Landmark is a collaborative body of work that explores a contemporary landscape in an attempt to reconsider the cultural value of visual signifiers. Based in chance and improvised working methods, Landmark consists of photographs, videos, installations and sculptural elements.
In their 2011 video, Landmark artists J.W. Fisher and J.T. Leonard hint at these methods. Their subjects are presented mostly without context, and the scenes cut in and out of poetic monologues. A gray-haired man seated on an afghan-covered sofa elucidates,
“I really don’t make any plans, I let the plans present themselves to me, as a life… Because we think that we’re creators, but there’s something else out there that has… I’m not going to say it’s a plan, because the plan changes every second because of decisions that people might make. And then, what I think happens, the math corrects itself.”
The name Landmark conjures a few starting points to consider. Throughout history, naturally occurring landmarks were of utmost importance in the navigation of lands that were previously unknown to the explorer. In our current age, various entities provide us with symbols to guide us – architects direct us through buildings with their designs, our streets are governed by lights and shapes, and companies direct us through their websites and their stores so we can reach their products. Many of the subjects in Landmark hint at various cultural indicators, but the well-considered compositions of the images, their somewhat obscured context, and the playfulness of the presentation help to question whether those signs should be taken at face value.
I asked the artists a series of questions over the course of a few months, to help our viewers better understand how to approach the work. I’ve edited our conversation for clarity.
Kiosk Gallery: Where does the name Landmark come from?
Landmark: The name Landmark comes from some of the earliest video work we made with this guy named Lawrence Jackson who had been involved in Landmark Education. The story would take forever to tell, but when thinking about a name for the work Landmark made total sense for the reasons you have observed and also we really love the reference to this educational group that has been somewhat compared in form to that of Scientology. That entire scene with the older gentleman on the couch was filmed on a follow up visit into the Detroit area and inspired by lingering questions we had for him regarding our first ever interaction a year prior.
KG: I’d like to know a bit more about how happenstance plays into the work. Are you working with what you’ve stumbled upon, or do you intervene in any way?
L: Years ago when we began collaborating we left everything up to chance. For the initial cycle of work we had a former mentor send us to an undisclosed location. We were flown into Detroit and directed further north to Pontiac, MI where we eventually took up residence in an annex at the Museum of New Art. We recognized during that trip the value of those encounters with the landscape, chance encounters with individuals and collectives of people. Ultimately as artists we would interject and intervene. The work becomes a reflexive process recalling our own interaction with chance elements and with each other.
When working we are fully engaged with our subjects in every situation.. It’s a call and response kind of thing each time. How much input and suggestion from us as observers and participants is cooperatively developed as subjects unfold. It’s always a very fragile exchange. And then of course we intervene by the mechanized transformation of three dimensional space into two, and we also often direct what elements end up in frame—so we often end up intervening in various ways.
KG: Whose story are you telling – your own, or the people and places you see?
L: The work is a dialogue in its truest sense. The story, or narrative, depends on both sides or points of view. At times the work is very much about our own sensibilities or notions of space, and territory. When necessary, we take a back seat to act more as observers, but ultimately the imagery aims to take the next step forward in its reading; rather than a partitioned vocabulary that can describe and categorize things in the world, it’s about wanting to develop a deeper sense of visual accountability. We like to think that the story is unwritten until all our voices – the artists and subjects – collect, join, and for a lack of a better term, collaborate. Ultimately the story isn’t about either of us, but rather the story of the interaction.
KG: I think this is a really important point, so I want to clarify – what do you mean by visual accountability?
L: Simply put, photographic decisions made. There are formal but also conceptual themes at work here for us. The frames we generate, the marrying of foreground, middle- ground, and background with carefully chosen subjects are all a precise consideration of elements we deem important for a particular picture idea. These elements of form and content are essential to communicating through a visual medium. We feel this allows us a remarkable access point into important physical, cultural, and social signifiers. Even our decision to work this way, collaboratively, and now in photographic practice is all very intentional.
KG: What are your relationships to these places?
L: Our relationship to these landscapes vary, and this in a way is how happenstance plays a bit into the work. Toledo and Detroit were fantastic places to work for some obvious reasons surrounding mainstream cultural and media exposure. For us however it was irrelevant. One of us (Justin) happened to be working and living in the area and it provided the most accessibility for us to develop these ideas which were our main concern at the time. From the beginning and now we have always felt that it didn’t matter where we end up. Our aim was to dismantle our individual process in order to develop (for us) new ways of working while edifying thematic concerns. This would be of the utmost importance to us. Not knowing exactly what to expect trusting both the process and fluidity of making and exchanging ideas remained and remains crucial and significant in our practice.
KG: Do you think the narrative that comes from these images is true, or is it exaggerated or fabricated in any way?
L: Photography exaggerates in a very untrue way. You have to take that challenge on the day you start making images with a camera. What “truth” is ever revealed is predicated on the basis of our very human and soft psychological reading of a mechanical recording. Undeniable visual description in a photograph is the surrogate for fact. Truth exists in our vocations, our voices, and our beliefs which we illuminate regardless of what is exaggerated, fabricated, constructed, etc. We feel strongly that the discourse of “photographic truth” or “staged vs non-staged” or “posed/non-posed” is fruitless when dealing with the kind of problems we are trying to solve.
KG: To be specific, what kinds of problems are you trying to solve?
L: The problems we have set forth revolve around picture problems and how to realize and resolve an idea with specific tools. For example, Tampico, came about when we had witnessed multiple people drinking this toxic looking liquid, which we identified as a marginally popular fruit beverage. In an attempt to work with what we had witnessed, we made images with people drinking various toxic looking drinks, made pictures of just the liquid and even sculpted the liquid in various states of viscosity. Ultimately what we felt worked best was the image in which we transformed a space by pouring Tampico into a cut-out in a parking lot we had found.
KG: How are the bronze chicken wings made?
L: The chicken wings are cast in bronze, which requires an intermediary mold stage. This mold form is cast from chicken wings that we purchased.
KG: Of the work you’re presenting, they seem to be one of the more easily recognizable cultural icons. Do these sculptures also help to question the value of assigning cultural connotations to objects?
L: Yes they do. The chicken wing is both recognizable/accessible and completely undeniable and powerful in its form. We feel strongly about this piece for these reasons, as we do our decision to solve this particular problem sculpturally.
KG: How could a new viewer approach the ideas behind Landmark? I imagine “what’s going on here?” to be one of the first questions that a viewer may have, but I see now that the narrative is not what’s important about the images… that the work is more about a study on process, the record of chance encounters leading to a collaborative event. What kind of information would best prepare the viewer to see the work in that way?
L: This is a really good question!–one we aren’t fully prepared to answer. Right away, we would reference back to our answer regarding a desire to break down individual practice, and further question representational tropes. A new authorship is what we sought without a consideration to viewership, at least at the time. It was really based on happenstance and working collaboratively. The work we have ended up showing has been stripped down to what we feel could open discussions about thematic concerns, but also images which can stand on their own without deep explanation.
KG: I see optimism related to resources in these images. Food is still available, raw materials are still available, and the sky is still blue behind a failed fueling station. Do you feel optimistic about food, resources, or the economic issues of these places?
L: It’s hard to know what to be optimistic about. I think that is very much a part of our visual/cultural investigation at the moment, especially where art intervenes as an interpretive device. Included in the work are structural, chromatic, and character archetypes that still can connote positive and negative implications. A device of the work that we are making is to question the value of even those signifiers. Optimistic is a difficult word, too. We feel it’s important to talk about the fact that raw materials are still available or present in some form for sure. Part of our efforts to contextualize and decontextualize recognizable objects or artifacts is to literally place the narrative within an unsure trajectory, in effect breaking down base logic to another raw material.
KG: Are you still working on the Landmark project together? Could you work on it anywhere?
L: Landmark has been so important for not only collaborative practice, but also in our individual practice. The work made in and around Detroit, Toledo, Pontiac is most defi- nitely over, but we have been thinking about working on something new. Those areas were so important to the work. What we think is next is generating something where site specificity is completely stripped from the subject.
– compiled by Erin Lindsay Dodson
LANDMARK – ARTIST STATEMENT
Landmark is a collaborative project based on chance con- sisting of photography, video, and sculpture generated over the last several years in Pontiac and Detroit, Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio. Often times discussions of these and similar locations are limited to being emblematic of economic and social cessation. For us as collaborative artists these ideas and locales serve as a platform for re-investigation. Our main focus of dialogue is to form new, and often times personal, considerations of social awareness, shifting cultural identities and expectations in an attempt to challenge contemporary representation of individuals and social contact. The imagery aims to transform space in a way that doesn’t speak to shrinking cities or abandonment, but rather exists on the periphery of prospect as a contemporary reflection of the neo-American landscape.