≡ The authentic artificiality of cultural appropriation: it’s no nonsense ≡

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Author Busisiwe Deyi writes about Cultural Appropriation in Africa is a Country, in the context of the SPUR restaurant chain. Although the text is about this specific brand, the arguments go for other situations.

What the fuck is happening in the fashion world these days that everyone wants to be Native American?

Or do they?

Of course they don’t.

Whenever a brand is promoting something what they’re selling is a promise of authenticity and that promise is usually associated with experiences and emotions.

So the question is: what ideas are associated with the notion of a Native American individual?

I’ll suggest a few for starters: genuineness, uniqueness, purity, integrity, simplicity, honour and so on.

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Before properly addressing Deyi’s artcile, I’d like to quote from the master. In Rhetoric of the Image, from 1964, Barthes wrote:

“Linguistics is not alone in doubting the linguistic nature of the image; public opinion as well vaguely regards the image as a site of resistance to meaning, in the name of a certain mythical notion of Life: the image is re-presentation, i.e, ultimately resurrection and we know that the intelligible is reputed antipathetic to the experiential.”

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Back to Deyi’s artcile, she writes:

“The idea being to give you an authentic Native American experience through its menu that consists of spicy beef strips, calamari, nachos Mexicana, cheesy chicken quesadillas. (…) nothing about SPUR is Native North American except for its use of a Native American chief-like figure on its logo and Native American-esque names and themes. In truth, rather than Native American experience or culture, the imagery used by SPUR is that of the frontier US West and Southwest. Spurs are what cowboys wore and it was the conquest of Native American land, the making them subaltern, which is subsumed in the image of the Native American warrior image in the brand (a brand also largely of Hollywood’s making).

(…)

The erasure of black and other minorities through the removal of cultural meaning and rendering of cultural symbols into one dimensional products or dumbification through commercialization is a staple of the corporate world. However, this racist cultural appropriation by corporations in their advertising is something we rarely explore in South Africa. By erasure I don’t mean absence, I mean symbolic annihilation. Symbolic annihilation is the process of erasure under or misrepresentation of some group of people in the media, this is usually based on race, socio-economic status or religion. A particularly egregious form is erasure through the portrayal of harmful stereotypes and/or invisibilisation through the reduction of history and culture into products or commodities that are then used for profit. This form of erasure is astoundingly offensive as it minimises entire histories and cultures rich with meaning and legacy, rendering them one-dimensional caricatures. This is by no means incidental but part of a system which is inherently racist and which maintains inequality through locating and concentrating privilege in whiteness. Wealth enables those at the top of the hierarchy to continue this system of racial inequality by recreating and perpetuating images of minorities that confirm ideas justifying oppression.

This makes sense of course, if an oppressor can maintain the idea that those they oppress are deserving of their oppression then it becomes difficult for the oppressed to mobilise against them. It reallocates the blame onto the oppressed and allows the oppressor to take comfort in the idea that their privilege is deserved. A collorary is that it allows the oppressor to engender a seraphic image of themselves in the imagination of the oppressed. Centring only them as capable of expressing complexity – a central aspect of being human. The act of dehumanization needs a parallel act of humanization in order to root its legitimacy.

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(…)

Racism is disconnected from the body. Complicity then is about the pleasures of consumption, some purported equality in the marketplace. Previously racist-capitalism was focused directly on the black body and mind as the primary sites of violence and/or exploited labour now that that avenue is unavailable it has morphed.  Racist cultural appropriation has slipped into the daily routines of normalcy and sediment into our cultural psych. The normalcy of racist mis/appropriation has made us complicit in our continued oppression. It is important we are constantly critical of the things we consume and patronise in South Africa.

Of course SPUR is not the only one to do this, OUTsurance did it with Ashley Taylor, who can forget “All Zee flavours Mochachos” offers and retailer Woolworths has a TV advert, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, with blacks singing ‘Asimbonanga.’ BTW, I love when black people sing; I have enjoyed church songs even though I am a reluctant atheist but the imagery of black workers singing whilst an appreciative white audience enjoys specticalized blackness makes me very uncomfortable. Within the capitalist-racist context of South Africa these images continue to reinforce the ideas which sustain systematic racial inequality. When you do not reflect alternative narratives of a people you often justify their continued oppression. Anyone who buys from Spur is – even if unwittingly – complicit in this.”

Complete article here

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≡ My two passions ≡

Ana-Teresa-Barboza_07© Ana Teresa Barboza, Untitled (?). Images via ArtNau.

A friend called my attention to Ana Teresa Barboza‘s work (Lima, Peru, 1981). A good friend, I should say, for she knows how I’m drawn to mixed techniques applied to photography, specially when it involves some sort of sewing. Ana Teresa’s work is anything but simple, though the objects and imagery we’re showed in the end are easy to look at, easy to relate to. In a short interview with my homonym from Le Fil Conducteur Ana Teresa says something fundamental to understand the greater value of such a work:

“Both embroidery and crocheting are techniques that require time. I use these techniques in order to make a connection between manual work and the processes of nature; creating thread structures similar to the structures that make a plant for example. My aim is to create pieces of work that simulates experiments, aiming to reconstruct nature, teaching us to have a new and fresh look at it.”

The relation between manual labor and authenticity in art is something I’m very interested in. I’ve written about it in this blog and there’s a beautiful text by Michael Hardt on the topic that is very much worth looking at – Affective Labor (1999). Works that require time, as Ana Teresa says, allow for a very particular connection to develop between the author and the product of his/her creation and the faithfulness of such a relation is of immediate perception. That symbiosis cannot be forged. It is inherently authentic. And why is authenticity such an important value? Because artists are expected to relate to their work in an honest way, to relate to the materials chosen in a way that is sincere to their purpose, their potential and their context. If they do not compromise with the creative process, that will be evident in the product’s lack of “soul” and I’d say these creators should not be called artists but instead image-makers, decorators and so on.

Ana-Teresa-Barboza_02© Ana Teresa Barboza, Untitled (?). Images via ArtNau.

Photography and sewing are my two passions. Although the way they came into my life was quite different from one another, they both relate to the realm of affects. I often question why they mean so much and tend to conclude it has to do with the value of affective labor and how it relates to time, patience, love and death. When applied to photography, embroidery works on an opposite pole, creating a sustainable tension between the two. Photography is flat and it’s about the killing of a moment that is then awaken in the form of a fake representation; embroidery is a work of patience and it’s about bringing things to life, its forms are never determined. Together, they clash in a three-dimensional struggle where the two mediums may or may not flow together in two major aspects: 1) their inherent capacities to function as symbols, either of the object represented or of the subject’s intentions; 2) their materiality.

There’s also a tendency to be reminded of Barthes and Benjamin when looking at these works. The former because of the concept of punctum, the latter because of the (ever changing notion of) aura. Punctum is of the order of pain. Something  like a stinging quality a photograph may or may not have, the way that photography penetrates and hurts you. The aura is an unspoken truth. Something that happens here and now but somehow has to do with the there and then of the memory of the author and our own. So the way sewing acts upon a photograph seems to me like a brutal dialogue, like an attempt to awake the death images by inflicting them with pain. As the needle penetrates the photograph there is potential for an auratic mode to arise. From the continuum of little moments spent between the author and the work to the originality of the photographic imagery created, there is an open field from where autonomous memories emerge.

Ana-Teresa-Barboza_10© Ana Teresa Barboza, Untitled (?). Images via ArtNau.

Ana-Teresa-Barboza_09© Ana Teresa Barboza, Untitled (?). Images via ArtNau.

٠ The story of Appropriation Art: multiple signifiers, zero significance, one myth ٠

andy-warhol-the-shadow-1981-FS-II.267© Andy Warhol, The Shadow, from The Myths, 1981.

excerpts from Sven Lütticken‘s The Feathers of the Eagle, published in 2005, in New Left Review, No.36, pp.109-125.

“If the culture industry is based to a significant degree on the appropriation of material from art and various subcultures, as well as from different historical epochs and cultures, why should appropriation as an artistic strategy have special status? […] In a culture in which materials are everywhere appropriated and re-appropriated, how can appropriation as such be intrinsically progressive?
[…]

andy-warhol-uncle-sam-1981-FS-II.259© Andy Warhol, Uncle Sam, from The Myths, 1981.

Around 1980, Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine ‘re-photographed’, respectively, contemporary ads and historical masterpieces of photography, while Louise Lawler photographed works of art installed in museums or collectors’ homes, or at auction houses. Critics – most notably Douglas Crimp and Hal Foster – regarded these artists as Barthesian mythologists who ‘steal’ and subvert media myths.
[…]

andy-warhol-the-witch-1981-FS-II.261© Andy Warhol, The Witch, from The Myths, 1981.

Barthes defined his mythology as a synthesis of two sciences: semiology and ideology – the latter possessing a historical dimension, unlike semiology. Founded during the French Revolution by Destutt de Tracy to enable rational inquiry into the human mind and ideas, the science of ideology was a fruit of the Enlightenment’s reassessment of knowledge and beliefs. Ideology’s roots lie deep in the Enlightenment dream of a world entirely transparent to reason,free of the prejudice, superstition and obscurantism of the ancien régimé.
[…]

andy-warhol-superman-1981-FS-II.260© Andy Warhol, Superman, from The Myths, 1981.

In Mythologies Barthes analyses images as well as writings, but just as there are no long quotations, there are no illustrations, no direct visual appropriations. The images are represented only through descriptions. But then Barthes advocated stealing myths rather than specific images or texts. If a true mythology is a meta-language that uses myth as its signified, this does not necessarily mean that texts or images have to be used wholesale. The mythologist might, on the contrary, want to extract the myth from his host or hosts and condense it into a few lines or paragraphs. Yet one can defend the interpretation of appropriation in Barthesian terms. Placing an image or a text – or a fragment of one – in a new context can make the myth which it ‘hosts’ explicit. This kind of practice became common in visual art rather than in literature, once the avant-garde had made the simple ‘taking’ of a pre-existing object or image a valid artistic act. It can be argued that photography served as an important model for this: the camera facilitates the two-dimensional appropriation of objects, and in this respect Duchamp’s readymades can be seen as a radical manifestation of a culture informed by photography.
[…]

andy-warhol-howdy-doody-1981-FS-II.263© Andy Warhol, Howdy Doody, from The Myths, 1981.

According to Barthes, photographs appear at first sight to e pure denotation, identical to ‘things as they are’. Connotation is disguised by the illusion the the photographic image is completely natural. In this sense photography is the mythic medium par excellence; indeed, one could posit photography as the basis of Barthes’ model in Mythologies, which employs the fiction of a purely denotative first-degree sign that is hen ‘infected’ mythical connotations. […] Re-photography and other forms of photo-based appropriation turn photography’s naturalizing tendency against itself by making apparent the images’ constructed and coded character.
[…]

andy-warhol-santa-claus-1981-FS-II.266© Andy Warhol, Santa Claus, from The Myths, 1981.

Art which aims to reflect on media myths by a conceptual use of photography risks becoming mythified itself. The myth it embodies is that of a ‘critical’ art which a priori differs from other commodified images. This quase-Barthesian misconception accompanied classical Appropriation Art, and is still alive and well.
[…]

andy-warhol-mickey-mouse-1981-FS-II.265© Andy Warhol, Mickey Mouse, from The Myths, 1981.

It is intriguing that Marx appropriated the term ‘fetish’ from Enlightenment mythology: as a young man, he had read de Brosses’s Du Culte des dieux fétiches (1960), described by its author as an attempt to look at the fundamental causes of myth, which had seemed an ‘indecipherable chaos’ to most modern observers. De Brosses argued that primitive people worship actual objects and animals as gods; rather than representing or symbolizing gods, they are gods in the eyes of the believers, just as commodities appear to be alive and endowed with certain qualities in the eyes of the commodity fetishist. Of course, in actual fact they represent social relations among people, but this is disavowed. Contrary to the fetishes of the ‘primitives’ as interpreted by de Brosses, commodity fetished therefore do represent something else, but the fetishist does not realize this. De Brosses supposed that fetishism was the most original and primitive form of myth, predating Greek and even Egiptian mythology. By describing the commodity as a fetish, Marx thus defined it as a creature of myth – capitalist modernity making a dialectical leap into the mythical.
[…]

andy-warhol-myths-the-star-1981-FS-II.258© Andy Warhol, The Star, from The Myths, 1981.

…in the late sixties, Deleuze mentioned Pop as an example of an art that finds its point of departure in the artificial – le factice -which can turn into the simulacrum. The artificial is always a copy of a copy, which must be pushed to the point where it changes its nature and turns into a simulacrum (the moment of Pop art).


Deleuze’s remark has something to tell us about Warhol. For Warhol indeed emphasize the second-degree nature of his images and often repeated them in grids to empty out the image, creating an exhilarating void. But a Deleuzian analysis of his ouevre would tend to overlook the complex interplay within it between the ‘reproduction of something always already-accomplished’ and ‘the eternal return as resurrection, a gift of the new, of the possible’. Warhol was an ardent fetishist, a believer in the mythic commodity. His repetitions reinforce the images of the spectacle, and bring them into question precisely by doing so. While Deleuze’s model of ‘bad’ repetition giving birth to ‘good’ repetition is suggestive, it is also too abstract and potentially euphoric. For it emplies that ‘bad’ repetition – producing only relative difference, which remains in thrall to identity – can effortlessly change into ‘good’ repetition and pure, positive difference without a model. This vision is far too optimistic. The comple dialectical interplay of different forms of repetition does not necessarily end in the triumph of Deleuze’s favourite.


In 1981 Warhol published a print portfolio calld Myths, featuring the likes of Howdy Doody, Superman, Warhol himself, and the witch from The Wizard of Oz. The last was not based on an official publicity still, as were many of Warhol’s sisties works. It was a new photograph of the actress from the original film, who lived in Warhol’s area. In the sixties Warhol had beed relatively unencumbered by copyright problems, but by this time he preferred taking his own photographs to prevent legal trouble. The portfolio’s title clearly reflects the ever more generic use of the term ‘myth’. In contrast to Barthes, and in common with its usage in the mass media, Warhol employed it in a positive sense. So it is not entirely surprising that, while October critics were presenting the appropriation artist as a Barthesian mythologist, Warhol was generally regarded by then as a dubious figure an overly commercial has-been who hobnobbed with Imelda Marcos.

Dulwich-Warhol-Endandered-Specia-Myths-portfolios

٠ Thomas Susanka’s ‘The Rhetorics of Authenticity: Photographic Representations of War’ (I of II) ٠

What follows are excerpts from a very interesting article by Thomas Susanka, published in “Paradoxes of Authenticity”, pp.95-113, edited by Julia Straub and published by transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2012

In the context of the following paper, as Susanka clarifies, ‘authenticity’ should be understood “as one strategy to achieve verification and hence persuasion, namely by demonstrating or suggesting realness or truthfulness.” (p.98)

officers and men of the 8th hussarscirca 1855: Officers and men of the 8th Hussars, the ‘King’s Royal Irish’ during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856). Photograph by Roger Fenton.

Since its invention, photography has been discussed in terms of authenticity, of truthfulness to reality . Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of photography, entitled the book series that features his first successful attempts in photography ‘The Pencil of Nature’ – an expression of his conviction that in photography, the subject of an image would depict itself and hence guarantee its own truthful representation. The influence of the image’s creator, according to Talbot, would cease to be decisive of whether a depiction is  faithful to the original or not. Indeed, great fascination was aroused by the fact that the photographer does not even seem to have final and absolute control over the image – rather, the things seem to imprint themselves on the photographs. 

(…)

There seem to be essentially two ways by which authenticity in photography can be approached. The first is the discourse about the medium of photography and its potential to depict reality truthfully. The second is concerned with how photographers try to create the impression of authenticity within their photographs– i.e. within the semiotic fabric of the photograph, so to speak. While the first aspect conceives of authenticity as an inherent property of the medium, the second sees it as a communicative strategy of the photographer. (…) The main question is: how do photographers construct images that have the appeal of being authentic representations?

(…)

my-lai-page-a1---half-page-15ec9996b53962aephoto by Ron Haeberle (U.S. army), the case of the My Lai Massacre, 1969

TWO ASPECTS OF PHOTOGRAPHIC AUTHENTICITY: MEDIUM AND SEMIOTIC ‘TEXT’

Two major foci can be identified in the discussion of authenticity in photography. The first is media-theoretical since it circulates around the idea that photography is authentic because of the implications of its medium, i.e. essentially the light-sensitive surface of the plate, film or chip. The other focuses on the semiotic fabric, i.e. how authenticity is generated on the surface-structure of the image by means of signs. In a simplified way, we could say that the first perspective asks, for
example, if and why a portrait photograph might strike the beholder as superior in terms of authenticity as compared to a portrait painting of the same person. The second, semiotic perspective inquires what elements in terms of style or choice of subject matter add to the authenticity of an image. I think it is fundamental to the discussion to distinguish authenticity as a discursive ascription to the medium from that generated by the actual image, i.e. the semiotic text. In contemporary theory, however, the levels of medium and semiotic text are often intermingled. There is a tendency to call those communicative phenomena that use a different semiotic system rather than a natural language (be it written or orally performed) a ‘medium.’

(…)

The medium always functioned as a point of reference in attributing authenticity to photography. And hence, it is not so much the fact that the digital tum implies a fundamental change in photography, but it is our conception of photographic authenticity that is altered by the change. Photography did not suddenly become susceptible to manipulation, but with the advent of digital technology the knowledge about photography’s malleability became paramount. And that is why the heated debates about digital photography of the past few years have also shown that it is not sufficient to conceptualize photographic authenticity merely on grounds of the involved medium. Media theoretician Peter Lunenfeld seems to be right when he claims that photography is no longer a privileged realm of communication since its authenticity now ranges on the same level as that of the written word.

LA_RAZON_357999_008LRD19FOT1Photograph by Ron Haviv, Erdut (Croacia), 1991

(…)

Given the strict control on the pan of militaries and the overall suspicion of deception, the authenticity of war photography seems to be in bad shape. Yet despite all doubts and objections, we use war photography on a daily basis. We consume it as regularly a our daily newspapers. Despite its patent unreliability, we cherish it as a helpful device for spreading and gaining information about the conflicts of our time.

But how can this be? Clearly, the question of authenticity in photography cannot be answered merely by reflections on the medium. When we talk about the authenticity of photography, and especially of war photography, it is apparently not the epistemological reliability of photography that is our primary concern. But what is our primary concern? A good starting point in making sense of this is to notice that we have already progressed far into the field of rhetoric, whose central concern, according to Aristotle, is to find out what is credible about a subject matter and what seems to be convincing. The reference to the properties of the medium may elucidate an important aspect of photography, but it answers only half the question. It may explain some general attitudes and expectations ascribed to photography, but it completely ignores what is actually shown in the photographs. Furthermore, just like in written texts, there are ways of suggesting the truthfulness of the depiction by means of subject matter and style. From the perspective of rhetoric, we could conceive of this as a communicative strategy that aims at verifying the subject matter, i.e. by claiming its truthfulness. How do communicators establish truth-claims? In the following, I would like to tum to those procedures that aim to authenticate a photograph and re-establish the claim that what we see in the picture is ‘the real thing.’

(…)

The larger discursive framework within which we can locate war photography, then, seems to include all kinds of representations of war – it is not restricted to documentary, nonfictional accounts of war but at the same time includes fictional renditions of war. Reports in newspapers, magazines or on television, stories written about war, movies, television series and even computer games- they all add to the cognitive framework with which consumers of news approach war photography. All these ways of depicting war seem to partake in an intertextual and intermedial realm that defines their conceptions about war. And hence these accounts certainly provide a ready resource for producers of representations of war, which they use as blueprints in order to verify their own depictions of war.(…) The content and form of preceding representations of war provide the beholder of war photographs with expectations regarding the subject matter as well as the overall appearance of these photographs, and these expectations are brought to bear in assessing the authenticity of the photographs. At the same time, photographers use them as resources in order to accommodate their addressees’ conception of authentic depiction of war and thereby to verify their photographs. Consequently, authenticity in war photography is not merely linked to reality and a truthful depiction of it, but it also seems to be fundamentally connected to a strong tradition of authentic depiction: the beholder of a photograph may know nothing about war – but he surely knows what it is supposed to look like on a photograph.

(to be continued)

٠ Duarte Amaral Netto: It’s all real, you just need to give up on your anguish (III of III) ٠

Part I of essay here and part II here

Duarte Amaral Netto4© Duarte Amaral Netto, Z (France, April 1940), 2012
65×50 cm Framed, Inkjet on Fine Art, Ed. 2 + 1 AP

Storytelling isn’t far from the discursive play, on the contrary. Martha Langford would call it an oral-photographic method of telling stories, in the sense that works using family photographs and historical documents trigger our day-to-day ways of interpreting the world and having conversations with one another. It’s my opinion that is why Z saw the light of day: to set up a rhizomatic dialogue that inevitably speaks to our collective memory by being on display as the personal story of the doctor, through whose eyes we are invited to (re)count, (re)member or (re)live multiple singular and universal narratives.

Rosalind Krauss defined Sculpture as an Expanded Field (1979), somehow located in between two negative polls: that of the non-architecture and that of non-landscape. George Backer then located Photography’s Expanded Field (2005) in a neutral zone in between non-narrative and non-static. In fact they don’t put forward this negative tension, but that’s what I understand from a definition that goes around the inclusion to locate by exclusion. Both Krauss and Baker want to relocate sculpture and photography, respectively, to the periphery of the polls they firstly entailed them in, arguing that’s the way to realize their full potential and interact with the culture field.

And then comes Kuhn, also referring to Marianne Hirsch, arguing about such cultural potential, saying that the power of the combination between memory work and photography stems “from the very everydayness of photography – from the ways photography and photographs figure in most people’s daily lives and in the apparently ordinary stories we tell about ourselves and those closest to us.“ (2007, p.285) And we’re back to the everyday.

Duarte Amaral Netto5© Duarte Amaral Netto, Z (Ballerina), 2012
65×50 cm Framed, Inkjet on Fine Art, Ed. 2 + 1 AP

Before talking about Duarte’s latest exhibition, I’d like to take a moment to draw a connection between this everydayness quality, which is now proved to be a sub-thread throughout all of his work, and the idea of the voyeur. Going about Wittgenstein’s thoughts, Michael Fried highlights a passage from a manuscript dating back to 1930. In it, Wittgestein tells “Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone who thinks himself unobserved engaged in some quite simple everyday activity”, (Fried, 2008, p.76) to sustain his idea that the way we go about the works – what we expect from them, how we looked at them – is what graduates them from their everydayness to art.

In a recent article, Boris Groys defines the contemporary subject as “primarily a keeper of a secret”. (2013, p.2) What both these claims put forward is the idea that value exists only where there is exclusiveness, so it’s not that the scenes depicted are mundane or that the archival photographs have been traveling the world for ages and have been seen by various people, but the fact that this or that is being shown to us. The image plane and the observer’s plane coincide, so the image is only completed when fully formed inside my eye. I am the sole testifier of Z’s portrait, as I am the sole testifier of Luda’s introspective moment.  At least I need to be sold on a narrative where this relation is possible.

Duarte Amaral Netto6© Duarte Amaral Netto, Selective Affinities, Installation view at Baginski, Lisbon, 2013

Duarte Amaral Netto7© Duarte Amaral Netto, Selective Affinities, Installation view at Baginski, Lisbon, 2013

Selective Affinities, Duarte’s last work I’ll be focusing on, has a bigger diaphragm than Z: it takes longer breaths and it breaths better, deeper. It also exacerbates something I thought I had seen in Z: the joy at play. It brings together a big collection of Polaroid transfers presented as diaries; another collection of Polaroids displayed in a continuum, and a triple projection of slides from different sources. It could be that our smile is ripped apart because of all the kids running around in the photographs or because we are reminded of the punctum arisen by similar family portraits, but in fact the major qualities of the work lie with the use of the medium specificities. Don’t forget Duarte is first, foremost or also, a photographer, and a really good one.

I will argue that this work is about blurriness and about what is left behind when the absence of material relevance gives way to time. Back to Baker’s location of photography between the narrative and the static, we could maybe agree that static in cinema is less organic than in photography, though they both struggle with it. The time given to an image, on the other hand, can trigger imagination, allowing us to project our desires. So what really differentiates the photographic from the cinematic moment is the time of the experience. Light, in photography, allows the capture of moments never seen before, it builds from nothing; in cinema, the same light giving us the images is the same that kills them in a split-second. Having said this, it doesn’t matter how many frames are killing each other in front of us, nor how much time we can stare at a single photograph, for their mechanical time in not our biological time. In between narrative and static there is an aesthetic attribute stronger than them – temporality, and that is what will influence the eco of the image’s spirit in us.

The tenderness and affection in Duarte’s polaroids shown in Selective Affinities is overwhelming. It’s raw. It implies a romantic notion of immediacy, only interrupted by his selection of which we are able to see and which not. Again, we are made believe we are witnesses to exclusiveness – unique moments of his private life. And because this everyday life draws innumerous parallels to our singular and collective memory, our imagination is triggered, for these images resonate with what we remember, or know about ourselves.

I too belong to a generation whose fado is to wander, who has no sense of community and no true willing to find freedom. Our generation has played a very special role as passive viewers, particularly regarding cinema and photography. We understood that as passive spectators we were actively participating in cultivating an impossible ideal of what the ideal life would be, how families should behave, how lovers should kiss, how you are supposed to feel at every moment of your life. This living in between our own non-linear narratives and the fictional ones – the ones Others were apparently living – has seriously compromised our identitary structure, our ability  to  avoid lying,  our capacity  to   remember  our  memories  instead   of building new ones that would suite us better. Not being able to distinguish between a documentary narrative and a fictional narrative impaired our judgment. Suddenly we had to choose between to be or not to be when we could have chosen to be and not to be.

Duarte Amaral Netto9© Duarte Amaral Netto, Selective Affinities, Transfers Reproductions, 2013

Duarte Amaral Netto10© Duarte Amaral Netto, Selective Affinities, Transfers Reproductions, 2013

So as I go through Duarte’s Selective Affinities with the eyes of an image-maker, I have the feeling that he mastered the fusion of the real and the fictional within his own personal life. These are not snapshots, these are not Polaroid transfers, these are not family moments, this is not a family album. This is an archive. I do doubt whether it was made conscious to Duarte that these images reveal the history of a generation, for all that is there, for all that it stands for – our day-dreams, our nightly-dreams, our fears, our world of possibilities, our sense of joy, our sense of structure, of identity, of family.

It is the blurriness of the photographs that convince us of the barthesian that-has-been. A green rabbit could be inserted next to one of the kids in the photographs and we would still believe the verity of the photograph. We believe because we want to, because we were made to believe, brought-up as individuals in a post-modernist world, where everything that matters has to be about achieving, conquering, becoming, when instead our sense of daily sharing should have been taken care of. Because we are loners, wanderers, drifters, we become the characters to whom we write scripts that we then play in our lives, both as narrators and having a lead role.

Lastly, I’ll finish by explaining the title of this article – It’s all real, you just need to give up on your anguish – by saying that the term “anguish” was chosen for its relation to the Heideggerian notion that anguish enables an inauthentic life and, consequently, prevents us to potentiate reality. So this is what I say (sort of as a wishful-thinking): let go on the idea that you can define things by exclusion. Instead, exclude the non-fact and the non-artifact; the non-static and the non-narrative; the non-real and the non-fiction. Anguish is the acceptance of frontiers; it stops the realm of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, to fully realize its potential to become reality.

text by Sofia Silva

Baker, G. (2005) Photography’s Expanded Field. October, Vol. 114, pp.120-140

Fried, M. (2008) Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, London: Yale University Press

Groys, B. (2013) Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive. [online] E-flux journal, #45, Maio
Krauss, R. (1979) Sculpture in the Expanded Field. October, Vol. 8, pp.30-44

Kuhn, A. (2007) Photography and cultural memory: a methodological exploration. Visual Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp.283-292

٠ Nietzsche and Photography’s ability to kill ٠

museum_07© Thomas Meyer, Untitled, from the series New Museum in Berlin

In part II of Untimely Meditations (1873), Nietzsche speaks about the malady of history and culture and how paying reverence to them restrains our ability to be free. Nietzsche suggests that the only two antidotes against this disease are: being unhistorical or being suprahistorical, the former meaning that we opt for forgetfulness; the latter meaning that we cease to be haunted by the weight of the becoming and start walking towards stable and eternal things, like art.

I’d like to concentrate on this idea of forgetfulness as a way to rebel against authoritarian preconceived ideas of education, law and good-behavior. Nietzsche suggests that forgetfulness is linked to happiness and honesty and gives examples of animals parading joyfully through the landscapes. Though the use of such nouns is very dubious in the context of a-historical animals, it’s relevant that his use of the “animal equation” could be replaced by the use of the “photographic equation”, as an automaton.

If human-existence, as the ability to be and exist in the present (the Dasein), is an uninterrupted state of “that-as-been”, then photography could serve us a medium that is consistently killing the present. Obsessed with history, with the horror of the fleeing moment, she reacts by immediately bringing the past into the present.

“That he lives best who has no respect for existence” is one of Nietzsche’s statement with which I fully agree. It’s not as if we have to always be oblivious of the historical context, but that we chose not to let knowledge be more important than life itself. He says the instrumentality attributed to history gives way to fanaticism and foolhardiness, and I’ll add it gives way to people being unable to build on their own individual identity, for they buy into the illusion of the unity of the collective identity.

museum_15© Thomas Meyer, Untitled, from the series New Museum in Berlin

“Monumental history is the masquerade costume in which their hatred of the great and powerful of their own age is disguised as satiated admiration for the great and powerful of past ages, and muflled in which they invert the real meaning of that mode of regarding history into its opposite; whether they are aware of it or not, they act as though their motto were: let the dead bury the living.” (p.72)

This nietzschian concept of history makes me go back to the question of the creative power of photography (particularly of documentary and street photography). Isn’t it possible that the camera, as a prosthesis, accentuates the differences between the inner and the outer? Isn’t it possible that the camera unhinges our instincts? Doesn’t photography promotes the appearance of things, instead of their desired liberation of the representational status.

Nietzsche makes a good point in opposing history to art: “for it is only in love, only when shaded by the illusion produced by love, that is to say in the unconditional faith in right and perfection, that man is creative. Anything that constrains a man to love less than unconditionally has severed the roots of his strength: he will wither away, that is to say become dishonest. I n producing this effect, history is the antithesis of art: and only if history can endure to be transformed into a work of art will it perhaps be able to preserve instincts or even evoke them.” (p.95)

museum_05© Thomas Meyer, Untitled, from the series New Museum in Berlin

Documentary photography has always been quite foreigner to be, when I’m in the place of the photographer. I have no instinct to capture and have always struggled with the act itself stealing my ability to be present in the moment. Not only does Nietzsche’s account of the dangers of the so called “historical relevance” strengthens the parallels between the inauthentic being and photography’s inauthenticity, but he goes on to suggest that the act of collecting (and thus the archival impulse so dear to the contemporary art world) arises from the subject’s detachment for “the fresh life of the present”, which degenerates into “a restless raking together of everything that has ever existed.” (p.75)

The fragility of the individual identity, when confronted with the overwhelming impact of nature and life themselves, retreats into the predator mode, shooting pictures, collecting objects, hierarchizing things obsessively as if by doing that he could find his/her place (and class) in society. 

Nietzsche concludes: This is a parable for each one of us: he must organize the chaos within him by thinking back to his real needs. His honesty, the strength and truthfulness of his character, must at some time or other rebel against a state of things in which he only repeats what he has heard, learns what is already known, imitates what already exists; he will then begin to grasp that culture can be something other than a decoration ofliJe, that is to say at bottom no more than dissimulation.”(p.123)

text by Sofia Silva

NIETZSCHE, F. (1997), Untimely Meditations. Cambridge University Press

┐ This is punctum └

It’s never too late to talk about punctum. Roland Barthes created The concept, very simple to access but very difficult to locate in linguistic terms. It remains submissive to the subjective order and to the the representation of an image of affection. If one believes in an authentic point of view one should also be allowed to believe in an authentic way of connecting to those who choose to speak through their relation with the world of ideas. Ideas that are both the light and their shadow and that can be accessed in between. This is punctum for me, studium for someone else and an unattainable word in between.

tumblr_meptf5mhyt1ra3g7to1_1280Jonathan Daniel Pryce, 101. Nehjat: Lexington Street, London (left), 17. Ali: British Library, London (right)

I’m a sucker for beards and an Arab physiognomy, that’s how this post came about, after seeing Jonathan Daniel Pryce’s project blog 100 beards, 100 days  even if his use of the photographic medium doesn’t speak to me at all.

retrato_punctum© Sofia Silva, the Bartheme portrait, 2011

“Like the lover who wishes to address the singularity of his beloved without recourse to the lover’s discourse he inherits, Barthes seeks to invent a language that would be more faithful to what he “perceives” to be the singular, paradoxical, and contradictory character of photography. He suggests that, in order to submit to the photographic adventure, to surrender to the unprecedented experience of photography, we must invent a language with which we can approach it, even if we know we may never seize or capture it. Like all lovers, the Barthesian lover therefore seeks to name a world that has never yet existed before his eyes, as if his language might, in calling it forth, touch it for the first time. Indeed, as we know from his earlier analysis of the lover’s discourse, language desires nothing more and nothing else than to touch the beloved’s body—and the world in which it exists.(…)

Bound together like the copy and its negative, the punctum and the studium are the two fictional poles of photography: each image pretends to reach them but never entirely succeeds. Punctum and studium are the two threads that, together, constitute the materiality of photographic language: contingency, chance, gratuitousness, singularity, and difference, on the one hand, and necessity, predictability, composition, regularity, and repetition, on the other. In this way, every photograph not only shows what it exhibits—not only shows a relation between an observed subject and a subject observing captured on a piece of photographic paper—but also says, exhibit s, or performs what photography is. Photography is an amorous experience, magical and paradoxical: an objective chance, a necessary gratuitousness, “the tireless repetition of contingency”.(…)

This is why there is something uncanny in every photograph—a force of destabilization, something that leaves us in suspense even as it fascinates us. Like a “floating flash,” its “effect is certain but unlocatable, it does not find its sign, its name; it is sharp and yet lands in a vague zone of myself; it is acute yet muffled, it cries out in silence”. It is the force of a mark: the force of the index or of that past existence that has only an image as its trace, the force of the punctum or chance that wounds every image. The force of the photograph resides in its capacity to fascinate us and to leave us defenseless because photography—which often has been associated with the field of the Imaginary—does nothing else than point toward the very center of the Real, toward that place where we remain without words or without a gaze. This is why we so often remain mute in front of an image: it is as if, for a fleeting second, we are viewing what cannot be named. This also is why Kafka’s phrase—that we “photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds”—connects the compulsion to photograph not to the necessity of registering or possessing the world, but to the possibility of not seeing it, and this is because, ultimately—or at the limit—photography points toward the Real itself, toward what we do not wish to name, toward what we do not wish to see: the punctum, the index, contingency, death. Nevertheless, whether we seal our lips, close our eyes, or take photographs of everything, the “floating flash” will not fade away or disappear. Perhaps to see a photograph we do not need to open our eyes to its literal brutality, but neither do we need to close them. Ultimately—or at the limit—perhaps we can view a photograph best when we look at it with our eyes half-closed, as when we look at the sun.”

excerpt of the article Notes on Love and Photography, by EDUARDO CADAVA and PAOLA CORTÉS-ROCCA, in OCTOBER 116, Spring 2006, pp. 3–34.

┐ Christian Boltanski – death from within └

5498496647_85c3f87a4d_o© Christian Boltanski, Odessa Monument, 1991. Four gelatin silver prints, lights and wiring

“Since the late 1960s, Christian Boltanski (b. 1944, Paris) has worked with photographs collected from ordinary and often ephemeral sources, endowing the commonplace with significance. Rather than taking original photographs to use in his installations, he often finds and rephotographs everyday documents—passport photographs, school portraits, newspaper pictures, and family albums—to memorialize everyday people. Boltanski seeks to create an art that is indistinguishable from life and has said, The fascinating moment for me is when the spectator hasn’t registered the art connection, and the longer I can delay this association the better. By appropriating mementos of other people’s lives and placing them in an art context, Boltanski explores the power of photography to transcend individual identity and to function instead as a witness to collective rituals and shared cultural memories.”

2© Christian Boltanski, Sans Fin, part of installation showed in the 54th Venice Biennial

1© Christian Boltanski, Dog in the street, 1991. Installation, Photograph, gelatin silver photograph, lamp, biscuit box and electrical wires

“While the particular images in this installation represent children and the family dog at play, there is a brooding sadness and sense of threat which suggests that fear of loss which accompanies all our joys. The black-and-white photos are taken from, or simulate, old family snaps and sometimes news-paper images. This style is deliberate: the black-and-white prints feel like a literal trace in a way that colour plates and digital images do not. We seem to be able to sense the process embedded in the materiality of the print that is created when light falls onto silver nitrate and changes its chemical structure. In this way the light that ‘touches’ the object also touches the print. Because of this intimate process, the photo of a loved one is more than a likeness; it is a relic of their having once been there in front of the camera. This process is further enhanced by the dim reading lamp which is attached to a frame and by the old biscuit tin below each photo which suggests the collections of memorabilia that most of us have in some cupboard or shed.2 The boxes in this installation contain snapshots of the families represented in the larger photographs. The effect also suggests the use of photos in ‘ex votos’ and memorials to the departed. (…) Boltanski plays upon the ambiguity of photography and memory by presenting these found photo-graphs from family albums or archives. In re-photographing them he further degrades the likeness and enhances the feeling of distance in time from the event. He exploits our predisposition to accept the authenticity of old black-and-white images as actual records of events yet presents them with deliberate theatrical effect. The atmosphere he creates is like that of a shrine in a cathedral or mausoleum, but it does not feel like mock religiosity – it is more personal than that and at the same time has broader cultural associations.”

docclick image to see a documentary about Christian’s life and work, in UBUWEB