(The following text is part of a collaboration with artist Gideon Barnett and is better viewed with reference images at Der Greif )
Growing up in Jasper, Tennessee – The alien concept of pursuing art – An onslaught of tourists eager to catch a glimpse of the Hope Diamond – The sheer enthusiasm & simultaneous consternation of testing hi-res digital cameras & more recently, an interest in debased, lower quality forms of photographic reproduction – Institutions & public space as artist studio, such as museums, libraries & the streets of cities themselves – A confined stretch of Miami’s South Beach – Xerox machines in the age of Photoshop – The changing nature & responsibilities of archiving – Vandalism & the intimate photographs of Edith Gowin by her husband Emmet – The IBM photocopy work of artist & writer Pati Hill – Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan’s Evidence – The relationship between photographing out in the world & carefully selecting from a random array of images to re-appropriate – The green blackboards of grammar school – Evaporation — Deafness in Dogs — American Sign Language – The Rings of Saturn & The Hundred and One Dalmatians
While engaging the assortment of disparate images posed to us in Gideon Barnett’s most recent work, one calls to mind the novels of the late German writer W.G. Sebald, wherein small, curious pictures accompany passages of text in both direct and ambiguous ways. These images function as a kind of subtle guide to the narrator’s consciousness, blurring our notions of fact and fiction, memory and history, loss and desire. By employing these images, whose origins are shrouded in mystery, Sebald magnifies a pathos that connects the reader to that which has become all but forgotten, made faint by the parallax of time. By immersing himself in the microfilm images archived in various university libraries under the heading “The History of Photography,” and enlarging said images with the library’s default Xerox printer, Gideon Barnett is exercising a similar transpiration, one that invokes in the viewer a sense of strange beauty and subdued malaise.
Considering such devices are designed to contain and condense large text catalogs, documents and newspapers, the use of microfilm to archive photographic materials is an almost comic prelude to failure. By recognizing this fact and finding delight in transforming these dubious processes into large-scale objects, Barnett is drawing from modes of image-appropriation that seek to scrutinize the nature of its own production. Historically, we have seen artists explore such methods to question and criticize the underlying effects media images have on the culture. In this case, however, the result is how a particular set of images are stored, chronicled and essentially forgotten. While sifting through these images the artist likens the intuitive selection process to that of pressing the shutter while photographing out in the world, as it were. Once selected and printed we are confronted with a sort of resurrection of pictures, some familiar, others inscrutable. So that when we see what appears to be an inverted commercial advertisement for Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey, targeting some susceptible consumer society of the past, we dismiss it as old-fashioned, defunct, and, emptied now of its aim to sell us something, it reclaims an innocuous form. Perhaps then, for the first time, we see it for what it is: an arrangement of glasses, liquid and ice, reflecting light, forming shadows, and placed accordingly by an invisible prop-stylist, for the three-quarter camera angle positioned by one of countless anonymous photographers, whose life’s work, by mere happenstance, wound up in this peculiar burial place. If we were to take Sebald’s cue that “the greater the distance, the clearer the view,” one could imagine looking back reproachfully at our habit of being unable or unwilling to discern this phenomenon in the present, as inconspicuous algorithms work to send us advertisements based on our search histories, texts, likes, location, and most disturbingly, voice recordings.
After making the Xerox print, Barnett frames the images with a green background, meant to evoke the blackboards used in elementary & high schools. Framed around images whose meanings evade us, this gesture hints at the loss of innocence that evaporates as we begin to question what we are taught as pupils. Oddly enough, I can remember now the streaks of chalk-dust left on the board after erasing it, followed by the sensation of washing it back to black with a damp sponge, noticing how quickly it dried, which, upon reflection, is how I came to learn the meaning of the word evaporation in the first place. Additionally, it reminds us that institutions of learning are equipped insofar as private and public funds support them, so that inevitably the apparatus of such places will range from state-of-the-art to, in the case of the microfilm archive and its Xerox counterpart, haplessly archaic. Not to mention, how the staff employed there and the unknown persons whose job it was to undertake such a task, remains as puzzling as the pictures themselves and how they came into existence.
While we can comprehend the purpose of the Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey image, the others in this body of work are less clear and create mysterious associations:
A snake on a branch — An orange on cloth – a pair of pills with the letters BL V2 — A group of figures in protective suits prepared for some unfathomable hazardous condition — A bronze sacrificial wine vessel — Variations of knots — A portrait of a nude woman concealing her face — The harsh landscape of snow-covered mountains — What appear to be two frostbitten feet — A faint sun setting over a field that can be anywhere — An older man holding a joint while exhaling smoke from his wrinkled face.
Could it be possible that the torso of a black body split in half is an advertisement for an exercise machine as suggested by its title Soloflex? What exactly are sub-globular microsclere spicules? And what are we to draw from the pill-identifier that informs us that BL V2 is the antibiotic penicillin v potassium to be taken orally? Who made these pictures and for what purpose? These are just some questions you may find yourself asking.
However, for some reason I find myself returning to the half dozen Dalmatians sitting for their portrait. The six of them sit ghostlike in front of a black backdrop, as the tops of their heads catch the light. It is unknown whether such contrast is the result of poorly exposed film or perhaps more likely the crass limitations of Xerox printing, but one can’t help but find some minor amusement in these black and white spotted hounds as the perfect study for contrast in photography. What we do know is that roughly one in three Dalmatians suffer from deafness in one or both ears, a fact unknown to early breeders who confused the dog’s unresponsiveness with a lack of intelligence, before later coming to learn that, due to the absence of melanocytes, deafness is frequent in piebald animals and other creatures that share a propensity for light pigmentation. Looking at this picture, and drawing from my own experience from working on sets with animals, it is almost certain that in addition to the photographer, a dog wrangler is standing just side of camera. And while we might be tempted to imagine her commanding the dog’s attention with a treat of some variety, as is the ordinary custom for rewarding our well-behaved companions, a certain lack of eagerness from the six canines, particularly the two withdrawn dogs sitting in the back, leads me to surmise that they are responding to the American Sign Language symbols to freeze and watch the wrangler, which the ASL training center for dogs tells us is communicated by extending one’s thumb and pinky out while tucking the three middle fingers in and making a firm thrusting motion of the hand slightly down.
Deaf dogs are capable of learning upwards of fifty hand signs, but what I find most astonishing is that deaf dogs are prone to higher sensitivity to human facial expressions, so that in addition to comprehending sign language, they will respond to the pleasure or disappointment of their owners gaze. Upon learning this fact I dreamt again of Sebald and his most enigmatic book, The Rings Of Saturn, wherein a nameless narrator takes an aimless walking tour of the coastal county of Suffolk, England under the sign of the Dog Star. Going back to Sebald’s curious archive of pictures one could, with minor effort, see this image of Dalmatians accompanied by a story about the nameless narrator coming across a stray dog, with the uncanny suspicion that this dog could sense the melancholy air about him by looking at his face. When it was brought to my attention by Gideon Barnett that a note of text suggested to him that this photograph was made for the promotion of Disney’s film adaptation of the children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians, I decided to conduct my own library search for a copy of the book in order to confirm my vague remembrance that the ninety-seven puppies kidnapped for the intention of skinning them for their spotted fur, were discovered and eventually rescued by their Twilight Barking heard from a great distance away. But when I read that the dogs were found in Suffolk, England, I became convinced, against my better judgment, that it was Sebald’s nameless narrator who came to their rescue. And, at the very least, the remedy for accepting that this of course was not actually the case, is that Gideon Barnett rescued these images from what otherwise would have been their permanent captivity.