Whitehot Magazine

September 2011, DESTROYED: Moby the Whitehot Interview

Moby, My Weakness, 2011
Copyright of the artist

Moby: Destroyed
Paul Kopeikin Gallery
2766 S. La Cienega Blvd.
Culver City, CA. 90034
September 10 through October 22

Over the years public and critical response to Moby has been contentious, but since Play hit international eardrums at the beginning of this millennium he has been an undeniable facet of contemporary music. Recently, his artist friends have coaxed him into making a lesser-known aspect of his creative output public. His latest album, Destroyed, was released May of this year and with it, a book of the same name. In this volume Moby presents photographic evidence of the odd, discomforting and often accidentally beautiful environments he drifts through while touring. The prints were exhibited internationally on subsequent tours. His latest show at Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles is a new set of works focussed entirely on the oscillating masses of humanity that are in front him when he's on stage.

In many interviews he has pointed to external validation for his photographic work - said artist friends. You can't really blame him. We're not always particularly receptive, or kind, to artists who suddenly jump genre. He has also, no doubt for similar reasons, been keen to situate his image making in a deeply rooted familial context, citing many visual artist relatives who shepherded his initial forays into the field at a mere ten years old. He has often referred in particular to an uncle who set the photographic bar so high that even after 35 years of working in darkrooms Moby was loathe to believe he could create anything comparable.

Such is the generally self-deprecating frame in which he presents his photographic endeavors. It's a complicated balance of palpable enthusiasm and a seemingly compulsive modesty. But as has been widely acknowledged Moby is a very intelligent man. In keeping with his Philosophy BA, thoughts on his reluctant identification as a photographer, and on artistic creation at large readily flow beyond efforts to maintain an introvert-extrovert equilibrium. Whitehot visited Moby in his Manhattan studio-loft, a bright, basic space full of ladders, doorways, and an impressive collection of retro musical electronics, to discuss these thoughts.

Kyra Kordoski: To pull a quote from a recent interiew, you said: “'[The word] Destroyed' summed up that feeling of living in these strange alien environments and trying to make sense of them through music and photography." Do you get different answers from the different media?

Moby: It's an interesting question. I've been doing so many interviews about the relationship between my music and my photography because they're created at the same time, by the same person. But their utility for me is so completely different. If I'm writing music in a strange, alien environment feeling isolated and lonely, the music is informed by that but it's often trying to create a sense of comfort in the face of that. The photography is a lot more clear eyed and reportage inspired. In music I'm sort of trying to soften edges, whereas my photography tends to be a lot more clinical. It's simply saying, 'here is a strange environment'. It might have a beauty to it but I'm not going to try and create that, I'm not going to try and anthropomorphize it, if that makes any sense.

Kordoski: And does that help you understand where you are or have been?

Moby: It does. I mean there are the ongoing sort of semiotic questions of 'What am I responding to?' 'Why am I responding to it?' 'How am I responding to it?' 'How do other people respond to it?' I wouldn't say photography is a completely decontextualised medium, but the context is really limited. If you're in an airport, your experience of that airport has a temporal context. It's not like you wake up all of the sudden in an airport and then you're gone. There's the minute before, the minute after; the hour before, the hour after. And then there's the cultural and sensory context of language, sounds, smells... all these other things that inform our perception of an environment.

What I really like about photography is it removes all of those things. It removes any kind of temporal context, any kind of sensory context and you just have that strange, 2D visual representation of an instant. When you're in that airport, there's a lot about it that seems quite familiar, but the subtext of the book is that the familiarity is such a ruse. So much effort has gone to make certain environments feel familiar, whether it's a hotel room, an airplane, an airport - and it's not familiar. These are deeply strange environments that sort of lull us into this false sense of the familiar. And that's why I like documenting it, to say, ok, at first glance it may look familiar, but it's profoundly strange. You could extend that to the human condition as well. We as humans create all these familiar environments in a universe that's fifteen billion years old and vast beyond our understanding.

Kordoski: So photography can expose a strangeness that we like to pretend isn't there.

Moby: For me, that's when it's really interesting. Ofttimes photography serves a purpose of just reassuring us. Either reassuring us that the world is pretty, reassuring us that it's ugly, reassuring us that the world is filled with enlightened brown people, reassuring us that the world is filled with obese white people... it's a lot of reaffirmation of things we already believe and I'm just not that interested in that. In the book for example, my favorite pictures are the ones that don't trigger any emotion in a very clear conventional way. I'm more interested in trying to see things in a different context, to see if there's other information there as well.

Moby, Hyenas, 2011
Copyright of the artist

Kordoski: I think we're all so often, now, working against definitions and labels, but there is still a notion of 'art' in a way that the idea of music isn't necessarily answerable to. If it's got rhythm and melody it's music, and it's good music or bad music, but it's identifiably music whereas people can still be ambivalent or sensitive about whether or not something visual is labeled 'art'. Is that a relevant issue for you with photography, whether an image is documentation or fine art? How do you see your work?

Moby: Without getting too involved, my understanding of art... without any value judgement attached to it, is it's kind of like pointless communication. If you make a sign that indicates that if you go through a door you'll fall twenty feet to your death, that's very practical communication. If you take that same sign and put it up in the middle of the desert it's sort of pointless communication, but it still can have great significance. And so to me art is like that pointless communication that potentially has great significance.

The stuff that I make... it seems like it falls into that criteria. It has no specific utility, except me trying to document the strange world in which I live and present it to other people in a way that, selfishly, might enable me to make more sense of it, and potentially get other people see things in a slightly different capacity. Weegee shot documentary reportage photography that was beautiful and artistic. Edward Steichen's image of the flat iron building is reportage that's heartbreakingly beautiful. Everyone in my family is an artist so this question has been an ongoing debate my whole life, and at some point you have to just say, I like making it and sometimes people like looking at it. As painfully rudimentary as that might be, I think there's a validity to that.

Kordoski: Your show at Paul Kopeikin Gallery is all new photographs - a series of crowd shots taken throughout your last tour. What makes one crowd shot better than another crowd shot?

Moby: When I'm on tour I'm either doing my own shows where there's really interesting and dramatic lighting, or I'm playing at raves, where there's also interesting dramatic lighting, and that's a huge part of it. You have these crowds in a state of ecstatic expression being lit beautifully, oftentimes with smoke and different atmospheric things going on. I'm the least important part of the whole equation, I'm just the guy with the camera. The crowd is amazing, the atmosphere is amazing, the light is amazing - I just happen to be there to take a picture of it.

But I'm avoiding... there's one issue that can make crowd shots phenomenal, which is drugs. The best crowds to take pictures of are ravers on drugs. When I go on tour, for most of my shows it's me playing a concert to ten, twenty, thirty thousand people who are generally lucid. They're all looking at me and they all have that sober light in their eyes which is good and healthy, and you can get good pictures, but it makes them slightly less interesting as subject matter. Then you go play a rave and it's five thousand people out of their minds on ecstasy - those are the best pictures. They're all looking all over the place, their eyes are rolling back in their heads, everyone's having their own internal, subjective, chemical-fueled experience. So I think the next series I want to do is just audiences on drugs. I'm not advocating or condoning drug use, but purely for subject matter it's so much more interesting.

Kordoski: And what about when you're looking at the images afterwards and you've got, say, thirty shots of the same crowd with the same lighting, the same drugs, how do you differentiate? Which one do you pick to represent that night?

Moby: There are the formal criteria and subjective criteria... I mean again, my mom was a painter, my uncle's a photographer, my other uncle's a sculptor, and all my friends are artists so just since I was really little I grew up looking at things and having people explain why they think one thing is good and one thing is not good. That's the slightly formal and slightly subjective side. But often it's facial expressions. Some of the crowds in the new show, it's just the facial expressions. Someone's having and ecstatic experience where they're very happy, but they also look furious and despairing. I know you're recording and looking at pictures doesn't work so well with audio, but there's one picture I'll try and find in the book... ok here's an example of a crowd on drugs, if you'll notice, very few of them are actually looking at me. Well, also a huge cannon just fired confetti [laughs] but their eyes, if you can get in close you can see they're all having these crazy, drug fueled experiences... but here like this [other] picture, it's a happy crowd, but don't they look kind of tortured?

Moby, 2011
Copyright of the artist


Kordoski: You've also said perviously that you find Wolfgang Tillmans interesting in part because some of his images are compelling despite a lack of craft, and that you feel he laid some of the groundwork for that to be acceptable. Could you talk a bit about craft in relation to photography?

Moby: When I was little photography was sort of like this mystical thing where you had to understand, first of all your camera and all those different knobs. It was baffling to me. And then different film stocks and paper, I mean all these things were craft. When my uncle and I would go to photo shows he was looking at the printing. Of course you would respond to the image, but he was also looking at the greyscale. When I fist started shooting film and working in a darkroom, it was so hard to have black and white in the same print. Everything would just be this washy grey, and you'd sort of cheat by using filters, but you'd look at someone like Eugene Atget or Andre Kertesz and they'd effortlessly have rich blacks and bright whites in the same print. But someone like Wolfgang is interesting because he really knows craft but - and he's a great photographer for this reason - he also knows when to employ craft and when to let it fall by the wayside. A lot of photographers I grew up liking or going to see shows of in the 70s and 80s, part of the way they justified their identity as photographers was their mastery of craft and they're all so angry now. All that understanding of chemicals and papers, it's still interesting, but it doesn't mean nearly as much as it did.

Kordoski: Can you relate that to music?

Moby: Definitely. In music, for me, it works on a few different levels because I grew up playing classical music. I spent years learning how to play guitar and it's physically hard to train your hands to do the right things and to be able to move fast, and to read music. My first guitar teacher only cared about craft. He only liked complicated music played by virtuoso musicians so he encouraged me for years to become a virtuoso musician and I sort of bought into it. Then I discovered punk rock and I was like, oh, I don't need to be able to read music, to be able to play Bach adagios. I can just play three chords and it's great. And then electronic music came along and at first the craft of electronic music was very non-musical, it was very technical. It was how do you get the right equipment and how do you understand how the equipment works and how do you program it all together, but it all existed in the physical world - drum machines, synthesizers, sequencers. Then it all moved onto the computer. So my relationship to craft and music has changed completely over time as well.

Ultimately for me the only way that music or art can be legitimately responded to is subjectively. I can listen to a beautiful piece of classical music played by a virtuoso musician and have an emotional reaction to it, or I can listen to a piece of music made by a kid in his bedroom with a laptop and some cracked software and have a great emotional reaction to it. The same way way I can look at a flawless, archival print that some photographer has made and think it's wonderful, or a little hipstamatic picture can have just as much resonance and weight. So I feel like craft only has legitimacy if it actually creates work that resonates with people emotionally.

I'm sure a lot of academics would reject that - that's been the goal of philosophy for the last few millennia, trying to find anything on an objective level that humans can speak meaningfully about and the end result is there's nothing. All we have is our subjective understanding of things. And art speaks to that perfectly. It's one person's subjective understanding of the world, presented through their art, and other people respond to it subjectively. The idea that anyone could maintain an objective criteria for evaluating art, it's nonsensical. Humans can't have an objective understanding of anything, let alone art, which is inherently subjective.

Moby, 2011
Copyright of the artist

Kordoski: You've talked a lot about how it took other people supporting your photographic work for you to feel comfortable showing it. What do you like about your photography? Why have you kept taking pictures?

Moby: Well for the first 5 years of shooting film I just felt like I was being introduced to this whole alchemical world, and it is alchemy, you're creating something from nothing, making something that's so much greater than the sum of its parts. And then I had a period where I was shooting film and working in darkrooms and I felt like I kind of knew what I was doing, and that was exciting, but I still felt like my uncle and all of his friends were still so much better at every aspect of photography than I ever could be that I felt like a dilettante and a fraud. And then digital photography came along and, especially as a musician with a digital camera, I thought, ok, I'm just going to keep on taking pictures and keep it to myself just because I was sort of embarrassed at how... I love the egalitarian nature of digital photography, but I felt like I just couldn't consider myself a photographer in a meaningful way because everyone now considered themselves a photographer.

But a few years ago I started showing pictures to friends who are artists, Will Cotton and Damian Loeb and Terry Richardson and a few other people, and they were all really encouraging. They said, well first of all you've been a photographer for 35 years - the very fact that I grew up shooting film and working in dark rooms, for them they felt, ok that entitles you to call yourself a photographer. And also, they... liked the work. They all admitted they expected it to be sort of undeveloped, no pun intended, really banal work, but they were like, actually, no, there's something here.

Kordoski: But what do you like about it, personally?

Moby: What I like about is... and I'm afraid to say this... there's one thing I like about it, and I hope this doesn't sound immodest, but it's the same as with music. I love when I realize that I've accidentally incorporated music theory into something I'm working on. Like, it's so ingrained in my musical DNA that it just comes out. And it's the same thing with my photography. I sort of love when my formal training comes out without me being aware of it. When I've basically done a good job choosing the lens and framing, everything's exposed well, I'm like, 'Oh, I guess I know what I'm doing'. So those moments when I don't feel like a fraud. I like that aspect of it. And I guess I also like the looseness I allow myself in choosing subject matter and presenting things to people. I don't think about it too much, it's more like if something seems emotionally resonant on a subjective level, then I'm pretty comfortable sharing it with someone.

I'm also grateful for the fact that I have access to subject matter that most people don't have access to. That's one thing that my uncle drilled into me at an early age, that simple question that every photographer has to ask themselves: "What can you take a picture of that no one else will see?" A janitor is going to have an experience of the world that I don't understand, so I'm really going to want to look at what that janitor takes pictures of. Someone in outer space, they're going to see something that I'm never going to see, so they're doing me a great service by taking a picture of the Arabian Peninsula forty thousand miles up. It's that question of what do I see in the mundane, quotidian world that others might not see, or what do I literally have access to, like standing in front of fifty thousand people, that most people wouldn't have access to. So I'm grateful for that. If I just stayed home and took pictures of my kitchen, I don't think the results would be that interesting.

Moby, 2011
Copyright of the artist