Emmet Gowin is known for his compelling photographs of landscapes altered by nuclear testing, as well as his recent details of nature at its smallest scales. To mark his retirement from Princeton, the exhibition “Emmet Gowin: A Collective Portrait,” featuring his own work and that of students from the past thirty-six years, opens at the university’s art museum on October 24.
IN 1997, I PHOTOGRAPHED the Nevada test site from the air. I was elated to be able to see it, because of the power it had over our lives. I had been trying to get permission for at least eight years, since the sudden end of the cold war. Some people from Princeton University—Bill Bradley, John McPhee, even the president of the university at the time, Harold Shapiro—were a great help, although when I finally did get permission, I couldn’t help but think it was probably a mistake on the part of the Department of Energy. I asked an employee from the department: “Am I the first individual to photograph the test site?” And his reply seemed so enlightened: “You’re not an individual, you’re a university.” I now think that if Princeton had not been part of the equation, my series would never have happened.
I experienced a sequence of feelings––from elation to sadness––while visiting these sites. I remember enduring one of the darkest moods of my life. At one point, a friend said to me, “Why don’t you come with us to Ecuador?” That, strangely, turned out to be a breakthrough and a way back to a moment in my own history. In 1976, I had made a photograph of insects sprinkled lightly on a decayed nineteenth-century book of history and rhetoric. It was clear that much of the damage to that book had been done by insects—suggesting, I suppose, their almost-eternal status. Even then I felt a connection between the importance and the staying power of insects and the small scale of our individual lives.
That first trip to the tropics led to discoveries I would never have imagined. I learned to use a certain mercury-vapor lamp that scientists use. When you look at this light, it seems to remain at a constant brightness, but in fact it flashes sixty times a second. The swollen points you see in the moths’ flight paths are wing strokes. This bit of line, all these intricate curlicues and spirals, is about one-tenth of a second—whoop! When photographed, it reveals this beautiful tracery of flight.
With rare exceptions, all the insects were alive when I photographed them; they could have easily flown away. They were in a natural, resting posture. At first, I only photographed moths where they landed. I liked the feeling that I was being visited. Most of them could have left, but there was one that had been paralyzed, entangled in a spiderweb. Gradually, I learned that I could gently urge the insects to move without really disturbing them. That opened up possibilities.
At the time, I had five index sheets; now I have twenty-seven, and I’d like to make one hundred. Each sheet represents a real time and a real place, a moment that was particular and miraculous. One insect was trapped in water and was spinning on its own world axis. It was a totality encapsulated in that moment—life, death, everything.
Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People, Last Meadow, 2009. Performance view, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Portland, Oregon, 2009. Michelle Boulé. Photo: Alex Escalante.
In 2002, the choreographer Miguel Gutierrez received his first Bessie Award, as a performer in John Jasperse’s company; by 2006, Gutierrez had won a Bessie in the category of choreography for his works Retrospective Exhibitionist and Difficult Bodies. His latest piece, Last Meadow, which Gutierrez refers to as a “noir opera,” had its world premiere earlier this month at the TBA festival in Portland, Oregon; its New York debut continues this week, September 15–19, at Dance Theater Workshop. Here Gutierrez talks about the gestation of this work.
LAST YEAR, MY DAD HAD A STROKE—or what seemed to be a stroke. Later they termed it a “cerebral incident.” It was an intense, strange moment between my dad and me. I began doing research and came across this phenomenon called “last meadow.” The term comes from agriculture: It’s a reference to the last meadow in the farm to receive water. In neurology, they use it to describe a kind of stroke in which the heart is so weak that it can’t pump enough blood to the brain. I’ve only found this on Wikipedia, so perhaps it’s not even true. But I love that it’s a very pretty-sounding term to describe something terrible.
I’ve traveled a lot in the past couple of years, which has resulted in a lot of disorientation and isolation. I’m so acutely aware of my aloneness within this large, strange, moving context. I became interested in misinterpretation, in the idea of being in this situation that’s kind of happening but you’re not really inside of it—or it’s not really reaching you. I found myself riffing off that idea, finding congruities with the idea of dance, this medium that people often see as an incoherent language.
I began to think of that as dance’s strength rather than its weakness. This incoherence is a really beautiful thing. It’s not really meant to be a language—this is something that Tere O’Conner talks about, too: It’s not about the absence of words, and it’s not the representation of words.
My pieces have often been received as this hyper-emotional honesty. I do like using an idea of revelation and honesty as a kind of texture. It’s an element, a basic component of something, and I often find myself trafficking in these tropes of sincerity and fiction.
Before I even started, I knew I wanted to push on these ideas, but I was still lacking a platform. Recently, when leaving for France, I borrowed my friend Liz’s DVD of East of Eden . It was a two-DVD set, and when I arrived I found that the disc with the movie was missing, so I just watched the special features. I became particularly interested in the wardrobe tests. I was intrigued by the sight of James Dean—not to mention Julie Harris and Dick Davalos and Lois Smith—just wearing the different costume ideas for the movie. They’re these beautiful short little films of them standing around, waiting.
James Dean’s always hyper-conscious about how he’s being seen, and he’s always fucking with that. I found myself projecting all these ideas I had about misinterpretation and dance onto him, as well as ideas about America as a myth. It was a handy structuring mechanism. He made three movies, and all three are love triangles. This worked out well because there are three of us in the piece. (I had known before I even began that I wanted to make something with Michelle Boulé and Tarek Halaby.)
Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People, Last Meadow, 2009. Performance view, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Portland, Oregon, 2009. Tarek Halaby. Photo: Alex Escalante.
We watched the movies together in rehearsal. I had seen Giant  a couple years ago. I’d never seen Rebel Without a Cause  in its entirety, and I hadn’t seen East of Eden yet. In East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, Dean’s also this prodigal son, which was interesting to me, too. I kept gravitating toward those scenes in the movies in which there were discussions of the father. That’s become a large theme for me in the piece, though I don’t know how visible that is.
These things are gut. In general, I’m not really systematic as an artmaker. I just go with a feeling about things. I’m not one to lay out a structure and then fill in the blanks. I feel more of an affinity with collage.
Dance is this enormous frame through which I organize my experience: It’s the marriage I’ve been in for, like, thirty years. It will never give you everything you want, but somehow you’re bound to it. It’s this pygmy when I want it to be a giant. But I’ve given enough of my life to it that I can claim some level of authority—maybe—inside it.
In 2002 I made my first evening-length piece, Enter the Scene, and in 2005 I made my solo Retrospective Exhibitionist. That piece is about me digging into the center of myself to find this universal largeness of “What is it to be alive?”
Last Meadow is really different. It’s really a dance. It’s a piece that’s aware of itself as a construction. It’s a piece where, theoretically, I don’t need to receive the love that I needed for that solo. Retrospective Exhibitionist was so much about “Where am I going to get the love from? Who’s going to give it to me? How is it going to come?” Last Meadow talks about that in relationship to fathers and home—those questions are there—but there’s also this darkness.
As an American artist, in order to survive and continue you have to become an institution unto yourself—if not physically, then certainly conceptually. I have a lot of ambivalence about that. I don’t have a problem with the realities of making work here. I get it—it takes a lot of people to put this shit together. I’m just noticing these mythologies that we construct around ourselves.
Michael Kaiser wrote a piece recently for the Huffington Post, called “Why I Worry About Modern Dance,” in which he bemoans the death of great artists like Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch. He asks who’s going to take up the mantle. I thought, “Why are you looking for Mommy and Daddy? What is your attachment to modernism and the great white hero? Why are you incapable of seeing multiplicity and diversity in the field?” So many people are addressing these questions and in so many different ways—that’s what it’s about now. I’m drawn to the hero myth, too. But c’mon, whatever. It’s not about identifying one.
Tell Me Something Good, a collaboration between Rita McBride and Kim Schoenstadt, is loosely based on “Art by Telephone,” an exhibition the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, organized in 1969. Departing from the conceptual premise of that show, McBride and Schoenstadt are making works from instructions they’ve exchanged over the phone. The project premiered at Alexander and Bonin Gallery last May; the latest installment, which Schoenstadt discusses here, opens at the Santa Monica Museum of Art on September 11.
THIS COLLABORATION BEGAN with a misunderstanding. Thankfully, there were more to come. In early 2008, I had a few curators from the Santa Monica Museum over to my studio to see a new project (just released from customs) that I had made for the Van Abbemuseum. At some point, the curators asked what else I’d been working on. At the time, I was still toying with the idea for Tell Me Something Good, so it was all pretty vague and based more on a telephone game. Whereas “Art by Telephone” had artists phone into an institution for installers to make their works via instructions, I wanted this collaboration to include artists calling in their directions directly to each other and asserting their own aesthetic choices. It was the sort of half-baked idea one brings up in idle chitchat, but the next thing I knew the museum was interested in doing that show.
After several meetings, it seemed that the scope was too large, and I decided to narrow it down it to a single collaboration. I suggested Rita because she is a sculptor based in Düsseldorf, and it seemed better to combine artists with geographic distance and different modes of working.
When I called to ask her about working together, she had just returned to Germany from LA to find that all the pictures she had taken for a publication due the following week had been inexplicably compromised. Since I was pitching this “phone-in” concept, she indeed felt like I was telling her something good, as I could retake her photographs (in this case, of all the service stations from Point Dome to LAX). However, with an extended deadline, she ended up retaking her own pictures the following month.
For our first show at Alexander and Bonin, I instructed Rita to execute a new piece in my ongoing “Fax Drawing” series. These works originated when I unintentionally loaded my fax machine with a recycled drawing while receiving floor plans from a gallery. The resultant combination of the drawing and floor plan created a hybrid, which I ultimately installed as a wall drawing in the gallery that had sent me the fax. So Rita made a piece that combined one of her drawings for a sculpture and the floor plan of the gallery. For our new exhibition, she’s using the same wall drawing, but she instructed the museum to create the work with black glossy lines on a prefabricated door that is painted hot pink. I installed her service-station photographs along the gallery walls, and she’s leaned the door against some of the photos, thereby obscuring the view.
We decided to make our works based on instructions given to each other during a single phone call––like the original MCA show––and to record the calls to vinyl as the museum did in 1969. Since our exhibition will be much smaller in scope, we thought it would be appropriate to create a 45-rpm single rather than a full twelve-inch album.
The logic of Tell Me Something Good relies heavily on chance, miscommunication, and phone lines, and so conceptually it fell together nicely. One part I like best about the collaboration is the question: Who made it? I’m still not sure whether either of us can claim to be the single creator for either piece. Perhaps the project gains strength by putting itself in that area between misunderstandings.
Left: Cover of Photography Degree Zero (2009). Right: A view of Geoffrey Batchen teaching from Camera Lucida. (Photo: Vlad da Cunha)
A professor of the history of photography and contemporary art at the CUNY Graduate Center, Geoffrey Batchen’s previous books include Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (1997) and Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (2001). This October, MIT Press will publish Photography Degree Zero, an anthology that Batchen has edited of writings about Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980).
I’VE READ CAMERA LUCIDA MANY, MANY TIMES, and I’ve taught it for many years. Yet, it is one of those books you can read over and over and still find new things that you don’t remember the last few times you read it. There are not many books you can say that about. This is partly because Camera Lucida is so poetically and philosophically written, making it easy for the eye to skate across some lines and go on to others. But it’s also because each line is so loaded with implication and possibility that you can’t possibly take it all in during one reading.
Photography Degree Zero had a long gestation period, and it was a bit of a struggle to bring it all together. It was actually initiated by a feeling, which I sensed throughout my discipline, that everyone was sick to death of Camera Lucida. Indeed, I recently went to a conference in Madrid where at the beginning of the first day, one of the organizers stood up and said that anyone who quoted from the book would be fined. So, in part, this anthology comes out of conversations that I had with colleagues, in which we all felt similarly beset by Camera Lucida. We thought that perhaps if we wrote essays on the book, we’d get it out of our systems and find a way to declare––at last, and nearly thirty years after its initial publication––that it is now history. I don’t know whether this book will actually have that effect. Probably (and hopefully) it will generate even more dialogues about Camera Lucida, but at least it enabled all of us who contributed to dig into our own neurosis and work it out a little bit.
This is a lesson to be taken by every young writer: If you write a book whose meaning is not immediately apparent, and if it’s beautifully written, people are much more likely to continue returning to and worrying about it. The meanings of Camera Lucida are sufficiently open-ended to generate thirteen essays in this particular volume, from scholars as significant as Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Victor Burgin, Jane Gallop, Eduardo Cadava, and so on, and many more that I list in the endnotes of my introductory chapter.
I’d like to think that my introduction will be a useful teaching tool because I go to quite a bit of effort to lay out the story of the production of Camera Lucida and the initial responses to it, which were not all positive by any means. Some critics at the time wrote that it was one of the worst books ever written about photography and that it would have the worst effects possible. But for whatever reasons (and perhaps more study needs to be made of this), it is a book that still seems very current. There are, however, two critical essays in this volume that discuss the ways in which Barthes handles race in his book, and I would say on that issue it feels a little dated. But many other aspects of Camera Lucida do feel incredibly fresh now, whereas most books about photography usually don’t.
For example, in twenty years of teaching I’ve never assigned Susan Sontag’s On Photography . There is a real question as to why that’s so. I’m aware that photographers tend to gravitate toward On Photography even though they dislike the way Sontag equates photography with violence. I suspect that some of them find Camera Lucida more impenetrable and esoteric. Art historians find Sontag’s book to be somewhat journalistic and her essays not very substantial, whereas for them Barthes’s book is an endlessly fascinating and pleasurable text. There is something to be written about the perspectives they each offer. The publication of Photography Degree Zero brings up these and a range of other issues and presses us to consider Camera Lucida anew.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of ten previous books, including Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West (1994), Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Mark Lynton History Prize. Her latest book is A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.
THE 1989 LOMA PRIETA EARTHQUAKE IN CALIFORNIA was an extraordinary event for me: I remember noticing that people appeared to be having a relatively positive experience. I also observed that my own emotional tenor shifted radically; even my sense of time and place shifted. After 9/11, I found that people were having what I couldn’t possibly describe as a good time, but what you might call a “deep” time. If one of the problems besetting American internal life is shallowness, suddenly people found some satisfaction, purposefulness, and unity, and for a couple of weeks an openness to rethinking everything about our role in the world.
I was invited to give the Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture at Jesus College of Cambridge University in 2004, and I thought––in honor of Williams––that I should start something new, so I decided to do a lecture on the subject of disaster. This was not long after the publication of my book Hope in the Dark , but for at least a decade before, I had been writing about the personal and emotional sides of public and historic events.
I didn’t necessarily expect the subversive positivity of disasters to play such a large role in my research, but I became interested in the ways that such events have been misrepresented by the media and the film industry, as well as the studies of disaster sociologists––who for the past sixty years have done extraordinary work documenting the constructive and imaginative responses to catastrophes. It’s as though I thought I was opening a door to a room, and the door opened to a huge landscape that I then felt compelled to explore.
After the talk, I published a piece in Harper’s, which went to press the day Katrina hit. This immediately involved me in trying to interpret Katrina and provide a counter to all the (untrue) narratives of marauding barbarians and savagery that the media, pundits, and a lot of elected officials were creating. I hesitated a bit after Katrina, as I wasn’t sure if this was the material that I wanted to commit myself to for the next few years, but it felt so important and so divergent from the ways that people are given to imagine what happens during disaster that I felt I had to do it.
One crucial discovery during my research was the writing of Charles Fritz. Disaster scholars seem to revere him, though they would also say he is a little too perfectly sunny. He writes, with inspired clarity and precision, that everyday life can itself be a kind of a disaster in which we’re alienated and suffering from a sense of purposelessness. He argues that disaster can amend all those things, which is why it can be a tremendously positive experience. He also points out that illness, suffering, and death go on all the time—that it’s not as though these things only happen during disasters. It’s similar to what William James says about the 1906 earthquake in what may be an ur-essay for disaster studies: that we’re not alone. James says it so beautifully: “Surely the cutting edge of all our usual misfortunes comes from the character of their loneliness.”
I also drew on the research of J. K. Gibson-Graham, two women economists who write as one voice and who discuss existing counters to capitalism. Their work made me see more clearly what I had talked about in other ways in Hope in the Dark: that our society is purportedly capitalist but sustained by a host of unaccounted-for gestures of altruism, generosity, barter sharing, and other forces that keep the official system from entirely destroying us. And even though the rhetoric is always, How can we start from scratch to find something good?, while writing the book, my rhetoric instead became: How can we work with the good that is already there to make it more pervasive, more available, and, most important, more visible?
I wanted to incorporate that last question into another: What are the altruistic, improvisational, and sociable responses that disasters provide us with? For one, they give us a sense of the depth and intensity of our desire to be members of civil society, to belong and connect and do meaningful work. The task is not simply to respond better to disasters (which are intermittent) but to rethink who we are and what is possible every day. It’s very much a prescriptive and a utopian book in that sense.
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster will be published on August 20 by the |us.penguingroup.com/
Andrei Molotiu is an artist and art historian who teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington, and who recently edited Abstract Comics: The Anthology, the first collection devoted to the genre. Offering experiments by established cartoonists as well as new pieces by emerging artists, the book is available from Fantagraphics and will serve as the exhibition catalogue for “Silent Pictures,” which opens on September 1 at the CUNY Graduate Center’s James Gallery. Nautilus, a collection of Molotiu’s own abstract comics, has just been published by Fahrenheit Editions.
ABSTRACT COMICS ARE COMICS that have abstract forms instead of representational images in their panels—when they even have panels, that is. Now, comics are an art of reduction anyway, so it’s easy to conceive of a story in which squares and triangles function as traditional characters. In abstract comics, however, the “story” being told is primarily one of formal transformations and visual energy, not the depiction of a narrative that can be otherwise conveyed verbally. Words may play a part in abstract comics, but primarily as graphic elements, not to communicate or to further the plot. Some imagery can be there,too, as long as it does not form into a story and as long as it does not cohere into a unified space.
I first discovered the possibility of abstract sequential art in the work of the Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky, who was closely associated with the Cobra group, as I discuss in the introduction to the book. Many of his paintings from the 1960s on have subdivisions and abstract panels that are clearly derived from comics. Some of them, to me, looked like comic-book pages, and they inspired me to make my own abstract comics, as well as to seek out more examples of such work from other artists—which led, down the road, to this volume.
My first idea, in trying to survey abstract comics, was to create a wide-ranging anthology. I knew I wanted to include an important early work by R. Crumb––a piece from 1967 titled Abstract Expressionistic Ultra Super Modernistic Comics––and it opens the book. I also included a piece I commissioned a few years ago from Gary Panter. He has an ongoing project where you can commission drawings cheaply from him. It began at $100, and after every one hundred drawings, he bumps up the price by $25 (it’s currently at $225, so you can calculate how many he’s drawn so far). In terms of the commission, you give him three words and he draws whatever he chooses based on those words. The words I gave him were abstract, comic, and strip. As he had made only one other such piece previously (also included in the anthology), I suppose that I effectively helped double the quantity of Gary Panter abstract comics in the world.
One of my favorite aspects of working on this project was discovering the work of Benoit Joly, a lesser-known cartoonist from Quebec. In 1987, he drew an amazing abstract piece, a one-off that he did not really follow up on until I e-mailed him about the anthology. He drew another one for the anthology and has done a few more since. Another story like that comes from Mark Badger, who used to work primarily as an artist at DC and Marvel. When he was in art school in the early ’80s, he sketched out a two-page abstract comic, which he left unfinished. After he saw my own work on the Internet, he dug up the comic and put it on his website. I persuaded him to finish it and we ended up printing both versions, from 1980 and 2008, in the anthology.
Besides such hidden histories that I was able to unearth (another example is Patrick McDonnell, creator of the syndicated strip Mutts, who also drew abstract comics in art school but never published them), I also wanted to include several younger cartoonists whose work either had been going in that direction, even if it had not gone fully abstract yet, or had made use of graphic elements that I could see successfully working abstractly. I’m thinking here of artists such as Richard Hahn, James Kochalka, and Warren Craghead. So I invited them to try their hands at abstract comics.
Also included are people like J. R. Williams, who had largely given up comics and taken up abstract painting but had not thought of using his abstract style in a comic until I suggested he give it a try for the anthology. Conversely, there are artists such as Anders Pearson and Janusz Jaworski, who, independently of each other, began experimenting with abstract comics in the past few years. Coming out at this specific juncture, the anthology is fortunately able to capture all the recent creative ferment in the genre.