Greif Alumni: Q&A with Liz Calvi


Liz Calvi’s work was first featured in our Guest Room curated by Johanna Neurath, the Design Director and Head of the Art Department at Thames & Hudson, in 2017. Calvi’s practice encompasses photography, video, writing and installation works with critical concerns regarding performance, sexuality, autobiography, identity, and digital media. Calvi received her MFA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths 2019 and her BFA from the University of Hartford in 2012 after studying at Pratt Institute. We caught up with Liz to ask her a few questions about her practice and the series.

Der Greif: Firstly, welcome Liz! What have you been up to since we featured your work?

Liz: Thanks, Francesca! I can’t believe it’s been almost 7 years since Der Greif first featured my work. A lot has happened in that time…long story short I went to Goldsmiths from 2017-2019 to pursue my MFA in Fine Arts. While there I met Irina Bourmistrova of Seager Gallery and upon finishing my degree we put on my first solo show in London, Shadow Screens in 2019. We’ve been working together since then and put on Corporeal Glitch in 2022, which was a two-person exhibition exploring the state of the image in a post-photographic, cyborgian, and image-driven society. Additionally, I started teaching at the University level in the United States right as the pandemic started, which was an intense introduction to teaching to say the least…but I’m also grateful to have gained resiliency from that experience to navigate future challenges.

Der Greif: The image of yours which was featured in our Guest Room is from your series “Moments of Being”. Would you be able to expand on the inspiration behind this work?

Liz: Moments of Being was my nod to Virginia Woolf in which I was exploring this heightened space of self-exploration and discovery – finding the moments where I truly felt alive and myself in a world that often discourages exploration of an authentic self. While most of the images in the series reflect my experiences, I also included the experiences of those closest to me; my sibling and best friend, and how our experiences overlapped. We were all in a state of self-discovery with few representations we could relate to. At first, I used the camera as a witness - it was my visual diary which I used to see the world reflected back to me that truly was my own. Then I took a directorial role in which my characters and I could play with fantasies and desires that are embedded within the American psyche.

Der Greif: Your work often seems to blend installation, sculpture, and moving image. Can you speak about how you began working with multiple mediums? How does photography or the still image connect to these other forms for you?

Liz: While at Goldsmiths I began blending multiple mediums. Although I was exploring a female gaze in my work which was very diaristic, many of my critiques circled back to the idea that a female-centric narrative was lost in the fragmentary and static nature of the photograph. The moving image was the first logical way to bridge this gap, although I would describe my moving image work as quite fragmentary too. I don’t like how mainstream cinema makes narratives so clear-cut and predictable. However, I also don’t think every image needs to lose this inherent fragmentary nature so I focus on how the format and presentation of the image can add to the narrative. Since my work tends to revolve around the body, I began to consider how spaces and materials have historically oppressed or been equated with a female body and how I could reclaim or subvert these associations. For me, the presentation of the image depends on the function or purpose behind the image I am exploring.

Can you speak about your experience as an educator? How do you balance your personal practice with teaching?

My experience as an educator has been and will always be a learning experience. While I do see a separation between my personal practice and teaching, I don’t think the boundaries are fixed. Photography was first a tool for me to better understand myself. I wanted to use my practice to empower others to use the medium for self-reflexivity and liberation as well, which is also what I aim to do as an educator. Becoming an educator allowed me to continue exploring with a student’s curiosity but also as an ally and support, while my students do the same. My students may not always be aware of how they influence my work, but I find I am having my own private discoveries along with them that influence my practice. Corporeal Glitch was influenced by my early experience as an educator as I was reflecting upon what I had not been taught due to the narratives an American academic hegemony had prioritized. Seeing where my students were coming from reaffirmed that I needed to explore new narratives and made me consider accessibility as I was teaching at various Universities and colleges with differing student backgrounds. Honestly, it was extremely difficult balancing my personal practice when I started teaching during the onset of the pandemic. I had no course content made at that point, no established relationships with institutions and despite having so many restrictions, academia also lost a lot of boundaries. I was expected to be generous with grading policies and office hours to the point where it was normalized to always be digitally available for students. There was a huge shift in balance for maybe the first 6 months of becoming an educator and then I was able to slowly chip away at my practice again by working with found negatives in the evening. At first, it was sometimes only for 30 minutes but eventually, that grew. Now, three years later I am lucky to have established solid relationships with various institutions and to have built up enough course content that I am back to a more equal balance.

Der Greif: What is one valuable lesson you’ve learned through photography?

Liz: That photography can teach you to really see the world around you. Our attention economy inundates us with so much content that it can be so easy to be asleep to the physical world and hyper-tuned into the digital. Photography can slow us down to better understand ourselves and each other. In that sense, photography is a social tool - it can give you a voice, it can be your witness when you feel alone, and it can give you the ability to connect with others you ordinarily never would meet.

What role does the history of photography and representation play in your work?

Representation has always been key to me. I began exploring representation first as I felt my experiences were not accurately portrayed as a young queer woman. There is so much presentation of selfhood digitally today that I like exploring. I don’t know if I’m more interested in the history of photography or more how women have historically used photography to advocate for representation. My current body of work is exploring a feminist history of sexual representation and subjectivity, so I am generally interested in how women and non-binary people have portrayed the body and how they have translated their subjective experiences within an image.

Der Greif: What happening right now in contemporary photography particularly excites you?

Liz: I love the contemporary photographers who are using the archive to reclaim and re-narrate both personal and universal stories. Narratives hold so much power within the fabric of our existence. As a society, we have so much potential for growth if we analyze historical narratives, narratives embedded in our cultural consciousness, as well as the daily narratives we tell ourselves.

As an artist who has experience working both in the United States and in the United Kingdom could you describe any differences you see between the photo/art communities in both places? What led you to move to London?

I initially moved to London to go to Goldsmiths. Besides a few low residency programs, I felt academia was too narrow in the US for me at the time. I loved the individualized and deep research aspect that Goldsmiths promoted within a larger global context. I wanted to expand my education and experiences within a larger art world, and I feel the UK is more globally tapped in vs. the US. The most apparent difference I noticed when I first came to London was the opportunity for independent art collaborations. I was astounded that it was commonplace for artists to apply for funds from the Art Council of England to back art projects/exhibitions/events in the UK and to receive funding. These types of government grants are much more competitive in the US. Within a year of arriving in London, I collaborated with two curators who received government funding to put on an exhibition. In that regard, I think artists have more freedom to create their own visions outside of commercial gallery spaces in the UK. It allows the opportunity for more artists to thrive and for a wider range of audiences to access to these spaces.

Der Greif: Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us what’s in store for you next?

Liz: Mostly working on my practice and teaching are my priorities right now. My current body of work, My Girls is still in its infancy so I will be continuing my scanned college work with the vat of negatives and magazines I’ve been accumulating. I also have a list of libraries I’d like to research at so I can incorporate various other archival ephemera in my work. I’ve also been working on a continued collaboration with a character from Moments of Being. She is one of the most important people in my life, and we will always be making photographs together. Thanks for having me!