“I couldn’t find a studio I could afford in Houston, so I came down here to Pasadena and called up the Chamber of Commerce. I asked them, ‘Do you know anybody that rents artist live/work lofts?’ The woman on the phone went silent. So I said, ‘Okay. Do you know anybody that rents metal buildings in Pasadena?’ She said, ‘Oh, of course!’ and gave me a guy’s phone number. A half hour later, I was standing here with my new landlord, working out a lease.”
We are driving in Bill Daniel’s truck on the interstate and he is talking a mile a minute, about how he ended up in a town best known, if at all, for the rowdy country and western shitkicker bar Gilley’s, where the mechanical bull craze of the late ’70s began. The highway is flanked by an ominous skyline of oil refinery towers capped with burning flares – the industrial sublime of the Houston Ship Channel’s infamous petrochemical corridor – and while we drive, he keeps up a non-stop tour guide chatter. Bill points out an ordinary Shell gas station low to the ground, and tells me: “The locals joke that place has the freshest gas in America.”
Think of just about any youth subculture from the past three decades. Punk rock, skateboarding, graffiti, freight hopping – Bill Daniel was there, taking pictures, way before it was cool. His friend and collaborator, artist Barry McGee, tells me, “Bill is the genuine article. He is always twenty years ahead of the curve.” Indeed, few can keep up with the pace of the itinerant ‘PhotoBill’ – who has spent much of the past decade driving around the USA in his famed Orange 1965 Chevy van, screening his films and showing his photos everywhere from museums to backyards. Now Bill has up and moved again, leaving San Francisco to build a darkroom in a corrugated warehouse deep in the heart of Texas.
While many know him for his photos of the early ’80s Austin punk scene, Bill’s documentary masterpiece, Who is Bozo Texino? (2005) is still the best entry-point to his work. The film tells the story of his own decades-long freight-hopping adventure in search of the true identity of the elusive hobo legend, Bozo Texino, whose name Bill had seen graffitied on hundreds of boxcars around the country. Bill hops freight trains around the United States, interviewing railroaders and hobos about the lost lore of the rails. While in the end, he does in fact learn Bozo Texino’s identity, the true story of the film is the search itself, that endless romantic search for authenticity, action and adventure that is at the heart of all subcultures.
But as his own punk rock and freight-hopping roots become the subject of fancy coffee-table books – and his old neighbourhoods become too expensive for artists to live in – Bill has long since moved on. Since the release of Bozo Texino, he has screened the film at 300-plus venues around North America – emerging, in the process, as a kind of wayfaring legend of the underground himself. For his most recent tour, Tri-X-Noise, he even created a mobile gallery – using his own portable walls and lights – and exhibited his still photography in a new town each night.
Now, Bill claims he is staying put for a while, in Pasadena, Texas, where he is documenting the effects of climate change and rising sea levels on the manmade landscapes of the Gulf Coast – and the aftermath of increasingly powerful superstorms like Hurricane Katrina – using an 8×10 view camera.
Recently, I caught up with Bill in a truck stop in his new town “just outside of Houston” for a lively talk about survival tips for young artists, the impossibility of making meaningful art in today’s gentrified cities, and, of course, the endless search.
You’ve relocated to a place where it isn’t possible to buy a New York Times or a Starbucks in a twenty-mile radius. Your idea of living as an artist would strike terror in the hearts of just about any artist I know back where I live in Brooklyn…
The thing is, Pasadena ought to be crawling with artists. From here, we can get to the Menil [Collection in Houston] in twenty minutes! But it seems like artists like to live in nice places where there’s recycling and cafes and liberal politics. Places where you’re not confronted daily with bumper-stickers that are offensive. The reason I’m here is I don’t need that stuff so much. And if we define our job as artists as illuminating the human condition and understanding it, then well here it is [motioning to the truck stop around him] this is the way the majority of people think. It’s sad but its true. And the big cities are becoming so homogenised in so many ways.
I think people today tend to forget that the places like New York in the ’70s where interesting subcultures began were actually more like the rough-edged and industrial landscape of Pasadena than the calm and safe cities they’ve become today.
Well, I can paint a picture of historic self-sacrifice. Like, ‘I’m going to live next to the toxic oil refineries and none of those artists have the courage to do this!’ But, the truth is, I like it here. I want to be close to the story. My early punk photography was done as an insider, as a participant. I’m trying to act on the same impulse today. I don’t want to come down here to get the story. I want to live here inside the story. If you are a war photographer, you need to go be in a war. If you’re Ryan McGinley, I don’t know… you need to go where the naked models are jumping off cliffs into the river. [Laughs]
It seems to me that much of your work has been about that search for The Story. There’s a kind of restlessness in it as you move from one subject to the next. How did you first get onto the subject of Bozo Texino?
It was like musical chords struck. That day in Dallas – maybe 1983? – standing next to the Santa Fe yard. A train went by and I saw these strange little markings. I recognised it to be something I didn’t recognise. It was a whole body resonance. I had the feeling like this is what I have to do. I have to find out what this is. I was seized by it. Recognising that you don’t recognise something is a rare and awesome thing to feel. Especially at this point where we see so much and our vision is so amplified by our devices and our connectivity, we don’t often see something that we can’t just instantly identify.
Back then, punk rock and freight-hopping had not yet become overlapping subcultures. In fact, I would say that it was your article in Cometbus in 1991 that brought them together for the first time. What was it like, back then, to leap into this new unmapped subject?
Well, punk is such a good point of entry. It can bring you to the world of ideas or to that sense of collective agency, that what we do matters. But you have to go through it to the other side and take those values into another arena where it’s going to be what you can do for the rest of your life. In the cosy little music world of Austin, I lived in the perfect neighbourhood, the rent was cheap, there were cool people around, every night there was something going on. But I heard the call and knew I needed to go someplace else if I was ever going to do what I needed to do.
Yet, your process today has remained very much connected to punk. You book DIY tours and relentlessly take your work around the country in a van. Very few artists have taken that kind of Black Flag approach to getting their work out there.
Early on when you start going to punk shows, you realise that new things come from people in vans. They show up and unload their gear and play music you’ve never heard before and it might change your life.
Speaking of vans – I see you’ve still got your orange van in your warehouse, set up as a sort-of guest room.
Yeah, whenever I can get a photo assistant to come out here, they stay in the orange van. There’s a futon, some Christmas lights. It’s not so bad! But in terms of my practice, the orange van is Exhibit A in the concept of Object/Metaphor/Tool/Embodiment. Because we are poor or because we are subsistence-level creatures – artists who don’t have external monetary input, whether its money from the outside whether it’s corporate or trust fund or the benefits of advanced degrees – everything we have is a tool. You can’t own anything that doesn’t pay its own way. Like, you have a vehicle because we live in America and you have to drive across town. But a car won’t do. A truck won’t really do. It has to be a van because then you can put all your stuff in it and drive across the country. You can sleep in it. It gives you mobility and a potential place to live.
But it’s also a piece of art and communication. Later, I made it into The Sail Van, which, using the tool metaphor, made the van into a sculpture. I had sails rigged on top of the van and they were movie screens onto which I projected video at shows. I showed it at Yerba Buena Museum under the name of Souls Harbor. So, The Sail Van was a tour vehicle, a home, a sculpture, and a movie screen. It was the intersection of post-freight-riding-punk survivalism.
What is next for you and your work?
That’s the question! It’s great that there are a million bands and zines now and that more people ride trains and more people are taking great pictures of trains. Sure. But on the other hand, so what? What is the next thing going to be? What is the next movement or moment? It’s like that day in Dallas when I first saw the train graffiti, when I knew everything changed. As an artist you have to be open to feeling that, to look for it even. For me now, the closest thing to that is photographing the landscape of the Gulf Coast.
What is it about the Gulf that has drawn you here?
The aspiration of making photographs here, in the centre of the global petroleum industry [Houston], at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, is to somehow bring all these big ideas together – fossil-fuel accelerated climate change, hurricanes, sea level rise, the production of petroleum, the whole colossal industrial era boondoggle – and make it reverberate on an individual level. I’m not at all talking about trying to motivate people to become environmental activists – I feel that should be our obvious responsibility by now […] But I’m also driven by a simple, innate love for the Gulf Coast, the water, the birds, the clouds, the shore… and for some reason I’m fascinated by the enterprise of petroleum production, maybe because I love internal-combustion machines.
[Bill and I are sitting next to the truck stop’s soda dispenser area and just then, we notice that the large-size cups have, strangely and inexplicably, started to slowly loosen themselves from each other and tumble, one at a time, onto the floor. Bill motions to the falling cups as if they illustrate his next point.]
See? What is the most essential condition of existence? It’s entropy! It is things going from order to chaos. And here on the Gulf Coast, that’s order turning to chaos and nature erasing man as fast as man can try to put it back together and it plays out in a raw and visually interesting way. The fact that it is embodied in the oil business is conceptually perfect for my work. Our whole civilisation is built on cheap fossil fuels. Energy allowed us to do all these things. Houston is the fourth biggest city in the country. But the landscape here is clearly and irrefutably an ancient seabed that is on its way to being one again. The oceans were here and they are now coming back.
Does this give you a kind of punk rock revenge fantasy?
Yes! [Laughs] A giant, colossal, epically slow-motion revenge fantasy! Of course I won’t be here to see it complete, but every day I can see it winning a little bit. You gotta have something to hold onto, right?
People ask me why do I live on the Gulf Coast? Well, here I can see geology getting revenge! I can’t go downtown and start my own Occupy Movement. But if I get just the right photo at the right angle you can see my side is going to win! I guess one revenge fantasy would be to go up to a redneck’s truck and key it, but another would be to just watch it all fall over
Tri-X-Noise, published by Radio Raheem Records, is out now.