In early 2013, several months after Hurricane Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency expanded its “Flood Risk” zones to include Red Hook, Brooklyn, as a “Zone A” district. From here in “Zone A,” on a street corner outside of a recently shuttered artisan distillery, a 270-degree rotation encompasses glimpses of Staten Island, New Jersey and Manhattan. The same rotation offers views of Ikea, an urban farm, 1 World Trade Center, another artisan distillery and the Red Hook West Houses, the largest public housing project in NYC. This particular corner is also in view of the flight pattern for helicopters from JFK, which transport people like Barack Obama and Pope Francis over the Brooklyn coastline and into Manhattan. Cargo ships still come into port here in Red Hook, and these ships, stacked with steel containers carrying tons of goods produced outside of the United States, pass by daily.
It is from this sleepy corner in Red Hook, this unlikely crux of neoliberalism, globalism, terror, gentrification, climate disaster and artisanal production, this thoroughfare for world leaders and manufactured commodities entering and exiting New York City, that Josh and I make art, in a studio we’ve shared since 2010.
We’ve talked about the studio and our practice in terms of pre- and post-Sandy. Not only was our ground floor studio and its contents decimated by the storm, but the printing facility where you produced your cascading wall bound “urinal” photographs, among others, was also thoroughly destroyed. It seems to me that Sandy didn’t pause your production as much as it realigned it. In a sense, the doomsday logic of survival utilized by so-called “preppers” has permeated your practice in the wake of Sandy’s “aftermath.” As opposed to the traditional notion of prepping, stocking up on items such as water and non-perishable food, prepping comes for you in the form of a dematerialized studio inventory and practice. Less stuff means less waste, less clean up, less risk of disaster, an economy of labor, an ethic of material frugality. How would you say your studio practice changed after the flood?
Like a lot of people, when I was left in the lurch for a few months by the hurricane, I didn’t have the infrastructure I once had to make work, so I had to take a careful look that the things I had left and try to figure out a way to move forward. I had been using simulation before Sandy to help realize sculptures, to look at the ways I could contort photographic paper into stable forms and foresee any construction problems before production. After Sandy, I began to spend more time with these programs, as it was one of the only ways I could continue to think about form while lacking direct access to material production. I thought it might be a good way to anticipate ways I could be innovative once things were back to normal. Soon, however, I realized that this new way of producing forms, without its analogue manifestation, was a dramatically different process. Instead of looking for ways to produce variations, I began to focus on the nuanced differences within a particular form itself. I also began to spend more time trying to generate realistic images of sculptures that I could use in studio visits.
While there were some interesting ideas that came out of that relationship, I really never got to make many of those sculptures. I realized, though, that there was a more dramatic experience in making those photographs than in making the sculptures themselves. The simulated photograph embodied an aesthetized political dimension of our use of technology that is becoming increasingly present in our lives and culture. Despite pandering to a consumerist desire for innovation, these photographs also presented me with a new trajectory in photography—one that holds onto its representational form while positioning photography’s new algorithmic nature as itself, a political actor.
The moments where the analogue becomes digitized in an effort to compare the violence of our past and present forms of virtuality.
So, when you started to rely on simulation to make your work, you felt like you began to see more and more homogeneity in your practice?
Yeah, pretty much. It was through the process of simulation that I began to think about the ways that technology was being used to conflate rather conservative, normative values with an idea of philosophical radicalism. I felt like I was seeing a lot of people trying to ascribe liberatory values to systems that have historically been used as methods of control. Even if I can theoretically identify with a new conception of political agency distributed through these emerging technologies, what I feel like I’m seeing in a primary sense is the continuation of a harsh trajectory of older forms of societal domination.
So the digitization of your work post-Sandy has not been without its resistance to digital philosophy. This digital dimension of your practice is approached with caution and skepticism, as opposed to reverence of an icon typically attributed to “the digital” in contemporary art, popular realist philosophies, or pretty much anywhere else.
I’m cautious to give so much weight to ideas that have such a strong undercurrent of unaligned politics. I’ve tried to be careful about this in my own work as well. An image, in particular, contains its entanglements in the world, which to me reinforces the idea that the image is always situated within a set of relations that condition its interpretation. I think my relationship to the image changed somewhat alongside this dramatically inverted “preppers” logic of the post-Sandy studio. In that sense, maybe it was important that Sandy immediately followed New York’s Occupy movement. I don’t think a lot of people realize how those two events really changed the general political atmosphere in significant ways. People now like to talk about those moments as a redundant example of the deficits of protest culture, or point to specific people who used it as a way to posture radicalism for their own career opportunities, but I actually think those events were very significant to the political imagination of New Yorkers. It really emphasized the different ways people can arrive at political agency.
I think of aspects of your work in terms of a kind of “techno-heresy,” meaning when you approach themes such as the Internet and technology in your work, you take action to undermine its authority by conflating it with analogue photographic processes or DIY methods of imaging. Your work is almost iconoclastic, in that it looks to tear down and vandalize these techno-icons by articulating their failures. When you incorporate other imaging methods outside the accepted procedures and thinking of simulation, it is not to work alongside it, but to do violence to it.
To my mind, there is quite a lot of continuity between these photographs and some of my other, more three-dimensional work. Both, for example, look closely at the moments where the analogue becomes digitized in an effort to compare the violence of our past and present forms of virtuality. Photography has always had devotees to antiquated processes and esoteric histories, as well as technological acolytes who have looked to it for a more theoretical experience. While this bifurcation has always held a lot of psychological weight for me, it has, in many ways, left me skeptical of both sides. My approach to photography has always been somewhat nihilistic; I’ve primarily looked to scrutinize systems and frameworks of meaning and the forms of power they generate—not just in an effort to criticize, but to provide access to all of these photographic experiences and find value in them.
In your recent show and publication “A Simulated Future amid Collapse” at Société, Berlin, you invoke questions that concern the role of simulation in contemporary image production. Your photographs are shot in the studio on 35mm film, scanned, paired and layered with computer generated forms or self-produced 3D scans through a gauntlet of rendering and modeling programs, and then printed in a dark room using traditional silver gelatin printing techniques, mixing the chemicals yourself. The resulting photographs are a non-traditional black and white mesh of the rendered and the captured, the photographic and the virtual, the synthetic and the mechanic. They are made physical through traditional printing processes involving rare earth metals. The consideration of the “photographic object,” familiar to your pre-Sandy practice, is very much intact, but the post-Sandy work operates above the flood lines, prepped for disaster, anticipating being after collapse.
When I began to produce simulated photographs, I wanted to emulate traditional analog photographic processes in an effort to connect the historical critique of image production to contemporary methodologies and practices. I thought if I could locate these simulated photographs in a more traditional printing process, I might be able to convey a double relationship. Theoretically, the simulated photograph is a new way of making an image, yet that image still aligns and functions within a historical system of representation. While there may be new relationships that this type of image can create, the historical relationships must also be relevant, if not prioritized. So, in other words, whatever new political agency can be theoretically determined, it may also be eclipsed by its use within the more “mechanical” processes of society. I’m trying to show that there are protological elements to every system that determines what it is capable of actualizing.
Josh Kolbo (American, b. 1984) is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He is represented by Société, Berlin. An upcoming exhibition with Jeanette Mundt is on view at Project Native Informant as part of the CONDO project through 13 February.
Ned Vena is an artist based in New York City. He is represented by Société, Berlin, and Real Fine Arts, New York. His exhibition “Paintings Without Borders 2” is on view at CAM St. Louis through 3 April.
Images: Josh Kolbo, “A Simulated Future amid Collapse,” 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Société, Berlin.