John O’Brian and Rosemary Donegan
The following conversation was commissioned in collaboration with Dazibao, centre de photographies actuelles, Montréal on the occasion of the exhibition WORKING IMAGES Carte grise, which runs 16 April 16 to 30 May 2009. This conversation will be included in Fillip 10, released summer 2009.
John O’Brian: For this conversation, we’ve been asked to reflect discursively on representations of work, especially constructed photographs of labour. This could take us in several different directions. To talk only of the immediate present, the daily slashing of jobs is turning an economic crisis into a political one and raising questions about what work represents in our times.
Rosemary Donegan: In the mainstream media, this came to a head with Jon Stewart’s now famous (and, of course, “YouTube-ed”) public undressing of financial journalist Jim Cramer on The Daily Show in early March. (The interview culminated with a rhetorical question: “When are we going to realize . . . that our wealth is work?”) Stewart’s oblique but dramatic query encapsulates popular anger at the recent market and banking meltdown while also raising questions about the value of work, questions that are seldom voiced in the mainstream media, never mind in financial journalism, business schools, or financial markets. Stewart’s attack on Cramer contained two assumptions. First, that work gives meaning and value to life; it is a site of achievement and effort that historically has been observed and rewarded. Second, that work produces both financial and social wealth. In the interview, Stewart insisted that without real work sustainable wealth cannot be produced and that financial markets and banks are not involved in real work. The apparent prosperity of the last few years was a bubble waiting to burst. In the financial sector, the main objective of financial transactions was the accumulation of personal rather than social wealth.
O’Brian: Last week, thousands of people in the United States took to the streets in protest against the bonuses paid by failing financial institutions to executives who helped to precipitate the collapse. A citizens group called the Connecticut Working Families Party was formed to lead tours into wealthy suburbs in order to hand-deliver letters to the A.I.G. executives receiving bonuses. The letters, accompanied by stamped and addressed envelopes, invited the employees to return their bonuses to A.I.G. The Toronto Globe and Mail referred to such activities as instances of “recessionary rage.” While the noun seems right, the adjective does not. Like the sum of a trillion dollars, the word “recessionary” is imprecise. The anger produced by the economic crisis is being focussed on precise institutions and individuals—that includes politicians and governmental advisors seen to be colluding in the self-serving excess.
Donegan: The marginalization and denigration of work in contemporary culture are among the factors that have produced the present economic crisis. Except in the most meaningless and monotonous work situations, the majority of people take intense pride in their work, seeking satisfaction in craftsmanship, knowledge, technical expertise, and other accomplishments. The WORKING IMAGES Carte grise exhibition is a timely opportunity to reflect on what work means in the present economic and political crisis and how work is represented in visual and social culture.
O’Brian: When you saw the list of artists and works selected by Condé and Beveridge for their exhibition at Dazibao, what first struck you?
Donegan: The group of images brought together by Condé and Beveridge in WORKING IMAGES Carte grise raise a series of interrelated questions. First, about contemporary art practices, ideas, and theories, particularly collaborative practices, not in the Bourriaud sense of relational aesthetics but in the sense that all images of work, whether still or moving, are relational, as they depict and correspond with larger structures and relationships of economic culture and social life. Second, the images bring to the forefront an examination of photography, not only as a genre of constructed art images, but also as a popular medium in which documentary, found vernacular, and advertising practices commonly stage images. And, third, the grouping of images investigates activist art involved with specific social situations and political intent, whether overt, didactic, implicit, covert, or narrative in nature.
As a visual historian who has done a lot of research and writing around the history of images of work and industry, I am fascinated by the new types of imagery in this show, in how contemporary practices return to the subject with new forms and approaches bound up in the current rash of relational aesthetics, which should more accurately be called relational practices.
O’Brian: You are right to draw a distinction between Bourriaud’s concerns and those of Condé and Beveridge. Bourriaud uses the terms “relational aesthetics,” “relational art,” and “relational practices” more or less interchangeably. The artists that he included in the defining 1996 exhibition Traffic—Vanessa Beecroft, Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, among others—seem to me more varied than the relational umbrella of “constructed conviviality” under which they were assembled. Their work was also more self-consciously engaged with past histories of art than he allowed. It was one thing for Bourriaud to propose new ways of thinking about a shift in the 1980s and 1990s that leaned towards open-ended and collaborative practices, and to borrow the vocabulary of the Internet to reflect on the forms of interactivity he observed, but another thing for him to claim that a decisive break with preceding art was occurring.
Donegan: Bourriaud didn’t claim that interactivity was a totally new notion in the art of the 1980s and 1990s—as you know, he referred back to Duchamp’s 1957 lecture “The Creative Act”—but he did claim that for the new generation of artists themes of interactivity and intersubjectivity were paramount.
O’Brian: I tend to be suspicious of “new world” declarations about art. In the early 1950s, Harold Rosenberg wrote about the paintings of Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, and other Abstract Expressionists, asserting that, “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Rosenberg saw a rupture with past modes of painterly execution in the pictures of the Abstract Expressionists and identified the break in terms of the artists’ dramatic engagement with the canvas. A dispute developed between Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg over Rosenberg’s reading. Greenberg was some years ahead of Rosenberg in paying attention to Abstract Expressionism, but he located the movement’s significance in terms of continuity rather than discontinuity. American artists had extended European avant-garde practices, he argued, not broken with them. Greenberg can be faulted for his teleological account of modernism, for insisting too strongly on modernism’s drive towards all-over flatness, but his account of Abstract Expressionism was measured in comparison to Rosenberg’s millennialism.
Bourriaud’s position is less extreme than Rosenberg’s but still emphasizes discontinuity at the expense of continuity. For him the problematics of 1960s and 1970s art are “radically different” from those of the following decades. I am not so sure. The relational practices he identifies seem to me indebted to earlier critiques of the autonomy of art as well as to the production of site-specific environments. In the history of capitalism radical rupture is rare—I doubt that the present crisis will prove an exception—and Condé and Beveridge and the artists included in WORKING IMAGES Carte grise understand this better than most. Not only are they self-reflexively engaged with the relationships of capital and labour, they are also self-reflexively engaged with preceding art practices.
Donegan: All of the images in the exhibition share a common form or process of development that Condé and Beveridge define as the “constructed photographic image.” It can be a technique, a style, or a genre employing either digital manipulation or more traditional photographic darkroom techniques of manipulation, often using models and sets to create a new photographic reality.
Constructed photography as a specific form of image production came out of debates and histories in the late 1960s and 1970s, though there are numerous manifestations of constructed images in historical photography. It is important to recognize that one of the central debates developing out of conceptual art was initiated by the Art & Language collective and by Fox magazine in New York in the 1970s. It revolved around the production of “documentary” work. Condé and Beveridge, who were living in Manhattan at the time, were members of A&L. As a result of these discussions, Condé and Beveridge found themselves rejecting their own established sculptural practices for political reasons while moving towards photographic image-making and simultaneously interrogating the veracity of the documentary photographic image. This led to new thinking about what non-documentary photographic forms might be used to bridge art and politics. The self-conscious emergence of constructed photographic images in the 1970s came into modern usage through a variety of sources and ideas, from debates about the end of modernism to activist politics, in addition to the search for useable visual formats familiar through popular culture and exemplified in advertising and graphic design.
O’Brian: By the end of the 1970s, Condé and Beveridge had begun to experiment with a range of non-documentary forms of photography. Since then, they have worked with an extraordinary variety of photo-collage practices, sometimes gluing them together, sometimes prizing them apart, and sometimes gluing back together what had been separated. Their interests have extended from the collage work of John Heartfield to the constructed photo fictions of Life magazine advertisements to the digital fabrications of the 1990s and the 2000s. I think of them as politically minded, self-reinventing professional connoisseurs of photo-collage.
Donegan: One aspect of the imagery in the WORKING IMAGES Carte grise that I find particularly interesting is the representation of the changing reality of work, an attempt to create new visual vocabularies that reflect immediate experiences of labour. The artists in the exhibition realize they can no longer rely on the traditional representations of labour and industry, such as the muscle bound worker and cheery group portraits of guilds and unions, as well as documentary and political agitprop images. Instead, the work grapples with larger global issues and interconnections ranging from the environment to immigration to child labour. In order to find new publics and viewers, the artists have developed responsive forms of imagery capable of crossing and reflecting changing educational, aesthetic, ethnic, and cultural lines today.
O’Brian: Some of the most important debates on “documentary” as a category of representation occurred during the first half of the twentieth century, and Canada was a major participant in them. After World War I, the French used the term documentaire to refer to written texts that attempted to parallel the indexical nature of photography and cinema, but it was John Grierson, later head of the National Film Board in Canada, who is credited with coining the term “documentary” in relation to cinema. The filmmaker and historian Colin Browne has observed that, for better or worse, the idea of documentary became closely associated with English-Canadian film culture at mid-century and has continued to remain significant. In 1933, Grierson loosely defined documentary as the “the creative treatment of actuality.” He was under no illusion that film and photography could function transparently. If one of the tasks of documentary was to bear witness, he thought, the other was to promote social change. In hindsight, we might say that Grierson understood documentary as a representational process of enlightened social engineering. The dark side of this formulation is found in Chomsky’s phrase “the manufacturing of consent,” which points to the mobilization by the mass media of public support for governments and corporations that are being driven by special interests. This is part of what worried Condé and Beveridge and the circle around Art & Language.
Donegan: I agree. I am also intrigued by the manner in which recent constructed photography utilizes and is influenced by contemporary advertising. The images in this exhibition borrow from and mimic advertising strategies and contemporary graphic design but also attempt to deconstruct and re-orient the narrative and the power of these popular forms of commercial imagery. What I find holds the imagery in this exhibition together visually is the appropriation of these advertising forms and styles and in this instance work utilized for new ends that involve social advocacy.
O’Brian: The imagery is also produced by means of collaborative engagement.
Donegan: The collaborative process often brings individual subjects and their experiences into the content and narratives of the pieces. The intention is to facilitate the power of subjects to depict their own experience of work. Often they are involved in the staging of the images, but rarely in the actual physical production of the imagery, for which the artist takes responsibility. However, whether the images are digitally or manually collaged and constructed, or whether established as actual stage sets and acted out, they are all highly intentional in their construction of meaning and narrative. Since they are more like image documents produced through a collaborative process, they lead us back to the notion of documentary photography. This is something that Condé and Beveridge, Suzy Lake, and other artists in the exhibition share with the more mainstream conceptual photography of Jeff Wall and Wang Qingsong. As constructed images they are based on narrative strategies that infer stories and have external referents, in some cases multiple stories and referents.
O’Brian: You mention Jeff Wall. In addition to engaging in processes of collaboration, a surprising number of his images revolve around representations of work. His large transparencies are also “constructed photographic images,” though not exactly in Condé and Beveridge’s sense of the term, produced in the form of tableaux vivants. The representation of work figures prominently in The Well (1989), Outburst (1989), Restoration (1993), Untangling (1994), Volunteer (1996), and Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona (1999)—and the list could go on.
Donegan: In a similar way, Wang Qingsong’s large-scale photographs, which are Chinese opera-like stagings, such as Dormitory (2005), or Dreams of Migrants (2005), foreground the dystopia of urban life in contemporary China, with their unsettling mix of factory dormitories, sex workers, migrant hostels, and the homeless. The preoccupying subtext is the harsh experience of work and/or the lack of work.
O’Brian: Yes. I doubt, however, that any of Wang Qingsong or Jeff Wall’s pieces were considered for inclusion in WORKING IMAGES Carte grise, despite meeting several criteria for inclusion. The images may be constructed, and they may represent labour, but they are not collaborative in the terms privileged by Condé and Beveridge. Each artist exercises tight control over what is represented in his transparencies. The figures act out their parts under strict instructions and play minimal roles in the final outcome. “In terms of the reproduction of subject positions,” T. J. Clark remarked to Wall in a taped discussion, “isn’t there a danger that this imagery of the controlled, the contracted, the emptied, the rigid, the collapsed in the everyday life of capitalism, will end up being read primarily in terms of your control of the tableau?” Wall’s exercise of control is the point, of course, and what separates his and Wang Qingsong’s work from that of Condé and Beveridge. For Clark, the authority exercised by Wall in producing his hypnotically striking images runs the risk of reproducing the forms of authority exercised by capital in the organization of everyday life.
Donegan: The artists represented in WORKING IMAGES Carte grise are much more closely aligned with Meyer Schapiro’s utopian concept of the artist, as discussed in his 1964 essay “Diderot on the Artist and Society.” Schapiro’s language may seem dated, but his ideas are not: “In his warmth and spontaneity the artist is a model of the natural, productive, self-fulfilling man. Feeling and thought are equally active in him and joined to a truly social nature. Through this freedom and full individuality he serves others, including a future mankind.”
The concept of the artist as a social citizen pervades the images in WORKING IMAGES Carte grise. It contributes to a rethinking of the role of the artist as producer and what work means in contemporary society.
About the Authors
John O’Brian is Professor of Art History and Faculty Associate of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia. He has published extensively on modern art history, theory and criticism, particularly on the institutionalization of modernism in North America. His current research explores the engagement of photography with the atomic era in Canada—part of a larger project on nuclear photography in North America and Japan, called Camera Atomica, which is being supported by a three-year research grant from the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada. Camera Atomica is also the name of an exhibition he is preparing for the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Rosemary Donegan is director of the graduate program in criticism and curatorial practice at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto. As an independent curator and writer, her work has focussed on modernity and industrial and urban culture in Canada. In her exhibitions and catalogues, including Industrial Images/Images Industrielles (1988); Work, Weather and the Grid (1991); and Ford City: Windsor (1994), a range of archival imagery and installations evoke layering, complexity, and the often contradictory nature of modernism and industrial life.