Articles Issue #11
BY Walter Benn MichaelsMarch 14, 2014
BY Walter Benn MichaelsMarch 14, 2014
“it has the force of a frame to a picture.”*
–Edgar Allan Poe, The Philosophy of Composition
Owen Kydd makes videos that he calls “durational photographs.” What makes them seem like photographs is that the camera itself is fixed, focused on say, a store window or a black plastic bag. But they’re different from still photographs because they depict motion—sometimes very little (the reflection of the lights of passing cars in a window), sometimes quite a lot (the plastic bag blown by the wind). Because of the motion, Kydd himself says there is a sense in which they’re “cinema,” but since, as he also says, the screens make it possible to depict motion without the projection and the darkened room that turns even a gallery into a theatre, there’s also a sense in which they make possible a kind of refusal of cinema.1 It’s thus the photographic and the cinematic that provide the terms in which Kydd understands his work, and inasmuch as the videos are neither photographs nor movies, video functions for him less as a medium in itself than as a technology for addressing the relation between the photograph and the movie, for, more precisely, turning the cinematic into the photographic.
Thirty-five years ago (when Kydd was, like, two) it might have been tempting to describe this vexing the question of what medium he works in as an example of the postmodern critique of medium specificity, the “destruction,” in Rosalind Krauss’s words, of “the conditions of the aesthetic medium.”2 Today, however, it’s Krauss’s subsequent call for the “reinvention of the medium” that seems more relevant, since Kydd’s interest in the relation between the photograph and the cinema works more to complicate the specificity of the medium than to destroy it. But where the point for Krauss of the call to reinvent “the idea of the medium” has been to defend what she calls the “necessary plurality of the arts,” “a plural condition,” as she puts it, “that stands apart from any philosophically unified idea of Art” (305), it will, I want to argue, be hard to describe Kydd’s practice as appealing to the plurality of the medium against Art; on the contrary, it will be better understood as doing just the opposite, as redeploying the idea of the medium precisely on behalf of the idea of Art—and against a pluralism that is not only aesthetic but political.
We can begin to see how this works first by noting the distinction mobilized by Kydd between the materiality of these works and their aesthetic. The reason it makes sense to call them durational photographs, the reason why the medium to which they have a relation is the photograph, is first, as I’ve already noted, because the camera is fixed and, second, because the point of the fixed camera—the use to which it’s put—is the creation of a picture. And what determines the picture as a picture is the establishment of its frame, which will be essential not only to the unity of the work as a kind of photograph but to the very idea of art that Krauss deplores.
This absolute centrality of the frame is most immediately visible in a piece like Composition Warner Studio (on green) (even though the occasional violence of its movement makes it look less like a still photo than many of the others) precisely because the crucial (let’s say defining) moments in that piece – the ones that punctuate the passing of time, that insist on the photograph’s durationality—are the moments in which the edges of the bag are blown outside and then back inside the frame.
What a video (but not a still) camera can do, of course, is follow the motion, a capability that’s absolutely central to cinema (it’s partly this capability Kydd is insisting on when he suggests that technically his work is cinema) and that makes the question of the frame in moving pictures very different from what it is in the still. The moving camera subordinates the frame to the shot. What I mean here is just that it’s a crucial fact about cinema (to stick with Kydd’s term) not just that the camera can record motion but also that while recording motion it can itself move, and that this fundamentally alters (one might say, all things being equal, removes the pressure on) our sense of the frame. Whereas what Kydd insists on in Composition is just this pressure. Everything that happens in Composition happens in relation to the frame; the top and bottom of the bag moving closer to or farther away from the frame, the left side going out and then coming back in. So although one might imagine this transgression of the frame as functioning to weaken it, in fact, it functions to strengthen it. If what you wanted were really to weaken the frame you could just get rid of it altogether by following the motion of the bag with the camera. And this is what I mean by saying that the work seeks to function as a picture. It seeks to assert that what it is (what it is of) is determined by its frame. It’s not just that someone watching that bag blown about would not see what the beholder of the work sees (would not see it moving in and out of the frame); it’s that the event I just described—moving in and out of the frame—would not even be taking place. The function of the frame, in other words, is more ontological than epistemological; it doesn’t just determine what we can see, it determines what happens.
The force of this determination is even more visible in another more complicated work, the diptych, Marina and the Yucca. What makes it complicated is its relation to the portrait—to the problematic of the pose and to the psychological ambitions of the portrait. But, setting these aside for today, I want to stick with the question of the frame, and to do so by noting the difference between this video portrait and probably the most important video portraits of the last 25 years, the ones in which Thomas Struth asks his subjects to sit still for him for an hour and in which they struggle to do so. In the Struths, that struggle is at the center of the work, made especially vivid when, for example, Struth’s close friend, the brilliant classical guitarist Frank Bungarten, actually gets up and walks away in something like exasperation. By contrast, Marina seems barely to feel the pressure of posing. And in fact, she’s not under much pressure; where Struth’s subjects sit facing the camera for an hour, Marina is shown looking down, eyes shut or almost shut and only for two minutes. Of course, unlike the cactus, she feels what it means to be photographed and presumably if she had to sit for a full hour, the effect would be different but in her mere two minutes she seems almost to escape the problematic of the pose, to be more like the cactus than like Frank Bungarten. In this sense, at least, Kydd’s durational photographs are a lot less durational than Struth’s video portraits.
At the same time, however, because the work is shown in repeating loops, the passage of time is particularly or distinctively marked. Where in Struth, the passage of time for the subject of the video is identical to the passage of time for its beholder (if the video portraits were to run continuously, no one would be expected to sit through more than one showing), even in just a 7 minute 19 second showing, Marina and the Yucca repeats three times—which is to say the work is organized by the repeats, by an internal structuring of time not paralleled in the experience of the viewer. The effect is thus to separate the time of viewing from the time of performance, a separation that becomes all the more 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.”3 The difference between the still and the durational photograph remains, but here duration is placed under the sign of stillness—it’s made to happen as much as possible within the photograph rather than in the experience either of the subject or the beholder.
And this act of separation is reinforced by a relation to the frame different from but in its own way even more striking than that in Composition. Partly this emerges in relation to the other picture in the diptych, but what I want to focus on here is the movement (in context, an almost violent one) that everyone registers at the beginning of the second loop. What the beginning of the new loop makes visible is that Marina has been gradually and almost invisibly slumping just a little during the two minutes the camera has been on her, and it does so by restoring her to the position she was in at the start. Thematically, we might say, this is striking because it alters our experience of the relation between the still cactus and the almost equally still young woman. If she has seemed as untouched by the problematic of the pose as the cactus, it’s her difference from the cactus, the fact of her embodiment that’s now insisted upon. At the same time, however, there’s no sense of the work’s interest in her interiority. It’s the fact that she has a body, not her particular individuality, not what she is thinking or feeling, that is registered here. In this sense, the diptych seeks to foreground her personhood without in any way interesting itself in her personality, a gesture that has its own interest.
But, however we understand Marina’s movement downward, her movement upward is very different since, of course, she never does move upward. Rather, that movement is constituted entirely by the video, which here asserts its separation from—or, to use a more loaded aesthetic term, its autonomy from—its subject (it produces a motion that she does not) to complement what we’ve already described (in its internal structuring of the passage of time) as its autonomy from the viewer. What’s striking here is that a literal account of the medium specificity of the photograph (its indexicality, the Barthesian “that has been” of its relation to the event) is refused and replaced by a formal one (its frame, its determination of the represented event by the representation). And this is what I meant by saying earlier that in Kydd, something like what Krauss calls the reinvention of the medium is deployed on behalf of rather than as a critique of the idea of art. The commitment to producing an aesthetic of the photograph out of the material of the video—and thus to invigorating the concept of the frame—functions precisely to make the kind of general claim about art (“Art”) that Krauss deplores: to assert its autonomy.
Perhaps then we should be worried that Kydd’s work is the kind of art that George Baker (Krauss’s former student, and a little less sanguine than she is about the renewal of interest in medium specificity) warns us against when he worries that the “ breaking” of the “postmodernist and interdisciplinary taboo” against the medium “has let loose a series of… conservative appeals to medium-specificity, a return to traditional artistic objects and practices and discourses, that we must resist.”4
But it’s hard to see what’s conservative about this practice as art and, although a commitment to the autonomy of the work has sometimes been identified with a political conservatism, it’s even harder to see how that can be true today. In fact, it has been the challenge to the frame—what we might call the emergence of the postmodern more generally—that has functioned as the way artists do conservative politics in our period.
We can get a preliminary sense of what this means just by noting that the rise of the postmodern has been more or less coterminous with the rise of neoliberalism and with two sets of social and economic conditions. One is what the poet Maggie Nelson describes as the “triple liberations” of the Civil Rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the gay rights movement.5 And although probably no one imagines that the equality for which these movements struggle has been achieved, probably also no one imagines that there hasn’t been significant change for the better. Just to take a very current and local example (the case is about to go before a judge here in Detroit6), today same sex marriage is legal in only 16 states (and Michigan is not yet one of them)—not so good. But at the time of Stonewall (1969) same-sex marriage was unthought of, and same-sex sex was illegal. In Michigan, until the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), a sodomy conviction could be punished by fifteen years of imprisonment.
The other relevant change with respect to equality has been economic. But here, of course, the question is not how much better things are but, as the well-known graph below
suggests, how much worse. In fact, economic inequality in 2012 was not only much worse than it was in the late 60s and early 70s, it was worse than it’s ever been in American history. And the median household income in Detroit today is less than half what it was in 1970.7 If we were using Nancy Fraser’s terms, we could say (what Fraser says) that progress has been made with respect to questions of recognition but not with respect to redistribution. The way I myself would put it would be to say that progress has been made with respect to questions of discrimination but not with respect to the question of exploitation. Where inequality has taken the form of our seeing difference as inferiority (of racism or sexism or homophobia), we have fought it; where the difference actually is inferiority we have allowed it to flourish.
Obviously a lot could be said about these changes and about their relation to each other (and on this topic Fraser’s views and mine would be different, since I would argue that our current commitment to anti-discrimination functions to legitimate exploitation) but the relevant question here is only their relation to Owen Kydd’s durational photographs. Not, obviously to the subjects of these photographs—there’s nothing about that plastic bag that speaks to the question of women’s rights or Detroit’s bankruptcy. But instead to the question of the frame, which, I want to say, does.
How? If we just remind ourselves of what the critique of the medium and thus of the frame entails, we can see right away its alignment with Nelson’s three liberations and with the commitment to anti-discrimination more generally. For what the frame does is separate the work from its subject and thus at the same time from its audience, and what the critique of the frame does is refuse that separation and insist instead on the centrality of the beholder’s response. What we see, how we feel, become crucial components of the work and thus it’s possible for the normativizing gaze (white, male, straight/racist, sexist, homophobic) to become a crucial object of both aesthetic and social critique. After all, the problem of discrimination is in its essence nothing but a problem about how we see and respond—no racism without racists, no homophobia without homophobes. The appeal to the viewer produces the principle of neoliberal justice.
The frame, by contrast, makes everything outside the work and in particular our response to the work irrelevant. Defined by its internal relations (remember Marina’s little thrust upwards), the theory of itself that a work like Marina and the Yucca produces is of a structure that cannot be altered by our perception of it. And the image it offers is of a society organized not by the irreducible centrality of our subject positions but by their irrelevance, not by the conflicts between black and white, straight and gay, male and female and the problem of discrimination but by the conflict between labor and capital and the problem of exploitation. Every time the edge of that bag blows into and out of the frame, every time you experience your own irrelevance to the determination of what is and is not part of the work, you are offered the opportunity to understand what it means for it to be autonomous and for you to belong to a society structured by class.8
This is finally what’s at stake in Krauss’s identifying the return of the medium with a defense of the “plural condition”—of the “necessary plurality of the arts” as against a “philosophically unified idea of Art.” Pluralism is contemporary liberalism’s utopian ideal, a social field composed of identities demanding not to be discriminated against and cultures seeking to be acknowledged. The arts here, reinventing the differences between them by reclaiming their relation to the medium, are called upon to provide an emblem of that ideal, of difference as a mode of equality. But the medium in Kydd does not defend the plural; its use is just the opposite—to assert not only a philosophically unified idea of art but an idea of art as the form of philosophical unity. And in so doing, it makes visible a very different social structure, one that reconfigures difference as contradiction, understands inequality as its essence. What it produces may not quite be a class politics, but it is at least a class aesthetic.
That’s why that plastic bag looks more like the city of Detroit today than do even the most beautiful pictures of its ruins.
Notes*This essay was written as part of the run-up to the Mellon-sponsored nonsite/LACMA conference on photography that will take place in March 2015, and, in its final form, will further explore questions about the medium of photography and the question of portraiture in relation to Kydd, Struth and some of the major works (e.g. by Sander) in LACMA’s Vernon collection. This version, however, was originally presented as a talk at the ASAP conference in Detroit (October 2013) and I have, for reasons that are perhaps obvious, wanted to preserve the marks of that occasion.
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