> Photography for Everyone
> Freedom? Hacking and Visibility
> Satisfying the Establishment or the Crowd
> The Political Economy of Being an Artist
> Visibility is Significant
> Commodification of Culture
> Embracing New Optics and Perspectives
> Concern Lies at the Heart of it All
Mishka Henner’s work explores and subverts the value of photography in today’s media-saturated world. In 2013, he was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Art and shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. He is also shortlisted for the 2014 Prix Pictet.
His works are held in the Tate Collection, the Centre Pompidou, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Portland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has exhibited internationally in numerous group shows and surveys, and is a member of the ABC Artists Books Cooperative. He lives and works in Manchester, England.
Photography for Everyone
NFS: Your ‘Photography Is’ book really seems to want to evoke new debates on photography, which is very much the essence of this project and could perhaps be best summed up by fellow NEWFOTOSCAPES contributor David Campbell in his blog post, “So rather than ask what photography is, perhaps we should probe what it does, how it does it, and who does or does not want it to work in particular ways.” How did the ‘Photography Is’ idea come about, what has been the reaction and have any actions resulted?
MH: The book came out of a frustration with what I considered to be a rather limited discourse about photography in the Photographic community (with a capital ‘P’). When you spend time absorbed in the magazines, the text books, and the blogs, it can seem like a limited number of voices dominate the conversation. And the same is true in the world of photobooks, gallery exhibitions and blogs. It’s easy to start believing that the borders of photography are determined by a tight-knit, enigmatic, and institutionally-backed cartel of decision-makers and followers. But the truth is very different of course and the great thing about photography is that in its practical applications and its emotional resonances, it really does belong to everyone, irrespective of status.
Freedom? Hacking and Visibility
NFS: Your recent master class on image hacking in Birmingham, UK, opened up lots of ideas around impossible authorship, mass appropriation and the potential for exploitation that digital media brings. It tracked live flights across the sky and watched container ships sail real-time in the Gulf, zoomed in on Iranian nuclear plants and found gold and diamond mines in Australia and Peru. Perhaps the most terrifying thing was just how easy it was to access this kind of information on the Internet…
MH: That’s right, it’s all just a few clicks away. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
NFS: You also showed a 600-page document that you found online, used by secret agents on how to ‘use’ the Internet, teaching Google Hacking and the Invisible Internet. How did you find this, and why did you decide to share it publicly online?
MH: Someone sent me an article about a freedom of information request which resulted in the document being available online. The most surprising thing about it is how basic the level they’re teaching their experts is. I expected a lot more but it tells you what most amateur internet users probably already know.
NFS: Which makes the whole openness of the internet event more terrifying. But if I talk to an Ethical Hacking and Network Security computer scientist, and he’s describing real cyber attacks, it sounds like something out of Star Wars. Does the fact that the Department of Homeland Security and Executive Office of the President have tracked you worry you? Are there certain countries you’d avoid going to…?
MH: No, I’m sure they’ve been browsing the work for pleasure rather than searching for anything sinister. National security is hardly being threatened by the work I’m doing. Then again, their behaviour of late has reflected a state of such excessive paranoia that it’s difficult to know for sure.
Satisfying the Establishment or the Crowd
NFS: How is it do you think, that your work and approach successfully seems to satisfy both the gallery establishment, as exemplified by your selection to the ‘Deutsche Börsche Photography Prize’ in 2013, as well as enthuse new audiences who perhaps engage and embrace attitudes of democracy, such as self-publishing for instance, offered by the new media ecologies?
MH: My work exists in different formats that can travel seamlessly from one to the other; prints on walls, jpegs on a screen, books in the hand. I’d like to think that at the heart of my works are ideas that can be legible in any number of forms.
NFS: I’m interested in how your re-appropriation of images disrupts value systems, creates new appreciation and commercial markets. This is something we are interested in exploring here at NEWFOTOSCAPES, and the idea of digital technology changing the ways that commercial markets work around photography. So with Less Américains for example, you scanned photographs from Robert Frank’s seminal photobook on American street photography from 1958 and erased more than half of the content using Photoshop. Les Américains is regarded by many in the photography world to have an almost sacred value ? and the original prints are highly collectable with a corresponding price tag. But it’s interesting that your work has sparked fresh interest in Frank’s photobook, brought about new appraisal and appreciation as well as a very lively debate about the irrelevance of originality and arguments for plagiarism in the digital age.
MH: I don’t know if it’s sparked fresh interest in Frank’s original but I hope it’s altered the way some people look at it. The question of who images ultimately belong to is interesting to me. So much goes on in the way we process and remember them that it’d be naïve to suggest images are stable and permanent, which is one reason for making Less Américains.
NFS: It’s also interesting to hear that you’re potentially on the cusp of a relationship with an American commercial gallery, who are specifically interested in the opportunity to sell copies of your Less Américains prints…
MH: The prints have a different quality to the images in the book and I’m curious to see how they’ll be received in that arena.
NFS: That’s really interesting. What do prints offer for you and how will they build upon the ideas of the work?
MH: The scale, production values and context in which they’re seen means that prints are different to books in any number of different ways. For example, if we were to make an exhibition of this book we’d no doubt have to rethink the entire project and find a way to make it work on the walls. It’s not always a straightforward translation but it does allow you to transform the relatively confined presentation of a book into a more expansive physical space offered by the gallery.
NFS: Did you ever send Frank a copy?
MH: I did, with a personal note.
The Political Economy of Being an Artist
NFS: Less Américains is one of a number of print-on-demand books you’ve made through Blurb, do you see self publishing as a commercial avenue of work or is it more a way of building new audiences?
MH: I’m selling more books now than I ever did before and it’s helping to bring in some financial support but not much. Selling books is about sending ideas out into the world; it’s not a viable way to earn a living.
NFS: When you made ‘Astronomical’, a twelve-volume photobook representing a scale model of the solar system, you made a short video showing you flicking through the pages and uploaded it to Vimeo, which was picked up by New Scientist and has since spurred more than 400,000 views. That’s a pretty fantastic amount of people. In fact, it would take around 10 years for an average-sized publicly funded gallery to get those kinds of audiences. Are you more interested in how people discover and engage with your work online, in book form, or in the gallery, or is it that you find all forms of interest?
MH: The advantage of the Web is that huge audiences around the world can be reached very quickly with the most basic tools. All you need is a good idea and an internet connection. But the consequence is a viral work quickly becomes superseded by another item just a few hours later. That’s the way it works. Whereas an exhibition will sit there for two or three months and is a physical thing that isn’t just for the eyes, which is another dimension that can’t be matched by only showing work online. So there are serious limitations to existing solely online and I’m producing more and more work for physical spaces. There’s also something more fundamental I’m starting to learn about the political economy of being an artist which seems to have very little to do with internet culture but remains tied to economic relations that happen in more traditional forums such as fairs, galleries, collecting institutions, and so on. Those domains have little to do with popularity and more to do with the tastes and values of a relatively small number of decision-makers.
Visibility is Significant
NFS: A lot of art which uses technology is able to get out into the world quickly, which feels right, because often this kind of work reflects the social or political impacts of the media we are using right now. The concern may arise as those same ideas and the technology that artists are using to produce the work will inevitably also be superseded very quickly, whether it’s physical or online. But I think what is very interesting is that both facets become a reflection of that moment.
MH: Yes, I agree. The immediate critical reflection that artists can offer is vital. There’s a false notion of neutrality behind much of the discourse coming from the Web and new technology industries. Revelations like we’ve recently had about the NSA’s activities demolish those falsehoods.
NFS: Absolutely. It was interesting to see Hito Steyerl’s new work How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File included in this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace). Steyerl’s video was deliberately installed at the far back corner of the Giardino delle Vergini behind the Arsenale (to reach it the artist joked, one must swim two canals and climb a wall), and included footage of photo calibration targets which were used in the age of analog aerial photography to test the resolution of airborne cameras (as Michael Connor interestingly linked in his review for Rhizome “like a kind of optometrist’s chart for the ancestors of drones”. Viewed from above these photo calibration targets look like giant pixels. How Not to be Seen uses the format of an instructional video to suggest how viewers can remain invisible in an age of image proliferation, with strategies including camouflage and how to make yourself smaller than a pixel. It is a very humorous piece of work, but seen in the context of the NSA scandal and whistleblower Edward Snowden’s own attempt to ‘disappear’ the piece has a particularly edgy resonance today. For your own work, context and platform – or how and when the work gets out into the world seems to be equally as vital as the work itself?
MH: I’m sure methods for us to disappear will become more prevalent and valued over time. But for an artist, visibility is significant. I do have other identities that make and put other work out into the world which can’t be traced back to me. But I do consider the promotion of the work as part of the work itself rather than something separate outsourced to someone else. Maybe that’s got more to do with the DIY nature of my own work and the limited resources I have, but it’s become part of my working process. So the films are works in themselves and I take a lot of care in preparing them.
Commodification of Culture
NFS: But equally, at times there is clearly more than promotion taking place here, and I think when the work derives from visual culture, reflects it and then explores what it can put back into the world, like a full circle it can offer some really exciting prospects. So for instance with the Feedlots image you made for the front cover of Vice magazine, in your show at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool it featured as a billboard poster print. But you also sought to repurpose, the freely distributed used copies of Vice magazine that you sent out across the world, by signing and numbering as an edition of 150 you presented them back to the world, in a beautiful foil embossed envelope, a ‘valuable’ artist limited edition. There’s a disruption to the market value, as well as changing the original intention for that image, what it was meant to be used for and then how people engage with these different manifestations, the meaning that derives in these different contexts, why is this of interest to you?
MH: The simple gesture of repackaging or recontextualising changes everything. It’s not so different to the subversive quality of a good impersonator or comedian. They only have to repeat the phrase or prose of a politician with a slightly different emphasis to radically alter its interpretation. It’s very easy to do and can transform forever your perception of something. I still remember the influence Spitting Image had on me growing up. You couldn’t look at Margaret Thatcher or any of her cronies without seeing those awful dolls and hearing the venom they spat out. It’s an effective way of tearing down the facades the powerful build for themselves and there’s little that can be done about it. With the Vice catalogue, it was about making a connection between the works on the walls in the show at Open Eye which represented the commodification of beef, oil, and photography, and the commodification of culture itself, as seen throughout the pages of the magazine. In a sense, the reader isn’t so different to the cattle being fattened up, ready to be sold on the market. Instead of corn feed, we’re fed lifestyles, products and aspirations. The process of production and consumption, like the structure of the feedlots, is meticulously calculated to maximise profit for the investors. So turning it inside out in the context of an exhibition made a lot of sense. As for how people discover and engage with the work, it’s out of my control. What I’ve learnt is there are so many different communities out there and they read the works very differently. Astronomical sits on the shelves of teenage emos, professional astronomers, celebrities, students and photobook collectors. It’s probably the one work I’ve made which has truly left the photography and art ghetto.
Embracing New Optics and Perspectives
NFS: Sarah James writing for Frieze Magazine recently connected your work to early 20th century avant-garde artists such as Hungarian constructivist László Moholy-Nagy, whose abstract works explored the integration of technology and industry into the arts. Angela Lampe, Curator at National Museum of Modern Art Paris also just showed your work in the major exhibition Views from Above at Centre Pompidou, which considered how elevated perspectives ? from the first aerial photographs of the mid-nineteenth century to satellite images today have transformed artists’ perception of the world. In that show your work was seen alongside the likes of Ed Ruscha, Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee and Robert Smithson. How do you feel about this connection to modern art, and being discussed in the context of new landscapes?
MH: In my late teens, when I knew next to nothing about art history, I emulated the paintings of Miro, Klee and especially the work of a Polish painter called Jan Mlodozeniec who’s almost unknown outside Poland. There’s a playfulness of form and colour in those works that appealed to me then as it does now. I haven’t painted for many years but finding a similar strategy in the by-products of surveillance tools might have something to do with the kind of work I’ve been making, especially with Dutch Landscapes. The Pompidou made the connection between that work and the cubists and constructivists. It may have been in the back of my mind somewhere but it wasn’t in the foreground.
NFS: What I believe is really refreshing about your work is your courage to experiment with the breadth of todays image media in the realisation of your often politically orientated ideas. Provocations, as we had with the cubist and constructivist movement, questioning our expectations of the norm, these now seem to be a core element of your practice, is this perhaps a form of activism towards a post-photographic world?
MH: The language of documentary photography is far richer than the canonical 20th century works constantly upheld by many commentators and institutions. Developments in drone imaging, data aggregation, and networking have revolutionised the way we look at and interact with the world. To ignore these developments by focusing on the aesthetics and styles of past practitioners is to miss the point entirely. All the greats that I admire embraced new optics and perspectives to develop a concerned visual language fit for the age they lived in.
NFS: There’s definitely an aesthetic shift in surveillance technologies over the last few years, which is synonymous with how image technologies are developing generally. With regard to technology and the new aesthetics, everything becomes crisper, more detailed, higher and higher resolution. Very quickly the blurriness of resolution in Dutch Landscapes feels like the rough quality of VHS video – which takes on its own charm. Technology’s aesthetics shift and change so quickly, just like fashions, even glitches are interesting. As nations we want to see further and with more detail than we ever have. On an individual level, its blown every notion of privacy out of the water, but no-one seems to really question, because everyone is in awe. Where do you think surveillance technology might take us next?
Concern Lies at the Heart of it All
MH: We’re entering an age where citizens’ lives are expected to be lived in transparency whilst the State sits behind impenetrable walls of secrecy. There’s a precedent for this in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and just about any other dictatorial regime. It’s easy to fear the worst but as an optimist, I’d like to think that however bad it gets, history shows us that artists and poets always seem to find a way through the facade.
NFS: This seems to further raise the bar for the concerned photographer seeking authenticity. You have previously talked about your frustrations with the current language of photography and how this has informed your way of working. How do you think that our current landscape is being shaped by new and emerging technologies and what do you believe should be the focus for the dedicated image-maker of today?
MH: I think that some form of concern lies at the heart of it all. What that concern is and how the image-maker finds a visual means to express it is really down to them. But as a rule, I’d say that style, process and technique should really be the servants of concern.
NFS: It feels like there is something quite intuitive in your approach to the production and the values within your work, which perhaps adds to its powerful commentary upon culture and society. What are you immersing yourself within at this moment and how is that helping you formulate your instincts?
MH: On a very basic level I’m immersed in the production and distribution of artwork and am learning to negotiate all the stuff that comes with that; Working with galleries, collectors, curators, critics, etc. It’s a whole economy in itself and getting my head around it hasn’t been easy.
NFS: This project uses the term ‘antennae’ as a metaphor to describe those practitioners, thinkers or writers that we each use to help position our place within this new and evolving landscape. I think understanding our contemporary loci has more relevance today than seeking speculations on a possible photographic future, so who are these for you and why do they matter?
MH: I’m interested in just about anyone who has something to say about the times we’re living in, whether they’re an artist, musician, journalist or clairvoyant. Photography isn’t the sole medium in crisis, just about everything is in free fall and I’m fascinated by how people in different fields deal with it.