 images I hosted weekend evenings, inviting passersby into the gallery for a beer. It was a revelation. Viewers of all sexual orientations found their own stories within my images: a biker found the image of perfect happiness, a Jewish man texted his friends the Israeli contingent in NY’s Gay Pride parade, a woman fled the gallery in tears seeing an image of an unmade, empty bed. Ultimately it was not my images but the exchange of stories that became the content of the exhibition. The next logical step was to make that exchange the subject of my work, hence the ‘Xeno’ projects. Working with images for 25 years has lead me to this moment of conversing with people through images.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
Without doubt the French filmmaker Chris Marker (1921-2012). Active in France from the 1950s into the 21st century, Marker invented the film essay form. His 1982 masterwork Sans Soleil influenced how I consider images, history, memory and time itself. I learned he died en route to Chicago during my exhibition SUGAR IS COMBUSTIBLE: BCC MKE Photo Diary 1989-2012. In the exhibition I titled a 10 hour video work ‘The First Image He Told Me About’ after the first line of dialogue spoken in Sans Soleil. That evening I sat alone in a South Side Chicago bar photographing the London Olympic Games from television as Marker photographed the Tokyo Games for his 1967 film Le Mystere Koumiko.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
The ‘Xeno’ program can be tailored to most any community or audience. Upcoming collaborations are planned with a National Multicultural Gay Men’s Organization and the Shambhala Meditation Center, a Buddhist community in Milwaukee. My desire for engagement with people and my intellectual curiosity wouldn’t be satisfied doing anything else.
Thomas Hellstrom, born USA 1969, has been featured in solo and group exhibitions throughout North America, Europe and Asia garnering the attention of The New York Times, reFRESH (UK) and Camera Austria. To follow FB: 365/2014 please friend Thomas on Facebook to observe the work develop daily throughout 2014. At the time of writing 175 images are archived. Please feel free to contact Thomas regarding the ‘Xeno’ exhibition project. Eager to expand the project globally Thomas seeks new communities and collaborators. firstname.lastname@example.org
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.