A Case Study: “Wreck-Ages

Edward Ruscha, Lewis Koch

James R. Hugunin

wreck·age [rékij] noun

    remains after destruction: the broken pieces left after something has been extremely badly damaged or destroyed

2. process of wrecking: the ruin or destruction of something (formal)

Sitting before me on my desk are two artist books, each filled with machine wreckage from two ages: proto-postmodernism (Ruscha, analogue) and the post-conceptual years of a waning post-modernism (Koch, digital). What might be gleaned from a comparison of these “bookends” to post-modernity? In what way are they similar? In what way are they different? What are their respective relationships to technology: the recording camera, the object recorded? What are their relationships to a key concept in postmodernism, “the fragment?” In what manner do they construct a form of knowledge?

Ed Ruscha’s book exemplifies the second definition given above, “a process of wrecking: the ruin or destruction of something.” In Royal Road Test, Mason Williams tosses an old Royal Model-X (circa mid-1920s) typewriter out the window of a Buick Le Sabre speeding along at 90 m.p.h. on August 21, 1966. Like an accident report, the wreckage is assessed photo-by-photo along its 189-foot crash- path on U.S. Highway 91. The weather (“Perfect”) is recorded, other parameters of the event are, with tongue-in-cheek meticulousness, listed and diagramed. The straight-forward black-and-white photographs (most not shot by Ruscha) are captioned snapshots pointing to the shards of the machine, visual data which, in a few shots, is a pointing that is humorously doubled in-frame by a conspicuously pointing index finger.1 The deadpan, monochromatic photos are bled off the pages in this offset, small edition book. Text is descriptive, yet can become playfully interactive with the photograph (see above image). The photographs depict a machine reduced to smashed parts, exemplifying an increasing interest in wrecks from Wynn Bullock’s Typewriter (1951), to Jean Tinguely’s self-destroying machines, some of Robert Smithson’s works and writings that parallel J. G. Ballard’s literary exploration of dystopian landscapes, to overtly staged wrecks like Rodney Graham’s set-up of faked “film-snow” dusting an old typewriter and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s dropped Han Dynasty urn. This book is one of several witty photobooks Ruscha produced during the 1960s: Various Small Fires and Milk, Every Building on Sunset Strip and Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, Real Estate Opportunities, Thirty-Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles, and so forth. Margaret Iversen discusses these little books as “cool in conception and as hotly subversive as Duchamp’s Readymades.”2

Ruscha’s Royal Road Test (Stewart S. MacDermott Fund, 1970)

The implications? Art can be fun and sell for $3.00 per copy. This deadpan mockumentary at the behest of the seemingly trivial (Rube Goldberg devices and Jean Tinguely’s crazed machines mine such humor) is funny and yet profound. The trivial can be fascinating as curators John Szarkowski and Peter Galassi assert when they state that banal photographic subjects can be raised to new heights of formal coherence by “the intelligent eye of the photographer.” But Ruscha and his photographer, Patrick Blackwell, compose so as to foil such optical haut cuisine. In Ruscha’s world, art can be anything. And photography? What do you know! It need not exhibit an Ansel Adams print fetishism, nor Szarkowskian formal astuteness, nor a romantic air as in Bullock. Traditional photo-connoisseurs reacted defensively: “It’s art (maybe), but is it photography?” Ruscha’s scripto-visual text counters traditional pictorial aesthetics with the “auto-maticity” (car, road, typewriter, toss, camera) of a controlled experiment, a crime-scene investigation.

Ruscha’s Royal Road Test (Stewart S. MacDermott Fund, 1970)

In Photography After Conceptual Art (2010), Margaret Iversen and Aron Vinegar reassess Ruscha’s bookworks. Iversen sees Royal Road Test “most obviously as an instance of instructional performative photography,” but where “the photographs are a trace of the act and do not necessarily document a performance,”3 what Aron Vinegar understands as evoking a “pre-symbolic state.”4 Iversen reads Ruscha’s book as putting into practice instances of what will later be denominated as “systemic art,” carrying out a predetermined set of instructions, a counter-expressionistic mode of working akin to the computational methods of punch-cards and computer programing.

Much has been made of Ruscha’s “deadpan candor” in these photobooks, a nonjudgmental approach to their subject matter.5Seemingly banal objects have been touted by André Breton and other Surrealists, and Iversen notes a surreal flavor to Ruscha’s books. But she misses an opportunity to re-enforce that point when she overlooks the book’s title, “Royal Road Test,” as a play on Freud’s famous dictum that the dream is the “royal road to the unconscious,” probably because Ruscha’s objects are most often the quotidian of our car culture (gasoline stations, pools, parking lots, cheap apartments, etc) and not the “old-fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensive, even perverse,” uncanny objects Breton found in the Saint-Ouen flea market.6 But Ruscha may have put forward his “road test,” where an old-fashioned machine is smashed as obsolete, to introduce its old-fashioned remains as a pop-oriented, neutrally depicted object. Royal Road Test thus transforms a nostalgic, surreal, uncanny object into a pop/conceptual wrecked object via “indifference” and a nod to entropy, employing a neutrality of observation akin to Edmund Husserl’s sober phenomenological reduction, bracketing the natural world and imposing an eidetic reduction so as to reveal essences underlying variants. Speaking of sobriety, Vinegar reproduces a publicity still of Keaton, a collapsed machine (a camera no less) flattening him to the ground. The photo records the scene in deadpan, mimicking Keaton’s expression and revealing his equanimity under stress, what Heidegger in Being and Time terms “a disclosive submission to [the] world out of which things that matter to us can be encountered.”

Buster Keaton, publicity still from The Cameraman (1928)

Like that philosopher’s attending to a mode of deep receptiveness toward the facticity of the world (an approach consciously expressed as an aesthetic in photographer Edward Weston’s essays and in his famous Daybooks),7 Ruscha also goes “to the things themselves,” but he does so tongue-in-cheek, putting to the “road-test” Husserlian seriousness and Weston’s modernist exemplification of Husserlian essences. (Having the same forename, did Ruscha see the wordplay potential in having the two “Eds” butt heads on the field of photographic contest?) While Weston took great care in selecting his subject matter and arranging it on his ground-glass (becoming the “ground” of the situation), Ruscha plays the role of the naive snapshooter (Jeff Wall affirms this in Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art, 1995) where one is thrown into a situation that is already there; in this case, the situation becomes “ground” upon which the photographer finds him/ herself. This ground, this situation, will become important in Aron Vinegar’s take on this “dumb snap-shot” aspect (evoking “happy accidents” or “fortuitous wrecks”) as used in Ruscha’s photobooks.

Calling attention to issues of random sampling and aleatory choice in Ruscha’s work (the naive and quotidian), Benjamin Buchloh offers its source in Duchamp and Cage’s legacy of an “aesthetic of indifference.”8 But Vinegar critiques Buchloh’s Adorno-inflected socially-oriented critique wherein Ruscha’s work is viewed as in conformity with the dominant  of our “administered” society, a stance that meshes well with Stanley Cavell’s analysis of film actor Buster Keaton’s poker face where, in ‘What Becomes of Things on Film’ (1978), he reads it as “acceptance of the external world and the things in it.” Vinegar counters this by citing Jaleh Mansoor’s article in October, “Ed Ruscha’s One-way Street” (Winter, 2005) that reads Ruscha’s practice as much more critical of mass culture than Buchloh and Cavell’s positions offer. But Vinegar, attuned to the anti-Marxist trends these days, moves his discussion away from societal issues toward an understanding of Ruscha’s existential being-in-the-world as exemplified in his photobooks.

Vinegar proceeds to take the Keaton-like rhetorical delivery of “deadpanness,” the comic acknowledgment of the world remarked upon by so many about Ruscha’s work, and rethink it not as a ironic distancing, but as a mode of being-with-the-world. He uses Martin Heidegger’s existential spin on Husserlian Phenomenology to focus on the sense of our “attunement” to things that constitute our Life-World, our moods. According to Heidegger, our Being-in-the-World entails no “objective” that is not also accompanied by an interpretation; hence, no mood ever comes from merely “without” nor from just “within,” but arises from our whole situation that discloses our mode of existence (note some similarities here to Systems Theory’s emphasis on relation and reflexivity).9 For Heidegger, “indifference” is not merely negative, but opens out into “equanimity,” a calm and even vision of the possible situations of the potentiality-of-being-as-a-whole. Douglas Davis lauds this “indifferent” use of photography in a December 1976 Artforum essay, “The Size of Non-size:”

“Cheap, flat, and accessible,
the photograph is the signifier of recent art, as canvas-stretcher and steel frame served its predecessors.
The photograph furthermore calls no attention to itself (as medium).”

Unlike “museum photography” now.10

Lewis Koch, from Bomber, a chance unwinding (Madison, WI: Areness Press/Blurb. com, 2011)

In a 1976 lecture, Davis offers a way to understand “dumb snapshots” within a Pop sensibility:

“Among other qualities, the Pop sensibility is markedly indifferent to content and to personality.
It accepts what it finds in the world [like typewriters],
prefers that to the subjective regurgitation of the psyche [as seen in Bullock’s typewriter],
and uses it quite often directly [in what looks like deadpan] . . .”

Vinegar expands on the attitude of Pop and “deadpan” in an argument that rests upon Heidegger’s description of deadpan expression as “resolute rapt- ness,” the ability to remain open to the ordinary in the pursuit of some distanced and more “knowing” con- dition which, he says, explains why Los Angeles’s “superficiality” (Ruscha’s description) can be profound and funny and worth living for, as it makes one awarethateverythingisephemeralwhenyoulookatitfromtherightangle.12 Ruscha’s photobooks are read as an expression of wonder (rather than critique) of our era, specifically, wonder evoked by Los Angeles’s very mundaneness and captured in his books. Object (L. A.) and subject (Ruscha) seem fated to a perfect phenomenological pairing of world and self.

Lewis Koch’s book, Bomber, a chance unwinding (Madison, WI: Areness Press/Blurb. com, 2011) exemplifies the first definition of wreckage sketched above: the “remains after destruction: the broken pieces left after something has been extremely badly damaged or destroyed.” Like Ruscha’s book, the event recorded is tied to a specific date: June 28, 1943, when a B- 17 Flying Fortress bomber on its way to join the air war over Germany, crashed in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains, killing all the crew, scattering shards of the plane across what became known as “Bomber Mountain” (elevation 12,840 feet).13 Koch reverses the entropic direction of Ruscha’s project, constructing a new meaning from the imaged debris (non-rusting aluminum, so the debris looks “new”), and sets up a comparison/contrast between geological time (the site) and human time (the historical event of the crash).

Lewis Koch, from Bomber, a chance unwinding (Madison, WI: Areness Press/Blurb., 2011)

Unlike Ruscha, Koch gives us a scripto-visual autopsy of a site of an actual disaster. Deaths haunt the scene; no tongue-and-cheek here. A pathos pervades both the book (conceived in full-color with InDesign software, published via print-on-demand) and installation. Installation? Yes. Whereas Ruscha’s book is a stand-alone object in a series of similar texts, Koch’s was conceived as a supple- mentary chapbook (yet named one of twenty notable recent photobooks at PhotoIreland, Dublin) to accompany gallery installations of this project, such as at the James Watrous Gallery at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in Madison, Wisconsin (June 24 - August 7, 2011) where the artist used the walls and glass of the space like giant book pages that en- velop the viewer inside the text. Where Ruscha’s photography is purposely casual, mocking the tenets of formalist fine art photography, Koch’s is meticulous, considered.14 After all, he’s been working and defining himself as an art photographer for decades. And much of that work has been an explor- ation of the possibilities of the visual fragment and the importance of text in and outside the image. The traditional versus conceptual employment of photography (where language was to be purged on the one hand and foregrounded on the other) debate is now shopworn, inapplicable in our post-conceptual times.

These images (in the book and exhibition) are well-rendered, the text (both appropriated and written by Koch) is serious, poetic even. Important to Koch’s efforts here is his use of screen-shots appropriated by unwinding archival WWII black-and-white documentary film-footage of B-17s in action. We have the interlacing of two “databases” and two historical junctures — a THEN (our “good” war, World War II) and a NOW (our problematic war, Afghanistan) — realized via a monochrome-and-color contrast, each contrast is key to the aesthetics and ethos of the work. When Koch selected the screen-shot, often a double-image resulted, giving an illusion of motion, a dynamism which contrasts effectively against the very stable images of the scattered debris, aluminum debris that has rested in place for decades without showing the effects of time, of the slow combustion we call rusting (coding this more a wreck than a ruin).

The word unwinding in the title of Koch’s project obliquely refers to the unwinding of the archival footage and the considered deployment of film fragments from a war past, and the chance, sudden, brutal unwinding of the Boeing bomber’s integrity as it smashed in the dark night across the boulder-strewn heights of a remote mountain. For a thousand and one nights these shards have been there to tell their story. This hints at another level of reference to unwinding in his project and it has to do with the airplane’s nick- name. It was customary for crews to name their “bird,” usually with a female appellation. Pilot William Ronaghan and his crew chose “Scharazad,” an alternate spelling for Scheherazade, the famous female protagonist holding death at bay (the raison d’être for it being chosen) in the frame tale of One Thousand and One Nights. The bomber’s namesake is described in Sir Richard F. Burtons’ translation:

She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart;
she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments;
and she was pleasant and polite,
wise and witty, well read and well bred.

This was a classy war-bird.

Ironically, one night the tale turned tragic for “Scharazad’s” crew. The fragments of this final tale had a small audience until, camera-in-hand, Koch began to “decode” these “ruins” which, despite time, still sit gleaming incongruously in their mountainous setting. Gathering them up visually, he unwound them for our thoughtful reflection in a small book and across gallery walls.

Lewis Koch, from OSAYCAN-YOUSEE (Wright Museum of Art, Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin 2008)

Lewis Koch, from Manitowoc, Wisconsin (1999)

Koch has always had an eye and pen- chant for wreckage and an attention to signs and slogans that mark our public space, as seen inManitowoc, Wisconsin (1999). His mature oeuvre (starting with his “Totems” series) has involved the arrangement of such photographs into new wholes, a poetic riff on Russian Constructivist “factography” (where complete images are juxtaposed rather than shards of cut-up photos into collage). These earlier works put individual photographs into close proximity, forming dis- tinctive shapes. However, these overall shapes retain within them the formal and semantic integrity of the single image (we can refer to them as “pho-temes”). These photemes (like morphemes, words), are given a syntactical import that builds toward a “sentence,” toward a fuller meaning that is more than the mere sum of the parts. In Ruscha, the closest one gets to this feeling of “language” is in unfolding his clever book, Every Building on Sunset Strip.

Ruscha’s Every Building on Sunset Strip [1966] - self-published book, offset lithograph.

These photemes are the basic building blocks of Koch’s aesthetic world which he combines to form a more complex poetic state of affairs. At times these photemes display a logical construct, like links in a chain, as in Tar Pit Totem (1994), where the figure’s head grows from the tar pit/soil via interlocking vertical forms. Other times, the image linkages are more ideational than formal, as in Koch’s text-image installation of OSAYCANYOUSEE (Wright Museum of Art, Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin 2008). Bomber, a chance unwinding is a development from such past work, but the gaps between images increase and text takes on a stronger purpose; the result is a complex dance between text-as-image and image-as-text. And between images and object: the installation includes rocks, simulating those at the crash-site, placed at the gallery’s entrance.15

In Ruscha’s Royal Road Test, the imagery flows over the page edges and through the turned pages without gaps or interruption, the text is informational. The book has a stable frame of reference, reveal its sub- ject unproblematically, working stereotypes of perception as a gauntlet tossed in the face of high modernism. Hence, it is easily deciphered, what Roland Barthes called a “readerly text,” giving as its Barthesian reward a comfortable reading (plaisir). In contradistinction, Koch’s book and wall installation (where the prints are nailed, suggesting rivets, to the wall) are products of interconnections that make effective aesthetic use of carefully positioned gaps (both spatial and conceptual, as seen in the actual crash site) to create a dance between revelation and concealment, between found imagery and authored.

The result is a Barthesian polysemic, “writerly” text open to many interpretational constructs as the frame of reference is more complex due to the ambiguous constellation of image-text; the codes regulating the text-reader/viewer relationship are fragmented, requiring imaginative restructuring that invites deeper participation by the viewer. This demands more effort to bridge these gaps. Significantly, the gaps function as pivots on which the whole text-reader/viewer relationship revolves; they trigger and control the activity of decipherment.

Unlike Ruscha’s book where the segments are marshaled into a graduated sequence, here elements are transformed into reciprocal reflectors. The blank as an empty space between segments enables them to be joined together into a referential field where the two reflecting positions relate to and influence each other. Thus, the 1943 crash date is paired with the 2006 and 2008 dates when Koch made his photos in situ; monochrome images play off color; text off image; a past war resonates with a present conflict; a book reflects a wall installation, and so forth. Obviously, one must give sustained attention to these complexities, but one’s effort is
rewarded by what Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text (1975) associates with a bliss accruing from the unsettledness and discomfort of aesthetic co-creation (jouissance).

The fragmented language — laconic phrases, found or authored imagery dispersed within the book and running across the gallery walls and glass — produce a charged, heightened expressiveness absent from Ruscha’s book. In one double-page spread the poetic text on the left runs up and down the page:

“a small punctuation ...
in the everlasting ...
of it all ...
The everlasting matter ...,”

while a shot taken through a twisted flange bridges the book’s gutter. That ruined flange, in turn, irregularly frames a shard of mountain distance, turning the landscape itself into a fragment. The past frames our present. But in Royal Road Test, entropy wins the day, the object remains abjected.

Lewis Koch, from Bomber, a chance unwinding (Madison, WI: Areness Press/Blurb., 2011)

The “dismembered” text/images in Koch’s work are, nevertheless, given a conceptual order, a sort of visual post- mortem (the images in the installation, ranging from 4 x 6 inches to 14 x 30 inches, are tacked up with small nails as in a crash investigation), creating a tension between the broken and chaotic and the ideational net thrown over the evidence of disaster. Koch’s color images of a rugged topography strewn with debris, in approach and subject matter, recall the cool, detached gaze of the “New Topographics” photography of the “man-altered landscape” as featured in the influential 1975 exhibition (curated by William Jenkins) which included Frank Gohlke. Gohlke later documented a damaged Wichita Falls after a tornado hit and recorded the same scenes a year later.

Common to New Topographics and Koch’s project is a focus on the altered landscape, the antithesis of the sublime Ansel Adams type of landscape that had, by the mid-seventies, become moribund. But where Gohlke records destruction and then restoration, or Robert Adams and Joe Deal visually comment on tract-home suburban sprawl, Koch loosens an historical object (the B-17) from its celebrated historical continuum (intimated by the documentary WWII footage) to become part of the viewer/reader’s own present-day experience (Koch’s image-text array). Koch’s project generates an “afterlife” for this war machine in which a fragment of the past finds itself within, even framing, our present. This strategy asks us to uncomfortably revisit the theme of war and destruction, to recall the destruction wrought on cities and civilians during the Second World War and still to this day (my own father was a B-17 bombardier who later had moral twinges about the “collateral damage” effected by his bombs). The inclusion in the wall installation of appropriated bomb-site photos and target maps, bring to mind the awful effects of aerial bombardment, as well as reminding us of the fact that now nothing utterly disappears,history enters the realm of the permanently present via photography. Koch’s pun in one section on “sword” and “words” and the phrase “final rest,” juxtaposed to a single released bomb, further connects the act of bomb destruction with the plane’s crash. His project brings back for our consideration a fatal moment when the destroyers were destroyed, the destructive machine itself destroyed, an unwilling Tinguely-like act. The plane carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction. This observation opens Ruscha’s Royal Road Test where it humorously refers to the ill-fated typewriter; but Koch seems to suggest this existential fate is akin to Marx’s notion of dialectical social contradictions, or even to “bad karma” (he’s lived in India, he’s photographed Bhopal).

Koch’s photo-poetic probing of wreckage (human remains removed in 1945) is more serious than Ruscha’s and analogous to German critic Walter Benjamin’s interest in the ruin, the corpse, the fragmenting of language, the captioning of photographs where images do not speak for themselves (found in both Ruscha and Koch’s art), and the working of the past as something still uncompleted. Koch is Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history”: eyes backward as he flies forward.

Walter Benjamin’s seminal study of allegory in seventeenth-century German Trauerspiel asserts,

Allegories are,
in the realm of thoughts,
what ruins are in the realm of things.

For Benjamin, allegory is a mode of ruination for the sake of truth. Might we say this is what Koch has given us for our contemplation? The ruins of a war-era event con- verted into a very mysterious set of scripto-visual “runes” we must decipher and come to grips with in our own destructive present. If the shards of wreckage in Ruscha’s book speak to the issue of entropy and disinterested seeing, Koch’s begins with entropy as a fait accompli, taking pre-symbolic fragments of wreckage and reassembling them into a Symbolic (text-image) that evokes indetermi- nancy and evokes the mood of trauma. Unlike Bernd and Hilla Becher’s organized grid of serialized images, Koch places his images (in book, on wall) with large gaps between images and text, like a Scrabble Board incompletely filled.16

As in real-life trauma (war and nature) Koch’s ideational elements remain unreconciled. They refuse us a single harmonious perspective, providing an uncertain knowledge, a knowledge-in-process as suggested in an epigraph for his accordion-fold photobook, Slender Thread Totem (1993), where he cites John Muir:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

As such, Koch’s project refuses a deadpan approach and dodges Aron Vinegar’s touting of the wondrous 17 (a reading of Ruscha that deploys the original Enlightenment promise of an aesthetic ability to judge without interest) in favor of a disaster scenario that remains committed to an anti-war stance without being tendentious, an ever open-ended scripto-visual unwinding offering many readings.

Koch’s coda to his gallery installation is a scene snatched from the ending of Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire (1987), on which is over-printed the voice-over from the film (screenplay by Peter Handke). This is not reproduced in his chapbook. We are confronted by a melancholy image of the Berlin Wall (later to become a ruin) blocking any perspective, the back of a person, Homer, sheltering himself from rain, blocking our view of the wall as he seems to contemplate it in a mood that could range from deadpan acceptance to sorrowful loss. It’s as if we share a prison yard with him. The voiceover, a verbal clue from Homer, reads in part:

What is it about peace that its inspiration is not enduring?
Why is its story so hard to tell?
I will not give up . . .

So does Koch give voice to his commitment, his struggle for peace in the face of the trauma of war, nor can we viewers give up constructing and reconstructing our readings of Koch’s complexly layered project.18

Finally, as if asking us to take time to reflect upon his installation and our place within it, to suggest the interpretational mise-en- abyme he’s evoked, Koch uses the reflective glass sur- rounding the gallery space to his benefit as a virtual wall that reflects and reverses shards of his poetic text (in this instance: “Only sun and stones, and soon”) as you look up toward the sky, a sky from which that ill-fated B-17 plunged one dark night. And soon: a wreck (that fateful night) and/or soon, the wreck of war (now)?

Both Ruscha’s and Koch’s artworks reconcile two times: the fleeting instant seized by a single photograph and the duration necessary to perceive these series of images by using sequenced imagery. But Ruscha’s appropriation and re-use of a dead commodity, the typewriter, has shifted in Lewis Koch’s installation to the invocation of the crash-site that “lives” through time. Beneath this shift one can posit, as Jan Verwoert does,

“a radical transformation of the experience of the historical situation,
from a feeling of a general loss of historicity
to a current sense of an excessive presence of history,
a shift from not enough history to too much history or rather too many histories.”19


1. This use of the pointing index finger doubles the indexical pointing of the analogue camera and was used frequently in John Baldessari’s early work — e.g., Commissioned Paintings (1969) and Choosing (A Game for Two Players) Rhubarb (1972), Choosing Chocolates, Choosing Green Beans, etc. — and other conceptualists of the period. In Camera Lucida (1981), 5, Roland Barthes writes: “. . . the photograph is never anything but an antiphon of ‘Look,’ ‘See,’ ‘Here it is,’; it points a finger at certain vis-à-vis, and cannot escape this pure deictic language. This pointing to objects, implies we reply to that command to look, evoking a verbal response (precisely what for Greenberg made the medium problematic from his perspective). Language mixing with depiction meant photography could be construed as the enemy of all the values of late modernism.
    This, in fact, enacts Marcel Duchamp’s negation of painting by photography as espoused in a letter to Alfred Stieglitz in 1922, where he chides Stieglitz’s touting of art photography: “you know how exactly I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable” (As cited by Luke Skrebowski in Photography After Conceptual Art, eds., Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iversen [UK: Wiley- Blackwell, 2010], 91 and 106, n. 21). Skrebowski also cites John Roberts’s The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966 - 1976 (London, 1997) on p. 106, n. 25: “Photography was the means by which con- ceptual art’s exit from Modernist closure was made realizable as a practice.”
    Digital photography problematizes the notion of photography as index and recorder of the contingent event for in the latter, as W.G. Sebald observed in an interview: “The photograph is the true document par excellence. People let themselves be convinced by a photograph.” Sebald aligns his use of photography with conceptual art: “The second point is that I use the camera as a kind of shorthand or aide mêmoire. I don’t tie this to any artistic ambitions at all. . . . I don’t want to integrate images of high photographic quality into my texts; they are rather documents of findings, something secondary” (“ ‘But the Word is Not a True Document’: A Conversation with W.G. Sebald on Literature and Photo- graphy” by Christian Scholz in Searching for Sebald: Photography After W.G. Sebald, Lise Patt, ed. with Christel Dillbohner [Los Angeles: The Institute of Cultural Inquiry, 2007], 104).
2. Margaret Iversen, “Auto-macity: Ruscha and Performative Photography,” in Photography After Conceptual Art, 13, where she relates Ruscha’s use of image-text as showing the influence of structural linguistics and the critique of author- ship coming out of French theory at the time. John Baldessari was also much influenced by such theory, carrying it more explicitly into his artworks. Both Baldessari and Ruscha would agree with, and make use of, Lady Eastlake’s famous words concerning the automatic recording of nature by the camera, that the “obedience of the machine” in photography is no “picturesque agent.” (Elizabeth Rigby, “Photography,” Quarterly Review 101 (April, 1857): 466. However, Rosalind Krauss, in “ ‘Specific’ Objects,” in Perpetual Inventory, claims Ruscha is not debunking art photography’s pretensions via the dumb snapshot, but exploring the mass-produced automobile (it was a favorite subject of Pop artists) as an artistic medium. Diarmuid Costello, “Automat, Automatic, Automatism: Rosalind Krauss and Stanley Cavell on Photography and the Photographically Dependent Arts,” in Critical Inquiry, 4 (Summer 2012): 849 - 851, engages critically with Krauss’s claims.
3. Iversen, 16-20. She draws attention to the root of Ruscha’s proto-Systemic Art approach (which undermines spontaneity, self-expression and immediacy) to the influence of verbal instruction as found in Sol LeWitt’s system’s based view of conceptual art, the performative aspects of Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14) as well as the performative “scores” of John Cage, Lamont Young, and George Brecht, such that Ruscha’s books are here “presented as a totally pre-meditated, performative, and instructional piece.” On this point Iversen draws upon Liz Kotz’s Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (2007). In the same anthology edited by Costello and Iversen, Gordon Hughes explores the intriguing notion that in Douglas Huebler’s work this very predetermined system can seem to be adhered to, but is actually a clever conceit on Huebler’s part, a “double assertion and negation,” that futzes with the preconceived system (“Exit Ghost: Douglas Huebler’s Face Value,” 73).
    Iversen goes on to mark the difference between Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959) with Ruscha’s earliest books, seeing it as a shift not only in subject matter, but that of personal expression (Frank) to an automaticity con- sisting of a systemic, neutral approach (Ruscha). It is this demotic use of the medium that can be generally taken as a rebellion against the expressive uses of painting and fine art photography. In a note on page 37 in her “Introduction” to Searching for Sebald: Photography After W. G. Sebald (2007), editor Lise Patt compares conceptual artist Ed Rusch and W.G. Sebald’s demotic approach to the medium and contrasts it with post-conceptual artist Sophie Calle’s use of the medium: “. . . both Sebald and Ruscha use photographs arranged in a cumulative monotonous tone to evoke other ‘jobs’ for the photograph . . .Whereas conceptual artists used these techniques to record perceptions of language, time, and space as objectively as possible, for Calle they function as a means to register a range of subjective and psychological responses” (what Patt says about Calle, applies equally to Lewis Koch’s Bomber, a chance unwinding). As example of the low status of photography during the 1960s, Luke Skrebowski, discussing Mel Bochner’s photographic-related work in the mid-sixties, cites Art Forum editor, Philip Leider’s rejection of Bochner’s attempt at submitting for publication his Dead Ends and Vicious Circles (1967): “we’re not a goddamn photography magazine, this is an art magazine . . .” (Photography After Conceptual Art, 88).
    But this very conceptualist choice of photography as a low medium has been reversed as photography after conceptualism has become the dominant medium, a medium wholly accepted within fine art circles and being shown extensively in museums. It is, of course, the key theme running throughout Costello and Iversen’s anthology, a compilation that tries to steer an interesting course between the Scylla of Jeff Wall and Michael Fried’s touting of “internal aestheticization” as behind post-conceptualist photographic practices and the Charybdis of Benjamin Buchloh and Julian Stallabrass’s Marxist (market-driven) analysis.
    Interestingly, Iversen fails to explore the influence of Systems Theory’s relating of people, structures, and processes into complex systems, which was just putting a blip on the avant-garde’s radar at that time. Such theory as touted by Niklas Luhmann, Claude Shannon, et al. stressed the interdisciplinary study of systems, explored a com- munication theory of inputs and outputs (unlike Heidegger’s notion of “attunement”), and self-regulating systems. For instance, this theory, as realized in Talcott Parsons’s “Action Theory,” influenced Allan Kaprow’s living systems as explor- ed in his Happenings. In a video “Interview with Hans Haacke, 1980” (The Video Data Bank, Chicago, IL), Haacke stresses that Systems Theory influenced his move toward a more relational and conceptual (i.e., phenomenologically-structuralist-influenced) approach to his artwork in the early 1960s.
    Although academically opposing theories, Phenomenology and Structuralism were often complexly interwoven in sixties-era aesthetics as they both adhered to a belief that what we take as “reality” was actually the subjective “experience-of-reality,” constructed in mind. Phenomenology took “mind” as an individual construct, while Structuralism saw it as a social construct; Douglas Davis’s critical essays appearing in Artforum during the 1970s shows an easy slippage between such theories. For artists eager to move beyond Greenbergian models (as was Douglas Davis), these respective philosophical approaches were resonant with their intuitive sense of reality-as-a-construct. Artists absorbed from each branch of contemporary thought what they saw fit into their evolving manner of working. Hence, Structuralist-inflected artworks were often referred to as “Phenomenological artworks” by both artists and critics at the time.
4. Iversen, 24 and Aron Vinegar, “Ed Ruscha, Heidegger, and Deadpan Photography,” in Photography After Conceptual Art, eds., Darmuid Costello and Margaret Iversen (UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), n. 17, 47 .
5. Aron Vinegar, “Ed Ruscha, Heidegger, and Deadpan Photography,” in Photography After Conceptual Art, eds., Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iversen (UK: Wiley-Blackwell,2010), 29. Vinegar elaborates on Stanley Cavell’s discussion of Buster Keaton’s face in The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), brings in Charlotte Cotton’s discussion in her chapter “Deadpan,” in Photography as Contemporary Art (2004), and Denise Scott Brown’s article “Pop Art, Permissiveness and Planning.” He then follows Martin Heidegger’s thoughts on mood and attunement in section 29 of Being and Time(1927) to produce a more complex, less politicized, understanding of deadpan’s status as a mode of being-in-the-world.
6. Andre Breton, Nadja (1928)
7. Edward Weston, “America and Photography” (1929) in Edward Weston on Photography, ed. Peter C. Bunnell (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1983), 55: “With a medium capable of revealing more than the eye sees, ‘things in themselves,’ could be recorded, clearly, powerfully . . .”
8. Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962 - 69: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions” in October, 55, Winter 1990 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
9. Hence, for Existentialists, there exists only a subjective-objective and never an objective-objective. When taken into knowledge theory, this “weakening” of our foundations of objective knowledge comes to be telescoped — via Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida — into a hallmark of our postmodern condition which Italian thinker Gianni Vattimo describes as “weak thought.” See Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture, trans. John R. Snyder (Polity Press, 1991).
10. Apropos the debates surrounding the trend in large-scale photographic prints, what is often termed “museum photography,” as seen most characteristically in Jeff Wall’s work, Douglas Davis in “The Size of Non-size,” Artforum (December, 1976) and reprinted in ArtCulture: Essays on the Post-Modern (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 38.
11. Originally presented in a lecture for the Northeastern section of the American Association of Museums at Winterthur, Wilmington, Delaware, November 1976, in Artculture (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 88. On this topic, I can speak with personal experience, living in Los Angeles at that time and being directly influenced by Ruscha (whom I understood as a Los Angeles version of New York’s Pop Art) and Baldessari (whom I understood as more language-oriented in his interests). In my earliest conceptual word-text pieces (early 1970s) I perceived “the dumb snapshot” (in my work, often a Polaroid) as a direct rejection of fine art photography’s formalism and print fetishism. And as Mel Bochner has testified to, I found what passed for theory on photography slim pickin’s. It was reading Roland Barthes that changed that for me. In my work, “auto-maticity” was inspired by my pre-med training in the sciences; thereafter, I mimicked the form of my university laboratory notebooks, explicitly stating in my artworks “Intent,” “Purpose,” and “Procedure,” going on to execute the aesthetic “experiment” as preconceived. Many of these early works were recorded in a grid-lined laboratory notebook in hand-written text with photos pasted in.
    Moving from lab notebooks, I began to do my first artist books. My first undergraduate photo instructor at California State University, Northridge was Jerry McMillan (long-time friend of Ruscha’s), who first introduced me to Ruscha’s books and even took us students to Ruscha’s studio to meet him personally. My experience with artist books (1974 - 76) eventually led me on to expand my publishing interests by founding and editing (along with Theron Kelley) the quarterly art journal, The Dumb Ox (1976 - 80), in which our editorial focus was artwork exploring image-text combinations. One of our guest editors for that publication was Lew Thomas, who was the nucleus around which San Francisco Bay Area’s “Photo-Language” group gathered. His many self-published books through NFS Press during the mid-seventies, books like Photography and Language, heavily influenced by Structuralism, remain an excellent source for innovative conceptual photography during that period.
12. Edward Ruscha, Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2002), 245.
13. The bomber encountered bad weather and was not at a proper altitude to clear the mountain range. See Wikipedia, Mountain. Another source of information is a booklet available in bookstores near the crash site and from the publisher, Scott Madsen, The Bomber Mountain Crash, A Wyoming Mystery (Buffalo, WY: Mountain Man Publishing, 1990, 4th ed., 2004).
14. To compare Koch’s imagery to other photographers visiting the site see here.
15. In the 1970s, as if to double the indexicality of the photograph, artists (such as Robert Smithson) began to supplement their optico-chemical traces with physical traces of the site photographed. These fragments read as “specimens.” In Koch’s installation, however, this “evidence” is actually rocks from another locale, Madison, Wisconsin, and so a rhetorical diorama-like simulation of the actual rocks at the actual scene. They now function to recall absent evidence and become a gesture of welcome and enhances the fractal mode of presentation in the installation. This is a tactic wholly at odds with how Smithson deployed his “true” artifactual evidence. Overall, Koch’s modus operandi is that of a perpetual collage of disintegration and reintegration.
16. Sarah James, “Subject, Object, Mimesis: The Aesthetic World of the Bechers’ Photography,” in Photography After Conceptual Art, eds., Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iversen (UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 54, offers an analysis of the Bechers’ use of seriality: “The cumulative effect of the series defines our reading. Yet, although it increases our knowledge of the subject matter, the work paradoxically renders it more abstract.” Where the Bechers fill in the slots of their gridded series with images, Koch’s use of seriality asks one to fill in gaps, like in a Scrabble game, inviting a play with meaning that leads from the past into the present. The project invites us to create questions and then pose answers.
17. Vinegar, 45-46.

James Hugunin teaches the History of Photography and Contemporary Theory at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1983 he won the first Reva and David Logan Award for Distinguished New Writing in Photography. He is the author of A Survey of the Representation of Prisoners in the United States: Discipline and Photograph, The Prison Experience (1999), and Writing Pictures, Case Studies in Photographic Criticism, 1983 - 2012 (2013), New Art Examiner Reviews (1986-1993), and Afterimage: Critical Essays on Photography from the Journal Afterimage, 1977- 1988, all collections of his critical writings. He has also written several novels: Something is Crook in Middlebrook (2012), Elder Physics, The Wrong of Time: Stories from an Elder Home(2013), and Case-X (taking us inside the mind of an academic undergoing treatment for salivary gland cancer). His current novel-in-progress, Finding Mememo, plays with the genres of detective and sci-fi writing (forthcoming,  2017).


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Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.

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