The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue
Art In Conversation


“Art will play an increasingly critical role in the survival of our species.”

Portrait of Justin Brice Guariglia. Pencil on Paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Justin Brice Guariglia. Pencil on Paper by Phong Bui.
On view
Somerset House
April 16 – April 29, 2019

Every now and then I meet an artist who has found his or her calling rather late in life—be it reaching their maturity after years of searching and struggle, or awakening a moment of clear vision, heightened perception that changes their course of direction. Such is the case of Justin Brice Guariglia.

Although we met in the Spring of 2018, I only began to understand the full scope of Guariglia’s work on a recent visit to his studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn (a profound pleasure as always to be in any artist’s studio, a sacred space where the work is made). On the occasion of a new project commissioned by Somerset House, London to celebrate Earth Day 2019 REDUCE SPEED NOW! (the artist’s largest scale installation to date, consisting of nine large solar-powered LED signs with various texts in the neoclassical courtyard), among two other group exhibits from the Rail Curatorial Projects (Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Occupy Colby at Colby Museum, Waterville, Maine, and Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum at the Venice Biennale as a collateral project this summer), the artist paid a visit to the Rail HQ in Greenpoint one evening to talk about his life and work. The following is the edited version from our longer conversation. 

Justin Brice Guariglia, WE ARE THE ASTEROID II, 2018. Solar-powered LED highway message sign, sand-blasted with rusted patina. Text: Timothy Morton 2018. Approx. 15 feet 6 inches x 11 feet 6 inches x 13 feet 3 inches. installation view, Chicago Navy Pier, as part of EXPO Chicago's IN/SITU OUTDOOR programming. This work was funded with a grant from the Union of Concerned Scientists. The aphorisms that appear on this solar powered LED highway message board were written by eco philosopher and author of "Being Ecological" Timothy Morton.

Phong Bui [Rail]: Justin, you went to College at Wake Forest University, an institution known for its school of law, business, and medicine, and also known for its great basketball team The Demon Deacons, which has produced great NBA players like Mussy Bogues (the shortest to ever play), Chris Paul, among others. You graduated in ‘97, the same year Tim Duncan did.

Justin Guariglia: That’s right. [Laughs.] I used to have class with Tim, but I didn’t realize who he was until basketball season began.

Rail: He was known as a good student. Psychology major, but took classes in anthropology and Chinese literature.

Guariglia: Tim, Randolph Childress, Rusty LaRue and I all had a computer science class together. I think Rusty was the best student in the entire class—if I remember correctly he was a double major with straight A’s, and played 3 varsity sports—he, like Tim Duncan, were rather super-human.

Rail: How can I forget Randolph Childress, who was the 1995 ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) MVP?

Guariglia: Randolph and I were quite friendly. He and I used to sit next to each other in the back of English Lit class. Actually, for the first few months I had no idea who he was, but once I found out he was this amazing basketball player, I immediately began going to the games to watch him and Timmy play, but sports weren’t at all my interest.

Rail: Tim Duncan had these amazing low-post moves, solid mid-range bank shots, and played great defense. And he's a very stoic character, which is absolutely useful in intense situations. He’s the reason why The San Antonio Spurs won 5 NBA Championships. Anyway, I love college basketball as much as the pros, and The Demon Deacons is one of my favorite teams. But forget about basketball for a moment. The fact you went there and earned a Bachelor of Science, how does it explain your interest in art whatsoever?

Guariglia: It doesn't.

Rail: Do tell me how it all got started.

Guariglia: I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey—I’m a third generation Maplewoodian, a town which has recently become popular with people fleeing Brooklyn. I was raised with the typical middle-class values of going to school, getting a good job, keeping on track, etc... and I was a Boy Scout and later became an Eagle Scout, so I spent my weekends and summers in the natural world, hiking, backpacking the Appalachian trail, etc..., and I loved cars and played a lot of sports. 

Rail: Which sports? 

Guariglia: Baseball was my favorite. I was a catcher and had a strong arm, which got me into the semi-pro league… but when I got to college and realized that I was not going to play baseball professionally, I stopped practicing ball and refocused on academic studies—I took a wide breadth of courses, trying to learn as much as I could about everything. Then came an opportunity to study in this program Wake Forest offered in Venice, Italy. The program was held at Casa Artom, which was the former US Consulate in Venice—it’s a 19th Century palace which sits on the Grand Canal, adjacent to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Wake Forest had purchased the house in the mid ’70s and converted it into an overseas study program with a focus on art history. As you know from my name, I’m of Italian heritage—and actually part Venetian—so I jumped at the opportunity to go to Italy and study Italian Literature and Venetian art history, which at the time was being taught by the famous art historian Terisio Pignatti, who had written endless books on the subject, with a strong focus on Venetian art history and art in its original setting. 

<p>Justin Brice Guariglia, <em>Untitled (Glacial Ice Series xNASA)</em>, 2015. Image of glacial ice shaped by anthropogenic forces.  Image taken from 1,500 feet while flying on NASA Ice Bridge mission over Greenland.  Digitally printed onto 9 polystyrene insulation panels. © Justin Brice Guariglia</p>

Justin Brice Guariglia, Untitled (Glacial Ice Series xNASA), 2015. Image of glacial ice shaped by anthropogenic forces. Image taken from 1,500 feet while flying on NASA Ice Bridge mission over Greenland. Digitally printed onto 9 polystyrene insulation panels. © Justin Brice Guariglia

Rail: Who wrote on Giorgione, Carpaccio, Canaletto, Titian, and especially Pietro Longhi, Veronese, and his volume The Golden Century of Venetian Art (1979), which was a very popular book. 

Guariglia: That’s right. Being in his class opened up a whole new world to me. At Wake Forest I was on a finance, consulting, business track which I wasn’t quite feeling. Pignatti drastically expanded my horizons. While I was in Venice, I was also traveling all around Europe in my free time. I learned I had a knack for picking up languages wherever I traveled. I can often hear something and then repeat it exactly, often with little to no accent. So I used that skill wherever I travelled, and I found that local people would warm up to you very quickly that way. I could make friends fast. At that time I was also reading up on the artists and architects of the Renaissance which came out of my coursework. In the last few weeks of that semester I decided I needed to learn more about the rest of the world and couldn’t face going back to North America, so enrolled in a Chinese university for the Fall semester. It’s rather clear looking back that my semester in Italy was a pivotal turning point.

Rail: Which was your Junior year?

Guariglia: Yes, and so I went home for the summer, and did this awful internship for a big Wall Street firm to be unnamed, and I hated every single second I was there. At the end of the summer I jumped on a plane and I flew to China to attend school at Capital Normal University in Beijing, where I was one of only sixty odd foreigners in the program. This was 1996 and was considered early China days—Mao suits and bicycles were still very prominent, and this is also before China began attracting all the business kids. Nearly everyone in my program was there for intellectual reasons—I was in class with people like Evan Osnos, who became a staff writer for the New Yorker and was the son of the famous Washington Post foreign correspondent Peter Osnos; and there was Geoff Lieberthal who I became close friends with. Geoff was Ken Lieberthal’s son, and Ken was one of the top Sinologists on the planet at the time, had a seat on the National Security Council and advised President Clinton on China policy; and even the US Ambassador to Hong Kong, his son was in our program. So by sheer luck I ended up in this really fascinating group of kids that were in China because we had all recognized it was a historic time to be there.

Anyway, the program involved studying Chinese, Chinese culture, and Chinese history, and it was there that I picked up a camera for the first time and I spent my free time doing street photography. I knew very little about the history of photography at this point. I mean, I was just starting to discover Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, etc. and I was becoming a big fan of Sebastião Salgado and his book Workers which had just been published a few years earlier. So I began to teach myself through books and that's how I got into photography. I also met another kid in my program named Brandon who was taking abstract street photography style images. He, too, never studied photography. He just picked up a camera and took to the streets and was constantly approaching everything in a rather nonconventional way, and the net result was rather striking. We started to go on photographic trips around China together, documenting everything we saw and experienced. His images also had a big influence on me, helping me realize I had to think differently if I wanted to have a visual impact. 

Rail: What happened next? 

Guariglia: I came back to the States and finished off my last Semester at Wake Forest, audited double the number of allowed courses, and received my B.S. in 1997. I then was offered a job in Silicon Valley in cryptography, moved to Palo Alto, and again, hated the corporate world and decided I wanted to be a photographer, so I quit my six-figure salary, and moved back in with my family in New Jerseyh. I bartended, waited tables, sold boxer shorts on the streets of New York City on the weekends to support myself, and enrolled into an evening course at the International Center of Photography on the “Photo Essay”. While at ICP I heard about a coveted internship opening at Magnum Photos and went to their office immediately to see if I could apply as someone had just quit their position unexpectedly and they miraculously gave me the position. 

By this time, I'd traveled around western Europe, a little bit of eastern Europe and Asia, and I realized that I really didn’t know much about anything, but I saw photojournalism as a potential opportunity to travel and learn about the world, and possibly earn a little income to support myself in the process, so the gig at Magnum became a fantastic way to learn more about the profession.

Rail: How did you start your career as a photojournalist?

Guariglia: I got a lucky break because of Chris Boot, who is currently the head of Aperture, but back then was the director of Magnum Photos. I asked Chris if I could share my portfolio with him—it was a portfolio of images from a month long trip I took across Bangladesh in the dry Winter months. Chris asked me what I wanted to do next with them and I said—“I'd love to present these to National Geographic. Do you think they would be willing to look at them?” And before I finished the sentence he had picked up the phone and called Kent Kobersteen, who was then the Director of Photography. He said, “Ken, I have this intern here, he's got this interesting portfolio. I think you might enjoy seeing it.” Ken said, “Next time he’s in Washington, D.C., have him come by.” Chris relayed the response to me and hung up the phone. My jaw dropped and I was speechless. I hopped on a train to Washington D.C. the following week just to meet Ken and show him my two pages of chromes. He seemed to be impressed with them and said he’d love to keep in touch and see more of my work, then he sent me downstairs to meet with the photo editor at National Geographic Traveler Magazine. The editor there, Dan Westergren said the same thing to me, “You’re doing interesting work, let’s keep in touch.” A year went by and then I moved back to Asia and started to work as a photojournalist. 

My first magazine assignment came from TIME ASIA which sent me to Tibet, and then I received my first newspaper assignment from the Boston Globe to cover the elections and riots in Indonesia. I was living in Hong Kong at this point, receiving infrequent photo assignments around the region, but I was slowly running out of my meger savings, and trying to figure out how to get more work to support myself, and suddenly the phone rang, it was National Geographic Traveler Magazine asking if I'd be willing to do a story in Bali, Indonesia, and that “it could potentially be a cover if the images are strong enough, and here’s the writer who will be working with you.” I was over the moon and decided that while I was given a 12 day assignment I would stay as long as necessary until I had the strongest set of photos to impress the editors. I worked my ass off. I knew this was my big break. Pictures come back and the editor goes through them and calls me saying they were really happy with the results. I got the cover, and luckily in the final hours, the editor-in-chief of the magazine came up with the bold text on the cover that read: “Bali, Still Paradise?” So the magazine comes out October 1, 2002, and is sitting on newsstands around the world, and two weeks later, the Bali bombing happens—which I fly over on assignment to cover for several publication—and the magazine sells out and becomes the best selling issue in the history of the magazine. The publisher and the editor of the magazine separately call me, and they essentially are like . . . “Who are you, and where have you been?” [Laughs.] The photo editors follow up shortly thereafter and they began to give me multiple assignments, the editor-in-chief added me to the masthead of the magazine, and that's essentially how I started my photojournalism career, with a literal explosion. Once NatGeo got behind me, the New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine and dozens of other publications started handing me assignments around the region with the main focus of documenting the economic transformation of Asia. I spoke some basic Chinese so I was regularly assigned stories across China. From 1996 - 2015 I lived in Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Taipei, and Shanghai.

Rail: How did being a photojournalist transpire your eventual interest in climate change and environmental issues?

Guariglia: You know, you can read as much as you want, but if you really want to begin to understand a complex situation, you really need to be physically present as a witness. I remember Ai Weiwei describing to me how he landed on the Greek island of Lesbos and saw all of the refugees trying to come ashore and commenting that: You can see and read about this urgent topic on the news day and night, but it's not until you’re there on the island, where you can witness the suffering first hand, that you can truly begin to understand the depth and dimension of the problems. Photojournalism taught me the importance of the need to bear witness, and this became invaluable tools for me as an artist. 

At the same time I was beginning to develop some informed opinions and was trying to figure out how to best express them. I also wanted to focus on connecting my earlier experiences of studying art history with Pignatti with exploring the ample layers a work of art generates. So I began to think how I could bring together story-telling that was focused on urgent issues, and turn it into compelling art that could operate on a multitude of levels. 

Rail: Which very few have managed to blur the line from photojournalism into fine art. Out of the big roster of Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man series, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and less than a handful of others were being appreciated beyond their frank humanism of street photography. 

Guariglia: I wasn’t so keen to bring photojournalism into art, I was seeking something that went beyond the traditional photograph. I felt the vocabulary and medium of photography was too constraining for what I wanted to say. I realized that to communicate my beliefs, I had to depart from photojournalism altogether.

Rail: At what year did you realize this desire?

Guariglia: It started in 2007 when I made my first book and traveling exhibition with the editor Lesley Martin at the Aperture Foundation, Shaolin: Temple of Zen (with an introduction by Matthew Polly and foreword by the abbot of the Shaolin temple Shi Yong Xin). I was the first photographer in 1500 years that the temple had allowed in to document the real monks, and the photos were OK, but when you got to the middle of the book, I introduce a series of abstract grainy black and white images that begin to approximate motion and spirituality, and operate on a whole different level. They looked like calligraphic brush strokes, painterly and ephemeral, and I realized, only then, that a document could be evocative, ambiguous, and informative all at the same time. That was a watershed moment for me.

The following year I did another book entitled Planet Shanghai, published by Chronicle Books, which was meant to be August Sanders meets Shanghai, with a twist. The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine reviewed Planet Shanghai and the book sold out pretty quickly. Also China was booming at that time, so the subject matter was timely. All the while, I was trying to figure out how to transition from photographer to artist and support myself. And then my first son was born in 2008, in the year of the dragon.

Rail: And the Stock Market Crash in September.

Guariglia: How can I forget? That was when I started reflecting deeply on what was morally and ethically important to me as I suddenly was a role model (for my son). The arrival of a child does that to you. At the time I was still represented by the brilliant Robert Pledge at Contact Press Images. Like Magnum Photos, everyone at Contact was a concerned photographer. Everyone had at least one life long project they were working on. So I, too, was thinking long term, but I wasn’t interested in wars or conflict, I was drawn back towards the natural world. It was very clear, after over a decade in Asia at that point, that the environment was collapsing. I saw it everywhere I went. I bore witness to the deforestation of forests in Indonesia, the collapse of animal stocks in Mongolia, and rivers polluted with rubbish across China. I also came to realize I was part of the problem -- I had a huge carbon footprint from all of the flights I was flying. Geologists call the last 70 years the “Great Acceleration,” and I like to say that I bore witness to the “Great Asian Acceleration,” which is primarily what I was assigned to document for magazines and newspapers around the world. As the economies bloomed, and millions rose out of poverty, the collateral damage was ecological catastrophe. It led us to what Anna Tsing has referred to as “living among capitalist ruins.” In Asia, people were too drunk on the immense opportunities of wealth creation—and could you blame them!—to bother to pay attention to the environment. I mean literally, in Beijing in the mid 1990’s, you could walk down the street in the winter and within minutes your nose would run black from all of the particulate suspended in the air you breathed, all coming from the coal that was being burned, to generate the power needed to fuel the economic revolution. It was remarkable.

Rail: You can barely see the sight of the sun.

Guariglia: Exactly! For someone that grew up in a town called Maplewood—named of course after the tree that grows in every yard in town—and spent weekends in the woods among the natural world, this was mind boggling and tragic. Instead of getting depressed, it piqued my curiosity to explore some of the other ways humans were changing the planet. That was the catalyst for me to begin a series on post-naturalism, which I approached by photographing hybridized and cloned orchids around the world, from world orchid competitions in Australia and Singapore, farms in Borneo and Florida, and eventually even Her Majesty the Queen of England’s orchid collection in Kew Gardens. I was also photographing the last sacred forests and jungles across the planet. Neither of those projects have been fully realized yet.

Remember the Blue Marble image—that iconic, unreal, view from nowhere—I felt that perspective might be worth exploring to help us see the bigger picture, but it of course means you lose a sense of scale and direction. Climate change and global warming have no identifiable horizon or scale so they are inherently disorientating, so I felt this was quite a fitting conceptual approach for my photographic work. 

By this time I had a lot of training in aerial photography which really intrigued me because of the unique perspective you can get from the air. I’d logged dozens of hours working from the outside of helicopters, and eventually that led me to start photographing with my medium format camera on transpolar and transcontinental flights. I would often spend most of the flight looking out the window, taking photographs of any evidence I found of human impact on Earth—surface mines, agriculture, etc.

Rail: Mostly in Asia.

Guariglia: Yes, that’s where I lived. As I was accumulating the imagery I was desperately trying to figure out what to do with them. My first thought was to go big—the works were packed with details and I knew they would hold up well when blown up to a large scale. The only oversized photographs I knew of in the art world were being made by Andreas Gursky and the Dusseldorf school photographers, so the next time I was in Germany I went to visit Grieger Labs which produces all of those oversized prints for those photographers. Sadly the process they use to make their oversized prints, called “diasec,” turned out to not be archival, and the aesthetic also didn’t quite align with my vision for this work, so I began to look for ideas elsewhere.

Then I heard about Don (Donald) and Era Farnsworth, at Magnolia Editions in Oakland, California. When I originally called them from Taiwan and said I was going to be in the Bay Area soon and asked if I could come by and meet them, Era literally told me they didn’t work with photographers and were not sure they could help me. A little flustered, I called her back the next day and said “I don't think I explained myself that well. Yes, I'm a photographer, but I'm coming to you as an artist: I want to take the images I have and transcend the photographic print on paper, and create something new.” So Era invited me to come by, and I meet with Don and his team, and they showed me all around the space, from paper making facilities, to all different types of printmaking and so on, and then I saw this big air-hockey like table the size of an SUV in the middle of his space and asked “What is that?” They said, “Oh that’s a UV Printer.” I said “What does it do?” “You can print acrylic onto anything, essentially. You give us any material and the file and we can print on it for you.” My eyes lit up, and I said “Amazing! That's what I want to do, but I want to manipulate the surface and play with different materials.” And so I brought in all these inkjet canvases I had sitting around in my studio and I started putting all these gels and other things on the surface and played with all these things and we made all these really cool prints. And within a month they all fell apart. The chemistry wasn't right, there was a silica layer in the ink jet canvases which refused to bond to anything, and I realized I would need to learn more about materials and the technology, but I also realized this UV printer was a powerful tool that could allow me to expand the vocabulary of the photographic medium through materials, process, and possibly even scale. 

Justin Brice Guariglia, <em>Arctic Ocean</em>, 2016. © Justin Brice Guariglia
Justin Brice Guariglia, Arctic Ocean, 2016. © Justin Brice Guariglia

At the same time, I was getting divorced. In that process, I sold my apartment in Williamsburg, and with that money, decided it would be best to buy a high end UV acrylic inkjet printer that was fully optioned out, so that I could really play with the medium with minimal constraints. At the same time, I was leaving Asia and moving to Brooklyn, and setting up the printer in my new studio space in Gowanus. I thought it was imperative to be in New York City. Once I set up the studio, one of the first assistants I hired had just finished his MFA in painting at Yale. Since I had no studio art background, I had to rely on him to help work with me to develop new techniques to prep and prime materials for the printer. We were taking linen and stretching it over these hyper archival honeycomb aluminum panels, then laying down upwards of 20 coats of gesso onto the surface while sanding between most layers until we achieved an ultra-flat surface which is good for the printer. Then I would print onto the substrate and then we’d paint over it or sand it down and experiment. It was process heavy and a labor of love. Then I started getting into gilding after seeing the Kanō school show at the Philadelphia Museum in 2015—but instead of painting landscapes like they did, I was beginning to print my aerial landscape photographs onto the hand gilded gold and silver surfaces we made, but printing with a thick amount of acrylic on the surface to give the abstract images the dimension of painting, rather than looking like a photograph.

Material wise, we really started experimenting with everything we could get our hands on and that was how I began a shift from making photographs to making objects.

Rail: When did you begin reading Timothy Morton’s writing?

Guariglia: I had a studio visit by an abstract painter one day and at the time I was just finishing a large 16’ x 12’ multi panelled polystyrene work entitled “Jakobshavn I” and he asked me, “Have you read this book called Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World?” I said “No, what’s the book about?” He said “You need to read it, what you are doing fits exactly what the philosopher Timothy Morton is writing about.” So I get the book and start reading it, and immediately felt “Wow—this is everything I’ve been thinking about but never had the words to express.” This was in late 2015. I had been up flying with NASA earlier that Spring, which I’ll come back to in a moment. I watched a few of Timothy’s lectures on YouTube and realize I need to reach out to this man. I decided to send an email to Timothy. I introduced myself to him, I sent him some pictures of what I was working on, tell him how much I admired his book Hyperobjects and how he was able to put into words everything I was feeling and thinking about on a daily basis, but for years I was at a complete loss for describing in words, and I asked if he’d be willing to work with me. Two days later he emailed me and said “I would definitely be glad to work with you a little bit! ” [Laughs] That’s how our collaboration started. So a conversation began and it wasn’t until the closing of my “Earth Works” show at the Norton Museum in December 2018 that Timothy and I finally met in person. I asked the museum to invited him as our keynote speaker for the show, and of course, he packed the house, it was standing room only and the museum had to turn people away.

Backtracking here, when I left Asia and set up my Brooklyn studio, I had already spent most of my adult life intertwined physically with the Anthropocene, I had a first hand experience with it, but I was beginning to realize that now, to make the next crucial leap in my work, I needed to seek out the experts on the subject matter because I needed the tools to critically engage with all that I experienced.

And you have to remember, I’d worked for National Geographic previously for over a decade and everybody returned my calls, and I mean everybody! Presidents, dictators, CEOs, you name it. I used to joke that I could get the president of most Asian countries on the phone faster than I could get some of my friends on the phone. I remember my wife at the time, Zoe, had said to me, “People are not this nice in real life, the only reason everyone is so nice to you and always calls you back is because of who you work for.” Here I was flying all around the world doing these assignments and everyone knew who I was when I arrived. At one four star hotel I was staying at in Shanghai, the GM took me to an area under construction, and to acces the area we needed to use the staff elevator. We walk inside and right next to the lift buttons was an A4 size print of ME!—I turned to the hotel GM and said, “What the hell is this!?!” And he explained, they tracked down my photo online, printed it out, and placed in in all of the staff elevators so that the staff knew to take care of me—he told me that they do it for all the VIPs. It was crazy stuff. You can say I lived in a slightly altered state of reality.

Anyway, so when I learned that NASA was flying missions over the Arctic, I didn’t think twice about cold calling them up to see if I could get on the mission to learn more about the science and get some raw materials for my art work. I literally picked up the phone and called NASA headquarters saying: “Hi, I’m blah blah blah . . . I see you’ve been flying these missions over Greenland and I’d like to join the mission.” I just happened to call them on the right day. I got the Director of Communications for Earth Sciences on the phone. I told him I was a photographer but that I wanted to fly with them as an artist and make a body of art work from what I collect on the mission, because I felt strongly that art, not straight photography, was what was required to communicate the issue across society. He sounded intrigued and sent me down to the POC, “point-of-contact” for the Mission.

Rail: Did they understand?

Guariglia: They accepted me through the only channel they could, which was as a journalist but as Adam Curtis has eluded to, the line between journalism and art is a very fine line. So the NASA POC says, “We can probably get you on a flight in a couple years from now. We are wrapping up a mission right now, and it’s a shame you didn’t call us a couple weeks ago, we could have got you on this big Hercules C-130 plane—there’s plenty of space. The next couple of missions we’re working with small planes and we can’t even get our scientists on the plane. Maybe in 2020 we can get you on the plane . . .” But he didn’t realize who he was talking to. [Laughs.] He had let slip that they had a mission in progress and it was a big plane, and it sounded like it was my only opportunity. So I said, “Listen, if I can get there tomorrow can I go?” The fella at NASA said, “Well, I think so, but I need to clear it with the team, but can you get there?” “Don’t worry about that, I reassured him. If you can get me the permission and I’ll get there.” He called me back an hour later and said “Yeah, the guys in Greenland say it’s okay. So If you can get over in time, and weather permitting, you can join them on some flights.” I dropped everything, which is what I was trained to do as a photojournalist. As I mentioned, I’d covered the Bali bombing as a photojournalist, and within a few hours of that horrific tragedy, I was on the next flight from Singapore to Bali and then on the ground working by the time the sun came up—that is how photojournalists live and work, I just never realize I’d be using those skills in my art practice! Anyway, I hung up the phone with NASA, booked a few flights on-line, packed my bags, double checked my photographic equipment, and within 72 hours arrived in Greenland, met the NASA team, and flew the very next morning with them. So I guess you can say I’m good on the fly. [Laughs]

My personal mission there was to gather up as much material—photographs, video, sound, everything that I could collect—to bring back to my studio to use as raw source materials. I was going there to absorb like a sponge, capture lots of data, take lots of notes, so that I could play with it later. It would be back in Brooklyn when I went to sit down and edit the materials, that’s when I began to think: wow, this is such a grave existential threat, how in the world can I even begin to communicate this through a body of art work? How could I broadly raise the public consciousness about this extremely complex and urgent ecological crisis. 

It’s really so hard to understand the problem. I’d been reading about it over and over and over again for years, but it wasn’t until I got up in the air and over the ice sheets and stood in front of a collapsing glacier, that I really began to understand and feel the problem. As Eva Horn, the cultural theorist from the University of Vienna has said, and I’m paraphrasing: If you’re not an Inuit, a farmer, or a NASA scientist, it’s almost impossible to understand just how rapidly the planet is changing. You need to get to the front lines to witness first hand what is happening if you truly intend to get below the surface. Which brings us back to Morton, the “hyperobject” and the need for philosophy. As you know, you don’t turn to philosophers for answers. “Philosophia” in Greek doesn’t mean wisdom, but rather the love of wisdom. Philosophy’s job is to help us identify the correct questions to ask, and at that moment, I was struggling with figuring out what the correct questions were that I needed to be asking.

In reading Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, I was gaining a framework to understand what I was seeing and experiencing. In the most basic and fundamental ways, Timothy was giving me a vocabulary for what I had felt, but had never been able to express. We’re talking about the natural world, and we’re talking about ecological collapse—the sixth extinction. It’s so complex and broad, how do you enter this problem and where could you potentially come out? This concept of the hyperobject was, for me, quite profound. A hyperobject is an object that lives in a temporal and spatial scale that is nonhuman, and it’s nonhuman because it is so massively distributed over space and time that it’s unlike anything we know, we simply can’t access it.

So philosophy becomes a crucial tool to help us contextualize and properly explore these profound ideas. And the other thing Timothy does that isn’t typical of philosophers, is that he almost always embeds levity or humor in his writing or his talks, even though he is dead serious. I felt that really helped make his work more accessible. So I started reading more philosophy and other philosophers who were addressing the environment, ecology, and eco-theory, like Graham Harman the father of Object Orientated Ontology, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, etc.

I should also mention one of the things Timothy is exceptionally good at is neologising and turning complex ideas into pithy bits of text that are packed rich with meaning and nuiance, like the term “hyperobject.” I realized this while reading his books, so I decided my first ask of him would be to see if he could come up with some ecological aphorisms for me. I really wanted to work with text in my work, which I feel can have a rather incisive quality to it. I wasn’t sure at first what I would do with any text he gave me, but I figured I needed to have the text first and then would know how best to use it. I was of course inspired by the work of Jenny Holzer had done over the years and how it was able to resonate so well in the public realm—it was a thoughtful, smart, and accessible, but of course, she has done almost everything imaginable with text in often the most brilliant of ways, so it is a tough act to follow. I needed to come up with some new delivery device. 

Then Timothy began to send me stream of consciousness, haiku like text messages with aphorism after aphorism . . . “HURRICANE HUMAN”; “WE ARE THE ASTEROID”; “TRIASSIC WEATHER AHEAD”; and I was realizing—wow—these are good, they really need a strong public platform, what can I do with them? Then one day I was driving into New York City from New Jersey, sitting in traffic outside the Holland Tunnel, and there was this highway sign on the side of the road, glitching something fierce. It caught my attention because it wasn’t giving me the correct message it was supposed to, and I couldn’t stop looking at it. I thought, “That’s it, I’ll put Timothy’s aphorisms on a highway sign, which can be brought to various places throughout the city, like public parks, yards, wherever I can get persmission to place them.” It would really catch people’s attention as it would be totally unexpected. They are symbols of authority and without even thinking they subconsciously create a limbic response. It was simple, but also rather subversive. A few weeks later, the curators from Storm King asked me to be part of their group show in 2018, and the highway sign idea was one of the first projects I proposed to them, and the work debuted there with the title, WE ARE THE ASTEROID I. The project then morphed into a large public art installation in the summer of 2018 with 10 signs going up across the five boroughs of New York City, and presented by the Mayor’s Office and the nascent Climate Museum, which produced and funded the project. THere are also two other iterations of WE ARE THE ASTEROID touring the country today.

Justin Brice Guariglia, WE ARE THE ASTEROID II, 2018. (A public art work on display at Storm King Art Center.) Solar-powered LED highway message sign, gilded with 23.75K rosenoble gold. Text: Timothy Morton 2018. Approx. 15ft 6 in x 11 ft 6 in x 13 ft 3 in. The aphorisms that appear on this solar powered LED highway message board were written by eco philosopher and author of "Being Ecological" Timothy Morton. © Justin Brice Guariglia

Rail: I’m sure with Timothy’s ecological theory, along with his works on how the body relates to the natural world, diet, among other things that are also related to art and environmental aesthetics, he’d be thrilled to collaborate with you on this ongoing project.

Guariglia: Yes, I feel lucky he was so willing to work with me as he’s literally been working with rock stars like Laurie Anderson, and Björk, and not to mention Olafur Eliasson.

Rail: How did your show at the Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach, Florida) come about?

Guariglia: Back around 2004 I met one of the curators of photography from LACMA, Timothy Wride, who was reviewing portfolios at Fotofest in Houston, Texas. Fotofest, organized by the indefatigable Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin would bring together museum curators, photo book publishers, photo editors who come and review your work. That year they had given me an award as one of their “10 Discoveries of Fotofest” and one of the things Tim Wride had said to me after my review was, “I really like what you’re doing... when you find the art, call me.” Tim was not so interested in photojournalism, but liked the more abstract and conceptual work I was flirting with at the time, which is what also really interested me, but I hadn’t found a way to support myself with that work yet. Photojournalism was paying my bills and helping me learn about the world. So Tim and I stayed in touch over the years, and then he moved to the Norton Museum of Art, and when I moved back to New York I called him and said “Tim! I’ve been flying on missions with NASA gathering source materials to make my art work, and I just got a new flat bed printer and began making objects.” He was immediately intrigued and said he wanted to come by next time he was in New York City. He came to the studio, looks around at everything for a few hours, asks lots of questions, and turns to me and says, “What do you think, should we do it in the Fall or the Spring?” and I turn to him and say, “do what?”, and he says “the show!” And that’s how quickly in came about—but like all things, it was good timing. The museum is located in West Palm Beach and 3 feet above sea level, and everyone in Florida, except for the governor, knew they were going to be underwater sooner rather than later. The show ended up being entitled Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene, and opened at the Norton at the end of 2017. Ironically the show opened the day Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, forcing the show to close the same day it opened. The show then traveled to the (USC) Fisher Museum of Art, and sprawled across the street, over into the Museum of Natural History, which had the 20 foot ceilings to accommodate the Jakobshavn I piece. 

Rail: Would it be fair to say that you are at the point of your career now where everything is possible, regardless of the mediums or materials? You’ve already overcome having made images into made objects, and I’ve just realized you may as well be a member of Object-oriented Ontology that opposes the notion that “knowledge ought to conform to objects,” whereas you are the conduit from which the message is sent through and from in a perpetual and urgent manner.

Guariglia: Yes. We are seeing today that art can play an increasingly important role in helping give us new vocabularies, languages, and structures to understand the world around us. My work is meant to be a catalyst for social and political change, and to be effective in that sense, it also needs to be accessible to the broad public. So for me while the subject matter remains the same, the medium and interpretation changes to mobilize the message in different ways. So I’m working with painting, printmaking, sculpture, video, apps, neon, solar powered highway signs . . . it’s more about finding the best medium for the message. One of the projects I’m working on now is a show called Reduce Speed Now! which will debut at Somerset House in London this April 16th.

Rail: Which will correspond with Earth Day 2019.

Guariglia: Exactly. I was offered the Spring commission to take over their neo-classical courtyard and create a public art work. After dozens of iterations, I came to realize that the problem is much bigger than me and that the work should reflect that. So I began to explore how I could bring together the voices of critical poets, philosophers, thinkers, and activists to give them a platform to have their voices be heard. We finally settled on nine solar powered highway signs, each one dedicated to a different voice engaged in the ecological conversation. There is a short text by philosopher Bruno Latour, a speech by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who inspired the recent student-led strikes; a poem by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner and Aka Niviâna, two amazing women from the Marshall Islands and Greenland respectively; one sign has quotes from 12 indigenous elders from around the world; Timothy Morton’s eco-aphorisms are on another sign; and I’m finishing up the last few contributors now, and lastly, I will have a sign.

I feel the subject matter of climate change demands that the artwork I make be focused on works that can draw in the public’s attention to catalyze conversation—like Joseph Beuys concept of “social sculpture”, “REDUCE SPEED NOW!” is in manys ways meant to transform society. 

The one thing I’ve learned from all the scientists I’ve been speaking with is that we simply don’t have time to spare. We are living in a time of deep fiction and grave disorientation. Art is one of the only tools we have to bring us back to reality. Art has the ability to help us orientate ourselves in these turbulent times, and it’s no exaggeration to say that art will play an increasingly more critical role in the survival of our species.

Rail: You are an artist with a mission.

Guariglia: And the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan liked to say.


Phong Bui

Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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