Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published on our previous platform, In the In-Between: Journal of Digital Imaging Artists, and the formatting has not been optimized for the new website.
In Josh Poehlein’s series, Modern History, we see both re-enactments and fabrications of historical events made by compositing together imagery from YouTube videos. His scenes raise many ideas about history, mythologism, and the vast amount of digital data we will leave behind for future generations to use in creating their own histories.
Gregory Jones: First off, what initially drew you to photography, and who do you count among your influences?
Josh Poehlein: I think I’ve always been enamored with images. In high school I had this idea that I wanted to be a cinematographer, and even before that I was interested in architectural drawings which are super precise in the way that some photographs are. Or even way way back I was obsessed with those little plastic stencil kits that came with pre-cut shapes in them like airplanes and trucks and whatnot. I think those have something to do with photography, they were like negatives that I could make prints with.As far as influences go, there are influences for this project and then there are broader influences. Thomas Ruff’s Jpegs came out right as I was in the midst of working on Modern History, and my good friend David Oresick was working with appropriated YouTube footage in his work, so that was on my mind as well. Influences that are a little broader include Richard Misrach’s apocalyptic looking desert landscapes, and some of Joel Sternfeld’s stuff from American Prospects too. That was a pretty important book for me when I first saw it.
GJ: Your project, Modern History, is a series of collages created with screenshots of YouTube videos. In this series you depict an alternative history of grand events that both mirror and fabricate world events. Please talk a bit about your process, and how you became interested in re-organizing pre-made material.
JP: To be totally honest I was wasting a lot of time on YouTube, a lot of time. I had just graduated undergrad, moved to a new city, and I didn’t have access to a scanner or photo facilities of any kind. Basically I just started taking screen grabs of people falling, flying, whatever you want to call it, from some of the videos I was watching. I realized that I was coming to this virtual space to cheer these people on, or vice versa, to cringe when they failed. At the same time there were hundreds of thousands of other people doing the same thing as I was, and it was this invisible community. I wanted to communicate that aspect of it, the fact that there were viewers, commentators, response videos, linked videos, etc.
The process changed a little bit as I made more of the pieces, but it’s basically a layering and collaging process. I do a rough drawing in Photoshop of what I want for the composition, and then I go to YouTube and try to find stills to fill in the drawing. Some of the pieces have as few as 60 or so stills, and others have hundreds. Over the course of the project I got better at blending the stills together, and this is sort of a double-edged sword. It makes it so I can make more complicated scenes, but people tend to gravitate toward the first few of these I made, so I guess there is some value in not knowing exactly what I’m doing.
GJ: Your constructions of fictional scenes, made by combining information from multiple sources, are in no way made to fool the viewer. In particular the piece titled “Aftermath” shows what seems to be the end result of all this fabrication- chaos, noise, and darkness. What do you feel are the implications of using many small pieces of truth to create a falsity?
JP: This idea is pretty central for me. When I’m working on the pieces I tend to forget that they are fundamentally lens-based; I treat them like drawings or paintings even. In the end though, I think what gives them weight is that they based in some sort of reality, no matter how distant.
There is this quote from Walid Raad that I think is important. In a lecture at the Walker Art Center regarding his Atlas Group project Raad says, “The way I work is I tend to find situations, events, objects that affect me, and then I kind of imagine the universe in which they exist, and sometimes this necessitates imagining some characters and positions from which [the work] speaks, but I’ve always proceeded from facts and that’s very important to what I’ve shown you here.”
I can’t really point to why this is, but I am really drawn to work that makes fiction out of truth, or works in between these two things. Work that is wholly invented doesn’t affect me in the same way. This idea of appropriating the real world to serve your own ends is intriguing to me.
GJ: The act of creating a history requires, above all else, the passage of time. Time gives us the distance and perspective to analyze and define the events of the past. With collections of information such as found on YouTube, we are leaving an extraordinary wealth of information for future generations to study and define as their own histories.
It seems to me that when our time now starts to move into the past, there will be little mystery to the events that occurred, and that this current era will be considered the point in which history stops, in a manner of speaking, because of its ease of accessibility. This may be a difficult question to consider, but what effect do you think this trove of information and categorization will have on future generations?
JP: This is a really interesting question, because on the one hand there is this “wealth of information” out there and it is (at least right now) accessible to a huge group of people, but on the other hand it is just this impenetrable mass. The thing about History, and this is History with a capital H, is that it is a narrative. We have traditionally looked to those in power or to educational institutions to write and keep this narrative for us, but now we are taking a little of that control back. This can be a good thing, and we’ve seen that recently with some of the videos coming out of the Occupy movement in which police brutality is shown to a huge audience, or vice versa when we get to see windows being smashed by some of the “bad-seed” protesters. At the same time, this mass of competing viewpoints can make it very difficult to discern what actually happened.
Let’s take 9/11 for example, which pretty heavily influenced the piece Ruin, and will undoubtedly be referenced as one of the turning points in History. If you plug “9/11” into the YouTube search bar you get over a million search results. The first page of results contains news footage, amateur videos, as well as a number of documentaries. All of these videos have multiple millions of views. The issue is that probably half, or maybe even more than half of these so-called “documentaries” are made by conspiracy nuts, or as they like to call themselves “9/11 Truthers.” So yes, there is way more information out there, but it’s also way harder to wade through all of it to find any “official” or accurate versions of events.
And maybe this is a better model, maybe there should be no “official” version of history. But that being said, I fear the day that what is true is dictated by how many “views” a link has, or how much ad-revenue the video is generating, etc. I am sure there is some “He who speaks the loudest/most…” proverb here to reference, but you get the idea.
I don’t think this is where History stops, and I don’t think we are at The End of History either, but there is definitely a transformation going on. It’s hard to see because it’s so large, but maybe in the future with some perspective, we can see how, why, and to what extent things changed.
GJ: Many of the pieces in “Modern History” depict an event of large scale, involving many onlookers or participants. The making of an epic is often not about describing one central event, but rather many tiny pieces all working fluidly together. However I’m reminded of all the old history painters such as Jacques-Louis David and Theodore Gericault who exposed the public to images of grandeur and drama based on important social events.
When viewing your images I can see how memes of representation have changed, and this leads me to wonder about just how important both fiction and digital representation have altered the way we view ourselves and our histories. Can you elaborate on this thought or do you have anything to add?
JP: I like the use of the word Epic in relation to the work. I mean, I definitely wasn’t looking at a lot of history painters at the time (I had to look these two up!), but I think what is happening on the internet is definitely ‘Epic’ in scale, so in that sense there is a relation there. There was a desire for me to make this epic scale visual somehow, to memorialize as well as to monumentalize it.
As far as how all this is changing our view of ourselves and histories, we might just have to wait and see. After all, the generation that are in their teens now are the first generation to literally grow-up with the internet. They do not know a world without it, and my guess is that this has a huge effect on how they view themselves and the world at large. Last year I saw a lecture by the science-fiction author William Gibson, and he said that future generations will find it quaint that we bothered to discern between the real and the virtual. I tend to agree with this and I see more and more integration of the two every day. There’s also this whole issue of the Singularity, but that’s getting into some serious Terminator 2 shit so I won’t delve into that, haha.
GJ: These images touch upon a wide range of sentiments found throughout history. “Ruin” depicts a dark and cataclysmic event, while “The Flying Man” gives the impression of great human achievement. How does the idea of Myth plays into your work, given the generalized but grandiose stories that you present?
JP: Ultimately I think the work is really narrative, and they are BIG narratives too. I wanted to depict these events that were all over YouTube in various forms and elevate them, make them bigger than the original videos. In that sense they are mythic. The pieces are a stand-in for a type of event or a type of feeling rather than a specific instance.
The other thing that your question made me think of is this term “of mythic proportions.” This phrase is often used interchangeably with “of Biblical proportions,” and some of the later pieces in Modern History definitely have a Biblical feel to them. For example, in Ziggurat I was thinking of the story of the Tower of Babel. This is the story in which all of post-great-flood humanity is engaged in building a tower to the heavens. In the story all of the people on Earth speak the same language, and God sees that there is nothing that they cannot do, so he spreads them across the face of the Earth and confounds their one language into many.
So the internet is humanity’s way of coming back from this dispersal. You can communicate to someone on the other side of the world almost instantaneously, and if they don’t speak your language you can simply translate it. This system is far from perfect right now, but it is definitely the direction we are going. That being said, the piece can be read outside of that narrative as well, as just this idea of many people coming together to build a structure, and maybe even not knowing what the end result will be, but just building blindly and hoping for the best.
GJ: Last but not least, what are you looking forward to in the next year, photographically or otherwise?
JP: Well I’m going to be traveling with my classmates to China in September to be a part of the Pingyao Photography Festival, so that is really exciting. And then next May I am going to be finishing up my MFA.
Photographically and artistically I am still working with a lot of the same ideas from Modern History but in a number of different mediums and maybe a little bit darker thematically. I’ve tried my hand at some sculptural objects, some video work, as well as some good old-fashioned photography. In any case I’m excited about what I’m making and hoping it will come together for my thesis show next May.
Josh Poehlein is a Chicago-based artist currently pursuing his MFA from Columbia College Chicago. He received his BFA from Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY in 2007. His work has been exhibited at Gallery R in Rochester NY, the Object Not Found Project Room in Mexico City, the Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie in Arles, France, and most recently at the FotoMuseum in Antwerp, Belgium.
Interview written by Gregory Jones with contributions from Meghan Maloney
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