“…the decision to juxtapose the old with the new relates directly to the aporetic nature of the location. Much of what I was feeling about the development of the surrounding urban environment was a sense of dislocation and confusion.”
Andrew Waits Aporia is a puzzle in which many pieces look as though they overlap and promote a picture of a whole, but as soon as you start to assemble them, they disintegrate and splinter falling to the floor in shards cast in different directions upon the impact of one’s assumptions . I thought I was holding this image.
The images are imbued with a pathos of mystery and a permeable darkness encroaches the frames of the images either literally by night or metaphorically by the possibilities surrounding certain technological procedures that are undefined as to their position in the wider world of Aporia, questioning mechanical intent and the philosophy of object-hood. The mystery and conflations found in Aporia contribute to its strong, yet sensitive use of portraiture and place. Our interview has taken place over time and the ether of the Internet.
BF: The title of your book Aporia is meant to elicit an idea based on a conundrum in which two ideas or theories conflate each other producing a condition or concept in which a hybrid of contradiction has responded to its components to form a new idea. Moving this concept over the span of a city, a location perhaps being the better term, I am struck by how your images push and pull over each other and in their dis-junction, perfectly elaborated in your title. Within the book there are perhaps two main ideas at play divided over several chapters. The first, and the more overwhelming for me personally is the way in which you use strange fragments of “ruins” amongst a very real and gridded urban space. Large stones, building materials, but also decayed fragments of ramshackle edifices are juxtaposed against strange columns with Ionic references suggesting the ruin of civilizations has been pivoted against the idea of progressive architecture such as sky scrapers etc. When choosing the title that you have, what led you to these considerations?
AW: Thank you for picking up on the significance of the title. I can’t understate its importance to the work. In a way, it helped me to understand more fully what I was doing and how the photographs worked together. It seemed to perfectly articulate the internal conflict and intuitive decisions I had been making along the way.
In regard to your question, the decision to juxtapose the old with the new relates directly to the aporetic nature of the location. Much of what I was feeling about the development of the surrounding urban environment was a sense of dislocation and confusion. While intellectually I understand that decision are based on a variety of factors; theoretical underpinnings like, perhaps, Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, or societal prejudice like the practice of redlining. Yet, there remains an irrational, inhuman element to the development of urban spaces today that is based not on ideas but on the requirements of capitalism. It is a market based progress blind to the needs of communities or a larger sense of purpose.
Contrasting different architectural styles seems to highlight this emptiness. The inclusion of columns and references to older civilizations symbolize an architecture of culture, pride, and place. There is almost an organic feel to them. When compared with much of what is considered modern urban architecture, there is a sense of artifice and a fixation on the “new”. Creation and change has becomes less of a means to an end, and more of an end in itself. There is a quote from Ralph Ellison that says, “If we don’t know where we are, we have little chance of knowing who we are, that if we confuse the time we confuse the place; and that when we confuse these we endanger our humanity, both physically and morally.” I think this connection between place, history and identity is at the core of this work.
BF: Yes, the theoretical nature of why urban centers, particularly in America as opposed to say Europe have their history, pre-dating capitalism, in Militarism. When Hausmann famously obliterated the small congested streets of old medieval Paris, for which he employed a number of skilled photographers to document in the first inclined “before and after” photographs, what he was proposing apart from public health and disease control in close quarters was a way in which he could impose a grid on the landscape instead of the traditional medieval circular design over the city. This of course makes it much easier to deploy military or government officials to the urban center which is certainly particular to Paris given its natural inclination against authority. This would lead to a proposition in 1870-71 under the Paris Commune in which cobblestone, ripped from the streets was used to block these wider boulevards and avenues, which of course would also give inspiration to the events of 1941 and again 1968.
The conflict between these parallels of course graduates into sprawl and an urban planning that does indeed champion a market-based system of arteries within a city. Urban centers have to build up, but again historically, this is not that different from how ancient civilizations from Babylon forward have used the metropolis to reach the heavens. This is quite a digression from out conversation, but I find it pertinent to your work as some of the symbols you are using have the feel of ancient columns etc. and the location, the one you specifically mention could be anywhere is hard to pin down. Knowing your affiliation with Hartford and its photography program, I though perhaps it was in Connecticut, but then I find myself questioning what continent I am on. When I first looked at the book on-line, parts of it made me think, with the title that it was Rome.
I am curious as to where this place is, would it be-little your audience to have a definitive answer? Further, can you also expand on the use of characters? I don’t want to see this as a tragedy, nor do I really want to hold out for theater as it is part of a wider discussion regarding for example work by Alex Majoli in which your work shares some visual parallels. How do you see these people? Are they a cast? And if they are a cast, how should I determine how you have made those decisions to include them? I have to ask how you came to choose the images of African Americans Men, shirtless, but also the white buff guy making a funny face? We can talk about the Jehovah Witness Fellas as well…
AW: You bring up some good points with regard to the development of urban centers. While photographing around the city, I became interested in how rapid destruction and construction came to be justified over time, specifically in America. The scholar, Daniel M. Abramson, argues the idea that buildings can become obsolescent developed as a way to help people come to terms with modernity and the fast paced change of capitalism. What took over was the notion that the new necessarily outperforms the old. This justification is inadequate in fully explaining the drivers of urban development today, but represents a fascinating by-product of the system we find ourselves in.
Concerning where this work was made, eventually, it became less and less necessary to address when I realized I wasn’t interested in documenting a specific place, but rather an overarching feeling in relation to a particular phenomenon. However, for the sake of conversation, knowledge of the location does provide personal context and an understanding of catalyst. The majority of the photographs were made in Seattle, a city I grew up adjacent to, and lived in the heart of, my entire adult life. I have always felt an affinity for the area and connected my identity to the temperament and character of the city. However, in the past decade, an influx of money and industry accelerated the pace of change to the point where the city became nearly unrecognizable. The feeling was akin to being a stranger in your own home. The desire to further explore this sentiment was initially what set me on the path to make this work.
“Concerning where this work was made, eventually, it became less and less necessary to address when I realized I wasn’t interested in documenting a specific place, but rather an overarching feeling in relation to a particular phenomenon”.
When I consider the people in Aporia I generally divide them into two categories. First, you have those featured in the urban setting where there is a common anonymity and rigidity of gesture. Some find their identities obfuscated, trivialized, or controlled, mirroring many of the motifs found in the photographs of the city. It is of course a dramatization of reality, but also a reflection of my own psyche in relation to traversing the space. The act of photographing in the city was quite fluid and intuitive. I made an effort to divorce myself from time or any preconceived concept or purpose. I wanted to take on the role of “the stranger” moving through it as an observer rather than influencer, allowing myself to be guided by the characteristics of the landscape and what attracted me. As a result, none of the people are directly cast or posed. Although, I would argue the process of editing can be a form of casting in itself.
The second group of people are surrounded by darkness and removed from any discernible context. At some point in the process I started making pictures at various dance clubs around the city. In retrospect, I think I was longing to connect to a certain feeling of intimacy I remembered from my early twenties at the height of my involvement in the social and cultural scene. Simultaneously, I came across an article about the American phenomenon of dance marathons, or walkathons as they were often called, in the 1920’s and 30’s. These competitions would pit dancers against each other to see who could stay on their feet the longest. Sometimes they would extend for days, weeks, even months. In my mind, I imagined them as a way of escaping the social and economic strife of the time through the act of dance. While the reality of these competitions couldn’t be further from the truth (see the film, They Shoot Horses Don’t They), this idea of dance as release stuck with me.
At first, I didn’t know how or if these photographs would fit into the larger context of the work. They serve as a stark contrast to the other people in the book in that their movements and gestures are exaggerated and emotive. Although the explicit nature of the emotion expressed is decidedly vague. As the project developed, these pictures started to resonate in new ways. They became a representation of the purgative state of Aporia. In the context of the book, they are found intermittently placed, as if to signify a stepping back from the confounding and overwhelming reality of the urban landscape.
BF: It’s specifically these portraits though that give the animus for kindness against the urban backdrop. Some are strange images and the perspiration and tenderness questions their placement, which with the chapterized movements is quite perfectly paced. I kept asking myself how to unlock their presence. I like the answer about “the kinds or types” of inclusion.
One other fascinating idea about urbanity, people, workers etc. is how does the use of the city model plan and the following pages which are dedicated to electronic infrastructure in which we find images of the people (looking purposeful) juxtaposed against the cascades of wires and what appears to be data storage hubs allow one to speculate as to the correlation between these people of the city and aggregate data mining? We are looming so close to a nearly dystopian indexing of humans that I cannot be unaware of these binary ideas about code and human numeration. Was their intention to create this Orwellian final chapter or am I completely reading too much into it, with the grey men and their Jehovah ties etc?
AW: I’m a fan of science fiction film and literature and there is certainly a reliance on common dystopic tropes of the genre present in the third chapter. Big Brother gazing down from above, glass structures rising toward the heavens, an orderly population moving in robotic fashion, and a sense that the organic has been replaced by the lifeless. The city presented in this section is meaningless, a non-landscape. I tend to think about Charles Beckett’s book, The Unnamable. In it, the character, presumably a man, resides in a place devoid of time, unaware if he is sitting or standing, whether it is light or dark, or the purpose of his capture. Despite his attempts to consider his predicament from all angles through incessant self-conversation, he is unable to find the truth to his situation or the ability to free himself from it.
There is a similar sense I get from looking at the sequence of photographs in this section. If a city has a “soul”, what would it mean to lose it, what would it look like, and would it even deserve or require a name? What also interests me is that despite this somewhat formulaic projection, the section feels no less bizarre or unsettling than the previous two. The simplification instead reinforces what was already known or felt.
Like you mentioned, a new type of photograph is included in this final sequence. There are three interior photographs of what appear to be technology and they are purposely chaotic and esoteric. What fascinates me is how little is gleaned from looking at or inside these objects. In the sequence they represent a complexity or threat that cannot be revealed through simple observation. I found it interesting to include these photographs as both an allusion to Baltz’s Sites of Technology series but, more importantly as a sort of red herring for the viewer. Technology is a frequent pariah for the ills of modernity. However, this argument oftentimes feels like a diagnosis of the symptoms rather than the disease. Yes, technology is allowing for the indexing of human beings, but we must also look to the underlying systems that are incentivizing the move in this direction.
So although this chapter presents a possible end point to the construction and destruction, its imagining feels disingenuous and phony. The failure to attribute blame is in itself the point. There is a limit to what can be observed in an environment so deeply entrenched in a particular system. The culprit can’t be singled out or pointed to because it has no acute physical representation. Rather, it is woven into every aspect of life and culture to the point where we have convinced ourselves that this is what progress looks like. We are consumed by the spectacle, but disconnected from its underlying mechanisms. So, rather than make an explicit point, the entirety of the fictional narrative is constructed in an attempt to evoke a feeling that something is amiss. In turn, it is a reflection of my inner conflict with the upheaval of the place I once felt a strong connection to.
BF: The mysticism of technology and the denuded prelude to impending anti-humanism or the technological uncanny valley, its antecedents and particulars-‘Im re-arranging your book’s title now….Yes, I agree with you.
We get into that loose association of what Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects can refer to when we disable/enable language for a minute and look into the looming abyss of “progress” as a concept. I say abyss because of my own disposition. I’m sure it can have positive relations to other people.
Is your proposition in this book a form of warning or an indication of a symptom? Are you foreshadowing the cogs of humanity’s current state or forecasting its future? Im curious because it very much seems that buried in the images and as you have pointed out just above, there is a gross desire to share your possible disbelief at the railroading of technology and the body, society and the compression of space it is also suffering under. What are your overall political considerations that find their way into the book if you can sum it up in one go? Do you believe we are being processed?
AW: My political considerations and outlook are anything but optimistic at this point. I don’t know if processed is a harsh enough term to what is happening to humanity. In this age of “big data” we are being quantified and qualified. I can’t think of a more de-humanizing practice than turning someone into a statistic.
I think Morton’s idea of the hyperobject is useful to bring up as it describes something we know exists, but because it is so all-encompassing, it’s impossible to grasp or see. In a way, Aporia could be read as an attempt to visualize a particular psychological reaction to the hyperobject, capitalism. There is something deeply unnatural and inhuman about this system. It breeds a particular flavor of “progress” and valuation that has never resonated with me. Debord describes capitalism as having “its own particular decor”. Inequality and environmental exploitation are not symptoms but rather features. It’s not that it wants this specific landscape; rather it needs and necessitates it. Perhaps, an environment under siege by construction and destruction isn’t capitalism’s means to an end, but rather an end in itself. These considerations not only find their way into the work, they are at the core of it. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the didactic, I meandered into the innocuous, although I hope that isn’t the case.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm and Andrew Waits Images @ Andrew Waits.)