I found myself eating V.I.P. breakfast croissants in the Elegance Lounge (or something) at the Frieze Art Fair this morning. I am not a real V.I.P. but ate my croissants with panache so nobody could tell. After croissants a Frieze Talk was beginning just as we walked past, and so we went in. The talk was called “In Memory of the Image”, and turned out to be a panel discussion between with Stuart Comer, George Baker and two moving image artists Morgan Fisher and Hito Steyerl.

Morgan Fisher showed the first three minutes of a twenty-one minute film called “(      )”. I’m not sure how much space there should be between the opening and closing parenthesis of the title but what I’ve typed is about proportional to how far apart he held his two cupped hands when he paused in the middle of his sentence to articulate the title. Only the opening parenthesis showed at the beginning of the film, and I assume the closing one comes at the end.

The film looks like lots of dramatic glimpses of action cut from other people’s films and edited together into a montage of unrelated events. “Appropriation!” I thought. (This was good, my assignment due Monday morning that I wasn’t working on because I was at Frieze with a V.I.P. ticket has to do with Appropriation.)

The longest glimpses of action lasted a couple of seconds at most and the shortest were just flashes. The ones I remember best are: weathered hands meaningfully shuffling cards; weathered hands meaningfully moving poker chips; a woman’s feet not falling as the stool underneath her is kicked away; the framed photograph of a woman being laid face down on a dressing table; the face-down frame being tapped meaningfully; a weathered hand meaningfully tapping a trusty gun in a holster.

Fisher explained that none of the cuts we saw in his film were his own: he’d kept each clip faithful to the start and end points originally present in their native films. The reason the scenes are all so brief is that they’re what he calls “inserts”: clips that do the job of adding unambiguous narrative information to the films they’re in, without which the overall sense of the films would have been unclear. He calls them servants to the films they support: often barely noticed but completely instrumental in communicating the meaning of the film. He feels that these inserts are almost pure meaning and nothing else: a feeling that’s supported by the curious emphatic quality each scene presents, as though rehearsing the essential facts and pacing them out clearly and undiluted.

Using all these ready-cut fragments of film diminishes the role of the artist and goes some way towards making the work “non-compositional”. The order of the clips is stipulated by certain constraints the artist imposes upon himself, and I think there was some tension here, as though Fisher regretted even that level of involvement. He described being very unhappy about having to make certain choices about including or excluding some of the shots, and later on he declared with brilliant clarity and simplicity: “I don’t care about pictures”. It’s this “indifference to the image”, as he called it, that defines his filmmaking strategy in “(         )”, and means the film could be made again with the same principle but an entirely different set of images – and even by someone else altogether – and it would still be doing the same thing.

It’s still all a bit of a mess, but let me try to draw some of these things together a bit more coherently than I managed this morning with the theatre lights low.

Fisher’s work proposes a relation between the suspicion of the image’s authority as an original and the suspicion of the artist’s authority as creator. There seems to be a reluctance to allow things to point back to a single, closed end-point, and this reluctance is bound up with and in response to the impossibility of removing subjectivity/context/prior meaning – or we might say the impossibility of having a figure with no ground.

In the context of these ideas, Walter Benjamin came up briefly, and I wanted to stand up and shout out “Yes, and I am reading him right now, I have some of his essays here in my very bag and I can read you some of the salient points I have had in mind all this time!”, but I didn’t do this. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1973) would have been an obvious text to start with, thinking about appropriation and decontextualization in terms of the “shrivelling of the aura”. But Unpacking my Library (1973) is the text that interests me most with respect to “(          )”.

This needs more thought, but for now let me copy down some of the thoughts I had a couple of years ago when I read the text for the first time. I start with Benjamin’s ideas about bibliomania and collecting more generally, from his Library essay – quotes here are from that text.

“Collecting a set of objects is to prioritise each object’s “fetish character” [1973:47] (its value as a member of that set) over its aura (its value as part of its own temporal and local tradition).  He wrote: “the most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle” [1973:62]

Museums, galleries and private collectors detach objects from their tradition to bring them close enough to touch – the same motivation that fuels mechanical reproduction of the work of art.  In “Unpacking my Library he claims that by locking objects into a collection he is depriving them of their aura, a contradiction intrinsic both to the practices of both collecting and reproducing.  The books Benjamin collected in his Paris apartment lose their original auras and become citations of themselves, within the inverted commas of the collected objects that surround them.

It is perhaps no wonder that Benjamin later became obsessed with collecting citations.  His aim was to compile a text made up entirely of quotations, which he would intentionally detach from their original textual contexts and therefore from their traditions.  This projected work probes more deeply the meaning of the ‘inverted commas’ that surround the collected object or citation.  Once an object is decontextualised from its tradition, what is the nature of its new context?  And what if its new context is made up of nothing but other decontextualised objects?  Ordinarily, when one introduces a citation into a text, the text momentarily leaps onto a  metatextual level in which the authority of an external and historical text is appealed to to serve some function within the primary text, like an eye-witness to some previous discourse.  Benjamin aimed to dispense with the primary text to present the reader with nothing but eye-witnesses: first-hand artefacts detached from their original context.  He does away with the need for the text to leap to another level to reach a citation, which is tantamount to bringing the citations up to the surface level of the text: they are its texture and the reader can touch them directly just as the collector can touch the objects in his cabinet without travelling to the time and place of their origin, and the art historian can peer closely at Michaelangelo’s Brancacci chapel ceiling without setting foot in the Vatican.

Benjamin forces us to question the surface level of the text just as he did in the discussion of film elsewhere [The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction]. In each case, as the figure (the citations or film-world) ceases to differentiate itself from the ground  (the text or the real world), the nature of the ground becomes less certain and the reality-irreality dichotomy loses authority.  If the camera’s eye view exactly matches that of the real-world viewer then the real world is unable to frame the film-world and cannot discourse with it.  Likewise if the text’s surface constitutes the same level as the citations, it cannot act as inverted commas that label the citations as reproductions of original, tradition-bound versions of themselves.”

The review I wrote last year of Peter Dreher and Stuart Cumberland at the Approach gallery keeps springing to mind as I’ve been writing – it seems to come to similar conclusions. It’s here on Kultur Fabric.