Thursday, 23 July 2009

Making HD Work

In May 2009, though having shot quite a few times before on 4k, I spent a week on a 4k camera - here are some thoughts written immediately after shooting about the process in relation to the idea of art history:

This week brought into focus some issues around High resolution imaging and art.

The camera per se was invented to ‘capture’ ‘reality’ (as if it needed catching and like all wild things did not want to be caught).

Contemporary art seems to have long passed the idea of configuring reality through brush strokes or forming matter as simple representations of what seems to be before the artist and then exhibited to the public as an act of art. The last century discussed the idea that the artists conceptualising of an issue was at least as important as the materials he or she was using, until only the idea mattered and the form that was being used was some kind of barrier to that act.

But the camera relentlessly presses it’s two dimensional representation, whether photo-chemical or analogue video or latterly data, as the formal configuration of what lies before the person ‘capturing reality’ at a chosen moment - and yet this act is in contradiction to the dominant mode of art, including its exhibition at this point in time.

It seems to me, that in ‘the matter of art’, art historians are as important as artists for it is they who set the cultural value system that society’s dominant modes of reading of art lies within. The current mode of understanding of art within late capitalism is of course the commodification of art - giving it value so that it can be traded in the market place - whether that market place uses currency or tokens of value.

In the late 1930’s the Frankfurt Social Sciences research project moved to New York and in a moment of pure modernity, art historical appreciation of their own project changed. Two cultures, the continental and the American met and exchanged and entrained to produce the project we now make art within.

This collision produced a set of relationships between Theodore Adorno, Meyer Shapiro, Claude Levi-Straus, Herbert Marcuse, Arthur Porter et al.

Meyer Schapiro wrote a text on the appreciation of a sixth century church doorway that differed from other early sculptural works in that it was principally asymmetric - it depicted a sleeping figure, not a figure doing something - as well as many other features.

The contemporary project was examining an issue in a sophisticated way. If producing the idea of a biography of the artist to produce a reading of that artists art was bankrupt - i.e., the projection of a closeness felt through understanding of a life lived, then re-projecting that understanding on to a painting as if that projection in some way made sense of the painting was incorrect (after all, that life lived and understood by a contemporary mind was a fictionalisation) then ‘understanding the work through that fantasy was false.

So the project of the art historian became about finding the anonymous artist to study, then there could be no biographical projection. Also, the project had been up until Shapiros work, a looking at the general early romanesque work where certain fashions of representation were consistently used - Christ and the Saints in their place - as was that fashion. Shapiro looked at a trameu above a doorway that did not fit this because it was asymmetric and had representations of man and devil that were different. Shapiro worked out that prior interpretations were a reaction to the artist as biography, its opposite in fact, so what if the artwork were a description of the world that it was produced within.

All of this is tracked and beautifully described in Thomas Crow’s The Intelligence of Art, (University of North Carolina Press)

After many years and waves of fashion, through the sixties and the french intellectuals - Barthes, semiology, semantics signs and signifiers, through the post modern project until the present - what the art historian has been doing is paramount to the way the contemporary artists work is valued and therefore a conditioning factor in what they produce in the first place. It is what art history and what it considers to be worthwhile that determines the surface motions of curatorial practice that then determines what its extension, the art market, values and therefore the notion that the artist is an heroic adventurer in the new continent of meaning as a creative force that is wrong. This individual is no individual at all but a simple clone of a value system that is prevalent.

The YBA for instance simply is a tool of dominant values to challenge those least sophisticated of societal values. Even in the 30’s modern art was seen as froth. Right now, when the currents of the modernist project have become weak and are flowing back on themselves, as can be seen in a piece like Hirsts Diamond Skull, begun over 100 years ago, that is coming to its end.

So within all of this is someone like myself, raised above the general project of recording the world through digital media and presenting it back to itself through digital media (i.e. access to the more refined end of capture - that is hi resolution imaging). I now find myself having to enquire about the values of the project that uses the energy of current technology and the meaning that the ape that we are has successfully presented back to itself, so that I can realise my own internal needs to make a mark in the sand.

But given all of that, that we have a need to make work, (which needs questioning as it might not be an internal need but a demand of society for some individuals to be utilised like workers in a bee colony) - then if the project is about meaning and not representation, then the camera is the least best way of doing this - and yet intuitively I feel it is the only way for me at the moment !

So, during the last week I shot several new works not the least of which was one of my portraits projects where I use the moving image to capture someone being very still - like a statue, like a tableau vivant. All the time I’m asking people to be conscious of the power of their gaze. That it is energetic at the least and that at the most, they are actually emitting energy in that gaze that is met by a similar form of that energy by the viewer and that the screen is the liminal boundary where the two equivalent gazes meet, displaced only by time. Portraits of Bristol Universities Centenary captured the life of the university from the cleaning staff, via students, via professors, to the chancellor. As a work, this is more towards the corporate end of things, in that it is of an institution, but I see no barrier here to making the act as it sits within my general portraiture project.

However, photo realism and the problem of transposing the gaze of the viewer into a location he or she could not have been (except through luck) is not a problem in this piece as that is the ‘operator’ that works. Familiarity and unfamiliarity, stillness and movement, recognition on a universal scale, issues of size and display all come into play. The public recognises this stream of work and can place it in their value system, their interpretation and translation system and in terms of the overall social project the boat is not rocked but in fact, reaffirmed.

But of course there is no boat, no project, ‘no such thing as society’ as ‘that woman’ has said (at least in the uk) - there are only us sentient chickens. Yet that of course is another reading. Late capitalism requires us all to feel as individuals, in contradistinction to a 4th millennium BCE Egyptian slave who might have been more bonded to society and might have felt it their duty to sacrifice themselves for the whole. Nowadays that will not happen in action (throwing oneself under society's train so to speak), but in terms of the value system - it is the only game in town.

So for the artist interested in the nature of the functions that determine their activity, one of the first questions that the art historian has now to ask is: what is the viewer engaged in doing when meeting a new work of art (be it in image or sound or performance or whatever the artistic flavor of the month is)?

Picture this: You enter a gallery and there ‘it’ is (the artwork). What is it? What is it doing? What did the artist intend in segregating these elements and placing them before you? If it is recognisable then one simply marks it out of ten: It’s one of these and its a six. The curatorial elite requires that it is disguised to do its work so therefore it has to veil it’s functions. The more veiled, the more ‘unreadable’ the better. It’s very good if after a period of enquiry you recognise something - a material, a juxtaposition of materials and ideas - whatever the means - that finally something adds up and a little epiphany occurs and you ‘get it’ or recognise what the artists was up to in doing the work in the first place.

But all of this is a desert wine - easily appreciable. The connoisseur requires the wine to taste foul, then that is beyond public taste and because the function is then that only a few very sophisticated people can appreciate, it enables then to feel part of an elite. There are two readings here: that this small grouping lies directly in line after the art historian and controls the worlds museums and galleries and the second is that this elite just can’t see what the child can see, that the king is naked. Either way, you can’t win because philistinism is the highest charge that can be made against someone and you have to go directly to Coventry and not collect £200 (sorry, mixed metaphors).

The above is a Philistine description. But the Philistines were a cultured people who appreciated art and sculpture, who were militarily crushed by the incoming invaders and so necessarily as beaten people their history had to be propagandised and distorted.

But the questions have to be asked because the ship of art must not run aground and the dominant aesthetics and readings are driving us towards the rocks.....

The artist when faced with photo-mechanical, photochemical or photo-electric means of making art, which in itself denies the long project which is not simply recording the world, has to go further.

In pointing the camera towards the latter end of this week of production, beauty and pictorialism, the twin evil sisters of the figurative representation of reality, plagued me deeply.

As it came to me, everywhere I looked was full of beauty and yet when the camera presented it, it mostly deteriorated into pictorialism, a chocolate box version of the the world which on one level, in itself, was replete with the divine in the act of being. Every time the divine was captured as being without its divinity I did not shoot. Equally, when the divine was captured and was present, I turned off the camera - because that was not my project either (though it was good enough for most practicing artists prior to the 20th century). So I had to push on and try to interrogate the urge to make the mark in the sand.

What is this about ?

Everyone when looking at a work of art, through either ignorance or knowledge, is an art historian. Every artist who looks with the gaze of art is an art historian (albeit all of us better or worse informed about that history). But the artist has to reach beyond the project - surely?

Thursday morning and we take the 4k red camera into the somerset countryside. All day we point the camera at a set of pre-set scenes. All day I try to break the chains of intention.

Ideas kept hitting me: “It’s not the job of the artist to copy the world badly. Neither is it the job of the artist to try create a world ‘better’ than this - I surely can’t as it’s a fools errand in that they are created and can only make gestures towards their creator”

So what is the job of the artist ? To make nice scenes for people to put on their walls? To challenge the views of the populace about their views (doh) that’s really not hard as the public is way down the food chain. Is it to challenge the curatorial elite - more food chain issues. Or are both strategies about representing the world and then challenging ‘the local primate’ of any value at all? Is there a better way forward ?

Cinematic images can stun.

Art can stun.

Why isn’t being stunned enough?

Should we also be moved?

Is being ‘moved’ another diversion (Bertolt Brecht thought this not enough).

What is our sensorium and our psychology? Should we look more deeply at our make-up ? What’s is going on with us that art is important anyway?

As a researcher into the visual image, I am enquiring into its the formal and material nature: What it does and how it does it.

As an artist I have two enquiries: i) I am also enquiring into it’s formal nature and like all artists that are operating within the contemporary paradigm, issues around truth to materials is dominant - by this I mean that whatever the nature is of a material, taking wood as an example, it’s best to work with its ‘grain’.

Equally though, the pictorial aspect of image making is a large and thorny issue. What is an image best concerned with? The way it depicts the world for instance? Or equally what is the images symbolic use, or it’s conceptual, or ironic use?What are it’s cultural meanings, its societal meanings and the ideologies that lay behind these choices?

And also, what’s the history of use and where might that use be taking us?

So at root, I make work that points up something that I have gained insight about and so I take a position and a strategy in this act of unveiling and sometimes the effects are either beyond what I have gauged and sometimes the results are completely unforeseen.

In terms of High resolution imaging at the moment, as you can see - for me there are only questions.

To Be Continued...