The theme set for this week of studies was ‘Strategies of Sharing’ and during the week we discussed different collaborative practices in photography. Ariella Azoulay states that “collaboration is the photographic event’s degree zero” (2016: 189). In light of such a profound statement, I feel I need to discuss the aspect of collaboration in my current practice, with special emphasis on my work in progress, a body of work which will hopefully become the fully realised, final major project I am to submit at the end of my studies.
Let me start by saying that in all my work, past and present, I have never collaborated with other people in the realisation of the work. I practice photography in isolation, and the (mostly) inanimate subjects I choose to photograph are usually located in abandoned, derelict areas. I can go further and state that all I am interested in when photographing these subjects is, simply, to make them look as beautiful as possible – I am only interested in aesthetics. Jeanne van Heeswijk comes to mind, reminding me that “nowadays one could receive an aesthetic experience on every corner” (cited in Bishop 2012: 11). How am I therefore going to defend the validity of my work, putting it on a par with participatory projects that “seem to operate with a twofold gesture of opposition and amelioration [that] work against dominant market imperatives by diffusing single authorship into collaborative activities that […] transcend ‘the snares of negation and self-interest’”? (Bishop 2012: 12).
Bishop observes that the word aesthetics “has been highly contentious for several decades now, since its status – at least in the Anglophone world – has been rendered untouchable through the academy’s embrace of social history and identity politics, which have repeatedly drawn attention to the way in which the aesthetic masks inequalities, oppressions and exclusions (of race, gender, class, and so on). This has tended to promote an equation between aesthetics and the triple enemy of formalism, decontextualisation and depoliticisation; the result is that aesthetics became synonymous with the market and conservative cultural hierarchy” (2012: 17-18). Bishop also observes a “tendency for advocates of socially collaborative art to view the aesthetic as (at best) merely visual and (at worst) an elitist realm of unbridled seduction complicit with spectacle” (Ibid. 27).
How am I to distance my work from this avowed emphatic torpor clinging to all matters concerning aesthetics?
Bishop discusses the work of Jacques Rancière, who “developed a highly influential account of the relation between aesthetics and politics” (2012: 27). Bishop states: “Rancière argues that the system of art as we have understood it since the Enlightenment – a system he calls ‘the aesthetic regime of art’ – is predicated precisely on a tension and confusion between autonomy (the desire for art to be at one remove from means-ends relationships) and heteronomy (that is, the blurring of art and life)” (Ibid. 27). Bishop explains that “for Rancière, the primal scene of this new regime is the moment when, in Schiller’s fifteenth letter On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), he describes a Greek statue known as the Juno Ludovisi as a specimen of ‘free appearance’” (Ibid. 27). Following Rancière, Bishop argues that “following Kant, Schiller does not judge the work as an accurate depiction of the goddess, nor as an idol to be worshipped. Rather, he views it as self-contained, dwelling in itself without purpose or volition, and potentially available to all” (Ibid. 27). The result is that the statue “stands as an example of – and promises – a new community, one that suspends reason and power in a state of equality” (Bishop 2012: 27). Thus, returning to the discourse on the system Rancière called ‘the aesthetic regime of art’, Bishop explains that this system is “premised on the paradox that ‘art is art to the extent that it is something else than art’: that it is a sphere both at one remove from politics and yet always already political because it contains the promise of a better world” (Ibid. 27).
Some artists nowadays, grossly involved in participatory activity, have seemingly forgotten (or have ignored) this original premise embraced by modern art.
Applying Bishop’s argument to solitary work solely concerned with aesthetics, one can now see that this kind of work can evince the same “twofold gesture of opposition and amelioration” (Bishop 2012: 12) as witnessed in more explicitly participatory projects.
Returning to the work I am currently working on in relation to the final major project I am to submit at the end of my studies, I would like to believe that these uncluttered images of industrial cranes will induce in the observer a similar Zen Effect as one presumably experiences when looking at paintings such as the ones produced by Morris Louis and Mark Rothko. I wish this body of work to approach that state of ‘free appearance’ described by Schiller when perceiving the Juno Ludovisi (Bishop 2012: 27) – a series of “self-contained” (Ibid. 27) images of industrial cranes, dwelling in themselves “without purpose or volition” (Ibid. 27), and “potentially available to all” (Ibid. 27). It is intended that the totality of the perceptual experience while viewing these images will momentarily cause a rupture with our present-day chaotic reality, allowing the emergence of a space saturated with serenity and self-acceptance. By giving these images of industrial cranes aesthetic qualities usually suited to images of more refined subjects, I also hope to be honouring manual labor.
I would like to conclude by discussing once again the issue of authorship in photography, as this seems to be pertinent to any discussion on collaboration in photography. Elsewhere, I wrote against the centrality of the notion of authorship in photography and then claimed that the photo is to be experienced as a record of the look of the Other, the Stranger – ultimately, the photographer – as s/he glances at this and then that. I now feel that this view is, to put it mildly, reductionistic as it completely wipes out both the observer, as an agent with free experiences, and the subject recorded within the photo (cause, let it be frankly said, the photograph does contain with it a recorded subject), with her/his/their/its rights. This earlier view of mine thus assumed that putting oneself, so to speak, in the photographer’s shoes is ultimately the only experience one can have of the photograph. I now recant this earlier view of mine and come to appreciate the photo as a shared space, potentiating collaboration through the relations it sets in motion. At its barest level, then, a photograph is experienced in a threesome, so to speak, in an act of tacit complicity between the Subject, the Photographer and the Observer.
AZOULAY, Ariella. 2016. ‘Photography Consists of Collaboration: Susan Meiselas, Wendy Ewald, and Ariella Azoulay’. Camera Obscura, 31(1 (91)), 187-201.
BISHOP, Claire. 2012. ARTIFICIAL HELL: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Verso Books.
Morris LOUIS. 1961. Alpha-Phi. Tate [online]. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/louis-alpha-phi-t01058 [accessed 22 June 2019].
Statue at the Musei Vaticani. August 2018 at the Musei Vaticani, Rome. Photograph by the author.