The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium

John D’Agostino - Butterfly

John D’Agostino - Butterfly

The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium is artist and photographer John D’Agostino’s latest art project. With Pyrotechnic, D’Agostino rescues the much-abused art of digital photo-manipulation, and uses it to create works with gravitas, that awe us with their cold, but brilliant radiance. We are drawn to the light, like moths to a flame, and yet there is an inexplicable feeling of unease gnawing at us, deep within.

D’Agostino is actually paying homage to the dual nature of The Sublime, which can provoke feelings of wordless ecstasy, but can also consume and obliterate one’s very essence of self with its sheer grandeur. He recognizes Technology as the new Sublime, The Machine in the idyllic Garden. Would we like to indulge, and take a bite of its forbidden neon-colored fruits?

Bedazzled as I was by his latest series, I was still quite surprised by what I perceived to be a radical shift in his photographic style. His magnificent Empire of Glass was a series of photographs of salvaged Favrile glass, whereas Pyrotechnic is the resampling of conventional night lighting imagery in the digital darkroom.

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In search of answers, I asked him to tell me more about his latest work, and this is what he had to say:

Actually, Pyrotechnic predates Empire of Glass by about 5 years. In a sense, you could say that Empire evolved from Pyrotechnic – its a pre-history, because for years I came tantalizingly close but never went "totally" abstract. But, you could also say that Pyrotechnic is now evolving from Empire, because they’re both still ongoing series, and you can’t help but see the world differently after working with such a luminous medium.

Photoshop has something called an "Action" – where you can record whatever transformations you do to an image. It also has a "History" so you can save the image at any point in time. So, I could start out with one original, and end up with say 4 different mutations of that original. And so on. Of course, 99.99% of these experiments never worked, but the ones that did every now and then seemed to have a different life of their own. I was so shocked how all these organic shapes resembled familiar body plans – of insects for example. It literally is a kind of evolution in a sense, by taking mutating algorithms of sorts, applying them to thousands of different images, and then keeping only the tiny handful of successful ones. And almost every living thing on the planet is symmetrical. So, for whatever reason, it just works. I love that I can combine mass automation with a very handmade process. Often I have to record my work in Photoshop, because half the time even I can’t duplicate it. I have actually lost a few great images over the years when the power cut out, and I just couldn’t seem to duplicate all the little steps that got them there. One missing link in the great chain – and it falls apart!



Now why I would do all this in the first place? Ha, good question. I guess I’ve always sort of been secretly disappointed with the documentary approach to photography. I want to make something "new" -even if from the same source material everyone else is using. Case in point actually, there’s a woman on Tumblr now who’s getting a lot of press just documenting neon signs, (‘Project Neon’ its called) but it just doesn’t do it for me. I’m a big believer in what I like to call "The Art of Sampling," in that the real art (if there is such a thing) is in using and re-sampling source material in an original and compelling way, like say Public Enemy or the Beastie Boys back in the day sampling all these different great elements into a new track, choosing to sample one song for the bass, another one for the drums, etc etc. In a sense, straight up documentary photography to me almost feels more like straight up "appropriation" in the artworld, where someone is using or just copying a subject in a one-dimensional, literal, less interesting way, like say Sherrie Levine. The art of the sample in my book is the originality and freshness of the new, later thing compiled, not the thing you start out with.

In retrospect, both projects have reminded me that I guess I have always been in love with light, and nowhere better to study and find light than in the dark. I still think most photographers nowadays still do not truly embrace the digital medium as something new, they still miss film, and they do not see all the great new possibilities out there. Photography does not always need to be a literal, realistic medium in my book, for me, I say it is transformative, not representational. I think it is far more exciting actually when it confuses, confounds and surprises us with strange or new things. And even more fun I say if they come from the familiar.

D’Agostino is trying to push the boundaries of what photography can be, audaciously trying to expand its very definitions. Light is the common denominator in both Empire of Glass and Pyrotechnic, and D’Agostino, a master artist, is able to persuade it to show us sights never seen before.

There have been numerous debates whether photo-manipulated works can ever be called photography, or even art, for that matter. While I wouldn’t want to get into the same debate, I would only like to reiterate the fact that digitally transformed art/art photography is here to stay, and as time passes, it will only gain widespread acceptance from artists and critics alike. It is tremendously exciting to know that artists like John D’Agostino, who have a tremendous respect for the art of the past, are heralding the coming of the new age.


“Perpetual Suicide”


“Insatiable Destruction”




“The Facsimile of Love”


“The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium”


Success Disaster”


“Terror on the edge of Nothingness”


“The Tyranny of Entertainment”

Link to The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium.