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'Spaces That Matter': continued ...





Anonymous photographer(s?) 1973



Entropia and Contemporary Australian Photography

In recent years there seems to have been an explosion of photo-artists in Australia whose work explores notions of the 'poetics of empty space'; the photography of absence and the invisible, of the traces of things that tempt the imagination with their (in?)frequency.22 Emerging out of these artists' work have been articles and exhibitions that showcase and critique such a movement. Different curators have focused on different facets of this frequency. Blair French, for example, curated the exhibition 'Perfect Strangers' (Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, August 2000; Canberra Contemporary Art Space, February 2001). This exhibition sought to illuminate the way we presence ourselves before the camera as 'perfect strangers' in daily encounters, encounters that confuse the boundaries between private figure and public space.23 French comments on the apparently meaningless scenes of boarded-up windows, dead-end alleys, abandoned shoes, shop windows, and empty stairwells that are presenced in the work of New York photographer Tim Maul and tenuously establishes a link to Atget's Parisian street scenes.24 Further, curator and writer Daniel Palmer's article for the April 2001 issue of Photofile titled 'Between Place and Non-Place: The Poetics of Empty Space'25 was then followed by an exhibition of the same name which Palmer curated with Kate Rhodes at the Victorian College of the Arts Gallery in October 2001.
This exhibition focused on interior spaces, "unoccupied or abandoned buildings, empty consumer venues and purely imagined vacant spaces."26 More recently artists Jack Sweetman and James Cecil's exhibition 'Location' at the CCP in May 2002 explored the notion of the spaces of home and "the traces left behind by familiar routines,"27 while Paul Knight's exhibition 'Krater crater' in July 2002 at the same venue cast, "an analytical gaze over spaces, and their various traces of human action [presenting us] with a perspective not necessarily or solely spatial, but also emotional and existential," exploring "the unconscious of spatial experience," through an ability to "actualise a certain awareness involved in our aesthetic experiences."28 In the physical actualisation of this 'certain awareness' I suggest that the 'poetic' work of these artists has a common thread - the notion of void(s) and their photographic representation: voided people, voided places, traces of memories and the history of things that might and could possibly have been. As Blair French notes, "Every image is both conjured by and creates its own absence."29
My comments below attempt to offer a different perspective on the nature of this voided 'poetic' representation being equally applicable to both the portraiture of, say, Alan Kershaw's 'Tourist Monument' series of 1999, or the spatial portraiture of Sandy Nicholson's 'Lift' series, 1998/2000, as moments of presentation in photographic imaging.

Entropia is a term I have formulated to verbalise the spatial qualities present in the images of photo-based artists working within the void of the 'poetics of empty space' (this does not mean these spaces are empty!). The term combines utopia (the longing for paradise) and entropy (the loss of energy from a system), to analyse the visuality, the dialectic of the gaze of these artists.30 While I agree with Danie Palmer that there can be a 'poetics of empty space', a resonance of the unconscious, it is in attempting to name this resonance that photographers may become tooaware of its emotional disclosure. They may have become trapped into an in-sight, a knowledge not just of the present experience of the 'Thing Itself',31 not just of a creation made "without thought."32
I would argue that the language of their collective gaze seems to be directed towards the naming, longing for, and solidification of, a 'poetic space', a formal construction of space that immobilises 'punctum' through awareness,33 possibly in order to deny thefluidity and fragmentation of space present in the ephemeral images of a media-rich informational society. As Daniel Palmer notes,

"The broad evidence suggests that an acute awareness of place may be the result of its contemporary displacement by today's ephemeral spaces of circulation, as well as by electronic real-time images ..."34

Palmer also suggests that, "Perhaps this fascination with spatial memory traces (or their conspicuous absence) is the 'real' returning to haunt the mobile flows of informational capitalism?"35 But what if we invert this question. What if we were to suggest that it is the horizon square36 of the computer screen that is haunting our vision of the 'real'?

As Vivian Sobchack observes,

"Our experience of spatial contiguity has also been radically altered by digital representation. Fragmented into discrete and contained units ... space has lost much of its contextual function as the ground for the continuities of time, movement, and event. Space is now more often a "text" than a "context."37

The empty, poetic spaces of these artists' photographs may represent a transference of this digital dimensionality onto the text of their photographs, a taxonomic system that causes an (ir)reversibility of poetic presence: it is here (traced in our digital imagination?) and we must accept it as such for it has been seen. Again, could this be a visuality that has no context save for the need of it's own awareness of that vision which then increases the 'truth' of the photograph as souvenir, as evidence, by means of the significance of its (non)narrative.38
Here we may cite Paul Virilio's comments about the industrialisation of vision and the "the sharing of perception of the environment between the animate (the living subject) and the in- animate (the object, the seeing machine)."39 Or note Sherry Turkle's comments on the inter-twining of technology and human in which the traditional distance between man and machine is becoming harder to maintain.40 As she observes,

"We have sought out the subjective computer. Computers don't just do things for us, they do things to us, including to our ways of thinking about ourselves and other people ..."41 or, further, "Computers ... lead us to construct things in new ways."42


Although photographers have always used machines (camera, enlarger, printer) to mediate between themselves and the world the computer as a thing-to-look-with has forever changed our visuality and our topography as image makers.43 I suggest that there has been a re-sighting in the production of vision, causing a paradox in the imagery of these photographers. On the one hand they seek security in the 'truth' of the image44 in the fundamentalism of the sublime, homogenising gaze linked to the indexicality of traces, mortality, mark(et)ing, of the not-so-emptiness of void(s) opposing the ephemer-reality of simulation, fragmentation, and the surface representation of digital imagery; on the other hand there seems to be a transference of an ordering and quantisation45 of digital spatio-temporal dimensionality onto the surface of the analogue image. The photographer becomes a compositor and design over-whelmingly influences the composition of the picture plane, the act of creativity becoming more "the organisation of the conditions in which form can appear and be selected."46 Here is an assembling which arrests the 'reverberation' of the real, the glance of desire, reinscribing space/place with an artifice and a static existential significance beyond its narrative presence. Both these processes solidify the gaze of desire, fixing the ecstasy of the image in a utopian space/place. Could it be that in the fixity of their gaze are these photo-based artists caught in an act of ritualised production, one that denies the glimpsing other contexts, other ways of seeing in the spaces they wish to illuminate? Could there be a loss of energy from the system through the withdrawal of the subject into the 'reality' of the simulation through an all too conscious awareness of a utopian 'poetics of emptiness'? If there is, how can we combat this entropia?




Anonymous photographer(s?) 1973



A/voiding Awareness

One of the most fascinating contemporary buildings that I have ever visited is the new Jewish Museum Berlin by the architect Daniel Libeskind. I was lucky enough to visit this building when it was completed but empty and it has left a strong impression; the magical spaces of light and dark that flow through the galleries, the angular floor of the basement, the sanctity, reverence, and stillness of the Holocaust tower infiltrated by light and sounds from outside, and the osmotic spaces of the 'Voids'. The 'Voids' are an integral part of the building's construction and are critical to it's success. I believe that they allow the building to address the issue of the entropia of spatio-temporal environments. They are, physically,

"negative spaces arranged along an absolutely straight line through the entire convoluted structure. Only the first two and the last, the largest and smallest Voids can be physically entered; the two inbetween are inaccessible, though they can be looked into from the upper floors, through windows resembling gun slits."47

Psychologically they are much more than this, the interlocking of inside and outside providing the key to the orientation of both viewer and structure, being 'neither here nor there', echoing the evidence of world space noted earlier in Atget's photographs.

In his essay on the structure Bernhard Schneider observes that,

"In such a complex interior, orientation is a key factor. It is provided by the frequent views of the surrounding city, the old building, and especially the projecting sections of the new museum itself, which are often due to its zigzag shape. Yet here, too, the principle of noncongruence between exterior and interior comes into play. Neither in the window or slit through which we gaze nor on the section of facade opposite do we find points of reference familiar from conventional buildings, by which we judge distances and dimensions, and see an obvious conformance between inside and out. Thus our perception of space and structure, and our own vantage point, is no longer a matter of course - it becomes a new experience."48


The 'Voids' are critical to Libeskind's understanding of the importance of spatio-temporal orientation in his building, as our perception of space and our awareness of positioning "is no longer a matter of course - it becomes a new experience." This is one possible way that we could combat entropia: by a/voiding an all too common awareness of it. If we look to photography for examples of such an a/voidance, one that compliments Libeskind's noncongruence, I would offer an obscure set of anonymous black and white photographs taken from an early American pornography magazine of October 1973.49 Illustrating articles on the cities of Philadelphia, Vancouver, and Los Angeles there are 87 black and white photographs in square and rectangular format, all reproduced approximately 5.5cm wide, which image the spaces of sexual contact, spaces of transgressive desire and forbidden impulses: bars, cruising grounds, beats, saunas, and sex clubs. It is apparent that the images were not taken by professional photographers, professionals whose trained eyes judge the spaces set before them for the image makers seem unfettered by normal conventions, having no pretensions towards an awareness of the significance of the spaces they are photographing. Here the camera is placed in incongruous positions, the angles of pavements and facades at odds with the visualisation of space by the Australian photo-artists - think Carravaggio's paintings with their huge fore-shortened elbows and buttocks confronting parishioners at eye level as they entered the church, disrupting the integrity of an insular image plane. The image becomes the site of intensive disruptions50 through exposure to abjection,51 leading to a unique way of seeing.

What is not intentionally privileged within the image plane is of the essence for these spaces are dynamic, they challenge symbolic codes of representation, they break apart Butler's 'performativity' of ritualised production. Like the photographs of the anonymous woman, these images engage not because of their nostalgic appeal to the traces of narrative or human marking but because of their eidetic and visual vitality, mise-en-scene stirred by an elan vital, confound it!





Anonymous photographer(s?) 1973



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22 @
Artists such as James Cecil, Max Creasy, Justina Gardiner, Bill Henson, Annie Hogan, Alin Huma, Alex Kershaw, Paul Knight, Naomi Kumar, Cathy Laudenbach, Sandy Nicholson, Selina Ou, Kenneth Pleban, Tara Shield, Jack Sweetman, and Celeste Treloar for example.

23 @
French, Blair. "The Things That Bill Sees," in Perfect Strangers. Canberra: Canberra Contemporary Art Space, 2000. Exhibition catalogue essay.

24 @
"Or furthermore, there's something of Atget's Parisian streets in these images, as if we have here details from the edges and corners or from beneath the imperfect resolution of these old prints, a close inspection for traces of bodies erased from the boulevards."

French, Blair. "The Things That Bill Sees," in Perfect Strangers. Canberra: Canberra Contemporary Art Space, 2000. Exhibition catalogue essay.

See also Maul, Tim. Traces and Presence. Paris: editions Florence Loewy, 1999.

25 @
Palmer, Daniel. "Between Place and Non-Place: The Poetics of Empty Space," in Palmer, Daniel (ed.,). Photofile. Issue 62 ('Fresh'). Sydney: Australian Centre for Photography, April 2001, pp. 46-51.

26 @
Palmer, Daniel and Rhodes, Kate (curators). Between Place and Non-Place. Melbourne: Victorian College of the Arts, October 2001. Exhibition catalogue essay.

27 @
Anonymous. Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne website March 2002 archive notes for Jack Sweetman and James Cecil exhibition Location. [Online] Cited 05/07/2002. No longer available.

Palmer, Daniel. Paul Knight: Krater crater. Melbourne: Centre for Contemporary Photography, July 2002. Exhibition catalogue notes.

29 @
French, Blair. "The Things That Bill Sees," in Perfect Strangers. Canberra: Canberra Contemporary Art Space, 2000. Exhibition catalogue essay.

30 @
"The gaze, the look, the visual field are all conceived, to a greater or lesser extent, as being inscribed within a semiotic nexus of signs, language, and socialisation."

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. "Written on the Body," in Iles, Chrissie and Robersts, Russell (eds.,). In Visible Light: Photography and Classification in Art, Science and the Everyday. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1997, p. 69.

31 @
"Recording unfelt facts by acquired rule, results in sterile inventory. To see the Thing Itself is essential: the quintessence revealed without the direct fog of impressionism, - the casual noting of a superficial phase, or transitory mood... So in photography, - the first fresh emotion, feeling for the thing, is captured complete and for all time at the very moment it is seen and felt."

Weston, Edward quoted in Newhall, Nancy (ed.,). The Day Books of Edward Weston. New York: Aperture Books, 1990, pp. 154-156.

32 @
Ibid., p. 169.

33 @
Perhaps the spectacle of these images is one of ultimate alienation, the image (re)turned back to the photographer as commodity, as stilled distraction, a second-hand experience of the second hand of reality. Entropia could represent a fixing of the punctum of Lefebvre's 'unalienated production', of poesis.

See Shields, Rob. Lefebvre, Love and Struggle. London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 99-100.

34 @
Palmer, Daniel and Rhodes, Kate (curators). Between Place and Non-Place. Melbourne: Victorian College of the Arts, October 2001. Exhibition catalogue essay.

35 @
Palmer, Daniel. "Between Place and Non-Place: The Poetics of Empty Space," in Palmer, Daniel (ed.,). Photofile. Issue 62 ('Fresh'). Sydney: Australian Centre for Photography, April 2001, p. 51.

36 @
Paul Virilio suggests that the square horizon of the computer screen is a bug in our memory of places, causing disorientation in our world as near and far, inside and outside are confused. Perhaps the solidification of space in the photography of empty space is an attempt to deny this confusion. After Lefebvre we might argue that the colonization of socially produced 'everyday space' through capitalism, commodities, images, and dreams is being accelerated as the computer becomes ever more a thing-to-look-with. In the respatialization of the horizon line as the radical 'other' of the horizon square of the computer screen, 'the beyond' of the spatiality of the computer screen is each day becoming less 'other', but 'both-and', the sublimation of difference into a homogenising exchangeable 'contradictory space', a space of quantification, of flattening, and of repression. What, therefore, are the 'politics of space' of the computer screen? From square horizon to horizon squared, what does the computer reach out to touch in it's line of sight, in its 'corporeality of vision'?

See Virilio, Paul. Open Sky. (trans. Julie Rose). London: Verso, 1997. p. 26
See Shields, Rob. Lefebvre, Love and Struggle. London: Routledge, 1999, p. 176, 181.

37 @
Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space. New York: Ungar, 1991, pp.231-232 quoted in Springer, Claudia. Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996, p. 44.

38 @
Similar but not the same (other?) as Lacan's 'inside-out structure of the gaze', where the gaze is external to itself, where the subject sees itself seeing itself, through exteriority.
See Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. (trans. Alan Sheridan). New York: Norton, 1978.

39 @
Virilio, Paul. The Vision Machine. (trans. Julie Rose). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 59-60.

40 @
Turkle, S. Life on The Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995, p. 21.

41 @
Ibid., p. 26.

42 @
Ibid., p. 47.

43 @
"We no longer perceive ourselves as continuity but as location... It is no longer possible to be rooting in history. Instead we are connected to the topography of computer screens and video monitors."

Olalquiaga, C. Megalopolis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, p. 93 quoted in Shields, Rob. Lefebvre, Love and Struggle. London: Routledge, 1999, p.176.

"Traditional photographic imagery is based upon the mirror theory of representation, that 'which conceives of representation as the reproduction, for subjectivity, of an objectivity that lies outside it'. Just as this theory of knowledge is coming under increasing criticism, technological developments themselves are also threatening it... still photography, video and computer generated imagery, are all beginning to merge. The implications of these changes need to be thought about, for it becomes increasingly less relevant to think about these as separate image producing technologies, particularly to treat them theoretically and historically as if they were discreet. In the past, they were distinct, but to bring an historical understanding into the present and future, they need to be thought of together..."

Willis, Anne-Marie. "Digitisation and the Living Death of Photography," in Hayward, Phillip. Culture, Technology and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century. London: John Libbey and Company, 1990, p. 198.

44 @
"Despite the possibilities offered by new digital technologies, this work tends to be very conventional in its technique. Note the burgeoning interest amongst many artists in medium or large format cameras and the return of large seductive prints - the desire for an index of the 'real'."

Palmer, Daniel. "Between Place and Non-Place: The Poetics of Empty Space," in Palmer, Daniel (ed.,). Photofile. Issue 62 ('Fresh'). Sydney: Australian Centre for Photography, April 2001, p. 50.

Speaking on the nature of 'truth' David Smail suggests that, "Though the truth is not just a matter of personal perspective, neither is it fixed and certain, objectively 'out there' and independent of human knowing. 'The truth' changes according to, among other things, developments and alterations in our values and understandings... the 'non-finality' of truth is not to be confused with a simple relativity of 'truths'."

Smail, David. Illusion & Reality: The Meaning of Anxiety. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1984, p. 152.

45 @
Quantisation is the privileging of certain forms of data (either through digital code and/or cultural biases built into the means of representation) leading to a compression of space. Perhaps the quantisation of pixels in digital technology can be linked to Lefebvre's rendering of space as homogenous, comparable, exchangeable, and subordinated to money and capital implying quantification.

See Shields, Rob. Lefebvre, Love and Struggle. London: Routledge, 1999, p.180.

46 @
Fry, Tony. "Art Byting the Dust," in Hayward, Phillip. Culture, Technology and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century. London: John Libbey and Company, 1990, pp. 171-172.

47 @
Schneider, Bernhard in Fuchshuber, Julia and Wurm, Katharina (eds.,). Jewish Museum Berlin; between the lines/Daniel Libeskind. (trans. John William Gabriel). Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1999, p. 51.

48 @
Ibid., p. 57.

49 @
Anonymous black in white photographs in Lorrimer, John (ed.,). Ciao! The World of Gay Travel Vol. 1, No. 5. New York: QQ Publishing Co., Inc., October 1973, pp. 7-26.

50 @
"Modes of greatest intensification of bodily zones occur, not through the operations of habitual activities, but through the unexpected, through the connection, conjunction and construction of unusual interfaces which re-mark orifices, glands, sinews, muscles differently, giving organs and bodily organisation up to the intensities that threaten to overtake them, seeking the alien, otherness, the disparate in its extremes, to bring into play these intensities... In this way, the subject's body ceases to be a body, to become the site of provocations and reactions, the site of intensive disruptions..."

Grosz, Elizabeth. Space, Time and Perversion: The Politics of Bodies. New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 198-200.

51 @
"In Powers of Horror, Kristeva describes the "abject" as: "what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules..." Abjection, therefore, transgresses the body and commingles self and other in a breakdown of boundaries."

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection. (trans. by Leon Roudiez). New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, p.4, quoted in Davis, Melody. The Male Nude in Contemporary Photography. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991, pp. 104-105.