Josh Azzarella utilizes widely known historical and entertainment imagery in an exploration of knowledge, memory, and possibility within photographic images. Azzarella’s work has been recently shown at Mark Moore Gallery, Kavi Gupta Gallery, and at Moving Image with DCKT Contemporary. He currently teaches at Rutgers University and the School of Visual Arts, and is included in the collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Azzarella lives and works in New York, NY.

Many thanks to Josh for taking the time to talk about his artistic practice.

Untitled #74 (Shell Alpert), 2009
Silver gelatin print, 9.5 x 12 in.
© Josh Azzarella

Zach Nader: I would like to start with a statement you made in a 2008 interview. You mentioned being interested in pictures that “…[record] specific events that have shaped or helped to shape everything we know and how we live, whether or not we were alive at the time or involved in the event.” In what ways has this interest evolved or been reinforced since then?

Josh Azzarella: The interest is still there and a focus of the work, but the scope has expanded to include other types of imagery. In 2008 I began looking at imagery that was less iconic, even if the events were significant (the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, Hindenburg, etc.), and at the moment have found myself working with mostly fictional but no less significant images we have created instead of captured. These images too have impacted and shaped what we know or how we live.

ZN: In a 1983 interview, Richard Prince responds to a question from Peter Halley, concerning Blade Runner: “Halley: His girlfriend, the replicant. Her memory of her family was based entirely on photographs of her family or at least a photograph of a family. Prince: Yes. That’s why I have to produce a photograph… Something that can be believed. It’s unimportant whether it’s true. It’s only that its truth be possible. That’s what the virtuoso real is. The possibility.”  In your methods of alteration, you have made the process as seamless and unnoticeable as possible. If a viewer was unfamiliar with the source material, it seems unlikely that they would fully anticipate the transformative nature of your work. Please discuss the importance of plausibility in your practice.

JA: One aspect of the manipulation that I’m most interested in is the energy inherent to an image. I’m searching for whether, after my modification(s), the images retain that energy found in the original. And if so what new form does it take. I’ve found that viewers who are unaware of the original image still gather some impression of the image due to the energy that has been retained from the original. I have to take out the event in a way that retains its energy – if there are seams in my modification, viewers will look at that instead.

I actually find it really interesting that someone might see my work, and think it’s just archival footage.

Untitled #107 (Mk V.1), 2010
Cibachrome, 8 x 12 in.
© Josh Azzarella

ZN: There are many artists that investigate collective understandings of events and images. Paul Pfeiffer often uses familiar, appropriated imagery as well, but transforms in a more obvious and noticeable way than you. Thomas Demand creates models, often based on pictures from news events and then makes still and moving images from them. How do you see your practice in relationship to the work of other artists that engage with similar ideas and methods?

JA: Paul, Thomas, and myself certainly aren’t the first to traverse this ground in art, or image making, and certainly won’t be the last. Pfeiffer is interested in the spectacle, and it’s crucial to his work that you can see his hand in the manipulations. Demand’s works have a feeling similar to aftermath.

I think of much of my work as anticipatory. I’m not interested the spectacle or even accuracy — I’m interested in what we would consider accurate, how impressionable our memories of events are. How do we feel in that moment just before an event occurs, can I extend that?

I do think we’re all working out of Barthes’ question about the punctum of an image, and what gives an image its power.

ZN: Your piece Untitled #105 (SFDF) was on view in March 2012 at Moving Image, the Contemporary Video Art Fair. The piece is a 3-channel video work with 15.3 surround sound that physically surrounds the viewer. What is the role of materiality and site in your practice?

JA: Materiality and site are aspects of the work that I’d like to render invisible to the viewer if at all possible. I don’t want the viewer thinking about the size of the room, the color of the walls, wiring of the speakers, bezel on the monitor, playback devices, etc. I do want them to be as transported into the space I’m presenting as we are when we’re at the movies.

To the chagrin of some, I’m particular about how the work is installed and presented. The work is made to be presented in a specific way, on specific equipment, and with regularity I refuse to yield to the presentation of it in a different manner when I think it will compromise the reading of the piece. That said, I work to make the presentation of the work as easy as possible by providing all of the equipment to show any piece, from monitors, to projectors, to surround sound systems.

Untitled #51 (L=kSV2CL), 2009
Silver gelatin print, 25 x 38 in.
© Josh Azzarella

ZN: In much of your work you focus on a moment of a known and recorded transformation. You then destabilize understanding of that moment by visually passing over it, denying it by endlessly looping the pictures of the moments before it occurs, or visually transforming it to the point that it is no longer recognizable. While you have used a variety of techniques and contents throughout your career, a common thread seems to be the use of photographic imagery. Why is it important for you to use photographic source material?

JA: I deal with the ‘photographic’ as that is mostly how we remember. While there is audio of many of the events that I work with, it is rarely as affective when recalling an event when there is a known image connected to it. I think everyone’s had an experience of not being sure if they remember the photographs of an event, or the event itself. Photographic and filmic images even enter our dreams. They make up the more concrete images of our memory.

In the earlier work, the moving image pieces were silent, and this was mostly due to my unfamiliarity with sound and its impact when accompanying an image. Recently, I’ve come to understand with moving images how the sound can push the image further than may be possible visually and adds anticipation, confusion, or reassurance.

Recently I’ve completed the gathering of audio and begun production for two audio pieces that have no visuals. The first is a specific group of 214 songs, all on custom lathe-cut records that play at the same time, building from a single piece of audio to a cacophony similar to roaring or struggling jet engines. The second, is a much more subtle grouping of moments that explore human exasperation. The works are as long as the moment or event with the exasperation isolated and the time preceding and following the moment filled with room tone from the original recording. These works too are on custom lathe-cut records.

ZN: Your titles appear to be rather obscure in relationship to the content of the work. Examples include: Untitled #51 (L=kSV2CL) and Untitled #101a (SYNW). They do little to inform the viewer about the source material, other than an occasional hint for one already thoroughly familiar with the content. What is the role of titles and written language in your practice?

JA: The parenthetical references in the titles were arrived at through function and compromise. Initially, they were used solely as a way to identify a piece by something other than its number, which made it easier for others to identify a work when we were speaking or working on a project. The hinting at the source in the parenthetical references was my reaction to the countless requests to somehow show the original with my work, which is something I would never do. Knowing this, if a viewer is unfamiliar with an image it gives them a bit of homework to do, and hopefully fills in a hole or reveals something new for them.

The titles are sometimes obscure, such as L=kSV2CL being the Wright Brothers’ formula for lift, or Untitled #120 (Flushing) referring to Psycho being one of the first times we see and hear a toilet flushing in American cinema and how Hitchcock had to fight with the censors over it. With enough digging, they always lead back to the original source

still from Untitled #100 (Fantasia), 2007-2009
HD video, 12m 6s
© Josh Azzarella

ZN: In James Elkins’ Photography Theory, Historian Anne McCauley wrote that “…the knowledge of how the image is made, rather than anything inherent in the image, changes the way the viewer thinks of the image.” Image manipulation, done in Instagram, published in fashion advertisements, or slipped past the editors at news organizations, and countless other ways, is ubiquitous. The historical images you re-present quickly become oddly believable. What are your thoughts on viewers’ ability to look past these manipulations? How do you think value is created in photographic images?

JA: If the manipulation is done with reasonable competence, I think the viewer has the ability to casually look past the manipulations in an image. From the inception of the medium and for ongoing various reasons we value the photographic as truthful, even evidentiary. Even when we as viewers know the likelihood of an image being absolutely truthful is near zero, we still convince ourselves to believe in it in some way. This is something I’ve been interested in from the beginning with the work — trying to confuse, append, replace, or create a new memory for a viewer.

Regarding the value, I think it’s inherent to the image. Simply realizing that someone thought this scene, place, person, etc. was or is important enough to record for the future, is the root of that value. Once we begin to distribute and disseminate images, those that are found to have lesser or no value fall away, and we’re left with “our” archive.

ZN: How do you decide an image is useful for your purposes?

JA: I decide that something is potentially useful the same way I did when I was a photographer using my camera while wandering the streets — if I find myself looking at or returning to an image more than once, then I know I need to investigate it further. If, after that investigation, I still find it or it’s story compelling or interesting I’ll archive it and begin considering how it may be used.

I’m not one to scour the news looking for images of events in the very recent past, partially because with some frequency the whole backstory of the image or event isn’t known. And with recent images, we haven’t even begun to build our collective story about the image.

still from Untitled #105 (SFDF), 2009-2011
HD videos with 5.1 surround sound, 3m 5s, 7m 55s, 7m 35s
© Josh Azzarella

ZN: It is increasingly common for a satirical Onion news story to be quoted in standard news media or passed around on Facebook as fact. Have you seen your work used as evidence by others? How do you see your works functioning for viewers who have no specific knowledge of the source material, or for those who find your images while searching for information on the source?

JA: I haven’t had that happen to any of the work, and would probably be somewhat conflicted if it did. If an image was to take on a life of its own at the hands of others I would most likely be ok with it, regardless of whether or not I agreed with its use.

Again, I’m interested in confusing the viewer’s memory or creating one where one may not have previously existed. An aspect I find interesting is looking at the work and speaking with someone about an event or aspects of the original image with which they are unfamiliar. It gives me the opportunity to give someone a factual account of the event, and at the same time present them with an inaccurate visual representation of the event.

ZN: What can we expect to see from you over the next year? Are there any upcoming events, exhibitions, and projects you would care to share?

JA: A short list would be:

I have an upcoming show with Mark Moore in 2013 at which I’ll debut a feature length silent film from which I’ve removed all of the characters and added full Foley sound.

I’m working to find finishing funds for the aforementioned 214 custom lathe-cut records and turntables.

I’ve recently developed a new way to slow down and lengthen the playback of footage without obfuscating the image, so there are several pieces in progress using this technique to extend an anticipatory moment.

Lastly, I’m working on a few pieces that manipulate the viewer’s sense of anticipation in recognizable scenes from iconic/popular films. These works will run off of a location-aware device that will match the setting in the piece (time of day, weather, etc.) to what is going on outside where the piece is located.

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