Courtney Asztalos in Conversation with Stephen Frailey
Stephen Frailey: One of the things that struck me immediately about Purple Domino is the seeming lack of cynicism in the work, that you are witnessing a form of empowerment through the spectacle of the casino. And rather than dismissing its superficiality, you are recognizing something more complex. Is this correct?
Courtney Asztalos: Yes, you’re on the right path. Purple Domino, was formed through the physical investigation of casinos and the women who present themselves and orbit within. I was compelled by how they channeled the energy of the space. The idea of the casino is both mythical and accessible—as it has always presented its inhabitants with the possibility of transcending personal identity in various ways (witnessing a legendary performance, “winning big”, divorcing oneself from everyday life/roles in familial hierarchies, etc). A casino’s purpose is to transmit and imbue desire to and in everyone who enters. I found that my subjects absorb and consume this radiating power of desire and pour it back into their performance of self, a reifying act: the construction of an armor which repels expectations and codes of femininity.
Frailey: Oh my. That sounds equally ideological and supernatural.
Asztalos: You just made me remember that growing up as a student in Catholic school was ideological and supernatural. I remember being transfixed by the iconography of the female saints—the colors, the ways they inhabit and exist with infinite authority in their own realms. St. Lucy’s eyes on the plate!
Perhaps it can interpreted as both ideological and supernatural when considering the ‘transformative’ aspect. I think transformation can be seen as both supernaturally alchemical (the idea and experience of ‘luck’) as well as utilized as a component of spiritual ideologies and practices. Either way, it is a deeply personal experience. People aspire to transform themselves and their identities for conscious and unconscious reasons. Going to the casino allows people the opportunity to transcend everyday experience and be present and activate that aspiration. One of the most dramatic news stories I read about, was this woman who had just been “dreaming of winning the jackpot before breakfast” and won 8.9 million that same day.
Frailey: Ah hah. Indeed. Catholicism is a lush compost for a visual artist—perhaps the casino embodies the theater of the church? The visual spectacle and redemption?
Asztalos: Visually, the casino is a theater of its own kind- I think whereas the church is hierarchical, the casino is not. The spectacle of the casino becomes a universe of infinite possibilities for its inhabitants to imagine themselves and transcend their identities. The church is visually and supernaturally directed in many ways, (i.e. the gaze of the congregation, their movements controlled, their interior thoughts directed alongside the mass’s ritual). In the theater of the Casino, inhabitants have free reign to perform, operate, dress, and choose based on their own desires without the interface of the mass or ideology of the church. Maybe similarly to the theater of the church, casino inhabitants feed off of the megastructure’s ambience (much like a Cathedral) however redemption is channeled through luck rather than devotion.
Frailey: I like the phrase ‘activate the aspiration’ which I guess is the foundation for most consumer transactions—something that you have depicted in work involving mall culture.
Asztalos: My body of work called Encore (which encompasses Purple Domino, South Coast Plaza, Destiny USA, Shoppingtown) focuses on the ways that casinos, malls, and cruise ships offer an antidote to the banalities of everyday life, as well as a stage to amplify people’s performances of themselves. I think the space of the mall encourages a fragmentation of oneself—a separation of mind and body—that promotes the belief that change in one’s external appearance results in the transformation of who a person is. In this way, the mall too allows inhabitants to fantasize and actualize limitless personas or potentials.
Frailey: On a tactical level, how do you involve yourself with the women in Purple Domino? Is it fleeting or do you spend some time with each woman? Also, it is obvious that you are engaged with a particular demographic, but could you amplify the ‘codes of femininity’ that you referenced earlier? Clearly, there is an exuberance in all of the women.
Asztalos: The project spans casinos in New York, Nevada, and Florida—where I would walk, circle, and photograph for hours. I found myself magnetized to different things about the women often while in the rapture of their games. I would approach them and when they agreed to be photographed we formed an impromptu collaboration. Photography is rarely allowed in casinos, so I worked quickly and hid my flashes around and on top of the slot machines while photographing in order to camouflage my process within the space. It was fascinating to me the ways in which their style paralleled the power of how actresses command attention on stage—armor against the presumption that they should blend into the background. I saw this as a radical act on their part—an active denial of the notion that they should fade away in not allowing themselves to become less relevant or less central to the narrative of their own lives.
Frailey: Do you give them copies of the photos? And is the project finished?
Asztalos: I ask for their contact information and am happy to send copies if they are interested. I see the project as ongoing, I view this as a long term project I will come back to again and again. I’m curious and committed to how duration will affect the work.
Courtney Asztalos graduated from Syracuse University in 2017 with a degree in Transmedia/Art Photography. Her work is in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and in the special collections library at UCLA and Duke University, among others. The work has been featured in The New Yorker, Paper Journal, Aint-Bad, and Der Grief.
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