Re: Response to Walter Benn Michaels
To: Charles Palermo
Department of Art and Art History
The College of William and Mary
Re: Response to Walter Benn Michaels
January 18, 2014
I haven’t seen Owen Kydd’s “durational photographs,” but Walter Benn Michaels’s reading them is a fascinating example of the attempt to wring meaning out of seemingly mute elements of form. I have always been drawn to the modernist effort to do so, pursued in multiple ways by critics, theorists and art historians from G.F. Hegel to Alois Riegl, Arnold Hauser and beyond.1 Such formal grammar makes art into a visual, hence seemingly direct way of saying something. It brings to bear the most hermetic aspects of form, like the visual discourse on framing—on the gritty reality of exploitation and rising economic inequality. Does a society recognize difference, celebrate hybridity, seek to deny the difference between one class and another, between life and art? Does the work represent class structure or attitudes toward authority through the arrangement of its elements, the color, light and shade of its surface? Does art perform an “aesthetic of class” when it demands its autonomy and shuts out the viewer? Or does something in the form of the work encourage the gallery-goer to enact a performance that might result in her rethinking the way she sees, change the way she regards her relation to the world, or abandon some well-worn assumption? Can this metaphoric reenactment of the relation of the viewer to the work affect the future of that relation and help effect change?
These relations, performances and interpretations depend on discourse. While by tweaking the form one way or another different meanings can be coaxed out of the same form simultaneously, resulting in a range of variations, discourse itself is always historical. Thirty-five years ago “(when Kydd was, like, two)” it would have been tempting (to Michaels) to describe the probing of the question of medium in his work as the postmodern critique of medium specificity. Twenty two years ago (when Kydd was, like, fifteen) it would have been tempting (for me) to discuss Kydd’s work in terms of the awkward collision of two desires, the desire for the autonomy of art, and the desire to make art that can have an effect in the world outside of art.2 But for both of us the discourse of art has changed. For Michaels the “reinvention of the medium” seems more to the point. For me, because I thought that artists no longer have to struggle with and against the axioms of modernism (art’s autonomy) it seems more appropriate to talk about how difficult it is to speak in one conversation (medium) when another is pulling you in a different direction. The pull of competing discourses is like the pull of competing narratives.
It would have been wonderful to tease out narratives in Kydd’s works. They might prompt questions like what is the minimum movement sufficient to form a narrative? or how trivial can that movement be and still affect the narrative? Perhaps in the case of Yukka Black and White and Marina, the moment when Marina appears to jerk upward would be the focus of my reading as it was for Michaels’s. But I might see the epiphany as related to the turn in the narrative that would show how watching a narrative differs from gazing at a still picture. It would be a decisive moment in the face of which everything prior to it must be rethought. We thought the piece was about looking at movement as though it were a still image but now it is about failing to identify the conditions under which we were looking at the “durational photograph.” To go further, the subject of the narrative could be what we fail to notice even when we are looking closely over time, thus querying the limits of close examination. Perhaps, given that in the case of Marina, the subject is a person, it could be about the failure to notice, even when looking closely at a person, what is going on with that other person. You thought you were attending closely, but the blip shows that you have not been attending to the person at all. You have failed to notice that she has changed her position. You (we) have been looking without seeing. As Michaels writes, we are not invested in her personality even if we thought we were. Her unknowability is heightened by the fact that in spite of all our attentiveness we have not noticed that she has been slowly sinking. A thought experiment: how would it change the effect if she had been slowly rising instead of sinking? In the piece we experience the creation of a relationship and its failure at the same time. The relationship has been only a visual one and visuality fails over and over.
The most striking visual image in Michaels’s brief essay, however, is not any of the stills from Kydd’s non-still work but a graph of inequality of income in the United States by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, which he has repeated elsewhere in his writing. It tells a clear story chronologically: a high percentage of inequality gets worse before it gives way to better times, ending on an upswing where income inequality is at a peak even slightly higher than it was at the worst moment early in story. This narrative is framed, as are the durational photographs, but it cannot be called a durational graph. One sees the beginning and end; it does not move; and it does not loop. But it does carry a sense of the continuation of the image beyond the frame. The frame slices off a period before and after the narrative. We may happen to know that the period before the beginning was a period of increasing income inequality that constituted a long run-up to leading up to the horrific figure of 1917, where the graph begins, and the still more horrific peak around 1930,3 and while one would hope that the lines beyond the border on the right will trace a downward path once more, there is nothing that guarantees this. The only formal element of hope that the line will not rise still further is the upper frame of the graph, which alas we know is arbitrary. The graph does, however, urge us to leave it with a new view of the world and the determination to change the situation, albeit without providing us with a way to do so.
Michaels brings the graph to bear on his readings of Kydd’s works by suggesting intriguingly and convincingly that decreasing discrimination (tolerance for social, racial or ethnic differences) can actually legitimate increasing exploitation, by masking it through a kind of visual screen (because we no longer see difference as inferior, we leave aside actual inferiority). Seeing without discrimination, from this point of view, though preferable to seeing with discrimination, can act as just as much of a distraction from economic concerns. Kydd’s work, if it reestablishes difference along with the autonomy of the work of art through the discourse of framing, suggests that attention to our seeing might be an important way to grasp this distinction.
But perhaps what Kydd’s work tells us is not that we need to see difference, but that we need to see. Kydd’s videos show that we are not looking. I wonder whether this interpretation is compatible with the insights offered by Walter Benn Michaels. While the graph tells us to step back and look at the larger picture, Kydd seems to urge us nearer to the frame to direct our attention to a single barely moving object or person, and to stay long enough to discover its movements.
I can’t make an inference about this because I have seen not any of the works by Owen Kydd that Michaels discusses. Admittedly I have seen representations of some of them on the internet and through the digital files that you, Charles, were kind enough to send me. One could argue that as works of mechanical reproduction these are just as valid as the screens hanging in the gallery. Yet I would have to argue that they are different precisely in terms of Michaels’s interpretation of them as interrogators of a medium. The medium of my MacBook Pro is not the same as that of the gallery with screens hung on the wall. It is a more democratic one, perhaps, but also a more isolating one.
My computer screen differs in some important respects from a gallery wall: scale, height, the relation to the viewer, and the presence of others. The gallery seems to be particularly important to the artist. Early in his essay, Michaels writes that Kydd valued the screens because (quoting Kydd), “the screens make it possible to depict motion without the projection and the darkened room that turns even a gallery into a theatre.” The artist, then, is concerned to maintain a gallery as a gallery and not as a theater. I wonder why. One might think that the reason relates to Michael Fried’s well-known reservations about “theatricality,” but Fried rarely relates such concerns to actual theaters, and theaters, not theatricality, are at stake here.4 In a gallery you are always aware of the whole space around you, while a theater keeps you within the parameters of the screen, shutting out everything else. The fact that you don’t see anything outside of the screen can be as important in a film as the fact of the camera moving (if it moves) with the subject. If the frame is the whole world, with nothing outside the frame that it shuts out, then there is no frame.5 This is true even if the camera does not move. Anyone in a fully lit gallery with a screen on the wall is aware of both the frame and what is outside of it. The image acquires a quality of a picture this way. As Michaels explains, this is “crucial if one takes seriously Kydd’s remark that ideally he’d like his videos to be playing continuously all the time and thus to ‘have a presence on the wall like that of a painting or photograph.’” Indeed such “presence” is exactly what Fried inveighed against in his famed essay, “Art and Objecthood.”6
This “presence” is crucial in many of the areas to which I might have pointed in making my response. Michaels explicitly leaves aside some of these areas, and others as well, such as the relation of the color photograph of Marina to the black and white image of the plant. In the installation, the two are tied together by an electric umbilical cord that could, considering the site where it attaches to the photograph of Marina, suggest a sort of birth image. Michaels, having seen the work, can explicitly leave aside what emerges in this relation to the other picture in the diptych as well as, in the image of Marina herself, the “relation to the portrait—to the problematic of the pose and to the psychological ambitions of the portrait.”
I do not have this privilege because I have seen the works only on the small screen that, to many of us, is the whole world. These screens in our offices and homes are more isolating than even the whitest of white walls in the most pristine of white cubes. They are much more theater-like than even those small project spaces which resemble theaters—ones in which patrons are constantly walking in late and leaving early—which Kydd presumably meant to reject in favor of placing his works on gallery walls. An increasing number of artists with access to technology and a gallery have made a similar choice.
But the experience of being seated at a computer in the intensity of isolation, with the pictures close to the viewer and adjacent to each other could tempt one to leave aside the context. Their adjacency could lead one to compare, rather than connect, Marina and the black and white Yucca plant, while to give their movement a beginning and an end on Quicktime instead of looping it goes counter to Kydd’s desire to see his durational photographs as continual presences on walls in lighted rooms. Even more importantly, to look at these works in isolation on a computer screen distracts from seeing a larger, more sweeping narrative such as the one traced by the graph of income inequality, a narrative that might even encompass the gallery system itself.
Much of what I say applies, albeit differently, to the intriguing durational photographs of blowing bags and gently moving scraps of paper. They, too, seem to offer narrative moments that make the “photographs” more film-like and pressure the viewer to wring a narrative out of them. I hope, however, that I have explained well enough why I cannot contribute a response, however tempting it is to engage in nonsite’s dialogical format of statement and answer. After all, the only viewing experience more rewarding than to stand in front of a screen in a gallery and to gaze intently at a work one on one, is to stand in front of the work with another person who is gazing just as intently. Hopefully this experience will happen many times in 2015 via the Vernon Collection at the Mellon-sponsored nonsite/LACMA conference on photography.