For FotoFocus’s 2022 Biennial, the multidisciplinary artist created two architectural interventions centered around the act of looking

Even before quarantine, Ian Strange spent a lot of time working on homes. As a teen, he would run around Perth with friends, jumping fences and painting graffiti. Now he applies the same practice on a larger scale: Strange creates community-based projects and installs architectural inventions upon abandoned and decrepit houses. The Australian transdisciplinary artist has marked suburban homes across America, Japan, Poland, New Zealand, and his home country with bulls eyes, targets, and the words SOS, HELP, and RUN. Back in 2017, Strange worked with Virgil Abloh, making installations for Off-White stores in Melbourne, Sydney, and New York. Now he’s transitioning to lights.

Earlier this year, Strange collaborated with musician Trevor Powers on a durational sound and light intervention. Dalison was a performance staged in the middle of an empty suburb, with an LED video screen synced to Powers’s musical composition. The finished product is eerie and chilling; personally, I find it reminiscent of the Stranger Things intro.

His latest work Penumbra elicits the same sentiment, but without the music. Commissioned by Kevin Moore for FotoFocus’s 2022 Biennial, Strange created two new architecture interventions in Cincinnati. The project first began back in 2019, as a drawing in Strange’s sketchbook. There was a delay due to COVID-19, but after getting permission from the neighborhood and Cincinnati’s bureaucracy, Strange worked with his team from this past February to August, turning the small-scale idea into a large-scale installation.

Along with Penumbra, Strange worked with Moore on his first monograph, Disturbed Home—featuring all of his photographic, film, and installation work—and an exhibition where this work is displayed, alongside the research he’s conducted with the communities he’s collaborated with. Across the street, at the Art Academy Annex, viewers will be transported to the sites themselves. Inside the pitch black warehouse is a single screen, continuously running Strange’s films Final Act (2013), Shadow (2015), ISO (2016-ongoing), and Dalison (2022).

Strange sat down with Document to discuss the poetics of home, and to give an inside look at the process behind his transformative work.

Madison Bulnes: Can you tell me about the project you’re displaying at the 2022 FotoFocus Biennial?

Ian Strange: It’s a series of two light-based architectural intervention works, and a continuation of a larger body of work I’ve been making for the past 12 to 15 years. The idea was to create two interventions in Cincinnati, working with Cincinnati Museum Center, as part of an Art Academy residency. For FotoFocus, there’ll be a survey exhibition of my work that I’ve been making around the world with local stories and contexts.

Madison: What drew you to light and darkness as mediums for this project?

“There’s a lot of great writing about the poetics of the home, and it is people’s first metaphor. It becomes our way of seeing inside and out, like an index for our internal lives.”

Ian: Initially, my practice [dealt] with direct markings and cutting on houses and architecture. I’m interested in how you can affect environments through light—without physical touch. These works were created with powerful, direct, single-source lights. They’re about looking and the act of looking, partnered with incomplete anecdotal histories taken from the local museum. It reflects an imperfect way of looking at the house. I’m trying to map the psychogeography, the internal experience of a home, and the history of a community.

By illuminating, you create a massive amount of space that you can’t see, as well—it’s not a passive act. Both houses are lit with giant lights from the same angle; one light casts a shadow that illuminates and obscures, and the other uses the material for street signs to illuminate the house within, completely obscuring its details.

Madison: What sparked your transition from marking on houses to light work?

Ian: The first time I worked directly with light was in Christchurch, New Zealand. I was commissioned to do work in 2013 following the earthquake there, with the series of houses and the local academy museum. For me, it was about a lighter touch on the house. There is a long history of direct marking on houses; it can be seen as an obtrusive, aggressive act, or vandalism sometimes. That is not always the case, but it’s often implied. Working with the community in an area recovering from the earthquake, I was dealing with real people’s houses. In the history of painting and photography, [there is] this idea that looking at powerful light sources has an ethereal quality. It lends itself to a lot more poetry than a direct marking [does].

Madison: What is it like working with a lot of collaborators?

“One thing that’s interconnected through all my practices is the act of taking something incredibly familiar and making it uncanny—making the familiar unfamiliar.”

Ian: My background is in photography, film, drawing, and painting. A lot of these interventions come from sketches, concept drawings, and research photography. By the time these works are executed, the [completed project] is far bigger in scale than anything I could have done myself. In many ways, I’ve [taken] the role of a coordinator—someone who’s rallying people. There’s a collaboration with the communities and local organizations. There are big aspects of bureaucracy, and honestly, I’m lucky to continue to work with many of the same producers and collaborators along the way. Each of them brings something unique to the project that makes it more enjoyable.

Madison: How did you first get into large-scale projects?

Ian: It’s grown over the years. I’ve always been painting and drawing, but I studied film and photography. When I studied, I took an indie, guerilla filmmaker attitude to things; borrowing lighting, camera equipment, and working with friends. The projects were made up as we went along. When I first started making the interventions, RED cameras were new, and digital film technology—large and medium format—was available. There was technology and equipment that wasn’t available five years beforehand. I also had to think like a low-budget indie filmmaker. The hardest thing was explaining the projects and trying to get people to understand what I wanted to do.

Madison: What stands out when you choose which houses, cities, and communities to work with?

Ian: An invitation is the most important thing. It’s important for there to be a will, want, and need for me to be there, and it needs to be driven by the community there—which can be the local community, curators, festivals, organizations, or local groups. There has to be enthusiasm for it. Secondly, the projects sometimes start from a story that’s already there, innate in the experience of visiting and embedded in those areas.

Madison: Where is your home? What does home personally mean to you?

Ian: It shifted. Before COVID, I would have very much identified as nomadic. I had been in New York for about 10 years. I came back to Australia for two years during COVID, ending up back in my hometown. I would have identified as a transient artist who traveled for projects. I have accepted that [being transient] is part of my life and the work that I make. Only recently have I been back in the US, and traveling again for my projects. I’m not sure I can answer at the moment, because I am a little bit unmoored. Certainly my studios and communities are important to me, and the creative communities I work in; my studio is always the place where I feel most comfortable and when I get to be around my family.

Madison: Do you think being back in Australia and quarantining for two years has changed your creative thinking process surrounding homes?

Ian: It changed my relationship with it. I started thinking about the interiors of homes and ideas of stasis, entrapment, safety, and the notion of a threshold with a door. The outside suddenly became presented as a place of danger and the house as a place of shelter, in a literal way; it was interesting to me. I also found that there was a new interest in my interventions. People started seeing my work with the home in a different light. Before the pandemic, broader notions of shelter, safety, security, threat, and home were something people had varying experiences and understandings of. Now, I think there is a global interconnector with a home, which shifted my work’s viewing perspective. A viewer would have a new understanding of it as much as I do myself.

Madison: What first drew you into creating work focusing on homes?

Ian: A few things. As an artist, I spent a lot of time in cities and urban centers, and I started having an interest in photography, film, and the mark-making process of LARPing. I wanted to make something with architecture that felt familiar to where I was from. I like that there’s something highly charged, symbolic, and iconic with a push and pull between the specific and universal that can be drawn from the home.

There’s a lot of great writing about the poetics of the home, and it is people’s first metaphor. It becomes our way of seeing inside and out, like an index for our internal lives. This psychogeography behind [homes] is deeply, ever fascinating to me. I have been working with this repetitive motif in my work for a while—and I don’t think I thought I’d still be doing it now—but it keeps revealing things. I find more ways to interact.

Madison: Do you still find the projects engaging?

Ian: I’m definitely in a position where the technical aspect of [the intervention] is not something that concerns me as much. In the beginning, when I was first making this type of work, there were so many unknowns about how I could technically pull it off: whether we’d have the right equipment, or how it would reproduce. There was a lot of worry about the technical delivery, alongside the conceptual delivery of the work. Now, I’m [working] with experienced teams and have my own experience in making these works, which allows me to dive in more to the conceptual underpinning of the project that’s always changing and growing. With this work for Cincinnati, it is the largest scale thing I’ve done—in terms of the ambition and width of frames. I’ve never shot this wide before. I’ve never shot at these elevated perspectives and heights before.

“In the history of painting and photography, [there is] this idea that looking at powerful light sources has an ethereal quality. It lends itself to a lot more poetry.”

Madison: The finished photographs for this work look otherworldly—was that your intention?

Ian: One thing that’s interconnected through all my practices is the act of taking something incredibly familiar and making it uncanny—making the familiar unfamiliar. At a foundational level, if my work can do that, it’s successful in my mind. I’m trying to work out what is a bold, singular gesture I can create to allow people to resee their house. A lot of that is technical; it’s getting permission from the city, turning off all the other streetlights, and asking neighbors to turn their porch lights off and move their cars. There’s a lot of work into making it feel surreal.

Madison: I didn’t even think about those little details—there is so much effort going on behind the scenes of your work.

Ian: A big part of the collaboration is having people excited about the work and wanting to help. I work in quiet, suburban streets where things like this don’t happen often, or ever. I think, because of that, people are excited and generally very happy to help out.

Madison: What is it like actually being on the sites, building your interventions, and bringing your ideas to life?

Ian: I’m lucky to be able to do this sort of work. It’s often a lot of work, but I love that aspect. When you have a great team of people, it becomes fun. Most of the time, as an artist, I’m working either by myself or with a small group of people. There are periods of a couple of months where it’s intense, and there are people everywhere. Then I go back into my little studio hole and hide from the world to work on the next thing.

Penumbra and Disturbed Home are on display at the Art Academy of Cincinnati: Site 1212 until December 9, as part of FotoFocus 2022 Biennial: World Record.