Research & Reflection

OCA Thames Valley Group Meeting on 22nd April 2017

Talk by Photographer David George

 

NB (This post is an extended version of  one I created to be placed on the OCASA website)

15 of us (including two new members Jonathan and Alan) travelled to the Phoenix Art Centre, Bordon to listen to photographer David George talk about photography and collaborative practice. The talk was arranged for us by OCA graduate and TV Group member John Umney.

David has been a photographer for 40 years now and gained an MA at Sir John Cass Metropolitan University in 2009.  At that point David joined with two of his fellow students Spencer Rowell and Fiona Yaron-Field to found Uncertain States   an artist-led project that publishes a free quarterly broadsheet newspaper; holds monthly talks focussing on contemporary photography and organises/curates an annual exhibition.

Morning Session

David told us that he thinks that photography is going through an exciting time at present being freed-up to do other things now that we all have cameras.  Just as the invention of photography expanded painting into other areas of creative art (such as Impressionism) so photography, in an age where we all have cameras, can now focus on other aspects of life, such as our inner worlds. David uses landscape photography as metaphor and is very interested in the qualities of light, particularly at night and in the early morning. He enjoys working with square format, as he ‘sees’ square and I can understand this point of view because I usually prefer working with landscape as opposed to portrait format yet have noticed recently how often I use square format on my iPhone camera.

In his own work David has taken a contemporary approach to notions such as the ‘Uncanny’, the Sublime, the Pastoral  and Romanticism.  He is firmly of the view that, when editing work, one should always start with a title and then exclude any image that doesn’t fit that.  Work should also be given context otherwise you’re taking pictures. He talked us through several of his projects:-

Enclosures, Badlands and Borders  (2009) looked at the Sublime and what terrifies us now in a western post-industrial landscape.

Gingerbread House Series (2010) examined the idea of the Uncanny in the 21st Century by looking at familiar structures such as pumping stations, lodges and portaloos that are rendered somehow unfamiliar when viewed in a different way.

Shadows of Doubt (2011) captured looming buildings in haunting light evoking Alfred Hitchcok’s East End childhood. Not recreating scenes or film sets but photographing landscapes that would have been familiar to Hitchcock.

Backwater (2012) was an attempt to discover whether the Pastoral ideal can be found the present-day British countryside, or whether the traditional distinctions between the urban and the rural can no longer be found.  David’s contextual statement  reminds us of the link between the Pastoral, with its contrast between the countryside and the urban, and, subsequently, Romanticism.  He asks whether the pastoral ideal only existed for a certain strata of society, i.e. ‘the landed gentry’, and suggests, “…. perhaps if we view the English pastoral with some sense of irony, it may become more relevant to a contemporary society and seem slightly less unjust to a historical one”. These night landscapes, created over the summer of 2012, all contain some element of water reflecting that this particular summer was the wettest on record at the time. This series, with its mainly golden-brown tones, does present a still almost painted effect which is more often lit by the electric lights in the distance than the moon.

Albedo (2013) With this series, David moved on to reflect upon the differences between romanticism and the New Topographic School with its arm length view of landscape.  He finds romanticism in the man altered landscape with the use of infra-red film, whilst also questioning the notion of ‘landscape’ as being a wild and unaltered space as he explores 120 plus quarries that run over a 20km stretch of the River Wear, no longer in use, with nature drawing them back into the land.

Hackney by Night (2015) Part of a larger series created between November 2014 and July 2015 for the book Hackney by Night (2015) which deals with the notion of the “Broken Pastoral” by looking at the cultural response to the impact on the English landscape of  industrialisation and technological advances during the past fifty years.

Nine Square Kilometres (2017)  is a new series, not currently on his website, that looks at historical Peckham and will be exhibited during Peckham 24 –  a short photography festival taking place over a 24 hour (19th/20th May) period during Photo London week . The Exhibition Elsewhere has been curated by four artists from Uncertain States , including David George.

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The morning session ended with a Q&A Session where David elaborated more on his approach to editing and again stressed the importance to him of contextual research, whilst emphasising that he wants people to look at his images first and then read the text at which point they go back and look at the photographs. His overall aim is to get people to think more about the world they inhabit. He is a fan of Instagram which he thinks is a good way to get your work out there and he only uses his iPhone for this.  I was pleased to hear that as only the day before I had joined Instagram here  and was already appreciating the opportunity to be more spontaneous.

Afternoon Session

To begin with David talked more about Uncertain States and how their quarterly broadsheet came about through an Exhibition. The artists who appear in the broadsheet contribute to printing on an equal basis as it supports and develops lens-based art practices that share the same approach whilst retaining individual choices of subject, visual language and forms of expression.

He then went on to give some advice about Exhibitions – planning, preparation and presentation and I attach some PDF notes.

David George’s advice re Exhibitions

The advice was most helpful given that Thames Valley Group are currently planning for our own Exhibition in 2018 but I have my own proviso that we are mainly fledgling exhibitors who are likely to start small, whereas Uncertain States are now well-practised in putting on large Exhibitions.

We then had just sufficient time for two of TV Group members to present some work and utilise the projector that Richard Down (TV group member and venue liaison) had kindly brought along for the day. Sarah-Jane shared images of her children taken during a stay in Ferentillo, Italy, where her mother has a home, so Sarah-Jane is collecting photographs of her children as they visit and grow over the years. This village not only has two great castles but also holds mummified remains in its church of Santo Stefano . For Sarah-Jane, this phenomenon links with photography and the way it fixes images in time/freezes a moment. We had a beginning discussion around the sequencing of images and her notion of transitional space between them. How does one ‘free’ images to create their own space, introduce randomness.

Johnathan, one of our new members, presented some of his Instagram images which he had used towards an Assignment around a crime scene in his Module “Expressing Your Vision”. David George made an interesting comment along the lines of “… once you put a person in the landscape the whole thing becomes about that person”,  and I immediately thought of the work of Elina Brotherus, as in her series here . David also commented about the use of hashtags as in Instagram and how this can add to ways in which an image is read.

Conclusions

Another interesting day which gave an excellent insight into the way a professional photographer approaches photography as a discipline. What came through to me was the way in which David George contemplates both the effects and consequences of the rise and decline of manufacturing and industry at a time when the UK has become more of a ‘Service” Economy. His approach is more scholarly and considered than political I think, in the sense that he presents us with what he sees by utilising approaches such as night photography, long exposures and infra-red that add the element of stillness/caught in motion to fix the image in front of one’s eyes. I admire the way in which he collaborates so effectively with other lens-based artists whilst retaining his own approach and vision. Uncertain States have a YouTube Channel here which includes two 2009 interviews with David and  there is also an audio interview here from November 2016

I’ve been musing on ways I can incorporate my own insights from the day in my own work. I have used infra-red photography in the past but the aspect that bothered me was the way it, somehow, makes everything so similar as, unlike, black and white photography it seems to remove shape, form and structure from an image giving more of a sense of drifting in the landscape in some indeterminate space. I have recently returned to experimenting with a Holga lens which puts back colour into the world for me yet still retains a dreamier aspect. I’m attracted also to long exposures but will have to think around that because it’s better-suited to night time perhaps which is not my preferred time of day for going out and about.

David George’s emphasis on the importance of context led me to think again on text and image – how much images might rely on textual reference to be understood and ways to traverse those boundaries between photograph as narrative and photograph as illustration. When I started with Instagram I omitted captions but viewers sometimes asked questions about images and so I’ve now begun to use hashtags.

 

 

References

https://www.artrabbit.com/events/elsewhere
http://www.davidgeorge.eu
http://www.davidgeorge.eu/Statements/Backwater.html
http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/#/12-ans-apres/
https://www.instagram.com/cbankssurrey/
http://www.italymagazine.com/news/mummies-ferentillo
https://www.mixcloud.com/Resonance/there-then-hear-now-4th-november-2016/
http://www.uncertainstates.com

 

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6. Reflection on Assignment 2 related to Assessment Criteria

Demonstration of Technical & Visual Skills:

I’ve continued to experiment with layers and composites and also new approaches such as folding photographs and 3D sculptures such as here . In Assignment two I used different types of layering, also experimenting with the warp tool in Photoshop to turn handwriting into waves as this seemed to me a way of representing travel overseas and also waves of sand in the desert of Egypt.  I feel reasonably competent in Photoshop although do occasionally have to resort to re-reading chapters in manuals.

The Assignment required me to produce a digital photobook.  I have produced two Blurb books in the past but two years have passed since then.  It was a relief to find that I hadn’t forgotten how to use and adapt their templates for my own purposes.  To begin with I used a board to sequence small prints cut from contact sheets but then being able to manipulate sizes in Blurb software helped me with further alignment of images and relative sizes and make some further decisions on replacement images. I think that, in general, I made good choices on which images went well together.  I also sought feedback from student colleagues individually and within OCA Thames Valley group. Feeling at ease with Blurb meant that I also had more opportunity to think what was involved in the whole process of creating a book. I became aware that the idea of a physical book was still in my head so that I was concentrating on making sure that viewers could read the handwriting extracts whereas, of course, an image can be enlarged in a digital book. Book-making is one of the skills I wish to improve on both digitally and in print.

Quality of Outcome:

I feel confident and competent in expressing thoughts/ideas in writing and within my learning blog and often receive positive feedback on this. Most of my work so far on this Module has been in digital form, although I have printed small size images to present to Thames Valley Group. I usually enjoy printing my own work, despite printer frustrations, and don’t want to lose the skills I have gained. Digital manipulation is interesting, challenging and enjoyable but I continue to prefer the feel of prints – their materiality and tactility. As mentioned above, the brief for Assignment 2 was to produce a digital photobook but I have also ordered a printed book because I want to see how the images and layout look in print. The book has not yet arrived but when it does I will take it to OCA Thames Valley Group to ask for feedback and suggestions for improvements. My longer term aim is to create and print my own photo book.

A new aspect of this Module has been work with my personal archive. I have done this before but, this time, have had to get used to a larger volume of scanning, retouching and then re-working old photographs. Wherever possible I aim to retain the original monachrome tones. So far as the letters are concerned I have worked towards producing just large enough extracts to carry the message I wish to portray

Demonstration of Creativity:

As mentioned above (re technical and visual skills) I have continued to experiment with new approaches to working with photographs. The creation of the digital photobook for Assignment 2 also took me further into areas of more complicated editing and sequencing – how to balance facing images and make decisions on relative sizing for example.

Whilst planning for the Assignment I thought of new ways to combine images and utilise my learning during this Module.  Also, through the act of more intensive and systematic looking, I found themes new to me within the letters from the 1940s. I hope that this has enhanced my emerging personal voice and given me more clarity in what I want to express.

Context

I’m very aware of my tendency to read and research too much admit that, this time, I got somewhat lost in reading about archives because I find it so interesting. My eye sight problem slowed me down as well and, strangely enough, seemed to affect my ability to summarise what I was reading. Thankfully, with better eyesight, I do now feel more focused and energetic., However, eyesight problems apart, I do think that Assignment two has benefited from being well-grounded in its emotional, familial and historical context so perhaps slower thinking enabled me to enter into the project at a deeper level.

3. Photographer Influences for the assignment

Photographer Influences

I’ve been absorbing the ideas, strategies and techniques of artist and photographs as I’ve been working through this Module and it’s been a slow process because sometimes I’ve been thinking how their approaches could be applied to my own work and trying these out as I did here  . Stephen Gill’s work varies in every series as he makes conceptual leaps, manipulates layers, photographs, layers and re-photographs as with Hackney Flowers .  His work is complex in its structure and I think I will need more inward reflection to enter into his frame of mind, so I keep returning to it. I wrote about Esther Teichmann and Helen Sear here . They layer images in different ways and both appeal. Painting and photograph; subject against background (Teichmann). Birds in front of face ; pixellation and erasure through layers to create ethereal/lacy effects (Sear). I did experiment with layering past and more recent images of locations when I started on the Assignment (see Assignment process) but decided not to continue with this as I haven’t had recent opportunity to return to the locations. However, I achieved the layering in different ways by layering different photographs and Google images over a photograph taken on Horsell Common, as I thought its sandy substance mirrored both the sand of Egypt and the sandy river bed of the river Derwent in Calver (front and back covers of the photo book . Overall the exercises in Part One of the Module gave me more confidence in creating the collages and composites – such as in pages 5, 7, 9 and 11 of the photo book.

I have previously referred to Album 31   the work of Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl in their response to the archive of Sir Benjamin Stone. The way they presented their response mirrored that of Stone’s original album and the in-framing appealed to me.  However, I decided that it didn’t suit my own concept for my photo-book as I wanted the images to be freer on the page.

Duane Michal’s work has long been an influence, with the attention given to the interplay of image and text, including his use of handwriting. There’s an interesting interview with him here and I have recently purchased the book Storyteller (L. Benedict-Jones et al 2014)  which is a retrospective of over seventy-five of his works. It’s a delight to read and look at and I notice that he uses a mix of cursive and block letters.  Is this even his own writing? Does it matter? I did experiment whilst completing exercise 2.3  – using my own writing (exporting to my iPad and writing over an image that way) and then a font of my handwriting which I acquired a while ago.  My handwriting can be very untidy but the font seemed to work better. Even so my writing isn’t as distinctive as that of Duane Michals which is perhaps, in any case, the charm of his work.

seaside-holidays-with-handwriting-webimg_0022-composite-with-handwriting-on-bottom-webseaside-holidays-with-cb-font-web

In the event, I decided I would certainly want to use this method in the future but adding my own handwriting didn’t seem suitable for Assignment 2 because I already had handwritten letters and photographs with inscriptions on the back that I could use.

The photographer Angela Kelly used images from her family album with maps, letters and other material  to ’reference issues of migration, home and the vernacular album’ in her work Sundays at Sea . Her situation had been similar to mine in having an absent father, a sailor, although his absence was his full-time employment. What came through to me, though, was her mention of the drifting apart because he had so often been absent. My father was virtually absent for two years – a long time in a child’s life –  yet his letters formed a bridge between us. A PDF of some of my notes on Kelly’s work is attached, including notes on a Photoparley Interview (5th June 2013)  where she provides a detailed analysis of her approach to her work.

selection-of-notes-from-reading

I read this work at the time then it went out of my mind until I was reminded of it recently by a fellow student who remarked on the similarities with my developing work.  I had already begun to experiment with maps as part of the layering and it’s interesting how other artist’s work can lie in one’s subconscious to the extent that it’s difficult to remember where and how an idea was first sparked.  Looking at my notes again there are two aspects that leap out at me – ‘layers of different material  within an image need to be decoded ‘ and the use of frames, within a frame, within a frame – ‘framing can give importance”.  Regarding frames, was I making a wrong decision for my book?

Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood (2011)   is a general inspiration for me.  His book was the first one where I was aware how a real story could be re-constructed using found material – archive material and new photographs – a mix of genres utilized, de-constructing and re-constructing. This is what I’d like to be doing in the future and I know that this Assignment has been just one step along the way, plus I’m hoping that I might feel freer, less inhibited with less personal material.

Larry Sultan’s work has been an inspiration for a different reason. The book Here and Home (R. Morse et al, 2014) was published alongside an Exhibition of the same name organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Exhibition was the first retrospective of Larry Sultan’s work and there is a long interview with him here. His work has a spontaneity about it that I can only aspire to at this stage. So far as the Assignment is concerned it was the series Pictures from Home (1983-92) that drew me of course and his introduction to it in the book. My interest in taking photographs began years after my parents died.  My father enjoyed using his camera and my mother and I were happy to pose for him, as were Sultan’s parents for him. I found it so refreshing that they trusted him enough to go along with whatever he wanted to do. Sultan writes about being in his parents’ home, they having gone to bed, and thinking about why he continues to take photographs of his parents. These words resound for me:

These are my parents. From that simple fact, everything follows.  I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally.  To stop time. I want my parents to live forever. (Morse et al 2014:78)

 

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References

http://www.angelakellyphoto.com/sundays-at-sea/
http://grainphotographyhub.co.uk/portfolio-type/album-31/
http://www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/larry-sultan-here-and-home
http://www.lacma.org/video/2003-larry-sultan-interview
http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/15-Redheaded-Peckerwood.html
http://www.stephengill.co.uk
https://photoparley.wordpress.com/category/angela-kelly/
Benedict-Jones, L., Ellenzweig, A., Gubar, M., Kozloff, M., Ryan, A., Schuman, A. and Art, C.M. of (2014b) Storyteller: The photographs of Duane Michals. Munich, Germany: Prestel.
Morse, R., Philips, S. and Gefter, P. (2014) Larry Sultan: Here and home. Munich, Germany: Prestel.Patterson, C. (2011) Redheaded Peckerwood. 2nd edn. London: Mack.

 

 

5. Okwui Enwezor writing on the archive Fever Exhibition 2008

Okwui Enwezor is a Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet and educator, specializing in art history, living in New York City and Munich (where he is the director of the Haus der Kunst non-collecting art museum). The paper provided to read is the introduction in the catalogue of  an exhibition Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art   which he organized at the International Center of Photography (ICP) New York in May 2008.

This Exhibition presented works by contemporary artists (from the 1960s to the then present) who were using photographic images to ‘to rethink the meaning of identity, history, memory, and loss and, in doing so, utilising the concept of the archival influence as a means of structuring the meaning of images and the way we look at history. The Exhibition explored the ways in which artists ‘appropriated, interpreted, reconfigured and  interrogated archival structures and materials’, thus subverting the intention and structure of specific archives – albeit being invited to do so.  The site link provides access to a PDF of the media release which gives a useful overview of the aims and content of the Exhibition and I have also a full set of notes from my reading of the Enwezor’s essay.

What follows is my summary of what struck me as points to consider. My further thoughts are included in italics.

 Photography and the Archive

  • Photography is simultaneously the documentary evidence and the archival record of such transactions – Because the camera is literally an archiving machine, every photograph, every film is a priori an archival object. (p.12)
  • The making of a photograph is part of a construction of aide-memoires …. A mechanism of time travel through which we return to the past, compiling indexes of comparisons and tables of facts that generate their own public and private meanings (p.13)
  • As everyday users become distributors of archival content across an unregulated field of image sharing …. The photograph becomes the sovereign analogue of identity, memory, and history, joining past and present, virtual and real, thus giving the photographic document the aura of an anthropological artefact and the authority of a social instrument. I look at the photographs in my archive and, in remembering and recollecting, re-create different versions of my history
  • Beyond the realm of the snapshot is another empire … connected to a more regulative, bureaucratic, institutional order that invigilates and exercises control over bodies and identities. This links with Allan Sekula’ essay, e.g. Bertillon’s ‘criminals’ and Francis Galton’s ‘the racially inferior’.

Archive as Form

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-13-19-17

 

 

http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1999/muse/artist_pages/duchamp_boite.html

  • Marcel Duchamp and his “La boite-en-valise (1935-41) “not only a sly critique of the museum as institution and the artwork as artefact, it is fundamentally also about form and concept” (p.14). I didn’t know about this art form of a museum in a suitcase when I put my own photographs into boxes. It just seemed a natural thing to do. An example of the way in which artists structure artistic thinking.
  • Gerhard Richter and “Atlas”(1964-present) . Enwezor refers to Lynne Cooke’s view that this ‘collection’, arranged on loose sheets of paper, “… hovers between the promise of taxonomic order as divulged in the archive and the total devastation of that promise…” (p.19)In respect of the ‘archival impulse’  as identified by Hal Foster, artists interrogate the claims of the archive by reading it against the grain .
  • The concept of ‘archive’ depends on an innate (recognized?) structure If every archive is organised in a similar way, following particular rules then it is accessible by those who know the rules. There’s anarchy though in an ‘archive’ consisting of fragments, individual photographs and documents in no particular order.  There is a freedom in that though to make of it what you will, to de-construct received wisdom and look at it another way. I’m thinking here of GRAIN’s collaboration with Birmingham City Library Archives for instance or of Walker Evans “taking back” his images from the FAS archives.

Intelligence Failure/Archival Disappointment

  • Enwezor gives several examples here – one is how the principles of espionage were used in the British Empire’s search for knowledge and the mapping of unknown territory in Tibet. This to be conducted by ‘native explorers’ who were actually a network of Hindu pundit spies from the Indian Himalayas. Enwezor refers to Peter Hopkirk’s’s tracing of this story and how the survey may equal Google Maps for its pinpoint precision.
  • Mention of Google Maps – reminds me of how this has been used to discover that which is hidden/secret, e.g. the work of Mischa Henner, and how Google Earth suppresses some of its aspects ‘in the interest of national security’. I’m not going to write about Iraq and the WMD because it’ll make me feel to angry.

Documents into Monuments: Archives as Meditations on Time

  • How artists may undertake to “memorize’ the monuments of the past, transform them into ‘documents’ and so ‘lend speech to those traces which, in themselves, are often not verbal, or which say in silence something other than what they actually say’. For example, in the late 1970s Craigie Horsefield travelled in pre-Solidarity Polance with a large format camera and “worked as if he were bearing witness to the slow declension of an era, along with a whole category of people soon to be swept away by the forces of change” (p. 24). The captions indicate the date of the making of the photograph next to the year of its full realization as a work, “in doing so he calls our attention to the importance of archival time in the consideration of the image”. Here the time of making functions as a shadow archive next to the flat panel of the large-scale print. There is further information here .
  • I have previously referred to Walid Raad and his fictional Collective “The Atlas Group”  whose aim is to research and document Lebanon’s contemporary history.  The collection brings together both ‘found’  and and invented ‘documents’ of everyday life in Lebanon.Included are ‘documents’ from the estate of a fictional Lebanese historian, Dr Fadl Fakbouri who took a photograph in Beiurut everytime he thought the civil was was over. This includes a film that “….. testifies to the lasting hope for peace and normality and the will to capture these hopeful moments in pictures, in the awareness of their transience”
  • A more recent example is the work of photographer Keith Roberts who developed a response to commercial photographic portraits, shot in Liverpool by the photographer Edward Chambre Hardman between 1923 and 1963. The Collection is held at Liverpool Central Library  . There is a video on the OCA site here where Keith discusses this work – for those who can access it 

Archive and Public Memory

  • This concerns interrogation of the photographic archive, “as a historical site that exists between evidence and document, public memory and private history” eg Andy Warhol’s grids of images taken from media reports  and Hans-Peter Feldmann’s project “9/12 Front Page (2001) ” a collection of material from different media sources concerning one momentous event “implicitly asks the viewer whether it can be treated as a work of art or merely a kind of public testimony.” (p.30)

 

I have only referred to a few of the artists included in the Exhibition, all of whom are fascinating and I became very absorbed in their work, some of which I may come back to later in Part 2.

 

References

 http://artsites.ucsc.edu/sdaniel/public_record/OkwuiEnzewor_ArchiveFever_PhotographyBetweenHistoryAndTheMonument.pdf
http://hardmanportrait.format.com/about
http://monovisions.com/craigie-horsfield-workers/
http://u-in-u.com/nafas/articles/2006/the-atlas-group/
http://www.designboom.com/art/hans-peter-feldmann-at-gwangju-art-biennale-2010/
https://www.icp.org/exhibitions/archive-fever-uses-of-the-document-in-contemporary-art
https://www.gerhard-richter.com/en/art/atlas
http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1999/muse/artist_pages/duchamp_boite.html
http://www.sothebys.com/en/news-video/blogs/all-blogs/21-days-of-andy-warhol/2013/11/andy-warholdeath-disaster-series-prestige.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Hal Foster (2004) “An Archival Impulse”

A brief note on the archive as a theme in contemporary art and an essay that I found useful reading in thinking around uses of Archives in artistic practice and how archives can provide inspiration for new work.

The art historian Hal Foster wrote an Essay in 2004 An Archival Impulse   considering  an practice he described as ‘an idiosyncratic probing into particular figures, objects, and events in modern art, philosophy and history’  (2004:03).  He described this as hardly new being active in both pre and post-war (WWII) and with a distinct character that could be considered a tendency in its own rightl How does it manifest? According to Foster

  • Archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present
  • They elaborate on the found image, object, and text
  • They favour the installation format to do so, frequently using its non-hierarchical spatiality to advantage.
  • They use familiar sources, drawn from the archives of mass culture, to ensure a legibility that can then be disturbed or detourné;, but they can be obscure, retrieved in a gesture of alternative knowledge or counter-memory.

In considering ‘obscure’ sources Foster notes that some of these archival samplings pushed postmodernist ‘complications’ of originality and authorship to an extreme and can be concerned more with an “anarchival impulse” – being drawn to obscure traces, ‘unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects’ that might offer points of departure again.

He also considers this work ‘archival’ as it not only draws on informal archives but produces them as well and in a way that ‘underscores the nature of all archival materials as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private. This type of art also often uses a ‘quasi-archival’ logic to arrange materials and presents them in a similar architecture (Erik Kessel’s sculpture of photo albums in Arles comes very much to mind here as does Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence and Joan Fontcuberta’s exhibition of curiosities.)

Foster comments that archival art is rarely cynical in its intent, but wanting to engage the viewer and he provides interesting examples, including the work of Thomas Hirschhorn    (one of whose pieces was inspired by the spontaneous shrine produced at the spot in Paris where Princess Diana died) and Tacita Dean who based one of her short films Girl Stowaway (1994)  on a single photograph – of an Australian girl who, in 1928 stowed away on a ship bound for England. That one photograph set Dean off on her own journey through time, place and history and is mentioned here in an interview with Simon Schama. Foster writes of Dean “In a sense her archival work is an allegory of archival work – as sometimes melancholic, often vertiginous, always incomplete” (2004:12) and I find this idea so appealing.

Returning to archival art and forming new connections with archival material, Foster views this as not only a will to collate traces of the past to see what might remain for the present but also an assumption that new orders of affective association may be proposed from working through anomic fragmentation[i].  He does acknowledge that sometimes this will to connect can’ betray a hint of paranoia’, projecting meaning where there may be none, that perhaps archival art may emerge from some sense of a failure of cultural memory.  Having written thought I suddenly thought again of Erik Kessels and the photo albums – private archives disposed of as no longer important. However, at the end of the essay (2004:22) Foster speculates that  perhaps this paranoid dimension is the other side of its utopian ambition, a desire  – ‘to transform the no-place of the archive into the no-place of a utopia’.

I had another thought about this impulse towards ‘obscure’ sources, that perhaps this is connected with our urge to complete in terms of the Gestalt process – to join that which is apparently unconnected and create a whole – in this case, something creative and new.

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[i] I think this process is evoked very well in a Tate paper http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/09/tangentially-the-archive-and-the-bathroom discussing the role of the archive in artistic process through the work of Lucy Gunning  – the Archive, The Event and its Architecture.

  

References

Foster, H (2004) An Archival Impulse in OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, pp. 3-22 MIT Press

(Accessed 11 October 2016)

https://www.ft.com/content/b94bfcb4-e973-11e0-af7b-00144feab49a
http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic837293.files/FosterArchivalImpulse.pdf
http://www.southlondongallery.org/page/thomashirschhorn
http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/09/tangentially-the-archive-and-the-bathroom

 

 

 

 

Jacques Derrida (1995)”Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”

Jacques Derrida (1995) – Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression

 the_tower_of_babel_by_abel_grimmer_1595

 

 

 

 

 


(The Tower of Babel
by Abel Grimmer, 1595 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

What is “Archive Fever”, what is the archival impulse and why does Jacques Derrida make this connection with Freudian analysis? This particular work is not suggested reading in the Module Handbook but I felt I had to read it because it is mentioned so often by other writers on photography and the archive. In these summary notes I will concentrate upon concepts that made particular sense to me, given that I will be writing later about my personal archive of letters, documents and photographs and the memories they hold for me – objects and memories that have contributed to my own sense of self.

Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995)  is the title given to  a published lecture (translated from the French) given by Jacques Derrida at a weekend Conference Memory – The Question of Archive  in June 1994. The Conference emerged from the Freud Museum’s fund-raising campaign and was held at Somerset House, London.

statue_of_sigmund_freud_-_geograph-org-uk_-_1106151

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Mike Quinn [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Derrida delivered his  lecture (entitled the Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression) on the Saturday afternoon in what was described as ‘a truly memorable tour de force’  according to the Conference Report , engaging his audience ‘in a scintillating play of reflections around the idea of a historical record’ for three and a half hours. To me, as reader, this paper was convoluted, complex and difficult to follow.  I have recently reminded myself, though, that it probably made much more sense to his audience who were likely to be well-acquainted with both Derrida’s ideas and previous works alongside those of Sigmund Freud.

The essay is mainly concerned with the notion of the archive in Freud’s works but also touches upon electronic media; the role of inscription technology in the psyche and in the archives; Freud’s ‘magic tablet’; circumcision as metaphor and inscription and also whether psychoanalysis is a Jewish science.

Derrida begins by looking at the term ‘archive’ – ‘arkhe’, commencement of a thing, primacy in time, and the Greek ‘arkheion’ residence of the magistrate and the place where official documents were filed. “The archons are first of all the documents’ guardians”(1995: 9) who ensure their security and have the power to interpret the archives. It is in this ‘house arrest’ that archive takes place (I take this as the ‘act’ of archiving) and the ‘dwelling’ marks this passage from the private to the public although not from the secret (private) to the non-secret (public).  Derrida comments that this also happens as Freud’s last house becomes a museum, passing from one institution to another (1995:10). He refers to at least three these that have a common trait concerning ‘the impression left by the Freudian signature on its own archive on the concept of the archive and of archivization, that is to say also, inversely and as an indirect consequence, on historiography.’ At a basic level I take this to mean that whatever is in the archive comprises evidential memory pre-shaped by Freud and his family’s choices as to what should be destroyed and what should be retained to maintain his reputation and keep his teachings alive, plus what should be seen/unseen. These choices would, then, be further shaped by those who have maintained and will maintain and expand  the archive in the future. This site was helpful in reminding me of this  .

If I relate this to my own ‘archive’ then I will be interpreting material that my family members and I chose to keep. For example, my father’s letters to me, from Egypt, were kept and I took them with me when I married and left home.  After my parents’ deaths I found no letters that either of them had written to each other during that period of time. I added photographs and letters to my own archive and these included material that my mother had retained from her mother’s personal effects. I have continued this work of gathering together by searching for information about the immediate post-war years both in this country and in Egypt. In 2005 I visited Egypt, added further impressions of the country, felt an empathic connection with my father, and took my own photographs.

Continuing along similar lines of thought Derrida connects the archive (Freud’s) with the death drive ‘which is anarchivic (resists and subverts the archive) , or archiviolithic and threatens every archival desire – le mal d’archive, archive fever  (1995:14). The archive will never be either memory or anamnesis (having the ability to recall past events)  as spontaneous, alive and internal experience . It is hypnomesic – impairs memory (1995:12) .  the technical structure of the archive also determines the structure of the archivable content and the archivization produces as much as it records the event. Derrida uses the example of e-mail – stating that psychoanalysis would not have been what it was if such had existed because electronic mail is moving towards transforming public and private space and the limit between the private, the secret (private or public) and the public of the phenomenal (1995:17).  He then moves on to thinking more about the structure, and uses the notion of the printer to link the theory of psychoanalysis (including memory) with a theory of the archive. This links back with Freud’s concept of a ‘mystic pad’.  [i]

With the thought of the graphic mark, repetition and printing, Derrida links ‘inscription’  with circumcision, which leaves the trace of the incision directly on the skins – ‘more than one skin at more than one age’ (1995:19) the layers of skin as sedimented archives. In appearance this is a private inscription. “To which archive does it belong – that of Sigmund Freud? That of the psychoanalytic institution or science? Where does one draw the limit”   (1995:19). Derrida proposes another example. On the day of his 35th Birthday Freud was handed the Bible he had studied in his youth which his father, Yakob Freud, restored to , with a new leather, binding as a gift.  This appeared with a new translation in a book on Freud by the Jeweish Historian Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi  (1932-2009)expected to give his own lecture later) and Derrida states that the book left a strong impression on him that accompanied the preparation of his lecture.  Derrida was interested in Yerushalmi’s attempts to analyse Freud’s practice alongside Freud’s relationship to his Jewish heritage and the question as to whether genetically or structurally psychoanalysis is really a Jewish science, given that Freud refuted the influence of his heritage. (1965:28).

Derrida examines three meanings which layer with each other in the word and phrase ‘impression’ and ‘Freudian impression’ and their relationship to ‘memory’ “that objectivizable storage called the archive” (1995:22)

  • Scriptural or typographic – There has to be a substrate for the mark/impression to be left there. Can one imagine an archive without a foundation?
  • Neither Freud nor ourselves (those present at the lecture) have managed to form a concept of ‘archive’. We only have a series of impressions. Whilst Freudian psychoanalysis proposes a theory of the archive the concept of the archive must inevitably carry within itself an ‘unknowable’ weight.
  • The third meaning concerns the impression left by Sigmund Freud – impressions made upon him by birth; circumcision; faith; his culture and his culture’s history; interactions with others; the impression that he has made upon others; the history of history

He believes that whilst the notion of the archive points towards the past it should also question the coming of the future. If we imagine ‘a project of general archivology’ it would have to either include psychoanalysis or place itself under the critical authority of psychoanalysis.

My understanding of this is that the ‘archive’ cannot be objective in its gathering of evidence. Its very structure is created by those who have been moulded through their own ‘culture’, history and biology. That culture includes what Freud termed trans-generational memory or archive – the memory of cultural experiences (cf Simon Schama (2004)  Landscape and Memory).  An archive produces as well as records – it creates collections of material, choices are made as to what should be retained/maintained/ disposed of. I can apply this to my own personal archive as well as an institutional one. I can, of course, also apply this to my own memory of events  that structure within my brain that stores impressions, thoughts, feelings, perceptions of events, so this must be taken into account.

I have found this both a fascinating and frustrating period of reading, attempting to follow Derrida’s convoluted thought processes whilst somehow absorbing ideas that are useful to me in carrying forward this question of archives. Somewhat late in the day I also discovered this blog post by Walker Sampson which particularly looks at the essay from the point of view of a practicing records manager of archivist.

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[i]  At this point I felt compelled to discover more about Freud’s concept.  Musing on memory preservation Freud, thought of writing in a note book –but the sheet would soon be filled plus this ‘permanent’ trace might  lose value if the note becomes no longer interesting enough to be retained in ‘memory’ . An alternative would be chalk on slate – notes could be erased but the writing surface retained, but then there could not be a permanent trace. Freud then brings to mind a product of the time called a “Mystic Writing Pad” or Printator (still sold today as a children’s toy )

The writing on it vanishes and does not reappear and yet a trace is left on the bottom of the three layers –  If we imagine one hand writing upon the surface of the Mystic Writing-Pad while another periodically raises its covering sheet from the wax slab, we shall have a concrete representation of the way in which I tried to picture the functioning of the perceptual apparatus of our mind. (S. Freud, 1925:212)

References

Freud, S (1925) A Note upon the “Mystic Writing Pad” (1925) pp in  Freud, S (1963), General Psychological Theory, Chapter XIII, Macmillan Publishing Company, pp 207-212

Accessed on 6th October 2016

http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/writing/history/critical/historiography.html
http://home.uchicago.edu/~awinter/mystic.pdf)
https://www.freud.org.uk/events/73546/memory-the-question-of-archives/
http://lawrencesbletchingley.co.uk/auctions/view_detail/88652
https://wsampson.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/from-my-archives-derridas-archive-fever/

 

 

 

Allan Sekula “The Body and the Archive” (1986)

 

Allan Sekula  was an American photographer, writer, filmmaker and critic and I remember seeing his work at the Prix Pictet Exhibition (Theme of ‘Consumption’) at the V&A  in 2014. He  was short-listed  for his series Fish Story (1989-92)  which explored the fishing industry.

Given that he used his skills to critique contemporary late capitalism, I would, therefore,  expect him to concentrate on the repressive aspects of uses of photography in archives and classsifications in criminality. He links photography with policing early in the essay referring to the fact that Robert Peel, regarded as the father of the modern British police, was a major collector and trustee of the National Gallery (founded in 1824). Peel established the Metropolitan Police Force for London in 1829 and Sekula notes that during the 1820s and 30s there had been a ‘spate of governmental inquiries and legislation designed to professionalize and standardize police and penal procedures’. (1986:4) and the potential for a new juridical photographic realism was widely recognized in the 1840s.

Photography was seen as a ‘threat’ to Art in being able to provide an indexical truth ‘rather than textual inventory.  The photographic portrait had the facility to go beyond the traditional function of a portrait, “that of providing for the ceremonial presentation of the bourgeois self”, subverting its inherent privileges, and venture into deviance and social pathology, such as criminal identity photographs and typologies of criminals as well as providing a socially ameliorative effect through enabling poor people to have a likeness of an absent member in addition to seeing portraits of ‘moral exemplars’.  Sekula refers to Marcus Aurelius Root who, in the USA , applauded these functions and “……ends up with the photographic extension of that exemplary utilitarian social machine The Panopticon”(1986:10) as proposed by Jeremy Bentham in 1787, so that every portrait takes its place within a social and moral hierarchy. In some respects it reminded me of the 1960s Monty Python Sketch as seen here .

Moving on from this, Sekula writes of a “generalized, inclusive archive, a shadow archive that encompasses an entire social terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain”  (ibid) providing a “single hermeneutic paradigm” that had two “tightly entwined branches physiognomy and phrenology” that had enormous prestige and popularity, particularly in the United States. There follows a summary of how these branches developed, with photographic archives becoming ‘central to a bewildering range of empirical disciplines, ranging from art history to military intelligence (1986:59).

The essay becomes most interesting to me from p. 58 when he begins to investigate ways in which photographic modernist practice began to, consciously or unconsciously, resist or subvert this model of the archive – an entity existing beyond individual control. Mentioning August Sander, Edward Stieglitz and Edward Weston he then looks in more detail at Walker Evans’s approach and his book sequences, particularly American Photographs (1938)  creating connections between individuals and social contexts and stressing the difference between his documentary style and that of a ‘literal document’. Below is an extract from a transcript of an interview with Paul Cummings in 1971, on the site “Archives of American Art”  : Evans is referring to his work having been in an Exhibition

WALKER EVANS: No, it wasn’t that so much. Although that is important to any artist. But this was particularly important because, as I say, more than I realized it established the documentary style as art in photography. For the first time it was influential, you see. The Museum is a very influential place.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Right. You refer to the “documentary style.” How do you define that?

WALKER EVANS: It’s a very important matter. I use the word “style” particularly because in talking about it many people say “documentary photograph.” Well, literally a documentary photograph is a police report of a dead body or an automobile accident or something like that. But the style of detachment and record is another matter. That applied to the world around us is what I do with the camera, what I want to see done with the camera.

The whole interview is very interesting, giving a real sense of Evan’s individual approach to photography and his determination to do whatever he wished to create the image he envisaged. There was obviously more than one interview in 1971 where Evans discussed his view as ASX reproduce another interview here  .

Sekula had earlier written about Galton’s composites. Francis Galton spent much time in combining photographs of different subjects to test if there was a recognizable criminal type, ‘sick’ type or ‘racial’ type. Later photographers had utilised this approach e.g. Nancy Burson who has produced many computerized composites . Sekula relates her work to that of Galton earlier in the Century and is highly critical, “For an artist or critic to resurrect the methods of bio-social typology without once acknowledging the historical context and consequences of these procedures is naive at best and cynical at worst” (1986:62). However, he is more positive on the political work of Martha Rosler  and the work she produced in the 1970s in film and video although I’m also thinking here of  The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

Further thoughts

Sekula certainly provides plentiful evidence to support his viewpoint on the repressive use of photography and I think this is an interesting standpoint, given that he wrote this essay 30 years ago.  I’m assuming that from his point of view the repressive aspects were worse than any positive effects and I’m minded here of drones.  When their uses in warfare became known I thought were pernicious machines whose mode of use made killing people seem almost a game, given that their controllers were so many miles away from any ‘action’. I’ve noticed recently though that publicity is also being given to positive uses in finding missing people, exploring difficult to reach terrain etc. The technique of creating digital composites has also been used to visualize the ageing of those who have gone missing, particularly children.

References

Sekula, A (1986) The Body and the Archive in October, vol 39 (Winter, 1986, pp3-64, MIT Press

http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-walker-evans-11721
http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/10/interview-an-interview-with-walker-evans-pt-1-1971.html
http://www.marthagarzon.com/contemporary_art/2011/02/nancy-burson-race-beauty-power/
http://www.martharosler.net/photo/bowery.html
http://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1360?locale=en