Daniel Phillips





About the Artist


Daniel is a visual artist based in New York.




with D. K. Broderick, June 2018

Why is creating something that didn’t already exist in the world important to you? Are you committed to this type of thinking?

I heard somebody say that writing is a form of magic, because you're creating something that didn't exist before. Whether it's an object or an idea, it's something that hasn't been considered before. For me, that's the joy of it all. Coming from a documentary background, you're using what's available to create something new, to create a perspective on something that's new.

So it’s not as much about creating something new as it is about considering something anew and then sharing that perspective. How does this sentiment relate to the ways in which you reclaim and reactivate pre-existing spaces? Why are you drawn to vacant and abandoned buildings as sites for your artistic engagement?

I can offer educated guesses about what draws me to them. Growing up in North Jersey, I always saw the Meadowlands on the train. It's this beautiful swampy area that's near airports and industry, that's overgrown with these invasive weeds which are really beautiful. I grew up with that landscape as an image, and always feeling like I wanted to be in that space but never being able to. It wasn’t accessible then. I mean, it is now — if you want to research it, you can actually explore the Meadowlands. But at the time I was young, and I felt like, “Oh, there's nature here but it's in the middle of industry, all the trains, highways, planes and I can’t get to it.” So that's maybe what drew me to inhabiting a space that you're not supposed to go to but is very charged, and has this strange interaction with nature. I was coming from an urban space, so this space was a total disconnect.

The other reason would just be the allure of these ruins. Everyone, for the most part, loves walking around abandoned buildings, seeing the paint peeling off the walls. I guess I am drawn to that, but I want to offer something more to the space than just showing up and photographing it — having that momentary interaction. What if you spent time there? What would happen?

And, honestly, from a pragmatic standpoint: I want to work in big spaces, but I can’t afford it. It's hard for me to work around others in a conventional studio because I use a lot of masonry, stone, dust. In art school, I'd made a huge mess in my studio and people were always complaining. I make a mess to figure out what I'm doing. There was a gallery interested in my work and they said, “Where do you want to work?” and I said, “Well, could I get onto a construction site? Could I get into an abandoned building?” To get access to these spaces can be very tricky. There’s a lot of luck involved. But they managed to find a guy who was into it.

I think I'm excited, too, about having recently collected footage from this site that the public wasn’t able to access. It's an art production center that's under construction. There's a lot of money involved, and all this legal stuff going on because it's a brownfield. It's nice, in a way, to have all this footage of the space but not be able to show it in the space, and as a result to not be so tied to the site. But at the same time, I like the idea of putting roots down and not being this itinerant, not going to wherever there's an available building.

You’ve expressed that the elements and conditions of the sites you work in don't usually allow for a stable studio practice, at least not in the conventional sense. How does this instability — the instability of the places you temporarily inhabit — influence your work and the reception of it?

It becomes this constant struggle with trying to make the site relatively habitable and usable when it really doesn't want to be. I address that by making photographs that are very aesthetically pleasing. For me, I'm not necessarily exploiting the place by doing that. It's a labor of love. I'll be, like, standing in a freezing river all night because there's a beautiful full moon that's going to cast shadows on the building and look wonderful. And I don't necessarily need people to know that, but it’s part of the fun of it. I do whatever the site allows me to do. So the imagery I can make, a lot of it is imagery, probably because that's the one thing I can do without necessarily having to deal with crumbling buildings or toxic materials. I can just set up a camera, sometimes I don't have to be there, sometimes I do have to be there. I've created this system where I make imagery, where I activate these buildings, but beyond that, while I'm there, there's not as much that I can do in terms of sculpture or sketches or drawing. I have kept journals, but it's limited materials.

And the instability for other people, I feel like much less people see the work at the sites I'm making it at. But the ones that do, it's this interesting and very special interaction. There've been some occasions where there’s a public gathering at the site, but it's usually this very solitary and intimate experience. It's very small-scale in that way. It's a large-scale space, but it's also there for just a little while, and not that many people get to experience it. To address this reality, I then sometimes show an aesthetic document at a later date in a different space.

When I work in a studio, I've created things that I never would have created on-site. The site is where I make sketches, and then I can execute more developed work when I'm home, on my computer, and it's warm. Or if I have a show to get ready for, I'll manage to find a space that's more usable to create the objects for the show that reference the displaced site. For example, I made a work out of hanging slabs, that felt to me like I would've never been able to make those at the site but they were directly related to it and informed by it. This process feels more creative to me than just working on site. Where you're like, “Okay, I'm photographing today, I'm figuring out how to get power today, I'm figuring out how to get the pump in the river to create this reflecting pool.” It's like it makes me more of a laborer than an artist.

These ways of working make you more of a laborer than an artist when you're on “site” or in general?

Yeah, maybe both. Granted I'm making things that are not functional in the sense that I'm not preparing bricks so the building can function again. There's some imagery of me digging to make a mini reflecting pool at this site while a construction crew is blacktopping the rest of the site, and I loved that. It would be so great, in an ideal world, if every construction site had an artist that explored the site as it's changing. And all the guys, the managers are like, “Oh, who's the artist on this project?” That was actually the dynamic at this space in Brooklyn. I was very close with the environmental remediation crew, they were really interested and amused, but also felt like, “Oh, this guy is allowed to photograph what we're doing?”

The artist can do what others cannot?

Yeah. And then you get into a conversation about the idea of the artist as laborer. Like in that video where I'm working with another worker as a way of making another work, a document that I thought of as labor and as art.

Since you mentioned that you're from New Jersey, and aspects of New Jersey have influenced your thinking, what’s your relationship to the work of Robert Smithson? To his dialectic of “site/non-site”? And, more generally, to “Land art” of the 60s and 70s? Is this a lineage that you situate yourself and your work within?

I'm fascinated by Robert Smithson. I think his work is great, and I'm equally fascinated by how he talks and writes about his work. He didn't really like maps — the most interesting maps to him are on the scale of 1 to 1. When I saw his work, it was transformative in terms of having treated the landscape as a drawing. He was very aware of how the site read as a photograph. He has these essays which feel more dated now. Like the Monuments of Passaic — you read it now, and you're like, okay, we're so aware of industry and what it does, but at the time, he's saying that this pipe is this monumental, beautiful thing. It's very much like how I'll look at a building that used to be a place where they made boilers and I'm like, this is a cathedral, some type of master sculpture, even though it was a functional thing. So there's definitely a connection to that. But there's a lot that's different that's going on with how I'm aesthetically interpreting the landscape and how I'm having people view it.

Based on the documentation that you've shown me, there appears to be a certain limit to what you allow yourself to do to a site. You're not actively reconstructing or deconstructing walls, etc. Instead, you're projecting imagery of the site back onto its various surfaces. Why is it important to you to have this type of ephemeral engagement with the site as opposed to something more permanent?

A lot of it has to do with the fact that I would probably not be able to access the site if I fundamentally changed it. It's a little like I'm a parasite.

It sounds like you take an extremely opportunistic approach to art making.

Yes, and I don't know how I feel about that. I think a lot of it's dictated by wanting to have a relationship with the site long-term. And then maybe to a degree it's also about respecting the property, and respecting what's there, because I know it's about to be changed. But yeah, if you think about Gordon Matta-Clark and what he did, I think that's so cool — he knew a place was going to be demolished, so he just treated the whole thing as a formal exercise and a laboratory. I think that kind of approach is awesome.

But to return to your question about my engagement with the site, maybe I could do something more sculpturally or architecturally interventionist with the imagery in a building that’s slated for demolition. I've never been in a site where you can do anything you want because it's going to be demolished. If that was going to happen, I think I would definitely also show projections, but there would be much less of a concern for how the building was and I would be more active in my treatment of it.

It can be constraining at times, in a way, to be like, “Oh, I can be here, I have access, but I can't do whatever I want.” When I was creating the ice on that building that I showed you, it got massive. I'm testing the limits, and I do test limits a lot. Recently, I re-diverted the river into my space using a sump pump because I wanted to create a reflecting pool as a canvas to make imagery of the site, and then I redirected the water back into the river after that. But that's definitely not legal.

Yeah, so I'm trying to get away with as much as I can to try to make what I want to make. I like how Smithson, towards the end of his life, was writing to strip mining companies wanting to use their sites as a place for another project of his. And they were all like, “No we're not interested.” But just the idea that these sites have already been so compromised that I can sort of do whatever I want is an interesting one to consider.

It would be so great, in an ideal world, if every construction site had an artist that explored the site as it’s changing.
— Daniel Phillips

I’d like to pick up on the comment you made just now about “limits” and the way that your work often tests the limits of a site, its developers, and/or the legal systems at large. How do these constraints in turn dictate the potential of your practice? And if there were no limits to what you could or couldn’t do on these sites how would you work differently?

The thing is, I know this about the sites, I know that they have limits, but I still choose to work on them. I think there's a often an unaddressed domestic component to the work I’m doing, where I'm trying to make these sites into a space that feels like my space.

To make them inhabitable?

Yeah, but inhabitable for myself. So maybe if there were no limits to the site I’d just turn it into my site. One of my teachers in art school described my process as an animal nesting — they collect materials and create a shelter that satisfies their personal needs. So maybe I do actually choose spaces that are not necessarily totally unstable, in terms of their future, because there's a certain level of comfort in that. Granted that they're they're severely compromised at the same time, and poised for massive change. But there's probably a reason why I'm not finding spaces that nobody cares about at all.

Another thing I was thinking about while you were talking is the way in which your reactivations of these sites position architectural structures as filters of and supports for the “natural environments” around them. Why is this important to you?

There's such a weight and impenetrability to these spaces. They're so massive and beautiful but they dominate your experience so much. In a way, it's like trying to create new space out of this space that you're never going to escape. Often, you can't go into the natural environments around them because you know what's happened there — it's absolutely toxic. So you try to make the spaces, at least in your imagination, more inhabitable or more malleable rather than just being like, “Wow, they must've done a ton of stuff in here, look at these bricks.” But I'm obsessed with that, too.

Just the materials, or?

Even like this barn that we’re in right now, I could show you all the parts of it, but then it's kind of like, “Alright, what do we do with it now that it's not a barn anymore? How do we think about it now?” It's almost like wanting to make it something other than what it is, but only temporarily, and using what's already there as a way to do that. I think that relates to the way that documentary projects tend to create narratives out of truth, out of what's there by making it their own.

Or at least what the “documentarian” perceives to be there and what they then present as their subjective truth.

Yeah. But the truth, too, is that you have these amazingly beautiful and formally set-up spaces. It's very inviting to be like, "Oh yeah, this would be a great patina, like look at what this paint is doing." But I do like the idea of doing something more than that. That's why I was interested in not just photographing a site. Even though there are beautiful photographs of places like Detroit and Cuba, the question remains, “What do you do with it now?” That's the easy part, to photograph it. Of course it’s going to look good. So hopefully my work does more just represent a site visually. But I'm definitely drawing from that and using these sites for their beauty, as a tool.

When you say you're using the beauty of the site as a tool, in order to do more than generate a beautiful photograph, what is it being used to achieve? How do you wield the beauty of a site, and to what end?

I guess to create something that feels like it's as beautiful as the space but is something else as well. When you see a great movie you're like, "Oh man, I wanna go make a movie now." Hopefully when someone is in one of these spaces that I've made they feel the same way like, "Oh man, I wanna go make a space like this." A lot of times I'm thinking about what someone might not see at the site and I'll try to document it and then show it to them in a different form through my work. That's a meaningful way to experience the space, especially when you can only be there for a few hours at the opening.

So are you interested in your viewers experiencing spaces differently as a result of experiencing the spaces that you've reactivated? Say, for example, I go to an opening of yours at one of these sites — are you interested in me looking at abandoned buildings in the future differently as a result?

Yeah. I'm not interested in someone thinking, "Oh, I have to pay more respect to abandoned buildings," but maybe more thinking like, "Oh that space that's abandoned could be used not just to break into, loot, and destroy."

From the perspective of a development company, it can sometimes become a liability to not acknowledge the histories of the sites under development. If I’m taking a cynical perspective, it's now "good business" to hire a team of cultural historians and artists and community leaders to tell the history of the site as a means of making the otherwise exploitative practices stomachable. Aside from seeing potential in these spaces and sites, is it also important to you that their histories are made visible and their stories remembered?

Yeah. That's something that I think about a lot. I heard the term "spatial memory" recently. That was powerful to think about, and I've been wanting to explore what that actually means. As I was saying earlier, I'm more interested in exploring the changes of spaces than their histories. I don't do much research on the sites, but I do love to talk to people that have worked in the spaces and listen to their stories. I'm not sure that actually shows up in the finished work that I produce. But if it makes you wonder about the histories of these sites and think about their stories, that’s good too. But again, I'm not really trying to address the specifics of the histories of these sites in my work, that's not what I'm after. But maybe it will be one day.

One of my teachers in art school described my process as an animal nesting.
— Daniel Phillips

Photos by Walker Esner