Plants exist, people exist. They live like two peas in a pod. Tony climbed into his pod to snuggle his magnolias.
Pataphysical traditions tend to focus on processes of their creation and elements of chance or arbitrary choices creating imaginary solutions to imaginary problems that recreate and mimic themselves through process of doing so. Baudrillard says in his 1992 essay Pataphysics of Year 2000, ‘nothing behind us exists anymore, only the present.’ I relate this quote (and essay in its entirety) to the continuing theme within my practice of moving existing visual culture from a point of nostalgia to a new contemporary role in today’s society. History no longer exists, but it has left a lot of things behind. These things become tools in my work and I piece them together to create new stories, an imaginary world that only exists in the present. People who come across GBC in the future, even a second after it is made, will attach their own fantasies, their own stories to the work just as I have done with the existing imagery in the first place. GBC becomes a pataphor for an original idea, seeking to describe a new and separate world where that original idea has taken a life of its own.
In The Imaginary Solution, Douglas-Dworkin (2007) describes pataphysics as being two degrees of separation from reality. The plants that exist in GBC were once photographed for inclusion in a book. Being photographed is meant to replicate reality, but this does not always transcend in new meaning or new context in which the photograph is placed. The photograph then becomes one degree separated from reality. That photograph/book then moves forward in time 40 years and is picked up and that photograph cut out to be appropriated next to an image taken from a American Apparel advert where the model has also lost his head in place of a green leafy plant. The second degree of separation takes place, and no longer is the plant serving a pictorial reference for a pruning article, but is now taking a role in an entirely imagined world exploring their relationships with people, thus removing it entirely from its original context.
My practice has always been concerned with the idea of digital technologies having the capability to remove the physical photograph and attached processes from today’s culture. Digital technologies can be used to create fantasy worlds through online gaming, websites and photo manipulation software, store digital archives and be used in any facet of life whether it be through computers, smart phones or tablets. It is this distinct acceleration of digital technology and media that Baudrillard blames for the ‘losing tempo of liberation’ and means we are only now loosely attached to the real. We can no longer pin down reality or meaning because of the digital absorption that we are contained within. I wrote about a similar issue when addressing my first year MA work, in the post named ‘RIP Pat Butcher’ examining the worlds people believe in beyond reality, in places such as Eastenders; sending cards to a fictional character when she had died onscreen. When applying this to the idea of GBC, it comes down to the breakdown of foundational knowledge on which I base stereotypes and presumptions of a certain era. I was born in 1988, and remember nothing before roughly 1992-1993. Things I know about history have been taught, researched or presumed. It is this foundational knowledge on which I make presumptions about a book I find in a charity shop from 1976. It is a certain colour, it smells a certain way and the people within the pages are wearing certain clothes. These beliefs I then attach to an object that has travelled through time could be entirely untrue to begin with. Things I think have happened, that actually may not have happened at all mean I immediately breakdown the knowledge into a pataphysical idea and expand that idea further through collage and photography. The narrative that originally existed has gone through so many state changes; we know nothing true about anything except for the now. Thinking that all history no longer exists can force an obsession of the now, spurred on by its exemption from linear time. We seek immediate satisfaction but fear the forgetting, so no longer trust the meaning of events in current time. When we arrive at the event, we then arm ourselves with tools of artificial memory in order to preserve the event without experiencing it in the now, in order to recall it later in time.
Linking with ideas of the absurd, pataphysics creates meaningless worlds where if context is applied the general laws of pataphysics become weakened. Garden Book Club is an entirely pataphysical world, where proportion is ignored and facts of botanical science turned upside down. It explores a world of plant obsessives (which do in fact exist in metaphysics) but extends the idea further by changing facts and placing fully grown men in glass plant containers, among other things. The imaginary problem that GBC attempts to solve is that the imagined people who are embodied through collage have nowhere to go to talk to people of similar ilk or with the same interests. Providing a ‘club’ to which they can share stories and peculiar images of one another becomes the solution. All the content contained in GBC is made up of elements entirely removed from context, placing them in a pataphysical myth where people will attempt to apply existing foundational knowledge to when viewing. On failing to do so, people tend to become defensive or panic that their knowledge does not stretch to this new visual culture, and thoughts race whilst trying to apply something, anything relevant they can. I find that most people tend to try and understand the plant element before the role of the people, which seems a much easier process for most. I have rarely been questioned past the ‘relationships between plants and people’ answer I give to ‘what is it about?’ and I think this links directly back to seeing a world we do not recognize or have not learned through school or the internet.
This may be because plants are seemingly ‘emotionless’ physical things, although they share a few of the same qualities as humans. This lack of emotion means they are immediately easy to interpret than the more complex human aspect. They are treated as objects, and objects that do not offer opinion or any argument to the way they are treated meaning humans can abuse, or obsess about plants.
Baudrillard, J. (1992). Pataphysics of Year 2000. Galilee: Paris. Available:http://www.uta.edu/english/apt/collab/texts/pataphysics.html
Douglas-Dworkin, C. (2007) The Imaginary Solution. Journal of Contemporary Literature. 48:1, pp. 49-60
Roland Barthes wrote in his seminal book Image Music Text:
As for the other meaning, the third, the one ‘too many’, the supplement that my intellection cannot succeed in absorbing, at once persistent and fleeting, smooth and elusive, I propose to call it the obtuse meaning. The word springs readily to mind and, miracle, when its etymology is unfolded, it already provides us with a theory of the supplementary meaning
Working with the everyday and generic found photographs, in itself doesn’t cause much concern for interest. However, with the collage works I have most recently received feedback on, the same comments kept coming up. People commented on the fact that the collages were humorous, playful, sometimes a little dark – but they were not entirely sure why as the imagery used was already familiar to them. Separately, a catalogue photograph of a plant is indeed just that, a photograph of a plant. A photograph taken from a bowling technique handbook is under most circumstances, quite a dull image. When paired together, these original, intended meanings still exist but a new, third meaning comes into play. This is the case for a lot of photographic images that are presented in an art context. William Eggleston took a colour documentary photograph of a tricycle from a low angle. I know what the purpose of the trike is, a child’s play thing, and I can understand why Eggleston chose the subject matter for its colour and shape, a nod to childhood and nostalgia perhaps (the obvious meaning). Portraying such a photograph in a gallery at, say, 3ft by 3ft rather than the 6×4 prints we are familiar with in albums, opens up the audiences’ mind to search for a third meaning where they can look beyond the intended narrative and begin to unravel the photograph for themselves. For me, the trike photograph in question not only makes me recall a memory of falling off a trike quite similar and putting all my bottom teeth through my lip, but makes me think of the trike’s owner. Where was he when this photograph was made? Was Eggleston aware of the owner or was it seen in passing? Had he in fact fallen from the trike and sustained the same injuries that I did? Okay, so attaching memory to a photograph isn’t quite what Barthes had in mind for the third meaning but my interpretation of the photograph has taken place because I am presented with such familiar information removed from its original context, in turn creating a third meaning. If you were to see the same image in a family album in the loft, you would probably glance past it as quite a banal image. Documentary photography that seems mundane and dull actually possesses a strong will to draw the third meaning from its audience, enabling them to look round the subject matter, behind the imagery and into the supplementary meaning, due to its more obvious stature to start with.
John Walker writes about the ‘third-effect’ meaning in his essay Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning in relation to text and image within advertising. Having a strong image and adding a carefully selected pun or witty comment can entirely change how the audience views the advert- creating a third meaning from the juxtaposition of the two elements. Habitualisation of elements of life, reinforced by the media and messages we receive make us feel conditioned that things that happen do so through a natural order of things.
When this natural order or tacit knowledgeis disrupted, the mind creates other solutions, other meanings. The collages I create do just this, people should be familiar with plants, and with imagery of people from the past yet they are not familiar with the juxtapostions that the collages become, making them an object of the absurd, turning sense into nonsense. Creating an artificial world is something that photography and art excel at, and begs authors and audiences over and over to question what they think their reality actually is or whether it actually exists in imitation, reflection or stark contrast to our ‘non-artificial’ world and the relationships between. Filip Hotovy discusses the notion of photography’s reputation for representing the real, which was once it’s key selling point. We look at photographs and see a moment we insist on believing that has happened- a connection to the non-artificial world at some stage in time. However, this means we discard the immobilised objects and faces, discard the fact that the world is not in fact black and white and that the photographer’s intentions were intended to be innocent. Where does the realism lie when all this is removed from the interpretation? Contemporary photography has addressed this through embracing the artificial worlds that it can create, leading to a boom in collage and manipulated imagery from Broomberg+Chanarin, Stezaker, Henner and Gordon taking over centre stage from the likes of Capa, Frank, Arbus and Friedlander.
I have included some photos of the latest studio critique that took place. I curated my space to display some of my latest work and reference points.
Throughout my photographic practice, I am constantly looking for contextual inspiration and artists to inspire me. Broomberg and Chanarin are a collective that I often revisit as I find some similarities between them the way I work, as well as admiring their photography/art/collage crossover practice as a viewer. Broomberg and Chanarin have worked together since meeting as principal photographers for Colors magazine. Their practice is a distinct mixture of art, archival experiments and photojournalism, adopting traditional photographic methods, but bringing them right up to the contemporary by applying them in a different context. The way they work is not structured, and possesses a ‘free ranging thought process’ (Williams, 2008). Their work sets out to end the idealistic view of society that documentary photography portrays. Each work addresses the world and confronts themes of histories, conflict and emotion in a very different way. Holy Bible (2013) is a violent conversation set among the pages of a Bible inspired by Brecht’s very own copy, whilst Scarti (2003) is an entirely melancholic journey into gated communities, with a sensitive approach to portrayal. I link them directly to the photo book culture that I am currently embroiled in- I own their books, have seen their books and even when I visited the Deutsche Borse Prize exhibition last year (which they won) the work was indeed- a book. Set out in many glass cabinets of the books and some selected prints, the audience was invited to see a different type of photographic work in a gallery space. Whilst in conversation with Jeffrey Ladd, Chanarin and Broomberg spoke of the resurgence in the photo book:
As collaborators, you have worked both in books and exhibitions in a certain degree of success where many of your projects work well in both forms. You have also started your own small imprint Chopped Liver Press. I was wondering if you have a preference for the intimacy of books over the public exhibitions?
The definition of ‘book’ is undergoing a radical transformation. Far from becoming obsolete, the book — particularly the photo book — is experiencing a new lease of life. They speak to us. They turn their own pages. They update themselves. They have been de-materialized. Chopped Liver Press emerged as a response to this. We make handmade books in our studio. Very limited runs. When they are gone, that’s it. ForWar Primer 2, however, we produced two versions, a handmade edition of just 100 copies that was instantly sold out, and an e-book version that was freely available and continues to be downloaded. The code that powers these digital books is limited. But there’s great potential for intimacy.
The work they have produced contains a mixture of found imagery, online imagery and their own photographs. They collage and appropriate into different materials to achieve their desired outcome. Neither one of the pair has had formal photographic training and I think this is reflected in the free, unique style their work possesses. Having been ‘trained’ in formal photographic education, this particular point interested me quite a lot. Coming through an institution with a set of ideals to what photography should look like, my style has been influenced and shaped according to this. It is only until I felt confident enough with the skills and knowledge of photography that I felt it was ok to experiment with the style in which I presented photographic work. Presenting collage of existing imagery as a medium of practice as a photographer is a grey area and difficult to pin down both for myself as an artist, and the audience member. When selecting images to use within my work I make judgements solely based on aesthetic value, I can only see the 2D image, I have no facts to work with. Chanarin addressed this issue when discussing their work, Trust (2000).
Trust contains no narrative other than the one which we impose upon it
through looking. We can imagine what the subjects are seeing, making these conclusions through studies of the faces that we see. But we have no facts.
Reinterpreting work moves it through time, with each new encounter giving it more and more meaning for both artist and audience. These fragments are often marked randomly, offering up ‘a self contained universe all of their own’ telling stories of desire, frustration or ‘thwarted communication’. Broomberg and Chanarin comment on the ‘upsetting of the archive’ but insist it is resisting the traditional categorization and sequence to which it was destined. I see the work of this collective pair as a refreshing model for contemporary photography, and view it as a model of experimentation. Using these ideas and experiments myself has helped me realise ideas and produce strong work that I am confident in and proud of. Garden Book Club (2014) is an example of experimental practice I undertook with varying success- letting myself work freely with any material and medium I wished rather than within the constraints of photographic ideals, has meant I have enjoyed the process of making as well as being satisfied with the outcome.
Williams, V. (2008). No Statistics. Netherlands Photo Museum
Ladd, J. (2013) The Holy Bible, Appropriated: An illustrated scripture by Broomberg and Chanarin. TIME Lightbox
Dutch photography critic Ralph Prins (1969) describes the photo book as
‘An autonomous art form, comparable with a piece of sculpture, a play or a film.’
The photo book has been a fundamental means of expression and dissemination since some of the earliest practitioners pasted their images into books where sketches would have once sat. 19th century photography’s place was the library or the archive, as it was seen as a tool for making and recording rather than an art form in its own right. In this archive would sit many prints and contact sheets, as well as photo books. When photography was seemingly accepted into the mainstream art world, these photo books were then pulled apart and separated into gallery worthy prints. Photo books have the potential to be much more far-reaching than exhibitions, and can continue long after an exhibition has closed.
I am interested in exploring the value that a photo book holds as an object, as an art piece, or how it can form a vehicle for exhibition or transporting work to a more general audience. An avid collector and admirer of the photo (and artist) books, I am very much inclined to agree with Prins’ grand statement placing the photo book’s value up there with much loved and well established art forms. When presented on their own, photographs may not work as the creator intended. Many photographers shoot work imagined as a series, rather than a singular image. Photographs may lose character as things alone, but can become the words, sentences or paragraphs forming this ‘dramatic event’ called a book, where their message can be translated in a strong and bold manner (Badger, 2004).
From a pragmatic viewpoint, photo books need a number of elements in order to make them work as an object in their own right, or indeed give succinct reason to why they are presented in such a way. The work inside the book should be able to work as a ‘concise world’ (Gossage, 2002) as well as be complimented by intricate and detailed design decisions to encourage an ongoing interest. After beginning my research into this area, I began to think about what it was about photo books that I loved and why I was insistent on presenting both my photography and collage work (Ducks Nanny, Paradise, Garden Book Club) in such a way, right from the making stages.
Photography viewed in galleries excites me, but at the same time is a little daunting. It seems almost too serious to have your work framed and placed in an empty white space. When visiting shows, I more often than not get annoyed with my own reflection in the frame glass whilst attempting to press my nose up to seek out detail. Photo books do not fill me with this annoyance or feeling of daunt. More often than not the extra detail (or no detail, in some cases) presents me with new information about the ideas of the photographer and how they really want to show off their work. Colour choices, images, text all play an extra part in the photos that are offered up in a photo book. Photography is a mass medium, and one that is exploited each and every day. Photo books manage to carry this mass medium at the same time as embracing both technical and aesthetical aspects of the character. They are tactile objects designed for handling, for owning, for putting on your shelf and reading for reference whenever you see fit. This separates exhibition and publication for me- as nice as seeing shows is, I always want to take them home and remember them forever. Ask me about a show I didn’t manage to get the catalogue for… I won’t be able to tell you much about it. You are encouraged to handle photo books (how else would you read them?) something highly frowned upon in the gallery setting, where barriers or glass often set you apart from the work.
Through my exploration of the history of the photo book as an object, I found that artists in the 20th century embraced cheaply made, easily distributed photo books as a way to free themselves from the ‘deadening of museum culture’, a trend that has continued on and has become an option for replacement of the standard photography show. Photo books can be seen to bridge the gap between the aesthetic and the contextual, linking art directly with the mass medium.
Most contemporary photographers use both exhibition and photo book (of some description, whether it be catalogue, zine, magazine or artist book) to disseminate their work and ideas. At some point in the making of a project, they will ask the question of book or wall, when considering the execution of it overall. In a field where there are countless outputs for work, the final outcome will affect the making of the work to some degree, with photographers gearing their style and project towards huge mural style prints, or using lo-fi technologies with the intention of photocopying their prints into a limited run zine, Daido Moriyama style (Tate, 2012). By deciding these factors, practitioners are also affecting what type of work it will be, whether it will be geared towards a high end commercial gallery or unlimited fertility through production of a book.
The collage work I am producing at the moment begs the question of display. Printed too big, the work becomes advertising. Printed too small, the technical aspects of the pieces are sometimes lost. I have always enjoyed the transferability of a book: between people, between places and making people talk. Presenting my photographic practice as exhibition has always posed issues, as I feel the actual outcome never really meets the expectation of desired outcome in my mind, whether it is due to financial or space restrictions, or time restraints imposed by deadlines. As aforementioned, photos can often be lost as singular images (although sometimes their effect is more powerful alone) and by presenting my current practice as a photo book; it becomes a much more strong and constructed project as a whole. In previous blog posts I have discussed my work being more concerned with the process than the outcome, and by producing a photo book I have managed to encompass both elements by being entirely in control throughout, and being satisfied with the outcome at last.
Badger, G., Parr., M. (2004). The Photobook: A History volume I. London: Phaidon Press.
Gossage, J. (2002). As cited in Parr, M., Badger, G., (2004) The Photobook: A History volume I. London: Phaidon Press.
Prins, R. (1969) In conversation with Cas Oorthuys, quoted in Bloom, M., Suermondt, R., (2002) Photography Between the Covers: The Dutch Documentary Photo Book After 1945. Fragment Uitgeverij: Amsterdam
Tate Gallery (2012) Daido Moriyama Printing Show. [online] http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/music-and-live-performance/daido-moriyama-printing-show accessed 6th May