David Schalliol sat down with Esthetic Lens recently and shared his thoughtful observations about existing in the pandemic and how it has slowed multiple projects both domestically and abroad. He discusses the difficulties of making new community connections that are integral to the production of his work. David also touches on the additional attention he has been able to give his immediate surroundings as well as his upcoming book with Michael Carriere, The City Creative (The University of Chicago Press).
1. How are you holding up?
All things considered, I’m doing relatively well, although that’s certainly not the standard by which I would have judged doing “well” before 2020. What’s keeping me going is hope for the future.
2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?
The pandemic has dramatically affected my work. Beyond carrying the concerns about the wellbeing of friends, family, and the vast inequities related to it, it’s changed the way I interact with people and the projects I make.
The people-related change is a major adjustment, because with each passing year, collaborating with people and community organizations has become a larger part of how I work. So, while I do miss a lot of small interactions with people on the street, the larger problem is that it’s much more difficult to establish new community connections. To me, it’s important that new projects meaningfully connected to people’s experience in a given place, whether down the block or across the ocean. Without being able to significantly collaborate with residents and organizations, I’ve had to slow or stop a few projects.
The other major change is related to not being able to travel. I probably haven’t even crossed the city limits more than a handful of times since March, so I haven’t been able to continue working on a number of long-term projects. I’ll mention two here: Since 2010, I’ve been visiting Belfast, Northern Ireland for a photographic series about community division and change around the time of Eleventh Night, when residents who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK build massive bonfires. Now that it’s been a decade, I was going to switch to highlighting events around a major cultural festival organized by those who desire a politically united Ireland.
Also interrupted is my residency with BPS22, the Museum of Art of the Hainaut Province in Belgium. My work there extends my Hauts-de-France Mining Basin project about social, economic, and environmental resilience in the former coal-mining region of France. While the French project occasionally brought me to Belgium, the BPS22 residency has allowed me to create more in-depth work in the area surrounding Charleroi, Belgium. At this point, I’m hoping to return to both places next year to continue the work and spend time with far-flung friends.
3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?
I suppose the main thing I’d like to keep is the additional attention to my immediate surroundings. For the last several years, most of my major projects have been away from home, but since the pandemic started, I’ve focused more on what’s around me. Happily, I’ve been able to give that local work shape through a fellowship with Exhibit Columbus, which allows me to continue photographing at the intersection of the built and “natural” environments. While I will certainly continue my ongoing projects elsewhere, the pandemic has reoriented me closer to home.
4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?
Rather than thinking about a particular artist, I’ve been most excited to see how artists in general continue to adapt their work to address domestic life, health, and racial and economic justice.
5. Are there any artists, albums, or genres of music you’ve been drawn to during the crisis? If so, why?
Lately, I’ve been listening to music that’s calmed my nerves. Here are a few tracks from 2020 that have kept me going:
David Schalliol is an Associate Professor of Sociology at St. Olaf College who is interested in the relationship between community, social structure, and place. His work has appeared in such venues as the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Centre Régional de la Photographie Hauts-de-France, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and in publications including MAS Context, The New York Times, and Social Science Research. David is the author of Isolated Building Studies (UTAKATADO) and co-author, with Michael Carriere, of the forthcoming The City Creative (The University of Chicago Press). He is currently a fellow of BPS22 and Exhibit Columbus.