In recent years, many major institutions have prioritized the digitization of their archives, making all content accessible online via open source platforms. Aside from furthering a culture of transparency, these digital projects open doors for new interpretations of material, eliminating geographical and hierarchical barriers that stunt broad and diverse interpretations. One major platform embracing this shift is NASA’s Image and Video Library, a database that offers a wealth of imagery related to the institution’s research, including photos of constellations, scientific experimentation, portraiture, the surfaces of planets, and more.
Very few people have the opportunity to actually view the cosmos firsthand, so our perception of the universe beyond our natural vision is often a composite of the images we’ve been fed. In other words, our understanding of outer space is grounded in the seminal images that organizations have supplied. Artist Bianca Salvo is particularly interested in our unquestioned reliance on photography to define our understanding of what’s beyond our reach. By collecting images from a number of online archives for her series The Universe Makers, she re-imagines the photographs into new forms and sequences, inviting her viewers to challenge their de facto belief in images as hard evidence of the universe’s phenomena.
In this interview, Salvo speaks about her interest in the relationship between collective memory and photography, the alteration of archival photographs into new forms, and how she uses digital archives to think about our relationship to visual information and truth.
LensCulture: Your initial career plans didn’t actually have to do with photography. Can you tell me a bit about your professional trajectory, and what compelled you to switch paths?
Bianca Salvo: I started making photographs a long time ago, but I was actually studying psychology, so I didn’t have a proper education in the medium. Later on, I began taking classes in alternative processes and developing, but my practice really took shape after my MA in photography, when I started collecting pictures from digital archives. That’s when I became more interested in breaking the boundaries of the traditional language of photography, which is the path I was following up until that point.
LC: And that collecting inevitably led to your project The Universe Makers. When did this series start taking shape in your mind as a specific body of work that you wanted to pursue?
BS: When I started working on this project, I didn’t have the faintest idea regarding what the purpose of it should be. I was interested in the topic of outer space and how photography can actually model and shape our perception of the universe. Then I became interested in science fiction series like Twilight Zone and War of the Worlds. That got me thinking about how media, and especially photography, can actually shape and model our perception and knowledge about an unknown dimension, because space does exist, but it technically doesn’t have a form. I think these interests propelled me to start investigating space and collecting more and more pictures, and it all became an active part of my creative process. The archival pictures are mixed with pictures that I make myself, which contributes to the skepticism regarding the truth of what we are actually looking at.
LC: And which specific sources did you draw this archival imagery from?
BS: My main source is NASA’s digital archive, because they recently digitized so much material and information, and the majority of it is not copyrighted. Then, for some collages that I include in the series, I actually bought the images from a private seller on eBay. I mixed the digital dimension of the archives with these physical materials to further question our understanding of the material. I also use the Kennedy Space Center’s archives – there are so many institutions that have now digitized all their information, and I find this process of converting something that is digital and liquid into something tangible and physical to be very interesting.
LC: I notice you use this word “liquid” a lot to describe the digital realm. What exactly do you mean by this description?
BS: When I say “the liquid dimension,” I mean the experience of how we consume photography in contemporary times – in 2018. It’s completely liquid in the sense that it doesn’t have a form or specific shape. Our containers for pictures – our computers, our cellphones, our tablets – are a different experience compared to how we interacted with photography in the past. When we see these images, we don’t immediately know its dimensions or how much space it occupies. So for me, “liquid” means the fact that everything exists in this different, formless realm.
LC: That being said, how do you decide what form your new object will take? Does it have to do with the image’s subject matter, or is it something less concrete?
BS: When I start working with a set of materials, I always find myself, at some point in the creative process, not knowing how to give it form again. I start by printing the images, and then I combine them with other elements, trying to connect the pictures with the space around them again. In the case of The Universe Makers, the project resolved itself as an installation, because I wanted to get back to photography and its connection to this very space that surrounds it. Nowadays, we’ve lost this relationship between photography and space. I started making these decisions along the way during my creative process – sometimes they are more rational, and sometimes they are more subconscious.
LC: That’s interesting. And with some of the images, you incorporate text. Where do you draw this text from, and how do you choose which text goes with which image?
BS: I included a more substantial piece of text in the photobook version of the work, which I found inside an atlas of space astronomy. It’s an old, archival text that I found online while I was searching through archives. There is no immediate connection – it’s arbitrary – and I do this so that people go through the act of making the connection themselves. I love doing free association between images and text, and I love that artwork can be a combination of images and text, because text also addresses our own knowledge.
LC: And these associations also have something to do with another theme you explore in your work: collective memory. It’s interesting to think about how a singular image is often meant to capture the memory of tons and tons people at once. How did your interest in the relationship between collective memory and photography start?
BS: My studies in psychology definitely influenced my choices in photography. I’ve become obsessed with collective memory and collective perception, and the fact that photography plays a major role in constructing a shared system of belief. For example, our knowledge and understanding of space and the universe existed before we even did, and this understanding is based in images. I think images are so interesting because they actually build our systems of belief for us. We can communicate and share experiences, but they are not directly the experiences themselves. What I mean by this is, this collective experience of space has transcended our own individual, direct experience of it.
LC: That is definitely true. I also noticed that you incorporate a lot of images of people looking at stuff, which is interesting because then it’s not just about the camera’s eye capturing evidence of specific phenomena. Instead, it becomes the camera capturing people seeing that phenomena, experiencing it in real life. Can you talk to me a bit about using these images of people “looking”?
BS: Yes, definitely. Incorporating the idea of the spectator was the very last part of my process. I found myself having a lot of pictures of these masses, and that they were also often assigned the label “onlookers.” I found it interesting that these images act as a symbol for the way we all gaze towards outer space. The images also allude to the fact that human beings have always searched for answers in the sky, or in something that is not visible – we always rely on some sort of faith in order to believe in things. These images summarize my position on photography, and the fact that it plays an important role in converting something invisible into something visible. The organization of these people gazing up with the same face, looking towards something that we – as viewers looking at the photograph of them – cannot see, is also another way of posing the question: What are we really looking at? Once I incorporated these images, I really felt like this project was finalized.
LC: This way of looking and interacting can also extend to how we traditionally use archives. In general, archives are often accepted as a source of solid evidence of truth that we can rely on for historical facts. How does this history of looking at archives also extend to your work?
BS: My whole practice questions the relationship between the concept of the photographic image and, in this case, archives and the concept of belief. What I find interesting about archives is that they are proposed as some sort of solid narrative. As you said, it’s like by default, everything is considered to be evidence or truth. The relationship between my work and the archive is the idea that analysis of imagery can be historical or geographical, or anthropological and psychological, and I can reframe these narratives and shape them into something completely different, with different logic that challenges this concept of collective memory and collective perception.
Then there’s this other facet of archives that interests me, which is the liquid dimension we spoke about earlier. Archives still exist in their physical form, but in recent years, the process of digitization made me think about how this narrative is directed on a different level now that the material is accessible to anyone. We can actually use these archives, actively converting them into something else.
LC: You touched on this a bit already, but I want to go back to this idea of finding truth in images and how it parallels with the longstanding belief that we can also find truth in the cosmos. How do these ideas come together in this project?
BS: Yes, I definitely think these two things are related. Even once I am finished with my work and present it to the public, I do not expect everyone to find some sort of universal truth in photography, because there’s always some kind of level of interpretation that makes photography perpetually subjective. And our ideas about space are the same – there is so much that is truly unknown. It cannot possibly be defined by the concept of truth, but I am interested in how the masses view photography as something that does contains it.
LC: So you want to challenge the viewer’s default acceptance of truth in images. How are you physically doing this with the different pieces in this project? What are you doing, for example, when you fold an image into a paper airplane and re-photograph it in a new form?
BS: With this work, I want to challenge the viewer’s gaze. The observer is always overcome by the sensation and question in their mind: “What am I looking at?” The fact that I reframe stuff by, for example, folding an image into a paper airplane, somehow says that the image doesn’t actually exist as a universal truth, and you can actually see it in whatever way you want. I want to constantly present a test to the viewer’s gaze, which also challenges our established knowledge about some sense of reality. I think this is the most important part of the way I work and realize my projects: I want to break our solid beliefs about anything and everything.
LC: How else do you challenge your viewers to question their relationship to photography?
BS: I like using exhibitions as another way to connect photography with a physical space. I want viewers to go into an exhibition and explore the different levels and materials of photography. For example, I print some photos on vinyl, and sometimes I make sculptures. I want to invert the gaze so we aren’t just looking up at the walls. Instead, we also have to look down to the floor to actually see the whole picture. I want to propose a challenging path for our gaze, so we can have diverse levels of experiencing the pictures, challenging our understanding of what a photograph can do and how it can be interpreted.