The temperature has plummeted these last few days. Two degrees this morning, ice on cars and fog. The days are crisp but sunny. Autumnal weather four weeks before the midwinter solstice. Strange we are so unused to this cold. This is the cold of my childhood, frosty footpaths, frozen finger tips, cold on the tip of your nose. Bone chilling cold.
I shared a most wonderful weekend in May, at the Art of the Real conference in Newcastle. Newcastle is an industrial city on the Hunter river as it meets the sea. A struggling town, though it’s fast being re-developed. Ross Gibson from UTS spoke on his fifteen-year project. He has collected a series of crime scene photographs from the Sydney police station after they had been all but destroyed in a warehouse flood, I think.
He took the negatives each in envelopes simply marked with date and place. The original documents accompanying the photos had been lost. He looked at the negatives one after the other, about 2000 in all. He selected from the ones that stirred something inside. Those, around fifty of them, he developed and arranged into a slide show, which he presented to us that evening. The images were of street scenes and interiors. Sydney homes between the 1945 and 1960 wherein a crime had occurred, the nature of the crime is unknown, presumably a murder, though there was one shot of a man his face puffy and swollen and held together in a brace as if his jaw had been broken, as if his cheek bones might have been shattered. He was everyman, a look on his face that made him indescribable.
Ross Gibson said they did not publish the faces of victims, the photos of bodies were only of the those face down, half torso, side up, though one shot showed a man with a bullet wound, the blood running in a river down what looked like some sort of industrial complex, or maybe a boat. There were shots of kitchens and lounge rooms, one of a bedroom, a child’s chair set between two beds with two dollies tucked together side by side on the chair under a small blanket. Another of an outside toilet block, the roof not visible a shot of the sink, two taps above which was the imprint of two sets of hands walking up the wall, as if someone had tried to escape by crawling up the wall on their blood stained hands, the imprint of which stops after two rows. There was a photo of an inner city street, leafless trees over wide pathways men and women from the 1930s walking along. To this image Ross Gibson had added words, something to the effect, ‘soldiers in uniform command the streets like crabs’. His text is minimal written in the form of haiku.
Gibson talked about haiku, as words that capture the essence of meaning. He talked of the significance of Zen, how important it is that we consider these photos carefully, thoughtfully. That we look for nuances of meaning, that we stay loose but not flippant. These are sacred sites you might say, scenes of tragedy and atrocity, For me they resonated with domestic violence. I thought of the police, their words to my mother, ‘it’s a domestic there’s nothing we can do, unless of course he bashes you, or kills you, or one of your children’.
Gibson talked about bearing witness, which is defined by absence, irresolution and incompleteness. We are in the present moment as an outcome of historical activity, that’s sometimes deliberately made undetectable. The unwitnessed, or witnesses are no longer there. These photos form the imprint of previous activities in historical circumstances that need to be protected, interpreted, in order to understand how the past has helped to shape the present.
According to Eric Rolls, most of the things that happened, that really mattered, happened off the frame, outside of legislative procedures, eg the land grabbers, the squatters who stole the land until it became a given, when in fact it was taken, this defines a great deal of Australian reality. Unwitnessed actions have given us our present. Those actions are retrospectively documented and need to be understood. There are many modes of understanding, areas of comprehension, areas of felt grasp of everyday life that can be accessed by other techniques. The so-called aesthetics, that are perceptible by the senses.
Gibson asked the question: what are the procedures by which we might engage the senses?
Aesthetics, he answered himself, the appreciation of beauty, but more so, is a multi-modal engagement, around several senses, a stimulant as a procedure for working with the world, something to do with historical activity. How do we deal with historical activity, how do we aesthetically develop a multi modal informed sense of history? Gibson argues we should present it such that it gives access to multi modes.
We bear witness to unwitnessed phenomena from the past.
We engage a whole swathe of cultural activities, including those that exist in popular culture, eg, forensic curiosity, interest in these procedures and measures.
Each individual needs to get a grasp on one’s own interpretation of the world. Received authority is not trustworthy.
The didactic trend, to shut up and listen, has been replaced by the heuristic: discovery based learning, guided by someone who knows a little more. This trend is now part of the common sense of the young, namely a forensic, heuristic, investigative mode. We need to work aesthetically and heuristically to bear witness to traces of the past to see how the past has informed our present. This investigative procedure needs to be evidence based. What means do we use to do this witness work.
Gibson allies the speculative impulse to an overwhelming sense of allegiance, our duty to the real world from which these things come. Hence he uses photos from 1945-1960 crime scenes.
There’s no way you can be absolute, there’s knowledge to be generated here eg about the décor and how people in those days organised their spaces. The way people stood and walked, got on and off vehicles, the lives of coppers. How can I bear witness, speculative, loose but not glib, narrativising, but not fictional with an eye to the real world. Interpretation of life after war time, a sense of the world that led to these pictures, the endlessness of the interpretation, all this following of hunches allied to their plausibility, at a longer view backed up by legislative. Hunches need to be tested for plausibility.
Each picture has a kind of pulse and flair. The importance of the picture can be grasped in the first five seconds.
This procedure is one of being in the archive. The surge of nervous energy related to cognition, how we take that as a cue, the aesthetic quality in the evidence, ie the pulse. The importance of brevity, minimalism, tenseness, all act as guides to description. We see it in the blink of an eye, in several blinks, in quick bursts of text, something in the aperture of a blink in the aperture of a breath, like in haiku.
Ontology of Haiku
Basis of belief about activity of the true world. There’s more than one life to understand in the Zen tradition. (Zen Buddhism teaches the attainment of enlightenment through meditation and intuition rather than through ritual worship or study of scriptures)
Condensed brevity in haiku allows for a springing, pulsing flair, a moment of access to the large pattern of relative connectedness in the cosmnos, its procedures and speculations. In aesthetic procedures all the senses are engaged, all are representative of the interpretable world.
To do this design work the pulse and the flair are important, the location if the work is screen based and active, minimalism of text is crucial.
Thomas Hoover Zen culture, definition of Haiku: ‘the mind is struck as if with a hammer bringing the senses up short and it releases a flood of associations’. seventeen sylables create the entire world of connectedness, multi sensory flooding, a relocation of engagenent to the original world, eg.
‘waves of heat at each stroke of the hoe
how the earth smells. Ranko
The starter’s gun
Echoing off hard surfaces
At the swimming pool. Seishi.
A flood of associations. Gibson’s fifteen year process of working with pictures has led to a deeper understanding of the Zen tradition, ie a realist tadition, an extractive realist tradition, rather than additive, it strips back. Whittle away a great many details and come down to distillation of a few constituent elements, not simply an abstraction for itself in minimalist schools that try to be representative of experience in the real world.
Present a few elements to give access.
Pictures are somewhere between naturalism and realism, drawing on constitutive elements, this is what detectives do, minimalist rather than expressive.
Music piece of art, along with a realist object 1975.
Jamaican producer, King Tubby put together version pub, imprint of Jamaica.
See Luc Sante’s work, each picture is a ‘voice print of a scream’ taken from the world, aspects of the pictures are intrinsically etched with a synaesthesic impulse.
The overall impression is one of authentic witnessing.
Again realism as opposed to naturalism in the selection of impulses, which factors we choose.
Zen tradition is related to police procedures, related to the notion of detection, related to all your senses, integrate all to a possible interpretation..
Gibson also uses the audio-geography of Jamaica in dub music.
We hear in the dub music an attempt to present sounds of Jamaica they loved. Jamaica as a bounded piece of land, in larger wash of water, bounded by the horizon, that is also penetrable, with radio waves that drift from Texas, Miami and Cuba, influences over the oceanic environment that is a small but volatile island in which all sorts of cultures live, have moved here. The original inhabitants are no more. The African culture has moved in and the indigenous culture has been expunged in Jamaica. Gibson uses such music as a backdrop.
Thus /gibson uses the sciences of mixing and convergence, mixing process of pulling it up, like medicine work.
Work on the forensic photos is here. The photo pragmatic and practical and experimental music, their object, an allegiance to the real world, seeks out the key elements that cause the actual world to be organised, part of the realist tradition.
Photo, the imprint of a scream.
The world of experience that occurs around every moment of experience, all of this is part of the realistic tradition, part of the art of the real, a cerebral procedure that’s also sensory.
We need to be investigative detectors rather than receptors, delving into and heuristically contracting with the world and work, vitally attentive to places, faces, (the faces of the crime scenes are preoccupation), in surveillance work absence speaks loudly.
All of the above comes from Gibson’s work. It has captured my imagination, may it enrich yours