Even though I’m not an artist, I conceive of my projects like artworks: the content needs to reflect intelligently on its form, not pretend it doesn’t exist. From the beginning of my work here, I decided that the point was not just to write about topics relevant to a Camera Club on a blog but to try and use the formal proposition of a Camera Club with a blog to try and understand contemporary photography. So I want to ask the simplest version of this formal question: what relevancy does camera-based photography have in the contemporary art of today?
The term contemporary art (not Contemporary Art, the periodized movement) means a responsibility to respond to emerging aesthetic conditions. Recently these conditions have been overdetermined by digital virtual innovations meaning that contemporary art has been easily elided with “new media” art. The fundamental assumption of most “new media” art is that to respond to virtualized digital environment, it need take place within that environment. It’s obvious why camera-based photography has struggled to find its place in this narrow definition of the contemporary: a camera is a device that both exists in and (usually) requires a physical environment.
I have a problem with this definition of contemporary/”new media” , not (just) because it leaves no place for photography but because it risks implying that digital aesthetics is an autonomous space that spontaneously creates its own conditions and has no bearing on our material world. This seems to be why the earliest digital art communities were typically geared towards virtual utopian projects: they imagined their world was literally a no-place cut-off from the “real” world. A newer generation of artists allow for the “real” world to influence the aesthetics of the virtual world, but not the other way around. Artists like Cory Arcangel or the 0100101110101101.org collective are preoccupied with producing digital equivalents to moments in the history of art or material culture. This type of art basically follows from the computer-science discipline of “Virtual Reality”, which is specifically interested in the recontextualization/reproduction of a material, “real” world phenomenon into a digitized/virtualized form.
In order to open a space for photography and a dialog between real and virtual, I’m suggesting a new critical approach, also borrowed from computer-science, called “Augmented Reality”.
Augmented Reality, or AR, is a relatively new direction for interfacing with digital computing. Instead of imbedding the user into the immaterial, virtual environment of the computer, AR projects parts of that virtual world into our physical world. An AR equipped device simultaneously captures a live image and renders into that image some computer-generated artifact. Using different forms of gesture and spatial recognition, the device lets the user and their environment interact with the computer-generated rendering as if it were physically present in the user’s space. It’s essentially an interactive hologram that can only be seen when you look through the screen of your device.
As I see it, the formal principles of Augmented Reality, extracted from their use in videogames and cybernetics, can be an incredibly useful critical tool for contemporary art, especially photography. As a formal critique, AR means thinking about the ways in which the digital world intervenes in the material world; how the social, political, and aesthetic innovations of digital communities change the way the material world works and how we look at it.
It is a well worn critical insight that the advent of cheap viewfinder cameras changed the way we looked, even when we weren’t holding a camera, and I believe the same thing holds true for the effect of digital computing on material culture. Johnathan Crary makes a similar point specifically about vision in his book Techniques of the Observer, when he writes that a wide range of emerging technologies, “are relocating vision to a plane severed from a human observer.” While this is basically true, it only talks about vision and in a way that seems rather technologically deterministic to me; “severing human observers” has a sort of violent Skynet undertone to it, as if suddenly these new technologies are enslaving us.
I think the benefits of thinking in terms of AR is that it provides the opposite perspective; it reintegrates technological innovation back into the fabric of human life, and in doing so reveals the origins of the former in the latter.
This is important because technological determinism (of which most “new media” indulges in) is a kind of technological fetishism that works to replace relationships between people with relationships between technologies. Digital culture subjects us to all kinds of outrageous social, political, and economic limitations that we would never accept in “real” life but that we take for granted when they are presented as the byproduct of technological systems. For example, would you consent to the USPS selling the right to look at all your mail to advertisers so that they could read it and figure out what specific products you were likely to buy? I doubt it, but that’s exactly what Google Mail does. Would you continue to trust a company that surreptitiously hid a chemical in your medicine to make sure you stayed dependent on their products? Sony BMG admitted to doing something similar in 2005 when it was discovered that they had purposely infected users’ computers with malware as part of a digital rights management scheme. Would you buy a new car from a dealer who threatened to sue you if you tried to resell it? Microsoft tried that one.
Augemented Reality is a strategy to question and set in tension the principles of digital culture by (re)introducing them into the material world from whence they come. In doing so, AR lets us critique not just new ways of seeing, but changes in the aesthetics of politics and social behavior as well. So, what does AR photography look like?
In his series Deconstruction of a Mountain, Andrea Galvani photographs natural environments and then reinserts his prints back into the environment to be photographed again. For Galvani, the act of photography is understood as a feedback loop; an iterative process that travels back and forth across virtual and real space, becoming more and more complex as it picks up traces of the logic of each, like a tone that gathers distortion as it courses through an audio-loop. The structure works according to the principles of Augmented Reality wherein there is an interface or exchange between real and virtual spaces. The literal placement of digital photographs into their physical site moves in one direction (virtual–>real) while the final photograph moves the image in the other direction, back into the virtual space of digital photography (real–>virtual). This interface subjects the history of nature photography to the decontextualization and manipulation of digital photography just as it subjects digital photography and printmaking to the romanticism and site-specificity of nature photography.
In a series of untitled photographs from 2008, Tim Hyde collages together several fixed-frame shots of a man holding a piece of cardboard to create a single coherent but impossible photograph of space. A poetic proof of the inter-dependence of space and time, Hyde’s photos compress time to produce various geometric constructions that recall 3D models in both their blank texture and paradoxical shapes. Hyde takes advantage of the formal possibilities of Augmented Reality to virtually manipulate real space but without recourse to the actual technology–Hyde physically cuts and pastes the photographs himself. As such, his photographs speak to the potential for the analog “real” world to learn new strategies from virtual innovation and experimentation. This touches on the potential social and political import of AR theory: the liberatory tools of digital communities like Facebook or Twitter, so vaunted in the recent Arab Spring, are potentially available to communities that are totally without access to such technologies; what we need is creative translators.
A relatively early pioneer in Augmented Reality photography, Jim Sanborn, has been making large-scale nature photographs that incorporate computer-generated patterns of projected light since 1995. Referencing the computer assisted drawings (CAD) drawings used by topographers, Sanborn’s Topographic Projections series document light projections onto landforms that can be measured in square miles. Instead of mapping these virtual contours digitally in virtual space, Sanborn moves the operation into real space unsticking the content (a contoured mountain range) from its usual means of production (auto-CAD). The works open an uncanny gap between what an image appears to be (a digital manipulation) and what it actually is (a photograph of a luminous phenomenon).
Today the Internet has joined together to give us all a crash course in participatory politics. With two belligerent “anti-piracy” bills, SOPA and PIPA, waiting in the wings of Congress, a number of websites have turned their home pages into soapboxes to rally their users against the legislation. This controversy belongs to the decade’s history of sporadic but intense public outbursts of an interminable battle between the aging American content industry that distributes movies and music and the international network of digital communities that jeopardizes their business model. Metallica suing Napster, the arrest of PirateBay operators, even the Wikileaks controversy represents a version of this conflict between the two historic models of distribution. It’s like a giant endless bar fight that periodically spills into the street: one guy gets arrested from time to time, but more people are always piling in.
What is actually sustaining this brawl? How could it ever end? I think the history of photography can provide some clues.
First off, I don’t think the biggest obstacle facing the debate over digital piracy is that it suffers from some fatal disagreement over what to do with new technology, or even some kind of inter-generational gap in understanding about what such technology is capable of doing. I actually don’t think the biggest problem comes from disagreements of any kind. It’s the opposite. I think the digital piracy debate comes to loggerheads because the two sides tacitly agree on one faulty premise: that this debate is one about new technology. Beyond all their disagreements about specific policy, each side grounds their argument in the rhetoric of technological novelty and that’s what keeps their blinders on. For the conservative content-providers (e.g. the motion picture and recording industry associations) aggressive changes have to be made to existing copyright and piracy law to combat all the new threats digital media poses; the “progressive” community of artists and critics oppose such regulation on the basis that it undercuts all the new potential promised by digital media. Each side points to the same set of “emergent“ digital features–things like file-sharing, streaming, ect.–to support opposite conclusions about what ought to be done.
Recent technology has created new modalities for viewing, sharing, and repurposing and certain 20th century systems of content production and distribution feel threatened for the first time, but the shape of this socio-political crucible is timeless. And this is what the debate is missing: it isn’t about this or that technology its about the long-term social trends that produce the technology.I think you can pick any moment in the history of aesthetics and it will reveal the basic tension of the digital piracy issue: a confrontation between the rights of those who see and those who make things seen. I want to talk about the birth of photography in this context, not because I think it is any more relevant to digital debate than say the birth of the printing press, but because I think the history of photography, like every other medium, has specific features that can highlight corresponding details in the contemporary debate over digital piracy.
With that in mind, I want to ask an incredibly stupid question: what is the medium of photography?
There’s an easy case for saying something like photo-sensitive film or paper, or some combination of that and the “apparatus” of the camera. What else? Art Historian Rosalind Krauss makes the argument that a medium isn’t primarily determined by the physical make-up of its tools, but rather by any number of what she calls “technical supports.” The use of the term technical is a little confusing here because Krauss doesn’t mean any concrete machine or device but a related “systems of rules” or “conventions” controlled by more abstract entities, like the film industry or car culture. Accordingly, the medium of an artist like William Kentridge, who draws sinewy animations with graphite on paper, could be said to be the conventions of cel-based animation rather the his base physical tools. Thinking about a medium this way lets us move beyond discussing it as a function of technological tools and their material qualities; moreover, it lets us see how such tools actually develop in response to social conventions (“technical supports’)–how, for example, tracing paper comes to mean something different after the invention of animated cartoons.
So what’s the medium of photography? We could say it is, among other things, the convention of reproduction–not just the convention of making copies of any given negative, but also using photography to make reproductions of other works of art, like photos of paintings or sculpture. Nothing about physical qualities of what we call photography demands that it be used for reproduction in either of these two senses, its features seem to make such tasks easy, but the discovery of photo-sensitive chemicals didn’t force us to develop photography in that way anymore than the discover of colored pigments forced us to make easel paintings, instead of jars of colored water.
The reproductive possibilities of photography came to define the medium because its users wanted it that way. And while it would get me fatally off-subject to explain why I think they wanted it that way, all we have to do is look at the early criticism of photography to know that the medium was widely understood in terms of its conventions of reproduction rather than its physical features. The serious problem “the Arts” had with photography wasn’t that its artists used lenses or chemically-treated paper (painters use both of these too), but that its “art” seemed to be nothing more than the possibility of unlimited, unaltered reproduction. Walter Benjamin summarized the threat this posed to the traditional arts in his famous essay “the Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” where he coined the term “aura” to describe the value a non-reproducible art object held in distinction to that of a photograph. Aura was a function of originality, of a work’s ability to confidently show that it had a straight-forward relationship to the original individual and historical context that made it–in other words, to have aura was to have authenticity. The problem was, photography not only made aura-less images of the world (because they could be infinitely copied from their negatives), it also drained formerly unique works like paintings and sculptures of their here-and-nowness–their aura–by fixing their likeness in a reproducible form. To compensate for the loss of aura, Benjamin thought the photograph’s reproductive capabilities offered untold new potential for the “social function of art,” that Art’s production and reception could be greatly democratized now that its uniqueness (rarity) could no longer be protected. But for many of his contemporaries, the loss of auratic “authenticity” was, at least initially, a threat to the basic meaning (let alone monetary value) of all Art.
Doesn’t this mourning for authenticity continue today? How often today do we hear the complaint that “no one” sees works of art in their “original” form anymore, and that “no one” attributes any value to originality or authenticity anymore?
Contemporary anti-piracy advocates express these concerns as a function of money, or euphemistically as questions of “intellectual property”, rather than in the aesthetic terms of Benjamin’s times, but the complaint is basically the same thing: unfettered reproduction destroys the authenticity and therefore value of “art” (congrats, Justin Bieber, you’ve made it!).
The thing is, for the most part, the “progressive” opposition disagrees with the math but not the formula, they often say: yes, copying a work might theoretically threaten the value of that work, but you can’t really copy the whole work, so stop trying to limit technology (which has other important functions) and start focusing on increasing the value of the unique remainder that can’t be captured by it. On the one hand, people point to bands like Radiohead who sell expensive (non-digitally reproducible) physical packages for their work or continue to make money off live performances; and on the other, they encourage companies that provide uniquely valuable service features like fast, reliable web stores (iTunes, Amazon, ect.).
Both sides cling to the idea that for something to be valuable it need be rarefied, or at least “authentic”– but what they rarely discuss is that over the course of the history of man-made art, value has only recently come to be defined this way. As weird as it sounds, it is very hard to find evidence for the existence of our idea of “authenticity” before the 16th century in Western culture. Up until that relatively recent point, no one really cared if a work of art was authentic or not; it was far more important that a work of art fulfill its sacred function and to do that a work of art needed only superficial resemblance to the “original”–a painting of the Virgin Mary that everyone knew was made yesterday could enjoy the same cultural value as the mythical original sketch of Mary made by St. Luke as long as it looked the part.
My point is: if authenticity could suddenly enter the picture, why couldn’t it suddenly leave? It happened with photography. It took a while, but no one really questions photography’s place in the High Arts any more, not even the auction houses. Though questions of fakes and copies still swirl for particular works, in terms of medium, the Art world has made its peace with passing of authenticity. The world of digital content is learning a similar lesson the hard way–SOPA and PIPA are the death-knells of an industry that is being dragged kicking and screaming, not into the “future” but into an epiphany of the past. The reason it’s hard to see this connection at first is because no one is thinking critically about what the medium of digital media is–both parties in this debate assume the medium of any given digital technology is the new technology itself, it’s not. The medium is the set of social and political conventions that we have developed around sharing generally and these have their roots in the historical crises of political aesthetics (e.g. the emergence of photography). This is why these types of debates are always over before they even start–realistically, only a fool (or someone who is paid to act like one) thinks that digital piracy can be stopped, that the content industry can go back to the “good ole’ days”. When a “new” technology emerges to threaten the status-quo it is already too late to put the genie back in the bottle. The emergence of a technology like peer-to-peer file-sharing wasn’t the first step in a process of innovations about sharing it was one of the last. Technologies are prefigured by the demands of their communities; a medium produces its physical surrogate. By the time an industry gets around to addressing a given problem as a technological one, they are already too late.
The medium isn’t the message. The medium was the message, and they missed it.
Silver nitrates, the Brownie, Kodachrome film, the Polaroid, digital CCDs– the history of photography finds itself everywhere reduced to technological determinism: here comes some new technology, what can we make of it? If we include social, political, and philosophical developments in the history of the medium, they are mentioned as effects rather than causes. The birth of this Camera Club, for example, seems to follow from a historical boom in the availability of camera equipment and technological know-how to amateurs; and even this photography blog, born from the possibilities of digital optics and communications. As a writer and a curator, I’ve devoted my career to exploring the ways in which technology drives aesthetic innovation. I care a lot about the current role of technology in the arts and that’s why I’ve decided to try and destroy it.
What I mean is that I want reverse the way we talk about cause and effect in the photographic discourse. I want to figure out ways to talk about technology in relation to photography without falling back on technology to explain photography. How have historical social and political changes prompted the development of new tools and techniques in photography? How do certain social behaviors emerging today call for photography to innovate untold new aesthetic forms?
In running this blog for the next few months, my underlying premise will be that all of photography’s technological paradigms–all its tools, techniques, and ways of understanding–are generated by the contemporary habits of the community of artists, activists, and amateurs that use the medium, not the other way around. This goes as much for Nadar’s ingenious aerial photographs of 19th century Paris as for the public domain archives NASA maintains of its space photography program today. To invert a saying of the political philosopher Jacques Rancière, communities create forms of Art equal to themselves, no more and no less. People don’t suddenly stumble on a new idea or device like an alien artifact and then decipher its use–imbedded in every innovation is a human history of desire, struggle, and participation. Yes, technologies quickly outpace our intentions and expectations but only by being adapted through the ever-changing needs of its community of users.
In a sense, I think this means we have to stop relying so much on technology in aesthetics and beyond. I’m not asking for us to use less technology going forward–that would be like asking for less weather tomorrow–but I think we should stop imagining that technology and/or the experts who “invent” it magically supply us with everything we need to push the boundaries of Art, and our world. Instead, let’s work to create the type of community that is capable of imagining new tools and ideas, of calling forth forms equal to itself. On the one hand it means no one, specifically, will be responsible for inventing the future of photography and its place in the world; on the other, it means this future is already in the hands of everyone, regardless of if they realize it.
I didn’t invent this idea and below you’ll find some sources that convincingly argue for and against it. But I’m not worried about proving to you that my position on all this is original, or even the right one. My only goal is to try to use this chicken-and-the-egg question to temporarily bring the giant, unwieldy field of photography down to a level where we can explore the workings of its community, preside over its history and its future in equal measure, and find new ways of looking at and through the camera.
social, political, and philosophical histories of photography: