Adam Curtis’s film HyperNormalisation (2016), really hammered home the magnitude of global politics and its subterfuge beneath lines (lies) of communication, propaganda and information flows. The force of covert strategies and a lack of transparency in politics has disillusioned a great many of us as the simple, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific language of populism sucks in the masses. Most alarmingly, the political Right have by now successfully conquered some of the world’s largest democracies by reasserting their politics of fear and division as the solution to social and economic crises. The Left’s somewhat tired mantra of liberalism, most notably identity politics and fight for human rights has become overwhelmed by a disdain of PC and nationalistic sentiments fuelled by the myths and glories of a “golden past”.
It occurred to me that Mike Osborne’s Federal Triangle is the kind of response some of us are seeking to reflect our assertions and at the same time take what we think we know as itself a fallible system of information – Photography – as its mode of communication. The medium places itself very well in such a case study as Osborne indirectly alludes to the wider conversation above, albeit through an explicit focus on the US political system located around Washington DC. Osborne’s imaginary triangle covers the area between The Capitol, The White House and the National Mall. It is something of a “Bermuda Triangle” of opaque political activity, that to the onlooker is visible only under close surveillance. In making this work, Osborne does exactly that, with his camera searching for evidence to support a theory bordering between the slightly paranoid and the surely absurd idea that there are sinister powers at play hidden from the ordinary person.
Sunil Shah: I wanted to know how much would you agree that the book is partly a meditation on how the political system(s) have hidden agendas beyond what we are privy to but also how much of this is conspiracy/fantasy and how easy it is to fall into a trap of paranoia?
Mike Osborne: I think the book is partly about the challenge of grasping or depicting the exercise of power. Maybe politics and power are all one big QAnon constellation, a cluster of dots just waiting to be connected so that Truth can be revealed. Or maybe power is exercised out of site, and if we could just be there behind the curtain, we might properly understand who wields it and how it functions. Or, more probably, maybe power is just incredibly complex and contingent. Whatever the case, our options as spectators and participants are not terribly satisfying. The path of paranoia leads us to a pizza parlor, armed to the teeth and utterly convinced of the righteousness of the mission. At the other end of the spectrum, we’re left with doubt, uncertainty, and a recognition of our own limitations.
In shooting the work, I tried to explore some of these ways of looking at power by essentially adopting different photographic personas — journalist, spy, conspiracy theorist, and so on. This is not to say that every picture is clearly aligned with one of these personas, only that the work as a whole reflects an attempt to incorporate all of these different ways of interpreting.
“The path of paranoia leads us to a pizza parlor, armed to the teeth and utterly convinced of the righteousness of the mission. At the other end of the spectrum, we’re left with doubt, uncertainty, and a recognition of our own limitations.”
SS: Can you tell me more about the area that is this “triangle”, between the White House, US Capitol and the National Mall. I suspect its fairly well policed and generally a part of the city occupied by federal personnel, support staff and tourists?
MO: Yes, Federal Triangle is basically a massive bureaucratic complex that houses various parts of the government: The Federal Trade Commission, Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency, and so on. Trump’s DC hotel, which occupies a government-owned building, is located at the center of Federal Triangle, adjacent to the IRS and across the street from the FBI headquarters. The area is full of federal workers and security personnel as well as DC residents, tourists, etc.
“Federal Triangle” is a bit misleading as a title in that the work was actually shot all over the larger DC area, including Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. I chose the title because the words have a certain resonance for me. Most literally, they reference the bureaucratic machine, what people have come to call the Deep State. The title also evokes the Bermuda Triangle, the notoriously difficult-to-navigate patch of water. “Triangle” maybe also hints at the idea of triangulation, where we attempt to orient ourselves in relation to known points in a landscape. I like these cartographic kinds of associations because they connect to one of the larger aims of the work, which is to try to get at the sense that the political discourse is just completely unmoored.
SS: I’m interested in how our imagination around the US government is shaped somewhere between what news media, state broadcasts and public appearances show and how popular media presents fictional narratives and fact-based stories, documentaries and drama, like in popular TV series and cinema. I feel much of this weaves in and out of your pictures in this project. You’ve really tapped into visual codes, existing knowledge and specific news stories and facts. Is this something you researched or found yourself already knowing?
MO: Yes, if lurking on Twitter, reading the news, and watching TV and movies about DC can be considered research, I did a lot of it for this project. I also spent a lot of time visiting locations that cropped up in my reading about the city — neighborhoods where politicians live, places in the everyday landscape that have figured in the city’s history of espionage, sites that functioned as incidental backdrops in significant news stories from the past and present.
I think this stew of references connects back to something I mentioned previously, which is that I sometimes played with the idea of adopting different photographic personas — journalist, spy, conspiracy theorist, etc. The lines between these personas or aren’t clearly defined — I can’t go through the book and say, “that’s a journalistic picture,” “that’s a spy picture,” or “that’s a conspiracy theorist picture.” Things blur together.
One example might be an image like the one titled “Russian Dacha / Pioneer Point, Maryland,” which shows the road into a Russian diplomatic compound that was seized by the Obama administration shortly before Trump’s inauguration. The picture is of a journalistically newsworthy setting — the day prior to my visit, news trucks and helicopters were busy shooting footage of the site as the Russians left in van convoys. But a day later, the place was a ghost town except for US diplomatic security personnel. The picture that I made — a view of a long-wooded road with two little pin-prick headlights at the end of it — feels much more like a frame from a thriller than a journalistic record. This is partially to do with aesthetic decisions but also a matter of deliberately being there at the wrong time.
“As I mentioned earlier, my photographs are a reaction to a sense that things have come unmoored, that we’re no longer tied to an anchor.”
SS: I wanted to ask you the significance of the coding on the cover. I can place a good guess but I thought I’d ask.
MO: Jason (Koxvold) designed the book, and he and I worked together on the cover. It’s a word search in which the title — Federal Triangle — is embedded alongside a bunch of other words, acronyms, and symbols. “Federal Triangle” itself is a reference to a bureaucratic center situated between the US Capitol, the White House, and the National Mall. The other bits of text on the cover are cryptic nods to some of the more bizarre but also emblematic news stories that have played out over the past several years. There are probably 20 of these little nuggets in there. Some of them came from Jason and some from me. They range from things like “VAULT7,” a collection of CIA hacking tools exposed by Wikileaks in 2017, to “COMET,” an allusion to a DC pizzeria that QAnon acolytes believed to be the center of a sex trafficking operation run by Hillary Clinton. A lot of the cover text is also, of course, nonsense, just random letters and symbols sitting next to one another, asking to be decoded but never offering up any meaning.
The cover text is maybe doing something similar to the pictures, which string together glimpses of DC that are by turns journalistic, speculative, and nonsensical.
SS: Can you also tell me a little more about your interests as a photographer more broadly, how do you work and what things spark your interest as projects you tend to pursue and over how long a period?
MO: Federal Triangle is pretty indicative of previous projects in terms of the process. Most of my work comes out of fairly intense engagements with particular places over extended periods of time. Prior to Federal Triangle, I shot a series of pictures called Monopoly in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Before that, I worked for a couple of years on a project called Floating Island, in the Great Basin Desert of Utah and Nevada. I’ve been drawn to those places for various reasons, sometimes having to do with visual aspects, sometimes having to do with their complicated histories. I also tend to need a conceptual spark, something that helps me to find a way into a place. With Monopoly, for example, it was a chance encounter with an essay by John McPhee from 1972. From McPhee, I learned that Atlantic City’s street grid had been appropriated for the Monopoly board, and that the city itself was essentially a walk-in game of Monopoly — a mix of vacant lots, homes, and casino hotels.
In the case of Federal Triangle, I first started thinking about the work around 2014, during a period in which I was living in DC and teaching at a university there. I started shooting intensively in 2016 and completed the work over a period of 2-3 years. The initial seed for FT was the idea to look at the DC landscape through a “paranoid style” prism. How could I make pictures that would represent a deep skepticism about the place and, in turn, provoke a viewer’s projections? This type of question helped to establish some parameters without being overly prescriptive, so that my shooting excursions could involve a healthy combination of chance and intention. Federal Triangle also involved quite a bit of research — from how DC has been rendered in TV and movies, to where different politicians past and present live, to where certain episodes in the history of espionage have played out, etc., etc.
SS: How would you describe the current state of affairs in US government? The reason I ask is to establish how this book might be interpreted in light of that, in addition to how you’ve set its tone, which is relatively open, very little text, no explanatory essays or context saying too much. Something I guess it needs, lots of space in which interpretations are made possible?
MO: This is a huge question, and I’m honestly unequipped to have a sufficiently informed opinion. I have to believe that, within the various institutions that make up the government, there are many extremely smart and driven people doing important and self-less work. But this isn’t what we hear about when we flip on a radio or TV, so it doesn’t have much to do with the shaping of our perceptions. As I mentioned earlier, my photographs are a reaction to a sense that things have come unmoored, that we’re no longer tied to an anchor. I don’t want to say that this is entirely new, or a characteristic only of Trumpian politics. In the early days of the War on Terror, I remember reading an account of an anonymous Bush administration aide stating, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Today’s incessant, bald-faced lying and wide-spread conspiracy mongering are probably just outgrowths of this “create your own reality” approach.
I mention all of this because it relates to the approach that Jason and I settled on for the text in the book. As you point out, there’s very little text to orient the viewer, apart from captions identifying where most of the pictures were shot. For Jason and I, this was about leaving the pictures open to interpretation and, more than that, actively provoking dark and uncomfortable readings.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah & Mike Osborne. Images @ Mike Osborne.)