Daniel John$on: It's All Strange

Daniel AnTon Johnson, born and raised in Delaware, teaches at the School of Visual Arts, where he earned an MFA studying photography, video, and related media. His work develops from an interest in the effect of technology and popular culture on the ideas of authorship and possibilities of representation. Residing in Brooklyn, he works in the commercial photo and video industry while volunteering his time working in different education related projects and mentoring young artists of color. 

Daniel Johnson is an artist originally from Delaware. I am from New Jersey. These are two forgettably small states located in the shadow of four large cities: New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. Discussed here is Daniel’s editing of materials, his presence on the internet, and his relationship to technology. The first time we met was during a exhibition opening. I remember talking about cannibalism and Pokémon.

I don’t like to stress about definitions of what media art is or isn’t, or how it should be differentiated, excluded, or absorbed into other facets of art or the art world. For me, it is art with some technological property or influence. It is more of a medium than a movement or genre. The need to define movements or terminologies often gets in the way of actually talking about artworks. At times I feel this desire is self-righteous and could be thought of as a quest for power or being the leader of some historical event or statement. The issue becomes more about a desire to remain relevant and survive in the art world than it does to make your own work. 

I made this statement because I feel that Daniel’s work moves between media art, photography, and video, quite gracefully. However, because it is not high-tech (there is no virtual reality or drones) or does not have a certain aesthetic (gradients and palm trees), it might get left out of certain conversations in the art world (maybe that’s a good or bad thing. I am unsure). This, however, is emblematic of the larger problems I see in media art dialogue. Oftentimes it is a medium of art that comes in and out of popularity. And so, rather than worrying about that, I find it more interesting when artists just make what they make, and they don’t follow what everyone else is doing. Not everything needs definition or parameters, that should be the point of art right? Thus, I consider Daniel’s work in dialogue with so many pressing issues of digital culture.

Nowadays, most of us have been forcefully or unwittingly coerced into being digital beings. As an artist on Facebook, Daniel Johnson’s ABOUT section links to websites of other people named Daniel Johnson. This is a disruptive gesture, and speaks to his own artwork and his perception of technology and the world around him. The other Daniel Johnsons that are out there are predominantly white artists who draw or paint of things like boats, ducks, or a seaside town. This is the potential of Facebook that I enjoy, but rarely see others utilize. Facebook can be full of nonsensical modifications or disruptive gestures. For instance, on Facebook I attended high school at Space Jam and was born somewhere on the islands of Svalbard and Jan Mayen, all in the year of 1987. 

Facebook enables strange happenings. Shunya Hagiwara, a member of Japanese art collective IDPW, created the Whatever Button which exemplifies this strangeness. The application allows you to “like” hundreds of posts from someone’s Facebook wall in one click. After adding Daniel to my friend list, I promptly used the Whatever Button, randomly liking 200+ of his memories (text, photos, video). Most people would be understandably upset by this but he did not care as much, even though some of the posts I “liked” were conversations he had with an ex-girlfriend. In this way his reaction acknowledges the absurd amount we care about our online personas or how we expect social media should be used.

During the Internet Yami-Ichi in New York, Daniel sold fake/bootleg DVDs. The cover art for the DVD cases featured a previous series of his titled Whyte People. The series appropriates and rearranges the text for promotional posters of kitschy Hollywood films targeted at predominantly white audiences. Whyte People raises awareness to how ridiculous contemporary hollywood films and advertising are. Hollywood itself, at least on screen, is predominantly white and about white-ish issues of romance or comedy. It defines what the white experience is, while washing away whomever isn’t white. On the DVD themselves however were not the films detailed on the cover. Rather, Daniel created random videos recorded on Snapchat or other platforms. During the market he did not particularly tell viewers what was on the DVDs, or at times said nothing, or lied to them that there were actual hollywood films. 

Tying both Whyte People and the DVD content together, Daniel’s form of forgery in both actions has some connotation or relation to photography and digital downloading. In a photograph we assume that the image is the truth, or that it can tell us what truly exists. Text or other signifiers can also change how the image is perceived. In turn, these portrayals are historicized and gain their own unfortunate aura. The same is true of digital downloading. When we download content we assume it to be the real version. We expect the movies we download to be of good quality, contain the bonus footage we want to see, and contain no viruses. In Daniel’s manipulation and appropriation of text, video, and imagery, he alludes to the possibilities of confronting the “truth” of images that we are fed by advertisements, companies, or corporations. 

My brother-in law is a collector of bootleg DVDs. Occasionally my dad would permanently borrow from the library. He has since been banned, and now takes to the internet to pirate poor quality action films. His is a generation that has experienced a vast array of technology (VHS tapes to cloud technologies) and many forms of bootlegging (box scramblers to pirate bay). To him, the quality is never particularly important, but the context and the act of viewing is. The act of bootlegging media or copying and downloading are not so different from what a photograph can do. The action of taking a photograph is to capture and own something. The photograph is a window, not capable of representing reality, but for some reason it has a captivating effect on the viewer. Now we move on to other tools like virtual reality, with the expectation that this is the next evolution that will bring our memories or fantasies closer to us.