Andrew Wright’s Photography and the Art of Trespassing
In Andrew Wright’s description of his project Data Trespass there is a line that speaks to his entire body of work: “Placing faith in photographs as evidentiary truth is . . . absurd.” His photography can confound, turn askew, upset — or in the case of Data Trespass “antagonize” — and thereby prompt a new perspective and, perhaps, greater clarity. There is an undercurrent of challenging what we accept as “truth,” both in the wider world and in photography itself.
A particularly illuminative example is his 2013 series Tree Corrections, in which he photographed the craggy, iconic conifers seen in many Group of Seven paintings but angled his camera to set the crooked trees straight. The results are destabilizing yet somehow seem right, as if Wright has revealed in those tenacious trees a truth hitherto unseen.
Wright, an associate professor in visual arts at the University of Ottawa, is compelled by the public perception of photography and how we perceive what the medium exposes. For his work Suspended Tree (2016), Wright hung a large deciduous tree from a crane near the massive industrial complex of a Hyundai auto plant and container port in Korea. Near the tree was a shipping container — a giant camera obscura — in which the inverted image of the tree could be seen on a suspended screen. By changing the physical act of how we see the photograph, by making it more complex, Wright provoked how we see the complexity of mass manufacturing and its gargantuan appetite for natural resources.
His series Data Trespass includes two works recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. Data Trespass: Illegal Photographs # 23-31 consists of nine Chromira Lightjet prints; Data Trespass: Wyoming vs. Wright is a nine-minute video, shown on a randomized loop. Both works are rooted in the notion that a photograph could be considered “illegal,” which is, Wright says, a “powerful reminder of the import that photography has in the popular imagination, regardless of that which is actually depicted.”
The works are a response to the Wyoming statutes “Trespassing to Collect Data”, passed in 2015, which prohibit the collection of “resource and research data”, including photographs, without the permission of the landowner. The laws grew from the anger of ranchers who claimed environmentalists had trespassed to gather water samples that could show pollution from ranching. Environmental groups filed lawsuits against the state, and a district court judge said the statutes “prevent activity on lands even where the public would not be trespassing”, including, for example, taking a photograph of land from the side of a public highway. Minor amendments were made to the statutes, but a U.S. News and World Report noted that “several states have passed similar ‘ag-gag’ laws, some of which seek to discourage activists from documenting animal abuse with undercover videos”.
In 2015 Wright set out for Wyoming “with a carload of equipment” and “the intent of directly antagonizing/contravening the Data Trespass statute”. The resulting photographs capture that resolute expanse of rock and river and stubborn grasses of the Wyoming landscape in high-resolution, high detail imagery. Tendrils of mist, steam or smoke seemingly rise from both water and dry land. “It may appear as though some undetermined environmental calamity is taking place,” Wright says. In fact, he points out, “any environmental degradation here, very near the continental divide in Yellowstone Park at the most geothermically active place on Earth, is entirely a ‘natural’ occurrence.”
Wright’s photographs did not attract the attention of the Wyoming authorities, but in his video Data Trespass: Wyoming vs Wright he creates a mock trial in which he is questioned about his “illegal” images. Details of the photographs are layered over the audio of the mock trial, which effectively makes a mockery of the statutes and any prosecution that could result.
There are trace elements of mischief in, and attached to, Wright’s photography: on Instagram, he recently posted a photo of Ottawa artist Christopher Griffin with the caption “contemplates having #pulverized a roll of #analogfilm with a #pipewrench. #whysoangry #canadianphotography #conceptualphotography.” Even in the social-media age of ubiquitous photography, “these explorations remain in the domain of ‘depiction,’” he says. “We uniformly look at/ create/ use/ consume images as if they can only exist in certain ways.”
The “evidentiary truth” of Wright’s Data Trespass is that there is no evidentiary truth in them. Purpose and provocation run through them as surely as a river down from the mountains, but they are intentionally misleading in their portrayal of natural functions as putative human-made degradation. They intentionally provoke not only the self-interests and mandarins of Wyoming’s power base, but also the perceptions of all of us who look at photography.
When all is done, when the lights in the darkroom are turned back on, what we see is what we expect of photography. “We are left with fictions,” Wright says, “that we become complicit in creating.”
For details of these and other works, see the online collection of the National Gallery of Canada. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.