To accompany the Traces Unseen exhibition running May 21st to June 20th, Aimee Board has led a series of interviews with the exhibiting artists. Sit back and enjoy the conversation,
first up: Todd Johnson!
Aimee Board: We'll start with your Treading Water series or even earlier with Dancing on Mars. Can you tell us about the impetus for these early works and your residency?
Todd Johnson: Sure. I produced the series Treading Water on a three month residency at the Somos Art House in Berlin. I was in town for a group show called ‘Materialist Photo’ at Jarvis Dooney Gallery from 2 December 2017 - 24 February 2018. It was the dead of winter, and I was venturing out every morning right through till the light inevitably faded. I walked all day and took photographs along the Landwehr Canal, to the point where my hair was actually frozen. It was just so cold, and I was just so ill-prepared coming from an Australian summer.
I'd eventually return home to my residence then promptly take the film to the lab for it to be developed. Upon collection, I physically returned the film back to the location where I originally captured it, almost as a way of reflecting landscape back on itself. I submerged film in the canal by attaching it to fishing line, so it could be reeled in at a later date. Looking back, I view this process as a collaboration with the landscape itself by allowing elements bacteria, minerals and pollution in the water to transform the film.
I think the camera can be a very controlling and determining apparatus. My method was attempting to work outside of the constraints set by the apparatus, by incorporating elements of the landscape to index its own image. The result was a combination of camera-made and camera-less images, where the microscopic and the macro coalesced onto a single picture plane.
Image: 3 weeks, 5 days from the series 'Treading Water', 2017, 80cm x 80cm, 2018, archival giclee print.
AB: Thinking about the actual experience within the landscape for you as a photographer and with that extension of the apparatus, is it performative to a degree?
TJ: Yes, I suppose one could view the process as a form of extended photography. I'm not even sure if what I’m doing is pure photography. It feels like it's part of photography's extended field where the process of returning the photographs back to the landscape is performative and ritualistic. I viewed this process as a form of collaboration with place, as I allow elements of the landscape to more overtly steer the photographic inscription process. I returned back to location where the film was submerged every few days or so to see how it was developing. I guess there's also something performative about this ritual which enters in as a condition of the process of making an image.
AB: You're in some sense a scientist or surveyor in a way… Can we tap into this idea of chance in
your work; of drawing out meaning and intention in your images. Going back to say your earlier series Dancing on Mars - that was pre-Berlin, wasn't it?
TJ: Yes, that's right. That series emerged out of taking photographs. I was living in the inner-city suburb of Fitzroy. There's an intensity around that area where you walk outside your front door, and there's always something exciting happening. I was capturing very straight photographs, formal, street photography snapshots, I guess. The idea was to marry the intensity of place with these energy drinks and alcholic cocktails prevalent to the area. I submerged film in energy drinks and alcohol, allowing it to mutate over time and transform over time.
AB: So you’re experimenting with acidity and with the transparency?
TJ: Yes, it was.
AB: That's really interesting.
Image: 'Strong Force' from the series 'Dancing on Mars', 34cm x 48cm, 2016-2017, archival giclee print
TJ: These were much longer durations, up to a few years. The filmic concoctions started to form lots of bacteria, interesting patterns which resembled space in some instances. Also, it attracted live creatures. If you look closely at some of the images from ‘Dancing on Mars’, you can see little tadpole-like creatures, there's also ants and other insects which were attracted to the sugar and perhaps the smell as well, much to the dismay of my housemates at the time. Looking back it was an early attempt to explore ideas of spatio-temporal abstraction and an attempt to unravel the essence or the aura of place into the film strip itself.
AB: This spatio-temporal concept is a consistent theme in your work. For this recent series, you journeyed up to Canberra in January. Can you elaborate on the process that you went through in gathering the samples of water from the lake and also your deeper observations and experience being in situ at such a heightened time?
TJ: My documentation of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra forms part of a larger series that I've been working on for the past two years now which investigates over 100 lakes and waterways throughout Australia. As with some of the other series, they started off as very straight, descriptive documentations of place. I also collected samples of the water at various parts around Lake Burley Griffin and smuggled it into my suitcase on my way back home to Melbourne. Once developed, the films were submerged in water collected on site to allow water to inscribe its own image.
In most cases, the film from Canberra was left to fester under water for durations between one to three weeks. The film eventually started to soften and become malleable, as insects and bacteria starting eating it away once it was left outside in the sun to dry.
Image: 3 weeks, 5 days, 11 hours, 2020, archival giclee print, 80 x 80cm,
In Canberra, I rented an eBike for the day, and shot in the early morning and golden hour, when the light is at its most precarious and dramatic. The precariousness of light was part of the landscape too, especially around Canberra and the rest of Australia during devastating bush fires and the-- There's just something about the sense of decay and deterioration and neglect in the landscape itself that blends and marries with film.
AB: I think the fragility as well is really clear in these images…
TJ: Yes. Also, in the actual film strip itself, yes that sense of decay, but also the medium itself, slide film and more generally having been discontinued. It's an obsolete medium. So for me, there is a tripartite connection here between the obsolescence of film image, the technology itself, and landscape in an age of environmental instability. The application of decaying slide film in my own practice productively performs the material embodiment of environmental decay. So I guess within that there is a sense of violence or destruction happening to the film object, which is reflected in the landscape itself which has been devastated by anthropocentric climate change, resulting in drought, extreme temperature fluctuations, which also effects the quality of water and the aquatic ecosystem. The precariousness and ephemerality of film seemed to be an appropriate medium to explore the precariousness of the environment
AB: It's interesting to note the lake's history in being man-made and it’s fragility as a result...
TJ: Yes. Despite it being man-made, it still provides a vital ecosystem for all the plant life and the aquatic ecosystem as well and the birds as well as the people as well, obviously, just getting a sense of well-being
AB: …as the ‘heart’ of the city, it’s a vital source of energy …there's a real healing light about it as well, in my experience.
TJ: Yes. That's interesting. I've been doing a little bit of research on that kind of thing, actually, just for my own interest. There's a few theories about "Why do we feel better when we traverse open green areas, and why do we feel better around lakes..
AB:….and around bodies of water. The negative ions in these bodies of water are like a deep cleanse..
Image: 1 weeks, 3 days, 9 hours, 2019, archival giclee print, 80 x 80cm
TJ: On the restorative effects of the Lake and on human well-being. There is something else to consider in relation to my initial selection of lakes and waterways as a central component of my practice led research. The process of walking continually around lakes and the natural environment with a clear purpose in mind has functioned as a form of personal psychological and physical therapy. My voluntary and directed attention geared toward photographic documentation and manipulation in and around natural sites has provided me an enormous sense of general well-being. Growing up along the coast of Victoria, I have always felt both relaxed and energized at the site of water, and identify numerous trips to lakes over the course of my practice as remedy to the daily stresses of life.
There are a few theories that have been proposed to offer productive explanations relating to the restorative effects of the natural environment on human well being.
One of the key theories was proposed by Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 book Biophilia: the human bond with other species, which suggests that humans possess an ‘urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. Wilson proposed that our tendency as a species to affiliate with elements of the natural environment and other life forms has, at least in part, a genetic component .
In 1989, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan proposed Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which identified that human exposure to the natural environment is not only pleasurable but can help us restore mental energies and improve our ability to concentrate and focus.
It's interesting to me to look at it from an empirical scientific perspective as well, and some of those studies by Kaplan on attentional restoration theory.
AB: That’s interesting, so to the actual sampling, which part of the lake was it and how much water did you gather etc?
TJ: Well, there were lots of parts of the lake. I’d pretty much say I circumnavigated the entire Lake a few times, but I took one sample of water down near the boat sheds where there were lots of swans. That was one and another a little bit further down where the lake went into a smaller pond area and it had a really nice view of the art gallery down that area. I think I got three bottles of water in all three 600 ml bottles of water. Just taken at different key points around the Lake. Just so I would take a photograph on my phone as well when I would after taking the phone photograph just as a way of dropping a pin photographically as to where I took the photograph and what part of a lake that was. That was the practical method for doing that.
AB: Your work 1 week, 3 days, 2 hours depicts a fallen tree on the shores of the lake – destruction in singular running parallel with the devastating scenes we witnessed with the recent bushfires around Canberra. I personally feel a sense of violence in this image and, in a slight departure from previous works, a narrative emerging…
Image: 1 weeks, 3 days, 2 hours, 2020, archival giclee print, 80 x 80cm, 1/5, $700
The work of the fallen tree, that was actually taken in Tasmania. -- it was taken near bushfires around the Southern part of Huonville, it's Australia's most southern municipality. The tree in the photo actually looked to be a result of drought rather than bushfires. Although I guess they are both connected to larger problems associated with climate change. That particular image seems to uncannily mimic fire stemming from the, water and from the tree. It was taken right near bushfires around that area.
We drove through Tasmania late last year and it was a pretty striking scene to come across this massive half sunken tree. I'm not sure the scales all that well reflected in the photo cause it's difficult, like scales thrown out the window when you start to manipulate photos almost beyond recognition. Looking back on the images taken from Canberra now, it's interesting to see how that sense of devastation and destruction and violence which has peaked.
AB: Running in parallel.
TJ: It's interesting and also, it's probably a projection but also what's happening at the moment with coronavirus it's almost as if this the film is infected by bacteria, pollution of water. There’s an additional sense of deterioration and decay operating on top of the film, which changes in appearance over time. The light flecks and the material traces which occasionally appear on top of people. It's kind of mimicked in what's happening at the moment which is interesting.
AB: With this mutation and this element of unknown. There are definitely interesting parallels with the whole--
TJ: Or even like a premonition of what was to come.
AB: Interesting…and connecting with the whole viral situation and this element of unknown at the moment. It really taps into this element of chance in your work as well. Can we talk about the inherent chaos and decay, linking into the play of intention and chance in your work?
How does the intention interact with this chance? At what point do the conditions of the environment in which you're surrounded, intercept and interject into the artistic process?
TJ: I'm selecting what subjects to capture, how to frame them, what time of day I shoot them, what film stock to use, etc. So I'm steering the process, but by submerging the developed film in the water itself, I have no real control over how the water physically interacts with it. Elements such as the temperature, humidity, minerals and chemical makeup of the water all contribute to produce chance results which are inflect the photographic emulsion. I’m steering the process, but allowing elements of the environment to more overtly interact and contribute to the agency of image production. And this question of agency has been with the early founders of photographer since the medium’s inception.
The first camera-less photographs or ‘sun pictures’, as Fox Talbot referred to them, were as much indexical traces of the world as pieces of it. And Talbot often referred to his photographic process as ‘natural magic’ or ‘nature painted by herself’. Moreover, in his ground breaking book The Pencil of Nature, Talbot declared his photograph of ‘Lacock Abbey’ the first ever building ‘to have drawn its own picture’.
Louis Daguerre claimed that photography gave nature the ‘power to reproduce herself’. Implications of such early claims suggest nature is not only a partial agent in the photographic process, but also a driving force. Which is where I take a lot of my inspiration.
The implications of these early claims, is that nature is not just a partial agent in this process but also a driving force which continues to inflect the image well beyond initial exposure. It’s something I consider in relation to my own work, too.
AB: Thinking more philosophically, reflecting on how we co-exist with the world around us at a macro level, your work is distilling that down to the micro according to a given site, would you say?
TJ: The comparison to bacteria studies is an interesting one. Sometimes I think the more ‘abstract’ photographs look almost like bacteria, germs, viruses or cultures viewed under a microscope or a petrie dish. There is a push/pull effect between the micro and the macro in my work.
Ultimately, I’m interested in returning the image back to nature and allowing elements of the environment to directly inscribe film through direct physical contact. This complicates the indexical qualities of the photo and at the same time questions the medium of photography itself.
AB: Do you plan to return these images back to site at all?
TJ: Yes, that was certainly our original intention, to allow the landscape to inscribe the film in a live exhibition setting. It's changed now given the circumstance with Covid, but there is still evidence of the fragility and transformation of film in the digitally scanned work. The material traces of the photograph speak to the process itself, that sense of materiality which is referring back to itself. It would be productive to return the film back to site at some point in the near future.
AB: When we can actually cross the border.
AB: So, though we’ve moved beyond the original concept for the group exhibition, I still wanted to touch on Cox’s human-machine relationship and how this concept threaded in with the ideas you touch on in your work?
TJ: When I think of the human-machine relationship, it reminds me of the writings of Vilém Flusser who argues that the camera, is very much a controlling and determining apparatus. According to Flusser, we have become accustomed to the camera apparatus controlling our movements; it passes through our eyes and our consciousness without being noticed. This is an illusion of freedom, a subliminal programming of ritualistic, automatic actions.
In the digital age, this has reached a turning point, as digital cameras merely require you to turn it on and press the shutter to record a photograph. Of course, this is nothing entirely new. Automaticity has been built into the medium within the first few decades of the mediums inception, as Kodak’s famous 1888 slogan will attest: ‘you press the button. We do the rest’. However, with digital technology there is an undeniable sense of convenience and ease, as knowledge of the technical, mechanical and algorithmic components is abandoned as the camera apparatus determines ones decisions through its internally hidden and complex program.
With digital, it takes this to the extreme and there's this undeniable sense of convenience and ease, and I'm certainly not picking on digital. I think it's terrific and it's especially good for research and for production as well. Flusser talks about how we've reached this point in culture where the apparatus (including cameras) are influencing our actions, and we need a break free from the pervasive control. Judith Butler talks a little bit about this too. She says how persons use technological instruments but instruments surely also use persons, they position them, endow them with perspective and establish the trajectory of their actions.
I guess my work is almost a response to what Flusser was talking about, the inherent control of the camera apparatus by coming to terms with the program that you're working within and to produce consciously unpredictable information and to place within the photo something that is not apart of its program.
AB: Is this tying with the tensions of the observer and the observed..
TJ: That's like an additional layer on top of that as well. I guess the audience will bring their own set of perceptions to the work,…
AB: I'm just thinking, you as photographer are the audience to the landscape; you are the observer, would you agree?
TJ: Well, I guess, I am the audience and as odd and strange as it sounds, I guess the landscape is too. I truly do view it as almost like a collaborator or co-author and it's a bit of a give and take. That's why at key points during the process I relinquish the machine, to allow elements of the environment to take hold and break down the photographic particles. I’m allowing them to more overtly control the photographic inscription process, this authoring process. And perhaps engage with the landscape collaboratively, rather than exerting control over it.
AB: That's really interesting. Can you tell me about your future work, where you're headed with your practice?
TJ: Sure. It's becoming more and more physical. There is less involvement the camera and an increased focus on allowing elements of the environment to take control. However, I’m also very much interested in displaying the work as a live projection work that deteriorates over the course of an exhibition. I'm also finishing off research at the moment, PhD research, which is due to finish at the end of 2020.
AB: Can you tell us a bit more about your research?
TJ: Yes. Primarily it's to do with what I'm calling materialist photography. There's a couple of theorists that use that term, materialist in different ways. I guess the closest theorist to my line of thinking is Lee MacKinnon. She talks about materials photography and she talks about it more in a social sense and as a political element to it as well. I talk about it more in terms of the mechanics and technology itself, especially in response to the medium of photography and what's happening in response to the digital age.
It investigates indexicality, agency and authorship as well. Those are the main topics that I explore, but it's practice-led obviously my own practice fits into that quite snugly and appropriately.
AB: Well, it all sounds exciting. Finally, any other exhibitions coming up that you'd like to mention?
TJ: I just had a show at A Smith Gallery in America. It's in Texas.
AB: That's exciting.
TJ: -it's really just finished up. It was a group show on the topic of water..
AB: And you have an upcoming exhibition towards the end of the year in line with your research, do you have a space for that yet..?
TJ: To be announced…