Responding to the archive
I just loved getting involved with old images during Digital Image & Culture. I am not sure I was doing it for the same reasons many other artists seem to – Nicky Bird is mentioned in the course folder and we are told she is concerned with social histories. OCA alumni and my friend John Umney is interrogating memory through family archive. Joachim Schmid is “concerned with the visual ecology’ in a world where we are inundated with new images by the second which according to him leaves us “ignorant but much more confused” (Fontcuberta, 172) He often uses images which have been left out of any archive, found, individuals he may have bought at market, or images discovered in job lots. He adds that the “production of images” should no longer concern us after 100 years of image-making, but rather the way they are used.
For DIAC A4/5 I used mainly moving images from a website called Archive.org – and see this as a response to the archive too. The internet is one giant archive – modern technology is based on archiving. Vast databases sit behind our screens and on the cloud, in huge computers which support the web, facilitating modernity. Archiving is a fundamentally human activity which supports civilisation and everything that stems from that practice. It becomes more and more adept, widespread and controlling as humanity develops. When I respond to the archive I am trying to figure out how meaning enters our language, and how power equates to the signified. Bringing that down to the most simple terms – why is it my words carry so little weight but a lying lunatic or a mega-company wield so much power? Why is the language we use so unstable right now?
Responding to the archive nearly always comes across as conceptual and I will address this under the relevant heading at the bottom of the page.
I gave a (slightly too grown-up – it was OK they loved it and made great pictures) workshop to some eleven-year-olds recently about the practice of re-using images. As I told them, the artists we looked at and the ones mentioned above are all doing something similar even if they individually state they are focused on a variety of different issues. Each of them is disrupting the usual value system. We live in a world where the production of stuff must continue. In order to sustain the economic system which upholds our world, things must be made and value must be apportioned where the advertisers dictate. When an artist rifles through a market or discovered an old archive in the attic or found an image on the street and turned it into ‘art’, they are saying no to the dominant system which insists the value of something emerges out of symbols it has established and owns – in Flusser’s terms – handed down from the all-governing apparatus, the capitalist system.
As I said in my blog about the workshop for eleven-year-olds, I enjoy sharing my developing knowledge with others regardless of their age as it helps me to consolidate my own learning and make connections. One of the things I talked about with the children was waste products and how we as a society view ‘waste’; not only commercial production waste but our own. Mention of ‘poo’ and ‘pee’ got them laughing and perhaps this is why they enjoyed it – but it is a serious point. Duchamp’s use of the porcelain urinal is not a random object. It is a powerful signifier that represents a new world, one where factories are available to mass-produce porcelain products which we humans will use to collect and manage (and sometimes store) the increased levels of waste products we produce*; increased as mass-production, along with other related factors such as a stable climate (now no more), and which enabled and exponentially increased population. Hence more human waste. What to do with it all? And with all our after-effects – pollution? There is an ongoing feedback loop between production, waste, and population growth which exists within a system that is related to a range of other greater and less dominant systems. I am not sure I would have seen this looping quite so patently had I not done the workshop. And so, I am grateful to the eleven-year-olds for indulging me. (I have had several very positive comments from teachers, parents, and children so despite the fact the work I shared may have been a little too sophisticated for such young children they loved it anyway.) And so, artists who disrupt our value system – and highlight their own individual concerns along the way – are helping us to challenge the advertisers, or those managing the apparatus. They are the experimental photographers Flusser tells us we need. (2000)
I really like the passage in the course folder about John Tagg included in CS1. The course author writes, “The other narrative Tagg refers to are exemplified by ‘feminist’ and ‘socialist’ histories of photography, which he sees as equally problematic insofar they continue to overlook various institutions and social contexts in which photographs are made.” (Alexander, 2013, p18) Critical thinkers, artists or scientists from a range of disciplines need to adopt a systemic view. It will become more and more important. We cannot continue to look at anything in isolation because the causes and effects we all live with are inter-related. It seems like this fact is one of the most pressing messages to get across because bizarrely there are still far too many people in charge (teachers, politicians, business people) who haven’t caught up. Working with old images, investigating archival material, is perhaps one way of making this point – regardless of what the ‘issue’ at the forefront of any work might seem to be.
Changing the way we perceive is happening regardless, and this is examined in various books about systems theory. However, the following passage from an article on systems and changed perceptions is useful; “Einstein’s widely quoted advice that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” seems more appropriate than ever. We are dealing with the complexity of a profound societal change and the transition towards diverse regenerative cultures as manifestations of not only a different way of being in the world, but also a different way of seeing the world.” (Wahl, 2017)
Finally, on another note, as I was playing with old images in photoshop during DI&C, it amused me to revisit comments I’d made during UVC about tampering with older artworks. I felt it was ‘extreme arrogance’ for Clement Greenberg to have tampered with his late friend’s art. “However, a quick Google search on Greenberg reveals that he worked with several artists, two of whose work, after their deaths, he changed and adjusted, altering lines and even removing paint from sculptor David Smith’s work claiming that he was not an important colourist, so it didn’t matter.” Looking back, it seems the reasoning is arrogant but the act might be more complex. Context is everything though and nowadays I suspect I’d look to this more closely before condemning him. Anyway, I have tampered with and adjusted plenty of old images – and often wonder if this is more palatable since the images are anonymous. What would happen if I did the same with a Berenice Abbot print I own? Is it less or more acceptable if I scan the image and don’t ‘damage’ the print? Does the gesture carry less weight if I scan it even though I am playing with scans (being one of several ‘after photography’ tools)?
I feel like this is the least accessible genre for me. It requires ample time and space (which is often accompanied with some form of private income) for a photographer to devote to wandering around observing the way our landscape is shaped in the way the original fläneurs will have done. (Do people, in fact, refer to this sort of work as urban landscape photography.) And my time is not my own. It’s hard enough fitting my photography in unless as it is and I know that the idea of the fläneur has attracted some feminist criticism. So, I do feel a sense of ambivalence about it really, given the original intention may have been a reaction against capitalism. I wrote about it during UVC and had quite a good conversation with other students too here.
I have also been really quite taken with the Situationists ideology, along with Guy Debord’s written work, and have referenced them constantly throughout the course. But here again, I must admit, while I don’t agree, I do have a smattering of sympathy for Scroton’s defensive reaction towards the ‘middle-class anarchists’ he thinks saw in the Paris ’68 riots. The people at the very bottom, the most down-trodden, (perhaps not in France but in England it does feel this way) those who struggle the most to stay alive in the world have no time for such outbursts. Simply being is too exhausting. Too challenging. There may be little or no time or energy for protests of any description be it via photography, thinking about using less plastic, worrying about middle-class mores in relation to child-rearing or anything else other than surviving and keeping one’s kids alive. Of course, many would argue that this is intentional on behalf of those in power, and all the more reason to find ways to fight it. Even so, wandering about the planet taking lovely photographs all the while claiming you’re querying capitalism’s horror can seem like quite an extraordinary privileged lack of awareness, as fellow photographer John Umney commented; “Interesting: You touched an many themes why I don’t care for the concept of Flaneurism. It was, and perhaps still is, a bourgeois pursuit – who else had the time or capacity for ambling? Certainly not the great unwashed who were busy being busy earning a crust – see later ideas from Benjamin.. And echoed again when you talk about not having access to education AND not being male. Women simply didn’t idly amble in the 19th century, and today psychogeographers are, in the vast majority, loaded with testosterone – absenting oestrogen from the discourse… I could go on…” (2016)
I’d say the street photography I used to do a lot of (despite the limits – having my phone camera certainly helped) sometimes fits in with this genre. Here’s one I took recently on my phone which I imagine fits the genre in some ways. I have stopped doing this type of photography for so many reasons, but perhaps I just ran out of energy as I focused on making other sorts of work
Given the UVC blog and the student comments below, I will move on now to conceptualism which I have combined with genre-hopping because for me conceptualism takes on many forms.
Conceptual photography and Genre Hopping
Although my work has been very much rooted in personal journeys and at times in fictional autobiography, it is also more and more, flirting with conceptualism. It’s true, the term is nebulous and means different things to people. For some, it’s simply about black and white documentary images of 70s performance art and that’s it. But in my mind, all photography should be conceptual, which is echoed in the folder. However, I don’t really see the necessity for the slight dig in the course folder, “that needn’t mean there’s no room for aesthetics.” (If one was going to say that, why not in the psychogeography section where so much photography is quite dry indeed and has specific (as John said testosterone-laden) narrow appeal?) If the black and white photography from the 70s shadow still has any value, then it might be because conceptual art has had such a profound impact across disciplines since, including photography. Art which is embedded first and foremost in ideas, and where then the medium is almost secondary to that, is everywhere. As the Conceptual Art in Britain (1964-79) exhibition book introduction tells us, it “changed the priorities of art”… “these moves took place within a wider landscape of art”. (2016) Idea art which queries our humanity, culture and institutions are more necessary for our society nowadays than painted religious scenes for instance. I wrote in the CS section, “.. like the evolving nature of gods and God as civilisation develops, what we need from art changes too. And conceptualism rather than dogmatic religious iconography is clearly more relevant today as the nature of reality is unpicked and newly understood.” (2019)
I’m not sure what the first Source video tells us, other than it might be a terrible faux-pax to describe one’s photography as conceptual. However, I would imagine the term tells people something about that sort of work they can expect. I also think that photography students who venture away from pure photography (like myself and others) are exploring other avenues of ‘art’ that are less defined, and in which ideas are often the initial medium – if not the form. That’s not to say the photography purists don’t have ideas too.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I am not entirely comfortable relying on narratives which don’t belong to me for work. It feels a little like I would be commodifying other people’s issues and when it is my own children’s issues, in particular, that feels really wrong, although I do admit to skirting the boundaries of my moral compass.
During DI&C A4/5 I identified the word ‘deviance’. I did not consciously choose the word but came upon it as I delved further into a hotchpotch of ideas and sketches I was making. I eventually connected the word to one of my children who has always been slightly left of field and is currently causing me a good deal of worry. (Along with others in my life, perhaps including me.) There is a multitude of possible reasons for this and some of them might be neurological while others, the result of experiences he’s gone through. One way of coming to terms with this would be to make a documentary piece about him or my reaction to some of his unfolding behaviour. But that feels so completely out of order. I do not like the way reality TV and then social media have encouraged us to reveal every last detail about ourselves to strangers. Awful cheap TV which preys on troubled children’s’ behaviour and struggling families (often produced by Oxbridge educated television makers) for the nation to watch and judge have caused untold harm to individuals.
Sylvère Lotringer discusses this ‘overexposure’ and links it to a perversity in our culture which he also connects with capitalism. I tend to agree. An argument against my stance might be that it would be useful for other parents to hear about my struggles with my son. But I sense this is an excuse for social prurience which has been normalised in society. People ‘get off’ on others’ difficulties as it removes them from their own.
However, as someone who creates to make sense of the world, I still want to explore. Making work for which the term conceptual might make sense helps me to overcome the dilemma. It also stops the work from being overly inward-looking and self-referential. In other words, it has the potential to be more universal – as the work I made operated on several levels as it looked at growth, transformation, and language including structuralism. A risk of working this way is that it might hide the ‘me’ that is interesting in any project (as the truthful ‘me’ of anyone is always valuable and worth sharing – I use the word truthful with trepidation. It has such connotations in post-modern art circles and completely different to those in acting parlance.)
Finally, projects which respond to the archive (any archive) often ‘look’ conceptual and I note that John Stezaker is listed as a reference on the Source page we are instructed to view. David Bate and Mark Powell seem like purist photographers. Gossip tells me that Bate does not encourage anything outside the frame in final shows at Westminster. Even so, their practice seems highly conceptual to me. The ideas driving them are very definite. They’re not simply making pretty pictures. However, if I were to describe Polly Borland, who is certainly a photographer as conceptual, I imagine people would take on board that the work might include more than ‘straight’ photographs and perhaps be a bit ‘weird’. Cindy Sherman is certainly a conceptual artist but she is also a performer who uses photography as her medium. Joan Jonas is a conceptual performance artist who uses a range of mediums in her practice including still photography and moving image but much, much more besides. Interestingly she came from a sculpting background and enjoyed performance which she needed to record and document. She is far removed from the purist photographers who can come across as quite po-faced about anything outside their own medium. As someone who was once an actor, I am not sure where I am situated just now and have used this course to experiment widely (and perhaps wildly). When I consider what might come after this course, I am not only thinking about photography MAs but others too more along the line of Creative Arts.
Fontcurberta, J. 2014 Pandora’s Camera, Photogr@phy After Photography, Mack
Flusser, V. (2000) Towards a Philosophy of Photography Trans. Mathews A. (Kindle Edition) London: Reacktion Books
Tate, 2016. Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-79, London, Tate
Holmberg, A, 1996 Directors in Perspective, The Theatre of Robert Wilson, Cambridge Press, Cambridge.