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Interview: Justin Watson

A Solvent History (Protests 1963 - 2020)

Could you introduce yourself?

I am Justin Watson, 37, and I live in Salt Lake City, Utah. I create works using a myriad of technological practices—mainly software driven. I prefer site specific installations due to the conceptual problem solving and limitations that come with this mode of working.

Where did you study art?

I studied art at the University of Utah for both my BFA (2014) and MFA (2016) in Sculpture Intermedia.

browser 1.1 [online effigy]

When did you come to see yourself as an artist?

I aspired to be a writer or an artist in my youth. I had difficulty ascribing or assigning the title of artist to myself, though. It was not until graduate school that I finally discovered a practice that made me comfortable with the title.

How does your mind work in terms of visualizing and processing images?

I mentally establish a conceptual outline for an installation and/or series of works and then allow myself to resonate a response to these conditions. Video, sound and 3D animation can prove quite rigid in its workflow, so I allow myself to explore in response to my objectives and then focus on how to replicate them in the studio. A work can start as a feeling or a sound that grows into a larger concept that I can visualize.

Facebook in My Front Yard

How do you cyclically edit and re-edit images both in your mind and in your studio practice?

I pull information from everywhere—online, offline, readings, research studies, articles, news, artworks, et al. If something doesn’t fit, I will not hesitate to catalog it into another series or installation. I view everything as interconnected—I have a hard time creating an individual work and instead view an individual work as a single note in a sheet of music. Once I have everything conceptually in place for an exhibition, I have a pool of ideas I pull from to work at a rapid pace. The cyclical nature of this process is intentionally embedded in the works. In the studio, I first translate these images into words and descriptions. I draft written scripts and descriptions for all my work, including still image/photographic work and sculptures and then translate them again into their final form. For video work, I follow an obsessive guide I create for each project for setting everything up and editing as I create all the soundtracks and visuals and it is crucial for me to align these elements to optimize my time. This allows me to set up 3D renders and work on other parts simultaneously. This simultaneity is one aspect I adore about this process.

Georgia Coal-Fired Power Station Sunset

What is the implication of this pliancy or recyclable nature of images?

I view it as a replication of brain and mnemonic plasticity and how the brain experiences trauma. I was attracted to experimental film/video art as I perceived it as a form that could more fully emulate my own mental thought processes and ideas while offering a healthy coping mechanism. This pliancy, and possibly beauty, that arises from this implication is that recycling images presents infinite possibilities that are arranged through an artist’s conceptual choice making.

untitled copy (moebius memory III)

What is your definition of history?

I am interested in the concept of history and how it is interpellated and utilized to influence local, national and international culture, politics and ideas. I also find speculative history appealing as it presents opportunities to explore ideas that exist outside current norms. I avoid monoliths. If I were to settle on a specific definition, I would choose an ever-branching network of events and perspectives that occur over time.


What is history?

History is a phenomenological vessel containing being, event, perception and time. These concepts all overlap and interrelate.

A Farewell to Images

Why are you so drawn to the fact that history repeats in a cyclical manner?

I began noticing circa late 1990s/early 2000s that U.S cinema, branding and political ideologies were going through a phenomenon of repetition built around the so-called unobtained possibilities of the past. I have also always been drawn to evolutionary and entomological life cycle dioramas as they show a story without end. Finally, I always sought out more experimental films outside packaged neoliberal cinema—where the narrative is in perfect alignment with the “Hero’s Journey”—and was naturally drawn to cinema/work that created what I perceived as a simulacrum or speculation of reality.

Permadeath Exhibition Installation View

What changed since 200 or 500 years ago, and what has remained the same?

While tools, technology and definitions have changed and evolved over time, human beings still face the same hardships and desires, although many of these things are now accelerated. My cynical side sees war, famine, disease, bigotry, climate disaster and trolling. My optimistic side sees community, technology that transcends physical space and allows for more methods to connect, the potential for societal equality, and technological advancements carrying the potential for human beings to overcome the cynical challenges listed.

Spirit Cloth

What is internet culture?

As mentioned prior, I don’t like monoliths—internet culture is a constantly evolving entity consisting of a hive mind of ideas, bad actors, personalities, optimists, propaganda, trolls and perceptions. It is a Schrodinger’s cat—both the end and beginning existing within the same space of something new that we are still attempting to define after nearly 30 years.

How does it relate to the ideas described in the essay, "In Defense of the Poor Image" by Hito Steyerl?

Hito Steyerl massively influenced my work early on and while there are many ideas to unpack in her essays, I will just state that internet culture is a fluid reality and social experiment that many of us are still attempting to define—as seen in her deconstruction of image sharing that started with Peer-to-Peer networks, in example Napster or uTorrent—and how this sharing affected all culture. Internet culture is no longer separate or tangential from “mainstream” culture and online platforms now shift every few years—in the wake of a capitalist agenda. Influencers, corporate investment, brand monetization, astroturfing and social engineering is brocaded into a tapestry that is confusing by design.

untitled (the fall corrupted)

Do you embrace glitches in your art, or do you reject them?

I intentionally seek glitches, but not in the sense of a “Glitch Art” aesthetic. I’m more interested in discovering the nuances of computation and the faults thereof, be it through attempting to hijack an artificial intelligence to discover its training model biases, hardcoding errors into images or pushing software and hardware to its limits.

What does a glitch do to an image?

A glitch is corruption that can counteract the sublime to reveal the flawed nature of a medium, though this, too, has been adopted as a popular aesthetic.

What is the value of a glitched image or visual phenomenon?

It is difficult to ascribe value to a glitch or visual phenomenon—they don’t have any inherent or intrinsic attributes unless they are placed within a practice or concept that utilizes them to convey an idea. Context is key.

untitled copy (moebius memory VI)

Could you describe Jacques Derrida's "Hauntology," and how it relates to you and your art?

The concept of hauntology is taken from Jacques Derrida’s 1993 book, The Specters of Marx and originated in Ken McMullen’s 1983 feature film, Ghost Dance, where Derrida played a role of himself analyzing his own concept. The premise of the concept is that the fall of communism in 1991 established an ontological marker—theorists at the time claimed capitalism had “triumphed” over communism—and with this fall came a preoccupation with historicity centered around Marxism “haunting” the west from beyond the grave.

This concept has broadened into examining a phenomenon, often political, associated with returning to a point in history that never existed, often due to the failings of the present (failed utopia). What was not discussed at great lengths is to what extent this concept can be weaponized. A recent presidential campaign slogan comes to mind. Hauntology also applies to music and the arts, such as the cycle of revisions and remakes produced by Hollywood (aptly pointed out in Hito Steyerl’s essay as the neoliberal monetization of product cinema). I intentionally have used nostalgia as a method to establish engagement with the viewer—a friendly insidiousness—nostalgia provides an accessible entry point into a work.


How have your artist statements and main concepts changed over the years?

They have not veered far from a path. I studied poetry and creative writing early in my academic years. The essays and works I produced at that time are also in direct alignment with these concepts. My work is only now shifting away as I feel the need to explore something new.

How were the disjunction between form and content, and the "dysfunctions" of language important to you in your earlier days as an artist?

Dysfunction and disjunction was a significant investigation, mainly because I did not come easily into the visual arts. I consider myself primarily textual—so these dysfunctional observations as it pertains to communication and language were paramount in my ability to investigate my own complications with understanding a medium that I was still learning.

Petrochemical Oxbow

Why is language so important part of the discourse on truth, perception, and reality?

Online platforms center on a user’s ability to communicate using language. Technological advancements have allowed language to transverse space and time at a rapid pace, and this presents a great need to understand how language informs truth, perception and reality. Language is tied to narrative (perception) and narratives are often taken as truth without confirmation of bias or record. Technology allows for an accelerated confirmation and agreement of narratives. This unified mutual agreement, whether rooted in a factual present or not, constructs a new reality that may or may not be harmful to the group or others. Language, in effect, creates new realities.

Two Entities Sharing Ideologies Installation View

Could you explain what the piece titled, "Two Entities Sharing Ideologies," is about?

This conceptual piece carries clips from every cultural theorist/philosopher and political figure I could find that represents the entire political ideological spectrum. This ranges from various fascists, socialists, neoliberal capitalists, Hannah Arendt, Angela Davis, Foucault et al. The clips are the same on each screen, but I integrated randomization, so each TV pulls from a pool of 40-50 clips. The installation is always changing over time and never ends.

Why are the two TV screens facing each other in very close proximity?

To create a distinct boundary between the viewer and the piece. The two televisions function as a system of automated conversation and exchange of concepts between two beings—the title implies sentience. The proximity establishes a communicative relationship that intentionally forces the viewer into an omniscient perspective, but they are far enough away from each other to allow the viewer to peer in. At this proximity in a dark room, the TVs also reflect off each other and bounce onto the surrounding walls to further engage the surrounding space.

Two Entities Sharing Ideologies Simulation Mockup

Who are some of your favorite artists who have influenced you and your practice?

Mike Nelson was the first sculpture/installation artist that showed me how far you could examine a space. I found his monumental and literary installation simulacrums fascinating. Specifically, his massive installation at the failed Old Essex Street Market, A Psychic Vacuum, provided a plethora of interpretations of U.S. history and culture and he created the entire work out of detritus extracted from local landfills. These works are what pushed my interest into installation work.

I admire Pipilotti Rist’s work, mainly because it is so different from my own and I appreciate her attention to details in her installations. Her work also reminds me of the significance of play. I conceptually align with Hans Haacke, Hito Steyerl and Walid Raad and their philosophical aims. Other artists that come to mind: Camille Henrot, Ed Atkins, Constant Dullaart, Wong Ping, Mathew Day Jackson, and of course countless others.

What are your goals and dreams for the future?

To keep moving and investigating and to never lose my awe for the world and its myriad of possibilities despite its many ongoing challenges. My art practice is key to maintaining that awe and interest. A more tangible dream is to have more opportunities to create installation works and grow the network of artists I have had the opportunity to meet throughout the years.

Where do you see yourself going in the next 5 years?

I see myself broadening my areas of investigation—I have a lot of speculative concepts I would like to start embedding into my work that will open some refreshing ideas and areas to explore. I also see myself exhibiting more at museums and art institutions.

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