Q&A: Max de Esteban
By Hamidah Glasgow | July 27, 2017
Heads Will Roll is the fourth and final installment of de Esteban’s challenging and provocative Propositions series—a long-term and rigorous investigation of society’s embracement of technologies, in particular, the dawn of the bio-cybernetic era.
To construct Heads Will Roll, de Esteban has mined a mass media that generates an incessant stream of imagery of war, violence, and disasters 24/7 into our homes, offices, public and private spaces. De Esteban merges and juxtaposes images, texts and found objects, to produce photo-montages that present a cacophony of information that is at once dense with information yet visually legible.
The resulting artworks are stunningly rich, lush in color, and visually beautiful constructions, that at the same time reveal a world where violence, imagined or real, is always looming. The intention of the artist, is for the viewer to be left almost totally out of valance, in a state of anxiety and unease. _ Darren Ching of Klompching Gallery
HG: We met at FotoFest and had a fantastic conversation. I haven’t been able to get the work out of my mind since first seeing it. You’ve been working on this project for many years, and in many ways the work is prescient. Tell me how you got started on this intellectual and artistic journey for the Propositions?
MdeE: Well…it all started in 2011 when I arrived at the conviction that traditional photography inadequately represented contemporaneity.
Let me explain myself. Traditional photography was the perfect tool to express the industrial world. We all remember Walter Benjamin’s discussion of mechanical reproduction and its relationship with the economy and photography.
This was the dominant regime between, say, 1850 to the 1980s. This was a period in which Western civilization still believed in progress, reason, an economy based on industrial mass production as the means for economic growth, the promotion and control of technology and, above all, humanist values.
Those values are gone, and as such, the intimate relationship between traditional photographic technology and society was broken.
HG: Could you develop a bit further this idea about society’s values and traditional photography?
MdeE: Sure! Think about the relationship between the values I mentioned above and photography’s key traits.
Photography was a single eye looking at the world, which is consistent with the humanist value of the human at the center of the universe. Remember Kant’s Copernican reversal. Copernicus expelled the human from the center but Kant reestablished its primacy by making all possible knowledge subjective, that is, human.
Importantly, photography structured reality through linear perspective. This again was consistent with modernity’s values and the Cartesian reason in which geometry was the essence of the world. A single eyed, autonomous individual was the world’s principle of meaning.
And photography aspired to an objective and truthful representation of reality, which was in line with the belief of the mathematical-scientific order as the only source of relevant knowledge. Transparency and indexicality were the concepts of the day.
This intimate concordance between the values of society at a precise historical moment and photography’s key traits is what it is behind photography’s dominance as the visual expression of its time.
HG: How then do you address in your photography this feeling of profound change in society?
MdeE: As you suggest, I don’t think the values that supported traditional photography as the predominant visual medium hold anymore. They have disappeared. And if this is the case, if the values that give support to an artistic expression are not there anymore, then this art expression becomes obsolete and irrelevant. It has to reinvent itself to remain contemporary. This is what painting did in 1910, for example.
And back in 2011, this was precisely what bothered me. Where to start? What is to be done? And my response came about by re-thinking the basics. Photography has also changed dramatically. Photography is a technological language that profoundly renewed itself by the advent of the digital.
However, most photographers use the digital but conceptually are still in the analog world. But it is thinking precisely about the implications of digitalization in photography and the world what opens the door to a new photography that is attuned with its times.
This is what the four Propositions series are about: the implications of digital technology on contemporaneity and art photography.
HG: Your newer work, Binary Code, is dealing with similar issues. How do you envision the future given the progress of medical science, machines, Artificial intelligence, and the globalization of war?
MdeE: All my work is about the human under a technological totality. Technology has expanded to all realms of the human including its body and its subjectivity. An extraordinary recent book by Franco Berardi published by MIT Press explains it wonderfully.
And technology is today driven in a very significant way by digitalization, which is redefining all aspects of society. We are heading towards a cyborgian universe that questions the nature of the human.
Allow me to go back to the values of progress, reason, economy, technology, and humanism that I mentioned before as the underpinnings of traditional photography. Where do these values stand today?
Well, starting with progress I think nobody believes that it is humanity’s destiny anymore. We know civil rights are under threat, precarity seems to be the future of labor relations and climate change is threatening our existence. Progress might be one of our future possibilities, but dystopia also belongs to the realm of our imaginary.
Reason has also proven to be a complex and ideologically charged concept. Exploitation, wars, colonialism and the Holocaust were led by the most advanced “rational” societies.
The economy is overcoming industrial mass production as the spearhead of value creation. Investment is not centered in factories anymore but in cybernetics and biology. It is there where the economy is investing for the future. The world is moving very fast away from mechanical reproduction towards a bio-cybernetic regime.
Technology has invaded our body by genetic manipulation and the incorporation of machines in it and, by doing so, it is questioning human agency and autonomy, our two most dear values. And technology has achieved such a degree of self-development that makes it difficult or impossible to control.
And finally, humanism is being challenged both by the possibility of the cyborg, that is, the blend of the human and the machine and by the vindication of the moral status of non-human animals.
We are entering a new epoch, and photography has to change if it aspires to continue being relevant as an art expression medium.
HG: Can you talk about a bit about these three images?
MdeE: I am not very fond of over-explaining my images. I believe a crucial aspect of art is that it is not univocal. It is a negotiation between the artist and the beholder, a negotiation on equal terms. An artist can talk for ages about the work, but it will not improve an inch its quality or relevance.
And specifically, I believe that what I call “aboutness” is killing art photography. Aboutness is a peculiar key convention in traditional photography where the artist is supposed to explain in detail the single meaning of what a picture or a series is about. Under this convention, the success or failure of a work is determined by the perceived adequacy between its meaning and its formal expression. This obviously comes from photography’s Cartesian world-view that is based on its transparency pretense.
No other art expression suffers this aggression from narrow rationality. I think it should be just the opposite, as ambiguity, diverse readings and participation of the beholder in creating meaning are key aspects for the enjoyment and significance of art.
Having said that, I certainly can tell you “more or less” what I had in mind when creating these images. Let’s go for it!
MdeE: We live in a world of increasing abstraction, which means the distance between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-we-live-it. Abstraction is empathy’s enemy. A drone controlled from an air-conditioned office located 5,000 miles away can kill a bunch of people in a market in Africa. Extreme mediation, which is where we are heading to, dissolves love and death into avatars of human emotions.
MdeE: Fear has always been a key element for society’s control. There is nothing more efficient than perpetual global emergencies too, step by step, dismantling civil rights, redefining citizens’ privacy levels and re-directing emotions against the “malign other.” Through the new tools of social communication we are bombarded with constant remote wars, financial crises, terrorist attacks, job losses, natural disasters,…, you name it. We are fed with a permanent spectacle of uncontrollable risks that promote nationalism and destroys solidarity.
HG: Thank you for your time and inspiration.
View a facebook live conversation with Max de Esteban and Hamidah Glasgow Here.