The Curse Conversations: Zachary Formwalt

IMPAKT Festival 2022 The Curse of Smooth Operations

As the festival gets closer, we like to introduce you to some of the artists and speakers from the programme. Every two weeks we share a new episode of The Curse Conversations: a series of interviews in which we delve deeper into the themes of the festival. In this second episode we talk to artist Zachary Formwalt. His new installation An Industry and Its Irreplaceable Medium (2022) was commissioned especially for the IMPAKT Festival 2022 and will be part of the festival exhibition The Curse of Smooth Operations at IMPAKT [Centre for Media Culture].

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Can you give us a brief update on your work process of your new work: An Industry and Its Irreplaceable Medium?

At the moment I am waiting to receive the 16mm prints from the film lab in Berlin that is making them. They have the internegative and first print done, so now it is just the final exhibition prints that need to be made this week and then they will send them to my studio in Amsterdam. I’m thinking about incorporating a section of that material in the video essay that I am still working on. That part of the installation is also very near completion, but it’s still in need of some editing, and also this last layer of mediation through the final 16mm print.

Making visible invisible aspects in our contemporary economy seems to be a recurrent theme in your work. In An Industry and Its Irreplaceable Medium you use 16mm film to draw our attention to the link between film (and the production of analogue film), the meat industry and capitalist mass production. Could you tell us more about this special medium you work with and why this relationship fascinates you? Is this the first time you work with 16mm?

The working title for this project was, up until recently, An Exemplary Industry. I was never satisfied with the name, “meatpacking” industry, which is how the industry is described in the 1930s, a key period in the project, when it is chosen as the subject of Fortune Magazine’s first essay on capitalist industry. This term is still used today, when the raising of the animals that will be slaughtered has been much more finely integrated into the process of slaughter and distribution itself. “Meatpacking” suggests everything that takes place after slaughter, as if the life and death of animals was not a part of the industry. Here is already a sense in which this industry is exemplary of the representation of capitalist industry as such. Industries represent their activities as happening within clearly defined borders while the production of the materials that they consume are represented as inputs coming from some other industry, or nature as such. This summer, for example, I started noticing electric cars bearing the badge of “zero emission vehicle” on the back, as if the manufacture of the car itself did not entail emissions! There is no zero emission vehicle. And to get back to the meatpacking industry, there are extremely few commodities produced today that can be verified as having no animal remains involved in their production. You just have to do an internet search for “is my (insert commodity here) vegan” to see how difficult it is to prove that a product is indeed produced without any animal substances. The medium of film is exemplary in this respect, as gelatin, which is derived from boiling down skins, bones and other parts of animals, to transform the tissues which held these animals together before slaughter into the medium that holds the film image together. In this way, most twentieth century images passed through the remains of animals on their way to being seen by the mass publics, which were largely unaware of the animal nature of this medium. The meatpacking industry itself describes these kinds of products as “byproducts” but it is only through the sale of these so-called byproducts that they can make the profits that they do when selling the meat at the prices it is sold at. The use of byproducts is touted by the industry as a kind of environmental practice, while in practice it is, and has been for over a century, it’s key profit-making strategy.

Now that film has been largely surpassed by digital media—with some work still being done at the very high end of productions by directors like Tarantino, Nolan, Abrams, etc. who came together to get Hollywood to support Kodak some years ago, and some work being done at the very low-budget end, with experimental filmmakers and artists—some of whom have embarked on a kind of post-industrial form of film production, with homemade emulsions that do admittedly still rely on industrially produced animal gelatin (Esther Urlus and the Filmwerkplaats in Rotterdam are doing this here in the Netherlands)—we might ask where all that gelatin is going (Kodak sold its gelatin production facilities to the giant food corporation Vion, which is based in the Netherlands, back in 2011), as there certainly hasn’t been a decrease in the number of animals industrially produced and disassembled since then. This is another way in which the industry is exemplary, transforming its products into new shapes in order to continue producing at an increasing volume in order to maintain profits, while what is really needed, considering the circumstances on planet earth at the moment, is a decrease in production, when and wherever possible. We certainly don’t need to be finding new ways to insert animal remains into consumer goods, but that is one thing that the industry is busy with. As Alex Blanchette puts it in his recent book, Porkopolis, describing Chicago’s Bubbly Creek—the body of water that appears in the 16mm film in the installation—where the meatpacking industry dumped its waste products in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and where you can still see bubbles of gas breaking the water’s surface, rising from the animal remains that were dumped there over a century ago, “Bubbly Creek may no longer be a biological dumping ground, but the corollary is […] that the world—from the soil to our houses—is now the dumping ground.” From very early on, innovations in the meatpacking industry were concerned with pouring waste into the commodity form, to squeeze out one more act of consumption before heading to the dump. 

The final installation comprises, in addition to the 16mm film projection, a digital HD film projection and a series objects, including historical magazines. Can you tell us more about the (historical and archival) research behind this work and the choice of objects?

A lot of work has been done on the meatpacking industry, both on its history and its present form. I have collected quite a bit of material while working on this project, and one of the things that has interested me is the way some of the basic positions that the industry developed as it was developing from the mid to late nineteenth century on are still maintained. In particular the descriptions of how so-called byproducts are recycled by the industry out of a sense of social responsibility, and almost incidentally, of profit. But I’m not attempting to present a survey of this material. I have a more allegorical approach to these historical objects. There is, for example, a set of stereo photographs that I’ve been slowly acquiring. Alongside whatever subject the caption points to in the photograph, there is this presence of the animal remains in which the components of the image—the light sensitive particles which, having been developed, now define the image—are suspended. These remains are what hold these particles together, invisibly. So I am still working on how to present those in some way. There are a few books, a few corporate documents, and there is also the first issue of Fortune Magazine, which came out in 1930, taking up the meatpacking industry as its first subject, as I mentioned earlier. The final spread from this essay will be displayed, I think. I am still unsure about this though. Whether it is necessary or not. I think so, but I have to finish the video essay first, which should happen very soon, and then I can say more confidently what objects and how they will be displayed.

Which part of the festival are you looking forward to most?

I look forward to attending the IMPAKT festival every year. It’s a part of the season for me. Last year I wasn’t able to go as I was in Chicago working on research for the work that is being shown in this year’s festival. So this year will be especially nice on the one hand because now it’s been a while, and on the other hand because I will be showing work in it. I am especially looking forward to the talk with Leigh Claire La Berge and Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky as they are part of a group that originally commissioned the video essay part of the work, and they along with Seth Kim-Cohen, who will unfortunately not be able to be there, are the ones who really got me thinking about this project in the first place. And they’ve always got brilliant questions and insights coming from their own work. But also, what I really like about a festival like IMPAKT is that it is quite manageable. There are a lot of things happening, but you can follow the program and not miss out on too much if you’re there for a few days. This year I’ll try to make it to many of the screenings, all of the panels and the keynotes, which look great—I’m especially looking forward to Orit Halpern’s. And of course, the exhibition!

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