Circulation | Exchange: Moving Images in Contemporary Art is an online writing project devoted to contemporary art practices that engage with our current world of moving photographic images. I don’t mean moving images as in film, but moving images through space, between friends, across platforms, from digital to material space and back again. Images that gain new meanings as they shift from one form to another; images that become untethered from their origins and drift through digital space; images that are posted, downloaded, appropriated, stolen, repurposed; images that live multiple lives. Images that are made on a smartphone and end up on gallery walls, images that are uploaded to Wikipedia and end up in books, images that are made by a Google Street View camera and become authored artwork, images that are exchanged among strangers only to disappear. Though conventionally there is a distinction between photographic images and photographic objects, these images might be both, simultaneously, equally valuable iterations from one to the next. As with most photographs, the form is as notable as the content.
Of course, aside from camera-less photograms, photographic images have, nearly by definition, always moved: from a film negative to a print; from a slide to a projection; from one kind of paper to another; presented in a frame, in a book, in a magazine, or on a screen. Until recently, it was iconic images that moved the most, often existing as prints of various sizes, ubiquitous newspaper and magazine reproductions, and, eventually, emblazoned upon posters, coffee mugs, mouse pads, and t-shirts.
But what I’m interested in here is – I think – a different kind of movement: one in which the meanings of the images are in fact defined by their channels of circulation and their points of exchange. Or maybe that’s not new at all. As I read through two recent books filled with essays about the impact of digital media on photography, one of the primary things that struck me was that nobody could decide: is this all new, or is this all history repeating itself? Do we need to grapple with authorship via Penelope Umbrico if we’ve already absorbed Sherrie Levine? Do we need to think about the relationship between automated imagery and artists in terms of Google Street View if we’ve already got Ed Ruscha and Every Building on the Sunset Strip? Do we need to talk about Richard Prince and Instagram if we’ve already talked about Richard Prince and Marlboro?
For many swaths of contemporary work made by serious artists and discussed by serious critics and historians, the answer to those questions would be a resounding “no” (or, at least, “can we just not?”) I don’t consider myself a disciple of the great and influential John Szarkowski, but he sure got one thing right: photography is a medium that was born whole. Not much happens in photography that William Henry Fox Talbot didn’t think about first – in some iteration – in The Pencil of Nature. So while I am occasionally quite envious of my colleagues who get to immerse themselves in the gorgeous rarity, quirkiness, and stunning insights of the 19th century world of photography, I find myself drawn to the contemporary iterations of what are often old concerns, updated for today’s culture.
Privacy and surveillance, originality and authorship, sharing and distribution, saving and loss, distribution and networks … how these categories will unfurl into the future marks some of the central concerns (or anxieties) of our contemporary culture. I rely on artists to help me make sense of these questions, particularly as they play out in the world of images. The writing that will appear on this site will be – I hope – informed by past practices but focused on very recent work. Now that we have moved into a period of digital ubiquity, I have often frequently heard “pre-digital” photography all lumped together into one category, as if it can now be easily understood and digested as “how things used to be before they were digital/social/networked/mobile”. I want to resist this generalizing tendency, and seek instead to use the complexities of today to preserve the complex and moving role that photographs have always had as they traveled from place to place over time.
August 18, 2015