Corinne May Botz

I first met Corinne May Botz at Bard College; I think it was the summer of 2003 when she started in the MFA program in which I was teaching.  From the start Corinne struck me as a seriously focused artist, her project The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death was close to being completed and soon to be published. Corinne is smart, charming, and ambitious, and although she is utterly contemporary and down to earth – a slight hint of the Victorian perfumes the air around her – as if she were visiting our time from another.

This conversation took place on January 11, 2011. Our plan was to visit the American Society of Psychical Research (ASPR), which seemed an appropriate site to talk about Corinne’s photographs of crime scenes, the spirit world, and the uncanny. But our conversation began at the Magnolia Bakery on the Upper West Side, drinking coffee and sampling cupcakes.

MAD – The Nutshell Studies just sort of arrived as this fully formed epic photographic and cultural history project when it was published in 2004. I am wondering what kind of artist were you before the Nutshell series.

CMB – Some of the things I explored in The Nutshell Studies were already hovering around what I was doing – I had done some research on crime scene photography for example and I did a series photographing my family through the window of a doll house and I also made a video of a woman collecting dollhouses. So a lot of the interests were already in place – I worked with image and text in the past and had an interest in gendered space.  My interests led me to the Nutshell Crime Scenes.  That project made me more confident as an artist; I grew up with that project in so many ways.  There were these dark days when I was worried that the book would not see the light of day. But everything worked out and I learned a lot about the value of keeping faith in a project and perseverance.

MAD – Well the photographs are fantastic but your writing is also so confidant, conversational, and accessible, complex yet readable. It makes an important contribution to biography and cultural history.  Did you ever want to be a writer?

CMB – Yes especially when I was very young I imagined that – a while ago I was looking through things in my childhood bedroom – my parents still live in the house I grew up in New Jersey.  I found a letter from a writing workshop I took in the second grade, congratulating me on the two stories I wrote – ‘Dying in the Woods’ and ‘There’s no place like Home” – Laughter – even in second grade I was interested in things I could work on right now.  That conversational quality you mentioned is important to me – with the Haunted Houses book I knew that I wouldn’t have as many pages for text as I did for the Nutshell book – yet I wanted to cover certain ideas that were important to the work such as spiritualism and the uncanny but I did not want to take for granted that the audience were familiar with those terms and I knew that like the Nutshell book – Haunted Houses may have a broad audience.

MAD – I assume you are a reader

CMB – Laughter, yes I have two books for today in my bag

MAD – Well I ask again because of the individuality of your text, the voice, the sense of pacing and atmosphere and your ability to engage the reader on a really personal level – it suggests that you know what its like to read and value the pleasure of discovery unfolding in narrative.

CMB – Helen Cixous writes in her book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, which is one of my favorite books – that being a reader is the first step to being a writer.

MAD – So what were you reading when you were working on the Nutshell book?

CMB – Well it was a long term project so I don’t remember everything but Edith Warton’s House of Mirth – the way that Lily Barton’s social fall is told through the different spaces she inhabits. I read that book and then I read books about that book and Edith Warton and the house that she designed in Lenox, Massachusetts, The Mount.  I read a lot of architecture theory and crime fiction. Susan Stewart’s On Longing was really important to me because of her discussion of scale, the miniature, and gigantic. While I was writing Nutshell – I was auditing a class at Columbia in which we read Moby Dick twice, Robert Ferguson was the teacher; he was so inspiring with this incredible wealth of general wisdom.  So somehow Moby Dick may be hidden in there.  Laughter.

MAD – This is a sign of my own ignorance but when I tried to read Moby Dick in my twenties – I didn’t know what to make of it – it was confounding. But I tried again a couple of years ago and I was knocked out by how utterly singular, strange and contemporary it is. I mean its self-referential, its funny, its homoerotic……..

CMB – Yes and so much about class and race in the 19th c. – it’s just so great. Ahab is such a wonderfully obsessed and monomaniacal central figure.

MAD – It’s funny, your main subject in Nutshell text is Frances Glessner Lee, the woman who built the Nutshell Crime Scenes – and she wasn’t a romantic person at all – maybe in retrospect she was kind of a romantic figure in the sense that she is larger than life and quite obsessed with her quest.

CMB – Yes, I think so, she went against the grain in some respects, but in others she was deeply traditional especially in terms of gender.  Even the work on the crime scene models was gendered in terms of what she did and what her carpenter did, and at the same time she resented that she didn’t have certain opportunities as a woman.  There are a lot of contradictions embodied there, which makes her even more fascinating.

MAD – Well let’s move on from the Nutshell project but before we do I do want to talk about the photographs a little bit. I visited those crime scene tableaux at the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s office about a year ago and the space they are exhibited in is miniscule! How you maneuvered around in there with a large-format camera and lights is a mystery in itself.  But because the space so tight and the tableaux are so small – they feel very static and lifeless.  One might expect that photographing them would just exaggerate that feeling of distance from the narrative. But because you use the camera frame to carefully choreograph what the viewer sees and through the use of shallow depth and selective lighting – your photographs reanimate these scenes – making them more vivid.

CMB – From the very start I had an idea of how I wanted to photograph them. I did not want to take a systematic, black and white, detective-like approach, I didn’t want to replicate what they already were or reference some kind of film noir aesthetic.   I wanted to emphasize the subjective – so instead of the overall view I was after that feeling of playing in a dollhouse when you become so immersed in an environment you don’t have a sense of time passing and you lose your sense of proportion.  I also wanted to somehow disrupt the Nutshell’s sense of control and containment.  By miniaturizing these violent events the scale makes these senseless crimes feel more manageable and comprehendible.  The large-scale nature of my photographs helps to disrupt the control and create a more disorienting experience for viewers.

MAD – When I am thinking about your pictures a series of questions arise.  Is photography a way of touching? Is it a kind of feeling through seeing? Do photographs imbue objects, no matter how mundane, with a kind of power?  And if so, there is something occult-like about that, yes?

CMB – I’m glad you also understand photography as a point of connection, rather than a distancing mechanism. There are uneven power dynamics at play in social and photographic interactions but taking photographs is a way to connect with the world and people. It’s can be a way to address and negotiate these complex interactions among individuals. I have an underlying interest in the instrumental use of photography: how images can bring about small changes and participation. To return to your question, yes, you project onto the world around you when you photograph, the image is a combination of what is immediately visible and your imagination. The photograph becomes a fetish object that carries a magical or spiritual force.

MAD – One of the things I love about your work is the way it intersects with myriad subjects – it’s not just in dialog with the art world, which can have such narrow concerns. I mean one could approach your work via the history of using miniatures in photography, David Levinthal and Laurie Simmons come immediately to mind. But I don’t ever think you are trying to make broad meta-statements with your photographs; for all their formal integrity and esthetic pleasure, they are part of an investigation into specific cultural histories.

CMB – People often mention those artists in relation to my work – especially Laurie Simmons and it makes sense that she is a kind of precursor to some aspects of what I do. But to be honest I was not looking at that work to find inspiration or a way to proceed. I was reading about medicine, collections, and architecture – in terms of photography I was more influenced by Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel or Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy.  I gravitate towards artists who fixate on certain themes, for example, Francis Alys – and how his obsession with walking intersects with history and politics and I love O. Winston Link. Last summer I went to the museum in Virginia dedicated to his work, I love how beautifully lit his photographs are and the lengths he goes to satisfy his personal obsession and desire to historically document steam engines. I really appreciate Zoe Beloff and how much research she does to create entire worlds.

MAD – In your book Haunted Houses some of the photographs are accompanied by stories that people tell about the experiences they had in these haunted spaces. And some of the images are without text.

CMB – Yes there are 85 sites and I edited the huge archive of oral stories that I recorded and transcribed down to 22 stories.

MAD – On your website you include many of the actual voices – oral histories. I like that very much because of the individual qualities of voice that is conveyed, and it’s a way of honoring the people you interviewed.

CMB – I am participating in an exhibition at the Kennedy Museum in Ohio about the unseen – the visible and invisible in art – and I am trying something different in that I am presenting a sound piece with 40 oral histories as part of the Haunted Houses work. It’s so different from reading a text – to listen to someone telling their story in their own voice.  Some of the same issues of absence and presence, what is or isn’t there, that I am interested in with photography, come up with sound recording.  I also like to be generous with the research and archive materials and try to find opportunities to share them.

MAD – I am reminded of Susan Hiller’s piece Witness that consists of many small speakers hanging from the ceiling like a cloud in a darkened room – the overall effect of the sound is a cumulative murmur until you go up close to listen to individual speakers and hear personal stories of UFO sightings and alien abduction.

CMB – I’m not aware of this Susan Hiller piece but I like her work a lot, my work has been included in several shows along with hers so clearly there is a connection.

MAD – Susan Hiller is an American but she has lived in England for a long time. The Quay Brothers are also Americans working in Europe. Not sure exactly why but sometimes I think your sensibility is not typically American, like it’s from another county, or maybe another century – Laughter. I don’t think your work is nostalgic at all but there is something about the depth of the investigation and the breadth of its audience that seems to come from a kind of humanist approach. I mean your work has nothing to do with irony or random associations or other art world games.

A white-aproned baker passes through the café with a silver tray calling out in musical intonations – “Free Slices of Cake, Free Slices of Cake!”

CMB – Well I think it might be more of a modernist way of investigating a subject, in the sense that I think I can understand something about the world through what I do.

MAD – Exactly, I mean the pervasive cynicism and negation around the idea that we might be able to approach understanding of a subject is not a world I want to live in.  I respect the way you investigate and research something, spending months if not years of your time to shape the material in such a way that it appears fully formed and comes into the world a gift.

CMB – With the Haunted Houses project I have gotten so many letters and emails from people sharing stories and whenever I feel frustrated or worried about being an indulgent artist I just have to think about these responses and my doubts are relieved because people connect with the work. I got an email from a man carefully relating my work to Shirley Jackson. I don’t know how I never read her before but now I am reading everything. As it turns out she was agoraphobic and was very interested in the supernatural. So there are a lot of overlapping themes. [Botz worked on a project photographing inside the homes of people with agoraphobia]

MAD – I think one of the reasons people have such strong feelings toward the haunted house pictures has to do with how evocative and inviting the pictures are. They are stage sets for our own projection about what the otherworldly might be like.  Also I don’t think we get to tell stories so much any more. We are filled with stories of course but the opportunity for telling a story – an open-ended story – which is different from expressing an opinion – is becoming rare. Whether the stories are true or not is beside the point. I think we like stories of haunted houses or other paranormal phenomena because it allows for a kind of personal storytelling that activates wonder – skepticism too of course, but these kind of things excite the collective imagination because they exist in this nether region on the outskirts of belief.

A twenty-three year old woman was stabbed thirty three times with a pair of scissors in a drug related homicide. She was also bitten on the left side of her face during the attack. Bite mark impression castes were obtained from a suspect. He later pled guilt to first-degree murder and received a life sentence.

MAD – You did a smaller project around the time of the Nutshell Studies in which you photographed murder objects – objects from the collection of the medical examiner. You said that in holding these objects you were testing your own psychic abilities. So, do you have any?

CMB – I’ve had psychic dreams but beyond that I don’t think so, but I was really into playing these psychic games at the time. I would call my mom and say “Mom, at 11 o’clock I want you to sit down and send me some thoughts” But over time I have become increasingly less interested in that kind of phenomena. Although I did faint once holding one of those objects in the medical examiner’s office– Laughter – but I think I am more of a fainter than a psychic.

MAD – Also a very 19th century thing – right? Women fainting.

CMB – Although I am not personally psychic I do think there is a special relationship that artists have with objects.  Artists can see the power and potential in objects and materials.  There can be a force field around certain objects so I am a believer in that.  I am collecting objects from through the Institute for Challenging Disorganization for the current project I am working on. These are things sent from people who have great difficulty letting go of certain objects – I agree to photograph the object and send them a print in exchange for the object itself.  One woman sent me a wedding dress.  I’m still not sure what I am going to do with the objects– Do I release them from their narrative, from their connection with their former owner, erase their past? But it’s exciting not to know – to be in this beginning stage of a project and I have a temporary studio around the corner from my house. I wanted to challenge myself to make work in the studio – to not need to go out into the world to make the work. But I guess I am inviting the world in.  The stories that come with the objects are important to me – I don’t know how or if I will use those stories but it’s a framework to begin exploring.

MAD – With this project you become a nexus of transference where someone with an obsession or fetish for an object attempts to liberate him or herself by passing it on to you. You take the burden from them. Reminds me of that old European rural tradition of sin eating – where small loaves of bread were placed upon the bodies of the recently deceased with the idea that the person’s sins would soak into the bread and leave them more pure for their meeting with god. The bread would then be eaten by the poorest villagers, who would simultaneously nourish and condemn themselves through this act.

CMB – I hope I’m not consuming their sins! But I do have a tendency to collect stories and to over empathize or lose myself in the stories I hear – which relates back to my love of reading fiction.

After 90 minutes or so we realize we are late for our appointment with the librarian at ASPR.  As if startled we jump up, throw on our coats, wring our necks with thick scarves, and head out into the cold sunlight.  The ASPR occupies a slightly worn but still elegant building on 72nd street and describes itself in part as “…. the oldest psychical research organization in the United States. For more than a century, it’s mission has been to explore extraordinary or as yet unexplained phenomena that have been called psychic or paranormal, and their implications for our understanding of consciousness, the universe and the nature of existence. How is mind related to matter, energy, space and time? In what unexplained ways do we interconnect with the universe and each other? The ASPR addresses these profoundly important and far-reaching questions with scientific research and related educational activities including lectures, conferences and other information services.”


After a brief introduction and tour of the facilities, the librarian escorted us to a large reading room and seated us at an elegant oak table beneath a crystal chandelier. Corinne and I thought that going there would take our conversation in interesting and unexpected directions, although I think we were mostly overwhelmed by the musty ambience of aging esoterica. Nevertheless, we still managed to eek out a few new topics


MAD – Look at this book title The Seven Purposes by Margaret Cameron – I wonder if that’s Julia Margaret Cameron’s very thinly veiled pen name? Anyway, the title reminds me of a kind of infamous class you teach at ICP called The Five Obstructions, which is based on whats-his-face?

CMB – Lars Van Triers

MAD –  Right – so what does that mean – The Five Obstructions – how do you apply that to teaching?

CMB – The starting off point is that restrictions, constraints, or rules can sometimes make you more creative and lead you to think about things in a different way. The student’s view each others work, interview each other and then give each other obstructions, like having someone use a different format film or photograph different subject matter to explore the same idea. It’s an attempt to challenge the default way in which we problem solve or develop an idea. It’s an interesting class about process and taking risks in one’s work, and it helps students become more receptive to criticism and feedback. I’ve learned a lot from teaching this class – recently I even used some of the tactics I set up in the class in my studio practice.

Written at the close of World War 1 we read excerpts from The Seven Purposes, which included this message from the dead “All pure purpose is fearless” As we fumble among the shelves, the librarian brings us titles that he hopes will interest us, books about controlling dreams, lycanthropy, a newsletter on shamanism. Corinne and I discuss our harrowing experiecnes with the Ouija board.  Our librarian guide then shares with us some of the emails and letters the organization gets regularly from people who are having ‘psychic crises’ of some sort and are seeking expert advice on paranormal things. We read an email from a woman from Singapore who claims she is suffering from ‘spirit invasion’ from a neighbor, she writes “He also has the power to manipulate my body” and tries to explain the phenomenon as the result of “A rare condition brought about by an overdose of green tea and fresh milk.”

CMB – I met with a friend’s mother who was a death investigator for years in New York City and she showed me her collection of Polaroid’s taken at crime scenes while telling me all these tales of mysterious deaths and crimes.   Its just astounding how many strange and true stories are out there – it’s not necessary to make them up.

MAD – I’ve never had a psychic experience that I am consciously aware of.

CMB – What is your interest in these things – you’ve written about Ted Serios and curated the show Blur of the Otherworldly?

MAD – I’m interested in the human impulse to try to represent things that are beyond our comprehension, whether it is beyond our planet, beyond our mortality or beyond our bodies. I am especially interested in the use of technologies like film, photography, sound, what Jeffrey Sconce calls “technologies of disembodiment” to capture and picture something beyond human perception. It is in these representations where we find the nexus of our faith in technology and our metaphysical yearnings.

Corinne finds a book called Psychic Pets which is filled with photos of cats and dogs that look taxidermied, as if they were stunned into paralysis by their newly discovered powers. Corinne reads a passage that warns, “For many people discovering the secret world of pets is next to impossible when they would rather treat their pets like children or ladies of leisure

CMB – Shirley Jackson had lots of cats that she was said to have communicated with psychically. They were always black and people assumed this was because of her interest in the occult – but apparently it was because her husband did not want a lot of cats but he had bad eyesight so she thought if they were all the same color he would never know how many cats they had.  Here all these books on psychic and paranormal phenomena surround us – things I would have immersed myself in a few years ago but now I just can’t. If I were going to take a lead from our time here, I would go probably follow the email trail to Singapore and investigate the relationship between the woman and her neighbor. That could be really interesting…

The conversation dwindles to the sounds of our page turning, quiet laughter, and the echo-y footsteps from elsewhere in the building.