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Q&A featuring Andy Sewell

Oct 05, 2020 - Gita Cooper-van Ingen

Tell us about your most recent work/project “Known and Strange Things Pass

Known and Strange Things Pass is about embodiment and disembodiment in a world shaped by the digital network.  It’s about touch and action at a distance, about relationships between the virtual and the physical, and between power and vulnerability, about the permeability of the boundaries we place between things and the fragility of what holds them together.

The photographs are taken in places where the Internet is concentrated.  Where the fibres of the network come together, and almost everything we do online travels through these impossibly narrow tubes, hair-width strands of optical fibre, which stretch along the seabed and connect one continent to another. 

How did you identify these transatlantic cables as your subject matter and what was your initial visual response, how did you initially develop your approach? 

I remember reading about the cables and finding the idea of them surprising.  I guess until that point I’d assumed this data was flying around in the air and bouncing off satellites or something like that.  The material existence of the cables (that they are tangible things) combined with the knowledge of what they are (points of concentration through which almost everything we do online passes) felt strange and compelling, both abstract and deeply grounded.

This gap, a kind of sublime, between the visible and the invisible, the physical and the conceptual, was probably part of what propelled me to make the work.  There were questions I was trying to articulate.  How do these vast, unknowable objects – the ocean and the internet – speak to each other, and to us?  How do they relate, these things we think of as being completely separate, but that when we look closer, are literally and metaphorically enmeshed with each other.  

The ocean and the Internet are often spoken about in terms of the sublime but they are not just useful metaphors for each other, they are physically entangled. In a way when developing a visual response I was trying to use the language of metaphor to speak to something that is more straightforward but perhaps harder to grasp – their materiality, their complex spatial and temporal proximity.  And vice versa, using the slippery straightforwardness of photography to speak of things that are hard to picture.

When talking about a finished work it’s easy to sound like there was always a sense of what it was going to be.  But the process is much more driven by chance, it’s about bringing images into relation with each other without knowing exactly what is being suggested.  Obviously as a work is developing I form ideas about what it means and how I am shaping this meaning, but I think if it’s successful it also retains an unknown quality, it can’t be fully resolved or rationalised.

Can you expand on the idea of instantaneity, the waveform and servers in relation to photography? 

Both these ideas – the instant and the wave – have been important in thinking about and shaping the work.  Early on, there was something that felt significant in pictures I was making that were so closely linked they could almost be read as the same instant.  And the work really started to take shape when I began seeing it as a waveform, as the push and pull of intermeshing sequences with things in different spatial and temporal phases intertwining and coexisting.

Photography and instantaneity are almost synonymous.  We often think of a photograph as an instant – a particle containing an isolated moment captured within the frame.  But perhaps it is useful to think of it, simultaneously, as a wave.  Part of a web of connections defined by repetition and difference, a combination of familiar forms and intrinsic uniqueness.

In this work I like what the repetition of pictures with barely perceptible differences does to the flow and rhythm.  At first they read like a glitch.  Haven’t I seen that already?  They send the viewer back to the previous instance to compare it against.  

When viewing photographs in a book we are in charge of the temporality, we can go back, we can flip forward, and in doing so we can jump over the pictures in between.  The near repetitions in Known and Strange Things Pass encourage this jumping and when we do so we skip over pictures which are themselves often linked to others that come later.  

When editing I was often thinking about it as a kind of visual polyphony – an exploration of different voices enmeshed within each other.  I recognised something that friends who write and play music talk about, the sense of setting up various forms and then seeing how far you can deviate from these, how far the boundaries can be dissolved between one and another, without the whole thing collapsing.  

In the work there are many pictures of waves photographed from within the water.  I spent a lot of time in the sea with my camera, having my head above water one minute and then being under it the next.  The work is shaped by this feeling of the water moving and the sense of being in-between.

The idea of touch is very prevalent in the new work you’ve made, could you expand on its role and importance in your latest body of work? 

Touch is something I kept focusing on – the way things make contact, the traces they leave upon each other, how we hold ourselves in relation to the world around us.  Looking at it now, during this pandemic, in quarantine, this sense of touch and many of the works other themes feel even more present. 

This focus on touch probably has something to do with how we see it as more intimate than the other senses, more bound up with our bodies.  When making this work I was thinking a lot about what the ocean and the internet do to our sense of embodiment and disembodiment.  What is it to have two bodies? One that’s difficult to give shape to but is directly affecting and affected by things thousands of miles away, and another, more clearly contained, that can reach out and touch and be touched by what’s here in front of me. 

How does this then relate to visibility and the photographic medium in itself?

One way of thinking about the work is through the relationship between the visible and the invisible.  In the edit I found was drawn to pictures of people with their eyes closed, I like how these photographs relate to touch and to a kind of interior space.  For example, in the picture of a couple with their heads resting against each other, I think their closed eyes make the contact between them seem more intense and at the same time create this deep feeling of interiority.

I like how these pictures convey a sense of the unknowable.  Maybe it is perverse to try and make work addressing the ungraspable with a medium that can only record the surface of things.  But I think photography is actually really well suited to this, it’s one of the reasons I keep returning to it as a medium.  

There is a common assumption that the more we know about something, the more clearly we see it, the less mysterious it becomes. For me the opposite is often true.  The closer I look at something the more complexity and unknowability I find in it.  

For example, in this place where the digital network is concentrated, I can scrutinise the cable and learn facts about it – how many terabits are passing through it per second, how long it is, I might even learn who is using it, what stories are flowing through it – but that doesn’t make the fact of it, the relationships between its scale, its vulnerability, its power, the signs of the hands that installed it, the world of the spiders that make their webs around it, any less mysterious.  

Within a picture and in the relationships between different pictures I’m trying to access this strangeness – this relationship between the lucid and the hidden, between the conceptual and the specific.

Can you explain how Timothy Morton’s idea of the “hyperobject” influenced your approach/project?

This interest in the relationship between the conceptual and the specific is one of the reasons Morton’s Hyperobjects has been such a useful text for thinking about this project.  Reading it, quite a long way into the project, I found it connected with so many of the things I’m trying to find shape for in my work.  

Hyperobjects are things massively extended in space and time in relation to us – the ocean and the Internet for example.  We can understand each conceptually and through the technology we’ve created, but can only ever see or bump into small bits of them.  They challenge our everyday assumptions and show us that the boundaries we put between things are more permeable than we might like to think.  

All the work I’ve made is, in a way, about these fuzzy boundaries. In The Heath I was looking at this through the paradox of a place managed to feel wild. In Something Like a Nest I was exploring the gap between the countryside as an idea, somewhere often imagined and depicted as an escape from modernity, and the messier, enmeshed world we find there.  And with this work I’m looking at a literal and metaphorical entwining of worlds we think of as separate – the ocean and the Internet, the close and the distant, the physical and the virtual, what we think of as natural with the cultural and technological.   

This entanglement isn’t something new, the ocean is every bit as much a hyperobject as the digital network, but we now live in a time in which technological innovation, and the catastrophic side effects of this innovation, can show us this complexity more clearly.

There is a line in Hyperobjects that captures why I’m a photographer and is also a kind of description of Known and Strange Things Pass.  Morton says, as we enter the age of hyper objects we realise that “what things are and how they seem, and how we know them, is full of gaps, yet vividly real.”  

Photography is a medium that is so limited, so much about gaps, but also linked in a strange, slippery way to the vivid, the lucid, the real.  So much is left out of a photograph and at the same time it always contains so much more than we bargained for.  I find the limitation and expansiveness, the strangeness and straightforwardness of photography make it a good tool for exploring the entanglement, complexity and indeterminacy that hyper-objects point us towards.

It seems to me that many of the problems we face right now are linked to ways of describing the world that seek to deny this enmeshment and insist that things have neat boundaries and fixed identities.

I’m interested in what happens when we look closer and try to let go of these assumptions.  If we look for the space between things, we find more things, and a world of interconnection, of causality and unknowability, opens up.  Here is a spider that sits next to the fingerprints of someone who installed this cable; here is a cliff face made up of minerals laid down over an unimaginable time scale, carved into which is barely discernible graffiti worn away by the force of each tide…

With my work I hope to to bring things into relation with each other that we don’t normally think of as linked. To create something that can hold multiple and contradictory truths at the same time, not as separate things in juxtaposition, but as enmeshed and inextricable from each other.  

The spaces between the images play an important role throughout the project’s display, can you discuss how you’ve conceived of your exhibitions’ display as well as how you developed this project as a book?

In a way the ‘space between things’ is the subject of Known and Strange Things Pass.  On the wall and on the page I’m actively using the white space between pictures as part of the work.  The decisions I make about individual pictures, in relation to the space around them and each other, are mostly instinctive, moving them this way and then that, seeing what is created with each iteration.  I think what I’m looking for is a feeling of fluidity and interrelation, where the size and position of each picture is determined by its relationship to the pictures around it rather than by the convention of a grid. 

Something I’m looking at in my work is the way things are always more complex and specific than our ideas of them.  They always exceed the patterns and categories we fit them into.  So the idea of the grid is something I’m actively working with and against.   Nicolas Polli, who designed the book, references this on the cover.  We see a grid—the grid that was used and deviated from when laying out the book—and these black ‘pictures’ pressed into the cover that don’t quite sit within the lines of the grid.   I also love the paper we have bound the book in, it has a fleck running through it that feels a bit like white noise, a bit like sand, a bit like concrete.  

When starting to lay out the book it didn’t feel right for the work to be fully contained by the fixed edges of the page.  I came up with a system where the pictures move across this boundary—implying a bigger set of connections beyond those we can see as we go through the book—bits of pictures from previous pages, or those to come, edge into the current spread.   Normally in book design we look to avoid or minimise the effect of the gutter, the place where the pages meet in the centre of each spread, but I wanted to use this, in a kind of sculptural way, as another boundary across which things are moving.

A specific question I was addressing in the edit was to do with hierarchies between different types of power and vulnerability.  Our sense of what is holding and what is being held moves back and forth, not settling in any one place for long.  For example, a way of constructing the work might have been to begin with a picture of the cable emerging from the sea in Europe and end the book with the cable emerging in America.  But to do this would imply that everything in the book was contained within the world of the cable, within the internet.  A similar problem if the book began and ended with the sea, implying everything is contained within a classical idea of nature.  

The beginning and end of the work should feel porous, I wanted to avoid both holism and reductionism, and create the sense we are looking at something partial, something inherently mysterious that extends beyond what we see.  The work has a push pull rhythm to it and the feeling, I hope, of something cyclical but open ended.  

Many of the themes in the work – including those of scale, of power and fragility, of spatial and temporal enmeshment – can be explored in exciting ways on the wall.  Each installation responds to the specific space in which it is hung.  I use prints at various scales from the very large to the very small: some framed behind glass, while others, with a contrasting feeling of fragility, are clipped or taped directly to the wall. 

In the gallery I construct multiple and perforated sight lines, exploring the repetition and sequential enmeshment of the work.  I want an exhibition to invite people to reposition themselves and become aware of the limitations and the richness of their view.  

Known and Strange Things Pass is published by Skinnerboox.  There will be a solo show of the work at Robert Morat Gallery in Berlin from January to March 2021.  See more at www.andysewell.com