In the wake of Donald Trump's electoral victory, photographer Gregory Eddi Jones embarked on a new series using the classic novel Flowers For Algernon as a symbol for the president's unexpected normalization. The story focuses on an intellectually disabled man who undergoes surgery to triple his IQ, only to revert back to his original condition by the end of the book. Using found images, many related to the 2016 election, Jones creates floral collages that parallel the story's central arc with the country's shift towards Trumpism. While Jones' convictions are unavoidable, his tools extend beyond didacticism, nodding equally to the history of still life as they do to his political intents. We found Jones' work, while in progress, incredibly timely and reached out to learn more.
Jon Feinstein : This is a work in progress. How do you see this work evolving through the Trump presidency?
Gregory Jones: This work is ongoing and still very much exploratory. From image to image the series is evolving pretty rapidly, and I’m finding surprises in each new picture I make. They act both as a personal response to the election as well as explorations of new visual/photographic logics. In many ways I’m learning how to make the pictures I always wanted to make. I just didn’t envision having to make them under these circumstances.
In making work in response to this presidency: my practice revolves around re-authorship and creating commentary on media issues that are common to our cultural lexicon. Right now, this election is what is in front of my easel. I wouldn’t feel right with myself to make work that doesn’t address this very significant social and political paradigm shift we are undergoing. It is too large to ignore.
Making this work lets me feel that I’m contributing something meaningful towards the resistance of toxic politics and social antagonism. I honestly don’t know if I have the agency or know-how to enact any meaningful and positive political change. But as an artist I make pictures, and at the very least I know that political action and social progress begin with symbolic gestures. So these are my small contributions to what I hope will be an ever- growing swell of dissent against attitudes and policies that endanger the welfare of our country. I’ve always been American, I’ve been an artist for a while, but now I consider myself an American artist.
JF: I imagine some critics may see the parallels to the intellectual disabilities of the main character in Flowers for Algernon as problematic. Not towards Trump, but to those with similar conditions. How might you respond to this?
GJ: Flowers for Algernon was published in 1958, and beyond its contributions to literature and science fiction, it is still praised for the ways it had shone a spotlight on how conditions like these were seen in the public eye. It addressed very difficult questions of both how to treat mental illness medically, and the social stigmas attached to these conditions, and generally brought a great deal of awareness to the nuances and complexities of a condition that was widely discriminated against.
This work does not ask the audience to consider mental disabilities as a point of entry into the work. I’m concerned with the underlying issues of what conditions like these represent, which are circumstances of social marginalization and disenfranchisement. The conceptual framework of this project is based upon seeing parallels between the election and the narrative arch of the novel, which follows Charlie Gordon from his initial state of marginalization in the 1st act, through a surgery which triples his IQ in the 2nd act, and the ultimate failure of the surgery and reversion to his original condition in the 3rd act.
So in comparing the narrative arch to the election, I’m speaking about the sentiments of many Donald Trump voters who feel that politically correct dialogue and economic issues have left them with little social influence, and it takes into account my own prediction that this sense of marginalization felt by a large part of demographic that voted for trump will ultimately return when he fails to implement meaningful policies that improve their lives.
I do realize that the use of the novel as a conceptual framework for this work is somewhat idiosyncratic but the narrative arch of the book is a valuable device for me to depict, in general terms, how I see the events of this election. In short, the overarching thesis of the work is that the success of the Trump vote has created a condition that will not succeed for those who cast it.
JF: Looks like you're using a range of found materials. Tell me about it.
GJ: All the materials I use are sourced from online searches. The pictures are produced solely on the computer, which opens a methodology of free-association and trial-and-error that lets me cycle through many different possibilities in an efficient way. Outside of the flowers themselves, I just let my mind wander, react to news cycles, and look for imagery that reflects the nature of the politics within the context of how they are disseminated. It’s a very free-form and improvisational process.
I’ve also incorporate contemporary visual signatures into the pictures. Most of this so far has been pixelation and low-res imagery, but I’ve begun to build in color signatures and design elements from social media and news media, as a means to explore the election through these familiar interfaces that we have all experienced it through. Some new images incorporate re-authored screen captures of Instagram photographs tagged with election-related keywords, which I’ve found is actually a great way to embed little photobook-like sequences within a single image. So at the moment I’m working on fabricating images to act like the interfaces we experienced the election through, and want them to mirror the chaos, complexity, and overwhelming saturation of information that defines our virtual experience.
JF: Outside of the title/story reference, what's the significance of the flowers?
GJ: Within the canon of art history traditional depictions of flowers act as symbols for an enduring beauty of art itself. Flowers can die, but images of flowers cannot, they hold beauty in stasis. Their optimisms linger for generations. A more underlying mechanism in pictures of flowers are expressions of idealism, these especially so because they use idealized stock photographs as their basic backing foil. My interventions look to establish a measure of blatant artifice over these idealizations, which is a more overt commentary on contemporary political discourse.
Beyond the art historical connotations, flowers were a symbol of protest during the Vietnam War. They were used to declare values of peace over war. This allusion doesn’t equally correspond to how I’m using them though, because my interventions are inferring a sense of violence and destruction over their expressions of beauty.
Flowers are also used to memorialize death. The last line of Flowers for Algernon is a request by Charlie Gordon to place flowers on Algernon’s grave. Flowers pay tribute to something that has died. And this election has convinced me that something has died. So the symbolism inferred by these pictures exists someplace between these three points of access.
JF: These are disturbing, reflective, and somewhat fatalistic. But I feel a sense of lingering optimism. Would you agree?
GJ: I don’t think art can be made without some optimism. My optimism is in the fact that I’m not alone in my feelings of disappointment and bewilderment over what is happening. There are many of us, and despite all the negative sentiment we share, we collectively have a strong voice and will make it heard in one way or another.
I would disagree with the fatalistic characterization of this work. This election was not fate and democracy isn’t dead, it just got caught napping. The election itself is a blight on American history, we’ve elected a spectacle that captures the imagination endlessly. But this is not permanent, and it reminds us, very importantly, that democratic institutions cannot be taken for granted. For any of us to resign to this political condition with an attitude of powerlessness is very dangerous. Voices spoken will, together, amplify and be heard. Optimism is our greatest asset as long as it is utilized.
BIO: Gregory Eddi Jones (b. 1986) is an artist, writer and publisher who lives and works in Philadelphia, PA. He holds a BFA from Rochester Institute of Technology (2010) and an MFA from Visual Studies Workshop (2016).
Jones' visual practice examines and re-authors existing image products through the mechanisms of digital and internet-based tools. His concerns focus on analyzing the politics of photographs and other images common to the American cultural lexicon. His first book, Another Twenty-Six Gas Stations, has gone on to be acquired by over two dozen institutional artists' book and photobook collections, including libraries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, RISD, George Eastman Museum, and Columbia University.
Since 2012, Jones has been editor and publisher of In the In-Between: Journal of Digital Imaging Artists, a platform highlighting artists working at critical intersections of photography and digital media.