The various series’ presented here by Christopher Meerdo largely reflect a counterpoint to the use of digital imaging technology to strive for the perfect and flawless picture. In his projects Anthologies and Dark Data, Meerdo illustrates the degradation of digital information; and by using this bit-rot and digital static that result from his wide-ranging methods of image collection, he argues that the rudimentary visual simulacra offered by digital photography’s most basic functions hold viable representational power.
Luke Shaw: What’s your origin story in the photographic field?
Christopher Meerdo: I received a 1936 twin lens Rolleiflex camera in my grandfather Joseph Meerdo’s will as a teenager, which prompted me to consider photography and art in a more serious way. The name William is engraved on the side of the camera. Apparently my grandfather’s brother stole the camera from a shop and then Joseph, being the older brother, stole it from him. I like that my first camera is both sentimental and misappropriated.
LS: You seem to have a profound interest in showing your audience the breakdown and limitations of digital imaging. What brings you to this arena of inquiry? Are you searching for beauty? Novelty? Abstraction? The capabilities of the medium at the fringes of its performance potential? Or do the glitches of the digital medium simply happen to align with your conceptual goals?
CM: I have always been interested in the notion of inherent truth in photography. As a ubiquitous medium, we consider without much thought that there is an intrinsic authenticity to photographic images. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Photography, in its most basic relationship with the world, is a subtractive process and not a 1:1 correlation. It fragments space, freezes time, and turns three dimensions into two. The area of inquiry you mention, the dissolution of the binary substructure of photographic images, is simply another quality that we can add to this list. To me, considering the reductive language inherent in technological mediation is a long, historical conversation (proto-cinema for example) and we can use those methodologies in a poetic way to broaden our understanding of what photographs can be.
LS: Dark Data is a series of pixelated and aesthetically withdrawn images appropriated from Iceland’s national traffic road condition organization. The title reminds me of dark matter, the unobservable stuff that arguably holds the universe together. I wonder what your thoughts are concerning the act of revealing the stuff that exists within any digitized image. You are both hiding the land and revealing the hidden mechanisms of the medium. Are you subtly pushing an agenda here?
CM: I don’t believe there is anything sinister about the mediation or the creation of simulacra of our supposedly natural environments. The nature/culture divide is a false dichotomy and we should consider everything around us in a Žižiekian sense: that all things are simultaneously (un)natural and we should embrace the virtualization of our spaces as a way to celebrate and understand our world. That being said, in a relativistic sense, these failing landscape images from Iceland are a window to an Icelandic position of unease toward the natural environment that is antithetical to the arguably colonialist or historically aestheticized (Manifest Destiny) tourist landscape image of sublimity. Its really compelling to realize that these images, produced by an array of lo-fi webcams, come closer to an Icelandic understanding of landscape compared to photography that would be approached in a more “natural” way: 8×10 field camera or HDR waterfalls, etc. These photographs are very important to me, as they make allusions to the unwelcomed NATO and American military foothold in Keflavík, Iceland that was present until 2006 and the resulting tourism framework that grew directly out of that infrastructure.
LS: Both Anthology and Dark Data tackle different components of the digital photographic apparatus. While Dark Data addresses the sensor, Anthology, a series of images recovered from erased memory cards, addresses the storage medium. These are the two most essential features of digital imaging, save for the hardware in between. Both involve a process of revealing things which are beyond perception, beyond reality and any camera’s alliance therewith. Have you considered your work as a type of conceptual hacking? If it is, what exactly do you think you’re hacking?
CM: I think the term hacking carries with it some kind of maniacal connotation of anarcho-cyberpunks conspiring in basements across the world to bring down governments and NGO’s. While I am completely on board with that notion, I think its good to remember that hacking is also simply a term for playing with technology. I like to engage my practice with the gradations of this notion of hacking. I have worked on projects that explore these different avenues – from confidential and restricted government data to the circuit bending of digital code. For the Anthology project, I enjoyed retrieving all of the digital detritus from the world’s memory card, scraping the bottom of the grease trap for old bits of food and wedding rings.
LS: Sine Qua Non is a series of images of the sun, taken with a sensor degraded by repeated exposure to the sun. The images actually take on the appearance of the sun’s explosive surface or, perhaps, retinal afterimages. I think that digital photography resembles human perception much more than analog photography and the experiences of the camera you used seem very similar to those of a human eye extensively exposed to bright light. Similarly, to include another project, Anthology alludes to the alleged instability of human memories. Do you ever relate to your camera in this way, as a handheld, manipulatable microcosm of perception?
CM: To me, the photographic conversation has always been about vision and I am just simply a part of that longstanding tradition. The trajectory of photography’s development has always been marked by the similitude of biophysical emulation. HDR is a really great example of that today as it comes far closer to our retinal range than anything film could touch. I have used the idea of the afterimage in my practice quite often and that is a great read of Sine Qua Non. I really enjoyed killing that old digital camera with the sun as a means of considering entropy, but also just to have a laugh at the failure of the devices we covet and then scoff at through planned obsolescence.
LS: Speaking of explosive surfaces, Spore is a big, round composite of appropriated images of explosions. My first thought for this piece is the variety of coniferous species in America that actually require the heat of a forest fire to reproduce. Could you explain the relationship between the title of this piece and the imagery?
CM: Yeah, Spore is an amalgamation of hundreds of images of explosions and I wanted to create something visually enticing that played with the not-so-dichotomous relationship between images of detonations that are produced for entertainment and those that are a result of war and destruction. I was considering how entropic systems can be generative and productive like your forest example.
LS: We have covered four projects of yours and not one of them has involved the use of a camera for traditional camera-related purposes. Are there any traditional picture takers who have been on your radar? What are they doing that has kept you engaged?
CM: It’s always a bit confusing to me how I label myself or get labeled as a photographer but have really only made a handful of traditional camera photographs in the past eight years or so. I look at a lot of photography, and teach it as well, but I spend most of my time thinking about science, politics, and net culture. I really enjoy the work of my good friends in Chicago who have similar interests: Jason Lazarus, Jeremy Bolen, Jessica Labatte, Robert Chase Heisman, Eric Fleischauer, Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, John Opera; artists who approach the medium in different ways through hyper/post/proto/meta-photographic processes. I am also really excited to be working with my friend Aron Gent who runs DOCUMENT; he consistently organizes great exhibitions and is providing a unique platform for meta-photographic artists.
LS: Finally, where are you headed in the future? Do you have any projects on your docket?
CM: Right now I am working on a few exhibitions happening later this year. I just got back from Skowhegan this summer and am enjoying the time back in my studio in the city. I am in the planning phases of a book that will be published through DOCUMENT of the complete Anthology project which I am really excited about. In the studio, I have been playing around with the massive chunks of mystery data Wikileaks released a few months ago. I am going to be producing some new prints and a video using them as source material.
Christopher Meerdo (b.1981) is a Chicago based artist who grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and spent time in post-soviet Lithuania as a teenager. He has survived three near-death experiences including drowning and crashing in an airplane. Meerdo is a recipient of an MFA in Photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago. His work has been shown in numerous locations including Reykjavik, Nottingham, Seattle, Toronto, New York, and Chicago with recent exhibitions at Gallery 400, The Hyde Park Art Center, Roxaboxen and Roots & Culture in Chicago. Meerdo was recently an artist in residence at the SIM Residency in Reykjavik, Iceland and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in the summer of 2013. He currently teaches photography at the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Intro by Gregory Eddi Jones
Interview by Luke Shaw
All Images © Christopher Meerdo