Floodscapes at Gallery On, Seoul, Korea

John Goto interviewed by Bo-Reung Kim for Monthly Photography, Korea,

BK - What is the main reason for your conversion from painting to photography? And what do you think about the role of photography in the field of art?

JG - When I was young, art meant for me painting, it was my first love.   It was also what we studied at school.   But when I went to art school, which was during the 'sixties, I started to get interested in other cultural forms. I started to read the classics of European literature and see the movies coming from the New Wave filmmakers.   And I began to understand the importance of narrative as a common thread.   So it wasn't such a big step into photography, which is a story-telling medium.  

Photography also had the advantage for a young hard-up artist, of being relatively cheap and accessible.   Technique can be improved with experience, but getting started in photography is not so complicated, and you get results from day one.   For many years I worked in black and white, using improvised or borrowed darkrooms.   I had old but essentially good equipment; Rolleiflexs and a heavy tripod, carried over my shoulder all day when out shooting, for weeks on end.   Like an old sports injury, I now feel twinges across my back occasionally from those days!

BK - You are very active as a member of the social movement in photography. In relation to social questions, what do you think the role and scope of art can be? How can it further its realm in this field? And what is the most important outcome from your activity?

JG - This is really a very fundamental question, which I can maybe best answer by asking another question; 'what is the responsibility of the artist?'   And for me the answer is 'to tell as fully as they can, how it was to be, in their times'.   Reflecting on this is of course a tremendously complex matter, but lets just say that the social and the political offer useful, partial ways of understanding experience.   I sometimes think of my work being located at an intersection where the socio-political world meets the subjective, internal world.

But to return to this idea of responsibility, of 'telling it how it is'.   It is not that I expect to change the world, as a traditionally motivated political artist might, but simply to bear witness to it, through the agency of my individual, subjective experience.

BK - What is your main message to viewers, in your recent Floodscape series?

JG - With Floodscapes the message is simple enough, it is that if we carry on acting as we are, we will bring ecological disaster on ourselves, and our descendants.   But in the series, I then go on to suggest some of the ways in which we might avoid future catastrophe.

BK - What is the difference between Floodscapes and your former works?

JG - I do something new in this work - I depict the future.   Analogue photography was always seen as contingent on the present, and therefore the future was a forbidden land.   But digital photography works differently, and can provide us with a vehicle for a kind of time travel.   It is an idea I want to explore further.

BK - Could you tell me the characteristics of 'FloodScape Project' team, which is known as an environmentally activity organization? Why did you make your recent work with them, and what purpose did you share with them?

JG - The original project was developed by the Environment Agency, which is funded by the British government, and also the European Union.   The project's task was to develop new ways of managing flood risk. Rather than building ever higher walls and dams, which as we saw in New Orleans, can't always cope with the new conditions brought about by climate change, they looked into other solutions This aspect involved engineers, town planners, landscape architects and ecologists.  

But another important role was to involve the public in planning their future environment.   And this is where I came in.   The project manager, Egon Walesch reasoned "it was clear that, although a central aspect of FloodScape was to stimulate and involve communities in deciding how we manage flood risk in the future, we were using predominately verbal, rational mechanisms to engage them. It struck me that the visual arts could provide a complementary perspective, another mechanism to encourage participation."

Egon already knew my previous work, especially the 'High Summer' series, which has ecological concerns, so he got in touch and asked if I would like to collaborate.

BK - Are there signs of environmental change in your area of northwest Europe, especially England? What is the main motive that made you start this work, Floodscapes?

JG - It seemed to me an excellent project to be involved with.   Of course, like any citizen, I am increasingly alarmed by the effect of carbon emissions on our ecosystem.   And if we need reminding of the resulting risks, my hometown of Oxford was recently flooded, and more seriously your neighbors to the north.

Maybe I should tell you a little about my thinking when planning the series.   A river offers a marvelous narrative form, which can be developed in one of two directions; up or down stream.   I determined to use both.   Arguments around flood risk management are often couched in terms of choices. I had the idea of traveling down the river using one set of assumptions and outcomes, and then reversing the journey and showing alternative ways of relating to the same environment.   At one level I felt we as a society are facing ethical choices, and the grand master in depicting such issues was of course the C18 English painter William Hogarth.

Hogarth's use of satire and sequence led me to the idea of having a group of young people crewing a punt, on an increasingly perilous journey towards the estuary of the Thames, passing enroute the FloodScape test sites.   By using photo-digital technology I was able to produce inundation where there presently is none.   And so I have the Thames Barrier overtopped and the North Kent Marshes and Ham House flooded.   The youngsters' party mood sobers as they realize the jeopardy they are in.   It is only when they reach the mysterious 'Island of Children', where they receive knowledge from their yet unborn grandchildren, that they are empowered to make the necessary changes.

BK - Do you think that your work could affect the environmental movement? If so, how?

JG - One of the ways in which art can contribute to knowledge is through the imaginative transformation of information, which in turn can creatively engage the public.   But this alchemical process is delicate, and the imagination does not flourish if overly managed.   It needs space, and the great thing about working with the Floodscape team was that they gave me complete creative freedom.   I also benefited from their specialist knowledge and access to people and locations.

The series took me nearly a year to make and I was fortunate in being released from my teaching commitments by the University of Derby, in order to give the project my full attention. The work was premiered at Churchill College, University of Cambridge during an international conference entitled 'The Challenges of Living with Flood Risk: Resistance, Resilience or Retreat?' in the summer of 2006.   It has since been shown at a number of venues in the UK, where it has stimulating a lot of debate around the issues. I very much look forward to exhibiting the series at the marvelous Gallery On, which is fast becoming a second home for me!

BK - You are continuing to work with digital process of photography. What is the main process of this work, and the reason?

JG - A discussion of the implications of digital media is another big topic.   Is it essentially the same as analogue, or is it something quite different, of a new order?   Unfortunately a lot of photographers continue as if nothing has changed; they make the same kind of pictures they always did, but now use digital cameras.   And when it comes to outputting, they try to make their prints look like silverprints.

I think we are in a new era where analogue photography is only a very distant cousin, or maybe great aunt, to digital photography. Siblings are to be found in games design, electronic muzik and web art. The pre-history of photography was concerned with fixing the elusive image, but digital processes have unfixed it once more, making it fluid and fugitive, and liable to states of hybridity.   Montage is no longer a foreign import, awkwardly imposed on photography, but rather an expression of the inherent fluidity and the instability of the image.

BK - Yes, your work reminds two specific images; Simcity which is an American popular simulation game, and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. It seems to be the main characteristic of your work that you show concretely the crucial reality of the human society in the virtual fictional situation. Why do you work in this way, and do you plan to continue it?

This brings us full circle, back to narrative painting via digital photography.   I am constantly surprised and delighted at the common methods used by both. When I made the Floodscapes, for example, I made studies and digital drawings to work out the figure compositions.   I will be showing some of these, from which you can see the constant process of readjustment in the making of a picture.

You mention virtual space, and this is a modern term for something that painters from the Renaissance on constructed through the use of perspective.   Photography was naively attached to a very simplistic idea of truth and reality, but I find a great deal more of each in Bosch than most photos.   It is the artist's view of the world we believe or otherwise, and not something inherent in the media.    

BK - Your fields of interest are vast and enormous, such as criticizing consuming society in the capitalism era, or satirizing environmental and historical problems. What is the true intention and suggestion that you hope to convey in your works?

JG - I return again to the responsibility of the artist to witness the world and account for it, as best they can.   As an artist I have always worked hard, and in time an accumulation of images does occur. Aware of this, I have consciously made interrelated exhibitions, which when considered together take on something of an epic quality.

But there is also the reward of being in conversation with your own picture - they often talk back to you, telling you new and mysterious things.

BK - Is Floodscapes planned to be continue? Could you tell me your about your plans?

JG - In recent years I spend more time in the theatre than cinema, and I'm working presently on a series set in a toy theatre.   It is about how we relate to history in an era of global migration.   In the past history has tended to be written from national perspectives.   This is beginning to unravel in our ethnically diverse and multi-cultural world.

Then I have some plans to return to the future!   I don't know much about it yet, but the adventure of making pictures is in finding out!


September 07

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