Picture: Karin de Jong
Measure and Dismeasure in the Photobook
by Duncan Wooldridge
Measure seems essential to Photography. Since the beginning of the medium, as the functions of the medium were almost imminently deployed – largely as instruments of both the hard and soft sciences - photography foregrounded its evidentiary function. Francois Arago, in his statement to the French Academy of Sciences about Photography’s invention, described, amongst many other properties, the precise ability of the image to measure: “Since the invention follows the laws of geometry, it will be possible to re-establish with the aid of a small number of given factors the exact size of the highest points of the most inaccessible structures”. So it would follow, that from a photograph it is possible to determine the height of the Eiffel Tower, or the distance between any two objects. If Photography could be used to triangulate and establish distances, any number of objects beyond our physical reach would become comprehensible, that is to say, measureable to us. And yet whilst this may be broadly accurate, the prosthetic eye of the camera is arguably also its foundational myth: the proposition that photography might be used to produce statistical information, comparable to that of a ruler, seems only logical if we configure the photograph through the lens of science and rationality, through an a priori expectation of the image, and not our empirical experience of it.
In his work ’36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams’ (1969) Mel Bochner attempted to lay out the propositions for an object which moved through a series of configurations. Alongside each key diagram, three photographs were produced, one from the side, one from a 45 degree angle, and another from above, documenting a continually shifting sculptural object. Whilst the diagram and two of the views are perfectly coherent, what is most surprising is that the view from above (where the lens cannot achieve a great enough distance) sharply distorts the regularity of the grid of the object, so that the square is no longer itself. Convex and concave versions of the cube are caught by the camera, leading Bochner to begin a series of investigations which would culminate in an experimental practice of photography, which, could, to paraphrase his other work, conclude that ‘Photography is not transparent’.
More recently, in the post-industrial context of work, where leisure-time and labour are conflated - and, as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue, workers are expected to display creativity at work – the space between artistic practice and everyday life is ambiguous at best. The measured functionality of the fordist factory has given way to a spontaneous flow of work and action. Jonathan Crary has explored this 24/7 phenomenon, in which not only does production not cease, but neither does our reception, consumption, and connectivity, describing it as an endless present. As artworks resemble objects in the world, and as design and commerce take on forms familiar to art, a new way of conceiving of artistic practice is required to correspond with, and comment upon, our changing present. A compelling form is proposed by Paolo Virno, who in conversation with Pascal Gielen, suggests that art should in fact be a form of dismeasure. Against the endless rhythm of labour and production, art is the pause, disjunction, or distortion of that which can be measured and confined. Virno himself states that in a work of art, the experience would be of time or measure contracting or extending: “Great 20th century avant-garde art – and poetry in particular – from Celan to Brecht to Montale, has demonstrated the crisis of experiential units of measure. It is as if the platinum bar kept in Paris to define the standard length of a metre suddenly measured 90 or 110 centimetres.” An example might be Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages (1913-14), in which a metre ruler made of string weaves and shifts in different forms, to produce a tool that bears no sensible linearity.
Walter Benjamin described the consequence of mechanical reproducibility in not dissimilar terms to Francois Arago: describing an auratic distance that the work of art possessed, he described its changing status under the conditions of mechanical reproduction. The reproduction abridges the distances that the auratic image has constructed and put forth: returning to Arago, we might notice that what is proposed is paradoxically measured and yet also out of reach: bringing the image into comprehension, it is also partially “inaccessible” when perceived. So it is often the case with the reproduction image – so often that which is reproduced merely points to our distance from the object itself, and extends the aura which surrounds the object. Andre Malraux’s Musee Imaginaire described a more radical gesture, an image brought into the home, and with it, the proposed if not actual collapse of a readily hierarchical space in which images have their place as artifacts. An artistic gesture needs to sever or disrupt this notion of a distance, to conceive of an alternative strategy to construct or disrupt proximity and distance.
Mishka Henner’s ‘Astronomical’ brings the Solar System into our possession. If Malraux proposed an imaginary museum, or museum without walls, he scarcely can have imagined that it would contain such a large part of the universe itself. In a gesture reminiscent of Piero Manzoni’s ‘Socle du Monde’, where Manzoni planted a base for a sculpture into the ground (its upside down writing suggests that the Earth itself has become his sculpture), Henner upends the solar system, and captures it within his series of books. Henner’s books echo the associations of volumes and comprehensive knowledge which we might have associated with the encyclopedia, though they are comically black. They enclose and teasingly make available a totality which is outside of our vision.
Such knowledge, formerly contained within the book, is now, as we know, captured by the fetish for digitization, which has rendered cultural objects as ‘pure’ information. Paul Soulellis, in his ‘Apparition of a Distance, However Near It May Be’, evokes Benjamin’s notion of auratic distance, but reminds us also of the book, not to mention the labour, from which each and every reproduction is attained. Google Books, which has digitized vast amounts of out of print and new publications, is a semi-automated process that, like Google’s search, uses algorithms to bring information - and not work or the clumsy nature of the object - to the fore. In Soulellis’s book, we see how the algorithm is designed to assemble the book into a digital file, but also to eliminate the hands of the reader who turns the page for a recording camera. The algorithm, of course, is far from perfect, and like a false positive in a data analytics tool, leaves the hand, with its bright pink glove, in full or partial view at irregular intervals, which Soulellis has painstakingly located and saved as an alternate record of the book. Viktor Mayer Schoenberger, in his important text ‘Delete’, (?) warns against the perils of the digital capture of information, leaving no memory or experience that can be subject to entropy or forgetting. Here we see that the process of remembering also contains a systematic obliteration of its own production. Soulellis’ project captures, as well as the trace of the hand itself, the encyclopedic scope of the Google Books project which is its subject.
Soulellis’ project subtly addresses the questions around the future of publishing, a subject taken up further by Andreas Schmidt. As the distinctive feature of ABC co-op artists is to use the form of the book, it is not surprising that the technological present of publishing often comes to the fore. In Schmidt’s work this takes a number of forms, though here we might focus on two seemingly opposite approaches: on the one hand in the continuing form of the book, and on the other, the reception of the text or image on the screen (which demonstrates the destination for many of the books documented by Soulellis). With the printed page, Schmidt has pioneered an extensive investigation of the print-on-demand mode of publishing, where a book can be completed and sent to print within minutes. This tool, integral to so much of what ABC does, allows for a sense of the speed of the published text to be demonstrated and measured. The print-on-demand book is, in its way, an emblem of an accelerating liberal capitalism, in which production is made simple and the time between creation and reception is narrowed. How this might be made comprehensible to us is something Schmidt’s ‘Just Published’ sets out to demonstrate: the work uses but also comments upon the self-publishing company Blurb, who produce millions of books a year. Displaying 760 books which had just been realized with that publisher, these books, so likely to become anonymous, are in some way stored in Schmidt’s record of the intense and endless cycle of production, a 24/7 culture of the present which Jonathan Crary has suggested ‘steadily undermines distinctions between day and night, between light and dark, and between action and repose’. It demonstrates a collapse of past present and future, a ‘working without pause’ (An alternative take on this can be found in Schmidt’s ‘Time Machine’ book, which demonstrates the miniaturization of text on the screen of a mobile phone, and which also demonstrates a play on temporality).
In the print-on-demand context of recent book production, the book is effectively animated. The static page is brought to life and the image is put into motion. Here a key development in the work of ABC artists is apparent: the development of the video preview or trailer as a version of the book. If we view the usual clean studio account of the book as it is turned and viewed, as it plays out in Henner’s stylish video for ‘Astronomical’, we might understand the comic tone of Jonathan Lewis’ ‘Cheese’, which dryly captures a recently received Blurb book being hastily unwrapped and flicked through to music.
In fact, Lewis’ book contrasts well with that of Henner’s, as it describes the variety of ways in which the book is received and used. Lewis’ video, which plays through his book’s capturing of small individual portraits from within the iconic ‘Penny Picture Display’ photograph of Walker Evans, suggests the rapid absorption and comprehension of the image and object. Our accelerated modes of production, are matched by an even more hasty consumption.
The book, so often perceived as a static object, is finally placed into its fullest sense of motion in Heidi Neilson’s ISS on I17, which is simultaneously book and video. Returning us to the notion of distance and measure once more, ISS on I17 documents the almost inaccessible distance described by Francois Arago with which we began. Connecting the vacuum of space, around the International Space Station, with the traffic flow of Interstate 17, Neilson’s book is, at first glance, a linear flick-book depiction of the satellite in orbit. We might view individual pages at our own pace, and pick up the book as (an admittedly weighty) object. We might flick through the pages to begin to animate the photographs if we wish, too. But the work truly comes alive when Neilson resists the book form as purely static and passive as an object. When we forget the linear time that we inhabit as we peruse the book, Neilson records the book as an object in motion, perused on the move on Interstate 17. We become aware that as the video speeds up (the traffic moves more rapidly) and time seems to move out of sync with the present, it is found again in a different synchronization, as the Space Station is animated and the road becomes abstracted.
If from the example of Arago, it was assumed that Photography gave itself over to measure, we might now have come to understand that Photography is no such passive receiver, but produces its own logic. Looking at these works reveals that measure itself is constructed, distorted and reconfigured by the work. Virno’s claim, which places the artist against the standardized unit of exchange or limit, sees the artist construct an alternative economy of cognition, based not upon the seeming neutrality of an instrument, but one in which the instrument in fact produces its own measure, its own truth. As was always the case, the book is a world unto itself, a virtual model of how to live or not to live. And it is fitting then, that these works not only challenge measure, but the form of the book as well.