“The case it focuses on, saw six innocent young people all suffer memory-distrust syndrome due to coercion by the police and confess to murdering two men in Iceland of which they had no links. This was achieved by the police by enforcing a narrative onto the alleged until ultimately, they doubted their own beliefs in their memories”.
This interview took place over the last five months due to scheduling conflicts. I met Jack in November for a second interview in the from of a podcast that I will post in the coming months where we delve a bit deeper into his fascinating world of documentary practice, conspiracy theories and the way in which he embeds himself in his work. I do not want to spoil that as the audio interview has some really fascinating backstory to some of his work. None the less, here is a written ping pong interview that we conducted via email starting before we met and concluding this past week.
BF: With your book Parliament of Owls (Here Press), you have undertaken a case study of the culture surrounding conspiracy theorists and Infowars alternative media stalwart Alex Jones by placing the Globalist playground of Bohemia Grove under scrutiny in what reads like a photographic essay. That is to distinguish or de-tangle a conceptual mode of practice that focuses on the topic simply through metaphor and abstraction, promoting a methodology which seeks some representation of place with text, interviews etc. that outline the topic more like a LIFE magazine article for the post-internet age. I find it incredibly well-crafted and designed, with a repetition of theses occurring to drive home certain aspects-the owls-the glitch internet footage of limos and so forth which are used to create an atmosphere of documentary distrust.
Also, curiously, as a Brit, this is now your second body of work about weird or distressed Americana-the other being A Pink Flamingo (2015) which is a nod to the hardships suffered by pioneers along the Oregon Trail. This is also the second book in which conspiracy plays a role to some degree, the other being Sugar Paper Theories which is a project about an Icelandic criminal case in which the problems of memory and its distrust became the central issue surrounding the disappearance of a couple in the 1970s; or rather the problems associated with amnesia and false confessions by those charged with the murders. This is a different sort of conspiracy of course, but none-the-less, not so far away.
So, given that this is a bit of a longer intro than usual and that there are always going to be more questions than answers in the economy of conspiracy…can you tell me what draws you to America? What is the condition that you want to speak on with Parliament of Owls? Is it reflective of America or are you looking at these conditions as something larger? Do you yourself share in any of these beliefs or do you find it, as I do with religion, simply a fascinating bit of arcane human degeneracy? I feel as though your speaking about anxiety, fear and perhaps telecommunications in equal measure to the 1% club or the strange meteoric rise and fall of Alex Jones…
JL: I was very much at the start of my career when I made A Pink Flamingo. I think like a lot of young photographers, I digested an almost unhealthy amount of American photography and felt the inevitable pull towards the country as a result. There are inherent fables embedded within Americana that attracts lone-photography-landscape types and at the time in my life I was looking to spend a prolonged period of time on the road. After finishing the work my love affair with America as a subject sort of fizzled out. When I started going through the work at home I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with how my experience and intention with the work wasn’t coming across to a larger audience. The work went on to do okay and was later self-published, but I continued to grapple with the fact that I made a body of work that had already, in some form or another, existed. This frustration led me to stop looking at using photography to inform narrative, but rather on how narratives can be altered by imagery.
This is certainly the case within Sugar Paper Theories. The case it focuses on, saw six innocent young people all suffer memory-distrust syndrome due to coercion by the police and confess to murdering two men in Iceland of which they had no links. This was achieved by the police by enforcing a narrative onto the alleged until ultimately, they doubted their own beliefs in their memories. The idea of being spoon-fed a story by someone in a position of authority and then going on to believe it was something I thought could be linked back to the act of photography itself. The photographer being the police officer. Even though conspiracy theorists feature within the work, the project itself was aiming to focus more on the muddy nature of memory, and how false narratives in the investigation affected it.
I suppose it was by spending so much time around conspiracy theorists in the case that I became aware of how they go on to form new narratives, by using whatever strands of evidence they have. I found the act of sequencing often unrelated events to form a sort of true-ism fascinating. I knew there was something in that process that was quite familiar and it just became clearer that is was something I do with my own work. Repurposing contexts to fit an agenda.
With ‘Parliament of Owls’ I don’t see either Jones or the Grove as innocent in all of this. There is no doubt that the secrecy of the Grove and its elite clientele played a significant part in inviting speculation. Though it’s what Jones has suggested goes on inside (and out) that is as troubling. I don’t think either entity is a force of good in this world. After the Second World War my grandfather went on to join the freemasons. It was certainly a different time but I can understand why men, at a certain point in their lives, want to join a club in the quest for some sort of arcane thrill. The Bohemian Club just took the same model and added pageantry, fireworks and placed it within a 3000 acre Redwood forest. After my grandfather’s death in 2007, I was left his white Mason gloves. They have since been repurposed for negative handling, but the symbolism wasn’t lost.
“After the Second World War my grandfather went on to join the freemasons. It was certainly a different time but I can understand why men, at a certain point in their lives, want to join a club in the quest for some sort of arcane thrill. The Bohemian Club just took the same model and added pageantry, fireworks and placed it within a 3000 acre Redwood forest”.
JL: To answer your initial question, I think the draw to America this time wasn’t so much because of the thought of Americana. It just so happens that the Grove happened to be in California, but the implications of what it represent are global. Though interestingly, it was actually British writer Jon Ronson, who first invited Jones to enter the Grove back in 2000. Ronson is also from Cardiff, and perhaps because the project attempts to follow the butterfly effect, (another Ronson book), caused by Jones’s expose on the Grove, I think it sort of makes sense for a fellow Cardiffian to have made the work.
BF: Yes, I had forgotten about Ronson in this. That is a great point, the Free Masons also pre-date America. The trans-Atlantic skepticism, but also the secret orders are very old and of course have their roots in religion, be it crusades or the oddly the Pagan look of Moloch and the bizarre spiritual matters of Bohemian Grove which perhaps find their roots more in the pagan rituals of Greece or Rome, theatre Tragedy comedy etc.
With photography, and you have illustrated this point quite clearly about your skepticism of its manufactured intent at the hands of the author, we have a continuum of doubt about its ability to represent memory, history and of course, truth by its production. I think perhaps that the battle is being won so to speak on grounds of factual representation, or lack thereof as we wade into the world of post-truth visual economies, etc. The interesting point in this with what you have answered stems with the idea of narrative. I like the idea of how you point out the obvious fallacies, but it seems almost like you look at photography to tell a story. This sounds so base in its assumption, but at present, photography has been pushed into a corner in which its ability to convey even a hint of narrative is horribly eschewed for a scheme of abstractions-likely indebted to the points raised about its fallacies.
This leads me to ask why it is that you have made or continue to produce work in a way that “reads” as a story? It seems like there is a internal conflict at hand-you are clearly of the mind that photography’s ability to delineate representation of a high order is false and yet, you clearly love the idea of the book format when producing works, which very generally suggests being between covers-a beginning and an end-a genesis and a finitude. What draws you to oscillate in between those parallels of untruth with a desire to create a book? Is the book the best way for you to express your interest in telling a story? Have you considered how to fictitiously create a new story? Do you have a body of work in which you have not drawn from contemporary events, but desire to present a story in this sense?
JL: You’re completely right about its inheritance within the Pagan. The Bohemian Club has adopted a sort of Pagan-lite for taboos sake. I find it interesting that people still refer to the Owl statue as Moloch. The comparison was perpetuated by Jones after the release of his documentary, but Moloch is never described as an owl-God within religious literature but instead, a Bull. I would imagine the reason for it being mentioned was because of the similarities that the ‘Cremation of Care’ have with the descriptions of sacrifice under the alters of Moloch. It just further highlights that it becomes more of what the Grove represents than what it actually is.
I like that photographs can be at odds with the medium in which they are being seen. It creates a dilemma and tension, which can be an interesting situation to grapple with. There is this illusion that there has been consideration to a narrative once you place it between books covers. The lineal way in which you digest content is so at odds with how we now interact with the information-flux of the internet that it seems reductive. Though within a book there is a progression and guidance that takes-place that positions the viewer at a disadvantage and at the mercy of the forces that chose its sequencing. Furthermore with Sugar Paper Theories and Parliament of Owls, I tried to make an object that people could interact with that represents the concept of the project. Whether that be re-creating a conspiracy theorist manifesto or obscuring narratives by placing text and images within the seams of its pages to make the viewer physically investigate the book.
“I like that photographs can be at odds with the medium in which they are being seen. It creates a dilemma and tension, which can be an interesting situation to grapple with. There is this illusion that there has been consideration to a narrative once you place it between books covers”.
I do find it more difficult to create work without some sort of grounding in history but certainly not opposed to the idea. I currently enjoy the process of throwing wide nets when researching and it’s often through doing that that I find symbolism within the un-symbolic. I suppose a part of hindsight is that there is an advantage you gain when looking back trying to find the bigger picture.
Now with Epstein’s very convenient suicide, the notion of string pullers has entered a public discourse again. So in a strange way the idea of the Grove and secret networks has once again become a contemporary issue. Though it’s been a while since a subject involving conspiracy has united the western political spectrum as much as this has.
BF: How do you see your work evolving? Do you still find interest in the way in which conspiracy conforms to function as a catalyst for the distribution of myth and fact alike? In considering the conspiratorial, do you think the medium of photography begins to align itself more cogently with the illusions that function at its base? Perhaps conspiracy and photography have always provided each medium with implicit narratives of falsehood- could we call conspiracy a medium…? Could we call photography a conspiracy?
My last question within this, is how far down the rabbit hole can one go before one manifests a problematic dissolve of meaning by action of over-questioning? I feel that the genesis of all conspiracies begin with an unsettling truth of possibility, which in the case of Alex Jones etc. can lead to some very disarticulate and maddening losses of reason. It is for this very reason that conspiracy acts like a contagion. It begins to unravel its own means of distribution by asserting a problematic discourse based on distrust and illegitimate, if relative FACT. From Sandy hook “actors” and so forth, the heart of the matters at hand from gun control to mass revolt begin to cloud, distort and become unbuckled in the face of the sheer lunacy that conspiracy often dictates. In employing the language of conspiracy, perhaps we are aiding that unravelling. So, my question is to ask you whether you will continue down these avenues in the future and whether or not if you do, you will risk jeopardy to your own sense of reality and purpose?
JL: While I try not to look into the future with my work I suppose it can’t be helped to a degree. While it is very much a ‘make the path by walking’ process it does feel like I keep wandering into the maelstrom of conspiracy-reality a fair amount. My new work is attempting to look at how we interact through technology and how the idea accepting something to be fake as well as a reality is part of that. While it’s not directly referencing conspiracies they are certainly related. That being said I’m growing tired of digesting conspiracies, mainly for the reason you pointed out. When reading up about the Grove I did find myself down quite a rabbit hole when reading one allegation that outlined child mutilation in great detail. There have certainly been times when researching for this work that I started questioning the effect it was having on my health.
We are now being told things at such an alarming rate, that we have left with the impossible task of remaining attentive. While I still think we should attempt to remain vigilant as to what is happening around us, it’s impossible to fight all of those battles with narratives simultaneously.
I suppose if I was to look to the future, I would hope to make a career out of choosing those battles wisely and then turning them into projects with as few pictures as possible.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm & Jack Latham, Images @ Jack Latham.)