Susie Asado

Sisters: A Conversation

The following is a conversation with my sister, Anja Conrad. In February 2015 she shot the footage of the “State of Undress” video in her hometown of Oberursel. We plundered her closet, which is more like a costume department, and ran around town taking portraits of fictional employment. These portraits are loosely based on a series of photographs of my sister’s called “Men at Work.” The images are of men in all kinds of working situations: construction workers, ice cream vendors, balloon salesmen, and window washers.

JOSEPHA:
How long have you been working on the “Men at Work” series?

ANJA:
Seemingly all along. I was sorting through my old negatives around 2007 and discovered these portraits of men working, and it made me remember what it was like to photograph in the street back in the nineties. Cheerful construction workers would kid around with you and start a fun conversation and eventually ask to be in a picture. But in between these posed images of workers, there were also the ones that caught them in some private moment, not confronting the camera. These were the portraits I started to get interested in and continued to shoot with intent. I like the idea that the workers called for my attention, and now they’ve got it. In 2009 I started to exhibit “Men at Work” and in 2013 I made a portfolio of 15 prints. I still want to do more with this project.

JOSEPHA:
You told me you are calling the stills you took for “State of Undress” “Susie at Work.” How do these images relate to your “Men at Work” photographs?

ANJA:
“Men” and “Susie at Work” are about seeing work as an identity. The “Men at Work” series are portraits of men that I do not know anything about and attach their momentary activity to a work-related identity. By calling them balloon salesman and street cleaner, etc. I am pondering questions about labor, immigration, and the socioeconomic landscape men navigate today. And “Susie at Work” is about your identity, your ideas about work. A personal and psychological journey that is also part of my history. The depth of what we were doing started to dawn on me while we were working on your video. We, sisters from a house of similar dreams, now middle-aged, noticing what we have not become, and what we have.

What was your experience of this? Did you think of my “Men at Work” while you were writing “State of Undress”?

JOSEPHA:
The idea wasn’t there when I was writing “State of Undress.” The song wasn’t much of an idea when I started. Just a list of the things that I wanted to be. I didn’t think it would really work as a song. But when we recorded it, I knew it needed visuals, for the humor to come through, for the tragedy to come through. It was then that I thought of “Men at Work.” I love your images of these hard-working guys. They have changed the way I perceive people at their jobs. Especially the people working out in traffic, cleaning, fixing buildings or selling things at street corners. I guess I started to see myself that way too: loading up the car with gear, packing and unpacking before and after shows, putting on makeup, being a Susie secretary sitting at her desk answering e-mails. Imagining me inside one of your photographs made me work harder. Seriously. So then to actually get to star in all these images of yours is really amazing.

ANJA:
Yes, images can be powerful and influence everyday situations! For example, when I descend large staircases I think: “I am ready for my close-up,” imagining that insane look on Gloria Swanson’s aging face in Sunset Boulevard.

JOSEPHA:
I guess for me the real difference is that “State of Undress” is a list of future dreams and wishful employment and that “Men at Work” are not fantasies. These are documents of men doing their job, although your photographs of them seem highly fictionalized. How do you create this sense of fiction? That a street-flower-salesman in the rain seems like a fantasy job? And some of your construction worker shots: they look like portraits of heroes.

ANJA:
I get to live out my romantic and slightly morbid side with this series. I adore men and I am especially enthused like a proud wife or mother when they work hard. This desire might make these photographs look fantasy-hero-like, wishing for them feelings of pride and that they know that they are needed and greatly appreciated. This adds a bit of glitter and fairy dust. Do you identify with these working men? If yes, in what way?

JOSEPHA:
I always wanted to be hard-working. I liked the idea of getting dirty from work and I imagined myself a kind of hard-working dude when I grew up. I liked the idea of power tools and driving trucks. I didn’t turn out to be one of those guys though. It remained a fantasy. Even power tools are still a fantasy, I am utterly afraid of them. But I love driving and I can get nerdy about my instruments and gear. We only grew up with seemingly traditional gender roles. Our mother always made us aware of gender being a construct and of breaking out of imposed roles. Talk about someone who was never afraid of power tools or getting dirty from work. When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?

ANJA:
At art school. I discovered that I liked the method of photography. I was able to take pictures like sketches, until a picture emerged that interested me. This way I was able to find my way into a series, or make painting-like singular works without having to deal with a blank page. Blank pages gave me “writer’s block.” Working in photography also seemed exciting back then and more contemporary. Learning about film and photo theory and what happened once humans were able to fix “reality” in a photograph was completely mind-blowing to me and still is. Also, using equipment and chemicals back then and computers today are a challenge. I want to know how that stuff works.

JOSEPHA:
Are there other things you really wanted to be? Want to make a list?

ANJA:
Groundbreaking architect, film director, painter, scientist, thinker, composer, athlete. The groundbreaking part is key here. Another part of me wanted to be pretty and seen, like a model or an actress. But the need to be masterful with equipment, and be the author of my work, dominated.

JOSEPHA:
In what ways do you think our upbringing shaped the things we wanted to be when we grew up? Clearly the “groundbreaking” comes from our megalomaniac lineage, our privileged upbringing.

ANJA:
Yes, but it’s more complex than that. Our parents came from extremely modest backgrounds and made something grand of their lives. Our mother is from a mill in the countryside of Austria and our father a refugee of former East Germany. He had no consistent secondary education, not to mention a university education. I think he started working when he was eleven. On both sides of our families there is a code of working hard. Of millers, cooks, of fabric merchants and lumber workers. At night we would hear our mother’s sewing machine motor on and our father coming home late from work to continue with the clicking sound of the typewriter. There was always a restlessness, a busyness, and an endless doing and fixing of things.

JOSEPHA:
Yes, I think the image of the hard-working dude came from our mother and her brother. They were always moving things around and our uncle was always using power tools and losing fingers roofing and doing construction work. All the adults around us were also making everything up as they went. Selling china, selling antiques, fixing houses, and our father with his totally made-up career as an advertiser. Ingenious and brave.

ANJA:
Yes, everything was about working hard and being brave about it. No one complained about working, and was too proud to admit that it was existential. Mom as hairdresser, seamstress, electrician, minor surgeries were preformed at home, etc. It was normal to do things ourselves, and there was a general mistrust of professionalism. Maybe not mistrust, more a belief it was a waste of time and money. Why pay for things we can do ourselves. A “problem” I still suffer from today. Time passes with constant busyness around the home instead of freeing time for “masterful art creations.” Also, the notion of relaxing was a no-go at home.

JOSEPHA:
When I look at the photographs and video footage you took for “State of Undress,” in many of the shots I feel like I look like you. Of course there are the direct references of me playing you as the “photographer” or as the “mother” posing with your kids, but I feel like in the other shots I’m also playing you in some way. Do you think that is mainly because we were plundering your closet? Or is it because we are sisters and simply look alike?

ANJA:
I experience this often when I work with people. At the end of the day, when I see my reflection, I am shocked that I do not look like the person I just photographed. Something happens when people work together, and we have worked together a lot! Remember when I made you repeatedly throw your pants up in the air in a Colorado laundromat? The final image I chose of you was about my feelings about laundry. In a way I use the bodies of others to express my feelings about things. It seems normal that images I take look like me, or at least like a wishful me. But you are right, as sisters we started out very different. You blond and blue-eyed, me dark and black. But as we get older, with our gray hair we have started to look like proper sisters. I was shocked when viewing the material at first as well. An out-of-body experience.

JOSEPHA:
When I look at the images I love to see so much of you in me. Damn, now I feel like we should have re-shot that Gloria Swanson Sunset Boulevard moment. We should still do that. Write a song about becoming one in our aging faces and then shoot each other being Gloria Swanson. Something like that. Another question: what about your closet? I feel like your closet is a collection of costumes much more than a typical closet of clothes. Everything looks like it is used to dress up as characters. When you get dressed in the morning, are you dressing up as a character?

ANJA:
Oh yes, let’s plan our next project, I am ready for our close-up. About dressing up, it depends. I do try to choose situation-appropriate clothing, and choose a bathing suit over a raincoat to go swimming. Most of all I prefer clothing I can work and move well in. When photographing, for example, it is helpful to wear something comfortable, flexible, and sweat-absorbing. And it is important that the clothes stay in place when bending around. When photographing in the streets it is also helpful to not look too flashy, so people do not notice you too much. And when photographing a client, it helps to look clean and professional, or even a little modern. Then they trust that you can handle the technical aspects of photography and come up with a contemporary look for themselves. So all this requires a lot of specific clothes.

But yes, you caught me, I love to be different characters and I am a mad collector of clothes. Dressing in pastels, snuggled into the dream of ice cream, wearing shades of off-whites, thinking of white doctor shoes and Catherine Deneuve. And then dress like a surrealist thinker-man and then as the angry villain-queen. This passion has often made me look out of place. I have kept most of the clothes that were given to me by my family even though I rarely wear them, and keeping all these clothes clean and organized is a time- and space-consuming hobby.

I also dream of designing the ultimate outfit. A uniform-like ensemble that crosses all desires and memories. A perfect uniform to work in, dance in, go out somewhere fancy in and sleep in. Then I could get rid of all the clothes and only keep this one.

How do you feel about clothes and wearing them? Is there a difference in how you dress on stage to how you dress every day? Are there situations where you wear costume-like clothes in real life?

JOSEPHA:
Yes, there is a difference between what I wear on stage and what I wear every day. On stage I try to go for the fictional, something I would not put on every day. In the beginnings of Susie Asado I even wore high heels, but then I hurt my ankles and I got too scared to wear them. I did love the alien feeling of them, how they instantly postured me into someone else, something quite artificial. I also wear makeup on stage, which I don’t often wear during the day. But all of this is changing, I’m having more fun dressing up in general. I am also having fun undressing. I don’t mean that literally. Being simple about wearing less. Something to mirror the skeletal pop, the stripped-down songs. I certainly wish I was one of those ladies always taking off her clothes and owning it. I have also dressed up as Susie secretary in the hope I would quit procrastinating and answer my e-mails. It worked! Maybe there is less of a split now between who I am on stage and who I am at the supermarket.

When you take pictures of me, I always feel like you are playing the photographer and I am playing the model. Maybe this comes from having played stuff like this as kids, but I wonder, are you performing the photographer?

ANJA:
Yes, I feel like I am acting the role of the photographer. You have been my muse since childhood and I made you into my subject and object. I used you to represent my feeling. As the photographer I assume the active and director-like role, and you are my submissive beauty, following my instructions, being made into my art. It makes sense that it developed that way, since I am your older sister and often had to take care of you. Maybe becoming the photographer and you the model was the next step to our childhood roles.

And you really do have amazing magic powers that can get caught on film and drug the viewer. Like in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies where he describes the face of Greta Garbo: … “that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.” You definitely got much of that Garbo face effect!

JOSEPHA:
I’m not sure about that, but I certainly like becoming something else in an image, and drugging the viewer is an interesting idea. We’ve been doing these “photo shoots” since we were in high school, so since the late eighties / early nineties. How do you feel about documenting me as I’m getting older? I secretly hope we will be doing this forever and at some point we can have a huge retrospective. Oh megalomaniacal dreams.

ANJA:
Yes, I am aware of the years and how the dynamic between us changes and continues. And I am mostly so happy that I have an ally in the creative process. I am really looking forward to doing this forever with you. I do think a lot about aging these days and I am secretly very happy that we still have some youthfulness in us. I am not ready to be older yet, but since we both do not color our hair, we seem to be open to it, maybe even shaping it. I do think that both of us will maintain bright sparkling eyes. I love that in older people, when you can still see the child in them.

How do you feel about the stage and how did you start to integrate it with your writing? I often envy you for being able to use your body in your art.

JOSEPHA:
I guess it was the stage that integrated my writing with my body. I didn’t think about it so much when I first started performing songs with Philipp. We were just singing songs. But being up there in those stage lights did something to me. It let me become larger than I initially imagined myself. Suddenly I was doing weird stuff with my body. Becoming more artificial, more playful in my movements and performance. I would let myself act out whatever impulses I was having. That has stayed with me and I keep building on that. I love the unpredictability of performing. That strange moment where you have to run with your mistakes and the audience. And yes, the utter physicality of it. The sweat, the nerves, the heat of the stage lights, and the weight of the instrument.

This takes me back to your photographs though and the video “State of Undress” that we made. I love how the physical gets tangled with the music. I feel like the photographs complete the music. Thank you, Anja!

– If you would like to see the video for “State of Undress” go to the video section of the website . . .