Retreating?

 

I’m coming to realise that I need to retreat from Blenheim, it’s just not leading anywhere; though the work on marks and traces – sounds a bit too much like a High street shopping chain  – has been worthwhile. The image above is highly worked. It is the one place in the estate that allows free roam, i.e. no manufactured pathways, roads, worn tracks and so I ‘manufactured’ the track to the ‘Column of Victory’, “painted the light” as an intervention in the image, to provide a ‘trace’.

I spent a lot of time looking for both these indicators, providers of narrative within the context of the land ‘scaped by Brown. The inside of this old oak, blasted I suspect by lightning is marked by nature and human hand. The telling lines and letters, carved inexpertly, tell of some desire or other to leave an evidence, without possibly the knowledge that it will ever be consumed by another. Traces and marks that became marks and traces, the one becoming the other; what was traced into the wood as a mark becomes a trace of the emotive force that willed it to happen, that impelled the carver providing an echo of the subject that was the intended recipient.

And then on the morning after the (now deceased) Duke of Malborough dies I make this image across the ‘Main Lake’ on a dreary slate grey day. The dynamic range well within the limits of Ilford Delta 100 ensuring I, post development, add light and dark to the image, paint the columns, windows, branches and boughs with shade and contrast. Marking the image.

This tree is very near where I started to look into the telling signs of human presence, standing here for best part of two centuries (even the oldest oaks aren’t much more than three centuries old, a few remain in situ from before the land was given as a gift to the 1st Duke of Malborough in the early part of the eighteenth century). I found I was spending too much time looking for, and creating, interesting images for the sake of imagery, rather than for the purpose of investigating a narrative sense. There is a tale, apocryphal or otherwise, that the trees on the estate were planted in such a way as to replicate the troop positions on the battlefield in Blindheim in Bavaria where John Churchill defeated the French, those trees from the creation of the estate are now largely felled, with a few old and empty carcasses left.

I have spent too much time creating pretty pictures, allowing the process to overcome the intent which hasn’t allowed the formation of narrative to develop. I have decided to return to the work I was making at the end of Documentary and re-engage with that. This past weekend has provided me with some time to think about what I might want to consider and what I might want to create as a body of work. It seems I need to go backwards before moving forwards.

Assignment One feedback and reflection

As the eldest I occupied the privileged position beside him as he lay by the edge of the double bed. I held his hand until I felt sure his last breath had signaled the passing, keeping the hold that I had of his hand I leant forward and kissed him. I turned then to go downstairs to let his wife, my mother, know that the father of her eight children had indeed gone. When we returned, we witnessed my siblings taking it in turns to hold his still warm hand and bid their personal farewells. And we stood around the bed, all nine us of us, in our parents bedroom perhaps for the first time all together; in that space where at least four of them had been conceived and born. We were quiet and the time passed very slowly.

Sharon, my tutor suggested in the report that I am very pleased with, that I talk more about the images that I chose for the assignment and also to review the work for any linking themes. In the report she felt that she had discerned a few but wanted me to review and ponder before we talk about the work.

There were a few references to possible noticed themes in the report, memory, traces, fictions (interpretations of truths) as opposed to the deliberate falsification of lies and deceits. Sand is of course very easy to mark and the referencing of a ‘mark’ as well. I composed this image to ensure the presence of marks and then lead them away, to a place hidden behind the fence and toward the sea. The sea is a place of infinite power and unforgiving cruelty, it takes without feeling the compulsion to return. It is a very quiet and I think disturbing image with a notion of threat – at least that is how I read it. I purposefully delivered it with a subdued palette to encourage those thoughts and I think the next image has similar muted tonal qualities:

I feel/felt that the central disruption in the water reflected a sense of isolation, some sense of discord; the green isn’t a ‘good’ green and the absence of a horizon is disturbing, discordant as I say before. Taking the sheen of the water, as much as I could within camera and post-processing, allowing detail of the bottom of the shallow water to become more visible helps. The edges are important also, no horizon encourages the viewer to ‘search’ for anchorage and most of the visual imagery is ‘topsy turvy’ not making that search easy. It is a compositional norm to anchor a part of the image to a corner and I have done so bottom right, which hopes to direct the natural flow to the central disruption.

Long after the funeral, long after I, as executor of his will had dealt with the aftermath, I thought of those last moments; his hands, his lips, his eyelids never opening again to witness those around the bedside, all his immediate family, there wasn’t room in the bedroom for sons-in-laws, or daughters-in-laws let alone grandchildren, there was barely enough space for the nine adults around the bed that one last time. I thought about what he might have said with those lips as he moved to slip away, on whom would his eyes have rested longest on and to whom would those hands have reached for that one last time.

Whilst I don’t plan to review all of the works I submitted – I am hoping that the gist of my edit might become apparent by regarding fewer of them – these next three are specifically about isolation, maybe ‘otherness’:

The fence with the ‘light’ from the other side, chinks in the fence allowing a glimpse of what may lie there. The hedge, carefully nurtured to have a consistency, a uniformity interrupted by the sprig of ivy breaking the status quo. And finally, the one which I heavily cropped from the original image, the two ducks seemingly noticing the dead , upturned duck, by the waste pipe. More than a nod to Lempert. All three photographs isolate a physical element, in the case of the fence, the viewer from the ‘other-side’, the ivy as a clear outsider in the visual narrative and the ducks active avoiding/recognising the existence of a deceased relative(?).

I enjoy the physical contact of hands, holding them of those that I love. In that bedroom we all took turns in holding one of his hands, but I don’t remember holding my siblings hands in the room; we stood separately in near silence. Mother was consoled then of course and at the funeral, we held hands, I held her throughout. On another occasion I carried my sister to the pew at her husband’s funeral when he died prematurely, my hands were vitally important then and she clung to me with hers. I remember holding the hands of my newly born sons, encircling their tiny hands in mine; stroking their head and marvelling at their softness. Kissing them, watching them watching me, holding them in my arms. And, most importantly, those of my wife.

The fairground images starts with this photograph:

I did crop this image to emphasise the toddler, to foreground her as she was in the middle distance when I made the picture. I have no idea who she was, a woman, presumably her mother rushed over to her soon after this frame was taken. It is the opening frame of a number of images that are situated in the narrative by this contextualising shot. The young child is looking, we presume for her mother/father, she is alone and there is no-one at the fairground. A fairground is destined to be a populous place, people spilling from one ride to another, but these rides are dormant, covered over. It isn’t what it should be. There is an undercurrent  I detect in the image of suspense (?) that is amplified by the ensuing images that often have text that appears at odds with their present state:

The absence of people is transgressive. The high contrast – bright sunshine helps, I think to amplify that ‘oddness’. Why aren’t there people here having a ‘Sizzling’ time? This series has limited potential in the work for the course, not because I don’t often go to the sea-side, or indeed, the fairground. These were taken as much as part of a pyschogeographical exercise as anything. I think they reveal parts of me, as much as all images are reflections of the artist creating the image, but I’m unsure of the overall narrative and where it might lead; unsure in the sense of not knowing rather than wanting to avoid.

Looking back I can’t remember ever holding my father’s hand, apart from that scene in the bedroom. I can’t remember him holding out his hand for me, nor taking hold of mine. At the side of the road I would be told to stop and wait and look both ways before moving across. Father wouldn’t take my hand and go through the pedestrian drill. I can’t remember him holding the back of my head in a way that both my sons would reward me with a slight backward pressure whenever I did so to them. I also can’t remember kissing him before that time after he had died, moreover I can’t remember him kissing me, holding me in his arms close to his chest or face. I don’t feel sad about that.

Awayc2

These monochrome images were an attempt to create an ‘open’ narrative:

Waitingc2

I was interested to view a scene from a stable perspective and develop a scene(s) with a character in several placid and active situations and see what if anything might result. This particular place is a ‘folly’ near where I live and I have made lots of images there and nearby over the years, though never with a subject, always still and maybe lifeless images. I wanted to work with film again, I wanted to ‘mess’ with the materiality of the medium. I have been reading a lot recently about the intellectual difference between the the digital and chemical processes. I have just recently designed and built my own UV light box to better control the making and printing of cyanotypes. I have a notion that this physicalness of film, whilst a part of my past, will be important to me as I go forward in the course.

The situation in the folly has an interesting ‘lightscape’, it might be described as episodic as the eye moves from frame bottom to frame top through the image. The placement of subject in differing ‘light-spaces’ helps to generate a narrative sense, and of course playing with the order also disrupts what might be thought of as a ‘straightforward flow’.

And so to themes:

Memory is a constant in the way I consider photography, Sharon has suggested Barthes and Camera Lucida – and if I go down this route she suggests a ‘blog-post’. I have written on this particular subject before and will therefore look to see what my earlier thoughts were and look again at the text. And a ‘quote’ that Sharon drew form a text she also provided “Traces are not made; rather, they are (involuntarily) left behind.” And yes, I see the theme of trace in some of this assignment, perhaps especially the work from France and possibly in some of the novice tableau work at the folly. I have a quick look at a photographer referenced in the report – David Favrod, not one I have come across before, first impressions are that I can see a linkage between his accomplished work and my direction.

The suggestion is that I start to try and focus on ONE area/strategy that I want to develop and strengthen. And of course, as it is perhaps obvious I am very interesting in narrative fiction. Lots to do and I need to get up and running. Oh, and more reading!

Of course I do remember his hands, his eyes and his lips, they were a constant presence in my life, both physical and mental. When he reached out, as he often did, it would only be to strike a blow. This would be with his open hand or fist, or quite often with an implement the better to focus it’s attention on where it would land on me. Sticks and straps the most commonly commandeered implement. Those lips would also engage with me; describing what and why he was either doing or was about to do to me. Discussing how it was that I would likely fail at all that I attempted and why it was never worth his investment to do anymore to help such a lost cause. And those eyes that always seemed to cast a disparaging glance.

 

 

Old film, new stories

‘Traditional photochemical photography imposed a tempo, an agonizing interval between the click and the consummated experience of the image, and during this gap the projection of hope and desire would intervene. This disappears with velocity, and this dissolution engenders a sense of loss that goes beyond the poetic and symbolic, an aspect that also concerns the possibility of retaining the memory.’

Joan Fontcuberta, essay “The Invisible Image (and not non-existent on that account) Pandora’s Camera

I’ve been using film more frequently just recently, black and white film, medium format and 35mm and because of that I have been pondering on both what it means to me – now as opposed to before I started studying photography as an art practice.

I have found, amongst other objects of my past, some twenty or so rolls (still) of 120 Ilford Delta 100, and some other makes. The use-by date (mainly) is June 2006, making the film quite old and likely (or so I thought) to be unusable. August 2006 I went to France on holiday and so it happened that I went back there this year – to the same location, in fact the same house – owned by our friends. I decided that I had nothing to lose by taking the film and making some images there, if they developed successfully all the better, if they didn’t then no worries.

That earlier trip in 2006 was with my in-laws and there were due to come again, but due to health issues they cancelled at the last minute. I purposefully left the film for about a month before developing – I had a notion that the latent image may conflict with my memory, I read Joan Fontcuberta’s Pandora’s Camera whilst I was there and his essay on the latent image was one of many that I found very interesting and illuminating – and maybe his idea (above) led me to stay the development, I’m not sure.

The photography was very easy to slip into; the exposure method, the composition using a waist level finder, the ponderous nature of largish camera on a tripod, the reloading and careful stowage of exposed film. The purchase and eventual mixing of the developer and fixer from the supplier (who also manufactures both), the process of development and the scanning, the spotting of each negative – typically an hour each – resulting in, so far, thirteen files from which I might get some prints. I felt at ease making them, I have a very strong feeling that they will print beautifully (post writing edit – they do). Content at the time of capture and development, that they served no other purpose than the instant gratification they might or might achieve.

And now they are made, they exist in my hands these images of a place now in my memory, in monotonic – and maybe luxuriant – tones, they make me wonder though about what Fontcuberta also said about the difference(s) between the forms: “…The materiality of silver gelatin is bound up with advances in chemistry, the development of steel and the railways, machinism and the colonial expansion driven by capitalist economics. In contrast, digital photography is the product of an economy that privileges information as a commodity, opaque capital and invisible electronic transactions. It’s material is language, codes and algorithms; it has the same substance as text or sound and can exist in the same networks of transmissions….. It quite clearly links up with a second or fictional reality, equivalent to parallel cyber-life worlds…. We are witnessing an unstoppable process of dematerialization.” Ibid.

I feel these images, or the process by which they were made is important to me. I spent the best part of thirty years coming to a practice that, whilst satisfied with the aesthetic quality of the prints, was somewhat underwhelmed by the purpose of them. That people were happy to buy them wasn’t nearly enough, however I have a feeling that these rolls of defunct silver gelatin and maybe more reliable ‘in-date’ rolls of film might be playing a more up to date role in my burgeoning practice as an artist photographer.

 

 

 

Thinking about the work

Yesterday I spent the best part of fourteen hours scanning and working on some negatives that I had developed the previous day. I had found two rolls of film. One being an unexposed roll of Delta 3200 expiry date June 2006 and a roll of exposed Neopan 1600. I did the decent thing and exposed the Delta on some work I have been thinking about for some time and then developed them the night before last.

I knew what was on the 120 roll, the presence of the image still there in my mind and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the film still had some energy left in it. I am awaiting some developer for the other film I exposed at the same time and will continue that work about landscape when I can.

However I had no idea what was on the Fuji 35mm. Some 36 images, which happens to coincide with the suggestion for Assignment One: “…take 30 photographs, or one roll of film….. don’t spend too much time considering what you’ll do…” Well it’s quite clear that as a student thinking about it is exactly what we’ll do! But what if that work had already been done? What if the wandering had been undertaken and the work then was to comprehend the images made?

I thought about this when I started to scan and work the images, and I was shocked, surprised and quite curious with the imagery.

Dark images, disparate images telling a tale. I’ll think about what it means, if anything later.

An ‘Open and Shut’ case

Or perhaps more accurately an ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ case.

I’ve been considering the “Open Works’ and have been prompted to consider how to distinguish between a piece of work that provides information above meaning, work that provides a directed flow to closure rather than enabling the viewer to reflect and summon their own conclusion and thereby by closure form a piece of work.

In “The Open Work” Eco spends a deal of time on the construct of language, differentiating scientific and poetic forms and their independent criteria. Meaning and information are twin distillations of language , and whereas the technical requirements of language place the onus on information clarity and lucidity, the poetic places more emphasis on meaning – and here I am concerned with the denotative conjunction between image and text. Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art) talks about “There’s something strange and wonderful that happens in the blank ribbon of paper.” (p88) Here he is talking about two adjacent frames of a comic book, under the general discussion of ‘Closure’ – allowing the reader to conclude the narrative flow. And that is, I think, the essence of ‘Open Work’ for me; in a comic book, a film, there is a directive flow from one image to another (I take the point that with a physical element the reader might ‘flip back and forth’) however the adjacency has a dictatorial control over the narrative sense, no matter how easy or difficult the flow is. The axe may start to fall on the victim in the leading frame, the person cleaved in two in the next frame allows the viewer to put blade to body. If the second frame showed, for example a picnic in a wooded glade, the viewer would still try and make sense of it, the narrative form would impel the viewer to construct a ‘story’ between the two based on all the preceding story lines AND the viewer’s own personal history. To not provide closure between the two frames will disengage the viewer and the work will have failed (this particular reader).

However the flow from image to text in a body of work that contains both sequential images and associated text provides an altogether different set of challenges for both artist and viewer. Eco cites (p51/52) that the English language (perhaps the Italian too as this text is a translation?) has an endemic redundancy of around 50% “…. only 50 percent of what is said concerns the message to be communicated, while the other 50 percent is determined by the statistical structure of the language and functions as a supplementary means of clarification.” Information. Eco then goes on to write 160 words or so (I didn’t count them specifically about a lover who wants to express his feelings and then goes on to quote a poem by Petrach:

‘Chiare, fresche e dolci acque

dove le belle membra

pose colei che sola a me par donna

The poem has, even though my Italian isn’t very good, a great deal more ‘meaning’ than the 160 words of information about how when the lover when he sees a stream “…a stream of smoothly flowing, cool, clear water. The memory of this stream affects me in a way a particular way, since the woman I then loved, and love still, …..” &c fails to convey the same level of meaning, but a lot of information, that impelled Patrach to pen the poem.

Trans:

“Clear, fresh and sweet waters where she alone to me seems woman rested her lovely limbs.”

One punctuation mark and disjunctures in the grammar that open up the possibilities of narrative(s). Opening up the possibility of varying poetic closures, not determining the storyline for the reader but encouraging the reader to enter the conversation in the ‘strange and wonderful’ place between the texts, be they image/words or image/image.

Closure is a matter of experience and experience is gained through the overt immersion in the form, such as artists might want to do, or by simple existence. I am wary of being too prescriptive with the narrative flow, I want to be left to ask my own questions rather than be told what to think, what to associate, how to interpret; and by implication, I want to offer the same invitation to viewers of my own work.

Assignment One

Bridge at Blenheim monoc2

“Begin your project by going out on a shoot.”

I took the instruction above and went on a few ‘shoots’, and those that I did, in the knowledge that they might be considered as material for the course, I have documented under the tab Assignment One.

I am still interested in ‘Open Works’ and finished the Documentary course with some thoughts about it here, but I haven’t moved things on very much and will need to refresh those thoughts with more research and perhaps some guidance. The relationship(s) between image and text and image and image have been helpfully moved on by reading a text recommended by fellow student Stephanie d’Hubert: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. These relationships still seem important to me, though in all of the imagery I have selected for Assignment One, no texts exist!

These images, or to be more precise these sets of images, whilst depicting different contexts have an underlying narrative that seem to be to be about isolation – being on the outside of things, left behind, not entirely fitting into the found environment. Of course these are personal/autobiographical images and I wonder if I will be able to detach myself and explore these notions in, or succumb to it . My work at the end of Documentary was an entirely personal project, but one that I felt had a certain detachment inasmuch as I recreated the context for the both the image and the text. I feel that the extension to this work should have that mix of personal and abstraction. These images have been chosen because they represent that to me; they are reactions to the self but in a form that, hopefully abstracts ‘me’ (to whatever extent) from it. I have a strong feeling that I will need to develop my visual vocabulary if I am to produce a body of work in this vein, however I don’t want my viewers to find ‘closure’ a ready commodity and I would be most pleased if any viewer found a vicarious closure as a personal reaction to their own circumstance rather than an extrapolation of the author’s.

On the subject of Genre, there would be a natural inclination to consider Psychogeography as a natural home with these sets of images – I have written about it here – however I am drawn to both ‘Tableaux’ and ‘Fictional autobiography’. The scenes in the monochrome images in the set could be said to fit into both camps (despite the incongruity of the female subject!), and I see it as an extension of my work in theatre (directing) as a way to explore ideas; I therefore see Aliper as a greater inspiration than Self in the search for self…

Currently I feel a bit like this: At the other extreme are those photographers who have hundreds of good ideas which never come to much because they lack the discipline and perseverance to make the ‘great ideas’ into great artworks.” Maybe my ideas aren’t that great, but I know instinctively that I have to start a conversation and this feeling of trepidation is one I suspect that won’t abate by continuing prevarication.

As for the opening picture, as I write elsewhere: “A moment’s pause during a walk with the family, five minutes in post processing produces an image of an image designed to please. The purgatory of which is that it is difficult to resist the charm and pull of these photographic fictions, informed by years of practice. Working hard to find inspiration for the final period of this round of study, this imagery is surely a distraction?”

With the above in mind I have selected the following for that purpose:

yellow cropc2

sandy track cropc2

horizonc2

Green2c2

Dandelionc2

 

Enterc2

Waitingc2

Awayc2

Aside againc2

 

 

Secrets and Lies

Daguerre was the first to face the dilemma of historical veracity versus perceptual veracity – Joan Fontcuberta 1   

I first saw these salt marshes some thirteen years ago and have visited them since before coming to them again recently. They appear not to have changed, they are either as they were or a simulacra of what they were in my memory. I remember thinking I wanted to make some images of them all that time ago but I didn’t, nor did I on subsequent visits; but this time I made sure I made time and made some film images as well as these digital ones. The film that I used, by a curious coincidence has an expiry date almost to the month – June – of when I last went to these marshes, August 2006. That visit we took along my in-laws as a holiday they would otherwise have been unable to take. This year we had extended the same invitation, but three days before we were due to depart there was a medical incident which prevented one of them travelling, so there were just the two of us. I will develop the film soon, perhaps in August, but not too quickly as I want there to be some time before the revelation.

When I look back at the digital images I have made I can feel a narrative sense of those that couldn’t come, those who couldn’t re-test their memories that had excited them at the joint prospect of return and recapture those few years ago.

These ‘scapes of the marshes and of the beach where we had walked previously contain my memories, they are created with my imagination mediating the mis-en-scene; my framing, perspective and focus. However I felt a sense of my in-laws being there by their absence, even during the making of the images. They were there with us.

As I start to think about settling into the (L3) course – only one more holiday excursion to stay the final commitment – I find the ever-increasing thought that in photographic imagery, memory is being mediated by a mechanism that confines the immediate to the past, even before the image loses it’s latency. So these fictions that we create as visual artists are about the past, developed in a tense whose narrative structure denies, to great extent, a future?

“… one of the earliest known daguerreotypes is a view of the Boulevard du Temple, dated 1838, …In fact there were two identical shots * …. taken from the same point on the same day, but at slightly different times (as the can be seen from the length and angle of the shadows). Daguerre trained his camera through one of the windows of his apartment-cum-studio adjoining his famous Diorama, as Niepce and Fox Talbot also did, prompted perhaps by a photographic intuition that equates what is seen through the viewfinder with what is seen through a window.” 2

* a third shot was thought to have perished in Munich’s Bayerisches Nationalmuseum during WWII

In one of these Daguerreotypes there was no evidence of people – in a very public and normally very busy area of Paris!? In the other an obviously staged appearance of a shoe shine worker with a customer. Seeing the first image Daguerre devised a way to introduce the ‘presence’ of people by requiring them somehow to stand still (not that successfully for the man standing) in order that they become evidenced within the frame, in the construction of the image, the fiction he presented. Both images are fictions and yet the photograph, as an end process in itself, goes on to provide society with an almost sacrosanct trophy of truth, the indexical strength of the photographic image. It was in the frame therefore it must be true. Back to the Boulevard; what of those that weren’t recorded, those crowds in the Boulevard du Temple, their absence from the frame concerned Daguerre enough to construct another image with a purposeful placement? It seems as though Daguerre had an emotional purpose to deal with the ‘falseness’ of his construction.

The construction of the image isn’t though what principally interests me at this moment – which sounds a contradictory notion – but more how the memory is reconstructed through the imagery that I felt mediated my response to the vista before me on this recent trip. When I made the images on holiday it was to a place that I was familiar with, and this was brought back to mind when I received a text written by Jesse Alexander discussing the concept of Y Filltir Sqwar  ‘Photographers and artists have always found inspiration in their immediate location. There is a concept within Welsh culture called Y Filltir Sgwar (The Square Mile), described above by Professor Mike Pearson. It is the intimate connection between people and their childhood ‘home’ surroundings….’ Even thirteen years ago I would never have been mistaken for a child, but never mind, these geographies held memories, albeit not local to me, but familiar nonetheless!

These scenes contained echoes of past visits within the viewfinder, reminiscences of past holidays and perhaps the medical incident brought that emotional response an added piquancy which I knew I found myself responding to. And to complicate things further I am also very interested in how text can radically alter how the construction is read. It seems absurd that Reuters, and other news agencies, hold very strong editing rules on visual images; if an image is altered in anyway then it is likely to be rejected out-of-hand, and yet who mediates the accompanying text?

My memories of recent holidays have contextualised the images above, but what if those words were unadulterated fiction? What if I had never been to Batz-sur-mer either in the past or just recently? What if Y Filltir Sqwar never existed? Does it matter either way? I looked at some photographs for sale at a market whilst on the holiday, I had hoped to find some ‘found photographs’. I hesitated to buy and in the end decided not to and my reasoning was that I was unsure of the appropriativeness of the action. Should I consider all imagery, including images not of my creation, fair game in the construction of narratives? I instinctively sense the answer is yes, but I still faltered, unable to decouple the emotional connotations from the images on the market traders boards. It is a failing I must overcome if I am to move on. I can’t presently be responsible for everything and like Daguerre who recognised what his text lacked and strove to right it, I must strive to assume responsibility for everything in the frame. Confusing I know. Thanks goodness I haven’t started the course just yet!

1 “Documentary Fictions” – essay from ‘Pandora’s Camera: Photogr@phy after photography’, Joan Fontcuberta, Mack, English version published July 2014

2 ibid

 

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.

Wandering

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!