1000 Words

Curator Conversations

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Edited by Tim Clark

Curator Conversations is a collection of interviews with leading curators working within contemporary photography today. It offers precious insights into key modes of thinking behind the curatorial practices that have resulted in influential and landmark exhibitions at galleries and museums across the globe, including MoMA, Tate Modern, Pompidou Centre, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Finnish Museum of Photography, Zeitz MOCAA – Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Instituto Moreira Salles and SCôP: Shanghai Center of Photography, among others.

Set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, when many institutions were forced to close to the public, these interviews provide wide-ranging discussions and a strong sense of critical self-reflexivity to explore the various ways curating mediates our experience and understanding of the photographic image. Among the fundamental questions engaged in the book are the medium specificity of photography; exhibitions as ‘artwork’; critical contexts for imagery; the curator’s role; collaboration and community; notions of ethics, responsibility and care; relationships between artists and curators, museums and audiences; as well as propositions for decolonisation through forms of curatorial activism. Ultimately, this volume sheds light on the aesthetic, political and personal concerns of creative individuals involved in exhibition-making, generating new pathways for thinking about the display and dissemination of photography.

Featuring Sarah Allen, Mariama Attah, Yves Chatap, Clément Chéroux, Charlotte Cotton, Christine Eyene, Louise Fedotov-Clements, Yining He, Tom Lovelace, Roxana Marcoci, Renée Mussai, Thyago Nogueira, Azu Nwagbogu, Danaé Panchaud, Alona Pardo, Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger, Holly Roussell, Kathrin Schönegg, Urs Stahel, Lisa Sutcliffe, Duncan Wooldridge

Editor Tim Clark
Copy Editor Alex Merola
Design & Art Direction Sarah Boris
Production Assistant Louis Stopforth

Tim Clark is a writer and curator based in London. He is also the Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University. 

Publication date March 2021
Format Softcover
Dimensions 198 mm x 129 mm
Pages 144
Publisher 1000 Words (1000 Words Photography Ltd)

Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#1 Duncan Wooldridge

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator, and is the Course Director for the BA (Hons) Fine Art Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. He is the curator of the exhibitions Anti-Photography (2011, Focal Point Gallery), John Hilliard: Not Black and White (2014, Richard Saltoun) and Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions (2019, Camberwell Space, as part of Peckham 24). He is working on an exhibition around photographic abstraction in the contexts of mechanical and industrial production, for 2020-21.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

Exhibitions for me are like thinking made visible in space. They can be animating and generative, because you are constructing dialogues and arguments between works, where echoes and contrasts bring qualities and values into the foreground, as something you can see, sense and think through. I normally begin at that granular level – the conversation two works have with each other, before working up to the larger display. As an ensemble, groups of work construct trajectories, and show how connections are made and remade continuously. They’re inherently propositional, I think, though they remain to this day frequently used to claim a conventional historiography that says this is how it happened, especially when a single artist is shown, or when the material is historical in nature. I’m definitely seeking to propose a different history or narrative when I’m making an exhibition. That’s what draws me to it. I like to think of how the brain is sparked by the encounter of works seen together, and how the meaning of works change by the encounters they have.

As a result, when the process works as it can, the exhibition is much more than a line of objects. It becomes a dynamic four-dimensional encounter in which your concentration and senses shift gear and become more acute. It’s like Artaud’s conception of the theatre: some senses, contexts, or details are dramatically heightened, and others temporarily subside. Being inside an exhibition can be so focused, and so concentrated, that the world outside seems to be temporarily suspended. That’s not a negation, but a reset, from which something can be built: if it holds any subsequent weight or urgency, an exhibition will subtly continue into your other encounters thereafter. Our return to the world from inside the exhibition might allow us to see and feel that it can be remade and rethought.

I realised early on in my studies that I was equally interested in the works of other artists as I was interested in making things myself. I’ve always liked this as a balance, to be neither fully the maker, the I, nor fully subservient, the classical curator/carer, occupying the supposedly neutral third person role who disappears. I am an active interpreter of the work I bring into the exhibition, but I have neither full control over the meanings, nor am I absent from their construction. When I curated an exhibition of John Hilliard for Richard Saltoun Gallery in 2014 (John Hilliard: Not Black and White) and the parallel book we made with Ridinghouse, it was to cut through John’s practice and see it a specific way with him, to read his work with my eyes, and to compare what it meant from both of our perspectives. I’ve realised since that it’s still a relatively rare model, to have an active curator of an artist with a solo presentation – I found it very illuminating, with a friction that was productive. I’d like to work more with artists like this.

What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess?

I feels like this goes very much against the ongoing narrative, that of democratic photographies or the positivism about recording our lives and our sharing economies, but I feel that the curator is meant to be demanding. And I think they should demand more of images. Our image world is so passive: most of the language about agency and participation in our work and life is a rhetorical cover, a smoke screen, for how we produce information, and for the dominant economics of our time, which currently is finance capital and advertising. To cite Sherry Turkle, we are alone together. We are producing images and we are consuming them. We are not interacting through them, at least not as we might be.

The widespread adoption of the word curator – curators pants (trousers), curated lists, and a whole lot more, a long and growing comedic list – we really should understand as an attack on careful selection, an attack on deep engagement, and a negation of specialisation, rigorous knowledge and perhaps expertise. Its comedy masks it, but it is an attack. I am not going to argue that the curator is special (we have seen of course that curators can and do maintain bias and reproduce existing relations of being subject to power), but I would have to say that the trend for curating everything is the banalisation of what can and should be a slower process of thoughtful choice. We aren’t using ‘curating’ in all of these contexts as something passionately laboured or specialised, are we? Curated pants aren’t really the best, and curators coffee isn’t any more considered, not before, not during and not after.

This is where it is directly tied to our information and image excess, to more than a rant about capital: because, like the coffee or the other commodities, we’re all hurrying to make ever more images, we’re making more and looking at more, but we’re also looking with less detail, broadcasting with less filtering, and looking with less time or expectation. The curator used to see more art than most people, but today, I wouldn’t set that as a benchmark. The curator who only wants to scan the room, or know about the new work is accelerating the process, and doing the same thing. They’re participating in what Byung Chul-Han has called the Burnout Society. Instead, the question should be, who gives work the most time? I often say that I am only occasionally a curator, and I think in the current moment, few of us are curators very often: we’re rarely given the time, or take the time, to be. Colleagues working in public institutions, who have job roles as curators, spend the majority of their time in administration, in fundraising, in organisational tasks. Curating would be a fraction of their time right now. The temptation is for this to take less time, to be more decisive, and to go with the flow of endless production, but I think a curator who is really committed to this activity will instead slow things down, and take the time to develop understanding. Being a curator is something that anyone could do, but I’d want to propose that to curate, after its original meaning, to care, is to take images and artworks outside of that cycle, and to give them an attention over long durations.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

Patience, especially in the light of the last question.

In my experience, I can also say that I think the capacity to solve problems is a recurring skill you have to put to work. Logistically, if you don’t have an endless budget but you are ambitious, you’re going to face challenges about how to get works from distant locations to the site of your exhibition, and you’re going to have to make decisions about how the show changes as a result of its contexts. I think the biggest budget I ever had for collecting works was for the Anti-Photography show I curated at Focal Point Gallery in 2011, where we had the budget for one collection of works in Europe, though we had new works arriving from the West Coast of the US, and works from several European cities. I enjoy that kind of working things out. It’s about knowing which compromises are acceptable and which ones have a serious effect, about knowing what you can solve, and who you can work with to make things happen.

What was your route into curating?

I encountered the process of exhibition making really in Norwich at the Norwich Gallery, where I volunteered for a couple of years, working on the great East International exhibitions, and some of their other shows. I would volunteer in the summer and autumn during my studies. Lynda Morris was there and her exhibition programme had many great connections to conversations in the artworld. I think that was where I learnt to find inventive ways around making exhibitions happen: for East they would just drive a van into Europe to go and collect everything! I remember the detail and care in preparing spaces, for example repeatedly painting and sanding a wall for a Sol Lewitt wall drawing, calling artists and arranging the collection and return of their works; the politeness and friendliness, and the ways of doing things. Andrew Hunt was there at that time too as an Assistant Curator, and he was a great, encouraging voice: ultimately our good relationship led to my first major curatorial project. Around that time I studied Photography at the Royal College of Art, and that equipped me to have a critical voice, to feel that as an artist you could participate in the discourse – you could and should make exhibitions as an artist, you could and should write and produce criticism too. When I was studying there, I was working at the Serpentine Gallery, invigilating, working front of house and handling limited editions, and so all of those different inputs gave me a rounded idea of making exhibitions and what they involved. At the beginning of a show, you’d sometimes get a tour from the artist (though not always), but you would, every time, get a walkaround where you’d be shown what was fragile, what was dangerous, how things were made, which works had high insurance values, all of the practical hidden details. It was a hidden education.

As I said, Andy Hunt gave me the first opportunity to curate a major show. I was working in my Serpentine job when I saw him again one day. I remember he asked what I was working on, and I told him about a show I was planning, called Anti-Photography. I was applying for a curatorial open call that Hayward Gallery had made. I remember that he said ‘that sounds a lot like our programme’, and told me to get in touch if the open call didn’t happen. It didn’t, and I went back to him. I think a key thing at that point wasn’t that I was an artist or a curator, but that I had a strong investment in the work of other artists, that I was developing ideas, regardless of whether the opportunity was there or not.

What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?

I don’t know if I can narrow this down, but I’ll try. I would like to say Rei Naito’s work Matrix in Ryue Nishizawa’s Teshima Art Museum, the single best installation of a single artwork I’ve ever seen. But perhaps that’s not an exhibition – it’s a permanent environment. I think it would have to be the 20th century collection displays called The Making of Modern Art, at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, which were specially curated by artist Goran Đorđević – Đorđević has however hidden himself under an alias of an institution of his own making, The Museum of American Art in Berlin (he is known as a ‘former artist’ who would make lectures as Walter Benjamin and making Piet Mondrian paintings with contemporary dates). Using a combination of works in the museum collection and copies, Đorđević quizzes and challenges the 20th century art museum, it’s construction of value, it’s definitions of art, and its appropriation of objects across historical and geographic contexts. Rather than just talking about it, this display actually does it, dares to put artworks in new circumstances to see what happens. Each room proposes a problem – how objects gain and lose and the name of art, how collections are formed, and how the cultural politics of the 20th century drive us towards certain relationships to culture. It ends in a proposed cultural reversal, where artworks from the western ‘canon’ are taking out of a white cube and placed into a room of controlled lighting and museum cabinets that are familiar to any viewer who has seen how artefacts are displayed in the Far East, in wall-lined vitrines and wooden display cases behind glass. This is only a proposition of course, but it reveals the commodity status of the artwork and the spaces it has depended upon. The museum commissioned the display and opened it in 2017, and it’s due to stay open until the beginning of 2021. I’ve been twice and will try and go again.

What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?

I think all cultural producers share a responsibility, I’d begin there. That responsibility begins fundamentally with looking at and thinking critically about the world, to work in response to that, to act to improve the world, not necessarily by making things which are political, but by thinking and understanding the ecologies in which we all operate, and provide models or gestures, perceptions and sensations that generate cultural progress before and sometimes against economic progress.

Isabelle Stengers has a great way of describing ecology when she describes it as thinking and acting par le milieu: a milieu, she reminds us, is something that can only be understood by a combination of the through and the around, and I think this describes what a curator should be doing whatever their subject or their context or their method. To think through and around is to think beyond oneself and to think of the context we and our cultural production belongs to. In my mind, I’ve linked Stengers par le milieu to Édouard Glissant’s mondialité, his modification of universality. In mondialité, you can’t remain at the abstract generalisation of universality – simply saying that it applies a priori to all, you have to see what it does in the world. It’s to try and think the world, but to also deal with the specifics, thought put into action. And so, for me, this connects us to thinking through and around, and to think about the exhibition and its consequence. We don’t talk about the consequence of an artwork or an exhibition often enough, we treat it like it just is or was. It’s not enough to go to an exhibition and leave again. What stays with us? What might it allow us to do? How do we react and in what way? Are we put on the defensive or made to feel overwhelmed, or enabled to think that we can have some kind of impact? What enables us to do this?

Deleuze and Guattari in their writing in Capitalism and Schizophrenia argued for the importance of what they called the micropolitical, even before we talked of micro-aggressions. Micropolitics is the politics contained in each and every action, the underlying politics of our interactions with each other. I think that especially relates to the present epoch, the age of self-interest and atomisation that characterised our society before we reached the coronavirus pandemic. It’s easy to say we are radical and forward thinking when public facing, or working into the macro-political realm. What, in our actions or in the consequences of what we produce, makes this manifest in each interaction? How do we work to support people or work to resist the logics of self-interest? Hopefully, on the other side, we might have learnt to think through and around.

What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator?

I think I’d like to dispel the notion that being a curator places you at the centre, that being a curator, or being an artist for that matter, puts you in the middle of the art or photography worlds. I think this is behind the fashion for curating everything. We appear to have a model that places creators and producers in the centre, which radiates out, which perhaps includes artists and curators, and then collectors and gallerists and critics and then students and audiences. I think we should be really critical of this model and its hierarchies. If you believe as a maker or producer that you are at the centre, then you are replicating an exclusive model of culture, based on outdated ideas of artistic production, propped up by money as something which limits access to many, and permits easy access to others. We must differentiate centrality from criticality, and privilege the idea of being both rigorous and generous over a desire to be the centre of attention. We should establish our own sets of values, and make them clear. Thankfully, there a number of people working within this culture who are both deeply knowledgeable and generous, and as a result, in some cases, those individuals become great connectors and facilitators. But you’d have to have your head in the sand to not see that there are plenty of people who direct everything, even indirectly, to themselves or their gain. They are maintaining the claim that culture circles around them, whether it structurally does or doesn’t. They’re both parts of the same problem.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Jean Baudrillard wrote an exceptionally beautiful book that is lesser known than his writings on simulations and the conditions of Postmodernity. It’s called The Agony of Power. In it, he says that the biggest question of all is what you do with the power that you have, however small or big it is, however much it might come to be. So my advice is this: be generous. Be generous with your time, with your attention, with your labour and efforts, and with your own power to impact others. ♦

Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.


Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

Images:

1-Duncan Wooldridge

2-View of the exhibition Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions, Camberwell Space, as part of Peckham 24, 2019.

3-View of the exhibition Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions, Camberwell Space, as part of Peckham 24, 2019.

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.

Captions:

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

Edouard Taufenbach

Spéculaire

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The images in Edouard Taufenbach’s Spéculaire are pulsing. A vibrating hum draws us towards their surfaces. Inside these images, bodies radiate: an outstretched arm extends, reaching impossibly from a masculine figure at the right of the frame. To the side of a tree, he is about to pluck from its fruits. Dynamic movement is in process, but at the same time about to occur. We follow and sense that which is to come. In another image, a younger boy looks right and faces the water. His left arm is outstretched in an act of pre-emptive balancing, as if his right arm, out of the frame, is primed to throw a stone. We see neither the throwing arm nor its object, but the image is shook: it ripples.

On the threshold, a photograph is present and past. Yet more excitingly, it speaks, also, of a future becoming. Its incidents are recorded and become an aid to memory, but the image is actually a site of potential, if all too rarely explored. Taufenbach’s Aden, with his outreaching arm, shows a moment of choice: to pick from the tree, with the desire to claim and devour; Ricochet, preparing to skim stones, recalls the wish to see our agency make an impact, to reveal consequence in the resulting wave. Neither of these events are completed, but we see their becoming, and we in turn complete them. But the futurity of these images is greater than a small moment. We read them not as specific instances, but as gestures, as acts, which have resonance – a searching, an impacting, a turning towards, and a turning away. When the image is looking forwards, it might show us the that has been, but it conspires to open up something in an unspecified future, a that which is also yet to be, a that which might be. How we act in response is what matters. The artist’s use of the photograph that changes its function, from document to gesture, from report to catalyst.

Drawn from a collection of photographs belonging to French screenwriter and director Sébastien Lifshitz, who invited Taufenbach to respond to and re-think images from his collection, Spéculaire traces a line of re-imagined imagery – photographs which have shifted through multiple purposes, responses and conditions. Photography might enter this space of the that which might be, precisely because it is not the event or person itself. Removed from original context, since those contexts have been lost, given up or abandoned, and removed from being the thing itself, photographs enter a different temporal frame.

Spéculaire’s vernacular snapshots of people at leisure – gathered in groups, in couples and as singular actors – became for Liftshitz a ground for an exploration of desire, sexuality, and intimacy, seeking out a homoerotics of the photograph, which the images provide through complex spaces of public and private exposure. They began however as aide-memoire, as memento and/or as a surrogate, as the photographs of our relationships, those which constitute what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu identified as a glue between subjects who are distant from one another. With this link undone, speculation about the image begins. Taufenbach comes to these images with only fragments of their former uses intact or available to him.

Art and photography’s obsession with the archive might begin to be explained with a simple observation: the artist is also a collector. This collecting – of objects, but also forms, events, stories and gestures – lies at the root of artistic production, where a view of the world is constructed so that it might, in turn, be shared, encountered, and collected afresh. Taufenbach’s gesture in Spéculaire is to draw attention to the layers of this collecting – from the image-maker, the collector, and the artist, who proposes a new use or view of that image. Taufenbach does so by pointing to a potential in the image, and to make a world from it. It is an opening that draws upon but also diverges from the original gestures of the photograph, as well as Lifshitz’s collecting. Taufenbach animates what Walter Benjamin called ‘the unruly desire to know’, a desire to know the unknowable in the photograph, a curiosity that can only ever partially be captured, as both subject and image ‘will never consent to be wholly absorbed in (the) art (of photography)’. He identifies a precise moment of potential and draws upon montage so that the image can be extended, both connected to and growing distant from its original referents.

Taufenbach’s strategy, adopted from his study of film and media, emerged from his previous project Cinema: Histoires Domestiques. Here, he applied graphic forms which dynamically shifted the focus of an image so that it splintered across several axes, highlighted by vivid colour, which served to construct layers of narrative. In Spéculaire, the dynamics of each image generate a specific internal tension, so that the frame and form emerges centrifugally from within the photograph and not from outside. These elements – an outstretched arm, but also a gang of bodies, shifting scales, or areas of focus – point to gestures and actions, which shift our viewing of the image from a search for the desire to know the specificities of the picture, the who and what of the image which we assume it contains in order to grasp the embodied phenomena of an encounter right now. Sur la plage seems to call us to enter the frame, between the two bodies, to see beyond. It is a gesture which brings us up close to the desire of photographs, to a searching, which we both recognise and enact. Taufenbach may have collected these images, presenting visions, but we find ourselves reflected in them, the photograph made specular.

Spéculaire reveals that photography’s collecting is multiple, as an object to be collected and an act of gathering in itself. The photograph begins as a vicarious capturing – it proposes the collecting of the uncollectible, a sliver of time, an event, even of bodies. But the photographic object itself becomes collected, organised and structured; it is in flux thereafter. This perhaps accounts, in part, for the flickering impression of Taufenbach’s project, reflecting the ever-shifting nature of our images. But our experience of looking at the meeting of image and object in Spéculaire take us also to the mechanics of vision. Each encounter with the image brings us to its vibrating effect. What is its meaning and consequence? Taufenbach animates the image, but constructs it so that content and object co-exist in a tension that reflects the assemblage that is photography. In so doing, his images pierce our curiosity for what is to come. We reflect this as our eye flickers in an echo of the effects of the image, shifting dynamically its focus, to come to terms with an image that is, in our encounter, still moving.

Images courtesy of the artist and Almanaque, Mexico CityGalerie Binome, Paris; Elizabeth Houston Gallery, New York; and Spazio Novo, Rome. © Edouard Taufenbach


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.

John MacLean

Outthinking the Rectangle

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

If the sharply defined edges of the photograph mark a limit, a “disciplinary frame” – to quote John Tagg – it should be evident that we rarely transgress the boundary, the hard edge of the image. Why are we so passive within the photographic process, so quick to concede to the image, and its predetermined geometries? What has led us to assume, in our gestures and as well as within our theories, that a photograph is so fixed and regular?

We concede not only to the photograph’s restraint as a sharply defined image – even though it is more accurately an accumulation of cones of light – but we submit also to the claim that the photograph’s meaning exists in what it shows, over how it does so. We have placed representation ahead of the gesture, ahead of the act. Perhaps this has to do with how photographic theory fixates on the image and its melancholy relationship to death: we are resigned to the image escaping our original intention and becoming a document with some alternate, informational purpose after our lifetime. We forget that gestures, actions and propositions also matter: they frame the trajectories of an image.

John MacLean’s Outthinking the Rectangle proposes to work with and against the photograph. His project, comprised of an array of observations, surfaces, spaces and gestures, teases from the image a space beyond its straight edges and conventional geometries – a space where the image is active and has agency in its forms. The possibilities he explores – to break with flatness, to slice, extract, bend, rearrange – take the resulting image beyond a melancholy fixation with depiction and the past. What emerges is both a space of play and a search for critical strategies, which, it could be argued, seek to approximate, or attempt to reveal what is often called ‘the real’.

Photographs typically make a claim to reality through their directness and seemingly unmediated presence. This is, in fact, a fallacy: photographs are media, with mediation at their core. ‘The real’ might emerge only from an image that allows access to the process of its making, and key to MacLean’s sharp sense of the image is an acknowledgment that photography is industrial. This fact can be easily neglected: it is inconvenient if the expression of the self is being exalted, or the facticity of the picture is being declared. Photography’s hard edges attest to its industrialism, as does its smooth appearance and surfaces. But photography’s actual encounter, between the machine and human ‘operator’, to use a Flusserian term, invokes a jolt, a jump, or a rupture. There is a grafting of eye and hand to machine, best compared with the experience of parallax: the failure of two visions to fully converge. Parallax is not a glitch or a stutter, but more the sense that the camera has its own way of seeing, a pictorial logic that points beyond the human. The artist and photographer must engage then with a logic beyond their own sight – this is a condition of working with photography.

Artists test what the image can and cannot do: they discover new possibilities and new ways of looking. They resist the camera’s capacity to produce images that can be quickly absorbed and made redundant. Outthinking the Rectangle begins, as do so many of MacLean’s photographs, with an image that we think we know, only to discover that it is not exhausted by its first encounter, and cannot be seen reductively, at a glance. He directs us repeatedly to something uncanny. We are drawn towards the properties of the photographic, which he has placed within the image: a vignetted edge is rearranged to become a centred horizon; a limousine is cropped shorter and so returns to its original size, a remainder left to the side; the viewfinder’s focusing zones find themselves singed into the surface of a road. All of this demonstrates that the photographic tool does not remain solely within the camera: it acts out in the world with concrete and often comic effects.

As these images are examined closely, their edges move from being frames to become subject matter. MacLean uses the ambiguous white of the photograph intentionally: this begins with the white ‘canvas’, or white edge of the print– its border. White bounds the image and affects all that is contained within. Photographers print flat monochromatic skies into darker tones, to separate the image from the white of the paper; vivid white objects are underexposed so that the paper still defines the limit of the image. When bleached or washed out, white is both too much and too little, saturated with information while providing none.

MacLean’s Picture Plane image shows a solitary car parked against a white surface: a wall which may be so reflective as to disappear (only a long look at the white reveals its shadows and marks). The car and its grounding to the tarmac are solid, but the wall appears like a void. It is as if the photograph itself is threatening to disappear: we scour the image for detail to reassure us of more familiar pictorial qualities. In another image, Ladder, the bottom portion is both surface (a wall lit by the sun) and the bright white of the photographic paper. A ladder offers a route into the image but it is, perhaps more significantly, also a route out. Is the white like a pool we could swim in?

Outthinking the Rectangle has been made at a moment when photography has entered an expansive practice of multiple forms. It is often conflated with collage and some of the assemblages of sculpture. It is tempting to read some of MacLean’s images, especially those broken into parts, as collage also. Yet such a characterisation is hasty, and we should be wary of what may simply be another convenient ‘disciplinary frame’. His images do not leave the field of photography, but show how the medium necessarily involves the space it occupies, on the page and in the world. To claim otherwise would be to suggest that a detail cut from a photograph is no longer photographic (and it would be strange to want to make such an assertion): photography itself cuts and fragments.

MacLean proposes a complex process of seeing, framing, modification and encounter, which retakes control of the photographic apparatus. He wrests control from the technology of photography at its source. As we attempt to exit our technological late modernity, we must return to how we make images in the first instance: to outthink the image before it produces its spectacle.

All images courtesy of the artist. © John MacLean


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 currently on display at Camberwell Space, London, is Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions, which runs until June 1st 2019.

Sarah Piegay Espenon

Humanise Something Free of Error

Loose Joints

From the critique of science which arose in the field of post-human studies and in writing about the anthropocene – those studies which bring to bear a consciousness beyond the human of forces natural, animal, technological, or, in the case of artificial intelligence or technological singularity, still somewhat hypothetical – we have come to take the notion of scientific measure as a complex if limited means of apprehending the world. Science gives us forms of measure, but it also appears a strikingly arbitrary mode of knowledge production, reductive in places and unnecessarily abstracted in others. To critique science is not to dismiss it entirely, but to know its capacities and limits. We know that science takes the frenetic instability of the lives of things and, in the place of that messy reality, identifies constants, patterns, and control conditions – measures from which variation might be observed and knowledge deduced. But whilst it produces facts, science leaves behind questions of how we come to understand the place that we inhabit – a space with unbounded complexity, affected by different actors human and non-human. What, for example, can science’s role be when it attempts as a central method to omit the human from its processes of deduction? When it fails to acknowledge its own constructs and impacts?

Sarah Piegay Espenon’s Humanise Something Free of Error, published by Loose Joints, is a collection of images in which photographs of natural phenomena – for example, the strange formations of materials – mix with scientific experiments, acts of measurement and study. On the surface, it recalls iconic projects exploring and disassembling the systems and politics of technology – from Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, through Lewis Baltz and more recently Trevor Paglen. It begins with an echo of Baltz’s Sites of Technology, in the dustless room of computer servers. But you sense quickly that Piegay Espenon draws attention to something a little more essential, away from Sultan and Mandel’s comedy, Baltz’s silent detail, and Paglen’s geographic scrutiny: she observes the peculiar distance of the human from the world.

Throughout the book, human subjects are seen as observers – looking at strange rock formations, debating over long sheets of printed data, standing atop the edges of collapsed bridges, and scratching heads in offices full of folders. They are testers, taking samples or acting as guinea pigs. It might appear momentarily that humans are subject to natural phenomena, observers at a distance. But closer observation and consideration reveals they are making the world in their image. The world has come to revolve around the scientist – an example of manifest anthropocentrism – but alongside its population of scientists, the books shows the wake of their labour in specimens captured, disciplined and then discarded. The marks of human impact are everywhere.

The protagonist of the scientist is a gateway to Piegay Espenon’s concerns, standing for our encounter with the world. Our approach may be curious but it is also threatening; capable of understanding, it also risks alienating or undoing the nature that it claims to value. Objects of scientific and military study pierce and wound the landscape, disciplining nature and bringing it under control. Humanise Something Free of Error shows that if the anthropocene is to be comprehended, it should begin with how we push and pull the world we occupy, whilst placing it at a misleading objective distance. Piegay Espenon suggests that beyond our control, we might and think and act in the world. She places a small book in our grasp at a scale that is not overblown or reactionary, but both present at and ready to hand.

Duncan Wooldridge

All images courtesy of the artist and Loose Joints. © Sarah Piegay Espenon

Dafna Talmor

Constructed Landscapes

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

Peter Geimer’s remarkable study of photography’s pre-history and its history of accidents, titled Inadvertent Images: A History of Photographic Apparitions, opens with an important photograph: André Kertész’s Broken Plate of 1929. Kertész’s image, Geimer reminds us, could have held a caption ‘Paris’ or ‘View of Paris’: it began its life as a depiction of a sharply descending Parisian street in the 18th arrondisement, with a view over to the spire of Notre-Dame de Clignancourt. Somewhere in advance of its printing, the glass plate was broken – a forceful but precise wound ruptures its surface on the left of the image, the whites of shattered glass spraying from a new dark centre. It is unclear whether this alteration was intended or entirely accidental – Kertész was a participating Surrealist, but also a working photographer – but after the event of its rupture, the image no longer exists solely as a view of the city: it draws attention to its materials and surfaces, equal to or greater than its subject. The illusion of photography is shattered.

Geimer purposefully weaves a ‘pre-history’ of photography with accidents and abstractions, showing them to be core to how photography functions: these had been written out of the familiar history of the medium in favour of a narrative that claims to come into being not by the gradual development of ideas, trial and error, and unintended consequences but in the instantaneity of authored invention. Such a narrative is convenient, Geimer reveals, because it plays to the reinforcement of multiple orthodoxies, including a clean and uncluttered history of photography itself. His purpose here is not just the demystification of invention as a moment of spontaneous genius, however, but to make a well-made but controversial argument as far as photography’s essential properties are concerned: that depiction did not come to photography before abstraction. Geimer shows that visibility and representation emerged from within the haze of photography’s abstract traces. Abstraction and fragmentation were always part of the image, and not the late inventions of art: in fact, any conception of photographic truth needs reconfiguring to include the role played by the camera operator.

Against this background, the photographic landscape or ‘view’ is revealed to be a complex ensemble, made of studies, tests and alterations, and not as an object of contained romantic sublimity. In her ongoing series Constructed Landscapes, Dafna Talmor tackles the difficult task of depicting a view in both direct and complex layers. Her images are at first overt as disassembled exposures, but they resist completion in their reconstruction, opening out to larger questions about the landscape image, its history, and its place in our conceptions of nature. From its initial formal fragmentation, Untitled (LO-TH-181818181818-1) slowly reveals a variety of surfaces that blend and diverge from one another. Patches of rippling water echo with the dappled surfaces of the ground. We have nothing to assure us that this isn’t one location, and so we attempt to recompose it, to understand its multiple positions. We quickly give room, albeit unconsciously, to a multiplicity of parts from which the landscape springs.

Composed from multiple negatives – so that images, views, and perhaps even places are intermingled – her images balance between a pictorial space constructed by fragments and the logics of a disciplinary photographic frame that seeks a completed image. Untitled (BR-1414-1) hovers between one and what seems to be two images, comprised as it is of oscillating tonalities that may or may not merge together. Each contains rupturing black and white flashes which reveal the construction of the negative as a cut, splintered, taped and crafted object. White flashes arise from overlapping parts of the negative, whilst black spaces – which sometimes appear to be both deep and impenetrable, but also sit at the surface as a flattened foreground, like Kertész’s shattered plate – are produced from empty spaces between pieces of film. Untitled (EA-131313-4) is both broken and joined by black lacerations. Its cliff surfaces stacked at destabilising angles, which reveal their assembly whilst building a perspective which threatens perceptually to collapse upon itself. The negative is an object from the beginning of Talmor’s project: this does not collapse the notion of her photographs as landscape images in a tangible, legible sense. Nevertheless, it forces us to call into question quite what we understand by landscape as a descriptor.

An aspect of this disassembly of landscape comes from Talmor’s reading of the history of the genre, and its involvement, as Geimer also shows us, with technological limit and the gradual problem solving that leads towards representation as we know it. The challenges of depicting the landscape were revealed in the early histories of photography, as wide angles and variation in light necessitated the invention of multiple exposures and combination printing. Blown out skies and darkened landscapes blighted the painterly aspirations of early practitioners, and Talmor is quick to identify the combination print as a rarely considered object and construct in the overcoming of photography’s raw qualities. Her earliest Constructed Landscapes use the quasi-empty space of the landscape as a site for overprinting, with ghostly impressions emerging in the skies of many of her photographs. Such is the significance of this capacity – to print and adjust the sky alongside the content of the land – that we are forced to reconsider what it brings into being. Can we imagine for a moment what the history of photography would look like without dodging and burning, multiple negatives and the craft of the darkroom? Such a history would surely give rise to a thousand, a million abstract photographs. Certainly, at the very least, such conditions abolish romantic conceptions of immediacy. Talmor places the making of the image in the darkroom as a central gesture where it is often downplayed. In place of the singular image – the persisting myth of the event as captured solely within the compression of the shutter – the picture’s multiplicity comes forth. And Talmor reminds us also that multiplicity is more than just the reproducibility of a print: it is embedded in the stitched, collaged and montaged techniques that span Pictorialist abstractions right through to the labour of Rejlander’s Victorian tableaux.

Whilst Talmor produces assemblages peppered with marks, punctuations and clues to the images’ making, her initial photographs of subtly significant and undulating spaces are not quickly graspable, and are not spaces of rapid digestion. They are images that Talmor herself claims cause a certain doubt upon initial inspection: are they interesting or revealing enough within the contexts of our current image world? Do they contain sufficient traces or semblances of event or narrative? That is to say, they are sites which do not give up their sense of specific place quickly, being neither romantically overblown nor documentarily dramatic – which is also to say, they are like most spaces, the many rather than the very few. Instead, they require time and an uncovering of the layers that reveal the histories of place. Talmor’s assemblage of images constructs a more complex condition of presence, and a viewership that is necessarily, as a response to the sealed presentation of most landscapes, deconstructive or archaeological.

Much could be made of the specifics of place and the locations in which Talmor photographs, though this seems like a red herring liable to being over-interpreted in a search for hasty completion. In fact, Talmor makes no clear reference to their location, titling her works with the encoded system of negative parts which comprise the images, and consciously omitting by cropping or cutting, manmade objects that might enable recognition. It seems fruitful to hold our desire for certainty within the image at bay for at least a moment. We are liable to place the landscape at a remove, to see it as natural – beyond us, or affected by mankind – i.e someone else, both of which concoct a distance that permits our indifference. Images of specific, far away landscapes and events place us at just such a remove, as many critiques of documentary have evidenced. Talmor instead positions the viewer as a constructor of the landscape, a contributor to space: the photograph may appear flat, but the image becomes tangible and animate in Talmor’s actions and the constructive gaze it calls upon. The landscape is non-descript, but it is formed and conditioned by human actors. The spaces of Talmor’s photographs do not need to be identified, precisely because they take as their subject not a place that we can distance ourselves from, but somewhere larger, beyond place: a landscape always already constructed and contested, that we are part of, whatever our connection to it. We must piece the landscape together in order to understand it. We’ve made it that way, after all.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Dafna Talmor


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, and in 2014 John Hilliard: Not Black and White, at Richard Saltoun, London.

Taryn Simon

An Occupation of Loss

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

It is three weeks since my mother passed away. Much of that time I have spent with my father and sister: naturally enough, we have attempted to look after each other. Perhaps harder even than my mother’s passing is seeing my father be strong and at the same time upset, seeing him come to know his life will be lived in a new way. The complexity and multiple directions of loss took me by surprise. Mourning comes not only with raw emotion, but with also questions of how to now go on, a horizon which marks the that has been, and that which is to come. A difficult balance is struck between trying to think to the future whilst ordering memories of the past. You do not only look back.

For the moment, I cannot write about loss only at a distance. But it seems also that it is always both near and far, particular and universal, emotive and analytical. It is not as simple as the specifics of my loss or yours, or the abstract commonalities we share. Neither is mourning simply a manifestation of loss: the rhythms of its puncturing wounds and subsequent healing, whether fast or slow, follow in successions. Its facts undo artificial dualities.

It is strange to consider, in something which seems so personal, that mourning is also a vocation; that is, a task, a role, an occupation. It is strange because a western assumption is that grief is personal, tied to the one. It should not be a surprise that it is also experienced by the many, as a multitude, even if those magnitudes vary. Nor should it surprise us that our grief is not teased out by ourselves alone. In mourning, it is often contact with others which brings out the strongest emotional responses: gestures of kindness and consideration which frame and amend our own perception about how we are coping. These unearth vulnerabilities that we have come to cover. Contact with priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and counsellors facilitate a coming to terms, accommodating and enframing. Professional mourners occupy a similar role in many cultures. What appears to some eyes as a synthetic or staged form of loss, is, perhaps to the ears a contribution towards – a permission to embrace – its full sensations. Here is also its overcoming: the necessity of mourning recedes only once it is given space to emerge.

Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss began as research into the roles of professional mourners, an extension of her enquiries into bloodlines in A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII (2008-11), and structures of social order, such as Contraband (2010) or The Innocents (2002). Its ultimate form is as both a performance – of the mourning songs, laments, and crying, performed by mourners from a variety of countries and cultures – and as a documentary administrative record, in the form of a book with Hatje Cantz, which aims to reveal something of the global conditions of mourning and the passage of people. Performed first in New York, and more recently in London through an Artangel commission, the performance is visceral and moving, an encounter which brings emotions to the surface that are long suppressed, at the same time demonstrating mourning’s specificities and universalities. By contrast, the book is colder, with a stronger emphasis on witness, testimony, and its passage through bureaucracy. It is a challenge not to cry in response to the apparent mass sadness in the performance, and hard to respond emotionally to the bald and complex administration of the state.

It is clear that Simon intentionally allows for two separate experiences to co-exist. Indeed, upon entering the performance, little information is given over to visitors, so that a clear experience of mourning is uninterrupted. It does not matter who or what is mourned: instead a theatre for mourning is provided, a space away from distraction. It is only upon leaving the visitors are handed small booklets that reveal details, also in the book, which names the performers, the complex immigration process of bringing these mourners together in one place, and the professional testimonies which are needed to support the visa applications.

If such contrasts between performance and book are more than jarring at first glance, they come to demonstrate a key aim of Simon’s project in demonstrating duality while also revealing how they are closely interlinked. Personal and public mourning, emotional experience and cold administrative explanation co-exist, as do staged and natural experience, the tears of professional mourners, and the emotion they release in others. Neither polarity can be exorcised, even if each position calls for the abolition of the other, especially in polemical times. It may appear that Simon’s book details the complex bureaucracy undergone in order to achieve the performance, but this is a reductive reading, which aligns with the privileging of visceral experience. Instead, it takes us deeper into the labour of mourning, as a component that the mourner can hardly pay attention to in their moment of grief.

Though initially resistant and seemingly straightforward as a document, Simon’s use of the visa application papers functions as a framework to provide fundamental details and draw attention to the number and variety of cultures which work with professionalised mourners. Alongside these bare facts, the visa requires cultural explanations of the rites of loss and recovery, which Simon extracts to draw attention to the many forms of mourning. Rather than supplementing the performance with complimentary texts and other forms of assembled contextualisation, Simon finds in the visa papers a sufficient matrix which moves between the details of a ruthlessly simplified bare life, and the complex cultural constructions which underwrite communities and their nuanced responses to the universal experience of death. Such is the dominance of this material that Simon’s photographs of the performers, set against neutral backdrops, appear tertiary, adding little to the work. Arguably the project would be stronger, the contrast more pronounced, without them.

All images courtesy of Artangel. © Hugo Glendinning

An Occupation of Loss performance was co-commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory and Artangel.


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Luke Willis Thompson

Autoportrait

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes that, ‘The demand for transparency grows loud precisely when trust no longer prevails. In a society based on trust, no intrusive need for transparency would surface. The society of transparency is a society of mistrust and suspicion; it relies on control because of vanishing confidence.’

The live-streamed video of Philando Castile’s murder by Minnesota Policeman Jeronimo Yanez, filmed by his partner Diamond Reynolds, was viewed over 6 million times across Facebook Live – where it was originally broadcast – and YouTube, where it has been shared. In the video, Reynolds, with remarkable poise, narrates Yanez’s shooting of her partner four times in front of their young daughter. Pulled over for a missing brake light, Reynolds recalls how Castile had calmly and voluntarily told the police of his legal possession of a firearm in the vehicle. Reaching for his licence, he was shot and killed. Reynolds speaks to camera in the absence of a reliable system of justice: indeed, Yanez was acquitted, despite video footage from both Reynolds and from the dashboard and sound mounted camera on the police car. Castile can be heard informing the police officer of his weapon: his honesty exists in stark contrast to the accountability of the juridical system.

The video’s large viewership now circulates with the story. Often used as a banal statistic, such information considered more closely opens up to thought the complex and challenging conditions of visibility which structure relations of power. It is not uncommon for social media videos to be valued by their quantitive measure, but this is not a simple or innocent act of accounting. We are encouraged to share images of ourselves – this, as Han points out is a form of control that we ourselves maintain – but at the very same time, there is a need to broadcast, because power acts often without consequence: despite it’s claims to transparency, the law and governance remain hidden. The viewing figures that have been grafted to Diamond Reynolds’ video tells us something valuable, but it needs to be unpacked, for it risks being a spectacular but meaningless statistic. First, there is Reynolds’ instinctual decision to broadcast: she shares the event, like protestors and others before her, as the only recourse to the unaccountable relationship that the police have to (especially black) subjects, who are routinely pulled over, questioned, and – more frequently than allows for the term ‘accidentally’ to be used other than disingenuously – murdered by an overzealous trigger finger. Second, there is the diffusion of the event as a collective protest or call to action: the dissemination, copying, and diffusion of the original video, preventing its shutting down or blocking on networks. Viral multiplication of imagery has become a frequently adopted strategy to counteract the censorship, which results from the digital contest of broadcasting and the logics of post-truth politics, where the event must be accessible for its actuality to remain known. Finally, there is the video as an object of the news, and its disconcerting proximity to becoming entertainment: viewers watch the video as it goes viral, as much for fear of missing out as for social and political concern. Such an image participates in a quest for spectacle: the continuity of violence is witnessed and quickly passed over by the click-driven attention economy.

Luke Willis Thompson’s silent video Autoportrait, commissioned by the Chisenhale Gallery and subsequently shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018, was conceived as a sister-image or corrective to the widely viewed video of Reynolds. In the first of two long takes, Reynolds is set against a clear middle-grey background – perhaps the sky – whilst she holds her position, moving only slightly to raise or lower her head. In the second take, with a subtly different image, she is also calm and static, and speaks, though the sound is not captured. Her voice is withdrawn, just as the image’s colour is withheld. Autoportrait comments then on the long consequence, memory and implications of images and the events they represent, and how Reynolds became enveloped in this image. As Willis Thompson has done so in his Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016), he positions the image in relation to the language of film and media, and their relationship to our consciousness.

Autoportrait contains a strong reference to Warhol’s screen tests, with the cameras prolonged gaze and lack of narrative. Willis Thompson adopts this format to complicate our presumed understanding of Reynolds: silent and dignified, she maintains her calm balance, but here her demeanour resists the divulging of herself to the camera, which she is seen by but looks away from. Warhol’s videos gathered people from the circle of his studio, and participated in their fleeting celebrity: Reynolds too has been subject to a sudden thrusting into the spotlight, though her experience is a thoroughly contemporary manifestation, born of images from our networked reality. She encounters the camera, but it is with a contrast to that intuitive calling to record of her urgent live broadcast: she does not speak to the camera, so much as understand that it both presents and captures her simultaneously. It is for this reason that Willis Thompson has suggested that his collaboration with Reynolds proposed the taking back of her own representation. She is lit from acute angles on both the left and the right. It is a light that brings out detail on Reynolds skin, producing an intense detail that suggests an encounter where Reynolds retains some agency. Doubled highlights effect a sense of her as someone who has quickly become public at the same time as being unknown: she has been made, for the time being, double by her mediation. Autoportrait partakes in a critique of the visible, presenting it as both necessary and constraining at the same time.

Collaboration is an important facet of Willis Thompson’s practice, and his work with Reynolds constructs a representation that places the viewer in a position whereby it is not the producer so much as the recipient who must think and become involved. Willis Thompson’s practice is important for how it adds a complexity to the process of seeing and therefore witnessing. In many of his works, he has actively collaborated with performers to take viewers to locations to develop a personal experience which is detailed in not only narrative or historical, but also visceral and sensory information. For the New Museum Triennial in 2015, visitors were instructed to follow a black guide with a backpack and hoodie who wordlessly took them to poorer areas of New York, occasionally looking over their shoulder to ensure that visitors followed, at the same time turning them into pursuers (the work references the histories of stop and frisk in New York, and takes participants on paths that reference the histories of inequality and black culture). Upon arriving at the other end of the subway, the guide would end the piece without explanation, leaving the viewer to unpick the history of the walk and its resonances. The viewer’s embeddedness in a neighbourhood, at its remove from the safe parameters of the gallery in the gentrified Bowery, seeks a human encounter which places the body of the spectator into a site that most accurately relates to an experience which is told through the work. Autoportrait, though bound within the gallery space, affects an interesting inversion, taking a media representation, and making it static. There is something in its arrestedness – in the long take, and the slowed down gaze of both viewer and subject alike, that construct a space of different reflection.

If our culture seems to insist upon transparency and a logic of visibility, it is noteworthy that we regain control of our images by producing more complex, even secretive depictions. Willis Thompson and Reynolds recognise the necessary resistance that must be presented to us. If the culture of visibility is ultimately one where trust has been displaced in favour of total surveillance, the construction of new representations must account for the demands placed upon us to be visible, and the uneven representations of power, which hide in spite of its calls for openness. We might foster trust by not always being rendered subjects of an ideological visibility, but by retaining a private space that might allow for us to distinguish between where trust is deserved and unwarranted. The gallery must exist as a site that is made not for readily digestible imagery: it might become a space of difficult or counter narratives, as Willis Thompson proposes in his gesture to Reynolds to work with her to retrieve her image.

All images courtesy of the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery. © Andy Keate

Autoportrait was commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 opens on 23 February 2018 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London.


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Dayanita Singh

Artist and winner of The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook of the Year Award 2017

New Delhi

Our Interviews series continues with Duncan Wooldridge in conversation with Dayanita Singh, hot off the heels of winning Photobook of the Year with Museum Bhavan at Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards 2017. Published by Steidl, it was described by jury member Mitch Epstein as ‘a book of books, each one exploring an Indian motif, from printing presses to the administrative archive. Her work is a sophisticated merger of East and West sensibilities, and celebrates the democratic possibilities of the offset multiple’. Here, Wooldridge and Singh discuss exploring new forms and discourses around the space between publishing and the museum, photography as a way of cataloguing the world or even collecting experiences, the artist’s ongoing collaboration with the legendary Gerhard Steidl as well as their shared concerns of paper, correspondence and memory.

Duncan Wooldridge: In 2008 you made the book Sent A Letter, and in 2012 you exhibited your File Room. Around that time, your books became objects and your exhibition works became small museums. Both seem concerned with paper, correspondence and memory. Did something lead you towards making objects and collections?

Dayanita Singh: Well, photography is a way of cataloguing the world around us so making collections is what photographers do. I sometimes even call myself a collector. Having said that, I always knew the book was at the heart of my work. The book came first and then the exhibition – the exhibition was a catalogue of the images in the book. I used to wonder if there might be a form that allowed me to present the book as the exhibition and that started to happen with Sent A Letter. These miniature exhibitions were in fact letters I had made by cutting my medium format contact sheets, and pasting them in accordion fold books – like thank you letters after a journey with a friend.

In 2011 an old friend was visiting and asked to see my work. I wanted to show him something I had not shown to anyone else. I realised that paper was somehow a large part of my archive, libraries, archives, paper factories. He sifted through the 200 prints, put 24 aside and said File Room and right there the project was born, which will follow me till I die. But then I wanted the book to be an object as well. To find a form where it could be displayed on the wall along side photo prints and paintings. I made such a structure for File Room and then Museum of Chance had the same structure but I also found a way to make a book with 88 different covers! So now the book could be hung on the wall, and with 88 different covers, it also became an exhibition on the wall, breaking the very sequence of the book. With Museum Bhavan I found a way to make each box unique, so 3000 unique boxes were shipped from Delhi to Göttingen, Germany, and now you can choose which cover you acquire and in the box get 9 exhibitions of my Museums and a book of conversations. The cycle that started with Sent A Letter is now complete.

DW: Museum Bhavan collects multiple bodies of work into a kind of museum of museums, made of 9 book museums and conversation chamber, but it has a personal touch, in both the covers and the sense of scale and detail of each book. The idea that your books become like letters to a friend seems to capture something of the care and diligence that is often within your pictures. I’m especially interested in how this shows up in both File Room, and in parts of Museum Bhavan like Godrej Museum, where the first impression is one of awe at the amount of documentary material and the bureaucracy, but this gives way to a deep sense of appreciation of materiality, the sense of ‘matter’ in front of you, that can be touched, smelt, absorbed. Where did your interest in this come from?

DS: It’s difficult to say where ones interests come from, and I prefer not to probe too much (why question the muse?) but paper has always been a fascination. As a child I would gift wrap my mother’s shoe boxes because I loved the sound and feel of folding/creasing paper. I grew up with files, and once my father died we were inundated with litigation and even more files. I am very at home with files. It’s even my comfort zone you could say. That smell and sound of paper!

DW: Does this comfort zone extend to collecting, do you think? You’ve described your work as an act of collecting – each museum emerging from what you find recurring in your images. I wondered if your ideas of collecting were integral to your conception of photography as something that an artist uses? Your interest has moved beyond making singular pictures, even singular books.

DS: Gerhard (Steidl) was so happy when we made Sent A Letter, precisely because it could be acquired for the same amount of money as a book, but then it could transform into 7 exhibitions at the drop of a hat. And now with Museum Bhavan, you effectively are the curator of 16 exhibitions of mine (if you already have Sent A Letter). I sometime call myself an ‘offset’ artist, sometimes an ‘image collector’. Photography is a way of collecting experiences, no? Is that not the privilege of photography? Maybe we all are collectors of experiences. And then like a writer, one has to see what form one gives to those experiences. That part perhaps comes more easily when one is an artist. This idea of finding the right form for each work, like say Geoff Dyer does for each piece of his writing; as Calvino did too.

DW: In relation to collecting, but also the idea of finding the right forms, one of the most enigmatic, but also telling books of Museum Bhavan is the Ongoing Museum. Here it seems that you are playing with what it means to collect, assemble, remember and construct. Images of events, models, hands setting out displays, plaques, and movie scenes all seem to suggest that things both are, and are not what they seem. More importantly, it seems to suggest that they can be what you want them to be. Is your inclusion of the ‘ongoing’ a way of re-wiring those things which appear to be static, fixed down?

DS: Some of the books have two titles, to differentiate them from an earlier published version: eg File Room morphs into Godrej Museum and Museum of Chance into Ongoing Museum. But some like Little Ladies Museum and Museum of Photography have two titles anyway. It’s a little play on how one’s reading changes with the title.

DW: You’ve worked with Gerhard Steidl for a long time, rather than switching between different publishers. Can you describe your working relationship? It seems integral to the books now.

DS: None of this could have happened without the support of Gerhard Steidl, he is my co-conspirator. I think he enjoys the challenge each book brings. At first he says ‘no’, and then the next day he agrees to each crazy idea of mine. I doubt he makes any money with my books, but he likes how we push the envelope each time, though the 88 different covers did drive the bindery crazy. I then made a suitcase for the sets (of Museum Bhavan), and now have a suitcase museum since I was the only one who has the full sets. It was also a way to make people go to a bookshop or an event, to choose your own cover, because online you would not be able to choose.

DW: In your discussion with Steidl in the Conversation Chambers part of the Museum Bhavan (a small stapled book, with interviews between Dayanita Singh and Gerhard Steidl, and with Aveek Sen), it seems like you come together over an interest in paper? Is that a place where you share a passion?

DS: Yes Gerhard and I share a great love for paper. He even made a perfume called Paper Passion. The interview in the pocket museum was pre Museum Bhavan but ends with my asking him if he would consider such an object. He said ‘yes’.

DW: Behind your shared interests in the materials of bookmaking, your work also has a concern with the work going out into the world, it reaching different homes and being available over being exclusive. Is distributing a book an act that has particular social and political messages for you?

DS: The magic of photography is not just in the image but also in the dissemination it allows. After all, a photograph can exist in many different ways. The art world limits this scope of photography and the book is where photography is at its democratic best, and when one can make a book that is on par with one’s exhibition, or is indeed the exhibition, then could one say that it takes photography beyond even the art world. I always think that there needs to be a place between the publishing house and the gallery that has the dissemination of publishing and the ‘uniqueness’ of the art gallery. Can a book be both? Steidl and I both believe it can and I think we present this very contradiction with Museum Bhavan.

DW: As I understand it, your critique is of the exhibition, and the way that it perpetuates a standard or homogeneous audience. The opportunity of the book is the way it is open to the sites and layers of discovery – in the bookshop, on a friend’s bookshelves, in a library, or even at a flea market. It could be seen by almost anyone. It reinstates Malraux’s idea that art (art history) comes to you. You seem to be wanting to change what the museum is, and who it is for…

DS: Yes, it is a critique of how we exhibit photography, especially since photography has so many forms embedded in it – and its dissemination is part of the medium. Ongoing Museum is to suggest just that – a museum needs to be ongoing, ever changing, waxing and waning.

Image courtesy of Dayanita Singh. © Ulrike Sommer