“O.K. So it’s banal, but ‘The Family of Man’ set me off and I’ve been trying ever since.”

“O.K. So it’s banal, but ‘The Family of Man’ set me off and I’ve been trying ever since. Trying to become a photographer and not just someone who takes photographs. I became a diarist with a camera. I tried to simply record the things which interested me from day to day. I taught myself enough rough technique and practice continually. Even now I sit in front of the tele and watch junk through an 85mm, move dials, press buttons and go through all the motions. I honestly believe this helps. I became less conscious of the camera and it more a part of me. My prints are rough hard and grainy, which just what Sydney is like. The light is fierce, the summer hot and humid, the bush inhuman and the population complacently cruel enough to accept two decades of flabby self-congratulatory ignorance, cushioned and smothered by the soft folds of the Menzies arse. This is a harsh society with few shades of grey, where paradise is still a Monaro with four on the floor and up you Jack I’m alright.” — John Williams 1974

As John used to say: “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you”

In the Footsteps of Others at AAANZ

My colleague from the University of Canberra, Louise Curham, and myself are convening a session on reenactment at the conference of the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand, ‘The Work of Art’, to be held in Canberra 1-3 December.  Check out the call for papers. Proposals are due to Louise by 26 August. Here is our session abstract:

In the footsteps of others

Louise Curham (University of Canberra) and Martyn Jolly (Australian National University) 

Contact: Louise.Curham@canberra.edu.au 

This session follows on from the 2015 AAANZ panel on re-enactment and repetition as generative strategies used by contemporary artists. Extending those ideas, this panel explores the broader idea of ‘walking in the footsteps of others’ as an empathic, affective experience. Reenactment has surrounded us in contemporary art and museum practice. At AAANZ 2015, a panel convened by Lucas Ihlein and Louise Curham discussed “Re-enactment / Repetition / Reiteration / Re-performance as embodied research”. Developing from the lively discussion that that panel engendered, we ask again, why re-enact? We know the work re-enactment can do for traditional idea of preservation (Santone, 2008). We know the problems of trying to touch an authentic past, the queasiness of the syncopation of the time of the earlier work and the time of our work (Schneider, 2011). So why do it again? Perhaps it’s different if we ask why walk in the footsteps of others? This session invites reflections on the empathic, affective experience of 2 doing something that’s been done before, a strategy that contemporary curators, historians and artists continue to deploy, as performance studies scholar Rebecca Schneider puts it, we to try to get at a past that is not present and yet, through re-enactment, not not present. Through this lens of we can also again pick over the problems of the authentic original, the work re-enactment can do for preservation, along with what happens when we try to re-stage, re-enact and repeat from within the institution. Contributions are invited for this panel involving (but not limited to): • Walking in the footsteps of others – we think of re-enactment as putting us in a specific material relation to experiences from the past. What happens if this is reframed as an attempt to absorb something of the forces of the past, their affect? • How does re-enactment relate to reproduction? In reproduction the material end-result of the work of art is remanufactured. However in reenactment the process of art work itself is reconstructed. The reenactor becomes a reworker. • The experience of curation, the work of art history and making artworks as re-enactment • The impact of the experience of re-enactment. What might it do to audiences, be they readers, gallery visitors, peers? Why re-enact? • Discussion of ‘contact’ with work from the past – learnings about the original and its preservation and how we do the work of ‘archiving’ • Exploration of specific Australian contributions to this field. We also invite non-traditional and performative presentations which physically enact or re-enact as their creative / scholarly contributions to this panel (pending technical feasibility and approval of the AAANZ conference convenors).

Reconfiguring of camera technologies and camera/subject relationships

The camera is being reconfigured, so we have to rethink camera/subject relations. Not only is the thing itself disappearing, with production of one of the most emblematic objects of modernity halving in one year (thanks to Jason O’Brien from the ANU for that tip-off), but there are more and more signs that the shuttling back and forth of object and image is becoming a permanent enmeshment. Clothing is being engineered to resist the paparazzi’s blast. Kate Moss, one of the most papped women of all time, models a T shirt engineered just for her. Seemingly an innocent black T shirt, it briefly broadcasts ‘FUCK YOU CUNT’ when hit with a photographer’s flash, thereby supposedly rendering the image worthless in the celebrity marketplace (although, cannily, this anti-pap campaign only adds to Kate’s celebrity value). Apple have also just patented a ‘concert camera blocker’, which undermines one of the main uses of its own smart phones by emitting infrared signals from a stage disabling smart phone cameras, technologically enforcing ‘reality’ onto concert goers who may prefer their pop culture mediated. I’m sure there are other examples. We photo theorists are still too hung up on images and image ubiquity, we need to think about other dissolving technological categories as well.

Kate Moss modelling her  anti-paparazzi T shirt

Kate Moss modelling her anti-paparazzi T shirt

Apple's patent for a 'concert camera blocker'

Apple’s patent for a ‘concert camera blocker’

Catoptrics literally and figuratively

In 212BC Archimedes supposedly used a parabolic ‘burning mirror’ to set the attacking Roman ships on fire. In 1646 Anthanasius Kircher, in his book The Great Art of Light and Shadow speculated that Archimedes would have had more success if he had used multiple mirrors each focusing the sun in a giant parabolic shape. Kircher’s groundbreaking catoptrics were borne out in today’s solar furnaces and generators. Now Spencer Tunick revises the idea at the current republican convention and with his trademark naked participants. As 100 nude women hold large mirror discs ‘to reflect the knowledge and wisdom of progressive women and the concept of “Mother Nature” into and onto the convention center’ Tunick joins the figurative metaphor of enlightenment to age old catoptric science. However the women are phalanxed to form a series of flat reflective surfaces. The work would have had a different valency if he had organised their naked bodies into a parabolic surface as Kircher suggested, focussing their rays onto Trump , who invites volatility.

Frontispiece, Anthanasius Kircher, The Great Art of Light an Shadow, 1646

Frontispiece, Anthanasius Kircher, The Great Art of Light an Shadow, 1646

 Anthanasius Kircher, The Great Art of Light an Shadow, 1646

Anthanasius Kircher, The Great Art of Light an Shadow, 1646

Anthanasius Kircher, The Great Art of Light an Shadow, 1646

Anthanasius Kircher, The Great Art of Light an Shadow, 1646

Spencer Tunick work at republican convention, 2016

Spencer Tunick work at republican convention, 2016

Exeperimental magic lantern projection at Bundanon Homestead

I did a late afternoon experimental magic lantern projection in the front room of Arthur Boyd’s homestead in the last days of my Bundanon residency . I enjoyed anamorphizing the popular Biblical iconography of nineteenth century melodrama against Boyd’s expressionistic elongations and agonistic Biblical references. (Thanks to Jennifer Thompson and John Baylis) I’m doing something (along with Alexander Hunter from ANU School of Music) for Bundanon’s Siteworks event, 24 September. Come along)IMG_1747 (1)

Photos of my magic lantern show at Canberra Obscura

The estimable Andrew Sikorski has posted some shots of my magic lantern performance (along with Andromeda is Coming) amongst his documentation of the Canberra Obscura Art Party on his site Life in Canberra.

You can see me using my own latest technological innovation in projection which I call ‘a bit of cardboard with a hole in it’. Derived from the ‘burning in tool’ of the traditional darkroom printer, the ‘bit of cardboard with a hole in it’ held over the lantern lens spotlights details and narrativises the slides like Ken Burns did with his (now infamous) ‘Ken Burns effect’ in such landmark ‘archivally based’ documentary series  as  his The Civil War of 1990. I was also inspired to use the ‘bit of cardboard with a hole in it’ by the author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He came to Australia in 1920 on a magic lantern tour to show people photographic evidence that the dead returned from beyond the veil. In Adelaide, according to Doyle’s account on page 76 of his book Wanderings of a Spiritualist, ghosts literally inhabited the machine and took over the magic lantern to demonstrate the proof of their survival:

I had shown a slide the effect of which depended upon a single spirit face appearing amid a crowd of others. This slide was damp, and as photos under these circumstances always clear from the edges when placed in the lantern, the whole centre was so thickly fogged that I was compelled to admit that I could not myself see the spirit face. Suddenly, as I turned away, rather abashed by my failure, I heard cries of “There it is”, and looking up again I saw this single face shining out from the general darkness with so bright and vivid an effect that I never doubted for a moment that the operator was throwing  a spotlight upon it. … [N]ext morning Mr Thomas, the operator, who is not a Spiritualist, came in in great excitement to say that a palpable miracle had been wrought, and that in his great experience of thirty years he had never known a photo dry from the centre, nor, as I understood him, become illuminated in such a fashion.

 

Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with 'Andromeda is Coming'

Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

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Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

 

 

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Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

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Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

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Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

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Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

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Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

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Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

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Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

Octavio Garcia

Catalogue essay for Cihuateotl’s Myth by Octavio Garcia, PhotoAcess, 26 May to 19 June, Canberra, gallery below.

Octavio Garcia

What kind of photograph is a chemigram? It’s made with an ordinary sheet of photographic paper, but negatives aren’t projected onto it in a darkroom. Instead, the lights are left on. This super overexposure ‘charges’ the paper with the maximum potential to react to photographic chemicals. To make the various tones and lines of a picture the photographer must manually modulate the amount of physical contact between the halides embedded in the paper and the chemicals in the developer and fixer baths.

The photographer applies resists of various sorts (lacquers, syrups, sprays and so on), which are then selectively removed to let the chemicals penetrate into the emulsion. Garcia applies a hard resist and makes intricate incisions with a scalpel, chemicals penetrate the cuts, leach through the emulsion, react with the halides, and lay down deposits of metal compound. Through alternating sequences of peeling, soaking, developing, washing and fixing complex images emerge in delicate tones and lapidary colours. The images form through obscure reactions deep in the subterranean strata of the emulsion. If you insist, it’s a process of drawing, but you couldn’t call it ‘mark making’ in the conventional sense. The photographer can direct, but he can never completely control, the slow leaking and leaching as his potent chemicals work their way through his intricate incisions.

Photographers often experience something transcendent in the normal light-based photograph, as the ‘pencil of nature’ delicately writes herself as an image. And I suspect chemigrammers feel a similar deep connection to similarly large, if not more chthonic, forces, as reagents migrate through emulsions and metals microscopically crystalize themselves. If conventional photographs come from the same family of images as paintings, perhaps chemigrams come from the same family of images as tattoos —at the endpoint of a long laborious physical process both tattoo and chemigram appear not on top of, but inside of, a sensitive surface.

Recently there has been a worldwide resurgence of interest in chemigrams and other cameraless photographs of their ilk. A major book Emanations: the Art of the Cameraless Photograph (in which quite a few Canberra-connected photographers get a guernsey) is about to be published, and an exhibition of the same name is currently on at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand. Late last year, The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, was held at the Australian Centre for Photography; earlier the J Paul Getty Museum mounted Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography; the year before that the International Centre for Photography mounted What is a Photograph?; before that, the Aperture Foundation toured The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography and the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted Shadow Catchers: Cameraless Photography.

Looking back over all this diverse activity you get the sense that many cameraless photographers are seeking a connection to larger forces, often environmental or historical — not a ‘feeling’ of connection, or an ‘image’ of connection, but an actual connection. The sense of actual connection Garcia seeks is historical. Chemigrams are a process as much as they are an end result, and through the almost ritual process the chemigrammer undertakes in the darkroom he can almost feel as though he is continuing, in a way, other equivalent rituals from the past involving sacred libations of various sorts. In his head Octavio Garcia has distilled the chemigram process down to two sacred elements, paper and water: paper, through which the sacred symbols of humans are created and transmitted through the generations; and water, through which life itself is sustained.

Garcia is concerned with his ancestors. As a contemporary Mexican he feels a pull down through the generations, down through the layers of colonial and postcolonial disruption and dislocation, down through the genetic dilutions and recombinations of history, deep down to his ancestors — the ancient inhabitants of Veracruz. Garcia uses his scalpel to incise designs derived from his cultural past into the chemigram resist. Previously he has copied the drawings found in the paper codices collected from Pre-Columbian civilizations and now kept in museums. More recently he has recreated a colossal Olmec head, dating from a millennia before Christ and weighing several tons, which he reconstructed at original scale from a photograph he took on a pilgrimage to the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, where it now sits.

In the series exhibited here he has worked with sculptures in the same museum and made by his ancestors more recently (only one to one-and-a-half thousand years ago!). The sacred figures emerge from Garcia’s chemigrams with a kind of geological force. The gesture of Garcia’s wrist is there, as it has swiveled and turned the scalpel to manually inscribe the image of the museum aretefact into his resist layer, but through the darkroom process his drawing interacts in a physical way with the slow propulsions of chemical reaction and metallic deposit. The combination produces an image a bit like fossil suddenly revealed in a split rock, or the faint outlines of an ancient settlement only discernable from the air, or the eroded groove in a petroglyph revealed in a chalk rubbing, or any other of a chain of associations to do with the tangible presence of the ancient past.

The most popular tattoo designs for our deracinated age are ancestral symbols, Celtic braids or whatever. But Garcia goes much further, and much deeper, than these attempts at readymade off-the-shelf skin memory. In his endless search for the presence of his past through the chemigram he has invented both a new visual language and a new ritual process.

Martyn Jolly

#standupstripdown

The hashtag #standupstripdown has been invented to be used by people like Heather Whitten who want to post family photographs with naked children. In the latest of a string of such incidents her image of her naked husband cradling her sick and naked son in a shower has been taken down several times by Facebook following complaints by people disgusted by the potentially paedophilic readings the photograph could carry. The disgusted complainers who are having such a lamentable chilling effect on our visual culture misunderstand both semiotics and paedophilia. Even if it unpleasant to imagine  the occasional paedo using such images for sexual gratification, the psychological effect on our whole society of NOT seeing images of such rich aspects of life, love and bodies is far worse. Others complain that the children in such photographs cannot give their consent and may be shamed or embarrassed when they grow up. But image making and image sharing in our culture cannot be reduced to a infinite series of micro-contracts over ‘self image’ between two quasi-legal parties. Such a legalistic conception of self image as an owned ‘property’ also reduces the complexity and richness of our collective visual culture. I’ve previously written about this so I don’t know why people aren’t taking any notice of me. Perhaps I didn’t think of inventing a hashtag.

Heather Whitten

Heather Whitten

In Bangkok triangulating Francis Chit and being reminded of Charles Bayliss

When we were recently in Bangkok we had a lovely afternoon with the super gracious Gun Susangkarakan who we had met when I was giving some seminars at Chiang Mai University Faculty of Fine Arts Department of Media Arts. Gun is an ace temple photographer (hard-core old-school, 8×10 selenium-toned contact prints). He took us to Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn).

Gun Susangkarakan, 'Wat Arun from Tha Tian', 2015

Gun Susangkarakan, ‘Wat Arun from Tha Tian’, 2015

You can also just glimpse this temple in the left hand corner of Francis Chit’s fabulous 1886 shot of Prince Vajirunhis being escorted to the Grand Palace for his investiture as crown prince, which is now in the National Gallery of Australia, and featured in Gael Newton’s 2008 show Picture Paradise.

Francis Chit, 'Prince Vajirunhis escorted to the Grand Palace for his investiture as crown prince. 'Bangkok 14 January 1886. National Gallery of Australia

Francis Chit, ‘Prince Vajirunhis escorted to the Grand Palace for his investiture as crown prince. ‘Bangkok 14 January 1886. National Gallery of Australia

Chit had previously shot the Wat Arun from across the river in 1865.

Francis Chit, 'Wat Arun', 1865

Francis Chit, ‘Wat Arun’, 1865

And he had climbed its stair to use it as a platform for a four-frame river panorama in 1863/64, when the river was a rice export port.

Francis Chit, 'Panorama', Babgkok, 1863/64

Francis Chit, ‘Panorama’, Bangkok, 1863/64

I was reminded of the five-frame Sydney Harbour panorama Charles Bayliss made from the roof of that ‘temple of commerce’, The Sydney International Exhibition Building, in about 1880, before it burnt down. Both have the same ‘aspirational’ loftiness, with architectural details from their improvised platforms projecting into the frames

Charles Bayliss, 'Panorama', c1880

Charles Bayliss, ‘Panorama’, c1880

Fortunately Wat Arun is now being restored and is covered with a fine cross-hatching of scaffolding.

Wat Arun, 2015

Wat Arun, 2016

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Wat Arun, 2016

But the question remains, from where in the Grand Palace precinct did Chit shoot the investiture flotilla? Nineteenth century photographers around the world craved elevation and were always intrepid in gaining it. Did Chit get a special tower made, or was there a tower already there as part of the port infrastructure?

Francis Chit, 'Prince Vajirunhis escorted to the Grand Palace for his investiture as crown prince. 'Bangkok 14 January 1886. National Gallery of Australia

Francis Chit, ‘Prince Vajirunhis escorted to the Grand Palace for his investiture as crown prince. ‘Bangkok 14 January 1886. National Gallery of Australia