Guns are one of the most contentious dialogues in the United States today. They have become wedges in elections, with the NRA defending their ‘rights' to semi-automatic weapons at all costs, and after a wave of shootings in the past year, the issue has mobilized mass student walkouts to demonstrate an increasing support for restrictions that will help keep them safe. Other countries, such as Australia in 1996, have demonstrated progressive overhauls of legislation in response to mass shootings, a move that is increasingly cited as something to consider adopting in the United States.
Being recognized as one of the world’s safest countries to live in, one would rarely expect Switzerland to sit alongside the United States with one of the highest rates of gun ownership per capita of any country. Switzerland’s legislation towards guns, while not totally unrestrictive, is relatively liberal yet there have been only three recorded mass shootings in recent history.
This premise is where English photographer Kris Kozlowski Moore's series and self-published photobook Forty Six Guns began, to engage in a varying and exceedingly broad discourse around the idiosyncrasies of Switzerland's gun culture. Black and white landscapes are juxtaposed against still life photographs of baseball mitts and sculptural gun range targets, while snowy mountaintops play off in situ portraits – it's not exactly what you might expect from a series called "Forty Six Guns." The work is airy and poetic, presenting an open-ended unraveling of Switzerland's little known, yet dominant gun culture.
While Humble stands firm in our support of gun control legislation, we're drawn to Kozlowski's meditative series on how guns can pervade a national identity. I had a conversation with Kris to learn more.
Jon Feinstein, in conversation with Kris Kozlowski Moore
Feinstein: Given the subject matter, this work surprisingly breaks from a traditional narrative or documentary structure. How did it all begin?
Kris Kozlowski Moore: I don’t think there was a definitive beginning to Forty Six Guns; rather, as mostly I feel it is, a consequence of numerous influences that informed it. I had briefly read around the idea for an earlier piece of work, but really only touched the surface and it didn’t materialize into anything more at the time. In a way it was a progression from that earlier research, taking it as a foundation and building it into something physical. I’ve visited Switzerland in the past so it seemed a natural place to look when it came to making something new and I wanted to work in a landscape that was somewhat removed from what I was familiar with.
I think living somewhere dramatically alters your perception of that place and I was finding it hard to look objectively at the narratives that surrounded me closer to home. I was also reading W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn during several visits to Switzerland and that played a lot into how I conceptualized Forty-Six Guns.
Feinstein: Guns are a particularly controversial issue right now, especially in the United States. Did this play into your conception and execution of this project?
Moore: Very little, if at all. It was nice to have some distance from the emotive and polarised gun debate in the US and to some extent, gun culture in a broader sense. The way in which Switzerland views and uses guns seems hugely specific to the country; its particular historical roots, its relatively liberal legislation towards the issue alongside being cited as one of the safest countries in the world, the formation of the military and how that plays into an abundance of firearms are all tied very closely to Switzerland.
Because of this, Forty Six Guns was heavily inward-looking where other countries with arguably more overt discussions surrounding guns had limited influence and instead the work centered on dialogues distinctly related to Switzerland. I think to allow wider issues, especially from the US, to affect the making of Forty Six Guns would have been a mistake. Comparatively the two are too disparate and to have suggested relationships between them would have been to miss the individualistic character of Switzerland’s gun culture.
Feinstein: In your statement, you refer to Swiss gun culture as "unassuming." I'm interested in this word choice.
Moore: "Unassuming," when placed next to the seemingly established thought regarding guns that is presented through western media and films, largely surrounding the US. It is nearly always a politicised narrative of violence and I think most people have a relatively firm idea of how absolute the consequences of guns can be because of this context. Yet Switzerland positively questions a lot of these assumptions we have and certainly I had. The US exemplifies the prevailing and confrontational discourse on guns whilst Switzerland seems to quietly offer a more constructive view.
Feinstein: I can't help but draw an abstract nod to Ed Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations at least in the title. Am I off base?
Moore: There wasn’t a conscious decision to draw a relationship between Ruscha’s work and my own but I do see the very close similarity between the titles; incidentally I’ve looked at a lot of his work in the past, especially Twentysix Gasoline Stations, but not during the making of Forty-Six Guns.
The title originated from one of the first statistics I read about Switzerland’s gun culture, that approximately forty-six people per one hundred privately own a firearm in Switzerland. It was rudimentary, and the statistic actually varied considerably between studies, yet being such a distilled and prosaic statement was why it became so appealing as a title. I read an interview between Ruscha and John Coplans for Artforum where Ruscha explains that partly the reason for the title Twentysix Gasoline Stations was because he liked the word ‘Gasoline’, I like this a lot.
Feinstein: You describe your approach as non-linear. You're not making documentary work, and you get into some ambiguous territory with the story you're telling.
Moore: Working in this way was both an inward and outward decision. By this I mean it was partly about reimagining how I was working; I was increasingly pessimistic towards the preconceptions I had surrounding a more linear and more traditional methodology in the past, which retrospectively now seem only restrictive to the ideas I was exploring. It was freeing to move away from the more rigid frameworks that I adhered to previously and work in this less tightly wound manner. Breaking down these expectations allowed for a multitude of materials and processes to unrestrictedly influence the making of Forty Six Guns.
In this way, the work was partly a kind of mediation on my whole methodology of making work. Outwardly, working in a more non-linear way was important to how I perceived the work to function. It aims to perform as a series of subjective notes; non-prescriptive and non-definitive conversations that are never meant to establish a solitary and linear narrative. Trying to structure it in any other way would have been to impose an excess of control over the ideas in the work, and attempt to give a strict order to something that could never be reduced to a single, directional line. As such it was also perhaps a product of engaging in such a vast cultural, social and political component of Switzerland’s national identity.
The way that I made the work went some way to try and realise the breadth and depth of this subject. I don’t think there is much of a story in Forty Six Guns in the traditional sense of the word, I only really see the potential for various conversations albeit at times those conversations and tangents can seem arbitrary. Consequently, the way in which Forty-Six Guns was approached became increasingly two-fold for these reasons; looking inward at my own methodologies and outwardly at the narratives I was trying to build in the work. I guess Forty-Six Guns is equally about Switzerland’s gun culture as it is not.
Feinstein: You intersperse baseball mitts, and various found materials, pictures of Jesus, etc – not quite what most would expect in a series about gun culture, at least not literally.
Moore: It stemmed mainly from realising the value of the archival material I was finding; its innate potential to be in conversation with the photographic works I was producing to better precipitate the ideas and narratives in Forty Six Guns. The ideas I was trying to bring to the surface in my own photographic works were already there in the volumes of archival material related to Switzerland’s gun culture.
Realising this caused me to probe into these archives and accumulate a mass collection of such found and often historical material, both digitally and as physical pieces. I then collated and culled this into a redacted form that would both operate with the photographs I was making and illustrate the ideas that were present in the archival material.
As to baseball mitts; I was interested in the way in which constructed images could depict or reference reality and facts. I found a historical account from the travels of a US Army Captain, T.B. Mott, in 1905 in which he summarised Switzerland’s shooting clubs to be so prolific that he drew a comparison to baseball teams in the US. The baseball mitt photographed on a bluntly red background attempts to be a visual reconstruction of this historical reference to Switzerland’s gun culture.
Likewise, there is a similar constructed photographic work of origami mountains; photographed on the same red background which hoped to be another reimagined reference, this time to the Swiss Alps which have been inherent to Swiss gun culture on both a military and recreational front for a significant period of Switzerland’s history.
The same painting of Jesus in Forty-Six Guns was found in the Swiss Federal Archives of the country during World War I and I included botanical photographs of the flora and fauna that was most affected by trace elements deposited by Swiss shooting ranges. The work is largely rooted in these far-flung, idiosyncratic and arbitrary allusions that act as starting points towards possible dialogues. They are intended to be tangential whilst still being distantly established in Swiss gun culture and the footnotes at the back of the publication attempt to provide context to the majority of the indexical references in Forty-Six Guns.
Feinstein: We've been talking about this in the context of your book, but how does this play out in the physical exhibition of your work?
Moore: In the physical presentation of the work I try to take this idea of dialogues between found material and new photographic works further; stacks of the publication are shown alongside a clear bag filled with used bullets, drawings that represent the wind direction on the dates of mass shootings and large-scale shooting targets found in various Swiss shooting ranges.
Incidentally shooting targets are fixed to wooden stands on mass and then periodically destroyed without consideration through the act of shooting, yet their tactility and aesthetic value become apparent when removed from their original context. When seen in a material space, Forty-Six Guns is a constructed and physical archive that I hope carries the idea of acting as a series of notes when presented in this way.
Feinstein: Where are *you* in all of this?
Moore: I think there were numerous fascinations I had with Forty Six Guns; the alternative dialogue that Switzerland presents, the archival material that was so critical to the work and this evolution of methodology. It was refreshing to have the preconceptions I viewed guns with unsettled and to look at a country that demonstrates a less aggressive and more convincing use of guns. The fixation with archival material continually grew the more I discovered, it was incredible to see the sheer amount of it that all created a varied yet unified discourse.
Then to realise its contribution to understanding various narratives and how I could take these pieces and work them into Forty-Six Guns was massively engaging. This move towards found material was one component of a developing process and finding these new ways to communicate ideas was really important to me. Also, the whole notion of having work realised in a physical book, the consequent thinking that goes into it and to then further consider how the book could be presented alongside other physical items was another layer of significance.