Friday, March 25, 2005

Reconstruction and Redeveloment

Reconstruction and Redeveloment: Photography in the 21st

In 1875 my great-great grandfather burned down his house. This act was ignited by hope and economics (if there is space between the two ideas). You see, he had taken on a huge amount of debt to finance an expedition across the United States and he needed one last crucial element in order to resettle in California. He needed the iron nails from his old structure to build the new structure that only existed in his dreams. Like a ghost from the future haunting his present, my great-great grandfather's dream house called to him and it required a sacrifice. Sifting through the ash of his old home, he found the tools he needed for the future.

As it turns out, he did not make it to California. He settled in Oklahoma near the geographical center of the US. It was in the Mid-west where his descendants lived and died as he did, until I came along. The term the "Mid-West" never seemed fitting, perhaps the "not-quite West, not-quite East" is a better term because it is a state of in-between where his descendants have really existed. He erected his house with the deconstructed pieces of his old house in a space that was not quite where dreams placed it, but definitely not where he once was.

His specter is still with me, as is the specter of the house he never built. I have a tintype of his image that was developed over 100 years ago. Strangely, his tintype image will probably out live the thousands of family snaps I have on color photo paper and they will certainly outlive my digital images that get deleted on a regular basis because history has not had time to make them important yet.

I have learned from those who came before me and during graduate school, I burned my house down. I sifted through the ashes and now I have a pocket full of nails; the same nails that were handed down to me. It's time for me to reconstruct my house and for me to learn how to redevelop photographs that will last longer than a few years before they too fall prey to my deconstructive tendencies.

Deconstruction is as dead as any other theory. It is everywhere and it is one of my favorite tools. But I don't use the same tools everyday or in every situation. Sometimes I deconstruct and sometimes I reconstruct. Sometimes I burn and sometimes I build, but always with the same nails that I inherited and with any luck, they will be my legacy.

It seems right now that all of my friends are in a state of reconstruction as well. I don't know if it is just the timing or not, but I want to help them build their houses, and they want to help build mine. We are all tired of deconstructing our own images, but we are energized to start building a new structure together. This new structure is the stuff of dreams that exists in new in-between space. It's not Modern and it's not Post-Modern; it is a new structure built on a new hope and a new economics. The new economy acknowledges and builds on our past, while also acknowledging and building on the ghosts of the future. It is an economy that is defined by the exchange of individuals and not the binary opposition of the individuals themselves. It is an integrative economy that will finally allow everyone to participate without a margin and without a power division. I watch as my friends and I struggle because there is no language that will allow us to build this structure because we all speak the language of deconstruction. So, with great frustration, we build and destroy in the same sentence, inevitably feeling like we never have a home to situate ourselves in.

It is time for us to focus on reconstructing with the tools that have been passed down to us, knowing full well that what we build will never quite be where we want it to be. And also knowing full well that in a few years, we will burn it all down again. But if we learn to redevelop our images like tintypes, maybe they will survive our own pyromania as my great-great grandfather's image has.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Matthew Gamber

An open letter to the editors of Big Red and Shiny,

In order to avoid any conflict of interest, Big Red editor Matthew Gamber has asked all of his regular review staff not to review his show “Last Radio On” which was on display last month at Gallery Kayafas. While a review of “Last Radio On” on Big Red and Shiny would be inappropriate, I decided that an open letter to provoke a discussion of Gamber's work was certainly warranted, so here I go:

I once met a man who collected Beanie Babies. He had thousands of them; ranging from inexpensive “Scorch” to ultra-collectable “Peanut”. Like any good collector, he insisted on showing virtually every one of them to me and attempted to convince me of their value. I, similarly, could not explain to him that I simply did not care. Usually, I'm on the other side of conversations like the ones I've had with the Beanie Man. Usually I'm desperately trying to convince someone that a piece of art work has far more value than is readily apparent and usually my listener simply does not care. What I've come to realize is that Beanie Man and I have the same core set of values, he just has an extra set of values that I can't relate to. His “beanie” values. Similarly, most of my artist friends and I have the same values as other people, we just also have an additional set of values that they don't relate to. I still hang out with Beanie Man because I would much rather be around someone who really loves and values something, anything in their life, than someone who does not know what they value or even worse, values nothing.

Gamber's show “Last Radio On” spoke directly to me about sets of values, specifically the values of art, science and technology. The parallels between art and science have always been clear as both can find roots in the desire to observe and interpret the world we live in. The differences between art and science are essentially differences of the vocabulary of the description. Physics, for example, uses mathematics to describe a phenomenon while painting uses, well, paint. However, science has gained an added vocabulary over the past few centuries: technology. Technology is science in service of capitalism. Art really does not have an equivalent vocabulary. The closest phrase is probably “graphic design”, which can be defined as “the practice or profession of designing print or electronic forms of visual information”.

“Last Radio On” asks fundamental questions about the relationship between art and technology by simply asking, “What is the last radio on?” For me, it's easier to ask a corollary question, “What was the first fax machine turned on?” The very first fax machine turned on was a device that was about to become technology, however without another fax machine to either send or receive a fax, what was it? Was it merely a scientific marvel? It certainly was not technology because it had no use, yet. The first fax machine turned on was nothing. It was simply on. It was art, to me. And I bet it would have been wonderful to see. Similarly, there will come a time when people don't listen to the radio. The Internet and other more efficient technologies will over take radio broadcasts. So what will the last radio still turned on be when there is nothing broadcasting to it? It will no longer be technology; it will be art, but only to those who have an extra value system. To anyone else who values technology for its usefulness, the last radio on will be nothing.

So to me, Gamber's work is about a change in a value system where something that was once so highly valued for its technological prowess is no longer technology, but has entered the realm of art. Hence, Gamber's beautiful black and white contact prints made from an 8x10 camera. Once the technological marvel of the world, the 8x10 camera is now technology that does not know that it is dead and that the world has passed it by, like a deer hit by a train. Gamber photographed the gymnasium where he and his father played, now with the floorboards torn up. Without any floor, is it still a gymnasium? Gamber shoots the space like a cathedral.

All of this makes sense to me. All of Gamber's photographs make sense to me, but I feel like Beanie Man desperately trying to explain their value to others who simply don't care.

I have purposely oversimplified Gamber's work as a transition of the value of technology, but to me it is really about the desire to hold on to and express an additional value system. Any value system. Gamber's work is also inherently about the mid-west and its values. About the middle class and its values. And many, many more values that seem to exist on the margin.

So I ask, can you relate to any of this? Can you relate to having an additional value system that others around you simply don't seem to care about? And do you feel this desperate need to share your values with others?

Gamber's work strikes right at the heart of what it means to be an artist to me and forces me to ask myself what I value and how I feel about others who have a different value system. Gamber's work shows me his view of the last radio on. In the end, I realize that I really want to see the last radio on and I really want others to see it with me, just like how Beanie Man really wanted to show me “Peanut”.

How about you?

-Steve Aishman