Literature Review draft

Literature ReviewI concluded my last literature review with the implication that I was going to focus on the ‘free will’ debate and though I have not totally ruled out this area I have left it to one side because of its complex and vast nature. My recent presentations made me question the element of ‘chance’ within my work with and against the element of ‘selection’. In the search to find what is at the core of my work I have focused more on the ideas surrounding that of signs and symbols as I currently see this as closely linked to chance as chance is only recognised by order and selection.

I now believe that the work I have been making has more to do with ‘selection’ than it has to do with automation and randomisation that my initial Mphil application proposed, or ‘chance’ which became the focus of the research over the past six to eight months. I have recently become interested in the reason ‘why’ we capture the images we do. From an artists photographers perspective there is a need to challenge our perspective and perception of the world we live, which involves the manipulation of meaning and the way in which these ideas are manifested through various presentation techniques. The non-artists representation, in other words the person who captures images (more likely through photography and video) of their experiences without the need to challenge what they have seen or experienced is of equal interest if not more so.

It is therefore the signs and the meaning of signs that that is linked to the selection process that we go through when we make decision what to shoot, what not to shoot, what to delete and what to save. Foster begins his chapter the ‘Passion of the Sign’ by saying that in the 1960s there are two opposing factors that challenged advanced art of this period. This was to with the ‘autonomy of art’ and ‘the breaking up of this autonomous art’ that was left over from the logic of modernism.
This tension between the autonomy of the artistic sign and its dispersal across new forms and/or its combination with mass-cultural ones governed the relation not only between minimalism and pop, say, but also between the reflexive cinema of the North American independents (e.g. Michael Snow) and the allusive cinema of the French new Wave (e.g., Jean-Luc Godard). xxx
He goes on to say that these debates continued in the 1970s developed into two strands of postmodernism. One side was in tune with neoconservative politics and the second became more connected with post-structuralism theory. In other words the neoconservative pastiche version, announced after the ‘death of the author’, ‘the return of the artist and architect’ while the post-structuralism ‘art as text’ version continued with the critique of representation and authorship.

However, Foster also draws attention to a third and perhaps more important area of postmodernism, that relates to Marxist objectives to link cultural forms with methods of production. He states that this third area outlines a crisis in the practice of pastiche and text as art and that ‘both practices were related to a qualitative shift in the capitalist dynamic of ‘reification and fragmentation of the object’ (Foster page 72). Furthermore Foster goes on to say that in a capitalist society based on consumerism we witness a ‘reification and fragmentation - of the sign’.

Foster points towards Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson in a way of defining the ‘media world’ in which the signified is released in postmodernism through Baudrillards ‘simulacral images’ and Jamesons ‘schizophrenic signifers’. What is important for me in this essay is the recognition of the ‘arbitrariness of the sign’ against what is seen as the ‘autonomy of the sign’ found in modernism. The arbitrary nature of the sign as Foster sights could be analytical as found in cubism, anarchistic as found in Dadaism and Futurism or transformative as found in early Russian Constructivism. Foster sees the sign as being liberated through modernism and signifiers being played with in postmodernism, though Foster would admit that abstract expressionism and colour-field painting would still stand opposed to the ‘arbitrariness of the sign’ found in Dadaism.
Yet just when semiotic autonomy seemed to be secured once and for all, semiotic arbitrariness was reasserted in turn, first with neo-Dadaist figures like John Cage and then within the realm of painting, by figures like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Indeed both artists pushed the arbitrariness of the sign to the point of the dissolution remarked by Jameson, to the point, that is where the signifiers (letters, numbers, and so on) become literal, freed from the ballast of their signified”. (Foster, 1999:78)
So this arbitrary nature of the sign is key to the work that Duchamp made as cubism forced him to question whether pictorial language is able to signify consistently within an indexical framework. This link to Duchamp with the arbitrary sign or random image begins to expose how deeply routed these ideas are through the art of the twentieth century. What is important to me at this stage is the ability to identify and comprehend the sign but also to understand the ‘non-sign’. The sign or the simulacra image for me is closely linked to the ‘snap shot’ which is linked to the travel image and the ‘non-sign’ for me is what we choose to ignore, leave behind and forget because of its vastness, blandness, ugliness and ambiguity.

Foster identifies a number of points, which are perhaps central to this argument. Firstly is the “trauma of signification” that Duchamp would have faced through Cubism and the new photographic image and the similarity to the minimalism of the 1970s with the increase in consumerism. Secondly Foster refers to Rosalind Krauss’s “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America” (1977) where she links the indexical to the photographic and implies a “reduction of the conventional sign to a trace”. The third point identifies that codeless messages that Barthes would have defined as ‘mythical’ are far from codeless according to Martha Rosler as the documentary photographic image is able to ‘project an effect of the real’ (Foster, 1999:83)

The space between the sign and the non-sign is what I have been trying to capture in the ambiguous image generated by chance and furthermore it is perhaps aligned to what Foster says as ‘the gap between signifier and signified’ that has been exploited to challenge the ‘modernist ideal of symbolic totality’. I believe the known or unknown perception of the sign is clear and transparent through the photographic image and its development since photography’s emergence is slow. What we choose to represent our being is more often the familiar, safe and logical, family, friends and our environment. In travel we look for the unusual, the exotic, the abnormal but this is often defaulted to a containable slice that is signified within a decipherable signifier.
There is the seeing of particular signs, such as the typical English village, the typical American skyscraper, the typical German beer-garden, the typical French chateau, and so on. This mode of gazing shows how tourists are in a way semioticians, reading the landscape for signifiers of certain pre-established notions or signs derived from various discourses of travel and tourism. (Also see Culler, 1981:128) (Urry, 1998:12)
In Francesco Bonami essay ‘The Authentic and the Universal’ he states that we are all tourists and that we only believe in what is known, we don’t know who we are and we need to be informed where to go. The belief that our lives are enriched by the discovery of the unknown in the known world or finding the familiar in the unknown is at the centre of why we travel. Bonami is interested in how the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery entitled ‘Universal Experience: Art, Life and The Tourist Eye’ (2005) would create the illusion of discovery and so describes it as a wood where no one else has been.
I remember when I was a kid we used to wander and wonder if we were stepping into a spot in the woods where no one had ever walked. We had this craving to discover the untouched, the unknown. I still think we all still have this craving, but we cannot satisfy it for fear of stepping off the given path, of making a mistake. (Bonami, 2005:15)
The element of authenticity and truth starts to become interesting in the travel image as the copies of the original start to become authentic as well. An image made by a tourist of London Bridge is of course seen as authentic by the maker of this image and those he or she chooses to share it with, however is it any more genuine that lets say a postcard or souvenir mug or t-shirt. In ‘Globalising the Gaze’ by John Urry, he examines how from the 1990’s we have seen a ‘time-space compression’ through the rapid advance of internet and mobile technology. Urry identifies what Caincross termed as ‘The Death of Distance’ in his book of 1997 and in comparison he sights Bauman description in ‘Liquid Modernity’ (2000) of the ‘shift from a solid, fixed modernity to a much more fluid and speeded-up ‘liquid modernity’. (Urry, 1998:141)
In a simple sense we can talk of the globalising of the tourist gaze, as multiple gazes have become core to global culture sweeping up almost everywhere in their awesome wake. There is much less ‘tourism’ per se that occurs within specific and distinct kinds of time-space; there is what I have termed the ‘the end of tourism’ in the more general ‘ economy of signs’. (Urry, 1998:161)
It is the gaze that has been important to the work I made recently. The passive state of being between places in which transportation dictates a gliding glimpse of the untouchable, the isolated without memory, meaning void of interaction as it is the ‘time-space’ landscape that is beyond our control and of which we are at the mercy of. When captured and committed to the memory of binary code, the untouchable remains latent yet has the potential to be pliable for consumption in another dimension-less space. In ‘Towards A Philosophy of Photography’ Vilem Flusser begins by saying that images signify something ‘out there’ in time and space and that these representations are abstractions in the sense that they are reductions of the fourth dimension of time and space into what he calls the ‘two surface dimension’.

This ability to project these images back into ‘time and space’ is what Flusser terms as ‘imagination’ (Flusser 2006:8). Flusser goes on to identify the importance of gazing over the image surface when we are engaged in the decoding process. The scanning of the significance of an image is of course determined by projected elements of the image and by the viewer’s engagement with the image. Flusser states that the interpretation of an image is variable because the image is made up of complex symbols, which are ‘connotative’ (ambiguous) rather than ‘denotative’ (unambiguous). This romantic relationship with the image Flusser describes as ‘magical’.
This space and time peculiar to the image is none other than the world of magic, a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a significant content. Such a world is structurally different from that of the linear world of history in which nothing is repeated and in which everything has causes and will have consequences. For example; In the historical world, sunrise is the cause of the cock’s crowing; in the magical one, sunrise signifies crowing and crowing signifies sunrise .The significance of images is magical. (Flusser, 2006:9)
In the chapter ‘The Return of the Real’ Hal Foster reflects on the theories from the 1960’s as the element of realism and illusionism are predominant. The repetitive realism found within the pop art is of course most predominately found within the images that Warhol reproduced. Foster relates use of ‘trauma’ found within Warhol’s work with that also found within Surrealism. Though this link is clear it is the formal elements of to be found within the creation of a surrealist image (superimposition and juxtaposition) that can aid as well as dislodge the illusion of reality and I feel the use of these elements along side the use of repetition enable me to add my thumbprint to my work. This simulation and fragmentation is important, as the transitional ‘non-place’ element of travel, which dissolves signs and signifiers through dislocation and disorientation, can be closely linked with representations of what I could term as ambient reality.

It is this ambient realty that is important to maintaining an open and inconclusive representation of a movement through a landscape. Unconsciously in the past for many years and even before then when I default to non-artist I have always chosen to record signifiers (mainly through landscape and architecture) in a way to summarise a journey and to capture it, as a viewer would expect to see it, contained, accessible and economic. However what is recognisable is perhaps less important here, more importantly is the nature of travel whether uplifting, empowering, tedious and overwhelming that enables me to identify with what Barthes called the ‘punctum’; the emotional element that enables us to connect with an image. Foster identifies this within Warhol’s work through the indifference of gazing onto the victim of a crash, which is then made more vivid and infuriating by its repetition and the ‘repetitive “popping” of the image’ (Foster, 1999:134).
These pops, such as a slipping of register or washing in colour, serve as visual equivalents of our missed encounters with the real. “What is repeated,” Lacan writes, “is always something that occurs… as if by chance”. So it is with these pops: they seem accidental, but they also appear repetitive, automatic, even technological (the relation between accident and technology, crucial to the discourse of shock, is a great Warhol subject). In this way he elaborates on our optical unconscious, a term introduced by Walter Benjamin to describe the subliminal effects of modern image technologies. (Foster, 1999:134)
‘Apparatus’ produces the technical image according to Flusser (Flusser 21). This ‘apparatus’ or the camera was the result of scientific discourses as without the technical image the theories of the scientific world are ‘incomprehensible’ and universe is perceived as ‘empty’. The camera made sense of the ‘crisis of texts’, which consequently made sense of the ‘crisis of history’. (Flusser 13). The camera as a tool operated by an informed user could be as ‘seeing machine’ (Flusser 23) that ‘create, process and store symbols’ (Flusser 25) of which we as tourists are increasing reliant on. The digital camera has given us a freedom to explore more than we have before allowing us to be more inventive inquisitive and questioning of the experiences that we can commit to memory. In ‘The image-world’ Susan Sontag interprets this freedom politically and states that ‘a capitalist society requires a culture based on images’ as this simulates consumerism. This ‘lust’ and ‘consumption of images’ creates the perception of freedom and replaces social and political change.
The Powers of Photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between image and things, between copies and originals… Images are now more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy. If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well. (Sontag, 2002:179)
We have entered a historical apex where the ability to widely capture and receive images through accessible forms of technology sits along side a mature but restless post-modern society. In the west this volatile state has been made evident since the attack on the World Trade Centre on Manhattan Island and at the same time the digital image has created ‘complacency’ of the experience. So if the image signifier continues to mean less and less then representations of reality will find themselves in continuing cry wolf situations in which we cannot determine the authentic from the copy and the urgent from the inconsequential.

So perhaps this detachment, which is integral to the image made while traveling encourages us to be increasing impartial to our surroundings, and therefore is conceivably subtlety aligned to the ‘trauma’ of Warhol’s work. I am now perhaps more informed than ever through modern media and the images I have created recently are maybe a reflection of a visual complacent culture. The landscape as seen through the tourist as witness, captured by half-chance / half-selection and then edited by informed decision are a way to representing this epidemic era of high information and its symbiotic relationship with social dissolution and detachment.

Digital photography united with digital distributed enables us to dip into the way others choose to represent their lives. Though currently subject to censorship these photoblogs of the web are portals that have the potential to enrich our visual experience of the world. Flusser concludes his book ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ by indicating what he sees as the four essential qualities of photography: image, apparatus, program and information. He defines them as follows:

Image contains within it magic;

apparatus contain with it automation and play;

program contains within it chance and necessity;

information contains with it the symbolic and the improbable.

What is important for me is his inclusion of automation, chance and play. However his now broad definition of photography he states is not acceptable as a philosophy as the human being as free agent is left out of the loop and one contradiction follows another, however Flusser says that ‘the task of the philosophy of photography is to question photographers about freedom, to probe their practice in the pursuit of freedom’ (Flusser, 2006:80)
This was the intention of the foregoing study, and in the course of it a few answers have come to light. First, one can outwit the camera’s rigidity. Second, one can smuggle human intentions into its program that are not predicted by it. Third, one can force the camera to create the unpredictable, the improbable, the informative. Fourth, one can show contempt for the camera and its creations and in turn one’s interest away from the thing in general in order to concentrate on information. In short: Freedom is the strategy of making chance and necessity subordinate to human intention. Freedom is playing against the camera. (Flusser, 2006:80)

Mark Bellingham 18.05.06


Bonami, B. (2005) Universal Experience; Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye. Chicago:
Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art
Foster, H. (1999) The Return of The Real. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press (October)
Flusser, V. (2006) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
Sontag, S. (2002) On Photography. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Urry, J. (1998) The Tourist Gaze. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Additional Reading

Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida. London: The Random House Group Limited (Vintage)
Barthes, R. (1997) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press
Barthes, R. (2000) Mythologies. London: The Random House Group Limited (Vintage)
Bois, Y. A., Krauss, R. E. (1999) Formless: A User’s Guide. New York: Zone Books
Brett, G. (2000) Force Fields; Phases of the kinetic. London: Hayward Gallery
Burgin, V. (1986) Between Oxford: Basil Blackwell Limited
Burgin, V. (1996) In / Different Spaces; Place and Memory in Visual Culture.
London: University of California Press
Crow, D. (2003) Visible Signs. Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA
Duve, Thierry de (1996) Kant After Duchamp. Cambridge MA. The MIT Press (October)
Glimcher, M. (2005) Logical Conclusions; 40 years of rule-based art.
New York: Pacewildenstein
Grice, M. l. (2001) Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age. London: British Film Institute
Lunenfeld, P. (2000) Snap to Grid. London. The MIT Press
Pink, T. (1996) The Psychology of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Pink, T., Stone, M. (2004) The Will and Human Action. London: Routledge
Shaw, P. (2006) The Sublime; the new critical idiom. Oxon: Routledge
Taylor B. (2004) Collage; The Making of Modern Art. London: Thames and Hudson
Tyson, Keith (2005) Geno Pheno. London: Haunch of Venison