Henry Detweiler

Interview by Luther Konadu

A common sentiment that arose from the past year of disruption and pause was the introspective reflection that the protracted slowed time allowed. For many, sequestered from casual physical interaction with schoolmates, coworkers, teammates, and all variety of collaborators, time seemed to be suddenly abundant and at certain points amorphous. New routines needed to be cultivated for this new leaf. When confronted with this halted and lag period, looking inward became inevitable. For artist Henry Detweiler, this inward-gazing at his own personhood and the intertwining pasts that shaped it meant decluttering his computer hard drive. In the many ways our identities have taken prominent residence in digital spaces, this became even more heightened with pandemic regulations as almost everything became virtual. In the swirl of the times, Detweiler went sifting through his stored memories, digital fossils, and other ancillary personal artefacts. Some of this later became points of departure for further inquiry and ‘reckoning’ as he sees it.

‘The past is quietly accumulating until it fills the hard drive and spills out into reality,’ he told me when I spoke to him about his graduate studies thesis exhibition. Detweiler’s assertion can be read in literal terms and it also works just as well as a metaphor for our individual psychological condition. But, it also takes on new weight when considered from a macro lens in an accelerated world where time equals profit and the chase for the next slice of gratification feels never-ending no matter what the personal toll it returns. Working with personal archives dug out from years of backed up storage, Detweiler reimagines brief fragmentary portraits that index different chapters from his life. They take the assortment form of spatially collaged, unassuming objects including thickly bound books in a vitrine, a shipping crate, a QR code, a photobook of altered sex files (which was edited out of the exhibition and was initially imagined as a tapestry-like wall work). These laconic bits and pieces patched together in the exhibition employs an economy of means that is well in line with the Arte Povera movement of yore and in their new public context of the gallery they take on new poetic possibilities beyond the artist’s own inflected history. The assembled objects here don’t call for your attention and are unconcerned with the trappings of commerce. They are muted in their purpose or functionality and, because of that, hover just at the edges of language. Through his own process of self analysis, Detweiler offers up a moment of contemplation and reflection on our own tucked away pasts.

You had to make a few concessions for your thesis display so, for example, the piece, the Revisionist Biography, became a different object-in-progress than you initially imagined. Can you tell me how that piece fits into everything else you were thinking for the exhibit and where it lies in your broader practice?

That piece led into the broader thesis work and the general space I’m working from. It arises out of being behind a computer screen constantly as a result of the pandemic and not really feeling the need to make anything physical or bring anything physically into the world. There are all these files that have been automatically backed up for decades; data passively accruing on hard drives. I saw these decades of files as a kind of raw material for making something new and so as I was digging through these older backups I found a folder of sex images that was sent to me through dating apps ages ago. It is a bit horrifying that it even exists in a random folder deep in my drive so now I think about how to reckon with that or sanitize it or something and so that’s why the figures are removed from them. There are these algorithmically generated pixels that fill the void in their place. They make these sanitized abstractions that create a curiosity in the negative spaces created.

You seem to be working by way of problem-solving as a means out of a set of given constraints or making the most out of what is available. This process of excavating your own personal history allowed you to arrive at a number of the other objects in the exhibition space. Can you speak more on this?

Yes, so through this process of digging, I rediscovered files from my Facebook account. I deleted my Facebook profile ages ago but I have all that data backed up. I have files that are about 12 years old. It consists of backed-up files from my teens into the entirety of my twenties. There’s so much preserved that it feels heavy and terrifying to open it.

Seeing as I didn’t want to deal with it and yet I had to produce a physical object for a physical space as part of getting this degree, I thought I’d use this thing that I really didn’t want to deal with and deal with it in a very public way. That led to the making of a 1600-page pdf and eight volumes hand-bound book object. And that’s partially what is displayed in the gallery. Because of Covid restrictions, I wasn’t allowed to have viewers flip through them, so I encased them in a vitrine. But that worked in my favour as the content is deeply personal and at times even embarrassing.

In the same vein, I used to be a painter too and I haven’t gotten rid of all my old artworks. I still have been carrying them, in the same way, I’m carrying the responsibility of these files. I have a responsibility of carrying these old artworks that somehow feel precious and important, but they are also just detritus of the past. And so that is what the crates in the exhibition are for. They are paintings in this protective container to keep them safe but also hidden from view.

I wonder if by placing these objects in the physical space of an institution, if they passively accumulate some value, in the same way, I passively accumulate the Facebook data. I think these separate elements are poking at a lot of things that I think are interesting but currently feel unresolved to me.

So what about the Bas Jan Ader machine-learning video piece? Is that also another tangent from this?

That is just another experiment in working that’s independent of the need to produce something physically. It came a little bit before but it’s the same kind of idea. I insert myself or image of myself into an art historical canon or lineage; this famous art historical performance piece and then use machine learning to place myself into it. It deals with the weight of art history but also the weight of the contemporary moment. This very strange moment. I wanted to have a computer to imagine what it would be like for me to cry.

It’s interesting the different ways you appear in these objects and the video. You are most present in the video piece but the books, crates, altered images are more ambiguous. Why did you decide to materialize these personal moments and personal archives which existed at a distance (digitally tucked away in hard drives or in storage elsewhere) so to speak.

There’s something pleasingly counterintuitive to them. There’s this move towards digitization for preserving things and libraries have been doing this; this idea of divorcing information from a physical object in order to preserve it. I’m working in the opposite direction. this thing that has never been physical, making it physical somehow makes it vulnerable as well. I’ve been working with family photographs as well as a jumping-off place. These things are memories contained in a unique, not easily reproducible way. A physical object that once it’s gone, it’s gone. That’s what I want to do with the Facebook files. Once it’s bound, they become fragile and unique. Although it’s a pain to deal with and carry around. It’s a physical reckoning and once the files are gone, that’s it. It will only exist in the form of these books.

So you intend on deleting the files forever?

That’s the plan.

Are you scared to delete it?

A little bit. It’s the same fear I had of deleting my Facebook account. But it is beautiful for something to be temporary and fleeting.

It is interesting how much our own identities are caught up in these digital spaces to a point that the act of deleting feels like destroying a part of yourself. You have to go through this questioning and second-guessing, it becomes quite daunting to make that choice. Making it into the book speaks more about that sense of fragility and our own personal history as this thing that is hard to take care of and hold on to.

It is also a history that I didn’t necessarily mean to create. It was passively generated over the years. It’s an accumulation of stuff that points to that history but doesn’t necessarily reflect it.

‘It points to that history but doesn’t necessarily reflect it’, can you say more about that?

Reading my Facebook profile is not a useful portrait of what living through that period was like. It’s just raw accumulated data. The book that was backed up from Facebook is not in any particular order. They are in order of filenames that Facebook assigned. Things from a decade apart in literal time are next to each other across two pages. It is not a useful archive but it still exists.

Can you talk about how you chose to bind the books? They seem formidable and particular.

They take the form of traditional bookbinding. Books that look like books. There’s no virtuosity to them. The form is very common and uninteresting but it requires hours and hours of labour that remains hidden through the final thing. It is just a utilitarian object.

There’s also no identifying information on the outside of the book. I’m curious if there’s an intentionality behind this particular way of designing the object and presenting the content in this way.

Going back to the lineage of my thinking, the original project was intended to be on a 45-foot long file that was to be turned into this strip that went across the walls of the gallery but became the book. The idea for the strip was inspired by this medieval tapestry. It is about a 100-foot long tapestry that tells the story of the Norman conquest. They exist in this 19th-century French building that has this wall constructed inside of it to accommodate the display because of its length. And so, I wanted my 40-foot long file to navigate architecture inside of a gallery in a way that is reminiscent of that. This didn’t show up in the way the books are presented, but I thought of books and binding as having an institutional language and reverence around them, and that influences how we deal with them. Although these books hold this ridiculous information which is my Facebook profile.

The vitrine also speaks to that institutional language and attention to the preservation of archival objects.

In a lot of ways, social media isn’t private even if we want to think that it is. I wonder what you think of privacy now that your personal information is in these books and shielded in a vitrine. Do you think the contents are still ‘yours’ now that it is in a physical public space?

There’s a certain vulnerability to making this a public-facing object. As personal as they may seem, it includes information that is wrapped up in other people I am connected with. So in that sense, it is not just me, it’s impersonal. The design of the book is also impersonal, all the craft behind it is hidden. Anything that my ego gets excited about with craft and technique isn’t there.

To some extent, what gave rise to this work is tied to the pandemic and the restrictions it brought on but the work seems to work on their own terms even without prefacing those conditions.

Yes, that’s a good point. It is not a reflection of the pandemic but rather a result of it.

From what you’ve described so far you seem to work in a rather provisional way or you tend to be responding to things as they come. Is it right to assume that this is true for the rest of your current practice?

A lot of what I’ve done in the past there’s something like an exhibition happening and I have to think about making things for a space or relation to each other. Other than that, I’ve been making zines and short fiction books, and that’s where the production happens and it turns into a sculpture, or a painting, etc. But I don’t really have a painting practice anymore. I only do paintings when I’m asked to.

It’s an interesting way of working: responding to a set of given conditions you find yourself in. As an artist do you find that is precarious or freeing?

I think it’s both and. It is precarious because I don’t have a clear way of articulating exactly what it is I do. If you write you can say you are a writer, if you paint you are a painter. I can’t claim any of those titles and don’t feel attached to forms and that can be precarious. It makes it challenging to explain myself to other people except in a conversation like this where I can ramble and talk through stuff and have stuff come up. It is not conducive to an elevator pitch or whatever. But that is also freeing.

In thinking about explaining yourself and having hesitation or feeling like language doesn’t work in your favour when it comes to your visual work, you have a writing practice as well, what do you write about?

I recently learned the term autofiction which is like memoir along with some elements of fiction. And writing in this way allows more space for the accumulation of references and associations to build up a visceral sense of a work. This happens with artworks so I can literally tell you what the Facebook thing is, but that doesn’t tell you what it is about. With a piece of writing, there’s a sense of a thing that emerges from different associations.

You also seem to experiment with the form you select to write in. What makes you choose a more experimental way of working with language?

I’m an old fan of Kathy Acker. I like the space of a written piece being a collage. Working in that fragmentary way is a better way for me to be productive rather than this extended longitudinal way.

Return to Henry Detweiler’s profile.