"Your Personal Panopticon: An Interview with Christopher Meerdo"
Published in the Printeresting issue of The California Printmaker (September 2011)
A PDF of the interview can be found here.
Digital: the word comes from the hands, from the practice of counting numbers on fingers, digits on digits, a one-to-one ratio. Digital is here to stay. It’s hands-on, it refuses to disappear. Despite the audible rustle of an unwanted file thrown in the trash, digital information continues to exist, invisibly layered between new pieces of data. A file’s endpoints—a binary code of ones and zeros, much like printers’ registration marks—can be removed, but the original data remains. New information shuffles into the open space, eroding the old. The unseen matrices of hard drives and memory cards exist as test prints, ghosts, a history of entropic image-making ripe for examination.
These thoughts were on my mind as I entered Christopher Meerdo’s studio in East Garfield Park in Chicago on a hot, late-June day. He was helping a nervous friend recover mistakenly deleted files from a memory card. The software program Meerdo used, which successfully rescued the majority of the lost files for his friend, has served a similar purpose over the years for one of his many “data-recovery” projects. Meerdo, who is a recent MFA graduate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, straddles the realms of photography; cultural anthropology; personal narrative; and technology. He is a consummate 21st century photographer-printmaker, an artist who utilizes the permanence and physicality of the printed image to better convey his social critiques and a constant questioning of our digital age.
The interview addresses two of Meerdo’s works-in-print, Cipher (2011) and Anthology I (2007-present). These pieces very much pertain to this issue of the California Printmaker: “the complex relationship of print and the Internet as modes of communication, and how this relationship informs the practice of artists working today.”
In mid-2010 the organization Wikileaks released an encrypted 1.5 Gb file (insurance.aes256) on its website to a limited number of people. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange declared the file a “thermo-nuclear device” which would be detonated by releasing the file’s password should anything happen to Assange or the Wikileaks organization. Presently, the contents of this “insurance” document are unknown and its larger file structure is only speculative. In Cipher, the file has been visualized through a script which turns the raw binary data of the encrypted file into a field of black and white pixels. The output is printed in entirety on one uninterrupted piece of paper.
Excerpted from the title page of the book:
Exhumations is an ongoing project that began in 2007. For this body of work, Meerdo regularly purchases used camera memory cards for sale on craigslist and eBay. Using an image data recovery program, eradicated data is restored and saved. The disjointed appearance of the photographs are a result of the incompleteness in data, which produces fragmentation and hue shifts. Each individual image appears exactly as it was recovered through the restoration process.
PART I. CIPHER
JULIA V. HENDRICKSON: Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to print Cipher, and why it needed to be a physical piece, rather than just conceptual?
CHRISTOPHER MEERDO: There was a little bit of a political impetus behind wanting to work on the project. But ultimately one of the problems I have with trying to make any kind of political work is that those works tend to be very didactic. They don’t typically prioritize aesthetics.
JH: Do you mean political work that you have done in the past?
CM: No, just political works that I’ve seen. Take the overt didacticism of ‘culture jamming’ for example (Shepard Fairey, Banksy, et al).
JH: Image-makers who both happen to work in print.
CM: Yes. I’ve always been interested in creating works that allow for a bodily experience, that are phenomenal in their own right. I wanted to take something that was extremely nuanced and non-existent, and turn it into something that was extremely present. And then once I got to that point I realized that there was this whole issue with proximity to the work. Once you first see it it’s just all grey, and as you enter into the work it disintegrates into these pixels and it has layers because of that. I think it takes on a whole different meaning when it’s printed.
JH: There’s something very overwhelming about walking up to that one big sheet of paper and discovering what it represents.
CM: Exactly. When I was first experimenting, I tried hanging a stitched-together version on the wall but it didn’t have the right gravity. Just conceptually it didn’t make sense to have it in panels. So, I used seamless paper, which is a backdrop paper that photographers use in photo studios and worked with a billboard sign printing company to produce the final version.
JH: Did you say you worked with a Brazilian programmer to help you convert the file? Can you talk about the story behind that?
CM: I had the idea for the project and since I’m not a programmer (I don’t have that kind of training) I crowd-sourced the project. I used an online programming community and put a call out and asked, ‘Is this feasible, to convert this file into a binary output?’ I was so intrigued by it because it’s so enormous on so many levels but you can’t do anything with it.
JH: How did you acquire the file?
CM: I got it when it was originally released. I’ve been following Wikileaks for a long time now, even before they started releasing the major things that got them into the news. They had it on their website for a little while but the bandwidth is kind of hard to support when it’s a 1.5GB file. So I approached this community of programmers and I just asked, ‘Is this possible? This is what I want to do.’ And a lot of people said, ‘Why the hell do you want to do that?’
I talked with one programmer, Rodrigo Sousa from Rio de Janeiro, and I have to give a lot of credit to him, because he actually wrote the code. He wrote a script according to my specs that would convert any file that you give it into a binary graphical output. There is a programming language called Python, and I tried to learn some of it just so I could work on this project. I worked with it, and then I would ask him to change things. We worked together on it.
It was a fun way to work on a project: to get help internationally. It also speaks to where we’re at right now. The project is about these technologies and the present moment, and it was really rewarding to work on the project in the same way that I’m thinking about the final point of the project. You know, just how information and collectivism is out there, accessibly.
JH: Well, and that’s a huge part of the printmaking community, too. Using relatively obsolete technologies, asking each other questions, and trying to solve problems.
CM: Yes. Cipher really relates to this digital and analog discussion. It’s interesting to see how artists’ practices are shifting because of all of this. There are a lot of artists responding and reacting against digital and net-based culture and intentionally, stubbornly staying in analog spaces, fully well aware that’s what they’re doing. And there is a whole slew of artists who are embracing quickness and short attention span of a net-based experience of life. Yeah, it’s interesting to think about where printmaking falls into all of that. I would guess that you could divide printmakers up that way as well.
JH: I tend to think that printmakers as a whole are more skewed toward an analog way of making things. Yet, conceptually, perhaps we’re also even more aware than most artists that this analog-digital relationship is something to be thinking about. Even in a very basic sense, you can have an analog print or a digital print, but you can’t really have an equivalent relationship in, say, painting or sculpture.
CM: Yeah, and printmakers slow down. There is something to be said for slowness.
JH: The most interesting thing to me, in the relationship between print and the internet, is the idea of replication. Just like in print, when you’re online you’re replicating yourself, you’re replicating your ideas, and you’re creating a piece of information over and over again by linking to it or reposting it. Everything that you do online creates a chain, it’s an edition in a way. A wave of repercussions. It’s also a diffusion of ownership; when you share information or make an edition of prints, you’re simultaneously claiming the information and removing yourself as the artist/ creator. You’re destroying the monolith.
CM: You edition it, you disseminate it.
JH: Yes, and, just as with digital information, you put a print out into the world and suddenly many people have access to it and ownership of it. It’s also very much like the 18th century European phenomenon with etchings; affordable prints, like postcards, became status symbols, tangible reminders of travel, and a way to claim ownership over your experiences with your socio-economic circle.
In terms of information dissemination, I was also reminded of Facebook, and the recent development that you can simply download a file of all of your digital information. What if people just started requesting other users’ entire data history from Facebook? What if you wanted the data of famous people, or public figures? Would the company give you any of that information? Would that be a legal battle? Could you convert that into binary data, into black and white images full of implications, like all of someone’s dirty secrets?
You mentioned the word ‘avatar’ in your thesis, writing, ‘we can now exist as malleable amorphous digital avatars held together by the collectivism of mimetic culture.’ I’m fascinated by the idea that we’re always watching ourselves online by creating avatars and profiles. It’s a reversal of the Panopticon in a way.
CM: It’s really interesting that this is a new system, it’s a new language, but it has all of this potential behind it, for good or for bad.
PART II. ANTHOLOGY I
JH: What were your thoughts behind making Anthology I a bound and printed book, versus putting the images up individually on the wall?
CM: I’ve been working on this memory card recovery project for about four years now, and that’s one of the things that I’ve always wrestled with because it’s not something that’s really that tangible. I’ve always struggled with how to use the data, how to show the images, and how to think about them now that I’ve run them through this recovery process and I have these files. I’ve tried showing them on the wall and it doesn’t really work. I’ve tried showing them a few different ways. I think one of the important things about the project is that my hand is really removed from the project. If I at the end put my hand into it, it’s kind of strange. I thought that the book was a way to allow the project to exist on its own terms. I tried to let the photographs dictate the form that it would take. But I’ve also been thinking about them being on a Tumblr or something, just so they can exist elsewhere. They work really well sequentially, but individually, so you’re just looking at them one at a time.
JH: Well one thing that I really like about the book is that the images ultimately are all stacked back together. And also that you’ve essentially made them unalterable again. You’re preserving these images.
CM: Yes, you said the right word. Preservation. Part of my interest with that project is to take this non-existent ‘surface area’ of the computer and rescue it. I’m really thinking about this project as a way to rescue data, and printing it in a book adds to the sense of permanence. Now it’s fully rescued, and it exists again.
JH: The digital has a physical experience again. You quote French theorist Guy Debord in your thesis, too, and his idea that sensory experience has been ‘dislocated and replaced by its mere representation.’ But that’s not entirely true for you, is it?
CM: I think that internet-based things have only increased our awareness of each other’s bodily experiences. We can go and look at family photo albums that you would have to look at in the living room ten years ago.
JH: Yes. I haven’t seen the whole Anthology series to compare, but I think that most of images that we see online, in our daily interactions with the internet, are figurative and representational. Unless you’re an artist, you’re probably not looking at conceptual or abstract images on a daily basis. Was that true for the images you were recovering? Or was it a pretty wide gamut?
CM: Yeah, there was actually a pretty wide gamut. Most of the photos I was recovering, they were of vacations, birthdays, Christmas, Disneyland photos, you know, things like this, these are the kind of things people take photographs of.
JH: The milestones.
CM: Exactly. But there were definitely some weird moments in there: guys at a strip club, photos in a cave, and some completely useless shots where people were just testing their camera or the card. There were a lot of photos of things people wanted to sell on eBay, photos of objects, which is kind of interesting.
JH: It’s kind of like a digital version of Found Magazine.
CM: It is yeah. It’s definitely in a lineage of photographers who find things and appropriate them as readymades. But I think what separates my work is that I’m not really interested in everything I recover, I’m only concerned with the moments where the data has failed and in using that as a stepping-stone for thinking about entropy.
JH: Are there other projects you’re thinking about in a similar vein to Anthology I—in relation to preservation or data corruption?
CM: I’ve been looking at groups like Lulzsec and AnonOps, teenage ‘hacktivist’ groups that are doing disobedient and somewhat illegal things. I think some new work will grow out of their activities. Wikileaks is a very adult version of what they are doing. These young groups are championing net-based chaos, so I’m really interested in that space that they’re in. We’re really in a full-on information war right now. It’s basically the corporate elite and military-industrial complex versus the anarchist youth of today. It’s amazing. Technology has given people a way to challenge American corporatocracy and think about how easily, or historically not easily, we’ve been able to have access to and disseminate information.
JH: So, what are your plans for the future? You’re planning on going to Iceland, right?
CM: I’m applying for a residency in Reykjavik that would start in a few months. Iceland is doing some amazing things. They’re rewriting their constitution right now, and to rewrite it, they’re crowd-sourcing it. They’re using social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to have a national conversation. There are only around 300,000 people there so it’s arguably more feasible. They’ve created this safe haven for journalists, and WikiLeaks has ties there, so I really want to go there and think about this stuff. I was there last summer, and went around the coast of the island. It’s a pretty incredible place both geographically and ideologically.
JH: Are there any collaborations that might happen there?
CM: I don’t know. I’ve been researching some of the different individuals involved with WikiLeaks, so in terms of collaboration it would be nice to get there and just interview people. Start to think about what forms those things could take, even if not to make work, but just to inform my own practice.