Michael Adno in conversation with Peter Freeby, in conjunction with his solo presentation at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, from March 1–7, 2016.
Michael Adno has gotten rid of white walls and concrete floors as an art space and instead creates work in the context of local archives, and Southern historical narratives.
Adno isn’t the first artistic documentarian to have a close affiliation with pioneering and Southern culture. In addition to the more obvious Mark Twain, French political philosopher, Alexis De Tocqueville wrote on the rich culture of early pioneering Americans: “The Americans have no philosophical school... Nevertheless, without ever having taken the trouble to define the rules of a philosophical method, they are in possession of one, common to the whole people.”
Adno’s exhibitions perform as a result of relationships with locals, and an engagement with history. As the artist outlined, “My project works toward more fluid methods of perceiving layers of history, privileging the dialogue between the work and local communities...” Adno studies the blurry lines between history and politics and actual lived experiences. His work is a combination of notes, photographs, sculptural installations, ambient films and other media in a style that is rendered both intensely personal and objectively journalistic.
Peter Freeby: Before your artistic career, how significant was this living in the world and survival in nature? Was that a part of you growing up?
Michael Adno: I grew up in the South as a first generation American. My parents didn’t relate to this place, it’s heritage, or its cultural significance. So for me, it’s trying to understand my personal position here. My father’s family comes from South Africa and my mother’s family from Austria—both Eastern European and Russian immigrants. I was born in St. Petersburg, Florida and grew up here in the South. I think for me it’s less about nature and conservation, and more of a selfish exercise in trying to understand how I grew up, why my peers turned out in the way that they did, and the more significant implications of how our decisions effect others by studying the politics here.
PF: In a basic, practical, physical sense, what’s your process for photography?
MA: I came to photography in a really strange way, where I didn’t actually make a photograph until after college, so I used it in a really utilitarian way. I spend a lot of time working on site with historians, curators, local community members, and conservationists, and that research often determines what my eye is looking at, but I’m working with a large format camera, so almost every image that I’ve made or shown has been an image that took some time to make as opposed to a type of snapshot image. I recently started working with a small format 35mm camera, so I’m able to work a little bit faster, a little bit more loose now, which I’m adjusting to and hoping it may balance out the more constructed and controlled photographs.
PF: How long does the process for creating a photograph take? How does that time effect your process for creating those images?
MA: I’ve been working in Florida for nearly three years on Cracker Politics, The Limits of Colonial Knowledge. So while I’m in New York (where I live and work) I focus on my research and how to best approach my trips to Florida. I’ll take trips back and forth and spend a lot of time working there to develop what I’m working towards. The method of working with historians, researchers, and local community members is what informs my work most, which can be somewhat organic, so I’m not sure I always have an objective to make a number of images or specific images. On this trip, I knew I wanted to make a photograph of a certain landscape that I had seen two years ago, but only now did it register as something I wanted to make. An image can strike me and I’m able to make that image immediately, or it may take two years of thinking of that place, thing, or person. There are also times when I’ll make an image and shelve it for two years, so it just sits and sits. Then eventually I’ll look at it again, and that image strikes me and it’s relevant to what I’m trying to work towards at that moment. Sometimes it just comes out that way. Although my images are very constructed and planned, sometimes it is more intuitive and like anyone I’m responding as I go. I’m trying to move away from that with the smaller camera, fast and loose.
PF: Particularly with Cracker Politics, there’s this sense of order mixed with disintegration. What’s your relationship with those kinds of themes? How does that balance play out for you?
MA: I think in a very literal way, the construction of any type of narrative implies a strict sense of order but also an inextricable and undeniable disorder or exclusion. What’s left outside of the frame right? Those decisions are the linchpin of photography. In terms of my approach to photographs and what they represent, I think there are some [works] that don’t seem as constructed, and there are some that are very, very rigid and are undoubtedly “constructed.” Towing the line between concepts such as order and chaos is what molds my understanding of balance. With that said, I am more interested in the overlapping or inextricable aspects of those themes rather than the balance between them. For me, the binary comparison or example is always fraught and counter productive in most cases. Of course the simple example is that one only exists in relation to the other.
PF: There are some pieces of your work Ambient Film where it’s not entirely clear if you found the site like that, or if it’s been manufactured in some way. Did you construct any of these scenes? I’m thinking particularly of one where there are a series of PVC crosses sticking out of the ground in the middle of a field.
MA: The PVC crosses are actually grave markers. Oftentimes, people would have these gnarled stumps that looked like petrified wood serve as a tombstone and still do. Some tombstones were also buried or covered leaving the graves unmarked. Quite often, a tree would grow on top of those burials enveloping the corpse as well. That specific scene you’re referring to shows recently placed grave markers by forensic anthropologists at one of the oldest graveyards in Florida. Otherwise, there would be no marker for any of those graves, and the site would be just another unkempt piece of land. It’s fascinating to see different types of markers and memorials from the egg carton crosses that Walker Evans and William Christenberry had photographed to the nearly unnoticeable wooden limbs that mark graves here in the South.
PF: There seems to be a lot of studying markers and signals, either found, or created. How significant is that concept to you?
MA: Markers are simply a language or dialect like any other. It’s just a matter of learning how to read them. So with any place, one can read those markers if they have an understanding of the language. For example, you can see where deer or boars have scratched themselves against pine trees where the lower portion of the trunk is stripped of bark. Finding cut nails in the ground date that place and so on and so forth. It’s a matter of establishing a visual vocabulary to build an increasingly meaningful understanding of place.
PF: You mentioned a “cracker house.” What is “cracker culture?”
MA: Well, the etymology of “cracker” is actually unknown, at least definitively. I think the most common interpretation of “cracker” is its derogatory usage. But for the origin of “cracker,” the etymology is unclear and a lot of scholars, historians, and self proclaimed crackers have different theories. Everything ranging from the cracking of whips with early cattle ranchers, to poor, white sharecroppers who lived on crackers and swamp cabbage. But cracker culture is a pioneering culture, which is often romanticized in the Hollywood sense of pioneering.
The culture that pioneers cultivated was not a romantic endeavor. It was extremely violent. Its politics were immensely fraught with regard to colonialism, to slavery, and institutional disenfranchisement, but paramount to their culture was land-use and the ownership of property. Crackers/pioneers/settlers lived off the land almost entirely. Hunting, fishing, and agriculture were the pillars of their lifestyle and for many that is still true. I see cracker culture as incredibly rich in light of its pitfalls, but what is often left unacknowledged is how American Colonialism is what should ultimately frame this way of life. What’s compelling for me is that “redneck” culture and what is often deemed as ubiquitously southern stems from cracker culture. How do you weave together the mundane, repulsive, and belligerent aspects of these cultures with the rich, inspiring, but also dark components? For me, it’s a matter of how dense and layered those contradictions can be, but more importantly how to shed light on what may seem topical yet is complex. The difficulty in that is what’s most engaging for me.
PF: Do you have any feelings negative or positive about that contradiction, or is that something you’re just neutrally exploring?
MA: Well I think I’m personally a pessimistic person, so my take on it is different from my practice’s theses. I think Florida’s political infrastructure, heritage, and contemporary cultural idiosyncrasies are great examples of what goes wrong when things are unkempt politically but of course punctuated with lighter, hopeful moments. The one thing I find really frustrating about this state—and the South generally—is that people’s politics tend to sway towards the demographic they identify with, regardless of how politically out of touch that agenda may be. In the worst-case scenario, those politics only address the individual’s concerns. Billy Bob from fill in the blank only gives a shit about Billy Bob. I think this is the result of an increasingly volatile disjuncture between local and national political discourse. I think it’s more productive to look at how the two are related. How do local politics relate to the level of regional, state, or national politics? With that said, one can replace politics in that sentence with heritage or history. I’m trying to develop a model in my practice to weave it all together in a more fluid way ultimately.
PF: How do you see your work in conversation with politics?
MA: My work isn’t operating on such a high level and with so much press that it enters public discourse, so it’s not going to effect the next gubernatorial election. But there are artists who are able to influence political discourse somewhat. For example, Hans Haacke’s criticism of corporate sponsorship provided by the Saatchi family to the late British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. That work is phenomenal and arguably prompted them [Charles and Maurice Saatchi] to leave the boards of both the Tate Modern and Whitechapel Gallery, both public institutions. If there were a model for how my work engages politics or some sort of socio-cultural arena, I would most definitely look towards the work of Haacke, Mary Kelly, Mike Kelley, Adrian Piper, Coco Fusco and so forth. I do believe that my work plays a small role in the communities I’ve worked with, and I think that the dialogue generated is the most powerful aspect.
PF: Your investigation projects seem to be restricted to the United States so far. Is this a model you could see yourself expanding on internationally?
MA: The model I’ve applied is something that I would like to see expanded internationally, but more importantly in any study of place. I mean I’m taking bits and pieces of others’ work, everything from investigative journalism to post-colonial theory. Very topically, it uses political and social history along with the contemporary climate and trajectory to weave together past and present, high and low, etc. The goal is really to take this type of interdisciplinary, hybrid approach in order to challenge established representations of history or culture that one’s position may not conveniently fit into, or to open up space in so many words. For myself, it’s very important to be here [Florida], to work in this place where I’m from. My parents are from elsewhere and I would very much like to explore that. It’s actually something I’m working towards currently; it’s called Patrimony. I’m working in Austria, South Africa, and the Dominican Republic, to document each place that my grandparents, parents, and myself lived. But this project [Cracker Politics] specifically addresses my relationship to place, to home, to our country. It’s very much about what models our sense of belonging, anywhere. And I think I’m becoming comfortable in thinking of it as distinctly Southern, but my goal is to build a more meaningful understanding of America and American politics.
PF: You’re working with a lot of different mediums. Is there a specific medium you’ve enjoyed or are expanding on?
MA: I’ve worked with a lot of different things and I think that New York has been a huge part of molding how I’ve worked and how I came to make photographs. I’m comfortable to be called a photographer now, but I am still most concerned with the conversation generated by the work in the end. I see my medium as the fieldwork with regional historians, directors of local historical societies, an archivist at the state archive, to research staff at the Smithsonian and Library of Congress. It’s critical for me to have that kind of engagement with communities and practitioners outside the art sphere or cultural intelligentsia. I’m more interested and invested in methods of investigative journalists, law scholars, and social activists. I think that the effect they generate is often more valuable in regard to public discourse than an artist’s monograph or an exhibition that only a migratory elite can reach. Moving forward, my utmost concern is community engagement and forms that can reach more people than the four walls of a gallery.
PF: Are there specific publications you follow?
MA: For the work that I’m doing, the Southern Poverty Law Center plays a huge role. Think tanks also provide a really great model. They’re publishing journals and research at such a high caliber, but they’re publishing them all for free online. They have huge aggregated databases so on and so forth. So I like to look at historical initiatives like the Federal Writers Project and the Farm Security Administration, but I’m a big fan of anthologies specifically. I believe that the cumulative effect those types of publications have and the broad audience they reach is what makes them so successful. It’s something I’d like to work towards personally.
Editor's note: Michael Adno's work will be on view at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, from March 1–7, 2016. 421 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10001.