Jordan Tate was born in 1981 in Kentucky and lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he is an Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Cincinnati. His work is based in ongoing research concerning the visual and conceptual processes of image comprehension, and as such, has mostly been photographic. His work is deeply inquisitive about the ontology and transparency of the photograph in a post-digital, image-literate age. Tate has a Bachelor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies from Miami University and a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from Indiana University. He was a Fulbright Fellow in 2008-2009. Tate’s work is currently held in collections nationwide, including Rhizome at the New Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, The Fred and Laura Bidwell Collection, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Columbus Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He has exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and Europe.
This interview accompanies Jordan Tate’s exhibitions, Working From Photographs, at Denny Gallery in New York City from March 15 to April 26, 2015, and concurrently at Angela Meleca Gallery in Columbus, Ohio. The title of the exhibition, “Working From Photographs,” refers both to Tate’s background as an artist who has primarily worked in the medium of photography and to the photographic origins of much of our experience and knowledge of the subjects of the exhibition. Tate’s works include photographs of objects and objects based on photographs, ancient artifacts as well as modern day tourist photography, and thus he makes deliberately ambiguous the relationship between the artwork constructed by the artist in a studio and the appropriated image mined from vast, heterogeneous sources.
Jordan Tate (JT) interviewed by Elizabeth Denny (ED), March 2015.
ED: Why did you choose to call your second solo exhibition with Denny Gallery “Working From Photographs”?
JT: I view the photographic as the primordial medium of the post-internet era. Given my process, and the modus operandi of visual inquiry and production, I wanted to pay homage to the photograph both as the root of my experience, as well as the expansive governing force in work.
ED: What kind of artist are you?
JT: That is a more difficult question to answer than I would expect. Conceptually and rhetorically, I still very much consider myself a photographer, but materially I view myself as simply as an artist. This is in some way an attempt to have a discursive home in a medium to provide context for my work, thought process, and practice, while at the same time affording me the freedom to wildly experiment with forms and processes that aren’t traditionally considered photographic.
ED: What is the difference between the two sites of Working from Photographs- South America/Rapa Nui (exhibited at Angela Meleca Gallery) and The Levant (exhibited at Denny Gallery)?
JT: There is an important geographical and chronological shift that occurs between the two shows that acknowledges the photographic compression of these entities (8,000 miles and 3,000 years), and while both focus on “ancient” or “primitive” cultures, they, at their core deal with the notion of removed perception. The idea of removed perception to me is essentially photographic, in that the photograph can replace in us the need (or desire) of “having been there,” which may have been crucial to understand the thing.
While the archival photographs from the Met Museum do their best to capture the likeness, presence, or aura of the art objects they depict, they are still not “there”; there is a slippage between what we perceive as reality and what we perceive as the image. This has been my core concern with the photograph for the past decade.
The exhibition at Angela Meleca gallery focuses on 14th century South America and Rappa Nui while the exhibition at Denny Gallery in New York addresses the Levant (contemporary Middle east) circa 2000 B.C.E. to 0. While these two times and places are worlds apart, our perceptions are far less removed than that. The difference here is political – we view the Levant as a highly volatile region that governs (either through religion, history, or energy policy) a great deal of world politics – yet culturally, we group the Mesopotamians, Assyrians, Aztecs, Mayans, and all other so-called primitive peoples in the same group – ignoring the fact that Machu Picchu was constructed in the time of Michelangelo and 500 years after the founding of Oxford University.
And therein lies the rub – we celebrate Isaac Newton as one of the greatest minds in history while ignoring the unquantifiable contributions of cultures not embraced by western history– when the Levant could be considered to be the birthplace of writing, mathematics, literature, the wheel, astronomy, banking, and a code of laws.
ED: Unusually for an artist working with photography, your works have a strong immediacy that cannot be anticipated by looking at the images of the work. In this show, I was most struck by the appearance of printing dots that reveal that some of the images are scanned from books. Why is it important to consider the objecthood of the work and what factors into that consideration for you?
JT: Fundamentally, I was interested in showing the trace (origin) of the images. In a way, this happens in an archeological sense where you can see the “artifacts” of the printing process when translated to a different context. I wanted to acknowledge sources for the images that have the half-tone patterns and in that dialogue begin a discourse with myriad forms of the photograph both in a contemporary and historical context.
ED: You have used images of antiquities and ancient art in your work in the past. What dialogue do you wish to have with these objects? Or is the dialogue with the images, archiving techniques and historical preservation of these ancient things?
JT: Ironically, the sculptural artifacts are where the work gets more photographic. I am interested in the early polemics of the photograph as a medium that is capable of compressing both distance and time through the pursuit of taming the exotic and allowing the viewer, in a sense, to own an experience through the image. In many ways I am trying to point out the disconnect between the photographs, these places, and the objects and histories that have been codified into our understandings of “primitive” cultures.
ED: You openly appropriate or source images from various places, including images of artworks in books and museums’ image archives of their collections. Where do you stand on these issues or what do you find to be interesting about them?
JT: Fundamentally, I see photography existing in two ways, one as the constructed image (i.e. studio shot) and the other as inherently appropriative (assemblage of the visible world). I think this is what keeps me connected to the mind of a photographer – the act of appropriating an image from a museum archive (which is a pallid reproduction of a cultural artifact) or a book to me isn’t inherently different than traveling to Petra to photograph it for myself, as the images of Petra are largely preformed in my mind from the deluge of images in the cultural milieu starting with National Geographic and ending with Indiana Jones.
ED: Where do your source images come from? Are you “faithful” to the quality of the images you appropriate or do you manipulate them to improve their quality or resolution?
JT: The artifacts came from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig. The idea of faithfulness is an interesting and tricky notion, are the images edited? Often. Are they faithful? I would argue, yes. I guess I would argue that I am faithful to the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law (as the saying goes).
ED: Is the viewer you have in mind for this body of work culturally specific?
JT: No, just culturally aware.
ED: One of the pieces is a virtual reality video that will visually transport the viewer to the environment of the Middle East, where the United States has been at war for much of the past twenty-five years. Will the viewer feel like they are in a military training exercise?
JT: I think if it did look like a military training exercise it would be a very boring and ineffective one given the vastness and openness of the desert I am depicting. The war thing is tricky, and I am using the desert to set the tone and context of the region as a place and lived in landscape. It will be a sort of forced first person perspective.
ED: Militant extremists in the Levant, namely ISIL, have been looting or destroying archaeological treasures of the region in order to fund and fuel their activities. Is it a coincidence that while you were working with the material history of the region, mediated through photographs of its archaeological sites and artifacts, the destruction of such objects would be performed for video broadcast for international viewing?
JT: While the Levant is a historically fraught region, the work wasn’t prescient in the sense that I was directly engaging in the iconoclasm of ISIL. That said, I did want to address the irreplaceable contributions that have historically sprung from the Levant. Also, the notion of iconoclasm (particularly in this region) is one that was imported from Byzantine Christianity. I would also argue that the politics of representation and historical engagement with iconoclasm as a political action inform and historically contextualize the actions of ISIL in Mosul. However, a significant number of the artifacts in museums worldwide (and fortunately in Mosul) are plaster replicas, and the notion of historical “authenticity” and replication is one that I was quite purposefully dealing with.
Working From Photographs is a body of work of sculpture, photography, and a virtual reality environment, dealing with images of the Levant (the Middle East) from 2000 BCE to 0 and the Americas from 400 to 1400 CE. While these locations and time periods are distant from each other in every way, they are part of the vast, exotic, “non-western”, “pre-historic,” “pre-Columbian” categories of history. How we have preserved and viewed the artefacts and histories of these regions and how we relate to them is culturally specific and is determined by current events and popular culture. In general, we view the Levant, which is the subject of most of the work in the Denny Gallery exhibition, as a highly volatile region that governs (either through religion, history or energy policy) a great deal of world politics, yet culturally we group the Mesopotamians, Assyrians, Aztecs, Mayans, and other so-call primitive peoples in the same category, ignoring significant differences in time, place, and culture. We also ignore the unquantifiable contributions of cultures considered to be primitive, which in the case of the Levant include the birth of writing, mathematics, literature, the wheel, astronomy, banking, and a code of laws. Given both the iconoclasm of extremist groups and the contention between local governments and Western states regarding the possession of their cultural inheritance, the work from the Levant is especially poignant.
The title of the exhibition, “Working From Photographs,” refers both to Tate’s background as an artist who has primarily worked in the medium of photography and to the photographic origins of much of our experience and knowledge of the subjects of the exhibition. Tate’s works include photographs of objects and objects based on photographs, ancient artefacts as well as modern day tourist photography, and thus he makes deliberately ambiguous the relationship between the artwork constructed by the artist in a studio and the appropriated image mined from vast, heterogeneous sources.
Interview with Lisa Kurzner for SUPERBLACK.
For artist Jordan Tate, images function primarily as markers, place-holders arranged to express relationships about cultural context, which even the most mindful of intellectual scorekeepers may gloss over. His work questions the photograph as physical object and perceptual illusion; in fact, his practice depends on dismantling first takes and examining how we understand a photograph’s legibility in the broadest philosophical sense. If his aim is to deconstruct pictures, then what guides his selection of images and their resolution into photographic prints? How does one so committed to the quest of knowledge play happily in the photography ghetto?
The digital photographic dictionary – that seemingly infinite image source so dominant in our culture – commands authority here, granting Tate a sourcebook that is rich and varied. He views technology optimistically, not seeing it as a controlling endgame but as a means to identify humankind’s position as a sentient being in the cosmos. At the same time, though, he designs his photographic projects as lesson plans in defining the limits of human perception. As such, this concept leads the artist to speak as plainly as he can with his tools, in hopes that the viewer takes nothing for granted.
While I can appreciate the distinction that one could infer from the shift in my practice, I think that, fundamentally, my philosophy of image making hasn’t necessarily shifted. That said, I see myself acting in and upon a notion of photography that is inherently tied to technological capability.
Historically, photographers have been, by necessity, the most adaptive and dynamic practitioners – following quickly developing technologies throughout the evolution of the medium. The processes and practices of photography have shifted more rapidly and more profoundly than other prevalent media. Because of this, I see the shift in my work largely as a response that leverages these ideas within a contemporary framework and allows me to function at once as a photographer (in the practical and technological sense), and as one challenging the dominant paradigms of the photograph.
As such, I see myself as someone more interested in the philosophy of photography than in the practical aspects of the medium. The photograph is not a thing, it is not an outcome, it is not an object. It is, in some sense, the distillation and physical manifestation of making sight objective.
I don’t necessarily agree with the notion that operating as an artist or operating as a scientist are separate ideas. Clearly the contexts are different, the outcomes are different, and the purpose is different, but the process of hypothesizing (sketching), testing (making), and quantifying (evaluating), isn’t disparate. Essentially, I view science as a mode of thinking and inquiring, and I view art as a mode of thinking and inquiring -neither forming a dominant paradigm in my worldview.
I think the main difference is in the primacy of the photograph, and how the photograph is treated as an entity. Ultimately, I think these artists explore the notions of what it means to be a photograph, how photographs function, and other concerns born out of an investigation of medium specificity. In contrast, I aim to use the photograph as a tool to deconstruct the methods by which we form an understanding about the world. I am positioning the photograph as a microcosm of our epistemological worldview, and in unraveling the photograph, I aim to do the same for broader, unseen, cultural contexts that pervasively define, limit, and inform our understandings of the world.
Are you defining a system of understanding that is absolute, or relational, i.e.; dependent on being part of a cultural system and unaware?
I am more interested in rethinking the notions of the affect/effect of photography/art/culture than in seeking any notion of understanding. If I were to try to pin down the mission of my work – and this is where we could get into a discussion about image politics – it is to function as a catalyst. I do not seek understanding – and this isn’t to say that I don’t want my work to be understood, per se, but that I am more interested in the outcome, or the conversation beyond the work. While I am seeking answers, I am not aiming to necessarily provide them. The work is, as it has been for some time, exploratory. I’m not trying to avoid the responsibility that I feel to provide a context for my work – but I do find the notion of understanding problematic in the context of the work I am producing.
I think that this is a natural outcome of having multipart works. While the appropriation of the Prince image was significant and purposeful, it becomes a part of a much larger conversation when grouped with other ideas – and therefore not specifically important in the development of my philosophical program, but necessary in the contextualization of my practice. This fluidity is crucial – in not limiting myself to any particular mode of image making, I am able to engage more broadly in a critique of images. As such, I don’t intend New Work to define a system of understanding, but rather to foster a critical awareness that these systems exist, and that they are, as you suggest, fundamentally relational – but also culturally relational in a manner that suggests absolute systems.
I think this is a very astute observation. As previous answers suggest, meta-photography is valid and necessary, and you are correct in assuming some political structure present in the notions of institutional critique. As much as my concern with the photograph is a referent for my concern with epistemology, my concern with institutional critique is a microcosm of what I believe is a need for constant criticality. As such, the work is inherently political because implicit in any criticism is a disapproval of the structure it’s critiquing, and as politics refers to the governing of the polis, so do institutions determine and implement contexts that govern our notion of reality.
Your work continues the poet-scientist experimental position, as it strives to express the limits of mankind’s place in the universe, but extends beyond. Can you discuss how you adhere to this model and also move beyond into a critical discussion of imagery and perception in the postindustrial era?
This conversation for me stems from the idea of apparatus that you bring up and is inherently and cyclically tied to the notion of the poet-scientist as a consummate skeptic (in a sense) that situates his or herself in the liminal space between these two historically disparate philosophies.
These two movements (the Enlightenment and Romanticism -which for the sake of argument I will reduce to perspectives of objectivity and subjectivity), function for me within the framework that Vilém Flusser lays out (an etymological extrapolation of object and subject) in which he positions object and subject as necessary counterpoints to each other. Linguistically, the object (the thrown against) requires a subject against which to be thrown (i.e. the ideas of the Enlightenment must be thrown against the ideology of Romanticism). This positions the “poet-scientist” in the most appropriate position to engage in a critical discussion of imagery and perception in the postindustrial era. It is the full acceptance of neither paradigm that allows this logic to function. By extending the analogy of the apparatus beyond the device and beginning to address the apparatus as an epistemology, it allows us to critique (in the classical sense) both prevailing paradigms during the advent of the photograph (1800-1850) by not wholly excepting either one.
Müller-Pohle is reducing Flusser from an intellectual nomad to a much more specific thinker and applying that to a theory of photography. I tend to do the opposite, in that I accept Flusser’s nomadic wanderances and use the specific examples (i.e. apparatus) to expand these ideas to a broader discussion of visual culture. Müller-Pohle is more invested in specific theories of the photograph whereas I am interested in the photograph as a paradigm for broader epistemological concerns (as a means to an end rather than end in and of itself.) Inasmuch as Müller-Pohl is discussing the combative relationship between the photographer and the apparatus, I position myself differently. Rather than attempting to overcome the apparatus, I aim to understand the limitations of the apparatus in order to see how it is limiting and affecting my experiences.
This is best discussed through the notions of color and perception. Our perception is inconsistent and malleable, but not flawed. Accepting the notion of “flawed” perception assumes that there is some objective truth that can be had. Color can serve as a metaphor for this example. Let us assume that we have painted a swatch of Pantone #286. When we view this swatch under different lighting conditions, or under the same lighting condition with varying surrounding colors, the apparent color of #286 shifts. While we can quantify the color of #286, this notion presupposes a standardized lighting environment.
In reality we are not quantifying a color, we are measuring a color in an agreed upon context. What’s interesting here is that in our need to quantify, we are also limiting our ability to experience – we are offloading our ability to investigate the “problem of perception” to objective scientific means, thereby invalidating our experience of viewing this color in any other context – because if we accept the notion of a pantone value as representative, every other viewing context is a deviation from that accepted standard. Thus, we are not acknowledging the inherent malleability of the world or that relationship to our adaptive perception.
Following this logic, and thinking of the Descartes stick problem – when placed in water, a stick appears bent – our understanding of optics allows us to deconstruct the phenomena of refraction and understand that the stick is not bent. However, that assumes at some point we actually believed that the stick was bent, or that the bentness of the stick was a problem (because a context in which sticks bend in water fundamentally is no different than a context in which a stick actually bends in water when it is accepted as reality.)
Likely, nobody believed that the stick was bent because we acknowledge the malleability of perception. In acknowledging the existence of misperception, hallucination etc., we must accept that our experience with the world is subjective. Ultimately, it is subjectivity that governs experience and objectivity that makes it communicable.
There is a necessity to communicate, and as such a necessity for shared language, which thus impels the development of a single point objective perception, i.e. the Pantone color swatch. The world is relative, and we are trying to objectify an inherently relative experience through “objective” photographic experience.
My philosophy of the photograph is shifting away from the notion of “object” or “image”. There are several interpretations of the implicit and explicit functions of the photograph, and while I admit the validity of these arguments, I am most concerned with the notion of the photograph as an idea. What I mean by this is that the meta-photographic surge (from the early aughts onward) still, in many ways, focused on the notion of image-object as a necessary and substantial departure from previous iterations of photographic understanding. While I don’t deny the significance of the departure, I think it still functions within the same problematic paradigm of what photography is on a fundamentally physical level. Granted, the recent meta-photographic inquiry is and was a necessary critique on how images function and exist in a contemporary photographic landscape, but in accepting the notion of the photograph as an idea, I am struck with the need to discuss the photograph as a notion that is separated from the necessity of physicality – which is a separation from the intense process-based critiques of recent meta-photographic work. I want to discuss photography as an affect, as a neurological structure, and as a methodology that has the potential to broaden our epistemology.
While I accept that acknowledging the objecthood of the photograph is a necessary concern, what springs from this mode of inquiry is the notion that the photograph is at once informed and limited by this reification. Ultimately, I argue that regardless of how informed a perspective on photography is, or how critical the vision, we still implicitly accept, and are governed by, problematically limited paradigms of understanding that begin with the photograph.
 For the scientific history of vision in 19th century Europe see Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, 1992.
 Vilém Flusser (May 12, 1920 – November 27, 1991) was a Czech-born philosopher, writer and journalist whose most influential writings (at least to this work) argued that the photograph was the first in a number of technical image forms to have fundamentally changed the way in which the world is seen.
 “The understanding, like the eye, whilst it makes us see and perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself; and it requires art and pains to set it at a distance and make it its own object.” – John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
 European Photography v 22, no 70, winter 2001-02, pp 5-6.
 It is important to note that this implies a specific set of viewing conditions.