John Houck works with photographic materials and executes architectural interventions. Through installations, he explores photography as a mode of thought, focusing on the relationship between embodied perception and depiction. Houck received his MFA from UCLA in 2007. He currently divides his time between Los Angeles, CA and Brooklyn, NY.
50,400 combinations of a 3×3 grid, 4 colors – BBC1BD, 6FACAD, AB98AC, 5A292F, 2011 [from “Aggregates”]
15 x 18 in. framed, Creased Archival Pigment Print
© John Houck
Lucas Blalock: Can you begin by explaining what it is we are looking at, and how this piece was made?
John Houck: This is a work from a new series I’ve been working on for a couple of months, thinking through the digital din of photography. Last year I wrote some software to generate every possible combination of a given grid system. I can specify how many rows and columns the grid has and select a series of colors to fill the grid. This creates a lot of images: a simple 3×3 grid with four colors has over fifty thousand possible combinations. There is no software that can handle this many images, so I wrote another program to turn all these images into an index sheet.
I then print these index sheets and crease the paper. I light it, re-photograph it, and then print it out again. I continue this process several times as a way to reclaim and alter the highly rational system of a generative index sheet. The recursive process of re-photographing also reveals itself in the layering at the edges of the print. I show them mid process, so some of the creases are photographic and others are actual creases. It’s a bit hard to tell on the web.
Installation View, 2011 [from “Aggregates”]
© John Houck
LB: It is also true that a grid like this (each individual unit on the index sheet) expanded exponentially has a very real relationship to the informational realities of a digital photograph? And could this collection of possibilities be activated in this way?
I also wanted to touch on how these pieces are called “Indexes,” and was wondering if you would talk a bit about how you see their index relates to the index(ical) classically associated with photography. On the surface it is ‘indexing’ the creases but there is a sense that the investigation goes much further?
JH: You’re right, I am trying to address the way the “informational” has shifted. When I was in the Whitney ISP last year, we had a series of seminars on the history of photography and I started to think through what it means to move from the recording of light on a surface to the encoding of light into bits. One thing that happens is the image is now backed by a symbolic system or language. It is only temporarily fixed and can be manipulated. It also means I can write software to generate images as opposed to taking them. My software isn’t terribly sophisticated and generates a lot of noise, so once I generate these images I still have to make the rather photographic choice and select images from this field of generative images. Similar to Lacan’s claim that “the unconscious is structured like a language,” these combinatorial images act as the unconscious of the digital ground. With computation, everything is structured as a language.
Flusser’s book, Towards a Philosophy of Photography also made sense to me in terms of the camera as an apparatus the idea that photographers are consumed by its combinatorial game. I wanted to play out this game as a way to subvert it. I started with the idea that this software could generate every possible image that a typical computer screen could display. Each pixel on your screen is a discrete number of colors. There is a limited set of images that can be shown on a screen and I wanted to generate all of them. Lay claim to every photograph in this set. The image of you reading this text is in that set. I quickly realized this would take thirty thousand years to generate every combination and would be almost entirely noise, and so I simplified the variables.
20, 735 combinations of a 2×2 grid, 12 colors – 8A9CB2, 43383E, 8F8383, 71778D, 524149, 4A6578, A6A5AA, 578F8E,ADCFD0, C08A6E, E39D57, DD9E25, 2011 [from “Aggregates”]
15 x 18 in. framed, Creased Archival Pigment Print
© John Houck
LB: I am interested in this idea that with “computation everything is structured as a language.” It also reminds me of Flusser and his contention that the “technical picture” has textual underpinnings that become obfuscated by the image. But I feel like in these works you are also recording another layer (in regards the creases) that bring this textuality back into the physical world. It seems like you are accounting for another materiality altogether?
JH: I like that you are pointing out the layered nature of the work. I started with the layer of the digital, that is the index sheet of pixel patterns. I had these hanging in my studio for a few weeks and they were too rational and predictable, but I did like that they resembled some absurd linguistic system.
I then remembered this definition of what constitutes a language from an intro to psych course I took in undergrad; that a language contains combinatorial symbols that are used recursively. Thinking about recursion, I started to re-photograph them and crease the paper. I wanted to reclaim them and make them physical because they were such virtual objects at this point. To overlay an intuitive system on a combinatorial system was the way out of the dead end of a predictable notational system.
The creasing also has to do with desire. This layer was the important to me. The philosopher Bernard Stiegler would say that today there is a fall in desire that is linked with the rise in drives or repetitive behaviors brought about by technology. This is a big simplification, but highly repetitive tasks like checking your email a hundred times a day result in the waning of desire. Desire is outside of repetition, its object is continually shifting. The initial contact sheets are repetitive and creasing them and re-photographing them made them more subject and specific.
The last layer is the digital camera itself. As I was re-photographing these pieces I noticed that the digital camera was color fringing. Around each pixel would be a purple or cyan fringe of color. This error of the digital camera begins to accumulate after they are re-photographed a few times and the colors in the piece shift and new gradients of color are added by the simple act of photographing them. It’s a way to engage the structural possibilities of the digital camera. The camera also wants to expose everything to fifteen percent gray and so the white of the original index sheet shifts toward gray as do the colors as they are re-photographed.
Ultimately, the contingency of working with the photographic print in real physical space lead me to all of these discoveries. To go back to Stiegler, I think I’m trying to deal with the digital in my practice without being reactionary against it nor embracing it in a naïve way. Getting away from the screen is one way for me to do this.
16 in. o.c., Constructed Anamorphically, 2010 [from “Crisis of Accumulation”]
© John Houck
LB: You had mentioned to me before that “index” had become an important touchstone for you in making these pictures, both in terms of the index (of a book) and also the indexicality of the photograph. To me it seems that the both of these indexes relate to the limited possibilities of the referent; a position primarily characterized by standing outside and looking in (I am sort of obliquely thinking of Sontag talking about the sexual metaphor of the camera in On Photography). I feel like these works as you have been speaking about them are interrogating the workings of a picture making apparatus and developing a map or model for thinking about these issues. Could you talk a bit about the confluence of indexes at work here? And how a position of neutrality or suspicion without dismissal can open to generative production?
JH: In a rather general sense I think there has been a shift from the index as a singular thing to the index as multiple thing. From a single truth claim to a work that is a multitude of truth claims. In a broad sense, Google is an example of this. They have arisen to prominence simply by indexing things. For photography, this is akin to the move from the “decisive moment” to a photograph of a photograph. I’m also thinking about how photographs are more and more experienced as a multitude of photographs, a contact sheet, an image search result page, or a blog. Unlike a written story, we can see a photograph all at once, and now we continually see a number of photographs all at once. It’s impossible not be overwhelmed by this.
One reaction is to retreat into outmoded forms of photography. I’m not sure that is so productive. It’s the other side of the totalizing embrace of technology. In the aggregates, I’m photographing, and re-photographing indexes or contact sheets of images to work through this condition of the index. The folding then becomes a way to make them singular again, to slow them down, and resist the overwhelming nature of the all at once index.
LB: I really like your idea that the folds slow the pieces down or a system of resistance for an informational system. I would like to shift gears a bit and ask about the video work you made for Parallelograms. I feel like this investigation relates to the Aggregates as it also sort of indexes the effects of an action. Can you talk about this and how you came to make this work?
JH: Yes, resistance and in the case of the Parallelograms work, a failure of the machine of display. I used to do some hacking and the best way to learn about a system is to break it. The failure of a system is also perhaps when it is most human or affective. When I was editing photos of the Aggregates for my website, I zoomed way out in Photoshop and noticed the way the computer screen started to create moiré patterns. As the grid of grids of the Aggregates reached the size of the grid of pixels on the screen a third visual system emerged.
I made movies of this zooming in and out on the screen and the resulting breakdown of the display. Then I decided to create some software that would simply draw a grid and decrease the size of the grid by one pixel each frame. As the grid decreases in size and approaches the size of a pixel it creates patterns. Rounding errors also begin to occur because you can’t draw something smaller than a pixel on the computer screen and I was quite surprised with the amount of different patterns this created. It’s a novel form of structuralist film that uses the material of the computer screen and software. At the time I was looking at lot at Lichtenstein and his notion of ground directed painting and use of the Benday dots had a real influence on me. I wanted to take the elemental pieces of the computer display and hack them to see what I could find.
Sweep First in Front of your Own Door, 2010 [from “Crisis of Accumulation”]
© John Houck
LB: Before we finish can you talk a bit about your new publishing project, Loosee?
JH: Loosee is a new publishing project I put together earlier this year. I invite an artist every few months to make an editioned work. There are a few rules the artist has to follow; the work has to be shipped flat to the buyer and the buyer has to complete the work through some set of operations. Letha Wilson was the first artist. Her piece is a double sided print that can be folded in three different ways. The instructions for folding the piece are part of the work. I like the way this activates the spectator and encourages the artist to encode the rules for their pieces activation linguistically. Hopefully these rules encourage the medium of photography to engage with the history of installation and conceptual art.