If you don't know who Nik Nerburn is, you're about to!
Nik Nerburn is an artist working in collaboration with place. He makes films, books, photos, and zines. While working as an educator and exhibiting artist, he also develops long-term documentary projects that tell stories about communities. He organizes free family picture days, storefront photo shows, live-narrated neighborhood home-movies, marathon polaroid portrait giveaways, and rural outdoor experimental cinema screenings. Guided by the belief that sharing stories can create bridges across great differences, he collaborates with neighborhood organizations, public housing residents, churches, corner stores, families, small businesses, after-school programs, non-profits, libraries, and museums. He lives and works in Duluth, Minnesota, on the far western edge of Lake Superior.
Nik is one of my favorite artists, hands down. He makes you laugh. He makes you care. He is a sincere and engaged artist, and there is an authenticity to his approach that I admire dearly. So, enjoy the interview! He references Lucy Lippard so you know he has to be cool! Also, make sure to watch The Great American Think Off when you are done with the reading!
Keep on making Minnesota proud, Nik, and thanks for answering all of my curious questions about your art practice!
Jes: Nik, tell me more about your book The Grand Terrace Photo League. I read it recently and I love it dearly! I reminds me a lot of a Photovoice project that I have done with folks I work with at Avivo. What is your project and how did it get started?
Nik: Thanks Jes! It is similar to the Photovoice project in a lot of ways. The Grand Terrace Photo League grew out of a collaboration with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP) and Artplace America. SWMHP has a program where they bring artists in to work with the organization, in their service communities, or, in my case, directly with the residents of an apartment complex that they’ve built in Worthington, Minnesota. I ran an after school photo club for resident youth, shot lots of family portraits, and generally made myself and my photo practice available to building residents.
My goals were to activate the communal space in the building, document the daily life within the apartment complex, and actually provide something useful to the folks who live there. Sometimes the portrait-making process was loud and raucous, and other times it was quiet and intimate. Curious friends and family would drop by and find themselves involved in setting up or taking a photo, youth participants would help direct subjects and organize equipment, and residents would ask questions of each other and learn about their neighbors by flipping through that day’s collection of prints. In the end, we made a beautiful 96 page photo book documenting the process, copies of which were donated to over 100 local libraries and individuals (including everybody in the building).
The project was an exercise in what I call “useful photography” (a term that I use rather than “family” photograph, which I based off of Rick Prelinger’s “useful film” theory of advertising, industrial, and home movies), collaborative ethnography (which is a riff on the colonial legacy of ethnographic and anthropological documentary storytelling, which, thankfully, has been totally turned on its head the past few years by a subjective, often POC gaze, with ethnographic subjects often in control of their own representation), and a place-based research residency in a Middle-American immigrant community. So yeah! Trying to do something new and different with a documentary project while also being present to the needs of the community I was working with.
The litmus test of an image’s quality wasn’t if I liked it - it was if my subject found it pleasing, or fun, or important to them. I was absolutely interested in representing daily life in Grand Terrace to the outside world, but my first audience was always the building residents. This meant often making images I wasn’t primarily excited about making (prom photos, for instance), but instead images building residents wanted to see. Rather than emphasize the “window” power of photography (a view into a distant world you’re not a part of), we used the camera as a “mirror” (to show building residents how they wanted to be seen). My aspiration is that together, the residents and I could split that hair and do a little bit of both.
I have seen you describe yourself as a “documentary storyteller.” How does that present in your art? What kind of stories are you looking to tell? Where do you find your stories?
My practice has been a bit of a back and forth between still and moving images, and I’ve always been interested in telling stories from the real world. I’m also deeply committed to regionalism, which Wendell Berry described as “local life aware of itself”. So I spend a lot of time looking right around me, to the culture and history of where I live.
Another place I look to is archives, both formal (like libraries) and informal (like home movie collections). A few years ago, for instance, I made a film about the myth of Paul Bunyan and how he’s been used to erase the legacy of the U.S.-Dakota War, which was an absolutely enormous war of extermination against the Dakota that was instrumental in the consolidation of the Minnesotan state. While researching the history of the Red River Logging Company, whose ad executive William Laughead invented Paul Bunyan, I found a collection of photographs that made me pause. Laughead had a lumberjack pose for him doing “manly” lumberjack things, like splitting a log and flexing his muscles, which he would then draw Paul Bunyan from. Before I saw those photos, I had only thought about how the story of Paul Bunyan helped erase the Ojibwe and the Dakota from Minnesota’s past. I hadn’t really thought about how Paul Bunyan has also influenced how we think about masculinity in Northern Minnesota. It took a trip to the archives to do that. And it had a big influence on how I thought about my film.
Place, memory, and community are themes or subjects that come up in your work. Where does that interest inspire from?
I think having artistic and politically engaged parents who grapple with these subjects really primed the pump for me to do the same. The American legacy of genocide, slavery, and expansion have a lot to do with it. But it’s also specifically the vernacular, backyard, roadside and “small h” histories that interest me. A major part of my education is in the essay film, home movies, and vernacular moving image forms, all of which are first-person. They foreground the hand of the artist. Breaking down the “voice of god” documentary form happens when we uplift personal histories, especially those on the margins of our shared colonial/genocidal heritage. And for me, it’s not about creating a new dominant narrative that’s more “woke”. It’s about fundamentally questioning the idea of the single story, especially about rural life, small towns, and the landscapes of Middle America.
Lucy Lippard, whose work I love, writes that “narratives articulate relationships between the teller and the told, here and there, past and present. In the absence of shared past experience in a multicentered society, storytelling...take[s] on a heightened intensity”. Stories are how we place ourselves, not just geographically but historically. As somebody highly sensitized to the power of place, I can’t not hear and tell the stories that help me make sense of the landscape. Everyday knowledge and vernacular histories are how I enrich my own knowing of sense of place. This is why my interest really is in narrative, as opposed to just film or photography as mediums, you know?
What is your art process like? Do you go after an idea or do you wait for ideas to come to you?
I practice unstructured time. I budget a few hours into my schedule to go for a long walk, take a leisurely drive, or take a deep dive into the library. I’m a real believer in the chance encounter. It’s a bit of both. As I get older, I feel like I’m getting less interested in making didactic work, and instead embracing a bit more ambiguity. Some of the work of mine I’m most proud of came when I let go of my sense of control.
I’m always questioning my assumptions about place, and stories that contradict my assumptions are always exciting. Recently I’ve been using my own family’s immigration history and genealogy as a source of inspiration, but I’m still in the research phase of that work.
You have a new documentary called The Great American Think Off. I am really excited about seeing it. I understand it’s about the New York Mills annual philosophy competition. I would love to know more about the film. Who is in the film? What is the competition? Where one can view the work?
Yes! OK here’s the deal: every year, rural New York Mills, Minnesota, population 1,199, hosts a philosophy competition for everyday Americans. Four people from around the country are chosen to debate in front of the citizens of this west central Minnesota town, arguing over questions like “Does Life Have Meaning?”, “Does Technology Free Us or Trap Us?", and "Does Poetry Matter?”. At the end of the competition, a new Great American Thinker is chosen by a citizen vote in the high school auditorium.
Each year, residents of the town propose the question for consideration. The New York Mills Cultural Center, which hosts the debate, then solicits submissions from around the country, encouraging writers to consider the question using "personal experience rather than philosophical abstraction". Past contestants have included a truck driver, an assembly line worker, and a prisoner on death row.
I made a film about the 2018 competition, which features a stay-at-home mom from Nashville, a chess champion from Virginia Beach, a business consultant from Austin, and a barista from New Orleans. The film is a classic contest documentary, following these four remarkable people as as they each reflect on and debate the 2018 question: what has more of an impact on shaping one's life - success or failure? I won’t spoil it for you.
The film debuted on public television in the region, and will have a re-run on May 31st at 11:30 am. Pioneer is also hosting the whole doc on their website, so you can watch it there!
It’s a really beautiful example of a story that contradicts most people’s assumptions about small towns and rural places. Why shouldn’t we expect a philosophy competition to happen in a town of 1,000 people?
I’m working on a sequel this year, where my mom participates as a contestant (true story).
I am an artist who practices with video that hates to sit at a computer for hours at a time. I think that’s why I have gravitated towards painting lately. I spent a great deal of time between 2013-2016 working on films where all of a sudden I couldn’t do it anymore. How do you manage the computer side of things when it comes to working in photography and filmmaking?
Excellent point. Part of my recent transition to more still-image based work has to do with being unable to handle more than a few hours on a computer each day. It can be a grind, especially when you’re not making money at it. I’m a believer in having a place to work that you can shut the door on - sharing your immediate living space with your computer work space is a no-no. I really try to prioritize being in the world with a camera, which is what made me fall in love with this type of work in the first place. Part of that is having an analog photography and darkroom practice, but it’s also about being intentional about finding ways to use image-making and storytelling as a way to spend time with people. I’ve transitioned to a standing desk and I use some of those gamer-glasses to keep out the blue light. I’m not convinced they work, but they make me feel cute.
"Slowing down with film gives me the break I need from the digital world," Nik says. "This is the old Bethel Swedish Church in Duluth, Minnesota, one month before demolition. Neighbors think that squatters started the fire. I shot this on an old camera with some old film, which made me feel really good."
What kind of resources have you been able to use as artist to help your career?
I’m a strong believer in residencies as ways to jump-start and re-focus your art practice. I find opportunities on the Springboard job board and on MNartists.org. I also think a conference or two each year is a great way to connect to people in your field.
Do you have advice for an emerging artist trying to figure out how to create a sustainable art career?
Part of the challenge as a young artist is taking your own work seriously. Maybe for some people it’s easy to call yourself a real artist, but for a lot of us it’s not. Call yourself whatever you want, but don’t be afraid to take your work really seriously.
I really appreciate Ira Glass’ advice to young artists regarding taste. As creative people, we have good taste, which is why we’re so often appalled at the quality of our work. We know what good work is, but it can be a struggle to make it. It takes years for our work to get as good as our ambitions. So, it’s important to just create massive amounts of work. You’re more likely to take a good photo if you just take a lot of photos. So get to it!
Also, I’m a strong believer in self-qualified education. I don’t have an MFA, which limits me in not being able to teach at a university, but it also relieved me of a certain debt and has challenged me to make my work relevant and accessible to everyday people, rather than academics. I think we all have a lot of learning to do, no matter how much we’ve gone to school.
Where can we find you online?
My artist website is http://www.niknerburn.com. I’m also pretty active on Instagram. Find me at @datanodata.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thanks for the chance to riff on this stuff, Jes! Much appreciated. Shout out to all my fellow artists making it work in the big wide open landscapes of middle America.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.