Adhoc Interviews

Dismantling An Existing Syntax: Aaron Hegert


“My work has many sub-plots and tangential stories, but one thing that remains constant is an attempt to look through photography, but also at it. I am more interested in themes of subversion and appropriation than I am of metanarratives or innovation (a word which increasingly seems to mean new ways of maintaining the status quo), and what I put in front of my lens might be considered more ​sub​cultural. This means a practice of re​interpretation, a process of dismantling the existing syntax in order to create new coherence between the most exquisite fragments.”

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From The Project Action, Time, and Vision. 2014
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From The Project Action, Time, and Vision. 2014

What was the source of inspiration that brought you to exploring the ideas found in your project Action, Time, and Vision?

A book called Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern; Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Discoveries (G.H. Thayer 1909) was the central catalyst for that project. It’s a large and rigorous volume of Abbott Thayer’s theories about how and why animals use camouflage in the wild. The book itself is very appealing; it’s full of terms like “Obliterative Coloration” and “Disruptive Patterning”, and it has hundreds of incredible illustrations done in a variety of media. Beyond that, the book is part of a specific history that began as a painter’s observation of nature and ended as a revolution in warfare technology. Thayer began his career as a painter, and the observations he made while painting animals in their natural surroundings led him to believe he had discovered the fundamental reason behind the many different kinds of animal coloration, from the white belly of a rabbit to the stripes of a zebra. Without going into too much detail about these theories, I’ll say that they were almost all proven wrong, or at least not of much use to the scientific community. It turned out that what Thayer considered his greatest strength in this pursuit, his painter’s eye, was the downfall of his theories about camouflage. His theories relied on one point perspective and the flattened space of the canvas to explain camouflage, failing to take into account essential factors in the natural environment like space, motion, and time. His work was too narrow in scope to fully explain how one animal deceives another animal’s eyes, but in the process of this failure he had naively outlined a set of tactics for successfully hiding an object from the eye of the camera, which shares the perspective and flatness of a painting. For obvious reasons, the military was acutely interested in this, and as WWI gained momentum, hundreds of artists were recruited to join the U.S. Camouflage Corps.

But all of that is just the backstory, its not necessarily what my work is about. Not that its unimportant, I think knowing a little about the materials used and the history surrounding them can be interesting as supplemental material, but when I show this work I prefer to leave parts of it more ambiguous. There are a lot of themes wrapped up in this work, some of them more latent than others. So depending on the context and what the viewer brings with them, I want to say this work is really about perception, spatial production, naturalism, militarization, materiality, and finding new meaning in the cultural past, among other things.

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From The Project Action, Time, and Vision. 2014

I noticed this strong philosophical approach to your image making. Do you find it is important to have photography and philosophy co-existing today as much as they have in the past?

I think if you’re a really dedicated practitioner of any art form, be it photography or any other medium, it is important to develop your own philosophy towards that medium. Whether or not that means Philosophy with a capitol P, I’m not so sure. For myself, I do look to Philosophical and Theoretical texts to feed my practice, I get some sort of nourishment and energy from it. This is just what I like though. For some people its cinema or physics or pop culture or whatever. It seems that what’s important is an engagement with another medium or form of inquiry that is different enough from your own that it can act as a standard by which to measure. Comparing the goals and tactics of your own practice against those of another will always reveal paths forward that were previously hidden.

That said, I don’t think artists of my generation feel the pressure to include philosophy, Theory, and research in their work today the way we would have ten or twenty years ago, and maybe that’s a good thing. I think of projects like Allan Sekula’s Fish Story, an enormous and rigorous survey of its subject matter that is equal parts art and academia. It’s hard to picture something like that really blowing up today. Maybe the deep engagement with Theory and Philosophy that was seen in the nineties as proof of rigor in artistic work is seen today as an unnecessary concession to academia.

Currently, what are some of your most influential art-related philosophical essays?

New stuff is coming and going all the time, but I’ll mention a few things that I have returned to time and again over the years. Michel De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life is probably the text I reference most frequently in my work. I never seem to get bored of the early stuff from the Situationist International (Détournement as Negation and Prelude is one I particularly like). A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari is also a favorite, and maybe the one I understand the least. And as long as I’m listing things that have been foundational to my art practice, I’d also like to mention Toy Machine’s Welcome to Hell video, London Calling by The Clash, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

In your statement, you explain this use of “reinterpretation” and “dismantling the existing syntax in order to create new coherence between the most exquisite fragments”. Do you feel that this urge to appropriate and reinterpret rather than innovate may be a response to common pastiche found in the art world today?

In some ways, yes. I have no problem with innovation as long as it really is innovation, but it seems more often than not projects or products or platforms that are presented as “innovative” are actually just new ways to maintain the status quo (this is true in and out of the art world). I don’t see myself as a producer of culture, but rather a consumer. My “art making” is more akin to the kind of “making” that is described in the book I mentioned above, The Practice of Everyday Life. Rather than paraphrase I’ll just give you a direct quote-

“The ‘making’ in question is a production, a poiesis—but a hidden one, because it is scattered over areas defined and occupied by systems of ‘production’ (television, urban development, commerce, etc.), and because the steadily increasing expansion of these systems no longer leaves ‘consumers’ any place in which they can indicate what they make or do with the products of these systems. To a rationalized, expansionist, and at the same time centralized, clamorous, and spectacular production corresponds another production, called consumption. The latter is devious, dispersed, but it insinuates itself everywhere, silently and almost invisibly, because it does not manifest itself through its own products, but rather through its ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order.” – De Certeau, xii

This is also very similar to what Henri Lefebvre called “Spatial Production” and what the Situationist International called “détournement”. Maybe a more popular term today would be “hacking”. So clearly these are not new ideas, but I think they are worth considering and updating for the moment we now find ourselves in. I’m drawn to this approach because I think it promotes accessibility and participation, and relieves the stress induced by the need to come up with “new” and “original” ideas, and instead asks that you think critically and actively about how you function in your environment as it currently exists, and how you can distort it and rearrange it to more closely resemble what you want it to be.

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From The Project Action, Time, and Vision. 2014
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From The Project Action, Time, and Vision. 2014

How do you see the future of photography evolving from what it is today?

I think photography and all the other mediums are on the cusp of dramatic change. Technology already has, and will continue to break down the barriers between what a medium is and isn’t. What we are dealing with now is no longer material– its not light sensitive chemicals on paper, it’s data. Consider for instance plenoptic photography, a technology that is very close to being as accessible as normal digital cameras are now. It doesn’t just capture a flat image, it captures data on depth as well, and so it can be output as either a two or three-dimensional image, depending on how you process the data. Thinking of things in this way, as sets of data that can manifest in any number of different variations, all of which will be equally true to the data captured, all of which will be the “original”, will change our perception of what photography is, both as document and art.

I think photography and all the other mediums are on the cusp of dramatic change. Technology already has, and will continue to break down the barriers between what a medium is and isn’t.

Everything Is Collective: 

“Everything Is Collective​ (E.I.C.) is an ongoing collaboration between three artists: Jason Lukas, Zach Norman, and Aaron Hegert. Since 2013 the group has worked together on numerous exhibitions, publications, and web-based projects, all of which address contemporary issues in photography and image making. Our practice is truly collaborative, and all the works we create are attributed to the group as a whole. Because of the special nature of this collaboration, our projects do not conform to the traditional structures that photographic work often fits into, nor can our concepts be easily explained by a simple thematic text. We treat our collaboration as a microcosm, a space where the most contentious and exciting subjects in contemporary photography, art, and culture at large can be stripped away from the Grand Narratives to which they have been assigned, and be explored in a more intentional, devious, and uncompromising way. Our process is as important as our products, and in this way our works are not about​ something, they ​are ​something.” -Everything Is Collective

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Everything Is Collective. From the project Everything is Anything Else. 2013
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Everything Is Collective. From the project Everything is Anything Else. 2013
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Everything Is Collective. From the project Everything is Anything Else. 2013

In the project “Everything is Anything Else,” you say that “every aspect of the contemporary photograph is constantly in flux. It’s materiality, its indexical qualities, its context, its content, its believability, its permanence and proliferation are always in question, unstable, and subject to easy manipulation by both its producers and consumers alike.” What do you think initially brought photography to this state of continuous instability? Do you think this constant state of flux is currently prevalent in not only photography but in other areas of art/ culture/ politics?

I think there are myriad factors that brought photography and image making to its current state of mutability– the digitization of the medium, online distribution, their role in the social networks, the proliferation of phone cameras, and easily accessible image editing software being chief among them. And I do think this same mutability is present in many other parts of life, but whether this means the image is falling in line with the rest of experience, or the rest of experience is falling in line with the image, I can’t say. The world feels unstable right now, this is all I’m sure of.

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Everything Is Collective. From the project Everything is Anything Else. 2013
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Everything Is Collective. From the project Everything is Anything Else. 2013

In the project “Deliberate Operations,” tell me a little bit about the collaborative side of the biannual publication. What are the goals of the Everything Is Collective in building these interactions amongst the images and other artists?

Collaboration takes on many different forms within the EIC, and I think the goal of Deliberate Operations is to find out what our goals are. We use the publication as an extremely experimental space where disparate ideas, images, techniques, and tactics can be brought together in unexpected ways. We are looking for chance encounters, catalysts, and new starting points. We are trying to make mistakes, mistakes that we hope will lead to various new approaches to our environment that are not stipulated by an inflexible program of permitted alternatives. Everyone in the group contributes materials of all kinds—original images, appropriated images, texts from a wide variety of sources, instruction manuals, maps, materials, etc. It could be likened to a brain storming session, except that normally when you think of brain storming the goal is to narrow your selection down to one idea that makes the most sense, here nothing is discarded. Deliberate Operations isn’t meant to make sense, it’s meant to expand the field in which we operate. We like to invite other artists, artists who have reached out to us and expressed interest, to contribute to every other issue, so as to keep the format fresh, and to avoid developing any preconceptions about what Deliberate Operations is.

What is the Everything Is Collective currently working on?

The Everything Is Collective is very close to releasing Deliberate Operations Issue No.3, and it’s unlike anything we have ever done. I am very exited to get it out there. I’ll have to run it past the rest of the group first, but I can probably leak one or two spreads to be published with this interview.

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Everything Is Collective. Spread from Deliberate Operations Issue No.3. 2015
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Everything Is Collective. Spread from Deliberate Operations Issue No.3. 2015

Stay up to date with Aaron’s work @ aaronhegert.com
Check out more work by Everything Is Collective @ everythingiscollective.com

Also make sure to check out work by the other members of the Everything is Collective:
Zachary Norman
Jason Lukas



Last modified: May 9, 2015