This text was written for the catalogue of the Copy Paste exhibition which focuses on the practices of re-using found photography in the artistic / photographic context. The exhibition is open from 10 December 2014 to 16 January 2015 at Photon – Centre for Contemporary Photography in Ljubljana and will be shown at Photon Gallery in Vienna around 20 January 2015.
In the early 20th century, when reproducible media such as printmaking, photography and ultimately film had long been part of the everyday life, the art world was still clinging desperately to conventional media, not immediately embracing the qualities and possibilities of the Industrial Age. In its beginnings, photography was not acknowledged as part of high culture; instead it grew to become a fully autonomous field with its own aesthetic and functional principles. When artists and photographers started to actively incorporate industrially reproduced images (from newspapers, books, later the Internet) into their works, this dealt an even heavier blow to the traditional art world. The phenomenon of appropriation, collage-making and the use of existing materials has always had a somewhat subversive connotation. These practices have sourced their materials and motifs from the pool of blatantly mundane images, reevaluating, subverting, occasionally trivializing them, and often using them in relentlessly humorous, socially engaged contexts. After in the second half of the 20th century the world underwent a transition from the Industrial to Post-Industrial Age, into a society based on services, show business, advertising and the mass media, the use of found photographs as art practice has somehow organically gained even more momentum. And there is a reason for that. What we are experiencing today is largely a (new) dominance of the visual. All around, people are surrounded by a myriad of images, which speak to them directly or indirectly, be it in the private, public or virtual spaces. These images are most often photographs, usually coupled with texts which try in a fairly precise, target-based way to determine their context and meaning. In a direct comparison with the image, the text is very much explicable, allowing for very clear, unequivocal communication. The image, on the other hand, reveals and permits countless meanings, which are never fully unambiguous, rendering it inherently ambivalent and thus subject to semantic manipulations.
A glimpse into history is enough to corroborate this. In medieval Europe, when a large majority of the population was illiterate, and thus more vulnerable and gullible, the then (above all) religious leaders used to subdue and intimidate their people through wall paintings that explicitly depicted the fate awaiting those who doubted the one and only tenet of the Christian faith. Indeed, people are proven to have a more emotional, direct reaction to image, especially a photograph, than to text. Or as Susan Sontag put it in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, “Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totem of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than around a verbal slogan.”
In addition to politics and ideology, this principle has been used by show business, as well as art. The artists engaging in recycling and the use of existing photographs they find in the course of their everyday lives, are well aware of the power of the image. On the surface, the artists featured in the Copy Paste exhibition seem to focus on often humorous, but also more or less explicit socially engaged phenomena of the given moment. In their works, they are largely addressing the banality and absurdity of the mass media, expressing their attitude towards the medium of photography, and commenting on the narcissism of its users. They are exploring the omnipresent surveillance, a phenomenon we face everywhere we go, displaying absurd simulations of the material pleasure conveyed through photographs or moving images, indicating the semantic pitfalls associated with interpreting and comprehending images, examining their axiomatic ambivalence.
The political potential of what they are expressing is not often readily apparent; some cerebral activity at least is required to discern the various meanings hiding under the seemingly frivolous surface. For they are undertaking the phenomenology of the image in a distinctly analytical way, by fighting the uniformity of its interpretation with the tools of this same uniformity, often distorting it to the point of (apparent) absurdity. They find existing photographs, only to process, manipulate, assemble, and ultimately entirely re-contextualize them. In fact, with plenty of humour and detachment they speak of the banality of the image in a time when images pervade our lives. Without moral judgement or excessive cynicism, their works call attention to the seeming lightness of this day and age, the (subliminal) impact of images in our everyday lives, the state of mind of the society, its often excessive paranoia, as well as the self-evidences induced in an individual by the overabundance of the visual.
© Miha Colner, 2 December 2014