Feature

Goodbye America: An Interview with Brad Feuerhelm

By Sunil Shah on January 5, 2017

“..so no matter whose side you chose and America by its nature is controlled by one corporate state, yet people think they have to employ their grandparents political party as an active agent of ideology, so…deploying the images in this time of anxiety through their iconoclasm, violence, race politics etc seemed to be a fair assessment no matter who the winner was.”

Sunil Shah: Before I get to the subject matter of ‘Goodbye America’, I’d like to start by asking you about the collection and presentation of old photographs, something I myself am invested in on a few levels. The re-framing and re-contextualising of vernacular, found imagery and family photographs has become a familiar trope in photographic book and artist practices to the degree that collecting has become a widespread endeavour, whether as an archaeology of images from an archive, through digital mining of the internet, collecting hand-me-downs from family albums or sifting through boxes at flea markets. You’ve indicated recently on a few reviews that re-presenting photographs in a simple or generic way is not enough. Is this because of your own hyper-familiarity with this kind of material and practice or is it simply because it is too easy to do so and that in order to intervene with cultural material an artist needs to add some layer of ingenuity or reveal complexity to create new value? Can you elaborate further on re-presentation, producing narrative, perception and the relationships these have to value?

Brad Feuerhelm: Yes, I think of the most part the use of the “archive” is somewhat abused. I think that the term archive and collecting are often inter-changeably used, something I am at odds with. The exhumation of imagery in itself is not something I see as problematic in terms of the object-hood, its loose associations or of its potential to be used. However-I think artists, who are generally poor photographers and in turn perhaps poor at conceptual work gravitate towards this sort of material to cover up that they really do not know how to associate with images and the use of the “archive” is a symbolic method of representation for them on the most base level. There are artists who understand the currency and potential of images-Joachim Schmidt, Broomberg & Chanarin, Hans Peter Feldman and more recently David Fathi , Massimiliano Rezza and perhaps a few others. They understand the relationships between images and take time to work with them and conceptualize their potential. They actually add currency to the images as opposed to subtracting their potential.

One potential reason for this and one of the reasons that I am at odds with this practice or output is the Kessels effect. Though I appreciate the volumes of material that Erik digs up and I do appreciate his lateral thinking when working taxonomically in image categorisation, I think his “practice” or “work” or whatever he likes to call it (oddly he does try desperately to shy away from the “artist” tag) is completely indicative of this behaviour to simply group and relativize images by easy pre-set. “In Almost Every Picture” being a firm example of this. IT exists and I don’t think Kessels himself is in much agony over the intellectual property of amassing things in this way, but he and the work get taken a bit more seriously than perhaps they should without any of the rigour outside of categorisation, which means the potential of archive and its use in photography gets taken for granted. Perhaps its a dialogue I should have with him, but the question is reflective of these larger issues

So, I am critical, yes. I am also more critical of the audience who also seems a bit limited. The photographic world is in transition between a few economies. On one hand you have the death of the jobbing photographer and rise of the web-editorial-a vast machine that needs and needs and needs images to consume, but not their practitioners causing a thinning of vertical intellectual capacity in regards to speaking on images. You also have the economy of art in the photography world now-the grand illusion that making ones work “conceptual” will provide a career. Constant abstracting of images, adding their usefulness towards physicality and materialisation pushes the “artist” to abstract the archival or collected image into something its intent is likely not meant for and that does not actually transcend into new methodologies, but rather delineates decline in image assessment.

“So, within that, not only the color, but also the hallucinatory nature, the Lynchian anachronisms present in the carefully selected images inscribe themselves to my ability to read and understand the context of the imagery, then further allows me to deflect and shift it. In this case, the hammer also providing the shift towards iconoclastic tendency.”

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SS: I know what you mean by “conceptualising potential” and perhaps this is what all these kinds of practices desperately search for, which then often falls short of their makers intention, defaulting to the original material’s “base” value. A concept, starts with a grain of an idea or potential that takes a journey of sorts, this takes time, and the production and release of Goodbye America coincided with this year’s US presidential candidate election, its release was on the nail. How did you come to see this idea forming into something conceptual and highly relevant to a US socio-political discourse?

BF: For Goodbye America, it was fairly simple in a sense. There has been an unparalleled anxiety with this political election that started very early. From the horror that the left or so-called liberals produced against the conservative candidates, all whom were terrible, and the definition, probably rightly, of Hillary as a demon of corporate interest, no political candidate seemed to present a fair possibility, so no matter whose side you chose and America by its nature is controlled by one corporate state, yet people think they have to employ their grandparents political party as an active agent of ideology, so…deploying the images in this time of anxiety through their iconoclasm, violence, race politics etc seemed to be a fair assessment no matter who the winner was.

SS: The underlying images in Goodbye America present colour photographs of a quintessential American snapshot aesthetic. A highly coherent and familiar set of source material, mostly, the established American dream but with glimpses of an underside that doesn’t give a fuck. What we see in the concept of this work is a violence against it all, iconoclasm, a destruction of its surface. As this is not quite a contemporary vision of America, do we reconcile it against a breakdown of a previously held ideology or as a response to more recent events? As an American, how do you relate to these images?

BF: Its probably something due to my age. I hit the big 4-0 this year and a good many of those images are ingrained somehow in my neural academy, even if they were manufactured before my birth. I guess between lament and nostalgia, chaos and inevitable ruin, I find some sort of layered pathos to these images. There is also the Kodachrome factor. I was reading somewhere about how the use of Kodachrome color is a distinct conduit for nostalgia, much like the abraded simulacra of cine technicolor when viewed many decades later in The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, etc. It fastidiously pins and underlines a chronology of images and era. This is not a little thing, conceptually.

It is possible that many people tend to think that the way images shifted from monochrome to color being the catalyst for eras, but this is not the case. You can see how color dictates an age/era in itself, whether it is the neon 80’s, the hyper color 90s or even backwards, the pale blue and pink 1950s. Color can define our impressions of an era when you assess images, and this context is woven in our cultural appreciation of the photography it further adorns. So, within that, not only the color, but also the hallucinatory nature, the Lynchian anachronisms present in the carefully selected images inscribe themselves to my ability to read and understand the context of the imagery, then further, it allows me to deflect and shift it. In this case, the hammer also provided the shift towards iconoclastic tendency.

SS: I can see how this iconoclasm of a hard-coded, cultural nostalgia is at almost extreme odds for someone who as a collector of photographs, must have a default tendency towards one of care and preservation. I am fascinated by this firstly, as symbolic gesture of a dissatisfaction and/or aggression towards certain aspects of American society and secondly, as an aesthetic approach to creating a new currency for these images, which one could argue, improves them significantly. Can you talk us through the process and your own feelings in destroying/re-purposing these photographs? Is there a catharsis within this work?

BF: Actually, its quite strange. I’m not really into care and preservation. I am into collecting as a definition of my psyche at any given time, which is not to be handled with white gloves or acid free storage boxes. Quite the opposite. That being said, I also took upon this body of work as a question of how to value the physicality of the collection. I had some amount of difficulty in bringing the hammer down on some of the images as they are things that I was fond of, not because of the outright violence to the image-object itself. I went though my slides and though there were certainly images within the collection that I would never put a hammer through, a number of the images I did eviscerate, did of have a small emotional weight attached to them by way of their beauty, not the negation of the subject within. The water skiing pyramid in particular was not one I really wanted to smash. It was certainly a Freudian moment in some way, a regression towards destruction of a fetish object as all iconoclasm seems to be.

There was no real catharsis to speak of. I did recognise the irreplaceable object and destroyed it and my embattled state of mind with America continues.

SS: I’d like to suggest a potential metaphor. Beyond the cracks and defacement in this series of images, there is nothing but a white void. It implies the nothingness behind the surface of any image’s claims that it faithfully represents. What are images but a series of signs towards an idea, an idea of a thing, or an idea of an idea, ad infinitum, not only the index or trace of something once present (a notion we too heavily invest in), but a concept, sometimes in the form of a photographic “series”, which takes us back to one of the points earlier. What might be implied through this violent break in these photographic surfaces is the birth of yet another concept. Could this work be both a form of representation and a destruction of representational values? Is it both iconoclasm of an idea of America and of photography itself? If there is a representational tension in this work, perhaps this is where the concept finds its successful ends?

BF: These are great questions. I have covered a lot of this more in my writing than this body of work. The iconoclastic is certainly present. The breaking of the RELATIVE and marginal visual companion to the often under represented visual canon of the “American dream”. Its present in this. Whereas my aim with this was not necessarily “the photographic” questions certainly arise from the void. I have never been one to think that photographs should convey meaning outside of the relativism I mention. I find the whole idea of documentary, photojournalism, etc completely nauseating. Its a herd mentality and limits human imagination through the format of “document”. We should be open to interpretation. It is my same issue with the academy and various writers etc always pinning an argument to a tract that was written before and read before individual thought could be established. That being said, I do understand that an orange is likely an orange to many people, but the smell of the orange is never present when viewed through the photograph. You get into the picture aspect of ideas that Wittgenstein had written about (see what I did there? leaning on something previous written). I am keen to think through the white in the image as a void. In describing a void beneath the skin we do indeed walk into these metaphors, but on principle, the void is a concept for which we cannot assess its’ very inception or meaning, therefore it becomes rudimentary in design to speak much further on it (again skirting Wittgenstein on language).

“I did recognise the irreplaceable object and destroyed it and my embattled state of mind with America continues.”

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SS: Yes, and so the void here could equally be seen as the underlying white support onto which the image skin rests, or it is an obstruction or an abstraction that obfuscates the picture that then releases only partial knowledge, the language Wittgenstein talks of is being eroded into this mute space which becomes a redirected site, the antithesis of image, the monochrome in its purest sense, a place open to interpretation. These images certainly flirt with an existential duality then in what is a very powerful visual signature. However, it is the essays at the end really give the book its political character. Two texts, Anthony Faramelli and one from Ryan Mahan, can you tell us something about these writers and how you commissioned or sourced their words?

BF: well, of course one can separate the layers as such. My overall feeling is that to encode the nothingness underneath, as you say, could be a complex issue due to the limitations of terminology on something existential, mystic, unknown etc. To speak its name is to qualify it, no?

As for the writing, both Anthony and Ryan are dear friends. Both are American and living in London. Anthony has a PhD in philosophy, but comes from a similar background to my own music wise, etc. Ryan is also interested in similar ideas and music, being the main driving force behind the band Algiers, which is no stranger to political realism or unrealism as it were. I did not want to write my own text for this book. I generally try to keep a hand in text when making a book, but this time, I wanted to let two very trusted thinkers handle it in its entirety. It was of course important that we shared a similar background. The book would not be what it is without those guys. They shaped it and I cannot thank them enough for it. The guys from Yard press were really cool about it. They were also aware of the Algiers tie-in being fans of the music.

SS: It must have been a good project to work on. I guess there must be strong musical influences underscoring the feelings you all have about the state of things. So finally, and I know you’ll have some thoughts on this…Is there is a recommended soundtrack to this book, we can check out?

BF: Though my creative existence seems to be stuck in photography for the majority of it, music is my dearest passion. Without music, I couldn’t get on. You can take away visual arts from me anyday, but when the music goes, its war.

there is probably no soundtrack per se, but a list of suggestions would be all 5 of William Bassinski’s Disintegration loops, and

Algiers, Vatican Shadow, 36 Chambers by Wu Tang Clan, First Blood-Silence is Betrayal, Converge-All we love We leave Behind, Danny Brown-Old, Young and in the Way-When Life Comes to Death, Ill Bill-Black Metal, Heavy Metal Kings Featuring Ill Bill and Vinnie Paz, Madball- Infiltrate the System, Terror-Always the Hard Way, Immortal Technique-The Martyr, Sage Francis-A Healthy Distrust, SOLE-Selling Live Water, 16 Horsepower- Secret South, Today is the Day-Supernova, Willpower and Self´Titled, Coalesce-Give Them Rope, Snapcase-Progression Through Unlearning, Death Grips-All, Unsane-Scattered Smothered and Covered and Occupational Hazard, Kyuss-Blues for the Red Sun, Slayer-Seasons in the Abyss, All Else Failed-Archetype, All Pigs Must Die, Death in June-all, COIL-ALL, SWANS-ALL, Another Victim, Sol Invictus, Ash Pool-For Which He Plies the Lash, Behemoth-The Satanist, Beneath the Massacre-ALL, Big Black-Songs About Fucking, Biohazard-Means to an End and Urban Discipline, Deathspell Omega-ALL, 2PAC-All Eyes on Me, Youth Code-ALL, Young Jeezy, Smut Paddlers, Sick of it All-Scratch the Surface, Shellac-At Action Park, Sevenday Curse, Sepultura-Chaos AD and Arise, White Zombie-La Sexorcisto, Send More Paramedics, Scratch Acid, Repulsion, Accept-Balls to the Wall, Merciful Fate-Dont Break the Oath, Schoolboy Q, A$ap Ferg, Sandwell District, King Diamond, Regis, Raime, Samhain, Misfits, Danzig, ROME, Ringworm, Integrity-ALL, The Red Chord, Revenge, Blasphemy, Immortal, Inquisition, Rapeman, Ramleh, Quicksand, Pyha, David Bowie, R.A. The Rugged Man, Prurient, Power Glove, Pig Destroyer, Pantera-Vulgar Display of Power, Mark Stewart, Napalm Death, Lurker of Chalice, Marcel Dettmann, Marcel Fengler, Burzum-Filosofem, Marduk, Antaeus, Marilyn Mason-The Pale Emperor, Mars, L’il Wayne-Tha Carter III, Legowelt, Liaisons Dangereuses, Lifelover-PULVER, Celtic Frost-Monotheist, Hellhammer, Haus Arafna, This Heat, Three 6 Mafia, Helmet, Thorns, Test DEPT., Jumalhamara, Catharsis, Katharsis, Kendrick Lamar, Killing Joke, Eazy-E, El-P, V.E.G.A., The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, Earl Sweatshirt, Drudkh, Skepta, Mowgli-93, Earth Crisis, Crisis, Darkane, Meshuggah-Chaosphere, Drowning Man, Turmoil-The Process of, Cult of Youth, Cut hands, Whitehouse, Consumer electronics, Sector 304, Cobalt, Cult of Luna-Self-Titled and The Beyond, GODFLESH-ALL, Coffins-Buried Death, Clipse, Clipping, Dillinger Escape Plan-Under the Running Board, Miss Machine, Calculating Infinity, Dieter Muh, Disembodied-If God Only Knew The Rest Were Dead, Discharge, Disrupt, Fire & Ice, Flatbush Zombies, Ministry-Psalm 69 and Filth Pig, MGLA, Morser, Morning Again, Despised Icon-All, Proclamation, Ron Morelli, Deftones-White Pony, The Rolling Stones-Let it Bleed, Kanye West-Yeezus, Cypress Hill-Temple of Boom, The Chameleons-Script Under the Bridge, Waka Flaka flame-Flakavelli, Cave In-Until Your Heart Stops, Chris Carter, Botch, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Bodychoke-Cold River Songs, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds-Let Love In, Tricky, Circle of ouroboros, Tragedy, His Hero is Gone, Deadguy

Probably a bunch more….

Brad Feuerhelm

Goodbye America

Yard Press

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah. Images @ Brad Feuerhelm.)

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