Fillip

Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

Partial Recall
Alex Kitnick

Everything we can quantify physically is analogue: length, width, voltage and pressure. Telephones are analogue; the hands of watches that turn with the earth are analogue; writing is analogue; drawing is analogue. Even crossing out is analogue. –Tacita Dean

Mottled, faded, scuffed, and torn—the photographs gathered in Zoe Leonard’s Analogue feature storefronts, shop windows, and displays of wares with little gloss or shine. Selected from a trove of images made over the last ten years, the book both documents a length of time and forms a kind of travelogue. The first half of the book is of New York—of the Lower East Side and segments of Brooklyn: there is the Dynamite store on Delancey Street and Graham Electronics on Manhattan Avenue, both with their signs torn off and gates pulled down. (New York eventually gives way to other parts of the world: Uganda, Poland, Cuba, and Mexico all appear here.) A number of storefronts are unidentified; we see only their windows full of fabric samples, back-to-school specials, and arrangements of shirts. Scale and subject matter remain more or less constant throughout the book—each photograph captures no more than a few square feet of space. Such consistency has a cumulative effect: taken together the photographs suggest a world simultaneously distant and familiar. The antiquated buildings and structures pictured seem aware of their precarious condition. (Indeed, I have already seen a number of the ones pictured in my neighbourhood disappear.) Perhaps it is this sense of an oncoming past that makes these photographs so hard to periodize and place. They don’t appear to belong to now or then, here or there. They form a strange time capsule, out of date at the moment of its inception.

A strong dialectic between the artifactual intimacy of the photographs and the sweeping project of which they are a part moves throughout the book. Each photograph appears at once as an emblem of global change and as an irreducibly material piece of evidence. Analogue is a kind of allegory of globalization, but it is also a transcription of its affective repercussions: it is the end result of an attempt to record an increasingly inhuman world according to the criteria of scale and sentiment. It looks everywhere for like feelings: the world is presented here less as a series of distinct nation-states with self-contained identities than as a string of interconnected sites joined together by a common form and flow of goods. (The shipment of second-hand clothing from Brooklyn to Kampala is one of the work’s unifying threads and the most literal example of interconnection.) It is striking how much a painted window in New York looks like one in Uganda, how the photographs line up in such a consistent fashion. Certainly this could be said of corporate office buildings as well, but few appear here. Leonard’s hand is most apparent in the scale of the subjects she opted to picture. Free of the glass towers and industrial infrastructure endemic to globalization, the world presented in Analogue is thick with its smaller remnants: signs for Coca-Cola and Kodak abound, brightly colored plastics and cotton shirts are everywhere available. In its gathering of ephemera and small-scale establishments, Analogue constructs what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari might call a “minor” world: a reworked and reconfigured world, carved out of, and seemingly resistant to, its major variant.

Leonard has described Analogue as documentation of a world on the verge of extinction, a world increasingly pushed aside by gentrification and digitalization, forces of capital: “Progress is always an exchange. We gain something, we give something else up. I’m interested in looking at some of what we are losing.”1 Though Analogue specifically treats progress and loss in relation to urban transformation, the series returns to themes that Leonard has explored in her earlier work as well. Strange Fruit, a sundry collection of sewn-up fruit skins made in the mid-1990s and inspired by a memory of the artist David Wojnarowicz sewing together a loaf of bread, constituted a material mourning of friends lost to AIDS. Each fruit sewn was the result of a self-imposed ritual, symbolizing an impossible act of reparation. Leonard herself knew as much: “You can try to fix it, but the fruit is gone. And yet, we need repositories for our grief. We need eulogies. And relics. Monuments and mementos.”2 Or, as Andrea Fraser has written in another context, “The work of art, like the work of mourning, is a process of reconstructing lost and ruined objects,” objects that will, however, become again lost and ruined.3 In many ways, Analogue continues the project of mourning initiated with Strange Fruit: if the earlier work was an elegy for lives lost in an epidemic, however, Analogue mourns the disappearance of the city under the twinned regimes of globalization and gentrification. In both instances, mourning emerges as a kind of activity; Leonard’s anxiety about loss encourages her to both make and preserve memories. In contrast to the plethora of artists working today with historical materials, Leonard constitutes her own archive instead of turning to an extant one. Memory and history are not givens in her work; they must both be made and maintained.

Leonard’s “archival impulse” is made plain through her choice of medium.4 Along with C-prints and gelatin silver prints, Leonard produced an edition of Analogue using the dye-transfer process, a technique invented by Kodak in the 1930s (and discontinued in 1993). Dye transfer is a highly caustic process, but it has its advantages: its richness of color resists fading, making it an optimal medium for deep storage. Such a process emphasizes photography’s archival qualities. It stands against the easy explosion of digital images underway today, an accumulation so infinite that it seems to undermine the very possibility of memory itself.

Photography’s old-fashioned qualities—its privileging of deliberativeness, laboriousness, and selectivity—are held up as virtues here. In his great essay on photography, however, Sigfried Kracauer argued that the photograph and memory are necessarily at odds with one another: where memories are “personally significant” and preserve “the unforgettable,” “photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage.”5 In the face of the digital, photographs now seem to challenge this distinction, and Leonard’s in particular: though they are filled with incidental accretions—many quite literally depict a jumble of seemingly worthless objects—each subject is seized with intentionality and care: every tattered poster and broken television is held with a sense of purpose and is made to function within a scheme (if only a compositional one). Leonard’s lens conveys an odd sense of tenderness towards such objects, as if it had gathered these scenes in order to protect them. Again, there is a push-and-pull in the photographs: at times the world pictured seems voided (the shut gates on the stores prohibit visual access) yet, at other times, the very tactility of a scene—the delicate spread of garments—seems in itself to be an example of how to care for both the city and the self at once.

This possibility of care and tactility, however, is largely posited as a thing of the past. Like other artists working today, Leonard’s work appears to be rather melancholic, fixated on yesterday rather than on a change to come. Much of the recent work by the British artist Tacita Dean conveys a similar sense of loss; in Kodak (2006), for example, the artist documents, on projected film, the workings of a Kodak film factory in its last days of operation. In both Dean’s and Leonard’s work, ways of picturing—particularly those tied to the photographic apparatus—are presented as on the verge of extinction. Though images of digitalization itself are never shown, its spectre haunts their work from off-screen. Where the screaming purples of the production process and the long strips of film rushing through coating in Kodak suggest an almost industrial sublime, however, Leonard’s work focuses less on the processes of production and more on the world that appeared alongside film, an analogue world in which photo stands and tawdry posters were ubiquitous. One feels the loss of this world as a poignant event. Through _Analogue_’s typological organization of shops and signs, this passing is not presented as a random event (or as a simple termination of technology, as in Dean), but rather as a wholesale and concerted dismissal of an entire form of life.

As much as Analogue is a work of memorialization and mourning, however, its interest in a quickly receding past offers an alternative life model—one based on contact and intimacy. Though a particular nostalgia—one that favours scenes and objects instead of actions—threatens to ossify the project at times, there is nevertheless a concerted effort to map out social relations, to make sense of the world that transpires within and outside of these scenes. The highly aesthetic nature of these photographs, in fact, seems to act as a point of entry into further research; it draws the viewer into a more intense engagement with the world. But if Analogue seeks to hold onto aspects of a present rapidly falling into the past, it does so tentatively. It knows the precariousness of all things. In a sense, it tries to make history. It transforms the world into archival documents. It traces the world as it once was, or as it might have been.

Notes
  1. Zoe Leonard, quoted in Sherri Geldin, “Director’s Foreword,” in Zoe Leonard, Analogue (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2007), 1.
  2. Anna Blume, Zoe Leonard (Vienna: Secession, 1997), 18.
  3. Andrea Fraser, “Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry?” Grey Room 22 (Winter 2006), 43.
  4. Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall 2004).
  5. Sigfried Kracauer, “Photography,” in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995), 50–51.
About the Author

Alex Kitnick has participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the department of art and archaeology at Princeton University.

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