Harry Shaffer Interview – Talking About Nothing And Stuff

Work isn’t always easy when considering an introduction to a Conceptual artist. Do you list their previous work, or accolades? Do you discuss where they went to school, or their fellow alumni? All that stuff seems redundant. If we arrest the experience to discuss the history of an event, the impact of now is lost.

Harry Shaffer is an artist whose work can be experienced on Instagram. His work plays with the platform, it starts in the now and expands from there, but only in the mind of his audience. As an artist he is well-measured. Sharply refined. Certain. He is playful, sardonic, and emotive.

Anyway, we asked Harry how he’d like to be introduced. Here’s what he said – followed by a transcription of an interview in which Harry discusses nothing, the importance of now, the art of conceptualism, and the smell of his typewriter ribbon.

“I think for a bio I prefer something rather non-glamorous, like: Harry Shaffer is a conceptual artist and composer living in Swannanoa, North Carolina.”

popbollocks: The work you share via instagram preserves a very analog feel. Please speak a little on what appeals to you about using instagram as platform.

Harry Shaffer: Instagram has been a great way to connect with my fellow artists. I’ve met some lovely, very talented people there. However, the concept of starting with an idea, typing it out on a typewriter, taking a picture of that, and then presenting it on a digital medium is quite absurd, isn’t it? It’s a problem inherent to this type of work; how exactly do you present it to the public, if at all? Framing it up and placing it in a gallery space is just as ludicrous. There’s no finished product or object to show. It’s merely an image that forms in the reader’s mind. I am then left with the question of “Why not?” Showing my work on a platform like Instagram allows me to engage with people in a direct and immediate way that otherwise might not be possible by setting up a show in a traditional space. I like the idea that people might encounter my pieces within their everyday lives: while riding the subway, sitting at the doctor’s office, or relaxing at home, just by looking at their phone.

popbollocks: Your profile portrait on instagram is currently the word ‘if.’ Please share your thoughts on the appeal of variable interpretations of conceptual art.

Harry Shaffer: In conceptual work, the piece might be self-evident, or take on many different meanings. In most event scores, the work is open to interpretation, and it’s the reader who is in control, not the artist. But that’s the wonderful thing about it; your imagination can go anywhere with it. If there’s an appeal to that, it’s because we are free to perform the piece in real life or in our heads without the pressure that we are misinterpreting or misunderstanding the intention of the artist. When we imagine an event score as a reader, we also become an artist. Anyone can do it. Not all conceptual work is like that, of course. The artist’s intentions can very wildly, along with the interpretation of the concept.

popbollocks: You work on a typewriter – please describe the smell of the ribbon ink.

The ribbon ink has a sort of medicinal, clinical smell. It’s definitely part of the appeal for me. There are several smells involved, from the ink, the oils and cleaners used on the moving parts, to the old mustiness of the case. Probably the most distinctive smell of my typewriter is that of methyl salicylate: wintergreen. That chemical is often used to restore and soften old rubber parts. When I open the case to work, all of this comes at me. I’ve come to associate it with getting to work. To me, it’s the smell of art.

popbollocks: How important is the color of the paper you use to type upon?

Harry Shaffer: It is important, but not how most people think. In reality, I use a very specific type of archival paper, in an off-white. Everything gets typed out and filed away on this paper. It’s quite banal, but it will last as a record of the work. On Instagram, I often use its filters and settings to change the colors of the ink and paper in the photo to evoke a certain state of mind or feeling. Sometimes I will use it with a droll 1+1=2 symbolism, where if the piece is say, about eggplants, the text is changed to a purple. Other times it might have a deeper, hidden meaning. I leave it up to the reader to find meaning in both the piece and the color choices.

popbollocks: Your work is heavily conceptual – please describe your first encounter with conceptual art, where your work ‘was’ at that time, and the impact it had in your approach to creation.

Harry Shaffer: Early on while studying composition with Henry Gwiazda, I was having a lot of trouble creating a musical idea and then taking it somewhere interesting. I might come up with an idea that was good, but I lacked the ability to make it go where it needed to go. One day after a particularly difficult lesson, he handed me a book he described as “one of the greatest books on musical composition.” It was a catalog of Sol LeWitt’s ‘Incomplete Open Cubes.’ It immediately resonated with me. The piece was like that famous quote by Jasper Johns: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” I began filling my notebooks with ideas: musical pieces, installations, video and performance art, and event scores. I would do many variations of each, as many as I could. What I found was that I enjoyed writing the ideas as much as executing them. Shortly after, Gwiazda exposed me to the work of Fluxus, and it became more apparent where I needed to go: non-music. I became a composer who doesn’t write music. It was very frightening to come to terms with, but also full of possibilities.

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popbollocks: A number of your pieces explore concepts of time, corrosion, and the possibility of an event – rather than an event itself. please speak a little on your first memory of recognizing the ‘non-event’ as a place where things can happen.

Harry Shaffer: The first time I became consciously aware that a person was using ‘nothing’ as an idea was in the music of Morton Feldman. I initially felt an aversion to his work the first time I heard it. All of that quiet repetition. All of those long pauses. Too slow. Boring. I didn’t understand. Months later, I found his music creeping up in my head. I couldn’t get rid of it. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: what I thought of as silence was not space in between the content, it was part of the content! There was something happening there in those ‘in between’ spaces. His music has the ability to wipe everything out. The event and the non-event are temporary states in his music, ever changing. It reflects the nature of reality, which is what is now so attractive about his music to me. In a world which seeks to become louder, more crass, and more exciting in order to grab one’s attention, what better way to temporarily clean the slate than to become still, silent, and introspective? If you resist the temptation to be seen or heard by being loud and exciting, sometimes a remarkable thing can happen: people might listen more carefully. Not everyone is going to pay attention or get it, so you have to be comfortable with that. The concept of nothingness in art can be wielded like a weapon, or it can be used for peace. I hope that in my art I can use it for peace and the journey towards equanimity.

popbollocks: Your work also deals with things of physical and material scale. Do you feel that conceptualism levels all targets in terms of the gravity they possess?

Harry Shaffer: There is certainly that potential. I feel that conceptual art’s greatest potential lies in shedding the material in favor of the immaterial idea. An idea is not bound by physical limitations, so a sense of scale can be used to illustrate the potential of an idea, that anything is possible in that world. We have the ability to imagine the impossible, and often physical materials can limit how we express that.

popbollocks: Is anything sacred? if ‘yes’ what and why?

Harry Shaffer: I believe something can be sacred. Sanctity can be good or evil. The same with the profane. Either can be created or destroyed. Art exists in all of those states. So does mankind. As an artist, I feel a need to reflect on the nature of things, but to find meaning is up to the individual.

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popbollocks: There is a sardonic sense of play in your work – but the sincerity of purpose is evidenced in everything you share. For all the smarts, there’s a lot of heart in your work. Do you spend any time meditating upon the intellectual aspect of a piece; checking it doesn’t overshadow the compassionate core of the work?

Harry Shaffer: The sincerity is real. I think it comes as a reaction to the postmodern world. We are continually exposed to the ironic, cynical, and disingenuous. Those feelings arise from a sense of fear, and the postmodern is a reflection of that. Sometimes it creates distance between the artist, the art, and the viewer. We wind up feeling disconnected and numb. When you open yourself up and express what you are truly thinking or feeling, you can be hurt. I try and let the pieces flow in a genuine, truthful manner. Sometimes I feel anger or joy, sometimes I may feel sentimental or cynical. It’s okay. We are all human, and feel lots of different things. Whatever it is I am thinking at the moment, I try and capture. I hope that when people read my pieces, they can also respond with what they are thinking or feeling. I like the idea that the event score is open to interpretation, and that the performance happening in someone’s head is a response to their own thoughts, feeling, and experiences. I hope that the work acts as a vehicle for their own imagination, one in which they are in control, not me, but also a work in which the reader might feel a connection with me. For a brief moment in time, we can be connected through the art.

popbollocks: Why do you make stuff?

Harry Shaffer: I don’t have a choice. I have made things since I was very little. Perhaps there is an evolutionary explanation for it, or maybe there’s a philosophical or metaphysical reason. I don’t think about it much. All I know is that it gives me a lot of satisfaction, meaning, and purpose in my life to make art.



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