Tag Archives: Contemporary art

Industrial Photography Performed: The Struggle for Energy from Modernism to the Cold War

 

Our joint presentation drew upon photographic materials produced in the context of the industrial development of energy production in the United States and the GDR. While the photographs discussed in our presentations were produced in distinct political systems, at different points in time—Modernism in the early 20th century and towards the end of the Cold War in the 1970s—from different perspectives and for different audiences, the common ground between both papers is the analysis of the uses of photography and how they performed in the struggle for energy. Therefore, both case studies present different views on how photography was used as a medium through which the exploitation of natural resources for energy production was visually represented and commercially and socially understood.

Using the Ralph Arnold photographic album collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, the first study outlined the use of photography as a key element in the formation of the emerging oil industry in the Western United States in the early twentieth century. Ralph Arnold (1875-1961) was an American geologist and petroleum engineer whose photographs taken during several geological surveys in California, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Texas were part of a collective scientific and financial effort to lobby for appropriate oil taxation and the recognition of the role of the petroleum engineer in oil exploration.

The second study discussed the visual dialogue between Nguyen The Thuc’s Kohle unter Magdeborn (Coal beneath Magdeborn) (1976), a photographic album documenting an open cast coal mining site and the devastation of its inhabitant community in the GDR, and Christiane Eisler’s series of commissioned photographs of the revisited mining site and contemporary Leipzig, produced in the period 2012 to 2014. The album and the new series of works were shown together in the 2014 exhibition Freundschaftsantiqua in Leipzig (Germany). The bodies of work reflect the changes in the industrialised environment through expanding and contracting resource extraction and the effects on its inhabitants. They are also documents of an international cultural production and GDR culture politics. The medium of photography was selected as exhibition focus due to its propensity to visually communicate across different cultures.

wood fossil_Magdeborn

Fossilised tree fragment, entrance area at Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, 2015, photograph: Bergit Arends

Freundschaftsantiqua_installation detail

Freundschaftsantiqua 2014, Galerie fuer Zeitgenoessische Kunst Leipzig (Germany), exhibition detail, photography: Sebastian Schroeder

 

Jointly we explored the performativity and fluidity of meaning of photographic images. How is meaning shaped by institutional discourses, disciplinary perspectives, and expertise. How were photographs taken by petroleum engineers used to shape the oil industry in terms of scientific exploration, commercial capabilities and policy reforms in the American West? How did the project from the GDR contribute to, or contravene, a political and environmental discourse in documenting how humans were affected by a visibly polluting energy production? Or did the images in both case studies contribute to a discourse of personal sacrifice towards a collective ‘greater good’ and moral duty for the nation?

Bergit Arends and Noeme Santana

 

Bibliography

+ contextual reading on the international circulation and audiences of photographs of American West taken by Timothy O’Sullivan during the Clarence King Surveys between 1867 and 1872:

Brunet, F., (2012) ‘Showing American Geography Abroad in the Victorian Era: The International Reception of the King Survey Work’, in: Timothy O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs, Davis, K. and Aspinwall,J. (ed.), New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 185-195

+ for some insights into GDR photography by a GDR/Germany-based curator. Exhibition catalogue of the first survey exhibition of GDR photography in the UK, curated by Matthew Shaul:

Immisch, T. O. (2007), ‘Appearance and Being: GDR Photography of the 1970s and 1980s’, in: Do Not Refreeze: Photography behind the Berlin Wall, exh. cat., Manchester: Cornerhouse Publications, pp. 24-27

+ one history on the subject of energy in the USA and Germany

Radkau, J., (1996), ‘Energy: Genie or Genius? – How steam, electricity and oil heralded global change’, History Today, vol 46; MNTH 11, pp. 14-19

+ photography theory from 1983 for social and economic discourses on images at the example of images (1948-1968) by a commercial photographer in the coal-mining region of Cape Breton:

Sekula, A. (2003) ‘Reading an Archive. Photography between Labour and Capital’, in: The Photography Reader, Wells, L. (ed.), London: Routledge, pp. 443-452

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HELEN SCALWAY ON GEOGRAPHIES OF LAB MICE

On November 3rd 2015 I made a presentation to the Landscape Surgery group at Royal Holloway concerning a collaborative project between a geographer, Professor Gail Davies of Exeter University, and myself as an artist. The subject concerned the geographies of lab animals, specifically lab mice. The presentation was an attempt, as the collaboration is now drawing to a close, to situate the work in a wider context, within a set of histories.
Sadly Gail could not be present. However, I began by looking briefly at one of her papers to which she had drawn my attention early on in our long conversation, one I have found riveting, titled ‘Writing biology with mutant mice: the monstrous potential of post genomic life’ (Davies 2013).
In this paper Gail explores the ways in which the science around lab animals is subject to different forces: a version of science is at work, characterised as modernist – i.e. reductionist, spare, ‘pure’, looking for uniformity and repeatability on the one hand; and in contrast, a ‘post-modern’ version characterised by excess, undecidability, unforeseeability – what in Derrida’s terms might be called ‘the monstrous’. She writes:
‘Rather than searching for the normal, the ideal type, or the singular genetic code from which variations are defined, here difference is of central interest and value … it is monstrous in the sense that it is oriented to the production of a variety of possibilities, not all of which will become facts. It is open to the future – to the monstrous arrivant – in a way that the sequencing practices of human genome project were not…’

2 Arrows-1

Arrows

There are some interesting parallels between these suggestions of ‘excess, undecidability, unforeseeability’ in post-genomics – characteristics of ‘the monstrous’ – and these qualities in some approaches to contemporary drawing. Crucially, in the context of the work which became Micespace, we might say that drawing which welcomes the not-yet-see-able partakes of ‘the monstrous’, understood in this way. Drawing research scholar Vinod Goel has suggested that, in certain phases in a design process, thoughts and their representations need to be ‘intersecting, undifferentiated and ambiguous’ (2014: 4) and that freehand sketches are useful because they facilitate lateral transformations (ibid., p. 218). Another leading drawing researcher, Steve Garner remarks: ‘Drawing is an immanence, always pointing to somewhere else’ (2008: 37).

Drawing as begetting the unfixed and ambiguous, the future-bearing – this seemed to offer fitting approaches for a project concerned with the begetting of ‘the monstrous’.

So, at Landscape Surgery I presented some works from Gail’s and my collaboration in the light of these earlier comments – not looking for closed conclusions but for further discussion. All the visual experiments were predicated on the idea that while there is an object of study, the lab mouse, there is no fixed agreement as to what kind of entity – or process – this might comprise. The visual approaches all began with some variety of drawing but ranged from a form of charting combining linear pen drawing with writing, to the most hands-on explorations with other materials, to dematerialisations of projected light.
Why so many approaches, so many methods? I think the answer lies somewhere in this: that materials and means radically inflect outcomes and their implications, so that working with different materials opens up a corporeally-imbricated, rich variety of ways of ‘thinkings-through’. Truly method changes meaning; and this became fascinating to me in itself.
Some interesting questions emerged from the session.
Many questions concerned the ‘lab diagram’, initially based on an American National Institute of Health recommended lab design. Instead of requiring people to look at this as a projection or even a series of fly-ins, the diagram, which contains a certain amount of text, was printed out and twenty copies handed round: superficially the work looks like a neutral architectural plan, but the labelling confuses categories. The labelling evokes hope and fear and finance, pain and ‘sacrifice’, ‘dirt’ and ‘purity’, suggesting the metaphoric, moral and emotional complexities of place. A question I need to consider further is why this particular diagram on paper was so productive of questions whereas the projected images in the powerpoint provoked some, but fewer.

3 Lab - the 'clean' and the 'dirty'The clean and the dirty

Various points were raised:

That the lab diagram drawing functions partly as a building plan and needs weighting for frequency of action
That text is a part of an aesthetic
That diagrams do things, capture and create positions – (the implications from this seem vast)
Leaving the questions arising from the diagram for those around the whole website, the question was asked, could the website develop into a form of drawing research?
In what ways are hyperlinks on a website, a version of direction-giving arrows? (Arrows in diagramming having come under discussion for their suggestion of highly selective ‘causality’.)
It was asked whether the tracks made by animals might be considered a form of drawing? – If so, what would the word ‘drawing’ mean in this context?
Could this kind of approach be used to map other human/animal relations, e.g. those with farm animals?
What is the difference, if any, between an unfamiliar hybrid and a monster?
What might be the viewpoint of any audience for this work? How might it be given voice?

Such questions continue to resonate for me.

Helen Scalway

4 Monstrous mouseprintMonstrous mouse print

References

Davies, G. (2013) Writing biology with mutant mice: the monstrous potential of post genomic life, Geoforum, 48: 268-78.

Garner, S. (2008) Writing on Drawing: Essays on Drawing Practice and Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goel, V. (2014). Drawing as a Research Tool, Studies in Material Thinking, Vol.10, February.

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A Week in Leipzig: From censored punk portraits to Johann Sebastian Bach’s motets on Saturday afternoon, 18 April 2015

view from Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, April 2015

View from Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, April 2015

April 2015

April 2015

I had spent time over the Easter break with the family at my parents’ place in Eastern Frisia on the Dutch-German border (I am German, from the former West). My train ride to Leipzig took me on a journey from West to East starting at Emden via Oldenburg, Bremen, Hannover, Magdeburg, and Halle, to Leipzig in the former German Democratic Republic. Leipzig has been very visibly renovated since the ‘Wende’ in 1989, a term for the reunification that has crept into everyday use but is criticized by some as a flawed term in as much as it implies some form of restoration. For others that time of change is characterized as the Friedliche Revolution (Peaceful Revolution).[i] This study trip afforded me insights into the city’s complex past beyond the recently gilded and contemporary glassy facades.

My doctoral research, provisionally entitled ‘Experimental Fields: Curating Art and Environment Projects in the Age of the Anthropocene’ considers the relationships between humans and the natural environment with particular attention to field and expeditionary practices, to the co-production of knowledge, and to re-enactment.

One of my case studies is the photographic album ‘Kohle unter Magdeborn’ (Coal beneath Magdeborn), 1976, by photographer Nguyen The Thuc (b. 1949 in Nam Dinh, Vietnam). During the time of the German Democratic Republic he documented the environmental and the social impacts of the intensifying coal mining in Espenhain, near Leipzig. The historic village of Magdeborn was only one of many swallowed up by the expanding open-pit brown coal mine, but seemed to have attracted the most attention. Its around 3500 inhabitants were decanted to nearby villages or the newly-built ‘Plattenbauten’, buildings made from prefabricated concrete slabs, on the outskirts of Leipzig. Thuc accompanied this process over a period of a few months, creating a unique documentation of the bulldozed buildings and the displaced life.

The Espenhain surface mine scored deeply into the landscape to unearth the crumbly brown coal between 1937 and 1994 and was closed after having extracted coal to depths of 60 to 100 m. The site was transformed into the Störmthaler See, which began to be flooded in 2003, creating a lake with a sailing and other leisure facilities. The re-cultivated area and its futuristic landscaping was photographed last year by Leipzig-based photographer Christiane Eisler. Both artists, Thuc and Eisler, were educated at the famous Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts or Hochschule for Grafik und Buchkunst (HGB), where they studied photography. My attention was drawn to the Magdeborn project by Thuc and the retake by Eisler through the exhibition ‘Freundschaftsantiqua’, curated by Julia Blume and Heidi Stecker for the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, which marked 250 years of the school in 2014. The curatorial proposition was to show works by foreign students at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig as a much neglected chapter of international art in the GDR, with a special focus on photography. Interestingly these students often worked on themes that were not officially recognized or were subversive, selecting themes that were taboo in the GDR at the time.[ii]

You can see some works and exhibition installation shots here Freundschaftsantiqua

Thuc documented the people of Magdeborn. A lot of the inhabitants had small holdings, and Thuc recorded details of their everyday lives, their festivities, and their religious celebrations. His photographs became particularly poignant knowing that it was forbidden to talk about the process of ‘decanting’ and the problems of environmental transformation and of pollution. In fact, religious groups in particular started to draw attention to the toxic environments around Leipzig at the time, contributing to the dissidence that led to the change in the late 80s.

Eisler (called Schwenn at the time of her studies) has taken a long-term interest in documenting social environments of marginalized individuals under an oppressive regime and those affected by a changing society. Her portraits of East German punks of the 80s were considered undesirable and were censored. She contributed to the ‘Freundschaftsantiqua’ exhibition with her photographs of defunct sites of labour, the immigrant situation of Leipzig’s Eastern district and by revisiting the former Espenhain site, in whose depths lie the remains of the Magdeborner Heimat (homeland).

Through these photography projects I have started to explore a critique of a utopian societal and economic model. Thuc’s intercultural encounters within the ‘closed society’ of the GDR afford subtle and subversive observations of the dramatic changes in the industrial landscape and the effects on people. I am beginning to explore how Thuc’s transcultural perspective from the 1970s, and Eisler’s existing and commissioned photographs, were reframed through contemporary curating practices.

During my stay, I interviewed one of the exhibition curators, other artists who had photographed the changing landscape, and inhabitants of the extinguished Magdeborn. One day was spent driving and walking the outline of the 1-year old Störmthaler See, which was opened for public use last April. My site-visit started on the Grade 3 waste deposit that now covers part of the former mining site, from which vantage point I could oversee the lake. It was the hottest day of the week when I climbed this ashen mountain of waste.

The GDR in the 1980s was the world’s leading producer of brown coal. The Federal Republic of Germany still ranks among the most significant extractors of the remains of the carboniferous forest, and is engaged in mining sites from West to East. Despite the Energiewende (energy transition) and heavy investments in alternative energies, Germany still relies on coal, the more so since its stepping away from nuclear power following Fukushima. A layered model of an anthropogenic Earth would picture the gaping holes in the land left by coal extraction, a transformed society through energy generation, and an atmosphere laden with CO2 caused by burning coal. How do artists critically represent our hunger for energy? Can we afford to be sentimental about the loss of Heimat as the cost of the energy demands that underpin our standard of living? Does our understanding need the top of a waste heap from which to look down onto the moonscape of a surface pit or the turquoise mirror of a leisure lake?

On my last day in Leipzig I went to the motet in the protestant St. Thomas church, where Johann Sebastian Bach, was cantor. Every Saturday at 15h the motets are sublimely sung, this time with the world-famous St. Thomas boys’ choir. 70 years earlier to the day, the American troops had entered Leipzig in the last throes of the Second World War. Back home in London I had a heated debate with a German friend about which verb to use for the advancing and the retreating armies and the German population caught up in these battles. Were the Germans in Leipzig ‘liberated’ or were they simply ‘defeated’? The pastor speaking from the pulpit in the St. Thomas church related that the Americans were in Leipzig until 1 July 1945. When American troops withdrew as agreed with the Soviet Union, Leipzig was taken over by the Soviet army. During the time of the GDR the official story was that the Soviets had liberated Leipzig, thereby erasing 10 weeks of American rule from history.

I will use the research material gathered during an intense week to trace the layers of the living archive south of Leipzig. The photographic representations and the narratives evolving around these images are my primary sources. The artists’ works appeal to social justice in their portrayal of the individuals within the different states, which is something I will particularly draw out.

I am exploring landscape as a palimpsest of human interventions and the agency of nature. Artists’ representations of environmental change can draw on the fields of economy, science and technology, and culture. In my thesis research I study and trace these through a number of artists’ works including photographer Chrystel Lebas, installation artists Mark Dion and Hu Yun, and painter Daniel Boyd. Their explorations led them to the re-enactment of archives and to working in the field to create their art. The current debates around the geological age of the ‘Anthropocene’ serve as a framework to analyse and interpret these works afresh. I will look at the understanding of time in nature and humans and the complex role humans assume within nature by being passive observers and active agents.

Bergit Arends

2nd year PhD candidate in Geography and Drama, Reid scholar

I would like to thank the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group in the Department of Geography and the Department of Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London for the support of this study trip.


[i] Simon, A, (2014) ‘Wende? Revolution!’, Die Zeit Online, No. 44

[ii] ‘Freundschaftsantiqua. Ausländische Studierende an der Hochschule fὒr Grafik und Buchkunst – ein internationals Kapitel der Kunst in der DDR’ exhibition curated by Julia Blume and Heidi Stecker at the Galerie fὓr Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, 1.2.2014 to 1.6.2014, and accompanying Journal #2, issued by the HGB

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