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Interview

Michael Swann: My work is mostly inspired by themes of mysticism, faith and phenomenology

text:
Futures Photography
Date:
March 2, 2021
“I find great interest in trying to make work about themes that aren’t naturally visual.” In this interview, meet Michael Swann, who joined our platform last year nominated by the British Journal of Photography.

Michael is a photographic artist currently completing his MA at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). His work explores aspects of religious belief, mysticism and phenomenology and aims to understand how photography can be used to communicate such themes. Michael’s latest body of work, Noema (2020), follows the search for the Virgin Mary’s presence in two locations in which she has reportedly been seen.⁠

Below, he talked to us about his career and inspirations:

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Can you tell us a little bit about your inspirations? Which themes do you often work with?

My work is mostly inspired by themes of mysticism, faith and phenomenology. I find great interest in trying to make work about themes that aren’t naturally visual, and the research phase is a really important time for me to experiment, build structure and let visual ideas form. My project ‘Noema’ looks at two examples of Marian apparition that occurred in the 20th century, but does so from less of an anthropological perspective and more of a conceptual one, as it follows my search for signs of the Virgin’s presence in these spaces and aims to represent the auras the two locations possess as a result of what happened there. I am heavily inspired by music and film, and look to both for guidance on every aspect of my practise, from narrative and visual style to sequencing and editing the work. For me, music in particular is a great way to help me stay on track with a project and I’ll usually have a playlist of tracks that I listen to while shooting that helps define the feel of the work I am making at the time.

How do you see your relationship with the medium? How do you use photography to express your art?

I use photography as a way of outputting research and reading; the process of forming a project always starts with an intrigue towards a theme or subject I want to learn more about or spend time thinking about, and photography is a way for me to take this new information and play with it in a visual, creative way.

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Do you have any ongoing (or more recent) project that you would like to share with us?

I have recently started researching my next body of work, which is tentatively titled ‘An Ascension’ and will explore aspects of my Catholic childhood in relation to the development of my sexuality. I’ve been reading works by theorists Sara Ahmed and Jose Esteban Muñoz recently, and have found real inspiration in their ideas, especially with regards to the language of orientation and the concept of queer futurity. At the moment this work is really in its early stages, but I’m hoping that once various lockdown restrictions ease up in the UK, I can start to get out and make this work.

We have been facing a lot of challenges this year. How do you see this moment for art? Is it changing your practice?

The last year hasn’t so much changed the way I go about making work as it has changed the ways I go about motivating myself. I’ve never found it easy to be productive in my home space, and so the lockdowns have meant that I’ve had to find new ways of focusing my attention, to some fruitful ends and some not so. I’ve tried to use the time to think ahead, make plans for where I see my work going and to research. For art in general, there have been challenges but if any group of people are going to thrive in such a time its artists, because when so many modes of standard practise are unable to continue, artists are the first to re-imagine their practise, or develop new ways of producing and disseminating their work.

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Can you share with us some of your plans for the future? Do you have any new project in mind?

Currently I am focused on ‘Noema’ and bringing it into a physical setting as both a book and exhibition. The work hasn’t been exhibited yet so that’s my next goal, and I’ve been working on the book dummy for a while. I’m hoping that this year I can put the work out there in a physical sense a bit more. With regards to new work, aside from ‘An Ascension’ which I touched on in a previous question, I am also looking at doing some smaller, more experimental series as I find these to be a really useful way of trying out new ideas or making work about subjects that don’t feel as though they need loads of research. I have started working on a series inspired by the 1921 silent movie ‘The Phantom Carriage’; this year marks the 100th anniversary of its release and it was a film so ahead of its time and a genre defining moment in cinema, I’d like to pay a bit of homage to it.

What did you expect from this experience as a Futures talent?

In 2018 and 2019 I went to Unseen festival in Amsterdam where Futures exhibited the work of the previous years’ artists. I remember walking around the exhibitions thinking to myself “I would love to be a part of this one day”, so to be included in the 2020 selection of artists was an amazing thing for me! I don’t think I had any expectations going into the experience, aside from wanting to see the work of the other artists and be inspired to keep creating (which is more necessary than ever these days!) The Futures festival back in October was a wonderful thing to witness, both in terms of networking and education, and going forward, I’m just excited to see what artists are selected next year and hope I can be active in the next festival.

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