The Relevance of Conceptualism and the Conceptual on Contemporary Photography, as Illustrated by Trevor Paglen and Doug Rickard
In this essay, I explore two contemporary photographic projects – Trevor Paglen’s Limit Telephotography series of US military black sites, and Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture on urban poverty – and the place of Conceptualism and the ‘conceptual’ in critically understanding them. To do this, I will firstly offer a brief delineation of the two terms, before examining in detail how the projects I’ve chosen relate to and augment both.
When understanding art movements, we’re sometimes lucky enough to have a founding manifesto, but not with Conceptualism. Sol LeWitt gave perhaps the most elegant explanation when affirming “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the art”, thus relegating technique and aesthetics to secondary considerations. This simple statement reveals the ubiquity of such an approach, with conceptual elements in most modern art. In 1916, The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp thrillingly announced the arrival of this notion by questioning the ontology of the artwork. Defying what art ‘should’ be and thus asking what it could be, was in fact the logical conclusion of all post-impressionist deconstructions – just years ahead of its time – and became the fulcrum around which Greenbergian modernism later pivoted. This involved each medium undertaking the reductions necessary to discover their essential natures, and in the work of Mark Rothko for example, painting by the 1950s had found ways of distilling the expression of art through the complete loss of figurative depiction.
Soon after however, a vanguard of artists with “a profound skepticism towards the status of the object” advanced the challenge of what art could be. They began embracing photography (predominantly) as a way to visually anchor complex linguistic ideas that undermined the art object and its supporting institutions. This exciting period, Conceptualism, was perhaps the culmination of Duchamp’s and Greenberg’s clarion calls, yet can and should be differentiated from a generalised notion of the ‘conceptual’ in art. In this essay I posit the ‘conceptual’ as far more nebulous and widespread, describing work simply guided by pre-conceived methodologies. Although arguably finding its strongest expression in the purity of Conceptualism, it nonetheless remains a distinct notion in its diluted form by virtue of not explicitly engaging in auto-critique.
Morning Commute, Gold Coast Terminal / Las Vegas, NV / Distance – 1 mile (2006) Paglen, T.
Despite welcome revisions that “smart, inventive, ambitious and resistant photography did not begin with conceptual art”, it is generally recognised that not only was photography “the means by which conceptual art’s exit from Modernist closure was made realisable”, but that this process simultaneously transformed the medium itself into a “paradigmatic form of contemporary art”. Jeff Wall posits that before Conceptualism, photography remained “dazzled by the spectacle of Western painting”, attempting “to imitate it in pure acts of composition”, until decisively realising itself in the “experiments of the 1960s and 1970s”. He distinguishes two processes that facilitated this, firstly the “‘refunctioning’ of reportage”, which Limit Telephotography appears to exemplify. Photography was valued by Conceptualism for its indexicality – an inability to “find alternatives to depiction” that made it the perfect medium to truthfully portray the results of conceptual strategies. Paglen’s images of classified military bases seem foremost a similar act of reportage. However, Conceptualist artists’ mimicry of documentation in fact undermined the venerated practice of photojournalism by replacing socially relevant subject matter with the language games being played (hence Wall’s “refunctioning”). Projects such as Dan Graham’s Homes For America went further still by entirely parodying the magazine format. It was the text though – and thus context – that effected this parody, while the photographs’ claim to truth was not questioned. Limit Telephotography inverses this logic by portraying a subject worthy of the loftiest documentary ideals, while deliberately drawing scrutiny to such photographic truth claims. The project’s primary intention is to simply demonstrate the existence of highly sensitive ‘black’ sites used by the US military to develop cutting-edge warfare technologies – “making the invisible visible”. The title in fact refers to the limits of vision encountered when trying to document sites of such secrecy, as Paglen’s customised equipment struggled over huge distances to capture these locations. The hazy and compromised images often resist identification, and so embody the tension from a “dialectical opposition between [their] claim to represent and the undermining of that claim”. Here the text and surrounding evidence is presented as truthful, while the photographs’ aberrations thus question their own veracity.
Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground / (Dugway, Utah) / Distance – 42 miles (2006) Paglen, T.
As such, this dialectic is not attempting a fundamental auto-critique and would fail to fulfil the criteria of a Conceptualist project, but the text and surrounding evidence do underline a crucial component that functions as ‘conceptual’: the use of language. To paraphrase LeWitt, Limit Telephotography’s idea is the crucial aspect, and without the use of language to anchor this, the imagery becomes meaningless. The accompanying titles of the images, the distances from which they were photographed and the description of the overall series, all complete the required understanding of the work as art.
Furthermore, Paglen’s concept succeeds on many levels. His most basic aim of “correlat[ing] blank spots on the map with blind spots in perception” is achieved literally of course: we become aware of America’s hidden security apparatus and the locations in which it exists. However, the limits of perception encountered by his equipment demonstrate this metaphorically too. Pushing “the physical properties of vision” highlights both the distances over which the images have to be captured – sometimes over 40 miles – and acts as an allegory for the lengths undertaken by the US government to maintain these “blank spots in the mind and in the public dialogue”.
This can be further explored through the paradigm of image wars: Baudrillard’s assessment that “the Gulf War did not take place” and instead existed primarily as a news event. As Henrik Gustafsson explains, the idea encourages a perspective “that recognises and embraces both the unreality of images and their operational reality” within a landscape of politicised media. By perhaps evoking Slavoj Žižek’s “‘unknown knowns’… things in plain sight we choose not to see, or repress”, Limit Telephotography can be proposed as simultaneously informing us of this black world’s presence (the images’ “operational reality”), as well as the plain sight in which the black world has been hiding (the images’ “unreality”). This unresolved suggestion operates ‘conceptually’ by reinforcing the necessity of language to explain the often faint and blurry images, their relevance and their rarity. It would be inconceivable to even relate pictures in the “aesthetic tradition of colorfield abstraction” to image wars without the explicit titles and project information, for example Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground / (Dugway, Utah) / Distance – 42 miles. Tellingly, in Paglen’s monograph of the project, these texts are not under the photographs, but instead occupy the entire left hand page of the book’s spread: they literally come before the image and are weighted of equal importance.
Doug Rickard presents similarly degraded images in A New American Picture, ostensibly employing the second process Wall associates with Conceptualism: “amateurisation”. This argument refers to the de-skilling of photography undertaken by Conceptualists pursuing a Greenbergian critique of the medium’s legitimacy “in which the techniques and abilities most intimately identified with [it] were placed in question”. In Rickard’s case, by re-photographing images from Google Street View on his computer, he appears to perform the ultimate de-skilling, in that “anyone who has used Street View… is, in a sense, already familiar with the work”. Furthermore, the software’s widespread accessibility invites a proto-Conceptualist reading of “photography as a pool of public imagery, anonymous and available for poetic and critical reappraisal”. Street View in this light can be seen as comprising a vast collection of prefabricated scenes, the ultimate archive of Readymades – an idea historically entwined with Conceptualism through Duchamp. The term was also appropriated by Ed Ruscha to describe his photobooks, with which Rickard’s project shares another notable similarity: namely the use of streets and roads as a framework. Both A New American Picture and many of Ruscha’s projects – as well as various other Conceptualist works – utilise photographs taken from a vehicle as their subject matter.
#42.318327, Detroit, MI (2008) Rickard, D.
However, despite all these similarities, a more thorough dissection discloses them to be superficial, and as with Limit Telephotography, often inverting the logic of their resemblances. Beyond the look of amateurism, Rickard definitely does not eliminate “all the pictorial suavity and technical sophistication [photography] had accumulated [imitating] the Great Picture”; his intention seems quite the opposite. He visits many of the same streets and small towns as Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and other FSA photographers, deliberately scouring the virtual world until the “elements in a scene line up to create a sort of singular moment” – for example, #42.318327, Detroit, MI – and even carefully airbrushing Google’s markings from the final photographs. While Conceptualists of the 1960s and 1970s used amateurism as a cipher for naive authenticity, “through the artist’s performance as a non-artist”, analysis of Rickard’s work shows him to be acutely aware of photography’s “artification”. In fact, A New American Picture, as its name indicates, builds upon a long photographic history of pictorialism from Walker Evans’s American Photographs to “Robert Frank’s The Americans, Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces… [and] Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects”, that positions it at a significant remove from the avant-garde of Conceptualism. Moreover, like those illustrious earlier works, Rickard’s use the road is necessary but entirely incidental: it functions simply as a means to traverse a terrain in the search for vital subject matter. For Ruscha though, the road is vital as an organisational device for the concept, whereas the subject matter photographed is almost entirely incidental. Finally and most importantly, while Street View can be read as an archive of Readymades, the original concept behind Duchamp’s work (as with Conceptualism) was to challenge the ontology of the art object, which in its multiple iterations as both book and exhibition, A New American Picture does not.
Yet it is also undeniably a ‘conceptual’ series. The contention for this rests, like Limit Telephotography, on its highly strategised raison d’être and production. A linguistic clarification is required to elucidate the provenance of the images (Google Street View), so accounting for their vantage point, pixelation, blurriness and other aesthetic qualities. Their appearance, as what Hito Steyerl might describe as “poor images” that “take [their] place in the genealogy of carbon-copied pamphlets, cine-train agit-prop films, underground video magazines and other nonconformist materials”, is a rhetorically useful outfit for Rickard’s progressive intentions. His background lies in sociology and the project’s objective was to expose racial and social deprivation: “a side of America that was dark and incredibly brutal to many groups of people – African-Americans, in particular”. Finding the scenes depicted required countless hours of virtually surveying blighted communities and other research. In a depressing irony, he discovered that streets and boulevards named after Martin Luther King Jr, predominantly situated in African-American neighbourhoods, were “almost without exception the most broken part of every city” and thus a good place to start looking. Areas of renowned poverty and ethnicity were used as a funnel in his initial forays, but Rickard soon broadened his search to the whole continent, urban and rural, advocating the pervasive nature of American inequality. As such, these predetermined methodologies, and its intentions as a social critique, form the structure that successfully completes A New American Picture’s concept as an artwork.
#27.144277, Okeechobee, FL (2008) Rickard, D.
Expanding from these ideas, it’s possible to see how Rickard’s project similarly succeeds on levels beyond the immediate desire to highlight social injustice. Robert Shuster begins to approach this by noting the irony of “an unfeeling contraption designed by a multibillion-dollar company tak[ing] drive-by pictures of poverty”. Despite Google’s software blurring the subjects’ faces to make them anonymous, this merely appears to reduce their humanity instead, leaving the subjects as “symbols or icons, and not individuals”. Although we’re left to guess what Google might view them as symbols of, from the nine-foot camera height – an outlook “fraught with psychological uncertainty” – the view implied is one of condescension. “Those ‘bad neighbourhoods’ that many people actively avoid, but… many other people cannot escape” are simply database fodder, and those who cannot escape them simply register as smudges in Google’s quest to master the world’s information. Thus the inequality is portrayed through a system that itself, like colonial photographs of subjugated natives, embodies the structural inequalities of representation.
Furthermore, although raising awareness about inequality is a noble endeavour – as it has been since Jacob Riis – doing so by interacting with the bureaucracy of modern technology raises awareness of contemporary issues of arguably greater significance and urgency. More troubling than how we are viewed in A New American Picture (and thus in Street View), is the breadth of coverage – that we are viewed so extensively in the first place. Alongside more paranoid fears regarding Orwellian surveillance by corporations and the state, this evokes the very real prospect of Michel Foucault’s panopticonism, in which social discipline is impressed upon a populace through constant and conspicuous observation and examination. Ironically, in culturally reifying a tacit understanding of 21st century life (that we are heavily surveilled), Rickard’s series could be argued to either entrench a necessary condition of panopticonism, or conversely, critique the same situation.
These irreconcilable dialectics lead the viewer to moments of “the technological sublime – an awe in the face of vastly complex systems and their uncontrollable consequences”. For example, we can barely consider contemporary life without Google, let alone the idea of an ethically sound position on limits to its technologies and how to implement them. This consternation of technology “as a force that controls and threatens us” is likewise evident in Limit Telephotography, enriching its ‘conceptual’ scope. Although classified hardware remains hidden at the sites Paglen documents, it’s implicated in a “pervasive war on a global scale” waged covertly yet in plain sight by America’s vast military-industrial complex. Again, it’s near impossible for the viewer to apprehend the totality of multivalent factors involved – let alone reach a rational opinion that balances homeland security, geo-political threats, pork-barrel spending and the tide of propaganda surrounding US defence policy. A sense of dread at the gravity and intractability of such a situation becomes the only rational response.
However, there is a final twist to these projects. In their production, the artists enact radical performative roles that contain an additional ‘conceptual’ layer – perhaps even a salvation to the sublime anxieties they provoke. In re-photographing scenes from Street View, Rickard not only appropriates the physical content of the images, he also hijacks the hegemonic control of information that is Google’s corporate strategy, and co-opts it into his own socially conscious agenda to highlight inequality. Alluding the importance of sovereignty in the cultural public space, Colin McCabe asserts: “the ability to rework image and dialogue… may be the key to both psychic and political health”. By reworking the conditions of the 21st century’s visual fabric, Rickard seems to offer an example of how we should respond to such domination. Similarly with Paglen, his documentation of secret military bases “means insisting on the right to do it, and enacting that right”, arguing that “the politics of producing the photographs outweighs the significance of whatever information they contain”. His work thus becomes a performance of US citizenship in which by looking behind the curtain, he exercises Mirzoeff’s “right to look”. This is not simply a demonstration of political activism, but offers an essential counter-visuality to the one presented by the military-industrial complex that “totalises authority’s control via the militarisation and colonisation of everyday life and self-authorises by maintaining a perpetual risk of insurgent violence”. It fundamentally asks us to reject dogmas by actively investigating and challenging what we are ‘told’.
As such, the ideas underpinning and arising from Limit Telephotography and A New American Picture, not only ask the most pressing questions of our time, but also illuminate paths to redemption. To achieve this, their otherwise unremarkable photographs are required to be ‘conceptual’, using linguistic and contextual anchors to create their full meaning and relevance. As discussed, despite using similar means, it was put to the fundamentally different end of auto-critique in 1960s and 1970s Conceptualism. So to paraphrase Diarmuid Costello & Margaret Iversen, is “the majority of recent photographic art merely ‘after’ Conceptual[ism] in a weak historical sense”, or to what degree is it “truly… internalising and building upon its lessons?” By implying there are indeed “lessons” to be built upon, and assuming cultural progression is evolutionary, this is surely rhetorical. More interestingly though, it begs certain questions around how and why it has been built on.
Wall’s explanation for “the return of the ‘picture’ in photography” was that it “could not follow pure, or linguistic, Conceptualism all the way to the frontier” due to “its heavy burden of depiction”. Subsequently critiqued as “partisan” in this legitimation of “photographic tableaux, the terms of which his own practice may then be seen to fulfil”, he nevertheless makes a valid point that photography “cannot provide the experience of the negation of experience”. Conceptualism had encountered “the impossibility / fallacy of the absolutisation of anti-aesthetic”, thus the necessity of the aesthetic condition of art and its return to pictorialism. However in the process of reaching this point, Conceptualism’s employment and fusion of different disciplines (photography, performance, installation, etc.) had established decisively “the emergence of genuinely transcategorial practices”. This can clearly be perceived in the unconventional processes used to create the art of Paglen, Rickard and other prominent contemporary photographers. In the end, despite the dialectic around the art object’s ontology becoming intellectually exhausted, this post-medium condition surely suggests the view – in fact amongst all the arts – that the idea or concept is now paramount.
William Eckersley, June 2014
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