Mishka Henner is an artist based in Manchester, England. He’s been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet and Deutsche Borse Prizes, and was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Art in 2013. His work is currently being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a solo show recently closed at Carroll/Fletcher in London.
Jonathan Blaustein: There’s a project on your site called “Less Americains,” in which you erased most of the information from Robert Frank’s seminal work. There does seem to be a strong American inspiration in your practice.
I get it. I’m a bit in love with what you guys do in England. I try to work with absurdity. I see it as positive, and a healthy reaction to the state of the world. It’s the flip side to outrage; they go hand in hand. When you don’t want to swallow your outrage, you can look at it sideways and have a giggle. That seems very British to me.
Mishka Henner: I love Bill Hicks and I’d like to think there’s some Bill Hicks in some of this work. With “No Man’s Land,” and the feed lots. Absolutely.
JB: Well, there was a line of inquiry I was headed towards, which is, you piss people off.
JB: I just saw a photo blog that described your “Less Americains” project as a “waste of time.” Is that necessarily a bad thing? Do you see yourself as a provocateur? Do you think great art ought to ruffle a few feathers, and not just tell people what they want to hear?
MH: I think I stopped being earnest about six years ago. I was making what I think of as very earnest, documentary work. More straight documentary.
Then I came across mostly American artists working with photography who were funny. People like Chris Burden. They were daring, amoral. There was real ambiguity in there. And they weren’t subscribing to this idea that documentary photography has to be earnest. What’s Chris Burden saying when he fires a gun at a Boeing 747 taking off from LAX? Who cares? It’s a brilliant gesture.
So documentary could be dangerous, confrontational. And it could also tell jokes. All things that I never thought photography could be, right?
MH: That’s why I did “No Man’s Land.” When I first started doing it, I was thinking, “Fuck. I can’t do this. You cannot do this. You can’t go around photographing prostitutes with a Google Street View camera. That’s just fucking outrageous. It’s just a complete moral and ethical No No.”
And then, the more time I spent on it, the more I was thinking, “Hang on a second. What is this? Who are these women? Fuck, maybe I’m like one of them.”
You know what I mean, as an artist? Standing by the roadside, displaying your wares, waiting in the middle of nowhere for someone to come along and fuck you over. Metaphorically speaking of course. My point is that I could recognize myself in the subject. And the fact it was all done remotely was even more powerful to me.
JB: I do have that on my question list. I was going to ask you if you have ever tried to pick up an African hooker in Calabria?
MH: (laughing) No. No, I haven’t. Virtually, maybe. But not physically.
You know, the longer I spent working on “No Man’s Land”, the more I was thinking, “If you’re going to photograph street prostitutes in the middle of nowhere in Europe, this is the way you do it. You don’t go there, pretending to be doing an earnest project. You do it sitting at home, alone, in front of your own computer terminal looking out at these shards of reality.”
There’s a thing called the Prison Photography blog…
JB: Yeah, Pete Brook. We know Pete.
MH: He’s cool. I like him. But he and some others went on this crusade talking about how what I had done was somehow inferior to the photographers who went there and photographed the women. That in those works, there was much more beauty, subtlety, and empathy in their work. That those images were literally imbued with an ethical and moral sympathy that was absent in mine.
And I just thought, “What a load of bullshit that is.” To be honest with you Jonathan, I’ve found that quite a few of my projects have revealed a lot of the assumptions and judgements that a section of the photo community continues to take for granted about documentary. It really doesn’t have to be like that. There’s so much more scope for pushing the boundaries of what documentary can be.
It has a lot to do with this earnestness that I’m talking about. It’s the pitiful image. Documentary’s no good unless you’re made to feel sorry for the people in your photographs. Which is outrageous really. And quite demeaning and condescending to the people who are the subjects of those pictures.
At least the sex workers in my pictures have their faces blurred. They’re at a distance, a long way away from the lens. It means the work isn’t just about them, it’s also about us looking at them. Which I don’t think enough documentary does.
I made “Less Americains” for a number of reasons but a major one was because I was getting sick and tired of this monumentalizing of Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” It was as if the book had become a biblical text that couldn’t be questioned. It was beyond reproach. I was thinking, “Hang on a minute. The discussion around that work is turning it into some sort of mythology. They’re just creating myths. And I really don’t like that. I react very strongly to that.
It’s like dogma. Do you know what I mean?
JB: I do. I’ve railed against many of these same things, so I do feel you. But it’s interesting, as artists, to watch how perceptions change, as things age. I’m sure that’s where your sociology background can inform your thinking.
Frank’s work, in 1958, was transgressive. It was shocking.
MH: Of course, I know that! My problem isn’t with the work, it’s with the spectacle that surrounds it.
JB: How could something maintain that read, 60 years later? It can’t. I was able to see the show a few years ago, when they brought it back together, and sit with the objects, within the context of his Guggenheim application, and his earlier work. It was a joy to see the pictures on the wall, but in a way, we as younger artists have to fight through that.
You know, the Baby Boomers aren’t leaving the stage in any industry. It’s not just ours.
JB: So there’s a natural desire to rebel against the canon when the canon doesn’t have the same juice it did 60 years ago. Right?
MH: Absolutely. I can totally imagine the impact it must have had. It must have been revolutionary, certainly.
JB: In culture in general. It’s a little dorky that I’m an Anglophile, and you love the Americans, but in the late 50’s, mainstream culture here was very white, monotonous, buttoned down, hierarchical culture. Everything was hidden under the rug.
It was all veneer. So this guy comes over, rips off the skin, and shows disaffected people.
JB: And in a way, he does what we’re talking about. We’ve all had conversations about what it must have been like, in the 50’s, to look at LIFE magazine, see a picture of a starving poor person in a Third World country, and have that picture punch you in the stomach.
As opposed to now, where your eyes glaze, and you can’t possibly relate, viscerally, to suffering in the same way.
MH: I don’t know. You see, I do look around and think we are in a very conservative time, in which there are horrific things going on which are being pushed under the rug. I do think that.
I only have to look aroud me or turn the TV on to see things that I’m sure someone like Robert Frank would have seen in 1950s America. I do think that.
JB: Sure, but we’re talking about the fact that the visual language, the way art is made and the way in which it is received, has changed, and needs to change to keep up with the times.
You’re using technology that wasn’t even imaginable then.
MH: That’s right.
JB: Your process is 21st Century, and the problems are 21st Century.
MH: And the visual language isn’t entrenched yet. These images can’t be pigeon-holed so easily and I think that as a result, they can stimulate parts of the brain that other images we’re so used to seeing can’t. If you went out today and tried to photograph the culture like Robert Frank did – which a lot of people do – it would be pointless and almost disingenious. I know because I was doing it before. And I realized that what I was doing was trying to emulate the idols.
A big change for me was to think, “Fuck that. Fuck the idols.” They lived then, I’m living now. I have to try to see and represent things as they are now.
JB: Yeah, fuck those guys.
MH: It’s not just because I want to be center stage, it’s more that I’m trying to get a grip about what the hell is going on. One of the reasons I wanted to work with satellite images is because the people who are running the show, that’s the stuff they’re working with.
When they’re working out logistics, where combat troops have to go, where pipelines have to go, they’re not working with ground-based imagery. They’re working with this network of cameras that surround the globe.
I wanted to get into their heads and try to see the world from their perspective, which is why I did “51 US Military Outposts.” It was the first project I did working like that and was a deliberate attempt to try to see things from that perspective.
After the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and then our intervention in Libya, I had to find out for myself why we were going to these places. That’s why I started working with satellite images, to try and see things from that perspective. Which is a completely non-emotive perspective. It’s pure logistics. Pure strategy.
And of course, when you start to look at the world in that way, you see things entirely differently. Things become clearer.
JB: I saw Trevor Paglen speak last month, and he was talking about how he’s interested in this huge mass of imagery that’s being made by machines, for machines. The pictures are designed to be read by algorithms. They’re not even meant for human consumption, at this point.
MH: I’ve heard that.
JB: We’re living in a crazy time. We can think about what’s going on with those Nigerian girls, who were just kidnapped. It’s a global sense of powerlessness. The idea that we can be aware of things, minute to minute, and feel their impact, but also be completely devoid of any kind of control, or ability to impact these situations.
That’s a unique phenomenon, given how long it used to take information to travel. Now it’s instantaneous, and what do you really get? You get a feeling of dread and fear that Vladimir Putin’s coming to take over your country. Or some Islamic assholes are going to steal your daughter.
MH: Sure, but like Bill Hicks says, you turn your TV off, you look out the window and think, “Where’s all this shit happening?” I think there’s a big difference between the media landscape, and the landscape outside my window. Do you know what I mean?
JB: I see horses, ravens and eagles out my window. I live in a horse pasture at the base of the Rocky Mountains in the hinterlands of the American West. So I do, in fact, know what you’re talking about.
MH: Well, there you go. I see a motorway.
JB: That’s why I think these ideas are powerful. Because we are living bifurcated existences. We have our online existence and our real world existence, and there are more and more enticements, these days, to pull people out of meat-space and into ones and zeroes.
You alluded earlier to wanting to figure out what the hell is going on. That’s what drives contemporary art, at its best, is the desire to figure out what the fuck is going on out there. With a concomitant desire to find a form for that content that makes sense in the now, and is relevant, as opposed to a form that feels antiquated.
MH: I agree. Having said that, I think, in some ways, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. When I compare myself to net artists, they’re like Spacemen, and I’m still trying to get a plane off the ground.
Some of these guys, I don’t even understand what they’re talking about. They’re doing all sorts of crazy shit.
When I question myself, which, obviously, I do a lot, I wonder what I’m doing printing pictures out and putting them on a wall. That’s kind of a nostalgic project.
But at the same time, you’ve got all these museums and institutions that have walls that need to be filled, and people do go and see them, so you think, “Maybe that way of doing things still has legs.” It’s still an effective way to show pictures.
JB: Listen, we’ve definitely got to wrap this up. But just before we began our chat, I saw something on Twitter, and I thought it would be fun to get your reaction to it.
MH: Go ahead.
JB: Somebody submitted a potential app to the Apple app store, that was an anthropomorphic vagina that taught women how to masturbate. Someone made a cartoon, almost anime-style app, to teach women how to understand their own private parts. Apple rejected it, and said, “No thank you.”
MH: (reading) Female masturbation, there’s an app for that. Happy Playtime.
JB: There it is.
MH: Well, I’ve got a two-year-old daughter, not that it’s going to be related to this …
JB: Hey now.
MH: But whenever she sees my partner and I on our iPhones or iPads – which is often – it breaks my heart. It feels like she’s caught me with a needle in my arm. I find myself carrying my phone, and it’s more a part of me now than a phone or an object has ever been. These things are so addictive, they’re designed so that you’ll be absolutely be glued to them. You have to go to rehab just to rid them from your life.
They remind me of Pringles. Do you know Pringles?
JB: I do.
MH: I’m pretty sure they lace Pringles with powdered smack. Once you pop you’re fucked.
JB: I have a friend who worked for one of the chemical flavor companies for a couple of decades, so I have no doubt they jimmy-rig that shit. For sure.
MH: So you’re asking me what I make of this app? I’m surprised it’s only coming out now.