Picture Postcard

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A blog post in which I question representation and relate tourism to a work of art.

I went to Paris in 2010. I was in 2nd year at art school and hadn’t yet discovered Ceal Floyer or scrutinised An Oak Tree. I was more interested in purchasing a beret and wearing it to saunter around the Pompidou, with a sophisticated belonging of course. And then I came back to Dundee and the 31st of the month arrived as it often did, and with it, the time to discard a pair of scratchy contact lenses for fresh ones.

Think of what they had seen, though. An entire trip, a life moment. Alas, no. It could not be done.

I spent the next year or so in the studio exploring this phenomenon of stowing nostalgia in objects. But I think I may have overplayed the role of irrational sentiment. It is not unusual for objects and humans to form relationships where there is a power struggle such as this hold the lenses had over my memories and me. Patrick Geary explains the commodification and circulation of saints remains in his writings on sacred relics. Medieval times show a bloody history of this kind of exchange. Saintliness and power is stored in the object and often given more respect than human life. A less dramatic example, but the same in principle, as my Paris-eyes anecdote.

The stowing of power in an object/the power an object exudes, goes beyond the physical attributes of that thing. My initial interest in human sentiment has changed over the years to an interest in Thing Power, which I have written much about. I have been struggling with linear arguments; person gives thing meaning, meaning then holds power over thing, and have come to prefer the networked approach that everything is equally flat and continuously affecting/being effected.

To turn back to specifics. I have used examples of the contact lens object representing a week in Paris, and sacred relics embodying Saints. But let’s think of more colloquial examples. A postcard and an art object. Experiences, such as holidays, are dictated by objects. The camera in particular is a comfortable bridge between a new and perhaps disorientating experience and the self. Photo opportunities dictate navigation and stitch a glorious narrative to prove to the world ‘I was here. I did fun things. I saw.’ Susan Sontag goes as far to express that ‘To collect photographs is to collect the world.’ Photographs are weighted with authority; the necessity for photo-identification as proof of person.

Pics or it didn’t happen.
The photograph translates experience into compact image, so perhaps not so much a piece of the world, but a photocopy of it. It provides us with a sort of imaginary ownership of place and time; the ability to freeze-frame and keep it. There is a dependency on the camera to maintain and even make real, what one is experiencing. Sontag suggests that in addition to the photograph itself being an ensurer of experience, the process of taking photographs when on holiday acts as a link between work and leisure. The search for photo-opps, the process of compose-and-click, and the final result, is an imitation of work and makes the transition from the working week to holidaying easier for those who are used to daily tasks.

There is a definite reliance on such documentation. Stowing experience in photographs is perceived to make that experience immortal. This still stands when process is removed. A bought postcard is a photographic object inscribed with anecdotal proclamations of ‘good time!’. The tokenistic theory still stands. Tourism and experience are represented through objects. The photo object is active and issues power. But it also limits communicated experience to the confines of what is represented within frame. This too can be applied to art objects produced within wider projects such as performance or socially engaged practice.

It is not that the art object is an imitation of the work, but rather that it is only one thing in a networked project that includes concepts, events and participation. Deveron Arts has a collection of art objects scattered throughout the town to correspond with a large portfolio of residencies and projects. These pieces are tokens; postcards from a larger experience. The wider project, although represented by the Town Collection pieces, cannot be fully understood from the singular objects.

But then how can the project, a work of art that is durational and segmented, be shown fully and received? How can a participatory element be communicated? There are only so many people-around-table photographs one can take, and they effectively communicate nothing other than cast members.

More than the Town Collection art objects, Deveron Arts has archives of each project, which include reports from the artist, press coverage and any artefacts that remain from the project. The project is also documented on ine with a collection of photographs to accompany each. So already there is more content than the Town Collection art object lets on. And still more that is not communicated.It is suggested by Rosie Gibson and David Harding, in a conversation about socially engaged art practice, that the only person with a firm grasp of the entire project is invariably the curator. I might suggest the artist does, but they might not have the depth of knowledge of where the project then fits into the organisations wider programme. So yes, it might be the case that the curator is the only one privy to the project. This seems problematic.

Perhaps it is the model of work-on-wall; an object to view, a video to watch, a book to read (which although is challenged by Deveron Arts’ lack of gallery, is still implemented in the Town Collection) that makes a dispersed project appear too singular. A project itself is an artwork. An object is a mere aspect of an artwork. Artworks are events that surpass and stretch farther than one artefact. One object can certainly be enjoyed and can hold many elements. But I don’t think it can stand for the artwork in its’ entirety. The art object is another material in the project. So, I can’t really conclude yet. Archival, artwritten explanation, vitrine, accounts, photographs. How does one show a project in its full content? Things to investigate.

My overarching point though in this little post, is that the art object is not an entirety. A photograph of a participatory event, or an artefact used in a performance can represent but not fully communicate the entire work of art. I wasn’t so irrational then, when I wanted to keep my Paris-eyes. No more irrational anyway than using a photograph, a blurb, debris and nostalgic tokens, to indicate a wider experience. These things are postcards attempting to communicate a whole network of happenings, participation and events; diluted recollections.
A walled/plinthed art object is a postcard of an artwork entire.

 

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