A Harry Callahan photograph from the late 1940s or early 1950s depicts broadsides peeling off the exterior a city building. It’s either a photograph or series of closely cropped photographs. In fact, there is no real way to tell at first they are indeed billboards, although they seem to be mostly movie and concert posters. Only the odd letter or maimed likeness of a long ago starlet peeks through the decay. In short, this photograph (or photographs) look like abstract paintings. His title is something like, ‘For Paul Klee’.
In The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism, Rosalind Krauss explains, via Breton’s writing on ‘convulsive beauty’, photography has a special relationship to mimicry. Mimicry: a thing in nature, in the world, that imitates another; a moth’s wing carrying the markings of an eye; camouflage of all sorts.
Photography is constituted in part by this mimicry, an imitation and imprint of a thing in the world, of peeling posters. What is represented, however, is marked by distance. A photograph of peeling posters is not the thing; it’s a representation of the thing, always viewed in a space and time different from that of its making or taking. It’s a picture of the outside of a building in a town of which you’ve never heard, but which you see on your computer, in a magazine, or billboard. In this way, photographs are abstracted and decontextualised from any semblance of a natural environment, much like Krauss’ description of a moth pinned to the back of a frame. Images are read in this decontextualised frame through the various other economies in which they circulate, for example, journalism and art. It is this such framing, and Callahan’s clever titling, that a documentary photograph of disintegrating broad- sides can engage in direct dialogue with abstract painting. For Paul Klee…
There is a secondary level of abstraction not specific to photography but to this historical moment. This is an abstraction of information from its source through a haphazard and accidental process that I am just going to call ‘research’. It’s an abstraction of process. Most research is done in front of a computer screen. Sometimes, when looking for something, I will go to a specific website for specific information, like the New York Times, or Petfinder.com, but often the search is meandering. Looking for a Harry Callahan picture I’ve not seen in years, but assuming it must exist somewhere in my Google search, I find another image and email it to a photographer friend who made something that looks similar. This sets off long back and forth chat about mimicry in research. Sources lead to other sources while emails, eating, and life, get in the way. And yet all of this is part of the thought process. Whatever final form the outcome of this research takes, the information required to make or write the thing (this thing that you read now, even) is dislocated and abstracted from any original context; this is the rhizomatic nature of looking around for stuff online.
Since ‘abstraction’ not only describes an aesthetic category but also a process, the language of abstraction has new meaning in a cultural moment defined by this meandering accumulation of information. As Krauss writes, it is reality as representation. This is how a body of work I am in the midst of producing—photograms of flower stems and leaves placed directly on photo paper and exposed to differed coloured light—can take on the disjointed and abstract aesthetics of the digital sources used in my research on the Victorian language of flowers. These photograms don’t point to or reference the research; they are formed by it and, therefore, in a strange way, necessarily look like it. The websites I access in order to find out the meaning of different flowers are as much the reality of the formation of these images as the darkroom, in which they are made. discussion of research in art often fetishises the book, the library, the archive, academic or quasi-academic lectures and institutions. These become the privileged signifiers of ‘smart art’ with the validation of a BBC voiceover. There are numerous tropes that give artistic dabbling authority. Maybe it is a frustration with such tropes that led Willem de Rooij in a recent discussion with Christopher Williams in Frieze to say, “I’m amazed by the flood of art pieces I’ve seen lately that consist of a photograph of a book that the artist finds interesting. Or a book in a showcase. Or sculptures that consist of a bookshelf on the wall with a number of books on it. Or a photo of a bookshelf. Or a photo of a book in a showcase. These books might be interesting, but the photos and sculptures are usually not.” Art practices and objects that mimic these signifiers of intellectual culture easily become over determined. Credibility is always already imbued in the work through its association with a set of structures immediately recognisable as authoritative. The way the work functions as art becomes subordinate to or dependent on the connotations of the books, lectures, and archival presentations it represents or reproduces.
Art that mimics the abstract structure of research, rather than its signifiers, provides a more provocative and critical insight into articulating the ways in which knowledge is produced and practiced. Examples of such practices range broadly in media and aesthetic concerns. Christopher Williams is particularly relevant here, with his incredibly considered presentation strategies that take on the structures of institutions and histories of photography, while the work of Josef Strau, Liz Deschenes and Lucy Skaer also examine such knowledge production, albeit all in different ways.
Another artist who comes to mind is Leslie Thornton, my former teacher and mentor. The first installment of her cycle of films, ‘Peggy and Fred’ and ‘Peggy and Fred in Hell’ (both 1985), possess a structure that predates the internet and yet both films anticipate the rhizomatic thinking that web logic engenders. In the film, two young children (brother and sister) move through a post apocalyptic mise-en-scène, cluttered with everyday and technological debris—broken phones and old radios, for example—all of which become the ‘stuff’ that structures the improvisations of the siblings. They move from one subject to the next with a dislocated logic, reciting snippets of old movies and pop songs, of imaginary people and future meals. Thornton intercuts these scenes with educational footage, and (if I remember correctly) NASA footage from various space voyages. The film is moody and dark. These kids seem anxious because they are on the precipice of an enormous change, in terms of their own growing up, the explosion of technological apparatuses, and ways of thinking that already litter the landscape and put words in their mouths. The brilliance of this film is that it not only mimics the abstract social and technological structures in which Peggy and Fred inhabit, but it also anticipates structures that do not yet exist at the time of its making.
I have not seen this film in years, so the way I recall it is fragmentary; it is strung together through the gaps of my own memory and enlivened through many other experiences, filmic and otherwise. I saw it before I ever sent an email and probably have only seen it once or twice since. It’s not on Ubu or Karagara. It exists, pretty much only as I imagined it, much like a Harry Callahan photograph from a book that seems to have gotten lost in the visual deluge of everyday plugged-in life.
This all started with a discussion on a photograph and photography, but now I find it ending somewhere else. The original intent is not a path abandoned but instead one that emerges as simply an earlier stage of the writing of this essay. There is no programmatic system I propose. Instead, I advocate for practices and strategies that open up systems of knowledge rather than use their signifiers as a template. It’s not simply a pop cultural reference when two strange-looking children, with eyes too far apart, half sing, half make up the lyrics to ‘Billie Jean’. Rather, they are the vessels through which culture travels; they mimic its lyrics, transforming words and melody as the song goes through them and into the imagined theatre where we all sit, some 30 years later. All these little events, and all the things used to record and transmit them; all the material incarnations of such recordings, like debris from a storm, pile up skyward.
Lisa Oppenheim is an artist based in New York