Joshua Citarella (b. 1987) is a New York based artist and curator, whose work includes aspects of photography, digital media and sculpture. He is the coordinator of online projects and physical exhibitions including Flatten Image (New York, 2011) and Merge Visible (Chicago, 2012), as well as the continuing online exhibition (2012–) featuring works by artists Lucas Blalock, Daniel Everett, John Houck, Kate Steciw, among others. He is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.

Hourglass and Apples and Oranges, 2011
C-print, 22 x 33 in.
© Josh Citarella

Lorenzo Durantini: I first saw your work online and then we subsequently met in your studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn earlier this year. I remember we began talking about a text I had written for a show I curated in Milan that seemed particularly relevant to your practice. In the text, I wrote, “Time is ripe for the body to re-emerge, not as a trace of subjectivity but as a measure against which artistic labour can be calibrated.” Could you explain the significance of the body within your practice?

Joshua Citarella: I think the body is perhaps the greatest point of accessibility within the image. Our innate familiarity with the human form allows its image to function effectively as a tool for orienting the viewer within the more fundamental rules of mimetic representation: perspective and scale. For example, a photograph of a hand holding a small object provides the viewer with a sense of that object’s size and weight. We also need to consider that this recognition necessarily involves the almost instantaneous process of reading body language; seeing a specific pose, envisioning oneself in comparison to the depicted body and consequently synthesizing the uniquely human content of the scene, the emotional and psychological state of the subject. In a pragmatic sense, the body is one of the last objects that has yet to be fully displaced by its representation.

In an economy that is populated with imitative objects, veneers, and synthetic materials, many of which are indistinguishably realistic, we are still rather adept at spotting physically or digitally altered images of the body. In the field of advertising it is already common practice to use digital renderings of industrial products. Commercial images of bottles, electronics and cars are often assumed to be photographs, but frequently are not, while currently even the most advanced digital renderings of the body are still identifiable as not being the index of an actual person. This is due to an evolved ability that allows us to recognize and interpret one another, so that while it can sometimes be hard to tell whether or not an object in a photograph actually exists in the physical world, one can feel relatively certain that the depicted body does, in fact, have an actual physical counterpart. I expect that this conversation will soon become much more complex as new technologies are able to yield increasingly realistic images of the human form.

Combination Game – 487,320,219, 2012
C-print, 25 1/4 x 37 in.
© Josh Citarella

LD: The body here seems to assume a prescriptive role, it lays out a certain set of rules and measures the ease with which one can gauge and understand the often disparate elements that compose your pictures. It provides an access point, perhaps even a perspective. In linguistics, prescription attempts to lay out a set of rules that inform the way a language should be used, i.e pronunciation, syntax, spelling, etc. These rules can be used to keep certain words out of circulation whilst a radical use of prescription can lead to the creation of neologisms — new words that take the place of socially obsolete ones. Your work seems to be filled with photographic neologisms. These new words and images seem to rise out of an acute sensibility and exposure towards the digital vernacular of Photoshop. How important is digital labour to your work?

JC: I think that the criticality of this work hinges on its professional knowledge of digital production and that the tools evidenced here are already present in nearly all commercial images being distributed throughout our culture. I’m definitely an advocate for revising photographic vocabulary; I think it’s important that techniques such as Layer Masking and Frequency Separation are introduced into the general conversation. I’m also ready to do away with debasing words like “Photoshopped,” which simplifies a complex process by describing it as a single tool. Jargon like this is used in an overarching way to discredit or suppress new modes of production. As a result, we find ourselves in a place where Photoshop is present in nearly all art and commercial images but is largely not discussed. Even a relatively traditional photographic practice, where the computer only becomes involved when the image is outputted as a digital C-type or inkjet print, still involves a process of resampling and interpolation. The difference between resampling with Bicubic Smoother or Bicubic Sharper has real and quantifiable effects in the final image/print and these choices now need to be considered when we try to discuss things like the politics of representation. Different types of resampling techniques will describe nuanced surfaces, such as the gradient of a sunset, clouds, or skin, in noticeably different ways.

On the question of digital labor, Study in Contemporary Gesture II (2012) depicts all of the individual hand-made retouching that is done to an image of the body, without showing the body itself. The many hours of labor involved in this type of high production-value/photorealistic retouching demonstrates how far an image can be moved from its original photographic index without being perceptible, often to such a degree that the retouchers themselves lose track of the initial starting point. The only evidence of digital intervention occurs in the conspicuous absence of any flaws or blemishes. Some of the more interesting retouchers that I see working now are intentionally leaving minor imperfections like stray hairs and certain blemishes, as well as less obvious but equally powerful cues like lens distortion and cyan/red fringe in the final image, to effectively throw off the viewer’s sense of what has and has not been altered. This is something that I have tried to capitalize on in my own work, creating blatant indicators of digital intervention and placing them in conflict with physical enactments of similar techniques in an effort to complicate the viewer’s position, pointing them in opposite directions between the actual and the image. I think that this becomes important when we revisit the idea of identifying or empathizing with a depicted figure, when imagining oneself in the scene to subsequently synthesize the human content of the image. We are now in a curious position where we begin to measure ourselves against images that not only include the whole problematic nature of photography and representation, but are further complicated by a digital production.

Study in Contemporary Gesture II, 2012
C-print, 50 x 80 in.
© Josh Citarella

LD: Perhaps whilst operating as a comparative framework, the body is also effectively constituting a stumbling block. The traces of cosmetic retouching you include in your work are especially apt at producing the sort of rupture necessary for the viewer to objectively connect with the depicted body. I would then float the hypothesis that it is not the body itself that produces the interface but rather its flaws and imperfections. Slang is often composed of the leftover and discarded parts of language. Maybe it is through the leftover and discarded parts of the body that we can reconnect with what you have, in our previous conversations, called the hyper-real content of contemporary images, surplus material that undermines surplus value.

JC: There is most definitely a point during retouching where if an object or body becomes too “slick” — you alert the viewer’s suspicions to the fact that this image may not entirely be a photograph. This is a line that I have intentionally been zigzagging across in my work, creating hyper-realistic digital composites which have no visible seams, and pairing them with straight photographs that seem as if they would be impossible to be accomplish in camera. I think that this juxtaposition is an important part of framing digital photography in the proper context. Ultimately, it is the accumulation of subtle flaws and imperfections in these directly photographic scenes, such as the specs of dust that settle upon a still life table or the wear and tear that these objects accumulate through repeated use, that reveals them to be photographs. I’ve also recently started to employ an anti-cosmetic approach in certain works. Again, I think it is this presence of the imperfections that allows us to connect with the image as being something real.

I think this touches on a topic which, in previous conversations, you and I have described as “the body according to the image;” an ideal conception of the body, almost an archetype or icon, that is perpetuated through the distribution of cosmeticized images. The Catholic undertones of this particular wording, “the body according to the image,” seem to imply a sort of dogmatic paradigm to which our culture tries to comply within the production of images and, as a result, with our own physical bodies.

Combination Game – 231,639,853, 2012
C-print, 20 1/4 x 30 1/2 in.
© Josh Citarella

LD: I feel like your latest body of work Combination Game has drastically increased the complexity of your images. Alongside the body, there are disjoined framing devices that sometimes resemble pixelation, watermelons, mirrors, rocks and — my favourite — what looks like a miniature brass obelisk. I feel like this last object functions like a key inside some of the images. The frenzied arrangement of these elements seems to follow a kind of entropic system filled with glitches and errors. Have you followed any specific rules in Combination Game?

JC: As the series progresses I think that we are, in a way, witnessing the entropic decay of the original scene. It is similar to telescopically observing an event that takes place at a faraway point in the universe; by the time the light (image) reaches our vantage point, it is already a distant, past event. Combination Game is a sort of photographic Big Bang; exhaustively rearranging all of its elements. It contains the implication that if the process were allowed to continue uninterrupted, it may eventually recombine itself in such a vast number of ways as to include all possibilities in the photographic universe. This process of expansion ultimately and inevitably resolves in heat death, the depletion of the last remaining energy from the Big Bang. Here, heat death is not meant to imply a morbid drive in the work, but rather to illustrate the trajectory of its program, a process which borders on infinity but does in fact have a definite and quantifiable endpoint. Combination Game is an allegory toward photographic activity, or rather all technical image activity, whose initiative is to carry out its program and generate all manners of possible and improbable combinations, including every composition of objects down to the mosaic arrangement of the pixels themselves.

On the question of rules… When I first began this series, I felt that I ought to establish certain parameters for the process, but as I continued to work I found that every rule I tried to set in place was ultimately broken in the course of the game. I think of theory as a means of forecasting, but usable experience only comes from actual fabrication. It wasn’t long before I realized that the process already had a set of rules, or an ideology, built into it – that of combination. To answer the question: yes, but there is only one rule, and that rule is the title of the series.

Skew Merge Curves Clone, 2012
C-print, 26 x 32 in.
© Josh Citarella

LD: Your work has a very complex relationship to the commodity form. It seems to internalize many of its contradictions while producing symptoms of refusal. Do you think a pathology of the image is possible? Can we diagnose greater social issues from a biopsy of visual material?

JC: I think that a comprehensive analysis of the contemporary image will be key to understanding contemporary culture. In a society whose communication is increasingly image based, where all of those images share the same means of production, it would seem to me that we are obliged to pose a critical investigation into that production and see what ideological subtext might be contained there; to sift out the presence of a soft, incidental set of pathways that do not so much inhibit certain kinds of production as much as they readily facilitate others. Like a stream following the path of least resistance, so too has this hardware/software facilitated certain productive flows.

I think that it is not only possible to diagnose social issues through an analysis of image communication but that it is actually essential. We are faced with the urgent task of understanding the nature of our communication media, because only then can we begin to develop a philosophy towards understanding our society as a whole.

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