Zoo and Dennis
(and some notes about photography and memory)
The two blown up snapshots that make up one single 6.5 m cut-out are of two boys, one American and the other an Italian/American living in Milano. I photographed them this summer when I asked each of them to strike a pose, with these results. Dennis wears the American flag and a little-rascal expression of defiance at the camera. Lorenzo, wearing a green shirt and a fuschia sequin hat with a white feather (a skewed Italian flag) looks knowingly and seductively into the camera.
Dennis and Lorenzo are saying something about themselves, no doubt, while at the same time saying a great deal about snapshots and about being photographed. Both look at the camera, are aware that there is a ritual in process. They are being photographed, and as such they are assuming their guises, playing their parts, pushing their fantastical selves forward to be documented. Even at their ages they are fully aware that these photographs in time will remain as testaments to what they once were, and this is how they wished to be remembered. What is interesting about the acted-out quality of these poses is that they enact in real time the slice of time quality of the photograph. Immediately after the poses and the shutter click, the two boys relaxed their bodies and went on with their lives. Strangely, what was recorded by the film and what will remain for everyone to see for decades will be their caricatures, not the extended minutes or hours before and after the shots, their conversations, their gestures and interactions with other people, the smells, the sounds. This pushes into stark visibility the way photography is essentially at odds with memory, and reminds us of Barthes words “…not only is photograph never in essence, a memory…but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory.” The organizing principles of memory is completely different from the organizing principle of photography. The snapshots I took were taken when I decided to click the shutter at a specific moment in time, and every detail of what it had before its lens was captured at that moment. What we remember in our lives is usually what we think is important, or significant, and is perceived almost in malleable, sensual, fuzzy, and fictional terms through the complex filter of our personal experience. Since this selection through significance is fluid and mutable and out of time and space, it cannot coincide with the coherent, temporal, spatial, excessively detailed, nonfiction of straight photography. Nevertheless, the power of the photographic image slowly encroaches on our ability to remember, and that instant, over time, becomes the overriding memory (counter-memory), even though it is actually alien to memory. The dramatic difference between real life and the abstracted, surreal quality of the instantaneous image is particularly visible here where these two boys are enacting two parts that one could say are ‘alien’ to their real lives, but it is nevertheless those ‘alien’ moments, thanks to the photograph, that will be remembered.
To cut-out photographs is to expose the inaccuracy of the memory/photograph equivalence by exposing the photograph as the object that it is. By removing detail I goad the image closer to what memory images are actually like, and at the same time rescue them from the magma of interchangeable family snapshots that pass daily through the machines at 1-hour photo. In a photographic sense, Dennis and Zoo are really no different from one another, or any other family photo-portrait—otherwise they are similar in the way that a figure is a figure, a mask is a mask, and whether you are a ghost or a witch is incidental. One might go so far as to say that all family photographs are essentially the same. As Geoffrey Batchen has described so well, portraits, over time, “come to represent not their subjects, but rather the specter of an impossible desire: the desire to remember , and to be remembered.” You can appreciate this when you look at an old album in which you don’t know anybody, or a box of old photographs in an antique store. Some photos are better than others in a formal sense, but otherwise they are interchangeable , and remind us “that memorialization has little to do with recalling the past; it is always about looking ahead towards that terrible, imagined, vacant future in which we ourselves have been forgotten.” Through the cut-out I am able to create or reclaim an “emotional exchange” between the transformed photograph and the viewer that without the cut-out could not have existed. To return to Batchern and Barthes—“Memory…is posited here as both artifice and reality, something perceived, invented, and projected all at once: “whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless there. “
The cut-out process is interesting to look at in the light of what Richard Terdiman calls the crisis of memory. Memory, he says, is always in crisis, always fearful of the encroachment of amnesia. This crisis became more social and systematic in the 19th century because of the disorientation caused by the dramatic political and industrial changes of the time. He writes that Europe “experienced the insecurity of their culture’s involvement with its past”, a type of memory crisis in which “ the very coherence of time and of subjectivity seemed disarticulated.” Commodities, for example, create a memory disorder “because commodities suppress the memory of their own process…’reification’ is a memory disturbance.” Photography is said to be not only a result of the increased ‘reification’ of memory (keepsakes, souvenirs) but a product or symptom of that crisis. “The photograph reveals a loved ones appearance, but the appearance provokes a memory that is hollowed out, disconnected from the social realities of its own production and also from those who are doing the remembering.” Batchen suggests that transforming the photo into a hybrid, multi-sensorial object attempts to counter or complicate the cultural memory crisis, and through this complicates history (narrative history, its logics of exclusion and inclusion, its investments, its prejudices, repressions and valorizations) and our conceptions of memory itself (the manner of its production, its relationship to history, its critical capacities).
The hybrid photos of which Batchen writes are ordinary black and white portraits which are in some way embellished with hair, butterfly wings, ornaments, bows, words—all part of a rather naive vernacular and never in any way discussed by historians or critics because of its incompatibility with dominant ideas about what photography should or shouldn’t be. Such photo-object assemblages force the viewer to switch from the virtual space of the photograph to the objects and texts, disturbing the photographic experience. By not privileging the photograph, but grouping it with other sensorial experiences, looking dissolves into touching, and memory replaces history. The photograph loses its quality of transparent signifier and becomes a physical presence in space—“and once revealed as a thing among other things, and as a sign among signs, photography’s very process of formation, its indexical relationship to the world outside of itself, is called into question-or at least posed as a question” (Batchen)
What does it mean to continue this hybridization of the photograph now ? The practice project carried out naïvely by the women of the 19th century because they felt compelled in some way to compensate for, or expand upon, the photograph to the advantage of memory had little or no impact on discussions of photography or art until Batchen’s recent book Forget me Not. My cut-outs are simultaneously drawing, photo and sculpture, and they continue the project of complicating and challenging both the history of Art, our conceptions of what makes contemporary art interesting, our conceptions of photography and that of memory. We are part of an art system that descends from Beaumont Newhall’s many editions of the History of photography, Stieglitz, Weston, and Ansel Adams who wrote ”the fullest power of expression, the real worth of the medium, lies in its pure form.” The conventional modernist understanding of photography’s identity confines its properties to inside the edges of the photograph, and this has been projected backwards into photography’s history, and hybrid practices were naturally excluded. Even recent photography histories give hybrid practices only passing and superficial attention (Frizot, for example) and what is not found anywhere is an “historical morphology sympathetic to the complex photographic identity embodied “ in hybrid practices. Batchen also observes that “What is probably already apparent is is that vernacular photographic practices issue a challenge to existing histories of photography, calling not simply for inclusion in the medium’s grand narratives but for the total transformation of the narrative itself.”
What really interests me is making a compelling visual manifestation that communicates personal investment and commitment to human relations, remembering, making—- while at the same time making palpable “the unassuaged, unhoused instability and estrangement of our condition” (Steiner) It is curious how the act of making, remembering, and slowing down time has become profoundly political (“contra—modernity” Bhabha) These acts take a stand and claim themselves as important, as necessary, as approaching extinction.
To return to Dennis and Lorenzo. This piece—drawing, sculpture, photograph—hangs in space on a cable, as though out to dry, like a photo in the darkroom, or a sheet on a clothesline. It’s cut-out is recalls the supports and cables of Brooklyn Bridge (constructed when photography had taken hold as a great revolutionary technology). It is precisely this intersection—between the processes of technology and so called progress, and the processes of life and memory that is focus of my work. The importance of keeping a balance between past and present, between remembering and forgetting, between technology and craft, between data and our bodies, between our hard and our soft selves—- dualities that extend to how our cities evolve, how we take care of our environment, how our babies are brought into this world, how we process and prepare our food—- is perhaps the most critical human challenge of our time. In my way I find this balance by cutting into the sacred family album.
Maggie Cardelús, 2004