Ivan Vartanian: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. In this blog, I'll be talking to photographers as well as inviting people to write about photography. While a lot of the material will center about thematic issues in the work that photographers produce, I am also including topics about the mechanics of photography (such as optics and photosensitive chemistry). Particularly in a post-digital, post-SNS context, there is a distinction between image (perhaps better described as #image) and photograph, which is of particular interest now. Considering the intersection of all these ideas relative to what I am regularly exposed to in Japan adds a whole different dimension. The relationship between reality and image, for instance, seems more and more culturally specific. So, I’m going on the hunch that in understanding a foreign culture, there’s an opportunity to see the crack between otherwise invisible layers and see photography from a different perspective.
So, that's how I'm coming at it from a Japanese perspective. But that’s not to say I’m limiting the scope to just Japanese photographers. I’ll be talking to people such as yourself particularly because you are one of the photographers that are continually looking at the form and the shape of image, the print, installation, performance. It's this very multifaceted approach to photography that's quite packed with a lot of ideas. Your show #EVIDENCE at San Francisco’s Casemore/Kirkeby (https://casemorekirkeby.com/), prompted a lot of questions. Of course, it's a very provocative title, "#EVIDENCE." Immediately, we remember Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel.
I recently gave a talk in Japan, I realized that the audience did not know your work or even the work of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. So, perhaps a good way to begin our talk is to have you discuss the show and unpack some of its ideas. How did you formulate the concept of the exhibition?
ANOUK: Well, that's in 2014 and '15. The book, Evidence and that body of work has always been really inspiring to me. Obviously, there are many artists inspired by Evidence, inclusing, say, John Divola, Asger Carlsen, Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs. For a while, I’d been resolved to do something around Evidence. Also, I was thinking about the photograph serving as evidence in our time, where we live in a mediated world. Everything becomes photographic now so seeing the photo as evidence is no longer relevant. Photographs are now more about opinion than anything else.
It's not a new project because the first show was in September 2015. The show was shipped to San Francisco, which was, of course, the ideal place to show it because Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel are from there. They studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and they worked on the Evidence project with a grant they received right after graduation.
I thought in our time, could I carry out a similar project—use a certain archive, perhaps one that defines America's ambiguous future, but not limited to only America’s future. I was living in New York at the time so it was more interesting to do something with American culture but Instagram has a broader, more global scope as an archive now. Instagram is a public archive used by everyone; that includes even government agencies, educational institutions, and, obviously, commercial enterprises like companies.
I started collaborating with a man called Doug Emery, who was also doing a lot of research for Taryn Simon. He helped me find fifteen government agencies, eleven educational institutions and twenty-six companies with Instagram accounts that define America's ambiguous future now. Sultan and Mandel did that too. Since Doug is American, it was a bit easier for him to conduct the research because he has a better grasp of what the selection should be.
Then I browsed all these Instagram feeds and I just started to depict imagery from it by making screenshots. Not physical photos taken out of their context as Sultan and Mandel did. They went to physical photo archives and found the black-and-white photos they later showed as a visual story. The photos they used somehow show evidence of the police or fire department’s activities. Others are from scientific experiments, photos from the laboratory. You don't know exactly what their evidence photos depict because all these photos are so questionable.
Then, of course, they ripped the images from their original context. So, it was the first photobook, with straight photography appropriation and that is why it's become such a touchstone in contemporary photography. It’s been forty years since the book was published. Now, we are in a time where everything is appropriation, in my opinion. I feel like everyone is a pirate, like the way images are reinterpreted, twisted and manipulated and get circulated. We live in a vortex of imagery. Photos have an enormous reach. Now they can take photography anywhere—even really far from their original context.
IV: So, you took screenshots of all these different Instagram accounts?
ANOUK: Yes, it's like 650 screenshots in total. I scrolled all the fifty-two accounts down till the bottom. I took my time and really looked at every picture—probably thousands of photos—and I took screenshots of images I was attracted instinctually. Even still, I had various criteria for choosing items to capture: Importance, composition and colors, or an absurd/critical attraction, like when I saw Obama with his head raised in a rainbow stepping out of an airplane. Super bizarre, somewhat cheesy propaganda. Later I made a little newspaper called #EVIDENCE that shows all the companies and the institutions of my research and their descriptions as they are shown on Instagram.
IV: And the newspaper is available at the installation? Is that how it's being distributed?
ANOUK: Yes, it's always meant to be ephemera produced as a byproduct of the exhibition. Indeed, it's free to take. This is something I do quite often, making some small printed matter to accompany a show. New York TYPEXT is another one of these that was made to go with a show, “Everything is wave.” By the way, you can get these small publications through my website: stresspress.biz. Sometimes when people order books, they also take the ephemera because they didn’t have a chance to see the exhibition in San Francisco.
Of course, I can send you the PDF so you can read everything, if you like. You’ll be able to see printed sticky notes that explain the various works in “#EVIDENCE” and know the origins of each piece. A piece like "Green is more than just a color" came out of images (read: screenshots taken from the company called Waste Management, which deals with environmental issues). Another sculpture, "Sorry, No Definitions Found…," developed out of a mismatch of all the project screenshots and a specific post-treatment of the printed screenshots that I later mounted on the sculptural shape.
I changed the format into this physical—but kinda amorphous—object held up with a selfie stick in a concrete block. This work says more about how memory works in a time when we are surrounded by a sea of imagery and how you remember that wash of images on a daily basis. It’s comparable to non-descriptive information, which is why I call the work "Sorry, No Definitions Found…" That's also why the work looks as fake as what it eventually represents. Photos as documents, that's what I like about photography. It’s often a document and it simply shows what it is. The screenshots I made in this case of “#EVIDENCE” are absolutely a new way of photographing, like travelling through the surface of the screen to see the world. There is no hierarchy for me anymore between the images—read: screenshots I used to develop #EVIDENCE—which are basically stolen from the web. Or, for example, the iPhone photos my assistants and I took of ourselves for years on the streets with the backs of peoples’ head for years. (We eventually made a collection of 1,080 images.) There is no longer high or low in photography. We experience photography in a democratic way now. This medium is democratic. Everyone uses it; photos are equal no matter what. There’s no difference between, say, a young girl posting to Flickr a picture of her one-eared rabbit from a so-called photo-professional uploading a high-end technical photo to a stock photo site.
IV: Let's talk a little about the sculptures that you've made that are in the show. They're very structured and very planned. On first viewing, there's clearly a very sharp vision that you have taken a lot of effort to articulate. So, I think it's also worth talking about the form of what you're presenting. You have these steel frames that are twisted into weird shapes.
ANOUK: Why weird? To me they are very pleasant, nice shapes. [laughs]
IV: They seemed jarring to me at first because it looks like you're referencing the conventional frame of an image (rectangles and squares) and then you have this film that's draped or hanging from one end of it. It looks like a print that has been melted and reformed.
ANOUK: That's funny how you see it.
IV: Oh, yeah?
ANOUK: I never thought about it like that. That's so funny. I can see it now and I'm like, "Huh?" But maybe that's unconscious. That's really an interpretation. I love it.
IV: Really? The film hanging from the edge. You're removing the support of the gelatin silver print and you're just having the gelatin and it's drooping down. So, you're kind of melting the conventions and formalities of what you think of the object of a photograph to look at the pure image in a surface, so framing, and propping, and positioning, and orientation of view relative to object are all being referenced in that shape, but maybe that's not what you thought.
ANOUK: No, it's super different because, to me, it's like some sort of portrait sculpture., The imagery I used for the series “Neutrals and Concealed Matter(s)” comes from what you see on the metal constructions and security bracket arms on the Instagram account of the TSA. The images show blurred identity cards of people who were caught possessing a weapon. The TSA makes these images of confiscated weapons next to the I.D. cards of the people who attempted to smuggle them through. Then it goes to their archives and they publicize the photos on Instagram, but with the identity cards blurred. These blurred identity cards, to me, show a representation of someone, of course, made anonymous by this government agency. And I just took them out and I printed them on transparent and flexible materials such as plastics, vinyl and latex, because what they do is opposite of anything transparent. Also, I found it funny to make flexible photos because photos are, of course, never flexible and always fixed.
Then I embarked on a lot of research on shapes between “human and machine” and, together with a designer who helped me draw shapes for the metal structures, I arrived at these various, in your words, “weird shapes.” I titled the series "Neutral" and then, in brackets, a human emoticon or some specific mood like “openhearted,” “psyched,” or ashamed. So, the shapes are somehow a bit humanized. The identity cards dehumanized the person they represent but I was somehow able to give them a new existence in the material world through these sculptures. So, I really see this set of sculptures more as new portrait sculptures.
Part II: PROCESS AND POTENTIAL
IV: Alright. So, picking up on you and pushing this ... I mean you're ... of the contemporary photographers that are active now, a large part of your work is about really pushing what is the form of photography and how it engages with an audience. I’d like to hear more about what is your approach to photography. When you sit down and think of a project, and it's always full of surprises. On top of which, you're playing with publishing, installation, performance, printing, objects, collage. Your process seems boundless, incorporating…
ANOUK: Because I think I have very fluid approach somehow to the medium photography. It’s not at all that I am “pushing boundaries” of the medium photography, to me to work in my way is natural and already for years and years I work in a less conventional with photography. For example, take a look at “Playing Borders” developed in the beginning of 2008, that's ten years ago. For that project, the photographs were documents of sculptures in the space, or the photos of people I invited to the office to activate the objects and installations I built in the office. Basically, I made recordings of the process. In that project I was already questioning if the photo was merely functioning as documentation or was it going to be a work in itself, you know? And yeah, from very early on, I’ve assumed that photos alone could fully communicate what I needed to share. I suppose what I am trying to say is that it’s never been natural to me. In “Playing Borders,” I placed photographs on panels that I placed in a space similar to what was depicted in the pictures. That was an interesting dialogue between the photos, the space in which they were presented, and the materials and shapes on which they were mounted. In that way, I came closer to what I needed to say. So, it became normal for me to question the medium I use at the same time as using it, you know?
And I started making so many books because books are stronger at showing a fully completed and satisfying existence.
At times, I’m skeptical of the medium of photography. It's very restrained and fixed. I am often frustrated by it and at the same time in love with it and maybe even addicted and obsessed with photographs. I can’t imagine ever, say, make a series of photo to tell a story presented as a narrative by hanging photos in a sequence from left to right. Life can’t be captured in an easy way. It’s in fact very complex and I find beauty in complexity. In terms of my topics interest as well as in my relationship with photography, let’s just say, “it’s complicated!”
But, also, I am a very borderless person so my practice is borderless too. I used to say that I saw photography as a starting point of infinite possibilities, which is still for me unchanged. It's a life strategy as well. I want to keep on working forever and I want people to still be surprised about everything I do. So, the process is about learning and learning more. As you know, making work is a long process and it's the most interesting. From the cerebral aspects and the research slowly leading to the creative process … experimentation, failures, the hard, flat-on-your-face falls, and the climb out the holes again and again … all that is what makes me happiest. So, I better just keep what I’m doing, and continuing to surprise. Otherwise … I don't know how I could keep on with things until I turn eighty or ninety.
IV: One last question: What is the potential of working with photography?
ANOUK: Want to work with photographic images is still a huge drive. But, having said that, I barely take a photo by myself apart from my IPhone snaps. I mean, I haven’t touched my Hasselblad Mamiya for seven years. I don't see the point of it actually apart from when I use a serious camera to document something here and there. Photography stays hugely important in the sense of showing what is going on in this fucked-up world we live in or to show peoples’ personal concerns. I think we are on a path leading to everything becoming image. The classification of who made the image is disappearing. When a photo print is in a gallery context, we’re dealing with a photo as an object, which can be still attractive and have a very specific beauty to it. Next to this specific ‘art context to have photos shown’ We have the ocean of images in our phones, on the internet, in the social media landscapes. It's no mystery anymore that everything is photographed and out there. For those photographers who see themselves differently from any random person with a camera, it's going to be hell because “seeing the world” no longer requires a “good photographer” anymore. We still need to have the really brave who would go out to war situations and places where environmental disasters appear. This world absolutely still needs brave photojournalists. But any other kinds of photographers? Not really needed. A luxury…
It’s the age of amateur revival. They are everywhere! They are faster! The quality can be questionable but their images get the job done. Communicating what's going on in the world though photographic images shared through the Internet is very important. What is extremely beautiful is the character of PHOTOGRAPHY, you know, because it’s in the hands of all the people now. As I mentioned before, democratic! Access isn’t limited to the privileged photographer who was able to study at a fancy photo school or has a high-tech camera.
IV: You don't need a huge budget to buy a camera anymore. You don't need the technical training to deal with the chemistry and the lighting, and understanding lenses to manage exposure and angle. The camera has become lighter, smaller, more convenient and it's plugged in to the internet.
ANOUK: Yeah. But that's for that communication aspect of the medium, right? What's very important to me is that it still informs us what's going on in the world. It's what we all need. But, then again, sometimes I doubt this too because I don't know how to filter information or images I see. There is a constant pulsing from the world onto my screen, into my eyes, my brain and my heart. It’s destructive. It’s heartbreaking and addictive. There’s a lot of bad as well. Our technocratic, mediated, information-boozed society and time. Even so, that equality of photography is a great thing. Everyone is a photographer, everyone has a public, everyone can tell it’s story using this whole photographic image world we live in. Even though it’s overflowing, we all have to speak this new language of images. It’s taking over and slowly we humans will become image as well. This image world democracy is spreading like a virus. Harmful or to be embraced?