Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Public Art as Longitudinal Process: Traces of Potentia Between Intent and Reception

How can we generate a reading of public art objects that accounts for the social life of their production, their expressivity, as well as the public interest or disinterest that they inspire? By reading public art as longitudinal process, that carries the traces of its social imprints, falling somewhere between authorial intent and numerically accountable public reception.

After receiving thoughtful questions, from reviewers and audiences, about two of the dissertation chapters, the first detailing the affective event of a women's art exhibit in Bellas Artes, Mexico city, a center of cultural patrimony, and the second outlining an ethic of corporeal engagement and generosity inculcated into a mural project by virtue of the dance photographs that generated the mural's content and form, I've been pressed in various ways to locate my readings of the art works within audience perception, reception and reaction.

However, although such reception data, culled through interviews, participant observation, and media impact, will tell us an interesting story about what public art does to others, I fear that such a hierarchization of reception above processes of production, investments, and formal engagements with historically charged spaces will relegate such thematics to a conceptual underworld of epistemological and conceptual frailty. As a result, I am inclined to suggest that we also consider public art to be the agglomeration of the social practices, affective investments, and place based engagements that create formal and affective qualities within the piece itself as a kind of potentia. Simply, if we read public art as a rhetorical event, with its own aesthetic qualities, dramatic expressions, and emotional entailments, it becomes clear that although audience impact (or, "success") are important elements of a rhetorical scene, they are not its only determinants. Methodologically, by attending artist aspirations, investments, and processes, we can consider artists as rhetoricians, and understand that their work has a certain agency and realm of potential impact that, even if not fully realized, constitutes part of the rhetorical scene.
"How Philly Moves." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

To flesh out this argument I will be working around one part of in my analysis of the "How Philly Moves" mural at the Philadelphia International Airport where I suggest that the mural production process implicates the mural's aesthetic and rhetorical potential. I claim that the mural cultivates what I describe as "kinesthetic sympathy," a process of bodily attunement that seeks to encounter fellow citizens as dance partners rather than obstacles. I locate the bulk of this reading in the engagement of photographer, JJ Tiziou, with his dance subjects, the product of which are the photographic images that were projected onto parachute cloth, sketched out, painted, and then laminated onto the PIA Parking Garage as the finished mural. For the most part I investigate how photographing dance, and then painting photographs, creates an intermedial conversation between aesthetic idioms that reveal important insights about ethical engagement by  urban bodies located in a milieu of difference.

The airport mural was created by taking photographic images JJ Tiziou had captured of dancers, projecting them on a drop cloth, tracing them, and then painting them onto parachute cloth that was installed on the airport parking garage walls. As a result, the mural is neither simply painterly rendering, nor photographic realism, it is instead a complex conversation between painterly and photographic idioms.
"How Philly Moves" Gallery Display. International Baggage Claim.  Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

The original photoshoots that took place were not necessarily geared towards producing images for a mural. Tiziou had been turned down for a grant to install the images in SEPTA stations, so instead, via crowdfunding, produced the series of images for not-yet-determined ends (Tiziou interview 2010). The second set of photo shoots were geared towards producing more potential images for the murals.

Yet, Tiziou's dance images can, even the ones not taken with the expectation of muralistic alchemy,  be described as painterly. Rather than capturing movement at 1/500th of a second, as Lois Greenfield does, to create a realistic and detailed rendering of dance movement (Reason 45), Tiziou's images are blurry. This way of approaching dance photography is not new. From Arnold Genthe's 1915 photograph of Anna Pavlova as she leaps into the air, one of the earliest images of moving (not staged or still) dance images, "communicates movement beyond the moment it depicts-- beyond, in a sense, what it reveals photographically to what it evokes in the mind of the viewer...the degree of blur in the photograph provides an indistictness that is suggestive of something in motion; oddly, the partial obscurity of the picture prompts viewers to imagine more than they can see...neither documentary nor part of what can be called photographic revelation...instead representation." (Reason 44)
"How Philly Moves." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Matthew Reason's account of dance photography provides a compelling reading of the formal qualities of dance photos that blur the revelatory (verité) with the representational (imagination). Photography, a still medium, accounts for movement by "undermining its own essential characteristics of revelatory authenticity," (Reason 45), or, by becoming more painterly. At the same time, photography has historically impacted painting, making it more revelatory than representational. In the late 19th century, as a result of Muybridge's Locomotion series, painters began to impost photographic frames on their work, cutting off parts of bodies to fit them within a frame, changing representations of motion, perspective, and bodies (Scharf 186-190). Paradoxically, although photography was hoped to expand the scope of the visible, when it comes to representing motion, photography must instead render the "impression of movement" by imposing a blur, using "emblematic signifiers of movement," that refer, spatially and temporally, to spaces and times outside or beyond the image, and beyond the visible. Through the still, dance photography uses artful construction to create movement "experienced in the mind of the viewer." (Reason 63) Thus, dance photography is a realm where fiction and fact, painting and photography, collide in order to generate kinesthetic impressions in the mind and bodies of viewers.
"How Philly Moves." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

In "Post-medium: Richter Painting Photography," Rosemary Hawker explains that in our contemporary moment "a great many art works are made using more than one medium," or, in the case of Gerhard Richter, arriving at a medium "by other means," practicing photography by painting (Hawker 263). The Philadelphia murals combining photography and painting is not a new conjunction, though it makes more explicit a long-standing relationship between photography and live or ephemeral arts as a means of preservation. Krauss explains the photography has been "dispersed...across the arts" since the 1960s (Hawker 267). Citing Krauss, Hawker elaborates:

Krauss recognises the impossibility of referring to questions of medium outside of the Greenbergian conception where ‘a medium is purportedly made specific by being reduced to nothing but its manifest physical properties’.24 Krauss maintains that, despite the prevailing reductivism of this view of medium, which saw painting’s significance as medium reduced to the flatness of its surface, artists such as Marcel Broodthaers continued to work with different media in such a way as to
emphasise and exploit their heterogeneity. Such artists: "understood and articulated the medium as aggregative, as a complex structure of interlocking and interdependent technical supports and layered conventions distinct from physical properties. For them the specificity of a medium lay in its constitutive
heterogeneity—the fact that it always differs from itself."25
In this way, Krauss argues, the specificity of a medium cannot be reduced to the physicality of its support or the unity of its means. She describes Broodthaers as layering media supports and conventions in order to produce a ‘network’ or ‘complex’ of media.” (269)

"How Philly Moves." International Baggage Claim Gallery. 
In this account, a medium's specificity does not rest in its primary materials. Rather, mediums exist through relationships with other mediums, and how "it always differs from itself." This Derridean reading of medium as differance suggests that medium is constructed and based on its relationship with others, a dialogue between mediums (Hawker 270). Drawing on Foucault's reading of Fromanger's photo-paintings, Hawker further explains that there has existed, particularly between 1860 and 1900, a "'shared practice of the image, accessible to all, on the borders of photography and painting, which was to be rejected by the puritan codes of art in the twentieth century.'...A time of liberated image making when artists, photographers, and amateurs alike made us e of all means at their disposal...'[These] years...witnessed a new frenzy of images, which circulated rapidly between camera and easel...with all the new powers acquired there came a new freedom of transposition, displacement and transformation, of resemblance and dissimulation, of reproduction, duplication and trickery of effect...there emerged a vast field of play where technicians and amateurs, artists and illusionists, unworried by identity, took pleasure in distorting themselves. Perhaps they were less in love with paintings and photographic plates than with the images themselves, with their migration and perversion, their transvestism, their disguised difference...." (Hawker, quoting Foucault, 270).
"How Philly Moves." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Foucault describes the mid 19th century play between photography and painting not as medium pollution or contamination, but rather as a field of experimentation, blurring, and exciting circulation. It also presciently describes our contemporary moment, where images of still images, and stills of moving images, have increasing capacity to circulate virtually. Using the term "image" rather than photograph or painting, or combination thereof, Foucault suggests that "the image lies at the intersection of the rhetorical trajectories of each medium. Photography and painting are apprehended at once and in the same place, that is, in the image." (Hawker 272-273)

Thus, the "How Philly Moves" mural is an image that emerges at the intersection of dance, photography, and painterly practice, an image that contains within it the complex trajectories of multiple mediums. Yet, the collision of mediums does not result in a completely legible image. Instead, they are what Hawker designates as "idioms...the element of language that is untranslatable yet, paradoxically, known only through its translation and its failure." The failure of fully translating movement, stillness, and painterly expression reveals something about each mediums, only "graspable in another medium" (Hawker 274). By replicating photographs on the walls of the Philadelphia International Airport, the mural reproduces the failure of the photographic medium to fully reveal movement but only to gesture towards it. Moreover, the mural bears the trace of the photographic encounter between photographer and subject, blown up to hundreds of feet, to create a space for encounter between viewer and airport, a space of engagement, and a space of inscrutability.
Big Picture Alliance's Documentary. On display at Philadelphia International Airport International Baggage Claim. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

By being reproduced through painting, a medium of the representational not the revelatory, the mural further points to the multiple spaces of invisibility and outsideness even in a seemingly realist application of medium. The blurred images call on the faculty of imagination to make sense of an apprehensible but not fully visible scene. 

Were we to only consider the mural as a painting, a distinct and separate phase of mural's process of production that holds no relation to its antecedent moments of dance, photography, and the affective engagements included therein, we would lose perspective about the critical  intermedial conversation taking place between dance, photography, and painting across the longitudinal process of production which also holds its traces within the mural itself.

Thus, although surveys about viewer reception or impact can thicken our readings of the mural's effectivity, affectivity, and afterlife, the mural itself as a dynamic rhetorical object contains the potential for engaging the imagination and the body.
"How Philly Moves." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Works Cited:
Rosemary Hawker, “Post-medium: Richter Painting Photography” Oxford Art Journal 2009 32.2 263-280. 

Matthew Reason, "Still Moving: The Revelation or Representation of Dance in Still Photography," Dance Research Journal, Vol. 35/36, Vol. 35, no. 2 - Vol. 36, no. 1 (Winter, 2003 -Summer, 2004), pp. 43-67.

Aaron Scharf, "Painting, Photography, and the Image of Movement."  The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 710 (May, 1962), pp. 186+188-195.


ArtnMusic said...

Hi Caitlin, I wasn't sure where would be the best place to contact you, but I have some questions about an article you wrote called 'Public Surfaces Beyond the Great Wall' - is there an email I can write to?

Caitlin's Blog said...

Hi ArtnMusic,

I'd be happy to talk with you. Email at bruce.caitlin@gmail.com, please. all the best,