Thursday, November 11, 2010

Photography as System

An Archival Impulse” by Hal Foster
“Systems Everywhere: New Topographics and art of the 1970s” by Greg Foster-Rice.

Can I just start by saying this is a little awkward for me to write a blog about one of our teacher's writings for this class? Because odds are, I'm not going to make any sense as I write about it..
….. anyways.

     In “An Archival Impulse” by Hal Foster, Foster discusses an archival impulse at work in contemporary art (though it is not new by any means – active both pre-war and post-war). Artists try to make historical information present in their work, such as with "time readymades,” which uses samplings from other works, either familiar to mass culture or obscure, and really push the issues of originality to the brink.
It is thought that the best place to find stuff for archival art is the internet. Even though this article was written in 2004, I believe it still holds true today. On the internet, artists can find obscure works that are unfinished and open-ended that offer a point of takeoff for another work of art. And in turn, after utilizing the “informal archive” of the internet, the work produces another informal archive in itself. Archival art seeks to connect things together and make relevant something from the past.

      In addition, archival art has a paranoid aspect – in which it attempts to recover utopia. It has “a desire to turn belatedness into becomingness. to recoup failed visions in art. literature. philosophy and everyday life into possible scenarios of alternative kinds of social relations, to transform the no-place of the archive into the no-place of a utopia.”

      In “Systems Everywhere,” Greg Foster-Rice begins with a discussion of how the photographs in New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape seem to be connected with the contemporary art movement minimalism despite no exclusive mention of it by the photographers (such as Robert Adams and Bernd and Hilla Becher) or curator William Jenkins. More than one person noted that the photos had a relationship with minimalism “that was based in the “austerity” and “essential, rectilinear geometry” of the photographer’s “bare and spare documents.”” However, minimalism is a movement based on sculpture, not two-dimensional works of art like photographs. But, New Topographics can still be considered to have ”structural and strategic” aspects that are minimalistic, showing a change in contemporary art practices. This shift, this “new art,” is a system as opposed to the “old art” being an object, according to curator Willoughby Sharp in 1967. He and other artists saw art as being more connected with social life than aesthetic formalism.

"The New Jersey Turnpike with Cars Heading towards Linden with the Esso refinery in the background" by Peter Stackpole, 1951

     Here is where I try to describe system theory as first proposed by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy: something that is complex cannot be understood by its individual parts, but by the relationships of the parts and how they create a whole. It is the organization – not the parts - that defines the system. Thus, the photographers seem to have used the system theory in New Topographics.

      The 60s and 70s was a period of “system-like” life (the system analysts in the government and protesters against “the system”, etc. ) and the artists of that time could more easily talk about it in their work by making work that showed a stray from “socially disinterested practice” and critiqued aesthetic formalism. One of the systems evident in much work from that time was the human-altered landscape. In 1966, Tony Smith wrote something that simply describes this human-altered landscape and what it does in terms of art:

The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be
called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had
never done. At first, I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me
from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a
reality there that had not had any expression in art.”

      Understanding this effect experienced by Smith apparently requires a “systemic approach” in seeing the way the parts of a landscape like this work together instead of looking at the individual parts. New Topographics photographers look at these landscapes and any socio-political issues at a distance in their work about “structures built at ground zero” replacing homes. Basically, doing it scientific more than artistic..... but not really? (that is seriously the best way I can put it.) somehow, New Topographics do acknowledge these issues of the “new systemic order” that could lead to ecological crisis. The issues stem from the U.S.'s excess wealth and the Cold War. This time period could be called “late capitalism,” characterized by the following: “the growth of multinational corporations, globalized markets, off-shore labor, and mass consumption in the United States and Western Europe.

     And this is all reflected in the photos in New Topographics, maybe not even intentionally, showing the U.S.'s “industrial production to a more consumer oriented society.” The photos are about construction/abandonment/habitation inside of the human-altered landscape. According to Smithson and Benjamin, the human-altered landscape is actually a broken system in which ruin is created for the sake of ruin; the structures built by us in them do not turn into ruin after they are built but become ruin before they are even built. (I'm thinking of pipes from factories that create serious air pollution.) This kind of industrialization can seriously harm and throw off natural ecosystems which it has already done.
      New Topographics photographs strongly oppose the technological sublime strategy in which 19th century photographers (like Carleton Watkins – image of his shown below) photographed landscapes with human alterations to make the alterations appear as though they flow well with the landscape – as if they belong there. The “natural and technological became compatible,” almost implying an infinite amount of natural resources. (But the 1970s proved that was not the case and that there is indeed NOT an infinite amount of natural resources with all the different “acts” enforced for clean air, water, etc... and this was also especially proved by the atomic bomb which threatened the entire well being of, well, humanity. There was no way THAT could be naturalized.)

by Carleton Watkins

Canon of the Rios Las Animas, by William Henry Jackson in 1882

     When it comes to photography as a system, the New Topographics exhibition seeks to show the art object as something that shows “lived experience” of viewers and the relationship between the art, viewers, and experiences of the viewers. (Again, a system as a relationship between parts, not the dissection of the parts.) Photographs themselves are usually believed to be the one medium that is closest to the real, completely different than any other. But in 1966, John Szarkowski basically said that photos should be considered a summary of a moment in time, simply ABOUT that moment, very distinct from the real event. Again, the sum of the parts. This idea isn't totally rejected by New Topographics photographers, but they worked more in these 3 systems-based strategies:

1. emphasizing serial instead of singular imagery - seriality is different from series in the way that seriality is not necessarily unifying works by exploring a consistent theme but adhering to certain rules established at the beginning of the project. Each individual part of the series is equally important. (Like scientific or vernacular photography.) For example, New Topographics photographer Robert Adams’s The New West is “a serial exploration of an ecological system in which humans play a significant role.” The photos go from east to west along the Colorado Rockies and not one photo dominates the rest. Seriality is also especially evident in the grid presentation of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

2. a procedure of making photos that emphasize visual arrangement instead of aesthetic composition - this is a process that takes place in the conceptual stage before photographs are even made. This seems to be what prevents hierarchy of parts. Photos are not created “in the whim of the moment” but are pre-thought out and settled upon beforehand. The focus of interest and excitement is this exact discovery of a process that works instead of the privilege of a part in more traditional art. (it just dawned on me that this and #1 is how I work with many of my portrait series....) in the New Topographics catalog, Joe Deal said that while the series was being thought out, the denial of any uniqueness of the subjects played a major part. Deal photographed and printed everything in basically the same way. The Bechers worked in the same way. Arrangement > composition, because composition elevates the parts over the whole.

3. making photos with an arrangement showing the system as a whole – the arrangement and framing images constantly in the same way makes these landscapes seem totally endless, showing the whole system instead of just a part of it. In the exhibition, with photos framed the same, surrounded by tons of other photos, makes it difficult to not see the relationships between them all, really showcasing the systems theory.

      So, the conclusion is that the serial order (and everything else about the system) is a method or attitude, not a style (like minimalism). The system in the New Topographics show is the human altered landscape. And this show also helped to “expand the field” of photography (as we learned about last week). It opens more possibilities, and is both art and document. 

New Topographics show

      Okay. I am not even going to try and lie an say that I understand all of this. (Guess this means I'm not taking the Cities in Crisis class next semester...) It is really hard for me to wrap my brain around the ideas presented in the archival impulse reading, but how I am going to relate it all is by coming to a conclusion that the archival impulse/archival art is a system and is to be looked at as a whole instead of as a bunch of parts, because if the parts were to take on a hierarchy it might not make any sense, especially with the mention of No Ghost in the Shell. 

     I also want to say that I honestly believe all of us use these 3 system-based strategies to some degree in our work. Like I said, I think I work that way sometimes when I make portraits and I certainly think those processes can be used even with something more like "old fashioned" art like portraits. 

     This reading made the New Topographics show and all the photographs in it somehow talk about the serious issues that come with industrialization without necessarily trying to make a very blunt, outright statement, but the large amount of images I would imagine to be necessary to create a system speaks for itself... numbers can mean something and make a point very clear. 

     Now, as for an artist that works procedurally... I think of Andrew Bush's "66 Drives" from Vector Portraits, made from 1989-1997. His description on his website ( says "portraits made while traveling 50 to 70 mph in Los Angeles and other parts of the southwestern United States." From what I learned in my portrait photo class this semester, Bush basically just decides he is going to drive somewhere, set the camera up in a particular spot of his car, and try to drive up next to people and shoot them driving alongside him, using strobe. He has a way of shooting a certain amount of car in each shot, has the camera in basically the same position, fires a strobe, etc.. the only thing he doesn't plan ahead is exactly what kind of people he photographs. (He shoots a wide variety of races and ages, male and female - the selection I chose to include is small!) So I definitely see him having a system. He also gives each photo a very descriptive title, attempting to describe as much as possible the whereabouts and action of the person he photographed. By shooting this way, I suppose the meaning of the project could really be considered as a catalog/nonbiased vague description of the people one might see while driving at any given time in the areas he drives in. Though I suppose there is some kind of bias in every photograph seeing as he decides who to shoot in the moment, because of his wide variety of places and people, it really could be "just anybody" you see driving.

Man drifting near the shoulder at 61 mph on Interstate 405 around the Getty Drive exit at 4:01 p.m. on a Tuesday in September 1992 

Woman caught in traffic while heading southwest on U.S. Route 101 near the Topanga Canyon Boulevard exit, Woodland Hills, California, at 538 in the summer of 1989

Woman taking her time rambling south at 63 mph on the Hollywood Freeway near the Vine Street exit in Los Angeles on a Saturday afternoon in 1991

    Anyways, I am going to try to just let my visual at the beginning speak for itself... photography as a system in the grand scheme of essentially everything being a system if you think about it..... and please excuse my excessive quoting, these readings honestly were painful to get through even with as many hours as I spent on them. I hope to actually begin to grasp these concepts in class this coming week.

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