It had been billed as a prizefight. At least, that’s how Mishka Henner— one of the breakthrough artists of the past five years, his rising-star status cemented by his Deutsche Börse prize nomination in 2013—had envisioned his conversation with Francis Hodgson as part of the Prix Pictet Conversations on Photography series at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London. An eye-catching poster—with enough populist appeal to compete with the ads for Jack the Ripper trail tours that can be found around the Whitechapel doors—had been produced picturing contender Henner pitted against established heavyweight critic Hodgson.
Bobbing around the ring—that’s a metaphor only; he was actually soberly seated at the front of a conventional lecture room—Hodgson looked every inch the traditional serious metropolitan culture critic. Dressed in black, hands clasped in his lap, specs perched on the end of his nose, in appearance he called to mind Anton Ego, the merciless Parisian restaurant writer in the Pixar film Ratatouille. Seated alongside him and jockeying a Mac so that he could stream images on a screen (no Leica-on-a-leather-strap photographic clichés here), Henner, by contrast, was blokey and jokey and affably unassuming as he ducked and dived and parried Hodgson’s verbal flurries—‘Bloody ’ell!’ was his first significant utterance, delivered with fine Mancunian élan.
Fiercely articulate, Hodgson sketched in the postmodern condition of photography in which the ceaseless flow of images has displaced the individual statement shot designed to be stopped and studied, etc. Using the classic lexicon of the twentieth-century critic, he wanted to know: was Henner’s work reportorial or photojournalistic? Was he an activist? If so, an activist for what? Could he work for Private Eye?
And Henner’s answer, when it came, was typically drawn from the twenty-first-century language of Google and the online domain: he was essentially an aggregator, a human filter of data sources. And though his work undoubtedly had a political dimension (he pointedly made his series Libyan Oil Fields in 2011, as the West prepared to become involved in the civil conflict in that country), as for the sources and resonance of his artistic vision—‘That’s obvious, isn’t it? I would align myself with a dystopian science-fiction writer: J.G. Ballard.’
So is what you do photography? I ask Henner when we meet for a chat the following day.
Typically, he has not one answer, but three, all delivered with the matey, rapid-fire staccato of a stand-up.
‘Well, you could call it a number of things, Robert. It’s critique. You could also call it geospatial intelligence gathering, which is a discipline that’s vital to identifying things like where a pipeline should be laid or to determining military targets. It’s reading the landscape critically and analysing it with a view to understanding it.
‘I do take photographs—that is, I take other people’s photographs. I take photographs from the network. But they’re not really photographs. They’re mostly data, they’re digital bits. When I think of photographs I think of chemicals on light-sensitive paper, you know. And of course that’s not what I’m working with.
‘If you followed me for two weeks you would not in a million years think of what I do as photography. It’s something else. It’s an amalgamation of intelligence gathering, data aggregation, image making and packaging.’
Now 38, Henner was for many years an artist in search of a medium. After graduating—not, as he is quick to point out, in art or photography but rather in sociology and cultural studies—he began producing photocopied books featuring hand-drawn illustrations and his own short stories (his fascination with book making, and more recent experiments with Print On Demand technology, really began here). Then he became involved with a physical theatre troupe which, he says, taught him a lot about routine and process. But still he remained ‘pretentious and baseless’: ‘I moved to Paris to write a novel—that’s how bad it was,’ he notes humorously.
Then came two turning points in his artistic evolution. The first was provided by a visit to Tate Modern in 2003 to see Cruel and Tender, a show exploring the realist tradition in twentieth-century photography: ‘That’s when I finally thought I’d found a language I could work with comfortably.’ At around the same time he struck up a partnership with photographer Liz Lock, who provided him with his second eureka moment when she taught him how to use a medium-format camera: ‘Everything had led to that moment.’ (They also now have a daughter together.)
There then followed a period during which he worked in a more or less traditional documentary manner. But he soon became disillusioned. ‘I no longer really trusted the camera in my hands. I don’t think subjects trusted it. It seemed to get in the way of an interaction, an encounter, and change it dramatically. I would be performing and the person in front of it would be performing. It was all a performance. That made the idea of objective truth redundant, so that all that was left was a kind of stylistic exercise that could be applied to any subject: a tow-bar factory, a war in Syria. I started to really distrust that. The world is so much richer than my stylistic cloaking of it.’
At which moment, crucially—enter the computer screen into the artistic equation.
‘The big shift was realizing there was another way of seeing things,’ Henner notes. ‘At work I would be facing a computer terminal every day and yet when I got a chance I would grab my camera and go out in the streets to fulfil some sort of fantasy of authenticity—as if by going out with a camera I might find something “authentic”. And then I realized authenticity is in that computer screen. That’s what the culture is plugged into. By ignoring that computer screen you are ignoring the very foundation on which so much of culture is based. Like television. The screen is everywhere. It’s so ubiquitous we don’t even realize we’re interacting with screens anymore.’
If Times Square in New York with its profusion of screens once felt outrageously futuristic, it now looks like little more than a scaled-up version of the average Western home. ‘We are addicted to screens. You wonder if there are blood vessels that go directly to the screen—you wonder how symbiotic that relationship is, biologically, between the eye and the screen now. It’s a bit like the devices we carry with us: if you lose your phone you feel like you’ve lost a body part. I wonder how long it will be before when a screen isn’t on it will feel like we’ve lost our vision.’ Now there’s a Ballardesque thought for you.
‘In Manchester you go and see people and the TV’s just on permanently,’ he continues. ‘It’s like a family member. You’re having a conversation with someone and there’s this massive TV that’s just talking to nobody—it’s comforting, it’s like grandma sat in the corner of the room. You ask if you can turn it off, and people say: “Oh no, we can’t.” It’s as if it’s a bubbling life-support system that everybody in the house is plugged into. Even though no one’s watching it the mere fact it’s on gives everybody life blood.’
In light of all this, Henner asks rhetorically: ‘How can you make work about the culture without embracing the screen and using the optics and networks and circuitry that are part of that? It would be absurd not to.’
Through his new engagement with the computer screen his work took what you might call a Post-Internet Turn. ‘Working in different ways you could suddenly tackle subjects that were much bigger,’ he enthuses of the fresh perspectives opened by the likes of Google Earth and Street View. ‘Photographing a housing estate in Rochdale [in a traditional manner] could have great metaphoric value but suddenly I was able to photograph the whole military-industrial complex, you know, without needing to get permission from anybody.’ Libyan Oil Fields and Dutch Landscapes were both made using satellite imagery freely available on the internet. ‘That was incredibly exciting to me. There were incredibly powerful things that for the most part were invisible to us but that were only invisible to us because we didn’t know where to look.’
Given this use of found imagery (actually that’s the wrong term—serendipity is certainly part of his process but ‘found’ makes it sound too casual and passive: Henner is an active investigator, the imagery he borrows is fiercely sought out), Hodgson had asked the previous evening how far he could be considered the author of his work. So—is the author dead? Not really, thinks Henner. (Although a book he’s been reading about the cultural history of the typewriter has had him questioning his agency in his own work again: ‘Who is doing the work here? What is my role in all of this? Am I just a conduit for the circuitry in the machinery? It’s a lot more complex than “I am the author, I am making the work, I’m splashing paint on a canvas and it’s my personal expression.” Dutch Landscapes is work made by the machine for the machine almost,’ he concludes.)
He’s keen to emphasize the strong aesthetic component to his work: he may be a socially engaged documentarist, an activist of sorts, and certainly an aggregator, but: ‘The mark of my authorship, I would like to think, is that they’re compelling images because of the way they’re composed. The way they’ve been framed, the way I’ve played with colour and contrast—all those quite light gestures.’
After all, those web-derived images don’t come gallery wall-ready. No Man’s Land—a collection of images apparently showing prostitutes in slightly surreal, out-of-the-way locations—may consist of a series of simple, unvarnished screenshots taken from his computer but series such as Feedlots are the result of extremely intricate not to mention highly laborious visual polishing. ‘The source is effectively an infinite image, a globe—an image of infinite detail that’s wrapped around a globe. There is no boundary to that image. I take hundreds of screenshots and then stitch them together manually so that you get fantastic detail. The stitching together is a pretty mind-numbing exercise. Once I’ve got a two- or three-gigabyte image, then I can begin to play with it. Satellite imagery is generally pretty dull because it’s had no post-production. The degree of post-production I use is designed to elevate that image into something that’s seductive, absolutely.’
But as a culture we do seem to have become a bit obsessed with making images from other images of late, don’t we?
‘Baudrillard and others were writing about that 20, 30 years ago: the idea that we are already in a world in which the real has been supplanted many times over by simulations of simulations of simulations. And I think that that’s right. I don’t necessarily think that such a thing as “the real world” even exists anymore. I really subscribe to the idea that the real world now is actually an image covering the physical terrain.
‘And if you’re going to make work about the age we live in, that’s what it has to be about.’