I shot another video this Sunday, which is framed a little differently and has more dramatic light. I tried to create a greater sense of tension between my subject and I, kneeling down beside the camera so that my subject (James) and I were looking directly at each other while I was filming and slowly undressing off camera. I like the idea that there is a deliberate/constructed sense of sexual tension between James and I, but all of the actions creating that tension are happening off camera, causing James’ gaze to dart back and forth between the camera and something happening off camera. Like the last video, I slowed down the frame rate, extending the fleeting interaction between my subject and I, but in this video it is significantly less slow than in Coye and I. This is partially on account of James’ moving throughout the filming (it would look heavy handed if his movement was stretched out to an extreme degree while he was shifting in bed)… I feel that, while I am giving up a little bit of the photographic qualities of the past video (he doesn’t ever really seem to be photographically still, even when he is barely moving), the fluidity makes more sense for this video, and puts the focus more on our interaction, rather than the conflation of photography and video.
Anyhow, I’m sure more questions will come up in class when I show the video to everyone.
This week’s readings all centered around the animated GIF (graphic interchange format), a file format introduced in 1987 that wasn’t really intended to be used for animation, but has today become synonymous with short animated loops. Much like photography, the “low-tech” aspect of the file format has allowed for it flourish both within the artistic community and within the greater “mass culture” of the internet, encompassing everything from kittens and puppies being cute, to segments of popular films, to undulating abstract shapes (Tom Moody’s 2005 OptiDisc comes to mind). To be perfectly honest, while I love a good GIF when it pops up in my tumblr feed as much as the next person, I’m not at all a part of the community that seems to be primarily interested in them - I don’t use Reddit, I’ve never been on 4chan, and half the time when I see a meme pop up on facebook I have to run to google to figure out what the joke is. The idea of animated GIFs being part of a greater dialogue, remixing and reinterpreting aspects of mass culture and internet culture into some new, weird thing is interesting, but is also something that often seems coded in a way that’s designed to keep me out, to keep the joke inside. Nonetheless, I appreciate the blurred lines between the art consumer and the art producer, and the deskilled aspect of the gif - the idea that anybody can basically make a gif with little effort, as well as the idea that a gif could be highly intellectualized and highly stupid at the same time.
A particularly saccarine moment from “elegant” blog From Me To You.
Perhaps a result of just how new the gif itself is, many of the readings this week seemed to have contradicting viewpoints of what constituted a good gif, or what exactly was exciting about the future of the format. Anil Dash seems to argue that the most exciting possibilities of the animated gif are those in which the gif more closely resembles film, or inhabits still photographs with elements of movement. To Dash, the animated gif “invites participation, in a medium that’s both fun and accessible, as the pop music of moving images, giving us animations that are totally disposable and completely timeless.” This kind of discussion sends up major red flags for me, both in the sense that no image, wether existing as a gif, a photograph, or in any other medium, is ever anything other than a product of the time in which it was made, as well as through her use of the word disposable. What exactly makes disposability a positive attribute? Why would the increasing ability to make a gif look like something other than a gif make it a more dynamic and exciting medium? Aside from removing the wait time of streaming video (which in and of itself is something of a non-issue with most video these days), what is so exciting about making a gif function more like a video? Why not simply shoot video? It’s not as if HD video is something beyond most artists means (and from the looks of it, the photographers behind this type of work are shooting on equipment that could easily shoot HD video as well.) The use of the format to these means seems besides the point - not to say that all gif art should stick to the jumpy, glitchy aesthetics of early 90’s computer graphics, but pushing the medium to seamlessly appear to be something else seems like an obvious gimmick. Paddy Johnson sums up this argument well in her rebuttal of Dash’s article: “while Jamie Beck’s images have a blinking postcard type of appeal, the same question occurs to me while looking at them as did last night while watching Werner Herzog’s Forgotten Cave of Dreams in 3D: What does this effect add to the narrative that the image itself doesn’t already tell me? The answer is nothing. It’s just a cheap parlor trick.”
Tom Moody. OptiDisc. 2005.
Sally McKay, on the other hand, argues that animated GIFs repeat, loop and exaggerate the “affective intensity” of a given clip, creating a “felt sensation” that is present for the viewer almost like an optical illusion. McKay uses Tom Moody’s OptiDisc as an example, which uses the jumpy, glitchy qualities of the gif to create a series of concentric circles which move forward and backward in space. ”Engaging the viewer’s perceptual system directly — within the codes and conventions of online production — OptiDisc is very present, functioning more like a felt sensation than a merely visual observation." McKay states, continuing: ”In this way OptiDisc operates in the ‘here and now’ as Margaret Morse might say, but without the institutional structuring of the art museum to enframe and stage the experience.” To McKay, by removing the mediation of the traditional experience of art within the white cube, the viewer is allowed to experience gif imagery more directly, and in a way that toys with our experience of physical movement, rather than simply visual movement. McKay argues that the jerky motions of gif imagery are what allow for this type of illusion to occur, creating large gaps within the frame rate that that push against seamless motion while still maintaining the illusion of movement. McKay goes on to say “As Mieke Bal might describe it, the animated GIFs function like cinematic close-ups — ‘abstractions isolating the object from the time-space coordinates in which we were moving as if ‘naturally.’ A close-up immediately cancels out the whole that precedes it, leaving us alone, thrown out of linear time, alone with a relationship to the image that is pure affect.’ Unlike close-ups in cinema, however, animated GIFs function without a “whole” — there is no ongoing narrative for them to be juxtaposed against.” This idea that gif imagery functions by removing an image from any possible narrative implications, allowing it to function as it’s own autonomous experience seems obvious, yet also important. By focusing on detail, rather than a narrative whole, creators of gifs are able to borrow both from filmic and photographic structures, creating an experience that is at once moving and static, telling a portion of a story without having to deal with the before or after of it’s narrative. I suppose this is an answer to my question in the previous paragraph - by using the fragmentary nature of gif imagery, creators can make works which reference both photography, illustration, and film, yet are experienced as something wholly different.
I think It’s interesting to note that the majority of gif’s I’ve noticed I’m attracted to highlight the outmoded and somewhat crappy nature of the technology itself. Saul Chernick’s animations of drawings from the 500 year old book Heideberger Totentanz create a tongue and cheek commentary on the kitsch nature of the gif itself, maintaing a comic appearance that almost mimic cartoons of the present day.
Kevin Bewersdorf’s Windows 95 corporate kitsch mandalas (my own terrible term, not his) take as much from psychedelic graphics and eastern religious imagery as they do bad Internet 1.0 graphics and early clip art gifs, creating a strange commentary on the faith we put in technology, as well as the almost cult like status we give to tech companies and their heads. Bewersdorf’s images are both spiritual and kitschy, hilarious and depressing, and seem to revel in the outmoded logic of the “dawn of the internet.”
BOOMBANGBAM found on Joy of Gif.
This gif takes footage of an atom bomb test and loops it into an endlessly playful cycle of explosion, blocking the blast itself with a colorful dot both reminiscent of Baldessari and of retinal burns. Similar to the way in which Anime films often employ ideas of rebirth and regeneration after global annihilating blasts (the opening sequence to Daicon IV comes to mind, in which Tokyo is destroyed by a nuclear bomb and then saved by a swarm of cute cartoon characters), this gif utilizes the aesthetics of kitsch to disempower the brutality of the imagery it takes as it’s main source. The punchline of the gif seems to be the silent thud of the explosion. At the same time, the way flash of the explosion momentarily whites out the image is quite jarring. By endlessly looping the footage of a very serious historical event, the gif draws us in, highlighting our attraction and repulsion to it’s subject.
Nicolas Bourriaud’s essay Postproduction, Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World outlines the various intersections between artistic production, consumer culture, and what can loosely be described as “remix culture”. Bourriaud’s essay follows and directly responds to his milestone work Relational Aesthetics, discussing many artists mentioned in his infamous work, including Rirkrit Tiravanija, Phillip Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, and Carsten Holler, but centers more directly around the contemporary phenomenon of sampling from mass culture to repackage or repurpose cultural information into new objects and experiences via artistic production. In short, just as a dj acts simultaneously as consumer and producer, Bourriaud argues, contemporary artists today borrow both from cultural information, mass produced objects, and the lexicon of consumer culture, weaving disparate elements into a new, autonomous whole.
A work by Haim Steinbach.
Bourriaud sees the roots of this phenomenon in the use of appropriation by artists such as Haim Steinbach, Jeff Koons, and Sherrie Levine starting in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, as well as in the work of Marcel Duchamp. By utilizing mass produced, easily obtained store bought objects and combining them with a method of display inspired by the aesthetics of retail, Steinbach creates sculptural objects that turn consumption into a literal means of production. Just as Marcel Duchamp deliberately undermined notions of artistic craft by placing shovels, urinals, and bicycle wheels into a gallery context, Steinbach took advantage of the aesthetics of the department store, collapsing the “retail experience” and the “art experience” in a manner that highlights the transaction inherent in both. Similarly, by creating highly polished reproductions of kitsch mass produced goods, or encasing consumer goods in plexiglass display cases, Jeff Koons fetishizes the desire to buy. As Bourriaud says of all three: “Koons, Levine and Steinbach present themselves as veritable intermediaries, brokers of desire whose works represent simple simulacra, images born of a market study more than of some sort of ‘inner need’, a value considered outmoded.” Trading in pre-existing objects and images, artists such as Koons, Levine and Steinbach simulate the world we already know, re-presenting both our own consumer culture as fetishized art objects, and their own consumption as artistic production in and of itself.
Bourriaud argues that these appropriationist methods fetishize the art object in ways which, on some level, negate an artist’s’ ability to critique. Relational art, according to Bourriard, beginning with it’s emergence in the 1990’s, focused on creating experiential interactions beyond the materials which made up their physical pieces. Rirkrit Tiravanija, for example, turned the office of 303 Gallery in New York into a makeshift kitchen in which he cooked thai soup and served it, free of charge, to whomever came to the gallery. Using everyday building materials, kitchen supplies, and store bought food, Tiravanija created an environment in which the skeletal structure of the piece was it’s only visible component. Much like the materials of appropriationist’s like Steinbach or Koons, the wooden structure that housed his kitchen, dining area and his patrons were made of store bought untreated plywood and 2x4’s. Pots, pans, a refrigerator, as well as the meal’s ingredients and packaging were left out in the open, Tiravanija taking from them as needed. Rather than functioning simply as a static, saleable object like Jeff Koons’ infamous floating basketball, Tiravanija’s piece highlighted the act of consumption while simultaneously existing outside of that consumption. Free was not simply the structure Tiravanija created, but the interactions which went on inside of it as well. By utilizing the structure of a restaurant or storefront, Tiravanija’s piece functioned between the binaries of artistic production - at once mass produced (the unconcealed use of store bought materials) and and ephemeral (the interactions and connections between Tiravanija and his patrons; his patrons and each other), a fetishized art object (a sculptural piece in a gallery, now displayed at MoMA) and free from the constraint of commodity (the fleeting gesture of giving, the idea of art as something to be experienced and not purchased.) By using, to some extent, the materials and methods of a more blatantly consumer establishment, Tiravanija and other artists like him both highlighted and subverted the inherent capitalist nature of the gallery system within which they were participating.
Liam Gillick, Inside now, we walked into a room with Coca-Cola painted walls. 1998
Bourriaud goes on to discuss artists who “sample” the methods of consumer culture, the works of other artists, and the methodology of the factory as a means of production. Bourriard cites artists such as Liam Gillick, Maurizio Cattelan, and Pierre Huyghe as examples. Particularly interesting was Liam Gillick, whose work often outsources the mode of production to assistants or art handlers, mimicking the methods of production used by large corporations. For his piece Inside now, we walked into a room with Coca-Cola painted walls, 1998, Gillick set strict guidelines by which assistants were to paint a wall inside a gallery, brushstroke by brushstroke, trying to match the color of Coca-Cola. As Bourriaud says of the work: “the soda’s mode of production follows exactly the same process, since it is produced by local factories based on the formula provided by the Coca-Cola company.” Through the use of strictly defined parameters and a removal of the artist’s hand from the production of works such as this, Gillick undermines notions of artistic craft while also directly embracing elements of futility and chance. It is unimportant that Gillick’s assistants ever duplicate the color of Coca-Cola, though the piece is directly defined it’s redish-brown hue. Likewise, by strictly defining the process by which the work is made, Gillick undermines the importance of the very piece he is setting out to create, instead favoring the process itself. Another interesting contradiction within the work seems to be the idea that by borrowing on some level the method of production of Coca-Cola, he is negating the very color the brand rests so much of it’s product on, turning it on it’s head and mocking the very consumer desire he is invoking. This reminded me of a quote Bourriaud attributed to Guy Debord’s idea of Detourment - “(it is) not a negation of style, but the style of negation.” The same could be said of Gillick’s piece, both invoking the power Coca-Cola wields in cultural capital through his title and parameters, yet undermining that capital with the same brush.
Cory Archangel, Colors PE (Installation shot at MoMA), 2005.
All of this had me thinking about a Cory Archangel piece I remember seeing, and being transfixed by, at the Color show at MoMA a few years ago. The piece, Colors PE, consists of software designed by Archangel to play quicktime movies one horizontal line of pixels at a time, creating an undulating field of colorful strips across a flat screen monitor, accompanied by the sounds of the movie it plays. Installed at MoMA, Archangel used it to play the movie Colors, a 1988 film directed by Dennis Hopper, starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. Though the film gives Archangel’s work it’s name, it is completely obscured and abstracted by the program he has created to play it. The work both situates itself within art history by making reference to the Hopper film, which “relaunched his career as a director 18 years after Easy Rider,” and literally refuses art history by abstracting the film to the point of unrecognizability. In a sense, it is similar to the methodology of both Gillick and Tiravanija, creating a work that at once responds to the world it inhabits and undermines it. Watching the piece at MoMA, I couldn’t help but feel confused by Archangel’s intentions - was I being made fun of for trying to connect the title and the abstracted image in front of me, or was I somehow being let in on the joke? Unable to pull myself away, I realized that my role as viewer was something of a combination of both.
For the midterm paper I would like to take the opportunity to discuss Martin Creed’s piece Work No. 405 Ships coming in. I have been interested in Creed’s work for many years, and have been unexpectedly drawn into the piece each time I have been to the MCA this past year.
The work consists of two tv’s stacked on top of each other, both playing video footage shot from Creed’s studio window, looking out onto a shipping port in Italy. Each video is shot at on a different day while shipping freighters slowly enter the port. I think the piece is interesting to think about in the context of David Campany’s Stillness essay, as the movement of the ships is so slow, and the camera work so static, that at certain points I was unsure if the ships were coming or going, or if the image was moving at all. I also especially like the way the videos are displayed - on stacked television sets which reference both potential products the ships could be delivering, and the speed at which technology becomes outdated, as the piece is relatively recent, yet is shown on cathode ray tube sets rather than lcd screens. The work is deceptively simple both in execution and in display, using a minimal amount of physical craft (Creed’s “artist talk” on the work was even phoned in, and displayed as a slideshow on the blog for his “residency”) to create the impression that it could have many meanings and almost no meaning at once.
In any event, I’m looking forward to spending more time with the piece this weekend (it is on display at the MCA at part of Creed’s residency until December) and to discuss it in a fuller, more thought out context.
Confronting two types of stillness; or, Of the horse... We know nothing.
This weeks readings, David Campany’s Stillness from his book Photography and Cinema, and Janet Sarbanes The Idea of Still, an interview conducted by Sarbanes with director Rebecca Baron about her films exploration of still imagery, both highlight the murky similarities and differences inherent in still and moving imagery. Where Campany often deals with moving imagery which toys with aspects of stillness and gives a historical overview of the complex intersections between film and photography from Muybridge to The Matrix, Rebecca Baron deals more directly with the ways in which prolonged looking at still imagery within the filmic experience “allows and challenges you to look differently than you would in a casual way.”
Campany starts out by pointing out a key distinction between the early time based photographic techniques of Eadweard Muybridge and early cinema – the pursuit of “instantaneous arrest, the decomposition of movement, not it’s recomposition.” This seems to highlight the apparent differences in the two mediums pretty succinctly – while film gives the viewer an experience perceived to be occurring in real time, photography, even that with an obvious component of movement over time, seeks to separate an event from it’s grounding within time itself. Campany points out that while Muybridge did animate a few of his works when he invented the Zoopraxiscope in 1879, those experiments were “far removed from the serious project of stilling things.” While filmmakers inherently maintain a sense of illusion, particularly early on in the history of both photography and film, photographers such as Muybridge (who are so often referenced by early film) were attempting to break down and analyze events within real life – in other words, to break down illusion. While this is certainly an important distinction within early film and photography, this distinction begins to blur within more contemporary works.
An example I found particularly interesting of one of the many techniques used within film that begin to blur the distinction between photography and film is the long take and extended tracking shot. As Campany puts it, “the often glacial tempo of their [Ingmar Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, etc.] films seeks a distance from the spectacle of Hollywood and the cut and thrust of television. The fleeting was considered irredeemably frivolous and artistically beyond the pale. Instead, cinema’s gaze would be extended to become so long and so penetrating as to estrange what at first looked and felt familiar – a roadside, a face, a building, a landscape, the sea. The embrace of the slow was also a sign of increasing uncertainty about the recorded image in general.” Here I can’t help but think of the films of Bela Tarr, who Campany mentions among a long list of filmmakers who favor extended shots and long takes. Tarr’s films, which are often composed of scenes which unfold over the course of one long, continuous shot, test the endurance of a viewer and push against the clarity of the narrative he sets out to tell in a manner not unlike that of Michael Snow’s film Wavelength. The opening shot of The Turin Horse, for example, starts with a black screen narrated by a myth about the turning point of Nietzsche’s descent into madness after witnessing the beating of a horse, which ends with the line “Of the horse… We know nothing.” Tarr then cuts to a 4:23 shot of a horse pulling an elderly man sitting in a carriage down a dirt road, struggling against heavy wind. The camera never strays from the horse while moving around the scene itself, tracking it’s movement throughout the landscape it struggles against. Through the camera’s durational gaze and movement around it’s subject, along with Tarr’s resistance to cut from one shot of his subject to the next, the viewer begins to empathize with the struggle the horse faces against the landscape it moves through, and the ravages of time itself. Just as the horse in his film struggles against the harsh winds, the viewer struggles with the expected desire for rapid cuts and cinematic entertainment. Considered against Campany’s initial example of Muybridge’s early studies of motion, both Tarr and Muybridge aim to disrupt the viewer’s experience of movement throughout time to different affect – Muybridge deconstructing his horse’s movement into isolated slices of time, Tarr stretching it’s motion out over time, testing the duration of both the horses endurance against the harsh conditions in which he was filming, and his viewers experience of film as durational.
Another durational shot I thought was interesting in the context of Muybridge was the running scene from Steve McQueen’s recent film Shame. While more directly narrative a filmmaker than Tarr, McQueen often combines more durational techniques like long takes within a more conventional narrative structure. In 2011’s Shame, McQueen cast actor Michael Fassbender as a sex addict, whose daily life and habits are interrupted and confronted by an unexpected visit from his sister. In the midst of Fassbender’s emotional unravelling, McQueen included a 2:12 tracking shot of Fassbender jogging through the streets of Manhattan at night. Uninterrupted, the shot follows Fassbender out of his apartment building and down a number of city blocks from a flattened, clinical perspective not unlike Muybridge’s motion studies of a nude man running, or Ed Ruscha’s iconic Every Building on the Sunset Strip. While the shot is significantly shorter than many of the long takes favored by filmmakers such as Tarr, it is long enough to create a momentary break within the narrative of McQueens film. Watching Shame in the theatre, the sequence created an experience not unlike that of durational video – in the context of more traditional narrative film, Fassbender’s running seemed to extend infinitely, allowing the viewer to forget the larger narrative for just a moment and simply experience the pleasure of voyeuristically watching this man run. In a sense the viewer’s experience begins to blur the line between photographic experience and that of film – just as you analyze the gat of the man running in Muybridge’s motion study, you are also invited to do so for just a brief portion of McQueen’s film, toying with notions of the illusion of film and it’s events happening in real time.
All of this reminds me of something Rebecca Baron said in her interview with Janet Sarbanes. Discussing the use of still photographs within her documentaries, and her reinvestigation of iconic imagery, Baron said: “the filmmaker controls how long an audience looks at an image and where they look at an image. I can give you a glimpse of an image or I can make you look for minutes at a time. You can look away, but you are made aware that you are looking away… The obvious difference between moving and still images is that the latter allows for time to look at a single moment and the former is a series of constantly disappearing images that allow you to see what happens over time and, depending on the shot, expand the frame.” While I would like to cover more of this interesting conversation about the voracity of images and their reinvestigation through film, I feel like I am running out of time, so I will end here.
This weeks readings both dealt with the use of slide shows as art object. One, Darsie Alexander’s Slideshow, tracing the history of it’s use from before it’s inception to more contemporary practice, made me reconsider how prominent the format was within an artistic context. The other, a transcript of Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque 1969-72, felt more engaging and exciting, while also raising the question wether I was missing something between the translation of the presentation and the lecture itself. Ultimately, I finished the Smithson reading wanting to see the presentation in person, even though it is clearly something which cannot be posthumously re-performed with the same first hand experience of the artist giving a slideshow about his own experience.
Alexander begins her essay discussing what initially drew a generation to slide projection, borrowing a line from a 1967 Kodak instruction manual: “Family slide shows were a coming together for members of a discrete clan, a time to watch and reminisce in the comfort of the living room. ‘These and many other happy memories live on…’ “. Perhaps that was the appeal of slide projection initially, the sense that, for a fleeting moment, people could experience their past in a way that felt more immediate, that more closely resembled film. That initial appeal seems to have faded for many of my generation (I was born in 1983) and the generation just before me– while my family did have a slide projector, for example, the experience of having to sit through family slideshows (usually a result of a visit from my grandparents) bordered on torture. While earlier generations may have sat in wonder, happily enjoying family vacations or slides of the wonders of the world, when my parents would break out slides from those years they lived in London, or my dad’s stay in Istanbul, I was far more upset that I was missing Full House than mystified by the glowing images in front of us. This generational change in attitude towards the slideshow is underscored by Alexander, who says “For a generation captivated by images pulsing across laptops and digital pictures of friends on cell phones, such claims about the magic of color slides may well seem exaggerated.” Though slides became a widely utilized educational tool (all of the art history classes I took in undergrad at SUNY Purchase were taught as slide lectures), slides as an educational tool today seem fairly limiting. In order to show an image in a classroom, one first had to acquire a slide of it, and properly take care of it. While institutions had large slide libraries at their disposal, access to those libraries was generally based on institutional affiliation, and not open to the public. With the onslaught of the internet, the ability to find images, both educationally and of the family snapshot variety, is infinitely more available – all one has to do is know how to do a proper search for what one is looking for.
What is interesting to me about slideshows, however, is the sense of duration and time that one experiences within them. Somewhere between the experience of a photograph and film, slideshows give the viewer a fleeting, momentary glimpse of an image, then quickly take it away, leaving a visible moment of black space between the image the viewer is experiencing and that which precedes it. Because of the mechanisms of both the slide projector itself and the camera which made the images being projected, images are “projected in time and in sequence, like a film. But by the same token, the different frames capture a past moment that was taken out of time, like a photograph.” To experience a slideshow is, essentially, to experience images colored by our memory of those which preceded them, yet unlike in film, we experience those images as static, not as fluid motion. This grey area between the static image and the image in motion seems to open a lot of possibilities within the photographic object, and for me, begins to relate, both conceptually and more physically, to memory. Not only do we experience the images within a slide show in conjunction with the memory of the images which preceded them, the fleeting nature of the projections themselves and the afterimage affect of slide projection also reminds me of the fleeting and degenerative nature of our own memories. In Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, for example, one experiences both the individual images and the larger piece as a whole at the same time, a direct result of Goldin’s use of slideshow format. The work isn’t simply a series of photographs which exist on a wall, then are brought into storage after the exhibition ends (though they are now often shown as prints), the work is the experience of the fleeting images projected on the wall in front of you, the soundtrack Goldin curates for the work, the light on the wall of a black box, the feeling of other people sitting and watching the slideshow with you in the same room. The piece itself is fleeting – after it is taken down and put in storage, it is only a file on a DVD, maybe accompanied by a projector. To experience Ballad in storage isn’t to look at a covetable object, it’s seeing a plastic DVD in a filing cabinet (though I guess that is in itself a covetable object.)
Another interesting example of this that Alexander brings up is Chris Marker’s 1962 film La jetee, which consists entirely of still frames that construct a larger narrative involving degenerative memory, time travel, and the shots that mark the beginning of World War III. Marker’s film revolves around it’s main character, who is sent back in time to prevent a gunshot which starts a world war and who was present for the firing shots in the past/present day, though cannot remember exactly his role in the event. The slideshow like format of the film, which is made entirely of still frames accompanied by narrative dialogue, echoes both the inability of it’s main character to fully comprehend the events he is both remembering and witnessing, as well the meandering, mazelike manner in which the film unfolds for the viewer. As a stylistic choice, the decision to construct the film of still frames constitutes a distinct break from the viewers expectations of a filmic experience. The film is experienced both as still images, and as an engulfing narrative – it is viewed as both a memory of the image which came before it, and a narrative description of the emotions “held” within the images. One does not believe the narrative because it is unfolding before their eyes, therefore the viewer is constantly questioning the story unfolding before them. The experience is simultaneously that of the photographic and filmic, both still and moving, narrative and disjointed.
Finally, Smithson’s Hotel Palenque, 1969-72, a presentation and slideshow delivered to architecture students at the University of Utah about the artists travels in Mexico. Rather than deliver a presentation on the Mayan ruins he had come to visit, Smithson’s presentation and slideshow focused on the semi-abandoned Hotel Palenque, where Smithson, his wife, and gallerist stayed while visiting the Mayan ruins. The resulting presentation sat somewhere between performance, documentation, and family slideshow. Smithson’s descriptions were decidedly casual in nature, referring to structures in various states of disuse in a manner that sounds at many times as if Smithson had just thrown together the slideshow moments before his presentation and was speaking off the cuff. Describing a pile of cement found in a shed, for example, Smithson said “It’s not going anywhere, it’s just there, just think of it and dig it for it’s cementness. You don’t really care what use it’s going to be put to.” Entirely left out of the discussion (except for one slide in which Smithson admitted that on a clearer day one can see the ruins from where he was standing, but he was purposely leaving them out) are the ruins themselves. This omission seems fitting when considering the nature of the slideshow in two ways – on one level, Smithson is discussing a journey to visit one set of ruins by instead discussing another, more modern ruin. On the other hand, Smithson’s purposeful omission of the very ruins he had travelled to visit highlights the information between the frames of his slide presentation which his images do not physically describe, but instead hint about – it is a performance not about monumentality, but the forward march of time, the inevitable slide into disuse. It seems fitting, today, that this discussion of ruins was delivered on yet another photographic technology which was inevitably going to be discarded in time.
After viewing several of Bruce Connor’s films, Stan Brakhage’s film Wondering, and Michael Snow’s infamous film Wavelength in class this week, many of the ideas discussed in Annette Michelson’s 1971 essay Toward Snow were clarified, even while a few questions were raised about her claims. Michelson starts her essay with a quote from Stan Brakhage, which seems to underscore the break within avant-garde film that she sees Wavelength as representing. “My eye, tuning towards the imaginary, will go to any wavelengths for its sights”, Brakhage said, which seems fitting given the immersive, psychedelic nature of the directors films. Michelson sees filmmakers such as Brakhage or Connor creating an experience which references dream states, enveloping the viewer in the present moment of what is projected in front of them and effectively “resisting observation and cognition”. This experience is one which Michelson calls “hypnagogic”, or that which is “experienced in the half-waking state”. Films such as Brakhage’s Dog Star Man do not offer the viewer a narrative experience with it’s quick cuts, intense color fields, shallow focus and disorienting speed, but instead create an immersive experience the viewer is surrounded by and becomes a part of. While not offering a direct narrative arc throughout the film, it can be argued that the viewer’s own experience of the film stands in for a narrative, their experience not a series of moments in the past, but of the current moment. Michelson goes on to describe the hypnagogic by saying “the hypnagogic is immediate, appears all at once, disappears all at once, does not fade into appearance or out of view…” By attempting to remove any narrative thread from the images they show the viewer, filmmakers like Brakhage play with our notions of perception.
Wavelength, on the other hand, seems to take the opposite tactic. Decidedly clinical, Snow’s 1967 film consists of a slow zoom across the length of a loft apartment, it’s slow march forward towards it’s anticlimactic end accompanied by the sounds of the street below, people arguing inside the apartment, a gunshot, and ascending and descending sine waves. The piece, unlike in works by Brakhage or Conor, is designed not to envelope you within the imagery you are looking at, but almost to test your endurance, to keep you out. While there isn’t necessarily a narrative taking place across the course of the film, the mechanical forward movement of the camera (a result of the hand zoom Snow used) almost represents a kind of narrative within the film: after only a few moments of viewing, the audience knows the trajectory of the movement of the camera towards the window it is focused on, the film becomes one less about observation than anticipation. Snow described the film “trying to make a definitive statement of pure film space and time, a balancing of ‘illusion’ and ‘fact,’ all about seeing.” While certain “cinematic elements” do take place throughout it’s 45 minute run, the most dramatic being a death, the forward movement of the zoom of Snow’s camera quickly erases any of their narrative implications. In a way, Snow’s technique becomes somewhat photographic – toying with our perceptions of what the experience of film is in ways that break from the traditions of “hypnagogic” filmmakers such as Brakhage or Connor by functioning as an image in motion and a image that negates it’s motion at once. Because the film so obviously bears so much of it’s production visibly in the film, it becomes something like a document of it’s creation, and analogous of the experience of it’s creation all at the same time. In a lot of ways I can see this being perceived as a huge shift from previous experimental films, and definitely see it’s importance in early video art such as performance based works like Bruce Nauman, or even some of the films of Andy Warhol.
Early film; or, Running from perception, screaming.
This week’s readings, Tom Gunning’s An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator and Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer deal with the dawn of early cinema, pre-photographic “philosophical toys”, and the particularly heightened sense of “the imaginary perceived as real” in early audiences.
Gunning begins his essay by paraphrasing, and disputing, many accounts of the horrified reactions of viewers of the Lumiere Brother’s Arrival of a Train at the Station. “According to a variety of historians,” Gunning says, “spectators reared back in their seats, or screamed, or got up and ran from the auditorium (or all three in succession). As with most myths of origin, the source for these accounts remains elusive.” According to these myths of early cinema, many of the early audiences members were so deceived by the power of the imagery in front of them that they could not overcome the feeling of terror produced by the oncoming train before them. This reaction seems understandable, as many people have similarly strong reactions to modern day horror movies, which I witnessed first hand this past summer when a middle aged woman sitting behind me at the movies embarrassingly screamed “OH MY!” in a thick midwestern accent in an otherwise silent theatre during a “shocking” moment of the film we were watching. It seems that kind of reaction is what attracts many people to film in the first place, with much of today’s Hollywood films being built on this exact sense of suspense and shock. Gunning, however, finds this kind of mythology surrounding early cinema problematic – implying that early audiences “were naïve, encountering this threatening and rampant image with no defenses, with no tradition by which to understand it.” As Gunning goes on to say, “contemporary film theorists have made careers out of underestimating the basic intelligence and reality-testing abilities of the average film viewer and have no trouble treating previous audiences with similar disdain.”
Gunning goes on to argue that, while “a reaction of astonishment and even a type of terror accompanied many early projections”, those reactions cannot be written off as simply terrified and naïve. To Gunning, we underestimate early audiences by not considering that sensations of astonishment and fear might have been part of the attraction of early audiences to the new technology. Gunning goes on to point out that initial screenings of the Lumiere brother’s invention were not shown in small, backwoods towns, but in urban centers where audiences would have already been aware of, and attracted to, the illusions of theatre and some early photography. Gunning sites the popularity of the magical theatre, which “used the latest technology (such as focused electric light and elaborate stage machinery) to produce apparent miracles.” Also contrary to the assumed “deception”, Gunning elaborates, is the fact that many early screenings began not with a moving image, but with a still image projected onto a screen which gradually began moving after a period of time to heighten the dramatic affect of the new technology. As Gunning states “far from being placed outside a suspension of disbelief, the presentation acts out the contradictory stages of involvement with the image, unfolding, like other nineteenth-century visual entertainments, a vacillation between belief and incredulity. The moving image reverses and complicates the trajectory of experience solicited by a trompe l’oeil still life.” Just as spectators of the “magical theatre” were aware of the deception going on before their eyes, yet were attracted to it because of that deception, so too were audiences to the wonder and terror of the new cinematic experience. “The audience’s sense of shock comes less from a naïve belief that they are threatened by an actual locomotive” Gunning posits, “than from an unbelievable visual transformation occurring before their eyes, parallel to the greatest wonders of the magic theatre.”
Gunning further suggests that this type of confrontational imagery, or “the aesthetic of attraction” constitute a key component of early cinema. Gunning points out the popularity of films that set out specifically to “thrill” the audience – whether filming railroad collisions, the taking of a young woman’s mug shot, or the electrocution of an elephant. These types of films seem to deliberately acknowledge that they are being made for an audience. As Gunning states “these early films explicitly acknowledge their spectator, seeming to reach outwards and confront. Contemplative absorption is impossible here.” These kinds of “attraction” techniques can still be seen in films today in everything from the popularity of slapstick comedies to our continued interest and attraction to big budget action movies and gory, blood soaked horror films. Gunning argues that we are attracted to these types of images not because of the need to actually experience them, but because of an inherent need for thrill. As he says in his essay “the peculiar pleasure of screaming before the suddenly animated image of a locomotive indicates less an audience willing to take the image for reality than a spectator whose daily experience has lost the coherence and immediacy traditionally attributed to reality. This loss of experience creates a hunger for thrills.”
Similarly, Jonathan Crary’s 1988 essay Techniques of the Observer, deals with devices and phenomena that predate the invention of photography, but nonetheless blurred the line between reality and optical reality. Crary begins his essay describing the phenomenon of the afterimage, or images that remain in one’s field of vision after the object that created them has disappeared. While afterimages were traditionally considered spectral phenomenon and therefore not “true” perception, many philosophers reconsidered them in the nineteenth century. As Crary states in relationship to Goethe’s thoughts on afterimages, “they are no longer deceptions that obscure a ‘true’ perception; rather they begin to constitute an irreducible component of human vision. For Goethe and the physiologists who followed him there was no such thing as optical illusion; whatever the healthy corporal eye experienced was in fact optical truth.” This thought bears striking resemblance to the cinematic experience – though we are fully aware of the fact that the actions projected onto the screen in front of us are not physically happening in real time, we experience them as if witnessing them unfold in front of us regardless. As Crary says later in his essay “as observation is increasingly tied to the body in the early nineteenth century, temporality and vision become inseparable.” Though early film audiences were more than aware of the temporal nature of the imagery they were seeing, the sensations the cinematic experience produced were nonetheless directly tied to their emotional and physical reactions to viewing the film in front of them. These changes in attitudes toward perception are echoed by Johan Friedrich Herbart, who argued that “the mind does not reflect truth but rather extracts it from an ongoing process involving the collision and merging of ideas.”
Crary goes on to discuss the number of optical devices which were invented that furthered the exploration of afterimages and the nature of perception. “The boundary separating their use for purposes of scientific observation and as forms of popular entertainment is indistinct.” Crary explains, “Common to them all was the notion that perception was not instantaneous, and the notion of a disjunction between eye and object.” These objects, like the Thaumatrope, which creates the illusion of a single unified image out of two distinct images when spun at the right speed by the viewer, predate photographic and cinematic experiences, but obviously have connections to both. The idea that we know what we are viewing is only an image of an object, yet often experience that image as the object it is depicting, is a phenomenon at the core of both the photographic and cinematic experience. As Crary says of the Thaumatrope, “the simplicity of this ‘philosophical toy’ made unequivocally clear the hallucinatory and fabricated nature of the image and the absolute rupture between perception and its object.” To put it in other, more decidedly photographic terms, what constitutes “truth”? That which is physically there, or that which is perceived to be there? Isn’t perception, in and of itself, a kind of truth?
This all reminds me of an argument I read about recently that reality is actually a 3-Dimensional hologram of a 2-Dimensional universe. While I am not a scientist, and cannot fully explain the “science” behind the argument myself (nor do I want to back it up haha), it brought up a question in my head almost instantly. If our 3-Dimensional perception of the universe is actually created by the optics within our eyes, are 2-Dimensional depictions of reality more true to life than we otherwise thought? In the end, isn’t that the same, or at least a similar question to those raised in the nineteenth century about the nature of perception? (Or, is this all just a sign that I need to go to bed?)
How Soon is Now? How the confusion of time activates the viewer and expands the possibility of the single moment in the work of Collier Schorr, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Mike Mills. (Working Title)
Do artists whose work confuses our perception of narrative time change our experience of the art object itself? How does the use of disjointed or non-linear narratives activate the viewer and break from traditionally passive modes of experiencing art? By utilizing artistic processes that break from notions of the singular image and art object, Collier Schorr’s book Jens F., Mike Mills’ film Beginners, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled stacked historical date prints, disrupt our expectations of the traditional art experience, outlining the multiple possibilities of a single moment.
ADD PARAGRAPH OR TWO ADDRESSING: Narrative time vs. Non-linear time (movement image vs. time image) Passive modes of viewing art - give history & provide definitions ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE STILL IN RESEARCH - MOVE ALONG.
Sze Tsung Leong, in his essay A Picture You Already Know (2008), written for LACMA’s Words Without Pictures forum, makes a simple, yet revealing statement towards the end of his essay. “While repetition can represent the larger structures that surround us, it also reveals the impossibility of single truths in photography.” Leong continues: “The fact that a single view can be repeated but is modified each time through the filters that affect its appearance - weather, light, culture, society, events, politics, and economics - makes each photograph a fragment of a whole that is impossible to fully describe or reach. It might seem that multiplying a view would get us closer to the truth; instead, repetition reminds us that meanings are always multiple and changing.” Leong’s essay, which argues for the use of repetition, both within single works and the more traditional confines of the photographic series, makes the point that the use of repetition within the photographic object allows for more open-ended depictions within a work. This idea that photographs, rather than solidifying a single truth or meaning, might outline a multiplicity of meanings and experiences seems antithetical to modernist ideas of the decisive moment, or the singular art object.
Leong’s argument that the use of repetition underscores “the impossibility of single truths in photography” seems fitting when considering the use of non-linear narrative, both in film and within the more static art object. Within film, theorist Gilles Deleuze describes two types of narrative, one being the movement-image, or a series of images edited together to enhance the viewers perception of a rational chronological timeline within the unfolding film. The other, which relates more directly to Leong’s assertion of photography’s “multiple and changing” meanings, is the time-image. Within the cinema of the time-image, Deleuze proposes a type of film which deliberately “breaks such a system of representation to confront directly our perception of time.” Deleuze argues that both of these practices are interconnected, and that neither is necesarilly superior to the other. Deleuze also goes on to explain that both are related to his idea of the crystal image, a style of cinema which creates a self-consciousness of the viewer’s own perceptions within a film. As Damian Sutton comments on Deleuze’s theory of the time-image in Photography, Cinema, Memory:
“The organizing principle is not chronology but a disruption of chronology that reveals time understood only as change, a pure casualty that Bergson described as duration (duree). This organizing principle creates the cinema of the time-image. In detaching itself from the chronology, this cinema does not offer any direct readings or perceptions that might be based on a sensory-motor recognition, as in the [more traditionally narrative] movement-image. Instead, interpretations and reinterpretations can be understood as unfolding in time from a cinematic image that confronts the perception of time directly and in the absence or disruption of the sensory-motor schema.”
Here Sutton outlines a disruption of time which, within the confines of cinema, begins to activate the viewer in a way that does not happen with the more traditionally passive modes of viewing within narrative film. Just as Leong talks about the use of repetition within photography to make the viewer aware of it’s status as a “fragment of a whole” and allow the images to propose multiple possibilities of a single moment, so too does Deleuze in film. Through this deliberate break with chronology, Deleuze proposes that the viewer creates a crystal image, or a sort of self conscious perception of one’s own perception of the experience of film. This theory weds photographic and filmic strategies of perception, with Sutton directly relating the theory to the glare of a flash bulb caught in a mirror within one of Nan Goldin’s early images. Referring again to Deleuze’s time-image, Sutton explains:
“Cinema offers a perception, a particular way of seeing. When we watch cinema, we surrender wholly to this way of seeing, not expecting it to be foregrounded or questioned. However, with the time-image, and the crystal image in particular, there is not only perception but also a perception of that perception, a kind of cinematic self-consciousness.”
By utilizing strategies linked to Deleuze’s ideas of time-image and crystal image, Schorr, Mills and Gonzalez-Torres activate the viewer within their work and call into question notions of the singular narrative within the experience of the art object. By confusing the timeline within which her images were taken, Schorr creates a kind of crystal image throughout her book Jens F., resulting in a self-conscious experience of the multiple trajectories of time within the pages of her book. Mills, by interrupting the multiple narratives of his film Beginners with a sudden, unexpected sequence of color field imagery, creates an awareness of the theatre the viewer is sitting in and the audience they are a part of, suggesting that they are, in fact, another narrative trajectory within his story. Finally, through the act of disseminating prints listing a series of important historical dates consciously taken out of chronological order, Gonzalez-Torres asks the viewer to consider the commonalities between the dates he is listing, subconsciously putting them back in order and undermining our expected narrative of the experience of history. Through the active confusion of our experience of time within their work, these artists ask the viewer to reconsider the nature of their experience of art, acknowledging and emphasizing their participation with and presence in front of the object they experience.
COLLIER SCHORR / JENS F.
Collier Schorr was born in 1963 in Queens, NY, and received her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in 1986. In a 2003 interview for the television program Art21, Schorr describes her work by stating: “Gender, religion, nationality; they’re all sort of things that are in flux in my work and they all build on each other - this idea that you’re not sure what you’re looking at echoing you’re not sure what you are, you’re not sure what someone else is.” This deliberate sense of confusion is an idea carried out through much of the artists work, both through the blurring of gender codes and the viewer’s sense of narrative time itself. Schorr’s practice often inhabits a world of contradiction; photographs of boys who look like girls and vice versa, soldiers who aren’t, in fact, soldiers, pictures high school wrestling matches that are imbued with a sense of frailty and struggle. Schorr’s work, though not exclusively, often takes place within this setting in rural Germany, usually while referencing Schorr’s own Jewish and Queer identities. Early in her career, Schorr began spending her summers in Schwabisch Gmund, Germany, where she has spent a significant portion of her time photographing Schwabisch Gmund’s idilic landscape and inhabitants in ways which often result in images that are at once tense and ambiguous. Schorr famously outlined this sense of contradiction and fluidity by stating “ I’ve always photographed girls - I’ve just used boys to do it.”
In a 2008 essay Schorr wrote for Art Forum regarding her project Blumen, Schorr described her work as “the perfect illustration of the term deracinated.” The term, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as to “uproot” or “to remove or separate from a native environment or culture; especially : to remove the racial or ethnic characteristics or influences from”, seems fitting for Schorr’s practice. By photographing culturally loaded rituals, locations or definitions (the construction of masculinity, or the specifically hidden past of Nazism in Germany, for example) in a purposely ambiguous manner, Schorr activates the viewer within her work, raising questions about our preconceived notions regarding her subject matter rather than making statements about them. This subversion or upending of one’s commonly held beliefs within Schorr’s work seems to be an overriding theme within her images. Whereas the common understanding of the sport of wrestling is wrapped in the trappings of hyper-masculinity, for example, Schorr’s treatment of her figures reference the struggle of classical painting, often photographing athletes as if they are leaping into the void. Through a portrayal of her subject that hints at the inherent struggle of the body, Schorr undermines the social codes she is working within and allows for a depiction that highlights the murky areas in between socially defined binaries.
Introduction to Jens F.
Schorr’s project Jens F., which began in 1999 when the artist came across a book of Andrew Wyeth’s Helga paintings in a New York City bookstore, combines elements of collage, writing, and photography in a fluid, repetitive manner, swapping traditional depictions of gender for one in which masculinity and femininity become interchangeable. After meeting Jens on a train while visiting Germany, Schorr became fascinated by the similarities she saw between Jen’s boyish frame and that of Wyeth’s model, Helga, and began photographing him in poses and scenarios modeled after the paintings shown in Wyeth’s monograph. Schorr photographed Jens in an obsessive manner, recreating scenarios from Wyeth’s paintings, turning the gender dynamics of Wyeth’s series on their head by portraying the young man in typically feminine poses. By doing so, Schorr elicited interactions that oscillate between intimacy and a vague sense of discomfort. Schorr further complicated the original narrative of Wyeth’s interaction with Helga by photographing both male and female models playing her role, treating both in the same manner.
Originally imagined as a relatively straightforward series of photographs that followed Wyeth’s linear narrative, Schorr’s project diverged when the artist began making collages within the pages of Wyeth’s book using contact sheets from her rolls of film, often covering Wyeth’s original paintings completely. Though sometimes shown as individual pieces framed and hung on the wall, the end result of Schorr’s project was published in 2005 as a book of collages, printed as if one were holding a reproduction of Schorr’s original, intervened copy of Wyeth’s monograph. When looking at Jens F., one cannot help but notice the distinct differences in texture within each collage - the matte surfaces of the original Wyeth monograph, the luster sheen of the photographic paper used in Schorr’s original contact sheets, and the multiple typefaces and page numbers used on each page as a result of the many iterations of the physical book in which Schorr made her collages. Each page contains multiple versions of the same portrait session, or similar sessions with various models, undermining the solidity of the singular image,as in Wyeth’s original, as much as the notions of gender held within them. Rather than showing the viewer a final, single image or “decisive moment”, Schorr’s use of collage underscores the prolonged interaction between her and her subject over time. Pages are taken out of Wyeth’s original order, and rearranged for Schorr’s own purposes, leaving multiple page numbers (three on each page), that frustrate the viewers understanding of the sense of time within the project itself. This deliberate confusion of the linear trajectories of Schorr’s narrative through her use of collage would seem to create three distinct trajectories within the work - that of Wyeth’s original paintings and monograph, the recreation of those paintings by Schorr over the roughly six years in which she produced the photographs, and the reinterpretation of Wyeth’s monograph by the literal cutting and pasting of images and written notes within its pages. By deliberately confusing the viewers sense of narrative time, however, Schorr asks the viewer to complete the work - becoming a fourth trajectory within the multiple timelines of the the work itself.
As Massimiliano Gioni states in the forward to the catalog for her Wrestlers series: “It’s not about the war between good and evil: it’s about the promiscuity of good and evil.” These ideas of the hazy boundaries between seemingly polarized dynamics (good and evil, for example, or in this case, subject and object) was also heavily influential in the work that would eventually become Schorr’s project Jens F. By deliberately confusing the narrative timeline of her work and the archetypal depictions of gender roles specifically within the project Jens F., Schorr expands the narrative potential of the singular art object and activates the viewer within the narrative trajectory of her work in ways uncommon within more traditional photographic approaches. For example, the dynamics of gender within Jens F. underscore the fluidity seen in much of the artist’s work - at many points within the book, often within the same page, her models begin to blur. As Schorr says of Wyeth’s interaction with Helga, “Jens, like most boys, seemed yet to be seen, but paradoxically he reminded me of Helga, who had lent herself so completely that she had become the invention of someone else.” To that extent, Schorr is not creating a portrait of her subjects, but is instead portraying a subject which is not held within the image itself. Jens F., on many levels, is not a project solely about its subjects, but about the complicated interaction between subject and author, author and viewer, and the narrative trajectories involved in the passage of time within all three. *ADD BACKGROUND ON WYETH/HELGA* Just as Wyeth’s depiction of Helga created a fictional version of the woman he was portraying, one that had more to do with Wyeth’s romanticized notions of German identity than the subject as an individual, Schorr’s depiction of Jens is more about the artist herself. Schorr’s use of multiple models playing the role of Helga, some male, some female, reinforces this sense of fiction; rather than simply describing an interaction between Schorr and Jens, one gets the sense that Schorr is instead searching for a specific quality through these actors, one which ultimately remains allusive.
By encouraging the viewer to consider the work in book form, as well as their perception of time within that form, Schorr challenges the notion of the passive viewer and activates them within the work they are holding in their hands.
If we consider Schorr’s project within the context of cinema (in particular her use of disjunctive narrative) *bring up in previous paragraph*, focusing on Delueze’s concept of the time-image, which describes film that confronts the viewer with a disruption of perception of chronological time and escapes a direct narrative reading, Schorr’s use of the book form and collage techniques corresponds to the use of non-linear narrative in film. By “interpreting and reinterpreting” the same imagery over and over within each page of Jens F., Schorr ‘s images and book confront the viewer with an experience of the work in front of them which varies from our normal perception of time. Just as filmmakers often create narratives deliberately edited outside of they’re chronological order, Schorr’s collages create a disruption within the narrative timeline we have come to expect from our experience of photography. Rather than viewing a single image as a representation of Schorr’s interaction with Jens and her other models, Schorr presents the viewer with multiple possibilities of that interaction. Where one image used within one of Schorr’s collages may present Jens in an alluring manner, gazing directly into the camera’s lens while laying in bed, covered by a thin veil, another image pasted onto that same page shows him looking off in the distance, disinterested and barely awake. In doing so, the experience of Jens F. as a book asks the viewer to engage with the imagery within it in a manner that bears all the marks of it’s production. The interaction in question is, in fact, the direct, alluring gaze, yet is also that of disinterest. Rather than existing as one specific moment isolated from time, Jens F. invites the viewer to consider the subjects as one thing and many things, all at once. Schorr’s intention, it would seem, was not simply to allow Jens (or Helga, for that matter) to stare back at those who were scrutinizing them, but to allow herself, her subjects, and her audience the space of fluid interpretation. In short, by utilizing a strategy of intense ambiguity, Schorr allowed Jens, and herself, to breathe.
In a similar manner, Felix Gonzalez-Torres utilizes narrative ambiguity as a strategy to involve the viewer within his works, both sculpturally and within the implied timeline of a piece. Born in 1953 in Guaimaro, Cuba, Gonzalez-Torres moved to New York in 1979 after living in Spain and Puerto Rico. He received his BFA from the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY in 1983 and his MFA from the International Center of Photography in New York in 1987. A gay man himself, Gonzalez-Torres’s work often deals with queer identity and politics in a way that undermines the urge to couch that identity simply in political terms, and instead comments on the suppression of queer identity through the subtle and ambiguous “queering” of heteronormative and public spaces. Though the majority of his work is sculpturally based, many of his pieces employ photographic ideology or imagery within them, toying with photographic notions of the index through strategies such as creating sculptures out of piles of candy which fluctuate around predetermined “ideal” weights, or placing identical clocks next to each other, one set for a time a minute behind the other. Discussing his work within the essay Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriard described Gonzalez-Torres’s work by stating “As with one of Gonzalez-Torres’ piles of sweets, there can be an ideal balance between form and it’s programmed disappearance, between visual beauty and modest gestures, between a childlike wonder at the image and the complexity of the different levels at which it can be read.” These notions of the constantly shifting and mobile nature of time, and the sense that the object the viewer is experiencing is never the same as it’s “ideal” version runs throughout Gonzalez-Torres’s work, ranging from his “candy pour” sculptures and stacked photographic prints, to lists of historical dates taken out of chronological order, which are the main focus of my discussion of his work. In many senses, the simple action of Gonzalez-Torres’s date pieces call into question in a direct, yet simultaneously complicated manner, many of the issues of linear narrative, time, and representation that can be found in much of Schorr’s work within Jens F. (reword).
Gonzalez-Torres made his first stacked pieces in 1989, taking the form of two columns of offset prints inscribed with the words “Veterans Day Sale” and “Memorial Day Weekend” in the center of otherwise blank pages. The work, which functions both as a single piece in the form of stacked columns of infinitely reproducable prints, and also as individual objects when removed from the stack by the viewer, calls into question notions of consumerism and memorialization, both within the art object and the culture Gonzalez-Torres is critiquing. By presenting the viewer with two phrases which simultaneously point to memorializing those who died in military battles and the consumer culture which celebrates that loss through holiday bargains and vacation, Gonzalez-Torres collapses the experiences of loss and desire. The two pieces are shown out of chronological order, with Veterans Day Sale, denoting a holiday in November, shown on the left and Memorial Day Weekend, a holiday at the end of May marking the beginning of summer, on the right. This sense that the timeline both dates rely on can be read infinitely forwards or backwards seems particularly important to the work. As the pieces are described in the press release for his 2007 inclusion in the Venice Biennale:
“Initially exhibited together as one work called Untitled (Monument), they represent Gonzalez-Torres’s interest in inventing a new kind of public art, one that would remain mutable and open to interpretation. With his take-away paper stacks, the artist attempted to create a type of memorial that was anything but monumental, one that would surrender itself to the desires of its audience, one that would only intimate meaning, one that could, in time, vanish.”
Not only do the stacks reference monumentality by mimicing the rigid lines of minimalist sculpture, they also subvert they’re own monumentality through the constant depletion and regeneration of they’re forms. Similarly, the sense that the time discussed within them can be seen marching forwards, toward an inevitable demise, or in reverse, approaching the beginning of they’re narrative, references the seemingly contradictory notion of simultaneous depletion and regeneration. These purposeful contradictions within Gonzalez-Torres’ work set up a complicated and somewhat confusing sense within the piece of simultaneous beginning and end - if one were to describe the sense of time within them in a single sentence it would become a kind of indefinite loop. Within this work, as well as many of his others, the beginning is the end is the beginning is the end…
These initial stacked sculptures bear striking resemblance, both conceptually and visually, to Gonzalez-Torres’ 1989 Billboard piece he installed in New York’s Sheridan Square in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which mark the beginning of the modern day Gay Rights movement in many history textbooks. The work, which essentially replaces a space reserved for garish commercial advertisements with a black void, consists of a list of dates important within the struggle for equality in the Gay community, purposely shown out of chronological order in italicized white text along the bottom of the billboard. Referencing both film subtitles and government documents, the text held within the piece reads in an decidedly cold, ambiguous tone: “People with AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969.” Upon first glance, one often doesn’t notice the fact that the dates are interrelated, instead reading them as a random selection of historical facts. However, when considered in the context of New York’s West Village, one of New York’s first gay ghettoes, and installed a block away from the original site of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the dates share an added weight, albeit historically overlooked and hidden. Though creating work within and about a very personally political subject matter, Gonzalez-Torres’s piece resists easy categorization as political propaganda both through it’s cold statement of historical dates as fact, and through the purposely non-linear manner in which those dates are placed into the public discourse. As curator Nancy Spector states in the catalog for his 1996 retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum:
“This chronicle traces a century of struggle for gay empowerment, a century marked by suppression, persecution, and grassroots politics - from Oscar Wilde’s refusal to flee England in 1895 and escape his indictment as homosexual to the massive demonstration for gay rights in Washington, D.C. in 1987. Emphatically nonlinear, Gonzalez-Torres’s inventory refuses narrative closure; it renounces the concept of history as a rational progression of events.”
By refusing the common, linear progression of historical events and inserting them into public space out of logical order, Gonzalez-Torres asks the viewer to consider the dates and rearrange them in order to come to a greater understanding of their shared significance. Looking back on Deleuze’s theories relating to film, this deliberate disjointing of the expected historical narrative creates a kind of crystal image within the work - the viewer expecting to experience the billboard as advertisement, political or otherwise, and instead becoming an active participant within the linear timeline of the image they are confronted with. Not only has Gonzalez-Torres literally inserted the political chronology of the gay rights movement into the public sphere by using the billboard as a tool for artistic discourse, he has done so in a way that subverts the urge to ignore it’s message upon initial reception. By presenting the viewer with a list of dates stripped of any visual or chronological context, Gonzalez-Torres requires the viewer to initially consider the information presented to them in a context outside of the immediate politics in which they are normally approached. Experiencing the piece in the public sphere, one first approaches the work under the guise of sales and consumerism, only to have those expectations undermined by the questions raised through it’s disjointed chronology and vaguely political connotations. Suddenly aware of the works function outside of the world of commerce, the sense that one is experiencing something like advertising, but not advertising, like politics, but not directly political becomes particularly attenuated. Though asking the viewer to consider the dates in question in relationship to one another, Gonzalez-Torres does not give the viewer any evidence as to how they should feel about that relationship, as an artist such as Barbara Kruger might do, and instead allows their political context to remain ambiguous. Within the work, Gonzalez-Torres presents the dates in question not as abstract political ideas, but as objects dealt with in space and time. As a viewer experiencing the work, one is forced to interact with events they might otherwise have purposely ignored, reconstructing a narrative which ultimately refers back to the present, where they’re chronology and politicized history is being considered by the unwitting viewer. By maintaining a distance of ambiguity from the history he is re-presenting within the piece, Gonzalez-Torres activates the viewer within that history, allowing for an experience of it which differs from the cold march forward of linear time. In short, Gonzalez-Torres makes the viewer a living participant within the history he describes. Rather than historicizing the struggle of the gay rights movement, he presents it as something alive, something in which you are, one way or another, a participant.
So to anyone who has been following my writing here throughout the semester outside of my class, since the semester is now over I’ll now be posting regularly on my other blog, annotatedimages.tumblr.com. I don’t post as much writing on a regular basis, but I will write from time to time there, so please check back when you have a chance.
It was a little weird that Purchase College, where I went for undergrad, was the image that introduced George Baker’s Photography’s Expanded Field, but I guess that doesn’t really have any bearing on my experience of the essay. However, I will say that, while I found Baker’s essay fascinating and very relevant today - already seven years after it was originally published, the emphasis on the rift between “traditional” reportage and the overtly constructed or “narrative” work of photographers such as Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson, to be very much an argument of it’s time, and now seems somewhat dated. While I don’t think that debate is the crux of Baker’s essay, his essay does heavily revolve around the idea that, after the conceptual art movements assertion of the photograph as art with a capital A in the 1970’s, photographers and video artists began to make work that was interrelated, consequently expanding the definitions of photography.
Nancy Davenport, Still From Weekend Campus, 2004.
Baker begins his essay with a discussion of Nancy Davenport’s 2004 video Weekend Campus – a video comprised of scanned photographic images of a college campus designed in Brutalist style architecture, overturned cars, and seemingly unaffected students gathered around them(though obviously digitally placed there). The footage depicts a scenario somewhere between a riot and a disaster – though by the expressions and reactions of the subjects in the piece, neither seem possible. While the cars in the piece are overturned, and it seems likely there has been some catastrophic accident whose aftermath Davenport is depicting, the straightforward, blank gaze of the human subjects standing next to them undermine that assumption. They are not shocked participants in the world they inhabit, they are subjects standing to have they’re pictures taken, unaffected by the potentially tragic events that surround them. In essence, the potential students and professors standing for the camera throughout the course of the video have become actors and the setting it depicts functions as a stage set; though initially one may try to pull out an overarching narrative, it becomes very quickly apparent that all of this is occurring solely for the camera. A major component of the video, as Baker points out, is the fact that though the images function over time – it is a video piece, after all – none of the footage used in it was shot in video, but rather shot as still images scanned and imported into editing software. This seems to be where Baker’s interests in the piece lie: the video simultaneously undermines and expands the possibilities and definitions of the photographic image. While the piece overtly functions as video – the camera pans across the setting over the duration of the piece – the individual components of it are decidedly photographic. The only element of time involved in the piece is the slow pan across the photographic image of the college campus – there is no breeze flowing through the trees, the overturned cars do not move, and none of the subjects breathe, talk to each other, or blink while being photographed. The piece seems to fluctuate between our perceived definitions of both photography and film and video. This state of flux seems to illustrate Baker’s statement that “everywhere one looks today in the world of contemporary art, the photographic object seems to be an object in crisis, or at least in severe transformation.” Davenport’s video seems to encapsulate all of the things we normally associate with photographs; frozen subjects, a sense of stasis, the transformation of the outside world into a communicable object, yet is somehow something other than a photograph.
Baker then goes on to discuss the contemporary problems with photography in relation to Rosalind Krauss’ 1979 essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field. Unlike the problems then associated with sculpture targeted by the author (“elastic and ‘infinitely malleable’ medium categories”), Baker argues that the problems facing photography today are more involved with the medium itself and it’s failures. “Critical consensus would have it that the problem today is not that just about anything image-based can now be considered photographic, but rather that photography itself has been foreclosed, cashiered, abandoned – outmoded technologically and displaced aesthetically”, Baker states. He then goes on to point out the heavy relationships many photographers now have with outside mediums – arguing that Jeff Wall’s importance, for example, lies equally in his reference to historical painting as it does to his photographs themselves. Baker points out that many photographers today are not simply dealing with the concerns of photography, but are instead using photography to “recode the photograph” - he uses Philip Lorca diCorcia’s use of cinematic or theatrical lighting, or Rineke Dijkstra’s use of video to accompany her subjects as evidence of this use of outside medium to give the photograph new life. Like in the Davenport video, this can also prove not to simply devalue the photograph, but to expand it’s possibilities, as Baker states in his essay “it seems that while the medium of photography has been thoroughly transformed today, and while the object forms of traditional photography are no longer in evidence in much advanced artistic practice, something like a photographic effect still remains – survives, perhaps, in a new, altered form.” I can’t help but think of the work of Kate Steicw here, possibly because I just saw two of her pieces at the LVL3 booth at the NEXT art fair this past weekend. Steicw’s work, which oscillates between “straight” photographs, and photographic imagery that has been obviously, and relatively crudely, photoshopped, occupies a space that bears much resemblance to what we are accustomed to seeing photographically, but ultimately becomes something else. Looking at her work, it often seems as if she is making work about this divide in photographic practice and technology – in the photograph 3rd Eye Parallax, for example, Steicw takes a relatively ordinary, snapshot quality, photograph of a bed of pink flowers, and digitally divides the image into three triangular shapes. Using obvious photoshop tricks to invert each shape at a different angle, Steicw makes the image appear as if it is receding into perspectival space. It is the obviousness of her technique that makes the image function – like the Davenport video, Steicw’s images take photographic source material to create something beyond the traditional confines of photography. In another piece, Water Rug/Portal, Steicw heightens this sense of “either/and” by printing an obviously photoshopped image of a pool of water onto a rug, which lays on the floor. The piece then occupies and blurs three possible artistic domains – that of the original photographic source material, the photoshop technique which relates it to painting, and the sculptural element of the rug/photograph placed on the ground.
Kate Steicw, Water Rug/Portal, Photo Rug, 60” x 48”
Kate Steicw, 3rd Eye Parallax, C-Print, 2010.
Baker relates these ideas with Davenport’s video to his ideas of Stasis and Non-Stasis, as well as Narrative and Non-Narrative. Baker defines Non-Stasis as “photographic images that, crucially, would not call themselves photographs, and that would hold open the static image to a cultural field of codes and other forces”. He gives the example of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, which I’m assuming he is referencing more based on how they were originally shown – as images butted up against each other in a direct reference to film, than to the way they are often shown now as individual images. In a sense I can see what he means by non-stasis – that there is a sense of something going on beyond the frame, and that by calling them Film Stills, Sherman is implying the actions beyond the individual picture, but I still find that idea to be a little confusing. Baker uses the work of James Coleman, who “freeze(s) the cinematic forms of movement into still images to be projected over long delays” to illustrate his idea Non-Narrative, which seems to imply the reversal of the narrative qualities of film to produce something that functions like a hybrid of film and photographic media. From there he begins to break down into a complex system of graphs which were, frankly, a little confusing, but it seems as if he is saying that after the adoption of photography by the conceptual art movement and the reworking of conceptual practice within more traditionally formalist practice that followed it (Jeff Wall, etc.), photography became “decentered”. Rather than viewing photography as thusly “deconstructed” and illegitimate, Baker argues that we can now view photography as “expanded”. Instead of the medium coming to an end as one might assume of a “deconstructed” medium, Baker argues that Photography is instead opening up – just as the Davenport video does not read as a “photograph”, but instead reads as “photographic”, photography itself and it’s relationship to the world is evolving, yet maintains “something like a photographic effect”. It seems like Baker states his case for the changing fields of photography in the last few lines of his essay, so I will leave on that note: “At any rate, when I first sketched my graph for the artist with which I began, Nancy Davenport, she quickly grabbed my pen and paper and began to swirl lines in every direction, circling around my oppositions and squares, with a look that seemed to say, ‘Well, what about these possibilities?’ My graph was a mess. But the photographer’s lines, revolving around the field, had no center, and they extended in every direction.”
The break from the aesthetic formalism of the modernist period within photography associated with photoconceptualism in the 1960’s and 70’s was the subject of all three essays this week – Jeff Wall’s “Marks of Indifference”: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art, Hal Foster’s An Archival Impulse, and (our professor) Gregg Foster-Rice’s recent essay “Systems Everywhere” New Topographics and Art of the 1970’s. All three essays dealt with conceptual art’s impact on the way many photographers approach image making, and the way in which we interact with photographic imagery itself.
Vito Acconci, Following Piece, 1969.
I’m a little obsessed with conceptual art of the 1960’s and 70’s myself, so when I found this week’s readings in my dropbox folder, I was definitely excited to dive into the topic in a little more depth. My approach to photography is definitely more driven by an initial idea than the pursuit of formalist perfection, and I definitely look at the camera and photographic equipment as more of a tool to express that idea rather than something I use to achieve a perfect image or express poetic/esoteric beliefs about the world through. The artists I look at and respond to often come from this school of artistic practice – I’ve long been interested in work such as Vito Acconci’s Following Piece, in which Acconci followed strangers walking in public until that stranger entered a private space (while someone followed him, documenting the act with a 35mm camera), or other works from this period that use photographs to describe an otherwise ephemeral action or event. I find the idea that, by way of the photograph, something that would otherwise be overlooked and inconsequential (Acconci’s stalking of strangers notwithstanding) is given a heightened sense of importance and depth very empowering, and ultimately more compelling than the experience I have in front of more traditionally “aesthetic” works. The “artless” nature of many of the works made during this period, the sense that they could be taken by anyone and that it is not the aesthetic qualities of the image that hold it’s importance but the ideas behind it, all add up to more beyond the usual experience of the photographer as omniscient creator.
Jeff Wall underlines this rift between the dictum of aesthetic formalism associated with modernist photographers such as Ansel Adams and the generation that came up around the dialogue of minimalism in the 1960’s early in his essay: “for the sixties generation, art-photography remained too comfortably rooted in the pictorial traditions of modern art; it had an irritatingly serene, marginal existence, a way of holding itself at a distance from the intellectual drama of avant-gardism while claiming a prominent, even definitive place within it.” I often feel that way about much of art-photography today, that while within the world of painting or sculpture the process of making a piece or the experience one has interacting with it is generally more important than the artists technique or the perfection of they’re specific craft, photography still manages to churn out masses of artists who are very skilled at using they’re 4x5, but aren’t doing anything beyond mimicking the tropes of fine-art photographers before them. In a sense, the pervasiveness of ingrained “fine-art” aesthetics are part of what attracts me to work of a more “artless” aesthetic – the repetitive tropes of many fine-art photographers working today hit on the same ideas and emotions over and over, creating a one-dimensional experience of many works. Wall describes art-photography as having “evolved an intricate mimetic structure, in which artists imitated photojournalists in order to create pictures”, and counters that “photoconceptualism worked out many of the implications of this, so much so that it may begin to seem that many of Conceptual art’s essential achievements are either created in the form of photographs or are otherwise mediated by them”. To Wall, it seems, the techniques and ideas associated with photoconceptualism begin to solve the dilemma associated with the experience of modernist photography. Rather than having an experience of awe with an object explicitly designed to illicit that specific reaction by way of perfected, yet isolated craft and technique, photoconceptualist images emphasize a banality with the making of the image, inviting the viewer to question the ideas behind the actions they depict. In short, photoconceptualist imagery invites the viewer to become engaged with the ideas being communicated within an image, to become part of the dialogue surrounding the objects one is looking at.
Bruce Nauman, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966.
One example Wall uses that I found particularly interesting was Bruce Nauman’s use of the artists’s studio as character within his photographs and video pieces. “Working within the experimental framework of what was beginning at the time to be called ‘performance art,’ he (Nauman) carries out photographic acts of reportage whose subject-matter is the self-conscious, self-centered ‘play’ taking place in the studios of artists who have moved ‘beyond’ the modern fine arts into the new hybridities.” Where previously the artists’s studio had been a place of hidden genius and mystery, Nauman’s use of the studio feels like anything but. In fact, Nauman’s studio seems rather banal, both in the space itself and the actions Nauman is performing in it – ranging from a failed attempt at levitating between two metal fold up chairs, to choreographed walks that reek of self-imposed boredom. Likewise, Nauman’s early use of two decidedly opposite styles of photography when working in the studio – highly saturated color portraits utilizing colored gels, contrasted by harsh, grainy black and white images - “reduced to a set of basic formulae and effects, are signifiers for the new co-existence of species of photography which had seemed ontologically separated and even opposed in the art history of photography up to that time.” In a sense, the combined use of stylistic technique to at once build the fantasy of the photograph and undermine it, underscores “the two reigning myths” associated with photography – that of the truth of the image and it’s inherent fiction. While the events in Nauman’s photographs are “true” in the sense that they actually transpired in the space of his studio during the camera’s exposure, one is never unaware of the space of the studio and construction it dictates. As Wall states: “The two reigning myths of photography – the one that claims that photographs are ‘true’ and the one that claims they are not – are shown to be grounded in the same praxis, available in the same place, the studio, at that place’s moment of historical transformation.” In that respect, both the “true” image and the “constructed” image are shown by Nauman to be one and the same.
Bruce Nauman, Self Portrait as a Fountain, 1966/67.
In Greg Foster-Rice’s Systems Everywhere the New Topographics photographers are directly linked to ideas of systems theory – the idea that “complex phenomena cannot be reduced to the discrete properties of their various parts, but must be understood according to the arrangement of and relations between the parts that create a whole.” In other words, the work of the New Topographics and the issues of urban sprawl and it’s environmental impact that they were dealing with cannot be understood through individual pieces, but from they’re body of work as a whole. Foster-Rice goes on to point out that, unlike prior landscape photographers such as Carlton Watkins, the images associated with the New Topographics were often printed with an overall idea of the greater body of work – Robert Adams, for example, developed his film so that the highlights would be pushed more towards the grey side of white. This allowed for the body as a whole to be “infused with the same quality of light”, and helps to draw more direct correlations for the viewer among the photographs within the project. This, combined with the direct rejection of Ansel Adam’s “disinterested, purely aesthetic subject position” within the landscape serve to create a serial experience of the work, rather than simply appreciating the images on a singular basis. Foster-Rice links this idea of the serial aesthetic more with the work of Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-action photographs and the work of minimalists such as Sol Lewit, and looking at photographers such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, it becomes easy to see the connection.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gravel Plants.
Sol Lewitt, Wall Drawing #136: Arcs and Lines, 1972.
In both the Becher’s gridded photographs of gravel pits, water towers, and other industrial relics, and Lewitt’s gidded wall drawings, it is not the individual images or mark making that it important to the work, but the body of work over time. Just as the Becher’s shared responsibility equally between both photographers, not differentiating tasks or who made what image, Lewitt’s wall drawings exist merely as diagram of what the drawing should ultimately look like, physically drawn on the wall by gallery and museum installers. It seems to me that is part of why they are so powerful – though both work in an incredibly precise manner, they’re ultimate product becomes an outline of how it was made and conceived. One could, with some practice or with careful technique, feasibly make they’re own Lewitt or Becher grid (admittedly, remaking the Becher’s images would be considerably more difficult), and have the same experience with the one they made on they’re own as they would in front of it in a museum. This drives home the point, in essence, of the break from the viewer’s singular, yet awestruck, experience of the landscape within the work of Carlton Watkins or Ansel Adams. If those photographers wanted to show how technology could function harmoniously within the landscape, the photographers associated with the New Topographics used serial depictions to dispel that myth.
Finally, I was left a little confused by Hal Foster’s essay An Archival Impulse, so I will end with the New Topographics. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know the work of the artists well enough, or perhaps it’s on account of Foster’s writing, but I’ll leave this essay for class discussion, and maybe update this later when I have a better understanding of it.
Of the five readings we were assigned for class this week (we had to pick 3) I chose to read The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production? By Lev Manovich, Jeff Wall’s essay Photography and Liquid Intelligence, and Jason Evans’ Online Photographic Thinking from the 2008 book and online forum Words Without Pictures. All three essays centered around the changing definitions surrounding photography, both in terms of digital production, and in terms of the increasing ease of accessibility and dissemination associated with the internet. Where Wall uses the metaphor of the uncontrollable nature of “liquid intelligence” or natural forms in opposition to the mechanical, precise nature of the photographic lense and shutter to talk about the current ability to control every aspect of the photograph, Manovich and Evans both focus more on the ways in which photography is disseminated online and the internet’s affect on production. While all three essays were offered fascinating ideas about where photography is heading, and has been heading for some time, Manovich’s essay, focusing on the ways in which the use of tactics to the prescribed strategies of everyday life are increasingly co-opted and manipulated by coroporations online seemed the most grounded in a tangible dialogue with real life experience.
I’ll start with the Manovich essay. Manovich begins by pointing out the sheer size of the internet, and the seemingly impossible wealth of information we now have collected online. Manovich lists the numbers of users on the world’s widest used social media sites, and it seems fitting that already, roughly only two years since his essay was written, they seem out of date. When Manovich states that “the number of new videos uploaded to YouTube every twenty-four hours (as of July 2006)” is 65,000, I can’t help but think of the statistic as woefully dated. With the dawn of low end HD video equipment such as the Flip Vimeo camcorder, and the installation of HD video capabilities in most cell phones, it seems as if this number would today be countless times higher – which in many respects kind of proves Manovich’s point, that the internet, along with technology, is changing the dynamics of how we interact with media. This leads into Manovich’s larger point, that while culture and lifestyle industries have mined youth subculture for some time now in order to capitalize on the tactics utilized by a culture’s participants, with the rise of social media and high speed internet, the division between strategies and tactics “are now often closely linked in an interactive relationship”. Manovich’s examples of this range from graphic interfaces on our computers, which can be customizable to the users preferences, to sites like Facebook or Tumblr (the platform I am currently blogging on), which allow users to write they’re own applications and blog interfaces to suit they’re own means. Manovich goes on to describe the ways in which corporations are taking the ideas of customization that became so prevelant in the Web 2.0 era and applying them within industries that deal with physical products – Nike allowing it’s customers to pay more money for the chance to customize they’re own pair of sneakers online via predetermined templates of they’re shoe models, Toyota introducing a line of customizable cars. As this use of tactics as a way of defining and implementing strategy became more prevelant, platforms such as LiveJournal, Blogger and Facebook began to allow for new tactical approaches less defined by the overt subversion of subculture, and more defined by the constant broadcasting of insignificant aspects of everyday life. As Manovich states “What was ephemeral, transient, unmappable, and invisible became permanent, mappable and viewable.” Manovich seems to view the contemporary phenomena of comment threads and the newfound ability to respond in the moment to the contemporary dialogue as a more contemporary manner of tactical resistance to overarching strategies, which is particularly interesting when thinking about the Words Without Pictures forum and book. The quasi magazine/blog/website forum, which published essays and discussions by contemporary photographers, bloggers, and photography critics on a regular basis throughout 2007 and 2008, allowed for many to respond in the comments section of each article. Rather than in a magazine or book, where select comments are published in later issues as letters to the editor, on the internet the commentary was able to directly create a dialogue about the articles, as they were published, in real time. Particularly interesting is the book form of the series, which complied all of the commentary from each article and printed them in full, not only documenting the articles written for the series, but the dialogue surrounding it as well.
This leads me to the Jason Evans article, Online Photographic Thinking, published as part of the Words Without Pictures series. Evans’ essay discusses the ways in which the newfound ability to instantly take, view and disseminate photographs within the digital age has opened and freed his practice from the confines of the traditional gallery or museum space. His argument, that digital photography and the “democratic” tendencies of the internet open up the possibility of a global art world, and allow for everyone to be in conversation with what is currently happening around them, all at once. In essence, Evans’ seems to be in favor of a decentralized art world, which through the internet, removes the aura from the object and instead revels in a wealth of constantly updated, constantly recirculating artistic information. I am somewhat conflicted about this myself – mainly because I don’t share Evans’ affinity for sites like Flickr and Tiny Vices, but also because I am reminded of something Kim Gordon of the band Sonic Youth said in a 2009 Guardian interview in response to the release of Radiohead’s record In Rainbows put out by the band on a pay what you like scale. “I don’t really think they did it by themselves,’ Gordon counters. ‘They did a marketing ploy by themselves and then got someone else to put it out. It seemed really community-oriented, but it wasn’t catered towards their musician brothers and sisters, who don’t sell as many records as them. It makes everyone else look bad for not offering their music for whatever. It was a good marketing ploy and I wish I’d thought of it! But we’re not in that position either. We might not have been able to put out a record for another couple of years if we’d done it ourselves: it’s a lot of work. And it takes away from the actual making music.” While it may seem very high minded and democratic to relive oneself from the bonds of the gallery and museum system, most artists, certainly myself included, cannot simply make they’re work without the unfortunate difficulties of having to fund that production. If the internet becomes the preferred way in which to view photographic imagery – if art exists as something everyone can experience all the time, for free, without any necessity to see an original, without any necessity to exist in some real, tangible, physical form, then where does that leave the artist? Can we ever fully be freed from the object, and can we ever be fully freed from the mundanity of making ends meet?
Finally, In Jeff Wall’s essay Photography and Liquid Intelligence, Wall talks about the ways in which photography is well suited to picturing natural forms, and by extension, cannot exist without the archaic qualities that water and it’s “incalculable” nature that is inextricably linked to the photographic process. Wall discusses the fact that, as digital technology becomes increasingly prevalent, photography itself will become increasingly removed from the “liquid intelligence” of nature, and instead of utilizing water in the application and dilution of chemicals, it will become more reliant on water through the generating of electricity. While this may seem rather dry and a matter of fact, Wall relates this distancing from the natural process of photographic chemicals to a newly found sense of self-consciousness in photographic practice. Here he relates it directly to Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, which seems to sum up Wall’s arguments better than I ever could, so I will end there: “The symbolic meaning of natural forms, made visible in things like turbulence patterns or compound curvatures, is, to me, one of the primary means by which the dry intelligence of optics and mechanics achieves a historical self-reflection, a memory of the path it has traversed to its present and future separation from the fragile phenomena it reproduces so generously. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, some scientists are studying an oceanic planet. Their techniques are typically scientific. But the ocean is itself an intelligence which is studying them in turn… In photography, the liquids study us, even from a great distance.”
Race, Empowerment, Ghettoization, and the Art Establishment (In Progress)
This weeks readings, which included an essay by Howard Winant for the catalog of the 2003 exhibition Only Skin Deep at New York’s International Center of Photography, a review of that exhibition by New York Times columnist Holland Cotter, and an additional essay by Carter entitled Beyond Multiculturalism, Freedom?, as well as The
Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop by Krista Thompson, all discussed our changing definitions, and relationship to race in Western culture. Whereas Winant fluctuates between the idea that race is an illusion – a socially reiterated construction that is “reinvented and reritualized to fit our own terrain”, and that described by W.L. Thomas’ statement that if people”define situations as real, they are real in their own consequences”, Cotter comes out and directly confronts both the positive and the confining elements of the push for multiculturalist practice within the art world of the 1990’s. Krista Thompson, on the other hand, discusses Kehinde Wiley’s depictions of young African American men in a manner that comes across as empowering to both the artist and his subject matter, complications and all.
While Winant made many good points within his essay, I would like to spend more time with Holland Carter’s article, Beyond Multiculturalism, Freedom?, as outside of the Thompson essay, it seemed the most interesting, yet also left me the most conflicted. Cotter’s essay deals with the rise of Multiculturalism in the art world of the 1990’s, specifically critiquing it’s limitations while at the same time praising the good intentions at it’s core. To Cotter, multiculturalism “exposed the social and ethical mechanics of art and its institutions and called traditional aesthetic values into question. Most important, it reversed old patterns of exclusion and brought voices into the mainstream that had rarely, if ever, been there before.” Whereas in prior decades, and for the most part still today, the art world had been the primary domain of privileged straight white men, artists such as Adrian Piper, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, or any number of non white, or non hetero-normative artists began to be seen in museums and gallery shows throughout the world. Obviously this is a good thing. Opening up artistic dialogues to varying backgrounds cannot be anything but – white gallery and museum goers are confronted with the experiences outside of they’re own, and non-white viewers may see work on the walls that reflects back on they’re own experiences, validating any number of issues that would otherwise be left unaddressed by white, hetero-normative artists. Yet Cotter brings up a good point, that at the same time the white art establishment began opening the doors to other racial, gendered, and non-heteronormative perspectives, it began to cordon those perspectives off into racially or sexually based groups. While it is obviously a good thing that the work of black artists is seen, promoted and exhibited, it should go without saying that, just as it would be impossible (and would have obvious racist undertones) to have a survey of “Caucasian-American art today”, it is equally impossible and problematic to attempt to survey art made by African-American artists, solely on the basis of the color of they’re skin. While opening the doors for many artists of color, many queer artists and many female artists who had otherwise been excluded from the art establishment, shows based on the commonality of ‘otherness’ among artists ghettoizes them and increases the perception that the importance of said artists is based in they’re identity, not in they’re work.
Case in point, on a recent trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, I wandered into a gallery of work adjacent to an installation of Carrie Mae Weems photographs, attracted by a Felix Gonzalez-Torrez candy pour I caught in the corner of my eye. Torrez’ pieces in general are somber reflections on the finite nature of life, and his piles of foil wrapped candies, held in a constant state of deterioration or depletion through the continued consumption of the candies by the gallery goers and they’re renewal by museum staff, are among his most powerful comments on this ephemeral quality. While the motivation for his work was the gradual deterioration and ultimate death of his lover, Ross, after contracting the aids virus, the work, more often than not, transcends the strict definitions of art made in reaction to aids, and was intended to do so. After looking at and interacting with the piece for a few minutes I began to approach the other work surrounding it in the small room within the gallery - starting with a grid of images from Larry Clark’s series Tulsa, which were hung directly to the left of the pile. The images, which are harsh, yet beautifully composed depictions of young drug users taken throughout the 1970’s, struck a sour note with me. Why were they hung in dialogue with the Torrez? What was the curator trying to say by they’re placement together? The longer I looked at the installation, te more I felt drawn to draw a cause and effect reading between the two (intravenous drug addiction leading to the inevitable, and unfortunate finality and decay of the Torrez piece) or to read them both as art made by artists living “counter-cultural” lifestyles. This was compounded by the other works in the room after a scan of my surroundings - a General Idea AIDS logo painting appropriating Robert Indiana’s LOVE logo, another Torrez piece listing important dates in both the artists personal history and within the gay and civil rights movements, a Kiki Smith relief sculpture resembling a decaying body. While it was wonderful to see all the pieces showing in an internationally renowned museum, it was frustrating and vaguely insulting to frame all of the works directly within the AIDS crisis. Sure, Many of the artists installed worked within the same time periods and were heavily influenced by they’re cultural identities, but outside of they’re outsider status I find it difficult to draw a correlation (except for an insultingly myopic one) between Torrez, Smith and Clark. Torrez could have gone just as easily alongside a minimalist artist, and would probably have broadened the conversation in doing so. Framing the works together, however, placed they’re value not on they’re aesthetic criteria, but solely on the cultural divisions of the artists from the majority of the viewing public.
Regarding the Pain of Others with Anxiety and a Civil Contract.
This weeks readings, excerpts from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography, and Mark Reinhardt’s text Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique, all revolve around ideas of photographic responsibility, both in terms of journalistic ethics and a fine art framework. While all three essays deal with the subject of how to deal with the depiction of pain, suffering and conflict, all three approach the subject from different perspectives – Sontag approaching the photograph from the standpoint of the viewer of war imagery, Azoulay and Reinhardt from the point of the subject of those images.
While Sontag had previously discussed the ways in which photography enabled a viewer to see the world around them through “chronic voyeuristic relation” and the ways in which the repetition of images of atrocity within the media can make an event “less real” in her essays collected in On Photography, she essentially begins her more recent text by refuting her prior claims. She continues to argue that, contrary to her former ideas, imagery of the pain and suffering so prevalent in the world reminds us that “This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.” While images of the worlds atrocities cannot change the horrors they depict, they do make sure that the events that transpired while they were made are not forgotten or ignored. As Sontag writes “Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together”.
Where Sontag’s writings tend to focus more on the relationship of the viewer to the photograph and how it is disseminated, Azoulay’s insightful arguments in The Civil Contract of Photography focus on the inherent contract made between the photographer, the subject, and the viewing public whenever a photograph is made. Azoulay begins the introduction to the text with a description of her memory of the 1967 bombing of her hometown of Netanya, Israel, which grounds the breadth of her essay both as a resident of a country constantly at war, and as a consumer and scholar of photographic imagery. She goes on to talk about a mental image she had of Palestinians at the beach on Fridays that was instilled in her as a young child by her mother– of “Arabs half-submerged in the middle of the sea, struggling to get up, with the weight of their wet clothes pulling them down”. After going to the occupied territories in Palestine in high school, Azoulay realized how different that mental image was from the reality of daily life in that situation. “When I was a bit older, in high school, and I went to the ‘territories’ with Peace Now to demonstrate against the occupation, I saw only Jewish Israelis with crisp white shirts, equipped with a vision of how to wipe out the occupation. Even then, toward the end of the 1970’s, the image from the sea remained the only image I had of Palestinians”. Azouly acknowledges that, until years later when portraits of Palestinians and they’re stories were printed in the daily Hebrew newspapers, the mental image at the sea hadn’t yet been“replaced by real photographs with Palestinian faces looking out at me… testifying to the fact that the occupation should be ended and a Palestinian state established”. To this point, Azoulay posits that, unlike as theorists like Baudrillard or Sontag have claimed before her, the world is not over-saturated with “images of horrors” that have caused a kind of “image fatigue” - the images such as those that ran in the Hebrew daily newspapers have “created a space of political relations that are not mediated exclusively by the ruling power of the state and are not completely subject to the national logic that still overshadows the political arena”. In short, Azoulay argues that while the distinctions of nationality cause people to be governed differently under the same laws, photography allows for a space in which those distinctions can be subverted.
Anat Saragusti, Hebron, 1982.
Azoulay goes on to explain that, “When the photographed persons address me, claiming their citizenship in photography, they cease to appear as stateless or as enemies, the manners in which the sovereign regime strives to construct them. They call on me to recognize and restore their citizenship through my viewing.” Unlike with Sontag, whose writings on photography overtly address the photograph instead of the person who is the subject of said photograph, Azoulay’s thoughts about these photographic images describe both the ways in which they are viewed, and the subjects desire to address the viewer through them. Where Sontag deals with the subjects of a given photograph on the basis of anonymity, as “that which once was”, Azoulay’s approach seems to view the gaze of the subject in each frame as decidedly more purposeful – as if the subject were looking through the lens of the camera, knowing that ultimately they are fixed on the person viewing the final image. It is not the fact that the image is a record of something that “once was” that is important to Azoulay, but the fact that the subjects consent became a kind of contract between the photographer (and by extension, the viewer) – that in doing so, both may question that which partitions each as privileged and impoverished, citizen and noncitizen. Azoulay goes on to ask: “What is the foundation of the gaze I might turn back toward them? Is it my gaze alone, or is it their demand directed toward the civil position I occupy?” Azoulay uses the example of a 1982 photograph by Anat Saragusti, taken as a shop keeper in the town of Hebron hold up the lock to his shop, recently clipped by Israeli police in order to break up a strike. The man stares directly at the camera, lock in hand, and as Azoulay states: “When the Hebron merchant stands up in front of the camera, lock in hand, he isn’t demanding remuneration for the broken lock. His stance is an insistent refusal to accept the noncitizen status assigned him by the governing power and a demand for participation in a sphere of political relations within which his claims can be heard and acknowledged.”
Southworth and Hawes, The Branded Hand of Captain Jonathan Walker, 1845.
Another example Azoulay used, which I found particularly interesting, was the 1845 daguerreotype titled The Branded Hand of Captain Jonathan Walker, taken by Southworth and Hawes. The image, a photograph of the palm of the subject’s hand, which had recently been branded with the intials “SS” (for “slave stealer”) as punishment for smuggling slaves out of the state to freedom, changes the context in which we view the inscription based on the act of being photographed. Instead of acting as a sign of shame, as was the intended government punishment, the photographing and subsequent distribution of the image resulted in a “reinterpretation of the SS mark as denoting ‘slave savior’ “. By acknowledging to the public that which was intended to be shameful ( a “mark of Cain”, as Azoulay calls it), the very nature of the law in question was publicly undermined. As Azoulay states in her essay: “The daguerreotype had the power to publish the disgrace meant to exclude Walker from the public and, through this very act of publication, to overturn the disgrace.”
Catherine Opie, Jake, 1991.
Kohei Yoshiyuki, Images from The Park.
This ability to shift cultural definition by way of embracing and making public that which may otherwise be considered shameful and kept private immediately reminds me of the early portraits of Catherine Opie. Opie’s early images, taken with a large format camera and shot in a studio setting with vibrant, attention seeking backdrops, showcase the members of L.A.’s lesbian and transgendered S&M scene – a culture which, even today, is largely kept private. Unlike the more voyeuristic approach to sexual promiscuity taken by photographers such as Kohei Yoshiyuki or Larry Clark, Opie’s subjects are fully aware that they are being photographed, and where those photographs are intended to end up. The subjects gaze directly at the viewer, not bothering to hide they’re inclusion within the community – not bothering to pretend that there is something they should be ashamed of within it’s boundaries. These are not images intended to shock the viewer with a depiction of the community as “other”, these are images intended to make the viewer question why that community should be considered shocking in the first place. As in the Southworth and Hawes daguerreotype, the act of making public overturns the definitions given to the community being portrayed by mass culture, changing the inherent definition of shame mass culture applies to the community in question.
Finally, in Reinhardt’s Picturing Violence, the issue of consent and victimhood within war photography functions as a fitting counter-argument to Azoulay’s vision of photography’s call to civic responsibility. Where Azoulay’s argument focuses on photographs of victims of conflict in which they’re consent to be pictured is a particularly important element of the photograph, Reinhardt’s essay focuses almost exclusively on images where that consent was never given, and the problems that accompany the aestheticization of those images. In particular, Reinhardt brings up the now infamous images at Abu Ghraib prison, begging the question of whether they’re publication in the US news media without protection of the identities of the prisoners involved helped the victims of the abuses, or merely served to further cement they’re humiliation and prolong they’re torture. Subsequently, they’re publication without identity blurring also served to complicate the discussion of their torture within many US media outlets – adding further fuel to the conservative claim that what was going on did not constitute torture, and the ability of conservative pundits and politicians to deny the victimhood of the prisoners in the first place. As Reinhardt states in his essay: “The argument marks the ways in which the recognition that photographic representation can radically undermine the dignity of those pictured has been codified in the discourse of international law, even as this particular iteration shows how that recognition can also be deployed opportunistically against those whose interests are ostensibly being protected.” While the image in question taken at Abu Ghraib certainly has, and has held onto, much political power, it’s very existence is built on humiliation, which to some extent is eternally reproduced and prolonged with it’s subsequent publication.
Joel Meyerowitz, The Remains of the South Tower.
Thomas Ruff, jpeg NY01, 2004.
Reinhardt later goes into the problematics of aestheticization within Thomas Ruff’s jpeg NY 01, which I have always found fascinating. Using an Associated Press image of the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center taken from the internet, Ruff expanded the image beyond it’s intended size, allowing the grid of pixels to form a wild pattern that bore some similarity to the original image from a large distance, but became increasingly distorted the closer one approached the photograph, which is printed about the size of a large gallery wall. The technique echoed many people’s relationship to the attack, and also directly referenced the ways in which the world experienced the attack mediated, in real time, through they’re computers and television screens. Reinhardt seems to favor the piece over the work of Joel Meyerowitz taken on the same site after the attack, but raises some interesting questions in relation to jpeg NY01. “Although they are in no way visible in his photograph, great numbers of dying people were inside the buildings at the moment Ruff’s source image was produced. One might experience moral unease in response.” While Ruff does talk about a tragic event within the work in an incredibly cold, calculated manner, it seems that Ruff is dealing with something outside of the event of thousands of people’s violent demise. What does it mean to use the images of a moment of such catastrophic proportions, a photograph taken as thousands of people were trapped dying, to talk about ideas surrounding the dissemination of information? It seems like an incredibly complicated moment within the photograph – one that I’m not sure I have a definitive answer to, even after seeing the images so many times since they’re unveiling in 2004.
Ellsworth Kelly, September 11th Memorial Proposal, 2003.
In chapter 9 of Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before, Fried focuses on the work of Thomas Demand, Candida Höfer, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Thomas Struth, discussing the correlations (and distinct differences) between the emphasis on experience within they’re work, and that of the minimalist artists Fried critiqued in his essay Art and Objecthood. While both sets of artists make work that is, in some aspects, dependent on the viewers experience of the piece in front of them- with artists emphasizing experience through the stripping away of identifying characteristics and sense of time in the case of Demand, or the conceptual internalization of the contemporary gallery space in the work of Höfer – Fried is quick to point out that, unlike the more open ended or theatrical experience one has with a Donald Judd or Dan Flavin, in the case of photographers like Demand, Höfer, Sugimoto or Struth, that experience is entirely controlled and dictated by the photographer’s assertion of “sheer artistic intention”. In short, where one’s experience of a Judd or Flavin is entirely dependent on your movement around the piece and the space it is installed in, the photographers mentioned in this chapter directly dictate what it is you are looking at in relation to real, lived experience, and by extension, your experience of the piece in front of you. While I don’t fully agree with Fried’s distinction with Minimalist work (even a photograph is still an object in space in front of the viewer), the chapter did shed some light on some of the ideas Fried mentioned within the first chapter.
Thomas Demand, Corridor, 1995.
Fried begins with the work of Thomas Demand, whose photographs of meticulously recreated images of seemingly banal spaces culled from news media seem like an appropriate introduction to a discussion of one’s experience of a work of art. Demand’s images take otherwise loaded subjects – the hallway in serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment in which Dahmer imprisoned and killed his victims, for example, and recreates them for the camera using construction paper in his studio. In doing so, Demand removes any identifying marks from the initial images – logos, scuffs and scrapes, dirt, etc. are all wiped clean by Demand’s simple reconstructions. By working in this manner, Demand is, in the words of Ruedi Widemer: “cordoning off a crime scene – actually cut(ting) off the space of events from the space of it’s perception”. Demand removes both a sense of familiarity with the photograph of the space he is utilizing, and the sense of time and space one normally associates with photography – one cannot, when looking at one of Demand’s images, imagine walking through them… One is constantly aware of Demand’s direction of the viewer’s gaze when looking at the images – there are none of the narrative details one commonly associates with a photograph (brands of objects or a scuff on a pair of glasses, for example) when looking at his images, only flatted space. In essence, Demand is removing any link to the history of the spaces he is depicting within his images – his reconstructions exist in a void – they’re only link to time is that which you are viewing on the wall. Whereas with a Donald Judd your experience of the piece in front of you unfolds over the length of time and ways in which you move around it, with one of Demand’s photographs your experience is always immediately fixed – you can only experience what Demand dictates.
Thomas Demand, Laboratory, 2000.
Fried uses Demand’s piece Laboratory to sum up his ideas about Demand’s work. The piece, which depicts an anechoic chamber, “a device designed to suppress all echoes, which is to say eliminate all traces of previous sounds”. In this sense Laboratory stands in for Fried as a metaphor for the larger ideas he is associating with Demand’s work – just as the chamber is designed to eliminate all sounds except for that which is presently made, Demand’s images exist in an equally historical void. There is no trace of the initial images used and the objects they depicted, only the objects Demand has created for us to see. Just as the sounds recorded within the chamber are only emitted at the moment of they’re inception, so too are Demand’s images.
Thomas Struth, South Lake Street Apartments 2, Chicago, 1990.
Fried then moves on to discuss the work of Thomas Struth, whose early Black & White architectural photographs depict buildings all made within similar time periods and within similar schools of architectural ideology. Fried connects the Struth images with Demand’s work through the idea that though Struth’s images are “impregnated with meaning”, they are photographed in such a way as to not reveal what that meaning initially is. As Fried states: “My thought is that Struth’s reticent, inexplicit, but meaning-impregnated cityscapes were a crucial element in the artistic and intellectual context within Demand’s almost antithetical initiative – the removal from his subject matter of all traces of previous intentions, conscious or unconscious, and the replacement of them with his own conscious ones – took shape.”
Candida Hoefer, Ballettzentrum Hamburg III, 2001.
Lastly, Fried discusses the work of Candida Höfer, whose images keep the viewer constantly aware of they’re distance from the subjects of her photographs – generally the architecture of large artistic institutions – both physically and mentally. Here Fried argues that, by distancing the viewer from the physical spaces she is photographing, Höfer has internalized the aesthetics of both the modern exhibition space and the installation images they require. In doing so, Fried argues, Höfer has provided what Brian O’Doherty describes in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space as “one of the icons of our visual culture: the installation shot, sans figures. Here at last the spectator, oneself, is eliminated. You are there without being there…. The installation shot is a metaphor for the gallery space. In it an ideal is fulfilled as strongly as in a Salon painting of the 1830s”. If one looks at Höfer’s work through the lens of the modern exhibition space and the use of photography it requires, Fried argues, then Höfer’s images function as a subtle critique of that notion that art somehow exists in it’s purest state above and outside of it’s audience.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, North Atlantic Ocean, Cape Breton Island, 1996.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Black Sea, Ozuluce, 1991.
Fried ends the chapter with a discussion of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascape images – a series of Black and White photographs of the ocean all taken with the exact same horizon line, under varying, yet similar atmospheric conditions. Fried gives particular importance to the fact that the effort and expense of traveling to various oceans across the world to make these seemingly repetitive photographs is left out of the images themselves, and is, on the surface of the project, completely unbeknownst to the viewer. Fried relates this idea that the images float free of historical context - it is not important when these images were made, and indeed they depict an image of an uncluttered ocean that does not often exist outside of these photographs since the dawn of nautical travel - to the same issues brought up with the work of the other three photographers. Where the simplified, repeated horizon line in Sugimoto’s images easily harkens back to minimalist painting and sculpture on some levels, Fried views the artist directing the viewer’s experience of the photograph as subverting the theatrical qualities of Minimalism. This, overall, seems like the best possible summation of Fried’s argument within the chapter – that while Minimalism allows for many interpretations of a work, since it’s meaning rests entirely on the viewer’s experience, photography, when done well, subverts that by only allowing the viewer one possible experience.
Michael Fried’s basic point within his introduction and first chapter for Why Photography Matters… is that, beginning sometime around the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, art photography began to be made “at a large scale but also for the wall”, and that this shift ushered many of the issues associated with high modernism “to the very center of advanced photographic practice”. This can be seen in the distancing of the viewer from the photographic object, the increasing use of a flattened, mechanical perspective, and the direct acknowledgement of the falsity of the photographic process. Fried begins by outlining three beginnings of this shift in photographic discourse – the investigation of photography and cinema inherent in the work of Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Jeff Wall; the assertion of the photograph as art object in the work of Wall, Thomas Ruff and Jean-Marc Bustamante; and the questioning or undermining of notions of voyuerism as discussed in three texts – the anonymous French conte Adelaide, Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of Doom, and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.
In some ways, I see a lot of correlation between the ways in which Fried talks about the work of Jeff Wall, Jean-Marc Bustamante and Thomas Ruff, and some of the aspects of Modernism. Just as Manet and modernism after him stressed the fact that the paintings in front of the viewer were not windows into another world, but in fact were paint on canvas, so too did Wall, Bustamante and Ruff refute the tendency of the public to do the same with photographs. At every step of the image making process, the three photographers seem to reinforce the fact that one is looking at a photograph, to deny the impulse to escape into another world. Where Manet used the flat application of paint to reassert the issues pertaining to the present day, rather than painting allegorically like painters such as Jacques-Louis David, the large scale images produced by Ruff, Wall and Bustamante reassert the artist behind the camera – both in the flat, deadpan style of Bustamante and Ruff, and the assertion of the artist’s studio with Wall. Fried himself talks about the notions of antitheatricality associated with the work of Manet when discussing the rise of photography made for the wall, stating: “such photography immediately inherited the entire problematic of beholding that had been central, first, to the evolution of painting in France from the middle of the eighteenth century until the advent of Edvourd Manet and his generation around 1860;, and second, to the opposition between high modernism and minimalism in the mid- and late 1960s…” If, as Fried later points out, Bustamante’s “tableau form” is in direct opposition to the era of the somewhat romanticized images of Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places before it, it becomes apparent that the use of these techniques in some senses mirror the issues more commonly associated with Modernism’s prior break from the art predating it. Where Shore made photographs and sequenced them within an overriding narrative arc – telling the story of the search for the experience of (his then) contemporary America – Ruff, Bustamante, and (somewhat surprisingly) Wall all actively work to deny the viewer that experience. At the heart of they’re images, the impulse to describe a person, an environment, or a fictional situation is given the same, unequivocably sharp, level of heightened of description.
Joel Sternfeld, Central Park, north of the Obelisk, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 1993.
For example, in Joel Sternfeld’s photograph Central Park, North of the Obelisk…, Sternfeld photographs the site of a murder in Manhattan’s Central Park at sunset, with warm orange sunlight raking across the dirt in the front of the frame, highlighting the trunk of a tree where a woman’s body was found on August 26, 1986. The image, by utilizing the sunset to evoke a sense of spiritual transcendence, allows the viewer to enter into the image – to pull a subtle sense of narrative from it’s warm light and rustling leaves blowing in the warm spring air. The viewer simultaneously examines the image and can imagine what it was like to make it. As Hilla Becher described Stephen Shore’s work in Why Photography Matters…, “With Shore, everything is rendered very affectionately, it is genuinely grasped.”
Jean-Marc Bustamante, Tableau T.72A.82, 1982.
In the work of Bustamante and others like him, however, that ability to feel as if the scenario in the photograph has been “genuinely grasped” is challenged both by scale, and the unilateral level of description. The photograph Tableau T.72A.82, for example, depicts a cypress tree, surrounded by an extending hillside behind it, covered in similar trees. Photographed by a photographer like Sternfeld, the scene could have come across as transcendent as the image in New York’s Central Park – the images do look somewhat analogous on the surface of things. However, as in all of Bustamante’s Tableau images, Bustamante uses his camera in a manner intended to flatten the subject matter into a single plane, shooting at high noon so that everything is described equally by the available sunlight. Whereas the Sternfeld image uses camera shifts, time of day and motion to create an image of an ethereal moment outside of the picture, Bustamante’s image does the opposite – the definition of the image he gives us can not be described by that which is beyond the frame of the photograph. Scale, too, plays a role in this. Bustamante’s prints, which are mounted on aluminum and framed without mats, are printed roughly 50x60 inches, and present the viewer with objects which are somewhat analogous to human scale. In essence, the experience of viewing a Bustamante print inextricably differs from that of viewing a Sternfeld – where Sternfeld gives you a somewhat cinematic experience of losing yourself in the image and it’s implied narrative qualities, Bustamante gives you the experience of observing a reproduction of the object itself. It is not the introduction of poetics into the photographic vocabulary that defines ones experience of the image, but the investigation of the image in front of the viewer as object.
Andreas Gursky, Installation View at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.
Ultimately, I am conflicted in regards to how I feel about Fried’s positions regarding the fundamental changes he sees with this type of photography, and it’s implied death of the voyeur. While I acknowledge and fully agree with the ways in which he describes the conflicts within this type of work, and in particular these artists (substituting Shore for Sternfeld, of course), I can’t help but feel as if he is actively writing out so many other types of photography that don’t necessarily fit within his strict definitions. It is definitely true that Gursky, Struth, Wall, Bustamante, etc reintroduce many concepts commonly associated with high modernism into the contemporary photographic dialogue, but there are many artists who, one could argue, subvert those ideas.
David Horvitz, Sold Project - Anna Karenina, 2008.
David Horvitz, for example, photographs everyday, somewhat banal scenarios which are “commissioned” by the visitors to his website – in one series, he took the money donated to him and spent eight days traveling back and forth from Roosevelt Island in New York to spend the day reading Anna Karenina, all of which was documented photographically. In essence, the photographs are a collaboration – they are not made without the participant and viewer. The acts depicted in them would, outside of the photograph, be inconsequential to anyone besides of the artist. If outside participation is so integral to these images, how does that function within Fried’s framework?
Gender is a socially mediated construction, and therefore, like in theater, functions as a public performance we all participate in. This is the basic argument of Judith Butler’s Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. The essay, written in the late 1980’s, questions the concrete foundations that commonly link notions of sex and gender, and argues that the two are necessarily separate entities. Gender, according to Butler, “is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.” This can be applied to everything from the gendered application of color beginning at birth (blue being designated to masculinity, pink to femininity), the toys culturally considered appropriate for children of a given gender, and to the style of dress and ways in which we interact with each other later in life. As Butler states, “gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” To put it simply, the ways in which we structure our identities - the way we carry ourselves, the way we interact with those around us, and the things we are attracted to throughout our daily lives – are all a part of a gendered identity that has been socially distilled in us since birth, and is re-performed in order to meet or undermine social contracts. To Butler, our operations within the binary of masculine/feminine gender are a constant dramatization of gender ideals – John Wayne operating as a performance of masculinity both onscreen and off. To quote an oversimplification of Butler’s argument used in the essay Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose, “all gender is drag”.
Jesse Burke, Gladiator, 2005.
Jesse Burke, Swallow, 2008.
This notion of the performance of traditional modes of gender identity, and they’re correlation to drag overwhelmingly reminds me of the work of Jesse Burke, who is consequently included in the exhibition The Truth Is Not in the Mirror we will be going to see on Tuesday. Burke’s series Intertidal, which I saw this past May at ClampArt in New York, deals with the construction of masculinity, and in particular focuses on his immediate family and friends in rural New England. By isolating his subjects both in the studio and in the outside world through the use of strobe lights and strategic costuming, Burke makes photographs which simultaneously acknowledge and deconstruct the hyper-masculinity of the men in them. In Gladiator, a self-portrait as a mud-soaked soccer player operates on the surface much in the same way a photograph taken by Bruce Weber for Abercrombie & Fitch might – an eroticized portrait of the photographer stopping for a moment to take his picture during what could be an intense game of soccer (or to play up the homoerotic content of the image, rugby). Yet as one spends more time with the image, that veneer of masculinity begins to fade – Burke’s mud-soaked t-shirt clings to his belly in ways that undermine the initial appearance of fitness and youth, and his exhausted expression begins to suggest that maybe he is out of his league in the game in which he is participant. In a way, he almost looks as if he is about to break into tears, or can’t seem to catch his breath. Instead of being an exaltation of traditional definitions of masculinity – athletic prowess, sexual virility, toughness – the image of Burke makes a sizable argument towards a masculinity he cannot quite live up to. He is both playing masculine for the camera and failing at doing so. If, as Jennifer Blessing claims in Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose by writing “masculinity is a mythic construction that is perpetuated through the performative repetition of stereotypes of behavior and dress” is true, then Burke’s failure at fully attaining that mythic quality potentially begins to undermine those terms of identification.
Similarly, in Swallow, Burke photographs a shirtless man in his studio with a paintball helmet covering his head. As in Gladiator the image appears to emphasize the hyper-masculine qualities of the subject (chest hair, tattoos, gun culture and ownership), while the clash between those initial masculine characteristics and the fact that the subject is shirtless begin to push the image in a different direction. Burke’s use of the black seamless backdrop, his use of strobes and precise lighting of the subject don’t necessarily undermine the apparent masculinity of the subject, but in many ways add to a hyper-masculine appearance of the subject. Here again is where Burke plays with issues commonly associated with drag - the studio setup belies the inherent falsity of the photograph (also highlighting the momentary, and somewhat homoerotic, submission of the subject to Burke’s requests), and by extension, the performance of hyper-masculinity going on within it. That realization opens the image of the rugged woodsy brand of machismo to different readings – even the most obvious symbol of masculinity in the image, the paintball helmet, begins to take on connotations of bondage and submission. If this direct image of masculinity so easily shifts meanings, so too does it’s title, Swallow, which on one hand signifies the traditional style tattoo on the subject’s chest, but is clearly also a reference to bondage and oral sex. Burke’s image simultaneously reads as macho and subversive, highlighting the shaky ground on which our contemporary definitions of gender rest.
Screenshot of Scruff application - a gay cruising application for bearded men.
Another way in which I thought about the performance of gender was through the performance of masculinity within the gay community, which is oftentimes experienced through the separation of types of masculinity. As Butler states in her essay, “The act that gender is, the act that embodied agents are inasmuch as they dramatically and actively embody and, indeed wear certain cultural significations, is clearly not one’s act alone.” The same can be said within the gay community’s play of masculine types – denoted through cultural signifiers ranging from sportswear (jockstraps, wrestling singlets, etc.) to degrees of body hair, and leather, all of which are exchangeable for different scenarios and at different times. Regardless of they’re interchangeability, these signfiers still function along culturally and historically preconceived notions of masculinity, which are played with in order to gain acceptance in a given community. Much as the objective in male/female drag is to pass as the gender you are impersonating, one may desire to pass within multiple communities at multiple times. As illustrated in the iPhone app Scruff, the adherence of many individuals to the same characteristics of masculinity to perform similar, recognizable masculinities underlies the construction of those “masculine” traits as such. The visual language on which the members of the community interact with each other simultaneously cements the individual within traditional acts of gender, and subverts those notions of gender not accepted within the greater social fabric (homosexuality in terms of hetero-normative society, body hair in terms of other aspects of gay culture).
Ultimately, Butler’s larger point, that “regardless of patriarchy and the prevalence of sexual difference as an operative cultural distinction, there is nothing about a binary system that is given” seems to underscore the sense that gender is a constantly fluid and expandable entity, and the way we operate within it’s confines needs to be reexamined, both within mass culture and within the boundaries of feminism and queer culture itself. If the definitions of masculinity and femininity are objects in flux, dictated by historical and cultural constraints of social hierarchies of the past, who does it benefit to uphold they’re archaic distinctions? What lies ahead as we slowly loosen these cultural models?
This weeks readings, What is Contemporary Art? by Terry Smith, Hal Foster’s Questionnaire on “The Contemporary” and the responses to it by Alexander Alberro and (as chosen by me) Julia Bryan-Wilson, all focused on the current period of contemporaneity within the art world, and it’s hazy boundaries and definitions. The period, which can be vaugely defined as occurring after the institutionalization of postmodern practices in the late 1980’s, is to some extent, simply art that is being made and in dialogue with artistic practices and concerns right now. It is work being made within and about the political climate following the rise of globalization. It is work being made after the end of the cold war and in response to it’s void. It is work made within and because of the technological revolution of the internet and the rise of the home computer. In short, contemporaneity is the period we are currently experiencing, in real time. As Terry Smith states in the introduction to What is Contemporary Art?: “The coexistence of distinct temporalities, of different ways of being in relation to time, experienced in the midst of a growing sense that many kinds of time are running out, is the third, deepest sense of the contemporary: what it is to be with time, to be contemporary. “
Leslie Hewitt, Riffs on Real Time, Installation View at the Kitchen, New York, 2008.
Leslie Hewitt, Riffs on Real Time, 2008.
This is not to say that contemporaneity is some kind of artistic year zero – where work is made only within the context of other work also being made concurrently by other artists and without any reference to that which has come before it. As Smith writes: “There are worlds of difference between the ordinary usage of the word ‘contemporary’ - with it’s hip, go-with-the-flow connotations, it’s default recognition of whatever is happening, up-to-date, simultaneous, or contemporaneous – and the depths of meaning contained within the concept itself: con tempus came into use, and remains in use, because it points to a multiplicity of relationships between being and time.” Consequently, in Leslie Hewitt’s project Riffs on Real Time, the artist photographs the floor beams within her studio, placing a book or magazine in the center of the frame and leaving a snapshot photograph on top of that. While the choice of photographing in such a mechanical and overtly banal manner may seem like a conscious break from the overly romanticized manner of photography before her, the quasi-scientific approach to the photograph that Hewitt takes references both the series Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel (published in the 1970’s), and the motion studies of Edward Muybridge taken in the 1870’s.
Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Evidence, 1977.
Edward Muybridge, Man And Horse Jumping, 1907.
Further, the work reiterates the multiple relationships with time inherent in photography. By combining found photographs and the physical space of the artists studio, Hewitt shows images made at multiple points in time simultaneously - the time in which the magazine being photographed was printed, the time in which the photograph printed on it’s pages was taken, the time the snapshot was taken (presumably printed at roughly the same time), and the moment in time when Hewitt placed the objects on her floor and photographed them. All of this underscores Smith’s point that contemporaneity is not simply a series of up to the minute references of the world that surround the artist, but a dialogue with the ideas currently being discussed, and the ideas and work that came before it, simultaneously. Where previously postmodernism consciously broke from the constraints of modernism in order to create a new vocabulary with which to address the changing world in which artists were working, contemporaneity floats outside of both of these constraints. It is not the conscious breaking from tradition that many of todays artists are engaged in, but the discussion of the present day, which by default references the discussions of those past.
This sort of feeling of artistic practice consciously “floating free” of historical categorization is discussed in Hal Foster’s Questionnaire on “The Contemporary” and it’s responses. Foster begins by stating that the avant-garde and postmodern movements have run their course and are no longer as relevant in today’s cultural environment. According to Foster, “no models of much explanatory reach or intellectual force have risen in their stead.” Yet at the same time “contemporary art” has become an institution in itself – museums have departments relegated to contemporary art, schools have programs devoted to it, most of which define it “not only from prewar practice but from most postwar practice as well.” In short, Foster defines the contemporary as the current period of artistic discussion, which, with the dawn of globalization and hyper-capitalism, is being created and institutionalized at once. This creates a sense that contemporary art exists “free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment.” Foster questions this at the end of his statement, ending with “Are there collateral effects in other fields of art history?… are there benefits to this apparent lightness of being?”
In his response to Foster’s questions, Alexander Alberro reiterates many of Foster’s summations of Contemporaneity, mainly that it is a reaction to, and because of the rise of globalization, the end of the Soviet Union, and the rise in computer and internet technology. However, he goes on to expand upon Foster’s questions, arguing that the contemporary is at turning point – either to be capitalized for hegemonic purposes, or used to more utopian ends. Alberro views contemporaneity as a product of the rise of the neoliberal economic model, with the proliferation of global exhibitions and art fairs further extending the reach of the western art world, and spawning new practices in collecting. As he states “Gone is the chic collector who seeks cultural capital, let alone the connoisseur of early modernism; art collecting today is largely dominated by purchases of sheer speculation.” Many artists, Alberro argues, engage in counter-globalization practices within they’re work in response to this. Others, such as Walid Raad / The Atlas Group he argues, have been influenced by the new technologies of the internet and rise in communication and respond by fictionalizing the facts of everyday life. As he states: “One of the most striking of these is the proliferation of art works that employ fiction and animation to narrate facts, as if to say that today the real must be fictionalized in order to be thought, the the real is so mind-boggling it is easier to comprehend by analogy.” Alberro goes on to point out that our experience of art is affected by this change in technology, that due to the mediation of the computer screen, the importance of a work now rests in the image over the object. To this extent, Alberro argues, the use of avant-garde techniques are no longer as applicable to contemporary life, and many artists have responded with a “resurgence in concepts of utopia, community, collaboration, particiaption, and responsible government, all of which encode a desire for change” which provide “new notions of the avant-garde”. I can’t help but think of artists such as Rikrit Tiravanija, whose piece Untitled (1992) invited gallery “viewers” to sit down and eat a bowl of thai curry, for free, made in front of them by the artist himself. As Jerry Saltz wrote about a 2007 re-performance of the piece: “With this simple, almost metaphysical gesture, Tiravanija transformed the transaction of being in a gallery as viewers came to realize that the art was in them, not just because they ate it, but because all the relations they had there were theirs. In this very tangible, immediate way, Tiravanija seemed to bridge a mind-body gap that often exists in Western art; he was a medicine man artist who literalized art’s primitive functions as sustenance, healing and communion.” Where the global art market presses for high auction value of the art object, Tiravanija’s piece directly undermines that drive – instead of a Golden Calf, Tiravanija offers a simple, communal experience.
Rikrit Tiravanija, Untitled (1992), 2007
The question of what constitutes a universal experience was something I found particularly interesting in Julia Bryan-Wilson’s response. Bryan-Wilson begins her response by stating that she “cannot help but think about the problem of ‘the contemporary’ in relation to the urgencies of the troubled future”. This is a fitting beginning to her argument, which centers around the creation of a monument intended to warn New Mexican inhabitants for the next 10,000 years against digging or drilling on a radioactive waste site planned for construction in New Mexico. The design team, which purposely did not include any artists or art historians as a reaction to art’s elitism and illegibility by the everyman, designed an obelisk, on which will be engraved a warning not to drill or dig at the site, in addition to a schematic drawing of the “universal facial registration of disgust or nausea” and an abstract schematic of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
The Image Engraved on the Carlsbad, New Mexico Marker.
The use of The Scream, though intended to “signify a general, abstract sense of horror”, seems especially problematic, given the numerous amounts of times Munch’s original painting has been reproduced and reinterpreted. As Bryan-Wilson argues: “In the past one hundred years alone, Munch’s image has generated conflicting readings and undergone significant semantic transformations – who knows how it might read thousands of years from now?”
Edvard Munch Coffee Mug.
The mask worn by a serial killer in the movie Scream.
Scream Coffee Mug.
Indeed, Munch’s image has been used on everything from t-shirts and coffee mugs in it’s original form to Hollywood horror movie villains (everyone of my generation’s middle-school first date movie, Scream). This underscores the greater questions revolving around the free-floating state of the contemporary – if discussion is entirely moored in the worlds of contemporary ideas and thought, how will those issues translate in the future? If a vital part of Rikrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (1992) is the physical, emotional, and verbal transaction between the “Creator” and the “Viewer”, does the viewer perceive that piece differently through translation? In many ways Bryan-Wilson is in favor of contemporary art for it’s inclusive approach to the art object (the use of mass-media, etc.), and argues that the sense free-floating within the contemporary art climate could be a source of power. “We admit we cannot know what might happen in the next twelve months, much less the next 10,000 years.” She states. “That not-knowing could be a strength.”
Confusion on The Practice of Everyday Life, Panopticon, and a little bit of Paris Is Burning.
While I don’t want to use an inability to grasp this weeks readings as an excuse or a cop-out, I very much feel like I’m at a bit of a stand still with both the excerpt from Foucault’s Discipline & Punish and Michel De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. While Foucault starts his text off with a fascinating discussion of the ways in which primitive forms of surveillance of plague stricken villages allowed for the spread of the disease to be isolated with a decrease in exposure to the uncontaminated public, his later discussions of forms of discipline left me searching and confused. Similarly, De Certeau’s basic thesis, a counter to Foucault’s vision of a self-censoring society, that “Everyday life invents itself” in ways which undermine the structure of authoritarian government while working within it, feels revolutionary, yet is lost somewhere as De Certeau begins to delve further into his analysis. I am uncertain if this confusion is of my own making, or if the specifics beyond both writers theses are just more complex than I am able to comprehend at the moment… regardless my confusion is still there. None the less, I’m hoping that maybe analyzing the essays will make them make a little more sense to me, so bear with me as I work through them.
Koepelgevangenis Prison, Arnhem, Netherlands.
From his initial discussion regarding plague afflicted communities, Foucault goes on to link the “multiple separations” of power within those quarantined communities and they’re subsequently disciplined society with the ideas behind Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, an imagined style of prison architecture which has been used in many countries today. The Panopticon, a circular building which houses prisoners in a manner that makes interaction between prisoners impossible, houses a cylindrical guard tower at it’s center allowing prisoners to be constantly monitored, and stands as a metaphor to Foucault for the ways in which governmental power is implied without the necessity of direct enforcement. As Foucault states: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” In essence, the prisoners within the Panopticon are “kept in line” not by the use of force by the prison guards, but by they’re awareness of the guard’s constant monitoring. The authoritatively induced self conscious state of the prisoners “automatizes and disindividualizes power.” This can obviously be applied to more situations than the initial discussion of architecture. Foucault goes on to describe the ways in which Bentham’s theoretical prison has infiltrated and influenced larger aspects of the greater society – video surveillance (British CCTV, etc.), the modern military, and our hospital infrastructure being the most referenced examples. It seems as if Foucault is arguing here that we live in a society where the structures of the panopticon have been incorporated into the fabric of our society – that we are aware that we are constantly monitored, and that we live our lives with the constant understanding of this. It seems, to Foucault, that the social understanding of this fact is enough to keep a disciplined society, and that there is no escaping these methods of discipline. This seems accurate, as both the worlds of art and media are constantly discussing the ever slimming distinction between public and private life, wether in the form of a Diller + Scofidio video installation monitoring the banality of daily habits of employees of a transparent Los Angeles office building (see link and video clip below), or the ever evolving dramas of privacy controls on facebook.
Both of these examples, however, could also be used as counter arguments to Foucault’s thesis that this form of social discipline is positive or inescapable, which is the context in which I understand De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. De Certeau’s essay is where I have the most trouble, but his basic argument seems to be that those repressed within a given society often appropriate the sources of they’re oppression to they’re own ends. Therefore, by “poaching” from the sources of one’s oppression, those individuals can invent a life simultaneously outside of the governed confines and within them. Particularly within the era of Facebook, it could be argued that the inhabitants of the office building monitored by Diller + Scofidio would not be censored by the thought of being watched, but could in fact, be concerned that they weren’t being watched by others. If a state of viewing is the norm, and it is desired that images of oneself are distributed either on facebook, on the internet in general and elsewhere, doesn’t the political power of the authoritarian monitoring become somewhat diminished?
A Scene From Paris Is Burning, Post Re-Assesment Surgery.
Another example I used to try and understand De Certeau’s idea of Poaching can be seen in the documentary Paris Is Burning. The documentary, which chronicles a select group of participants in the drag balls taking place in New York around the 1980’s, deals with among other things, the idea of “Realness” - passing as the person one is pretending to be in drag in order blend into the greater culture. While the process of blending is, in some ways, a form of “going back into the closet”, it also allows for a space where one can live as one wants (as a woman, as a wealthy woman, etc.) while “passing” as that person to the naked eye, thereby fitting into societal norms to the untrained onlooker. As stated in the film “If you can pass to the untrained eye – or even the trained eye – and not give away the fact that you’re gay, that’s when it’s realness.” By poaching styles of dress and presentation from the source of they’re oppression (White America, Racism, Reaganomics, Urban Blight, the Educational System, etc.) the participants in the balls find a space where, even momentarily, they become both the image of how they see themselves and the image society is promoting as normal at the same time. To that same effect, drag itself can be seen as functioning in much the same way. If the society at large equates gay men with femininity, the performance of femininity acts as a way of turning that message in on itself – if I’m told I am like a woman, I will act as woman, all the while knowing I am a man. Therefore while the act of drag may reinforce many notions which cause the oppression of gay men, it also becomes a form of satire to those who are in the know.
A title placard from the description of Realness in Paris Is Burning.
From there De Certeau’s essay has me lost. De Certeau begins to discuss the ways in which people function within these types of governing disciplines - through stategies (“proper” means of behavior governed by an institution, yet designed to conceal they’re relationship to that institution) and tactics (temporary practices which allow individuals to re-appropriate “proper” means of behavior for they’re own purposes). Outside of those specifics, I’m still fairly lost on the specifics of the rest of his text. Overall, it seems that De Certeau’s argument is that life is constantly evolving, and while systems of power such as that described by Foucault may exist, they are never inescapable and will always be undermined in various ways.
This weeks readings; excerpts from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Marjorie Perloff’s comparison of Barthes’ writings in Camera Lucida with the work of Christian Boltanski ( What Has Occurred Only Once), Amelia Jones’ discussion of Hippolyte Bayard’s bitter rebuttal of photographic truth at the dawn of photography, and Barthes’ rather confusing and verbose essay The Photographic Message, all centered around the ways in which photographs are perceived, the shaky foundations of photographic truth, and the subject/object relationship. While the first three essays were concise and well stated observations on the necessity of photographs being objects of the past, the ways photographs function in the world and the failure of images to tell a full truth, the final Barthes’ essay found his arguments swallowed up by his dense writing, and I had a hard time fully understanding his arguments in The Photographic Message.
The excerpts from Camera Lucida, however, are a beautiful depiction of Barthes’ quest to understand both how photographs function in the world, also while attempting to find an image of his recently deceased Mother that holds some kernel of the woman he remembered. Barthes begins by pointing out that a photograph can never fully be separated from the objects it depicts. ”A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from it’s referent…” Barthes states, later going to say “A pipe, here, is always and intractably a pipe.” Barthes goes on to point out that the photograph is divided into three participants - the operator - the person behind the camera, the spectator - the viewing public, and the spectrum - the thing photographed. I am particularly interested by the language Barthes’ uses to describes the spectrum “the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call the Spectrum of the the Photograph”. The similarity between the word Spectrum and Specter is completely intentional here - Barthes’ is implying the foreshadowing of death implicit in photography with the use of the word. Adding to his statement, Barthes’ goes on to point out that the word “adds to it that rather terrible thing which is here in every photograph: the return of the dead.” In photographing an object, one is fortifying it’s existence in time, and in doing so, one is giving (in the words of Marjorie Perloff) “testimony that the thing seen has been, that it is thus.”
Barthes’ goes on to discuss his experiences as the subject of a photographer’s lens. ”I possessed only two experiences: that of the observed subject and that of the subject observing…” Barthes goes on to point out that the act of observing an object changes that which is being observed, his primary example being his own posing while being photographed. ”Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” This process of the subject of a portrait adjusting themselves for the lens, however subconscious the act may be, underscores the negation of truth by the camera. Barthes’ did not want a mere picture of him taken, he wanted a good picture, and therefore adjusted himself according to portrait photographs and paintings he had seen before. The photograph, particularly in this instance, can never be of an object in it’s natural state and must always be of an object being photographed. Barthes’ reinforces this sentiment by stating: “In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.”
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Subject-Object Proof No.2 (Christian), 2008. [Screen Capture]
This simultaneous subject/object relationship immediately brought to mind the work of photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya, in particular the 2008 video Subject-Object Proof No.2 (Christian), in which both the photographer and the young man he is photographing are filmed on video as a series of portraits are taken. While both subjects read somewhat photographically, the addition of time that video allows the viewer offers the chance to watch both the subject preparing himself in between photographs and the photographer interacting with him. Over time, both the motions of the photographer and the subject begin to feel as poses - the subject working to make himself attractive for the camera, the photographer working to appear calm, collected, and in control. In Sepuya’s piece both the Operator and it’s referent become constructions - the former playing the role of power, the latter playing submission.
In some ways this can also be related to Barthes’ ideas of Studium and Punctum. While the video as a whole can be seen in relation to Barthes’ concept of studium - the culture of images which inform our reading of photographs, but may not be particularly interesting on they’re own - the photographs Sepuya is taking throughout the video could very well function within Barthes’ idea of Punctum. Punctum, according to Barthes’, is “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” In short, punctum is that unexpected aspect of a given photograph that makes it poignant. What are the images that Sepuya is shooting while filming the video? What about that exact moment made him release the shutter? Or, conversely, why choose the video over the individual images taken throughout it’s filming? In that sense, each flash of the strobes out of view of the camera could be seen as moments of punctum within the greater culture of images - we may not know exactly why those pictures were taken at that moment, as they’re reasons were only apparent to Sepuya at that instant.
Larry Sultan, Dad on Bed, 1985.
This tense relationship within Sepuya’s video (and within Barthe’s text) and also reminded me of Larry Sultan’s brilliant body of work Pictures From Home. The images, in which Sultan depicted his parents as they began to move out of his childhood home and into a retirement village, were re stagings of seemingly poignant occurrences throughout his parent’s lives. While showing his father the images he had taken of him, his father told him that he wasn’t the subject of the photographs. "I remember that picture so distinctly sitting on the bed, shirt and tie dressed up and I looked like a full on lost soul and I look at the picture and I say ‘That’s not me!’"
Larry: “In fact you went even further you said, ‘That’s not me sitting on the bed that’s you sitting on the bed. That’s a self portrait’. And I thought that was right. And you said this too, you said ‘Any time you show that picture you tell people that that’s not me sitting on the bed looking all dressed up and nowhere to go, depressed. That’s you sitting on the bed and I am happy to help you with the project but let’s get things straight here!’”
Christian Boltanski, Untitled from Gymnasium Chases, 1991.
The subject/object relationship, in Marjorie Perloff’s essay, like in Barthes’, is something synonymous with death. Photographs, to both Perloff and Barthes’, are images of that which has only happened once and will never happen again. However, where Barthes discusses the photographs abilitity to bring about a “return of the dead” Perloff’s discussion of the work of Christian Boltanski doesn’t give us that option. Where Barthes is searching for a photograph of his mother that will raise in him the true image of who she once was, Boltanski’s photographs are of completely anonymous subjects - the foreshadowed death in these images is augmented by the fact that the people in these images are people the viewer will never have any personal or historical knowledge of. Where Barthes’ Winter Garden photograph was able to conjure up a very concrete recollection of the generosity of his mother, Boltanski’s enlarged, ghostly bust portraits of students at the Jewish High School in Vienna, originally taken in 1931, are distorted to a point beyond recognizability. It is assumed that these subjects have already died because of cultural information about the holocaust, but regardless of the subjects actual fate, Boltanski’s greater point is that the images he has made are no more of a specific individual than anyone else - the photograph as Boltanski has used it is patently false. As Barthes’ stated in Camera Lucida: “I was struggling among images partially true and therefore totally false.”
This direct reconstituting of death and fact is very reminiscent of Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man. Much of the discussion regarding this image is very similar to the topics ideas I’ve already discussed within the other photographer’s work above, so I won’t go into any depth with this image, but I do think it’s important reiterate Amelia Jones’ final statement regarding Bayard, so I will end on that note. ”As a mask, the white sheen produces Bayard as a sign of death; paradoxically, he stages himself as the subject (author) of the picture as well as the lifeless object of a process already, in 1840, understood to be death dealing.”
More Than This: Walter Benjamin, Frederic Jameson, Jean Baudrillard and Douglas Crimp.
Throughout this weeks readings, I kept returning to the idea of “the thing itself” used by John Szarkowski in the Photographer’s Eye, which we talked about during our first class. While Szarkowski uses the phrase to reiterate the objecthood of the photographs used in his book - as opposed to using the phrase “This is the Eiffel Tower” when discussing a photograph of the Eiffel Tower - it seems particularly important when talking about many of the ideas outlined in all four of these texts. All four texts essentially branch off from Benjamin’s ideas regarding the aura and it’s subsequent removal from the art object with the dawn of mechanical reproduction. While all four authors approach ideas relating to the reproduction and dissemination of images from different time periods and political perspectives, all four texts seemed somehow interwoven and linked to one another in various ways. On the one hand, Benjamin discusses the substitution of a “unique existence” of a work of art with a “plurality of copies” of that piece - therefore implying the deletion of the original. In 1983 Douglas Crimp talks about the ways in which the use of techniques of reproduction within the work of Robert Rauschenberg some thirty years after Benjamin’s essay “threatened the extinction of the traditional production mode” and “questioned all the claims to authenticity” on which art institutions based they’re collections. It is easy to see how both writings are linked to one another - Benjamin making the initial claims that Crimp extrapolates upon roughly fifty years later.
Benjamin’s basic principle essentially states that beginning with the dawn of mechanical reproduction (particularly with photography’s establishment as a powerful tool and medium on it’s own in the early 1900’s) people began to experience art through the dissemination of images. Benjamin further argues that with this newfound reproducability the art object lost it’s mystified aura, which he describes roughly as the physical experience of an object and it’s surroundings which cannot be reproduced. Benjamin’s argument that mechanical reproduction changed the way art functions has had a monumental impact on art today, most obviously in the technique of appropriation, both in the sense that it changed the way we view artistic authorship, and it made it possible to give a work new meaning by taking it out of it’s original context.
Richard Hawkins, Urbis Paganus IV.9.I. (Posterity title), 2009
Richard Hawkin’s collages of greek statues, for example, add a decidedly homoerotic context to greek sculptures that would not be a part of one’s experience viewing the pieces in their original context. More overtly, in Antonioni’s Blow Up, a London photographer believes he’s discovered a murder after enlarging parts of a photograph he took while wandering in a park. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGP7VW_Obds This ability to bring an object out of it’s original context and the implications of that appropriation is dealt with in detail in Douglas Crimp’s Appropriating Appropriation.
What I found particularly interesting within the Crimp essay was the discussion of levels of appropriation within the work of Sherrie Levine and Robert Mapplelthorpe - two photographers whose work, to me, could not seem more disparate.
Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 2, 1981
Levine’s overt appropriation of famous photographs, sculptures and paintings by the simple act of rephotographing an already existing work seems like a polar opposite to Mapplethorpe’s Weston like male nudes taken in his New York studio around the same time period. While Levine’s “undisguised theft” of historically important artworks undermines our ideas about artistic production and creativity, Mapplethorpe’s images seem to do the opposite - reinforcing the unique vision of the photographer, as well as the work he is referencing. As Crimp states in his essay, “Mapplethorpe constructs from his historical sources a synthetic ‘personal’ vision that is yet another creative link in photographic history’s endless chain of possibilities.” While Mapplethorpe elevates the value of authorship within his images, Levine’s decidedly mechanical artistic process directly contradicts that - she is not using the camera to produce beautifully composed and lit images that reference the technique of those before her, she has turned herself, and the artist, into a production line. Where Mapplethorpe provides the viewer with new images that reference work we have already become familiar with, Levine merely shows the viewer the initial reference.
The seeming differences between Mapplethorpe and Levine’s work also underscore both the concepts of Pastiche and the Death of the Subject as outlined by Frederic Jameson in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. Where Levine and Mapplethorpe differ stylistically seem to directly illustrate both respective concepts - Mapplethorpe fitting easily into the ideas associated with Pastiche, Levine the latter. Underlying the concept of Pastiche: “Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satyrical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic.” To put it simply, Pastiche is the mimicry of a given artistic style in order to praise it or reinforce it. Though Mapplethorpe so blatantly appropriates the visual style of Edward Weston’s photographs, he does so not to the detriment of Weston’s work - in fact, while doing so Mapplethorpe reinforces the validity of both his own and Weston’s work. Mapplethorpe’s mimicry of Weston’s work is a work of appreciation and therefore functions stylistically as Pastiche.
On the other hand, Levine’s use of appropriation does the opposite. Levine’s deadpan technique is underscored by what Jameson calls the “Postructuralist position” regarding the “Death of the Subject”. As Jameson explains: “Not only is the bourgeois individual subject a thing of the past, it is also a myth; it never really existed in the first place; there have never been autonomous subjects of that type.” Rather than appropriate the style of another artist to pay homage to them, as Mapplethorpe does, Levine uses photography to flatly highlight that all art has been a string of references to the art before it. In doing so, Levine undermines the singular vision of the artist genius, as well as the “cultural mystification” that comes along with it.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Bob Love, 1979
These two practices, Crimp points out, are more aligned than one would initially think. Where Mapplethorpe reflects upon photographic history to explore new images, Levine reflects upon photographic history to explore our relationship to that history, which includes the techniques of appropriation used by Mapplethorpe. As Crimp states: “In this respect, Levine’s appropriation reflects upon the strategy of appropriation iteslf - the appropriation by Weston of classical sculptural style; the appropriation by Mapplethorpe of Weston’s style; the appropriation by the institutions of high art of both Weston and Mapplethorpe, indeed of photography in general; and finally, photography as a tool of appropriation.” Both Mapplethorpe and Levine are using photography to discuss our relationship to art history, Mapplethorpe through the appropriation of style, Levine through the appropriation of appropriation.
Levine’s direct appropriation of images seems in line with Jean Baudrillard’s ideas of Hyperrealism as stated in “The Hyper-realism of Simulation” - which roughly states that reality is not something we experience in real time, but something we experience through the constant processing of signs of that reality. To Baudrillard, our experience of an object, be it artistic or otherwise, is not shaped by it’s existence in reality, but by our constant investigation and observance of that object. In short, Baudrillard argues that a person or object does not exist in reality without being reproduced and investigated. As Baudrillard states: “The real becomes not only that which can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: the hyperreal.” In trying to understand Baudrillard’s (frankly rather dense) essay, I kept relating the ideas back to Andy Warhol, the experience / creation of celebrity, and the continual push for the “now” within the fashion industry. Within the example of high fashion, the clothes one sees on store shelves are, by necessity and design, never the clothes a designer has just finished designing. By the time clothes have been placed on a stores shelves or are advertised in magazines, the fashion industry is already showing the clothes for that same time the following year on catwalks and in lookbooks. In the world of fashion retail, the things we are currently buying are never the things which are actually in fashion, regardless of the pricetag. In that sense, our consumer desires exist almost exclusively within this state of hyper-realism - the moment an object is available it is already passe; we constantly desire that which is just out of our grasp. Thus Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1999 show in which model Shalom Harlow walked down a runway and posed as two factory production robotic arms literally spray painted the dress she was wearing, all as a crowd of press photographers instantly photographed it’s creation (link below) bears striking resemblance to much of Baudrillard’s essay. As stated, “Unreality no longer resides in the dream or fantasy, or in the beyond, but in the real’s hallucinatory resemblance to itself.” In conflating the means of production and primary means of marketing, McQueen shows how the object produced is immediately endlessly reproduced - it cannot yet be purchased or worn, and that may never have been the designer’s intention, yet it’s endless reproduction through it’s imagery cement it’s status in reality.
This aspect of art taking on the signs of production is also underscored in Baudrillard’s final statement, in which he discusses the ways in which the worlds of art and industry begin to trade in each others’ signifiers. ”Art and industry can thus exchange signs: art, in order to become a reproductive machine (Andy Warhol), without ceasing to be art, since this machine is only a sign, and production, in order to lose all social purpose and thus to verify and exalt itself at last in the hyperbolic and aesthetic signs of prestige that are the great industrial combines, the 400-meter high business blocks and the statistical mysteries of the GNP…” The desire to appropriate the others signifiers would seem to serve opposite needs in both cases - in art to demystify it’s workings thus making itself more available to the greater public, the opposite in terms of industry - mystifying it’s inner workings and giving industry the air of prestige. Where artists like Sherrie Levine take on the air of industry to dissolve the myth of a singular artistic vision, companies like Nike or Alexander McQueen brand themselves with an air of artistic production in order to sell ideas and concepts, not products and messy, clunky objects.