ZZ. What led you to appropriation and remix and how are they significant in your work?
M. Appropriation and remix have a long artistic tradition, beginning with Picasso’s collages. As early as the 1920s, Hannah Hoch and the Dadaists used this mode of expression to create major photographic works. In music, for example, from today’s DJs and Pop to Glenn Gould and Miles Davis, the practice of remix, collage and appropriation has been an essential part of their production. What I mean is that as an artistic concept, appropriation and remix are pretty standard and not particularly groundbreaking.
The interesting question is why their aesthetic power has been reasserted in photography precisely now. And I think one possible answer would be the combination of the formal exhaustion of the linear perspective as a photographic representation of the world and the huge impact digitization is having on every aspect of our lives. I would answer your question by turning it around and saying I find it hard to think of a truly relevant form of photography for the world we live in that continues to respect the Eurocentric, reactionary structure of the dark room.
ZZ. What do you mean by Eurocentric and reactionary?
M. The linear perspective, the visual structure resulting from the dark room, is a very particular and ideological way of visualizing the world. Panofsky has a text about it he wrote in 1927, a real classic, that is a pleasure to read.
But what is really remarkable is that it is an exception in art history. In 10,000 years of history, the linear perspective spans only 500 years and is located exclusively in the West. It has never been of interest to Asian, or pre-Columbian or African art … it is a European way of seeing in a period beginning in the Renaissance and ending in the 19th century.
And this is no coincidence because its ideological content is well known. The linear perspective arranges the world from the point of view of an autonomous individual whose individuality is the world’s principle of meaning. It is pure Descartes. And we all remember Descartes’ Fifth Meditation, which states that since the essence of matter is its extension, geometry is an essential instrument for understanding nature. Modernity can be defined as the advance of abstraction and the prevalence of the quantitative over the qualitative in which the mathematical-scientific order is regarded as the only source of valid knowledge. There is so much contemporary thought that debunks this narrative that I won’t repeat it here.
Thus, surprisingly, my earlier comment is still valid. Why should digital photography continue giving priority to a functionally and ideologically devalued visual structure?
ZZ. Why do you think digital photography changes the way we understand appropriation and remix?
M. Digital technologies are leading us towards the radical transformation of our world. By replacing the industrial economy with a bio-cybernetic system, digitization is modifying our environment, our subjectivity and soon, our bodies. This is the technological phenomenon that will define our era and therefore our culture.
Unlike an analog file, a digital file is invisible. It is a code whose visual expression is a translation highly mediated by default algorithms, whose most prominent feature is precisely its immateriality.
This technical structure fits our current era of abstraction and non-referentiality and the digital financialization of the economy. How do we see the world today? We have the answer on our computer and Smartphone screens. What is the essential aspect of the financial economy? The recombination of existing information units to create new information, in other words, “constructive compositing”. Digitization has definitively invalidated linear narrative, the monocular perspective and the author’s “authority”.
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Postcard on paper on photo-etching on paper
Unconfirmed: 240 x 200 mm
Mask XIV is a collage created by superimposing a postcard on a black and white photograph. The photograph is a film publicity portrait of an unidentifiable actor taken during the 1940s or 1950s. The postcard is a colour image mounted over the actor’s face. It shows a rocky cavern in which a sandy track curves around a central pillar. On the bottom left the card is captioned ‘Zig zag path, Folkestone’. At this point it covers part of the actor’s signature on his portrait above his right shoulder. Part of his first name – ‘Barry’ – is visible on the print. The postcard photograph appears to have been taken from inside a cave or under a bridge looking out through two openings towards the light. Stezaker has positioned the card on the actor’s face so that the dark silhouette of the rocky openings and the curvature of the cavern line up with the contours of the actor’s face. This placement causes an anthropomorphic reading of the postcard image – the two openings to the light suggest eyes connected by the rocky central column which covers the actor’s face in the position of his nose.
Initiated around 1980, the series of Mask collages developed from the Film Still collages, such as The Trial, The Oath and Insert (1978-9, T12341-3). The Masks all follow a similar and deceptively simple format: a film publicity portrait of a star whose face is covered by a postcard – ostensibly a mask – which opens a window into another space, paradoxically suggesting a view behind the mask constituted by the actor’s face. Initially the postcards were images of bridges and caves which in some instances united two or more protagonists. Over the years Stezaker has extended his range of imagery to include tunnels, caverns, rock formations such as stalactites and stalagmites, railway tracks, historic ruins and monuments (as in Mask XIII, 2006, T12346), woodland clearings and paths, as well as streams, waterfalls (as in Mask XI, 2005, T12345), lakes and the sea. Stezaker began collecting film stills in 1973 but was not able to afford photographic portraits of film stars until the early 1980s when their price dropped. The first portraits the artist used were damaged or of forgotten film actors, unnamed and anonymous. He has commented:
The Masks were inspired by reading Elias Canetti’s essay on masks and unmasking in his wonderful book Crowds and Power which inspired so much of my work at this time … I was also teaching a course on Bataille and the origins of art which focused on the mask as the origin and point of convergence of all the arts. Canetti’s idea of the mask as a covering of absence and, in its fixity, as a revelation of death, alongside my discovery of Blanchot’s Space of Literature, was an important turning point in my thinking and in my approach to my work. I usually think of the key dates being 1979 and 1980 as marking a yielding to pure image-fascination and as a release from any function societal or transgressive in the work. The Masks were a response in practice to the Canetti/Blanchot idea of the ‘death’s space’ of the image and consolidated the sense of pure fascination and the desire for ‘exile from life in the world of images’, an ideal I saw in the practice of Joseph Cornell.
(Letter to the author, 26 October 2007.)
Stezaker shares with Joseph Cornell (1903-72) the Surrealist technique of apparently irrational juxtaposition and the evocation of nostalgia through his focus on outdated imagery, collected and pondered over many years. While Stezaker’s use of film stills and publicity portraits of the 1940s and 1950s stems from his boyhood experience of encountering these images on the outside of cinemas advertising films from which he was excluded because of his youth (letter to the author, 26 October 2007), his choice of postcards tends towards the Romantic tradition of nature and the sublime. The image of the zig-zag path relates to the woodland path or holzweg, a path leading – in German folklore such as that published by the Brothers Grimm in the early years of the twentieth century – to possible danger and death. Stezaker became interested in the historical phenomenon of the holzweg through his reading of Landscape and Memory (published New York, 1995) by the British art historian, Simon Schama (born 1945).
The artist’s juxtaposition and careful alignment of the postcard image with the publicity portrait create an effect related to the concept of the uncanny as described by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in his 1925 essay, ‘The Uncanny’. Freud analysed the feeling of the uncanny aroused most forcefully by the fantastic stories of the Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), in particular his tale The Sandman (first published in Nachtstücke, 1817). He relates the sense of horror experienced by the protagonist Nathaniel not only to the mechanical doll Olympia, who appears real, but more significantly to a fear of losing ones eyes which he connects to the Oedipal castration complex. In the Masks the subjects’ eyes are covered; the collage intervention substitutes blankness or holes – dark and empty or leading into other spaces – creating the disturbing sensation of seeing death beneath the features of a living being.
John Stezaker: Marriage, exhibition catalogue, The Approach W1, London 2008.
Mark Coetzee, John Stezaker: Rubell Family Collection, exhibition catalogue, Rubell Family Collection, Miami 2007, pp.17-19 and 57-75.
Michael Bracewell, ‘Demand the Impossible’, Frieze, issue 89, March 2005, pp.89-93 and front cover.
Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902 – 2002), “Castillo en El Barrio del Niño, 1990″. Gelatin silver print. Dimensions: Image: 16.4 x 24.3 cm (6 7/16 x 9 9/16 in.) Sheet: 20.3 x 25.2 cm (8 x 9 15/16 in.) Accession No. 2009.111.52 © Asociación Manuel Álvarez Bravo AC. Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Bicicleta al cielo (Bicyclette au ciel), 1931
Épreuve gélatino-argentique moderne
Collection Colette Urbajtel / Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo, s.c. © Colette Urbajtel / Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo, s.c.
Instagram, an artist and the $100,000 selfies – appropriation in the digital age
Richard Prince has turned borrowing online images into high art – and hard cash. But is the artist’s work anything other than genius trolling?
Hannah Jane Parkinson, Saturday 18 July 2015 05.00 EDT
It’s a question as old as art itself: “Yeah, but is it art?”
Type it into Google and get 1.26 billion results. It lends itself to book titles, television series and conversations between white walls, whetted by prosecco.
It’s a question asked of a shark in formaldehyde; an unmade bed; a sleeping footballer; two humans meeting in silence across a table, and before those of John Cage; Mondrian; Pollock.
This question, the distant cousin of “my kid could have done that”, has quietly endured.
The decibel levels rise, however, when it comes to appropriation. Appropriation is the practice of artists taking already existing objects and using them, with little alteration, in their own works. The objects could be functional, everyday objects, or elements of other art pieces; commercial advertising material, newspaper cuttings or street debris. Anything, really.
It’s interesting, though, that some appropriation in art is seen as acceptable in the public consciousness, some not. Warhol: of course. Sampling at the birth of hip-hop – well, sure. Found object art like Duchamp’s Fountain? Hmm.
Richard Prince and the art of ‘rephotographing’
Richard Prince is a New York-based artist famous for appropriation. His work relies heavily on the work of others. Not all of his pieces or projects are appropriated, but his most famous pieces owe their existence to the technique.
Take, for instance, Prince’s “rephotographing” of Marlboro cigarette advertisements, specifically those featuring the Marlboro Man (originally shot by Sam Abell). The series, entitled – and some might say, appropriately – Cowboys, began in the 1980s. A more recent piece from the series (2000) sold for more than $3m (£1.9m) at a 2014 Sotheby’s auction.
There’s a rather brilliant PDN interview, in 2008, with Abell, who speaks about Prince’s appropriation of his photographs. At the beginning of the interview, Abell states: “I’m not angry, of course”. He then speaks for three minutes, getting angrier and angrier.
I’m not particularly amused … it’s obviously plagiarism, and I was taught by my parents the sin of that … it seems to be breaking the golden rule … he has to live with that.”
Abell’s Marlboro photographs are not the only pictures to be repurposed by Prince. In 2014, Prince settled a three-year-long copyright case with the photographer Patrick Cariou after the former used Cariou’s Yes, Rasta, a book on the rastafarian community, as part of his Canal Zone series. He’s also been known to hand out copies of A Catcher in the Rye with his own name on the cover.
Now, Prince is back in the spotlight. His current exhibition – New Portraits – opened in June at the Gagosian gallery in London, having debuted in New York in 2014.
The portraits, however, are not new to everyone – and certainly not new to their subjects.
This is because Prince’s New Portraits series comprises entirely of the Instagram photos of others. The only element of alteration comes in the form of bizarre, esoteric, lewd, emoji-annotated comments made beneath the pictures by Prince.
Prince’s pieces sold for up to $100,000 (£63,700) at New York’s Frieze art fair, according to CNN. This might not sound a lot, given the prices fetched for oher artists’ works at the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions in London this month – including $32.1m (£20.9m) for a Warhol painting of a $1 bill – but it is what mothers around the world would call “better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick”.
As collaborations go, if Jay-Z and Beyonce duetting represents a bringing together of the best of hip-hop and R&B, and Scorsese, Nicholson and DiCaprio a filmmaking supergroup, then Richard Prince and the internet are an appropriation dream team.
So it is that one of the oldest questions (“but is it art?”) collides with one of the most pressing, current global debates: that of online privacy and ownership in the digital age.
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