Analysis by terms / categories:
- Art: this is an installation that is meant to be visited in an exhibition space.
- Temporary: the installation was in place in Paris for just over a month.
- Large scale: the piece is large enough to dominate and overwhelm visitors, which is likely part of the desired effect.
- Form: Personnes formed its own shapes, in regular rectangular deposits of clothing.
- Immersive and Distant: the installation is large enough to walk around in, but also draws some of its power from the ability to stand back and take in its scale.
- Repetition and Shape: the work is laid out as a series of regular rectangles of clothing lying on a concrete floor.
The media release for Personnes described it as "social, religious and humanistic exploration of life, memory and the irreductible individuality of each and every human existence – together with the presence of death, the dehumanisation of the body, chance and destiny. Conceived as a work in sound and vision, Personnes takes up a new theme in Boltanski’s work, building on his earlier explorations of the limits of human existence and the vital dimension of memory : the question of fate, and the ineluctability of death. Personnes transforms the entire Nave of the Grand Palais through the creation of a coherent, intensely moving installation conceived as a gigantic animated tableau. Personnes is a one-off, ephemeral work. In accordance with the artist’s wishes, the components of the piece will all be recycled at the end of the exhibition."
Without knowing anything about the installation, my first glances at pictures of it reminded me of the large piles of sorted clothes, shoes and eyeglasses confiscated from Jewish victims of the Nazi death camps. The empty (de-personalised) clothes cannot help but speak to us of the absence of the people who once wore them. And the rectangular piles on the floor suggested to me both that the missing people were less important than their clothes and that a rational mind had created the arrangement with deliberate purpose. The use of a crane to move the clothes makes the arrangements even more mechanistic and dehumanised.
The name of the installation—Personnes—is a play on words that reflects the dehumanisation described above: the French word suggests at once the people who would have worn the clothes and their absence ("no ones").
Thinking back to Part 3 - Visual Communications, it seems to me that the function of Marianne Straub's textiles is to communicate a number of desirable values and attitudes:
- The pattern of the materials, particularly when viewed down the length of a bus or a train carriage, creates or supports an identity for the transportation company. Once seen and recognized, the fabric is a constant reminder of a consistent 'brand.'
- The quality of the materials used speak to the care that the transportation company is trying to show to its patrons. Public transport featured molded plastic seating without fabric for a while, no doubt because the seats were more durable and easier to clean. At the same time, the plastic seats were slippery, uncomfortable in summer (too hot) and winter (too cold) and could be read as a message to patrons that they were dirty and not deserving of better things.
- The patterns chosen, although they seem outdated or even 'retro' now, would have been meant to convey a sense of modernity. Once again, this is a tacit message about the transportation company: we are a modern, forward-thinking company and we expect our patrons to recognize this and value the service they are paying for.
- Depending upon the type of pattern chosen, there may also have been a desire to make the connection with the home environment. In this sense, patrons are visually encouraged to see their seat as an extension of their living room, a place to be comfortable and relax (rather than a train or bus crammed with other commuters). The association of the home may also encourage patrons to take better care of their surroundings because they have a personal / emotional connection with them.
- Starting on Friday, November 13, 1998, 178 trees were wrapped with 592,015 square feet (55,000 square meters) of woven polyester fabric (used every winter in Japan to protect trees from frost and heavy snow) and 14.3 miles (23 kilometers) of rope. The wrapping was completed on November 22. The trees are located in the park around the Fondation Beyeler and in the adjacent meadow as well as along the creek of Berower Park, northeast of Basel, at the German border. The height of the trees varied between 82 feet (25 meters) and 6.5 feet (2 meters) with a diameter from 47.5 feet (14.5 meters) to 3.3 feet (1 meter). [http://christojeanneclaude.net/projects/wrapped-trees?view=info — consulted 7 August 2017]
- The wrapping was removed after a month and the materials recycled. The artists also approached the cities of St. Louis, MO and Paris concerning additional wrapping projects but were denied permission.
- After reading the quote again in its proper context on the website (that is, it applies to all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's projects, not just the Wrapped Trees), I can appreciate the focus on the use and properties of textiles rather than on a particular technique. The two use their materials to create and enhance temporarily, large-scale structural forms, some of which exist already and others that are revealed by the application of the textile and its particular properties.
- Large scale
- Defining and Forming
- Pattern, Colour and Repetition
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec
- Immersive and Distant
- Pattern, Colour and Shape
Marianne Straub OBE (23 September 1909 – 8 November 1994) was one of the leading commercial designers of textiles in Britain in the period from the 1940s to 1960s. She said her overriding aim was: "to design things which people could afford. ... To remain a handweaver did not seem satisfactory in this age of mass-production." [Wikipedia, consulted 7 August 2017]
- Pattern, Colour and Repetition
- The scale of the Surrounded Islands project is impressive. And although the work appears to be simple in concept (surround 11 islands with "floating pink woven polypropylene fabric") it is clear that an enormous amount of imagination, planning, logistical support and money went into the project.
- "The luminous pink color of the shiny fabric was in harmony with the tropical vegetation of the uninhabited verdant islands, the light of the Miami sky and the colors of the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay." This is all true, but the shade of pink also reminded me of the art deco-revival pink that was often associated with Miami in the 1980s. As just one example, the visual design of the TV show Miami Vice (1984–1990) frequently drew on the same palette:
- The other item that caught my attention when reading about this installation had to do with the issue of impact on the environment. I wondered about the impact on the bay's wildlife, but did not expect to learn that the local flora and fauna were probably in better shape after the installation than before it. Not only did the artists exercise due diligence with a marine biologist, ornithologists and a mammal expert, but they also removed "some forty tons of varied garbage that included refrigerator doors, tires, kitchen sinks, mattresses and an abandoned boat." My expectations were entirely wrong.
- I agree with the assessment of the Surrounded Islands project: it is a temporary, large-scale art installation that defines a series of islands by shape (although the role of striking colour should not be undervalued) and meant to be viewed at a distance.
- This article contains references to a number of examples of architectural uses of textiles, several of which are shown in images below:
- Master's thesis on Textile in Architecture by Terhi Kristiina Kuusisto
In preparation for Assignment 5 on Textiles, I've decided that I'd like to do work on the the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry. The tapestry was completed in Scotland between 2012 and 2014 and then toured the world via installations in countries with a significant population claiming Scottish heritage. The tapestry will be permanently installed in Prestonpans, Scotland. I had the opportunity to see the tapestry and photograph portions of it in Ottawa during the Canadian leg of its tour in January 2017. Assignment 5 will give me the opportunity to dig more deeply into the textile aspect of the work, rather than just the depictions of Scottish emigration and accomplishments.
A few quick shots I took of tapestry panels. These will be edited and cropped for Assignment 5.
- What is their craft and how do they approach it in their work?
I have decided to look at the work of Marcela Rosemberg, a glass-fusion artist who lives in Cobourg, Ontario. My family and I met Marcela and had the chance to tour her studio a number of years ago when she lived on Prince Edward Island.
- Do they adhere to the ideas of Slow Design? To what extent does this allow them to take risks, experiment and innovate?
I have not been able to find any explicit reference by Marcela to Slow Design, but some of the things she says about her own artistic practice are reminiscent of the movement's commitments and principles. The following passage from the "About" page on her website is a good example:
Beauty, simplicity, elegance and functionality are essential components in Marcela Rosemberg’s designs. At her studio, she’s always looking for that special blend of colour and texture that leads her to each piece of art she carefully designs. She treats glass as if it were a human being, by respecting it and not pushing it. This allows her to understand its flow, displacement, behavior, and action up to its most intricate inner part… Its core. That is why Marcela always says: “Each time a piece leaves my studio I feel a little bit of my soul is going with it”.
I remember very clearly from the studio tour that Marcela is constantly experimenting with combinations of colours and pigments to be used in her fused glass creations, as well as with new forms and purposes for the finished products. She was good enough to show us some of the less successful efforts that she still had on-hand, so it was clear that she was indeed trying new things and taking risks.
- Is their story or the story of their work important? Why?
Marcela's story is clearly very important to her and to the artistic identity she has established over the years. As her website explains, "[t]he ocean and her Jewish faith are the main sources of inspiration in her sculptural and functional current work."
Her website goes on to explain how when Marcela left her native Argentina she relocated in Atlantic Canada and that "her colours and designs are still standing strong on the East coast where she created a brand for herself."
The importance of her Jewish heritage can be seen in the beautiful pieces that are clearly designed for the Jewish community.
Marcela's emphasis on her considered and hand-made approach to her work, as well as the emotional attachment that she has to her pieces will no doubt be a part of her story that is significant to her clientele, both those who are already clients and those who would like to feel that they are buying a unique creation directly from the designer-maker.
- Do you value ‘craft’ and craftsmanship? Why or why not?
Certainly. I get a great deal of pleasure from seeing the work of someone who has perfected their art or craft to a high degree -- I appreciate both the amount of work that has gone into making difficult things look effortless, as well as the finished product itself (whether that is an object or a performance). And this is not a recent thing for me: I remember being fascinated at the age of 12 by the skill of a backhoe operator who was excavating the hole for the pool that was being installed in our backyard. He operated a piece of heavy machinery like it was a surgeon's scalpel, working quickly to remove earth by following a spray-painted line on the grass, never once making a false cut. I thought of that craftsman years later when I read Aristotle's view that virtue is the practised skill of living well.
- Is there room for craft in modern society?
No question. Dedication to 'craft' is needed in so many areas of our society, not only in the arts, but also in the world of work more broadly. All work has value if it is approached with an attention to perfection of a craft and the pursuit of excellence. This extends from ensuring that ancient and traditional kinds of 'know-how' are not lost, to reminding us that the mass-produced may have brought us economies of scale but that there is still great value in considered, skillful and sustainable design and making. And this is true both for the maker and for the one who receives the made good. We cannot all be craftspeople in every field and inexpensive consumer goods have their place, but we are all richer when each of us has something in our life that we pursue as a craft, for our benefit and for the benefit of others.
- Do you believe there is a demand for hand-made objects and work? Why do you think that some consumers seek out these qualities in the objects they buy?
Yes, there is certainly a demand for the hand-made. Some consumers are looking for a perceived improvement in quality; others would like to support craftspeople; and others again have a philosophical or ethical commitment to hand-made goods.
- Do you think the desire for hand-made products is based on a romantic perception of the hand-made and a sense of ‘post-industrial nostalgia for the pre-industrial’? Why or why not?
I think this is probably the case for at least some of the interest in hand-made goods. I consider that it is a similar type of attraction that some people have for music on vinyl or analogue/film photography—there is a romantic attachment to a physical artifact that is not entirely dependent on hi-tech to make it accessible or to be enjoyed. Some of the attraction may also be based on aesthetics: some people believe vinyl has a 'warmth' that digital audio does not; some believe that there is superior quality to photographic film or that it too has a warmth not available in a digital image.
- Do you feel that hand-made products are viewed as luxury or value-added products? How do hand-made items compare with mass-produced items, in terms of their value, life cycle, cost and ethics?
Hand-made products do not necessarily have to be more expensive than mass-produced items, but they often are because of the limited scale of production and how labour-intensive the production is. So, yes, hand-made items are often viewed as luxury items—it is often less expensive to buy the mass-produced item (which is generally better marketed, too). It is hard to compare the value, life cycle, cost and ethics of hand-made goods versus the mass-produced—I think it depends largely on the item in question. I don't believe hand-made is inherently superior, but I believe it has a cachet that mass-produced items do not.
- Reflect on any hand-made item you own (not necessarily textiles). Can you remember why you were drawn to it? Did the fact that it was hand-made make it feel ‘special’ or did you just buy it because you liked the design? How did its price compare with the industrially-produced equivalent?
When I travel with my family we often buy one or two items to bring home with us. These are not strictly 'souvenirs' but they do remind us of the place we have visited and we lean toward hand-made goods. We—rightly or wrongly—have the feeling that the hand-made item has a greater connection to the place and the people we have seen. And the hand-made item often has a uniqueness or a particularity about it that does not come through in a mass-produced piece. The price of the hand-made item may be more expensive than a factory-made 'souvenir' (usually made overseas), but this is not a factor in our choice—we always opt for the local item.
For example, when we visited Belgium for a month a number of years ago, we could have bought tourist souvenirs in any number of shops. Instead, we chose to buy a small figure made by sculptor Lut Brackx. The figure sits in our living room and reminds us of our time in Belgium and the side street in Antwerp where we came upon Ms. Brackx's shop by accident and chatted with her husband for a while. A mass-produced item would not elicit quite the same feeling for us.
- What are the guiding principles of this movement?
'Slow Design' is an offshoot of the broader 'slow' movement which began with the interest in Slow Food. One description of Slow Food runs as follows:
A similar approach can be seen on the website of Slow Swiss-made Watches, where the company describes the philosophy behind its single-hand, 24-hour timepieces:
Since the advent of Slow Food, the 'slow' label has been applied to wide range of cultural practices and phenomena such as aging, religion, education, fashion, media, science, photography and travel, to name just a few.
Slow Design has many practitioners and descriptions, but it shares commitments with the broader Slow movement around simple living, work-life balance, concern for time-poverty, and sustainability of materials and process. The ever-growing manifesto of just one Slow Design company, Deep Craft, is a useful illustration of how 'Slow' can be applied in design and fabrication. The first 11 principles (out of a list of 67 on 15 July 2017) from the manifesto are:
- Market = Material Provenance
- Maintenance = Improvement
- The functional lifespan of a constructed thing should mimic the lifecycle of its principle material.
- Entropy adds value: The functionality of a thing by definition incorporates/embodies its decomposition.
- Handwork may be the bedrock of innovation, but nostalgia for handwork is quicksand.
- Prepare for unintended consequences.
- Optimize beneficial end use.
- All vessels originate with an imagined voyage.
- Perfection is impossible to maintain.
- The tool shapes us as much as we shape the tool.
- Craft practices and products simultaneously preserve knowledge and resources.
- Do you believe this approach to design and making could have a positive impact on our consumption of products?
Yes, I do believe this, but I expect that the impact will be relatively limited. From what I have observed, the Slow approach is most often promoted by people who are fairly well-heeled. It might be nice to know exactly where the wood for a new piece of furniture was sourced, that the piece itself was hand-carved and that a new tree was planted to replace the one that was felled, but this is production by the few, for the few. The Slow movement may wear humble clothing, but it is currently an indulgence for the wealthy, largely because hand-crafted items are usually much more expensive than those mass-produced. For Slow to have a real impact on the consumption of products, it would need to touch all sectors of society, be affordable to a broader range of people, and transfer more of its profits back down the production chain to the source.
- Would you place more value on a product that has been created with this principle in mind? Why or why not?
I might, but it would depend on a calculation of 'value' to me and to my family. I would love to be able to buy beautiful, practical hand-crafted goods (although hand-crafting is not an immediate guarantee of superior quality), but sometimes we just need something 'good enough' that we can afford within our overall household budget.
I am sympathetic to the commitments of the Slow movement, but there are numerous factors to take into account.
I live in a semi-rural area in Western Quebec. We are not connected to the municipal water or sewer systems, so our drinking water comes from a well on our property and our waste water is treated in a septic system buried in our yard. All of this means that we have tried to pay attention to the kinds of products that we use in our house and what we put in our waste water, to avoid polluting our immediate environment.
The dishwashing liquid that we currently use is called "Bio-Vert," whose name and packaging suggest that it is good for the environment.
The label on the front of the squeeze bottle make a number of explicit "green" claims:
- Gentle on Hands
- Carcinogen free
- Green Leader since 1984
- Ecologo from Underwriters Laboratories
- Produit certifié à impact environnemental réduit
And there are more claims on the back of the bottle:
- Biodegradable as per the OECD test series 301
- Safe for septic tanks
- No animal testing
- Environmental facts: contains 0% of Formaldehyde, EDTA, Dye, SLES, DEO, APEOs, or Petroleum Solvants
- Recyclable Container and Labels: 100%
- Product certified for reduced environmental impact. View specific attributes evaluated: UL.com/EL; UL 2759
That all sounds very impressive, although I don't know what most of it means. And there is still a warning in all caps: "PLEASE KEEP ALL CLEANING PRODUCTS OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. IN CASE OF EYE CONTACT, RINSE THOROUGHLY WITH WATER. IF SWALLOWED, DRINK PLENTY OF WATER AND CALL A POISON CENTRE OR A DOCTOR IMMEDIATELY."
As far as I can tell from the company's website, its FAQ page and the accreditation from UL's environmental group, it would seem that the claims made by Bio-Vert are legitimate. To test the claims, however, I would need to spend a considerable amount of time researching the impacts of the chemicals named (what is EDTA?), the standards and tests employed by the various research groups (UL) and quasi-governmental agencies (OECD), the company's practices, its use of the accreditation symbols, and its track record in the marketplace. Even if I had the time to do all of these things, I do not have the necessary technical knowledge and competencies to evaluate all the evidence myself. Like most people, I am obliged to trust the recommendations of specialists and to hope that the company is representing the findings of those specialists fairly and accurately.
How would you define ‘sustainability’? Look it up if you’re not sure.
- Sustainability is a state or practice of ensuring that processes can continue over long periods in a way that does not drain resources, environments (natural, physical, social/cultural, economic) or peoples.
In what contexts is sustainability an issue? Think more broadly here – not just textiles – and write a list.
- Sustainability is an issue in any context where there are finite resources in a closed system. It was possible for us to think of the earth's resources as endless when there were fewer of us, when we lived farther apart and were largely ignorant of the consequences of such thinking. It is now clear that much of what we depend for life and the enjoyment of it is not limitless:
- fresh water
- plant life
- arable land
- raw materials
- fossil fuels
How do you think sustainability might be addressed in relation to the production and consumption of textiles and other manufactured products? Use the stages of the life cycle to help you with this question.
- Perhaps the starting point for any thought about sustainability has to be an acknowledgement that it must be a collective effort. As individuals we can all make a commitment to living in more sustainable ways, but it will not accomplish much without some form of collective action in all sectors of society, the economy and governments. And even though larger actors—such as governments and larger corporations—wield considerable influence, the results they achieve will only be partial without some sort of groundswell of popular support.
- All stages of a production cycle—from resource extraction or recovery, to material choice, to refinement, to design, to production / manufacturing, to marketing and sale, to transportation, to consumption and eventual disposal—must be assessed for the way they promote sustainability of life or detract from it:
- Agriculture/raw fibre production — Is land use supportive of the local economy? Are agricultural practices based on sound ecological / green principles? Does crop choice exhaust the soil or displace food crops for local farmers?
- Ginning — How much energy is consumed during the process? Are there any waste products? If so, how are they treated?
- Spinning — Energy consumption? Does automation displace human workers?
- Weaving — Energy consumption? Are there jobs for human workers? If so, do they allow for a living wage?
- Processing — Energy consumption? How close are processing sites to spinning and weaving locations? Are dyes and other chemical products natural? Are they disposed of appropriately? Could they be toxic or allergenic?
- Stitching — Do stitching techniques support a long life for final products or are fabrics designed to fail early to promote repeat consumption?
- Distribution/retail — How much energy is consumed and pollution created by transportation? If products are created in volume, will they be used or end up as landfill? Are price markups calculated to benefit all participants in the production chain, or just those at the top?
- Use/consumption and end of life — Do consumers care for products? Are they disposed to mending products themselves, or do they discard them quickly? Can products have secondary or tertiary uses or lives? Can materials be recycled easily?
- The assessment needs to be done at each stage of the process, but must also view the entire chain as a whole. (There is not much point in working only with natural, renewable fibres if transporting and processing them means fouling the environment.) The chain must also be examined at each stage for its impacts on related, but perhaps distinct chains. (Does increased use of a particular textile mean that there is less arable land available for growing a local food crop? Does a more efficient manufacturing process in terms of volume and speed of production have the side-effect of ruining a local labour market?) Where necessary, governments should be ready to use a combination of regulation and incentives to help direct producers and consumers to healthy outcomes. Business must take corporate responsibility seriously. Individuals must inform themselves and place long-term value ahead of short-term savings.
- All told, there must be commitment across sectors of the economy to operate in a way that promotes human and environmental flourishing, both locally and farther afield. This will not appear overnight, but will require the development of common vision that is sensitive to both place (local and global) and time (the long game).
In art, postmodernism was specifically a reaction against modernism. (Actually, I believe this holds true across the board. The hint is in the name.) The end of confidence in overarching meta-narratives or universal truths and the recognition of the importance of context and many small narratives, no one of which had claim to be “the truth.” Suspicion of the sufficiency of reason (it can’t be a complete suspicion of reason or there would be little point in pursuing postmodernist thought at all).
“Postmodern art drew on philosophy of the mid to late twentieth century, and advocated that individual experience and interpretation of our experience was more concrete than abstract principles. While the modernists championed clarity and simplicity; postmodernism embraced complex and often contradictory layers of meaning.”
With the end of ‘authority’ came an assertion of complete freedom that had expression in rule-breaking, self-awareness, parody, appropriation and ironic commentary.
- Pop art: no separation between fine art and popular culture
Conceptual art: concept more important than the created performance or artefact (personal interpretation and experience)
Feminist theory and art: lived experience of women (article only mentions feminist theory, but there is a range of localized theories/experiences: queer theory, post-colonial, etc.)
Neo-expressionism: re-birth of myth, symbol and history (rich in interpretive possibilities?)
Appropriation and other borrowings: drawing on other cultural products as nothing is normative
Performance art: accessible and often transgressive of established norms and narratives
Hall, S., Evans, J. & Nixon, S. 2013, Representation, Second ed, The Open University, Milton Keynes. (particularly Chapter One: ‘The Work of Representation’).
“Representation connects meaning and language to culture. [...] ‘Representation means using language to say something meaningful about, or to represent, the world meaningfully to other people.’” (p.15)
Three theories of representation—reflective (language reflects reality), intentional (language expresses the intent of the communicator) and and constructionist (language is a social construct using agreed-upon and arbitrary systems of codes to express and interpret meaning)—and within the the constructionist approach there are a further two: semiotic and discursive.
Representation as "standing in place of" (describe or depict) or "standing for" (symbolize). Words stand for or represent concepts. (p.16)
"Representation" is the production of the meaning of the concepts in our minds through language and consists of a system of concepts of things in our heads that we perceive or of more abstract concepts. (p.17)
A system of representation “consists, not of individual concepts, but of different ways of organizing, clustering, arranging and classifying concepts, and of establishing complex relationships between them.” (p.17)
We are able to communicate “because we share broadly the same conceptual maps… [and] ‘belong to the same culture’.” (p.18) We must also share a common language.
Signs are “words, sounds or images which carry meaning”. Signs are, in turn, organized into languages, of which there are many varieties.
Signs have to be interpreted. (p.19)
“Codes fix the relationships between concepts and signs. They stabilize meaning within different languages and cultures.” (p.21)
Reflective approach to representation: meaning lies “in the object, person, idea or event in the real world, and language functions like a mirror, to reflect the true meaning as it already exists in the world.” (p.24)
Intentional approach to representation: “words mean what the author intends they should mean.” A difficulty with this approach is that no author is the sole arbiter of meanings, since language is shared.
Instead, meaning is constructed through representational systems of concepts and signs.
“Meaning is produced within language, in and through various representational systems which, for convenience, we call ‘languages’, (p.28)
Saussure distinguished between a form, which he called the signifier, and the corresponding concept that it brings to our imaginations: the signified. Together and arbitrarily, they are a sign. (p.31)
“Signs [...] ‘are members of a system and are defined in relations to the other members of that system.’” (p.31)
Much of meaning is derived from difference. Difference can have ranges and degrees, and need not be strictly binary.
“It is the differences between signifiers which signify.” And the relations between signifier and signified vary with time, as products of history and culture. These changes lead to new meanings and point out the importance of interpretation. (p.32)
Saussure further distinguished langue (a language system) and parole (any specific communication. (p.33)
Saussure concentrated primarily on the relation of signifier and signified, paying relatively little attention to reference, those things in the real world to which language refers. (p.34)
Saussure’s work also concentrated on how language works internally (its formal aspects) rather than on its actual use. His thinking was discounted as a ‘scientific’ system but found continued usefulness as a means to examine meaning and culture. The limits of his system also pointed out the degree to which languages, although rule-bound, evolve. The systems of rules are not static. (p.35)
Saussure’s work was developed further in cultural studies by Roland Barthes and in anthropology by Claude Lévi-Strauss. (pp.36-37) Each field of meaning can be said to have its own langue and parole, with its own set of meanings created by constructed relationships between signifiers and signifieds. The work of identifying these systems and interpreting them is ongoing.
Foucault continued to develop such structuralism into discursive analysis: the study of “the production of knowledge through language.” (p.44) Any discourse is “true [...] only within a specific historical context.” (p.46)
In this article Barrett offers a series of principles related to the interpretation of art. He describes three specific steps in viewing a work: description, interpretation and judgement. The first two lead to ‘understanding,’ which may make judgement ‘superfluous.’
Barrett’s principles are as follows:
- Artworks have ‘aboutness’ and demand interpretation. Barrett asserts several things here that he doesn’t develop or explain (although the responses are no doubt in the extensive references that he provides). For example, he dismisses the idea of some that art just ‘is’ and cannot be discussed. Instead, he moves beyond a work’s ‘is-ness,’ saying that ‘a work of art is an expressive object made by a person… it is always about something”. I think this is probably a fair point, because even if an artist created a work that was about ‘nothing,’ an idea of creating a pointless object (pure freedom? a statement about the ultimate meaninglessness of reality or our inability to communicate ‘reality’?) would still lie behind the creation of the work. I have a feeling that a geologist, an earth scientist or a biologist (or theologian!) might dispute the idea that trees and rocks do not call for interpretations, but he is making a point about the intent of the artist. Barrett claims that if something is created by a person, another person not only has the opportunity to interpret it, but the work itself asks to be interpreted. (This shows a confidence in the sufficiency of human reason, something that can’t be taken for granted among all commentators.)
Responsible interpretations present the artwork in its best rather than in its weakest light. I’m not sure why this automatically makes an interpretation more ‘responsible,’ but I agree that interpreters are well-advised to show generosity and humility in their work. Why bother with the work of interpreting if there is nothing to be learned from something another human made?
Interpretations are arguments. This statement leads to the helpful warning that we should be alert to the premises of a critic’s interpretation before accepting his or her conclusions.
Interpretations are persuasive. I expect that this is true most of the time, but I can imagine that a critic might review a work without necessarily trying to win the reader to a particular point of view: the critic’s goals could be educational (did you see this aspect? did you notice this possibility?) without trying to arrive at a particular fixed interpretation.
Some interpretations are better than others. Yes. A well-formed, experienced and reliable guide of good will deserves more of a hearing. And the ‘that’s just your opinion’ school of thought does indeed show up in the humanities and social sciences.
No single interpretation is exhaustive of the meaning of an artwork and there can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same artwork. Certainly—variety of context and viewpoint make a final interpretation of an artwork impossible. And this does not undermine the previous point about some interpretations being better than others.
Interpretations imply a world view. No argument here: this is the source of the context and viewpoint referred to in the previous point.
Good interpretations of art tell more about the artwork than they tell about the interpreter. Barrett sums up his point well in this line: “All interpretations reveal the critic, but the critic’s primary challenge is to direct the reader to perceive and understand the art object in question.” I accept this, but I’m not sure that a hardcore postmodernist would.
Interpretations are not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative. From everything Barrett has said to this point in the article, this is a logical position to take.
Good interpretations have coherence, correspondence, and inclusiveness. In other words, they should hold together, relate to the work appropriately and deal with it as a whole.
Feelings are guides to interpretations. Yes—we make things with our whole selves, so it is appropriate to read them that way, too.
It is interpretively risky to arrive at a confident interpretation of one piece of art without knowledge of any others by the artist. (It seems to me that Barrett is presenting a new principle here but that it is has not been set in bold type in the article—a mistake?) I think this could be argued. Is the artist’s intent what is important? Are we to assume that the artist could not strike out on a new path or make a complete break with what has gone before?
An interpretation of an artwork need not match the artist’s intent for the artwork. No argument here: artists are not necessarily the best or most articulate interpreters of their own work and, like the rest of us, are probably not fully aware of all the influences to which they are subject.
The objects of interpretations are artworks, not artists. A valid principle, but could it conflict with Barrett’s principle about the need to take into account an artist’s broad output?
All art is in part about the world in which it emerged. Yes, but what are the limits on this? When should we start to worry that the interpreter’s knowledge of ‘culture’ might be projecting ideas and influences that simply aren’t there? And in today’s highly-mobile societies with multiple cultural influences, what is ‘the world’ in which a piece emerges? Is this ‘world’ unique to every artist, and at different times of her life?
All art is in part about other art. Some of these statements are quite sweeping and categorical. It is a valid point that “art does not emerge within an aesthetic vacuum,” but do the aesthetics in question only have to arise from the art world? It sounds strange to say that “[a]rt can be about life, about art, or both.” Where is the dividing line?
Interpretation is ultimately a communal endeavor and the community is eventually self-corrective. Barrett is right to call this “an optimistic view of the art world and scholarship”—it sounds like an article of faith to me. If the art world does not self-correct, how would we know? What would be different? How would we test the degree of correction? From what standard?
Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and to continue on our own. The implication here is that art and interpretation are part of an ongoing process of dialogue and perhaps education/refinement of opinion and understanding.
‘Visual Stance’ - Gaze and Glance and ‘Direct Address’
Online article by John Frederick Anderson, heavily drawn from a portion of a book by Norman Bryson (“The Gaze and the Glance” in Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze, (1982) Macmillan). The importance of different levels of looking in art, from the glance (short-lived, furtive, stolen) to the gaze (longer, open, admiring?). Cultural differences in where the gaze lands; the direct gaze as a sign of aggression in the animal kingdom. A direct gaze between humans can also be a sign of aggression, or at least confidence. Does this also mark the line between portraiture (gaze) and street photography (glance)?
Nicolas Mirzoeff (1998) Visual-Culture-Reader, Routledge, 2009 (“Introduction to Part Five,” pp.391–397).
- Feminist and queer theory have placed importance on the gaze in terms of power relationship (asserting the right to look on another), to the point of proposing that “the gaze is in itself male, objectifying and subordinating women.” (391)
Recognition that sex is not merely present in genitalia but throughout a human being.
Growth in medical/anatomical knowledge is rationalist (and somewhat mechanical)—viewed as enacting “a man’s claim to rational authority over (feminine) nature.” (392)
Life drawing not open to women; Freudian psychoanalytic view of difference between the sexes rooted in presence and absence (castration) of a penis.
Role playing of the ‘heterosexual binary’ in presenting stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, which may or may not be related to gender. (393)
What happens to the ‘heterosexual binary’ if the subject or the object of the gaze is not heterosexual? (394) → expanded set of identities and meanings
These expanded identities and meanings can be subversive of gender norms or supportive of them (what is the impact of drag? in what context? for what purpose?) (395)
Importance of viewpoint: images can pose questions of the one looking on them, just as easily as the one looking may exercise the gaze.
Interesting differences in comfort with images and gaze, depending on the viewer’s expectations and personal norms: ‘some lesbian and gay readers demand unambiguously “safe” images in the gay press whereas they revel in transgressive, contradictory and subversive pleasures in the mainstream’ (Reina Lewis, quoted on 396).
Appropriation has a long history in art: Pablo Picasso; Georges Braque; Kurt Schwitters; Andy Warhol. Some image appropriation is a necessity (e.g., orthodox iconography) while other uses are meant to comment or subvert the original piece. Advent of digital media has made appropriation much easier and more common. When is this a problem?
Image 1: ©Derek Trillo, The Cheshire Plain from Beeston Castle, 2008
- The high, oblique perspective gives a sense of the spatial relationship of objects on the ground to one another.
- We also get a sense of the relative size of the objects and we are able to guess at scale, using the trees as a guide.
- The slanting light gives some idea of texture, from the rough trees and gullies to the relative smoothness of the mowed fields and plowed earth. The shadows also give a relative indication of the time of day—we know the picture was taken during the day (bright) but not at noon when the sun would be directly overhead (smaller or no shadows).
- We can also surmise that the image was made in early spring: the fields have been plowed for sowing and the grass is very green, but the leaves on the trees are not very advanced.
- If we were at ground level our view would be blocked by trees, hedges and walls. This high perspective allows us to see over and beyond these obstacles.
- We cannot see the horizon, however, so it is hard to relate this viewpoint to anything beyond the tight frame of the image.
- A map would give us a representation of the area from directly above, but we would not have as much information about the ground features or about their texture.
- Many of the same comments could be made about earlier versions of Google Maps, but more recent iterations give us a richer range of options for viewing.
Image 2 by OCA student, Peter Mansell
- This picture allows us to see the horizon and shows us a developed urban area that stretches on for some miles.
- The image shows us a region that appears to contain both commercial / industrial facilities as well as residential areas (the apartments and lower buildings in the middle and longer distance).
- Although a black and white picture, the trees are covered in foliage and suggest summer.
- Other than a partial sign on a roof ('P.A. FINLA'), there are few identifying features in the image (the canal?) and little indication where this town might be.
Image 3: © John Davies, Agecroft Power Station, Salford, 1983
- The black and white photograph is taken from a high angle and shows four cooling stacks from a power station set in a broader landscape. Metal pylons hold the high tension wires that carry electricity away from the station.
- Behind the cooling stacks it is possible to make out a large building with a high chimney. In the foreground sit some cars in the middle of what looks like scrub land and rubbish at the end of a canal. In the middle distance a game is underway on a football pitch.
- The foreground is made up of lines of trees, broken up by the lane that the cars have used for access. There appears to be a split-rail fence just behind the trees.
- The sky is dark and overcast, and it is not possible to tell if the clouds are natural or if they are the smoke/steam produced by the cooling towers. Perhaps the clouds are a mix of both.
- All told, it is a bleak scene even though the towers are impressive in the way they dominate the landscape and stand against the sky. The bleakness comes from the brute figure of the power station squatting in the middle of what was likely agricultural land.
- Taking the shot from a relatively high angle allows the photographer to show more of the surrounding area, thereby providing greater local context for the image. Moving to a lower angle or moving closer to the power station would have made the cooling towers even more dominant, but would have blocked much of the view and reduced the amount of visual information for the viewer.
- Being able to see the players on the football pitch gives the viewer an immediate sense of scale. The figures are dwarfed by the landscape and by the massive size of the cooling towers. It does not take much imagination to see how the humans are dominated in what should be a natural setting by the industrial installation beside and above them.
Image 4: © Bernd & Hilla Becher, Water Towers, 1980
- Although not technically part of the exercise, the series of images by Bernd and Hilla Becher are very interesting to me because I first saw them in a show at the Rencontres Arles Photographie 2014.
- The show was called 'The Walther Collection: Typology, Taxonomy and Seriality' and dealt specifically with the issue of how series of similar images invite comparison. Just as the course materials suggest, I found that I did indeed "look far more closely when looking for differences than [I] would do at a single image."
- Along with work by the Bechers, there were series of images by Karl Blossfeldt (plants), J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere (hairstyles of African women), Richard Avedon (portraits of Washington elites), Martina Bacigalupo (trimmed remnants from a portrait studio), Ai Weiwei (the dropping of an urn), and Zhang Huan (a face being progressively covered in Chinese characters), Eadweard Muybridge (successive frames of a woman walking) and others.
- I spent much longer looking at this exhibit than I thought I would, absorbed in examining the clues suggested by the smallest of differences from one frame to the next.
New Topographics: "a term coined by William Jenkins in 1975 to describe a group of American photographers (such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz) whose pictures had a similar banal aesthetic, in that they were formal, mostly black and white prints of the urban landscape."
Also the title of the exhibition curated by Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY (October 1975 to February 1976).
Mitch Epstein, American Power
- Many of these colour images have a formal structure. They have not been taken haphazardly but show attention to composition.
- The scenery would normally be considered particularly photogenic in terms of classic landscapes, but there is nonetheless a beauty to many of the shots in the series.
- Several of the images seem to have been shot from a viewpoint above regular line of sight—ladder? scaffold? pole? The extra height marks a difference from the usual snapshot at eye-level—does it suggest a different way to view the landscape philosophically, as well?
- Most images contain a lot of detail and show considerable depth of field—the viewer is invited to take in a broad field of view rather than to concentrate on small points of focus.
- The images explore very broadly the theme of 'power' generation and transmission associated with the energy industry in the U.S.
- At the same time, the title 'American Power' could be an ironic questioning of the vulnerabilities of the country's political 'power' because of its dependence on fossil fuels and foreign sources, and because of the environmental degradation associated with the energy industry.
- Some of the images are interesting as standalone documents, but together they form a narrative with a clear point of view.
Fay Godwin, Our Forbidden Land
"Her love of walking eventually inspired her to pursue landscape photography, often photographing isolated and remote areas of the British landscape and producing many beautiful pastoral scenes as well as contrasting urban landscapes. President of the Ramblers' Association from 1987 to 1990, she was also renowned for her work as an environmentalist, her interest reflected in many of her best-known images that examine the complex relationships and tensions between man and nature." (Fay Godwin Archive)
- Much like Epstein's pictures, Godwin's work in this series has been produced with great care.
- All of the images have been produced in black and white—was this an aesthetic decision (documentary approach? emphasis on form and texture rather than colour?), was it due to necessity, or was it even a consideration at all?
- The black and white approach suggests something more timeless to me than literal colour, but that may be my own bias.
- Godwin draws attention to the separation of people in the U.K. from the land around them and to the degradation of the land. The theme is somewhat broader than Epstein's but the two probably share political sympathies.
It's possible that the work of these two photographers and some of the other New Topographers may have an influence on how I look at and photograph landscapes from now on. They point to something real that is happening to the land we share. If all we photograph is carefully framed to be pretty and shown to its best advantage, are our images 'true'? Are they a reflection of reality or do they conceal it? Or both at the same time?
Perhaps that is a good question to chew on: what do I choose not to photograph? And why not?
My motivations for taking holiday pictures vary:
- This is a famous place or view—I want to record it, too.
- There is a detail or sign that I want to remember, so I will take a picture as a kind of visual diary.
- I want to remember this view because of how it made me feel.
- This is something that is new to me or not common where I live.
- I want to have a record of family members on this trip. We will enjoy looking at these later. My children may appreciate that I captured a portion of their childhood, particularly once they are older and have children of their own.
- I had some time to concentrate on photography, so I have taken more care with this image than I have with the others from this trip.
When I take pictures on holiday that are meant to be a simple record of a scene or happening, I do pay some attention to composition and lighting. When I am travelling with other people, though, I am always conscious that photography doesn't hold the same interest for them and try to get the shot quickly. When I am by myself I tend to 'work' the shot and will spend time considering how I frame it and use the light. If something is visually interesting I will spend time with it and make a number of exposures until I am happy with the results. A postcard usually offers an image of a scene under optimum conditions, but it is not drawn from my experience—and I suppose that must be important to me (I don't remember buying any postcards).
The images that give me 'more than just a record of place' have a visual quality that I would be happy to share with a broader audience. There is something in the image in terms of simplicity or geometry of line, the quality of the light, some humour or a human element that lifts it a notch above a snapshot. I regularly share these images online with people who weren't there and they frequently appreciate the same qualities that I enjoyed, sometimes spotting lines, patterns or expressions that I did not see.
The debate about the value of snaps from phones and iPads rages on and I have to admit that I can see something on both sides of the issue. There are indeed a lot of mediocre photos being produced, but that has always been the case (the difference now is the volume, I suppose). At the same time, I think the democratization of photography has been a good thing and the value of an image should be related to its own qualities, rather than to the effort required to produce it. I know that I am generally happier with what I produce photographically when some thought and effort have gone into an image, but I don't know that I am always fit to judge another's thought or effort—let the results speak for themselves. I am more concerned with improving my own abilities than I am with the efforts of others (not that I don't have views on other people's images!).
I'll make my comments based on the two images printed in the course manual.
Image A: wide angle
- A large, white gate dominates the foreground and portions of a brown fence are visible on either side of the gate.
- There is rubbish scattered on the dirt in front of the gate. Behind it is a large, grassy field with nothing in it.
- Beyond the field, and below it, we can see the buildings (some high-rise, most low) of a city stretching far into the distance.
- At a rough guess, the horizon is many miles away and the sky is partially cloudy.
- The gate appears to be level in the foreground, but the horizon seems to slope slightly toward the right side of the frame.
Image B: telephoto
- There is no sign of the gate and the foreground is now occupied by the buildings of the city that appeared to be some distance away.
- The sky takes up less of the frame and very few clouds are visible in it. The horizon line seems closer and we can see buildings on it that were not perceptible in the previous frame.
- We can see the distant objects in the frame with much greater detail.
- Compared the wide-angle shot, the angle of view is much narrower and the perspective in the frame (front to back) is compressed quite a bit.
In the case of Ian Berry’s images of Whitby, removing the people from the frames would take away a number of things:
- a natural human interest in the subject matter;
- a sense of the era in which the pictures were taken (based on clothing, glasses, hairstyles, etc.);
- some identifiers about the place (people playing cricket and men in flat caps suggest a UK location);
- an idea of the time of year (warm enough for sitting in the grass, wearing short sleeves and paddling in the sea);
- a sense of scale in the landscape, based on human proportions in it; and
- a hint at why the photographer may have taken these images (to document people enjoying their leisure time together).
Without these indicators the pictures would be much less interesting and tell a very different story about Whitby: it would look quite lifeless and bleak.
When familiar figures are missing (pp.168–169) we are lacking crucial information that helps us to establish scale, depth, proportion and perspective. What would otherwise 'read' as three-dimensional appears flat and of uncertain size.
The question posed in this exercise is whether photographs of a work of 'land art' are the documentation of the art or the art itself.
After working through the readings associated with this portion of the course (such as John A. Walker's piece on "Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning"), I am not sure that this is an 'either-or' question. Given the role that context plays in understanding the layers of meaning for a particular piece, it seems to me that the proper response is 'both-and.'
The original work of land art or installation is certainly a work of art, but so is the subsequent recording or documenting of the piece or installation. The original piece had its context—place, time, etc.—but any resulting photographs of the piece contain the results of decisions made about format, light, focal length, angle of view and framing. Artistic decisions have been made about what to include, what to leave in and how to present it. And the results of these decisions are then seen in a new frame, and a range of new contexts (particularly if the photographs appear in different settings and times), particularly when photographic processes are used to introduce the perspective of time to the way the work is viewed.
A good example of this is Keith Arnatt’s Self-burial (Television Interference Project). In this case, the performance doesn't really make sense unless it is seen as a series of photographs. A spectator watching the development of Arnatt's self-burial would have seen the artist climbing in and out of a hole that was being progressively deepened. It would have taken a long time and might well have been incomprehensible. Viewed as a planned sequence, however, the work takes on greater meaning as a coherent whole—as a photographic work more than as a live performance.
If anything, then, the photographs of a work of a land art are a new thing: based on the land art and sharing a kind of heritage or lineage with it, but a work with its own integrity and layers of meaning.
Paul Graham, A1: The Great North Road
From the publisher:
Photographer Paul Graham spent two years completing this documentary on the life and landscape of the Great North Road. Throughout 1981 and 1982 he made numerous trips along the A1, crossing and recrossing the length of the nation to record every aspect of life at the verge of this great road. The photographs reproduced in this book build not only into a significant documentary of the A1, but also provide a thread along which we can travel the Great North Road, deep into the nation’s heart, and weave a picture of England in the 1980s.
Stephen Shore, American Surfaces
From the publisher:
In 1972, Stephen Shore left New York City and set out with a friend to Amarillo, Texas. He didn't drive, so his first view of America was framed by the passenger's window frame. He was taken aback by the fact that his experience of life as a New Yorker had very little in common with the character and aspirations of Middle America. Later that year he set out again, this time on his own, with just a driver's licence and a Rollei 35 - a point-and-shoot camera - to explore the country through the eyes of an everyday tourist.
The project was entitled American Surfaces, in reference to the superficial nature of his brief encounters with places and people, and the underlying character of the images that he hoped to capture. Shore photographed relentlessly and returned to New York triumphant, with hundreds of rolls of film spilling from his bags. In order to remain faithful to the conceptual foundations of the project, he followed the lead of most tourists of the time and sent his film to be developed and printed in Kodak's labs in New Jersey.
The result was hundreds and hundreds of exquisitely composed colour pictures, that became the benchmark for documenting our fast-living, consumer-orientated world. The corpus of his work - following on from Walker Evans' and Robert Frank's epic experiences of crossing America - influenced photographers such as Martin Parr and Bernd & Hilla Becher, who in turn introduced a new generation of students to Shore's work.
Alec Soth, Sleeping by the Mississippi
From the publisher:
Evolving from a series of road trips along the Mississippi River, Alec Soth's "Sleeping by the Mississippi" captures America's iconic yet oft-neglected "third coast". Soth's richly descriptive, large-format color photographs present an eclectic mix of individuals, landscapes, and interiors. Sensuous in detail and raw in subject, "Sleeping by the Mississippi" elicits a consistent mood of loneliness, longing, and reverie. "In the book's 46 ruthlessly edited pictures," writes Anne Wilkes Tucker, "Soth alludes to illness, procreation, race, crime, learning, art, music, death, religion, redemption, politics, and cheap sex." Like Robert Frank's classic "The Americans", "Sleeping by the Mississippi" merges a documentary style with poetic sensibility. The Mississippi is less the subject of the book than its organizing structure. Not bound by a rigid concept or ideology, the series is created out of a quintessentially American spirit of wanderlust.
Robert Frank, The Americans
From the publisher:
First published in France in 1958, then in the United States in 1959, Robert Frank’s The Americans changed the course of twentieth-century photography. In eighty-three photographs, Frank looked beneath the surface of American life to reveal a people plagued by racism, ill-served by their politicians, and rendered numb by a rapidly expanding culture of consumption. Yet he also found novel areas of beauty in simple, overlooked corners of American life. And it was not just Frank’s subject matter—cars, jukeboxes, and even the road itself—that redefined the icons of America; it was also his seemingly intuitive, immediate, off-kilter style, as well as his method of brilliantly linking his photographs together thematically, conceptually, formally, and linguistically, that made The Americans so innovative. More of an ode or a poem than a literal document, the book is as powerful and provocative today as it was fifty-six years ago.
Kevin McElvaney, #Refugeecameras
Photographer Kevin McElvaney gave refugees cameras in Izmir, Lesbos, Athens and Idomeni. Of the 15 cameras he distributed, seven were returned and McElvaney displayed the resulting images on his website. The goal for the project was to ensure that refugees were able to describe their trip from their own perspective, rather than from the viewpoint of an outsider who did not share the experience. I found this a very compelling series and wondered how different our documentary and news narratives would look if they were told from within rather than from without.
This project is organized around a rule of “24 hours. 24 photographers. 24 images. 24 years.” Starting in 2004, a collective of 24 then-student photographers documented the first 24 hours of each New Year in multiple locations—in other words, a documented journey through both time and space. Although many of the photographs are taken in the UK a substantial number are not, and the organisation of the project demonstrates that while we share a common calendar there are many other things that we do not share. It is a fascinating visual trip to work through the years and see the points of convergence and divergence.