Photo Op

Dodie Bellamy on the compulsion to document

David Horvitz, 241543903, 2009–. Installation view, “snap + share: transmitting photographs from mail art to social networks,” SFMOMA. Courtesy of SFMOMA. Photo: © Matthew Millman Photography. 

I FLASH my SFMOMA lifetime artist membership card, and the woman at the counter asks me, “What do you have in the collection?” Her question gets me tense. A few months after the museum sent me the card in the mail—a total surprise—some brainiac in acquisitions questioned my eligibility, and they threatened to revoke my membership. See me on the phone, shouting at a museum bureaucrat, “You’ve got to be kidding me! This is beyond tacky.” I do not know if this cheerful woman now is just being chatty or if this is a test. I tell her my husband has a piece in the Kikibox. She looks confused and asks, “What’s that?” “There was a gallery here in the ’90s and they made a box with stuff in it,” I answer. I grab my ticket and scurry over to the stairs that lead to the show “snap + share: transmitting photographs from mail art to social networks.”

Kiki was a community-building gallery in San Francisco’s Mission district that opened in June 1993, with an irreverent scatological show, “Caca at Kiki.” It closed less than two years later, due to the failing health of curator Rick Jacobsen, who died of AIDS-related lymphoma in February 1997. The Kikibox, released in an edition of thirty in June 1995, is a collection of unique items made by artists involved with the gallery. My husband, Kevin Killian, wrote out by hand his play Three on a Match, a theater production he put on at Kiki. He included one page from that in each Kikibox. The gallery was so small, there was no room for the actors when they weren’t performing Kevin’s piece. So they had to stand outside on the street with their ears to the door, and when it was time for them to enter, they would open the front door and walk on “stage,” then go back outside when they finished their lines. I’m not in the Kikibox, but I did write a brief catalogue essay for Kiki’s final show in 1995, “PIECE (Nine Artists Consider Yoko Ono).” Printed in an edition of 200 and a mere forty-four pages long, This is Not Her contained responses to Ono’s legend and work by thirty-one writers and artists, including Dennis Cooper, D-L Alvarez, and Ann Magnuson. Ono heard about the show, and she left one of her signature screams on the gallery’s message machine. Sean Ono Lennon also left a message saying, “Thanks for doing this for my mom.”

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“Snap + share,” organized by Clément Chéroux, the museum’s senior photography curator, centers, like the Kikibox, on the distribution of the ephemeral—post cards, snapshots, pinhole cameras, and the deluge of digital images uploaded to the beyond of social media. Included are pieces by established artists such as Moyra Davey, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and Ray Johnson, but many of the works are by amateurs, their rationale for being displayed in an art museum as shaky as my being granted a lifetime artist’s membership.

While much has been written accusing the internet of destroying photography as an art form, “snap + share” embraces recent paradigm shifts. As part of David Horvitz’s ongoing photo performance project, 241543903, 2009–, a refrigerator sits in the middle of an SFMOMA gallery, and any museum visitor is invited to take a selfie with their head in the freezer and post it online, using the hashtag #241543903. Printouts of head-in-the-freezer shots are then hung on a wall in the gallery. The show’s core premise is that no longer is the dissemination of a photograph subordinate to its production, but a defining element in the photographic process. Furthermore, photography has transcended mere image-making to become a language in itself. To illustrate this point, in his introduction to the show’s catalogue, Chéroux quotes Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat: “People wonder why their daughter is taking ten thousand photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.” A pouting selfie is worth a thousand words.

The following night I find myself sleeping in a hospital room in an armchair that folds out into a cot, in front of a window. The condition of the patient I’m visiting is serious; terrifying actually. I’m determined not to take any photos, to not be so tasteless. The memories that are being created here, I want to erase, not freeze. We’ll ultimately spend eleven nights in the hospital, long enough that the experience becomes normalized. Medical types wake up the patient at all hours, poking and performing procedures. Nurses bring us endless pitchers of ice water and, if we ask nicely, little cardboard cups of ice cream, chocolate for the patient, vanilla for me. Curator Liz Thomas visits, and on the flat screen hanging from the wall, the three of us watch Melissa McCarthy in Life of the Party, which I’ve already seen on a plane. Liz and I covertly sip from cans of hard cider, not sure if we are doing something forbidden. After the movie, Liz notices the swirly, highly Photoshopped, abstract flower image hanging on the wall behind the patient. “What’s the point of that?” Liz muses. The patient can’t see it, so why is it there—other than to serve as a background for photos?

Photo: Dodie Bellamy.

Subsequently, as I walk through the hospital corridors I notice similar flower patterns crowning the headboard of every bed, with more elaborate arrangements swooshing vividly across the translucent screen on each floor that separates the bank of elevators from the visitors’ lounge. The designs are seductive, beseeching me to throw myself or someone else in front of them and snap away. But I resist. Then one night at 2:30 AM, I get up to pee, and when I return to my cot, I notice through the window a guy working on a bicycle on the roof of the empty parking garage across the street. The bike has been placed upside down, and in the stark lighting, suspended above near-featureless concrete, its spokey wheels turn carnivalesque. Hunched over in his black hoodie, the guy looks like a troll stepping out of another dimension. Above the bike’s seat a red light flashes incessantly.

Hanging over the back of my fold-out chair-bed, pushing my iPhone 6S’s camera to the limit—low light, zooming on an object in the distance—I snap eighteen photos, hoping one will turn out right. The photo bug has infected me, and after that I cannot stop. I turn around and capture the privacy curtain, which in the darkened room glows with light that seeps in from the hallway. The next day, when the patient leaves for an MRI, I photograph his floral headboard decor. Then the bouquet that sits on a ledge as Wendy Williams emotes on the flat screen. I do not photograph the patient. It is safe to document the staging, but not the play. Later, when curator Anthony Huberman brings us lunch, I position him in front of the privacy curtain, and say, “This is the perfect backdrop, Anthony.” Anthony flashes a smile as if he were posing for a Scene and Herd diary, our hospital room a glamorous hot spot.

If photography has become a language, what are my photos saying? I’m not totally sure, for in all communication there is a surplus beyond one’s intent. Perhaps the images assert that even in the midst of institutionalized crises, there is pleasure and connection, and times when space crystallizes in such a manner that you stop everything—you cannot help yourself—and you stare and snap.

Dodie Bellamy is the subject of the 2018–19 “On Our Mind” Program at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco. Her most recent collection of prose is When the Sick Rule the World (Semiotext[e], 2015). 

Anthony Huberman. Photo: Dodie Bellamy.

Photo: Dodie Bellamy.