To reflect on our editorial theme of the relationship between the written word and the image, we asked the same questions to various people in the field: What makes a great image-text project? How can we bridge the space between ‘the silence of the image and the blindness of language’? Can we reshape our understanding of what a photograph is? Do you have faith in the written word? And finally, what comes after the pictorial turn? Morten Andenæs is one of the people interviewed in the issue, and his show on closing in opens today at 12 at Galleri Riis in Oslo:
I’ve often wanted, perhaps naively, to be able to experience pictures without the interference of language – a seemingly simple desire to have a purely visual experience with a picture, without the seemingly unavoidable contamination brought to bear on it by the word. And yet, what, if anything, would I see?
Around the turn of the millennium, Leonard Shlain wrote a book called The Alphabet vs. The Goddess. According to Shlain’s research into neurology and anthropology, literacy itself – that is, the advent of a written language – changed the human brain in an unprecedented way. Text and written language, reading and writing, required specialised areas in the left hemisphere of the brain to be activated and enlarged, which in turn activated certain analytic ways of thinking traditionally associated with maleness. Shlain’s argument is that across the globe, one sees that cultures previously devoted to polytheistic goddess religions and oral histories where women played a central role gave way to monotheistic religions and a turn towards patriarchy. To put it simply, the word took over the image.
Steve Martin proposed that if you want to play a dirty trick on a three-year-old, teach him to talk wrong. Someone speaking complete but assertive gibberish is disturbing because it clearly reveals the gap introduced by symbols. Beneath the surface of any symbolic system is always a sort of vacuum; an emptiness with an immense potential. Lucas Blalock’s complex work, do you need a diagram (2012) brings this last point home.
Images and pictures are ubiquitous, and because of that, there seems to be this consensus that our culture is dominated by images. I have no fear that the word will die. If anything, I’m concerned about our ability to relate to images, to use pictures and representations as ways of communicating something that can’t be spoken rationally, and not have them turn into tidy packets of understandable information. I have this sense that the way we’ve come to use images now is as if they were text in disguise. We’ve come to relate to images as something to be ‘read’ rather than experienced, and by reading them rather than experiencing them, we tend to overlook that part of the image that’s resistant to being verbalised or made into language – that resists domestication and taming.
At best, photographs confront us with a void. A void that language can’t easily fill. A point where language falters. In therapy, part of the treatment can be to resist talking – to resist explaining an emotion, because to explain it, is to assuage it, to make it bearable. Images have the capacity to be nearly unbearable experiences with potentially devastating effects. As Carol Mavor points out, they have the potential to bruise us, and though we cannot impose upon them the responsibility of making us act, there are images that we cannot escape from. A truly dangerous image burns into our retina, leaving a remnant that language can’t explain away, can’t mollify in any way.
Earlier, there was a certain kind of magic at work in photography: the exposure of the silver halides of the film to light and fixing an image through complex chemical reactions. The unruly silver halides known as the grain of the film, either fine as the skin of an infant, or coarse as a farmer’s hands, are now text. Yes, light is still captured. Yes, in certain areas of the photographic process there are chemicals involved, but mostly what happens is light being translated into a series of numerical values, which in turn are written in code – a language no doubt – which then forms the basis of the image. No wonder the age of the digital photograph is also the age of the emoji. What’s exposed in an image like Blalock’s as mentioned above is the void at the heart of the image – an emptiness that we need to embrace as existential, rather than try to escape from. Can we believe in this void, in the creative chaos that follows from it? Can we treat it like a form of belief that we respond to with awe and wonder?