Peter Clay Diller (born 1989) is a photographer and performance artist/storyteller currently living and working in Columbus, USA. I came across Diller’s work when I joined Tumblr a couple of years ago. Unlike many users, Diller posted his own images on the platform, under the title TheInsubordinate. I was taken by the clarity of his images and vision, which is informed by a reflection on the self in relation to physical and emotional spaces. An acute observer, Diller’s essayistic practice veers from a formal documentary mode to intimate explorations of desire. Earlier this year, and many conversations later, Storm Projects had the privilege to support the production of his first zines. The interview below has been compiled from a recent email exchange.
Where and how do you live?
I am currently in Columbus, Ohio, working as a bartender in an old porcelain factory on the wrong side of the tracks. It is also the same place I have my studio.
How do you describe your practice? Could you perhaps also talk about the impulses that motivate you?
Impulse is a good word because it feels like a compulsion. I donno though, my practice is something that evolved pretty organically and mostly when I wasn’t looking. The impulse is rooted in my passion for media literacy.
Previously you have mostly channeled your images via tumblr. You have just published your first zines. How did you arrive at this point and can you describe this journey?
Tumblr first became an outlet for me in 2010, a time when I was living in St. Louis, Missouri after several years outside the States. I was also coming out and mostly selectively reposting others work interspersed with a bit of my own (not only online, but in my life in general). By 2011 I was posting only my own work, only in black and white mostly for the sake of uniformity. It was a space without barriers that I could confront my own pride and shame and explore what it might mean to actually find oneself. Eventually it began to feel like I was just spinning in circles, telling myself stories.
I started conceptualizing the zines as an escape from my digital anonymity. I like the physicality of that format. It’s tangible, gives me total control, and aligns me with a long history of radicals who printed and disseminated their perspectives with total disregard to establishment. Also, producing and trading them has been a great way to get to know other local artists and their work.
I am fascinated by tumblr, and other image communities. How does / did it serve your practice? And why have you ‘left’ the platform?
Initially tumblr was a space away from Facebook, a space where a person’s digital avatar wasn’t inextricably linked to their physical person, networks, and consumer identity. I used my tumblr to introduce myself to people online and have made contacts whose influence on my work could never be measured. Over time the lines between myself, my practice and the facets of myself I’d represented online became blurred, yet defined in a way I’d never experienced before. In the last year the site began to feel like an archive rather than a living project. This was the culmination of TheInsubordinate.
I haven’t left the platform though.
(But you have stopped posting to it? I can rephrase the question a bit, but could you perhaps discuss your decision?)
The story I’m straying away from telling goes like this… I had been feeling like the project was coming to a culmination for sometime. I hadn’t posted in a while and felt really stifled because it was my only outlet. I had never promoted it and was very careful to not align myself with it in order for it to continue to be a free space for me. I decided to post it to a local closed facebook group for Columbus artists..
“A four year visual diary in reverse. Ignore the dicks, enjoy the scenery” I’d hoped to raise some eyebrows while letting go of the project, but the algorithm decided the post was relevant material for my Mother to be shown on Mother’s Day. Every faggot’s worst nightmare, right? Turned out to be a dream come true. There are no secrets in my life now. The site seemed to fulfill an almost subconscious purpose.
Could you talk about the technical aspects of your work? What camera do you use? What makes you select an image once you review it?
I use a 10 megapixel Casio i bought when I was 15 with my summer mowing money. It’s become an extension of myself. I look for full sets when I shoot, full frames of balanced light and dark. I shoot pretty nondescriptly. When I photograph others, if they are aware of the camera, I usually ask them to tell me a story to get them distracted from the camera.
When I select my photos it’s usually the same, I look for the images that distract me.
Could you describe your conceptual and formal concerns?
Aesthetically my loyalties lie in early American surveying and documentary photography. There is a bluntness to it. I also like the idea held within those photos of showing the “dark interior” of America to Europe. Outside and even within, there is a branded America we see in movies and television, but the nuanced cultures within the country are often overlooked.
I also like the similarities I see between early photography and images captured through webcams and online gay cruising culture. This realm especially affects how I make a portrait.
Do you think of things in terms of bodies of work? Themes? What for you is the glue that keeps the images together?
I am the glue.
I am constantly on the hunt for narrative in my life, whether its visual, oral, or physical. In my photos, line and alignment are dominant themes. The settings, or stages, presented in my photographs are the backdrop for the natural forms that inhabit and rebel against those symmetries. What holds the images together is the fabric I’ve woven in my life as a storyteller.
Your work is thick with eroticism. Could you talk more about this aspect of your work?
A lady never tells, at least at first.
(I need more here – could you elaborate perhaps?)
The perception of possibilities within the male body were so limited in the greater culture in which I was raised. I really just want to do my part to broaden the spectrum of beauty.
Would you object to a queer reading of your work? Are you engage with / in sexual politics and aesthetics?
No & Yes
(Could you elaborate a bit?)
A Queer reading of my work is welcome, but it might be redundant since I don’t make the work solely for a queer audience. But it’s digestion outside the queer audience also changes it somehow. I was once told my work was “smut”. I really liked that.
When it comes to sexual politics, that’s everyday for me. Columbus, Ohio is the world capital of mid-level consumer culture. It’s home to one of the nations largest universities as well as several of its bigger banks. In fashion, Limited Brands, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Victoria Secrets (just to name a few) are all headquartered in this berg in the middle of the corn fields. We have one of the countries oldest private arts college but the fine arts scene seems to be perpetually on the cusp. Something really cool is happening in our arts community right now though.
It’s a really fun place to explore queer failure. After all, Columbus is America’s “test market”. Companies love trying out their products here.
Could you discuss how ‘place’ informs your practice? On one hand I see your work as a visual diary, perhaps because of the encounter through the linearity that a tumblr timeline dictates. However, the zine made me reconsider that somehow.
I’m a terrible gambler, but I’m getting better at playing my cards.
(Nice! But not entirely sure you answered my question.)
Totally did, TheInsubordinate was me playing War. The zines were me attempting to play poker.
You are also a storyteller. How did this start? How does this relate to your photography?
I don’t know when it started, but i’ve always gotten in trouble for talking too much. As a child, telling stories was an attempt to control how I was perceived in a culture that made no room for me.
I can’t tell you how many photos I took of myself in the privacy of my childhood bedroom in the hopes of finding myself attractive. I got my first digital camera when I was twelve and it was an opportunity to take images of myself I KNEW no one would ever see. Photo’s had always been a way for me to privately organize and digest the world as I perceived it as well as learning how to control those images and the messages they disseminated.
How do you see your practice developing? Any new projects and interests coming up?
I want to continue to make zines, to no end. It’s really rewarding to me. Giving them away is even more rewarding. I see it as a great way to exchange with others and open myself to new possibilities. I am currently in residence with 400 West Rich arts, a multipurpose arts facility in East Franklinton, directly across the Scioto River from Downtown Columbus. It’s an incredible community.
I’m pushing my pictures right now, but my dreams are still in motion. I think it shows in my photos, I love capturing movement. I had made a lot of films as a child on an old VHS camera my family owned. When I was a teenager (and trying really hard to pass) that tape surfaced of a child not so bound to ideals of masculinity… I destroyed it. I regret that.
I also plan on continuing to hone my skills as a verbal storyteller. I see it as the oldest art form. There is a local scene that I participate in whenever I can. It’s something that comes very naturally to me.
We have often spoken about love, and you mentioned that you find love everywhere. Where did you encounter it most recently?
Her name was Funto. She came to my bar in an ivory cocktail dress and ordered a Bombay and Tonic in a voice that sounded like birds. She seemed to walk in love itself.
Find Peter’s images here and his stories here