Wednesday, 26 January 2011

On the Ephemeral in Photography

Right now there is a rather excellent exhibition at the Hotshoe Gallery, which is on until the 5th of March. It's a mix of contemporary and historical photography, curated by Daniel Campbell Blight and Brad Feuerhelm. I also had something to do with it, so this post counts as a bit of a plug, but I'd be impressed with the show even if I wasn't marginally involved, so there! My contribution is a text in the show catalogue / newspaper, which I've posted below with kind permission from the gallery.


Sigmund Freud's short essay of 1915, 'On Transience', offers us what might be described as a formula for the ephemeral: "Transience value is scarcity value in time". By this he means to assert that decay and disappearance need not be a source of anguish, indeed, he suggests that the perishable nature of objects makes them all the more valuable and worthy of our contemplation. Freud states that even though we are able to comprehend and fear that there will come a time when there is no longer any human consciousness remaining to comprehend anything whatsoever, this should only increase our enjoyment of what we create and what we examine. If we are to contemplate the ephemeral qualities of photography, we could do worse than to begin with Freud's assertion that the veridical fact of disappearance makes objects of desire all the more valuable.

David Maisel, 'Library of Dust',

But we must admit that things are perhaps not quite as simple as this - the ephemeral haunts our being more profoundly than just through our admiration for the preciousness of fleeting beauty. At a fundamental level, self-consciousness is the simplest quality of human life, the perception of a totality of thought, the singular there-ness of being. But we are constantly alienated, not only by our bodies, subject to the dragging weight of matter in time, but also by knowledge, or more particularly the awareness of the inevitability of things that are also impossible to imagine. Think of Samuel Beckett's famous statement at the end of 'The Unnameable' - "I can't go on, I'll go on." - our undead drive mocks us, whispering to us that we are everlasting. As humans, we find transience both inevitable yet simultaneously unthinkable.

Mikael Gregorsky, 'Untitled',

Things are complicated even further by the fact that we make marks, we create. We mark because we are subjects to the will, it is our very vitality exceeding us, but as soon as a mark has been made it is filled with death - it belongs to its maker but it is independent of them, it makes them both more than they were and less than they were. It creates a ghostly body of knowledge, an archive which depends upon consciousness for its ability to mean but is capable of existing beyond it, without us. Derrida once argued that "the structure of the archive is spectral", meaning that the marks we make are inextricably bound up with a logic of ghosts, that representation is in itself haunted, as in the ghostly trace of human presence, but also that our own haunted finitude is made clear in the making of the mark. In short, our history is the history of our own haunting. Derrida - as a thinker of the archive or of the 'body of knowledge' - argued that the ghost was a more appropriate figure for our being than any fully present human subject: instead of ontology, he proposed a hauntology.

Rut Blees Luxemburg, 'Black Sunrise', 2010

But this was not an entirely abstract or poetic observation; it describes a concrete condition. We can expand upon Derrida's statement thus: all media, in some way, are spectral. All marks made create a fragmented image of the human who inscribes them. All forms of media, or representation in general, proliferate spectral images and resonances that create fragments out of single identities. All media evolve as methods of recording, of externalising our memory. The archive begins when a mark or an image is stored in some way that it becomes repeatable. We write because our memory degrades at a faster rate than an imprint in inert material, for example. But all forms of media are still subject to that fragmentary condition that defines memory - as mentioned before, all material is still transient, prone to disappearance, even the archive itself is made up of ephemera.

So against an naïve romantic notion of transience, whereby a decayed object is a simple memento mori, aestheticised and thus somewhat neutralised (we could say sublimated), and beyond Freud's notion that the knowledge of its disappearance multiplies the pleasure one can take in an object, even in its perfect condition, 'spectrality' is the dual and simultaneous process whereby the marks humans make both extend their memory and rob them of their very presence.

Julian Stallabrass, 'Untitled'

Each medium or technique necessarily has its own particular spectral characteristics. Writing might be thought of as the petrified voice, the setting of speech into stone and symbol. A psychoanalyst might tell you that speech itself is evidence of a phantom, both irreducibly personal and somehow alien. The introduction of the phonograph and recorded sound is perhaps one of the more perfect examples of spectral media - the disembodied and projected voice is inherently uncanny, in the sense that its repetitions occupy space and time in almost perfect fidelity to their original occurrence.

But what of photography?

To return to Derrida, he notes -

"It is the modern possibility of photography (whether art or technique matters little here) that combines death and referent in the same system […] the immediate proof given by the photographic apparatus or by the structure of the remains it leaves behind are irreducible events, ineffaceably original." - Derrida, 'The Deaths of Roland Barthes'.

For Derrida, after Barthes, the photograph haunts us with its effortless likeness. This perception of photography as brute, unadulterated representation is what allows it to work as an archival process - the strength of photography qua document or evidence testifies to this quality. But at the same time, photography and its mute realism freeze at an irreducible, irretrievable point. Compared to cinema (once described by Derrida as "the art of ghosts"), which unfolds as both sound and image in time, the stasis of photography has a different phantasmic quality. Photography's arrested likenesses provokes in thinkers such as Derrida and Barthes a pierced experience of death in its very impossibility, but simultaneously the infinite weight of the present in all its reality. Or, to put it another way, the spectrality of photography is not only that of seeing a ghost, but of seeing the ghost in oneself.

Jefferson Hayman, 'More Unfortunate than Criminal', 2009

But of course, photography is not half as 'truthful' a process as it might appear. If anything, however, its artefacts only make it more spectral. For example, it is worth recalling that among the very first to make intentional use of the flaws of the photographic process were mediums and ghost hunters, who were able to play games with exposure to create the illusion of semi-present spectres on film (in fact; ghosts are perhaps the most enthusiastic pioneers of each new communication technology!).

Roger Schall, 'Soho', 1935

The material substrate of archival material also creates its own distortions. Fading, scratching, these distortions upon the surface of historic material alienate us from the image depicted, they veil it - they become figures in their own right. This is where 'spectrality' becomes an aesthetic quality in itself, when the degradations of material become figures for work.
An example, a vulgar one at that: consider that the attraction of the degraded image may be found in the applications that mimic Polaroid photography for digital cameras. This process does indeed use spectral qualities as an aesthetic condition, but it is born of dull nostalgia, the attraction of the 'vintage'. It is a reactionary manoeuvre, the equivalent of having an old-fashioned telephone sound emanating from one's state of the art mobile telephone.

Roger Schall, Nuremburg Cathedral of Light, 1936

But this fuzzy, cuddly, aesthically lukewarm effect is indeed a symptom of a genuinely critical aspect of digital culture. As I have mentioned, each medium is spectral, and almost none is so in a more troubling way than digital media. In fact, we might say that digital media tends towards a limit condition of spectrality. Digital media and storage are fast approaching a point where the archive is effectively absolute. Of course, this absolute condition is impossible, insofar as all material is guaranteed to disappear eventually, but when compared to the cognitive capabilities and comprehensible timescales of the human observer, the minimal decay of digital material, its functionally infinite reproducibility and its functionally infinite capacity for storage spell the practical end point for our own capacity to experience the decay of the archive, which is what connects it to our own experience of memory - a perfect and unchanging body of past knowledge is by no means the same thing as history. But at the very same time, the immateriality of digital media is the very experience of this ephemerality taken towards its limit. Digital media is the both the end and the triumph of spectrality, in that the digital is both the most immaterial yet faithful reproductive apparatus.

Rut Blees Luxemburg, 'Faith in Infrastructure', 2010

This full spectrality of digital culture - the end of the ephemeral - is a deferred promise of modernity. Recall Marx & Engels’ description of capitalist abstraction: “All that is solid melts into air.” The digital archive is the latest, perhaps one of the last stages of this process of spectralisation, and its effects are complex. One can trace this spectral abstraction in the forms of media themselves, but also in how artistic works relate to these processes. The last decade has seen great critical focus on 'haunted' practices in experimental and art music, with the sounds of decayed media being brought into the foreground of the work, or with references being drawn from half-remembered utopian histories, phantasmagorias of other futures. To trace this out within photography: moving on from the digitally simulated fake ‘vintage’ aesthetic, we might consider the attraction of the obsolete, which can be witnessed in the fascination with superseded equipment, which are minor monuments to a different regime of materiality. We might see it in the attraction of ephemera (in the historical sense), lost postcards and trivia, fragments in the Benjaminian sense, like withered corpses, testaments to disappearance, while simultaneously totems to ward it off. Jefferson Hayman's images are testament to this mood, slyly inhabiting the historical garb of the 19th century. But if we can take this dialectic further, it is possible for work to further abstract these qualities; one approach might be to introduce decay into photography. This could be abstracted in a narrative sense - the lurid colours of David Maisel's 'Library of Dust' take on an unbearable weight when one learns of their provenance. But decay here might be a controlled and abstracted figure – take Mikael Gregorsky’s photography, with its dusty phantasms. Gregorsky's portraits, although entirely contemporary in terms of setting, dress, character, technique, cannot but help to bring to mind Victorian ghost photography, as the dust introduced into the development process becomes akin to the ectoplasmic expulsions of a channelling medium. And we might find also think of ghosts of history, whether that be images of long lost objects, buildings, places, or the mute horror of scenes of historical tragedy - this spectral sublimity can be witnessed in the image of the 'Cathedral of Light', Albert Speer's horribly stunning climax to the Nuremburg rallies of 1933, the ultimate point of modern architecture as a dematerialized space of communion. But spectrality also deals with the ghosts of the future, which we can understand through the fixation on resonant utopias that we see in Rut Blees Luxemburg, whether that be in the post-war architecture of the welfare state, transfigured by long exposure to the night, or in the encounters with the skeletons of World Expositions, temporary monuments to the future, now dilapidated; left behind. They represent material promises of a different, better modernity, haunting in their very refusal to vanish.

Steffi Klenz, 'Untitled', 2010

To think of media in this spectral fashion is to attempt a synthesis of approaches to history, psychology, memory and technique that is undeniably post-modern, but offers the chance to escape the trap of irony that this might normally suggest. The figure of the ghost identifies an aspect of human existence that can be traced variously through space, the individual, the collective, and time. It is compelling way of theorising mediation and our relationships to the labyrinthine archive of human work that we are always lost within.

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