Exercise 2.2: The artist as archivist

Mishka Henner

Now that we are well and truly in a digital world, Belgian photographer, Mishka Henner, believes that images and data are waiting to be discovered. His work involves trawling unimaginably vast data terrains, such as Google Earth and Street View, to find specific subjects. Rather than a ‘photographer’, he could be referred to as a ‘digital explorer’. 

Whilst Henner was using Google to research sites for his project 'Fifty-one Military Outposts', he came across an unusual set of polygonal shapes across parts of the Netherlands (Below). They remind me of a pixellated image that hasn't loaded correctly on the screen.

Paleis Noordeinde, Den Haag, From Dutch Landscapes, by Mishka Henner

Paleis Noordeinde, Den Haag, From Dutch Landscapes, by Mishka Henner

After further investigation, Henner discovered that these camouflage-like patterns were in fact an attempt by the establishment to censor highly classified sites, which were of great national importance. These places included royal palaces, fuel depots and army barracks. This was very ironic, since Henner's Fifty One Military Outposts was based on US bases, which hadn't been hidden away.

Once you realise the purpose of the patchwork of coloured 'blots' on the landscape, it draws even more attention to the significance of these places, as opposed to if they were just photographed in the same way as the rest of the surrounding urban and rural landscapes. Mishka Henner explained that the easy part of the project was finding the data and images, whereas deciding how to frame and edit each image, to make it accessible to the viewer caused him much more trouble (Shore, 2014).

As well as these images of how parts of the Netherlands had been hidden aware from perceived threats, Dutch Landscapes also included photographs of human intervention, such as dunes and dykes, to stop the country from gradually disappearing into the sea. This land reclamation project, which started in the sixteenth century, has reclaimed large patches of arable land.  

On reflection, this series raises the question of who actually owns this work. After all, Henner pressed a few buttons on his keyboard/mouse to grab screenshots of each scene, rather than pressing the shutter button on the camera. It was a satellite owned by Google, which had created the images. Therefore, it could be presumed that Henner is merely a photo researcher and editor, who has appropriated, selected and adapted a final set of images to suit his own project. On the other hand, others may argue that if it were not for camera manufacturers, photographers would be unable to make their photographs. Therefore, should the likes of Canon, Nikon and Sony take some of the credit? Furthermore, it must not be forgotten that a third party was responsible for overlaying the geometric patterns over classified parts of the landscape. If that is the main feature of Dutch Landscapes, then should that party be given the credit? 

The constant stream of images that flood the Internet is like a household utility, which users/consumers are able to access, after paying an Internet Service Provider and download tariffs. Images are then selected, re-contextualised and published in their new form, across social media platforms and other image sharing websites. The sheer scale of this practice makes it incredibly difficult to police. 

References

Chandler, D. ‘Mishka Henner: Dutch Landscapes’, Photoworks, Issue 17, 2011, pp. 34-35

Shore, R (2014) Post Photography: The artist with a camera. Laurence King Publishing: