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2013-03-23 13.50.48The following is a text that was written after attending the Former West congress in Berlin in 2013. Former West was an event that sought to examine the status of art production, particularly politically engaged art production, in the context of a post-1989 Europe. In the piece below I discuss one particular strand of the congress. This was led by Irit Rogoff and was based around the theme of infrastructure. I mainly discuss Rogoff’s contribution but also briefly allude to some of the others as well.

Rogoff started by noting how we in the so-called West tend to pride ourselves on a functioning and superior infrastructure. This takes many forms: a logistical infrastructure that includes transportation elements such as roads and railways; a technological infrastructure consisting of various forms of communication networks; a financial infrastructure dedicated to the movement and circulation of capital; as well other infrastructures dedicated to the facilitation of activities in specific fields of endeavour such as education, law, and all the myriad forms of cultural practice, including of course, art. While infrastructure takes many forms, its defining characteristic is a focus on delivery – delivery of material things such as goods, services, cash, people – or delivery of immaterial things such as credit, data, information, thoughts, ideas. One way or another it moves things from place to place. It facilitates connections between things. It allows things to enter into various forms of relations with each other. Rogoff’s proposition is that infrastructure is a defining characteristic of the contemporary condition, and that therefore we need to think it critically. We need to be alert to both the problems and the possibilities that it presents, in order to figure out how we should operate effectively within it. (more…)

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I’ve been spending some time recently grappling with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s philosophical magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus. This is partly because of a seminar group at NCAD I am involved with, and partly because, well, there’s not really that much of interest on the telly these dark winter evenings. A Thousand Plateaus (let’s call it ATP for short) was published in 1980 and is the second part of a two-volume project by Deleuze and Guattari (let’s call them D&G for short) which they titled Capitalism and Schizophrenia (the first part, Anti-Oedipus, came out in 1972). (more…)

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Graham Harman is an interesting character. He’s a leading figure in contemporary philosophy and holds a professorship at the American University in Cairo, yet earlier in life had a stint working as a sports writer in Chicago. It seems an unlikely trajectory, but for Harman it makes perfect sense, as his work insists on grappling with the real stuff of the world rather than retreating entirely into the mysteries of abstract thought. This might sound slightly dull but in fact it is anything but. Harman manages to mystify this real stuff, so much so that after spending some time reading him, I can’t look at my toaster in quite the same way anymore. Based on my somewhat cursory exposure to his work, I’m going to try and quickly sketch out some of his basic ideas. I can’t possibly do them justice but I’m going to try anyway because I think they lead to an interesting new way of thinking about these photographs I am doing. Apologies in advance to any students of philosophy reading this. It might be best if you stop here. (more…)

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I’ve recently been reading Terry Eagleton’s book On Evil which, for something that is concerned with the awful atrocities humans are capable of inflicting upon each other, is surprisingly funny in parts. The basic gist of it is that there are two dominant ways of thinking about why people do bad stuff to other people. The first one is the traditional conservative viewpoint, which holds that some people are just bad, there’s not much point trying to reason about why they do the things they do, and there’s nothing to be gained by trying to rehabilitate them. Incarceration and punishment are the only legitimate responses, and in some cases, the ultimate punishment of death is warranted. This is a way of thinking that finds its most extreme form of contemporary expression in the use of the death penalty in the US, but it’s also what fuels those calls for longer and harsher prison sentences that we are all used to hearing. Eagleton cites the case of the police officer who arrested one of the killers of Jamie Bulger. The policeman remarked afterwards that when he looked into the boy’s eyes he knew immediately that he was evil. In other words, hang ’em high, but if you’re not allowed do that, then lock ’em up and throw away the key. (more…)

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This post is part two of an essay on Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities project. You can read part one here.

Invisible Cities clearly must be considered as part of a tradition of documentary photography and as such it raises a number of interesting questions that I will now turn to. The first of these is the problematic issue of a photographer from outside a particular culture or environment trying to make meaningful work about, or within, it. Martha Rosler has been deeply critical of the documentary tradition, particularly when it involves a privileged outsider shedding light on marginalised or disadvantaged communities. She would see this practice as merely reinforcing existing power relations and doing little to address any of the root causes of the situation. Similar difficulties are identified by Stuart Hall: he describes how stereotyping is used to maintain power in a society or culture by marginalising certain groups, and how photographic representations, whether intentionally or not, play an important role in this (Edward Said has also written persuasively of how Western representations of the Orient  have played a pivotal role in maintaining the power relationships between East and West). As a white European working in Africa, with its historical and contemporary difficulties with colonialism and post-colonialism, Seawright runs the risk of falling into this trap, a situation he is by no means unaware of:

Until I accepted the Imperial War Museum commission in 2002 to respond to the war in Afghanistan, I’d never considered making work that extended beyond my sphere of direct experience. I wrestled with the problems that making work in another country presented, not least that I have been critical of non-indigenous practice in Northern Ireland

(Paul Seawright quotation from interview with Russel Roberts)

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This post is something of a departure from the usual business on this blog. It is an essay I wrote on Paul Seawright, focusing in particular on his Invisible Cities work. This work comprises of photographs taken over a three-year period in sub-Saharan African cities. In many senses the work goes against the grain of common photographic representations of Africa. I describe the work and deal with a number of issues that arise from it. The essay is quite long, so I’ll split it into two parts. This is part one.

Photographic representations of Africa tend to be dominated by certain well- worn themes. We have the photo-journalistic images of war, disease and famine – portraying a continent riven by seemingly intractable problems and a living hell for its inhabitants. We have the ma jestic grandeur of the landscape and the animals – suggesting a timeless, Edenic paradise. We have the National Geographic style portrayals of indigenous tribespeople, often accompanied by well-meaning articles describing how their “way of life” is under threat. A pertinent illustration of this can be had by typing “Africa”‘ as a keyword into Google’s image search facility. The majority of results returned are maps of Africa, but if we exclude these, almost all of the rest fit into the categories mentioned above. Those that don’t form minor categories of themselves: smiling schoolchildren; white aid workers or volunteers interacting with Africans; and most interestingly, images illustrating the growing influence of China in sub-Saharan Africa. None of these do much to expand the outsiders knowledge of, or insight into, the continent.

Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities comprises of photographs taken in the sub-Saharan cities of Lagos, Addis Adaba, Lusaka and Johannesburg, and goes very much against the grain of these common representations. Seawright is, of course, not the only photographer working in this manner. A close parallel would be the work of Guy Tillim who has carried out similar projects on urban Africa. In fact, there is a growing body of contemporary African photography that challenges the common representations – for example, the Snap Judgements exhibition held in New York in 2006. I do suggest however, that such work is the exception rather than the rule. (more…)

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In this essay, written in 1995, Lev Manovich explores the ramifications of digital technology and photography. He asks if such a thing as digital photography really exists, and to what extent this really differs from traditional photographic practice.

Manovich starts by referring to a range of digital innovations that have transformed the practice of image production and manipulation, innovations that would lead most people to the conclusion that the fundamental nature of the photograph has radically changed.  The aim of his essay is to question whether this is really the case, and to expose a number of paradoxes at the heart of digital photography that become apparent when we attempt such questioning. His position is that it does not – that, in fact, digital photography does not exist.

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This essay appears in Solomon-Godeau’s Photography At The Dock collection. It deals with a number of post-modern photographic artists, explaining their work, and situating it in opposition to the established canon of modernist art photography. It is deeply critical of many of the fundamental assumptions of modernist photography that would have been elaborated in the work of critics such as John Szarkowski.

Solomon-Godeau begins by noting the extent to which the use of pastiche, in the sense of the appropriation of previously existing styles and work, has become dominant in both the art world and in popular mass media. In tandem with this, much criticism has been leveled at previously sacrosanct notions of the value of originality and authorial autonomy, and many artists are using pastiche as a means of questioning and probing these issues. At the time of writing, not much of this had reached the art photography world though, where most work was still reliant on traditional modernist notions: a key one being that an art photograph functions as an expression of the photographer’s interior, a vehicle for his/her thoughts, feelings and so on. The reason for this can be thought of as an insecurity at the heart of art photography. It had only recently received full status as an art form, and having done so on the back of precisely those modernist notions that post-modern artists are currently questioning. It is therefore reluctant to abandon, or even question, those notions that were integral to the elevation to its current lofty status.

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John Szarkowski’s book The Photographers Eye was based on an exhibition of the same name held at the Musuem Of Modern Art in New Work in 1964. It featured the work of Friedlander, Evans, Strand and many others, and attempted to give an overview of the fundamental challenges and opportunities of the photographic medium. In the introduction to the book, he offers a brief historical overview of photography in terms of how it has evolved and how he sees it as a unique artistic medium.

Szarkowski begins by stating a core tenet of his outlook on photography which is that it is fundamentally different from other picture-making processes in that it is based on selection rather than synthesis – the photographer takes elements of the real world for his picture, whereas the painter makes the elements of his picture from scratch. This immediately posed a new creative dilemma – how can this process be used to create meaningful pictures and valid art? This question would not be answered by means of recourse to existing theories of visual art, but instead tackled by a rag-bag consortium of commercial photographers, amateur enthusiasts and casual snap-shooters, who may not have been consciously trying to answer it at all, but nevertheless have managed to evolve an aesthetic practice that defines what photography is. (more…)

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In this essay from 1972 John Berger questions the effectiveness of graphic war photography and in doing so anticipates many of the debates about documentary that were soon to come. It was originally published in New Society magazine and subsequently reproduced in the 1980 collection, About Looking.

Writing during the closing phases of the Vietnam war, Berger begins by describing both the extent of the American bombing campaign of the north of that country, and the indiscriminately cruel nature of the lethal armanents being used. He notes a photograph in the newspaper by Don McCullin, from earlier in the war, depicting a man holding his injured child in the aftermath of a bombing. The actual photograph is not reproduced in the book but it is most likely the one below that Berger is referring to.

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