Photography versus Contemporary Art | Ekaterina Degot | Friday, 28.11.2014

Photography versus Contemporary Art: The Case of the Lecture Performance

There is less and less photography (and photographers) in contemporary art exhibitions, but more and more photographs. The photograph is a lens through which we see the contemporary world, which comes to us always already reproduced. Almost every static image we see these days is technically a photograph, since even art critics rarely cross paths with original paintings. In a contemporary art context, photographs abound in “research installations” and archival displays of all sorts; they are shown as a sequence of slides; they appear as stills in films. But recently, they have even begun to star in performances—for instance, in the increasingly popular genre of “lecture performance.”

This involvement of photographs in performances might seem paradoxical. Due to factors of both symbolic and technological nature, a photograph has always been seen as representing some past event, be it real or staged. A performance, however, is by definition a “here-and-now,” even if actually a “here-and-now-back-then” when we see it documented. In fact, a phenomenon of “performance documentation,” that is, the documentation of a performance, is something long familiar. Less understood is the new phenomenon of “documentation performance,” which is a real-time performance of displaying documentation and documents, accompanied by the artist’s comments. Even if we exclude gesture- and word-based (rather than image-based) lecture performances like those of Xavier Le Roy or Andrea Fraser, there will still be lots of artists in this field, such as Hito Steyerl, Walid Raad, Rabih Mroué, Boris Ondreička, Uriel Orlow, and Haig Aivazian, among many others. These talks are not just accompanied by, but also structured by, screened images: digital photographs (the artist’s own, someone else’s, or anonymous ones). It is a relatively recent phenomenon, although art historians have been doing something similar for ages. But now the field has become crowded. Performers are rushing in from different sides and with different goals: researchers are happy to add some surplus value of artistry to their talks, photographers show their images as slide sequences to switch to time-based art, and artists turn their research installations (or films) into live lectures to assure their bodily and vocal presence (and to get a fee for this bio-involvement).

Several factors underlie this massive migration into the field of lecture performance. There is the good old desire to de-alienate the artwork through the body of the speaker. There is the precariousness and nervousness of the academic scene, which pushes it into bohemian “artistry.” There is also the increasing interest in narratives and stories that might help to outsit the allegedly ahistorical (and at the very least dark) times of political despair that are ours. Also, one should not fail to consider the general shift of the art economy away from the private market of unique objects toward the fee-based and concert-organized economy of the pop-music scene (something photographers actually know about, charging by the hour).

But then there is also the fact that we now see image production, distribution, and display as rooted in a single process (sometimes happening through just one device), rather than different spatial zones with different agents and different institutions.

And the zone of art is now display rather than production.

It is control over the display of his or her own work that makes a photographer an artist, and an artist an installation artist, someone close to a curator who is the one with maximum display control. Most importantly, this display has been conceived and presented performatively to a stronger degree in recent times. The idea of changing displays has crossed the minds of some artists and curators, including my own. The display is now conceived temporally, not only spatially.

Is the digital age the reason for the increase of time in image production and display? Today, we often see images on a screen, but the display is a linear sequence rather than a simultaneous, multi-screen presence (although this is technically possible). A traditional exhibition in space offers more opportunities to see an object from both sides and together with others, something that the dialectically inclined artists of the Russian avant-garde, including El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko, aimed at. A digital image is also a performance in itself, as Boris Groys recently argued, since it is basically a version of a computer file, each time of a different quality, due to the device and network. This makes a digital photograph performative even if the snapshot itself might have been done without a photographer’s participation. But why reveal this crypto-performativity through performative presentation?

What is also at stake here is the character of global capitalism and the omnipresence of the encompassing planetary market with its imperative of dynamism and ceaseless circulation. Overproduction of images in a culture where so many people own cameras and cell phones certainly has something to do with the overproduction of consumer goods. Most of these images, like many of these commodities, have never even been looked at, let alone exposed. To comment on images in a lecture in this situation—even if the images are banal, and especially if they are banal and unremarkable—means to stop the flow of circulation and the “quest for the best,” at least for the moment. This applies even if an artist who is rereading an archive is symbolically a consumer, the one who got a “semantic license” to it, as Allan Sekula insightfully noted.

This shift of art from image production to image display as a performative gesture was already evident in the early avant-garde. Wassily Kandinsky famously said something different, however: that the artist of the future would become a composer of his own works—rather than, in musical sense, a performer of some score, imposed by others. This opened the door to delegating artistic production to assistants or to the industry, while the artist still controlled the “score”—so it became possible for avant-garde artists to create montages out of other people’s photographs, for instance.

This was, famously, the beginning of the post-Fordist conceptual turn in art, but it did not end with artists just presenting bare ideas. What we encounter now is, rather, artists performing their own (intellectual) compositions. Each and every medium—including installations and most especially lectures—is becoming understood performatively to an increasing degree, as a performance in the moment of its presentation. And, in fact, this is exactly what Kandinsky actually meant. His “discovery” of abstract painting in the 1910s was not an invention of something that did not exist. It was, famously, the result of his laconic performative display gesture: Kandinsky turned one of his own figurative paintings ninety degrees (showing it to himself, one can say) and suddenly saw it as an abstract one. In the same way, Duchamp, as is well known, turned his pissoir upside down to present it as a work of new art.

This “performative turn” or “display turn”—which we are still dealing with in art in today—is no longer to be considered a turn toward immaterial production, since this immaterial field is colonized by “cognitive capitalism.”

Photography has always been an important counterpart to modern art, the necessary non-art that determined artistic strategy. For the historical avant-garde, what was relevant in photography was the technically produced image where artistic subjectivity was desacralized. For the conceptual 1970s, it was photography’s post-Fordist immateriality and involvement in semiology. Today, what matters and inspires is the latent performativity of a constant flow of digital snapshots, along with a shift toward the never-ending display.