Mishka Henner has described the entire world as a ‘single photograph of infinite detail and the earth’s terrain as a map of the human brain’.[i]
Co-Curator of the Mildura Palimpsest Biennale #10 Helen Vivian interviews UK artist Mishka Henner about his upcoming residency in Mildura for the Biennale and the artists walk across three continents as part of the Biennale’s key intercultural collaborative project Unmapping the End of the World.
On his first visit to Australia Internationally renowned artist Mishka Henner will give a free Artist’s Talk – Blurring the Boundaries of Space-Time, at the National Gallery of Victoria on Thursday 9th April, 6-8pm. Henner will discuss his internet based arts practice and what has drawn him to Australia to take part in the Mildura Palimpsest Biennale #10: everywhere all at once…here.
HV: Your work is hailed as being at the frontier of internet based art and as such has thrown up a great deal of controversy from many different sources about many different aspects of your practice. You have been accused of voyeurism, opportunism, gimmickry, sabotage, appropriation, ‘not being a real artist’ have I left anything out? You have also been hailed as the artist who has shifted the ground of art and expanded the field of vision in an almost messianic view of the power of your art, and you have collected many awards along the way.
Q: Which criticisms have stung you the most?
MH: None. I love them all.
Q: Where do you think we might be heading in terms of re-defining art and perception into the future?
MH: I can’t answer that. But I’ve been wondering lately if the only territory left for us to explore is each other’s identities. We’re almost there if you think about it. When we rent an AirBnB apartment, we’re renting a space in someone else’s life. I think that will also eventually be true of other people’s identities. One day I might pay to experience your life. I’ve started to see social networks as a seed for that possibility. We’re only a small step away from surrendering our identities to others. It seems like a logical step from where we are now.
HV: You have taken five weeks out of a frantic schedule, including exhibitions at The Armory Show, Centre Pompidou, The Prix Pictet, Contemporary Art Brussels, amongst many other engagements, to come to Australia to take part in ‘Unmapping the end of the world’ for Mildura Palimpsest Biennale #10 in outback Australia.
Q: What is it that attracted you to this unusual intercultural collaborative project?
MH: Your invitation arrived at the right moment as I’ve been reflecting a lot on my working process lately, thinking about my dependence on screens, the Internet, Photoshop, etc. After spending countless hours each day behind a computer for years on end, it’s easy to start to feel disembodied. So the opportunity to go on a five week walk with other artists, historians and anthropologists, and share ideas about culture, time and space was too good to miss. I’ve also always been fascinated by the limits of communication and it doesn’t really get any better than seeing 35,000 year old rock art.
Q: What do you hope to experience walking across three UNESCO World Heritage listed sites in Australia, Japan and Italy?
MH: I really don’t know yet and try not to think about it too much. It would be easy to spend time researching the locations online but I’ve avoided the temptation. Part of me just wants to go and experience it naively. It very much feels like a one-of-a-kind trip, doing pretty much everything I love to do but with a group of strangers in an epic setting.
Q: How do you feel about collaborating with a large group of artists you have not yet met?
MH: Collaboration’s always been at the heart of what I do so I’m hopeful this will work out. But it’s impossible to know ahead of time what the dynamic in a group will be like, we’ll see. I’ll keep an open mind.
Q: Do you have a sense of what you might make for exhibition during the Biennale in October?
MH: I have no idea and I’ve learnt not to guess these things in advance. A lot will happen between now and then so I have to remain open to new influences and ideas.
HV: Your large scale aerial landscapes reveal situations that the world is not permitted to see – such as the American feedlots and military bases around the world. The penalties for displaying photographs of these censored landscapes can be very high.
Q: Is your primary motive in selecting these images political, i.e. to subvert authority /empower resistance; or are you looking to engage more deeply with issues of surveillance and visibility/invisibility?
MH: Let me put it another way – I have questions and feelings about the world I’m in, and a compulsion to turn them into something. How I make work and the subjects I choose are really just an attempt to articulate and communicate those things.
I think ambiguity is very powerful. In a world where the slightest murmur is analyzed, deconstructed and judged by a multitude of professional and amateur analysts, it’s very difficult to make something that frustrates those readings. Maybe that’s the single most important role art plays in our culture now. I often think about that ambiguity when making work.
Q: Have you had any trouble with the authorities about these works?
MH: No, no trouble at all.
HV: You have also said that the authorities try to censor landscapes but the censors are not literate in reading the imagery of the landscape.
Q: What do you mean by this?
MH: I think the censored Dutch Landscapes reveal a kind of human glitch in visual literacy, either from the reader’s or the censor’s side. Public access to satellite imagery as we know it today is only recent and these landscapes represent a disconnect, a moment when we perhaps started to learn to read landscapes from above. The transition to reading these satellite views aren’t a conscious development, I think it just starts to seep into everyday life and we adopt it uncritically. But every now and again something punctures through the banality to remind us of what’s going on.
HV: Writer Daniel Rourke has compared your world view to that of Troilus – who believed that the whole World could be envisioned in its entirety. We have the technology now to imagine that this might be possible but as Rourke points out “the World picture remains incomplete just as long as one’s perspective is itself not included in the frame.”1[ii] The camera always remains outside the picture frame and we are left with the perennial problem, that any attempt – whether philosophical, technological or artistic – to envisage the world leaves the object of the enquiry outside the frame.
Q: Care to comment?
MH: The technologists often have this view that what they’re developing is essentially neutral. That it’s not the technology that determines what we do with it, but our own moral and ethical codes. But I don’t subscribe to that. The systems and ideas that develop the software and hardware come from us. The culture of their makers is in the machines’ DNA. These optical technologies trigger a range of impulses that run deep in us. The impulse to survey, to suspect, to control, for example. But also the impulse to reveal, to critique and to stare. The selfie’s interesting to me. It’s the operator turning the camera back onto themselves, as though the external territory has been so fully mapped and catalogued that the only remaining space to explore is one’s self. And we know how unfathomable a space that is. So I wonder if the selfie is really just laying the groundwork for what I mentioned before, the trading of each other’s selves and identities.
HV: In your two-part photobook ‘No Man’s Land’ you use Google Street View images to look closely at a situation the world averts its eyes from, women, who are clearly refugees, working as prostitutes on the lonely outskirts of Italian and Spanish towns. The images are confronting and deeply moving and raise a multitude of aesthetic and ethical questions. I am one of millions of people who have driven past these women, a blurr in a passing car, momentarily shocked by their obvious vulnerability. The images might have been captured by a gutter crawling client (or perhaps a photographer crawling on his/her belly). Instead they were captured by the all seeing eye of Google Street View, the big-brother surveillance machine that ironically distributes the images freely to all. The images speak of real life lived on a very uncomfortable edge but the methodology puts a great distance between the viewer and the subject.
Q: Do you think this distance allows us to look rather than avert our eyes?
MH: Possibly, but I think we recognize something else in these pictures. I don’t think they’re just about the sex trade. You certainly wouldn’t go to that project for any insight on the subject. I think they’re really about us in this technological moment; alone, disconnected, and alienated voyeurs of other people’s lives. A moment where we recognize the experience of being the passenger as well as the women waiting by the roadside.
Q: Has the position of the viewer shifted somehow in this exchange?
MH: I’m not sure what you mean by that. The difficulty is finding a language that can speak to the viewer. I think that’s a problem that any artist, musician, etc. has to deal with. Joachim Schmid once said to me, “some artists make work about themselves, I make work about ‘us’, and you make work about ‘them’.” I think he’s right – I try to make work about them, whoever ‘they’ might be. In this case, maybe I’m trying to make work about the viewer. But of course, I too am the viewer.
Q: Can you talk a little about the process of making ‘No Man’s Land’, how did it feel to enter this territory and how long were you there?
MH: It felt like discovering something vital and urgent. My partner worked with sex workers in Manchester for a while and got to know a number of them very well. But the problem of how to represent them was a real issue and an almost insurmountable one. When I came across these women on Street View, I felt like it offered a solution to that problem because these women – and all of us in fact – are a product of the age we live in, the mores we live by, the languages we speak, and so on. It’s not only about these women. The technology in some way obscures a singular focus on them and actually blurs them. It allows us to see something but then hides it at the same time. That tension is what I think makes that series powerful.
HV: In bodies of work like No Man’s Land, Fifty-One US Military Outposts and Feedlots you present extraordinary images but you also open up the territory of the internet, taking the viewer into places they have never travelled and (mostly) do not know how to access. You are navigating a virtual world and an architecture that is unfamiliar to most of us and so your work importantly provides a view also of this world – the matrix of data that is the internet.
Q: Are you working with ‘found photographs/images’, the generative systems that distribute them, or are you working with the matrix itself?
MH: When you upload images to the web, you surrender them to the white water rapids of social networks and the sharing culture of cyberspace. These are different rules to the ‘real world’ of copyright, sharing restrictions and so on. Watermarks on images always seemed absurd to me, a bit like the trademark sign on logos and phrases.TM Images live and circulate online in a free global exchange and that’s the way I think it should be.
HV: In photography there is much praise for the quintessential photograph produced by a patient and dedicated photographer quietly stalking his/her prey (be it wildlife, landscape or celebrity) sometimes over a lifetime. The images in ‘No Man’s Land’ are accidental snaps produced by a machine-like surveillance of the world and yet they are extraordinarily intimate.
Q: But perhaps the technology obscures the patient, obsessive process of the artist (you) stalking images on the net?
MH: Well, I’m still stalking these environments for the right picture and there’s no point pretending otherwise. But I think that’s true of all serious collectors. The gathering of meaningful material is a human need. The pictures also feel intimate because of the way I’ve chosen to frame them. There were thousands of ways to frame each picture in No Man’s Land; from different angles, different zooms, different heights, etc. What you see is what I’ve decided to show you.
Q: The process of capturing the images seems worlds apart and yet perhaps that is a superficial difference?
MH: Capturing images is easy. Finding them isn’t. That was true forty years ago and it’s true now.
HV: You are an artist who is classified as a photographer – but your work goes beyond photography into the matrix of images that exist in the world already. Some might call this appropriation or ‘found imagery’ but that seems an inexact and rather old fashioned way to describe your practice.
Q: How would you describe your practice?
MH: If you spent time with me, you’d see that I’m doing all sorts of things. I’m not walking around with a camera but by the same token, I’m not just sitting in front of a computer taking thousands of screenshots every day. I’m trying things all the time and recently took up painting again. But these things come and go, just like ideas. And it’s easy to become consumed by your own ideas and the worlds you create. The bigger challenge is really finding a way to live in a fulfilling and enriching manner. Making work is just one part of that.
Q: What do you think are the key breakthroughs that have occurred in your time as a practicing artist?
MH: I had and continue to have various encounters and epiphanies that have altered how I look at things. Whether it’s spending time with various friends who’ve mentored me in some way or coming across books, ideas or even artworks that have opened doors of perception in some way. In my early twenties, for example, I was involved in physical theatre and learnt the importance of research and collaboration in the making of work. I was lucky enough to work with Amit Lahav on and off for about two years, a terrific director and performer and in that time, pretty much everything I thought an artist was supposed to be was thrown out the window. Up to that point, I’d been writing a lot of short stories and I forced meaning into them when really, it wasn’t necessary. With Amit, I learnt that generosity is really at the heart of making work and that there could be an abundance of meaning just in the energy and gestures transmitted on stage. Working in physical theater also marked my first proper separation from words as a form expression.
Then, I discovered photography and in particular, the incisive and apparently objective eye of documentary photography. I’d never studied art or photography but on discovering the works of photographers like Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and Bernd and Hilla Becher, I felt I’d finally found my language. It was a great feeling. I had no idea the world could be framed in that way and it was stunning. They made the act of looking and wandering through the world seem effortless. Finding a way to frame what they saw was enough. Of course, it’s not as easy as that but the clarity of vision they had and the way they expressed it was a revelation to me. And the ambiguity too. Their motivation or intention wasn’t at all obvious, but the relentless pursuit and production in itself becomes its own convincing world.
From there, after working as a documentary photographer in the North of England for six years with my partner Liz Lock, I discovered the work of artists like Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and Chris Burden. And they too opened new doors for me, introducing yet more possibilities for what photography could do and how it could playfully deconstruct the culture without needing to take a moral stance. I’ve experimented with book-making for as long as I can remember, mainly through the raw publications I’d make for the short stories I used to write. But these artists were working in the genre of the Artist’s Book, something I’d never heard about before. It was a new world to me, full of possibilities.
Andreas Schmidt, a close friend of mine, was also experimenting with the book form and he’d also reached an impasse with photography. It was a time when the Internet collided with print-on-demand and we embraced the artist’s book as a vehicle for making work. In 2009, Joachim Schmid approached Andreas out of the blue. Schmid’s been making work with found imagery for decades, working in a manner that pretty much pre-empted the way we think about photographs on the Internet today. Self-published artists’ books have also been at the heart of his practice for years. He asked Andreas if he’d be interested in forming an international cooperative of artist book makers sharing an interest in print-on-demand. And I followed soon after.
So I quickly found myself surrounded by artists working with the print-on-demand book form, often taking inspiration from material found online but coming from different backgrounds such as collage, literature, poetry, etc. I learnt an enormous amount from them.
HV: The Mildura Palimpsest Biennale has always been interested in art that can be experienced as a form of material philosophy, art that makes us think about the world and our place in it. There is no doubt your work does this.
Q: Care to comment?
(‘The landscape in contemporary photography: from the sublime to the ridiculous’, panel discussion, Tate Modern, Nov 2014).
[i] 1. Daniel Rourke, ‘Black Diamond: Mishka Henner’, catalogue essay for Carroll Fletcher Gallery, 25 April – 31 May, 2014.