Pluralism and contemporary photographic art

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<ul><li> 1. 135 JVAP 12 (2) pp. 135147 Intellect Limited 2013 Journal of Visual Art Practice Volume 12 Number 2 2013 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jvap.12.2.135_1 Mary Modeen University of Dundee In praise of multiplicity: Pluralism and contemporary photographic art practices Abstract This article examines the practice and theory of complex, multi-layered photo- graphic images in contemporary art. Methods of working in which photographers use the medium to explore variously memory, identity and time in images are exam- ined, and a philosophical case is made for the mandate of plurality as a starting point for art practice, as well as the teaching of art and design. Images that beckon with implicit references are examined and compared, with implications for reading multi-layered images. Given the attention to the Other in contemporary thought and culture, the multifaceted adoption of difference and attunement to multicultural- ism suggests that perhaps multiplicity as an imaging technique rather than single perspectives is appropriate as an artistic device for our times. Aspects of multiplicity in photographic art abound. What I would like to discuss in this short article is a very specific question: is it possible to look at certain types of contemporary photographic practice, or visual practice that builds on photo processes, which may be informed by the contributions of recent European philosophy and cultural theory, specifically in a manner in which plurality and multiple points of view are incorporated? Furthermore, a phenomenological and post-structuralist foundation of difference provides Keywords multiplicity plurality perception layered photography alterity polyvalent art practice theory </li></ul><p> 2. Mary Modeen 136 cogent reasons for looking at multiplicity within these photographic artworks. And thereby, these theoretical foundations provide not only a context, but a mandate, for an art of plurality; equally, these visual works explore plurality in praxis in ways that embody and extend available theoretical frames. Given the parameters of this discussion, I will exclude from this consid- eration multiple images that were the predecessors of cinema, like those of Muybridge, for example, as well as zoetropes and other mechanisms whose processes build in multiplicity. I wish to focus on photographic images that one would expect ordinarily to be singular, as in the ubiquitous references to still images as if of frozen moments in time. For the sake of discussion, I must also limit the range of cultural critics, philosophers and theorists whose work I address. While the majority referred to here are European based, indige- nous cultures have a great deal to offer and I have included several references here that are of equal importance to their western counterparts. Additionally, I have used abbreviated references to particular philosophers in many places, understanding that lengthy explanations and interpretations of these major works are beyond the scope of this article. What I will argue is that post-war phenomenology, in combination with the works of cultural critics such as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, followed by the works of French post-structuralists, change the notion of the seeing-eye by differencing the self and laying down a moral and politi- cal agenda for plurality in addition to the aesthetic and cognitive differencing of the phenomenologists. Reinforcing this idea of differencing, the practices of indigenous Maori and Ojibwe cultures, as two examples of many across the world, begin with blessings from the ordinal points in every gathering, understanding the implicit positioning in standing at different orientations. In covering this ground as both spatial and conceptual points of view, I argue that artistic perceptions must, of necessity, be multiple rather than singular, if they adhere to these tenets. Perspective that functions as a perceptual gath- ering rather than an insistence on representation seems more appropriate to this type of world-view. This is, in effect, a translation of theoretical thought into creative practice, and vice versa; the insights from a creative practice of plurality may inform theory. This has profound implications for the way that the visual arts are taught, and suggests at the very least resistance to entirely single points of perspective. Without wishing to try the readers patience, one more distinction needs clarification here: I wish to distinguish between the terms multiplicity and plurality. Since I am applying this argument to visual practice, I will use the term multiple to refer to the application or use of more than one point of view in the technical process of creating an image. Multiplicity will therefore incorporate more than one image, moment, viewpoint or physical location in a single piece of work. Plurality, by contrast, is a term I use to discuss this in a more abstract and less physical sense; plurality imparts a conno- tation of the metaphysical aspects of differencing, and may be inspired by elements such as an appeal to memory, gendering, cultural or psychological differences. Benjamin and Barthes have a lot to say on the subject of how photographs affect the viewer. To summarize Benjamins take on the camera as a mecha- nism, as he outlined in 1936, he argues that the original and non-reproduced work of art has an aura that does not exist in artwork that is reproduced (i.e. for our purposes, photography). He considers a photograph to be an image of an image, aura-less so to speak. He considers the loss of the aura as the loss of 3. In praise of multiplicity 137 single authorship a machine has intervened between the artist and viewer. He becomes keenly aware of a new aesthetic at work when he writes: the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and lift- ings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses. (Benjamin [1936] 1968: 237) The camera-machine as intermediary does not remove the human element; it mediates the process and couches thinking in different form. If we race ahead 75 years to our own time, we move this thought forward to the tech- nology available now. The digital camera and digital image manipulation of photographic images means that in addition to all of Benjamins technologi- cal lowerings and liftings, we also have the benefit of stepping outside of fixed time and place, of multiple exposures, of multiple lightings, of myriad perspectives combined in various ways to form one photographic artwork. His prescient words linking unconscious optics and unconscious impulses rings in our ears as we consider how these multiple perspectives echo contempo- rary leanings towards the multiple over the singular. But first, before continu- ing this line of thought, let us take a moment to consider Barthes thoughts on the mechanical intervention in photography before returning to Benjamin. In Camera Lucida (1981), Barthes takes us on a sentimental journey by means of photographs, in search of his lost mother. The photo stands in contrast to the past, which he implicitly mourns as a distant land. He seeks photographic representation of his mother as she truly was and for him, he finds this truthful representation in a childhood photo of her, long before he was born. The fact that he remembered her as his version of her troubled him; the difference between internalized memory and so-called documentary photographs left him bereft. The contrast between what the camera produces as a conventionally understood image and, by contrast, the photograph as a piercing image also troubled him (Barthes 1981). This piercing moment was a punctum, as he called it, but may be for our purposes one element of the humanly internalized aspect of seeing. This is significant for our purposes because Barthes separates the ordinary from extraordinary, the mechanically produced image from the humanly internalized and felt image. Fellnders work (Figure 1) moves the notion of punctum to another register by trans- versing space and time. In his practice, the photograph captures more than the piercing moment; he may be said to aspire towards the piercing journey in his images. Francesa Woodmans photographs, by comparison, capture the paradoxi- cal contrast of the punctum by timing the untimely in space and time, evok- ing the quality of the multiple but often ethereal presences, spectral in their evocation of half present and half absent figures. Now, returning momentarily to Benjamin, this contrast is also echoed in the assertion that a photographer produces an essentially political work of art (by virtue of its mechanical intervention) in a process of composing multi- ple fragments. This leads to a thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment. The key contrast here is that Barthes is concerned with what is mechanically produced vs what is humanly internalized; in Benjamins writing we find him aligning mechanical production with the political, thereby expressing human values through the mechanical methods 4. Mary Modeen 138 of which Barthes was so wary. Barthes widest point of concession concerning that which a camera may offer can be heard in this quote: By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our compre- hension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. (Benjamin [1930] 1997: 568) From this perceptive and unwittingly prophetic stance of Benjamin, the possibilities in contemporary photographic art beckon. The still and singular moment, for example, need not necessarily be the sole visual outcome of this process. But it is the reason for an artistic choice to employ multiplicity on which I wish to concentrate most, as well as perhaps the effect of such choices. Multiplicity is the outcome of many intentions for plurality: one of these is the intention to move from a singular to a multi-fold set of perspectives or points of view, as I suggested at the start. The viewers viewpoint may move in apparently simulated movement from high to low, from left to right or in a continuous fashion as if walking or travelling through combinations of various fragments of imagery. The combinant image implies the passage of time the time it takes to move bodily from one position to another. Framing this equivalent to a series of glances is the current work of Gina Wall, a Scottish photographer and academic. In her works, she stops each glance in a multiple sequence: edges are randomly repeated as if in a visual overlap with the frame to the left or right, and angles are mismatched or jar with difference (Figure 2). It is in this telling difference, however slight, between frame to frame in the overall composition that ones distinctive point of view is emphasized. And in fact, this in itself becomes the focus of her work not in the capture of the landscape, as such, as the viewing proc- ess itself: we the viewers view the viewing of the land. It is the gap between each frame that recalls the space inserted in the individual acts of perception. In fact, it is her contention that she is writing the landscape, opening out a photographic land-text of imagery for interpretation. Figure 1: Jacob Fellnder, I Want to Live Close to You (New York 52), digital inkjet photograph. Jacob Fellnder. 5. In praise of multiplicity 139 Multiple views in one image also suggest the combination of several points of view or viewers, several different vantage points, each physically differ- ent in Walls case slightly higher and lower for example. In another of her works it might extend culturally or politically to differences between high art and low, signifying populist intentions, or privileged and under-privileged, conformist and iconoclastic and so on. (Echoing in our ears is Benjamins assertion that mechanically reproduced art is quintessentially political art.) At times, the insistence on multiplicity is the point of making the repetition accentuate differences within the phenomena, variations being more clear by close comparison to similar versions. Take, for example, the phenomena recorded photographically by Bernd and Hilla Becher. While the grid presentation separates (a format they used almost exclusively before 1990), the multiple format has the distinct effect of accentuating difference rather than similarities. The typologies, as the Bechers them- selves describe this focus, begins with visual forms that are repeated in industrial structures; their juxtaposition here confirms by visual comparison how they vary, example to example. Another accentuation of dissimilarities occurs in multiple images. This is the diffrance, the unfinished and always opening set of differences that corre- spond with our own unique perceptions as well as our culturally differenti- ated ways of seeing in a collective sense. As one example of this, the colonial and postcolonial eyes see with alterity, different from one another as much by moral values as by physical sensation. Multiplicity may be viewed in another frame of interpretation as well: it may be interpreted as the repeated return to viewing, a revisitation. Looking again and again, as if in the blink of the eye, seeing again is seeing differently, seeing something else that was missed or overlooked before. The reprise is the retaking, literally taking something, deriving something, from the external Figure 2: Gina Wall, Caledonian Macbrayne, Hebrides: Uig to Lochmaddy (Starboard), (2011), photograph. Gina Wall. 6. Mary Modeen 140 world again and again. We take from the world before our eyes, deriving from it on each occasion. In the works of Idris Kahn, as shown here, the multiplicity occurs in over- lays; specifically the Becher types are overlaid directly one on top of the other. The effect is that of shapes that shimmer in place. The differences in them create the spectral effect of forms that are simultaneously present and not present, hovering in space, defined by collective presence but denied actual (singular) contour definitions. The photographer Atta Kim took this same idea many steps further in his photograph ON-AIR project, NewYork-10,000 (2008), in which he super- imposed 10,000 photographs of images from New York one on top of the other. The result is a blurred grey rectangle, completely devoid of any hint of the streets, buildings or people who actually comprise the image. In his work, Figure 3: Bernd and Hilla Becher, Winding Towers, 19661969, photograph. Bernd and Hilla Becher, courtesy of Sonnabend Galleries. 7. In praise of multiplicity 141 the multiplicity has formed a kind of ab...</p>