By Robert Evans
Robert Bean’s photographs in the series Études (for Marconi), though seemingly straightforward in content, continue the artist’s investigations of obsolescence, its myriad relationships with and the surprisingly malleable notions of past, present, and future, and their outcomes. Each image is dominated by a flat composition of intricately connected and criss-crossing wires and birds in various configurations on a background of skies. Entry into the picture space is difficult; the viewer’s gaze is kept at the surface through a composition that is dominated by pattern, rhythm, and repetition. However, despite the strong graphic elements in Bean’s work, the series is certainly not a formalist retreat from the everyday world. These are rich and compelling images that are open to numerous productive readings and interpretations, some of which are informed by Bean’s own statements on his work and some based on a history of looking and the often frustrated promise of photographic images. The thoughts offered below are starting points for more discussion and, like Bean’s photographs, are intended to provoke reflection on the images without offering definitive interpretations.
Bean, a professor in the Media Arts Department of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, has been investigating notions of obsolescence for a decade, producing series and works such as Metamorphosis, Verbatim, and Equations, each of which considers objects, artefacts, and processes that are no longer viable, useful, or common in our hyper-linked contemporary world. Even his project Illuminated Manuscripts, based on the handwritten manuscripts of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, touches on the nostalgic novelty of physical inscription and the information bleed that occurs in a two-sided analogue medium. (Screen-based digital information is emphatically one-sided; even the transparent gesture-controlled displays in the fifteen-year-old futuristic movie Minority Report are essentially one-sided.) Bean’s recent oeuvre is heavily weighted with works that look simultaneously backward and forward, situated at a topological knot in which the threads of the past, present, and future are profoundly intertwined and impossible to untangle. Indeed, his Equations series is literally an exploration of historical physical models of mathematical knots that were long ago replaced by computer modelling and are now part of a museum collection. Their narratives have changed from powerful and revelatory tool of visualization to quaint, almost crafty examples of how things were done before everyone started carrying powerful computers in their pockets that we call “phones.”
Discussions of the “truth value” of photography may seem quaint and dated in 2016 – do we really believe photographs anymore? Should we ever have believed photographs? – but working toward a final art product that is printed and displayed in discrete locations, such as an art gallery, references a time when photographs were resolutely considered emblems of, as Roland Barthes so famously phrased it in his investigation of the ontology of photography, “that has been.”1 The referential power of photography, its status as a document, has been decimated in the world of critical theory, and the contemporary digital version of the medium has been elevated in the art world to yet another means of active and authored image making. But despite the dominance of digital sensors over light-sensitive silver salts, the transition from photography to photography has been relatively painless. We still tend to read photographs as photographs. I would argue that ostensible naturalism, even when fantastic or surreal, is one of the reasons that we continue to read photographs as photographs. However, this can lead to a tautological and frustrating definition of photography: photographs are photographs because we treat them like photographs.
Études (for Marconi) contains multiple grids, both visible in the image and as latent structure. The wires create a pseudo-structure with a promise of organization and communication in a wide-open sky. But, for the most part, they have failed to organize the birds into a structured set of data. Many of the birds include outliers, and they create noise and interference within and outside the asymmetrical matrices. They are unruly, much like analogue photography, in which the image grain could be uneven, the law of reciprocity might fail, and results were not necessarily repeatable. Today, photographs are (perhaps they have always been) data. Each byte of information in a digital photograph represents a small, well-defined portion of the overall image. Each pixel is adjacent to, but discrete and separate from, the next. The underlying structure is rational and repeatable.
Bean’s photographs, despite being digital creations, remind us of photographic practice from the first century of the medium’s existence. The collodion photographic emulsions of the mid- to late 1800s were not as responsive to all of the light spectrum’s various wavelengths as are today’s digital sensors or yesterday’s panchromatic silver halide films. They were more sensitive to blue than red, and a second negative exposed for dramatic clouds was used in the final print to add expected detail to the overexposed skies. (For example, see Gustave Le Gray’s stunning seascapes.) The obsolescence of collodion was just a matter of time; indeed, in terms of the early expectations of photographic technology as a mirror of nature, it was obsolete from the very beginning.
The sky in Bean’s Études (for Marconi) no. 1 has a similar presence within the picture frame. More than a background landscape, it is an equivalent element and promises a story of its own. It competes with the wires and birds for attention through an almost impenetrable screen – the wires act as a musical score and the birds are free-flying notes in this most difficult étude. Regardless of whether it was added or altered, it seems to be from another time and place and is insistent, pushing forward and trying to dominate the image. The three elements – sky, wires, and birds – are at their most uneasy relationship in this image, each fighting for space, for our attention, while we try to come to a conclusion, or at least a plausible interpretation.
Bean’s photographs force us to look up at the sky, and we are not given a horizon or position from which to insert ourselves into the picture. The history of looking up and down is generally one in which the embodied viewer moves from the ground to the air, from looking up to a mountain top to looking down on the valley below, from a position of longing and desire to a position of knowledge, often associated with the Enlightenment. The bird’s-eye view is an all-encompassing, revelatory, and even powerful position from which the viewer can see the many parts of the whole in relation to one another, offering a sense of mastery. The worm’s-eye view, on the other hand, gazes up at the often-sacred heights. Perhaps Bean is referencing this vantage point when he writes in his artist’s statement that the works in Études (for Marconi) are “images that explore allegorical relationships between technology and divination.”
At a different moment in the history of visual art, we might be tempted to read these images and their skies in light of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds or “equivalents.” Stieglitz’s images were dramatic and, like Bean’s photographs, without a horizon, leaving the viewer to float freely without being bound to a particular place. These images grew out of an early modernism that was highly indebted to earlier symbolist approaches to art. However, Bean’s photographs, according to the artist, are based on his fascination with technological obsolescence and the nature of photography, not on expressive, symbolic, or formal theories of art.
Some of the photographs in Études (for Marconi) were taken at the now dismantled Radio Canada International transmitter outside Sackville, New Brunswick. Anyone who drove on the Trans-Canada Highway near Sackville in the second half of the twentieth century probably remembers the anomalous collection of antennas, wires, and guy lines along the side of the road that was also a physical reminder of Guglielmo Marconi’s experiments in the early twentieth century. The structure was finally dismantled in 2014, a couple of years after the CBC discontinued shortwave transmissions. As Barthes reminds us, photography is predicated on loss. All photographs portend the end of something or, more profoundly, someone. As soon as they are taken or constructed, photographs possess, as Barthes says, an “anterior future” as seen from the present because we are in a position to know what happens next, we know the future of that image.2 And it’s not just the future of those wires that we know, we also know the future of all mass broadcast technologies as we become increasingly compartmentalized and separated through our curated wireless digital lives.
Indeed, Bean cites Barthes’s discussion of photographers being augurs and haruspices in the context of these photographs. Here, skies filled with birds, the raw material for augurs’ predictions, are our guide to the future. Birds of prey swoop by smaller birds who are moving in large flocks; geese and helicopters – an updated bird for the twentieth century – fly in opposite directions; and small birds perch on power lines as contrails trace the passing of unseen aircraft. There is a sense of purpose and arrangement to the birds in the photographs that suggests a latent future. The signs seem to be ominous, but without the specialized knowledge of seers, the future is unknown to us. If it were legible, then it would no longer be the future, “it would already be,” in the words of Jacques Derrida, “a predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow.”3
The past in the present is more common than the future, especially in the peculiarly modern affliction that is nostalgia for things past. For the last 170 years, photography has been a catalyst for nostalgia, functioning as an aide-mémoire for people, place, and things. Today, this nostalgic impulse is present in personal photographs – the legacy of the obsolete Kodak film company – and in the work of photographers who assemble portfolios of ruined buildings and abandoned places. Ruins, in particular, are usually depicted in some advanced state of decay in which nature is overtaking culture, acting as a reminder of either society’s past glory or its past folly. As Andreas Huyssen notes, “In the body of the ruin the past is both present in its residues and yet no longer accessible, making the ruin an especially powerful trigger for nostalgia.”4 But this past is always already lost. It never existed, at least not in the way that we imagine it in our nostalgic ruminations.
In this same vein, Bean’s assemblages of wires point to a previous age when the iconography of technology was more industrial and less virtual. But the unseen secret of today’s wireless technological life – where we move untethered, like the birds in the photographs – are the endless server farms fed by miles and miles of data and transmission lines, both of which have a decidedly physical and industrial presence. We may see an industrial past in Bean’s photographs, but we are also looking at the technological present.
Robert Bean’s Études (for Marconi) comprises rich and rewarding photographs that offer a complex set of notes for study. Read through the lens of past, present, and future, they are simultaneously considerations of the obsolescence of technology, the future of photography, and the presence of both in the present.
2 “I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake.” Barthes, Camera Lucida, 96.
3 Quoted from an article in which Bean used Derrida’s notion of a “monstrous future”: “Posthuman Nostalgia: Remembering the Future as Images,” Arts Atlantic no. 72 (2002): 20. The original phrase can be found in Elisabeth Weber, Points . . .: Interviews 1974-1994 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 387.
4 Andreas Huyssen, “Nostalgia for Ruins,” Grey Room no. 23 (2006): 7.
Robert Evans is an independent scholar who publishes and teaches mostly in the area of photography. He holds a PhD in visual culture from Carleton University’s Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture, and works as a consultant for cultural and social history museums when he is not researching aerial views, panoramas, and the ruined landscape.