Dialogue with Krista Birnbaum and David Politzer

Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling

 Helping, 2006. Birnbaum and Politzer.

Helping, 2006. Birnbaum and Politzer.

How much time do you spend together? Do you live together or share a studio, or do you just get together to work on projects as they come up?

KB: All day, every day. Sometimes it seems that way, at least. We are married and live together. Currently our studios are in our home, and right next to each other. I can see David right now from my desk…

DP: Do I detect a sense of fatigue? Or am I projecting? We often discuss the need for a separate space for studio, one that is totally removed from teaching, cooking, sleeping, television, etc. Every time I’ve had that kind of space has been at a residency, and I’ve been very productive. But that could also be because it was a residency.

When you are working on something do you schedule structured time together in a physical space, or meet online, or is it more organic than that?

DP: We make art dates. One of us will say, “Can I talk to you about an idea? Maybe tomorrow after we go to the DMV?” We have to be specific and make these dates because new ideas are precious. It’s important to have a well-rested, well-fed, attentive ear…So on second thought, maybe after the DMV isn’t such a good idea.

KB: Sometimes it is organic as well. Waiting in line at the DMV could turn into a problem-solving session.

Do you keep your personal/professional lives separate, or have they become seamless and indistinct? Is this okay?

KB: I think the two blend together much of the time. Breakfast conversations about work are common. Vacations usually involve some art-making. Mostly, it’s okay and usually pretty fun. The harder separation is keeping teaching out of our personal lives and meal-time conversations.

DP: I try to make art and life as seamless as possible. In fact, she doesn’t know this, but the man Krista married is actually one of my personas. I like to call him “Über Hüsband.”

Can you, or do you, turn off your research/studio practice(s)?

DP: I have a difficult time turning it off. I don’t mind this too much, but I think that it might be irritating to others sometimes.

KB: So, when you say “others”…

When and how did you meet each other and under what circumstances?

KB: We met in graduate school. David was in his final year when I was starting. He made a video called, “Before we get involved there are a few things you should know” that basically listed all his negative qualities. Ironically, I found this incredibly charming. I decided to take on the challenge.

DP: Maybe we could collaborate on a piece called “Now that we’re involved, is that video still funny?”

At what point did you start making work together?

DP: I think we started giving feedback to one another from the beginning. In fact, one of the first one-on-one conversations we had was about Krista’s work. It was right after a graduate school critique. It went something like this:

David (Shyly) Hey, I think your work is um, like, really interesting. I know I didn’t say much in class, but um, if you like, ever want to, um…

Krista (Frazzled) Sorry, I think I need some air.

Was there a growing period, when you had to get a feel for each other’s process/priorities, learn how to communicate – or did you click right away?

KB: I think I understood David’s work pretty quickly. It took him longer to understand mine, maybe because my process was still developing at the time.

DP: When speaking to someone about their work, it is difficult to resist wanting to make it your own. I have a tendency (and I think most people do) to suggest changes that are in line with your own aesthetic versus trying to adopt the aesthetic of the work you are discussing. It’s even more difficult when you are enthusiastic about the work.

Do you gravitate towards roles in your practice – based on strengths, or personality, or skills? Or is every project a different kind of adventure?

DP: The most useful role either of us can play for one another is as “Doubt Destroyer.” Krista is good at reminding me what I’m good at.

How do you generate the concepts you work with? Do you draw, write, photograph, or do any sort of regular background practice? Is this a shared thing?

KB: We each generate the first seeds of an idea individually, then talk our ideas out together. This is a typical process for me. I first become enamored with some plant or animal. Currently, I’m crazy for these neatly trimmed hedges that are trained to grow over residential privacy walls here in Houston. I may take photographs or make sketches and then just THINK. David will ask me, what are you working on now? I’ll tell him my idea and where I’m stuck. He’ll help me troubleshoot or work through the concept. I’ll make a mock up and we’ll talk again.

DP: I get most of my ideas from observing social interactions and pop culture. I usually take pictures, write a draft of a script or make some notes. I like to have something tangible to show. Inevitably, Krista will point out the obvious problems that weren’t obvious to me. It’s usually something like, “That part was kinda funny, but you can make it funnier.”

How do you make choices and negotiate decisions about what direction to take with projects?

DP: Because we don’t collaborate in the traditional sense, we allow each other to call the shots and help facilitate in whatever way we are asked. Sometimes, in the heat of a shoot or the middle of installing a big project, we’ve been able to help one another with aesthetic or practical decisions. It’s easier to find solutions to problems from an “outsider’s” perspective.

Does your collaboration ever involve more people? If no, why not? If yes, then when and how does that work?

KB: Not yet. I don’t trust anyone else to be involved in my work in the same way that David is. It took me seven years just to trust David.

DP: Dear readers please note, we have been together for only six years.

Will you describe a project that didn’t work out or you didn’t follow through on? Can you describe something that you couldn’t agree on or you didn’t feel like you were both “into?”

DP: I would really love to collaborate with Krista in the traditional sense (this is not a euphemism) but historically, it hasn’t worked out. Once we made an endurance video where we hugged for an hour. That was awesome. And then we made a video where we tried to brush each other’s teeth. Also awesome. It was our Abramovic/Ulay period. You’ll notice (and be grateful) that neither of those videos are on our websites. Just recently, we tried again to collaborate, and after a couple meetings it became difficult to let go of our own ideas. The up side is that we had our own ideas. The down side is that we are unable to give up control.

What kinds of singular processes or practices, studio or research, do you maintain as individuals that you may or may not bring into the collaboration?

KB: I can be very stubborn about suggestions from David at times, which probably keeps us from making a body of “true” collaborative work. In terms of singular processes, I am very detail-oriented when it comes to my work. I can get very caught up in process and aesthetics. David is driven more by narrative. As I write this, these traits seem very compatible for collaboration. Which is probably why we can help each other so much.

Do you make your own work in addition to the collaborative work, and what sort of need does this fill?

DP: By now the answer to this is obvious. We have two distinct bodies of work, but they often involve assisting of one another. We often provide technical assistance and always provide critical assistance. The most frequent roll we play in each other’s work, physically, is as camera operator. Krista shot the majority of Rio Macho. I shot most of her mouse photographs. In terms of feedback, we’re each other’s first line of critique. Rarely does anything leave the studio until it’s been critiqued by the other.

If you maintain an individual practice as well as a collaborative practice, have you run into conflicts of interest, time-management/priority issues, or experienced communication problems due to multiple focuses at any point? How is this resolved?

KB: At times we feel protective of our own time. Because we are fundamentally progressing two distinct bodies of work, we may have overlapping deadlines and that can get messy. The resolution is usually that we have both set limits on how much we can help the other during these times.

What are the strengths in working collaboratively and what are the challenges in working collaboratively?

DP: Instead of strengths, I prefer to use the word “advantages.” Krista knows me, she knows my work, and she knows my aesthetics and my intentions. She knows my strengths and weaknesses, and all that informs how she talks to me about my work. Sometimes I think she’d be better at making my work than I am. Maybe this is how we should collaborate. The biggest challenge for us is patience.

KB: It’s like having a studio assistant, who is really smart, has a great skill-set (also not a euphemism), and that I don’t have to pay.

What sort of theory, cultural circumstances, or life scenarios influence or inform your decision to work collaboratively? Would you say that your collaboration is philosophically driven, or more pragmatic?

KB: Pragmatic. We have lived in several locations where there just weren’t that many other artists available to discuss work, or people who you could ask to spend a week in a cold, windy Monument Valley to shoot a video. (He still owes me for that one.) We are always available to each other.

DP: Sheesh! Didn’t I just bake you a batch of cookies? They’re chocolate!

If you teach, how does collaborative practice inform the way you facilitate student projects and teach studio courses?

DP: We collaborate a lot on teaching. We trade and share ideas all the time. I think we have been a tremendous source of support for one another in terms of teaching, but also in navigating all the politics and ups and downs of higher education.

KB: I think we are influenced by each other’s teaching style. I’m good at breaking down concepts and techniques into simple steps. David is really good at discussing ideas with his students. So we have a lot to learn from each other.

If you teach, do you co-teach? If you do co-teach, how has that been received by the students, and how has this been received in the academic institutions you have worked with?

Currently, we teach at the same school and in the same department, but not as a team. We’ve taught children’s workshops together.

Please point to us at a project or projects you would like to describe. Include links or attach files. If relevant, share with us a sense of the collaborative back-and-forth that may have gone into planning and making the work.

DP: The one good thing that came out of our Abramovic/Ulay period was a piece called “Helping.” The teeth brushing idea led to this video, which illustrates more ways we could help each another perform basic everyday activities. That desire to help isn’t always productive. I think this is an interesting piece to consider within the context of this discussion because it is about physically collaborating.

David Polizer was born in Washington DC and has since lived in Upstate New
York, Boston, Brooklyn, Glasgow, Oakland, Roswell, Youngstown and now Houston. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University. David’s work was shown recently at the New Mexico Museum of Art (Santa Fe), Vox Populi (Philadelphia), video_dumbo (Brooklyn) and in  a solo exhibition at the Museum of Northern Arizona. He was an artist in residence at Yaddo, the Skowhegan School, Roswell Artist in Residence, the Vermont Studio Center and Kala Art Institute. He currently teaches in the Photography and Digital Media Department at the University of Houston.


Krista Birnbaum received an MFA from Syracuse University in 2007, and a BFA from Miami University in 1999. Currently she teaches digital art and photography at the University of Houston, Texas. Mostly recently, she taught as an Assistant Professor at Westminster College, Pennsylvania. In 2010, she had a solo exhibition at ROY G BIV gallery in Columbus, Ohio, and was part of the group in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Previous exhibitions have included a solo show at the Buffalo Arts Studio, and group shows at Gallery Korea and Arlington Arts Center. Her videos have been included in national and international screenings.