Interview: Joy Garnett and Lyra Kilston

New York City, February 3, 2006

 

 

Lyra Kilston graduated from the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies with a degree in Criticism. She has written for NYArts magazine,

The Brooklyn Rail, ArtLies and the Performa05 Biennial. This interview was conducted for a forthcoming feature on artists who

appropriate news images.

 

 

 

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Lyra Kilston: You began doing this (downloading images from the internet) in 2001, right? What keywords do you use when

searching?

 

 

Joy Garnett: Actually, for me the online searching began as early as 1997, when I got my first email account; that’s when I

literally started to become an information junkie. At the time, I had embarked on a series of apocalyptic landscape paintings

based on declassified images of US nuclear tests. I was shooting slides off my TV of rented videos (the last sequence in

Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, for instance), and mail ordering declassified videos of nuclear tests from the US Department of

Energy’s Historic Films Preservation Archive in Albuquerque, before I realized that one could easily access such source

imagery from online government archives. 

 

 

My online key word searches vary according to what specific project I’m researching. Considering that my projects have gone

from nuclear testing, to rocket science, surveillance and night vision technology, to rioting and natural disasters, I’ve probably

been flagged for every watch list in existence. When I was reworking images found in the news media for my “Riot” series

(c. 2003-2004), I used key words or phrases including: "rogue states" "terrorists" "insurgents" "freedom fighters" "rabble"

"rioters" "revolutionaries" "head bangers" "guerrillas" "anarchists" "demonstrators" "assassins" "extremists" "special forces"

"SWAT teams" "fundamentalists" "true believers" "imperialist forces" "heroes" "martyrs" "suicide bombers"...

 

 

LK: I am particularly interested in the fact that after you choose and download images, you let them sit for a while until their

original context has sort of evaporated.  You mentioned this briefly in your writing, but I think it's a key part of your process.

Could you comment on this?

 

 

JG: I love the image you chose of the context “evaporating” because that describes it exactly: the straight jacket of specific

meaning dissolves gradually, as memory recedes. That describes perfectly how we respond to images – it is very of the

moment; once the moment passes, the meaning of the image changes. To be frank, there are exceptions, sometimes I see an

image online and download it, print it out and paint it that night, or that week. But generally the process of forgetting the source

and original context for the image is very important to the painting’s open-endedness. It is also the underlying factor to my

“critique” of representation. My subject is not “rioters” or “explosions” per se; my true subject is the malleability of the images

we see every day, and specifically the use and mis-use of images that serve as representations of real events, particularly in

the mass media. In journalism and on TV. Images have no inherent meaning attached to them; their meaning depends on how

they are captioned and contextualized. The original intentions, say, of the photojournalist, are lost – begin to “evaporate” –

almost from the moment they click the shutter. The image may be disseminated on a newswire, and subject to all kinds of shifts

in context and meaning, cropped and recontextualized in a variety of ways by numerous editors and newscasters. There is no way

to control how images are used or to minimize the media’s or governments use of images to distort events, especially now in our

world of infinite digital manipulations. (I believe any attempts to implement such controls is wrong-headed and naïve; such

controls would end up straight jacketing everyone; they would also flat-out fail). And yet, we take the “truth” of photographic

representations at face value; photographs and video form our index to reality, whether we like it or not. And so, to take such

photographs – news photographs, generally – and subject them to re-invention through a subjective medium such as painting,

seems a good way to emphasize and reveal their own inherent subjectiveness, their open-endedness. It’s a delightfully perverse

enterprise.

 

 

LK: When you go back to choose an image later, why do you choose some and discard others?  Is it based primarily on their

ability to make a compelling painting?

 

 

JG: Mostly, yes. It’s tricky; there are a number of factors. For one thing, although I want to reference the source photograph, albeit

without making the specifics of its content overt, I also want to change the photograph just enough by painting it. I understand that

photographs work on people in a certain way, and paintings do so in a somewhat different way, even though the pictorial baggage of

the two traditions is inextricably intertwined; some images just don’t translate into paint, or else it’s me, and I just can’t do them for

some reason. They might be too obvious, or too iconic, or too trite. Sometimes it’s a really hard call. I want images that are powerful

but ambiguous as well.

 

 

LK: I'm curious about the titles of your paintings… perhaps they are related to the above question.  You could have made the choice to

 include the source of these images and even the captions.  Instead you title them in a straightforward way, sometimes even with the

shorthand so prevalent on the internet such as "demo" for demonstration.  What is your intention here?

 

 

JG: It’s as you say, part of the previous question about discarding or letting go of context. I don’t want to force specifics on the viewer;

I want people to be able to make their own assumptions. I’m not interested in the viewer “knowing” or recognizing where the image

ame from, though this does indeed happen from time to time, especially with images that I paint in a timely fashion, such as the

xplosion of the Concorde, and the night vision images from various recent wars; and yet, after many years, those references will be

less timely, less important, less obvious, and fewer people will make the connection between the image depicted in the painting and the

original event. What’s left is a painting, a loose, open-ended interpretation of a forgotten photograph of a real event that in turn may or

may not be forgotten. In that way it is history painting; it points to how history is constantly “evaporating.”

 

 

LK: A lot of your images show intensely dramatic moments.  Do you think that painting them makes them even more affective?  Is there

something about painting historically that you think creates a stronger emotional impact? (I'm thinking of photographic “fact” vs. painterly

interpretation...)

 

 

JG: I think that the way I paint, whether I like it or not, is fairly visceral, and I suppose to some extent “expressionist,” and that the

effect they have on people is mostly sensual/emotional. “Photographic fact” is also pretty visceral – the events portrayed in the news,

however much the powers that be may “sanitize” the images, are generally very disturbing; however the mode of transmission makes for

less of an impact. The fact that we are media saturated, and that an endless supply of such disturbing scenes stream by us constantly,

makes “deep looking” impossible or just plain prohibitive. On the other hand, looking at a painting is a particular kind of looking: it’s

reflective and personal, an intimate event. It’s something you set out to do actively; media images come to us when we are at our most

passive. That changes everything

 

 

LK: The evidence of your brush strokes is very intentional, it is because you are by no means trying to disguise the different temporal lives

of the two images?

 

 

JG: I used to try to disguise – wipe away – my intentionality (brush stroke). Check out everything I did up until about 2002. I wanted

there to be more “distance” between my emotionality and the viewer. I stopped trying to do that. I think it was actually a question of my

own confidence in my stroke.

 

 

LK: How much (if at all) do you distort the images?

 

 

JG: If there is distortion it sort of happens on its own. Depends a lot on my mood. Paint is messy stuff; shit happens.

 

 

LK: Do you specifically look for images that have an iconic strength (like the one that got you into trouble) or are the more overlooked

images of more interest? 

 

 

JG: That’s an interesting question. I look for strong images, and yet I don’t want the baggage that an icon carries around with it –

basically, that’s context that won’t evaporate no matter how hard you try to make it go away. But sometimes, as with the contested

“Molotov” painting, you might find a photograph that you personally don’t recognize, that once was famous – an icon – that’s been taken

and placed out of context, uncredited on some website (that happens all the time). The photograph by Susan Meiselas that “Molotov” is

based on was incredibly famous when it was released in 1979 or so. It became an instant icon to a generation of Lefties. It signified

something very specific; and yet almost 25 years later I didn’t recognize it, nor did anyone I know who is under 40. So some icons can

lose their “iconicity”, but still the image doesn’t lose its power; that particular image, detached from its original context, was powerful and

amazing enough on its own for me to want to re-use it in a painting… But generally I do find myself grabbing images before they “disappear”

from view and from memory.

 

 

LK: If the latter, are you interested in giving the images a 'second life' of sorts-- do you hope that your paintings will perhaps

 encourage viewers to break down some of the callous distance we employ so very well when getting our news?

 

 

JG: I like the idea of images having a life, any life at all. There’s something pathetic about stockpiling them in archives forever where

they may never be seen again. (Sounds like a melodramatic plot for a cyberpunk novel…) And I’m not interested in encouraging viewers

do anything in particular, they should do whatever they want, I don’t want certain kinds of reactions or responses. The beauty of it is you

never know how someone is going to respond, it’s very subjective. I certainly don’t want to encourage anyone to break down the distance

between themselves and the horrible news media. We need that distance; the onslaught of news and news imagery is unhealthy and

overwhelming, especially considering how news is reconstituted for our consumption. We should be as distanced and callous to it as we

can while we watch it, because otherwise we are merely going to be manipulated by assholes; think of what happened with the Terry Shaivo

thing. Just a For Instance. So: I don’t believe in the idea of art as social prescription for societal ills. I don’t think of my art as being

“agitprop” in any way, or as something to “Increase Awareness.” That’s a lot of bunk that people at non-profit art institutions end up having

to put in grant applications. Community Awareness. I don’t for an instant think that painting can be instrumental in changing the way people

deal with something so enormous, so global, so efficient, as the “news.” That way of thinking about art comes from an earlier generation of

art thinking; a previous generation’s theoretical and political positioning within academia. I don’t buy it. Art inserts itself in the world

differently now. If it wants to survive it will recognize – we artists will recognize – how much a part of the culture industry we are, and how

we function within it even while we critique it or even seek to undermine it.

 

 

 

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