Through the arbitrary charting and graphing of visual data, Brooklyn-based artist Mark Dorf offers a poignant metaphor for the control we impose upon the physical world. His series Axiom & Simulation, on display here, speaks at length on ideas ranging from digital fiction to scientific inquiry and its consequences, as well as the vast divide between natural and digital worlds.
Gregory Jones: First Mark, tell us about your origins as a photographer, and what drew you towards digital methods of image-making?
Mark Dorf: My origins as a photographer reach back through history a bit. After my grandfather left the service, he studied photography in NYC under the GI Bill in the early 50’s and later moved on to open a studio with my grandmother. As a result my father of course always had cameras around the house from my grandmother so I was introduced at a very young age to the tool and really haven’t put it down since.
As per my interest in digital methods of image-making – to me, it’s the tool and method that makes the most sense to comment on contemporary issues in culture. We live in a digital world and are bombarded with digital imagery at every corner and every moment of our lives. I find it interesting to embrace the same commercial tools used in media and advertising to create metaphor and abstraction – it’s the same alphabet but a completely different language. At the end of the day, it’s just a very specific tool; the same can be said of course for film; it too is a very specific tool but it is yet another language.
GJ: Talk us through some of your early influences that had an impact on your practice and ideas.
MD: My earliest influence that I can remember that gave me the “Oh wow, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life” feeling, would probably be the photographic works of Anthony Goicolea. A teacher of mine in high school, Matt Gatton, introduced me to Goicolea’s Water Series and Detention Series, and I specifically remember being struck by the sense of narrative, wonder, and the illusion of multiples. As it turns out he was also embracing the digital medium at a time when it was less common. So I suppose those works really propelled me into really wanting to make images.
A more recent influence that had a huge impact on my practice would certainly be the works of Kahn + Selesnick who are also now very digital heavy in their photographic works. I was very fortunate to work with them for a summer in upstate New York assisting in shooting, sculpture, and creating props while I was a student studying art. I had always been fascinated, again, by their use of narrative and their overwhelming sense of wonder – but one of the biggest things that I took away from my time with them was the immense amount of research that went into every tiny detail in their work. As a result I too adopted my own version of that practice and really like to be able to knowledgeable and speak about every minute element in my images.
GJ: The bulk of your work reads to me as an examination of a dichotomy between the natural and the digital. There also seems to be an interest in the divide between art and math/science. Talk about your interest in how these worlds intersect each other.
MD: In addition to my familial history in photography, my mother, father, and aunt all have worked in science. So not only was I presented with ideas of image making and art practice, but also the importance of math and science. While I did not end up pursuing math and science, it is without a doubt still something that is of a very high interest to me. I love to keep up with technology and learn bout new complex tools that are being developed every day.
Additionally I have a deep love for the landscape. While I am not someone who thinks that we as a human race should return to the landscape and live directly from the land, I do find that I am the most comfortable and at ease whilst in the landscape alone and absent of an overtly loud human footprint. I suppose it was only natural for me to desire to mix all of these things in a pot and explore how the interact with one another.
Specifically in my series Axiom & Simulation, I was interested in the ways that math and science can in fact fail. We strive to define everything around us to a mathematical and scientific pinpoint of precision, but an absolute black and white definition seems never to be achieved. Something is only right until it is again proven wrong. Another element that was of a strong interest for me was the ways in which math and science inadvertently create a world that is parallel to our own first person experience. Through the use of data we create new definition. There is the plant, and then there is all of the information about the plant – they are in fact the same subject matter but two totally and completely different representations: data vs. object, microscopic vs. macroscopic. Are these two manifestations the same?
GJ: Axiom & Simulation exhibits seemingly arbitrary measurements of the terrain’s physical properties. This notion of graphing and charting untouched land suggests the need for humans to have a sense of control over the landscape, to master it in a sense or take ownership over it. Please walk us through the process of making these pictures, and talk through some of the ideas this work helped you reach.
MD: Mastering and ownership over surroundings are absolutely two ideas that I was interested in when making this work. We have an undying need to define and understand, and in a sense we are trying to assert our dominance and control by doing so which is a completely absurd idea, especially when in context of consumption. To try and place dominance over the planet and natural world that we have evolved from, in my opinion, is far beyond our ability – it is this environment that has sculpted the creatures that we are today. That is not to say however, that I am against the practice of science. Our advanced curiosity is what makes us who we are and it is important to explore and research our origins and surroundings to better inform our future.
As far as the process of making the images, I typically start a body of work by accident to be completely honest. I end up becoming infatuated with a certain subject and do tons or research for no reason whatsoever – then I realize its time to start creating again. Each image was drawn before it was ever photographed. I usually end up drawing the landscape and all of the content that I composite or build and then go to seek out that very very specific scene– it is a labor of love and can be quite frustrating, but on a personal level I find it more rewarding to seek out that perfect place rather than recreate it digitally though collage techniques.
Shooting Axiom & Simulation was really interesting because while I was making work about math and science, I was also in fact performing my own absurd and inaccurate experiments – in a sense I took on the role of an absurdist field researcher. Though the works look to be totally digitally fabricated, there was quite a lot of physicality to the photos in process. For many of the grid pieces I would go out and measure out 2 foot by 2 foot grids with markers so that I could then make a more accurate topographical illustration later with my digital tools. Another example of the physicality is in the image Plate #18, that cube is something that I created in the landscape – it is real and there is very little digital manipulation.
GJ: These images cast a wide net regarding the desire to categorize and disseminate information about the world. We construct philosophies to make sense of our thoughts, and in the world of art we establish genres to compare and contrast. However, to follow any categorization to its logical conclusion seems a fool’s errand. Exceptions and areas of overlap inevitably arise. There’s something beautiful I find in that sheer randomness, nature’s refusal to be contained. Would you agree with this sentiment?
MD: I very much agree with you in your statements. Later in the research for this project I came across a great BBC documentary by Adam Curtis titled All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. In the second of the three parts of the documentary he begins to explore the beginnings of cybernetics and looks back to our insane need to define and give order to the landscape. The viewer is taken through a whole section that looks at how we once believed that ecosystems worked in perfect checks and balances – that the natural would was calculable and just another mathematical equation that we could figure out if we tried hard enough and spent enough time with it. This is of course totally false to our theories today – nature is full of chaos and large violent actions that are totally unpredictable. Sure we can understand why some natural elements behave the way they do on a very small scale, or examine the sources of natural disasters, but to predict any of these elements perfectly as a mathematical system seems to me to be exactly that: a fool’s errand.
GJ: The arbitrary nature of your “measurements” seem in a way metaphorical. At the same time, they function as an example of the current direction of image-making. Computer-based manipulation is widely used today to re-construct the referential.
In your images the landscape serves as a symbol for that referential: the actual, the analogue, and the true. In this sense, the content and the process of your images are one and the same. In concept you are altering the untouched land, in practice you are altering the referential photograph, which can be seen as a metaphor for altering the land. Am I digging too far down the rabbit hole?
MD: There is no such thing as digging too far down the rabbit hole – this is why I love making these visual puzzles!
As for your reading, I am not sure if I completely agree with you, but that is of course not to say you are wrong. Once I make these things I give them to the world and they are no longer within my control, people can and will think what they want to and I of course welcome that.
I think though that I am not so focused on altering the land itself, as that would imply a physical change. I am most interested in the ways that we transform the land through analysis and data and the different manifestations that that data creates of the very same subject. The content and process of the images are similar however in that the content explores the analysis of data capture and the ways that is used and transformed, and the digital sensor in the camera itself performs the exact same task. It captures light and transforms that information into a complex grid of colored pixels. This is actually one of the main reasons why I chose to use digital photography for this project. It uses contemporary capture technology to again transform and manipulate data that creates a parallel relationship from its reference.
GJ: The photograph, by its nature, has a long history of being used as a form of evidence and fact. How do you feel the role of the image has changed, now that the veracity of the photograph has become questionable due to the use of digital manipulation?
MD: The photograph has definitely been used as form of evidence, fact, and truth – but in practice, the photograph has never been an accurate source of non-fiction. There are always choices being made on the image-makers side that reflects his or her own bias – what is included? More importantly what does the photographer exclude to create his or her own altered reflection of truth? Susan Sontag of course explores this in On Photography. More literally, we can see in history as far back as 19th century photographers such as Henry Peach-Robinson or Oscar Reijlander making advanced composites of images for exposure reasons, aesthetics, and artistic liberty.
This is an age-old discussion, and honestly I think it comes down to the viewer having to make his or her own choices. It can’t really be clear anymore, nor has it ever really been clear, as to what the “truth” is in photography. With contemporary digital technology it is far easier to manipulate our imagery in the most basic and most advanced ways, and it is far more present in our every day lives: I think this just gives us more of a reason to question the media that we absorb and really think about how the imagery we consume is affecting whatever it is paired with whether that is in the news or in an advertisement. Something has been catered to the viewer.
An interesting recent project that really brought these ideas to attention again was Richard Mosse’s newest series Infra, in which he traveled to the Congo to document conflict in the country but he chose to use infrared film. Not only was this a nod to the use of the medium for surveillance but it also renders all greens as a hot pink hue. To render such a dramatic subject this way really asks the viewer to think about the accuracy of the photographs as a document. Most people see film, as you pointed out, as a more “pure” form of photography – this project pointed out just the opposite. It asks questions on the “accuracy” of documentary work and the blurred lines between photojournalism, art, and fiction.
GJ: Tools were first created to be an extension of our bodies, while computers have become the extension of our minds. What are your thoughts on how we use images as an extension of ourselves?
MD: In the context of the internet and social media this becomes a very interesting subject. In the most obvious sense, these portals allow for us to use digital photographs and video as a means of curating our own appearance to a larger community. With things like Facebook you have the ability to show or remove every photograph that is uploaded. If this person looks bad in a specific photograph, they will of course remove it and leave only the ones that best reflect what they see as an accurate representation of themselves. Whether or not this is truly accurate is another story – it’s more about what that specific person wants to be or become. In a sense the digital image then gives you the ultimate ability to create your own fiction.
GJ: Finally, what’s coming up for you over the next year, photographically or otherwise?
MD: I have just returned to NYC from an artist residency in upstate NY where I just finished my most recent body of photographic based works titled //_PATH that explores the use of digital technology in our contemporary lives and how we integrate it into our every day. I am very excited to get this work going and seen by the world. Not only was I using digital photography, but also 3D rendering, infrared 3D scanning technology, and projection mapping. With this work, since the subject was so heavily influenced by digital technology, I wanted to use as many digital methods as I could – embrace the subject matter and adopt it into my practice at the same time. A piece from this work will be showing on the 28th of October at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in New York for the NURTUREart benefit – very excited about that. A few other shows are also in the works for this winter in NYC and another in Boston in the spring.
Mark Dorf grew up in Louisville, KY in a family based in science and arts. For the past few years he has spent his time seeking out new landscapes and environments to immerse himself within in order to continue his explorations of humanity and their interactions with the natural landscape from where we all once originally came. Mark seeks to understand humanity as an observer in his surroundings, using photography as a tool to explore the curious habitation of the world around us. Mark currently resides in Brooklyn, New York where he creates his images and continues to explore contemporary art.
For news on all the latest interviews and features from In the In-Between, click the logo and join us on Facebook.
Introduction by Gregory Jones
Interview by Gregory Jones with contributions from Sarah Jamison
All Images © Mark Dorf