1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#5 David Campany

David Campany is a curator, writer and educator. His books include Indeterminacy: thoughts on Time, the Image and Race(ism), co-authored with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (MACK, 2022); On Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 2020); Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Steidl, 2013); Photography and Cinema (Reaktion Books, 2008) and Art and Photography (Phaidon, 2003). His curatorial projects include #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis (2020), The Lives and Loves of Images (2020) and A Handful of Dust (2015).

At what point did you start to write about photographs?

‘About’ is a complicated word. I first started to write during my undergraduate years. I was on a wildly ambitious 50/50 programme, half image-making, half writing, informed by a number of disciplines: semiotics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, post-colonial theory, theories of institutions and ideology, aesthetics, phenomenology and film theory. Reading preceded any writing. Lots of it. I was struck early on by the difference between writings that began from the particular – this or that image – and writings that began with a theoretical abstraction, and deployed photographs as illustrations or examples. Both have their merit, of course, and I wrote in both ways at that time. Seven or eight years later, opportunities came my way to write for magazines and books, and I had to figure out if I could do something. By then, I had already been teaching for a few years. I suspect the daily practice of getting complex ideas into sentences comprehensible to students shaped how I began to write. As the years passed, I became somewhat averse to writing ‘about’ photographs, preferring to write around them, off them, in parallel, leaving the image as something for the reader to consider for themself. This came from the realisation of how little words can do in the face of the image, and to pretend otherwise was folly. That ‘little’ is vitally important, but it is little.

What is your writing process?

Everyone has their own creative rhythms and must accept them, because they cannot really be altered. I’m not all that productive but I don’t waste time. I usually work on two texts at once because I get stuck so often, and instead of doing nothing I can switch.

Most often, I write in order to find out what I think about things, and I try to write in a way that will carry me and the reader through that thinking. That means that the form of the writing is always in play, and cannot be taken for granted. I never know if a piece of writing is going to work out.

Occasionally, I’ve written polemics, and polemical writing was certainly the strongest kind I encountered as a student. I still relish reading strident texts, past and present. They do help to clarify. But I discovered I was temperamentally unsuited to that mode, which is premeditated and programmatic. Writing to discover what you think is quite different. It is speculative, risky, uncharted. Against that, I enjoy the parameter of the word count. If there’s no limit, my writing gets baggy. Not always, but often. (Maybe that’s why I’ve never blogged.) Interesting writing can be any length. A hundred words, a thousand, ten thousand.

What opened me up was the realisation that I could include images alongside my words. The richest experiences I’d had as a reader were with writings that included images, mainly in books on cinema. I liked it when the choice and sequence of images threaded through a text seemed almost like a form of writing. My own writing is done this way wherever possible. If I can get the ‘image track’ to feel interesting, to me at least, I can then begin to write. I don’t know of many other writers who do this. My interest in this approach is why I also became a curator and an editor of photographic books. There are parallels. I have often encouraged students to write this way, beginning with the choice of images. I’ve noticed it can work wonders for smart students who thought they had no chance of writing well, or in a way that they might enjoy and benefit from. If you fear the blank page, put an image on it. (Having the image on the page for the reader to look at for themselves is also a great discipline for a writer.)

I rewrite a lot. Partly, this is because my first drafts are lousy, but I’m trying to get my words to work well on the ear. I’m sure that comes from teaching, but also from the fact that I’ve always been impressed by good public speaking. If my words are dead to the ear, I know I need to rewrite. That’s not a rule for all writing. It just works for me.

The invitation plays a key part. I am fortunate in that institutions, publishers and image-makers often ask me to write. That element of surprise is really useful, as is the feeling of confidence one gets when someone likes your work and thinks you could do something worthwhile. I’m as likely to write for a little-known artist as for a major institution. Follow the work, not the reputation.

Sometimes I would rather not produce a text on my own, feeling I have more interesting things to discuss than to write. In these situations, I’m likely to suggest a conversation or written exchange, rather than an essay. Some of my published conversations – with Jeff Wall, Anastasia Samoylova, Stephen Shore, Sophie Rickett, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Daniel Blaufuks, for example – are among my favourite writings. I should say here that these conversations really are conversations. They are open-ended, speculative, responsive and all about the exchange of ideas. I know this project has the word ‘Conversations’ in its title, but it doesn’t really contain conversations. What I’m writing here is a response to a questionnaire: an efficient way to solicit formatted ‘content’. That’s why the questionnaire is such a dominant form these days. A conversation is the opposite.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

Mixed feelings are the best motivation for me as a writer, and as a viewer. If my feelings are too clear to begin with, then there’s little in it for me. As for problems, I think the largest one has been the growing gap between writing that takes place in the academy (universities) and writing that takes place outside. I think this is worrying for a society. When I became a writer, having worked in a university for a while, that gap was already becoming very real, and I could see it had political consequences. The smart stuff wasn’t getting into the world, and when it did, it was not often understood. As neo-liberal capitalism marched its violent way onwards, the academy retreated from the public square, making its critiques and presenting its alternatives to its peer group, in ways its peer group appreciated. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. As an emerging writer, I had to face that in a very immediate way. I made the decision, for good or bad, to publish outside of the academy. I’ve written very few “peer-reviewed” essays for academic journals, for example. (Seriously, who wants to live in a peer-reviewed culture? Sounds vaguely Stalinist to me. Sure, I want my brain surgeon to have read the right journals. Culture is different.) The essays I have written for academic journals were to see if I could do it on those terms, as an exercise. Once I’d ticked that box, I wanted other challenges, other audiences, which I didn’t know existed but I had a feeling they might. (I’m always fascinated to see how people who write about photography describe themselves. ‘Theorist’. ‘Art historian’. ‘Critic’. ‘Academic’. The aversion to the term ‘Writer’ says a lot.)

There is such anxiety around images. Rightly so, and for a lot of reasons. But there is a tendency for writing, for writers on the visual arts, to step in and overwrite, to attempt to supply the ‘script for looking’, to take away the anxiety the image produces and stabilise things. More often than not, this is prejudice and preference masquerading as reason. One sees this in everything from museum wall texts, to reviews, blogs and critiques. Images get ‘explained’ in terms of authorial intention, biography, strategy, what we ‘ought’ to be thinking, and so forth. This runs the risk of diminishing us all as viewers, patronising us while pretending to enlighten. Moreover, it refuses the essential ambiguity of images. There are forms of writing that don’t do this, that keep the door open, however awkward and painful that can be. Ambiguity, the openness of the image, can be an anxious problem… But it is the only way out, so we ought to embrace it.

The other problems that motivate my writing are self-imposed. They involve finding new relations between image, thought and language. 

What kind of reader are you? 

Pretty voracious and wide-ranging. I am also a re-reader. Texts can be returned to, in order to figure out how they were written, and as a way of measuring one’s own intellectual and emotional development. There are novels and philosophical essays I make an effort to reread every few years. They stay the same. I change.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I had no idea curation was so prominent. Nevertheless, writing is writing and curation is curation. They share some concerns and approaches, of course, but, as a writer and a curator, I’m interested in the differences.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Unimprovable sentences. The ability to get paid. (As far as I know, we’re all doing this project for nothing.)

What texts have influenced you the most?

Influence is largely unconscious, so don’t ask me. I am not being flippant. The answers we give about our influences are merely the answers we are able to give. Among my conscious answers, the ones that come readily to mind are the writings of Roland Barthes (on almost anything other than photography), Susan Sontag (same), Jacques Derrida, Fred Moten, Susan Stewart, Fredric Jameson, Raul Ruiz, Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Victor Burgin, Frantz Fanon, Adam Phillips, George Orwell, Lydia Davis, Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf. I would give a different answer tomorrow, I’m sure. Between what we know and what we don’t, there are hunches and intuitions. I have a hunch that the texts influencing me most profoundly were, and are, song lyrics. Words as sung. I cannot memorise a line of poetry, even if it means the world to me. I remember songs without even trying. I cannot imagine this has not had an effect, but I am not sure I could define it.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

There are many places. It’s good to be mindful of this.

The space of critical refusal interests me. For example, how would discussions about identity take shape if one considered the possibility that the most interesting and profound things about identity do not offer themselves to the camera, to visibility? Or, what do we do about the fact that the narrowly consensual categories of both the mass media and art world demand certain conformities? At what points and in what situations might a commitment to photography be a walking away from it, and a turning towards something else, either as a maker, writer or viewer? There are photographers who face these questions and find other ways. And there are writers who have advocated for this too. The endless ‘commitment’ to photography, the presumption that all things of value can and must be available to its often-crushing and limiting embrace, is a very real issue. This should be faced as a matter of some urgency. (I don’t feel committed to photography at all costs, merely fascinated by it, and life beyond it is rich.) Critical refusal ought to be a vital part of the way photography is thought, discussed, taught and written. It should always be on the table. There are many positive signs that this is happening.♦

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


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-David Campany

2-Book cover of David Campany, On Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 2020)

3Book cover of David Campany, The Lives and Loves of Images (Kehrer Verlag, 2020)

4-Book cover of David Campany, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Steidl, 2013)

5-Book cover of David Campany, #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis (G Editions, 2021)

 

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#4 Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani is a historian of photography, researcher and writer based between London and Marseille, France. She is currently writing a PhD on the relationship between political actions and photographic gestures. Dahmani is also editor and content advisor at The Eyes, a trustee of the Photo Oxford Festival and on the editorial board of MAI: Visual Culture and Feminism.

Recent writings include “Heeding time: reviewing and rereading Périphérique” in Mohamed Bourouissa, Périphérique (Loose Joints, 2021); “A meeting between the thought of Stuart Hall and the films of John Akomfrah” in Penser avec Stuart Hall (La Dispute, 2021); “Racism and anti-racist struggles in 1970s London: When the walls speak, placards respond!” in Le phototexte engagé – Une culture visuelle du militantisme au XXe siècle (Les Presses du réel, 2021); “From a space of resistance, to the institution’s place: the history of Autograph ABP, between 1988 and 2007” in Marges #33 (2021) and “Bharti Parmar’s True Stories: Against the grain of Sir Benjamin Stone’s Photographic Collection” in PhotoResearcher #30 (2018).

In 2022, Dahmani will contribute a chapter about Polareyes, a magazine by and for Black British women photographers, in Resist, Organize, Build (SUNY Press, 2022), and serve as the curator of the Louis Roederer Discovery Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

The very first time I wrote about a photograph was eight years ago in a university exam for my history of photography course. We had three hours to write a “dissertation” – a methodology-heavy French way of writing a “paper”. And it was actually the last time I wrote anything with a pen. I only vaguely remember that I wrote about a Bill Owens photograph and its relation to capitalism. But I vividly remember my eagerness and nascent aspiration.

Fast forward slightly less than a decade and I’m now writing up my PhD as the end product of my journey in French academia. Looking back, this education – its numerous rules and regulations – was a process of acculturation. One way of writing, to perpetuate one way of thinking. On scholarly work, Edward Saïd wrote that it is an ‘on-going activity within an already constituted field of discourse.’ It exists only to be perpetuated as it is.

In 2019, when Tim Clark, Editor in Chief of 1000 Words, invited me to write about a photobook, I welcomed the invitation as a breath of fresh air. I also welcomed the proposal as an opportunity to transcribe, for a wider readership – a conscious reasoning – the accumulation of knowledge and experience that has shaped me as a researcher. This experience started my interest in non-academic writing – its forms and meanings – and its potential for accessibility. As such, this experience was another “first time”.

Today, I feel like I’m playing a tug of war with myself: one team trying to follow presiding ways of writing a PhD thesis; the other exploring the freedom of essay writing. At the end of a long and laborious project such as a PhD thesis, I am embracing the feeling of re-starting, re-becoming an apprentice writer. Originating from the French verb “essayer” (to try), “the essay” is a great form for critical thinking, and I will attempt to weave my academic background into this new form in the future – asking myself, as Daniel C. Blight asked himself a few years ago: ‘What is the politics of essay writing on photography?’ Blending disciplinary disregard and acute consideration for this form.

What is your writing process?

[I’ll answer this question for essay writing only.]

On good days:

  1. I place my phone behind my computer screen – on airplane mode – and have a cuppa to hand.
  2. I put on my earphones with the curious “focus music” which populates YouTube and which helps me create a sort of “concentration bubble”.
  3. I read something: either from the digital pile of PDFs under my “research” folder or from an article I have received in one of the many newsletters that arrive every day in my inbox. Reading gets me focused but reading also produces two things: quotations and ideas.
  4. I jot down reflections about a selected quote. In her book In the Wake (2016), Christina Sharpe points out that: ‘thinking needs care.’ I consider quotations a profound demonstration of care for thinkers and their ideas: they are “thank-yous” to the people who produced knowledge before us. They are also invitations for curious readers: footnotes open never-ending “reading pathways”.
  5. The accumulation of quotes and notes – and sometimes interviews with photographers – form my “base”. When I’m not rushed by a deadline I let the reading, the note taking and the “base creation” percolate. The longer the better, the essay will “live” and “evolve” in my mind, creating new possible directions.
  6. When the deadline is approaching, I start a new Word document and write a first draft “from scratch”. The first sentence takes courage, the second trust. I can’t start writing an essay if I don’t have a clear orientation – often found during the “percolating period”. I tend to think that essays need to make a point, be a demonstration not a decoration. But, might not the best one be precisely both?
  7. I go back to my “base” to “feed” the first draft of the essay. I add precision. Because of which kind of photographs/photographers I am writing about, I am wary of ambiguity or obscurity. I make sure any complex ideas mentioned are mobilised in an intelligible way: I want to make sure they are accessible and in accordance with the assumed readership.
  8. I think and write in French and English. Early drafts of most of my texts are written in both languages which ultimately leads to me feeling sorry for myself when something “comes out” fine in one language but doesn’t translate well. Often, this kickstarts a process where I juggle between a French-English dictionary and a Thesaurus. Another challenge of writing in both these languages is having to navigate different levels of “discourse acceptance”: concepts and ideas are not similarly established in different countries; references and words might need to be explained differently (especially in the fields of critical race theory and postcolonial studies).
  9. I remove the earphones to read the paragraph written out loud, I correct and I rectify. I repeat the process as many times as there are paragraphs. This list was read at least five times.

On bad days:

I generally love listening to podcasts or watching interviews of people who talk in detail about their craft and practice. So, on bad days, I turn to writers who have written about writing. I often think of this Marguerite Duras quote: ‘One cannot write without bodily strength. One must be stronger than oneself to approach writing; one must be stronger than what one is writing.’

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

The last five years of my life have been dedicated to my doctoral research. My thesis is articulated, in a nutshell, around the photographic representation of struggles and the struggle for photographic representation in England from the end of the 1960s to the end of the ’80s. Most of my essays, so far, have been more or less inspired by my ongoing obsession with image-making and political action whether expressed in iconographies or ecosystems (or ‘worlds’ to reference Howard S. Becker).

That said, most of my essays have been dedicated to very contemporary artists/photographers and, as such, most of them have tried to “respond” to image-makers that ‘create dangerously’ to quote Edwidge Danticat, who describes that process as such: ‘[It] is creating as a revolt against silence, creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive.’ I’m motivated by disobedient artists-photographers. I’m driven by the problems defiant image-makers highlight. Their insubordination can be found in their craft or form, in their practice or discourse. They are oppositional in their way of behaving with, around or against photography. Their rebellion can be loud or whispered – I’ll listen.

What kind of reader are you? 

As a doctoral researcher, reading is a great part of my day-to-day work. As such, libraries become toolboxes and books instruments towards the completion of a project. The Stakhanovic nature of a PhD means that I rarely re-read books – with the significant exception of bell hooks whom I could read every day. If I re-read an article, it is often in order to “double check” or “make sure”.

However, the first lockdown taught me the power of re-reading and reading several books at the same time: realising that, often, as with a person, you need the “right time” to truly discover a book’s content. To take an example, I had always “used” Roland Barthes’ theories (and taught Camera Lucida (1980) in exactly the same way it had been passed down by my professor), but, with my recent dive into essay writing, I started paying attention to the confidentiality, familiarity and sensitive nature of his work: making him a thousand times more interesting.

So, as I’m trying to become another kind of writer, I’m becoming another kind of reader: trying to find the route towards an embodied strategy of narration that exists at the meeting place of gut (biography) and brain (history/theory). A delicate balance between decency and intelligibility. I have to say that I have come a long way: French academic education forbids expressions of subjectivity or opinion – or more exactly, uses objectivity to hide the dominants’ point of views. The first time I wrote “I” to start a sentence I felt a blast of freedom on my keyboard. In How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983), Johanna Russ wrote: ‘Although crammed with facts and references, [women’s writing] has the wrong style; it is personal and sounds unscholarly, a charge often levelled at modern feminist writing. That is, the tone is not impersonal, detached, and dry enough – in short, not patriarchal enough – to produce belief.” As you can imagine, reading beacons such as Saidiya V. Hartman, Sharpe and Tina M. Campt for the first time was extremely arresting.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I struggle with this question. For me, one can only compare similar elements and the contrast between the experience of reading and the experience of visiting an exhibition is too dissimilar: providing disparate bodily and intellectual experiences. Being a reader and being a viewer/spectator are two distinct positions. However, I guess we could maybe examine the knowledge produced by catalogues vs. magazines, journals and other sorts of publications. Such an investigation might quickly lead us back to accessibility (price, printed/online, language, themes, etc.). The performative aspect of exhibitions – if the work of going through the doors of a gallery/museum is achieved – makes it probably more approachable. In the age of social media, we face very different ethics of attention and, as a result, disparate receptions/reactions/effects.

That said, if I really have to answer the question, I would say that the “prominent” status of exhibitions over theories/histories that you seem to detect is probably only the result of radical and forward-thinking theorists and historians. Good exhibitions are made by curators (and artists) who read. I have a hard time imagining the act of thinking – or giving shape to ideas – without writing, so I’m guessing curation is another form of writing. Curating can then become a translation and even a visual/embodied comment on theories/histories. Exhibitions can be powerful rhetorical demonstrations. Yet, the limitations of exhibition-making are much more real than the limits of words on paper (publication aside). For me, the main question is who writes and who curates and which platforms these people are given. How we know what we know and who is allowed to share what they know?

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

This is an extremely hard question. But to answer, I would say 1. their politics 2. their attention to detail 3. their humanity.

  1. Marguerite Duras wrote that writing is: ‘Screaming without sound’. When I read Hartman, Hannah Arendt, Ariella Aïcha Azoulay, Etel Adnan and Trinh T. Minh-ha, I hear their screams. If anger is pain with nowhere to go, writing then becomes a sort of socially accepted “place”. Political anger translated into words is definitely something I admire in these writers. I would also like to mention a young generation of badass writers such as Legacy Russell and her Glitch Feminism manifesto (2020) or Durga Chew-Bose’s singular writing in Too Much and Not the Mood (2017).
  2. A focus on a detail, such as a cup of coffee let’s say, can be a powerful rhetorical node, as revealed beautifully by Mahmoud Darwish in Memory for Forgetfulness (1982). I’m not a very patient person, and struggle with the exercise of description, so, recently, when I read A Black Gaze (2021) by Campt, I was quite mesmerised by the attention she seems to give to descriptions of the art works she mobilises (the same consideration/scrutiny can be found in Listening to Images (2017) for example). A detail can also be an anecdote that becomes a compelling argument. In the same book, Campt explains the effect of the weather on her experience of an exhibition: this opened many threads of thought.
  3. I’m a big reader of autobiographies and in-depth interviews because of the possibility of hearing the artists’ voices. But, the ability of writers such as Olivia Laing, for example, to emphasise her own and artists’ human experiences is definitely something I admire. I never thought I would care so much about someone like Andy Warhol until I read The Lonely City (2016). I also love artists such as Coco Fusco who write about other artists – they tend to reveal a very distinctive perspective on the artworks they write about. I like books that are accounts of being and guides for becoming. I also like writers, who are not “writers” as such: recently I read a text written by a photographer, for the first time, wrote about a decade of work. Vasantha Yogananthan’s essay, in his latest photobook Amma (2021), moved me greatly because of his bravery in writing about his journey as a photographer with the most generous vulnerability.

What texts have influenced you the most?

[Influence seems like a big word, but, off the top of my head, here is a non-exhaustive list of names, in no particular order, with endless recognition for carrying me through years of doctoral research.]

Edwidge Danticat Jacques Rancière Gayatri Spivak Marie-José Mondzain Allan Sekula Frantz Fanon W.J.T Mitchell Fred Moten James Baldwin Shawn Michelle Smith John Berger Paul Ricoeur Susan Sontag Sara Ahmed Stuart Hall Judith Burtler Simon de Beauvoir Eric Hazan Julia Kristeva Angela Y. Davis Adrienne Rich Nicholas Mirzoeff Edouard Glissant Christina Sharpe Elsa Tamara Trodd Dorlin Jo Spence Sarah Lewis Victor Burgin Kobena Mercer Laura Mulvey Chris Kraus Steve Edwards Lucy R. Lippard Val Williams Elvan Zabunyan Mieke Bal Jacqueline Bobo Hazel V. Carby Eddie Chambers Patricia Hill Collins Sandra Harding Elizabeth Edwards Anna Backman Rogers Siona Wilson Harriet Riches Paul Gilroy bell hooks Heidi Safia Mirza Griselda Pollock Rozsika Parker Liz Wells Deborah Willis Pratibha Parmar David A. Bailey Roshini Kempadoo Sarat Maharaj Gilane Tawados Ambalavaner Sivanandan Maurice Berger John Tagg Albert Memmi Saul Alinsky Antonio Gramsci Audre Lorde C.L.R. James Edward Saïd Homi K. Bhabha Fatima Mernissi Walter Rodney Achille Mbembe Frieda Ekotto Derek Walcott Patrick Chamoiseau Mahmoud Darwish Paul B. Preciado Tina M. Campt Saidiya Hartman Hannah Arendt Ariella Aïcha Azoulay Etel Adnan Aruna D’Souza Teju Cole Trinh T. Minh-ha and many others that I’ll regret not naming once this interview is published.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

I am tempted to give a somewhat literal answer to this question: addressing geography and platforms. The hegemony of the English language and concomitantly the predominance of the global North in knowledge dissemination (not production) questions “the place of criticality in photography writing now”. Published and widely circulated criticality in photography is not diverse or inclusive enough. However, the recent publication of Dark Mirrors (2021) by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is an inspiring step for critical writing.

Then comes the question of where does one find critical thinking (as opposed to journalism) in photography today? A few online platforms (in English) exist, a couple of publishers defend it – that’s it (in France, outside academia, it’s almost non-existent for example). Critical consciousness certainly exists, the lack of platforms to express it is, for me, an important aspect today. Without sounding boards, it is difficult to develop true debate and exchange or create space for a diversity of equal voices to express themselves.

Lastly, I feel like the place of criticality in photography writing now is in complexifying “recently acknowledged” notions/ideas/struggles. Lately, oppositions around photographer Deana Lawson’s iconography are for me fascinating “places” of criticality, for example. Debate is probably one of the greatest signs of the recognition of a multi-layered artist and a complex body of work.♦

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


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Taous R. Dahmani © Lynn S.K

2-Book cover of Joanna Russ, How To Suppress Women’s Writing (University of Texas Press, 1983)

3-Book cover of Christina Sharpe, In the Wake – On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016)

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#3 Joanna Zylinska

Joanna Zylinska is an artist, writer, curator and Professor of Media Philosophy + Critical Digital Practice at King’s College London. She is an author of a number of books, including AI Art: Machine Visions and Warped Dreams (Open Humanities Press, 2020) and Nonhuman Photography (MIT Press, 2017). She also co-edited open-access works, Photomediations: An Open Book and Photomediations: A Reader, as part of the Europeana Space project funded by the European Commission. Her art practice involves experimenting with different kinds of image-based media. In 2013, she was Artistic Director of Transitio_MX05 Biomediations, the biggest Latin American new media festival, which took place in Mexico City. She is currently researching perception and cognition as boundary zones between human and machine intelligence, whilst trying to answer the question: ‘Does photography have a future?’.

At what point did you start to write about photographs?

I came to writing about photography (rather than just photographs) relatively late in my career. I had been working as a media academic at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching the philosophical and cultural aspects of digital media for many years. I had also had an active research interest in art, particularly new media art. But photography had been my secret love, something I had practiced “on the side”, so to speak, but that I hadn’t brought into any of my more “proper” academic work. It all changed in 2007, when, still working at Goldsmiths, I decided to enrol on a practice-based MA in photography at the University of Westminster. I did that a little bit in secret too! Doing that MA changed everything. It encouraged me to start incorporating practice into my written work, to change the way I write and to address photography more comprehensively as a key medium of our times. It also led me to develop a new philosophy of photography, culminating in my book, Nonhuman Photography (2017). (Analysing photographs that were not of, by or for the human, that book looked at the photographic medium across the scale of so-called ‘deep time’. It positioned various ‘impressioning’ practices, from fossils through to tanning, as forms of photographic practice, alongside its more conventional forms such as photograms, analogue film frames or digital snapshots.)

What is your writing process?

Because I try to maintain that dual track of having an image-based practice as well as working on photography philosophically, I am very mindful that writing about photography shouldn’t use photographs just as illustrations. Rather, in recognition of photography’s agency, I would say that I write with photographs. Often these will be projects by other people (artworks, social media practices) or social and technical networks in which photographs play an active role (Internet search engines, image databases for training AI algorithms). But I also try to develop some aspects of my theoretical argument from photographic practice. So I often start with an idea and a project – like with Active Perceptual Systems, where I wore a necklace-like Autographer camera for two years whilst writing about nonhuman vision, or when I hired workers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk labour platform to take a photo from the window of the room they were in with a view to creating a collective portrait of invisible ‘undigital’ global workforce, as part of my work on AI and art. So, in my work, I try to get writing and image-based practice to speak to each other, to push each other and then also, inevitably, to converge.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing?

The primary concern of my work over the years has been the constitution of the human as both a species and a historical subject. Adopting this geological probe of ‘deep time’ mentioned earlier, I have looked at the emergence of the human in conjunction with the surrounding technologies, such as tools and other artefacts but also communication in its various modes – be it everyday language, storytelling, ethics, art and, last but not least, photography. In an attempt to challenge human exceptionalism without giving up on my own curiosity about my phylogenetic kin (i.e., other people), in my writing, I zoom in on the signal points of the human such as intelligence, consciousness and perception. With this, I aim to explore the entanglements of human and nonhuman forms of intelligence, including the promises and threats offered by AI and machine vision. Currently, I am working on perception as arguably the key mode of engagement with the world in different species. This project involves looking at the reconfiguration of ‘the eye’ in the digital age and at the humanist blind spot in machine vision. As part of this work, I am investigating the role played by images, especially mechanically-produced images such as photographs, in human becoming. Looking at the transformation of photography by computation – and the transformation of human perception by algorithmically-driven images, from CGI to AI – I am also trying to figure out what it means to live surrounded by image flows and machine eyes. This radical transformation of the photographic medium is currently leading me to explore a question which is also a provocation: ‘Does photography have a future?’

Does your concern for writing about positions beyond anthropocentrism impact on how you write? Is there a way to write beyond our human positionality?

My work is produced from within the theoretical standpoint recognised as critical posthumanism, a position that does not mean any straightforward overcoming of the human (were such a thing even possible), but that rather involves a rewriting or re-enactment of the human under the conditions of the planetary crisis resulting from the nexus of colonialism, globalisation, technoscience, late capitalism and climate change. You could say that I’m trying to write myself out of the conceptual and political strictures of humanism, with its constitutive forms of violence. I’m trying to accomplish this both in the content of my writings and in its style – which is often hesitant, minimal as well as ironic. This attempt also involves mixing different genres, different modes of enquiry and different media. At the same time, I’m aware that, even though many animals are known to leave traces – i.e. surface marks which could be seen as forms of inscription – grammatological writing is a specifically human practice; a practice that both makes sense to and is valued by humans. So, I’m also writing in full recognition of writing being a species-specific behaviour to which we humans have assigned a particular cultural value (a value which I of course also hold dear).

What is the role of writing in relation to what you have described as photography’s proximity to extinction, to climate transformation? Is this, in part, a recognition that photography’s industrial conditions feed into extinction whilst representing it?

My work, both written and image-based, is indeed produced within the horizon of extinction, which represents the awareness of the eventual expiration of the human species and other species alongside us, and of our planet as a whole. But it’s also driven by a sense of urgency prompted by the foreshortening of this horizon as a result of the destructive human impact on planet Earth. Photography has of course been part of this impact – from the extraction of minerals needed to produce cameras and the use of harmful photochemical materials through to photography’s participation in the extractive data economy which is extremely resource-heavy (even if it’s sold to us through images of immaterial flows and clouds). Yet photography, as you point out, has also been used to represent, record and challenge practices leading to this accelerated extinction. Last but not least, there’s an existential dimension to photography for me. Photography, a par excellence practice of imaging and imagination (i.e. a practice of copying, making likenesses, mapping, making mental pictures and ideating), can serve as a conduit for asking bigger questions about our own ‘thrownness’ in the world – of which we are only temporary inhabitants – and of imagining different futures for ourselves and our planet. This future-oriented horizon of extinction, beyond the death of singular humans (be it that of Roland Barthes’ mother or our own), makes photography into what Swedish philosopher Amanda Lagerkvist has called ‘an existential medium’.

What kind of reader are you?

Committed, engaged, playful – but also forgetful. You could say that I read for an experience of an idea rather than for the purpose of constructing world systems out of the previously existing ideas.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent?

My previous answer might signify that I don’t care much about historical unfoldings and coherent linear trajectories. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. I recognise that meaningful photographic curation requires expertise, which needs to involve familiarity with theories and histories of photography. We also have to remember that these theories and histories are already forms of curation – and that they can be rewritten, restaged, rearranged.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

A mixture of rigour and vitality and a desire to say something interesting and new about the world. I appreciate writers who have an awareness of their own writerly task – and who take this task (but not necessarily themselves, under the guise of ‘Here I Am as a Great Writer Speaking to You My Dear Reader’) seriously. My ideal writerly voice would be Roland Barthes from A Lover’s Discourse (1977) – but not, for the love of God, Camera Lucida (1980) – hybridised with Donna Haraway and Rebecca Solnit, and then remixed through some postcolonial epistemologies and affects, such as those coming from Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.

What texts have influenced you the most?

There are so many – from texts on photography by writers such as Vilém Flusser, Geoffrey Batchen and Tina M. Campt, through to those whose authors have shown me the way with words and concepts: Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Tim Ingold, Juhani Pallasmaa, Stanisław Lem. The book I wish I had written myself is Pandora’s Camera: Photogr@phy After Photography (2014) by Joan Fontcuberta.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

We now live in image flows – we are surrounded by photographs on screens large and small, and are mediating our relationships with others through images. Photographs and other images form a transparent layer through which we see the world. I am increasingly concerned about the fact that this layer remains largely unseen. So, for me, the function of criticality in photography writing would consist in drawing attention to that seemingly transparent photographic layer, to see it for what it is, for what it’s made of and for how it’s made. This would need to involve going beyond semiotic readings of individual images – although I believe there is still need for developing an image literacy of an interpretative kind. But it would also need to involve developing an understanding of image infrastructures and of the way those infrastructures are involved in shaping our socio-political reality today. With this, we could perhaps go so far as to argue not only that photography writing needs to include criticality but also that any form of critical theory and critical writing today needs to engage, seriously and profoundly, with photography.♦

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


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Joanna Zylinska

2-Book cover of Joanna Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography (MIT Press, 2017)

3-Book cover of Joanna Zylinska, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press, 2014)

4-Joanna Zylinska, Planetary Exhalation, 2021

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#2 David Levi Strauss

David Levi Strauss is the author of Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (MIT Press, 2020)Photography and Belief (David Zwirner Books, 2020, and in an Italian edition by Johan & Levi, 2021)Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014)In Case Something Different Happens in the Future: Joseph Beuys and 9/11 (Documenta 13, 2012); From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010)Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture, 2003, 2012 and in an Italian edition by Postmedia Books, 2007) and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia, 1999 and 2010)

He has also co-edited To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution, with Michael Taussig, Peter Lamborn Wilson and Dilar Dirik (Autonomedia, 2016, and in an Italian edition by Elèuthera, 2017) and The Critique of the Image Is the Defense of the Imagination, with Strauss, Taussig and Wilson (Autonomedia, 2020). From 2007–21, Strauss directed the graduate programme in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts, New York, US.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

In 1975, when I was a 22-year-old poet, I went to study photography with Nathan Lyons at Visual Studies Workshop, which, at that time, was the best photography school in the US. MIT Press had just published Nathan’s landmark book of photographs, Notations in Passing (1971). When I first attended Nathan’s seminar, I handed him a handwritten copy of an essay I’d written in response to Notations in Passing, titled “The Ontology of the Eye, or A Stall of Cows, A Stall of Images”. It began this way: ‘The eye cannot be separated from the brain or memory. Visual data, like all sensory data, are immediately plugged into the complex mega-memory of the brain/soul.’ The other students in the seminar thought this was the most impertinent act they’d ever witnessed, but Nathan liked the piece. That was the beginning.

What is your writing process?

My process is ridiculously labour intensive and inefficient. I write 50 pages to get a page. I first produce an unwieldly mass of language, and then carve it down. It takes an incredibly long time. It’s a sculptural process, from the inside-out. I use montage and magic. The first sentence usually comes last.

It feels like there is something very photographic about this, the quantity of writing and the carefully selected final outcome, its compulsive recording and intensive editing. In the same way that a photographer develops a series of strategies, shortcuts and go-tos, are there tools or strategies that facilitate your final montage? How do you know that writing reaches the stage where you can write that first sentence?

I’ve never thought about my writing process having a correlative in photography, but I think you’re right. It is a process of selection. Each word is chosen from a very large number of possibilities, and, when each word is chosen, it affects every other word around it. The larger currents that determine form are rhythm and rhyme, at the level of phrase, clause, sentence and paragraph. If you get too attached to the individual words, you lose the music, and, if you lose the music, you lose the reader.

In the end, you’ve got to be able to separate yourself from the writing, and look at it as if someone else wrote it. Only then can you get to that level of absolute ruthlessness that is necessary in rewriting.

For me, the process is endless. At a certain point, someone takes it away from me and then it’s done. Like Duke Ellington said: “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.”

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

I write to find out what I think about things. I try to focus on the persistent questions: Why are we here? What does it mean? How and why do we believe technical images the way we do? How do these images actually work? Who benefits from this?

Right now, I’m trying to write about the End of the World, and the first question is: What is the world? This puts me immediately back at the image of the world. Most of the questions I deal with send me back to the image.

Something really distinctive in your recent writing is the way that images not only record the world but are informing it, producing it even. And your writing, dialogically, seems to want to change the image in turn. Do you write in order to challenge, and even change what the image might be?

Yes, absolutely. I want to change the image of the world, in however limited a way I can, through enactment and persuasion. One of the biggest problems in our time is that we no longer have a viable social image of the world.

What kind of reader are you? 

I’ve been a driven, voracious reader since I first learned to read, before starting grade school, and that has never changed. I read to live. When I was a child, my father discouraged me from reading, and sometimes punished me for it, thinking that it was an excuse not to work. So, I read in secret, sometimes literally in the closet and under the sheets. The act of reading always felt illicit to me, and this feeling never really went away. When I began to be encouraged to read in school, I always thought someone, surely, would realise that what I was doing was wrong, that I could go anywhere and be anyone when I read, and those in charge would realise how dangerous this was and stop me, but no one ever did.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

More significant than ever, I think. Photographic images are a significant part of the mechanism of social control in the world today, and we need to understand how they work and where they came from in order to resist this control.

I taught from 2001–05 at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, New York, and I became dismayed by the prevalence of what I came to call “curatorial rhetoric”; writing that borrowed terms and concepts from various specialised languages and used this jargon to protect the writer, and the reader, from experiencing the art in question. When I despaired of getting curators to abandon this kind of prophylactic rhetoric, I began to encourage them to hire outside writers, instead, to write catalogue essays.

You were Chair of the School of Visual Arts in New York’s celebrated Art Writing programme until very recently, overlapping with your time at Bard. In what ways did teaching writing inform your own practice?

By the time I became Chair of the Art Writing programme, I had been writing seriously for over 30 years, and had already gone through many transformations. But teaching certainly made me more aware of the difficulties and the dilemmas of writing in the present, as experienced by my younger students.

Teaching is a fundamentally optimistic act, like writing. In both, you’re imagining your reader/student into existence – imagining the very best of them. And I’ve been extremely lucky to have so many of my students join in this mutually transformative act.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Courage, honesty, generosity, risk and kindness.

What texts have influenced you the most?

The writings of John Berger, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Paul Virilio, Vilém Flusser, Jacques Ellul, Edward Said, Aimé Césaire, Albert Camus, Paul Valéry, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Marsilio Ficino, Leo Steinberg, Leon Golub, Jimmie Durham, Amiri Baraka, Linda Nochlin, Lucy Lippard, Elena Poniatowska, Guy Davenport, James Baldwin, Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Michael Taussig, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

And the poetry and prose of Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, John Keats, William Blake, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Diane di Prima and many others in this lineage.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

The more pressing question is: What is the place of criticality, or critical thinking, in the social realm today? Our current communications environment has reduced critical thinking to personal preferences and opinions, and amplified anger and fear, and that has made it difficult to engage difficult questions in the larger social frame with criticality. We need to find new ways to talk about important things.♦

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


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-David Levi Strauss © Sterrett Smith

2-Book cover of David Levi Strauss, Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (MIT Press, 2020)

3-Book cover of David Levi Strauss, Photography and Belief (David Zwirner Books, 2020)

4-Book cover of The Critique of the Image Is the Defense of the Imagination, eds. David Levi Strauss, Michael Taussig and Peter Lamborn Wilson (Autonomedia, 2020)

1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#1 Tina M. Campt

Tina M. Campt is a black feminist theorist of visual culture and contemporary art. She is Owen F. Walker Professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, US, where she leads the Black Visualities Initiative at the Cogut Institute for Humanities. Her early work theorised gender, racial and diasporic formation in black communities in Europe and southern Africa, and the role of vernacular photography in historical interpretation. Campt is the author of four books: Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender and Memory in the Third Reich (University Michigan Press, 2004); Image Matters: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press, 2012); Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017); and A Black Gaze (MIT Press, 2021). She is the founding convenor of the Practicing Refusal Collective and the Sojourner Project.

At what point did you start to write about photographs?

I started to write about photographs after writing my first book, which was an oral history of the Black community in Germany in the Nazi regime. I started writing about photographs of these individuals because I was asked to do a sound installation on their accounts of their life at that period of time. What forced me to actually start writing about images is that when we did the sound installation, when we were designing it and trying to think through it, what I realised is that there is no way to get people to listen to anything without giving them a focal point to look at. It was a real challenge because I had strenuously avoided including photographs of the individuals who I had spoken to, because I felt that anytime I presented my work, someone in the audience would ask: “Well, what did they look like?”. “What did they look like?” became this way of indexing whether or not their account would be true, or could be true, based on how they looked, so that their race had to register in their bodies and on their faces in order for their accounts of their experiences in the Third Reich to be considered true. I had always avoided using photographs because I didn’t want to put those individuals and their stories in that position. But when I faced the challenge of having people be in a sound installation and to stop to absorb it, I started looking for their photos, collecting their photos [to do that].

After that sound installation, I was just so incredibly impacted by their photographs because they resonated with me so much, even though they were of families that were very different than my own. And I started writing about the photographs in order to give voice to the responses that I was having that I couldn’t explain. And it really was just an experiment because I never studied photography, art, history, any kind of visual culture in college or in graduate school. I strenuously avoided that as well, and these photographs kind of lured or tantalised me. They provoked me to try and articulate what they solicited in me, and that became a practice that, ever since I started writing, has been both terrifying and truly exhilarating.

Would you say that your writing is about that, that encounter? Recording an encounter, but also facilitating an encounter, mobilising it?

Yes, it is. I was just reading this morning about Generation X and suddenly realised that I am Generation X! I always thought I was another generation! In this article I was reading, I recognised myself because Generation X was the generation of MTV. We were the generation where images inundated us in a way that was unfiltered. And previously there had been so many more filters on images and their circulation. So, as somebody who from childhood – I got my first television when I was six years old, a tiny, tiny Sony Trinitron that my grandmother gave me – I have been inundated with images all of my life. At the same time, that has made me someone who can easily gloss over images because I’m so used to them being such a strong part of my life. With photographs, I had the exact opposite experience, which was that I couldn’t gloss over them. They grabbed me and I would just get lost in them. And so the practice that you’re talking about is really about trying to linger in that experience of encounter and to share it in a way that makes others linger in the same process. So that’s always been the motivation. It’s always been a little bit like: “Does this image do the same thing to you as it does to me?” And I’ve never expected a “Yes”, but the nature of my writing is to ask that question and to get people to think about the answers.

What is your writing process?

I had one practice and it’s changed more recently in the last couple of years. The first writing practice was with photographs, and it was about spending some time looking at a photograph, and then putting it away and writing about what I thought I saw, or what I thought I was experiencing in relationship to it, and then bringing the photograph back and reading what I wrote while looking at the image and seeing what I got wrong or what the gaps were. My next step was not necessarily to correct the gaps, but to write about where they came from, if there was a disjuncture between what I thought I saw and what I saw. I tried to articulate why that was; so why, for example, did I think that I saw a kid that looked really happy when the kid looked really sullen? There was something about me bringing something to that image that led me down that path, and I think that’s important, to not just write about images to describe them exactly. What I try and do is to describe a relationship to them that develops both through seeing and feeling, and allowing yourself to feel and respond. And so that sort of ‘look, look away, look, look away’ was the way in which I wrote about vernacular photographs.

Since I’ve started writing about contemporary art and film, it’s kind of changed. It’s become much more physical because I rarely have the images. I’m rarely in possession of them, or I rarely have an extended period of time with them. With contemporary art, I usually sit on the floor. I sit on the floor of the museum and just literally look and write, look and write, for as long as I possibly can, before people start to make me feel uncomfortable. I then take that away and go home and continue writing. I set this intention or aspiration. The first part of that process is ethnographic: I’m sort of writing about myself encountering an image or a piece of art. And then it’s about unpacking the rest of what that relationship looks like, like what are the larger contextual things? And then, more recently, I’ve started writing about film and that has also become this extraordinarily spatial and haptic encounter, where I usually have to set up my computer with a sound system that will allow me to have contact with the audio, because the audio and the visual are so intertwined that I need to be able to feel the sound of a film. This is much harder for moving image; it’s harder to write in relationship to, and so I find it to be a really tedious process where usually I have my computer and I have an iPad and then I’m typing and I’ll pause and then I keep typing. It’s literally simultaneous to the moving of it, and once I get the whole thing down, I re-watch it, and then I’ve usually memorised the actual film by the time I’m done, and I can tell you what it is, frame by frame.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing?

That has also shifted over time. When I first started writing about the family photographs with Black German families, what motivated me to write about them was trying to account for visual intimacy at a moment or in a circumstance where that seemed impossible. Those photographs were able to capture care, intimacy and relation in ways that I had never seen written about before. I carried that forward into writing about the vernacular images of the Black British community (the Afro-Caribbean community in Birmingham), where, in their staged photographs, I found a level of identity that was expressed so profoundly, and so profoundly beyond words.

That was a moment in time when I was thinking about “what do photographs allow people to do, or to say?” That was really the question of Image Matters (2012): what do they help us to do, or to say when we don’t have the other resources to do or say that? When I was writing about compelled photographs, it was the same question: what do these images allow those individuals to do and to say beyond what the state is telling them to do and to say through their image making.

More recently, the question that that has motivated my writing is how does the work of contemporary artists challenge us to see our world differently and to see it by feeling our implication in some of the injustices of this current moment? Those artists’ lenses – and those lenses can be cameras, can be clay, can be a stage, can be can be all sorts – give us a frame that takes us outside of ourselves and puts us in proximity with things we don’t want to be in proximity with. And so the question I have had is: how do they do that? How are they able to put us in proximity to things that we don’t want to be proximate to, and how does that change us in the process?

What kind of reader are you?

I’m a bad reader! I am the reader I tell my students not to be, which is I skim. It’s a kind of excavation. I read really quickly and I’m searching for something, and when I find it, I read it over and over and over again. It becomes a wormhole. I got my PhD in History, and I was trained to be a reader of footnotes, and so I’m somebody who, once I get there, that sends me elsewhere to find all these other things. My synapses start going. And so I am both the reader that I tell my students not to be, which is to skim, and then I am who I tell them to be, which is to read openly and capaciously and connect the dots, and read people who are in conversation with each other. I tend to read in clusters.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent?

You know, the thing that is most noteworthy to me is that curation and theories and histories of photography are completely intertwined, because we are at a moment when the curators themselves are so deeply invested and so deeply conversant with those histories and theories. There’s a sort of changing of the guard. I don’t know if it’s the same over in the UK, but in the United States over the course of the pandemic, everybody seems to be moving: curators moving from here to there to there, and there’s been this reshuffle and it’s exciting because so many are new curators, young curators and curators of colour – they are people who didn’t come out of the art world; they come out of a world of critical theory around photography and the practice of art.

You see it in wall texts and in catalogues where the curators are referencing different theories and histories and are trying not only to put photography in conversation with genre, which used to be the way. Every curator was an Art Historian; that’s what it used to be. That isn’t the case anymore. It used to be that a catalogue would give you a kind of genealogy of the genre, of the form, of the content or context. And now I feel that curators are actually invoking the language of theory in order to talk about the impact of the work. They feed on one another.

The other thing is that photographers and artists are more steeped in theories of photography than they had been, and that’s another ongoing conversation. I’m finding right now that one of the delights of my work is that I am being asked more and more often to be in conversation with artists, who know my work, and I know their work, and those two things are no longer separate. It used to be that the history and theory of photography used to write about photography and photographers. Now we’re talking to them, and they’re talking to us, and it’s not an argument, it’s a conversation!

The leading art schools (in the US) like Yale, RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts) have theorists amongst them and that is recognised as valuable, and I have felt that. I do at least one art critique at the end of every semester, where somebody asks me to come to their studio class and participate in a nine-hour critique, which is exhausting but I also learn so much from that!

What qualities do you admire in in other writers?

I always admire clarity. I admire the writer that doesn’t only seek to draw you in to their writing, but also takes steps towards you in their writing. Some of the most inspirational writers to me are friends of mine, whose work has been a model and an inspiration. Christina Sharpe’s work, Hazel Carby’s most recent work, Imperial Intimacies (2019), my friend Saidiya Hartman. What they’re doing is they’re putting themselves in the mix, and, in doing that, they’re emphasising the stakes of both what they’re writing about, and how they’re writing about it. The “how” becomes an intentional intervention, of: “I am going to write this to you, in a way that addresses you, which doesn’t make it easier to read what I’m writing about, it raises the stakes of reading it.”

That’s what I really do admire, and that’s what I try to do in my own writing, is to let you understand what the stakes are of both what I’m writing about and how I’ve chosen to write it to you. Which I hope allows you to enter it, and take certain risks as well with your own engagement.

Which texts have influenced you the most?

Some of the writers I’ve just mentioned. I teach (Christina Sharpe’s) In the Wake (2016) over and over again. I teach (Saidiya Hartman’s) Wayward Lives (2019) over and over again. I also teach Laura Mulvey. Right now, I’m in a love affair with Laura Mulvey and Kaja Silverman: not because I absolutely agree with what they’re saying, but because they open my mind every time I read them. bell hooks I teach over and over again, and I read her over and over again. Fred Moten as well. And you know who else I can’t quit? Stuart Hall! Can’t quit him! Ever relevant. Every time you go back to him, you really you can’t believe he wrote it so long ago.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

I hate to answer a question with a question but it really does depend on where that photography writing is. One thing I’ve been noticing is that there’s a lot more general writing about photography, in newspapers and in reviews, in daily circulating publications, and I don’t find that critical very often. But again, I feel like criticality has taken a front seat in the art world, among curators, amongst this entire Third Estate that’s no longer journalism. So I guess it’s a Fourth Estate, which is the critical commentary that you get in blogs and in podcasts and on social media, because the general public is at a point right now where they feel empowered to critique and to critique photography in particular. I think that’s also because of the role of photography in documenting the horrible state that the world is in right now, be that on race relations and social justice, or the pandemic, or immigration, or housing. Those images are mobilising and, at the same time, they are documenting certain kinds of injustice. (They record) not only the acts of injustice, but the acts of injustice that the camera perpetrates as well. So it has become this invitation to a broader form of criticality than used to be prevalent.

I wondered whether you could talk a little about the importance of everyday experience in relation to your writing. Your writing reveals how a seemingly modest image contains so much possibility and all that it starts to bring into being. Your writing is drawn to the necessity of thinking through everyday experience, and its representation.

The importance of the everyday, for me, is that our most intense struggles occur in the everyday. There is a desire in me to be accountable not to the extraordinary, but to the ordinary. And when we’re accountable to the ordinary, then we are valuing the experiences of those who rarely get much attention. When you ask about its significance to me, I think that’s how we learn practices of survival. We don’t learn practices of survival in the extraordinary circumstances of a car crash or a plane crash, or being marooned on an island. We develop these strategies incrementally over time. That’s what I see in everyday photography and vernacular photography. When I come to those images, I’m always asking how did we get here, and what is it that connects us to mundane images: in their mundane-ness, you find these jewels, these jewels of love, of kindness, of generosity, of care. And you find the flip side too. You find the quotidian violences that are also brought to bear. There’s this image in Image Matters that I try to take apart, of a woman on a table in a corner. When you take it apart you realise that she’s in a gynaecologist office and there’s a procedure that happened or didn’t happen. Every woman has been in that situation, but to have an everyday photograph of it, an anonymous one… When I saw it at an exhibition, I just stopped in my tracks. It’s not because it was exceptional, it’s because it was so ordinary. We can illuminate so much about our lives by lingering in relationship to the ordinary and thinking about how we survive it and how countless other people survive it as well.

Listening to Images made me conscious of how the stakes are there in the image of the everyday. Perhaps this is what’s most resisted by positions of power? They are the most essential images in a sense, to just be seen, to be seen to be living, to be loving, to be sharing.

That is one of the tricks of ideology: to highlight the exceptional as that which you are supposed to be striving to be or become. That then becomes this impossible striving towards something you can never accomplish. And it keeps you in your place. But when you value who you are, it becomes a powerful source of identification and affirmation. And that’s my resistance to the exceptional: I don’t want to be exceptional. I want to share a world with others where we have some sense of equivalence. I think that’s a beautiful world, as opposed to the one where there are some who are exceptional and others who are not.♦

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


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Tina M. Campt © Dorothy Hong

2-Book cover of Tina M. Campt, A Black Gaze (MIT Press, 2021)

3-Book cover of Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017)

4-Book cover of Tina M. Campt, Image Matters: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press, 2012)

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)

Press:

Source Photographic Review
El País
Photomonitor
The British Journal of Photography

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.