M: You have just showed me the latest piece that you have done: the phone number to the White House. I’d like for you tell me a little bit about it, but my immediate question to you is: do you consider yourself a political artist?
J: Yeah, in that way that all artwork is political. I find it interesting when an artist allows themselves to not be a certain category kind of artist: not a political artist, or an abstract artist, but instead to have a run of chapters. As long as whatever the work is about has some level of commitment; I think we’re all housing these different micro and macro narratives, and there’s something there in that I have more trust with artists who explore different modes; it feels more kindred. Those kinds of artists take a lot of risks, including the risk of some of the work being a failure or mediocre.
M: There seems to be a kind of trend, with everything that’s going on, for things are getting really quite polarized now. Until last year we had lived in a satellite town on the outskirts of Manchester, in the heartland of Brexit. We weren’t so shocked when it happened; in a way Brexit was the precursor to everything else, both to what happened in the US and what looks like is now happening in Europe. Brexit-land is outside of the “party zone” of metropolitan cities like Manchester and London. Beyond there, it’s pretty bleak on many levels. In America with Trump, it seems a little different from what’s happened here because it’s so blatant in the U.S. Blatant in its misogyny and in its racism. Then again, with its continuous anti-immigrant sentiment, I think Brexit was underlined by a form of racism too.
J: There was this British formality about it, like the racism is just implied. Are people talking about that in any substantive way?
M: For twenty years Britain has been a very self-aware, self-deprecating, post-colonial place that has reveled in the irony of its own insignificance. In the last few years all of that has changed. I thought — like many people did — that the days of overt racism were consigned to ironic comedy, like The Office. And then suddenly Brexit happens and racism and xenophobia are mainstream again. All these idiotic ideas that for years were silenced or ridiculed by the majority suddenly enter mainstream politics again. It’s extraordinary how it happens.
J: I want to see THAT come out in people’s work!
M: The other thing that really struck me is in terms making art, so much of it in recent years has been about the spectacle and the blurring of fact and fiction — about irony and exploring sinister, dystopian ideas. It has been for me anyway, and suddenly that’s exactly where we are! The confusing of fact and fiction and all those other things that five years ago I thought I and my peers were making in isolation, suddenly it’s the new normal! The whole thing about fake news is one example. The existence of “alternative facts.” I’m pretty sure we could quite easily find many artists working with those ideas for the last twenty years; art that was either constructing fake news scenarios or blurring fact and fiction. Documentary fiction falls in there, right? People like Joan Fontcuberta; there are these artists playing with the limits of photography, and its relationship to the real. I always thought that about the news, but now it’s so difficult to know. The president of your country has adopted those same strategies when he confuses fact and fiction. To someone like me — who is aware of these strategies — it’s so blatantly obvious what he’s doing. The Obama birther controversy — that was just total distraction. Does that make any sense?
J: Frame it as a question.
M: As an artist working with photography, you are constantly dealing with photography’s relationship to the real, but at the same time there are these fictions that you want to explore and play with. Working as an artist today: does what is going on in the mainstream media circus not throw you it all? What does that mean for you now as an artist? Are you getting literal now?
J: When the literal is confused, what’s the point of doing fictional realism or magical realism? There’s sincerity, there’s meta, there’s what feels like avant-garde or progressive techniques given a certain era or moment. I feel at times like I’m behind.
M: Behind what?
J: My fear for myself and artists in general is that we as artists are too much behind these engines. I feel like the artists of our age are observational and critical, but the people who are twenty-one right now, they’re not making projects where there’s an obvious criticality — they’re surfing on late capitalism and making fractured identities and spaces. It’s like they’re surfing or just splashing the water every once in a while. There’s this idea of accelerationism — which is a way to antagonize or topple late capitalism — that to just participate in it or push it to go faster will make it collapse on itself.
The way I handled the election of Trump is to just do something where I have this very earnest gesture…I just want to have my hand in there, and I wanted it to feel like shaky — which is literally how my body is. I feel like if I don’t tell people about my physical condition, that I have the same thing as this New York Times reporter that Trump made fun of, that it’s better in a way. Because everyone who has feelings of alarm or precarity concerning Trump, it’s best that they think about their own lives and their own specific precarity.
I don’t need to trumpet my own vulnerability, it’s better that the viewer is put into confrontation with the number. That’s just my tiny way to start processing questions like: what is it to make visual language right now? What does it mean to make work on photographic paper? What does it mean to go in the darkroom? These are just things I’m interested in, the fact that there’s no horizon line anymore.
Hito Steyerl talks about that, the artist that made the film Free Fall. She’s really great. I think when I’m looking for inspiration and criticality, I also look for the human heart. There’s a humanity in her writing and in her practice. She’s not like the Patti Smith kind of artist.
M: And she does it with humor as well.
M: Have I told you my Hito Steyerl story? This mortally wounded me, but I can laugh about it now; I’ve thought about it often because it says something about the way you’re framed as an artist. I was at the Venice Biennale two years ago and she was representing Germany and their pavilion, and her installation was the best thing in the whole biennial as far as I was concerned. For years I’ve been asking her to write about my work. When I got shortlisted for an award or something they asked me: If you could pick anyone to write about your work who would it be? And I’d always say: Hito Steyerl. She would always refuse, saying she doesn’t write about other artists. Anyway, I was walking down the canal in Venice and I suddenly see this really slight figure of Hito Steyerl coming towards me and she walks past and I think oh my god, that’s Hito Steyerl! I had never met her before, but I love her work, I love her writings, I think she’s brilliant. So I ran after her and I said “Hito, I just wanted to let you know I saw your show, I thought it was the best thing here by a long way, congratulations.” And she said, “Oh, thank you.” And I said, “By the way I’m Mishka Henner; I’ve tried to contact you a few times.” She looked at me and said, “Oh yes, you’re the Google Earth guy.” And I thought “Oh no! That’s a terrible way to be known: The Google Earth guy.” As though there was nothing else to my work other than being a software operator. I said to her that I do other things as well, you know. But god, what a devastating label.
J: Everybody has a bookmark for how they remember somebody. I don’t think you should take it so hard.
M: But as an artist you become known for certain things, don’t you? When I read Free Fall, I couldn’t believe it. It puts into words so many things that I’ve thought about, but I’m not articulate enough to write about them in that way or even inclined to discover the history of all this stuff. Is Steyerl the kind of writer you also look up to?
J: I’m just a big fan of artists who can write well and also write in a way that feels personal. I feel like she’s the best artist/writer in combination with her work. She’s very generous in her writing; she must be operating at a pretty high level, but I don’t ever feel left behind as a reader. That’s my favorite kind of writing. Oh! Claire Pentecost is an amazing writer. She’s the chair of the photo department at the School of the Art Institute right now. She has a piece called “Beyond Face.”
M: I’m just on her website right now…what an opening image! It’s like a composted cotton flag of the United States.
J: She’s somebody whose work I view differently because of her writing, and I would say that I’m much more willing to spend significant amounts of time and thought on her work because I see her practice as footsteps: left leg art, right leg writing, left leg art, right leg writing. She’s another big influence on me; she talks about this idea of the public amateur, which was a way of thinking about art making that was very helpful for me. It gave me more agency about non-expertise and what it is to work between disciplines. It’s good to work outside of photography coming from photography. I feel like once you’re trained in one thing, you have the capacity to work more intelligently, or start on something new. Sometimes it’s better to not be trained in something. I feel like I always have this ceramics chapter coming in the next few years. I know that sounds cliché, because it’s very in vogue in the art world, but there’s something about imperfect objects that feels like they’re right at the core of stuff that I’m interested in.
M: Would you say that there are certain projects with that idea that you came across and that the Pentecost article led directly to?
J: There’s a piece I did with this piano player at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was part of a three-part exhibition that was all happening simultaneously in different rooms of the museum. One of the elements was a piano player who is trying to learn a Chopin nocturne that was about five minutes long. He had hours where he would go in every week into the museum and just practice. The museum was filled with this student that was trying to learn this piano piece. He could sight-read, so his learning wasn’t clunky; he could play through it right off the bat. He was in a zone between mediocre and phenomenal, and over the course of the twelve weeks he went from mediocre to phenomenal. In the piece, you didn’t need the slapstick or theater of him being terrible; he started off good. There was the sense of witnessing mastery; you had already zoomed in to the fact that he’s a seven or eight out of ten, and he’s trying to get to being a ten out of ten. Pentecost must have been in my head when I was thinking about that.
I was also thinking about Occupy protest signs; as those signs manifesting the problems and the pressure points of late capitalism so nicely, and the fact that it didn’t have such a necessarily unifying theme. People were like: “What are you demanding?” And the protesters were thinking: “Well, what are we going to demand?” The 99% was a nice way to categorize what a lot of those complaints were. Between those two artists I think I get a lot of inspiration in terms of their work and writing, and also especially with Hito, ideas of what approaches that artists can take that have the most bang for their buck in terms of…how do you speak for your time? That’s a big challenge.
M: I’m in the middle of a total crisis thinking about all that, because I felt like I believed in the ability of certain symbols to really go deep into people’s conscience and affect them. As a visual artist, I try to find these visual symbols that are very pointed, but that also go deep and are precise. Baudrillard says something like: “One dreams of an idea so powerful and stealthy, it evades all detection and hits its target directly.” I’ve thought of art as being exactly that; that my role as an artist was to live in the culture and use whatever strategies were available to me to reach directly into people’s consciousness and change how they perceive things. But now I have no idea what I’m doing and I have no idea what my role is. I’ve got a show opening next week in which I’ve been trying to make work over the last year amidst everything going on and I’m just presenting this collection of symbols.
J: Where’s the show?
M: In a project space called Airspace, in the Brexit heartland. The gallery is just a few hundred metres down the road from the UKIP HQ — that’s the political party that’s pretty much responsible for making Brexit happen. In the window, the colors of UKIP are purple and yellow, which also happened to be the colors of the Heaven’s Gate cult who committed mass suicide when the Hale-Bopp comet flew nearby, twenty years ago to the day that the show opens. I’m dressing the window in the colors of Heaven’s Gate with purple fabric and I’ve got Marshall Applewhite — the Heaven’s Gate cult leader — on a monitor staring out into the street. By sheer coincidence he actually resembles the UKIP leader. I’ve removed all the footage of him speaking, and it’s just him staring oddly at the camera. He has this phrase: “Your only chance to survive is to leave with us.” In the context of Brexit, that was what Brexit was all about.
When I look at those posters that you’ve collected, the archive, that’s what they are. They are absolutely razor-sharp symbols of anger and resistance, right? They work on that same level. There’s something about words as well. I love it when visual artists are audacious enough to use words.
J: (laughs) Yeah, me too. I wanted to say that I read somebody who wrote recently, “Artists are only remembered by their best work,” and that was so liberating.
I thought, maybe I should just keep trying, and try hard, and let the best work bear the load. Trust that all the worst work will just be forgotten. Life is too complex and interesting and immense for anyone to worry about your most mediocre or embarrassing works. I was thinking about the way I remember an artist, and I don’t remember the worst work; I remember the best work. I like this idea that you take this long view, and that you’re just trying to beat yourself, as opposed to worrying about never looking bad.
M: That’s a great way to think about that. Astronomical is almost the perfect project. It has a perfect form, it’s literally its own universe, it has everything within it. Even the printing is super cheap, so it’s full of imperfections across the 6000 pages. My name has twelve letters too, which I didn’t realize until a year after I’d made it, there were just so many things that came together. When I make something now, I always measure it against that, and I think: no, it’s nowhere near as good, which is a problem. But when you think about it in the terms you just described, it’s a nice way to think about it.
Do you carry a project that was so good that you feel like you almost couldn’t have made it? Something that you measure everything that you do against?
J: The Occupy project was so nice because I got to work politically. I don’t think a lot of people think about it, but when you recreate protest signs out of jpegs you’re just inversing the photographic process. Instead of making a tiff or a jpeg documentary image and putting it online, you’re trying to make a 3D object from the recreation.
M: Wait a minute — Did you recreate these posters?
J: Yeah, I started recreating them with a studio assistant and then I realized it was more necessary and amazing to do them as workshops. One of the nice things that I realized is that it’s important to open up that authoring process: Like, I’m good at making shaky signs, but other people are good at making signs that could pass for being professional. The reason I love that project is there was a lot of lived experience, and that was really satisfying. I was able to just make a big wall — which was one of the things I’d always wanted to do. I imagined making a place that represented different global Occupy moments that could exist in physical simultaneity, even if it was a facsimile. The project just had a lot of values that I didn’t know that I liked or was searching for, and later I started to understand that when I was feeling bad that maybe this wasn’t a photo project, I realized that it was totally a photo project, and it could be traced to older groups of work.
M: I am amazed at how many affinities there are. There’s something quite profound between us, actually: I think we both share a fascination with other people’s modes of production. For me it was so liberating to stop trying to cultivate my own style and my own voice of authorship. The way I did that was to suddenly and absolutely embrace the aesthetics that were already out there, and the techniques that were already out there, and all of the absurdities that were already out there, and to use them as material for the work. I look at almost every one of your projects and it’s the same thing. It’s like: “Where is Jason Lazarus, apart from the fact that none of these projects would exist without Jason Lazarus?” That’s what we all do anyway, we’re all using whatever material is out there, but I guess what so interesting is: what is your voice? How the hell does someone begin to categorize you? That’s the same problem I have. I’m the Google Earth artist, but who are you?
J: Speaking of influence, I think that’s something influenced me deeply, right when I was starting to get into art, was seeing a Gerhard Richter show. I saw your mashups of Richter/Ruscha. What I like about both of them, but especially Richter, is that as I walked through that show, I really had to study art in order to understand that this was a painter that was also taking on painting as a subject, and the fact that he could wiggle into these different modes of representation that were somewhere between craft, time and acuity, among other things. I thought: this guy’s having eight times the fun of a normal artist. He gets to have the pleasure of realism, the pleasure of what feels like the memory of a realistic photo. He could have a woman be amusing in a painting, and then have something else where he could embrace cliché, and then make work that was as far away from cliché as he wanted. I thought: wow this guy’s not only having a lot of fun, but he’s burning with questions and interrogations. By moving through all those things, it was like he had a multiplier effect on what a normal artist’s career or work could mean.
I didn’t realize to that he had this Atlas project where he had this huge archive of images that he had just collected, as a sort of backbone to his image knowledge, that would become works later, or go on to inform him. Then he would treat THAT also as work, and do these installations and exhibitions. I thought: this guy’s a meta artist. At the same time, his work wasn’t really thinking of any of us as audience members to be seduced and challenged. And then it hit me: I get it! Everything’s fine: as long as you live and die and have a bunch of work, it’s almost hard not to.
You have these core interests, and there are different modes of addressing those — and it’s great. You have to have faith in your life and faith that someone else might want to draw those connections. I think the trick is getting to the point as an artist where people start to trust you and they don’t think of you as scattered. You’ve shown multiple times that you have something to say, that’s the hard thing. And then people want to become involved, and give you new areas and modes and financial support to take risks. I think often times that as an artist there is professional market pressure, and you just want to be accepted on a certain level. On a subconscious level, you just want people to see the emergence of a career that means something. You’re always thinking about the artists who challenge you, the people who seem like they’re working five significant levels ahead of us. What faith did they have? What risks did they take?
M: Yeah, but it can be so fickle, I think, that notion of why some artists are better than others. I don’t think it’s always necessary the substance of what they’re doing. It can be for some pretty bland and crude reasons: anything to do with which collectors have invested in them, and to who those collectors are tied to, to which dinner party these people went to. I wonder sometimes about how much to pay attention to any of that stuff as opposed to the fact that there are so many artists who are really good, but you don’t hear about them until they’re in their seventies. That’s just because they didn’t play the game in the way that others who are more successful than them did.
That’s interesting about the Richter show. There was a huge survey at Tate which included his abstract work as well as his photo-realistic work. I remember seeing the abstract work and being blown away by the sheer joy that I felt those paintings exuded. There was infinite detail. To see someone move from those blurred photo-realistic paintings to those abstract paintings; it was amazing, so much pleasure, and almost mischievous. I happened to have been reading a collection of Ed Ruscha’s interviews and writings at the same time as I was reading Gerhard Richter’s “Text” book, which is a thousand pages long and everything he ever wrote. It’s just called “Text.” Both of them talk repeatedly throughout the years about making works that have no meaning, about finding images that have no meaning or that don’t exude meaning. There was a point where Rucscha was saying that about words as well, but he was interested of stripping words of their meaning. When you paint a word, you think about it a lot, you’re gradually stripping it of every meaning that you’ve ever associated with it; after a while it just becomes a sound. He’s really interested in the sound of the words, not the meaning. I thought: these two giants are both making work about stripping meaning away! And that when you start to collide the two together, you get nothing BUT meaning — there’s only meaning! When you start to mash up their paintings you realize that they CREATE meaning. I love the process of doing that.
The other thing I wanted to say was about mischievousness. It struck me that the artists, writers and musicians that I think as having a really big influence on me, they’re all very mischievous. They love to provoke, they love to do things that they shouldn’t do. Like J.G. Ballard, Oscar Wilde, Will Self, or Michel Houellebecq. I find the ones that really influenced me are those that have that sparkle in their eye; they know they’re pushing buttons. I know that I’m a white guy, so it’s one thing for me to have this opinion, but I like the ambiguous positions that an artist can occupy. It’s one of the few positions in the society where you’re given free rein to push buttons.
J: That’s one of the things that it’s clear Pentecost gets. Except that I don’t think she pushes buttons as much as operates from a position of asking: are our risks becoming less interesting? And she does it in a non-professionalized space — which is key when the field of discourse is muddied or not clear, as everything has gotten monetized and education or art careers have been professionalized. If there this vice grip of a gig economy, and enough people are privileged to think: Hey, I want to be an artist, and I want to be able to live in a warehouse with other cool people — that’s actually not that much of a risk. They want to do it. And it’s fun. They don’t have to grow up fast, so why not? How do you pay rent for example?
M: The last few years my gallery sold work so that pays me, which is great.
J: Is this the Silverstein or the London gallery?
M: Silverstein. The market is in the US for my work, only a little bit in Europe. To be honest with you, my partner and I learned to live with very little for years. You get to thirty-six and all you’ve known is to live with very little. So when you start to sell work, you’re careful with the money and put it back into production. For years we just got by with finding a way to make time and space for work, which resulted in us moving to Manchester, which was very affordable compared to London. That bought us the time and space to make work. I went through a lot of teaching too, two or three days a week in various colleges and universities in the north of England. When I got shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse photo prize in 2013, the day I got the email I handed in my notice at the college where I was teaching, because I thought: Oh my god, here we go, this is it, I’ve got to devote myself full-time to this. And then of course, I didn’t sell anything for another year, so it was a pretty stupid thing to have done. At the same time, it did mean I focused a lot more time not just on production, but in dealing with all the other art stuff. As you know, so much of your time is spent with dealing with exhibition requests, press releases, writing text, interviews — you almost end up spending way more of your time doing that then making work.
The galleries support me by providing financial support for me to make work. That’s a financial stability that I’ve never really had. What about you? Do you have a gallery that sells your work?
J: Yeah I’ve had intermittent sales for a long time, but it’s never been consistent. You don’t know when the next windfall — small or big — is going to be, so I feel like it’s been a lot of years where on paper it didn’t seem like that wasn’t a bad year, that it was a great year, but it’s not like you can budget that way. Maybe most of the money you needed in a year came in the ninth month out of twelve. I’ve really been enjoying teaching, and teaching has become really important to me in terms of making and thinking. I just realized if I’m making around $60K a year now, I would have to sell $120K a year, every year, just to get what I’m getting! So I get to relax, in the sense that I would never make work that would sell at that rate. I started to let go of this idea that I had when I was a younger artist: the idea that what you were making was so important that maybe it was just going to multiply. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have high hopes for your work or its effects, but I did start to realize that I’d have to sell A LOT of work. I was also in the Midwest, and now I’m in Florida, I’ve never had a New York dealer, I’ve just had an occasional appearance in New York.
M: What about commissions though? You have the piano piece, I assume that was a commission?
J: Yeah, it was. I’ve had more museum shows, which don’t make you any money, but they certainly don’t hurt interest in your work in terms of collectors. I had a big commission at SFMOMA a year ago, and the way that came about was just so random. I can trace five moments of dominoes falling that led from one thing to the next thing, but you couldn’t have planned it, it was just so random. I don’t know how to make the next one of those things happen now, right? I wish I could just hit the first domino now so that five would fall down over the next ten months and then I’d get to have some new opportunity to do something really significant. In a way this also gets back to that question of influence because in terms of factors of production, how am I putting sandwich to mouth?
M: I remember being in London and seeing an Eva Hess show, and reading about the significance on her work of her leaving New York to move to the Ruhr region of Germany, and basically living in an industrial setting. She deferred living comfortably in order to make work. I remember reading that and thinking:
My god, it’s so simple: if you’re willing to make the sacrifice of an amazing social life, of going to loads of parties — if you’re really willing to devote your life to making work, just go somewhere that you can afford to live. Because time is your most important resource.
That’s when we left London. It amazes me to this day that not more art graduates do that. So many art graduates stay in these big cities hoping for some big break or opportunity, when they’re absolutely in a financial vice, and they have no chance of surviving. Any notion that you’re going to make a lot of money quickly when you’re a young artist, well it’s absurd.
J: I think one of the worst things that can happen to you is that when you’re young is for you make a lot of money, because you start to project that really quickly, and to make a lot of money consistently is something that hardly anybody does in art. I think a lot of artists have ups and downs, and I feel like the art world can be a very convincing and exciting place, a place where you feel that you’re on the precipice of this Big Thing. A sprint is called a sprint for a reason. I’ve heard of a lot of people who have either curatorial or financial success, and then it plateaus, and then divots for long periods of time.
M: I try not to pay too much attention to it really, I’m fortunate that I don’t live in a community of people who are involved in that business at all. I was never really the coolest kid at school, and so much of the Art World seems to be about the cool kids, and about people wanting to be with the cool kids, and about being seen with the cool kids, and look what the cool kids are doing now, can I get a piece of them, of that coolness. To me that is such vacuous bullshit — I couldn’t care less about it! It always strikes me that the art world is full of these people. Not everywhere, but they do dominate the conversation.
J: Yeah, there’s definitely a skill to being centered and understanding your values. Like, what are the three things that are going to make your life consistent and create meaning? Because sugar burns quickly.
If you found this interview compelling, please signal your approval with applause, and follow our publication if you haven’t already.
The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.
Interested in submitting to Exposure? Read our submission guidelines here.
Find out more about SPE here, or learn about the many benefits of membership here. Join with other thought leaders in the field and add your voice to the direction of the organization. Find out more about the 2018 Annual Conference “Uncertain Times,” to be held in Philadelphia, PA here.