Space Junk: Photography, Consumerism & the Void | Karl Hurst

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Karl Hurst, Modern Icons (2013)

Photography used to be full of hiatuses, gaps, voids. No matter how much it tried to capture, more remained open. No matter how much it tried to represent, more remained elusive. I don’t mean the gaps in time, the gaps Eadweard Muybridge attempted to fill with his proto time-lapse photography, nor the necessary stasis of the still image. What I mean is that photography used to be seen simply as a representational tool. Photography only ever represented an object; the object remained outside of its presentation. However, the recent collapse of the object into its representational field has considerably breached the etiquette of aesthetic possibilities within the discipline. Whilst these images might carry negative implications, there’s little lost reality between them and the endless preening of the on-demand models and studios themselves; the loss of the real is much further back in the process. Doctored can no longer simply be taken as a pejorative, as it has to be seen within a larger context of a world constantly being re-touched at many levels and not just as an end process. The unobtainable is not even an aspirational mise-en-scene but one of the few realities we still have left. We understand that these views of the world are partial and suited to fit a certain limited framework. Rolling news and a burgeoning virtual cultural economy have seen a further collapse between the subject and its representation. The object has become more like its representation.

3D and 2D rendering of spatial realities are no longer separate ends of a visual logic but are closing in on each other with an increasing force, with QR codes for example. A quantitatively 2D experience of a still image folds out (or in) through the swipe of an app to reveal an inner, richer experience, like peering inside a 2D box, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe read as 1984, Winston standing in as a metaphor for the narcissism of any remaining separation. Somewhere between descriptive rendering and conjunctive object, QR (or Quick Response) codes no longer rely on solid Euclidean geometry but on a visual hiatus of solidity, mass and volume. The use of technology is already beyond its nominal application. 4G or 5G are here because they can render our last movement as both relative and predictive. In this climate the academic categorisations for the disciplines in the plastic arts have lost their broader purpose as a descriptive framework. The separation of sculpture, painting or photography have collapsed into a generalised plethora of ad hoc and temporary practices, often moving towards a re-imagining of the categories themselves. Art no longer represents, mirrors nor disparages mercantile and technological practices but is indistinguishable from them, because it can only ever attempt to catch them up. I want to discuss in further detail these shifts in the dimensional and materialistic properties of contemporary culture. In order to show this, I will discuss the changes in my own practices as a photographer in recent years alongside the broader practices of the arts in general.

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Karl Hurst, Modern Icons (2013)

In 2013 I began photographing a series of objects on a black background. My initial intention for the series was to ironize pop sensibility in general and that of Warhol and Koons in particular. I thought it might highlight the failure of the consumerist / aesthetic utopia through its own mechanisms. My working title for the series at the time was End User. I intended the series to show the failure of objects to satisfy their function, to defamiliarize the everyday pop aesthetic, to escape the banal by reconfiguring its use. The objects, I thought, might serve as totems not of desire or longing but of warning and disgust. I finished the series sometime late in 2013 & thought little more of it but as a reliquary languishing somewhere among all the other online space junk. I will return to my re-engagement with the series later. But now I want to discuss the shift in spatial rendering in greater detail.

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Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1943)

The QR code integrates itself into the modern condition with ease. It gives us the illusion of a bespoke experience whilst delivering a flattened-out product. The hustle and bustle of the market is only experiential through personal time. Willow Farm and Oakland Grange aren’t real places, yet capital allows us to imagine them as a comfort, as a familiarity. Time and money, the old adage, exist at the expense of space, concomitant with the ‘real’. The way we choose has become as important as what we choose. We might consider this faddish form of cultural hegemony to have also affected our relationship to the arts, or vice-versa. Compare, for example, Koons’ Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank with Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie. Mondrian’s piece exists in a strictly linear fashion. Albeit in an abstracted way, Boogie-Woogie represents the movement of mass through time and space. The blocks of colour are like crosstown traffic seen from above. It’s easy to imagine the car horns and bustle of New York as a kind of jazz rendered by Mondrian as an interlocking series of shapes and colours and sounds.

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Jeff Koons, Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985)

Koons, however, negates mass, volume and time in favour of a vacuum. The balls are neither rising nor descending, but untouchable and therefore desirous, idealized. Koons ironises the fetishistic quality of consumer goods by highlighting the void of displayed products. Capital, of course, hates a vacuum, cannot exist on stasis, needs trends and fluctuations to survive, needs equilibrium and so we buy into Koons’ version of the ’emperor’s new clothes’ as a critique of culture capital. Space has become distance; the distance between the wholesale consumption of culture and the loss of a sensual or textual experience through its treatment. The gallery experience further separates us from the object rather than bringing us closer to it. But we’ve nowhere left to go but the gallery to try to authenticate the loss. Willow Farm or Oakland Grange become the only real we have.

With Warhol, capital and art become synonymous, unashamedly so. To sell the dollar back to itself at a hyper-inflated rate says as much about the need for art as a product as it does about the desire for the product as art. Like an ultimate act of depreciation capital has to eat with wolves, has to exist in the void. Nothing but itself to desire, the narcissistic conditional flow is ever empty. You could get away with that stuff in the 60s. Even up to the 90s the petulance of appropriating the everyday world seemed a bit like an act of defiance and nobody seemed to draw a line in the sand between art and consumption. Warhol or Lichtenstein’s pop aesthetic are an ad-man’s dream, and so the endless re-appropriation between commerce and art is perpetuated. It’s a quick leap from dada to pop and easier still to relieve either of any radicalism. As for today, we’re either left staring back at the void of cultural capital or fizzing with the mock desire of the quick response of a personalized alternative. Culture is now a player of hyper-credit, rather than subsisting at the counter-cultural level of the semblance of an alternative. With Warhol each print has a further degradation of surface, the non-mechanical process of screen-printing renders the dollar bill increasingly useless except as an artifact (or artifice) of corruption and consumption: process as purpose. The reproduction of One Hundred Dollar Bills belies its status as an original and expensive screen print. Only a truly mechanized process might correct these flaws. Counter to this would be a rejection of the objectification of art practices. If we skip forward a couple of decades, terms like ‘handmade’, ‘craft’, ‘bespoke’ or ‘regional’ begin to gain currency again (within a framework of fear and boredom with a perceived mechanization of culture).  Of course the relationship between the arts and a burgeoning mercantile class isn’t a new one, and small cottage industries whilst laudable in themselves become problematic at the distributive or critical level.

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Andy Warhol, One Hundred One Dollar Bills (1965)

Photography today can potentially be endlessly reproduced without a loss of image quality. The impersonal resides in its end use, in the co-opting of the impersonal as folksy, retro or iconic. For me, there’s a status crisis when I look at an image by Richard Prince; each time I consider its worth the counter clicks and a dollar passes between its value and its meaning. A dollar between someone managing my click and the guy utilizing it. A dollar between the guy making an appropriation and the guy making an approximation. It’s no wonder that we feel so hemmed in. If I were to ‘follow’ a Richard Prince image on a social media feed, it might endlessly tell me what its status is, in real time, like a Tamagotchi version of cultural engagement, art as productive artifice. In today’s oversaturated climate, unfamiliarity is a luxury. Just as we can’t decommission our curiosity around consumption, artists also become caught up in the habit of supplying and refining these demands. Those unwilling or unable to do so are culturally ostracised as old-fashioned, or awkward, or, worst of all, are ignored. Those who are predisposed to engage are caught in a tidal wave of back-slapping, as in the re-affirmation of place as product.

With this background in mind, I began to re-engage with Modern Icons. I thought of the objects in the original series as finished or disposed of. That the photographs were catching their passing, that these images and our consumption of them had an end user status and that the objects would disappear from use without trace. Now, I realise that I misunderstood the nature of what recycling (or upcycling) is. Objects don’t just disappear and in fact often can’t be wholly dismantled or destroyed. This fragmentation and unresolved materiality began to bother me. Beginning the series again I saw these strange remnants and discarded objects as somehow exotic and rare. I didn’t know what the objects were any longer, or what use, if any, they ever had. They seemed to carry their strangeness with them as if they were archaeological finds. The elusive quality of not knowing a use for a thing gave them a status as beautiful like icons from an age where consumption and production raged unchecked. Not a world we are absent from, but one we have forgotten we are of and responsible for. Objects are here to stay; we cannot avoid them, though I’ve still not found a use for them. Perhaps I’ll keep the objects as grave goods, amulets to ward away evil, or perhaps we should send them into space as satellites of human desire and its implications. The series of photographs will eventually fade to pale outlines and go with their objects into the ever-increasing swell of the void.


New photography by Karl Hurst will feature as part of the forthcoming ‘Ruskin Re-Viewed’ exhibition at Millennium Gallery, Sheffield (31 October – 8 November 2015). Three recent essays on photography (under the series title ‘On Liminal Spaces’) appeared on the Longbarrow Blog earlier this year; the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here, the second essay (‘Meditation on Carl Wark’) appears here, and the third essay (‘Winter Hare at Alport: A Theory of Disappearance’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here, including the series 
Modern Icons discussed in this piece. Boxed editions of prints are available from his Etsy site. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed poetry anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).

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