Monday, February 01, 2010

Slemmons, Rod, “Between Language and Perception,” Exit, No. 16-2004, pp.48-49, 132.

I once observed something on a train in Ireland that has since both haunted and informed me.  An extended family of six sat across the aisle, perched on their seats looking intently out of both sides of the train.  The children loudly named off objects as they flew by: tree!, house!, bridge!, cross!  The older people read signs, any sort of written word in the landscape, again, loudly: Drougheda 28 Kilometers!, Guiness is Good for You!, Smithsen Cartage!, Ian Sharp Wants Hanging!  They were impossible to ignore.  I was forced to experience the flying land narrated from two different angles.  It was a rare experience.
It was, after all, Ireland where the spoken word holds dominion over virtually everything else, so there may not have been anything to marvel at.  The family may have been just tuning themselves up for the next normal conversation.  At the time, however, it reminded me of those maddening undergraduate philosophy problems involving questions of how our minds engage and translate the world when it is in front of us, and reproduce it when it is not, i.e. when it is stored in memory and language.  As the children shouted, the trees, bridges and crosses, disappeared into the mind.  As the parents shouted the written words, they became mental images that flashed out across the flowing scenery.  This flipping back and forth from one part of the mind to another caused the possibility of a void to open up, a place where neither objects nor words exist.  Is that void what we need to fill with meaning?  Or is it where experience can exist without meaning?
The memory of these questions (and that wild ride) came up while I worked on three exhibitions in the 1980s and 1990s in Vancouver, BC, Canada, Seattle, Washington, and Tempe, Arizona. They were called  Eye of the Mind/Mind of the Eye ,  Illuminated Manuscript , and  Mixed Signals  respectively, and all dealt with contemporary artists using photography and text in various kinds of combinations. I wanted to learn more about this convention that had been growing slowly for the previous ten years.
        At that time I talked to many artists and looked at work representing a wide spectrum of the practice of combining text with images.  On one end there was the simple caption: words that describe the image.  The image created in the mind by the words coincided more or less with the photographic image.  It turned out that captions are never quite that simple, however.  The caption can exist simultaneously with the creation of the image, or before or after it in time.  The caption can lie about the image.  The image can give the lie to the caption.  Words conjure up images and images conjure up words that can work at total cross-purposes. John Baldessari’s early text/image works are a good example.
        Near the middle of the spectrum of this practice, artists ran permutations on the emotional strength and validity of both the words and the images with combinations that went far beyond simple captioning.  The total work became a battleground of verbal and non-verbal communication. Lorna Simpson, one of the best in this mode, taught us that this is not a game of chance.
At the far end of the spectrum, the language/image barrier broke down.  The physical words leaked into the images and became formal elements, like not-quite-legible signs in a landscape rushing by the window of a train. Jeff Wolin’s early projects concerning his family history accomplished this by writing directly on the photographic print with hard to read reflective ink. 
        At any point on the spectrum, the way the words interacted with the images could be used as a metaphor or analogy for the subject of the art, whatever it happened to be. The process, ideally, supported the idea.
I recently revisited this issue with an exhibition called Conversations: Text and Image at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago. I found my questions and interests alive and well and still thriving. During the past thirty years, combining words and photographs has become a genre of art photography that encompasses a tremendous variety of conceptual experiments. As a practice it is similar to street photography in its inexhaustibility and its possibilities for cultural elucidation
Combining written text with images obviously has a long history in art. Medieval manuscripts in Christian Europe are full of little pictures that exist in a rhetorical relationship with the text to create double and triple meanings, including delightfully salacious verbal/visual puns. William Blake, 18th century British poet, published books of his writing with his own illustrations and quickly learned that the synthesis evoked meanings beyond the power of either the words or pictures to create by themselves. Dadaists and Surrealists in Europe in the 1920s combined fragments of found text with distorted photographic images to open irrational paths of communication they felt were missing from conventional art.
Combining verbal and pictorial narratives at the service of propaganda and cultural commentary matured and flourished in the 1930s with the German weeklies, Life Magazine in the U.S. and Soviet Life in the U.S.S.R. The lead story of the first number of Life Magazine in November of 1936 was about the building of the Fort Peck dam on the Missouri River in Montana, USA. Some of the photographs show a magnificent dam, but most support the written text that is critical of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal projects, claiming that the workers were unskilled incompetents who, in the selected images at least, seemed to be drinking most of the time. Life changed during and after World War II, but the tension between the text and the images remained and became a thorn in the side of photographers like Eugene Smith who preferred to control the synthesis of verbal and visual persuasion. Smith preferred complex truth to simple irony and demanded that he write his own text.
During the 1930s and 40s, influenced by Dada montage, Walker Evans experimentally included signs and fragments of advertisements in his photographs. As a frustrated writer, and friend of important writers like the poet Hart Crane, Evans’ purpose was formal to a certain degree because he simply liked the idea of found rather than constructed montage. But it also was conceptual in that it involved a critique of the increasingly commercial narration of the American landscape with advertisements. But he achieved something else that in retrospect seems much more complicated, and is a good place to start in trying to understand the contemporary synthesis of text and photographic imagery. He explored the conceptual implications of the combination.
First, the signs and other extraneous text in Evans' works force the viewers’ awareness of the two-dimensionality of the paper print, and that it represents a careful decision. It is, after all, a flat field of information chosen for its specific contents by an individual. Because the signs are two dimensional and shot straight on, they pop to the surface and destroy the illusion of depth—of looking through a simple window. It is very much like those amazing moments when an actor in a play turns and talks directly to the audience, snapping the proscenium arch – the frame that divides the world from the art and contains the playwright’s intentions back into place, reestablishing aesthetic and conceptual distance. 
Secondly, Evans accepts the words as part of the modern world, for better or worse, and legitimate raw material for art, just like electrical power lines, contemporary cars and machinery, and other awkward, real life details he (along with the Dadaists) liked so much. The Pictorialists, his most prolific photographic contemporaries, went to great lengths to exclude evidence of the contemporary. There are very few Edward Weston and Ansel Adams photographs with signs in them. Evans had seen, during his time in Europe, Russian Constructivist and Dada imagery that had not yet been widely seen in America.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, he requires us to read the text, a mental operation seemingly at odds with absorbing photographic images.  This conflict establishes aesthetic indirection: our attention caroms into language and back to sight, the better to triangulate a fix on the intelligence in his photographs. Indirection, the fertile ground of poetic communication, is difficult to achieve with photography. We have so thoroughly equated photography with visual perception that no matter how far the photographic image is distorted to make it not look real, it always retains its right to become a hole in a gallery wall, an opening to some unspecified “truth” beyond. No matter what we do to the negative or the print or our minds before we expose, the illusion of our absence in the process, the illusion of non intervention, remains. The viewer can still say, "There, down there in that corner: the artist had nothing to do with that. That came unhindered by intention, directly from the world in front of the camera."  But of course it's not true. There is no difference between the blank piece of paper in front of the poet and unexposed film. Nothing but intervention follows. Evans worked hard to illustrate this idea, and brought photography into the realm of art by making its artifice evident.
Some of the strongest photography of the 1950s through the 1970s is built directly on Evans’ foundation: the New York School—William Klein, Louis Faurer, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander. All incorporated found text in their images to poetic and often ironic ends. Interestingly, and this is also important to understanding contemporary practice, they abhorred captions except for simple date and location. They distinguished, however, between their commercial work for magazines, where text was required, and their “personal” work. They felt that words outside the photographs diminished them and pared down opportunities for visual understanding as well as unnecessarily reducing the possibility of multiple meanings. They further established photography as a different kind of expressive art form based on their new confidence in the ability of the photographic image to stand alone, like a painting or a poem. This position, with its almost moral overtones, still prevails among many photographers. Friedlander, however, made a significant step away from it with his book Letters From the People, and beginning in the late 1980s, by inviting people to write about his work.
Meaning goes into pictures and has to be got back out with close observation.  It goes into words and must be released by reading. But it is actually more complicated than it seems on the surface. The game of placing words and images in the same perceptual space, either combined in the picture, or side-by-side, is not easy to play, as many have discovered. First, the artist has to keep track of four phenomena, not just the apparent two: 1. The words have accepted, coded meanings and contexts that affect what we see. The same image next to two texts is seen two different ways. 2. The words invoke mental images that might conflict with what we see. Language was invented to abbreviate and explicate the visual world—words enter our brains on the backs of images. 3. All photographs have meanings based on context which may alter our engagement with them. 4. Images invoke words in the mind of the viewer. Images enter the brain on the backs of words.  The choreography of image/word/word/image is not easy to score. But the more difficult it is, the more possibilities for qualifying or clarifying the larger world that is their source.
There is an added complication. When we read text we do it by ourselves. The words have to run through us individually in real time, with our own quirky speed and interpretation. The reading of an image, however, is a socially determined, a shared experience. Photographs exist in a continuum that we all share, and they are all judged in relation to a huge bank of photographic uses. Even though we like to think we are interpreting photographic images individually, the largest percentage of our response is collective. We always look at photographs shoulder to shoulder, whether we are alone or not. 
Individually, these mental operations can become transparent and disappear. If we must perform them together, however, an oscillation occurs between opacity and transparency and the viewer becomes self-conscious and analytical, and aware of misplaced trust in both words and images to tell the whole truth. Meaning becomes ambiguous and contingent on the viewer’s participatory energy, but the strength of metaphoric possibilities is expanded.
To complicate things further, beginning in the early 1970s, American and French writers discussing photography as an art form began to explore the possibility of  thinking of photography as a new kind of language structured very much like verbal language.  In "Language Theory and Photographic Praxis" (Afterimage, Rochester, New York, Summer, 1977), Leroy Searle wove an elaborate theoretical system that influenced much of the subsequent examination of this issue.  Allan Sekula, Peter Wollheim, Searle, Jean Baudrillard, and others subsequently thoroughly worked over the notion of photography as a language.  The study of photographic imagery in terms of a language of signs was loosely gathered under the term semiotics.  Canadian photographer Cheryl Sourkes has suggested that semiotics began as an analytic tool for establishing a real critique of photography as an art, and subsequently became the subject of a good deal of photographic art.
Martha Rossler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, 1974, opened the door to a whole new world and can be thought of as the ancestor of much of contemporary practice. As her title suggests, she was interested in theoretical issues concerning photography as a purveyor of truth, but she also was, and is, equally concerned with the practical matter of distorting or ignoring social truths with simplistic language.
Thinking of photography as a language, a descriptive system, achieved three very important goals for writers and artists.  First, it helped to demystify a communication tool that had been too easily cheapened by inclusion in the gallery and museum vortex and to return it to its powerful position as a social, political and philosophical arena for living ideas.  Second, it helped to qualify the simplistic idea of photography being a "universal language" left over from the 1955 Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  This idea presupposed the purity of photographic description.  If dealt with as a language, it could be as rhetorical, twisted, impure and vital as any other language.  And third, photo-semiotics was a much-needed reaction against the necromantic notion of the art photograph as an autonomous, arcane emission from a pure artistic being living in a social and cultural void.  In this void, anybody can call their work art and nobody can check up on them.
        When we are confronted in the act of analysis with the two "systems of notation", it seems very difficult to structuralize either the images or our response to them, as we may be able to do with the verbal language.  On a very simple level, the speed and direction of the entry of words and images into our brains is radically different.  Compared to the leaps and bounds of taking in a photographic image, words struggle glacially in a row.  But on the other hand, after all the words get in, they can dance in any number of three-dimensional figures, while the photograph freezes in a formal memory.
    All postmodern artists seem required to consider questions of how and why art works. The complex ways that photographic images combine with written text can itself be thought of as a central metaphor for the pondering of these questions. The practice creates an immediate self-consciousness that some might claim contaminates the aesthetic experience. But at this point in art history it is hard to embrace ignorance to achieve visual pleasure. 
    In practice, the synthesis of words and text varies widely among contemporary artists, well represented in this issue of Exit. They can be divided into various sub-genre using formal criteria, but it is perhaps more interesting to think of them as genealogies. Those whose interests fall equally between a critique of photography as a medium of documentation and its use as a cultural language generally descend from Martha Rosler. Those who use text as a formal element in the image as well as an extension of the image’s meaning can be thought to descend from Walker Evans. These are not totally clean distinctions, and, because of the tremendous diversity of contemporary practice, there are many artists who fit in neither. But at least this is a place to start. It is also important to keep this kind of analysis secondary or, perhaps, in support of the main task of understanding what the artist is trying to tell us. 
    Matt Siber, for example, is clearly descended from but analytical of Evans. By digitally removing the text from ordinary cityscapes, he allows us to see the past as the present. Walker Evans was fond of saying that he photographed to see what the present would look like as the past. Siber then places the text in the same formal relationship to its original location in a print intended as the second half of a diptych. It is not easy to walk down the street at a normal pace after seeing his work.
    As an extension of Rosler’s ideas, Barbara Kruger has combined very simple language, bordering on clichés, with equally clichéd images, borrowed from various media, to create sophisticated feminist statements. Her 1994 exhibit at Mary Boone in New York extended her earlier single images to text and image spread over the entire walls and floor of the gallery space. It was accompanied by a nearly unbearable soundtrack, a parody of a political speech, coupled with canned laughter and applause. She has fine-tuned the synthesis of text and image drawing on effective strategies of advertising and political propaganda but has not lost sight of her original social agenda.
    Shirin Neshat places language directly on her subjects. Our understanding of her work is complicated by the fact that almost none of us in the Western world can read the text, so we have a choice to either enjoy it as a formal curiosity—which, given the details of the rest of the image, we are hesitant to do. Or we can actually take the time to find out what it really means. Or, more importantly for the present world climate, we had better find out exactly what it means.
    Gillian Wearing’s use of spoken and written text in her video and still photographic works is intended to call into question our confidence not only in the “power” of both language and image, but also to confound our view of public interpretation of social descriptions. But, interestingly, her text jumps to the surface of the photograph, as did Evans’, and reinforces our self-consciousness about both the written work and the photographically constructed image.
    Language’s ability to conjure images has around forty thousand years head start on photography’s ability to describe experience, to stand in for perception. We need to be honest about this. In William Faulkner’s 1942 story, The Bear, young Isaac MaCaslin walks into a clearing in the Mississippi Delta where his father and grandfather have been hunting one specific bear, now old, for many years. He suddenly notices that the birds have stopped singing, and then realizes that the bear is observing him unseen—assessing him in terms of his father and grandfather. That moment is unavailable to the camera. But language exults in it.
    Jeffrey Wolin addresses this issue directly with his new Vietnam veteran project. The photographs of the soldiers, now old, cannot compete with the text mounted with them that describes their horrifying experiences, and for good reason. Those are experiences that exists outside of the ability of photography to even partially explain.
    After all is said and done, much of the conceptual appeal of combining words and text for all of these artists is found in the coercive and seductive aesthetic effect of the combination.  We cannot as easily look away from written language as we can from pictures.  Once we have started to read, we are effectively snared by the skillfully thrown net of the work.  The linear rendition of meaning conveyed by the words combines or struggles with the expanding fact of the image to produce thoughts and feelings not generated by either alone.  And, returning to that train ride in Ireland, we also must face those mysterious empty spaces between verbal and visual reality.  Our knowledge is expanded at the expense of our confidence in categories, analogies, and descriptive representation in general.  This tends to keep the art and us in the realm of exploration, and away from closed theoretical symmetry.

Rod Slemmons
Museum of Contemporary Photography


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