With so much chatter lately about the use of surveillance technologies in photography today, and with one critic even referring to it as an emergent genre of image-making, Andrew Hammerand’s series The New Town both acknowledges and continues this conversation in new ways. Questions of privacy, responsibility and control take precedence through the images in this series, created via a remotely controlled surveillance camera that watches over a small and anonymous Midwestern township. The everyday banalities captured through Hammerand’s appropriated camera serve to depict not only casual moments in a token suburbia, but self-reflexive evidence of an unauthorized and voyeuristic venture into the life of the town’s population.
Josh Poehlein: First off, how did you get into photography and art? Who do you look to for inspiration?
Andrew Hammerand: Growing up near Chicago meant frequent trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, where I was exposed to an extraordinary amount of artwork. As a child I wasn’t aware of the significance of the work from their collections, but I now realize the works displayed were important and iconic pieces of art. One piece that always stuck with me from the museum was [Edward] Hopper’s Nighthawks, probably because the simplicity and banality of what is actually happening is widely offset by the fact that it places the viewer outside in the darkness of night. It makes you complicit in the viewing of those unaware inside the diner.
Concerning photography, I happened upon it at some point when I was young, in the same manner I assume many photographers did, by finding one of my parents’ cameras and simply looking through the viewfinder. I loved the way a lens could so easily shift focus, obliterating perfect views… the camera acted without sympathy.
Inspiration obviously comes from many avenues. Photographically at least, I’m constantly looking at the work of one of my previous professors, Michael Lundgren. I think his photographs push the limitations (and our understanding) of the photographic medium, as he continues to work with image associations and medium-specific problems at a heightened level. On a different note, I’m a sucker for appropriation, and two of my favorite books on my bookshelf currently are Tacita Dean’s FLOH, and Simon Menner’s new book, Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives. There’s something transfixing and attractive about viewing utilitarian photographs out of their original context (insert obligatory Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan reference here). There is also a generation of artists dealing with our current internet-specific culture, which is super fascinating to me. Penelope Umbrico’s photographic appropriation work comes to mind, as does Petra Cortright’s YouTube videos, and Michael Max McLeod’s webcam stream captures. I’m especially interested in work that points towards the absurdity of all of these internet platforms where people voluntarily compromise their privacy for a digitized version of real-life social interactions… something researcher Anders Albrechtslund calls “participatory surveillance”.
JP: The New Town is a series of images made through the use of a controllable webcam located in an unnamed Midwestern town. Can you talk about what led you to this project and walk us through the process of creating these images?
AH: About six years ago I found a discussion forum online where users were sharing techniques for accessing various devices that were all networked through the internet. A large part of the discussion surrounded the ability to access unsecured webcam control panels, which had at some point been indexed though the search robots at Google. Interestingly, even control panels that required a password were sometimes very easily bypassed by a default user & password combination from the original device settings. At some point I started making screen captures [with] the webcams I was able to access. Sometimes it would be an image of a dog in a cage, or a tired employee behind a cash register in a convenience store… fairly uneventful moments, but every camera that successfully loaded felt like I was viewing a portal into another world, a space only accessible though digital means.
Using this methodology, I eventually accessed the control panel for this camera, which offered almost complete pan & tilt options, a 21x optical zoom, focus control, and exposure adjustments. The level of control was unparalleled compared to the other cameras I was accessing.
JP: For me, this work prominently references Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon“. A central tower sits in the middle of town; only in this instance, a camera sits atop instead of a guard. Are the citizens controlled by the presence of this tower, or have they learned to ignore it? Are they even aware of the camera?
AH: I’m sure the citizens of this town are aware of the camera, but whether they are controlled by it or not, I wouldn’t know. When the panopticon was used in the context of a correctional facility, the omnipresent view of a guard became the motivating factor for prisoners to exhibit correct behavior. The fear of this constant gaze caused self-surveillance and dis-empowerment of the prisoners. On paper at least, the concept does translate to what is happening with this camera and the structure it sits upon, but I doubt it was their original intent when they put the camera up. Interestingly, the camera is mounted on a cell phone tower that is installed on top of the church in the middle of their town. It’s fascinating how religion utilizes the same omnipresent concept of their deities to control followers, and now this church literally has an all-seeing watchful eye mounted above it.
JP: In some of your images there are what seem to be “glitches.” In certain cases these glitches are violent in nature, splitting bodies in half, or disfiguring faces. Other times the glitches are almost ethereal, making certain figures glow, dance, or disappear. Are these “glitch moments” something that you seek out or are they simply a side effect of the image capture process? Would you even call them “moments,” or do they represent more than that, possibly multiple snippets of time?
AH: The glitches are inherent to the source… I don’t seek them out intentionally, but I do utilize certain instances of these various glitches to complicate what is apparent within individual images. Because I am interacting with a live video feed to make images, my decision to move the camera to follow somebody, or to zoom in & out while composing can often interfere with the refresh rate of the live image. This interference materializes in various ways – causing scan lines, creating a temporary split-frame, merging two people into one, or even chopping heads off. It’s interesting that you ask if the glitches possibly represent multiple snippets of time, because that’s exactly what they are. The feed refreshes vertically from the top-down, so the past is being incrementally covered up by the present.
JP: As I have been going through the images from The New Town I can’t help but think of the ethical questions raised in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window. As the unseen watcher of this town do you feel any responsibility for its residents? Have you thought about a course of action if you were to see something suspicious happen?
AH: The main character in Rear Window felt a responsibility for those he watched only after he thought a serious crime was committed. Prior to that, he watched out of curiosity and circumstance, as he was confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg. His mode of viewing also changed after he considered himself a witness. He went from sitting near the window in full light, to later observing from the shadows, much like Thorwald was observing from the shadows after neighbors discovered the dead dog in the film. There’s something to be said there about the ambiguities of responsibility, intervention, and guilt.
Concerning The New Town, I have yet to witness anything that I consider overtly suspicious. If I saw a serious crime underway I would have to call the police from their neighboring town, since I don’t think they have law enforcement of their own. I have never seen a police car drive though these streets… either crime is non-existent there, or they have their own way of dealing with things. I found a “Declaration of Governance” document from the town that continually refers to this authoritative figure known as “The Founder”, but never once does the document mention the actual police or law enforcement. Seems sort of Orwellian if you ask me.
JP: I’m curious what your plans are for installation as the work is heavily based in the virtual. So far the project has found its physical home in two limited edition books from Houseboat Press. Does the process of making these images into physical objects change the way you feel about them?
AH: The artist books released through Houseboat Press are a great way for me to rip the images from their original virtual source and put them into a physical analog context. The books also, for me at least, allow the work to exist within a hybrid state somewhere between indexical document and speculative reality. The choice to print the images into a specific book sequence, or make a print and put it on the wall allows me to maintain some of the control of the viewer’s experience. Rear Window was successful because Hitchcock placed the camera (and therefore the viewer of the film) alongside the main character throughout the film. This simple control situated you to feel the helpless anxiety and unease of the main character. Then you, as the viewer, became complicit in the continued viewing of the neighbors within the film. Concerning my work, I think the installation of exhibition prints need to work on a different level than the artist books. Books run the risk of letting a viewer feel safe… you can flip through a book in the privacy of your home, close it, and put it back on a shelf. If I install a group of exhibition prints, I feel the images need to specifically hold onto the implied complicity mentioned earlier.
JP: Houseboat Press describes the project as being ‘set in a generic Midwestern Utopia.’ Literally translated, the word ‘Utopia’ means, ‘no place.’ How do you think a visit to the town itself might line up with your idea of it? Have you considered traveling there to find out?
AH: Since I haven’t visited the town, and I’ve only experienced it through the lens of the camera, it still exists to me in an entirely virtual state. Interestingly, the town is so new the Google Street View cars haven’t even indexed it, so even viewing it through that isn’t an option. If I ever visit the town in person, it would purely be out of curiosity, well after I’m finished with the work. I suspect the town may be as equally strange as I view it, but of course part of that is probably because of how I’m viewing it. It’s interesting how utopias depicted in popular media seem to slowly crumble. I’ve found various reports about this town regarding halted development, bankruptcy of “The Founder” and the use of mediocre building supplies leading to houses not standing up to the elements. Apparently the land is also near a major seismic zone, and FEMA maps show it lies within a 100-year floodplain, meaning statistically, every hundred years the area could be subject to a significant destructive flood.
JP: Recently, New York City based artist Arne Svenson was sued for using a telephoto lens to photograph his neighbors. The resulting work, The Neighbors, was exhibited in a nearby gallery. The court ruled in his favor, citing the First Amendment. Have you considered how the residents of The New Town might react to the work? Are you taking any steps to protect their anonymity?
AH: I have definitely thought about how these residents might react to the work. From what I remember, Svenson was taken to court specifically over the neighbors recognizing their children in the photographs, which makes me think they were more concerned about the privacy of the children than their own. I think most of his images are framed in such a way to obscure faces when possible, whereas I haven’t really strayed away from that. The resolution of the camera I’m accessing does not allow for intense detail. In fact, the digital artifacts often increase when I zoom in, so if I try to zoom into a person far away, there is no additional payoff in clarity. So far, I haven’t released images of license plates, house numbers, or street signs, etc., in an effort to maintain a measure of anonymity for the residents.
JP: Finally, what’s next for you? Are you still working in the virtual realm, is there a Volume 3 of The New Town in the works?
AH: If I make The New Town, Volume 3, I think it would be the last artist book to wrap up the multi-volume series, while leaving room for potentially larger published edits down the line… I have been throwing around the idea of incorporating video along with the still images, but I don’t want to say much more about the direction that will take. Of course, I’m also focusing on completing my masters degree this spring from the graduate photography program at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. Besides all of this, I’ve also slowly been compiling work for a new appropriation project concerning systems of image storage on the internet and search-based loopholes. It may stay as a web piece, or turn into a zine… but that’s nowhere near complete, so we’ll see what happens.
Andrew Hammerand was born and raised near Chicago, Illinois. His photographic work interrogates the intersection of technology, privacy, and image culture within America. Andrew’s recent work was awarded a juror’s prize from the Boston Young Contemporaries exhibition at Boston University, and has recently been published as a multi-volume edition of artist books through Houseboat Press. In 2014, selections of his work will be on display within the Oppositional Realities exhibition at the Huret & Spector Gallery at Emerson College in Boston. Andrew is currently an MFA candidate at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and may be contacted through his website at www.andrewhammerand.com
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Intro by Gregory Eddi Jones
Interview by Josh Poehlein
All Images © Andrew Hammerand, 2013.