July 9th, 2008 | Interviews

dan monick

Tamala Poljak spent two years preparing for Conversations That Never Happened. She speaks now to Drew Denny.

I was glad so many people came out last night to see the show and support it, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t a way for me to explain to each person the history. When I was a kid growing up in L.A., my family worked a lot. I was kind of a latch-key kid—you come home from school, folks gone but maybe they left you some leftovers, so you make your plate, sit in front of the TV and eat. Throughout my childhood, I spied on my neighbors next door—you could see them from my mom’s bedroom window. They had the same 6 o’clock dinner every evening: set the table, milk for the kids, wine for the parents, salad tongs… I spied on them for years and years. I was obsessed with them. I connected the dots and realized ‘this family is really different from mine.’ As I got older, I realized I had formed this fascination with watching people eat because I didn’t eat with other people for the first 15 years of my life. When I started eating with friends and extended family, I would study all their mannerisms. It hit me in my mid-20s that the dining experience is this opportunity to get to know people, to have intimate conversation—just review your day. That was something that I didn’t experience. I didn’t feel sad about that but as I got older, I realized it was really important to me. I decided to start photographing people having meals and documenting the conversations. There are 225 photos in the show. Each image is 10” x 10” and mounted in giant grids on the wall. The set is designed pretty much identically to the dinner set the family next door had. It took me nine months of thrift-store shopping to find it! Each person ate something different. People typically picked their favorite food, then towards the end people couldn’t pick their favorite cause it had already been done. So people started getting creative—bringing flowers and dog biscuits.
When did you start?
About two years ago. I took a lot of time off in between. I didn’t want to rush anything. I just wanted to let the conversations happen. I thought I wanted to do 50 people for a show or a book, but as I started shooting people I realized that the focus of the project was starting to shift a little bit. It was starting to become about community. I just couldn’t stop asking people to participate. Like, if I had met you when I was still shooting, I’d be like, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m doing this project… Do you want to have a meal with me while I take pictures of you?’
So not all of these people are people you know well?
A lot of people brought friends. I wanted it to be like six degrees of separation. I think I succeeded because last night I kept hearing, ‘I know that guy!’ But I never thought—
[As I flip through her images:] I know that guy!
See? I never thought that it would turn into 225 images. There’s a film in the show, too, which is made of the outtakes. It’s a twenty-minute short animation of all of the images and looks like a flip book. There are 10,000 images total! My co-curator, collaborator and friend Anna Oxygen and I wanted the show to be interactive and participation based. She did audio interviews of people in the community and Chinatown about their childhood dining experience. The audio is playing while the video is playing, and you’re sitting in the dining room set, and you’re surrounded by all the photographs. It takes up a whole room. We’re having four different events starting with a TV Dinner Night: Lisa Marr and Paolo Davonzo from the Echo Park Film Center curated a 90 minute program of film shorts about food, dining, and community. We’re going to project it within the installation, and everyone will bring their own version of a TV dinner. There will be TV trays, so we can sit there and eat and watch TV together. When talking to people I learned that, like myself, a lot of people ate in front of the TV.
That’s how I ate! Every single day.
Very few people told me the story of sitting down at the table with their family and talking. This has been a healing process to sit down and recreate that experience. The TV dinner night is the first event, then we’re having two dinner-theater nights in the gallery. Katie Byron, an installation artist and set designer, is building a set and my partner, Paloma, is creating a seven-course vegetarian meal. There are 12 different performers: Becky Stark, Steve Gregoropoulos, a magician, somebody playing the hammered dulcimer… The second night, the same thing happens but it’s potluck for people who can’t afford to pay for the seven-course meal. They can just bring something to share. The final weekend, we’re doing a mystery secret picnic cafe that’ll be installed inside the gallery. Christina Billotte from Quix*o*tic is gonna play, which we’re really excited about because she hasn’t played in a while. All the events relate—they all explore social rituals that revolve around food. People think the show is about food, but it’s not. They think it’s about photography, but it’s not. Photography is one of the mediums. It’s really more of an exploration of social rituals around this thing that we all do. And for me, it’s been a study of peoples’ mannerisms and ways they relate to each other—how things shift when you start talking about family. All the walls come down. The next time I see people, they’re like, ‘I feel so connected to you because I told you about my crazy father!’ I mean, I could tell you intimate stories about these people. There were a few people who came in to have their photo taken, and what was revealed about them by the end of the meal was a completely different person than I thought they were. That was really powerful. It just goes to show that we judge each other so quickly, and it was a really big learning experience to realize how very little you know about a person unless they are a very dear friend. Sadly, a lot of people told me very traumatic stories about childhood. Very few people said, ‘My family was great!’ But there were some. The thing that was also interesting is that some people didn’t remember. At all. Inevitably, the conversation would shift from childhood to some other aspect of life. But it was a nice starting place to immediately get into an intimate but comfortable place.
Well, once you get that out…
Right! After that, people would talk about the experience of having a stroke or say things like, ‘I’m a polygamist.’ Crazy shit. I was photographing someone that I didn’t know was a lawyer, and they told me that they had to take the bar exam fourteen times. Things like that that you’d never know. Or weird things that people remember, sad stories about being forced to eat… I wish I had recordings. I started here because this is my community, but I’d love to go somewhere else—somewhere I’ve never been. That’s what I’m interested in. The random people you meet. Like last night, the strangers who walked into the gallery who don’t know anything about the punk or underground community—I want to meet them! But I like that people can be fluid here. The same part of me that writes music is the part that makes any kind of art. This last transition was a little weird cause I’d been on hiatus from everything for about 5 years. I still read about art, went and saw art, listened to music—but I needed a break so I could remember why I do this. I just had to get back into a daily practice. Conceptual projects are great cause you get to talk about them with other people and that’s part of the process. It’s all about surrounding yourself with people you want to be like—though lately I’ve been wondering if that means I should start hanging out with more rich people!