5. Toward a Museum of Convention
Published: 19.05.2012
in the series Exceptional Position of Photography within the (Art) World
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Last week’s post concerned itself with the academy as a mode of distribution for aesthetic discourse and how the inclusion of art within higher education has the potential to shift the understanding of intellectual research and debate, specifically by forcing intellectual discourse to come to terms with its own monetization. Before going further, I think I should address what I mean by the use of the phrase “aesthetic discourse.” I mean not only that which is written or spoken about aesthetics (this is really secondary, and significant only when it shifts the conditions of aesthetic production). But primarily I mean communications or debates that happen through aesthetics. Within this array, art operates as an experimental and philosophical element, and following from this premise a useful definition of art is that it is a discourse about aesthetics that occurs exclusively through aesthetics.

I argued before that in the development and identification of a medium, new specific cases are understood in relationship to established convention, and that a history is formed in the struggle between the need to adhere to convention (for in order to be understood as communication at all, one must obey some elements of convention) and the development of new relations between technology and use, which serve the purpose of expanding the conditions of the medium. This is necessary if a particular medium is going to remain significant or viable in a contemporary context. In some sense, this describes improvisation, or more exactly, expressions with higher degrees of information (as the more improbable the expression, the more informative it is, or the more it expands upon the convention on which it is based). Convention then serves as the bedrock of any communicative act, and out of necessity its movements are glacial. Even though conventions are often slow moving, they are not static. These ongoing shifting relationships circling around communication once aggregated are given the name “medium,” or that set of processes, material or otherwise, that facilitate a transaction negotiated between parties. Medium is static. The term medium refers to an aggregation of these negotiations, a kind of short hand for the conventionalization of the application of a set of raw materials to a particular purpose, and a symmetrical social acceptance of it as vessel for exchange. It is a summary term, a kind of inert singularity. The world of media is the world of taxonomy, of filing drawers for diachronic operations, and at its most extreme, when we begin to look for ontological solidity in these terms, we stare into a tautological void, such media analysis is akin to Jerry Fodor’s Radical Concept Nativism.

Yet, it is important to remember that every object, rather than being a reciprocal singularity to its name, extends out into a vast network of relations (from its origins as raw material, to its extraction, to industrial product, and so on) each specific only to itself, carrying more and more information (in the Flusserian sense) as it is passed from one stage of production to another (each stage in its trajectory has the capacity to further “inform” the object, as the paths that it follows become more specific, differentiated, and improbable). If we take just the objects that happen to grace one’s desk at a particular time, we are witness to expansive systems of relations that extend out in every direction, sharing multiple points of confluence, even as they reach away from one another, fractal-like, defining a universe of active relations rather than categorical definitions. We are one element in this constellation. In a world such as this, the categorical classification of an object as a “photograph” or “book” or “painting” seems terribly incomplete. To state the obvious, it is infinitely more compelling to look at how we are organized around such an object or objects, and how objects are, in turn, organized by us, rather than theorize their often arbitrary names.

In the end, we must accept that to classify something as a medium, meta or otherwise, is to subscribe to an abstraction or schematic understanding (i.e. model), and that we must remember that medium is an abstraction of the sequence of networks described earlier. Needless to say, if enough individuals subscribe to a particular abstraction and invest themselves in it, it is irresponsible to simply abandon it, but rather it is important to historicize it, and understand its utility not as a transhistorical category, but as a set of ideas that arose out of a particular circumstance for a particular set of reasons. Thus the use of medium based on differential analysis is a mask for a deeper set of problems. It is, in a sense, a tool of convenience that our world has outperformed, something that stops the endless chains of relationships from flooding in. I would say we are now better able to deal with such currents than ever before.

If we attempted to step outside of medium-based categories, where might we start? One option would be to propose a history of aesthetic conventions, rather than media, for conventions are never misunderstood for being concrete or trans-historical, and are always comprehended as social and conditional (i.e. contextual). In other words, convention grows from the ground up, it is not asserted conferred upon something, but rather it arises from the active use of something. It would remind us that any medium involves human agency to generate it, that it is, in actuality, a set of actions performed upon a raw material, and that further, the actions involve not just the “artist” or “author” but an expansive system of production (be it industrial or artisanal). Further, conventionalization refers to the micro-negotiations that occur within the use of a particular thing. Conventions, as they are, are akin to common law.

The manager of medium-based distinctions in art is the museum. The museum gives concrete form to the divisions between media, it defines them, argues over them, turns them into funding lines, office space, gallery space, architecture, bodies, wages, etc. It takes something as malleable and intangible as the concept of differential media, and makes it solid. Each public institution is met with competing obligations, a mandate to deliver a service that is good for the whole, while not necessarily a good all citizens value. It is this conflict that all institutions make concrete, from the electric company, to the transportation authority, it is a sedimentation of the conflict between the group and the individual.

Modern museums, when dealing with photography run into a multitude of problems. A disagreement that precipitated an extended debate around “exhibitionality” of the photograph, a condition that for photographic objects is particularly unstable, or at least, multiplicitous, and simultaneously indeterminate. By indeterminate, I mean that the point of public reception for a photograph (whether it be meant to operate within a journalistic, artistic, advertising, etc. context) does not change the material condition of it as an object, thus the object does not immediately indicate which context it is intended for, which allows for a multitude of contexts to be possible. This produces a problem of reception for the museum, for what is the truest, or most accurate way to display a class of objects which appear deceptively similar, while being intended, and produced, for a multitude of contexts?

A history of convention could begin to solve this, and would be relatively easy to implement. The difficulty would be renovating the 18th century museum culture to accommodate such a change. It would also free a conversation about whether a work were truly painting, or truly sculptural, and make arguments for the works advancement of certain threads of debate, research, or observation within the field of aesthetic discourse. There would not be experts of objects, but experts in aesthetic thought. This is a fantasy, but perhaps a possible one.

2 comment(s)
Jan-Erik Lundström
Posted 21.05.2012 at 22:15

Carl Chiarenza once wrote a piece titled something like "Notes Towards An Integrated History of Picture-Making", arguing for a process of reorganizing historical thinking about images as well as calling for institutional revitalization in the revision of hierarchies of media and petrified categories of labor (mental and physical) at, for example, the art museums. Various attempts, let’s say both discursive and pragmatic, all from such a phenomenon as the rise of visual culture as an academic sub- or intra- or trans-discipline to museum displays, asking, for example, for other principles in presenting the collection than the discipline. Or the chronology. Photography has, quite obviously, often been a particular player, or agent, cast as it so often has as ”modernism’s stepchild”. Art academies, as Beshty’s previous post dealt with, have been through similar experiences.

It is quite safe to venture that few attempts have been succesful and the architecture of modernism left intact, not to mention the ways of the market, even in what we like to call the post-medium (or post-ism) condition of the present. Beshty’s discerning and suggestive vision and proposal of a museum of convention seems a compelling guide in how to re-initiate or revive/revise such a march through the institutions.

The concept of the medium, in terms of photography, targets, in fact, a similar problematic. I have briefly, previously, argued that photography ought to be articulated – or named if we follow a nominalist lead – as a transmedium. I do, however, not think that’s sufficient. At least, it is only a part-solution. Given that the medium is, essentially, a modernist enterprise, it simply fails to address photography’s multitude of contexts – as Beshty precisely puts it –and the catholic and pandemic nature of photographic discourse. For quite similar reasons I would not expect to find the alternative to medium - the novel formula with which to form future conventions - from within the domain of art nor under the umbrella of aesthetics, unless we kind of pluck aesthetics out of art (to be able to reenter from another tangent), perhaps in a kind of Rancièreian way (and clean off a bit of Kantian left-overs while we are at it).

Nicola Trezzi
Posted 27.05.2012 at 02:09

Following these previous posts I would like to highlight two key notes: "photography as a trans-medium" (Lundström) and "expanding the conditions of the medium" (Beshty). To say that the notion of medium is ever more obsolete is like saying that language – any kind of language – and its use don't work anymore. And still we speak. Is there a solution? Is photography in a special position? I have some thoughts about.

My solution regarding the state of language is what I call "fictional movement." In other words we must understand and be aware of the fact that language will always be there and although it is interesting to debate about its state and its future we might also direct our energies towards new possibilities of skipping the official state of language without really saying it. Fiction here comes to save us. For instance human beings mostly communicate through verbal and written language but at the same time there is also body language – a very strong form of communication which is still almost not considered within the arena of communication. If someone says "I am relaxed" and his body says completely the opposite we must believe this person because what his mouth says will always have a stronger power over what his body says. My solution is not to quit verbal language in favor of body language as the only way to communicate, that would be a disaster. What I really suggest is to understand that there is always an official channel which is crystal clear and easy to decode and there is always a second parallel channel which usually goes underneath the surface of things telling us something more or something else. The old dichotomy Apollonian versus Dionysian, Representation versus Will. The distance between these two poles really tells us the truth and our task is to continuously move from one to the other. That's why the word trans-medium really works. After all the latin word "trans" comes from "to traverse."

Regarding the special position of photography there is no doubt this medium is in a different phase of let's say painting or sculpture. The reasons are obvious: its younger age and its massive use in everyday life as well as in intellectual speculations make photography a very special medium. For these reasons maybe photography should play the same role as Isaac in the book of Genesis (22:5 and 22:8.) Its position – so young and curious – makes it the best sacrifice we can have in order to liberate us from the dictatorship of language. Its features, its being so refined and populist at the same time, figurative but also abstract, so accessible and elitist at the same time, give it the status of tool for the liberation of the dictatorship of language. In other words, is "expanding the conditions of a medium" a way to kill it? Probably yes but let's keep in mind how the binding of Isaac really ended up...

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