‘Joywar’ and ethical practice

Like Len and some others in the group, photography is not a primary economic activity for me, so I am happy to see my work used, even for the commercial benefit of others, with a strong preference for some form of attribution. I would, though, be very unhappy to see my work used to deceive or misinform (this was discussed in detail in Positions and Practice, so no need to reprise that here).

In contributing to the ‘Joywar’ debate I want to pick up on a statement made by Meiselas to justify her initial (legally aggressive) action against Garnett. Meiselas (Garnett and Meiselas, 2007) states that:

‘No one can “control” art, of course, but it is important to me – in fact, it is central to my work – that I do what I can to respect the individuality of the people I photograph, all of whom exist in specific times and places’ (p.56).

She subsequently reinforces this by asserting that:

‘We owe this debt of specificity [of context] not just to one another but to our subjects, with whom we have an implicit contract’ (p.58).

I want to question the extent to which the terms of this implicit contract can ever be met, and therefore, whether it is sustainable for Meiselas, or any other journalist/artist, to make this integral to their practice. If we cannot control, as Meiselas recognises, what others do with the images we make, it would appear that we are very limited in the extent to which we can honour this contract, or, indeed, protect ‘subjects’ (perhaps, more respectfully, participants) from any potential harm that might come to them in the circulation of their image, either in its initial, repurposed or remixed form. This is increasingly problematic with the deployment of AI enhanced facial recognition systems. In gaining the confidence of participants in photographic work, it is increasingly important, then, to make them aware of the potential consequences of participation, and the measures that are being taken by the photographer to reduce the risk of harm. In the case of ‘Molotov Man’, it would appear that minimal effort has been made to manage this risk, and unlikely that this would have been raised with Pablo Arauz at the time (or subsequently). Whilst Meiselas might aspire to show respect for the participant in this way, the implicit contract seems unrealizable and disingenuous. Maybe better to (explicitly) acknowledge, and make clear to participants, that being photographed (particularly by a well-known and high profile photographer) brings risks, and amongst these is the risk that someone might appropriate and/or recontextualize the image and use it for a totally different purpose. This, of course, would make certain forms of photographic practice untenable (a debate for another day). Graham Smith, whose photographs of his own working class community in Middlesborough were the result of a close relationship and trust between him and members of the community, stopped taking photographs after some of his images were used by The Daily Telegraph to denigrate and disparage working class communities (he became an art picture framer – an archive of his photographs, however, with his own hand written notes on the back, is held by the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, and well worth looking at).

Graham Smith, Who She Wanted and What She Got, South Bank, Middlesbrough, 1982

The photograph objectifies its subject (whatever the expressed intention of the photographer), and the resulting (decontextualized, portable and transmissible) image is commodified, circulated, traded and reconfigured. Institutions, communities and individuals take various ethical positions and make ethically informed decisions in relation to this process, which shapes what is and is not possible and thus shapes their practice. In Meiselas’s case, there is a disjunction between her positioning and her practice (in relation to what is possible: her commitment to the communities is clear and admirable).

In academic social research, expectations regarding ethical practice are distinctly different (a function of the institutionalization of research), not least in being more explicitly expressed and enforced, and somewhat more demanding than expressions of ‘respect’ and ‘implicit contracts’. To gain formal ethical approval, a research proposal would have to elucidate the ways in which risk of harm to participants is minimized. In most cases, this would involve gaining the informed consent of participants and the anonymization of participants in the recording of data and reporting of outcomes. This is clearly problematic in photographic work. Fitzgibbon and Stengel (2018), for instance, in their paper on a study of female drug users and sex workers, which uses a Photovoice style method involving discussion of photographs made by participants, uses pseudonyms and features only photographs where individuals cannot be recognized.

Figure 2. ‘Don’t inject dope, because you’ll be taken by the police’. Figure taken by Chicks Day employee Bora. From Fitzgibbon and Stengel (2018).

This almost automatic demand for anonymity of participants is questioned, for instance Sinha and Back (2014) raise the issue of truly collaborative research where, ethically, participants would be seen as co-creators of knowledge, and, arguably, should be recognized as co-authors in publication, and therefore identified (but in full knowledge of the potential risks, and gains, of identification). However, the approval of participants to be recognized and identified is not enough. They may not be aware of the potential for harm, and therefore any consents has to be informed (which entails making them fully aware of the consequences, which includes the ‘remixing’ and re-contextualization of their image).

My question here is whether, given the increasing use of images as data, AI enhanced capability to recognize people and link data, and the ubiquity of remixing of images, we should now question, or at least modify, Chalfen’s (2011) distinction between projects and studies. Whilst the rigour and explicitness in collection and analysis of data (whatever form that takes) demanded by the academic study may not hold for the project, the potential risks to the participants are similar, and need to be managed, ethically and practically, which, in turn, will transform what we can and cannot do in the creation and circulation of images.

References

Chalfen, R. 2011. ‘Differentiating Practices of Participatory Visual Media Production’, in Margolis, E. and Pauwels, L. (eds) The SAGE handbook of visual research methods. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, pp. 186–200.

Fitzgibbon, W. and Stengel, C. M. 2018. ‘Women’s voices made visible: Photovoice in visual criminology’, Punishment and Society, 20(4), pp. 411–431.

Garnett, J. and Meiselas, S. 2007. On the Rights of Molotov Man: Appropriation and the art of context. Harper’s Magazine, February 2007: 53-58.

Sinha, S. and Back, L. 2014 ‘Making methods sociable: Dialogue, ethics and authorship in qualitative research’, Qualitative Research, 14(4), pp. 473–487.

Methodology (Week 1 Reflection)

I am taking methodology to mean, in this context, the general approach taken to my work. This is influenced by how I, conceptually, think about the contexts I am exploring (theory) and how I conceive of and position my practice (field). In turn, methodology influences the design of particular projects (in the light of the contexts and purposes of the project) and the selection of particular methods. In this sense, methodology sits between (and thus shapes and is shaped by) theory and practice. In my current work, I am exploring the relationship between time, place and communities as they experience the process of urban regeneration. This involves the exploration of different notions of time/space and the entanglement of human activity and identity with the natural and the built environment. Whilst other work exploring similar contexts has focused on either the lived experiences of residents or the nature of the changes taking place in the built environment, I am focusing on the dynamic relationship between these. I am not attempting to ‘tell the stories’ of others (either the residents or the developers), but rather to counterpose constructed histories with codified presents and imagined futures. I attempt to create an array of alternative narratives, and offer the viewer the opportunity to explore relationships between these.

In order to do this, my approach is to collect and organise archival images, planning documents, maps and data to be juxtaposed with my own images of and from within communities and the places they inhabit. These juxtapositions produce fictions that are intended to engage viewers and provoke questions about our humanistic aspirations (including aspirations for equity, prosperity and social justice) and our place in the natural world (as it has been and how it might be), for instance, through the ways that we inscribe and are inscribed by the objects and environment around us. Methodologically, my work is constructive (it is making not finding meaning), relational (it emphasises the contextual and interactional character of meaning) and heuristic (it is a tool for making meaning, not a form of representation). 

This week I presented a selection of images from my WIP portfolio in a webinar and also exchanged ideas with Ricard Martinez, who presented his work as a guest speaker. The feedback confirmed to me that there is potential in the channel mixing work, but that the aim of this work, in exploring the interactions between organic material, everyday activity and emerging futures, needs to be clear. There are clear resonances between my own work and Ricard’s, though our approaches, and resulting images, are very different. I am taken by the way in which he leads tours through the areas he is exploring and works with participants in making their own images. I would like to try something similar around Barking Riverside, Thamesview, Creekmouth and other areas undergoing change, focussing on the built environment, the social and cultural environment and the natural environment (and the interaction between these). The Bow Centre or Gascogne Estate might also be good for trying out this approach. Responses at the webinar were also positive, but the desire to ‘tell stories’ was raised, and I need to resist being drawn into production of work which retreads what has already been done in other contexts, and away from the relational nature of the work, which is fundamental to me (and for the theory that informs my practice). Cemre noted that the images conveyed to her a sense of decay. This may be related to the selection of the images. I do not want to present an apocalyptic vision, so I do need to think clearly about how these particular images sit alongside other images and artefacts. I should also revisit the use of colour. The complexity of the images invokes a sense of chaos, and that they are in black and white perhaps reinforces the sense of decay and foreboding. The return to the natural (post-human) that is being explored might involve the decay (or at least, the transformation) of the built environment, but this is not, in any absolute sense, a more general process of decay (though some engagement with the concept of entropy might be necessary here).

The next steps in advancing the project are (i) continue to explore the production of composites, to get a clearer idea of what kinds of images produce what effects; (ii) continue to explore modes of presentation, including projection, light boxes and printing on a range of different materials; (iii) collect documents and archival material for the contexts being explored, including maps, planning documents, developer literature and brochures and photographs (upcoming research workshop with Lewis Bush should help with this); (iv) experiment with the juxtaposition of images, artefacts, sound and text, with the WIP portfolio for this module and the output of the FMP in mind; (v) identify a context for, and plan, possible ‘tour’ type activities (for instance, with the Bow Centre citizen science group).

Sonification

From the beginning of the MA programme, I have been making binaural field recordings with the intention of incorporating a sonic dimension to my visual work. Installations commonly include ambient soundscapes, or videos with soundtracks. Lewis Bush incorporated sound into his book Shadows of the State (2018) by including barcodes linked to soundfiles. In my Roding Valley Park work, I put soundfiles alongside photographs to give a sense of the thundering and constant sound of traffic on the roads that ran overhead. I have struggled, though, in my most recent work, to see how a sonic dimension could meaningfully be incorporated.

Brain@WattSpace opening, 6th June 2019

A chance meeting with composer and sound artist Jon Drummond at the opening of the excellent Brain@wattspace exhibition (a collaboration between cognitive scientists and artists) has led me to think differently about this. Jon works in the area of ‘sonification’, which involves representing data in sound. Heyler and Drummond have recently written about two of their sonification projects:

”Heavy Metal” [which] is focussed upon the real-time analysis and sonification of the chemical elements in a painting via a camera vision system, [and] “Oratorio for a Million Souls” [which] concerns the behaviour and acoustic properties of live bee colonies manifest in the creation of real-time multi-channel sound compositions and associated sound architectures (Heyler and Drummond,2019:1).

For my own project, rather than present the soundscapes or samples from the settings I am exploring, I could (possibly incorporating environmental sounds) translate data relating to the settings into sonic form. This picks up the strand of the work which address the use of data in decision making about planning, the rendering of residents and their lifeworlds as data, and the corresponding movement in my own images between analogue and digital forms. It also fits with my intension to use maps and other form of data visualisation in presenting my work (a post about this will follow shortly). One question would be whether or not to have a real-time component in the data sonification. The sonic dimension of the work could provide a direct link to environmental changes taking place, and/or the projected population/demographic changes projected in the development of the area.

In making a case for this form of environmental data sonification, and articulating it with other forms of ‘eco-aesthetics’ (such as land art, earthworks and nature-based installation work), Heyler and Drummond (2019: 4) cite Cubitt’s (2005: 9) assertion that eco-politics is ‘the single largest unifying political discourse of the early 21st century’ and that art is uniquely placed to explore the complexity and contradictions of this period, including the role played by technology, which can act both as an instrument of domination over nature and of illumination, empowerment and critique.

References

Bush, L. 2018. Shadows of the State. London: Brave Books.

Cubitt, S. 2005. EcoMedia. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Helyer, N. and Drummond, J. 2019. ‘Heavy Metal and the Oratorio for a Million Souls’, EasyChair. Preprint No. 971. Available online at: https://easychair.org/publications/preprint/NDGB.

Janet Laurence: After Nature

Janet Laurence: After Nature, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 1 March – 10 June 2019

Janet Laurence, Heartshock (After Nature), 2008/2019. Photograph: Jacquie Manning/MCA

As usual, I took in a few exhibitions on recent trip to Sydney. It was really fortunate that the visit coincided with this retrospective, plus a major new work, at the MCA. I wasn’t familiar with Laurence‘s work (though I now do remember her installation at Changi Airport in Singapore), but it is clear that there is a substantial overlap with a number of emerging themes in the development of my own work, albeit in a very different context, and with a very different emphasis. Engaging with, and reflecting on, Laurence’s work has enabled me to make a number of bridges and connections between aspects of both my visual and conceptual work. I’ll summarise these here, in relation to the exhibition, and will return to the themes in the development of my work over the coming weeks. In particular, the exhibition, and subsequent reading about Laurence’s work, has enabled me to think more clearly about the form that the outcomes of my final major project might take, and how this relates to my methodology and broader conceptual framework.

Janet Laurence, After Eden, 2012. Installation view, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney. Video, mesh, acrylic, steel, scientific glass, taxidermy specimens. Photograph: Jamie North

This exhibition includes key works by Laurence, from early pieces using metal plates, minerals, organic substances and photographs mounted on lightboxes (exploring, for instance, the periodic table), through installations from the 2000s featuring plant and animal specimens and ‘wunderkammer’ (box of curiosities) environments, to a contemporary commissioned piece, featuring floor to ceiling ‘veils’ printed with tree images, arranged in three concentric rings through which visitors can walk, and quasi-scientific collections of plant samples and apparatus (a herbarium, an elixir bar and a botanical library). As the curator’s notes state, Laurence explores ‘the interconnection of all living things – animal, plant, mineral – through a multi-disciplinary approach’ using ‘sculpture, installation, photography and video’ (Kent, 2019, online) . As Gibson (2015a) notes, Laurence has a ‘biocentric’ view of the world, and that, through incorporation of live biotic material in her work, she goes beyond just the entanglement of the human and the (other non-human) natural to focus on questions of care and the possibility of repair and reparation.

Janet Laurence, Cellular Gardens (Where Breathing Begins) (detail), 2005. Stainless steel, mild steel, acrylic, blown glass, rainforest plants. Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased 2005. Back: Janet Laurence, Selva Veil, 2005. Archive film with ultrachrome pigment inks, aluminium brackets. Museum of Contemporary Art, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Janet Laurence, 2013.

Gibson and Laurence (2015) explore the relationship between this work and contemporary post-humanist theory (and this is further explored by Gibson, 2015a and 2015b). Focusing on the piece Fugitive (2013) they argue that Laurence entangles the (human) viewer in the natural, making us all complicit in ecological/environmental decline, but, in the light of Barad’s non-dualist ontology, whilst shifting the human from the centre, resists re-assertion of a culture/nature divide. The collection of organic and animal material, and the multi-modal form, subverts scientific objectivity whilst questioning human subjectivity.

Citing Barad (2012) and Harraway (2004), they state that

‘The reason Karen Barad is so helpful in a discussion of Laurence’s artwork, that deals with human ruination of nature and re-performances that might create a new emergent force, is that she warns against simply inverting humanism, in order to avoid anthropocentrism. She warns against blurring boundaries between human and non- human in an effort to equalize ontology. These cautions are also iterated by Donna Haraway’s discussions of leaky distinctions between human, animal and machine. Haraway says, ‘Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture…the boundary between physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us. (Haraway, 2004: 10-11)’’ (Palmer & Laurence, 2015: 46-7).

Central to this work is Barad’s idea of ‘intra-action’. As Palmer and Laurence (2015) state

‘The matter is there in the forceful enactment. The reason Barad’s concept of intra-action is so exciting is because her quantum physics expertise develops into an exploratory elaboration of this idea into the realm of phenomenology. In other words, she sees phenomena as quantumly entangled, but this is not individual entities becoming entangled but where intra-acting components are inseparable or indivisible. Perhaps, the entities don’t come together and become entangled, they already were entangled primordially’. (47)

Laurence produces places where crossing-over can take place, where difference can be questioned and entanglement experienced. There is also a sense of slowing down and focusing of attention when presented by the sheer volume, and forms, or artefact, both veiled and brightly illuminated. As Miall (2019) notes, this effect is particularly marked in Laurence’s site specific works,

‘The spatiality of installations, their insistence on embodied contemplation and the way in which they engender a haptic, bodily awareness through overlaying the processes of memory and perception with the work’s materiality, are central to the transformative experience of Laurence’s public projects’. (86)

Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef (detail) by Janet Laurence, 2015–16. Photograph: MCA

Engaging with Laurence’s work has influenced my own thinking in a number of ways. It has helped me to think more clearly about the link between post-humanist theory and art, as it relates to the kinds of contexts I am exploring. She highlights the co-dependence of the human and the natural and the reciprocity of care (which in turn, and in intention, undermines the human/natural dualism). Post-humanism is not anti-humanism, and, for me, the challenge, artistically, is to explore the de-centring of the human whilst maintaining an active commitment to equity and social justice. There is no necessary tension between non-anthropocentric view and a ‘good life’, in fact, for the latter to be sustainable the former is a necessity. The experience of Laurence’s work has given me some insight into how I might provide a sense of entwinement of individuals and communities in place, and the alienating nature of contemporary developments. This enriches the insight provided by more sociological analyses of urban development (like Klinenberg’s, 2018, studies of social infrastructure) , and provides a bridge to the neuroscience influenced work of Fitzgerald et al (2018 & 2016), which brings us back, by a different route, to the entanglement of the human and the natural in the ‘neuropolis’.

Janet Laurence, The Green That Was (detail) from the Crimes Against the Landscape series, 2008. Duraclear, polished aluminium, pigment on acrylic, mirror, burnt wood

References

Barad, K. 2012. ‘Nature’s Queer Performativity.’ Kvinder, Køn og forskning/ Women, Gender and Research. No. 1-2: 25-53.

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2018. ‘Living Well in the Neuropolis’, The Sociological Review, 64: 221–237.

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2016. ‘Revitalizing sociology: Urban life and mental illness between history and the present’, British Journal of Sociology, 67(1): 138–160.

Gibson, P. and Laurence, J. 2015 ‘Janet Laurence: Aesthetics of Care’, Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, (31): 39–52.

Gibson, P. 2015a. ‘Plant thinking as geo-philosophy’, Transformations: Journal of Media & Culture, (26): 1–9. Available at: http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/26/02.shtml.

Gibson, P. 2015b. Janet Laurence: The Pharmacy of Plants. Sydney: NewSouth Books.

Haraway, D. 2004. The Haraway Reader. New York, Routledge.

Kent, R. 2019. After Nature: Janet Laurence. Online at https://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/exhibitions/829-janet-laurence/ [accessed 02.01.19].

Klinenberg, E. 2018. Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society. London: Bodley Head.

Miall, N. 2019 ‘The Constant Gardener: On Janet Laurence’s Site-Specific Works’, in Kent, R. (ed.) Janet Laurence: After Nature. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia: 83–95.

Planning for the Surfaces & Strategies module

My project involves the exploration of resident engagement with urban regeneration in east London. I have continued to work broadly along the lines set out in my project proposal. The work includes three levels of image making: (i) images made by residents as part of a process of understanding the experiences, lifeworlds and aspirations of individuals and communities; (ii) collaborative image making with community and activist groups for advocacy; (iii) my own artistic response to the changes that are taking place and the ways in which communities are affected by urban regeneration. Over the previous three modules I have developed close working relationships with a number of groups and have focused my work on a particular part of east London (Barking and Dagenham, though I have retained strong links with groups on and around the Olympic Park). I have strengthened the conceptual basis for my work and have developed my visual strategy and methodology in line with this. My current work can be seen here. I have posted regular updates on the development of my project in my CRJ (for instance, here). Most recently, my work has started to address environmental and ecological issues more directly, and I have begun to engage with different conceptions of time (both in response to developments in theoretical physics, and in order to move away from anthropocentric forms of understanding). I have also attempted to bring the work together with other work I have been doing on object oriented learning and indigenous forms of knowledge. I have attempted to assess how the development of my ideas and practice over the previous module relates to the learning objectives for the programme here.

According to the programme description, by the end of the module we should demonstrate: ‘an increased understanding of how complex and sophisticated image-making practices and visual communication strategies can be incorporated into your own practice’. I just want to unpack this a little to map out what I want to achieve over the course of the module, particularly given that this is the last taught component before the FMP.

In my research proposal I identified the following skills for development in this module:

Photo-book production, installation design, printing for exhibition and alternative modes of presentation to different audiences, physically and online.

In relation to the schedule for completion of the project, I earmarked the following actions for this module:

Continuing personal photographic work and collaborative image making. Explore alternative means of presenting images (including books, installations and online galleries). Conduct workshops to prepare community members for Photovoice work. Determine form of personal and collaborative image making, and process of dissemination. Start collection of Photovoice data.

In the light of the ways in which my work has developed over the past year, modifying and expanding the above, this is what I want to achieve over the coming three months:

  • Refine ways of working with participant images and image making. While in Newcastle, I will spend some time working with two projects in the Centre that are using Photovoice (Wang & Burris, 1997) styles of work and arts-based methods of enquiry (with victims of domestic violence and with young offenders in rural areas). Working from the critical work of Sinha & Back (2014), I want to refine the approach to bring it conceptually closer to other strands of my work. Within the module, there are questions about how (if at all) this work is presented to an audience, and ethical issues around working with images made by others for different purposes to be addressed.
  • Incorporate archival images into my work. I have started to do this with the erase series (which incorporates a montage made of archival images of the Creekmouth estate). I need to do some work in the Valence House archives, and also think about how to use the Courtauld archive.
  • Develop the repository of images for advocacy with the Thames Ward Community Project and the Barking and Dagenham Heritage Conservation Group. I want to address the issue of how these relate to other aspects of my work, and the extent to which, for instance, they could together be considered as some kind of archive, and if so, what form might this archive take.
  • Consolidate the conceptual strands from Informing Contexts and focus these on the development of a coherent and informed methodology (with associated strategies and tactics). Lemke’s (2017, 2015) advocacy for a form of relational post-humanism holds some potential in bringing together linguistically inflected post-structuralism with more recent post-humanist and new materialist theory (see, for instance: Barad, 2007 & 2008; Coole & Frost, 2010). Likewise, the engagement by Fitzgerald et al (2018 & 2016) of neuroscience and biology with sociology in understanding contemporary urban life facilitates incorporation of objects and the environment with exploration of the human impact of urban development. The third dimension of this is dialogue with indigenous people’s notions of relationship of the body to the land (and experience of displacement), and running through this the role of objects, materials and making in fostering understanding.
  • Explore the relationship between the digital and the analogue. In the work produced during the last module, I established a resonance between the move from analogue images to digital composites (and animations) and the rendering of residents and communities as data in the shaping of local housing development and planning initiatives. This needs to be further developed both in terms of a visual strategy and conceptually, bearing in mind, for instance, Goriunova’s (2019) notion of the digital subject.
  • Determine the focus for the final major project (from amongst the settings and themes of my work to date) and the form in which the outcomes will be presented.

References

Barad K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham/London: Duke University Press.

Barad K. 2008. Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. In Alaimo S and Hekman S (eds) Material Feminisms. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press: 120–154.

Coole D. and Frost S. (eds). 2010. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham/London: Duke University Press.

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2018. ‘Living Well in the Neuropolis’, The Sociological Review, 64: 221–237.

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2016. ‘Revitalizing sociology: Urban life and mental illness between history and the present’, British Journal of Sociology, 67(1): 138–160.

Goriunova, O. 2019. ‘The Digital Subject: People as Data as Persons’, Theory, Culture and Society. doi: 10.1177/0263276419840409.

Lemke, T. 2017. ‘Materialism without matter: the recurrence of subjectivism in object-oriented ontology’, Distinktion, 18(2): 133–152.

Lemke, T. 2015. ‘New Materialisms: Foucault and the “Government of Things”’, Theory, Culture & Society, 32(4): 3–25.

Sinha, S. and Back, L. 2014. ‘Making methods sociable: Dialogue, ethics and authorship in qualitative research’, Qualitative Research, 14(4): 473–487.

Wang, C. and Burris, M. A. 1997. ‘Photovoice: Concept, Methodology, and Use for Participatory Needs Assessment’, Health Education & Behavior, 24(3): 369–387.

Ruscha books at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Ruscha books in the Art Gallery of New South Wales Study Room

I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon looking at nine of Ed Ruscha’s books with Deborah Jones (prints and drawings room coordinator) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales Study Room. Whilst the holding is well-presented online (with key information on each item and reproductions of all the images), it really makes a difference to see the books themselves.

Pages from ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations’

The books vary dramatically in terms of format and quality of production (for instance, paper, type of binding, image reproduction), which reinforces the observation by Di Piero (2012: 49) that ‘for Ruscha, a book can be an icon, an archive, a technology, an action zone, an artistic support, a motif.’ The contrast between, for instance, the 1963 Twentysix Gasoline Stations and the 1967 Thirtyfour Parking Lots is marked. The latter is a larger format with glossy paper and higher quality images (produced for Ruscha rather than by Ruscha). Whilst the former presents a kind of narrative (a three day journey with a distinct ‘end’), the impact of the latter is in the patterns in the aerial photographs of the deserted parking lots, and the juxtaposition of these. Royal Road Test (1967) presents other contrasts, both in form (spiral bound, text, full-bleed images, jointly authored) and content (a quasi-forensic report).

Pages from ‘Royal Road Test’

Looking at the books also reinforces Dziewior’s (2012) observation that there is a distinct rhythm to Ruscha’s books, particularly in the use of blank pages. Nine Swimming Pools is peppered with blank pages (varying from two to six pages), and Colored People and A Few Palm Trees, smaller format than the other books with glossy covers, have nothing but blank pages for the second half of each book. Thirtyfour Parking Lots has photographs of different proportions, including panoramic shots (taken to its extreme in the 7.5 metre, accordion folded Every Building on the Sunset Strip). And at the end of Thirtyfour Parking Lots there is one of Ruscha’s jokes, with a panoramic shot going beyond the constraints of the page and onto a tab. Deborah remarked that Ruscha is ‘cheeky’, which seems about right.

Pages from ‘Thirtyfour Parking Lots’

The splicing of images in Every Building on the Sunset Strip is crude, with a number of partial frames and disjunctions. Initially, I thought that, as with other Ruscha works (except Royal Road Test) there were no human figures (which I take to be a comment on Los Angeles life and the dominance of the car), but there are a couple of people sitting on a bench in one frame, and a couple of figures entering a shopping mall. It was great to unfold the whole thing (which is composed of a number of sections glued together), though we didn’t have a 7.5 metre stretch to lay it out flat.

Pages from ‘Every Building on Sunset Strip’
Ed Ruscha, Every Building on Sunset Strip, 1966

I have revised two of my books for this activity to add in blank pages in line with the associated Ruscha books. If I had time to make further books, I think I would do something entitled ‘Small World’ or ‘Big Country’ which, inspired by Megan’s instagram comment, documented the ‘big’ objects (like the ‘Big Pineapple’ and the ‘Big Prawn’ which have sprung up along the Pacific Highway, using images from Google maps.

Big Prawn, West Ballina (image from Google Streetview).
Anonymised Prawn, West Ballina (image from Google Streetview).

Final note: the copy of ‘Colored People’ had the price paid in a secondhand bookshop in London . £1.

References

Di Piero, W.S. 2012. ‘The sand is in the vaseline’. In Reading Ed Ruscha, edited by Y. Dziewior and K. Bregenz. Köln: Kunsthaus Bregenz. 46-53.

Dziewior, Y. 2012. ‘Reading Ed Ruscha’. In Reading Ed Ruscha, edited by Y. Dziewior and K. Bregenz. Köln: Kunsthaus Bregenz. 18-25.

Ruscha Books in Art Gallery of New South Wales holding

Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963
Various Small Fires, 1964
Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966
Thirtyfour Parking Lots, 1967
Royal Road Test, 1967
Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, 1968
Real Estate Opportunities, 1970
A Few Palm Trees, 1971
Colored People, 1972

Watt Space Exhibitions

Ella Dreyfus, Under Twenty-Seven, Watt Space Gallery, Newcastle, 01.05.19-26.05.19.

Beyond the Binary, Head On Photo Festival, Watt Space Gallery, Newcastle, 01.05.19-26.05.19.

Dreyfus is an established and widely exhibited photographer. This work charts the physical changes over time of a group of boys (members of her son’s primary school football team) photographed at the ages of 11, 18 and 25 (reminiscent of the TV documentary 7Up, which reaches 63Up this year). The impact of the exhibition rests on the formal nature of the portraits, of identical form and format at all three points in time, and the formality of the arrangement in the gallery, in which each of the three portraits in a sequence are placed side by side. This effectively accentuates the changes that have taken place over time, as the boys mature into young men.

Ella Dreyfus, Under Twenty-Seven, 2019

Beyond the Binary is a group show exploring subjectivity, sexual difference and gender division. There are two points of particular interest. One is the use of construction, montage and mixed-media.

Beyond the Binary, 2019

The other is the variety of hanging and display methods used, and specifically the use of frameless forms of display (for instance, the use of bulldog clips on the print, hung on nails, and of pins stuck through the print into the wall). Given the low contrast of some of my images, it is necessary to explore glass-less forms of reflective display (as well as projective forms of display, but this removes the materiality of the photographic print).

Beyond the Binary, 2019

Installations, the body and constraint

Kathryn Jeanes. Biloela: Afore and Beyond. The University Gallery, University of Newcastle, NSW. 24.04.19-08.06.19

Kathryn Jeanes. Biloela: Afore and Beyond, 2019

The Biloela installation is part of a PhD project. It is based on research into nineteenth century schools for ‘wayward’ working class girls in Newcastle and Parramatta.

Kathryn Jeanes. Biloela: Afore and Beyond, 2019

There are no visual records of the girls, so Jeanes has created her own archival works to convey some sense of the traumatic experience of incarceration. The work is about exploring a gap in accounts of the past and exposing brutality. The exhibition comprises of text (on the wall, accompanying images, in books), artefacts (piled up packages, overalls, books), images (mounted directly on, and curving away from, the wall) and a concertina, sewn book with text, on a shelf running along three sides of the gallery.

Kathryn Jeanes. Biloela: Afore and Beyond, 2019

In all, it makes a hidden past visceral. In relation to my own work, it provides an example of the creation of an (imagined) archive and the mediation of this in gallery space. It raises the question of the extent to which the research should be visible. How much is experiential, how much is intellectual; what is said and what is not. Ultimately, this is about constraint of the body, but within a narrative of state and colonial brutality and control.

KNOWN/UNKNOWN, The Lock Up, Newcastle, NSW. 06.04.19-26.05.19. Featuring artists Bleck, Toby Cedar, Rakini Devi, John A. Douglas, Amala Groom and Amrita Hepi. Curated by Jessi England.

KNOWN/UNKNOWN similarly relates to the body. It is a group show, with all featured artists involved in making art with the body.

Rakini Devi, Urban Kali, 2018

In the notes to the exhibition the curator, Jessi England, quotes Tracey Warr (2000: no page given) from the preface of The Artist’s Body, and observes that each of the artists touches on one or more of the ideas and issues identified.

Over the course of the last hundred years, artists and others have interrogated the way in which the body has been depicted and how it has been conceived. The idea of the physical and mental self as a stable and finite form has gradually eroded, echoing influential twentieth-century developments in the fields of psychoanalysis, philosophy, anthropology, medicine and science. Artists have investigated the temporality, contingency, and instability of the body, and have explored the notion of consciousness, reaching to express the self that is invisible, formless and liminal. They have addressed issues of risk, fear, death, danger, and sexuality, at times when the body has been most threatened by these things.

All exhibits have a video component, with varying use of artefacts, still images, sound and text. The exhibition space is a former colonial prison, with a number of exhibition spaces of varying size (some of these very small cells). Whilst the space fits well with the theme, it appears that some of the exhibits were not designed specifically for the setting. The ‘cells’ offer a constrained viewing space, which could be used to good effect in an installation created specifically for the space.

The Lock Up, Newcastle, NSW

Reflecting on my own work, I need to think about the extent to which it is portable and adaptable to different spaces. My exhibition at the Sue Bramley Centre was very much a ‘pop-up’ that could easily be reconfigured for other places. I haven’t thought clearly yet about how best to display my more recent, less conventional, work, though I did try projection today following a workshop.

Andrew Brown, projection of image from erase series, Newcastle NSW, 2019

Getting high enough resolution is an issue. A number of the video exhibits in Known/Unknown used large LCD screens, which is worth exploring. One also used VR; a step too far for me at the moment.

Amrita Hepi’s frame from The Pace, 2018

The most impactful piece for me is Amrita Hepi‘s The Pace (2018), a three channel video work with rope artefacts co-commissioned by the gallery. The fast-paced film centres on the activity of skipping, as a historical form of women’s culture, but relates this to other social and cultural activities, particularly the indigenous art of weaving (resonating with Munro’s yarning work), and switching between practices involving rope, chains, braids, threads and spider’s web. The film is fast paced with a driving soundtrack, edited to layer imagery and resist traditional narrative. The piece occupies the larger central gallery space, giving it room to breathe and for the audience to circulate (a contrast to the more constrained and claustrophobic side cells/galleries. The exhibition impressed on me the need to design installations around the exhibition space, and brought to mind the constructed temporary ‘gallery’ spaces used by Samar Maqusi to set up exhibitions and installations in refugee camps.

References

England, J. 2019. Notes for KNOWN/UNKNOWN, The Lock Up, Newcastle NSW.

Warr, T. 2010. The Artist’s Body. London: Phaidon.

Yearning to Yarn

Simon Munro, Yearning to Yarn: The Artefact in Research, The University Gallery, University of Newcastle, NSW. Workshop: 14th May 2019.

Simon Munro, Axe from Yearning to Yarn, 2019

This exhibition is the culmination of a research project at the University of Newcastle Department of Rural Health in Tamworth, NSW. The project explores the ways in which aboriginal ways of knowing can be used to support the clinical placement experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professional students. The project was part of one of the research programmes funded and supported by the Centre for Excellence in Equity in Higher Education, in which I work. My role has been to run workshops on research design, methodology and methods, and on academic writing and publication, and to advise and mentor grant holders. In this CRJ post, I am going to focus specifically on the arts-based methodology used in this project, on the exhibition and associated workshop and on the more general issue of the significance and use of artefacts in enhancing our understanding. The work also raises questions about how we understand our relationship to the land and the environment (a key component of Australian aboriginal culture). These are all issues at the heart of the development of my photographic practice. The exhibition, and reflection on the process developed by Simon and the project team, provide an apposite opportunity to gather together thoughts and relate these to the development of my FMP and my photographic practice more generally.

Cordage from Yearning to Yarn workshop, 2019

At the heart of the project is the use of the practice of ‘yarning’ to meet together, talk and to exchange ideas. Yarning involves both making of artefacts (in this case, weaving and making cordage, see example above) and conversation/storytelling (in this case, exploring a number of questions relating to the research). The underlying principles of the approach are based on the notion of Winanga-Li, a word/concept from the aboriginal nations of the North-West and Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, meaning hear, listen, know, remember. The starting point for the conversation related to kinship and land, with the initial question ‘where’s your mob from?’.

Simon Munro, Box 3: The pedagogy of Winanga-Li, from Yearning to Yarn, 2019

This is not the place to go into the process and outcomes of the research (that is covered in Munro, 2019), but rather to relate these specifically to the development of my project and photographic practice. The exhibition included a number of boxes made by Munro which ‘contain’ the principles, processes and outcomes of the project. It also included some of the weaving and other artefacts produced and Munro’s own artwork, including a number of tools and artefacts made through a combination of Aboriginal and European techniques (reflecting Munro’s own dual heritage, something that is difficult to address both within Aboriginal and European heritage communities). Visitors are encouraged to handle the exhibits. The exhibition thus addresses a range of complex issues in a way that places artefacts at the core and puts very different cultural understandings and practices alongside, and in dialogue with, each other.

Yearning to Yarn workshop, 14th May 2019.

The opening of the exhibition was accompanied by a workshop led by Munro, in which participants did some ‘yarning’ (that’s my cordage in the photograph above) while he mapped out the development and outcomes of the project (there was a longer workshop the following day around the making of a possum-skin cloak), and I was fortunate to be asked to make a response and give an appreciation of the work by Munro and the team at the Centre for Rural Health.

Like this project, the work I have done to date on my project has been collaborative and interactive. I have treated photographs as artefacts, using a portable printer to produce prints in situ, and encouraging members of the community to bring photographs of their own (and also to bring artefacts). Munro’s exhibition raises the question for me about the extent to which I want to make objects, and the production of artefacts, a more prominent feature of the work. Critical engagement with post-humanist theory, new-materialism and object oriented ontology gives a theoretical basis for engagement with objects, and the work done as part of the ‘Object Lessons’ course and consideration of the work by Fitzgerald et al (2018) on the ‘neuropolis’ reinforces both the conceptual and practical base for this (explored further in another post). Aboriginal conceptions of the relationship between human activity and the land/environment also holds potential, though how this relates/translates to the contexts within which I am working is an open question. Looking forward, Munro’s exhibition and workshop leads me to think more broadly about the potential outcomes of the Final Major Project, both in terms of a possible exhibition/event (which will be multi-faceted and multi-modal) but also about whether some sort of workshop (or interaction or performance) should be a component of this. That’s not to be settled here, but should be high amongst my own objectives for the Surfaces and Strategies module. Having run, for the second year, the national writing programme for equity practitioners in the week following the exhibition, I am also thinking about the relationship between my writing and my photographic work (and the relationship between the production of visual work and the process of writing – and, provoked by engagement with Ruscha’s art, text as a component, or primary focus, of visual work).

References

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2018. ‘Living Well in the Neuropolis’, The Sociological Review, 64: 221–237.

Munro, S. 2019. Yearning to Yarn: The Artefact in Research. Newcastle, NSW: University of Newcastle.

Preliminary Activity: Conversation with Ed Ruscha

Andrew Brown, 102 Maitland Road, 2019

In contrast to the now near ubiquitous ‘photobook’ in contemporary photographic practice, as Di Piero (2012: 49) observes, ‘for Ruscha, a book can be an icon, an archive, a technology, an action zone, an artistic support, a motif.’ This suggests that, in engaging with Ruscha’s work in book form, we should take care to consider how each work is situated in relation to these possibilities. This is particularly important in considering the selection, cropping and placement of images, the form taken by the book (for instance, how it is bound and the use of blank pages), the form and use of text (including fonts used and the layout of the cover, title and other pages) and titles (including the variations in precision in relation to quantity, from ‘twentysix’ to ‘various’, for instance) and the pacing and rhythm of the images. Given Ruscha’s particular interest in words as a component, or, indeed, the primary focus, of his visual work, the book provides an apposite medium for his art, making it far more than a ‘portable exhibition’ (Lippard, 1977). As Dziewior (2012) observes, there is a subjective rhythm to Ruscha’s books, in, for instance, the shape and arrangement of images, which contrasts with the formality of the covers. The shape, pattern and arrangement of words is purposeful, as it is in Ruscha’s work more generally, and paper is carefully chosen. Narrative structure is asserted in some works (Twentysix Gasoline Stations gives a sense of a three day journey in its arrangement of images, with the Fina image marking an end point) and subverted in others (for instance, in the lack of discernible structure in, say, the arrangement of images in Real Estate Opportunities). And there are jokes (‘Camera facing west on all photos’ in A Few Palm Trees), fitting of the creator of OOF.

Ed Ruscha, OOF, 1963

As an artist, Ruscha is very much embedded in place, specifically Los Angeles, and more precisely Hollywood, (see Schwartz, 2010). Given the focus of my work on urban regeneration, it is this place related aspect of Ruscha’s work that most interests me. Reynolds (2015) explores Ruscha’s relationship with the redevelopment of Hollywood through the analysis of Then & Now: Hollywood Boulevard, 1973-2004, which consists of two continuous panoramas of the north and south sides of Hollywood Boulevard at two different points in time, thus mapping the transformation of the neighbourhood resulting from the Hollywood Redevelopment Project (HRP). The format of the book revisits the structure of his earlier Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Reynolds’ reading challenges the view that Ruscha’s art is primarily nostalgic, and draws out the potential of the juxtaposition of images in this way for a more radical reading, which subverts the idea of the reclaiming of a golden age, framed in this case by the fantasies of the Hollywood film industry. Space is left in the work for a more dynamic relationship between the past and the present and for imagining possible, non-utopian, futures.

Ed Ruscha, 2005, Section from Then & Now: Hollywood Boulevard, 1973-2004, Steidl Verlag.

Then & Now: Hollywood Boulevard, 1973-2004 is the only work by Ruscha using this form of juxtaposition, accentuating change over time. His other Los Angeles works focus of a given point in time, and present images of the vernacular architecture of the city. The drabness of the images makes it difficult to view this work as nostalgic. In engaging with this work for this task, I want to get a firmer sense of the how the books that focus specifically on Los Angeles might constitute a form of critique of development, and how the process of construction of similar texts might provide a means of exploration of both personal relation to place and the dynamics of change in the built environment.

Ideally, I would have focused on exploration of East London in the creation of some Ruscha style books. However, the task was set just a few days before setting off to work in Australia, so I have focused on issues relating to that move, and to my Australian context. I have produced three books: Illegal Immigrants, Twelve Barber Shops, and High Pedestrian Traffic. There are separate posts about each of these below. If I can make the time, I might put together a book focusing on east London, using street level images from Google Maps.

The camera may not quite have ‘always been facing west’, but I have been a little frivolous with this activity, partly as a result of the demands of my current work in Australia. Given more time, I’d explore the relationship between the images more carefully – the Hunter Street works have an explicit material basis for sequencing (they both follow the numerical order of the buildings) which pragmatically (given time constraints) denies the opportunity to construct a visual pattern or rhythm. I would also like to explore the relationship between text and image further, and examine the relationship between the organisation of text in Ruscha’s books to his other text based art (he discusses his attraction to the treatment of text as blocks in this interview), and, in my own work, pursue the case for thinking more about the function of text in cityscapes (Text in the City?). In relation to the production of books, exploring Ruscha’s work has increased my interest in non-narrative oriented books (where sequences do not ‘tell a story’, and might even subvert narrative form).

I have an appointment to visit the Study Room at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on Friday to look at their holding of Ed Ruscha photobooks, so will write more when I’ve had the opportunity to actually see and handle some of the work.

References

Di Piero, W.S. 2012. ‘The sand is in the vaseline’. In Reading Ed Ruscha, edited by Y. Dziewior and K. Bregenz. Köln: Kunsthaus Bregenz. 46-53.

Dziewior, Y. 2012. ‘Reading Ed Ruscha’. In Reading Ed Ruscha, edited by Y. Dziewior and K. Bregenz. Köln: Kunsthaus Bregenz. 18-25.

Lippard, L. 1977. ‘The artist’s book goes public’. Art in America, Jan-Feb 1977; reproduced in Lippard, L. 1984. Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change. New York: E.P. Dutton. 48-52.

Reynolds, M. 2015. ‘Landscape in Motion: Nostalgia and Urban Redevelopment in Ed Ruscha’s Then & Now: Hollywood Boulevard, 1973-2004’. Journal of Urban History, 41(6): 1052–1072.

Ruscha, E. 2013. The Tension of Words and Images. TateShots. Video interview available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoNePbo9DD0 [accessed 20.05.19]

Schwartz, A. 2010. Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.