Los Angeles–based Andrew Norman Wilson’s exhibition at Document featured his video Kodak (2018)—which tells the story of a man with a curious relationship to Kodak and dramatizes the fractious genealogy that only tenuously binds analog photography to digital modes of expression—alongside related photographs and prints, including compositions collaging imagery drawn from Kodak’s early twentieth-century advertisements. Watching the video, the viewer tries to suss out the relationship between the images projected on-screen—a mix of still family photos, CGI animation, and what appear to be commercials for Kodak products from the 1980s and ’90s—and the soundtrack, which comprises largely a one-sided conversation a man has with a man whose recorded statements he listens to on a tape player.
Eventually, the viewer pieces together that the man addressing the recordings is Rich, a former Kodak employee who was demoted after being blinded in a workplace accident, and then lost his family to divorce. Rather than harbor bitterness toward the company that spurned him, Rich pathologically identifies with Kodak’s long-dead founder, George Eastman, who turns out to be the speaker on the tape. In Rich’s appeals to the recording, he addresses his unhearing conversation partner familiarly as “George.” As Eastman muses on the nature of photography (“simply a reorganization of the chemicals that make up our memory”), vintage Kodak commercials parade by in cheerful mockery of this jilted employee pining after a titan of industry he never met. One repurposed commercial shows a crimson-nailed hand snipping a man’s red tie in half with scissors—a castrating gesture that repeats several times in the video, highlighting Rich’s emasculation in suffering the loss of his job and his status as breadwinner.
The blind man’s memories are collapsed totally with the product he helped to produce: as he hums along to the strains of Harry Nilsson’s melancholic song “I’ll Be Home,” images of family birthdays, Christmases, and vacations pass by in a circular aperture seen on-screen. The family that Rich is estranged from appears only in photographs, underscoring the degree to which his identity as a provider, bestowed by Kodak, is inextricable from his experience of family itself. The human casualties of swiftly shifting forms of labor in image economies is an overarching theme of Wilson’s oeuvre, one that is related to his own experiences. The narrative of Kodak, as the press material notes, is quasi-autobiographical: Wilson’s father lost his job as a Kodak engineer as the company’s fortunes failed, and the family documented in the photos in the video is his own. The artist himself was famously terminated from Google for filming the dejected hordes of employees responsible for the monotonous task of scanning for the Google Books archive.
Informed both by his father’s dismissal from a company collapsing at the end of an era of analog photography and by his own termination from a conglomerate presiding over an immense digital empire, Wilson’s video suggests that, in late-capitalist society, images reign supreme over the increasingly disposable human workers who labor to produce them. This idea is embodied in the figure of a shape-shifting CGI harpy that appears at the video’s end, mocking Rich and urging him to suicide. The viewer is reminded that the “camera” that seems to zoom into the hyper-detailed striations of her iris is not in fact a camera, and that digital images need not picture anything real at all. The apocalyptic animated landscape with which Wilson ends the video is the strange new terrain of representations gone rogue from the real.