This World and Others Like It
Interview by Gianpaolo Arena for CALAMITA/À
Drew Nikonowicz is an artist from Saint Louis, Missouri who is currently living and working in Columbia, Missouri. His work employs computer simulations as well as analogue photographic processes to deal with landscape and exploration in contemporary photography. He is the winner of the 2015 Aperture Portfolio Prize, has been published in Der Greif Magazine’s A Process and has shown work at Photokina, Cologne.
CALAMITA/À: You just been nominated as the winner of the 2015 Aperture Portfolio Prize. Congratulations! What about your project ‘This World and Others Like It’? Is there something in the title that guides us along as the sequence unfolds? How else would you like to introduce these images to the readers?
Drew Nikonowicz: Thank you! It has been quite an exciting and encouraging time since it was announced. The title This World and Others Like It serves as a way to reference my use of multiple realities in the work. The work is, among other things, an invitation for the viewer to negotiate their relationship to a world where there are thousands of realities to explore. As humans trying to understand our surroundings, we like to compartmentalize things into groups. Can you truthfully draw a line between where your self ends and technology begins?
The work sits within the void that exists between our immediate ‘reality’ and those which technology provides. This gap is real, but it is mostly invisible. Furthermore, this world has been exhaustively explored. Until humans can explore beyond this solar system, the sublime landscape can only be accessed within the boundaries of technology.
A/À: “My major preoccupation is the question, ‘What is reality?’ Many of my stories and novels deal with psychotic states or drug-induced states by which I can present the concept of a multiverse rather than a universe.” – Philip K. Dick, Statement of 1975 quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (1981) vol. 8, part 1.
Photography can be documentation, description, metaphor, allegory… In your opinion how important it is for a photography to hide evidence, to be allusive or to have a strong element of ambiguity? What do you think about truth and the truth of photography?
DN: Applications like Photoshop and CGI software have pulled back the curtain on image making regimes. The result is a populous that is highly aware of how misleading images can be. As a result, there is now a widespread distrust in images.
I think that photography has the capacity to describe facts, but also, as you say, hide facts. My images are always truthful, but they are not always defined in the world they come from. The problem isn’t that photographs tell lies, but rather that they reach across from one reality into another. When they cross that divide, there often isn’t a clear sense that it has been crossed. So, when images come from another reality but do not reveal their source, they are telling a lie.
A/À: How did you choose your subjects? What was the point of departure in realizing these images as a coherent body of work? How do you conceptualize it in your work?
DN: When I first started working on the project, I made every photo that I could think of. I would exhaust every possible solution to a specific picture problem. These picture problems are what guided my hand. For example, the image of the 4×5 negative on a light table is something I arrived at while trying to make an image which referenced my own hand in the process and a reference to a universe. The image I land on for any solution is the one which best describes that detail of the work.
The ideas important to my work were there before I could articulate them. I have images in the series from 2012 that I added much later and they fit perfectly into the project. In the initial stages of this project, I was not making any photographs for this specific project. I think the point of departure in discovering coherence in the work was a while after I started adding in photographs to the work. I realized that there was an amount of supporting data that I needed to include for the series to function properly. As it progressed the form became most clear when the photographs outnumbered the computer generated spaces.
A/À: How long have you been working on these images? Were there any changes in trajectory while in the making? Do you think that your personal style evolved considerably or simply changed during the making of the work?
DN: I have been working seriously on these images for the past two years. As I said though, there are a few images that are from before then. The most significant change that happened was when I went from strictly computer generated imagery and started adding photographs to the series. Without photographs, the project felt arrogant and became a game of tricking the viewer. I wanted the work to be much more earnest. Everything fell into place as the photographs began to outnumber the computer generated imagery.
I do not think that I can properly identify a style in myself. I do not think that I have made enough work or lived on this earth long enough. Although, I have tried to adopt a consistency in the way that I photograph.
A/À: As you write, “Now the sublime landscape is only accessible through the boundaries of technology.” Please explain. What is for you “landscape”? How did the pictures come about between reality and fiction?
DN: Landscape is a particularly broad term, and I use that to my advantage. As I explore strategies to describe and reference landscapes, I try to mine every possible interpretation of the term. Another important component is that the landscapes can be explored. In this way, a video game can fit neatly alongside the Colorado Flatirons. We exist at a moment in between two great expeditions. To our back is the exploration of this planet. Somewhere in the future lies our move beyond Earth and the solar system. The unexplored space of our generation exists within the boundaries of technology or is mediated by technology. The Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity Rover, is so far removed from human experience, and yet technology allows us to access it. Apollo 11 was cast live over radio and television, but without that fragile wireless connection Aldrin and Armstrong would have been alone out there in what Aldrin called “magnificent desolation.”
A/À: Visibility versus invisibility goes back to Buckminster Fuller’s theorem about technology evolving from tracks to trackless and from wires to wireless. A notable transformation from materiality to immateriality. What are your thoughts and doubts on technology’s effects on photography today?
DN: Advances in technology have made photography and its processes more accessible. As I said before, the distrust in imagery that we now take for granted is a product of the minutia of photographic process being readily available. Apart from there being a lot more of it, photography has not changed significantly. Just as before there are good and bad photographs; there are simply more of both. Often, in conversations about my work with colleagues the question “is this real?” comes before other questions.
Pulling back the curtain on my own image making functions as a way to suggest a similar revealing in the other images. Distrusting images also comes from the fact that there are many places within technology where images could be derived from. And these places are exceptionally “realistic.” Now, an experience had in a video game can feel just as real as it might in this world. A serendipitous moment such as deer running alongside your car might be an amazing experience. If it is within a video game, the only difference is that someone implemented that event. Someone implemented code which said for those deer to run alongside your car. Now you can have that experience, and so can everyone else. Anyone can have that exact same experience from the exact same perspective.
A/À: Your research employs virtual computer simulations as well as traditional large format analog photographic processes to deal with landscape and exploration in contemporary photography. What brought you to investigate those things in such depth?
DN: The internet existed before I was born. My entire life I have had a relationship to these things. I was also raised in such a way which granted me access to a computer and the internet regularly. Exploration and experimentation through technology is something that continues to pique my interest, whether it be through video games, 3D modeling, or other applications. When I became interested in photography it functioned like the missing piece to the puzzle. Photography and the language of images became the vehicle by which I could articulate the ideas that have always been a large part of my life.
A/À: “Those other worlds had been hidden by scale and space, but this world had been hidden by time. It was the world of everyday things whose motion had always been mysterious. With the railroad, human beings had begun to move faster than nature. With the telegraph, they communicated faster. With photography, they would come to see faster, to see what had been hidden in time, and then to reconstruct those moments in time.” – Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.
Do you share the details of Rebecca Solnit thought and lesson?
DN: Rebecca Solnit is speaking to the moment when Eadweard Muybridge successfully captured an image of Leland Stanford’s race horse, Occident. Muybridge made a series of photographs with a shutter speed of one five-hundredth of a second, stopping the horses movements through space. This was the first time anyone had achieved an image from such a fast shutter speed. Muybridge shattered the barrier of ocular vision so that now, through photography, he could see faster than nature. On the previous page of her book, Solnit Quotes Muybridge saying, “The space of time was so small that the spokes of the wheels of the sulky were caught as if they were not in motion.” This is something that now we take for granted, but at the time it was absolutely revolutionary.
My romance with photography is not just with the resultant images. I find myself also intensely excited in regard to photographic process. Solnit’s use of language is excellent; I couldn’t help but to share the quote to my blog. I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in photography.
A/À: Our project CALAMITA/À is based on the catastrophe related to the Vajont dam, which occurred in 1963. 260 million cubic metres of rock broke off from the top of Monte Toc. What do you think about about photographing catastrophes? Do you think that it is possible? Which is the role of beauty and the sublime in topics as war, explosions and disasters?
DN: There is a fine line to be ridden between beauty and catastrophe. John Szarkowski once wrote, “The world now contains more photographs than bricks, and they are, astonishingly, all different.” An updated metric might be that now the world contains more cameras than bricks. And one search on Google will show that they are not all different. The third component to your question is a topic of oversaturation of imagery.
Ultimately this means that, to some extent, those photographing catastrophe need to find new approaches. Two examples of artists working with catastrophe who might be considered in this context are Alfredo Jaar and Frank Gohlke. Jaar could have photographed Rwanda and shared the gruesome details which photography can provide. Instead, he shares a mountain of mounted slide photographs. They are all portraits cropped to only show the eyes of the sitter. The viewer is confronted twice. Once with the sheer scale of the number of slides, reflecting the intensity and scale of the catastrophe. And again when the viewer looks through a loupe into the eyes which are staring back at the viewer.
Frank Gohlke photographed his hometown after it was mostly destroyed by a tornado. One of the images shows two street signs blown over by the powerful wind. This is an image of catastrophe. Without showing the event, or anything particularly jarring he has shown the might of a tornado. An index of wind is depicted.
I recently heard a lecture about this topic in photography. Many artists including Jaar and Gohlke were spoken about. Afterwards, I was discussing the topic with a photojournalist. He said that these works pushed himself and his colleagues to be better at their job. To properly combat and maintain meaning in an oversaturated image-based culture, photographers need to rethink their approach on difficult topics.
A/À: What are you working on at the moment? What projects do you have in mind for 2015?
DN: My work with This World and Others Like It is not done. As I go forward I intend to continue work on the series. I am also working on a new series of images. I have been posting some of them to my Instagram feed, but eventually I see the project as existing as a series of small books. I have created the tag #thelossantossurvey so everyone can track the project as it progresses. Also, my Instagram handle is @nik_oh_no_vitch for those interested.
Also, nearly a year ago I purchased a 3D printer. I have been using it to develop a 3D printable large format camera. Along with that, I am exploring ways that I can utilize this new technology into my work. As 2015 unfolds, I will be moving forward with all of these projects.