All the artist can do is devise various facts and test them against the hypotheses (apologies JG Ballard)

It is a curious path we tread, the way things crop up unexpectedly as you turn a page, leaf a book, watch something either idly or intently; and so it was that when I read Zadie Smith’s (revisiting) review of JG Ballard’s ‘Crash’ – as it is being reissued shortly – that I felt various and welcome intrusions into how I thought about my art, or at least the burgeoning concept of it all.

Smith explains how, on a publishing boat trip, she blundered into Ballard and spent an excruciating few minutes failing to connect with the author, explaining how she felt that he was an insider as opposed to herself a complete outsider. I wondered about her choice of metaphor, why not an ‘othering’, perhaps she was referring to Camus, who is constantly mentioned in ‘Crash’ as an exemplar of car crash victims “Camus died on 4 January 1960 at the age of 46, in a car accident near Sens, in Le Grand Fossard in the small town of Villeblevin. In his coat pocket was an unused train ticket. He had planned to travel by train with his wife and children, but at the last minute he accepted his publisher’s proposal to travel with him” Wikipedia direct quote. The quote sounds like a line from the book, it sets up a narrative tension; the ‘what-if’ so often used for developing a fiction. From my perspective Ballard was as much an “Étranger” as Smith, spending his youth in the Orient including the war years before studying in Cambridge, but no matter.

Enterc2The conjunction of Smith’s review, Ballard’s text, Wikipedia’s anonymous entry and my attempt at fathoming a way forward allowed me to engage with ideas that I wouldn’t have done without that Smith fortuitous happenstance.

Waitingc2“We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-emptying of any response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent reality.”

I was particularly struck by the concluding sentence – above – from Ballard’s introduction to his novel ‘Crash’, and later in the same piece he goes to say…

“The most prudent and effective method of dealing with a world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction.”

Awayc2Whether I agree with all of this I am not sure though I certainly have a great deal of sympathy with the underlying premise that through fiction we, as artists, can try to illustrate certain truths – or perhaps more accurately truths as we see them. The dystopian world that Ballard describes, this self confessed cautionary tale of auto-eroticism (in both senses of the term) is not an ambition the scale of which I would want to attempt. And I was also reminded of Anna Fox’s talk about the nature and ability of fiction for revealing truth, or truths; constructed narratives and of Fontcuberta’s fictions about truth and the function of the visual image….

Of course I couldn’t fail to notice the confluence of Will Self’s association, his introduction to the mis-en-scene via his long association with Ballard, the Psychogeographic references through Smith as well as, of course, Self himself. I wonder whether these strands are indicating themselves to me because I am allowing it, or whether, perhaps as a Ballardian motif might suggest, they are predetermined.

Ballard, in the same introduction plaintively suggests:

“All he [the writer] can do is devise various hypotheses and test them against the facts.” I wonder if for me those twin nouns aren’t in fact reversed. That my job as an artist is to devise facts and test them against hypotheses?

Aside againc2And so I read ‘Crash’ and found much of what Self describes in his wanderings, the ordinary, elevated through inspection and association with the self. The tale told through an outsider’s perspective of a youth whose life had observed a societal collision of cultures in Shanghai – American, Chinese, Japanese and colonial English; as far removed from Shepperton’s notoriety as the imagined facts that Ballard’s anti-hero encountered in the plot. Ballard’s fictive truths created a world as he experienced it and how it created Ballard, they are inextricably linked. Reality, or truth is stranger than fiction, even the fiction that pervaded Ballard’s landscape of perverted ordinariness. Fontcuberta’s truths tell us about how willing we are to accept those dystopia’s and maybe Fox reveals how we might also consider the ordinary as not a perversion.

I now have a copy of “The Atrocity Exhibition’, where that will lead with a William Burroughs preface I shall to wait and see.


Returning to the field


Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

‘Observation 123’ Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

Saturday was sequenced by events governed by glass and optics. The early morning sunshine provided the permission to continue with my experiments with Cyanotypes, a process developed by the astronomer, scientist and early photographer Sir John Herschel in the mid nineteenth century. I then rushed to Oxford to attend a talk by Sophy Rickett on the ‘Objects in the Field’ work hosted at the Museum of the History of Science where the work is currently on display. I returned home where the birthday party for my three-year grandson was in full swing and where I was expected to create photographic records. A short respite before walking to the house of some friends for an evening meal under the stars in their back garden.

Sophy Rickett prefaced her talk with a comment on how obsolescence underpinned the work at one level; how the work that Astronomer Roderick Wilstrop had undertaken at Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University had been superceded with the advent of CCD imaging, how the glass optics that he painstakingly hand ground and employed in the camera he designed and constructed in his back garden, had been overtaken by capabilities outside the imagining of astronomers of a previous generation and how the scale of development in astronomy had grown in an exponential way matching the discoveries in the fields of both view and discipline.

The records that Wilstrop endeavoured to record with his ‘Three Mirror Telescope’ and his choice of recording material, the industry standard Kodak – Technical Pan – obsoletion . The film was very slow, typically ISO 25 though many rated it at ISO 12.5 ensuring that exposures would take a long time, typically 40 mins and requiring the telescope to track the ‘object’ in real time. The telescope, the film used, means of recording and the practice all now obsolete, consigned to a shortening memory. Even the records he made have little if any value to today’s practitioners; in answer to whether the photographs he made would be of any scientific value he says “No, these were taken twenty years ago, and not properly calibrated. A few of the nearer stars move slightly against the background of others, and any planets will have gone around their orbits four of five times. These are a record of the skies as they were twenty years ago.”

'Observation 111' Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

‘Observation 111’ Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

Obsolete records recorded with an obsolete technology in a methodology as outdated as last year’s digital camera model.

Rickett also interweaves her approach to her work with this now obsolete material, how her practice utilizes aesthetic qualities of the data and is re-presented, with differing contextual references. How the agency of the work is impelled into new and interesting narratives with the artist’s repositioning of the results of the astronomer’s work. The artist recounts how Wilstrop questions this proposition from Rickett, about how he seemed reluctant, but accepting – to a certain extent – of the way by which Rickett, with none of the astronomer’s scientific intellectualism, seeks to find new or alternate meaning with the material.

There have been several individual artworks associated with the residency that Sophy Rickett created; comprising a video, a photographic piece, and a (written) text. About half of the words in the written piece directly concern Rickett’s encounter with Wilstrop, the remainder bookend those words with, the reader is to assume by the use of first person narrative, the artist’s personal reflections on three separate episodes, connected, we assume by the writer and interrupted by the encounter with the astronomer. Fact or fiction? It seems unimportant to me whether it is either of those polar extremities, it is most likely to be a concoction of sorts; but no matter as these whimsies set the contextual tone for the Wilstrop incidental episode.

Spending time again with the written text and reflecting on the talk at the museum I began to wonder at some of the new objects appearing into my field of view. Rickett spoke of the contest of meaning, how her imagination of the photographs/material, which is clearly mediated through her experience as an artist was at cross purposes with Wilstrop’s original intent and that, as she informed me on an email, her decisions were informed by a sense of aesthetics and not for illumination into a distant far-off field of space. This re-purposing of the data was echoed in another comment she made about how the new electronic imagers employed in modern telescopes re-position the data into images. The stream of bits are fed into a receiver (either serially or in parallel (my words)) and are then molded into a rectilinear form from via some algorithm within the electronics of the system and then appended with attributes to allow for interpretation. This interpretation is governed by a practice that is centuries, perhaps millennia old, so that ancient astronomers might be able to recognize the charts from datums they had originally identified and mapped. The means though by which the heavens are mapped has only very recently – relatively speaking – fundamentally changed. Wilstrop was in a line of optical continuum that stretches back across the ages, the change in the means of data collection has now altered seismically, and so Rickett was marking an end of an era but also, and more importantly for me, she regarded the material as a means to communicate something else, some other whose connection with the celestial was perhaps only arbitrary. Her stories were about how she saw things/objects/subjects in her field of view:

“Through the double glass window of the moving train, I am transfixed.

I see the younger boy begin to take the long slow turn to face his friend.

I see just the beginning of what is to pass between them, a fragment of story as it begins to unfold.

And the train speeds up and then I have gone.”

from the text “Objects in the Field” by Sophy Rickett

'Southern flow'

‘Southern flow’

In the text we are informed about the context of this encounter, though not too much, but in this stripped down version I suspect it opens up an even greater sense of suspense between the two subjects and their viewer through the double glass window of the moving train. Why did she inform us of the double glass window, to connect us to Wiltrop’s optical experimentations? Our proxy’s views then become of greater importance, in fact it become the subject and not the two boys because we are shown them through the optics of the traveller; its significance is elevated by that narrative course. Wiltrop has no connection to it, the “Objects in his Field” have entities of personal significance to him and are not affected by those two boys nor of the viewer we experience them by. However we, the viewers to Rickett’s re-work are experiencing the re-purposed narrative by the artist, the exegesis we derive is opened by Rickett, though not closed, by her artistry.

The Fugitive moment

Listening to Anna Fox talking about photography, well perhaps more accurately, about herself articulated through the medium of fictive images; I was stopped short by the almost sutto voce comment she made about ‘the fugitive moment’. Liminally speaking the thresholds to be breached in ‘momentary’ parlance usually start with ‘decisive’; those well researched, rehearsed and often re-trod happenstances that can often be construed as statuary moments. The expressive tribute to a moment caught, rendering it like a mounted and cabinetted prize fish, seems somewhat at odds with the illusory purpose of appointing it a ‘moment’.

Still moments do not conveniently habituate the frame; the temporal fragmentation of life through the lens attempts to construe a narrative in a linear and ‘momentary’ fashion and a photographer’s bent is to do that with crystal like clarity. This unrelenting enterprise to impel stochastically formed sharpness from the frame to screen, much less now the print, is at odds with the very subject it is in the throes of trying to harness. Life, all life – and death, are transients in an insistent process of change. The flower, so eloquently framed and re-rendered in life affirming colours, is either opening or closing at the point the shutter echoes those time slicing moments. We see though the flower in stasis, never to fully open and flux a life unfulfilled and, like Ganymede, to be regarded for its beauty and form for eternity.

Reproduced with the kind permission of the artist Stephanie d'Hubert

Reproduced with the kind permission of the artist Stephanie d’Hubert

But life is an arc, it rises and falls, and to depict it solely in a state of stasis is surely the widest cock and bull story to found a narrative on? And yet, and yet as photographers we are measured by how accurately we can render that untruth, how artfully we can depict the artifice of ‘lifelike’. It is with this in mind that I wanted to talk about what I felt when I saw these works by Stephanie d’Hubert, a fellow student and how I felt a similar reaction to Duane Michels’ work below and other artists.

The Annunciation

There is of course plenty ‘going on’ in these images, purposeful compositions in monochrome. For me though it is about peripherality, how the eye senses something is happening, has happened or is about to happen. These grey areas of near liminal comprehension develop that sense – for me – of the ‘Fugitive’ moment that Fox mentioned in her talk. There is enough of the sharp and steady in these images to be aware of the context, there maybe more narrative devices in Michals’ image, but that doesn’t dispel the construction of a plot in d’Hubert’s work, perhaps it’s openness invites the assembling of narrative the form of which perhaps, has a stronger association with the viewer’s subconscious than the artist’s own?

Reproduced with the kind permission of the artist Stephanie d'Hubert

Reproduced with the kind permission of the artist Stephanie d’Hubert

It is though for me this idea of a moment in flight, the fugitive form from or to another place or time. The ephemerality of a vista in motion, as if searching for that spirit. I saw this in Francesca Woodman’s work and of course Michael Ackerman’s, Paniak, Rojas as well as a number of other artists, and I find myself continually drawn to this type of expression, where the subject isn’t always appointed in visually grammatic robes that have been mastered, and also having tamed the local contrast issues associated with the primary focus of the text. If it is fugitive then why should it express itself otherwise? Why should we be presented with an answer, especially when the answer might be, as Althusser suggests, an unconscious representation?

Of those artists that I have noticed making these stories up, none seem to be working in colour, it seems that this type of representation works better in shades of grey. The lack of colour tones adding to, rather than depriving the text of narrative sub or sur contextuality, though this interpretation maybe skewed by my lack of knowledge in the form that I’m studying. It isn’t though that I feel that these exigencies gain primacy because they are monotonic, but the lack of the narrative accent that colour may provide simplifies it for me. It isn’t there, therefore I don’t consider it’s effect. I do find it interesting that an image of grey tones helps me to consider the ‘in between-ness’, neither black nor white. And grey is an indeterminate, it is neither one thing or another and in literary terms it is the hue that often describes the unknown or unknowing. The fugitive is grey.


Hair dryer

Hair dryer

I have started to write in my new journal; I like this new set of lined ten by eight virginal papers, bound in a pale aquamarine. “Write your thoughts down every day…” the introductory notes instruct helpfully. My excuse is that I haven’t started the course; I have told my tutor that I wanted a break over the summer to ‘play’ with photography, so my despoiling entries have been and are sporadic. I am away with family for about three weeks from the end of term and have determined to make some photographs with film, and, as the course notes suggest, have fun! But the ‘pull’ of course draws me to consider the book lists, the first assignment requirements, the need to ready myself. So I have Will Self’s Psycho Geography to read.

I have skim read the course and have taken note of the first and second assignments and these actions accompanied by Self’s words start to develop nascent thoughts.

Reading Psycho Geography and wandering around not wondering what it might be, this first assignment; where it might go. I’m worried that this first assignment will define the path to travel – it provides an anchor, the ‘idea’ from which the conversation with my tutor will develop – so best to have an idea of where I might want to travel from, if not where I to travel to.

At page 130, I realize that all the places Self has written about I have also been. What I failed to recognize initially was his general reflections of those places. Self’s descriptions became ‘other’ places, though by visiting them with his ‘peregrinations’ I found myself back in those places and finding that my ‘self’ is as much a ‘self’ ‘ish view as his is. Meaning that my comprehension of the place that Self visited and subsequently remembered, might coincide, such as the terror felt in Rio, or be completely at odds as in my vertigo at the summit of the Empire State building.

I had started to wonder what the point of the book was, there was no great insight into any of the places Self walked to, around or from. No Thesiger or Durrell he; an ‘other’ who strove to become ‘un-other’ in order perhaps to provide ‘otherness’ to others. Self’s self determination was to provide a visceral reaction to those places, which he happened upon perhaps by chance, but mostly by determination. It takes a determination to set forth from the security of a four star hotel in Sao Paulo to wander the streets in search of a book to read – I was lucky, I had ‘Great Expectations’ as my companion whilst there. And when I did sally-forth bookless, I found myself in Santiago, the other side of the Andes in the months after Pinochet had seen fit to ‘relinquish’ power and cede it to democracy, though without letting go of the military. Chile was safe, Thatcher’s government had continued to be outwardly hospitable post the altercations in the Islas Malvinas, and Santiago had a sense of a Mediterranean city but without all that chaos. Children wore school uniforms and walked in in crocodile lines allowing strangers to pass by whilst swerving their corporeal presence obligingly; much as Pinochet did when clinging to power and Thatcher did after inviting him to stay-over in Surrey.

Hair dryer

Hair dryer

And so I now have a better idea about Self’s Psycho ramblings, they are ruminations on the notion of reaction to a place, the sense of how one feels when in an ‘other’ place. I used to spend a lot of time in Sweden and wondered at the strength of society, how, as compared to the UK, the societal constructs meted out care to it’s community. It was after I stopped going to Sweden that I came to realize that what I had observed was that of an ‘other’ an ‘outsider’. Self’s continued outsidering matched my views of a hundred countries or more that I have visited, or more equally a hundred or more cities, towns and villages I have visited in this country, or perhaps just as validly, the myriad of places I have visited here at home. And why these first two images say vastly different things to me, and then, perhaps to other people.

To suggest therefore that have I visited all those places that Self wandered is as equally false as it is true. And of course I also have stories to recount, from those places that when remembered revitalise what it meant to me to be ‘there’, somewhere other than in the surroundings I have called home for nearly thirty years. Of more immediacy is Fabricius’ account in the course notes where she talks about visiting a place – the Regents canal – repeating the visiting, contemplating and trying to comprehend what her reactions meant about the place; trying to construct a platform to engage the viewer with the sense of humanity that she sensed. Fabricius invested in a place, a nine mile space, a linear space that could only be comprehended as a virtual existence. Whereas Self, and my remembered experiences are mediated not by the observed space but by the generosity of time. As a flaneur Self leaves too little to chance, his is a determined ramble, from home to NYC via the jet stream and having in his pockets a guide to where he wants to end up, less dérive and more drive. To know where I want to go though in this course is not a luxury I can own at present, my thoughts and concerns are more about knowing from where to set sail. The longest journey is started by a single stride and I thank goodness I haven’t started the course yet!