The first year digital photography unit (Pixel to Print) includes an assignment we call ‘Deconstructive Montage’
Here is the ‘brief’:
I explain ‘deconstructive montage’ like this:
Deconstructive Montage is a visual strategy that involves taking well known images and subverting their meaning via juxtaposition. Used by Dada artists such as John Heartfield, the form has taken on new imperatives with the emergence of photo-editing tools such as Photoshop and the ease with which images can be downloaded and redeployed via the internet. Whilst the work of Banksy, Peter Kennard and Kenneth Tin Kin Hung are examples of high profile artists utilising this form, it has also been deployed by amateur online activists, characterised as ‘Photoshop for Democracy’ by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture (New York University Press 2006).
Deconstructive Montage is a strategy of revealing the hypocrisy of a privileged position of power.
“Deconstruction has a broader, more popular, and a narrower, more technical sense. The latter refers to a series of techniques for reading texts developed by Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and others; these techniques in turn are connected to a set of philosophical claims about language and meaning. However, as a result of the popularity of these techniques and theories, the verb “deconstruct” is now often used more broadly as a synonym for criticizing or demonstrating the incoherence of a position.”
(Balkin, J 1996 <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/jbalkin/articles/deconessay.pdf>
It would be great to discuss this aspect of your work.
I notice that you quote John Heartfield on your website!
How did you come to be making this kind of work?
I graduated from San Francisco State University in 2001 majoring in traditional Photography. At that time the digital photography technology were relatively new and I decided to experiment with Photoshop. I was always intrigued in adding layers of meanings on one specific image.
Then came the September 11 Terrorist attack in 2001. I remembered that morning I woke up and saw the twin towers collapsing, I instantly asked myself why would any human being commit such an atrocious crime to 3000 innocent people?
I started researching the reasons and ended reading articles by Robert Fisk, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and John Pilger via liberal left websites like CounterPunch.org and AlterNet.org, and learned about the bloody history of American foreign politics.
The aftermath of September 11 gave GW Bush administrations a legitimate reason to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, while the major US mass media kept pumping fear into the public.
In the months following the attacks of September 11, more than 300 incidences of hate crimes against Sikhs Indians were reported, and online the derogatory terms “Towelheads” were used a lot in the forums.
Four days after the 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Sikh, is shot and killed outside the gas station he owned because he wore a turban, and the murderer thought that he was an Arab Muslim from the Middle East. When asked for his motive, the shooter answered: “I’m a patriot and an American. I’m American. I’m a damn American.”
News like this starting syndicating everyday, and I decided that I need to voice out my opinions about the social injustice, hence I start making this kind of social-conscious types of works, hope that my arts can help change the world.
How do you identify a topic? How do you make a start?
Most of the time it started with a certain social issue that I felt very passionate about. I often started with an extensive research on a certain subject, and tried to learn and understand all perspectives of the arguments. Then I find a visual way to apply all the extremed points of view together and “flatten” it.
What sort of process do you follow? Do you think in terms of juxtaposition?
In a nutshell, I make eye candies out of the world’s ugliness. I believe everything in the world is connected, and I employ and remix images from pop culture, mass media and viral meme to create time capsules on a targeted topic. The idea is to squeeze the different spectrums of arguments and the opposite perspectives into specific visual documentary artworks that reflect that specific time frame of our history.
My initial method is combining two opposite ideological representations and create a new identity- e.g. by combining Osama bin Laden and Jesus Christ, the new identity Jesus bin Laden addressed the martyrdom and how politicians can manipulate the zealous faith in both Christianity and Islam.
Another example is MaoDonald’s, which I combined Chairman Mao, the most recognized Communist figure and McDonald’s, the ultimate signifiers of Capitalism, speaks about the China’s political shift from a Leninist communism to a Socialist market economy regime.
Another juxtaposition of opposite identities- Saddam Hussein as Rambo and Kim Jong Il as the Terminator. By subverting and flipping the meanings of Good (U.S. Fake justice of Weapons of Mass Destruction) vs Evil (Bush’s Evildoers/ Axis of Evil), the idea is to question how the mass media and news at the time beating the war drums and selling the wars as entertainment. That specific image ended up being the cover for the Pritzker Prize winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ book “Content”, which I am particularly proud of!
The reason why I chose pop imageries was because most people understand them and already have a preset ideas of what it represents due to advertisements. By applying “culture jamming” process to those images, the audience is presented with a renewal idea of what that pop image can mean. And that is where I think the art is- to raise questions and generate discussions. And I found that using sarcastic and humorous approach is easier to generate dialogues.
How do you source the images you use?
Since day one most of my images are from Google image search. It is a fascinating tool because you instantly got a juxtaposition of opposite points of view next to each other. e.g. This afternoon I typed in President Putin from Russia, and I instantly found several images of him riding a bear, photoshopped as Hitler, riding a motorbike with a bazooka on his back, and looking goofy swimming with dolphins.
So lets do an exercise, why don’t we photoshopped him as Hitler riding a bear with a bazooka on his back while surrounding by dolphins? OK, lets add Obama as Obi Wan-Kenobi from Star Wars and added Crimea as a background and we got a story!
Students have been asking me about the intellectual property and copyright implications of deconstructive montage. How do you negotiate issues of copyright? Has this ever arisen as an issue for you? I know that appropriation is an integral part of this style – it is a critique images and ideas.
In U.S. copyrights law, my works fall into the Fair Use category of “parody and satire”. In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner.
I never got affected by the copyrights law, maybe I am not successful enough! And in history plenty of images were used in political purpose, e.g. During the first partially free elections in communist Poland in 1989, Gary Cooper’s cowboy image of High Noon was used as the national icon to encourage votes for the Solidarity Union party.
On the other hand, in Hong Kong China where I was born, the government now is trying to passed the Internet Article 23, which is aimed to regulate the Internet and censor certain derivative works though copyright infringement. Once passed, any parody works could be criminalized. Lots of Kong Kongers see this as a step up control of the internet freedom from the Chinese government, due to last year’s Umbrella Revolution.
I noticed that you had labelled all the elements in ‘In G.O.D. we Trust’ – did you feel you needed to provide a reference for audiences that might not recognize some elements?
At that point of my arts practice, I want every elements in the composition carry meanings that matters. As I mentioned before, I want my works to be a time capsule that document this specific time frame of our history. So yes, I feel that I have a need to provide those references.
Sixty Ones Dot Com is a relatively early example of internet art. Can we talk a little about how you came to utilise the web as a medium rather than a folio site? When did you start putting work online and why? How has your practice evolved since then?
At that time I was living in San Francisco. As you might know, SF Bay Area had a long history of radical left liberals, counterculture movements and I was influenced by Angela Davis, The Black Panthers, The Hippies and how the Silicon Valley thinks that technology is a force that powers the liberalization of society.
So I decided to create a web project that went against all the rules of a “successful” website. At the time the Splash pages were described as the biggest no-no in the tech sector, so I think why not make a website only with splash pages.
At the time the most common internet connection speed was 56K dial-up and the most common computer screen resolutions are 800 X 600 pixels. I decided to make images that are at least 1024 X 678. So at that time, every splash page took at least a good minute to download.
And at last, everybody are telling you to get a easy to remember website, so I decided to get the longest website available. The longest website domain name you can get is 64 characters at the time including the .com/ .net or .org. So I landed on 11111..11111.com, I am Chinese, when you say Sixties Ones Dot Com it has a similar pronunciation as 食屎第一得金, which means whoever eat the most fecal shit will get the gold.
The website eventually gathered 30 Millions visits, at the time there were only 300 Millions internet users in the entire world. It was a fun time!
I have been thinking about your Make It Rain project. Could we conceive of it as a conceptual strategy or maybe a work of relational aesthetics? I love the way it explores the structure of money as a dynamic process. It fits the category of ‘conceptual strategy’ in that you designed a system of actions and procedures that would unfold outside of your subjective control.
For the Make It Rain project I took a completely different approach. All the works I have done before are based on protest and anger, the Make it Rain is based on finding solutions and hope.
It is that based on relational aesthetics and social practice arts. Nowadays we see lots of arts that looks great but have empty meanings, almost as if their purposes are to decorate luxurious condos apartments.
The idea of Make It Rain is to create arts that are affordable and serve a purpose. 50% of each ∄MIR sold will be used as KIVA microloans to help entrepreneurs in developing countries. That means 1 ∄MIR Bundle Sold = 1 New Kiva Loan, and each bundle only caused $50 USD.
e.g. Alison bought a bundle to support the project, and she generated this KIVA loans that helps Jorge Gregorio, a Philipino farmer to buy potato seeds and chemical fertilizers for his business. When the loan is re-payed the same money will be re-loaned to another under privileged entrepreneur in the developing countries.
The project was inspired by Matt Kenyon’s Note Pad project, which he created one hundred ordinary yellow legal pads. When the pages are magnified, each ruled line is revealed to be microprinted text enumerating the full names, dates, and locations of each Iraqi civilian death on record over the first three years of the Iraq War. The notepads were smuggled into the congress building where US representatives and senators used them to write memos on.
The Make It Rain along the same sense, is aimed to question our monetary system. When I heard about a Hedge Fund company named Och-Ziff’s uses the California Teacher’s Retirement fund and loan $100 Million to Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe to murder his opponents, in exchange of the Platinum mining rights, I started questioning what my bank savings is contributing to?
Then I read about how complementary currencies like Bangla-Pesa can helps alleviating poverty in Africa and Brazil, and decentralized system like BitCoin, I decided why not make my own currencies and tried to change the world? And plus Malala Yousafzai really deserved to be on a banknotes right?