Written by: 
Erin Cristales

Christopher Meerdo's grandfather was a World War II veteran and inveterate tinkerer who lived in a squat, 1,200-square-foot house near the Bay City area of Michigan. When he wasn't working in his garden or crafting toys and furniture in the woodworking shop out back, he spent much of his time photographing the home and its goings on, documenting the life he shared with his wife and four kids.

When Meerdo was 15, his grandfather passed away and in his will bequeathed his grandson his twin-lens Rolleiflex and archive of negatives that included images from the war and the photos he had taken of his family and their home. A few years later, as an undergraduate photography student at Northern Michigan State University, Meerdo returned to snap images of the house from the same vantage points, and with the same camera, his grandfather had used.

"That was the first time I started thinking about photography in a more conceptual way, about images as archives versus just individual photos," says Meerdo, who joined UNT's College of Visual Arts and Design in fall 2019 as an associate professor of photography and new media. "Considering photography as a cultural phenomenon is a really different way of thinking. How do you, as an artist, engage with history?"

His grandfather also left him the compass he carried during the war, an unintentionally apt metaphor when you consider all the ways he pointed his grandson toward a future in photography. And his presence lingers -- on the bookshelf in Meerdo's office, there's a handmade photo album, still shrink-wrapped from his move to Denton, that contains his grandfather's images at home and abroad.

"His images were either of his World War II buddies or family or the house, so it was a very vernacular practice," Meerdo says. "That got me thinking of vernacular photography as something that's important -- photography is used for so many different types of things, from mug shots to crime scene photos to passports to family pictures. It's not just artists who are picking up cameras but everyday people."

A new angle on archives

That vernacular fascination led Meerdo to projects such as shooting with expired film from the 1950s and 60s, the degradation of which gave his images a translucent, haunted quality. He also would buy old memory cards from eBay and attempt to restore the previous owner's photos, creating an archive of fragmented images -- a process that speaks to collective cultural memory, he says.

At the same time, he drew inspiration from his uncle, a video game designer for Atari. As a young adult, Meerdo became increasingly obsessed with computers and programming, and one of his first art projects involved archiving various 1990s-era computer viruses on floppy disks.

"I feel like the new media and photography parts of me grew up together," he says.

His attraction to the historic aspects of both mediums has morphed into his current area of artistic interest. Meerdo is focused on database archives, including the social justice aspects of how information can be used against vulnerable communities, as well as capturing cultural snapshots of the digital artifacts released by hackers and leakers.

"Corporations and governments are collecting these massive databases on everything, and we're all contributing to them," he says. "As soon as people started making databases, there was this rush to scan everything, which has been referred to as archive fever. But now we're seeing some fundamental problems with that, as a lot of the tools used for database collection have been created by the powers in the world that have historically been oppressive. There's a conflict there, and I'm really interested in how that information is used."

Recently, while a fellow of the Jan van Eyck Academie in the Netherlands, Meerdo completed a project called Channeling, in which he and computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon examined the archive of information produced from digital devices confiscated during the raid of Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The CIA released everything rescued from the compound's computer hard drives, phones, CDs, DVDs and memory cards.

"To my mind, that was the first time anyone's complete digital personhood was released to the public," Meerdo says. "We all have this image we create with our phones and computers and the way we interact with the internet -- it's a kind of portrait. So I was interested in the way we never saw any images of bin Laden killed or thrown into the Arabian sea, but instead we have this digital body that is fully accessible."

Using artificial intelligence, Meerdo and his collaborators fed the information into a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), which can analyze hundreds of thousands of images and learn from them. Typically, a GAN requires a sample size of 100,000 similar images to generate analogous replications -- for example, 100,000 photos of dogs enables it to understand the animal's visual structures to then produce its own convincing images. In Channeling, the GAN was given 70,000 disparate images of artifacts ranging from weapons to political portraits to battle sites to memes and GIFs.

"Because the pieces are all so different, it never fully resolves. It's a video that morphs between something that looks like a face, a landscape, a weapon, and there's language and text coming through," he says. "Hypothetically, it's endlessly generative."

Focusing on the future

Channeling concluded its run at Berlin's Exgirlfriend Gallery last September. Meerdo's most recent exhibition, Bundle Umbra -- which draws from hacker and whistleblower file caches sourced on the dark web, and considers what remains invisible within international information systems -- drew to a close at Chicago's Document Gallery in February.

"It's this moment where you regroup and collect yourself from this big push you just had," he says.

Now, he's interested in pursuing more research on the academic side of his practice. For example, Meerdo in February took part in the Division of Research and Innovation's new D.C. Faculty Fellows program, in which junior faculty from across all disciplines are connected with sponsoring organizations. Meerdo visited with officials at the National Endowment for the Arts and Fulbright programs.

"I'm starting to think about what these larger collaborations with bigger federal agencies mean for us as a school and a department, and for me as an artist," says Meerdo, who previously worked as an adjunct professor at the Art Institute of Chicago after receiving his M.F.A. in photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I'm excited to be here at UNT because I feel like I can make things happen in a way I couldn't before as just an artist or adjunct. I can get Fulbright here to talk, I can invite guest artists to come and speak. I want my students to have a full perspective on the art world and have a real international conversation."

And, he says, he wants to give his students what his grandfather gave him all those years ago: purposeful direction.

"I'm always trying to push students in terms of their concepts and ideas and what their individual voices are," Meerdo says. "I don't care if you're really good at Photoshop or aperture or shutter speed -- what are the ideas that you're going to further as a human? You can learn to use a camera over a weekend, you really can. But it takes a lifetime to know what to do with that camera."

Continue Reading