"With each new photographic event, we change not only the possibilities of a photographic future yet to come, but also the totality of photographic history."
Morten Andenæs in conversation with Lucas Blalock.
Morten Andenæs: My three-year old has started to ask questions about the causes of given situations. Why does it snow? Why is grandmother old? In my feeble attempts to give answers succinct enough to resonate with her, I’ve noticed that she’ll repeat these answers verbatim, affirmatively, as if the questions themselves were never posed – as if she’s telling me something I didn’t already know. She repeats these lines fluently, but without the understanding that comes with having lived through the experience that spawned the statement. I mention this because it occurs to me that even though photographs are used with such ease, and the field of photography in its short history is so vast, our usage and understanding of photography is like a child repeating something with the fluency of an adult, without the concomitant understanding that the experience brings with it.
I learned today that a computer recently passed the Turing test, and what made the news interesting was that the machine managed to pass itself off as a thirteen-year old. I’ve often thought of photography (and when I use this term I tend to think both in terms of our understanding of images and the ways in which we use the medium) as pubescent. We grant it a certain amount of respect often accorded to those more mature in the hope that they’ll live up to that kind of a responsibility, but at the same time our behavior towards them is dependent on the knowledge that there’s a whole ocean of experience that will change their very beings in the decades to come. Typically, adolescence is a time when we try on certain world views in order to see how they mesh with whatever conception we have of the world around us and ourselves in it. Over time, and much like the phrases repeated to me by my three-year old, these worldviews become assimilated and blend with our idea of the self, in turn churned out as genuine expressions of us. This could be an analogy to the way photography is being used, especially when perusing sites like Instagram. There’s a kind of visual thoughtlessness and lack of understanding of the potential meanings generated, while at the same time, the images look great. They’re different from what we encounter in family albums from the 1970s or 80s. Rather than being an archive of a lost present (and presence) within which we can trace a life, or parts of a life, they seem to be chiefly concerned with affirming presence here and now. They do this with perfect pronunciation, inflection and grammar, but perhaps without the intimate understanding invoked by the term “mother tongue.”
This analogy between photography and language often pops up in the literature surrounding photography. I'm inclined to go with the John Berger and Roland Barthes version, whereby photography is seen as a pseudo-language, but what concerns me, is the common conception whereby photography is treated as a fully fledged language. This idea that we could communicate with images just as unambiguously as we do with words is a way of thinking that denies the photograph it’s full potential as a vehicle that opens a space within us that we didn’t know existed. The power of a photograph is precisely the multiple meanings it generates, its inability to be pinned down to just one meaning, and to treat photographs as akin to language is to commit a certain kind of violence towards the world in our efforts to make that world more orderly and less dangerous to our very being. This is why Barthes was onto something wildly important when he said that he wanted, in writing about photographs, to create a new science for each object of study (for each photograph).
All of this is a way of relating to the question of whether we need spaces devoted to photography. There’s always going to be a need for specialized discourse, and particularly one that manages to bridge the events of the past with the present.
Lucas Blalock: I want to start by saying that I think about the activity of my work as photography even though there’s some perversity in this claim. This is important to me because my project is essentially one of looking and picturing, and it seems that the common name for that activity in our time is “photography.” It’s perverse because I’m not interested in stabilizing, or insisting on, photography’s terms, but in undermining and stretching them. And one of the most interesting things about photography is that it’s so difficult to locate or essentialize. Even the staunchest of photography's defenders tend to make all sorts of exceptions when it comes to what counts as a photograph. For example, if we were to follow an essentialist trajectory and say that a photograph is a picture made with a light impression on a chemical surface, then we’d have to acquiesce that a photograph is rarely seen in a newspaper or an advertisement; and this is obviously both nominally true and also deeply limiting in terms of understanding photography and its impact on our culture. This may seem like semantics, but I have the sense that teasing out photography’s contradictions and multiplicities is in fact the best way to see it, and a really productive space for working.
Andenæs: I’ve always considered myself a photographer first and foremost, and whatever I've done, whether adding fake piping to a gallery wall, covering the floor of a gallery space with laminate flooring or writing, I've thought of it as using whatever means at my disposal to create photography by other means, to borrow a phrase from Gerhard Richter. Jacques Ranciere remarks on Godard’s Histoires de Cinema and the choice made by the director to “write” the history of film in a different medium as a key to understanding not only the Histoires, but also the structure of investigation in general. After my first glance through your book Windows, Mirrors, Tabletops, I’m wondering how you relate to that idea? Rather than investigating from the outside, part of what’s happening in your work is instead to use the very stuff of photography and of the photograph. This is in order to say something hitherto unsaid about photography: that we don’t need to distance ourselves from the medium and use other media in order to expand and undermine the medium.
Blalock: I love this idea of interrogating the medium from the inside! Godard, and Ranciere for that matter, have been major influences in my thinking. I’ve read something somewhere before (maybe Barthes) that has made a similar case for poetry – that a proper poetic criticism would have to be in verse.
The way I’ve most often tried to get at this idea is through Gilles Deleuze’s use of the word “minor” in his book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. In it he says that part of the power of Kafka’s texts comes from its being written in German – a highly official language – and that Kafka’s work stresses the terms of the language itself. According to Deleuze, in Kafka’s work German itself is made foreign, obscene, and guttural; he makes the mighty language stutter. I’ve thought about this “minor” in terms of photography (where the “major” might be advertising) and been interested in what minor-ness could be. Your description of working within the application of photography to get a picture of photography is right to the point.
Andenæs: The simplicity of the two words “looking” and “picturing” conceal a whole host of things we take for granted. Looking is obviously never “just looking”; it always implies a certain judgment, which is why I've used the word “regard” in the title of my ever-expanding project, regarding the middle class. My use of this term has also been a way of making visible, through a photographic viewpoint, an inherited world-view; it’s been a way of trying to analyze a system of which I’m wholly a part.
When I look at your work, I keep thinking about this anecdote that Colin McCabe included in his biography Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70. It mentions Godard’s father, the opthalmologist, who tried to devise a way of performing eye surgery on himself. What strikes me as interesting about this insider position is that it offers another way of elaborating on, or criticizing. Rather than pointing to, it’s kind of performative. The typical example would be to do, rather than talk about doing. When I claim to be photographing the middle class, I’m not simply pointing to middle-class markers of identity; instead, I repeat the gaze of the middle class, handing it back to those from whom it issued. By doing so, there’s less of a clear-cut axis of right and wrong, and more of an interest in seeing where this act takes us: what it shows us.
Blalock: Thinking about your conception of middle class, and regarding, and spending time with your book skyldfolk, got me going in a number of different directions. One of these is cinema, particularly filmmakers from the 1970s like Chantal Ackerman, John Cassavettes or Fassbinder, who all set out to deal with the middle class in one way or another. I think your notion of “seeing from the inside” is a concise way of establishing a relationship to this invisible-visible (or visible-invisible) that your pictures problematize. Both terms, the camera and the middle class, were, at least mythologically, invisible during their height in the 20th century. They blossomed in this naturalized relationship that now feels much stickier – maybe especially here in the US where the middle class is collapsing. I’m not sure how this would feel in Norway. For me, the sense of mystery in your pictures resides in tandem with a strong sense of melancholy, and a nostalgia for this lost promise. Both the camera and the middle class are in a sense a kind of spoiled or compromised inheritance – but at least with the camera that void left an open space for discovery and articulation.
Andenæs: From Cassavettes films to soap operas, Fassbinder to costume dramas – the cinematic space of fantasy, projection, and the fiction of the real is ingrained in my way of thinking, and I think especially prevalent in the works that made up skyldfolk. Michael Haneke’s work has made more than an impact. His purported mission, “to rape the viewer into autonomy,” though somewhat pedantic, is interesting in numerous ways. In countries that embraced social democracy, like Norway, the explicit voice of authority has been shunned since World War II. However, a lack of clear-cut authority doesn’t eradicate the need for authority, it just changes the form of how this authority is expressed. I use the term “ambivalence” to describe this, and mirror it by setting up an ambivalent, unintelligible stance in the photographs that conceals the motivations for whatever is at hand.
Cinema is always in some way connected to narration, and this I think is a term that would concern us both. As you said, there’s been a common-sense relationship between the middle class and the photographic apparatus and industry. The development of photography has gone in tandem with the development of the middle classes. In a book by Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, he writes that the main drive behind the middle classes and their strivings for modernity has been to eradicate ambivalence – to eradicate the multiplicity of meaning that makes the world unruly. It’s a striving for a greater sense of mastery over the world, a mastery that’s always doomed to failure, because eradicating one parcel of ambivalence is always to set the stage for another.
Blalock: You brought up Barthes, but I’m wondering if you’ve come across Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography? His conception of photography as a program has a lot to do with this idea of adolescence.
Andenæs: There are definite similarities between Flusser’s conception of how the photographic program functions and my using the word “pubescent” in relation to how we deal with images. When he says that the photographic program is defined by (and limited to) everything that lends itself to being photographed, he’s at his most profound, and I’m reminded of this question that Wittgenstein poses in Philosophical Investigations:
Of course if water boils in a pot, steam comes out of the pot. And pictured steam comes out of the pictured pot. But what if one insisted on saying that there must also be something boiling in the pictured pot?
Flusser points out that there’s a clear discrepancy between the program as an underlying structure of the photograph and the layperson’s experience of the photograph as a thing on the same level as the world it’s representing. When we look beyond the flat surface of the photograph in favor of what’s photographed, and treat the photograph as the thing in itself, the program has won out. And yet, were we simply to focus on the illusion of the photograph acting as reality, that wouldn’t be enough. I notice in some of your works that I experience my own perceptive apparatus at work. My initial, generalizing look tells me I'm looking straight “onto the world,” but as I linger, I become aware of how my need for coherency tricked me into filling in the blanks; the sutures and parts doubled up in layers tear the image apart and create a strange form of unease: all is perception, all is illusion, and as a friend of mine so succinctly put it once, without our perceptive apparatus, there’s nothing “out there.” Your images don’t give us the respite of the typical photograph because there’s no easy distinction between reality and illusion.
When we treat photographs as reality, we’re committing a grave mistake – as Flusser points out, the green of a green field in a color photograph is many theoretical steps away from the original green referent, but because these two levels exist side by side in every photograph, what feels more relevant is why we end up needing this space of the photograph. Flusser goes a long way in explaining this, in his account of how photography has developed, and along which lines. He describes how photography is symptomatic of a fundamental change in the human experience, namely automation and its effects on society and our experiences of it. I miss a discussion on what it is about photography’s presenting the world again and again as faithfully as possible that keeps us so enthralled. To use the language of psychoanalysis, what kind of a lack does the image somehow make up for, or what kind of a rupture is photography a suture for, more than just a plaything we’ve grown accustomed to and which in the end has overtaken us, its creators?
Blalock: One other thing that comes to mind for me now is the way both of us have looked through the apparatus vis-a-vis a kind of class consciousness. For me, it was the invisible made visible of Brecht, and for you the visible invisible of the middle class. I think your question about origin in Flusser is right-on and I’ve been trying to answer it myself lately by thinking photography through drawing instead of indexicality. Connecting photography to drawing in this way developed out of reading Mimesis and Alterity by the anthropologist Michael Taussig, though the idea of the camera as a drawing tool is as old as the medium itself. In his book, Taussig makes a case for an understanding of mimetic activity via Walter Benjamin and the ritual object-making of the Cuna of Panama. He talks about copying as an activity of sympathetic magic, or a drawing closer, into one’s influence, things beyond. A good copy, then, isn’t a truthful or objective one – the good copy of index – but instead one that has the power to possess. In my own work, I’m interested in how this activity of drawing might be a double drawing – against the conditions of narrowness and alienation wrought by commodity and against the disembodied space of the digital.
Andenæs: In Why I love Barthes, Alain Robbe Grillet speaks of reciting the Barthes’ lines while in the bath – his thought being that the only true way of understanding the words of another is to take them in your own mouth. The Norwegian author Tomas Espedal said in an interview that he’d study other writers by writing their lines over again, much as art students and artists in the past would sit in front of the paintings of the masters, copying the lines, the successes and failures of another, leading to an experience that can’t be taught. Growing up, I was never much exposed to art, but one thing that kept me occupied was to copy the drawings of others by sight. Isn’t one of the greatest joys to be able to truly understand the thoughts or sentiments of another through copying their actions and words? I'm put in mind of Helen Keller’s autobiography, Light in My Darkness. Deaf and blind, she came to know the world, both its materiality and the ability to express it and herself through language, purely by traces left on her skin by the touch of another, traces of materials and subsequently traces as signs.
Blalock: I’ve actually just begun reading Robbe-Grillet in the last few months and am in the middle of The Erasers just now. I love this idea of taking something in your mouth – knowing through a kind of enthusiastic participation.
Continuing from this idea of drawing, I’ve been preoccupied recently with trying to think through the activity of relating the body, in all of its obtuseness and haptic intelligence, to virtual spaces. I feel that the screen is generally a space for a very cerebral engagement (as, for that matter, is the abstraction of commodity into brand) and that reconnecting the body in these circuits is a meaningful activity that expands the possibilities of use; and further, that the kind of sympathetic learning that Robbe-Grillet is talking about has a kind of visual/object analogue. Also, this idea of learning through doing (which is another learning through the body) is something I fully believe in. I see it as crucial to the difference between representational and mimetic picture-making, which itself is at the root of me wanting to reimagine photography enthusiastically.
I read an article in a newspaper a few months back that made the case that the problem with contemporary art was that we’re no longer reading enough fiction – that the experience of thinking through another, a developed fictional character, for extended periods, was an essential part of reimagining the world. I’m not sure what I can say about the prognosis, but I related to the sentiment – even though this in itself is something else altogether.
Andenæs: Currently, I'm making some photographs of my daughter’s drawings. It’s something I've been doing ever since she started putting marks on paper. When looking at something she’d done, I was struck by a kind of similarity to some of your strokes. When you use the tools at your disposal, what’s your relation to painting – to the idea of the brushstroke, for that matter? Is there a certain “Lucasness” to be found there? Would it make sense to say that there’s something of Nina in her marks in her drawing book? The marks you leave behind, do you consider them yours?
Blalock: I think a three-year old’s drawing book is a very appropriate place to start – at least on the manual level! Joking aside, though, I think it has a lot to do with painting as a history of picture-making, and thinking-through-picture-making, which is an idea I explicitly inherited from artists like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman, but as far as the mark goes, I think I come up against something that’s very much not painting. These pictures relate much more to drawing, which has a kind of diagrammatic or direct relationship to intention, and at the same time has more to do with what’s drawn. One might say that the painterly mark has a way of announcing itself, whereas the drawn mark is more directly a rendering of something else. That said though, I think that the activity of making those marks is mine; I’m not trying to disavow that relationship.
Blalock: I haven’t made a body of work in quite a while that suggests narrative across pictures. (I do think there are certain stories – how a picture is put together, who might be in it, where an object came from, or what it makes you think of – that are still there.) When I started this work, I was always trying to get photographs to overcome their muteness, but then at one point I really tuned into it. I got sort of excited about how deadpan and presentational they could be. This dumbness became a mainstay – an over-determination of this inherent quality in photographs. I love how they can simultaneously carry so much information and at the same time be so withholding. I became interested in how these pictures that seem to refuse, or don’t encourage, narrative can set up these insistent, nearly monosyllabic, circuits between language, objects, and pictures. In lieu of narrative, I’ve thought about the work as a collection of attempts or as performing photography, which in this context has a lot to do with acts of naming.
When I first started making pictures in my late teens, I wanted to be a writer, so there is a strong narrative impulse in me. But when I was in my late twenties, I found myself struggling for a way forward. Projections of narrative started to get really heavy. As my life was taking on these unexpected shapes, I had a great deal of trouble locating my own character in the stories I wanted to tell and all of this set up a real crisis. I found it necessary in a broad sense to move from a narrative sensibility to something more like one foot in front of the other. I guess I could say that narrative itself fell into a third parallel with the one we drew earlier between the middle class and photography: as having compromised promise. Once I regained my bearings, the space that narrative had held was overtaken by this activity of repetition, or near repetition, which became fundamental to both my work and my life. My whole point of view had changed. This brings us to the present tense in my pictures. I feel now that the kernel of the work is in this activity, not in the absent or melancholic past of Barthes, say.
In skyldfolk the cinematic structure sets up other temporal problems. There’s an almost sci-fi feel at moments. Chris Marker’s reflexive historical projections come to mind. What’s your relationship to the present? I feel Flusser lurking here, with his magical collapse of linear history into technical image.
Andenæs: Belonging to a class, or a segment of a certain class, often brings with it a kind of predestination, much like how a name can function as something the subject has to live up to. Skyld (as in skyldfolk) means both “guilt” and “debt” in Norwegian, but the term skyldfolk is an outdated one meaning family, or kin, and it fits perfectly, both in the sense of the kind of debt we’re born with, and the guilty feelings that life within a certain kind of family brings: What do we owe, and in turn, what are we owed? What constitutes family – in society, between individuals, and between pictures? With the book’s division into chapters, and three of them beginning with a photograph from the District Court, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, there’s obviously a loose narrative that emerges. However, rather than functioning as a narrative clearly on its way towards some conclusion, what happens is the dissolution of the possibility of a coherent narrative. This mirrors the disintegration of the social democratic model towards the end of the 1970s when I was born. The further we go in telling the story about ourselves, the more the story itself unravels as a consequence of an initial question of guilt that can’t be precisely formulated, but which nonetheless structures our entire existence.
It seems Robbe Grillet is appropriate to our discussion because of his insistence on the importance of presence – not as an opposition to absence, but as an opposition to how you use the term “distance.” The distance that photography has often been reduced to is a space we both explore. I make the distinction between immediate and mediated photographs, the former being a photograph that, rather than mediating a past experience and announcing itself clearly as photograph, brings the potential of an experience immediately into the viewers midst, opening up a sense of being engulfed as the protagonist of whatever situation is being related. If printed the right size, hung at the right height, shot with the right lens, a simple photograph can be apprehended as completely as an experience in an immersive environment, a term used to describe virtual reality. The difficulty is, as you point out, that photographs, and as an extension screens, tend towards a very limited cerebral engagement, and the question of why this is interests me.
I imagine you’re familiar with mirror neurons? When I became aware of them some years back, I was enthralled. Simply put, mirror neurons fire when we see someone performing a task that we ourselves know intimately. When I watch you raise a hammer to hit a nail, the same neurons fire in my brain as when I myself perform that task. When I see you in pain, the same neurons fire as when I’m in pain – leading some to postulate mirror neurons as the basis for empathy. So the doubts related to a photograph’s ability to relate truth or experience are rendered somewhat moot. At an unconscious level, we apprehend photographs in an embodied sense. The problem is the level of denial that immediately goes to work without us even realizing it. So, what are we in fact seeing and experiencing when confronted with a photograph of a handgun? A slight increase in palm temperature, a profound bodily recognition, a proclivity for violence or arousal. This brings with it a responsibility, the consequence of which is possibly escape, denial, and disavowal in order to avoid the potentially shattering knowledge brought on by seeing. So whereas for me the photograph acts as a kind of agent of the gaze that forces a certain acknowledgment about the guilty pleasures we’d rather keep at bay, your notion of digital enthusiasm is a way of reconnecting the body through labor. I’m interested in the weight you accord to this vis-a-vis alienation in relation to Brecht, and in an extension of that, whether your work functions as a kind of blueprint for how to engage?
Blalock: I wasn’t aware of mirror neurons – not by name at least – but it’s an experience I’ve been describing a lot of late. In my experience of making the work, I’ve passed from thinking through a Brechtian metaphor of staging, where the objects were actors and the studio a kind of theater condition, to thinking about it as an activity of mimetic picturing, as we’ve been talking about, though these two modes are obviously not mutually exclusive. Photography has a native condition of alienation, though not in Brecht’s sense, when it comes to an idea like touch. I’m seeing my own picture-making these days through an attempt to address this problem nervously. I’m adding this up to say that maybe the corporeal relationship in photography could be expressed as alienation via collapse, instead of its usual form as distance. By this I mean that there’s a certain pictorial disruption in expectations of photography, including the foregrounding of the tools, but instead of putting this in the service of a distancing, critical encounter, I’ve wanted to use these same activities to make the pictured object speak more loudly and draw out its qualities in a bodily way.
As for blueprints, I’ve never thought of them that way, but I do see them as being addressed to a shared space and I hope that my activity can be generative of other thinking and making. In terms of the digital specifically, their making is trying to feel a nervous / bodily encounter in a new shared, generally un-bodied space so there is a way in which I’m tracing out my own learning.
Do you see your own work as a blueprint? Maybe for addressing our blind spot – for the cognitive work that assembles both the social situation and the optical/pictorial with surprising seamlessness no matter how much information is missing?
Andenæs: I haven’t considered my work a blueprint in the sense of it offering a procedure for others to follow. However, there is something to the method of critiquing from within. This is the photograph that wants us to ask and answer the impossible question, “What do you want from me?” This is the photograph that makes the viewer responsible for critiquing himself. The regard is a stance, a view of the world, but it’s also our own gaze displaced onto the image in the guise of a look that seems to emanate from the image; an injunction to take responsibility – not for all the problems in this world, but for our place, our stance and our complicity in current political structures or personal relationships. And this is of course the blind spot. The naturalized is a clever form of distortion, and making it visible is always to some extent a way of substituting one distortion for another. A corrective lens, however much clearer it makes the scene or renders it “natural,” is also a distortion. The hope, of course, is that by adding another take, one doesn’t necessarily give a correct view, but opens up a space that leaves a gap, an empty place. This vacillation between the natural and its corrective or multiple other interpretations is often visible only as an effect of presence – presence as a constant state of productive, or “beneficial uncertainty,” to borrow a phrase from psychiatry.
Blalock: I want to go back to what I meant in saying that both the middle class and photography were a kind of compromised inheritance. Christopher Williams is an artist whom one could think of here. It’s interesting to consider these things in parallel because I feel modernity (and with it secular bourgeois society) has simultaneously been constructed as a condition of isolation and near unassailable doubt. The mastery you’re talking about – this mastery that’s doomed to fail – is parallel to photography’s own instrumentalizing function to index the world. I think it’s this parallelism, and this very history, with all of its baggage, that makes the continued formulation of “photography” as a medium and a discipline really important. A curator recently put it to me that photography was too narrow a term, and that “image” better served our current climate. In a way, she’s right, but I think it’s the friction that continuing to think about “photography” offers that makes it necessary. One could say that painting as a category has functioned for more than a century through being a narrow category perpetually reformulated and productively pushed against. I see a similar possibility for continuing to think through photography.
Andenæs: The importance of distinguishing between photograph and image is highly relevant given the tendency to use these terms interchangeably. Because of the weight I give to the way we project all our failures or desires onto photographs, I’ve often thought that our relation to images has contaminated our understanding of photographs. In what ways do these two terms infiltrate, use and abuse each other, especially when considering photographs coupled with text or titles?
The image is bound up with the notion of metaphor, of a picture of something else, and this can take away something from the photograph. Though a flower in a photo looks like a vulva, it’s still a photograph of a flower. Like narrative, metaphor functions as a way of escaping the real brought about by the appearance, in an attempt to affirm the idea of our uniqueness in a world which essentially cares little for our existence. You talked about these pictures that refuse narrative and set up monosyllabic circuits between language, objects, and pictures. Much of what we’ve been discussing is approaching a place where language itself ends up relieving us of the burden of dealing with the photographic. It talks through the photographs, enabling a kind of escape, or getting back to what you said about Kafka, the place in which language falters, when it stutters. Could you elaborate on the relation you see between photographs and naming? This is something that’s concerned me quite a bit.
Blalock: I have this idea that there’s a tendency in photography to name. If we see a picture of a ball, we want to name it as such. This is all pretty self-evident, but I bring it up to say that the pictures I’m most interested in make this naming activity feel inadequate. I think this tendency to name and its taxonomic aspect helped to make photography such a powerful tool in the rise of consumerism. You could say that an effective advertising image is one that succeeds in getting you to speak the brand. This doesn’t necessarily apply equally to all photographs. Photographs of “scenes” are less likely to speak-all-at-once (this is a pretty loose construction), but I’m interested in the possibility of photographs of things, of people, that draw up this naming tendency and then in some way or other undermine it. I think we’ll almost always take the path of least resistance out of an experience – especially one that’s demanding – and an adequate name is an easy exit from a picture, a deflation of the tension of having to look. Pictures that can draw on this impulse to name, but produce a lack, don’t close out; they’re harder to escape and also harder to posses. How have you been thinking about naming?
Andenæs: One of the first exercises with which we as parents confront our children is the simple picture book full of isolated objects, and superficially the task is to equate picture with word: ball, sweater, carrot. On a deeper level, these cutouts are also a way to prepare the ground for the understanding of perspective: that there are learned hierarchies in a picture that we use in unconscious ways, while at the same time there’s this work being done unbeknownst to us whereby a picture in two dimensions is substituted for the thing, while sounds are uttered to identify and become the thing in question. Without even the presence of a “real” ball, the brain goes to work, creating a system whereby a picture of a ball and its name stands in for any ball out there in real life. And even though scenes tend to present themselves as more difficult to speak all-at-once as you say, there’s still a need to hold on to the one thing in a picture that grabs our attention, which subsequently becomes a mnemonic device. What I’ve often found interesting about these generic representations of objects that one learns to identify, is not only that they’re the first in our understanding of concepts such as categories, but that they manage to short-circuit the mnemonic function of the picture/object. Their referents are so abstract that we attach very little emotion to them. I’ve often found a similar result when the title of an image corresponds neatly to all that the photograph contains. When the title, which is supposedly there to broaden our understanding either by letting us form our own opinions or point us in some other direction, instead reiterates what a few glances at the photograph tells us: “Yes, I know, but why are you telling me this?”
Andenæs: When I was skimming through Robbe Grillet’s work, I was struck by something he said about fiction: rather than being a procedure for mirroring the world, it in fact constitutes it. Looking at your work, I wonder if we couldn’t see it as fiction in this precise, constitutive sense? One immediately notices the blanks, the spaces where a tool has removed something, but it seems more relevant to interrogate all the additions you make, from the initial set or scene, all the way through repetitions and cloning.
Skyldfolk looked into the effects of the past on the present, setting up a space where two time periods collided. I was struck by the similarity between Flusser’s collapse of linear history into technical image – that is, linearity collapsed into a horizontal plane. I think about how our perception of events, and their immediate dissemination into the ether, complete with reflections on those events, could be a way of understanding the collapse of linear history. There’s a visual correlative in the selfie, where there’s a near collapse of the separation between the self as a projection from within, and an independently existing image beyond our control. I say “near collapse,” because what’s interesting about the selfie is the way in which the camera-as-screen seems to reveal a minimal gap where we observe ourselves observing ourselves. This turning of the image onto itself results in something approaching feedback. This feedback, this impossible endless space of mirrors, is precisely the blind spot with regards to ourselves. Perhaps it’s what Jacques Lacan in Ecrits would call, the objet petit a, that thing in me more than myself; the x in me that can’t be accounted for. Perhaps the impetus behind the selfie is the dream of affirming and seeing myself the “way I really am,” and the obstacles to such an endeavor seem more insurmountable than ever in a time where the notion of a consistent self developing over time, grounded however illusorily in a causal chain of events, is at stake.
Blalock: Years back I read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which had a big impact on me. For context, it’s the book where the term “paradigm shift” originates, and is a history of science that attempts to chart moments when the aberrant data of an epoch coalesces into a new structure of understanding. Kuhn makes the point that, for the most part, being a good scientist is being a better measurer than your peers, but that every once in a while, it’s something very different. One of the descriptions in the book that I was most intrigued by was something he calls “normal science,” which is just the daily testing of things against our expectations of them, and the accumulation of the results of that activity is the very stuff of science. I felt when reading it that there was a corollary in art-making, or in fiction, even though this sounds terribly un-romantic. But I don’t see it that way – nor do I see this metaphor as wholly sound. For me, making pictures has, adamantly, been about working through all of the information I’m accumulating (art-historical, technological, scientific, personal, phenomenological, theoretical, etc.) and looking for other ways to read it or new structures that might carry it. I have a sense that we’re not exactly inventing the terms of our work, but really working on problems already at hand.
I want to qualify this science metaphor though, or collapse it actually, into this idea of presence. Critique is often understood through distance, which is born of the same cosmology as science itself. Social science and humanism reinforce this, to use your term, “regarding” – this middle-distanced looking, which is “clear” and “informative.” This establishes stable values and meaning systems that are both positivist and partial. Presence, on the other hand, is a different kind of exchange that puts more trust in the receiver. It relies on a deeper nervous approach, but one that also doesn’t, at the other end of the spectrum, close this space out through spectacle. This is central to much of the art and literature that I love. We shift from reading the metaphors of symbolic structuring to an immanent relation and metonymy, which undermines the optic with the haptic – it introduces the body and implicates it.
In my work, I approach this through the burlesque, the over-performance of desire, whereas in your pictures I feel this tension being introduced through restraint – not least the restraint of the photograph itself. I’m thinking of the handgun implicating the body or other bodies, being absent, “merely” described.
Andenæs: I can understand how the supposedly tedious work of day-to-day testing often found in scientific enquiries can be used as a way of approaching an artwork. But, as you note, the metaphor lacks something, and in the process of engaging with and working through art, there’s the sense of stumbling over something one didn’t know one was looking for. In Slavoj Zizek’s article “What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib,” he writes about “unknown unknowns”: that which we didn’t even know we didn’t know. And here it seems important to invoke Flusser again. Ever since you brought him up, this idea of his that the limit to photography is that which can be photographed has nagged me; as if there’s a kind of predestination of the photographic, analogous to a seed or genetic code where we as photographers can never truly transform the medium, only play out all its possible combinations in the search for photographs that are yet to exist. And when you brought up the term “paradigm shift” in tandem with me reading Zizek’s Event, two things coalesced: First, rather than looking at photography today as something in need of a paradigm shift, perhaps we should take Flusser’s idea to heart: photography IS the paradigm shift; a shift whose contours we’re just now starting to see, and which perhaps rings true vis-a-vis your fantastic formulation that we’re not inventing the terms of our work, but working on a problem already at hand. Secondly, Zizek brings up the idea of the event, where he relies on Deleuze, as that which not only changes the coordinates of the present, but retroactively changes the past. With each new informative picture in Flusser’s sense, with each new photographic event, we change not only the possibilities of a photographic future yet to come, but also the totality of photographic history.
Blalock: I’ve also struggled with Flusser’s sort of paranoid construction of photographic finitude, and I think your connection to Zizek is tremendous. On a very pedestrian level, this act of retrofitting a history of the present has been particularly evident in the last four or five collection shows at MoMA. This is not to call them out, but to take this idea of event seriously. To me, this does seem to express what’s at stake. What will be carried into the future? What percentage of the knowledge of any time will be carried forward or reinvented? What will need to be rediscovered or will essentially be lost?
This is why I’m so interested in photography now. It would be much more convenient to allow photography to end, to stop insisting on it; to let’s its exchangeability – the image economy – dominate; to let the scale of the digital scale the conversation – a scale that has a lot to do with this notion of a sublime, eternal present. It’s agreeable (which is not say that these issues don’t also deserve work and study) to let this take precedence over photography’s ever-compromised ontology, its specific pictorial qualities and its histories. There’s something about photography that wants to allow this forgetting, something tied up in the medium’s own relationship to novelty and modernity. And further, there’s a particularly uncomfortable feeling of anachronism in trying to focus on an earlier era’s standard-bearer. But I can’t help but have the sense that this outmodedness is an opportunity, that there’s a door open, an instability, and that now the event of photography, to cite Deleuze, is incredibly important to how we look backwards. And even more to the point, as you posited, I think it’s crucial to how we might look backwards some time down the line. Culture has to be kept alive, which isn’t a neutral proposition.
Several years back, I read a book called May ‘68 and Its Afterlives by Kristen Ross. She looks at the events in Paris through the narratives that have since grown up around them, and the way that some of the major figures continued in their public lives. She talks about something maybe quite close to Zizek’s “unknown unknowns.” She writes about how, by definition, a radical moment is a historical problem, because the more radical it is the more literally invisible it is to a historical condition that didn’t take up its propositions. She posits that there was far more actual possibility available to the people involved, and by proxy the greater culture, than were even available to those same people in the years that followed. I’m not saying that photography is there now, at some threshold, but I do think that within one’s own practice these thresholds of invention can leave significant traces, and that the rigor and imagination with which we imagine photography now, particularly in its more marginalized aspects, will make the space for what will come after.
This conversation continued on, long after Objektiv’s deadline, and will appear in a book next year.