Image Studies

Image Studies

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Image Theory – Encyclopedia Entry

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An entry on Image Theory appears in the revised multi-volume Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, edited by Michael Kelly (published by Oxford University Press). The entry is divided into 7 main sections: Philosophical precedents; Image and power; the Pictorial turn; Image as thought; Image analysis; Image domains; and Image studies.

Read Entry: Image Theory.pdf [PDF]

The following excerpts are taken from the beginning and end of the entry:

‘A much-cited line from Raymond Williams’ Keywords (Fontana, 1988) is that the word ‘culture’ is ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’. Although he does not state what those other complicated words might be, we might readily include the word ‘image’. Williams himself offers only a short entry on the concept of the image, but like the word ‘culture’ we could equally point to its varied historical development (in different contexts), and also, importantly in how the term is adopted across a range of distinct intellectual disciplines and in a variety of ways that are not always compatible.’

[…]

‘Image Studies. In defining ‘Image Studies’ we can ask the deceptively simple question: ‘What is an image?’ – which we soon acknowledge is no simple matter. If anything, the image does not exist in any singular sense, but is always a plural term (Elkins and Naef, 2011). It is perhaps not surprising one of the central concerns of writers has been to categorize images into different groupings that attempt to account for the full range of visual and non-visual images. W.J.T. Mitchell’s (1987) canonical essay, ‘What is an Image?’, proposes a family tree of images (to include graphic, optical, perceptual, mental and verbal images), while James Elkins’ Domain of Images (1999) puts forward a diffuse genealogy of image types. In both cases, these taxonomies are an attempt to give an inclusive account of what might be included in an expanded understanding of the image. Hans Belting (2005) offers an explicit development of Mitchell’s account of a ‘family of images’, arguing: ‘Images are neither on the wall (or on the screen) nor in the head alone. They do not exist by themselves, but they happen … They happen via transmission and perception’. In consolidating these accounts, Images Studies (Manghani, 2013), seeks to establish an interdisciplinary approach to the study of images, which looks across a range of domains and disciplines. The approach it sets out is to think both critically about images and image practices, and simultaneously to engage with image-making processes. At the heart of the book is the idea of an ‘ecology of images’, through which we can examine the full ‘life’ of an image as it resonates within a complex set of contexts, processes and uses. Elsewhere, under the banner of Bildwissenschaft [image science], and notably through the prolific work of the publicly funded Eikones project (at the University of Basel), a broad consortium of researchers has been brought together to plot new pathways, including the intersection between science and visual culture. Overall, image studies seeks to offer critical frameworks within which interdisciplinary research can take place. In the last decade or so, alongside developments in visual culture studies, image studies – if not fully established in institutional terms – has taken up its place within intellectual debates and scholarship.’

 

Image in the Making

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KEv1Manghani, You are so good as to have a theory about me which I don’t at all fill out, 2013


‘…language is not a tracing of reality’ – Roland Barthes, Systeme de la Mode (1967)

‘As we are drawn to sit down by the stream just here, or to pause at just this painting along the wall, so too anomalous individuals, people and things, draw our lives out … And letting yourself be drawn requires that you not be focused on any point. It will be active, for you have to prepare yourself, but it is not intentional. Being drawn in by the music or the smell is a way of losing yourself as you dissolve into scent’s sensuality.’ – Gordon C.F. Bearn, Life Drawing (2013)

I recently contributed a drawing (upon a wall) to an exhibition of work by postgraduate researchers at Winchester School of Art. The exhibition, Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research, brings together a wide range of ‘practices’ which span across both studio- and humanities-based research. As a writer I’ve written about the image from a theoretical point of view, yet equally in that writing I tend to state the need to understand (and to theorise) the image by making the image. This exhibition afforded me the opportunity to start from the point of view of image-making, to help complete the circuit of both a critical thinking and making of the image. I was tentative in making the first marks upon the wall, but through the support and generosity of those involved in putting the exhibition together, I soon immersed myself in the task and indeed for that short period of time completely let go of everything else going on in the world!

The work presented is a tracing (and enlargement) of a life drawing I made back in October 2013. It marks the first iteration and emblem of a new project, The Making of (the) Image. Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s 1959 essay on Brigitte Bardot, the project ‘draws out’ from a recent book reimagining Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. The book invited ‘writerly’ accounts of contemporary culture, yet arguably the machinations of editing such a volume reinforce the didactic, theoretical language that comes before reading myth. The work I created for the exhibition is part of a project to divest an article, ‘Kylie Ecriture’, from its original publication in Barthes’ “Mythologies” Today (2013). The text (which deliberately reworks ‘The Face of Garbo’ line-by-line) might be said to have failed as text. The tracing upon the wall, however, serves to provoke the plurality of its image: no image is the opposite of another image. We try to ask what the image is that an idea isn’t, yet too readily we’re drawn by a desire, an objet petit “an”, to theorize the image as singularity. I sought to go back to the drawing board, quite literally.

Drawing is an act of discovery, as well as a form of testing and securing.  As John Berger writes, drawing ‘forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations’. While drawing may appear to be a fluid action, the description Berger gives of both looking out to an object and ‘dissecting’ it in what he calls the ‘mind’s eye’ would seem to describe something rather more complicated. He adds: ‘each mark you make . . . is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river’. My original drawing was made with great speed. I very deliberately looked only at the subject, never at the paper.  In this way, then, a very intense form of looking was traced by a completely blind form of drawing. For the exhibition I enlarged this image using an overhead projector. Using a pencil on the wall and working with the previously formed lines, the technique was arguably closer to a mode of writing. Yet, equally, I had to feel my way through the delineated lines. And as I leaned towards my own mark-making I had to contend with my own shadow as it cut across the light of the projector, removing the image entirely. I was focused solely on the act of drawing. I was not intentionally thinking of anything beyond the fidelity of each mark I was tracing. Yet, here again was a certain blindness of drawing, which inevitably brought to mind Jacques Derrida’s commentary on drawing. This is the confluence not only of text and image, but of the Text and the Image (formed of both a cultural lexicon and idiolect).

drawing

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida was a guest curator in the early 1990s at the renowned Musée du Louvre, Paris. He organized an exhibition of drawings held by the museum under the title of Mémories d’aveugle [Memories of the Blind]. The exhibition brought together a series of drawings and prints that show blindness as a recurring motif. Derrida makes the case that the images are not simply representations of the blind, but self-reflexive accounts of drawing itself as blind. ‘[T]he blind man’, he writes, ‘can be a seer, and he sometimes has the vocation of a visionary’, a thought which he then combines with the act of drawing as ‘an eye graft, the grafting of one point of view onto the other: a drawing of the blind is a drawing of the blind’. In other words, in order to draw it is necessary to look away or to bring a vision of something onto a different plane. This was precisely the experience I had standing between my original drawing (formed of it own sense of blindness), its intense illumination (from the overhead projector) and the virtual retracing upon the coarse paintwork of the wall. As in Derrida’s account, the artist may literally draw a blind subject, but in order to bring pencil to paper there is inevitably a moment of blindness when the eye must look away from the subject and/or equally cannot see what goes on between the tip of the pencil and the surface it meets. Derrida’s account brings together many images of the blind and blindness to elaborate on this idea, but essentially his statement – ‘drawing is blind’ – holds as a general argument of how meaning is mapped from one place to another in any act of mark-making:

By accident, and sometimes on the brink of an accident, I find myself writing without seeing. Not with the eyes closed, to be sure, but open and disoriented in the night; or else during the day, my eyes fixed on something else, while looking elsewhere, in front of me, for example, when at the wheel: I then scribble with my right hand a few squiggly lines on a piece of paper attached to the dashboard or lying on the seat beside me. Sometimes, still without seeing, on the steering wheel itself. These notations – unreadable graffiti – are for memory; one would later think them to be a ciphered writing.

What happens when one writes without seeing? A hand of the blind ventures forth alone or disconnected, in a poorly delimited space; it feels its way, it gropes, it caresses as much as it inscribes, trusting in the memory of signs and supplementing sight. It is as if a lidless eye had opened at the tip of the fingers, as if one eye too many had just grown right next to the nail . . .  – Jacques Derrida

Roland Barthes also refers to drawing in terms of blindness (specifically in relation to the artist Cy Twombly). He goes further to suggest the history of painting has been subject to the ‘repressive rationality’ of vision. The eye, he writes, is related to reason and evidence, ‘everything which serves to control, to coordinate, to imitate; as an exclusive art of seeing’. Blindness, however, offers a different way of relating to the act of drawing – as a way of bringing together reflection and the body (or more specifically the hand). The blind man, Barthes describes, ‘doesn’t quite see the direction, the bearing of his gestures; only his hand guides . . . Or that hand’s desire’. Barthes classifies this ‘trajectory of the hand’ as a controlled action, which in palaeography is termed ductus. In palaeography the analysis of handwriting is not based on the actual letters formed, but on the manner and direction in which the lettered strokes appear. Barthes considers Twombly’s work as a prime example of the ductus, suggesting his is ‘a writing of which only the leaning, the cursivity remains’. At regular intervals in drawing upon the wall, I switched off the overhead projector to reveal what I was leaving behind – both what I was losing from the projected image and what final marks I was leaving upon the wall. In between the actual marks and the virtual lines seemed a certain elusive cursivity. That loss perhaps always felt as you try to fix the image. The stepping-stones that Berger describes leading us across to our subject are every bit as a slippery as we might expect when crossing that river.

The Image that Failed to Shock?

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‘Some viewers may find the following image distressing to look at’ (ITN)

An x-ray image which appears to show a foetus with a bullet lodged in its head was released to news media via the aid agency Syria Relief in an attempt to raise awareness of the current plight of civilians caught up in Syria’s civil war. More specifically, the image has been circulated amid concerns that snipers in Syria are not only targeting civilians, but are targeting individual body parts as if playing a game.

British vascular surgeon, Dr David Nott, who regularly volunteers in war zones around the world, working with NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Red Cross, has recently returned from Syria. He has been speaking to various news  outlets to offer a picture of what is happening and raise his concerns. Despite extensive experience in assisting the injured in similarly difficult circumstances around the world, Dr Nott has expressed particular concern about the nature of the violence in Syria:

“I’m sure that snipers were having a game,” he says. “Some days, we would have many necks wounds. Some days, we would have only groin wounds. Some days, we would have only chest wounds. And to me it seemed that… various parts of the anatomy where being targeted.” He says he asked other doctors about it. “I was told that there are 72 snipers in this city at the moment… and it’s a game and they are getting packets of cigarettes and things for targetting as many people in the anatomical region as they can.” (Source: http://www.pri.org/stories/2013-10-18/how-can-you-help-syria-heres-one-doctors-story)

Despite the UK government’s pledge back in September 2013 to ‘lead the world’ in getting humanitarian aid to refugees in Syria, Dr Nott has argued that little, if anything, has been done to help those staying within the country’s borders. The release of the x-ray image was a very deliberate attempt then to raise consciousness. Arguably, however, it has failed to make any significant impact. Speaking frankly in interview with Eddie Mair on the BBC’s PM current affairs programme, Dr Nott explained about the use of the image:

‘I came back and I felt there was something that could possibly change this. I had a photograph of a baby … whose mother was shot in the uterus and we had this picture of the baby with a bullet in the head. So, when I came back I said to Syria Relief: ‘Surely this is going to do something, surely this will change the way this war is viewed. What do you think we should do, should we publish it, should we not publish it?’ Syria Relief said: ‘Yeah, I think we should publish it, because hopefully it will change something’. I said, ‘well okay, let’s go for it. Let’s just try and see if we can change something, and wake up the world to the horrors of what’s going on’. But I’m really disappointed to say that nothing has changed. Although that photograph was published, nothing has changed. And I’ve knocked on the doors of various people in government, I’ve gone to see various people and I’ve shouted at various meetings about how the United Nations should do something to put boots on the ground to protect people, to protect workers, get humanitarian aid in. I’m very disappointed that nothing has really happened’. (BBC PM, 31.12.13)

In looking at how the x-ray was actually placed into the flow of news production and consumption, it is easy enough to think back to John Berger’s direct critique of the dissemination of news, with his BBC programme Ways of Seeing from the 1970s. In one particular sequence we see Berger flicking through the pages of a magazine, bringing to the screen the juxtaposition of documentary photographs showing great suffering, together with advertising images of affluence and abundance which flank the pages of the magazine. He speaks to camera:

 The words and pictures on these pages all appear to be real and all belong to the same language. The texts, the photographs taken in Pakistan, the photographs taken for publicity, the editing of the paper, the layout, the printing, all are elements of the same culture: our culture. Yet, between each page there is such a fissure, such a disconnection, such incoherence that one can only say this culture is mad. (Berger, Ways of Seeing, Episode 4, BBC)

The above YouTube video of the ITN broadcast of the Syrian x-ray image presents similar kinds of fissure. As with all such video clips, it jostles with millions of other online materials seemingly creating a ‘mad’ culture, with the footage itself working its way through the network of viewers in quite unpredictable ways. One particular irony of the clip comes from the fact that YouTube creates a front-image prior to anyone viewing the clip. Unsurprisingly the image selected in this case is the x-ray image itself. Yet, apparently, this image is so potent that it comes with a warning. Following ITN’s ident, but before the film piece plays, we receive the following message: ‘Some viewers may find the following image distressing to look at‘. How are we to feel looking at the image now, having already seen the image before pressing play? The cat is out of the bag. The danger has passed.

The conundrums of the image as evidence of horror and war might usefully remind us of Susan Sontag’s seminal book On Photography (1979), which closes with the evocative idea of an ‘ecology of images’:

Images are more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy. If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well’ (Sontag, On Photography).

Sontag’s remark reflects upon the relationship between images and reality, which to this day is still frequently characterized in the terms of the Greek philosopher Plato, who advocated we ‘loosen our dependence on images by evoking the standard of an image-free way of apprehending the real’ (Sontag, 1979, p.153). The argument associated with Plato is that images are illusions; furthermore that the world revealed to us through our senses is only a poor copy of its true ‘Forms’, which can only be apprehended intellectually. We can consider Sontag was interested, though ambivalent, about the way photography can overturn the Platonic philosophy of images and reality. ‘Cameras’, she writes, ‘are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete’ (Sontag, 1979, p.179). Crucially, then, a so-called ‘ecology of images’ is meant to urge us to take images seriously as part of reality.

‘The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals. It suited Plato’s derogatory attitude towards images to liken them to shadows [. . . but] the force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality – for turning it into a shadow. Images are more real than anyone could have supposed’ (Sontag, On Photography).

However, when returning to the subject of photography some thirty years later, in her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Sontag is highly sceptical of her own idea. Commenting on the ubiquity of war imagery, she declares: ‘There isn’t going to be an ecology of images. No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock. And the horrors themselves are not going to abate’ (2003, p.108). Arguably, we might suggest Dr Nott and Syria Relief – in publishing the x-ray image – have indeed sought to take up their places among a committee of guardians. Yet, of course, the trouble with Sontag’s ‘Committee of Guardians’ is that, firstly, it suggests those ordained to undertaken this task are some kind of elite group; and, secondly, provides no clear sense of how and on what basis the  ‘rationing’ of images would take place. Hence, perhaps, Dr Nott’s disappointment in finding the image fails to achieve what he had hoped.

Back in the 1970s, Berger looked towards what he called a ‘new language of images’, by which he meant new means of reproduction being used for progressive purposes, for new audiences. It is perhaps only more recently, with the arrival of a digital culture, that we’ve begun to genuinely approach this ‘new language’. For Berger, there were two key ideas at stake. Firstly, a new language of images would enable new, richer forms of expression. And secondly, there lay in this new language, or visual literacy, the potential for a democratisation of meaning-making. Berger’s work continues to remind us of the need, or at least a desire, to take images seriously, particularly the  potential to use images and their effects for critical and creative purposes. Yet, still, we cannot ignore Dr Nott’s situation: the failure of the image to complete its work. Dr Nott thought very carefully about the image. He possesses the deeper understanding of its provenance,  which makes him well placed to provide its fuller context. Perhaps the mistake was to think the  x-ray image was the image. In fact it was never anything so static, but instead came through a far richer ecology, of which Dr Nott himself was a part. We could say the image of the bullet to the baby’s brain never in itself fails to shock. It is shocking. Yet, what has failed in this case is its imaging (and our imaginations). It’s the failure of a far bigger picture.

(For more on an ‘ecology of images’ as a means to understanding the ‘life’ of an image, see Chapter 2, Image Studies)

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Image Studies: Study materials and suggested further reading.
Intertext: Keywords glossary & links to online resources.
Library: Introductions to further reading in the field.
Create: practical tasks and examples of project work.

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Atom-like: Robert Hooke’s Micrographia Crystals

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Crystal_Micrographia_Hooke

An illustration of crystals from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665)

A recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time examined the development of the microscope, an instrument that of course revolutionised how we ‘see’ the world at a granular level. The programme’s presenter, Melvyn Bragg, was joined by three notable guests, Jim Bennett (Visiting Keeper at the Science Museum in London), Sir Colin Humphreys (Professor of Materials Science and Director of Research at the University of Cambridge), and Michelle Peckham (Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Leeds), who discussed the early development of the optical microscope in the seventeenth century,  its centrality to scientific enquiry by the nineteenth century, and then  developments of the electron microscopy from the 1930s, which today is one of the most powerful tools of modern science.

The invention of the microscope is varied, but one prominent pioneering scientist was Robert Hooke in England, whose publication Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses : with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665) was the first major publication of the Royal Society, and indeed the first scientific best-seller, gaining the instrument wide public interest. The book is also notable for first coining the biological term cell. However, of particular interest for the study of images, is the suggestion that Hooke drew what we might now call atoms.

A delightful moment in the radio programme, Sir Colin Humphreys produced a book for his fellow guests to see (but which of course the  programme’s listeners could only hear about). In referring to the image shown above, he noted how Hooke’s drawings are suggestive of atoms. While Hooke may not have described them this way, they are drawn. In the same way I discuss in Image Studies (Chapter 7), about how Darwin can be understood to have thought about evolution through the act of drawing, Hooke’s illustration might be said to resolve complex ideas without recourse to words. I’m grateful to say, in correspondence following the radio programme, Sir Colin Humphreys explained the drawings to me as follows:

This is an engraving of 4 crystals of different shapes at the top. Underneath this there are sketches by Hooke of different shaped crystals with spheres inside, showing how different arrangements of spheres can give rise to the crystal shapes. It seems to me that Hooke would not have made these drawings unless he thought the crystals contained such spheres inside them, and he surely must have been thinking that these spheres were atoms.

(You can listen to the full discussion about the history of microscopy on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time).

The Art Gallery in an Expanded Field

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Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, ‘From Me to You – Close but Distant Journeys’ (2013)

 

Contemporary art galleries typically curate works in one of two ways. Either we get to view artworks chronologically,  grouped within specific (if predictable) periods, or the works are presented thematically (under the direction of the curator). The latter has perhaps proved the more versatile for the ‘consumption’ of modern art, underpinning the design of blockbuster exhibitions and sponsored collections. Tate, for example, has a regular programme of thematic exhibitions (often involving the comparative hanging of two or more artists), along with themed rooms of the permanent collection. Notably, however, Tate Britain has recently taken a ‘bold’ decision to rehang the entire gallery chronologically (see Guardian’s ‘in pictures’).

 

In the main, the reorganisation of the gallery has been met with praise (see: BBC Tate Britain rehang ‘triumphant’); though some are more sceptical. Jonathan Jones, writing for the Guardian, thinks the rehang is a ‘terrible idea’, because, he argues, it relegates many pre-20th century art to the storerooms, which he suggests is a ‘scandalous lack of regard for national treasures – and British history’. Nonetheless, those in favour have noted the significance of putting work into its social context, rater than by schools or styles. It is an approach that bears some relation to  John Berger’s arguments in Ways of Seeing. More pertinent, however, as an emerging trend different to a chronological or thematic approach, is  what we might call a relational curatorial practice, concerned with an ‘expanded field’ of the art gallery, whereby visitors to the gallery are encouraged to share in a process with the curator to make connections across a variety of artworks, and indeed outwards, linking to the wider domains and demands of visual culture. Such a view can be understood, in part, as a response to a problem faced by galleries in an ever-expanding visual culture. A major AHRC-funded research project, Tate Encounters: Britishness and Visual Cultures (2007-2010; recently been published under the title Post-Critical Museology, by Andrew Dewdney et al. (2013)), shows, for example, how the Tate’s relaunch of its website in 2000 was part of a corporatist extension, and coincided with greater emphasis upon content creation through the inauguration of the Tate Media division. At this point in time, the brief given to the web designers was to ‘disseminate the brand to a global audience’, as Tate prepared the way for the opening of Tate Modern. The argument made by the Tate Encounters project is not that Tate ignored its audiences (quite the opposite), but a deeper point that there is a underlying disconnect between the ‘the art museum and what has been termed the expanded field of visual culture, which it is argued is present for audiences as a feature of everyday life, but not as yet developed in the practices of the art museum’.

Suggestion here of ‘relational’ curatorial practice is inevitably to make some connection to relational aesthetics, generally defined as ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’ (Bourriaud, N., Relational Aesthetics,  p.113). For Bourriaud the artist is more a ‘catalyst’ of something than the centre of attention. Similarly, then, the relational curator is someone who allows the visitor to bring a range of possibilities to the artworks, so going beyond the interpretative strategies inherent to (and inherited by) art practice and criticism. Tate Liverpool’s curator, Francesco Manacorda, is seemingly in tune with such ideas. In interview, following his appointment at Tate Liverpool, he remarks on his hope to let Tate Liverpool ‘grow and develop through its diverse audiences – be that local people, children and young people, or international visitors. I especially believe that a museum should always be in dialogue with its audience as without it the institution just does not even exist. I hope for Tate Liverpool to become a well loved site for collective experiences and dialogues, and we can only prepare the right situation and invite people to take part in this. Going on a successful journey with our audiences is what I hope for’ (itsliverpool.com).

An example of a ‘relational’ curatorial approach – one that deliberately evokes journeys with its audience – is the summer exhibition at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, under the title of ‘From Me to You – Close but Distant Journeys‘ (2013). Drawing on the museum’s own collection, which dates from the 1940s through to the present, the exhibition is described as an introduction to contemporary art, but specifically attempts to use artworks ‘to create encounters with ‘others’’, so presenting, what the curators’ describe as various ‘journeys’ through the exhibition. These we can understand as physical journeys through a selection of artworks, but also imagined journeys inspired by and associated with (and through) the works. As the curators put it:

To commune and coexist with different things and to accept the existence of multiple worlds—these can be said to form part of the important messages that are widely transmitted by art works. Looking towards ‘others’ in this way may ultimately lead us to question the meaning of ‘self’. The distance that exists between ‘me’ and ‘you’ simultaneously seems both close yet distant. Why not walk along trying to recall all the various faces you have met in the past?

The exhibition presents six journeys. In the first, ‘Stories from Unknown Countries’, visitors are surrounded by videos presenting narratives in various unfamiliar languages. This is followed by a journey through photographs of children in Tokyo by Takashi Homma. As the curators suggest: ‘We find ourselves trying to discover the characteristics of “Tokyo children” within their faces, however they remain unmoved, appearing to defy any attempt at categorisation. It can be said that Homma has used this aspect of the children to create a universal image of “others”’. The third room offers a journey traced through a work by the controversial art group  Chim↑Pom; in this case a piece from one of their early projects, ‘Thank You Celeb Project – I’m BOKAN’, which offsets a quest for celebrity with the creation of an artwork made from a landmine. The fourth journey, ‘Gulf Between Me and You’, uses video works of Dennis Oppenheim’s ‘Transfer Drawings‘, Izumi Kato’s ‘basic life forms’, and other artists’ work to unsettle the ‘closest yet furthest distance that exists between “others”’. The fifth journey further develops the theme showing works about animals (and imagined animals) as a means to ‘represent absolute “others” for human beings, but upon which we project our emotions’. Finally, the last room offers a collection of portraits, all hung in tight proximity to one another, forcing (uncomfortable) collisions between the paintings, but also providing a startling effect on entering the room as so many ‘faces look back at us’ (see the photograph at the top of this entry).

Physically, we might say the exhibition is really not so different from any other – although the final room, as noted, offers a fairly unusual, dense hanging of paintings. Yet, the whole setup feels very different. There is a deliberate invitation made to visitors to meet the artworks at some midway point – a sort of neutral spot in which the very definition of things can change, clash, and/or combine. The artworks are not simply there to be viewed, nor even to activate the audience, but are actually needing to answer the call of the viewer. To offer dialogue. Perhaps the next step is to somehow allow the wide ranging views that arise in this space to equally resonate as a collective experience…

Drawing out (from) Barthes on Twombly: Seminar or Workshop?

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In the introduction to Image Studies, I suggest we need to experiment with ways to break out of the dichotomy that persists between thinking about images on one side and their making on the other. The art historian and theorist, James Elkins, has argued that visual studies has generally proved to be too easy. He urges it to become ‘more ambitious about its purview, more demanding in its analyses, and above all more difficult’. Importantly, he stresses the need to bridge between theory and practice:

The making of images, whether it is copying paintings or simply learning the basics of digital video editing, needs to be practiced in the same seminar rooms where historical and interpretive work takes place. Only then will it become apparent just how difficult it is to knit the two kinds of experience together and how tremendously important it is to try; otherwise, entire image-making practices will remain partly or wholly inaccessible to historical understanding. And what is worse, visual theory will be able to consolidate the notion that study is sufficient to the understanding of images, and independent of actual making. – Elkins, Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, 2003, pp.158–159

Elkins draws upon a wealth of experience in teaching drawing and painting to graduate students who ‘had not picked up a charcoal since elementary school’. An underlying interest is to ‘critique certain assumptions that are made about differences between art history and studio practice’. What is revealing, he suggests, is ‘a surprising new kind of visual competence’, and the crucial fact that ‘some of the insights that emerged are not replicable in classrooms where images are not produced’.

A seminar (or workshop?) held at Winchester School of Art, with MA fine art students, aimed to achieve something similar by practicing a ‘reading’ of a critical text in a studio space, with an array of artists’ materials at the ready. The set text was Roland Barthes’ 1979 essay ‘Cy Twombly: Works on Paper’ (from The Responsibility of Forms). Participants were asked to read the text prior to the seminar, but to arrive with the expectation not only to discuss the text, but also to draw. Towards the end of the essay, Barthes offers a somewhat provocative summary of Cy Twombly. Barthes writes:

An extraordinary thing: [Cy Twombly’s] work manifests no aggression (a feature, it has been remarked, which differentiates him from Paul Klee). I believe I know the reason for this effect, so contrary to all art in which the body is engaged: [Twombly] seesm to proceed in the manner of certain Chinese painters who must triumph over the line, the form, the figure, at the first stroke, without being able to correct themselves, by reason of the fragility of the paper, of the silk: this is painting alla prima. [Twombly], too, seems to work alla prima, but while the Chinese touch involves a great danger, that of “spoiling” the figure (by missing the analogy), [Twombly’s] line or trace involves nothing of the kind: it is without goal, without model, without instance; it is without telos, and consequently without risk: why “correct yourself”, since there is no master? From which it follows that any aggression is somehow futile. (p.174)

 

Reference here to ‘the manner of certain Chinese painters’ is not without its difficulties. Nonetheless, in the 1970s, just prior to writing about Twombly, Barthes had travelled to both Japan and China, and in his writings from this time makes numerous allusions to Eastern philosophies and aesthetics (which continue to echo with his late lecture course on the Neutral). The slim volume, Empire of Signs, includes a beautiful photograph of a brush poised in a calligrapher’s hand, rounding on the final arch of a circle drawn with a single brushstroke in deep, black ink. Barthes draws direct comparison between Twombly’s mark-making and Japanese Zen satori – being a ‘sudden (and sometimes very tenuous) break in our causal logic’. Barthes writes: ‘I regard [Twombly’s] “graphisms” as so many little satoris: starting from writing (a causal field if ever there was one: we write, it is said, to communicate), various futile explosions, which are not even interrupted letters, suspend the active Being of writing…’ – unsurprisingly, Barthes attempts to place Twombly’s work within a post-structural account of ‘writing’. Twombly, it is suggested, ‘has his own way of saying that the essence of writing is neither a form nor a usage but only a gesture, the gesture which produces it by permitting it to linger: a blur, almost a blotch, a negligence’. Gesture, not product, is key to an understanding of Twombly, and allows Barthes to break with the strictures of a semiotic ‘system’; leading us to distinguish ‘the message, which seeks to produce information, and the sign, which seeks to produce an intellection, from the gesture, which produces all the rest (the “surplus”) without necessarily seeking to produce anything’. The idea of ‘painting alla prima’ – as linked to Chinese painting – makes for an obvious connection with the notion of gesture, and as different to message and sign. Nonetheless, it is worth keeping in mind the pictorial ambiguities of Lichtenstein’s Chinese landscape paintings, produced primarily through the artist’s signature use of Ben-Day dots (a mechanism of message and sign if ever there was one!), combined with some explicit gestural brushstrokes. The complexity of physical marks, and the ideas ‘behind’ those marks are inevitably complex and ever changing.

Taking Barthes parenthetical remark on the distinction between Twombly and Klee, we began the seminar by working through the opening examples in Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, which he famously begins by taking a line for walk: ‘An active line on a walk, moving freely. A walk for a walk’s sake’ (see Image Studies, pp. 104-105). The initial exercise of simply drawing a line for a line’s sake prompted vexed faces in the room. ‘What do you mean, take a line for a walk… does that mean we know where we are taking it? Or does the line take us for a walk, and if so, how can it do that?’. Evidently the most rudimentary task of drawing a line raised questions about authorship, control and the quality of the mark-making; we quickly found ourselves talking about the difference (if any) between Klee’s exercise (as an exercise in art) and the activity of doodling (which we might do idly as we talk on the phone etc.). The next step was to repeat our meandering line, but to embellish it with lines that circle around it, so complicating the original, and further prompting questions about our sense of control in the picture we were forming. Klee’s exercise then introduces the idea of an imaginary line, around which you can again introduce supplementary lines. The notion of the imaginary line opens up some interesting connections with the work of Cy Twombly, which Barthes suggests we ‘might call the allusive field of writing’.

Twombly’s practice is seemingly suggestive and indirect, but which brings to the fore – or recalls to mind (and body) – a whole set of relationships of both the tangible and intangible; the apparent and the imaginary. We took the emphasis upon gesture as most significant, as if taking us closer to the ‘reality’ of the imaginary line.  As Barthes puts it, Twombly ‘retains the gesture, not the product’, which he elaborates upon as follows:

Even if it is possible to consume aesthetically the result of his work (what is called the oeuvre, the canvas), even if [Twombly’s] productions link up with (they cannot escape) a History and a Theory of Art, what is shown is a gesture. What is a gesture? Something like the surplus of an action. The action is transitive, it seeks only to provoke an object, a result; the gesture is the indeterminate and inexhaustible total of reasons, pulsions, indolences which surround the action with an atmosphere (in the astronomical sense of the word).

Again, the idea of ‘surplus’ comes through in Barthes’ text, which for the purposes of the seminar, led us to consider as all kind of (potential) unmapped directions in one’s own practice. We wanted to suppose Twombly offering a form of ‘research’ on the pictorial plane; a means of entering into an allusive ‘field’ of one’s own work; to test ideas, to formulate possibilities and even perhaps to create critical distance (through surprise, or satori) from our habits of drawing which act as a gestural signature to each mark we make. The seminar participants were all practitioners of fine art, each with their own distinctive engagements; and with ongoing problematics at stake in producing ‘finished’ work. Thus, having ‘warmed-up’, if not indeed having become ensnared with Klee’s exercise in taking a line for a walk, we moved to what we felt would be a freer, if harder to define, task: to surround one’s own visual practice with a ‘atmosphere’ – as Barthes suggests – that comes of gesture, not product. Participants, then, were asked to draw in and around their own practice by imagining their work – by which was meant not drawing ‘it’, only drawing with it and around it. The exercise soon revealed the difficulty and dilemmas of attempting to draw from outside of one’s own ‘body’ of work, but which in the best examples, enabled a whole new set of questions and challenges to one’s practice.

To an outside observer looking in, the seminar would have readily appeared as some kind of self-help group. With around 12 of us sat around a long table, improvised in the middle of the cluttered studio environment, we assumed a community of drawers. Crucially, everyone was very generous in accepting the ‘terms and conditions’ of the practical tasks, and a real sense of trust prevailed allowing us to freely talk about Barthes’ text. Nonetheless, there was an ongoing sense of uncertainty and even frustration at times. Without stating it, the persistent, underlying question was just what could genuinely be achieved by bringing a dense, critical text into the studio in this way. Such speculation was of course the very point of the session. Yet, inevitably, the open-endedness and unstated goals were liable to create anxieties and the aforementioned frustrations – which crept in by the mere fact of provoking of a watching of one’s own act of drawing. With the opening tasks, a general hush fell upon the room, as we all busily tried to ‘implement’ our drawings as best we could, set against the inevitably ambiguous instructions. However, an audible and dramatic changed occurred as we switched to the deliberate use of colour.

In his essay, Barthes refers to color as a ‘kind of bliss’ – by which of course he signals a connection between Twombly and earlier writings on pleasure (and the pleasure of the text); so suggesting a play of signifiers, which quickly undoes any hierarchy of producers and reader of the text. However, the connection here with colour is particularly noteworthy. Barthes writes:

[Twombly] does not paint color; at most, one might say, that he colours in; but this coloring-in is rare, interrupted, and always instantaneous, as if one were trying out the crayon. This dearth of color reveals not an effect (still less a verisimilitude) but a gesture, the pleasure of a gesture: to see engendered at one’s fingertip, at the verge of vision, something which is both expected (I know that this crayon I am holding is blue) and unexpected (not only do I not know which blue is going to come out, but even if I knew, I would still be surprised, because color, like the event, is new each time: it is precisely the stroke which makes the color – as it produces bliss).

For the seminar, we continued with what had proved to be the difficult task of drawing with and around one’s own (imagined) practice (but without drawing ‘it’). This time, however, with the introduction of colour, the task immediately gave rise to a collective sigh of relief. The room was filled with a completely new energy, as we each happily grabbed at the pastels and worked with a new sense of deftness. The sound of the rushes and caresses of the pastels on the paper swirled around the table. It was as if, as a group, we began not only to understand but also experience the significance of the so-called ‘childishness’ of Twombly’s graphisms. The idea, as Barthes puts it, that colour is an event (both expected and unexpected every time we make a mark) is perhaps the strongest ‘finding’ of the whole seminar. Mark-making and the manipulation of forms, colour and rhythms are all things we shared in the room, as tacit knowledge. Yet, arguably, it was by bringing both critical text and practice into the same physical and thoughtful space that a whole new set of reflections opened out…

 

For more on Cy Twombly and an extract from Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, along with a broader commentary on both painting and drawing, see Chapter 4 of Image Studies: Theory & Practice (Routledge, 2013).

Lichtenstein: Beyond the Dots…

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Landscape with Philosopher, 1996. Oil and Magna on canvas, 264.2 x 121.3 cm.

Landscape with Philosopher, 1996. Oil and Magna on canvas, 264.2 x 121.3 cm.

Roy Lichtenstein’s widow, Dorothy, recently landed the bombshell that her husband became frustrated at ‘forever being labelled a pop artist’ (Guardian, 18 February 2013). It was a term very much of a moment, capturing an important shift towards a culture of reproduction, of mass goods, bright graphics and new media. Yet, Lichtenstein and fellow pop artists went on to have long and productive careers. Their visual acuity, curiosity, inventiveness and technical acumen tell of a much deeper commitment to the image than the playful aesthetics of popular culture might initially suggest. Dorothy Lichtenstein’s remark coincided with the preview of a major retrospective of Lichtenstein’s work at Tate Modern. The show is the most comprehensive since the artist’s death in 1997,  and brings together 125 paintings and sculptures. There are some surprises in store, but of course many of the works will be familiar, even if the originals have not been seen by visitors before. Lichtenstein’s ‘brand’ of pop art is highly recognisable, influential in many spheres and widely disseminated and echoed. We might be forgiven for thinking paintings about reproduction lend themselves well to their own mechanical reproduction. Look closer, however, and we see a rather more complex picture…

Of course, on one level, as The Observer review puts it:

Everyone knows what a Lichtenstein looks like: the stylish black outline, the uninflected printer’s-ink palette, the Ben-Day dots and super-precise images, so condensed and diagrammatic, with their unwavering sense of elegant design. Explosions blossoming in mid-air, jilted girls crying a river, the fighter pilot forever locked on his target – all preserved in Lichtenstein’s cryogenic style. Which, bent on deducing the basic grammar of other people’s images, and reprising it in one of his own, has long since become as familiar as the commercial art from which it derived.

The opening room of the exhibition puts us straight in the picture. Lichtenstein’s ‘brushstroke’ paintings parody the mark-making of abstract expressionism (that was of formative influence), and bring to life his signature palette and cool style. In the next room, the engagement with popular culture is writ large, and includes a wonderful rendering of a Disney illustration, Look Mickey (1961). Given today’s ever more complex and precious copyright laws, I can’t help wonder if work of this kind can emerge now. Of course, we might say Lichtenstein, along with other pop artists, actually helped to intellectualise the discourse of intellectual property that has grown up around our image culture.

In moving through the chronology of Lichtenstein’s work, Dorothy Lichtenstein’s comment about the constraints of the pop label becomes increasingly understandable. The works reveal an on-going commitment to explorations of the image as a set of complex aesthetic, conceptual and technical problems. The most ‘revealing’ room in this respect is arguably Room 9, which shows a set of ‘mirrors’, again all rendered using Lichetenstein’s characteristic use of Benday dots. Walking into the room is an incredible experience, as if you have walked into the pages of a huge book, as if engulfed by the grandeur of an illustrated fairy-story. Lichtenstein painstakingly studied the pictorial conventions of representing mirrors and reflections in commercial catalogues. He also experimented with real mirrors, learning how different effects were produced with different lighting. Returning to the subject of the mirror again and again he painted many different versions – in each case, as a mock trompe l’oeil, the representation of the mirror fills the canvas, which is typically shaped to appear as an object we take to be a mirror frame. You know these are not real mirrors, you know they cannot offer reflections, yet as a room filled with the representation of many light incidents you cannot help feel emptied of your own image, as if all the mirrors of the world have been drained of the ability to look back. If only for an instance, entering this room of mirrors renders us one dimensional; an experience more profoundly self-revealing than standing before any real mirror.

Mirror #2 (1970)

Mirror #2 (1970)

Lichtenstein’s paintings can be characterised as ‘metapictures’. W.J.T Mitchell coins the term in his book Picture Theory (1994). He describes metapictures as ‘pictures that refer to themselves or to other pictures’, which is to say they are ‘pictures that are used to show what a picture is’. The idea behind the metapicture is to consider what it would mean to ‘think’ about pictures without having to resort to a second-order discourse of any kind. As with other pop artists, Lichtenstein’s handling of popular imagery is less about the content of the imagery than their formation and mediation. ‘Brushstrokes in painting’, Lichtenstein once said, ‘convey a sense of grand gesture … But in my hands, the brushstroke becomes the depiction of a grand gesture’. On the one hand, then, the metapicture can be self-referential about its own formation. It is about the making of a picture – epitomised in Lichtenstein’s case with his persistent use of the Ben-Day dots as explicit reference to the technical process of print media. Equally, however, the metapicture can  refer to images as a collection, or in terms of their genre. This sense of the metapicture is apparent with Lichtenstein’s rendering of comic-book imagery, Disney characters and also Chinese landscape painting.

Lichtenstein’s late ‘Chinese landscape’ works, which date from 1996 to the year of his death, 1997, will perhaps be new to most visitors’ eyes – although, with their dots, they are unmistakably Lichtenstein. The artist held a deep, and long-standing interest in traditional Chinese painting. In the Tate’s catalogue, Stephen Little notes:

Perhaps the aspect of Song dynasty landscape painting that most enthralled Lichtenstein was its spare technique: the ability to suggest a vision of a vast and harmonious universe in a highly economical manner. The origins of this vision lie in Daoism, which focuses on the pursuit of balance, simplicity, harmony, humility, and mindfulness. Lichtenstein’s paintings achieve these goals to a remarkable degree and demonstrate that he had grasped much of the underlying conceptual framework that informed the traditional Chinese approach to landscape. (p.89)

In Landscape with Philosopher (1996; cat 124, shown above) there is a shimmering ambiguity to the landscape, which gives a sense of mystery and/or a meditative quality. As Little puts it: ‘it is nearly impossible to tell whether the narrow white V-shape cleft at the painting’s lower center is to be read as in front of, or behind, the area of graduated dots on a blue ground to the immediate right of the cleft. Does the white cleft represent the sheer face of the cliff, or mist in a recessed valley or defile (i.e., is it a positive or negative space)? Traditional Chinese painters, especially of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, delighted in this type of visual ambiguity, spatially challenging the viewer and creating an unsettling tension within the landscape’ (p.89).

When one conjures to mind the works of Roy Lichtenstein, it is easy to think of their imagery taken from comic books and cartoons etc. And it is easy to think his work is simply an elevation or re-framing of popular culture. What is more difficult, but more rewarding to remember is that Lichtenstein was a painter through and through. Indeed, what you really experience when seeing so many of his works in the ‘flesh’ – as evidenced by the Tate’s retrospective – is  how rich the canvases are and just how poorly they reproduce on page or screen.

For more on the concept of the metapicture and debates of reproduction see Chapter 6, ‘Visual Culture’ of Image Studies: Theory & Practice (Routledge, 2013). See also Chapter 4, on ‘Drawing and Painting’.

Virtual Reality Microscope for Histopathology

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Dr Roy Ruddle (from the School of Computing, University of Leeds), recently gave a presentation at Bradford University about a research project developing a Virtual Reality (VR) microscope. As the video clip (above) shows, the VR microscope is a new technology that seeks to digitise the process of diagnosis in histopathology. Histopathology refers to the microscopic examination of tissue in order to study the manifestations of disease, which is used extensively in the diagnosis of cancer. In clinical medicine, a biopsy or surgical specimen of skin tissue (or histological sections) are prepared on glass slides. A doctor will  work with a desk-based microscope to view each slide to make a diagnosis. On any given day a case load will involve looking though anything from 20 to 100 slides, if not more. On average each slide will be viewed for up to just 3 minutes.

The development of the VR microscope seeks to allow diagnoses to be made quicker, but as accurately as, a conventional microscope; an essential step in making digital pathology suitable for routine use. The research team have sought to achieve this by combining ‘giga-pixel’ displays with VR technology and ‘intelligent navigation’ techniques. They have developed both a single-user workstation for clinical work and a multi-user ‘Powerwall’ for teaching (see video clip). The digital process first requires the glass slides to be scanned. However, in order to create digital images that are of comparable quality to that which a doctor can view down the lens of a conventional microscope, the resolution of the image is such that if you printed out a picture of a single slide it would be the size of a squash court. The technologies required for this project are not new as such. We already possess the means to scan slides and to view them on a computer. However, the key aspect of the project is to create a system for viewing the image that is sufficiently large to allow a doctor to examine the same area of a slide at a comparable resolution. This involves bringing together multiple screens to create a single, large viewing area.

Technological innovations aside, the research project centres around an analysis of user interface. The findings to date are not necessarily conclusive, but nonetheless appear to show that the VR microscope can match the use of a conventional microscope in terms of both efficiency and quality of the diagnostic process. The crucial issue however is less about the single use of the microscope, but rather the organisational implementation of the system. One selling point of the VR microscope is the speed and simplicity to send the digital slides anywhere around the country to gain an immediate second opinion. Rather than needing to place a physical slide in transit, it is possible to digitally transfer the file across the internet. However, while currently we can rely on another hospital to have a conventional microscope for viewing a slide, we cannot yet assume availability of the necessary viewing equipment to handle a digital slide. The issue becomes acute when a diagnosis is required in the middle of an operation. What was most interesting about the talk given by Dr Ruddle, was not so much the ins and outs of the project itself, but rather the audience in the room. During a Q&A session it was apparent most people in the room were medical practitioners (not computer scientists). While there was genuine interest in the technological achievements of the project there was equally scepticism – if not anxiety – about organisational implementation.

In effect the VR microscope project is seeking to achieve something akin to the ‘revolution’ of digital radiography, which is now generally regarded a significant achievement in the medical field. However it has taken decades to be realised as the standard, embedded system within the NHS. Geoffrey Rivett gives some of the history, as follows:

“In 1985 the Hammersmith Hospital expressed a wish to develop a filmless radiography department, and over the next ten years the first such system in the UK was created, partly from central funding but mainly from charitable donations. All forms of imaging equipment were interfaced to the computer system. Straight X-ray images were recorded on special screens and read digitally by laser. The data created were vast, as each chest X-ray required more storage space than the Bible. Images were fed to immense computing facilities, for distribution by fibre optic cable to workstations throughout the hospital. The high definition of the images and the ability to magnify areas of interest and change their density and contrast were found by clinicians to be a substantial advance. More complex images, such as those produced by scanning, could be displayed, rotated and examined in three-dimensional form.” (Geoffrey Rivett, National Health Service History)

The implementation of a new system such as the VR microscope brings to light various aspects of going digital. While there are obvious advantages in terms of integrated, networked storage and viewing systems, digital technologies can quickly reveal limitations or at least clumsiness when working at high resolutions and dealing with subtle forms of image analysis. It is also apparent, that while it is perfectly possible to digitise a process, such as in this case diagnosis in histopathology, it is never a matter of simply bringing the technology together, but rather involves a great deal of consultation and human testing in order to get over the real hurdle of implementing something at a organisational level. The VR microscope project provides one very good example of the complexities and possibilities when bringing together of the separate fields of computing science and medicine.
For more on scientific imaging see Chapter 7 of Image Studies: Theory & Practice (Routledge, 2013).

For more information on the VR microscope, see:

http://www.virtualpathology.leeds.ac.uk

Virtual Microscope project website.

Publications

Randell, R., Ruddle, R. A., Thomas, R., & Treanor, D. (in press). Virtual reality microscope versus conventional microscope on time to diagnosis: An experimental study.Histopathology.

Randell, R., Ruddle, R. A., Quirke, P., Thomas, R., & Treanor, D. (2012). Working at the microscope: analysis of the activities involved in diagnostic pathology.Histopathology, 60, 504-510.

Randell, R., Ruddle, R. A., Thomas, R., & Treanor, D. (2011). Diagnosis at the microscope: A workplace study of histopathologyCognition Technology & Work, 1-17. DOI: 10.1007/s10111-011-0182-7

Treanor, D., Jordan Owers, N, Hodrien, J., Quirke, P., & Ruddle, R. A. (2009). Virtual reality Powerwall versus conventional microscope for viewing pathology slides: an experimental comparisonHistopathology, 5, 294-300.

Roland Barthes: An Exercise in Drawing

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A visit to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (in the same building, many years ago, Walter Benjamin handed over his ‘Arcades’ convolutes to George Bataille for safe keeping): Here I was afforded the opportunity to view the ‘drawings’ of Roland Barthes. Drawings in that they were made on the flat surface, and feel best in one’s hand, or viewed horizontally. Drawings in that they are mainly formed of lines. Yet painterly too, with the use of inks, acrylics, and pastels. The colours bear minor instances of blending, of collision. Through this ‘medium’ a picture might nearly form.

I’m inclined to call the drawings ‘exercises’. Despite Barthes having produced many hundreds of drawings over a decade, there is very little variation. Working mainly on sheets of paper (and always of a scale convenient to working on a small table top), the drawings offer irregular interconnections of marks, colour and line. If you look a little more, perhaps you discern the recurrence of a sweeping directionality, from left to right, working diagonally across the paper. Or perhaps not. All the mark making, however, is contained within an imaginary frame, usually set an inch or more from the edges of the physical paper.

Barthes drew in the afternoons, in-between writing, and mainly in the vacation periods that allowed for a regular routine. The simplicity of the drawings, and the lack of deviation suggests less an exploration of drawing, more an exercise in drawing. Like a child completing their homework when they return home from school, the drawings are the work of a writer who has slipped out from the study. And like the school child at home, whose handwriting and concentration are allowed to wander, Barthes appeared to complete these exercises (each diligently numbered and dated) with a handwriting that was entirely free, undone. The drawings are methodical, yet portray only play. And while we might think them depictions of ‘nothingness’, their materiality (and the inscription of time) make for an archive, a diary, a study in ‘idiorrhythmy’ (to use Barthes’ guiding term of the  lecture course Comment vivre ensemble). The drawings yield an individual at peace; a making of/in calmness, pleasure.

Despite leafing through many examples of the drawings, I must admit the  first one I saw was the one that held me the most. It was love at first sight. The small sheet, little more than 20cm x 15cm, is held in a cellophane slip making the inks glisten with the reflection of the ceiling lights of the library.  Number 403, 18 Juin ’72, is atypically black and white, a series of dabs, streaks and brief lines. (The drawing is reproduced, if poorly, in the catalogue of an exhibition held in Rome in 1981, Roland Barthes, carte segni, p.160, plate 228 – here it looks heavy and smudged). Again the drawing gives the sense of diagonal directionality, from left to right (though you can never quite swear to such a schema). It is really just a dance of writing without letters upon undistinguished paper, a little creased in the upper right, appearing to have taken a spillage, then blotted dry. The bottom edge of the paper has been cleanly cut, but for a little serrating  and tearing  on the right hand side. As with each of the drawings, it is dated on the right and numbered on the left, just beneath the ‘framed’ picture space. And, in this particular case, appearing from the underside , as if a blue vein showing through skin, we read in reverse the signature ‘R Barthes’. The ‘R ‘is voluminous, the curves flowing away from the stem like a German ß [Eszett], and which is again echoed in the ‘B’, followed through with an ‘r’, ‘t’ and ‘h’ as small, even peaks and troughs. Set upon the end, a microcosm of the entire drawing: the plurality of a neat, flowing, and overwritten ‘s’.

…I just had to let them go. Put them back in the large, flat grey box. I shall return…

See Also: video of Roland Barthes’ drawings, which features curators Guillaume Fau and  Marie-Odile Germain, from the library’s Department of Manuscripts, and Céline Flécheux, lecturer in aesthetics, Université Paris-Diderot.

Patrick Keiller: London

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23rd February 2013, 2 – 4 pm
Old Fire Station, 84 Mayton Street, N7 6QT
£4/£2 conc. (Book Tickets)

As part of the Reel Islington Film Festival 2013 I will be introducing one of my favourite films: Patrick Keiller’s London (1994). Here is an extract from my introduction:

London is the sort of film that we experience as being greater than the sum of its parts. Visually, the film is static, slow. If you’re like me, the first time you watch it you’ll get 15 minutes in and think: “Interesting. I wonder what is going to happen?”. A lot does ‘happen’, but not in any narrative sense. Visually this film is of a tradition of new objectivity. We are shown everything as it is, unfiltered, though frequently from a point of view we might not usually adopt.

The text of this film, the script, ambient sounds (added later) and the narrator’s delivery, all contrast with how the film works visually. The text weaves fact and fiction. It plays with literary references, philosophical ideas, statistical data, romantic and speculative pondering – all of which are the ‘findings’ of Keiller’s imaginary, unseen protagonist, Robinson, and all vicariously relayed to us by Robinson’s friend, assistant, lover  – who again we never get to see, but we hear his words (voiced by the actor Paul Scofield).

Through this aesthetic of text and image is rendered London of 1992: A fourth successive Tory election victory has returned a government that Robinson fears has little or no interest in social or cultural affairs. All dominated by the City, and global finance more broadly. Terrorism also has a palpable presence in the capital. In showing all of this, while simultaneously drawing upon vignettes and quotations of nineteenth century England, London paints an allegorical picture of a city (a nation?) in decline.

Keiller has been described a ‘poet of blank statistics’. We watch and hear all in lingering detail. The narrator’s controlled deadpan delivery, combined with static cinematography, gives the film a certain neutral quality – it does not take sides, yet it places everything in a precarious, on-edge position…

Glam! The Performance of Style

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Glam1

I think perhaps the invite arrived inadvertantly, but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to attend the press preview of Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition Glam! The Performance of Style. I had sat in on a research event back in the Autumn last year, where I listened to some prickly debates about whether or not it was going to be appropriate to curate both fine art and pop music. I left that event a little concerned, but I needn’t have worried. The exhibition makes for both a sophisticated and lively blend of media, domains and tensions; without pandering to the spectacle of nostalgia (it will be interesting to see if the V&A’s forthcoming David Bowie Is can achieved something similar).

On entering the gallery I adjusted to the shocking pink walls adorned with a range of 1970s ephemera and glittery costumes. Somewhere in the distance yowled Bowie, and all around was the light clatter of technicians busily setting right various displays and finalising wall texts. The exhibition’s curator, Darren Pih, admitted to being a little stressed, yet displayed nothing of the sort. We talked briefly of a glorious Jarman super-eight encountered in the first room, which immediately calibrates the subtle intentions of the exhibition as a whole.

Jarman

Our conversation was cut short, with Pih fielding a series of interviews to camera. His recurring refrain as he explained the collection again and again was how Glam marks the emergence of a convergence culture. Perhaps we take that culture for granted today. Indeed, the exhibition reveals a dynamic, edgy interdisciplinarity that today is shorn of such intensity. As Pih notes:

…historians have increasingly identified blind spots in the traditional narrative that posits 1970s Britain as experiencing a post-1960s hangover, locked in socio-economic declinism, a society hamstrung by industrial disputes. If 1970s Britain was such a dead-end, how was it able to produce such vibrancy of pop music, film and fashion? Why have its styles and tastes been repeatedly revived, continuing to find purchase in the contemporary imagination? (Darren Pih, Glam: The Performance of Style, 2013, p.9)

A key consideration of the exhibition is the growing confidence of the British art school from the 1950s, which we can trace through to the developing pop scene, epitomised by the likes of Bowie and Roxy Music:

Art students’ openness to the relevance of all creative experience led to a promiscuous intermingling of ideas and ideals across the disciplines of fashion, design and applied arts, fine art and pop music. Richard Hamilton’s Swingeing London 67 (f) 1968-9 is emblematic of this coming together, through its appropriation of a mediated image of the gallerist Robert Fraser handcuffed to Mick Jagger following their appearance in court on drugs charges. The era’s liberal art-informed ambience also fuelled the imagination of David Bowie, who followed a curriculum infused with art and graphic design at Bromley Technical College. In 1969 Bowie also co-founded the Bechenham Arts Lab, a centre hosting artists’ studios, poetry readings, light shows and theatrical and dance performances. (Darren Pih, Glam: The Performance of Style, 2013, p.19)

It isn’t simply that fine art informed other areas of practice. Glam as ‘convergence culture’ was genuinely the experience of convergence, or perhaps more appropriately divergence; shifting the very locus of art well beyond its known parameters, so making this exhibition (in a gallery) ever more challenging and significant.

Coolly and quietly walking through the rooms during the preview was the critic Paul Morley. His appreciation of Glam is known to anyone who has read his music journalism (or more recently his book Words and Music). He was there as part of the BBC’s Review team, and sure enough the following evening appeared on TV along with the show’s presenter, Martha Kearney. The two of them initially joked about the opening room looking exactly like their teenage bedrooms. It is clear the exhibition tugs on the heart strings of anyone who lived through the period. Morley has always been an incisive critic of nostalgic obsessions, particularly within the domain of pop culture and music. Yet, in speaking of this examination of Glam, he was keen to acknowledge its intellectual approach.

My TV set was still black and white when Glam came to dominate Top of the Pops, but that did nothing to prevent the colours shining through. I vividly recall having to change channels with a dial not a switch, yet I must admit Glam was – if not such a distance experience – always only a vicarious thrill. From where I stood, Glam was all about transgression (even if I didn’t know such a word then). Like punk, which was to follow, Glam was the manifestation of a contest not in overtly political terms, but in cultural, aesthetic forms. Yet, unlike punk, the transgressions of Glam were not rebarbative, but about new and alternative forms of beauty, pleasure and ambiguity. What was deeply satisfying upon entering the exhibition, I found myself still confronted with such transgressions. That’s what makes its curation so important.

See also:

Glam! The Performance of Style: Room Guide

Glam! at Tate Liverpool: through a mirrorball darkly

Interview: Darren Pih on Glam!

Glam! The Performance of Style Glitters up Tate Liverpool [Bay TV Liverpool]

Writing With Images

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Writing With Images: An Art Symposium (with moderated discussion of ‘Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall’). University Galleries, Illinois State University (ISU Center for Visual Arts Building), 22 April 2011.

A Graduate Research Symposium, Writing With Images,  was held at the University Galleries, Illinois State University. Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Manghani, 2008) was adopted as a key text informing the theme of the symposium.

Presentations and debates considered what is might mean to write with images or to allow images to ‘speak for themselves’. As the symposium literature states: ‘To date, no local attempt has been made to draw different strands of inquiry together to identify specific qualities of image critique for image analysis and its relation to current theories and concepts’. Thus the event sought to ‘address the deficit by considering theoretical and visual considerations that have to be taken into account in order to engage with image critique, and revise our visual and written perspectives about art.’

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Towards a Visual Critical Theory

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It is significant and indeed surprising that despite its professed interdisciplinary make-up and direct critique of textual analysis, visual culture has to date prompted little actual innovation in terms of its form(s) of writing, production and dissemination. The art theorist James Elkins makes the argument that visual culture studies, as it currently stands, has proved to be too easy. Hence, he urges it to become ‘more ambitious about its purview, more demanding in its analyses, and above all more difficult’. As a part of which, he poses a challenge for those engaged in visual culture studies to write more ‘ambitiously’ – to write authoritatively and insightfully about the field, but also simply to ‘write as well as you can’. The ‘problem’ of good writing he suggests is well highlighted by considering the work of John Berger, who emerges as one of the most widely cited inspirations to the field. What makes this fact particularly strange is that ‘no art historian or specialist in visual culture writes anything like Berger.’ Indeed, no one seems willing to experiment in the same way with the form and style of writing and production. Art historians and other specialists of visual culture seldom work closely with an image-maker (such as in Berger’s case, the photographer Jean Mohr) and would never, for example, interrupt their prose with poetry, permit themselves long parenthetic remarks or personal reminiscences. Yet, ‘why not,’ Elkins asks, ‘when those signs of the engaged writer are part and parcel of the philosophy of the engaged viewer that Berger himself helped bring into art history?’

Elkins offers an analogy with that of the music historian who generally is expected to have some competence in playing and reading music. This same kind of competence, he argues, is rare in art history and visual culture, suggesting as the subject of visual studies develops, ‘it should consider ways of bringing image-making into the classroom – not just in theory but in actual practice’. In fact, he suggests the making of images (from drawing and painting to video editing) ought to be practiced in the same seminar rooms where historical and interpretative work also takes place, arguing that only then ‘will it become apparent just how difficult it is to knit the two kinds of experience together and how tremendously important it is to try’. The critical theorist W.J.T. Mitchell provides a revealing ‘illustration’ of what is at stake when theory and practice meet (in the same room) when recounting a classroom session in which he asks students to conduct a practical exercise to show ‘seeing itself’. One presentation he singles out is of a woman whose prop is her nine month old baby, who begins to show off to the audience, so disrupting the mother’s presentation. The overall effect Mitchell suggests is ‘a contrapuntal, mixed media performance’ that underlines ‘the dissonance or lack of suturing between vision and voice, showing and telling’. On the one hand, this performance highlights the particular problem of reconciling the visual (as irreducibly visual) with a satisfactory critical framework, or mode of critique. However, the more ambitious aim of the ‘Showing Seeing’ exercise, he argues, is ‘its potential as a reflection on theory and method in themselves […] to picture theory and perform theory as a visible, embodied, communal practice, not as the solitary introspection of a disembodied intelligence’. Again, Mitchell seeks to make sense of this exercise in terms of his de-disciplinary concerns. So, whilst he does at least allow this ‘contrapuntal, mixed media performance’ to become something of an object of thought in his writing, in the end it is perhaps rather of only limited effect; we really only have Mitchell’s word on the performance. The problem is, with respect to the norms of academic writing, we just can not quite get over the unassailable quality of this exercise, of its contrapuntal, mixed media nature. Indeed, short of having a 3-dimensional pen and paper, it is not possible to (studiously) harness its true import.

So, how might this relate to the kind of visual critical theory that, for example, Susan Buck-Morss advocates? Not unlike the mother’s presentation of Mitchell’s Showing Seeing, perhaps, Buck-Morss  makes the case for a form of critical theory to be in itself visual, to ‘show rather than argue’. In which case, we need to believe ‘[a]esthetic experience (sensory experience) is not reducible to information’. Interestingly, she wonders whether this is too old-fashioned an idea to suggest, and goes on to remind us that visual culture is in fact in the hands of its ‘producers’ of tomorrow; these being, she notes: ‘the camera-women, video/film editors, city planners, set designers for rock stars, tourism packagers, marketing consultants, political consultants, television producers, commodity designers, layout persons, and cosmetic surgeons’. Of course, whilst the democratic potential for ‘thinking in images’ is perhaps a genuinely new circumstance, the problems of writing and theorising the visual object are far from new. Hans Sedlmayr, for example, a member of the formalist Vienna School writing in the 1930s, posed searching questions about the relation of object to its interpretation, advocating an alternative perspective for picturing (or indeed performing) theory. In his view, art history was to make imaginative, creative interpretations and aesthetic constructions akin to the work of artists themselves. It is an idea later echoed provocatively by the critic Susan Sontag in her famous essay ‘Against Interpretation’, where she argues that in ‘place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’. Arguably, then, in lieu of framing an exercise in Showing Seeing as de-disciplinary there is a need simply to show seeing itself – to let such a ‘picture theory’ stand for itself as ‘a visible, embodied, communal practice.’ Ultimately, the critic, or ‘imagologist’, might then join with the ranks of tomorrow’s producers of the image.

Yet, we are brought back to the question as to why so few seem willing or able to engage in the kinds of writing that Sontag might propose with an erotics of art, or as has been canonised following the idiosyncratic writings of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and John Berger.  Perhaps the contemporary scholarly community have too much invested in the subject matter to enable them to break free of its constraints.  Ironically, perhaps, the texts of those wandering thinkers and ur-imagologists, of the likes of Benjamin, Barthes, and Berger, are the very texts we continue to dwell upon precisely because these thinkers were not specifically scholars of the visual, but rather writers interested in what interested them. Indeed, perhaps it is more often those outside (or at least on the fringes) of academia who provide a richer engagement with visual culture and visuality.

Extract, adapted from Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall [Kindle Edition]. Also available in iBookstore (USA).

Image & Critique: Image-Thought-Text

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Image & Critique: Image-Thought-Text
An International Conference for Theorists & Practitioners

Saturday 13th – Sunday 14th September 2003
Lakeside Arts Centre
University of Nottingham

Images surely need no introduction, yet that is all too often what we are inclined to give. So, what else might we afford images to say or show to us? The specific intellectual and cultural context for this conference has been referred to as the ‘visual’ or ‘pictorial’ turn, which raises the problematic of a purported shift away from a typographic or textual culture to a visual one. The recent trends in fields of image studies, visual culture, and visual rhetoric are important markers of just such a shift in intellectual focus. This interest has inspired a wealth of new and exciting research, as well as effecting a redefinition of theoretical concerns and (inter)disciplinary boundaries, which in turn has brought to light new positions, problems and dilemmas. What role, then, might images themselves play in relation to critical inquiry, and how are we to re-think the inheritance of ‘textual’ or linguistic modes of cultural and political analysis? In order to examine some of the key issues, and also to experiment with new ideas and modes of thinking and research, the conference brings together both distinguished theorists from across a number of disciplines, and innovative artists and practitioners whose work encompasses both images and text, so that we may develop our understanding and appreciation of the relationship between images and texts, as well as thinking further about the role they play in cultural and political critique.

The conference sessions are organised around four broad, and undoubtedly interlacing themes: (1) Visual literacy – an enquiry into what this mode is and who can lay claim to it, as well as, how such a mode of engagement can be understood to contribute to critical theoretical debates; (2) Placing the Visual – an consideration of relation of images to ‘things’, and the interface of images, texts and contexts; (3) Visual Rhetoric – questioning the role images and the ‘visual’ play in the understanding and use of critical and cultural theories, including how we might understand images in, and as the writing of philosophy and history; (4) Visual theory – to consider the status and efficacy of visual theories following the recent and rapid growth in teaching visual culture and critical art history. The conference will close with a Summary & Roundtable Debate in which all panellists will join for a final question and answer session to debate the themes and issues raised throughout the conference.

In addition, as part of a consideration of visual literacy, and using images as a ‘practice of thought,’ the conference includes a Practical Workshop, Figuring out Thinking, in which participants will experiment with image manipulation techniques to form critical images constellations, or Denkbilder (cf. Benjamin).

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