Not-quite/Not-right: Histories Bodies and Concepts in Contemporary Photography
Let’s begin with the title. It refers to a notion developed by the theoreti-cian Homi Bhabha, who in the 1990s reflected on the relation between art, culture and politics, situating art and culture in a broader context. In order to better grasp this relation, showing the process of radicalization of art and culture, and especially of forms of visual representations contaminated by politics, Homi Bhabha used the notion of not-quite/not-right. This notion describes a productive discontinuity in artistic practices that prevents the totalizing strategies of identity politics, where art is seen as simply geographi- cally localized or intimately psychologized.
The show brings to the surface of photography (dis)proportions and strate- gies that can be detected as structural interventions within contemporary photography, its history and the politics of representation. This exhibition’s primary concern is to display a paradigm of photography understood in the process of its fabrication and artificiality, being based on carefully staged and (re)played performances and performative actions behind and in front of the camera. Pointing toward what Bruno Latour defined as “techniques-of-re- presentation” within photography and its condition of possibility, this exhibition is not about “the optical space of visibility,” but about the way “representation is (re)negotiated” within contemporary photography. In the age of technologi-cal and more precisely digitally produced images, the problematic status of the medium of photography can be precisely captured by insisting on a gap that exists between the concept of photography as presenting a true under-standing of the world, and photography that accurately (de)constructs the rendering of things, bodies, spaces, and histories.
In this show, photography strongly accentuates the different perfor-mative politics (re)played in and for photography. The performativity in the photographs points directly to the process of construction. Secondly, it is possible to acknowledge the strong idea of conceptuality in the works, which questions the condition of photography, taking what seems to be the exterior of photography, what is waiting at its “door” (from politics to fashion, from democracy to intimacy), to its very interior.
The notion of conceptuality is also connected with the intervention of several discourses in photography, from theory and history to politics.
Tomaž Gregorič in his Periphery 33 (billboard, 2002) renegotiates the possibility of transforming a photographic representation of an ordinary landscape, with grass and trees, (thus the title Periphery, perhaps) into a field of antagonistic forces. Gregorič’s photograph displays an ordinary landscape marked (or even better, quilted) with the figures of two police-men appearing at, I should say, topographical points within the captured landscape. Contaminated with these one-dimensional, deeply ideologically signed figures, what seemed merely a peripheral landscape is turned up-side-down. The calm peripheral plotline is “quilted” through these “anchoring figures” and changed into a disturbing signifying chain. Gregorič’s photo-graphic landscape is “de-naturalized” by the figures of the policemen. On the one hand, the policemen are located out-side the main narrative (they appear within the landscape so disturbingly fabricated); on the other hand, this out-side is obviously essential for the photographic landscape event in-side. With them as anamorphic stains, the photographic landscape is transformed into a “screen” that not only makes visible the fake “reality” of the landscape somewhere outside there, but displays it as being a pure effect of its performative (re)organization and mediation for the medium of photography.
Irwin’s NSK (State) Guard photographs display “local,” but real soldiers that guard the flag of the imaginary NSK [Neue Slowenische Kunst] State in Time. The NSK (State) Guard brings together two, so to speak, impossi-ble levels of the functioning of every modern state: real soldier(s) from the respective national armies and artifact(s) that belong to the NSK State in Time: its flag and the Malevich cross imprinted on armbands. The projects were realized in Tirana in collaboration with the Albanian army in 1998, in Prague with the army of the Czech Republic in 2000, in Graz with the Aus-trian army in 2001, etc.
The NSK [Neue Slowenische Kunst] State in Time is a project begun in the 1990s by the Irwin group and other members of the NSK collective (Lai-bach, etc.) with the idea of a state that lives only in time, but which is made operational through real passports, real state insignias, and through em-bassies and consulates in private apartments and hotel rooms. The virtual NSK State employs construction, and instead of the outdated dichotomy between the public and the private, it ventures to create a possible glo-bal, although virtual, citizenship. There is something paradoxical about this virtual state model and its possible (kitschy, conceptual, and anti-modern) connections with art. Real Communism, Trans-national Capitalism, Bastard Malevich, Illegal Heartfield, Enthroned Magritte, and Naturalized Modern-ism – these are the elements used by the virtual NSK State in Time.
In the NSK (State) Guard photographs there is a type of tableau vivant that captures real soldiers (wearing armbands bearing the Malevich cross) guarding the (imaginary) NSK flag. The NSK’s flag consists of symbols from art history, notably the cross from Kasimir Malevich’s paintings at its cen-tre. The idea is to assemble everyday life and state policy with its phantas-mic supplement, which is art. Or to juxtapose, face-to-face, contemporary art and its phantasmic supplement: the army!
In 2003, Irwin realized The NSK Guard Kyoto. “Salary-men” (a calque in Japanese for office workers) took the floor, replacing the real national army and guarding the NSK flag. Within Japanese society, salary-men were an “army” of workers of crucial importance for Japanese industrialization. That they are like an army is emphasized by their uniform style of rather sober suits and ties. Behind their uniform, they hide their role of maximizing the efficiency of the capitalist machine. Through their mode of dress and in the way they function, they are a normalized anomaly within the capitalist system in Japan.
The effect of such juxtapositions is the de-realization and the de-psycholo- gization of the reality of the Institution of Contemporary Art. With such juxtapositions there is a diffracted picture of reality between art and army. Irwin does not ask us to merely choose between two or more options within a set of coordinates (art vs. army, etc.), but to change the set of coordinates itself. We have to deal here with the traumatic real, with the re-articulation and re-questioning of the position of the army in contemporary societies, and the art within the Art Institutions.
Jane Štravs’ work is directed towards perceiving photography as a com-plex act of projections, voyeurism, and desire that mould the spectator’s gaze. Once we become aware of this, we cannot but refuse the “innocent” belief that photography merely presents visual facts that are simply “out there” and which are now captured by the camera. Štravs’ models often ex-clude their immediate environment, floating in a placeless place. This theme has a long history in his work. It is possible to connect this disappearance within photography – the almost perfect mimicry of bodies within the en-vironment – with Maurice Blanchot’s phrase “a right to disappear.” For Blanchot, this presents the possibility of disappearing from the digitally and technologically produced and nurtured codes of the contemporary world. These codes impose precise spatial regulations and narrations aimed at surveillance and restriction. How can we subvert them?
In Štravs’ work, there is a process of incarnation that is contrary to incorporation. Incarnation, according to Marie-José Mondzain, gives flesh and not the body.² If the image gives flesh, then it gives flesh to a certain absence. Incarnation is a process that gives an image to the non-figurable. To incarnate is to become an image of passion. To incorporate, to give a body, on the contrary, means to give substance to something or anything which may be used, consumed, manipulated. To incorporate means to cut the body into particles and consume it in order to become part of the body of the institution or of the State. Incarnation opposes the idolatry of cultural visibility that is at the base of institutional incorporation. With incarnation, the image has three different levels of meaning: visibility, invisibility and the gaze that puts them into relation. In Štravs’ photographs we witness to a procedure of extraction rather than abstraction. The most pervasive effect of this extraction (via Alain Badiou) can be formulated as the extraction of the body from concrete spaces, of the gaze from bodies, and of the body from institutions.
Aleksandra Vajd & Hynek Alt Empire On/Off (archival inkjet print, 2005) re-photographs Andy Warhol’s film Empire (1964), which comprises 485 minutes of film capturing a single view of the Empire State Building in New York, from early evening until nearly 3 a.m. the following day, in two stills ta-ken from a television screen. What really matters in the two photo-graphs, with the titles On and Off, is the sign, familiar to television viewers, of the video pause method (that stops the playback of a video, while render-ing only the current frame on screen).These two photographic stills show how electronic media capture experimental and neo-avant-garde films and make them “profane.” This video pause sign is a mark of what happens to photography and analogue moving images when captured by digital tech-nology. It reveals the perfect conceptual transformation of the medium of photography.
Vajd & Alt are not solely a collaborative artistic team within the medium of photography – they are also a real-life couple. In their series ManWo-manUnfinished (2001 to 2006), they also posed in front of the camera. Vajd & Alt displayed their intimacy as a performative gesture that led to the estrangements of their bodies, transforming them into spectral “oth-ers.” Aleksandra Vajd & Hynek Alt No Audible Dialogue (archival inkjet print, 2006) consists of two photographs, of two scenes with a narration that can be described as alternation (on one photograph we see Vajd back/Alt face, on the other Vajd face/Alt back; while one is “here” due to its face, the other is “gone” and vice versa). This alteration also mimics that schizoid relation behind/in front of the camera begun with their ManWomanUnfinished, but with an important difference. In this work they inhabit only the photographic space. Instead of reflecting – it does not matter how well or tenderly – the intimacy of the symbolic reality between and surrounding them, Vajd & Alt multiply it into inflexible spaces of alterity. What are these spaces? Photo-graphic archives constructed from hundreds of photographs. Ambivalent vis-a-vis the medium of photography, we see Vajd & Alt only on two photo-graphs, each situated on a proper pile built from hundreds of other photo-graphs we will never have a chance to go through and see, as they are as such presented only as re-photographed piles of photographs. Vajd & Alt’s intimacy is therefore a remnant of the intimacy within the medium of pho-tography; it is a memory of intimacy produced by the materiality of a photo-graphic archive. As such, it is intimacy captured not “person to person,” but as a commentary on the photographic condition of possibility in a time of its digitalization and globalization.²
1 I draw the concept of incarnation and its difference from incorporation from Marie-José Mondzain, L’image peut-elle tuer? (Paris: Bayard 2002).
2 In the end of this essay I would like to connect some of the works in the exhibition with those by the group trie from Slovenia; its members, the young, new generation of Slovenian artists – Metod Blejec, Staš Kleindienst and Sebastjan Leban – are with their art interventions on the structure of the 51st Venice Biennale, as a scene of a counter event, developing strategies similar to some of the works presented in the exhibition. The group trie shows with its interventions that although the Biennale is rooted in forms of aesthetics, we can understand its connection with power and empowered history of art only if we intervene from a socially and politically motivated »outside« into the very aesthetically fabricated »inside« of the Biennale. Cf. Marina Gržinić, »Trie: An Anti-Essentialist, Politically Driven Art Intervention,« in Mixed Media – Venice Biennale, trie group’s catalogue, published in an edition of only 6 copies, Ljubljana 2006.
Marina Gržinić is philosopher and researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the ZRC SAZU (Scientific and Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Art) in Ljubljana. She is Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. She also works as a freelance media theorist, art critic and curator. Gržinić has published hundreds of articles and edited 13 books.