Long-Term Monitoring Plan

Long-Term Monitoring Plan

Interview by Francesca Balboni for rairphilly.org 

FB: I don't think I'm alone in feeling bowled over by the exterior photographs you made at RAIR, especially those featuring flying/falling/orbiting domestic objects. These are pretty different than other "staged" works I've seen from you--the scale, in particular. What was your process for these? It feels like, in their construction, they are extremely site-specific to RAIR and yet, in their visual details, they depict an almost non-site...

BM: Thanks! Those are some of the most exciting pictures for me too. They feel like a realization of a very particular image that I had in my head, which is amazing because there was no guarantee of how the ideas would emerge as photographs. The scale really is larger than anything I’ve ever orchestrated. In a way it is more of a conscious engagement with landscape, even when the landscape is just sky. I like that and I want to do more of it. But at the same time, there’s a limit to how often I would want to make stuff float. I had to restrain myself. 

RAIR is a curious environment. In one way it is infinite. The pile of trash is always changing, moving along the conveyor belts, smashed to bits and carted away. But on the other hand everything is confined to that one mountain of trash. The space itself is not that large, spatially. I wanted to find a way to emphasize the hidden vastness, to walk away with pictures that communicated more than just the pile. The feeling of limbo was important to me—all of those goods, already discarded, on the verge of being destroyed.

Limbo, yes! I know the fraught history of American landscape photography and its logics of visual knowledge are things you think about and play with in your work. But you do seem concerned with space (and place) in a new way here. There's something much more unsettling about these pictures--and I mean that in a great way. It feels almost more like an inexplicable, even impossible, situation you're giving us.

Yeah! A bit after I left RAIR I read Mark Fisher’s book the Weird and the Eerie, where he suggests that eerie is a question of agency, of unknown or unknowable forces acting upon the familiar, material world. By that definition, this work feels like the eeriest thing I’ve done. I like the idea of some force, just off camera, being responsible for all of this stuff happening, but I’m not really interested in naming that force. When I was putting stuff in the air I was thinking of the entire endeavor as melancholy, aspirational speculation. 

I want to say speculative fiction, but I’m tired of the fact vs. fiction conversation in photography. All photography is always both fact and fiction and in my opinion the dichotomy really isn’t enough to hang your hat on. What about the term speculative melodrama? Maybe I like that. These pictures have the potential to be read as a narrative but I’m not inventing some story about so and so who wants to make cabinets fly, especially because I’m pretty happy that it is really just me not dropping a bowling ball. The narrative is going to happen internally. I don’t really want to know what it is. Photography does EXTREMELY WELL when it is guided by affect. Eeriness is affect.

I’m glad you used the phrase “impossible situation.” There’s a lot to say about the pictures of stuff in the air because those are really the keystones of the work, but while we were making those I recalled Aaron Siskind’s pictures of divers and lots of Roman Signer’s sculpture—two things I love. With Siskind though the work often gets discussed around this question: are they falling or flying? And we know they’re falling. In Signer’s work as well you get a lot of the HOW. It’s a part of the experience. I wanted to eliminate the questions and the explanations. The filing cabinet is just up in the sky. That’s it. That’s the picture.

I think you’ve succeeded there, for sure. It seems like eliminating those questions/answers has a lot to do with the TIME of these pictures: not only in terms of "when", but also in terms of their compositional sense of duration. It’s a kind of eternal pause, out of place, which could be conceived of as delay and/or an endless repetition. I feel the political most acutely in the work here, especially in regard to waste (of all kinds) and "use-value" in our current stage of late late capital.

Well maybe that’s the speculative melodrama. The planet is not doing well! Capital—and Fisher identifies capitalism as eerie entity #1—has a unique, churning physicality at the dump. A perpetual sense of things winding down is made tangible though the literal pulverization of material goods, but as soon as it happens those goods are just immediately replaced. And then it happens again. It’s like, oh no, here we go again. Dump-smash-dump-smash-dump.

Anyway—it would be really easy to go to RAIR and make something straightforwardly apocalyptic. There’s a lot of twisted metal. But I didn’t want to do that. It’s another reason to not just photograph the mountain of junk. So I worked with the reality of the situation, but in a way that dances around the edges. Maybe call it magic retention—the reclamation of the impossible. It feels really important to maintain an aspirational edge, even in dark times. Things are still beautiful, still strange, always will be.

I sense that contingency in the creation of the work is perhaps a part of that aspirational edge, a part of the eeriness--not in opposition to the control of your staging, but as a necessary corollary to it. How did the workings of the dump affect the ways chance functions in your process?

There’s one black and white picture of a small house sitting in a puddle, inside a reflected beam of light. The house was ceramic and came out of the dump. It was raining and the puddle was a water leak in the ceiling. I had the situation set up on the floor of my studio, with my camera on a tripod and the self timer activated. I was standing over the house when that photo was taken, just out of frame with a bowling ball over my head. I was going to drop the ball on the house, but a man wearing a name tag that said Iggy walked into my studio right at that moment to deal with the water leak. I was startled and embarrassed and didn’t drop the ball, but I’m glad I didn’t because the picture ended up being beautiful anyway. It’s a much needed quiet moment in the sequence. At one point I considered titling the work “Iggy Saves A House From Demolition.” I ended up using EPA superfund site lingo instead, but I still like that other title.

But this is an important thing and it’s just what you’re talking about—the house and the bowling ball just came out of nowhere. There is no way of knowing what is going to arrive at the dump at any moment. One object, something you'd never think of, can lead you in a totally new direction. All of the sudden something really boring, like an office table, feels loaded with potential. And then once the shot is set up, you get a couple of chances at most before the stuff is too damaged to be workable. It is a totally different experience than just setting something up in a living room. They are actions in an urban landscape, or at least designated by the landscape. 

In the past, I've heard you frame this work in terms of film, as in motion pictures; what kind of films might these be? or what is it about film that sneaks into these photographs?

Sure, film is a big influence. I like the conventions of that medium. Are these film stills? Or still films? Still films, I think. They are the thing more than they are excerpts from a thing. With regard to how the work could congeal into a coherent narrative, I have to think it is something that happens non-chronologically across the pictures. Everything could be happening at the same time, part of that same eerie current.

How did you try to keep those conditions for narrative open and fluid as you edited and sequenced the work into your newsprint book?  It feels, on this end too, like control and contingency function as corollaries, rather than as oppositional forces.

The book literally falls apart when you open it! There’s a page in the center that is unbound and unfolds in a different way than the rest of the pages. But you’re right, working in that format is restrictive. I tried to sequence the publication in a way that would discourage a linear read. It begins and ends with pictures of airborne objects, which hopefully suggest that those things are just up there the whole time. And then it circles back to the beginning.

I wound up editing a lot of the weirdest pictures out of the publication. Most of those were tabletop still lifes, and they worked against the sense of fleeting, simultaneous action that I wanted. I like a lot of them, and I think they work as individual pieces, but the book is its own unit. The decision to print it on newsprint came from a similar place. It felt important to emulate the sensation of the site: the transitory state of the material goods as they move steadily towards oblivion.