14 Feb 2006

drifting observatories

Margot Didsbury and Fiona Connor's mobile vernacular photographic project Drifting Observatories included a catalogue essay by me, reprinted below.

there's an online record of the catalogue here

"The Drifting observatories project, is an investigation on a global scale at an individual level. 15 disposable cameras were sent to a mix of people in America, Antarctica, Australia, Brazil, China, England, Finland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Poland, Russia, Tanzania and Thailand. Each participant was given complete creative control over the 27 exposures, with the only confines being to use them over the same designated week of November 7-14, 2005. On return, every frame has been printed in a large format to be exhibited on a national tour"


Seven days of seeing: the archive and the instant in Drifting Observatories


Looking to the walls, you find a loose narrative scudding itself along a series of images like stones thrown over the surface of a lake:

a) a tree trunk, over exposed and seemingly phosphorescent with miniscule forest organisms, looming out of a dusk leaf-littered forest, its pale and ghostly quality offset by a moonlike light stipple, flawing the image, just to its right.

b) a blinding light at the end of a passageway seemingly radiating a mirrored infinitude of architectural partitions towards you, all substance seemingly becoming an effect of this reverberence.

c) a disco ball throwing out a shatter of illuminated shards onto a wall, next to a red velvet curtain in a domestic environment, its glamour decidedly homely, connoting parties in which a late night suspension of disbelief wedded to low-lit theatricality is all that is needed to transform an ordinary living room.

Sometime before the arbitrariness of these hints at meaning can really solidify into a line, a branching into a further layer of images occurs. They crowd into the tenuous thread of your narrative with a noise of alternate start-points and trajectories: animals, people, beer bottles, blurred shapes moving through space, tattered billboards, public squares, cheap wooden chairs: the great raucous clamour of the visual world.


With the stringency of its parameters in continual exchange with the informality of its results, Margot Didsbury and Fiona Connor’s collaborative photographic project Drifting Observatories suggests, at least initially, a discord of method: the sensibility dormant in the first part of the equation seemingly in direct conflict with the implied science of the second – how, exactly, does an observatory drift?

An experimental documentary of sorts, in its ongoing negotiation between the factual and the gestural, Drifting Observatories suggests both as alternate strategies brought to the everyday usage of photography. Its two artists, in the role of curator-catalysts, as instigators and careful mediators of its stock of images, give over wholly the creation of its content to 15 photographer-participants, each instructed to use up the 27 frames of a disposable film camera within the strict parameters of a one-week durational framework. This lets the work both ‘create itself’ and allows a variety of unknown gestures fall inside certain delineated (‘documentary’) parameters – while still remaining heavily indebted to ideas around the idiosyncrasies, the ‘sketchiness’ of human inscription. There are, deliberately, no recognisable names on Connor and Didsbury’s list of photographers – the participants are sourced from the artists’ own extended global social networks, in deference to New Zealand’s social nomadism and small-population interconnectedness: our ‘one to two degrees of separation’. Within its formal, chronological groupings Drifting Observatories preserves a sense of flow in its images, which in their intimate, snapshot informality often look like working sketches for other moments, unfinished, tenuously pressed within their chemicals.

The balance between the boundedness of a closed system of possibilities and the unbounded openness of the real is further suggested by the strategic use of disposable film cameras to capture the images. Unlike the non-linearity of digital imaging, each click of the filmic shutter is as much a passage away from a possibility as it is a drawing towards others, a choice made which cannot then be unmade. Still, these are anti-iconic images, largely evacuated of the trace, long retained in the Western pictorial tradition, of the religious iconographic, in which a picture is a conduit to transcendence, a portal to the divine, an object pregnant with presence. Their drive, instead, is not toward verticality but horizontality. Grouped into blocks, they are situated, not as solitary visual incidences, but inside their connectivity as a visual system, or series of systems. Within the exhibition space, they radiate lines outward toward each other across continents and personal styles, forming echoes, tracing patterns and morphological similarities. The viewing eye is in drift across this process, begun in the formative and continued in receptive stages of the work, embedded in the way that the images are conceived and the way in which they are received as meaning, their existence as working documents traced and retraced within dense webs of visual and social signification.


While spanning the global, Drifting Observatories’ methodology, clearly, is not about an overview, the kinds of totalising image-gathering strategies which inform mass-mediated spectacle, the visual hegemonies of Globalisation, or the traditional conception of observation that grounds it as point of fixity, staking the eye’s centre point into territory, a spike around which the mind can wind a glossy, victorious flag of generalised meaning. It is instead about the acceptance – embracing – of the partial and distinctly homely view, finding as much difference as can be found in a series of parallel experiences in 15 places, framing, within different kinds of visual languages, the sights out one’s own window, wherever that window may be situated.

Communication via instantaneous images is, increasingly, the currency of contemporary life, rendering the gallery space an ambiguous refuge from a visual polyphony which outshouts any notion of contemplative silence. As a non-linear, non-hierarchical view into image production in the early 21st century, Drifting Observatories links the proliferation of images in everyday life to the immateriality of current cultural production. It’s focus is not on the art object as static entity with cultural and economic weight as much as it is the process whereby these images are produced, charting the drift of the visual, inside the global roaming of community, envisaging the informational webs that connect person to person as we traverse the globe, and the ways in which, via our technologies, communication becomes less inhibited by geographical distance, less about literal objects of exchange.

The project can be said to be less about picturing place as definitive and bounded zone than about apprehending its mobility in an ongoing series of gestures, with the walking while framing these photos conceived as part of the image making process itself – there are as many photographs of passageways here as there are of rooms. This methodology extends to exhibition strategy also, with the travelling of the exhibition nationwide, from city to city, to a variety of different public and private spaces, each re-siting shifting a patchwork of significances within the images themselves.

In this, the exhibition’s realisation is a reiteration of the social realities of its inception. Not simply a record of the ways in which people interact with the visual material of their lives, or an exercise in foregrounding photography as social technology or communicative media, Drifting Observatories is in effect a visual graph of community, a curatorial strategy that works to expose the existence of informal, largely uncodifiable networks – the intuitive, ever-shifting fluency and vitality of our social worlds. If process-based art ideally requires an extended, ongoing, developmental relationship with its subject, then social relationship provides the ideal model. Here the two are literally intertwined.


The patina of distance that time lends vernacular photographs inevitably makes their object-status all the more solid. But what of the informality and transparency of contemporary family photographs, unable to be codified via the stiff tableaux of Victorian times, or the more recent quirkiness of that 70s hairstyle or 80s t-shirt, these sketches of the here, the now, whose ordinariness and contemporaniety renders them, outside personalised context, near-worthless, near-invisible? It is important to note that the photographs that comprise the content of Drifting Observatories are not ‘found’ - this is no exercise in nostalgia, nor does it posit the curatorial or collection exercise as thrift-store rescue mission – a process that filmmaker Agnes Varda has termed ‘gleaning’. If Drifting Observatories is a form of visual ecology, its methods are subtler ones than these. There is, accordingly, no weight of melancholy – the subjects have not yet grown out of and away from their representations, they are still analogue to their images, lending these images intimacy, casualness, lightness, life. If its formal processes annex it to photographic technologies rapidly becoming superseded, it is also clearly about the ways in which the internet and mobile phones have reconfigured what place photography – and the shifting glitter of our visual landscape – can hold inside our experience.

If Drifting Observatories is an image bank of visual scraps that strategically preserves specificity as positive value, it is also a model for a way of organising information, placing the power to organise imagery into the hands of those who wield its most humble, throwaway technologies. If its images resist the drive toward the representative and general, and instead preserve the idiosyncrasy of cultural specificity and the local knowledge of friendship, familiarity and family, they suggest further gaps which can be filled by other, future linkages, and in this, an opening out toward further, active participation by the viewer in the life of his/her own images. Drifting Observatories has no specific agenda, it simply shows, as if through a series of shifting windows, certain decisions made about the visible aspects of the contemporary world, as it was apprehended in the space of one week, through a series of eyes that are particular, named, known. What happens in these images may still shift depending on context: a house, a gallery, a café. The project is itself in drift, and these thin passageways between identities, these unknowns and in-betweens, connote the possibility of a world in which communication is possible, in which multiple ways of seeing can exist in dialogue, in which views do not replace each other but know the value of existing simultaneously.

Sally Ann McIntyre, February 2006

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