N o L, August 6, 2010; more about Words Without Pictures from John Divola, Alex Klein, Sarah Charlesworth and Darcie Alexander
Hello my friends,
Welcome to Part 1 of several posts focused on Words Without Pictures. The book release party was a few weeks ago at Art Catalogues at LACMA. I plan to excerpt a few portions that stuck out to me as I read. I hope I’m not infringing on anyone’s copyright. I’m linking to sites offering the book for sale all over the post and I’m posting just enough to do the authors justice and whet your appetite for more. For example, the portion excerpted here is not quite 4 pages out of 33 pages of the text. (And I’m typing rather than doing cut and paste, btw.)
More newness to Notes on Looking. These posts won’t be on the weekly email which will always focus on recent, current, and future exhibitions and concerts. Rather, this represents an opportunity for me to expand my view somewhat. Here goes. (Read on and you’ll know that you must buy this book!)
As I’m asking you to consider with me the best book I’ve read in a while I’ll also add my oft cited proposal that you take into account commercial concerns. Money does in fact help, if not make, the world go around. Before we go any further let me make firmly clear to you that Words Without Pictures is in fact for sale. From Aperture. Um, Aperture also publishes a quarterly journal of photographic concerns. One might say the journal of photographic concerns. Subscibe here. (Sometimes paying attention requires paying $$. This is good. Enjoy.
Panel Discussion on Alex Klein’s essay “Remembering and Forgetting Conceptual Art,” page 141, John Divola speaking.
…This is a pair of photographs I did in 1982, and I have it here because I want to talk about goats. If you paint a goat, it’s generally received as an image of “goatness,” whatever that is. You can paint a goat that looks evil, or you can paint a goat that looks self-reflective, or you can paint a goat any number of ways. You write a story with a goat in it and the goat can take on anthropomorphic characteristics, or it can simply be a detail in setting up a prosaic or pastoral background for a story.
In a photograph, a goat can be all those things as well. But in a photograph it’s always a just a photograph of one particular goat at one particular time and place. I have an interest in this inertia in photographs in terms of being completely supplanted into the service of the abstract, because photographs always have the attribute of being anghored in the specificity of their genesis. They are indeed little pieces of of physical evidence that are anchored in a certain way that never lends itself completely to abstraction or signification.
(Divola continues) It’s always that tension that has interested me. I came to making my work through photography and was very interested in Walker Evans. This is a photograph by Evans that I’ve always liked a lot. One of the many things that Evans did is this project of of framing subjectivities. He’s very interested in buildings built by small-scale contractors and signs painted by sign painters. Indeed, later in his life he actually collected the signs themselves. This idea of framing of subjectivity as it’s found in the world, some kind of human construction, also interested me. This is where I was starting out in about 1972.
(Promised link to Klein’s Person to Person show at Las Cienegas Projects.)
Alex Klein, from her essay “Remembering and Forgetting Conceptual Art,” pages 121-122.
…Conceptual art’s turn to the ordinary or quotidian was multifaceted. The impulses behind those works ranged from differing reactions to Minimalism and Postminimalism combined with investigations that were both anticipated in the work of John Cage and Fluxus and happening concurrently in modern dance and experimental poetry. Which is just to say say that the form, in this instance, should not necessarily be mistaken for the whole, as it is only one variable in a rather complex equation of influences, pedagogies, and ideologies. By reducing what we have come to understand as Conceptual art to a uniform movement of style, we run the risk of conflating the influence of aesthetics with that of ideas. Further, if we are to resist the rigid categorizations and market-driven dichotomies of artists using photography versus art photographers, we must also resist the temptation to collapse different critical strategies and investigatory concerns into aestheticized, nostalgic narratives. 
Nevertheless, with the integration of photography into art schools and MFA programs, and the imminent obsolescence of analog photographic printing, a bleeding and blending has occurred. For a generation of young photographers who might never print their own work or have to justify their medium, the distinctions between comceptual practice and more traditional documentary modes have become increasingly malleable. That said, the pedagogic hodgepodge of the art-school environment is only part of the equation, for one might also look to the lack of adequate art histories that integrate photography as more than a footnote within surveys of twentieth-century art.  For many students today, art history is fluid and pluralism is a given, creating a tendency to sample freely. As Thomas Crow pointed out in his essay “Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art,” consciousness of precedent has become become very nearly the condition and definition of major artistic ambition in today’s arena.  However, the process of identifying and citing previous generations is necessarily enmeshed with an element of misrecognition or even paramnesia. That we read our own desires and historical conditions onto the past seems obvious, but this continuing process of remembering and misremembering is very different from the conversations, generational anxieties, or ideological clashes at play in and between artistic movements. The stakes are different when the process functions more like a personal archive from which the histories are constructed at will among seemingly disparate elements and time periods. (Allan Sekula’s comparison of the archive to a toolshed is apt in this regard.)  However, just as one can build from the archive, the archive is also itself a destructive container. As Jacques Derrida would have it, the original memory disappears, replaced by the structure imposed by the archive; memory necessarily entails a repacement of one image by another through a repetition of impossible originals. 
2. The recent exhibition Romantic Conceptualism is a case in point. In particular, the curator of the exhibition singles out Bas Jan Ader as one of the founding fathers of a certain emotive brand of coneptualism. As Thomas Crow observed overr ten years ago, there is a danger in making “Ader into a retrospectively romanticized cult figure.” This “romanticism” or sentimentality in Ader’s work is quickly deemphasized once his work is couched in the terms of European post-war trauma and displacement.
3. While history of photography courses are common in art history programs, photography is rarely fully integrated into 19th and 20th century art survey courses. Thus, there is little opportunity for students to contextualize the different strands of photography as they relate to the broader sphere of artistic practice. Furthermore, we might also consider the difference between how the history of photography is taught in the darkroom versus thee classroom.
4. Thomas Crow, “Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art,” in Art After Conceptual Art, eds. Alexander Alberro and Sabeth Buchanan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 59. [pdf link provided for Crow essay)
5. Allan Sekula, “Reading an Archive,” in Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987), pp. 114-127.
6. See Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: Universtiy of Chicago Press, 1998).
Panel Discussion on Klein’s essay “Remembering and Forgetting Conceptual Art.” Sarah Charlesworth speaking, pages 150-151.
You said, Alex, in your essay, “…If we resist the temptation to draw these lineages…,” and I stopped and paused on that twice. I thought, “Well, I can understand why a young artist could want to resist that temptation or find it unnecessary.” Yet there’s one thing that still makes me hesitate about accepting that, which is the assumption that if you say I’m engaged in photography, you’re somehow saying that I am rather doing something that has to do with cameras, or pictures or image-making. It doesn’t start from the point of view of what questions I can ask of my culture, and what are good tools to ask those qestions. Because the minute you assume photography, you’re already assuming a sphere of a media-defined relationship to practice. I think cameras, photographs and photographic materials are great tools for art-making, and good work can be made employing those tools. But I don’t think that that’s where the questions that art needs to ask stem from, any more than any other kinds of of materials, whether it’s paint, or paper, or fur-lined teacups. One asks questions and finds the materials to pose them, to explore them, and to address one’s time. But I think the minute you start from the perspective of saying that it uses a camera or it uses Photoshop or whatever, then you’re already talking about making art from within a certain idea of practice, which is not to make a value judgment about it; it’s not good or bad. But it just does give you a very specific orientation that charts your relationship to history in a certain way. And you can say Evans influenced me, or Kosuth influenced me, but nonetheless, once you say ou’re doing photography, you are talking aout something to do with cameras, lenses, and images.
Panel discussion on “Remembering and Forgetting Conceptual Art,” Darsie Alexander speaking from the audience, page 152.
…I also teach and find that students, by and large, aren’t really that interested in Conceptualism; it feels to them arcane and totally outmoded. But historians and curators still love to talk abot it. So there is a disconnect, maybe because as historians and curators, we actually haven’t found a way to identify what’s going on yet, so we still try to place it within a conceptual framework that’s now completely obsolete. I think one of the things that is coming out of your discussion is the total obsolescence of the topic.
More tomorrow my friends.