Clare Strand

The Discrete Channel with Noise

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

Made of Porcelain Enamel on Steel, with a mechanical precision that belies their hand-painted fabrication, László Moholy-Nagy’s EM1, EM2, and EM3 (1923), often known as the Telephone Pictures, prophesied the role that new materials and new technologies would play in artmaking in the future. Created by calling a fabricator, giving instructions over the phone, with a grid and commonly defined reference materials, including colour charts, the work foretold a host of artistic strategies, including the delegation of work to other agents as well as the notion of the artwork as an ‘instruction’ or ‘piece of information’. Distant was the human hand, eliminated in the service of new technologies, though the marks of experimentation were nonetheless vivid, the work appearing strikingly industrial in comparison with the artist’s, and peers, other production of the time. Moholy-Nagy, who produced the Telephone Pictures a year after completing his equally significant essay Production-Reproduction, sought to use technology as a means to challenge what the artist described in his writing as a fundamentally ‘reproductive’ tendency within the art of the time: the production of formally and intellectually generic methods that reproduced the ways of seeing of the present and past. Moholy-Nagy was not critical of the artwork’s capacity to be made multiple, in fact celebrating technology and reproducibility; he was critical of art which reproduced conventions, a production he likened to little more than uncritical virtuosity.

Technology would unlock new methods of artmaking and new ways of seeing, Moholy-Nagy surmised. The significance of his images and writings are not lost, certainly not in artists’ use of the technological, but the calls that he made – to experiment with photography and to understand the technology that we use – certainly seems to have been rarely heeded. Clare Strand’s The Discrete Channel with Noise (2018), shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020, is a work which picks up systems and technologies of communication in order to treat them not as unspoken facts but as material. Beginning with the propositions of Claude Shannon’s Information Theory, it puts to the test the logics of systematised communication, through the photographic image, as it has moved from immanent image to complex object. Strand’s title is borrowed from the second section of Shannon’s groundbreaking 1948 essay A Mathematical Theory of Communication, republished as a book in collaboration with Warren Weaver the following year. Strand’s project – to remake a series of black and white photographs remotely, by painting from a series of instructions arrived at from a gridded original image, communicated to her across the English Channel whilst on a residency in Paris, shifts and reconfigures Moholy-Nagy’s propositions in important ways, addressing the ramifications of what he foresaw and Shannon made manifest. Strand’s strategies, as a result, play with and amend our relationships to technology, drawing comment on the information society and its digital swarms.

A 2010 work by Clare Strand, entitled The Seven Basic Propositions, pits seven 1950s Kodak slogans against the Google Image Search engine. For each claim made for photography by Kodak – to ‘authenticate’, ‘detail’, be ‘inexpensive’, be ‘colorful’ [sic], to ‘last’, to be ‘fast’, and to be ‘so expressive’ – Google throws back generic image after generic image. What is remarkable is not that the familiar search engine provides its own index or archive – or that it has a quantity-biased window onto the world that comes into stark relief when asked to perform semantic or qualitative tasks. It is that the images it supplies are so generic, so dominated by the banal, that claims to the romance or significance of technology come crashing down. Here Strand overtly ties together the question of production with that of distribution. The first of Strand’s works to overtly tackle forms of image circulation, The Seven Basic Propositions has led to an array of diverse works, which all speak about what is and is not made visible: Strand’s The Happenstance Generator (2015), Research in Motion (2014), Men Only Tower (2017), and Ragpicker’s Tower (2012), and her installation All That Hoopla (2016), all speak to how circulation happens, structures and limits.

The Discrete Channel with Noise begins with a circulating image. A small archive of 36 photographs collected by the artist – and coincidentally used in another work, The Entropy Pendulum and OutPut (2015) – formed the basis from which Strand’s husband selected 10 images which make up the final series. Across a number of Skype calls, between the artist’s home in Brighton and her temporary studio in Paris, each original photograph, cast into 2928 individual squares over a 48×61 grid, was communicated verbally using an agreed greyscale number code, with the artist painting each square onto large sheets of paper to recreate the images. Inverting Moholy-Nagy’s process, Strand is not the transmitter but the receiver; a receiver of chance and happenstance, she embraces and absorbs the accidental. Here, in what is in effect a human machine, Strand cedes control of selection – to test his method, Shannon identified that any ‘actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages’ so that the engineer must devise a system encompassing all possible messages – Strand works only with the information provided to her, which she must receive and transcode. In a playful take on the rise of video calling, the image is withheld, and described only across the call. What results are images that are recognisably photographic, lossy to our eyes, and bearing witness to moments of error or noise.

Across the series, we can recognise portraits and details, though the images – the precision and accuracy that we have come to expect – remains elusive. Our attention shifts repeatedly from pictorial subject to process and object. In a contrast to Moholy-Nagy’s Telephone Pictures, Strand’s hand is readily apparent on the surface of each painted image. Each square is painted, but brush marks and overlaps pepper the surface of the picture. In her first exhibition of The Discrete Channel with Noise, at Centre Photographique d’Ile-de-France in Paris in 2018, Strand displayed, on a wall opposing the resulting Algorithmic Paintings, all aspects of the work’s process, including the original images and tubs containing 10 tones of paint in greyscale, as well as brushes to further emphasise the handmade construction of the project. On the first wall of the exhibition, Shannon’s diagram of ‘a general communication system’ is reproduced. From ‘Information Source’ to ‘Transmitter’, the diagram moves towards the ‘Receiver’ and its ‘Destination’. In its centre is a ‘Noise Source’. If Strand’s images show us the photograph compressed into its smallest parts, shaped into units, pieced together in correct and incorrect orders, the noise is unquestionably human. Hers is a deliberately manual adoption of Shannon’s method, stripped back to its basic principles. With the originary images, here each captioned as an Information Source, exhibited opposite to the resulting Algorithmic Painting – we are pointedly placed in the centre, a human in the machine. We do the work of recognising the image, and see its transmission, including its errors. Perhaps we can identify ourselves in fact as the central square in Shannon’s diagram, as the ‘Noise Source’. Are we reliable narrators, reflecting upon what we broadcast, and verifying the information we transmit? We might reflect on communication not as mechanical. A key concern of Strand’s is the culture of misdirection, snooping, and miscommunication that our contemporary technologies enable. From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the ongoing and overt misinformation spread by Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, we are willing operators in a system that we know is distorting our messages, one that has also rendered us uncritical receivers at the very same time. Indeed, if the critique of the photograph’s claim to truth has led to transformations in how we conceive of the image, Strand’s project shows this to be vital also in not just the image or the text, but in the form, or channel, that we privilege. As John Roberts has pointed out in his study on photography in the present, Photography and Its Violations (2014), the human qualification that all forms of speech require in testimony, the embodying call ‘believe me’, should be applied to the photograph and to its delivery. We must return it to the object of a human producer, and show a willingness to put ourselves forward and become part of the image and its claims. We must not only show ourselves, we must find alternate systems for verification as recipients. If recent elections have told us anything, it is in the incredible influence that a partisan media can possess. The forms of broadcasting and transmission are not non-human. We are the human agents of these technological forms: we are its transmitters, noise sources, and receivers. We have the capacity to determine how information travels, and to whom it travels.

The Discrete Channel with Noise is on display as part of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London from 21 February 2020, with the winner announced on 14 May 2020.

Images courtesy the artist. © Clare Strand

Installation images from Photographique d’Ile-de-France courtesy the artist and Centre Pompidou© Aurélien Mole

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and Course Director of Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. He writes regularly for Artforum, Art Monthly and Elephant. In 2011 he curated the exhibition Anti-Photography at Focal Point Gallery, in 2014 John Hilliard: Not Black and White, at Richard Saltoun Gallery, London, and in 2019 Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions.


1-Schematic diagram of a general communication system from A Mathematical Theory of Communication by Shannon and Weaver, published by Bell Systems (1949)

2-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Algorithmic Painting; Destination #3-8 

3-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Algorithmic Painting; Destination #4-10 + The Discrete Channel with Noise: Information Source #4-10

4-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Algorithmic Painting; Destination #7

5-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Algorithmic Painting; Destination #4

6-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Paint Brushes and Paint Pots

7-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Paint Pots 1-10

8-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Paint Pots (Detail) 

9-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Paint Brushes (Detail) 

10-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Paint Brushes (Detail) 

11-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Information Source #4-10

12-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Information Source #6

13-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Information Source #3

14-Clare Strand, The Discrete Channel with Noise: Information Source #7

Liz Orton

Every Body Is An Archive

Book review by Diane Smyth

When Liz Orton’s daughter was 13 months old, she had to have a nuclear imaging scan at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital. Though it’s a hospital famous for its work with children, and though Orton was assured that the scan would be non-invasive, the procedure turned out to be traumatic. Injected with a dye, her daughter had to be kept motionless for about 20 minutes, something very difficult for most wriggly toddlers to achieve. So she was strapped to the bed with Velcro restraints and immobilised with sandbags, which felt, says Orton, anything but non-invasive.

The experience got her thinking about medical imaging and the ‘medical gaze’, setting her off on a very long path which has now culminated in a book, Every Body Is An Archive, designed by Valentina Abenavoli of AKINA. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, Orton realised the project from 2014-19, working with the medical imaging team at University College London Hospital, sitting in as scans were taken of patients, teaching herself to use medical imaging software, doing collaborative re-enactments with individuals who’d had scans, and plundering the photographs in the Clark’s Positioning in Radiography manual (1939). Every Body Is An Archive includes essays by John Hipwell, computational medical imaging scientist; Professor Steve Halligan, radiologist at UCL Hospital and Head of the Centre for Medical Imaging at UCL; plus Dr Henrietta Simson, artist and fine art lecturer, and throughout, Orton aims to do something deceptively simple – to unpick the medical gaze.

As a term first proposed by Michel Foucault in his 1963 book The Birth of the Clinic, it refers to the dehumanising medical separation of the patient’s body from his or her person or identity. At the hands of the medical profession, so the argument goes, we’re supposed to abandon our cultural, sexual, or personal understanding of our bodies and think of them as medical objects; if we’re the only naked ones in the room, this isn’t supposed to feel strange, and if we’re touched in intimate places, we’re supposed to take it on the chin. “Paradoxically, in relation to that which he is suffering from, the patient is only an external fact; the medical reading must take him into account only to place him in parentheses. Of course, the doctor must know ‘the internal structure of our bodies’; but only in order to subtract it, and to free to the doctor’s gaze ‘the nature and combination of symptoms, crises, and other circumstances that accompany diseases’,” writes Foucault. Later he adds: “If one wishes to know the illness from which he is suffering, one must subtract the individual, with his particular qualities”. But as Orton points out, we don’t have different cultural, personal or medical bodies, we have just one, so in real life, this separation isn’t easy to achieve. Orton’s book is a deliberate refusal to try.

The images she uses from Clark’s Positioning in Radiography are meant to be diagrams, for example, helping professionals achieve the best results in their X-rays; Orton strips them of their context to show how surreal, kinky, and even fashionable they also are. Legs are placed akimbo, faces crudely bisected by lines in ways that cut across social norms for (female) bodies and the ways they’re represented; elsewhere computer-generated images create weirdly inhuman depictions of the human body. The re-enactments she staged, meanwhile, reinterpret the sometimes disempowering experience of being scanned to give back a sense of autonomy and control, to show scenes that look loving, threatening and even funny.

Orton’s book is also peppered with short phrases from those who have undergone scans, as they try to describe the images that have been taken of their insides. Patients often don’t get to see these images, Orton points out, and if they do, they usually lack the skills or the vocabulary to interpret them in conventional, medical terms. She lets them give it a go, and their homespun attempts are also surreal and witty, and heavily reliant on metaphor. “when you are poaching an egg, and the egg is a bit old, and all the white goes into the water”, reads one; “a ghost waiting for an embrace”, reads another.

For Orton, it’s the fact that these interior shots are just that, interior, that’s so compelling – taken without physically puncturing the body but invading it all the same. It’s an approach that she deliberately eschewed, teaching herself to use radiological software but using it to build pictures of the outsides of bodies rather than breaching their boundaries. As such many of the resulting images are clustered together onto black pages in the book, where they’re printed with silver ink like X-rays. They look descriptive but also eerily strange, artefacts and interferences giving a distinctly digital effect.

And that’s of interest too since, as Orton points out, the medical body is now on the threshold of change, as computer sciences become more integral to healthcare. Medical images, for some time captured by computers, are increasingly interpreted by computers too – and unlike older forms of diagnosis, in which a doctor might talk with a patient about their symptoms and also their life, the patient need not even be present. Furthermore the image data sets are valuable too, both helping to train up the interpretative software but also as a resource in their own right, one that is governed by strict rules around privacy and ethics but, even so, one prominent radiologist has spoken in terms of a ‘gold rush’. In the era of Big Data, it’s worth considering what that data might reveal in conjunction with other information sets, and also about who owns them – medical imaging is a force for good, but considered as a means of surveillance, it’s at least got the potential for something less benign.

“Computer software and hardware systems operating across different sectors, through common platforms and constantly expanding networks, allow for an unprecedented integration of interests and systems in medicine,” Orton has written on her Digital Insides website. “The body is becoming part of this new informational economy, facilitated through new forms of biomedical management. It is being propelled into the fields of medical image computing, post-image processing, computer aided diagnosis, automated analysis, image-guided surgery/treatment, machine and deep learning, and image mining. The image is potential: in a computerised system, it is becoming generative in new ways, both as product and process.”

Or, as Professor Steve Halligan puts it in his accompanying essay to the book: “Ultimately, [the] work shows us what we have often forgotten due to pressure of work and what is obscured: that there is first and foremost a human being behind the image, and secondly that the experience of imaging often makes patients feel highly vulnerable.”

All images courtesy the artist. © Liz Orton

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who works with publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, the British Journal of Photography, Foam, and others. Prior to going freelance she wrote and edited for the British Journal of Photography for more than 15 years, and she has also curated exhibitions for The Photographers’ Gallery, Lianzhou Foto Festival and the Flash Forward Festival.

Kalen Na’il Roach

My Dad Without Everybody Else

Essay by Taous R. Dahmani

Looking at Kalen Na’il Roach’s images is an engaging and intriguing experience. At first, they appear like humble bits and pieces of photography, mundane family photographs displaying the proudest moments in life: sport and school achievements, games with friends and family gatherings. Beyond these initial thoughts, their materiality and complex texture indicate wilful acts of vandalism; conscious scrapes and iterative scratches, scribbles in a diary. Jacqueline Woodson’s 1995 publication Autobiography of a Family Photo (and its nifty title) then comes to mind and seems to perfectly condense Na’il Roach’s endeavour. Born in 1992 in Washington, DC, in a split up family, a partial only child” as he phrases it, Kalen Na’il Roach started using family archival imagery — found in the bag of the Polaroid 600 SE his dad gave him — for his series This Is and This Isn’t My Family. He eventually continued to gather photographs from different family members that then became his source material.

Ineluctably, Kalen Na’il Roach’s work falls within a long legacy of conceptualising how we should think about the relationship between family and photography in African American communities as embodied by the writings of Tina M. Campt or Christina Sharpe. Within this context, photography then becomes central, as stated by Gloria Jean Watkins — better known by her pen name bell hooks — in her essay In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life: “Cameras gave to black folks, irrespective of class, a means by which we could participate fully in the production of images.” In the same text, the author used a photograph of her father, Veodis Watkins, to initiate an in-depth investigation of the links between family photography and its place within African American culture. She described the unique bond to an image of a father that she only half-recognised; the attachment to certain photographs according to one’s place in the family and the mixed feelings these pictorial genealogies can generate beyond the moments pictured. In turn, Kalen Na’il Roach uses his family’s photographic archives as a way of telling his family’s story from his own vantage point, going as far as inserting himself in the narration through appropriation and alteration. Photographs then become tangible bases for the creation of personal histories, and Na’il Roach admits to his critical intervention as “acts of protection, adornment, desecration, correction, concealment, exposition, and so on.”

While many photographers have been involved in projects related to genealogy and filiation — one could think of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Notion of Family, to name but one — I would like to argue that we are now witnessing in current, family related, photographic practices a haptic turn”, that is the physical transformation inflicted on family photographs, leaving the rough and beautiful modifications, to be seen by all. Therefore, it is the adoption and amendment of photographs of family members which particularly interests me in this essay. How, from a few images found in boxes, in dusty albums or on the walls of grandparents, artists and photographers decide to tell their story. The development of a DIY aesthetic, a cut and mix materiality, the alteration of the photographic surface — like an updated resurgence of 19th century Pictorialism — creates a very intimate and direct relationship, firstly between the family archive and the author, then between the final crafted photograph and the spectator. The manipulation of the image strengthens the awareness of touch, a sense of confidentiality and intimacy, multiplying its haptic specificity. I am, for example thinking, of Lebohang Kganye’s 2016 Reconstruction of a Family, Priya Kambli’s series started in 2015 and ongoing project Mami (Uncle’s Wife) and Karl Ohiri’s 2013 How to Mend A Broken Heart. In his series, My Dad Without Everybody Else Kalen Na’il Roach draws, scratches, drip paints, blackens, smudges photographs of his father as a child, a boy and a young man. By doing this Na’il Roach covers up backgrounds and other individuals depicted, highlighting a dedication to the photographic representation of his father. My Dad Without Everybody Else was born out of a process of reconciliation between a loving father, who inspired his son even if away from the household and generated by the messy phenomenon of getting to know a parent as an individual. As Na’il Roach’s father passed away in 2017, the meaning of the series inevitably got changed and seem now to also address grief. Kalen Na’il Roach’s haptic practice resonates as a personal ‘‘contact zone’’ to quote Mary Louise Pratt, an encounter between a charismatic father and a son in need of appreciation. Therefore Kalen Na’il Roach’s work turns into an exercise of power over family histories. Na’il Roach’s appropriation of these ‘‘home made photographs’’, as Richard Chalfen outs it, makes them become objects of self-study or even therapy.

Na’il Roach grew up in an artistic family, his mother’s father was a painter and his father a creative wage earner who used photography to earn an honest penny, and it seems that these resourceful and imaginative role models somehow enabled Na’il Roach to subvert assumed norms. My Dad Without Everybody Else is a poetic dialogue that goes against hegemonic understanding of fatherhood and masculinity. In her 2003 book We Real Cool, Black Men & Masculinity, bell hooks wrote: “Like all men, black men in patriarchal culture have not been raised to be intimate.” Kalen Na’il Roach countered such assumptions as he displayed wounds, pains and fears in order to create a body of work embedded in an alternative perspective and a deconstructed monolithic masculinity.

Beyond such considerations, My Dad Without Everybody Else encloses multiple layers of hidden context that so-called “happy images” such as family photographs don’t care to narrate. Concealed within family stories, dramas are often looked at unknowingly by the spectator.  Twice in the series, Na’il Roach uses the same photograph of his father, as a young teenager, playing basketball and going for a layup. Over and over again team-mates are obliterated, their identity hidden. For an outsider to the family, joy and carelessness emanate from the photograph, for an insider, Lorton Prison in Virginia and its basketball court on family day can be identified. The only one of the brothers not to go to prison, this photograph simultaneously becomes highly painful and highly political. Such a tale unlocks other layers of understanding. Indeed, according to the Sentencing Project, today, people of colour make up 37% of the U.S population but 67% of the prison population. If political bias does not seem to be at the heart of Na’il Roach’s work, it undeniably hovers over some of his images. Born in the early 1960s, Na’il Roach’s father grew up in the 1970s and 1980s at a time when some men fought against stigma and racism by paying particular attention to their looks. Decades later, his apparel and by extension Na’il Roach’s project emphasise the complexity of North American society: one the one hand embodying the American Dream through wearing sport jerseys and baseball glove while on the other embodying the codes of Black Dandyism via a white fur coat and a dapper, striped suit.

Images courtesy the artist. © Kalen Na’il Roach

My Dad Without Everybody Else will be on display in the exhibition Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at Barbican Art Gallery from 20 February 2020 – 17 May 2020. The exhibition will then tour to Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles from 29 June – 20 September 2020 and Gropius-Bau, Berlin from 16 October 2020 until 10 January 2021. Prestel publish Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, edited by Alona Pardo, to accompany the exhibition.

Taous R. Dahmani
 is a photography historian, working between Paris and London. She is a PhD fellow at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University Paris, where she teaches 20th century photography history. In 2019-20, Taous will be a researcher attached to the Maison Française in Oxford. Her thesis project is built around the representation of struggles and the struggle for representation. Her writings and her talks always tackle politics and its relations to the photographic medium.

Michael Ashkin

Were it not for

Book review by Eugénie Shinkle

In the desert, the traces of human presence are visible on the ground for a long time. Alongside the remains of earlier inhabitants are other, more recent legacies –– accidental landscapes of exhausted ground, tracked and paved over, sown with garbage, shattered and heaped up. Created by obscure acts of violence, places such as these seem to exist below the horizon of sense, their dialect both familiar and unreadable.

Between 2014 and 2017, Michael Ashkin made a series of visits to the American West, covering a vast circle with the Mojave Desert at its centre – Phoenix, Las Vegas, Lake Mead, Death Valley, the Imperial Valley, Lake Havasu, the Salton Sea, Palm Springs, Edwards Air Force Base, California City, the San Diego suburbs, and the US/Mexico border near Calexico. These are the scaled-up, hubristic landscapes of manifest destiny, built on the back of monumental successes and equally epic failures, potent embodiments of the sense of possibility that defines what it means to be American. But Ashkin saw these places differently, as anxious expressions of a society in which “violence is regularly enacted in the most mundane moments and places according to rules and intersections of forces that are not always apparent”.

Were it not for published by FW: Books is a dark book. It documents shallow histories, disposable geologies of plastic and cardboard and used-up commodities. It is an elegy for a landscape shaped by cumulative minor desecrations, inevitable outcomes of the violence that inheres in casual acts of consumption: “how we decide to use and value objects, how we exploit them, own, possess and dispense with them, how we tell their history, interact with them unthinkingly and often quite cheerfully, and how we ultimately describe them and think about them within the limits of our language.” For Ashkin, these anonymous spaces, and the debris that is spread over them, are the nuclei around which the existential dread of a nation is crystallised.

Ashkin’s photographs are neither easy nor beautiful. Displayed in a roughly chronological order, they consist mostly of exterior shots of unnamed places: vacant lots, empty ground, roadsides. Their form and subject matter are repetitive: rubbled foregrounds, fences and barriers, blank walls, dumped trash, blocked horizons, the characterless oblongs of low-rise architecture. Occasionally, we glimpse an empty office set behind dusty plate glass; they have the air of places where some kind of force is administered. Sometimes, between one frame and the next, the camera shifts slightly, moving in closer, revealing things that were obscured by other things, but providing no new information. The unease in Ashkin’s pictures has a blunt, simmering quality that courses slowly through the body like an infection.

It would be tempting to describe Ashkin’s photographs as landscapes if everything about them didn’t resist this definition. They are neither natural nor scenic; they contain neither a hint of promise nor a shred of redemption. What’s most remarkable about these images is their almost total vacuity: overfilled with visual information but somehow devoid of content. Ashkin shoots in landscape format but crops his images to portrait – itself a kind of violence, a repeated violation of the order of landscape and the perspectival logic of the photographic frame. Every picture is haunted by this missing information – ghosts of what the camera saw, the phantom limbs of rational space.

Running through the images are 680 lines of anaphoric verse. Some are stacked up in thick columns, others are randomly assigned as captions to individual images, a few sit alone on otherwise blank pages. Writing in the dark, during periods of insomnia, Ashkin composed the text in the lightless middle ground between wakefulness and sleep – a liminal space echoed in the text itself: “I imagined what could exist between the writing subject and what lay beyond the distant mountains.” Composed some years before the photographs were taken, the text has no direct relationship to them. Its logic is not that of the caption; instead, it follows the prosodic order of the incantation or psalm. It runs through the work like the drone of an invisible machine, measured and deeply evocative, a slow-flowing index of pasts and presents, events and states of being, familiar images and strange mutations. We like to imagine language as a scaffold for the image; a way of creating meaning when the photograph gives us none. But Ashkin’s words follow their own strange order: “In the end, the phrases amount to a list of how the status quo reinforces itself, how inertia is maintained.” Here, the repetitive sequence of the anaphora is the steady rhythm of nothing happening.

Were it not for takes as its subject the unfocused middle ground of history; places with no identifiable past or future and a drab, leaden present. Territories not unlike these were staked out in the 1970s by photographers like Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams, early on in a process of recognition that jolted the idea of landscape out of the orbit of human living and into the deep, cold-blooded space of capital. The topographies of waste in Ashkin’s photographs are the end game of this process. And if the places that Baltz and Adams photographed were understood as abstractions – space deployed as a commodity by the machinery of advanced capitalism ­– the places that Ashkin photographs are abstractions made real.

‘When we pay attention to the world, I believe we have to admit that it is a fearful place down to its smallest details,’ remarks Ashkin. Were it not for is a catalogue of such details – a procession of negations and refusals that mirrors the working of capital itself. There is a certain satisfaction in unlocking the conceptual schema of the work – understanding it not simply as a document of disorder but a disordered document with transgression built into it: a refusal of rational space, of narrative time, of customary perception. Others encounter the work differently. Ashkin showed the book to a class of medium-security prisoners at Cayuga Correctional Center in New York State: “They were very interested in its logic. One prisoner (about to be deported back to Honduras) had migrated across the desert border and he said the book described the world as he understood it.” There’s not much in the way of conventional aesthetic pleasure to be had from Were it not for. What it offers instead is a blunt enactment of capital’s own corrupt devices – for some, an intellectual privilege, for others, a lived reality.

All images courtesy the artist and FW: Books. © Michael Ashkin

Eugénie Shinkle is a photographer, writer, and Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster. She writes for various publications such as Foam, Aperture, Fashion Theory, American Suburb X, and The Journal of Architecture. Recent work includes Fashion Photography: the Story in 180 Pictures (Aperture/Thames & Hudson 2017) and ‘Painting, Photography, Photographs: George Shaw’s Landscapes’, in George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field (Yale University Press 2018).

Nan Goldin


Exhibition review by Max Houghton

The image of the siren in popular culture is as seductive temptress of the sea, luring unsuspecting men to their deaths. According to Emily Wilson, translator of The Odyssey (2017), Homer’s sirens were not, in fact, sexy mermaids. ‘The seduction they offer is cognitive: they claim to know everything about the war in Troy, and everything on earth. They tell the names of pain.’

This understanding of a specifically feminine wisdom from bird-like creatures who operate between life and death resonates with Nan Goldin’s achievement in Sirens, an exhibition at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery. The war in question is not Troy, but addiction, and who and what fuels it. And, of course, as with Homer, this most personal odyssey is as much about love, knowledge and justice as about war itself.

The show states its first intention with a cabinet of protest, filled with Oxycontin bottles, notes from the Bankrupt States of America, and badges emblazoned with the word ‘Painkillers’, with ‘Pain’ crossed out in a purposeful act of sous rature. Because the word and its negation are both visible, the paradox of the nature of a drug like Oxycontin, and the morals of the company, Purdue Pharma, that supplies it, are vividly foregrounded.

The opioid crisis in the US – where for every one million Americans, almost 50,000 doses of opioids are taken every day – has been well documented. The art world has played its part, largely via the activities of Goldin’s advocacy group, PAIN, conducting successful campaigns against accepting donations from the Sackler family, owners of Purdue, which has funded so many institutions from the Tate to the Serpentine. Of the key institutional players in the UK, only the V&A remains impervious to this pressure. Goldin’s focus on opioid addiction is personal. She was addicted to the illegal drug heroin in the 1980s and to the legal, aggressively marketed drug Oxycontin after a prescription for tendonitis in 2014. Every work she has ever created, every photograph ever made is borne out of a deeply personal impetus. In Sirens, it is folded into every collision between singing and seeing, into each caress of two aesthetic modes. But what is ‘it’, this core personal mood? I would suggest it is best expressed in words as honesty. In a 2013 interview, when talking about the suicide of her sister, and how her parents made it part of a revisionist history of family life, Goldin said: “I think the wrong things were kept secret. I still do.” These two sentences encircle her art practice like a force field.

One of the four new audiovisual works created for the exhibition The Other Side (1994-2019) operates as memorial to friends lost (of course, all her works do this). I enter this room to the unmistakable sound of Song to the Siren. The Did I dream you dreamed about me? line, with its hypnagogic double-step into another realm, is the territory to which we are led when immersed in Goldin’s work, at once worldly and otherworldly. It is hard (for me) to retain images from films or filmic sequences; it is as though once seen, they disappear back into their own realm, only to be remembered on second sight. Within the exhibition, images recur, both between the multi-media works, and in the framed still portraits that occupy one whole room and several walls. This repetition of faces illuminates them like old friends, or like someone passed in the street, half-noticed, yet intensely felt. The lyrics and emotional register of further tracks such as Fever and What Makes a Man a Man? are edited to highlight specific images and to add a layer of meaning to what we see. The latter song, performed by Charles Aznavour, asks a question that haunts many of Goldin’s images. Her world was (is) populated by people defined in society as drag queens, transvestites or transsexuals. To Goldin, they are simply her friends; such gender definition has always been fluid. My notes on the images, scrawled in the dark, read as follows: embrace, fabrics, bed, opulence, birthday, balloons (more), déjeuner sur l’herbe, kissing eyes open, sofa snogging, Bangkok boygirl, direct gaze, hazy eyes, marriage, Baudelaire, Marilyn, cadaver, parade. In writing the list, I can conjure the images again; they are vivid once more, but for me only, and my connections to loss and to love.

In another installation room, two films run consecutively; Memory Lost and the eponymous Sirens, and for this reason, we must assume the two work together as twinpoles of ecstasy and addiction. Memory Lost is most overtly ‘about’ addiction. This imagery is interspersed with old answerphone messages – wakeupwakeupwakeupwakeupwakeup – and the desperate sound of a jarring ring tone. Goldin understands well how film can disrupt linear time, and how temporal dislocation is a feature of the addict’s life. This film runs on narcotime and the user’s experience of ‘being outside of myself, looking down’ pervades. Such an out-of-body experience is also a marker of trauma. As the voiceover suggests, if it was trauma that likely fuelled the addiction in the first place, the role of the drug is obvious – to make us feel totally desirable, totally human, whole.

Sirens begins with ethereal whistling, accompanying imagery of an androgynous being, speaking words we can’t hear, making gestures and signals we can’t fathom, like the sirens intonating the names of pain. What follows is a series of metamorphoses – a face in a sequined mask, a woman inhaling smoke, playing with her slinky, a tall, stilted creature encased in metal. The footage here is familiar, too, but not from within Goldin’s archive. She has repurposed fragments from Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Kenneth Anger and other distinguished directors, playing on tropes both familiar and unfamiliar. Unsettling images crescendo to a huge rave scene, which feels epiphanic, ecstatic, yet culminates in an unbearable bleached-out brightness. People are running; from where or towards what, we cannot know. The closing imagery invites the viewer back to an oneiric state, as a woman, washed up on a beach, awakens, as though from a particularly sensual dream.

A three-minute video, Salomé, is at once the most theatrical and least intimate of the new works, yet offers in some ways the most gripping visual experience. The images are split between three channels, one of which features Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510); a second, horrified faces of establishment men, looking; a third, the seductive performance of a drag queen. Sexuality is celebrated, as Salomé makes voyeurs of us all.

Goldin’s intimate knowledge has already shaken the financial foundations of the art world, by stemming at least some of the blood money sloshing through its halls. It could offer further insight into why millions of people in the free world feel an overwhelming need to numb their pain, or as visual antithesis to the deadly disease of shame… though such question are still not so readily asked. Speaking of her sister’s death, Goldin said “What killed her is she was born at the wrong time. She didn’t have a tribe.” In a society that certainly has tribes, and where activist voices are recognised and respected, it is nevertheless hard to know in which direction we are moving, riven as we surely are with brutal enmity and continued injustice. Goldin’s work feels urgent; it always did.

It felt poignant, like an exhale, to see the upper floor of the elegant gallery taken over entirely by large scale photographic prints of the sky. It’s impossible to photograph the firmament well or badly; its vicissitudes too numerous, its beauty too fleeting or too eternal. We can’t remember the sky. We can never forget it either.

Images courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris and London. © Nan Goldin.

Installation views of Sirens at Marian Goodman Gallery London – 14 November 2019 – 11 January 2020.

Max Houghton is a writer, editor and curator working with the photographic image as it intersects with politics, law and human rights.  She runs the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Her writing has appeared in publications by The Photographers’ Gallery and The Barbican, as well as in the international arts press, including Foam, 1000 Words, Photoworks and Granta.  She is co-author, with Fiona Rogers, of Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (Thames and Hudson 2017).  She is a Law’s faculty scholarship doctoral candidate at University College London. With David Birkin, she is co-founder of Visible Justice.

Sondra Meszaros

Redrawing Power and Pleasure

Essay by Sara Knelman

Sondra Meszaros, who lives in Calgary, Alberta, was in New York in the midst of a residency program at the International Studio & Curatorial Program in 2018, when her studio was flooded by a Spring storm. Her work and all the archival material she’d brought with her was decimated. Ever resilient and resourceful, Meszaros set out to track down new sources of inspiration, and to begin again.

Recently, Meszaros had been amassing an archive of photographic imagery of the female body, as a way of thinking through the aesthetics and power dynamics of sexuality, ideas that are also central to her teaching practice at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Her parameters are loose: the images she is drawn to are often from books and magazines made in the first half of the twentieth century, but their makers and contexts, their moods and styles are not uniform. Indeed, she confesses she is intrigued by images that initially confuse her, a response she hopes her work can start to unravel. Her hunger for new imagery is seemingly insatiable, and her constant searching is evident from her overactive Instagram feed, a platform she uses as a kind of frenetic note-taking, and as a way of feeling connected to a community when she’s logging untold hours alone in her studio.

Meszaros first began appropriating photographic material in a series of collages, where bodies from John Everard’s Second Sitting: Another Artist’s Model (The Bodley Head, London, 1954) first appear, backdrops to natural elements ripped from the pages of National Geographic. New York, the mecca of printed matter, was among other things, a chance for Meszaros to expand her visual archive. After that fateful storm in NY, Meszaros found, in the bargain bin at the Strand, a copy of Velvet Eden (Metheun, New York, 1979). These two books, one an instructional manual for photographic lighting, the other a retrospective glance at a collection of photographic erotica became the foundation for two intertwined bodies of work.

Intrigued by the bodies in Second Sitting, Meszaros began cutting up the contact sheet-like grids of images that punctuate various chapters. The images she appropriates all show women in kneeling positions – a posture at once awkward and submissive – their heads mostly angled to obscure their faces, their hands usually set demurely and strategically in their laps. For her series You’re damned if you don’t and you’re damned if you do, Meszaros made new pairs and grids, combining different models and exaggerating the strangeness of their repeated postures, then swept each one over, quickly, with a heavy black ink, a redaction of beauty and desire, and an invitation to look beneath the surface, where ghosted forms and faces reemerge, alchemically finding their way back to the light.

Once untethered from the page and released as pocket-sized cards, their currency changes: sequential instruction gives way to free-floating erotica. “For me,” Meszaros has said, “appropriating the images is a way to start to question their original intentions, and to slow down the reading of the images.” Meszaros eventually revisited the book a third time, and selected ten images to scan and enlarge. Scaled up to roughly life-sized, the singular images in Damned, each similarly redacted, offer a more forensic view of the originals – dirty feet and wrinkled sheets – as well a bodily relation to the viewer, whose own face might be reflected back in the blackness.

Meszaros used to make oversized charcoal drawings of animals, their heavy bodies unfurling down the lengths of long paper. Though never explicit, this imagery betrays latent power and basic instincts – primal, mythic, sexual. The muscled, bodily action of mark-making and the quickness of feeling out a shape or a line carry through to her newest work, though the scale and medium have drastically changed.

Her approach to the works in the series Strange Spot, drawn from the pages of Velvet Eden, is similar, though Meszaros has added a shock of colour. The softly textured fire-engine red pastel she pushes over each image evokes the luxuriousness of velvet and the red-light red-lipstick feel of forbidden desire. Though they span from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s, Meszaros’ choices and reworkings obscure their respective ages and marks them out as distinctly contemporary. If the kneeling women carry a certain burden in their stasis, the sitters here are active and often funny – involved in a different kind of performative collaboration. Most of the images would have been made originally as fodder for male desire. Yet the models appear in control of their gestures, perhaps enjoying their own moments of pleasure. Many of the scenes appear, from this distance, imbued with levity and humour: hands curled in comic claws, women nude but for wrist watches, as though keeping an eye on the clock of a work day before setting out to the rest of their lives.

Meszaros doesn’t speculate about what those lives might be or how we might value them – but her gestures recentre our attention to them, and to the idea that the women pictured in them were agents in their own worlds, just as we are agents in ours. The complexity of their positions – as objects of desire, as instructional tools, as icons, performers and storytellers – is difficult and, at times, uncomfortable. Meszaros’ works are as much reflections of our own anger and frustration with the power dynamics of gender and sexuality in the twenty-first century, as they are of our freedom to find ways of seeing that unsettle expectations and question desire.

All images courtesy Corkin Gallery, Toronto. © Sondra Meszaros

Sara Knelman is an educator, curator and writer, and Director of Corkin Gallery, Toronto.


1-Sondra Meszaros, Damned #1, 2019. Mixed media, digital pigment print on rag paper

2-Sondra Meszaros, Damned #7, 2019. Mixed media, digital pigment print on rag paper

3-Sondra Meszaros, Damned #10, 2019. Mixed media, digital pigment print on rag paper

4-Sondra Meszaros, You’re damned if you don’t and it’s damned if you do #17, 2019. Mixed media collage on found images

5-Sondra Meszaros, You’re damned if you don’t and it’s damned if you do, 2019. Mixed media collage on found images. Mixed media collage on found images

6-Sondra Meszaros, Bound #17, 2016. Mixed media on Stonehenge paper

7-Installation view of Sondra Meszaros: Two Blazing Glares, For Her Pierce 27 April – 1 September, 2019 at Corkin Gallery, Toronto. Image: Jimmy Limit

8-Installation view of Sondra Meszaros: Two Blazing Glares, For Her Pierce 27 April – 1 September, 2019 at Corkin Gallery, Toronto. Image: Jimmy Limit

9-Sondra Meszaros, Strange Spot #63, 2018 – 2019. Oil pastel on found book page

10-Sondra Meszaros, Strange Spot #71, 2018 – 2019. Oil pastel on found book page

11-Sondra Meszaros, Strange Spot #81, 2018 – 2019. Oil pastel on found book page

12-Sondra Meszaros, Strange Spot #133, 2018 – 2019. Oil pastel on found book page

13-Sondra Meszaros, Strange Spot #1, 2018 – 2019. Oil pastel on digital pigment print on rag paper