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A Photographic Virus
In Contemporary Art


Walter Benjamin's thesis 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' originally published in 1936 was an important modernist text which was cited throughout the postmodern era and continues to be referred to by critics who are analysing the end of postmodernism (Krauss 1999a).

  • Category
    Postmodernism, Photography
  • Published In
    Presented at Biennale of Sydney, Public Program, August 8, 2004. 1 hour paper.
  • Year

A Photographic Virus
In Contemporary Art

Benjamin argues that mechanical reproduction contributes to the withering of the aura of the work of art because it is infinitely reproducible through the lens of the camera. This argument has been used to support the appreciation of film, video and photographic practices evidenced in the celebration of the loss of aura which punctuates much postmodern criticism. However, Benjamin's thesis also sends out a warning. The much quoted passage that argues that “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (Benjamin 1992, p. 218) concludes by insisting that the function of art is reversed in this process and that: "Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice - politics". (218).(Heartfield Slide) This was important for Benjamin who lived in a time in which Nazi spectacles were taking on the form of grand popular displays of power that were propagandistic in the extreme. This insistence on the problematic relationship between art and politics as a result of the mechanical reproducibility of the image still has critical importance today.

When Julianna Engberg directed the first, and to date the only, Biennial of Contemporary Art in Melbourne (date) she became famous for saying when interviewed by the press that "video was the tapestry of the 21st century" The idea seemed to resonate with artists and the public alike and it is a way of conceptualising photo-based and electronic media that recognises the history of its evolution and underlines its provenance. There's always talk about new media and often this noise tends to foreclose on history. Making a comparison between tapestry and video may seem a bit far fetched at first but what Engberg is getting at is that these forms of art and image making have a popular appeal, they are also functional and able to be adapted across different levels of skill. Tapestry was both a private, domestic form of image making and a public display of virtuoso talent. Today we can say the same about video and photography.

From its patented invention in 1839 to the present photography has infected every other medium of representation, from painting and sculpture to digital art, advertising, film, video and television. Although photography is a product of modernity, and amongst its greatest inventions, it also challenges the key tenets of modernism, acting as a sort of virus within visual culture by infecting the high arts with machine made images. Apart from being a mechanical form of reproduction, without the originality or authority of fine art painting, it is also widely available for anyone's use. George Eastman's advertising slogan for Kodak in the 1880s - "You push the button, we do the rest" - is emblematic of photography's utilitarian value (Gernsheim 1962, p. 116). This democratic aspect of the medium makes photography an amateur image making process which has enormous popular appeal. Although the mass production of millions of family snap shots has been analysed as a 'middle brow art' by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1990), other critics have expanded on the psychological aspects of the medium that seduce the photographer and the viewer (Barthes 1984, Cadava 1997, Batchen 1997). Photography, especially analogue photography with its negative and positive process, shares aspects in common with the workings of the conscious and unconscious mind. Sigmund Freud was the first analyst to make the comparison between the mind and the photographic process.2

There has been an increased interest in amateur photography in recent times. In many ways this appears to be a backlash against postmodern theory and an attempt to reclaim an authenticity of experience and presentation. The resurgence of documentary type video in this Biennale is a case in point (Loulou Cherinet, White Women, 2002). However, probably the most powerful uses of amateur photography and video that has recently infiltrated our electronic networks via television and the world wide web are the images of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. These images have shocked the world because we believe them to be true accounts of what happened. No amount of postmodern theory is going to convince us that these are inauthentic copies without an original experience. Baudrillard's precession of the simulacra is still alive and well, in fact it's what make these images proliferate, however, we receive them as real images not as fakes. Photographs engage people in a particular way. On a practical level the photograph is a kind of mirror and a keeper of personal and cultural memories. Oliver Wendell Holmes was the first commentator on photography to describe it as a 'mirror with a memory' and since then the idea has stuck in the cultural imaginary (Holmes 1859, p. 34). On another level the viewer believes that the photograph is of something. As Roland Barthes makes clear we become seduced by the idea that the photograph captured the thing in front of the lens because  the Photograph always carries its referent with itself (Barthes 1984, p. 5). This 'having been there-ness' gives the photograph a kind of ritualistic element, which is made more pertinent by the process itself since the image remains 'virtual' in its negative form before it is made into a positive image. The indexical nature of the analogue photograph which gives it the quality of a footprint or death mask (Sontag 1977, p. 152) also gives the photograph a haunting or ghostly quality as the thing before the camera's lens is transported through time and becomes present even though the moment captured has passed.3

In the postmodern era, photography and video seduced and infected contemporary visual culture. The ways in which the camera manages to get inside more traditional media and transform them has been one of the most compelling aspects of postmodern art. The reproductive and mechanical nature of the photographic process became a virus within representation, a virus that deconstructed the authority of power and knowledge invested in the original and the individual author. Artists such as Cindy Sheerman, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince appropriated and deconstructed the master narratives of modernism by exploiting the reproductive qualities of photography. These artists appeared to speak to postmodern theory and became signature artists in the 1980s. The American historian and photographic critic, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, argues that:

“However one wishes to theorize postmodern art . . . the importance of photography within it is undeniable . . . Virtually every critical and theoretical issue with which postmodernist art may be said to engage in one sense or another can be located within photography.” (Solomon-Godeau 1995, pp. 104 and 115).

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

Photography went beyond its own medium and seeped into others contributing to what Rosalind Krauss has termed "the post-medium age" in which "the aesthetic option of the medium has been declared outmoded, cashiered, washed-up, finished"(Krauss 1997, p. 5).

Recent scholarship in the USA warns against the convergence of art and theory where practice appears to pitch itself to critical discourse or seeks to engage in that discourse (Krauss, 1999a). For Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster much of postmodern art was either a continuation of critical modernism and/or the critical edge of postmodern practice (pastiche, irony, appropriation) was quickly absorbed by the capitalist market which acclaimed the plurality of postmodernism as part of a liberal platform (Krauss 1999a and b, Foster 2002). Krauss is concerned that 'post-medium' art is blurring the boundaries between disciplines too much. She argues that photography plays a major role in postmodernism because it "restructures the conditions of the other arts" (Krauss 1999a, p. 46), however she laments the loss of the aesthetic medium (1997, p. 5). For Krauss and Foster the critical, deconstructive edge of what Foster once called a postmodernism of resistance (Foster 1991, p.xii) has lost its critical clout and is now used in the service of global capital. For Krauss the artist is now compelled to revisit the medium, to analyse the aesthetic conditions of the medium from within. For Foster the artist and the critic need to re-visit history to understand how it is being repeated in the present. Foster uses Derrida's concept of a 'hauntology' from the book Specters of Marx (1994) to examine the ghosts of the avant-gardes and modernist thinkers in contemporary practice and he quotes the philosopher saying that this 'hauntology' "figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again". (Derrida in Foster 2002, p. 135). Photography provides the perfect ghosting vehicle as it infiltrates all aspects of representation. As Geoffrey Batchen says we have entered into a post-photography era "leaving the photographic everywhere but nowhere in particular" (Batchen 1997, p. 216).

I am interested in considering the phenomenon of photography as it haunts the visual arts and whether or not this infection of one medium by another actually detracts from what we might call the host medium. It also occurs to me that there are some pertinent conceptual relations between the words 'medium', 'haunting' and 'ghosting'. Rosalind Krauss wants to return to the idea of the medium as a physical support or 'recursive structure' in order to curb the  international phenomenon of installation art and the problematics of the post-medium age (Krauss 1999a, pp. 6-7). However, the residual essentialism of this idea, which was exploited by Clement Greenberg and critiqued thoroughly by postmodern critics from the 1960s onwards, cannot be evaded (Orton and Pollock 1996, Foster 1991). It seems counter productive to insist on such a return to essentials when so much of contemporary art practice is either interdisciplinary or engages with the formal dialogues of several mediums at the same time. Krauss' recent condemnation of post-medium art seems somewhat contradictory since her essay 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field' was one of the most important essays of the 1980s to explore the cross-disciplinary nature of the visual arts (Krauss 1983). Krauss is a great supporter of the film, video and photo-projections of James Coleman who is currently showing La Tache Aveugle (The Blind Spot - my translation - 1979-1990) in this Biennale On Reason and Emotion. It seems to me that Coleman's work is very much about the photographic and Rosalind Krauss analyses this in some detail in her essays on the artist in October and Critical Inquiry (1997 and 1999) by drawing on the work of Roland Barthes. The things that Krauss appreciates in Coleman's work are equally applicable to the works of Bruce Naumann, especially the work in this exhibition Office Edit II with color shift, flip, flop, and flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage) mapping the studio, 2001. There is a distinctly meditative quality to both artists' works which is made quite literal for the viewer in the slowing of time. Things happen incredibly slowly. There is no spectacle. The essence of the shift in time is drawn out in 'real time' (Naumann) and in slow motion dissolves (Coleman).

Critics and historians of photography have described the freezing of time as the life/death paradox of the photographic process because the photograph stops time (kills life) at the same time as it records a living moment (de Duve, 1978, Barthes 1984, pp. 92-94). Thus the photograph acts as a memento, a sort of fetish that can conjure up memories of time past, but it is also a stop action recording that operates in the smallest fraction of a second and is capable of capturing what the eye cannot see. But how does this translate in terms of the moving image? What are Naumann and Coleman interested in? Why do they want to slow down the film or make the audience sit through 'real time' where nothing much happens? Coleman has taken frames from the narrative film The Invisible Man - where the protagonist is trapped in a barn and about to lose his "condition of invulnerability and to become visible to his pursuers" (Krauss1997, p. 17). Naumann films his studio at night with an infra red camera over a period of months. Colours change slowly from red to green to blue and back again. Naumann flips the image from left to right and turns it upside down. But this is done very slowly, once every 15 minutes or so. There is no event as such, no spectacle to behold: if one waits long enough a mouse scurries across the floor and a cat moves but one waits a very long time for this to happen. Both Coleman and Naumann underline avant-garde critiques of narrative and spectacle. The whole point is that nothing much happens. The impatient viewer will not get the point at all. In Krauss' terms both artists are returning to the essentials of their media and making us slow down. This slowing process - in Coleman excruciating slow dissolves of frames from a film based on a novel by H.G. Wells and in Naumann the banality of real time  creates a meditation on the present. It strips away narrative and puts notions of spectacle on hold. It insists that the viewer who watches actually engage with the essential qualities of the medium, the passing of time. It is a profoundly phenomenological approach in many respects because it asks the viewer to experience perception, to contemplate time and to be distracted by the real rather than the imaginary. It's difficult art that transports us back to the fundamentals of avant-garde experimental practice.

I don't really have the space to pursue this in more detail because there are other approaches to video and photo-based media in this Biennale that I want to explore with you. Returning to my earlier observations about the virus effect of photography within modernism and postmodernism I'd stress that the photographic is the way in which we see. It is an omnipotent medium that traverses all aspects and manifestations of visual culture. Photography allows artists to encounter a collective memory that has been preserved in photographs. Speaking about this memory Walter Benjamin says:

“One might say that our most profound moments have been furnished . . . with a little image, a photograph of ourselves. And that 'whole life' which, as we so often hear, passes before the dying or people in danger of dying, is composed precisely of those tiny images (Benjamin in Cadava 1997, p.100).”

Walter Benjamin

(Degas) The relationship between the visual arts and photography is seeded in modernism, where we see painters experimenting visually with the idea of the flneur, the casual stroller, the window shopper, and the voyeur. (Chungking Express) Since then, photography and video have seduced the visual arts. Roland Barthes once said that: ‘Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or stigmatises, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.’ (Barthes 1984, p. 38). Here Barthes is thinking about photography as captured image, the notion of the freeze frame, the pensive moment. This is also apparent in video art by Naumann and Coleman.

Other approaches to photography and the photographic accentuate memory and collective hauntings. The kind of hauntology that Derrida speaks of but also the haunting of the unconscious memory in subjectivity and history. Pat Brassington mines unconscious imagery. The Surrealist qualities of the work are immediately apparent to the contemporary viewer and critic. Brassington, like the Surrealists, interacts with psychoanalytic experience rather than adhering to any particular school of thought. As an artist aware of feminist art criticism, Brassington is in a position to undercut the misogyny associated with the Surrealists' representations of feminine sexuality and their romantic notion of the female muse who was invariably fetishised through male desire. In Brassington's work sex, sexuality, desire and the sensual are evoked in a bizarre mise-en-scene that presents flashes and glimpses of dream-like states.

Photography as a visualising process is rich in psychological terms because it immediately engages the viewer in a complex of time and memory. In the case of personal photographs the memories are our own but collectively these images create a shared imaginary. Photographs are like mementos, ritual testimonies that we can believe in, images in which we invest emotion. Brassington knows that the viewer wants to believe that the photograph is of something. The mind asks: "what is this a photograph of"? It is a question that recurs in discussions of photography from its early history until now. In Brassington's oeuvre this questioning captivates the viewer who is then drawn into a complex weaving of the imaginary and the real as the artist plays on unconscious fears and conjures up uncanny references. This is most apparent in series such as In my Father's House II (2004) where the Oedipal narrative is fragmented. The domestic interiors tremble with violent and sexual expectation.

There are several video-based works in the Biennale that use documentary, talking head mode, to present personal narratives. Javier Tellez's The Passion of Joan of Arc (Rozelle Hospital) 2004 (2 slides) is in my mind the most compelling. Here we see a group of women who have been incarcerated and medicated because they suffer from various bi-polar or schizophrenic conditions. The use of the camera as apparatus here is conventional. The camera bares witness to the subjects' confessional statements. This confessional mode is then juxtaposed to images from The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) a silent film by the French filmmaker Carl Dreyer and featuring Renee Falconetti as Joan along with the avant-garde provocateur Antonin Artaud (the film was banned by the British until 1930). In Tellez's contemporary installation the film is re-made through the voice and sound track of the women in the Rozelle Hospital. It is a gripping installation that looks inside the media of film and video to bring out its analogue characteristics. We might say that old technologies are acclaimed for the quality of authenticity that they deliver to the viewer. Of course, as indicated earlier, postmodern theorists put this quality - authenticity - under the critical microscope. Tellez like other artists in this exhibition is trying to tear at the real and to bring us back to an authentic experience or empathy with these women.

Susan Norrie has been grappling with really big issues for over many years. Her video installation works are always powerfully provocative and political. ENOLA (2004) brings together a children's theme park in Japan and the Enola Gay B-29 bomber that dropped the first nuclear weapon on Hiroshima. The haunting of the nuclear blast is just that, a kind of semiotic ghost conjured through the naming of the installation and the commercial aeroplanes that we see moving slowly about on the tarmac as the camera captures famous scenes from the world's cities. The sound track is made up of the kind of easy-listening muzak one associates with the shopping mall. These juxtapositions are chilling for the viewer who makes the connections between the various concepts. On one level it's straight forward - the innocence of children threatened by a nuclear blast. But as viewers we know that this event has already happened. Innocent children and civilians were annihilated by the nuclear blast that effectively ended WWII. And now the threat is real again but much closer to home. Warfare has radically changed. Commercial airlines were used as human bombs in the S11 attacks on the world trade centre in New York.

AES+F's Action Half Life (2003) develops this theme of children and war in a slightly different way. Here high art has been infected by digital photo-imaging and popular forms such as glossy fashion and lifestyle magazines. The children are all beautiful, many parodying Renaissance-like poses in the barren landscape of the Sinai desert but they possess the weapons of a sophisticated war. Here innocence collides with menace and although the children look harmless, as if they are populating a computer or video game, the viewer is prompted to consider what may happen when innocence is armed. Action Half Life may be a commentary on the violence of video games but it resonates in real time for the viewer as children and war machines menace the glossy surface of the fashion and advertising genre.

The theme of this Biennale - On Reason and Emotion - presents a binary. On one hand the reason of Enlightenment rationality is positioned together with the more romantic, poetic and subjective concept of emotion. These are big themes, ones that resonate within our contemporary world as we witness the catastrophe of reason and the catharsis of emotion in the daily news. Every time we open a newspaper or turn on the TV reason and emotion collide. We appear to be living through the obscenities of reason as the would-be coalition of the willing assaults an imagined Other in the name of progress and civilization. And yet they use barbaric means to conquer territories deemed to constitute an axis of evil. The rhetoric of our politicians seems hollow and hysterical. A language that purports to be backed-up by reason is seen to be a thinly veiled excuse for further crimes against humanity. The Western world is in a state of crisis: its reason has created chaos and its emotion seems hollow, yet another soap opera, a 'real' time TV show that has failed humanity. Some artists in this year's Biennale have attempted to address the conundrum of reason and emotion in our world with varying success. I have spoken about some of the works that speak loudly to me, I'm sure that there are others that speak just as loudly to you.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland (1984), Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, London, Fontana (first published in French as La Chambre Claire, 1980).- (1977), 'The Death of the Author', Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath, London, Fontana.

Batchen, Geoffrey (1997), Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Baudelaire, Charles (1955), 'The Salon of 1859' in The Mirror of Art, trans. Johnathan Mayne, London, Phaidon Press (first published in French 1859).

Baudrillard, Jean (1983), 'The Ecstasy of Communication', in Hal Foster (Ed.), The Anti- Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture, Seattle, Bay Press, pp. 126-134 (second printing of this book titled Postmodern Culture).- (1984), 'The Precession of the Simulacra', in Brian Wallis (Ed.), Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New York, New Museum of Contemporary Art, pp. 253-282.

Benjamin, Walter (1992), 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', in Illuminations, London, Fontana, pp. 211-244 (first published in German 1936).

Berger, John (1972), Ways of Seeing, Middlesex, England, Penguin.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1990), Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, Oxford, Polity/Basil Blackwell,(first published in French 1965).

Cadava, Eduardo (1997), Words of Light: Thesis on the Photography of History, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

de Duve, Thierry (1978), 'Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox', October, no. 5, Summer, , pp. 113-125.

Jacques Derrida (1988), 'The Deaths of Roland Barthes' in Hugh J. Silverman (Ed.), Philosophy and Non-Philosophy since Merleau-Ponty, New York and London, Routledge, pp. 259-295.

Foster, Hal (1991), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Seattle, Washington, Bay Press, (first published 1983).- (2002), Design and Crime and Other Diatribes, London/New York, Verso.

Freud, Sigmund (1917/1962) General Theory of the Neurosis, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, New York, Norton and Company, vol. 16.

Gernsheim, Helmut (1991) Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends 1839-1960, New York, Dover Publications (first published 1962).- (1982), The Origins of Photography, London, Thames and Hudson (first published 1962).

Holmes, Oliver Wendell (1859), 'The Stereoscope and the Stereograph' in Beaumont Newhall (Ed.) (1981), Photography: Essays and Images, London, Secker and Warburg, pp. 33-34.

Krauss, Rosalind, E. (1983), 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field' in Hal Foster (Ed.) The Anti- Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culure, Seattle, Washington, Bay Press, pp. 31-42.- (1997), '" . . . And Then Turn Away?" An Essay on James Cole' , October, no. 81, pp. 5-33.- (1999a), 'A Voyage on the North Sea' : Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames and Hudson.- (1999b), 'Reinventing the Medium' , Critical Inquiry, winter, pp. 289-305.

Orton, Fred and Pollock, Griselda (1996), 'Avant-Gardes and Partisans Reviewed' in Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock (Ed.), Avant-Gardes and Partisans Reviewed, Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, pp. 141-164.

Robinson, Henry Peach (1869), 'Pictorial Effect in Photography' in Vicki Goldberg (Ed.) (1981), Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, New York, Simon and Schuster, pp. 155-162.- (1886), 'Photography: A Pictorial Art' in Beaumont Newhall (Ed.) (1981), Photography: Essays and Images, London, Secker and Warburg, pp. 159-162.

Scharf, Aaron (1968), Art and Photography, Middlesex, Baltimore, Ringwood, Allen Lane/Pelican.

Solomon-Godeau, A., Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices, Media and Society 4, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995 (first published in 1991).

Sontag, S., On Photography, Middlesex: Penguin, 1977.

Steefel, Lawrence D. Jr (1973), 'Marcel Duchamp and the Machine', in Anne D'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine (eds), Marcel Duchamp, New York: Museum of Modern Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1844-46), The Pencil of Nature, London, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans.

Varnedoe, Kirk (1980), 'The Artifice of Candour: Impressionism and Photography Reconsidered', Art in America, January, pp.66-78.- (1980), 'The Ideology of Time: Degas and Photography' , Art in America, summer, pp. 96- 110.


1. Kirk Varnedoe argues against Scharf's thesis, insisting that the Impressionists were interested in the instantaneous before photographers. Although Varnedoe is correct historically, the similarities between the photographs of the time and Impressionist painting are unmistakable.

2. Writing about resistance in his General Theory of Neurosis, he said: let us assume that every mental process . . . exists to begin with in an unconscious stage or phase and that it is only from there that the process passes over into the conscious phase, just as a photographic picture begins as a negative and only becomes a picture after being formed into a positive. Not every negative, however, necessarily becomes a positive; nor is it necessary that every unconscious mental process should turn into a conscious one (Freud 1917, pp. 294-5).

3. For a compelling analysis see Jacques Derrida (1988), 'The Deaths of Roland Barthes' in Hugh J. Silverman (Ed.), Philosophy and Non-Philosophy since Merleau-Ponty, New York and London: Routledge, pp. 259-295.

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