Explosive Art

“Fighting for Our Enemy” is a photo in the Proxy War exhibition by Justyna Badach. The photos are made using gunpowder, a technically challenging process.

Justyna Badach has always been interested in how visuals – movies and video games – glorify and multiply violence by shaping masculine identity.

She first developed the concept of what would become her Proxy War exhibit in the context of war-packed films of her childhood; she left communist Poland at the age of 8 and war imagery and a strong sense of history are part of her DNA. Later, in 2015, Badach re-visited the idea of the “proxy wars” happening on our screens. By then, the whole world of watching and making videos had changed, courtesy of streaming.

There was, in particular, one new player making videos for angry men that caught her interest: ISIS-produced online recruitment videos took graphic violence as propaganda to a whole new level. “They were videos produced by men for men,” Badach says. “Their visual language is striking. There are no women in the videos, except for when they were being punished.”

After she found the first videos she spent a year creating still images from frames picked out of the material. Her computer was her camera and she became a bootlegger, she says, transforming footage into something else entirely. Purposely skipping the most extreme material, Badach prints her eventual choices on a large-scale printer. Then, the fun part starts.

Knowing that the medium is the message, the Philadelphia-based photographer decided to employ a 19th-century developing technique, adding her own innovation – black gunpowder. The sale of this product has been banned since 2002, she learned, but she was able to find a homemade version from a private citizen obsessed with muskets.

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“I’ve always wanted to push beyond the flat surface of the photo,” she says of her explosive photos. A majority of them will never be finalized – the process is rather eruptive and does not always end well. (About 70 percent are destroyed in the process.) Those pieces that are finished can’t be reproduced; their texture and genesis is theirs alone. The work suits Badach well because it combines her love for art with her affinity for science.

“We don’t live in a bubble,” Badach says, about the meaning of her art and her sensitivity to history. “When I’m looking at ISIS videos, I’m thinking about other images of contested spaces such as Tunisia or Afghanistan – those early black-and-white photos of those sites taken by European photographers.”

Badach is delighted to be showcased by the Center for Photographic Art.

“It’s a great place,” she says. “I’m honored to be shown at the place that shows Ansel Adams. It shows how progressive the center is, my art being the complete opposite of his landscapes.”

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