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.


  1. You began your art career as a classical photographer working with film processed in a darkroom. At some point, your study of media philosophy and critical theory shaped a new direction in your artistic output. Can you reflect on this early transition? Do you see yourself as a philosopher of vision, or image maker, or both?

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.

  1. We have discussed your interest in the idea of defining limits as central to your artistic concept. This in itself suggests a scientific, problem-solving mindset toward the artistic enterprise. Can you reflect on the shared concerns of art and science in your work and how images come to express equations of limits in your work?

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.

  1. Your work is an exploration of visual language undertaken through photographic imagery. Art historically, we could use James Welling, Louise Lawler and Christopher Williams as some of your guideposts, that is, the Pictures generation of 1970s/80s into later versions of appropriation. Can you speak about your understanding of the precedents set by one or more of these photographers, and how you feel you have addressed their concerns in your own way?

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.

  1. In an early segment from New Work, you appropriate the background of a magazine appropriation by Richard Prince. How important was that to your developing philosophical program?

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.

  1. We could also digress into what aspects of institutional critique are most valuable to your work. Since much of your work is about how we process, encode and understand visual images, do you view this exercise as politically based?

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.

  1. You refer often to the Enlightenment, a term encapsulating the rationalization of thought in 17th century Europe, especially as it applies to scientific method. Direct observation took precedence over religious, spiritual or mystical explanation for natural phenomena. Optics was established as a science with a host of machines to measure, parse and harness light and reflected (photographic) imagery. Thus, the apparatus came into being, including all the forerunners of photographic equipment.[1]

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[2] lays out ­(an etymological extrapolation of object[3] 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[4], 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.

  1. Culture—into media—into photography—into apparatus. This is how Andreas Müller-Pohle breaks down Flusser’s philosophy of the apparatus[5]. I think it would be useful for you to identify your work within this concept of the technologically programmed world view of contemporary society. Can you discuss how your work expresses Flusser’s ideas?

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.

  1. Poet and scientist Johan van Goethe published his color theory in 1810, in which properties of light and color are treated as separate values and phenomena. If photography is your tool to explore epistemological and phenomenological concerns, is your use of images to be understood similarly by everyone?

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[6] 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.

  1. Having reviewed the historical and intellectual debate over photography as an art form and cultural phenomena, can you express, finally, where photography is taking you as an artist?

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] In English the word object is derived from the Latin objectus (pp. of obicere) with the meaning “to throw, or put before or against”, from ob-(pref.) and jacere, “to throw”.

[4] “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.

[5] European Photography v 22, no 70, winter 2001-02, pp 5-6.

[6] It is important to note that this implies a specific set of viewing conditions.