Vicki DaSilva’s photography is bright, bold and undeniably complex. She’s not only behind the camera, but in front of it, carefully crafting the light installations which serve as the subjects for most of her pictures. Though based in Pennsylvania, much of DaSilva’s work was influenced by the time she spent in NYC during the rise of graffiti and hip-hop culture.
What makes her work fascinating is that the effort isn’t apparent, only the skill. Most of her locations are outdoors and they suggest a consciously formed clash between the natural and the artificial, the dark and the light. She uses the words ‘light graffiti’ and ‘light painting’ to describe her work and the terms couldn’t be more fitting. She doesn’t just break through that invisible fourth wall; she leaves her tag all over it.
“While in art school I became fascinated with time exposure photography at night as a way of creating images that involved principles of drawing, painting, sculpture, performance and installation. The work exists, as you point out, through the documentation process of photography.”
Format: Your use of light is fascinating. It’s as if you use it to create your own original subject material and the camera is merely there to document the experience. How did you develop this process of creating photographs?
Vicki DaSilva: While in art school I became fascinated with time exposure photography at night as a way of creating images that involved principles of drawing, painting, sculpture, performance and installation. The work exists, as you point out, through the documentation process of photography. I have been expanding upon these ideas and principles since 1980 but the basics are still the same. I continue to shoot traditional medium-format chrome film. I use a digital camera too, mostly for testing. There is no digital imaging used. Everything happens in real time.
Format: Many of your locations are outdoors. How do you go about choosing the right place?
Vicki DaSilva: I believe site-specific work can be made successfully at almost any location. I believe it is the artist’s job to make good work by isolating certain aspects of a site and lending the process of art to highlight those aspects. That’s also the fun and challenging part of making site-specific work, at least it is for me. I try and choose locations based on ideas I want to execute. For example, bridge locations enable vertically oriented work whose intent is planar and depth driven. My current series that is a work in progress, Light Tartans, needed a site that would facilitate an intersection to create a plaid by crisscrossing the lamps running along the track system. That site is a cornered wall of a park’s soccer field. The 100-foot track is propped up on the wall and moved along repetitiously along either side. The wall is 10 feet high. I use locations that enable the viewer to understand the scale of the work. That is very important to me.
Format: How long does it take you to set up a photo? Do you do it alone?
Vicki DaSilva: The installation based work takes about two hours to set up, depending how accessible the site is to our truck and how far we have to carry or wheel the system and equipment to the location. The metal track system is 100 feet long in sections of 10 feet each that have to be assembled on site. The graffiti work is much more portable as I am using compact fluorescent light bulbs. This is a two-person operation. Since 1987 I have been collaborating with my best friend and husband of 21 years, Antonio DaSilva. Antonio is the technical director. He is a master electrician. I am the creative director. We like to think of ourselves in a similar manner as the husband & wife team of Christo & Jeanne-Claude, except we work with light.
Format: What’s the longest exposure time you’ve ever used?
Vicki DaSilva: The longest exposure time is about one hour. The execution time is up to two and a half hours for the ‘Light Tartans.’ The lens cap is put on and taken off intermittently during the exposure. We run the lamp along the track and then I cap the lens while we move the track and uncap to repeat the process. The photos are all single frame time exposures.
Format: You use a variety of different colors in your photographs. Is there a method to the selection madness?
Vicki DaSilva: Being an artist is madness, I agree with you on that! Color applications are both deliberately planned and also random in selection, depending on the project. I have hundreds of sheets of color photographic cellophane gels that are my palette of colors to pattern and choose from.
Format: Your ‘Graffiti’ photographs really seem to capture the subversive nature that surrounded that culture in the ‘80s. What drew you to graffiti as a subject for your photographs?
Vicki DaSilva : I moved to NYC in 1983 during the birth of hip-hop culture. Graffiti artists were a huge part of that movement, as we all know, and so was the mega artist Keith Haring. He pretty much single handedly merged street art with traditional blue chip art. I knew Keith from a fellow student at Kutztown University that grew up with him there. We all landed in NYC in the early 80s. It was so powerful and exciting! I had already been drawing and writing with light while in art school, so the move to NYC just perpetuated the act of making graffiti with light. My first photographs ever published were light graffiti images. They were the centerfold of the East Village Eye newspaper in 1983.
I have recently been inspired to get back into serious writing for serious causes as well as a way of expressing social and political commentary in locations that are off limits to any form of traditional graffiti, such as the White House. Light graffiti lends itself beautifully to free expression and freedom of speech, as it can never be considered vandalism, as it exists for the camera only. I own the URL lightgraffiti.com and have big ideas for facilitating that site as a global location for the light graffiti movement, which is becoming ever more popular as a technique. Any corporate sponsors out there wanting to tap into the light graffiti movement, please call me!
Format: Going along with the graffiti theme, do you get permission before you set up your photos or are you in and out by daylight?
Vicki DaSilva: Yes and no, depending on the location and access to the location. When doing the Obama inspired light graffiti at the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue in June, it was absolutely necessary to obtain the proper permit and Secret Service clearance as well as have liability insurance. There is no hit and run action in a location like that! And that’s the beauty of light graffiti. It is not vandalism. Most of the time no one can tell what’s being written as it is moving and temporary. It’s an awesome technique! It takes lots of practice to be legible, but, anything worthwhile takes time to master.
Format: A lot of your more recent work seems to focus on bold colors and the clash of natural landscape. Is this an artistic or world viewpoint?
Vicki DaSilva: Both. I have always been interested in combining real world locations with light painting and light graffiti. If I can get funding I have a very long list of locations and ideas to execute!! That’s the real challenge of being an artist…getting paid to enable the work to get made. Again, any collectors, museums or corporate sponsors who are interested in my work, please call me! I have so much work to do!
Format: I saw some of your Obama photographs on obamaartreport.com. This campaign seems to be inspiring a lot of artists, how did it inspire you?
Vicki DaSilva: I had the inspiration to do the White House location and Free Expression Tunnel shoots in June. The Tunnel is in Raleigh, North Carolina on the campus of NC State University. I had been a visiting artist to NCSU’s College of Design in March where I did site-specific photos on campus using the installation based, 8-foot fluorescent lamp track system. I didn’t have time on that trip to hit the Tunnel with light graffiti but it was such a great location I had to return.
I combined the trip to DC with a second trip to Raleigh to write Obama slogans. I also have a gallery in Raleigh, Flanders Art Gallery, where I am in a two person show from October 3-25th. Anyone in the area please come to the opening! I will be there opening night, Friday, October 3rd from 6-9.
Format: What’s your next big project?
Vicki DaSilva: My current work in progress, ‘Light Tartans’ is a big ongoing project. Universities, colleges, museums, corporations, hotels, clubs and private residences that are interested in having me do site-specific commissioned work are most welcome to contact me for projects. I also plan on doing much more light graffiti in places where headline news is happening. I think Wall Street needs a visit in the very near future.