'Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously'
Photography and the Syntax of the Archive
by David Campany
For good reason perhaps, much of our photographic theory is marked by an anxiety about the proper place of images: about their use, their re-use and their misuse. So readily are photographs detached from their origins that the overriding inclination is often to 'return' images from whence they came, to locate their 'real' meanings somewhere in their material source. Certainly this is an important task. It can reveal a great deal about why, how and for whom images are produced. It shows us that photographic meaning is heavily dependent upon context and that shifts in context - historical, institutional, cultural - produce shifts in meaning. We might think of how critics such as John Tagg have insisted on the concrete origins of Farm Security Administration pictures from 1930s USA, or of Allan Sekula's writings on what he has called the 'traffic in photographs', examining the constant reinvention of meaning. Producing a 'history of photography' has so often meant ignoring history proper, which makes insisting on the sources of pictures a necessary task. Moreover, in an amnesiac, spectacular society of simulation and inane recycling any discussion of the genesis of photographs is a significant antidote.
However, the over-insistence on origins can sometimes amount to a refusal to accept the radical possibilities of the reuse of images. We might even argue that since photographs are signs (in the semiotic sense) then their relation to any particular site will only ever be provisional, for good or bad. The condition of being a sign is that it always carries with it the potential of 'contexts to come'. And this suggests that the first site of a photograph can never be the last word. With this in mind I want to look at a small number of practices that have reused archival images. Some are art practices, some are not. None of them make use of what has come to be called the 'found image'. This phrase is now invariably used in conjunction either with domestic snapshots or regular passport photos, for which the term 'found' conjures up scenarios of chance encounter: the images are discarded or lost and the historian or artist sweeps up these formulaic pictures as evidence of the richness or strangeness of everyday life. Instead I want to look at images that are not so much found as sought.
I'll begin with my earliest example. In 1977 the North American artists Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan published a book called Evidence. They had scoured over eighty institutional and industrial archives, looking through two million photographs. They selected fifty-nine and presented them with generous white borders between hardback covers. Like classical art photography books, theirs was printed beautifully and designed elegantly, but it presented highly 'applied' scientific and forensic images. Here were shots of laboratory experiments, mechanical and electrical installations, parts testing and precise measurement. These were images that were so specific they appeared to have barely more than their now unknowable purpose. They were certainly too strange, too resistant to lend themselves to any simple conversion into art. The minimal presentation blocked or made partial their once descriptive and instructive functions. Divorced from their archival files and grouped together the photographs articulated their own inarticulacy, so to speak. Evidence forced a reflection on the dependence of even the most functional of images. The patent failure of the photographs as evidence in this new setting was the success of the book. The images toured as an exhibition, mimicking fine art prints but refusing to play the game at the same time. The project was a photographic equivalent of Noam Chomsky's famous expression 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously', a sentence created to point out how language might be grammatically correct but semantically confusing, while never being entirely meaningless.
In the 1960s and 70s many museums, galleries and curators were busy trawling all kinds of archives with the aim of producing new 'masterpieces'. Evidence seemed to point to the inherent absurdity of such a process, one based on the over-simple assumption that one context might simply 'replace' another - as if functional photography might simply 'become' art photography if art said so. Certainly images can be moved from one site to another and most have meanings a good deal more malleable than those chosen by Mandel and Sultan: topographic documents can be easily reemphasised as 'landscapes', identificatory portraits reemphasised as 'studies' or 'expressions' etc. But it is not site alone that determines meaning. It is also a function of discourse. One need only think of photomontage. It exploits the idea that each fragment is read both in terms of its place in the created whole and its origin somewhere else, perhaps a newspaper, a shopping catalogue or a manual. It is within montage as it evolved in the 1910s and 20s that artists first addressed not just the found image but the archive itself as a mode of organisation and retrieval in a culture increasingly dominated by the visual. Here the archive itself starts to become graspable for maker and viewer rather than being accepted blindly as a neutral storehouse. In this sense Evidence is also a form of montage, not at the level of image combination but at the level of its frames of meaning. The photographs remain intact but the shift in context produces a fringe interference between overlapping discourses of art, science, industry and authorship. The precursors here of course are Marcel Duchamp's Readymades. His urinal, or Fountain (1917) never ceases to be a urinal in an important sense. Positioned in the gallery the object is also framed by the toilet or the plumbers' yard or the factory. The object exists in one site but several frames of reference.
Photographs are never as functional as urinals. What makes them more complicated is that they always exist at the meeting point of multiple discourses. Some of those discourses are usually suppressed in order to make the image appear to operate self-evidently in just one - the police file, medicine, the family album, new whatever. What characterised the vanguard art practice from which Evidence emerged was a realisation of this. From here art could be understood as a space not to make 'art photography' but to reflect on, estrange, remake or critique the broader social functions of the photograph.
With its astute derailing of audience expectations we can place Evidence at the cusp between conceptual art's late 1960s disruption of the photo as social fact, and the Duchampian appropriation strategies of postmodern photography taken up a decade later in, for example, the rephotography of Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, and the Untitled Film Stills of Cindy Sherman. The book also stands at another cusp: between the archive as a physical site and the archive as electronic data. Traditionally archives have been places to be entered in a physical sense. They have housed images as material objects: negatives, transparencies, prints, files, dossiers. Part of the fascination of Evidence then, is the fact that these two artists visited so many sites, sifted so many images, and presented with their own cryptic criteria just a few dozen from the millions. We can contrast it with a more recent electronic project. Love for Sale was made by Bruce Mau Design some twenty years later. In 1997 the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist invited several artists to make temporary work for the Sir John Soane's Museum in London, a townhouse crammed with one man's collection of art and artefacts. A thousand photographs of objects were downloaded from Ebay, the popular internet auction site. Mau presented sequentially these pictures of assorted stuff. The result was a work that economically raised questions of artistic authorship, of the objecthood of art and commodities, of relations between high art and mass culture, of different archival forms and of the physical or virtual nature of institutions. Culled from the net and then projected, the images never took a material form. (That said, they have since been published: even ephemeral installations seem to manifest in print in the end). In contrast to Evidence, Mau's retrieval and organisation was carried out from a computer monitor. There was no physical travelling to be done, just a little surfing. The work adopts a deliberately serial tedium, while on the page it takes the proto-archival form of a grid, the default manner in which artists have re-presented non-art photos at least since Pop.
We can take the automatism of the grid a step further. Profil is one of numerous projects by the Austrian Hans-Peter Feldmann that reflect on photography as a dispersed mass medium. Most often his approach involves disaggregating images from their accompanying texts, similar to Evidence and Love for Sale, in order to recombine them as laconic, radically open groups. These usually take the form of small publications of his own pseudo-bureaucratic design. In 2000 Feldmann persuaded the weekly magazine Profil to reprint an issue removing all of its text, leaving just the images on white pages. Quite coincidentally this issue covered the accession of the extreme right wing Jörg Haider into the Austrian parliament. Feldmann appropriated not just the images but the labour, the design, the very institution of the magazine. The result is enigmatic pages of aleatory grids, formal arrangements formed by chance. The source of the layout is the now invisible text.
Despite the engagement with recent technologies the kinds of strategy deployed in these works have been central to avant-gardes across the twentieth century. Formalist 'defamiliarization', Bertholt Brecht's notion of 'refunctioning', Marcel Duchamp's artwork as Readymade, Cubism's 'found object' and the Situationist 'détournement' are all strategies that hijack in order to re-wire or de-wire. The effect is to complicate boundaries, blur categorical distinctions and shake up cultural habits.
Of course there is nothing inherently radical in recontextualisation. Indeed many have argued that what characterises contemporary image culture is the always tenuous relation between images and their meaning. This can serve conservative as well as progressive ends. Consider the rise of stock photography, or 'pre-shot' photography as it is now called. This is the commercial exploitation of the 'open' image par excellence. Photographs are made speculatively and archived quite literally to await a commercial context to come. The practice has been revolutionised by electronic communication: no more endless picking through ten-eights or transparencies, simply click on keywords and refine your search. The result is a visual culture in which images 'fit the bill' temporarily and never exactly. A picture of a man planting potatoes might appear in a farming magazine or on a leaflet for a bank. Many of the images we see daily are made this way. They are images that no longer even attempt specificity.
One of the greatest impacts of the electronic domain has been on the rapid acquisition and accelerated exploitation of the world's image archives. For example Bill Gates' Corbis Corporation has been busy buying up millions of photographs and digitising them for commercial licence. For Corbis an image is its reproducibility and the archive is little more than a sophisticated, cross-referenced menu for a databank that can be 'housed' and accessed almost anywhere. Almost. One imagines the corporation would be happy promoting the idea that all history and all culture is archived, that the archive 'is' history and that access to it is as global and democratic as the earth is round. This is far from true. We need only consider archival projects that attempt to piece together absent histories. The Cambodian Genocide Photographic Database at Yale University in the USA has scanned more than 10,000 photographs related to human rights violations under the Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. There are 5,000 photographs of prisoners held, interrogated or murdered. The images are numbered but not named. Accessible on line it is hoped that faces can be identified and fates can become known. The images originate in government records but their new value is as fragments of a traumatically incomplete history. A similar project is aka Kurdistan overseen by Susan Meiselas of the Magnum photo agency. This is perhaps the most ambitious and politically urgent archival project of recent years. It comprises a vast array of material from scattered sources and includes oral testimony, press articles and photos, diary entries, state and personal letters, government dossiers, and telegrams, along with recent photographs by Meiselas and others. Kurdistan 'disappeared' after World War 1 when the territory was redistributed by the victors. Under threat ever since their archives have either been destroyed by the countries in which the Kurds find themselves living, or they were voluntarily destroyed for fear of persecution. Kurdistan has no archives to speak of, or with. Meiselas' project is a major attempt to reconstitute one. It was published as a substantial book (Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, 1997). The need to publish speaks of the still necessary place of the library as a site of knowledge and of the printed form itself as a symbolic matter of record: it exists. It is also a touring exhibition and an interactive website that helps facilitate the identification of unknown Kurdish photographs. This is a project based not on a singular official voice but on dialogue, participation, collaboration and flexibility.
While the Cambodia and Kurdistan projects do not set out to be reflexive commentaries on the archive, this is certainly an important characteristic. The very attempt to piece together and to bring into being, into collective consciousness, an archive where there was none makes tangible for us the process of making meaning and assembling history. They point to the way archives are never adequate to historical understanding.
Whether deconstructive or reconstructive what all of these projects have in common is a recognition of the always mobile, always contested nature of the photograph and its meanings. But rather than collapsing into an easy relativism in which any reading is as good as any other there is an understanding that a reflexive knowledge demands we include the archival within the frame rather than leaving it outside.