Andrew Norman Wilson, The Unthinkable Bygone, 2016. Video still. Courtesy of the artist and DOCUMENT, Chicago.
Andrew Norman Wilson might be best known for his 2011 multi-channel video Workers Leaving the Googleplex, a firsthand account-cum-Marxist exposé of the human labor behind the Google Book Project. In this and other earlier projects, Wilson gained access to corporations’ internal apparatuses and performed interventions that made their insidious organizing politics slightly more tangible. His more recent videos feature a cast of nonhuman proxies—a mosquito, a dinosaur baby, a scarecrow puppet, an oil pump—trapped in endlessly enthralling and alienating loops. On the occasion of Wilson’s third solo exhibition at DOCUMENT in Chicago, where he’s looking back to the labor history of Kodak Corporation, we spoke about his aesthetic strategies and how they work with and against the politics of art history, the art world, and the world at large.
Jared Quinton I notice a certain dialectic in your work. On one hand you’re specific about corporate structures and other systems of organizing labor and production; you name them, you critique them, you adopt their technologies. On the other hand you’re invested in ambiguous narrative forms that seem to ask for affective responses. I appreciate that setting this up as a binary might be a bit of a straw man, but can you talk about these different modes?
Andrew Norman Wilson When I hear that question I see two hands. One hand holds old work (a red pill imprinted with the word “tool”) that is geared toward uncovering things that the phrase “the invisible hand of the market” is used to conceal, such as offshore labor and offshore financial activity. Within this hand the hands of the nameless worker, as well as the keystroking fingers of the anonymous account executive, are cast under the cold light of capitalist social realism in order to “identify and question the dominant economic, social, and political forces in our world today,” to quote many a press release. Opportunistic curators go bonkers for this kind of work as an affirmation of some nearly forgotten PDF they read during their MA. The hope was that the work was actually productive, in the sense that it didn’t necessarily represent social processes, so much as it participated actively in these processes, and even helped constitute them.
JQ And the other hand?
ANW The other hand has a blue pill embedded under the skin of its palm, but science tells me that, like blood, the blue pill is red as well. It’s just that blue is what makes it back to my eyes when passing through flesh.
Neither would get me closer to the truth, but this inaccessible red pill in the second hand implicitly acknowledges the illusory, deceptive qualities of not only art but also reality itself. I started to realize that there’s more to life—and art—than a critical framework based on human economic relations, or any framework. There are invisible handjobs of the market, magician’s hands, demon primate hands, and hands that make me uncertain as to whether they’re gesturing or signing to me.
So I’m not so much invested in narrative as I am in how we create and operate through incomplete mental models—both scientific and cultural—for understanding the world. These models can include narratives. But if the newer work feels baroque, perhaps it’s because illusion and sensory immersion here reduces the narrative conviction of familiar cause-effect structures, limiting them to pattern-making functions, or logics that unfold and repeat across time. The old structure of causation in which the past causes changes in the present becomes the baroque “cause” that lies in the future. This is why I’ve been making infinite loop videos; themes of predestination proliferate, but there’s no concluding truth.
Andrew Norman Wilson, Workers Leaving Googleplex, 2011. Video still. Courtesy of the artist and DOCUMENT, Chicago.
JQ So perhaps it’s more a question of resolution. In the curator-friendly work we know exactly what’s being critiqued. This makes art viewers feel like they’ve done some good merely by becoming aware of a structural problem. But your recent video-installation work is more alienating. I think empathy is the enemy of good art, so I’m interested for you to talk a bit more about this and other strategies you’re using in videos like Ode to Seekers 12, Reality Models, or The Unthinkable Bygone (all 2016).
ANW With those works I found myself at the beginning of something that I’m still pursuing—something like making a knot for viewers, including myself. If the knot works as I hope it does, it creates disturbances in the seemingly natural order of things and unwinds our counterfeit intuitions, allowing for thought to become an infinite drift outside of our established habits and perspectives.
Using and breaking techniques we have been conditioned to respond to from cinema and television—the embodied flight of an off-balance Steadicam, a transcendent crane into a computer-generated character’s head, or the shifting perspectives of a multi-cam setup—creates opportunities for identification with nonhuman characters. These seemingly intelligent yet amoral characters—the baby dinosaur, the mosquito, the oil pump, the syringe, the puppets—are anthropomorphized enough to offer a bridge for a human viewer, but also formally disturbed enough to cultivate the alienation you speak of.
JQ Are there political motivations behind this process of aesthetic problem solving?
ANW I regularly worry about the devaluation of aesthetic problem solving, not just throughout general educational systems, but even within the art world, where a clickbait mentality seems to prevail that privileges consumables, virtue-signaling rhetorical stand-ins, and conceptual content designers instead of artists who take the time to process their material and how it might inhabit the world in ways that are unique to art. So in the form of very direct action, I’m contributing to a world that I want to live in.
While I wouldn’t reduce the decisions I make to simply being politically motivated, there are ways in which those works complicate a humanist legacy—primarily European and male in its origin—that understands the world as having been given for our needs and created in our image. The processes of identification I’ve set up are meant to offer revisionary vantage points from which that stagnant legacy reveals itself as contradictory, amounting to an ecologically murderous, even suicidal tendency.
Andrew Norman Wilson, Ode to Seekers, 2016. Video still. Courtesy of the artist and DOCUMENT, Chicago.
JQ So if I’m understanding correctly, the “intelligent yet amoral” characters are something like posthumans. How does this relate to your more recent work, Kodak (2018), which seems like something of a return to your more explicit interest in human labor and the production of imaging technologies?
ANW Through its development of the world’s original nervous system, the jellyfish was the first creature to figure out that nerves are an obvious advantage. The ability to receive and process information meant that the jellyfish could actually react to changes in its environment in order to increase the odds of life going well, rather than just floating aimlessly and hoping for the best. A certain jellyfish—the Turritopsis dohrnii—is believed by some to hold a potential key to immortality. Instead of dying, the jellyfish transforms back into a polyp and begins life anew. The scientist Shin Kubota has made it his life’s work to unlock that potential.
This immortal jellyfish—both an ancestor from the deep past and a potential for a deep future—is scripted as the MacGuffin that a blind former Kodak employee pursues in the Kodak video. Like photographic film, the jellyfish’s body offers a gelatin medium for information storage. Whether or not that’s possible isn’t what’s at stake in the work; it’s the protagonist’s desire to preserve his consciousness and all of the memories it contains indefinitely on an analog medium. It seems that photographic film won’t be so lucky, and the protagonist knows this. Throughout his pursuit he’s haunted by memories based on photographic archives, but it is the 3D-animation sequences, which start to appear in the third act and are narrativized as schizophrenic delusions, that fully derail his efforts.
Andrew Norman Wilson, KODAK, 2018. Installation view at DOCUMENT, Chicago
JQ And why the choice to think about labor through this fictionalized, hypersubjective, perhaps even impressionistic lens?
ANW In the recent history of critical photographic art, there is a dominant insistence that a photograph is meant to be looked at literally for the information contained within the document, whereby the literal creates the possibility for an oppositional alternative to whatever plagues ordinary life or aesthetics (most often some form of “the man”). What this kind of work encodes is a certain fantasy of escape—a long tradition of humanism that likes to think that it can step outside the circuits of commodification.
Meanwhile, Google and Facebook are building a vast machine for converting every oppositional vector into a curve that bends right back to that very machine, a new input for a more personalized output. It does so not by making people stop having faith in opposition as a mode of critical thought, but by allowing—even encouraging—that faith, a faith people can gather around in optimism or critical pessimism, even while it builds parallel forms of collectivity that turn all action, all stances, no matter how oppositional, into capital accumulation built from preferences, affinities, and likes. The belief that subjectivity is somehow foreign to those circuits is a humanist fantasy—at this point we are informational capital.
Mental health conditions like schizophrenia might be useful in thinking through how we now relate to post-produced photographs, photorealistic 3D-modeled imagery, and even information. If the schizophrenic could take a step back, out of the affected self, she or he would understand her or his delusions to be just that, at which point these delusions would vanish and self-understanding would return. It is precisely this action of stepping out of the image that enables us to make a mental image—to put an image in front of the thing or to make a representation from memory. Mental conditions like this further obscure the sight of reality. When images internal to the psyche “appear” or surface on the retina and are projected back inward before making contact with the world, they generate looping pulses that embed the mind in a recursive fantasy.
Andrew Norman Wilson: Kodak is on view at DOCUMENT in Chicago until February 23.