Interview: Evan Hume
"Project Oxcart (A-12)" by Evan Hume
1) Could you introduce yourself? Where are you from, where did you attend school, and when were you first exposed to making and/or consuming art? When did you first see yourself as an artist?
I’m Evan Hume, an artist living in South Bend, Indiana and the Visiting Lecturer of Photography at the University of Notre Dame. I attended Virginia Commonwealth University for my BFA and George Washington University for my MFA. I’ve been interested in art and visual media for as long as I can remember and spent a lot of time drawing as a kid. I began using a camera in high school when I decided to take a photography class so that I could have as much art in my schedule as possible. Photography made me more observant of the world around me and the artistic possibilities it opened up compelled me to pursue it as my major in undergrad. I’ve always thought of myself as an artist, but it was around my junior year of college when I gained more confidence in my work and knew that I wanted to pursue an MFA.
"Truman With Binoculars" by Evan Hume
2) When people usually think of America, they see images of freedom, scientific achievements, immense wealth, tall skyscrapers of New York City, the vast national parks, and the idyllic scenes of the countryside. What is the kind of image of America and its government that you are focusing on in your photographic practice?
The image of the United States I’m focused on in my work is a critical one of global dominance and imperialist aggression. No other country has anywhere near as many overseas military installations as the US. It is the only country that has used a nuclear weapon in war and has since been responsible for catastrophes in the Middle East, Asia, and Global South. As a photo-based artist, I want to address the origin points of this reality beginning in World War II and continuing into the Cold War era by concentrating on the role that photography has played in its development. Photography’s operational and technical evolution in the 20th century and beyond is inseparable from geopolitical conflict. In my recent work, I use photographs pertaining to the emergence of imaging systems used for intelligence gathering and documentation of advanced technologies to visualize my historical perspective on the US’s position in the world power structure.
"Unknown Painting" by Evan Hume
3) What is the danger of the surveillance state? Is America fundamentally different from the likes of China, Russia, and North Korea, or is it the same in some ways?
Ideas about violations of personal liberty and privacy often dominate the surveillance state discourse, but I approach it from a different angle. How can one truly have liberty under capitalism? So many people are denied this because their basic needs are not met. If liberty under capitalism is out of reach, except for the ruling class, then what really is the danger of the surveillance state? In the US, we have surveillance methods used by the government and corporations, which both ultimately give capital greater power to expand and preserve itself. An industry has been made out of the collection and selling of personal data. The surveillance operations of the government are used to maintain the status-quo and crack down on what it perceives to be a threat. What I currently find most disturbing is surveillance in the service of agencies like ICE and the monitoring and subversion of progressive movements. This has been done for decades with civil rights and anti-war activists, but now there are more advanced technologies and data at the state’s disposal.
My recent work is mostly concerned with surveillance on an international level. Specifically, the ways that the US has developed and used imaging technologies for gathering intelligence on other countries to establish and reinforce dominance. I resist the tendency to draw equivalences between the US and nations such as China, Russia, and North Korea. The operations of those nations’ respective governments are rooted in very different historical and material conditions. I do believe the US is fundamentally different in that it remains the uncontested hegemonic power despite its overextension and failures in the so-called War on Terror. China has significant, influential economic power, but I don’t think that it’s comparable to the combined economic, cultural, and military influence of the US around the world. Russia is a regional power that’s a threat to US and NATO interests, but doesn’t have the level of global influence that the US has. The emphasis placed on Russian interference in the 2016 election has been a distraction from the many domestic factors that led to Trump’s victory. North Korea has poured considerable resources into the military, but it's very dependent on China and is isolated. Although ethical issues can be raised about the surveillance and cyber operations of many countries, I keep my focus on the US because it’s the global superpower and I’m a citizen of the country.
"FA-18 Hornet" by Evan Hume
4) What happens when you concentrate mind-blowingly powerful technologies at the hands of the few in the government? What happens if the government in fact comprises a surveillance state? What are the dangers of such a government, and how do your photographic works reflect on this sense of danger and fear with regards to the US government?
Much of my work has been concerned with information that remains out of reach because it’s classified or has been released in heavily redacted fragments. What we’re allowed to know and see is always incomplete. Of course, this is done to maintain an advantage over the US’s adversaries, but it’s an alienating and disorienting reality. There’s also a time delay from when knowledge comes into being and when, if ever, it's made public. For example, a lot of information about reconnaissance satellites from the 1960s was only declassified within the last few years. We might find out in 40 or 50 years about technology that’s being developed and used now. There are surely many pieces of history that have yet to be made public or uncovered, so control over historical narratives is a primary concern of mine about the national security state, which is reflected in my choice of archival images.
I think what’s most dangerous about the advancement of the US surveillance state on an international level is that it enhances the power of a country that is already the global hegemon. The UN and EU have already shown that they are unwilling or unable to serve as an effective check on US aggression, such as the Iraq War and drone strikes in Yemen, and new technologies make for a more robust form of dominance. On paper, our elected representatives in congress are supposed to have oversight on intelligence and military developments and operations, but I think there’s a general laissez-faire consensus across party lines. We’ve only seen an expansion of the national security state since World War II.
"Weapons Program Status" by Evan Hume
5) What is the significance of the digital noise, JPEG artifacts, and aftereffects in your images? Does it highlight the technological nature of the rise of the modern surveillance state, or does it reflect on the fact that a lot of these images were classified at one point in time?
Digital artifacts in my work call attention to the transformation of images over time through reproduction and compression. As photographs become distorted by these processes during their lives in the archive, they become open to new interpretations and associations. I became interested in this when researching photographs pertaining to government investigations of unidentified flying objects. Many of the pictures I found had been rendered ambiguous by repeated photocopying and transfer to microfilm. They became abstractions that recalled the aesthetics of modernist painting and collage, subverting the conventional expectation for photographs to provide information through representation.
When I began working on my recent series, Viewing Distance, I intentionally created digital disruptions as a way to visualize the temporal journey of archival photographs from the past to the present and address the malleability of images that inform our picture of history. The photographs having been classified was also a factor in that decision. There are many images I’ve obtained that don’t have much context, so although they’ve been declassified, they still feel distant.
"Pink Roses" by Evan Hume
6) In your other works, how do you reflect on the digital nature of the image that we consume? What is the significance of the JPEG artifacts and the pixelation of images that are small yet enlarged? Do you think this relates to the possibility that the world itself might be a simulation, and, at the smallest scale, matter, energy, and consciousness may in fact be discrete rather than continuous or vice versa?
My series Altered States uses digital images taken from the FBI’s National Stolen Art File to consider how we think of authenticity and originality and consume art in a digital environment. A concern with the ways images change over time through reproduction is a part of this work, too. When I began exploring the stolen art database, I was struck by how many of the photographs of the artworks were of very poor quality. Most are small, compressed PNG files and a lot of the artworks are just badly documented in the photographs. I don’t know how some of them will ever be found because the images are so illegible. That led me to think about how I could turn the images back into objects and be placeholders for the originals, which might never be recovered. I selected files that had the original artwork size listed and were the most distorted, then printed the pictures at their original scale. As a result, they became even more removed from their original context and became these ghost images that were also physical objects. With regard to simulation, I do think that there is a Platonic element to dealing with pixelation and artifacts from reproduction. One understanding of the simulacrum is that it is a distorted copy of a copy. The pieces in Altered States are copies of copies of copies and so on, which speaks to the world of digital images as a simulacrum. The series is ultimately about the distance and transformation that can increase over time as images, in this case particular artworks, are removed from their points of origin, taking on new lives of their own.
It’s interesting that you bring up scale, matter, and energy because I’ve been working on a collaborative project that has encouraged me to think about how pixelation and digital artifacts in my work relate to those elements. I’m part of a program with engineering faculty where we give local high school and college students the opportunity to learn about and creatively use nano-photolithography by working hands-on in the university’s nanofabrication lab. I learned a lot through the process of transferring photographic images to the micro and nano scale on a silicon wafer, but at times it felt like working in the darkroom. It’s opened up new ways for me to consider scale, material, and the role of photographic processes in the fabrication of our electronic devices. Learning and thinking more about certain aspects of science has had an impact on how I approach altering images. Some of my work has a haptic quality and a sense of movement although they are flat, still images. Everything is always vibrating on the atomic level and so stillness is an illusion. Giving images a sense of movement speaks to the idea that images are always shifting and circulating. When I began researching photographs of supersonic aircraft for Viewing Distance, I noticed that they all used very fast shutter speeds to make the jets look like they were floating and perfectly still. I experimented with editing those photographs using audio software, which resulted in images that convey kinetic energy and an atomized quality in some cases from pixelation.
"Stacks" by Evan Hume
7) What is the significance of using found photographs for your photographic practice? Where does the artwork lie in relation to the raw materials, the ideas driving the work, and the finished product? What are the freedoms and limitations of using found photographs?
I use found photographs because a preoccupation with history is the driving force of my practice. History is a battleground and photographs are a significant part of the struggle to construct, challenge, and revise historical narratives. My particular interest in the military-industrial complex, intelligence apparatus, and global politics definitely comes from having grown up in the Washington, DC area and spending much of my life in that environment. So, my work typically stems from those core conceptual concerns, but things happen along the way that have an impact on the finished product. I’m always surprised by photos I encounter when searching through archival material and that can lead me in an unanticipated direction. It’s a dialectical process of intention and chance. I don’t think of working with found photographs as a limitation because we are still catching up with the past and our perceptions of history are always changing as more details come to light. There is so much information that remains classified, but that same time it feels like there is an endless amount of photographs to work with. My research could go on indefinitely although I’m getting close to wrapping up the current phase with the publication of Viewing Distance as a monograph with Daylight Books this fall.
"Ghost Stories" by Evan Hume
8) For your future works, would you consider using a computer game engine or 3D world builder to take snapshots and then treat them with pixelation and other effects to create fictional images that illustrate your ideas? What is the difference between the use of found images and fictional images?
After Viewing Distance is published, I would definitely like to give myself the time to explore other processes and technologies like virtual reality and 3D imaging because they are currently being used for intelligence and military operations. I think that even though I’ve been primarily working with found photographs, there’s always been somewhat of a fictional element in the work in the sense that the photographs can be mysterious and encourage speculation, which can take us closer to or further from reality. Because there are historical gaps, our minds can fill in those spaces in many different ways. Just as I mentioned before with my process being a dialectic of intention and chance, I also see my work as embodying the opposition of the informational and the indeterminate.
"Corona" by Evan Hume
9) What are some other topics that you are interested in (for example, the use of deep fakes and alternative facts on social media) for your future practice? What drives you to pursue and explore these kinds of topics? Is truth a worthy cause in the 21st century, in the age of Postmodernism, which argues that there is no guiding center and no big truth?
Although it’s not explicit in the work, fake news and disinformation on social media is something I’ve thought a lot about while working on Viewing Distance. We’ve come to rely on photographic images to inform us about history and what’s currently happening in the world, but the past few years have shown that the manipulation of images that are disseminated online can lead to conspiracy theories and a heavily distorted perception of reality. One could certainly argue that this is a symptom of a postmodern condition that is defined by a growing suspicion of metanarratives. Adam Curtis makes the case in his films such as The Power of Nightmares and HyperNormalization that we’ve been living in a world of fictitious narratives created and perpetuated by an alliance between corporations and governments for quite some time. Going back to the earlier question about positive images of the US, what I’m essentially doing with my work is proposing a counter-image stemming from research that is based in material reality. Perry Anderson’s American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers has been very influential on my thinking and is a very lucid, well-researched analysis of US hegemony. People may disagree about whether the US should be the global superpower, but there is simply no denying the fact that it is indeed the global superpower and has achieved this through aggressive policies.
Last year I was a part of the Aperture Summer Open exhibition, which was titled Information. The central question that the show raised was “can photographs provide information when truth is disrupted?” Some of the participating artists took a straightforward documentary approach while others exercised more artistic liberties, but I think the exhibition proved that the answer is yes. Artists can absolutely visualize and speak to issues that are undeniably impacting people's lives and do so in ways that are thoughtful and provocative with a sense of responsibility.
"Yosemite Valley" by Evan Hume
10) What are your goals and ambitions for yourself and the people around you, as an artist and as a person? What would you like to accomplish in the next 10 to 20 years?
As I mentioned, I’m in the process of producing a monograph. I’ve always felt that the book format would be conducive to my work, but I just had no idea how to even begin that process. I think having the chance to collaborate with a designer on the editing, layout, and sequencing was exactly what I needed. This book will also be an opportunity for the work to be contextualized by writing, which I think is important for a project like Viewing Distance. I’ll have an artist statement included and there will also be an essay by art historian Lily Brewer. So, my immediate goal right now is to successfully get this book out into the world on schedule.
Looking to the years ahead, I’d like to do more writing. I recently wrote some contributions for the artist blog on Der Greif and it really ignited a desire in me to continue writing about photography and images in general. I think the core conceptual concerns I’ve discussed here will always be part of my practice, but I’m sure my work will shift in ways I can’t anticipate. I’m actually excited to not have much of a concrete plan and be open after everything is wrapped up with the book. I want to keep teaching, so that will definitely continue to be a focus for me. I think the uncertainty and anxiety about the future brought on by Covid has made it difficult to stay grounded in the present, but that’s what I’m challenging myself to do right now.