Seth Johnson: Keep Those Bad Guys Out
Projects featured this week were selected from our most recent call-for-submissions. I was able to interview each of these artists to gain further insight into the bodies of work they shared. Today, we are looking at the series Keep Those Bad Guys Out by Seth Johnson.
Seth Johnson (b. 1987) currently lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. Much of his work considers the humor and sadness of a life that is not well lived. He is drawn to these characters/subjects out of a sense of relief that he is not (yet) in their shoes. He received his MFA in photography from the Hartford Art School.
Keep Those Bad Guys Out
“If the two most unarguable facts of life are suffering and beauty, a house should be designed to mitigate one and reinforce the other. It should be protective. It should be beautiful and provide places for the contemplation of beautiful objects and provide contact with whatever beauty is available in the surrounding landscape.” -Robert Adams
Not long after my wife and I moved in to our home, our sense of security was shattered. The sense of violation that accompanies, or immediately follows, an invasion of private space is not easily shaken. Such violation elicits an immediate, and often excessive, shift in state of mind and alters the perception of our physical surroundings. It changed the way I think about my home and how I occupy it. My habits and routines shifted. Every noise was suspect. As a result, I forced myself to think like a burglar in order to stay one step ahead.
I found myself sliding down a slippery slope towards paranoia and couldn’t help but think this isn’t the way it should be. I became suspicious of my own motives and conscious of their absurdity. After attempting to describe these feelings, of all the methods I employed, humor proved to be the most effective vehicle in defining the absurd. It is natural to strive for securing your home, defending your loved ones, and protecting your personal property, but such vigilance comes at a unique cost.
It’s remarkable how dramatically emotion can influence how you see and interact with the world. My experience of this violation colored the way I view my surroundings. In the title, “Those Bad Guys” points to a fear of an unknown, perhaps nonexistent, other who is perceived as an immanent threat. Whether it be burglars, strangers, immigrants, health problems, or anything else, the ambiguity of the title leaves room for the reader to regard “Those Bad Guys” as anything they might be rationally, or irrationally, afraid of.
These phobic feelings do not leave me when I leave my home. As I walk through my neighborhood, I identify the weaknesses in my neighbors defense systems. While some are well protected with alarms attached to doors and windows and cameras to monitor their perimeters, many have vulnerabilities they may not even know exist. As I walk, I’m also keenly aware of how I may be perceived. While I am known by some of my neighbors, I am a stranger to most—moreover, a stranger with a camera. It does not take long for me to realize the duality of my presence; my hyper watchfulness perceived by others as an uncomfortable presence. I watch them as they watch me, and I have become the very threat that I am trying to protect against.
Daniel George: Would you mind describing how this project got started? I’m curious about that transition of paranoia into art.
Seth Johnson: Like most bodies of work, Keep Those Bad Guys Out looked entirely different at its genesis. My initial visual response to this feeling of paranoia tried to be far more serious, and if I’m being completely forthright, largely cliche. I was in grad school at the time and the seed for this project was planted in a critique. To the best of my recollection, we were discussing this feeling and someone was sharing an experience they had with someone breaking into their studio. They were expressing frustration with not knowing how to prevent it from happening again, and, perhaps jokingly, suggested I make a “how-to” guide. Standing in front of a wall of what at the time I thought to be “serious” photographs, I’m pretty sure I initially dismissed the idea. The next day however, I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head and was starting to visualize photographs I wanted to make. That day was actually when I came up with the cat photograph. After that, I just hit the ground running and it was absolutely one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on.
DG: Do you feel that making this work helped tranquilize your more extreme feelings? Or at least make sense of them?
SJ: It did in some ways though that wasn’t really my intention. I think making the work pointed to the absurdity in thinking any object in that home was worth going to such lengths to protect in the first place.
DG: Some of those image captions are killing me. Particularly, “Burglars are very superstitious.” Tell me more about them. Are they sourced from somewhere, or are they your own conception? And how much of an inspiration was Home Alone?
SJ: Ha! Home Alone definitely inspired at least one photograph. There is an image of a lifesize cardboard cutout of a bodybuilder on a toy train and almost everyone I have shown that photograph to has referenced Home Alone nearly instantly.
While I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to tout my writing abilities, I am pretty proud of the captions. My dry sense of humor is pretty well established amongst my close friends and this was a rare occasion where I could fully embrace it. Over the course of this project, I amassed a fair number of earnest home security manuals. To be honest, I found some of the language in the manuals to be so absurd, I think there were a few instances where I copied the text almost verbatim. I loved how matter of fact and confident the authors were in their direction, even if the idea was extraordinarily niche. I really tried to channel that mindset while infusing my own sense of humor.
DG: In your artist statement, you write that emotion can influence the way that we see and perceive the world around us. Could you talk more about that—as it relates to the visual style that you employed in this project?
SJ: To pretend that my experience of paranoia was extreme would feel like an injustice to those who experienced actions far more severe than my own. I can say, however, this experience did alter my perception of what was happening around me. My routines quickly shifted. It started with easily justifiable actions like double checking the locks before bed but quickly escalated into actively seeking out ways to fortify my home. My home quickly evolved from a place of rest to a space that required perpetual protection. This mindset also extended outside my home. I would be suspicious of people I didn’t recognize in my neighborhood. Who were they? Why were they here? Did they just look into my window when they walked by? It’s pretty embarrassing now to even admit being so skeptical, especially in a time when divisions are running so deep and so many are looking at anyone even slightly different as suspicious.
On a visual level, I think I had a kind of frantic energy in that season of life and I hope that comes through in some way. Though many of the images took a fair amount of prep work, I attempted to make them in a way that appeared faster than they were. Documents of desperate attempts.
DG: This work, along with other projects on your website, center around the domestic space. What interests you in examining that which is local and familiar?
SJ: This may not be the most poetic or whimsical answer, however, the honest answer is, at least in part, because domestic spaces have historically allowed me to work in my own way and at my own pace. I typically work slowly so having a space that is accessible and I can return to regularly just suits me at the moment. I think I fought it for a long time. I had consumed a fair amount of respectable work that I perceived to glorify making work outside of a domestic space. My fantasy of the experience made me a little envious and also burdened the act with far too many expectations. In the end, all my attempts fell flat. Who knows how long I will be working this way, but for now, I feel like it’s working.
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