Turning Photography: inhabiting the surface

Photography is a supple, perhaps even hyper-lax medium. Since its invention, it has edged its way into almost all spheres of human activity, lent itself to the most varied uses and demonstrated its ability to assume complex and eclectic functions – from an element of proof to a means of artistic expression. As a result, photography has, as it were, covered the world, doubling it, in a sense, in the countless numbers of photographs in circulation, now more than ever. In other terms, ‘could one argue that photography is science, the archive, the other, the media, the domestic, propaganda, desire, war, landscape, politics, the police, the private sphere, memory, the invisible, sharing, affection, all that and no doubt many other things besides, since the late nineteenth century and increasingly so to this very day? If so, then (…) all the while being ubiquitous, photography as such does not exist. “Photography” would only stand for uses, apprehensions and viewpoints, in other words an image (sometimes the image of an image) that must constantly be renewed, must constantly be produced otherwise, must constantly be completed by other ones, different ones, in order to create what already exists but which one fails to discern.’1

If this introduction reiterates an observation that constantly haunts us, it enables us, I hope, to once more fully perceive the way in which the very notion of photography is destined for the most hybrid and most heterogeneous uses and practices. This lack of ‘purity’, notwithstanding what disgruntled observers say, enables movements free of appropriation, rereading, manipulation, visual modelling, editing, deconstruction and perhaps even exhaustion of the medium.

Of this suppleness unlike any other, one can note – by transitivity, and entering more decisively into the core of this essay – that photography’s modes of presentation can also benefit from a rare manageability: from the vintage print exhibited on a wall to the press photo via the book, the poster, the slide and digital screens of all sorts, there are not many supports that resist the deployment of what is called – in the fullness of its generality, at the edge of a dizzy spell given its sprawling nature – ‘photography’. In other words, ‘given its own material suppleness – a photo has neither a body, nor any weight, nor technique, it can be enlarged, shrunk, projected, inverted, doubled, hung, put up in different ways –, but especially because of its lack of aura, the fact of having long been an image with no value, one could treat it with a lot more lightness and inventiveness than the mature media’.2

Olivier Lugon continues: ‘Just as (…) it is difficult to imagine, in the West at least, a painting that is not artistic (the sight alone of a square canvas coloured in with a dried paste tells me that this object is there to demand my contemplation), so too photography, because of its heterogeneous uses, rejects the suggestion of the artwork’s immanence and must produce this artistic status through the organisation of its presentational context. (…) Far more than in painting, the presentation can make an image (…) as if the creation of a photograph kept recurring in its exhibition.’3

It is through this prism that I would like to approach the work of several artists: by exploring the research or the laboratory that constitutes the spatialisation of a work in the wake of its conception and realisation in the strict sense. I have deliberately chosen artists that move away from a classical use of photography and who, on the contrary, graze it, penetrate it, sometimes wound it, mix it, go beyond it or tear it apart and, as a result, create images which require, among others, an adequate spatialisation in order to be apprehended. What type of space is elaborated in the presentation of the images which, by ricochet or rebound, gives them a singular visibility? What state of situated availability do the artists articulate for the spectator so that the latter grasps the visual most accurately? What positions are experimented to bring about the quality of presence of both the images and the spectator?

Benoit Platéus, “Kodak Flexicolor/Fujihunt” 2014 Urethane. Galerie Albert Baronian, ArtBrussels 2014.The position of Benoit Platéus (b. 1972) with regard to photography stems from a coup de foudre4: surprise in the face of found images triggers a complex process of transformation/­revelation in order to ‘hatch’5 something intuitively felt as present in the image but not yet actualised. What follows is a sequence of manipulations that dig into, unframe, enlarge, copy, plunge into the depths of the visual. The magnified and almost deadly beauty of Benoît Platéus’s images then leads to the revelation that behind the image, there are only the supports of the image, a materiality of layers, a depth constituted ‘of strata, of the juxtaposition in the same space of a large number of other spaces (the image, the page, the book, the offset and digital C-Print prints) which communicate by means of resonances’.6

This being said, Platéus also works with objects: cans of chemical products used in the development process and recovered from photo labs, which he then arranges in the space, alongside his images. Depending on the exhibitions, these cans that retain the coloured traces and the somewhat viscous textures of chemistry have been presented on a plinth, a table, on the floor against the walls, on a shelf. ‘In theory’, says the artist, ‘this can contains all possible images’.7

These cans interfere with the mural exhibition surfaces. They disrupt the pre-eminence of the visual flatness by positioning themselves in the spectator’s field of vision, at times even by obstructing the latter’s path when contemplating the photographs. They offer at first glance a form of resistance, act as an obstacle to or distraction from the full contemplation of the image. But then one notices that a dynamic emerges between these sculptures and the images on the wall, that a to-and-fro occurs between the 3D world and the 2D world, one that divides the latter’s possible authority by reviving the idea of both another future image and the production process. Shimmering and textured but opaque, always open, uncapped, they are simply placed alongside the images, creating a sense of mutual porousness that imposes itself on the spectators. A silent ready-made, they create a sort of loop with the photographs, as though, from the latter to the former and vice versa, the causes and effects of postmodern visuality, purely a matter of surface, earned a form of impersonal interiority, of sensitive vibration, their own life, independent from humankind although phenomenological.

Since the early 2000s Michel Couturier (b. 1957) has been pursuing a vast project on the suburbs and among others the customer-catchment areas that combine huge commercial centres and car parks that stretch as far as the eye can see. One of the forms taken by the project has been to insert, in the form of posters placed in the urban furniture devoted to advertising, photographs of these zones combined with quotes from the writings of Italian writer Cesare Pavese.8 I would like to delve further into this presentation device in the public space in order to try to grasp the spatial tensions between image and spectator that emerge from such a particular choice of display.

The rectangular format of the posters, defined by the standard imperatives of the dimensions of the urban furniture, has constrained the viewpoint of the photograph. The horizon is only perceptible outside the frame as well as in the massive presence of the sky, which Michel Couturier has carefully rendered manifest and which seems to mirror the ubiquitous asphalt and metal. The pronounced verticality of the photograph also reinforces the underlying phallic dimension of these dehumanised zones and emphasises in particular the presence of the lamp posts that assert the absolute transparency that these spaces must provide to the consumer in order to reassure the latter. The lower part of the poster features Pavese’s phrases, which act as accidents, tragedies or breaks in the image. ‘Thus renouncing the sacrosanct principle of communication that advocates a redundancy between the text and the image, Michel Couturier muddies the waters, forces the observer to make an effort of interpretation or, on the contrary, to let their imagination lose itself in the elements of an imprecise message. (…) The absolute discrepancy between text and image generates a kind of libertarian poetic space.’9

Choosing to place these photo/text montages in the connoted context of the urban advertising discourse is a disruptive act, to say the least. My hypothesis is that, in these transitional spaces, Michel Couturier’s posters invite the ever-moving consumer to become a spectator for the brief moment it takes to be astonished, surprised, to have one’s curiosity stimulated – in other words, to be stopped in one’s tracks. The artist observes that these zones are ‘a space in which the circulation of people (…) is subjected to strict rules and governed by ubiquitous signage: one circulates in them in a world of restrictive signs.’10 Besides, all there is to do there is to circulate since there is nothing to see and since the space has been functionalised and codified for a rapid rotation. The augmented images, open to interpretation, placed there by Michel Couturier stand out in the landscape and appeal to the human being that is always lurking in the consumer, suddenly altering the outlines of the space and his/her own outlines as a free being put down in an arbitrated place.

A former cartoonist and illustrator, Yoann Van Parys (b. 1981) writes about art and is also an exhibition curator. In his practice, photography mobilises a variety of uses inherited from these various fields which, it seems to me, come together in a ‘broken line’ principle, as seen in his recent exhibitions where his pieces were for the most part not hung on the wall but placed (often overlapping one another) on little metallic bars acting as very narrow shelves. This method turns the wall into a kind of disordered page where the lines draw the spectator’s gaze like underlinings in a text. While some images are placed on the floor and others are hung more traditionally, the whole partakes nevertheless of a mechanism that is reminiscent of text: disparate but layered assemblages that, one anticipates, are organised and ordered deliberately. A first clue: the work on colour, which is diffracted in a few tones across the whole and enables recurrence. If the code is not decipherable, the eye inevitably vibrates in time to the rhythmic layout of the nuances of blue, red, grey, yellow … Second clue: the discreet but insistent presence of the cityscape in the photographs. It creates a community for the spectators and draws structural lines in the assemblages. It also seems to function like the context or backdrop of an archaeology, as though the city were that indistinct place where other images, more detailed, more subjective (sometimes photographs, sometimes drawings) had come about, emerging from the environment, brought to light like details in an overall plan, like objects or sensations drawn from a form of contemporary ruin.

As a spectator one finds oneself facing these broken lines which, once our imagination has been mobilised,11 gradually come to resemble a complex and playful diagram. The latter mobilises our eye in an unprecedented linear dimension of reading, both straight and broken at once, polygonal, as well as, more subtly, in the atmospheric sensitivity of the bands of colour and of the superposed images which, for their part, invoke an endless renewal of connections, of hiding/showing, of the interpretative volume. In the work of Yoann Van Parys, the autonomous, enclosed, framed, definitive image is constantly shaken up, lacking, partial, covered by another. The spatialisation of his visual arrangements makes it possible to experience them physically and intellectually.

For several years Sébastien Reuzé (b. 1970) has been conducting research into certain material specificities of the photographic image12, all the while exploring the workings of a fictional or even science-fictional landscape. Openly influenced by the universe of the British author J.G. Ballard, the work of Sébastien Reuzé has explored forms of contemporary violence in a triptych that was recently extended by a rereading of the American photographic road trip. By means of elaborate images, of combinations of images and objects, Reuzé recreates a universe in which the narrative is blurred and vaguely disturbing, around a drone pilot on a US military base. Starting out from this pretext that serves to generate the imagination, he pursues both a fiction and an exploration of the medium through, among others, advanced experimentations on colour and on the physicality of the prints, their nature as a receptacle of actual formal events (scratches, dust, accidental or deliberate accidents of the printing process in the dark room).

Exhibition view, CAMÉRACONTRÔLE at Centre de la photographie Genève, june/july 2016Translating this affinity between the photographic project and (science-)fiction, the exhibition is for Sébastien Reuzé an opportunity for a precise scenography that combines not only the prints but also, on occasion, crystallised objects that the artist himself makes (a military cap and coat, a control lever, etc.). The images are positioned with magnets on large metallic boards that recall an administrative, bureaucratic or police organisation. Even though there is no stage, the spatial layout asserts very clearly that it is literally a staging where the spectator will have a role to play. As an example, I will rely on the exhibition Caméra(auto)contrôle held at the Centre de la photographie Genève in 2016. In this show, opposite the images, Sébastien Reuzé placed a desk of which the chair was covered in those famous crystals, ruining its sitting function. By arranging the objects and the images in this way, he therefore prepares a place for the spectator which he simultaneously renders impossible to use. This incompatible point of view offered to the visitor obliges the latter to look at the work indirectly, from an artificial aside, an inhospitable position that underlines the tension inherent to the artist’s project, between fictional escape and materiality of the representation. The presence of mirrors in some installations also introduces the notion of second universes or of a dissociated reality.

Many more artists who work around, with or alongside photography pay particular attention to these problems of presentation to reveal something about the meaning of the work. Agnès Geoffray (b. 1973), for instance, whose work in general relies a lot on fragmentation, with real or symbolic interstices that invite the spectator to plunge into a universe where the spatial division corresponds to a psychological fragmentation. Or Sébastien Bonin (b. 1977), who operates with great freedom on the essential photographic processes, recently even reaching painting through photography and who, in the presentation of his pieces, chooses for a principle of generosity (which is not contradicted by a certain rigour). Or Thomas Bernardet (b. 1975), who, in the relation and tension between the two major systems that organise his photographic work – the ‘work documents’ that are photographs he has taken and the ‘worked documents’ that are fragile arrangements made for the exhibition on the basis of the former – sees the spatialisation phase as a transition, a variable, a step in the movement of the image. As he writes, ‘rather than a finality, the exhibition acts as a passage for works in a state of suspension’.13 Or Michel Mazzoni who, remarkably, alongside the exhibition, also attains a spatial quality in his publications.14 Working on the edges of perception, when the latter nears opacity, looking at things and beings with a ‘comatose gaze’,15 extra-lucid from being almost extinguished, Michel Mazzoni presents his work, in the space and in his books, by perforating the surface of the walls, of the page, through the density of his photographs. Fundamentally ‘images of darkness’, even when they are suffused with light, Michel Mazzoni’s photographs dig into the surfaces where they are displayed to reveal an underside to the right side, an elsewhere from here.

As spectators of these singular installations that are always replayed, unsettled or puzzled by them, fascinated or invited to play by them, we are set in motion by them. ‘Inhabiting is not familiar, it is the essence of that which is out of the ordinary. Never itself. In transit.’16

1 Anne-Françoise Lesuisse, ‘De la photographie à l’Image Possible’, in BIP2016. Biennale de l’Image Possible, exh. cat., Les éditions du caïd, n.p., 2016, p. 3.

2 Olivier Lugon, ‘“Kodakoration”’, Études photographiques 16 , May 2005, [online], posted 17 Sept. 2008. Accessed 07 April 2017.

3 Idem.

4 Maïté Vissault, ‘Prismes’, L’Art même, no. 56, 3rd term 2012, p. 20.

5 Benoît Platéus quoted by Estelle Spoto, ‘Dans l’antre d’artiste’, Bruzz, 2 Oct. 2013, online, Accessed 07 April 2017.

6 Maïté Vissault, loc. cit., p. 20.

7 Benoît Platéus quoted by Estelle Spoto, loc. cit.

8 The posting campaigns took place in Lille, Roubaix, Tourcoing, Brussels, Liège, Charleroi and Marseilles between 2001 and 2005.

9 Pierre-Olivier Rollin, Magasin, Oct./Nov./Dec. 2002.

10 ‘Il y a plus de feux que d’étoiles. Conversation entre Michela Sacchetto et Michel Couturier’, Flux News, no. 67, April/May/June 2015, p. 17.

11 ‘The imagination accepts multiplicity and constantly renews it in order to detect in it new “intimate and secret relations”, new “correspondences and analogies” which themselves will be inexhaustible as is any thought of relations that an original arrangement, each time, will be likely to manifest.’ Georges Didi-Huberman, Atlas ou le gai savoir inquiet, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris, 2011, p. 4.

12 Analogue photography and the chemical and manual interventions that it enables constitute in this regard an important dimension of the work of this artist.

13 Unpublished text shared by the artist.

14 In particular White Noise, published in 2013 by ARP2 Publishing.

15 Jean-Marc Bodson, ‘Bruit blanc et noir silencieux’, La Libre Belgique, 9 Oct. 2013.

16 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, ‘Habiter’, Epreuves d’écriture, work published on the occasion of ‘Immatériaux’ presented at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985, p. 81. Quoted in Benoît Goetz, Théorie des maisons. L’habitation, la surprise, Editions Verdier, Lagrasse, 2011, p. 26.

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