About

My creative work often critiques or challenges consumer culture through interventionist methodologies, usually using the Internet as platform. These interests — in brand critique, consumer culture, photographic representation, labor, and race — find form in long-term online works and through published writing.

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In 2005, I spent a month in Paramaribo, Suriname, working with a group of graduate students. This city was so far off the radar of American corporate interests that a local “Disney” store, with its name hand-painted on the storefront, could operate with ease. This ability for people to claim and change a brand, and to remake it in their own image, was exciting for me. I grew up in Pittsburgh during a time when brand names started to infiltrate adolescent life. I was curious about t-shirts that connected people with the Rolling Stones or the JCC Basketball Camp, but my parents balked at the thought of paying to advertise. They’d say, “we’re not letting companies use your 9-year old body as a billboard for their commercial interests.” In this way and others, politics was implicitly part of our daily lives. My father was involved in labor rights and a stream of friends or acquaintances slept on our couch or in the attic, talked about the grape and lettuce boycotts, and went to rallies with us on behalf of Black Lung victims. During dinner, my father would describe the resistance to change in his firefighters union, our conversation interrupted by his radio announcing emergency calls. I grew up knowing that labor was not to be treated lightly.

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In 2014, I began to interview dozens of people who work with their hands for a living — construction workers, carpenters, painters, maintenance workers, landscapers, arborists, and farmers — and, in the process, heard their accounts of work, of the ways their bodies broke down from manual labor and how they relearned to adjust to movement and weight, of farmers’ attempting to find balance between undisturbed nature and supporting human life forms, and of the emotional toll of constantly readjusting to equipment breakdowns, to unpredictable weather, or to increased responsibility without upgrades to status or pay. While interviewing farmers in Nebraska in the summer of 2016, the subject of “humility” came up repeatedly. On more than one occasion, I was told that a particular farmer was the best in Aurora. Why? Did he understand crop rotation or insect control? No. He’s the best because he’s so humble. This answer resonated with other experiences during the two summers I spent in small-town Nebraska. For example, no one led with his/her job title. You could sit and chat with someone at a Sunday pancake breakfast, never knowing that they were a state Senator. Consumption habits showed humility as well; there were no displays of conspicuous consumption. Kids showed up for camp in the morning with their lunch and boots in a plastic grocery bag, not a $49.95 REI Workload Kids’ Backpack. I am curious about cultures that don’t encourage status-seeking, and am skeptical of brands and institutions that do.

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I earned my BFA from Alfred University. The school has a strong community and,  in my opinion, the best foundations program in the country. The prompts they gave to us freshmen — like “make something move across the room” or “use your body to demonstrate the concept of time” — were unfathomable and unsettling, and I failed most them, and that was one of their beauties. I earned my MFA in Art Photography from Syracuse University, where I was lucky to have advisors who asked questions that got to the heart of things. I am currently an Associate Professor in the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan.

 

Contact

 

rmodrak@umich.edu