the lure of the ordinary II

Walter Benjamin writes the force exerted by the country lane varies according to whether one walks along it or flies over it in an aeroplane. Similarly, the force exerted by a text varies according to whether one is reading or copying it out[1].
De Certeau might add that writing the text oneself is more direct still, and similar to operating from ground level. Benjamin suggests elevation decreases directness, and de Certeau says it is a means of imposing strategies and structures. Both connote the position of ‘outsider’ with negativity, homogenisation and a lack of feeling. 

However, in many cases, slight removal offers emancipation from a sense of responsibility and forced authenticity towards a subject. It can say 'this is just what I witnessed, I am neither criticising nor condoning', and thus be a method of avoiding didacticism. De Certeau offers a contradiction, however, reminding us that outsiders are sometimes the ones accountable for didacticism. He is thinking of outsiders who have vested interests in controlling urban development or pedestrian movement, therefore it could be argued that these figures are not outsiders after all, if to be truly outside is to be impartial. 

This impartiality can be questioned, however, because no one is ever truly outside if they are present and operating in society. Conversely, while intimacy implies authenticity, it begs the question of how truly integrated any ‘look’ and documentation can be. Even a self-portrait positions itself in some way outside of the subject in order to look at it. It is perhaps more accurate to talk of the insider/ outsider dichotomy as a spectrum on which artists are positioned.

The spectrum is explored in Andrea Büttner’s film Little Works, in which a Carmelite order of nuns is given a camera to document the making of petits travaux, or ‘little works’ such as lace doilies, samplers and candles. Because the sisters film themselves, the film’s position is in one sense inside, however, to our eyes, accustomed as we are to the bold consumerist world of contemporary art and advertising, the nuns’ work looks pathetic. We struggle to suppress laughter or belittlement, yet feel guilty because the nuns are entirely benign. We certainly watch as outsiders. Büttner’s position is unclear, this fact significantly complicating and adding interest to the work.

An artist who veers towards the insider end of the spectrum is Nan Goldin, whose photographs depict her transvestite and bohemian friends in 1980s New York. Scenes of crumpled beds appear like islands with marooned bodies and cigarette butts washed-up upon them.
They feel abject and thus threaten to alienate us, yet the proximity Goldin achieves collapses any voyeurism back into intimacy. In interviews she says her camera is inseparable from herself. She does not exploit her subjects because they are natural extroverts and performers, and photographs are their social currency (a similar situation to facebook, where nights out appear through photographic evidence).

Yet an element of freak-spotting still pervades the viewing of Goldin’s work. This is made more poignant by the post-script of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (a slide-show of Goldin’s photographs, accompanied by music), which is a memorial for the numerous subjects who died of AIDS since the gilded years in which the photographs were taken. Along with the Velvet Underground and Frank Sinatra soundtrack, the effect is one bordering on melodramatic. A little further fetched and Goldin would pull us so far inside that we would arrive outside again (in this case, the spectrum is circular, not linear) feeling alienated by being too close to something of which we are not part. Thus the oscillation between inside and out continues.
Her role is also questionable, returning us to the discussion of whether observation and documentation inevitably distance the artist from subject. Finally, the Ballad’s title hints at the problem of position, coming as it does from Brecht, master of alienation devices.

In one image, a network of gazes is composed as it might be in an 18th century painting. Transvestites prepare for a night out. On the left and the right, two look into a mirror, ‘off-stage’. Between them, a third man sits, slicing across their line of gaze, and looking piercingly into the camera. Behind him, a poster shows a head that also faces the mirror. Beside the poster are framed specimen butterflies. It is as if Goldin has captured her subjects and organised them in a display of the ‘exotic’. This, of course, contradicts our expectation of her as part of the group that she casually photographs.

Another example is Nan and Brian in Bed, NYC (above), part of her series of self-portraits with her partner in the moments succeeding an argument. Golden light graces their bodies as in a fashion photograph. At what point did the argument calm enough for Goldin to position her tripod and shutter-release? Is her expression a performance? Surely to label her an insider is inappropriate. Perhaps she is the mole in her group of friends, manipulating them into poses, and us into empathy.
Yet all this is evidence of our residual belief in the authenticity of photographs, especially those taken by an insider. We say staged photographs suggest superficiality, yet editing is a form of staging itself, and it could be argued that the desire to take photographs germinates from a feeling of exteriority. Nicky S Lee and Cindy Sherman’s practices of dressing-up, imitating their subjects and using photography to document are also evidence to this. While they are tourists in others’ lives, Goldin is a tourist in her own.
Diane Arbus is the oft-cited occupier of the other end of the spectrum, her photographs hiding none of her alienated and voyeuristic attitude. Her work is cold in approach, like the genre of banal, vernacular and repetitive photography (Ed Ruscha’s Every Building On The Sunset Strip and Dan Graham’s Homes for America) that confirms our definition of objectivity as exterior and non-implicatory (implication deriving from the Latin, implicare – to be folded within[2]).

Yet Arbus’ photographs are more than objective; they are cruel. Like Goldin, she captures butterflies, but her method involves pinning them down and flash-photographing them in broad daylight. Sontag’s aggressive verbs that liken photography to ambush (aiming, capturing and shooting) are put to practice.

While Arbus feels journalistic and cold-hearted, Martha Rosler brings activism to her position as outsider. In The Bowery in two inadequate descriptions she documents New York’s alcoholic homeless through negation, replacing them with two inventories that describe their location (images of store fronts and doorways) and colloquial terms for their condition (pissed, boozy, full). While the piece succeeds in encouraging our guilt that we stereotype this sector of society, it suffers from being overly didactic. In Rosler’s collages of war photographs with domestic interiors, we find a similarly Marxist activism at play.

The technique of distanciation – making the world strange, distancing the audience and producing ‘shock’ by juxtaposition – is a little over-apparent in Rosler, but achieved far more effectively by Arbus. She photographs freaks, and turns those who are not so already, into freaks.  Triplets in their bedroom (above), for instance, pushes its subjects up against a bedstead into an un-canny motif, a Matisse gone wrong.

Arbus’ approach could be likened to a more cruel form of anthropological investigation from the mid-twentieth century, such as The Mass Observation Archive. Like Arbus, the anthropologist occupies a position far removed from, and often ‘higher’ than, the subject.

Humphrey Jennings’s 1939 documentary Spare Time investigates the recreational activities of a conglomerate mass of northerners. Bolton, Sheffield, Manchester and Pontypridd are homogenised into a Worktown that is viewed through an upper-middle-class-London-centric lens. However, Jennings does not worry about showing us the unexpected – the boy does not read a textbook, but instead, a Western magazine; the men bet on football matches.
Something else is also apparent: the montage of images is surreal. We cut from a jazz-band’s procession in silky costumes on a muddy field, to a zoo in Manchester, and then to an amateur dramatic society, followed by a shot of couples waltzing. The pace and sequential flow feel at once ludicrous and poetic; we are in the realm of surrealism and free-association. This is Jennings’ redemption, whereby he can escape criticism for his upper-class bias by being subjective and artistic. The Mass Observation project had similar affiliations, its ethnographic directives forming collages of the marginal, political and bathetic. One list of investigation topics reads:

Behaviour at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Bathroom behaviour.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.
Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.

Of course, the collage effect is not only aesthetic, but served the purpose of shocking contributors out of their recumbent ease in the hope of revealing something deeper.
Jeremy Deller and Allan Kane’s Folk Archive is a contemporary example of artistic-anthropological investigation, and one consciously labelled ‘touristic’. It is a mass of diverse festivals and rituals that range from Brass Band parades to Flower Shows, curated for exhibition around the country. Labelling the archive Folk might signal outsider condescension on the part of Deller and Kane (particularly as the work is catalogued under their name), yet on the other hand, the subjects were active participants in the exhibition’s various public events. In this sense, Folk Archive is similar to Little Works, the its artists’ position forming a complicated triangle with the subject and the audience.
Sontag says all photographers are, to a greater or lesser extent, like Arbus, outsiders looking in and appropriating the subject[3]. The same might be said for projects such as Mass Observation and Folk Archive. While it might help to view the inside/ outside dichotomy as a spectrum, most positions actually occupy its middle ground. This position is often a murky negotiation or contradiction between artist, subject and audience. In its opacity, it is certainly the most interesting.

thanks to Stephen Johnstone

[1] Benjamin, W (1928) One Way Street
[2] Solomon-Godeau, A (1994) Inside/Out
[3] Sontag, S (1977) On Photography