San Diego

Allan Sekula, Untitled Slide Sequence (detail), 1972/2011, three duplicate sets of twenty-five black-and-white 35-mm transparencies, projected at 13-second intervals; text panel. From “The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium.”

Allan Sekula, Untitled Slide Sequence (detail), 1972/2011, three duplicate sets of twenty-five black-and-white 35-mm transparencies, projected at 13-second intervals; text panel. From “The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium.”

“The Uses of Photography”

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego | Downtown

Allan Sekula, Untitled Slide Sequence (detail), 1972/2011, three duplicate sets of twenty-five black-and-white 35-mm transparencies, projected at 13-second intervals; text panel. From “The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium.”

In three identical sets of twenty-five images, projected as slides in an endlessly repeated cycle, Allan Sekula’s Untitled Slide Sequence, 1972, depicts workers leaving the General Dynamics Convair Division aerospace factory in San Diego at the end of the day shift. Offering up the plenitude of information implicit in the American documentary tradition—a tradition that implies that by studying these records we might somehow come to know the workers and their individual stories—while at the same time withholding that gratification via the anonymity and homogeneity or homogeny of its subjects, it offers a form of political and social engagement that was missing from earlier documentary forms as well as from newly emerged Conceptual practices. Shown in the exhibition “The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium,” organized by Jill Dawsey, MCASD’s curator, Sekula’s work takes on a new context: that of its own social production and discursive milieu within the community associated with the newly founded Department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, where the artist matriculated as an MFA student in 1972.

The exhibition takes a number of well-known Photoconceptualist projects from the late 1960s and early ’70s—Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots, 1971–73; John Baldessari’s Choosing: Green Beans, 1972; Fred Lonidier’s 29 Arrests: Headquarters of the 11th Naval District, May 4, 1972, San Diego, 1972; and Martha Rosler’s “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home,” ca. 1967–72, to name a few—and places them in dialogue with works by fellow UCSD faculty and students, including David Antin, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, Allan Kaprow, Babette Mangolte, Elizabeth Sisco, Lorna Simpson, Phel Steinmetz, and Carrie Mae Weems. That these artists introduced the social world—the personal, political, and historical realms—to Conceptual art, in a direct critique of its purported neutrality, may be a familiar claim, but it is one cogently presented in this exhibition. What is new here is Dawsey’s reframing of these works vis-à-vis the vibrant, collaborative, and progressive environment of the visual arts department at UCSD, itself situated within the conservative political climate of San Diego, a key locus in the military-industrial complex. Lonidier’s now-canonical 29 Arrests, which records antiwar demonstrators being booked by the police, is placed in context with lesser-known works such as his Girl Watcher Lens (formerly known as Pornography), 1972, made on the UCSD campus while Lonidier was a grad student, which furthered his exploration of the theme of photographic voyeurism and technological control. Sekula’s act of countersurveillance in Red Squad (San Diego, 20 January 1973), 1973/2005, in which he confronts and photographs undercover agents in San Diego’s Balboa Park, turning the tables on them with his own apparatus of surveillance and control, was a direct response to local police documentation of individuals involved in political protest.

The exhibition and attendant catalogue jointly suggest that much of this collaborative work would not have emerged without the surrounding historical and social context of both the university and the larger community of San Diego. Dawsey’s essay argues that the nonhierarchical quality of the visual arts department, where students and faculty interacted on multiple social and pedagogical levels, combined with the radical climate of other UCSD departments (Herbert Marcuse and Fredric Jameson were also on the faculty) to form a community that engaged in particularly astute social critique. The show evidences a vibrant exchange between what one might call the socioconceptual projects of members of the San Diego group (composed of Lonidier, Rosler, Sekula, and Steinmetz) and those of a later generation of artists to emerge out of the school in the late ’70s and ’80s (namely Sisco, Simpson, and Weems) who, with their emphasis on race and other marginalized histories, are often positioned in textbooks and exhibitions as completely separate in their goals. Thus echoes of the performative nature of the work of both Kaprow and Eleanor Antin can be found in Simpson’s Gestures/Reenactments, 1985, just as Lonidier’s critique of social systems resonates with Weems’s “Family Pictures and Stories,” 1978–84. The exhibition does not attempt to encapsulate these diverse artists, but rather adds to our knowledge of their historical context—thus running in the vein of a series of recent exhibitions that have examined the legacies of key educational institutions.

Kate Butler