Johannah Herr

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JOHANNAH HERR

Artist-in-Residence

 
 

About the Artist

 
 

My work explores direct and indirect manifestations of state-sanctioned violence. Specifically, I am interested in the spectacular quality of contemporary screen-mediated, media-enriched, consumerism-as-nationalism. I am fascinated by the inherent cannibalism of the consumer eye, destroying other lives to constitute its own, when capitalism acts as a sublime life-force. When certain bodies become non-human and video game controllers cause real casualties. When fireworks look like missile strikes, tear gas and police lights feel like dance club ambiance, and you can buy a war rug on sears.com. While these phenomenona are by no means unique to America, my recent body of work examines these issues through the lens of the US, a country where I am, both by birth and culture, inextricably entrenched. 

In 2011 I co-founded an anti-human-trafficking non-profit in Northern Thailand which which works to empower indigenous minority groups and Burmese refugees. While this project is distinct from my artistic practice, my continued work within forcibly “state-less,” and vulnerablized communities has deeply affected how and why I choose to make art. While my positionality as a white, educated American working within communities whose cultures, histories and languages I do not share is inescapably murky territory— requiring constant self-criticality— my experience negotiating privilege, exclusion, and violence in the rural borderlands of Thailand has dramatically impacted how I view the nation-state as an agent, and how I think about citizenship, privilege, alterity, power structures and state-sanctioned violence. An exploration of these issues therefore comprises the conceptual underbelly of my work. 

Bold and sensuous use of color and patterning is a crucial element of my practice, both visually and conceptually. I use saturation— both intensity of color and density of image— as a strategy for seduction. I aim to disarm and subvert through visual ecstasy. An exploration of spectacle through the use of movement, light, immersive environments, and the screen is also a critical aspect of my practice. My interest in spectacle is twofold: in the structure and intoxication of its affect, and in its implications in the Situationist sense of capitalism as the all-encompassing Spectacle. I am particularly interested in the role spectacle plays in contemporary digital media to shape our perspectives, voyeuristically entertain, and simultaneously remove us from, and implicate us in, the trauma of world events.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Interview

with Joe Brommel, August 2018


So you just 1) got offered a teaching job and 2) a girl in your anti-human trafficking organization received a scholarship offer. Congratulations!

This was yesterday! It was a really good day.


Tell me a little bit more about that really good day, then.

Okay. I’ve been teaching at Parsons, where I did my undergrad, since finishing my MFA at Cranbrook. I teach a studio class for freshmen that gets them to incorporate research and critical thinking into their making. It's not about what you're making but why you’re making it. How can you communicate? How can you look at the world critically through material? I really love teaching, in a way that I didn't anticipate going into it, so it's a big win to get offered another class, because I'm trying to make that more stable. And it's always nice to teach the same thing again because you can refine it, make it better.

The nonprofit, Daughters Rising, is an anti-human trafficking project that I started with my business partner, Alexa, six years ago. We met each other in New York while working for a project there, and then went on a research trip to Thailand and Cambodia because we wanted to start our own project. We wanted to meet other nonprofits that were doing anti-trafficking work and learn about their structure, how they get funding, etc., but we ended up intercepting a transaction of a girl being sold into this marriage contract thing with an Eastern European guy. Our translators just came to us one morning and said, “hey, we were just asked to translate this transaction, we think maybe you want to be involved.” We realized it was this woman trying to sell her daughter to this guy for a motorbike, a gold necklace, and $1,000, and we were able to step in.

But then we had no contingency plan. It didn’t make any sense to just have this girl live in our hostel for three weeks. We thought, “okay, we’ve just spent this whole trip networking with these other anti-trafficking projects — someone should take her, right? There's all these other safe houses.” But she didn’t qualify because she hadn't already been trafficked and she was from the Shan ethnic minority group from Burma. Thailand doesn't recognize refugees from Burma because of the conflict. So all these 501(c)3s that were incorporated in Thailand weren't able to take her in. It would be like harboring an illegal immigrant. So we decided to do preventative work with ethnic minority women in Burmese refugee populations, because there's all these other projects that will rescue girls from sex work without addressing the root issues that allow them to be vulnerable to that kind of stuff in the first place.

We have a main project called the Chai Lai Orchid, which is a fully functioning guesthouse where all of our staff are ethnic minority women who come into our program with no work history, no experience, and usually no English skills. We teach front of house, back of house, basic computer skills and accounting, English classes, and reading and writing.

But then we also have a scholarship program for ethnic minority and Burmese refugee girls. We have seven girls in university right now. And I have an artist's initiative where I work with women artisans to make products with traditional textiles. And we do medical supply and rice donations to refugee camps and IDP — internally displaced person — camps in Burma, too.

So we have our fingers in a lot of stuff. Basically, we target the population that's most at risk of being trafficked in Thailand and try to give them a bunch of different types of opportunities.


Great. How do both your teaching and nonprofit work play into your arts practice, then?

So, thematically, there's no direct references to the work that I do in Thailand in my practice. But conceptually, my motivation to make work is rooted in my experiences there; if there’s a common thread through the work that I do, it's an exploration of state-sanctioned violence. What kind of violence has happened from just agreeing to participate in a global economy and the ideas of nation-states and borders? What types of people have access to different resources because of their immigration status, or because of their ethnic/racial status?

And what I find so interesting is that when we think about places like Thailand, or other “developing nations,” there's an “us” and “them” with the developed world. When, really, everything is the same. Maybe it's not as direct of corruption, but lobbying, super PACs — those kinds of things — are just a different flavor of the same shit. When there was the coup in Thailand six years ago, the new military head made everyone omelets that had smiley faces on them in ketchup, and had pretty women coming around and giving them to people. That idea of this weird spectacle and consumer culture as distraction from the other things that are happening — that’s America. The power structures that keep privilege afloat are the same in many different situations.

 
 

If there’s a common thread through the work that I do, it’s an exploration of state-sanctioned violence.
— Johannah Herr
 
 
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I actually want to talk specifically about spectacle, because on your site, you mention that you're interested in this capital-S “Spectacle” of the contemporary world. That's particularly interesting to me because places like Wassaic are thought of by many people as an escape from that spectacle. But do you think it can really be escaped? Or do you think that the quote, unquote “media landscape” has changed to the point where even places like Wassaic are still awash in it?

No, you can't escape it. The situationists and Guy Debord talk about capitalism as the all-encompassing spectacle that no one can escape. And in rural communities like this, it's really interesting because we do think of them as more removed from that spectacular consumption of media and other cultural artifacts. But you're right — the media is the same.

My mom’s side of family is from outside of Pittsburgh. It’s not as rural as this, per se, but it’s a blue-collar, coal mine, Rust Belt area. And they have their finger on the pulse of pop culture in a way that I totally don’t; they’re still tapped into the spectacle, just in a different way than I would be.


Okay, but earlier you said that we “agree to participate” in the global economy. Is there a tacit agreement to take in that spectacle?

So I think it's two things. Spectacle in the sense of global capitalism is, at this point, almost inescapable. But nationalism as spectacle, patriotism as spectacle —


Just receiving it vs. internalizing it.

Yeah, exactly. You can be critical of your relationship with the country that you're from, look at it from a distance, but even if you’re critical of it you still have to participate in it.

And the mythologies that we’re fed as children get in there deeply in ways that you can't really intellectualize. As much as you might want to wash off the American, you can't do it. I don't know that I’d even really want to. Because you're still from a place.


How does that play into what you're working on here in Wassaic? In that piece just behind you?

Well, this is part of a series called Patenting Distraction. It's a series of drawings done in holographic sign vinyl — the type of vinyl that you’d use in advertising — and based on patent schematics of directed-energy weapons used by the US police and military. These pieces go in front of a black and white moray pattern, so when you walk past them it creates an optical glitching effect. Your body makes them animate.

They’re part of a broader investigation of how to use seduction and a playful relationship with materiality to give people some sort of physical experience before they intellectualize it. In the same way that you tacitly accept these social, cultural, national structures, how do I get someone to be like, “Oh, my God, this is so fun,” and then realize what they're looking at.

Because directed-energy weapons blast you with this invisible force to completely incapacitate you. They’re non-lethal, but I’m thinking about them as a metaphor for how all consumer culture is a strategy of placating the masses through shiny things.


And how has this residency group influenced your work? I'm thinking specifically of Natalie Baxter's Warm Gun series.

Yeah, I love Natalie!


Have conversations with her (or other residents) influenced the development of this work? Or did you have a plan beforehand that you’ve stuck to?

A little bit of both. Natalie and I have the same interests and — in terms of color and maximalism — an aesthetic congruency as well. We've had a lot of conversations where we're bouncing our different ways of working off each other. She has a solo show coming up, but is trying to figure out how certain objects relate to each other. She's been hindered by the options because it's pretty open-ended. So I’ll say, “well, this is how I would approach it.” I know that I'm always going to have some sort of like colorful, maximalist aesthetic because I use that as a strategy of seducing people. So I first try to think of the feeling that I want the audience to have and then work backwards from there; if you decide you want to make people uncomfortable you can arrange the work one way, and if you decide you want people to just be humored you can do it another way.

But, for me, since this piece is the last in a series I just have to bang it out. Once I get the vinyl printed, all these little blank squares are going to have titles of clickbait instead of titles of components — “book these 90 celebrities now,” or “you’ll never guess what’s in your foot cream.” It hasn’t really changed much, except I originally had replaced the large figure titles — Figure A, Figure B, etc. — with actual government policy that's been put in place over the past year, because while all this is distracting us real shit is going on — permanent, real-life things are affecting real-life bodies. But some people think that’s not necessary because the piece is just thinking about distraction in general. So that’s made me step back a little bit. It's an easy fix — I just include it or don't include it — but I've been seeing what people think and getting popular opinion. I’m still undecided. What do you think?

 
 

You can be critical of your relationship with the country that you’re from, look at it from a distance, but even if you’re critical of it you still have to participate in it.
— Johannah Herr
 
 
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Photos by Verónica González Mayoral