Détournement as Optic

I’m very honored to have an article published in the excellent Philosophy of Photography. The advisory board of this UK-based journal features a number of scholars whose work has profoundly influenced my thinking on indexical media: Ariella Azoulay, Stewart Martin and Geoffrey Batchen, among others. My article explores the idea that détournement, a strategy of politicized appropriation, might best be understood in diametrical opposition to the strategy of omniscient depiction at work in the production of aerial views. Here’s a link to the article, entitled “Détournement as optic: Debord, derisory documents and the aerial view,” and an abstract below.

For Situationist, theorist and film-maker Guy Debord, the aerial view reproduced the falsely objective world-view he called ‘the spectacle’. To counter its myth of an infinitely expandable, omniscient perspective, Debord reduced views from above to ‘derisory documents’ of the social and the environmental through détournement, as evidenced in the two films he made while the Situationist International was in existence. The films engage critically with aerial photography as a hegemonic mode of indexical media, with the aerial view’s application as information image and ornament, and with the formal phenomenon of ciné-mapping. This analysis suggests that the détournement Debord performs in and across these films can be best conceptualized as a critical optic that constitutes a practice of seeing, a mode of reception and a call to action in the social space beyond its aesthetic employ. The optic of détournement is the contestational counterpart to the optic of the aerial view. This remains the case today, despite the complexity of photographic views from above and their increased abstraction of social agents and spaces. An alternative to the testimonial function of embodied photographic views, détournement as optic represents an indexical civil contract founded upon representational inadequacy.

Subversion des images

Here below: the photographs that Paul Nougé took between 1929 and 1930 that were published as a series by Marcel Mariën in 1968. (Click to enlarge.)

These are from a little treasure file of scans I’ve made that I keep for future research inspiration. For some reason I only have 17 images of a supposed set of 19. I’ll have to figure out which ones I missed. “Subversion of images” indeed…!

La jongleuse

La jongleuse

Les profondeurs du sommeil

Les profondeurs du sommeil

La naissance de l'objet

La naissance de l’objet

La vengeance

La vengeance

Femme dans l'escalier

Femme dans l’escalier

...les oiseaux vous poursuivent

…les oiseaux vous poursuivent

Le bras revelateur

Le bras revelateur

Le grenier

Le grenier

Les vendanges du sommeil

Les vendanges du sommeil

Manteau suspendu dans le vide

Manteau suspendu dans le vide

Femme effrayée par une ficelle

Femme effrayée par une ficelle

Table aimantée, tombeau du poete

Table aimantée, tombeau du poete

Cils coupés

Cils coupés

Mur murmure

Mur murmure

Les buveurs

Les buveurs

Linges et cloche

Linges et cloche

Le lecteur

Le lecteur

The set is conventionally interpreted in terms of its photographic self-reflexivity. Frédéric Thomas suggests that what Nougé subverts is documentation, the representative real.

It’s true that the zaniness of these photos lies in missing or irrational objects that are literally being “signed” or “indicated” to viewers. In this sense, the indexicality of analogue photography is repeatedly exposed as all indexing, no “thing itself.”

However, I like the idea that Subversion des images is less medium-specific than it may first appear.

Mariën suggested in 1968 that the series was the starting point for Les images défendues (1943), Nougé’s theory of René Magritte’s paintings. In this sense, Nougé’s interest in subverting images overrides any category of image in particular. He stresses process, instead. His statements that accompany this photographic series explain his intent to make spectators “play at perverting objects” (Nougé 17). In Subversion of Images, making and looking are part of the same subversive “methodical exploration,” which consists of:

Choosing an action performed through an object or on an object and modifying this object while perfectly maintaining the gesture or attitude of the chosen action (Nougé 1968: 19-20)

I find this to be a very rich and very intermedial artistic project. Subversion of Images is like a wrinkle in art historical time, an artwork that arrives at Surrealism by way of Fluxus.

Further reading on Subversion des Images:

Ana Gonzalez Salvador, “Nougé et l’action photographié: la pensée faite corps,” Francofonìa 13 2004, 53-70.

Frédéric Thomas, “Towards a Minor Surrealism: Paul Nougé and The Subversion of Images” Minor Photography: Connecting Deleuze and Guattari to Photography Theory, ed. Mieke Bleyen. Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2012, 125-144.

Zygmunt Bauman on the Other and representation

Mystery–noted Max Frisch–(and the Other is a mystery), is an exciting puzzle, but one tends to get tired of that excitement. ‘And so one creates for oneself an image. This is a loveless act, the betrayal.’ Creating an image of the Other leads to the substitution of the image for the Other; the Other is now fixed–soothingly and comfortingly. There is nothing to be excited about anymore. I know what the Other needs, I know where my responsibility starts and ends[…]But as György Lukás observed, ‘everything one person may know about another is only expectation, only potentiality, only wish or fear, acquiring reality only as a result of what happens later, and this reality, too, dissolves straightaway into potentialities.’ Only death, with its finality and irreversibility, puts an end to the musical-chairs game of the real and the potential–it once and for all closes the embrace of togetherness which was before invitingly open and tempted the lonely self. ‘Creating an image’ is the dress rehearsal of that death. But creating an image is the inner urge, the constant temptation, the must of all affection…

From Zygmunt Bauman’s “Forms of Togetherness,” in Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality. (Blackwell: Cambridge, 1995) 44-71.

It is the exquisites who are going to rule

The Party Line, Ken Russell, January 1955. From the series: "The last of the Teddy Girls"

The Party Line, Ken Russell, January 1955. From the series: “The last of the Teddy Girls”

The future belongs to the dandy. It is the exquisites who are going to rule.
— Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

Unbelievably, I’ve never seen a Ken Russell film. Now that I have enjoyed his photography, I’ll make a point to watch some. Slideshows of Russell’s photos can be found here and here; particularly intriguing are his photographs of Teddy Girls, made with participative humor and candor at a time when all the subcultural attention was going to the boys. If indeed the Teddy Girls were flouting postwar austerity with their get-ups, they were also thumbing their noses at late modernist consumer culture and its suggestions for acceptable femininity.

Reprise

Lee Miller, Portrait of Space, 1937. Gelatin silver print. 13.3 x 12.4 cm.

Lee Miller, Portrait of Space, 1937. Gelatin silver print. 13.3 x 12.4 cm.

A Lee Miller photograph as an overture to sporadic summertime posting!

Miller made this photograph while visiting the Siwa Oasis in Egypt. She took it from inside an abandoned bungalow belonging to traveling officials.

On the recently established website dedicated to her archives, you can see the original snapshot from which she cropped and enlarged this image. The archive is fascinating to click through, even if the images are irritatingly (if self-explanatorily) watermarked for viewing unpleasure.

Miller described the rectangle sewn into the screen as what would have earlier been an opening used to “reach through the mosquito netting to latch or unlatch the sand storm shutters” (in Mark Haworth-Booth, The Art of Lee Miller, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 133).

By the time she entered the bungalow, this original opening had been made accessory to the beautiful rent beneath it. Space’s portrait is only ever its frame.

Freud’s “House Beautiful”

Some scans of Sigmund Freud’s home and psychoanalytic practice at Berggasse 19, from the book The Surreal House (ed. Jane Alison, Yale, 2010).

The first two are photographs from the famous series that Edmund Engelman made just before Freud had to flee Vienna in 1938. Of particular interest to me, amidst the mixed statuettes from China, Greece, and Egypt, is the mirror hung from the crossframe of Freud’s window. The id juxtaposed with the ego?

After that are selections from a series of velvety graphite and charcoal drawings of Engelman’s photographs by Robert Longo. The last two are outside of the interior. They are meant to be displayed as a diptych. Longo’s drawings uncannily translate the photographs (indexes of Freud’s psychoanalytic practice) back to the work of the hand, perhaps the metonymic subject of psychoanalysis itself.

I imagine Freud will soon be the focus of another round of scholarly inquiry (perhaps artistic inquiry, too). It seems that there are many more opportunities for turning his schemas and theories on their head in the way that feminist scholarship did in the 1980s and 1990s, aided in part by translations and compilations like Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s Freud on Women

Sigmund Freud's apartment, Berggasse 19, Vienna, View of the writing desk in the study, 1938. Edmund Engelman. Photograph.

Sigmund Freud’s apartment, Berggasse 19, Vienna, View of the writing desk in the study, 1938. Edmund Engelman. Photograph.

Sigmund Freud's apartment, Berggasse 19, Vienna, View of the study, 1938. Edmund Engelman. Photograph.

Sigmund Freud’s apartment, Berggasse 19, Vienna, View of the study, 1938. Edmund Engelman. Photograph.

Untitled (Viennese porcelain stove (stretched), consulting room, 1938), Robert Longo, 2000. Graphite and charcol on mounted paper. 274 x 86 cm.

Untitled (Viennese porcelain stove (stretched), consulting room, 1938), Robert Longo, 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (open door, consulting room to study, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (open door, consulting room to study, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (Diptych--Exterior Apartment Door with Nameplate and Peephole, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (Diptych–Exterior Apartment Door with Nameplate and Peephole, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (Diptych--Exterior Apartment Door with Nameplate and Peephole, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (Diptych–Exterior Apartment Door with Nameplate and Peephole, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

ONE, Dan Graham, 1967

ONE, Dan Graham, 1967

A photograph from the exhibition catalogue, Dan Graham: Beyond (organized by Bennett Simpson and Chrissie Iles; essays by Rhea Anastas … [et al.] ; interviews with Dan Graham by Kim Gordon, Rodney Graham, and Nicolás Guagnini ; manga by Fumihiro Nonomura and Ken Tanimoto; Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009).

Unfortunately, the photograph isn’t addressed directly in the text. I’m wondering whether the photograph is documentation or the artwork, itself, and whether it was part of a photographic series…A “to be continued.”

The 7,000 Year Old Woman

Betsy Damon, The 7,000 Year Old Woman, New York City, 1977. Photograph taken by Su Friedrich.

Above: an arresting and exhilarating photo by Su Friedrich of Betsy Damon’s performance piece in Jennie Klein’s “Goddess: Feminist Art and Spirituality in the 1970s.” Klein’s essay is one of many in the wide-ranging, informative, eclectic and breezy read, West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977, edited by Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

Klein writes,

Betsy Damon’s The 7,000 Year Old Woman referenced the many-breasted Diana of Ephesus, associated with a Neolithic Goddess site in Turkey where she had lived as a child. Covered in small bags of colored flour that she ritualistically punctured in a public ceremony on Wall Street, Damon eventually formed a spiral/labyrinthine pattern on the ground. Damon based The 7,000 Year Old Woman on a dream that she had had years before. She resolved to realize the images in her dream.  (227)