An editorial conversation between Objektiv’s board members Lucas Blalock, Ida Kierulf, Brian Sholis, Nina Strand and Susanne Østby Sæther.
Nina Strand, Editor-in-Chief: Our issues in 2016 carry the same title: The Flexible Image. They examine the (photographic) image as it expands into two distinct yet related directions: the image as text/sign and the image as operation. In this issue, PART II, we ponder the image as text. Inspired by Aperture’s issue Lit., we ask whether the image has taken over from the word, and if gestures are in turn replacing images. This is something that Nancy Newhall wrote about in Aperture’s first issue, back in 1952: ‘Perhaps the old literacy of words is dying and a new literacy of images is being born. Perhaps the printed page will disappear and even our records [will] be kept in images and sounds.’
This issue includes a conversation with Nicholas Muellner and Catherine Taylor from the Image Text initiative – on your suggestion, Lucas – and Taylor agrees with Newhall’s statement that ‘photograph-writing’ might become ‘the form through which we shall speak to each other, in many succeeding phases of photography, for a thousand years or more’. And, like Newhall, she concedes the continuing importance of text, saying, ‘The association of words and photographs has grown into a medium with immense influence on what we think, and, in the new photograph-writing, the most significant development so far is in the caption.’ This summer saw the new Photo-Text Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles, rewarding the best book combining images and texts, which suggests that we’re likely to see more work in this genre in the time to come. Lucas, could you describe your relationship to images and text?
Lucas Blalock, photographer and writer: The first thing that comes to mind for me is Vilém Flusser’s ‘Technical Image’, which is a description of photography as an apparatus that flattens the sense-making of linear writing into a kind of magical pancake. In Flusser’s description, the photograph, in essence, collapses all of the information that goes into its making and gives us an image that has the illusion of transparency, yet that in actuality is anything but.
I agree that photography has become a stand-in for language, but this is a fraught proposition. For example, we’re currently seeing the ascendancy of Donald Trump in the US, which could be described as a triumph of image over other kinds of information. But if photography is to some degree displacing writing as our common cultural language, it has also long since spawned a literature and a poetics of its own. And this ‘literary’ position has been greatly enhanced by the fact that photography has evolved into this extremely dominant form for expressing content in commercial and social networks, which are themselves ever reshaping our shared understanding of what a photograph is. Photography’s vernacular uses then set the terms for the kind of perversions that might (in the hands of an artist) be effective or affective or productive.
As an artist, I’m more involved with making pictures that move away from the iconicity and speed that photography-writing implies, but this is certainly part of the backdrop for my activity. In a sense, the more expansive our use of photographs as a picture-language or otherwise, the more we find that being deviant within it has the possibility of accessing that expansiveness. I mean to say that the more a viewer or citizen has invested in a conventional structure (the photograph), the more tension you can produce with an odd case, the more baggage you can carry in and the more legible the intrusion. This is obviously mitigated by the tremendous flexibility of contemporary images, but there’s always real strangeness somewhere. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about this Brecht passage where he states that the things we call ‘modern’ (the quote is from the 1920s) are the things we don’t yet know how to ‘use’. For me, this seems an apt description of our current situation and the succeeding waves of technology that continue to wash over us. Framing our own activity as learning to ‘use’ these new tools to speak to the situations at hand in our lives beyond the prescribed and alienated ‘authorship’ of social platforms is possibly a kind of collective work, but it’s also an imagina- tive enterprise. I’m curious what Ida thinks about all of this and about this shift from word to image more generally.
Ida Kierulf, curator at Kunstnernes Hus: The ideological battle between word and image will always go in cycles, and I have great faith in the resistance of the written word, in light of the iconoclasm of much cultural theory during the last few years, and the general fear of images in society. Image and word, the seeable and the sayable are – factually and meta- phorically – inseparably interwoven in our ideas and stories about the world. But as you say, we have to learn to use new digital technologies and social platforms in ways that are not alienating; to slow down the speed of what Matias Faldbakken calls the ‘pure retinal feed’ that comes out of the realm of the scroll. Images, as W.T.J. Mitchell claims in his brilliant publication What Do Pictures Want?, crave a narrative and discursive framing in the multiple sense of wanting, demanding and lacking. Images needs words. He calls for a closer reading of images, ‘to strike them with enough force to make them resonate, but not as much as to smash them’. I’m intrigued by what you say, Lucas, about creating tension with an odd case in your practice, and making something strange. This Verfremdungseffekt, with reference to Brecht again, is what art can and should do.
In the exhibition SEEABLE/SAYABLE, which opens at Kunstnernes Hus this fall, it’s exactly this resonance and tension between word and image, and between visual art and literature that we wish to explore in a number of contemporary works. Where they meet, how they feed off each other, what imaginary worlds and mental spaces they create in the reader and the viewer: these are some of the questions we’re investigating. Or, as Nicholas Muellner points out in your interview with him, Nina, image and text used purposefully together can force us to stop and remember that the world is still unknowable, bridging the space between ‘the silence of the image and the blindness of language’. But we also wish to explore where the bridge between word and image collapses, exemplified in Faldbakken’s new film installation Europe is Balding.
The classical concept of ekphrasis, a verbal representation of a visual representation, seems to open up a host of critical perspectives about the tension between the word and image, and we’re working with the ekphrasis as a fulcrum in the exhibition. We’ve invited both artists and poets/novelists to create new works with the ekphratic as a starting point, and also brought in older works by artists such as Baldessari and Broodthaers that poignantly manifest the friction between the seen and the said, the visible and the invisible.
Mitchell, interviewed for this issue of Objektiv, takes the idea of the ekphrasis a step further, identifying it with a fundamental tendency in all linguistic expression, tapping into the fundamental core of human imagination and what it means to make sense of the world. Maybe the exercise of ekphrasis should take on a fundamental role in any curriculum from early school age, to force contemplation or a close reading of images. According to Mitchell, we need to reckon with images not just as objects that convey meaning, but as animated beings with desires, needs, appetites, demands and drives of their own.
The idea that we live in a culture dominated by images, by spectacle, surveillance and visual display, has become such a fundamental truth that its meaning has been lost. Every day, words disappear, and a million new images appear. My question to Susanne is, of course, impossible to answer, but what comes after the ‘pictorial turn’ – Mitchell’s term for this phenomenon, which has become such a fundamental concept in academic discourse?
Susanne Østby Sæther, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Art History at the University of Oslo: In my mind, there will be no after – at least, not if we understand the ‘pictorial turn’ as a descriptive term designating the importing of images into all aspects of life and the unstoppable speed of image generation and circulation. Images will beget images, propagating and reproducing acceleratingly. Yet, if we also consider the models and metaphors we use to think – and indeed, write – about images, I think there is an after. When Mitchell launched the notion of a pictorial turn in the 1990s, it was as a reaction against – or perhaps rather, a supplement to – the dominance that linguistically derived models held on theory across the humanities, and that the realm of language had as a viable object of study through its role in culture and everyday life. The ‘pictorial turn’ in this context captured the importance of images in culture at large, but also an awakening to this fact in various humanist disciplines in the early 1990s and the call for theories and models that took this dimension of the language/image-relation seriously.
As Ida is saying, the dominance of the image is today a commonplace. During the last ten years or so, however, I think we’ve tended to think of images in ways other than – or building from – those launched by the pictorial turn, which were intimately bound up with the visual. For example, as we also discussed in the last issue, I find that there are currently extremely interesting explorations in both art and theory of how we access images in a wider sensory register than the visual (the pure retinal feed, perhaps?), such as through touch and the haptic. These explorations are trying to grasp – in every sense of the term – our embodied relationship to images, which is simultaneously intensified and formalised in a very mundane and dumb way with, for instance, touchscreens. In this context I find your transportation of Brecht’s notion of the ‘modern’ as things we don’t yet know how to use to the present mo- ment to be very intriguing, Lucas, precisely since so many of the interfaces we’re presented with are so intuitively easy to handle and use. Perhaps this calls for a kind of de-skilling or de-habituation procedure (indeed a well-established avant-garde model). Also the recent turn towards the natural sciences through neuroaesthetics in a sense surpasses the visual and the image altogether, cutting straight to the brain and its cognitive processing of information. Another development that I think somehow makes up a kind of ‘after’ the pictorial turn, is what seems to be a change in the tipping point between the one image and the many. For some years, I’ve been interested in artists and theorists who somehow intervene in and con- ceptualise this shift. Art historian David Joselit has, for instance, recently described this as an ongoing shift from the singular, auratic image, in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the term, to a population of images that draw attention to the way images are interconnected. Patterns of image circulation and exchange and the trails of image-derivatives it produced in its wake are here seen as more significant than the single image that stands out from the swarm. The poster child for this exploration is, of course, the artist Seth Price, as well as numerous younger artists such as Oliver Laric and Petra Cortright. Thinking of images in this way, as a stream of interlinked entities that in themselves are flexible rather than fixed perhaps comes close to a kind of image-writing or ‘language’ in some ways, most obviously in the way in which a single image is always relationally understood. Thus perhaps it’s not so much an ‘after’ after all ...
I want to ask you, Brian, how you in your work as a curator and writer handle this relationship between the one image and the population, and also if you think that words and images have inherently different temporalities?
Brian Sholis, independent curator, editor and writer: Words and images not only have different, or varying, temporalities, but also our experiences of them vary. The challenge for any theory is to account for the majority of use cases. Much of what I’ve read recently about images, image networks, the feed and other novel developments in image culture neglects to account for the variety of settings in which we interact with images. Your question hints at this: the self-imposed rules governing my work as a photography curator differ from those structuring my approach to writing about photography. What is the difference between experiencing images collectively, as people moving through museum galleries do, and experiencing images individually, on the page or on a networked electronic device? Of course, the polarity in that question can be reversed. Museum visitors don’t often socialise with each other in galleries, yet many people comment on the networked images they see in their feeds. Which experience is collective and which is individual? Our theories must unravel such difficult, knotty questions.
Part of being a curator involves placing images in spatial relationships and then inviting people to construct narratives out of their encounters with those images. It’s a bodily experience, and so I’m especially interested in technological developments that affect our haptic encounters with images and texts. I don’t often know how these novelties will play out in museum galleries, but I find them fascinating nonetheless. I have two examples in mind as I write. First, I recently listened to an interview with VR-film directors. The host asked about the black bar that’s always visible at the bottom of the virtual-reality image field, which is a result of hiding the camera apparatus when filming. A director can easily take another pic- ture, looking downwards, and stitch it seamlessly into the broader VR field, thus eliminating the black bar. But when testing this out on VR headsets, users were unnerved by the fact that they couldn’t see their bodies when they looked down. Even in a virtual environment, we remain tethered to our bodies. (This is also why many VR-film directors shoot everything from the eye level of a seated, average-height person. It would feel disconcerting to fly up in the air while knowing that outside of the VR experience one isn’t moving.) Second, I recently read an article about user-experience designers whose subtitle read: ‘Facebook servers crunch your data in milliseconds, but the user interface takes longer to load. That’s by design.’ By artifi- cially slowing down server response times, Facebook makes its users feel more safe. Similarly, the American bank Wells Fargo deliberately slows down its retinal scanners, since customers assume those operating at actual speed aren’t working. This case relates obliquely to our ongoing conversation about texts, since changing the operation speed is akin to changing the narrative that the machine helps our minds construct. These gaps, hiccups or errors in our ability to understand images and computer processes fascinate me. Like Lucas, I believe that artists can make use of them to reveal more about how we perceive and relate to the world of pictures and words.
Nina Strand: With these thoughts, we introduce an issue that gives readers a new insight into the relationship between image and text, as discussed in interviews where, for example, artists Duane Michals, writer Josefine Klougart, Jason Fulford, curator Federica Chiocchetti and art historian W.J.T. Mitchell share their thoughts. Some reflections on this relationship are also touched upon through the conversations between Kristian Skylstad and Espen Gleditsch, and between Lucas Blalock and Carter Seddon. I’m happy to be able to show their picture essays, along with that by L + S: Lutz-Rainer Müller and Stian Ådlandsvik, all made especially for this issue. I’m also excited about the essay on the textual confusions of Daniel Spoerri in his book An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, the essay What Moves Away by poet Eivind Hofstad Evjemo using the late Tor Ulven’s prose, as well as Matthew Rana’s essay 36 Fragments, a homage to the artist Bernadette Mayer and her project Memory.