The Epistemology of the Pic in Pics or it Didn’t Happen


Giselle Stanborough

Only the most credulous of viewers will see a photograph as a neutral document of reality. Those of us privileged with an art history education (and dear readers, I am assuming that’s the bulk of you) may, like me, have some vague recollection that the camera offers mechanical, objective documentation and an ability to record everything ‘that has been’[1]. This theoretical claim has endured constant rebuttals based on an accumulation of evidence which suggests that the use of the camera was marked by ‘outside intervention right from the outset’.[2]

We live in an age where advertising photographs become newsworthy for being untouched.[3] The implication is that we should, as literate consumers of the image market, place experience in such a profoundly intellectual Brechtian alienation-effect that we may read the menacing manipulations of say, a lingerie ad, as a Machiavellian schematic. As if the very knowledge that the image is digitally distorted would somehow make the viewer immune to the reactive combination of aggravated insecurities and a synchronous affirmation that ‘I am worth it’.

Furthermore, in a constantly connected environment of ‘prosumption’[4] (an economic model typified by the culture of Web 2.0), social media users appropriate the aesthetic modalities that are characteristic of commercial photographic representations of the body. For the body is what a photograph of a person must inevitably depict, given that the abstractions of language such as ‘self’ are beyond the reach of a lens.[5]

The irreconcilable nature of the object and its photographic representation might seem a trite platitude in an age where obsessive documentation of our food has become so commonplace as to be a cliché. In the arts industry, the thorny epistemology of photographic documentation is camouflaged by institutionalised routine and a commercial imperative that such photos be ‘good’. It is near impossible to imagine anyone who is actually accountable to the workaday running of a woefully underfunded arts institution (and I hear they all are) would have time to pontificate on the broader existential ramifications of Photoshopping out an ugly and distracting power cable. That is, unless you are a professional photographer…

Pics or it Didn’t Happen is an exhibition that resulted from a collaboration between myself and photographer Zan Wimberley, which was initially instigated by the curator Megan Monte. After a series of meetings and discussions a friendship bloomed and so did a loose methodology for an exhibition:

  1. Take some photo of gallery space
  2. Photoshop it so it looks better than in does in real life.
  3. Display photo
  4. Repeat steps 1, 2, and 3.

The final product is a series of photographs so aestheticized as to bear only a marginal resemblance to the gallery installation itself.

Documentation is part and parcel of the exhibition process for obvious reasons. The limited geographic and temporal availability of the site meant that the number of art viewers paled in comparison to the potentially infinite and really super-important and powerful art-world players poised for a positive reception to the work but they just couldn’t come to the gallery because they were in Melbourne at the time or whatever. The accumulation of images is a foundational affirmation of practice that verifies the very existence of the artist’s oeuvre. Photographic documentation of art in situ is an indispensible perfunctory component of the art market from every perspective.

And I’ve got nothing against it. It is notable to mention that before Zan was my collaborator, I was her client (and I confess that for this she received a shamefully meagre fee). But the concern of Pics or it Didn’t Happen is not with documentation per se, but rather with documentation as sovereign dictator of exhibitions constructed to be best seen in 72dpi on a luminous screen. Sontag might have famously stated that ‘today everything exists to end in a photograph’,[6] but one would do well to also recall a previous passage of On Photography: ‘Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.’[7]

And this is why I find an unquestioning adherence to the authority of the photographic exhibition document antithetical to the ideas that fostered my interest in art in the first place.

In Pics or it Didn’t Happen, Zan’s photography was, as always, immaculate. The install itself was not. To view the photographs in the gallery space was to be confronted by a hang just sufficiently askew to temper the viewer’s ire at our evidently inept wielding of the spirit level with the impression that at least we were trying. The digital prints curled and quickly faded from Zan’s characteristic cool palette to the blotted magenta tincture that belies a flagrantly budget print job. However, to this I respond that the photographic patina always adds a kind of romance. A few of the walls were marked by small greyish stokes that unmistakably came from a hand much larger than mine. We kept them as an homage to the labour and gestures of those who had rented the space prior. I have always thought there was a quiet earnestness to the humility of grime.

This is, of course, my interpretation of the hang. Needless to say such filth and dilapidation does not aptly translate to the illuminated geometry of pixels on a screen. It sits against the visual syntax of slick and stark composition that has become a convention of contemporary art documentation and is mandated by the dictates of .jpg/.png/.tiff aesthetics. Like all systems of grammar, one only notices when it is absent.

So all the crooked angles, the mucky hand prints, the washed-out photos didn’t make the cut of documentation. It is almost as if we have no documentation, but on the other hand, all we have is documentation. In its aftermath, Pics or it Didn’t Happen possessed a bizarre inversion of its title not only in the way that it eviscerates the very purpose of exhibition documentation but also deals with it in a meeker, sadder way. How is it I have so many pictures and still feel like nothing happened? This sentiment goes beyond the confines of the exhibition and occasionally bleeds into an uncanny and perplexed recognition of a Facebook photo or two. ‘I am truly becoming a spectre’[8].

However I believe that ultimately Pics or it Didn’t Happen hypothesises a means of documentation beyond the photographic, even beyond the empirical. The ‘real world’ version of the exhibition is now destined to atrophy in that most vulnerable of annals, biological memory, and is thus fated to be forever doctored and retouched at the discretion of the viewer’s subconscious.

Pics or it didn't happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte Pics or it didn’t happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte

 

Pics or it didn't happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte Pics or it didn’t happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte

 

Pics or it didn't happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte Pics or it didn’t happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte

 

Pics or it didn't happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte Pics or it didn’t happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte

 

Pics or it didn't happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte Pics or it didn’t happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte[/caption]

 

Pics or it didn't happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte Pics or it didn’t happen, 107 Projects, Redfern 2014, Zan Wimberley, Giselle Stanborough, Megan Monte


 
[1] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1981:76- 77.

[2] Clayssen, Jacques “Digital (R)evolution” Photography After Photography: Memory and Representation in the Digital Age Ed. Huubertus v. Amelunxen et al. Munich: GB Arts. 1996: 76.

[3] See Dockterman, Eliana “Keira Knightley and 7 Other Celebs Who Protested Photoshop and Won” TIME Nov. 7 2014 http://time.com/3572400/keira-knightley-topless-celebrities-protest-photoshop/ for one such example, though a simple phrase search for ‘celebrity untouched’ will likely glut your Google sufficiently.

[4] Tapscott, Dan and Williams, Anthony D. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything New York: Portfolio. 1996.

[5] Postman, Niel. Amusing Ourselves to Death London: Redwood Burn. 1986: 72.

[6] Sontag, Susan. “On Photography” New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1977: 24

[7] ibid. 23.

[8] Barthes, 14.

Giselle Stanborough is an emerging intermedia artist whose practice often addresses online user generated media and the way in which such technologies encourage us to...


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