Therefore, in the contemporary period, art and philosophy have drawn closer to everyday life, but only to discredit it, under the pretext of giving it a new resonance. Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 1
For a few years [late 1980s] Adelaide had a very interesting and exciting art scene: a really special crop of artists came through the art schools together and began having their first shows then — people like Bronwyn Platten, Shaun Kirby, Craige Andrae, Andy Petrusevics, Hewson/ Walker, Bronia Iwanczak, Anton Hart. Fiona Hall was showing here regularly. George Popperwell began to show for the first time really. Richard Grayson (who directed the Sydney Biennale a few years ago) had arrived from the UK. Later joined by Suzy Treister. Ken Bolton, Jacket, 27, April 2005
During the 1980s I was living in a salt-damp, working class cottage in Bowden, a suburb in western Adelaide where the double processes of industrialization and urbanisation conjoined in the factory and street. I worked part-time at Conroys Smallgoods factory, studied initially for a BA in philosophy and visual arts then an MA on Romanticism, industrial modernity and photography, and read books on aesthetics and politics. Though the narratives of modernism had ended a modernist critical practice remained the foundation for the language and practice of the curatorial and the art-history professoriate.
Adelaide was my home: I’d chosen to stay, work, and live here. I was emotionally attached to this place, even if my experience walking Light’s geometric design of Adelaide was that it lacked urban life. The design of the built urban space of this Cartesian city structures public life, creates the daily routines around work, shopping and entertainment, and shapes our navigation of the streets and commodity culture as a photographer scanning the urban landscape for creative material. I wandered around photographing the humble, everyday life in the working class suburb of Bowden-Brompton and Adelaide’s CBD. The city was modernity’s most important cultural form and the male gaze of the urban flâneur and photography go together to produce a photographic way of seeing.
Adelaide’s everyday life emotionally grounded me in the local and vernacular of a provincial city without a sense of missing out that is born of a fear of being in the wrong place. There is no right place, for if we view artworks from the perspective of the aftermath of Duchamp’s Fountain or Warhol’s Brillo Boxes throughout modern art history, then creativity happens everywhere making use of what comes to hand. My artworld experience was limited to viewing photographic exhibitions at the Developed Image and conversations at the Experimental Art Foundation about the death of painting and the only art that was essentially art was post-object art and its photographic documentation. I was puzzled by Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document and scratched my head over Stelarc’s Body Suspension with its metal hooks into his skin. I was looking back to Lefebvre interpreting the riddle of everyday life. For Lefebvre James Joyce’s Ulysses not only accepts the everyday, it narrates it. It was in Adelaide that I became aware of the cosmopolitan origins and intellectual backgrounds of the diaspora of German and Eastern European émigré modernist and experimental artists, architects and designers who were pivotal to the development of modernism in Adelaide and Australia. A modernist Adelaide existed.
If modernism had driven the politics and art strand of a realist photography underground into the unconscious, there was still a vague awareness that there were forms of art and experience in industrial modernity that were non-commodified — ie., Adorno’s notion of the negative, or the Left’s ideas of struggle against industrial capitalism and patriarchy. The autonomy of art photography still made sense in its separation from popular photography, even if all photography (and art) is semblance. The artworld had moved beyond modernism onto postmodernism and the aesthetic philosophers were talking about the end of art history. The anti-aesthetic was in vogue. Postmodernist photography had replaced painting and the art gallery/museum was the bastion of a certain kind of conservative politics.
A realist photography of everyday urban life was constructed by the artworld as a simple referential naivety — positivism’s transparent window on a stable world that is independent of a photographer’s beliefs. This traditional view, which was held by modernists, the post-object art avant-garde and postmodernists lead to the denial that a realist photography is an art form, even though photography was central in the artworld. What the flâneur photographer (or poet) sees on the streets of the commonplace is mediated by the memory of the city, and this looking at the past acts as a filter. This realist photography as a sedimented history of the city was displaced in the effort to defend art’s movement toward autonomy to avoid its trivialization by popular photography, advertising and mass culture.
In terms of the spatiality of Adelaide, Bowden is less than 4 kilometres from Adelaide’s CBD, and adjacent to the Adelaide parklands. The location was similar to the inner, middle class suburbs like Parkside and Kent Town, and yet Bowden had become an industrial zone with its contaminated land during South Australia’s shift from an agrarian capitalist economy and society to an industrial society in the 1930s. The Bowden-Brompton of the 1980s was an industrial suburb with a mixture of housing, factories, shops and small offices and warehouses.
Adelaide’s history in modernity, was one where the suburbs west of the city of Adelaide and the parklands, such as Hindmarsh and Bowden, had been earmarked as industrial areas prior to 1945, primarily because they were in the vicinity of the road and rail links between Adelaide’s CBD and Port Adelaide. The industrial origins in the 19th century lay in the small cottage industries supported by both residential and industrial expansion. As the more noxious industries moved into the area in the early 20th century, the wealthier residents began to move out. In the 20th century the inner western suburbs of Adelaide were seen in terms of the production of space for industry by the modern, functionalist urban planners.
The residential architecture in Bowden prior to its recent gentrification as Bowden Village by Renewal SA consisted of cheaply built working class cottages. These buildings were dark inside, full of salt damp during the winter and hothouses in the summer. This housing had no insulation, and there were few street trees to provide some shade from the summer heat. In the 1980s these cottages were still situated amongst plastics factory, three foundries, building companies that specialised in building panels, warehouses, and delis. Peter Strawhan in Thanks, Mum recalls growing up in Brompton circa 1936:
“Home was one of a row of detached workingmen’s cottages in East Street, almost in the shadow the giant gasometer that dominated the skyline. The stench from the gasworks was all pervading. My maternal grandparents lived nearby in Chief Street. They had managed to rear their brood of seven children in a tiny cottage which boasted two underground bedrooms … Across the road was a tannery. which offered some competition to the gasworks in generating the always-present noxious odours.”
Bowden/Brompton in the 1980s was still a dumpy and dingy industrial suburb, the local foundries were still dirty and polluting and a lot of the land was contaminated by industry: eg., the toxic cocktail of chemicals dumped into the old pug holes under the houses. Pug holes were dug for clay to build bricks, then filled with rubbish from the various companies in the area with the toxic cocktail spreading where there was groundwater. Peter remembers this as his local playground. Life wasn’t boring.
The condition of this industrial urban space was known in the 1960s, but nothing was done, even though Adelaide saw itself as an enlightened garden city. In the imagination of the class conscious ‘civilised’ Adelaideans living in the eastern suburbs Bowden as an older western industrial home of the working class represented the grotesque horrors and terrors of urban life, with its shady characters and their irrational, uninhibited desires and passions. In the 1980s it was seen to be a place that you ventured into at your own risk.
The earthy and gritty character of industrial Bowden embodied the urban myth of it being a threatening, sinister urbanscape, and a foreign place. The depressing character of sub-standard dwellings, combined with noise, odours, dirt, smoke pollution and heavy traffic, meant that Bowden was defined as Adelaide’s slum. Slums, for many middle class Adelaideans meant an incidence of disease and delinquency, the threat of disorder, crime, mental illness, alcoholism and death. Bowden became the place beyond the pale that was supposedly haunted by savage beasts and evil spirits. What happened in the shadow lands behind the Gasworks at night was crime, not romance.
In Bowden the main stream working class culture with its militant egalitarianism included many post-1945 European migrants (Greek, Italian, Yugoslav), who were attracted to the area because of the low cost of housing. Though industry expansion quickened after the 1940s, Bowden-Brompton was still a residential area in the 1970s. By the 1980s the official view of Bowden-Brompton was that these suburbs were old industrial areas in which industry expansion could take place through purchasing the adjoining residential property. Bowden remained a deformed, urban space and its working class residents were marginalised, excluded from progress and denied a more liveable urban area.
The working class was expected to accept this as their residential properties were seen as outworn and obsolete. They had reached the end of their economic and useful life, and their low property values encouraged the intrusion of factories and businesses. The substandard housing was considered to be only worthy of demolition. The concerns of the working class for better living conditions for themselves were ignored. Even though there was limited room for industrial expansion in Bowden, and industry was moving to Adelaide’s northern and north western suburbs, the former Hindmarsh Council, which had been captured by industry, had little interest in greening the suburb, improving the quality of the environment, or urban renewal. The state government, in turn, had no conception of urban infill with higher density housing close to the parklands. This only emerged in the mid-1990s.
For the then Hindmarsh Council urban redevelopment of the land in Bowden meant redevelopment for economic purposes which, in turn, meant industrial expansion, and so an opposition to Bowden becoming a more liveable urban area. The market ruled and, consequently, there was little understanding of the social purposes of human cohabitation through supporting a working class community that saw Bowden-Brompton as a home. For these residents modernity meant industrial expansion, displacement and homelessness, the wreckage of historical progress, and the present as a locus of loss that led to an anxiety of belonging. The implication was that there could be no community for the residents if their community was treated as the mere collection of manipulable objects by the calculative utility of economic reason. Hence the conflict between residents, the council and state government over industrial expansion.
The initial spark in conflict between residents in opposition to government and business was the US inspired report, the 1968 ‘Metropolitan Adelaide Transport System (MATS)’. This proposed modernist circuit of freeways required major property acquisition, and it identified Bowden-Brompton as the potential site for the four-level spaghetti central freeway interchange with many flyovers. The inference from MATS was that the residents were dispensable. The acceptance of the MATS plan by the state Liberal government had resulted in the compulsory purchase by the Highways Department of over 300 houses. These houses were destroyed, or allowed to fall into disrepair as the MATS plan was fought.
The MATS plan to spread Adelaide out into an endless suburbia had been shelved in the 1970s by the Dunstan government, which had been elected on a policy that opposed the MATS plan. The MATS owned land and houses in Bowden was sold around 1980, with much of the housing in Bowden-Brompton being annexed by industry. The result was s the dissolution of the community framework and tradition of experience that connected private and public experiences through memory which enabled residents to have a sense of place. The conflict started to ease with new low income housing and the emergence of cooperative housing with the Hindmarsh Housing co-operative. The cooperatives were initially set up to provide housing for people at risk of losing houses to industrial development.
The momentary convergence of community and government concerns in the late 1980s resulted in a rezoning the Hindmarsh council area as residential, noxious large scale industry relocated, and the promotion of housing co-operatives. Quietly, in the background, the small industries started to vanish along with its workers. The imagining of a future urban space as a home placed an emphasis on working class community form of political activism, and this activism saved Bowden-Brompton from becoming a polluted industrial park. The fightback for the development of the housing co-operatives was a politics of urban renewal to rebuild and strengthen the local working class community. This, in turn, helped to reconstruct through memory a more cohesive meaningful experience of modern life from the ruins of an absent past that had been suppressed by the myth of progress and the phantasmagoria or consumer spectacle of industrial modernity.
If the future is linked to the insignificant past, the condition for overcoming the negativity of the present was through accepting change, linking back to a broken-backed working class life, and interpreting its ruins and debris as an embodiment of collective dream images for a future life of community. In this form of recollection, in which the past arises when put into constellation with an event in the present, memory is the medium of past experience. This buried past requires a digging into the same matter over and over again: —- an archaeological evacuation of the past.
These historical recollections of Bowden reconstructed as a spatial history are a first attempt at a cognitive mapping that produces a knowledge of the situation we find ourselves in without pretending to understand the totality of the global. Cognitive mapping is a way of making connections though co-ordinating the existential and phenomenological experience of people in their daily lives and the abstract global economic, political and social relationships that we already inhabit. Jameson’s idea of cognitive mapping correlates the field of culture with the field of political economy, and it refers to a new mode of representing abstracted and fragmented entities and spaces in neoliberal world.
The aim of the mapping is to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects, in this chaotic world of flux, and to make sense of our traumatic experiences of being adrift in history. It is a partial map since in late modernity there is a gap between individual phenomenological experience and the structural intelligibility of an expanding globalisation. Cognitively mapping of this gap produces narratives in the form of a figuration, rather than a true representation of a global reality; a figuration because it is extremely difficult to map the economic flows of capitalism and its culture as a global system. My attempt to map an urban space of a suburb of Adelaide to a sense of place is part of an allegorical structure that attempts to tell another spatial tale about a sense of place that connects the discourse of urban modernism to that of modernity and industrial capitalism.
The map of living amidst the fragmentary ruins of social democracy and modernism in everyday life in the antipodes can be connected to the modernity of industrial capitalism, where modernity is understood as whole away of life associated with the nation-building in the 1950s. This was premised around factory production, mass consumption and the car as a symbol of freedom. Australia’s late and partial industrialisation was shaped by postwar images of modernity as the American Way of Life. What Americans made of the country as registered in American novels at least since the sixties in such works as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is well known for its blandness, an “undifferentiated limbo of highways and drive-ins, garages and main streets, vandalized landscapes and faceless towns.” This modernist culture, as a period style and a mass produced, post-war suburban mode of life. It was both a process of suburbanisation on the outskirts of the city boundaries and a process of decentralisation with the centre or CBD eroding into the peripheral suburbs and and shopping malls extending into the countryside north and south of the city centre.
South Australia in the 1980s still basked in the glow of its glory days of the 1970s, when Don Dunstan’s modernising Labor Government had led the way in Australia with social reform, debating Aboriginal rights, challenging the White Australia Policy, support for culture, civic virtue and legislating to decriminalise homosexuality in response to the culture of gay bashing, often carried out by the police. This progressive thinking with its sense of fun and food were the trademarks of the “Dunstan eras’” social democratic conception of the darkness and light of the project of Australian modernity in the 20th century, with its nation-building state investment in suburban and regional development.
This Antipodean social democratic project of nation building was firmly in the European Enlightenment’s understanding of progress that brings prosperity and civilisation. It was premised on social liberalism and its narrative assumed the possibility that the future would be fundamentally better than the past. This form of Australian modernity challenged the idea that prior to Hawke-Keating Australia was asleep, backward and pathetic and they opened Australia to globalisation and the world.
However, living in Bowden highlighted how Adelaide became modern without being fully industrial, and there was a lack of social justice for the industrial working class. It highlighted that in the 1980s the economic structure of South Australia was one in which manufacturing industries and industrial workers was in sharp decline. The process of de-industrialization in South Australia was the decline of Fordist manufacturing, unemployment for the working class and the privatisation of public services. South Australia becomes part of the left-behind parts of the nation, with its closed shops, unemployment, and the emergence of an invasive surveillance regime, and a working class future in a zone of casual labour and flexible contracts. The emerging neo-liberal mode of economic rationality, with its emphasis on a deregulated financial system and the market ruling, caused disquiet in the working class heartlands about where the country was heading. De-industrialization looked as if it would result in a protracted and painful experience with the industrial working class bearing the brunt of these changes.
The 1980s in South Australia were hard economic times with high unemployment and ongoing decline in manufacturing caused by the withdrawal of Commonwealth’s tariffs and subsidies. The dark clouds of de-industrialization which had formed over Whyalla in the 1970s, suggested that there would be great structural changes for South Australia. By the early 1990s the hopes and optimism of the Dunstan/Bannon era had evaporated and were experienced as a loss. The 1980s property boom in Adelaide ended with Paul Keating’s ‘recession we had to have’ in the early 1990s; the subsequent collapse of the State Bank in 1991; the resignation of John Bannon, the Premier, in 1992. The financial collapse of the State Bank arose directly from the neo-liberal driven deregulation of the global financial markets. In response the state Liberal Government under Dean Brown and John Olsen privatised public assets and outsourced the provision of public services to private companies. This was part of the retreat from the welfare state to residual social support, the hollowing out of the public sector and a politicised public service.
Neo-liberal economic rationality held that the process of de-industrialization, which had started with the 1970s recessions, meant that the options for South Australia were stark: change or slowly decay into a rust bucket state. The state’s future in the 1990s looked to be one of working class job losses and worsening job conditions, economic stagnation, poor job prospects for the working-class youth, poor educational qualifications, high illiteracy and innumeracy rates, increasing unemployment and poverty, and decreasing population as young people left the state for work in Melbourne and Sydney. The ruins of a social democratic modernity were very noticeable in Adelaide as a historical wreckage of the recent past — eg., the boarded up windows and shops that were closed or were rarely open, the abandoned, decaying, forgotten or overlooked urban spaces in the city and the disappearance of the branch offices of international firms like Leica.
If the MATS plan and the expansion of manufacturing industry in Bowden had been blocked by citizens, the economic forces of globalisation that were breaking down South Australia’s tariff protected manufacturing industry were too powerful to roll back. Adelaide became a backwater. Young people left permanently. Those who remained embraced a nostalgic culture of denial and fear about South Australia’s future in the nation. This was coupled to a denial and fear about a vulnerable South Australia’s future in the nation. South Australia was a low-income and low-wealth state.
At a national level the 1980s were a turning point in Australian history. The Hawke-Keating Labor government’s neo-liberal mode of governance was deregulating Australia along with the opening Australia to the world. This resulted in a more open economic era characterised by a floating of the dollar, lower tariffs, strong property rights, privatisation, fiscal austerity and cuts to welfare, tax cuts, deregulating markets limited government, micro-economic reform, self-regulating markets and free trade. The role of the state in this mode of governance is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The image is one the transformation of the old, closed society and economy being replaced by necessity with the new, globalised, innovative Australia.
Neo-liberalism as a mode of governance aimed to restore the class power of the global economic class. It was a political project carried out by a corporate capitalist class to curb the power of labour and to make domestic labour competitive with global labour. The neo-liberal mode of governance held that human wellbeing would be achieved through the maximisation of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterised by private property rights, individual freedom, unencumbered markets and free trade. The role of the state was to create and preserve an institutional framework that enabled the above practices to flourish. It markets did not exist (higher education, welfare, health) they needed to be created. This was the Washington consensus that was forged in the 1990s.
From a South Australian perspective what stood out was that de-industrialization was an ongoing process of the decline of manufacturing in Adelaide and the oldest inner city-based plants in Melbourne and Geelong, where little new investment had occurred. In this process the manufacturing industries disappeared decamped to China. Associated with this is the concurrent emergence of free market globalisation, privatisation of water, electricity and telecommunications and underfunded public services. This decline of social democracy and industrial capitalism represented an unravelling of the postwar economic economic order, was experienced as a series of shocks and destruction. To quote Benjamin a storm is blowing in from Paradise.
A neo-liberal economic rationality emphasised creative destruction, the shift to an open economy China emerging as the new superpower with an economy that boomed with low cost manufacturing, and China becoming Australia’s largest trading partner. The mining states of Queensland and Western Australia became China’s quarries. Australia rolled in cash from the mining boom. In the mid-1990s John Howard promised us that we would be comfortable and relaxed, whilst undermining the welfare state, and starting the culture wars with its attacks on the public funding for a wide range of cultural institutions, including the Arts Council, public broadcasting, the humanities and the universities.
This cognitive mapping is a negative characterisation of a fragmented present as it was experienced as a shock of an awareness of an epochal shift in how capital produced value and how it was governed. This shift marked the end of modernity and the social democratic tradition and the historical period of postmodernity. Economists talked in terms of globalization, creative destruction in the economy, new job creation from firms adapting to the emerging new communication technologies and finance capitalism. Cultural theorists talked about postmodernism’s surfaces, lack of depth, the disappearance of history, the simulacrum of the past, the real becoming ahistorical the reduction to the present and the body as the new cultural logic of capitalism. Marxists talked in terms of transforming Labor, post-Fordism, residual welfarism and the brave new world founded on the economic imperatives of globalisation.
The social democratic past of Dunstan had been sealed off. The experience of the present enters our bodies as a repetition of the same (of newness). It is not noticed as it is located within memory. The social democratic past was a lost cause to be mourned, whilst living within the contradictory dynamics of change increasingly beyond our control. Though Australia in the 1970s -1980s had become a cosmopolitan nation that drew on various central and regional sources to create its own cultural dynamic, there was a sense of unease in being antipodean as the Lucky Country deindustrialised and became the Clever Country.
Anxiety, mourning and nostalgia for what was being lost came to the fore in Adelaide. Nostalgia for childhood and youth remembered. Nostalgia for a time when job security was assured, progressive politics focused on worker’s rights, and social and economic stability was the norm. Nostalgia for the outmoded, mourning the good times lost, and anxiety about the broken promise of a better, more enlightened life. It becomes difficult for the individual human body to map its position amidst the global network’s endless flow of signs, images and information. The murmur of the past became faint with the past tense marking marking the fading of the labourist tradition and the ongoing cutbacks to the humanities and creative arts in favour of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics area (STEM) and blue-sky innovation thinking. A perfect storm of challenging global, national and state processes severely impacted South Australia with the emergence of neo-liberalism and the collapse of social democracy.
The above cognitive mapping is one of economics and politics. How do we map the culture of this period? This photography is culturally situated in a post historical era in which the narrative structure behind the old exclusionary story of what is accepted as art and every else as not really art had collapsed in the 1980s, and that there is no special way works of art have to be. The realist photography of The Bowden Archives is an Antipodean photography whose cognitive mapping takes its bearings from, and is situated within, Bernard Smith’s antipodean Marxism. The antipodean narrative is one of being on the periphery, understood in terms of a relationship into which we and others were inserted: originally British imperialism, then American. We use the language of empires and colonies for the former and the language of centres and peripheries for the latter. This was a response to imperialism within and without; a situated peripheral vision that was relational in that it drew together the cycles of asymmetrical interactions between centre and periphery.
Smith argued that modernism in the antipodes was the outcome of cultural traffic, cultural contact and contestation mediated by imperialism, and it was created from a stock of images borrowed from other places and times. Modernism as a period style emerged from the dynamic interchanges and relationships between periphery and centre, and its construction through two way cultural traffic was exemplified by European modernists appropriating primitivism. Modernism was a self-questioning of art by art and that meant art was its own subject, with Greenberg making the attempt to put each medium on its own foundations by determining what was unique to itself. In Greenberg’s developmental narrative purity was achieved through a process of purgation of what contaminated the medium. A work of art must be, not mean.
The reflective and conceptual character of art is important because in the 1980s with the modernist master narrative of art history about painting (and sculpture) art at an end painting was no longer the driver of art historical change. The collapse of the narrative structure behind the old exclusionary story of what is accepted as art and every else as not really art meant that there is no special way works of art have to be. This opened up a space for an aesthetics of meaning, the transfiguration of the commonplace as in pop art, that the concept of Verstehen, or understanding located in the art work itself, is central to modern aesthetics, and this sets it off from the long shadow cast by positivism, mathematical logic, the verifiability criterion and scientism. This space or clearing did not necessarily mean a turning away from the real towards the private and subjectivity, or to a postmodern appropriation of trace and media images, or to the dissolution of art into everyday life. What the post-historical era after the end of art history’s master narrative meant is that there is no single style of an epoch, and so possibilities for revising former categories and styles open up, and politics and art can take the form of the critique of everyday life. A post-historic era is more pluralistic.
The Antipodean realist photos of Bowden and Adelaide were made with the realisation that the celebrated form of politics and art, namely the revolutionary potential of photography as an art of interruption linked to social struggle (eg., the constructivist Soviet avant-garde and the Surrealists) with its political-social commitment and artistic experiment, was no more. Those days are long gone. We can mourn that loss whilst also recognising that critical reflection is part of the artworld in modernity. Though the increasingly reflective and conceptual character of modernist art shows that art belongs squarely in the conceptual realm this means that in a post historical world anything goes.
However, the aesthetic forms need to be ours: that is, they need to be relevant and appropriate to the social and cultural ruins of social democracy, modernism and industrial capitalism. Vision has a history and visual representations belong to forms of life that are themselves related to one another historically. Walter Benjamin’s use of allegory in the Baroque and modernity highlights this. Benjamin’s exegesis of the allegorical in the Baroque in The Origin of German Tragic Drama exposes and destroys the false harmonies and totalities of the enchanting symbol. Allegory arises from an apprehension of the world as no longer permanent; a sense of its transitoriness and mortality. Allegory is an outward form of this expression and an intuition of the inner experience. The form such an experience of the world takes is fragmentary and enigmatic; in it the world ceases to be purely physical and becomes an aggregation of signs. In the Trauerspiel (German Baroque drama) book the concept of allegory points away from the transitory forms of the material world to the beyond.
Benjamin then associates allegory wth heaps of broken images in modernity in Baudelaire’s poetry and to the poverty of experience in modernity. Without allegory and poetry the poverty of experience is in danger of remaining inaccessible for knowledge. In the latter Arcades project allegory does not look beyond sensuous forms to a transcendent meaning: it seeks in sensuous forms the perception of historical truth which rescues the form from transitoriness. This form of life in nineteenth century modernity is a world in which relations between human beings become relations between things (they appear immoveable) and commodities, which are products of people, are displaced from their producers appearing to stand over against their own makers in a monolithic display of independent power glittering beguilingly.
As a form allegory corresponds to the commodity which constitutes the urban phantasmagoria: the commodity becomes a cipher, an empty vessel into which one’s desires and fantasies may be projected. In modernity allegory is an image of the withering of subjective expressiveness in the fragmentary form of ruins and wreckage associated with an experience of time as painful duration. Allegory reflects and uncovers the myths of capitalism and exposes the illusion of harmony of this world. Benjamin’s conception of allegory, with its emphasis on transience, specificity and the contingent world of lived experience, provides a way to represent the frailty and finitude of human existence in the suddenness, violence and shock of neo-liberalism’s creative destruction.
The everyday, neo-liberal form of life is connected to that of nineteenth century modernity and it can be represented through allegory, as it too is a world of the ruins of social democratic, which represent brokenness, wreckage, transience and the obsolete. These signs embody the physical traces of time and meaning on their surface. Neo-liberalism’s destruction breaks apart the continuum of history, shatters old relationships, and leaves a field of the fragments and detritus of social democracy with their hollowed out meanings in the process of becoming dead husks. Allegory is a focal point from which to look at things as it allows the random and isolated elements to function in a fluid fashion, and to form a constellation ladened with a plurality of meanings and affects. Allegory exposes meaning as multi-variant whilst ruin preserves the image of history that is no more.
The image fragments of everyday, industrial Bowden are historical pictures of an early rustbelt made at a time when an autonomous art made outside the market still made some sense. As sensuous presentations of meaning these photos of bits and pieces of working class life in the 1980s connect us to the forgotten history of one of Adelaide’s older industrial areas and the process of de-industrialization; not as documents of how it really was, but as cultural memory or a form of remembrance of human history. This takes shape as the content dissolves and the transient pictures in their process of disintegration brings the historical characteristics and configurations of a transient form of a past life to the fore as images of historical truth.
So visual representations of a realist photography belong to forms of life that are related to one another historically and works of art, as embodied meanings, should be judged for the appropriateness or “fit” of their form of presentation to the content thereby presented. As Danto says that for art:
to play a role in a form of life, there must be a fairly complex system of meanings in which it does so, and belonging to another form of life means that one can grasp the meaning of works of art from an earlier form only by reconstituting as much of the relevant system of meanings as we are able.
We can imitate the style of work from an earlier period only if we find a way of fitting it into our own form of life.
In the 1980s artworld the fragmentary pictures of a historical working class life in Bowden were seen as an unfashionable realist form of documentary photography; one premised on the indexicality of the negative to reality and beholden to Vasari’s representational art capturing reality on a painted or drawn surface with its narrative of an internal development in representational adequacy. Photography is seen as the documentary art par excellence. The focus of the positivist understanding of photographic realism was a classical concern with the relation between reality and representation, as opposed to one concerning the multiplicity of relations that extend from a digital photograph. The photos are, in Lukács terms, a description rather than narration of everyday working class life.
In modernism abstract art was defensively motivated by its opposition to the naturalism of photography — the mechanical art work. Greenberg, for instance, assumed the traditional, positivist view of photography. Modernism’s critique of photography’s pictorial representations was that they were the illusionary, trompe l’oeil medium par excellence: an amateur and illusory medium with limited powers of focus, contrast and construction. Unlike those pictorial representations that require the mediation of an artist, photography’s epistemic advantage is pictorial representations are belief independent.
This view is deeply entrenched. Arthur Danto states it thus:
“Nature’s pencil simply traces what is set before the lens, without creative imagination. The photographer can represent only what is there, whereas the painter is free to use his imagination and show things in ways other than how they are or were.” The camera freezes moments that happen quicker than the human eye can see, but the photograph doesn’t capture the whole essence of the moment. Photography is bits and pieces, and in-between moments.”
n a postmodern artworld photographic realism continued to be interpreted and dismissed as a hopelessly simplistic, naïve and compromised practice. This realism embalms each moment with natural meaning stasis as a dull sign of an anecdotal and sentimental past. Photographic realism is archaic, obsolete and outside the pale of art history.
This traditional interpretation of photography borders on being a folk theory of photography. After the demise of modernism a critical post-historical art means that the artworld’s assumption that a realist photography with its naïve reflection of reality (the positivist mode of representation with its transparent picture on a stable world) can be questioned, displaced by a self-reflexive photography. It is replaced with an alternative understanding of photography: one centred on the photographic event, or the multilayered photographic process to produce the image using a variety of photographic technologies. For analogue photography exposing the film to light creates a latent image that needs to be processed before it becomes visible, and then as a negative it needs to be printed to be viewed as an image in a gallery. A photograph is a visual image or meaning embodied in a sensuous form. Photography’s aesthetic forms or images win their signifying power by being in an aesthetic space, and as images, photography’s bits and pieces are aesthetic forms that point to meanings beyond the aesthetic form. This alternative understanding of photography is a sensuous way of knowing, is a form of knowledge that is concrete, and it addresses itself to the senses. The Bowden/Adelaide photos are about something, are materially embodied meanings borne by sensuous particulars, and the art works have a truth content.
A realist photography’s approach to a neo-liberal form of life can be deepened by linking the fragmentary photos of Adelaide to Benjamin’s idea of the optical unconscious. This refers to the unconscious aspects of perception which the invention of photography opened up — ie., the plethora of details and information of everyday life that are not consciously perceived. This mediates our experience and knowledge of the neo-liberal world in unconscious ways that refer to the hidden or unseen dimensions of consciousness. Photography allows us to access ways of seeing that are actively disavowed, or otherwise unavailable to our culturally conventional, conscious perceptions.
The unconscious modes of seeing undercuts photography as an instrument of transparency by linking photography to psychic structures and a cultures’ desires, fears and modes of defence. Benjamin highlights the ways in which the past is continually transformed through its interpretation by the present. What we glimpse with our eye fades with memory, but the view represented by photography attends to the configurations of the surface of the world, reproducing minutiae and encouraging a detailed scrutiny of fragments. The historic force of photography lies in the way it mediates a world gone by and offers a way of experiencing past things (the refuse of history) in their freshness that is akin to an awakening from which emerges a new mode of perception of the past.
In his discussion of Eugene Atget’s photos of old Paris Benjamin links photography to the optical unconscious, which in this context, is understood to refer to the hidden dimensions of a place. This sees photography’s political potential not just in its ability to document material reality, but rather in its profound link to psychic structures. The past resides in the outmoded, dusty and fragmenting sites that persist, and which stand in contrast to the perceptions of the city in terms of newness and wholeness, progress and renewal. According to Benjamin photography has the potential to open up history, allowing us to see the past: photography offers an image of the past that has been arrested so that it can be seen again and again. Historical understanding is grasped as an afterlife, when photography paints its grey on grey after a form of life has grown old.
We can link the optical unconscious to Benjamin’s idea of mimesis. This is different from Plato’s idea of mimesis as simple imitation, since mimesis for Benjamin is a psychoanalytic term that refers to a creative engagement with an object. It is connected to similitude and it alludes to a constructive reinterpretation of an original which becomes creative act in itself. It becomes a way of empathising with the world through imagination, which mediates between the unconscious and the conscious between dream and reality, thereby proving a way of accessing a reality that is not constrained by an instrumental view of the world.
Adorno held that mimetic comportment hibernates in art and that art is the refuge of mimesis. The mimetic impulse motives the artwork and the artwork becomes the fulfilment of mimesis via the expression of the fragile, speechless and transitory moment into language. Mimesis is transformed by art through objectivating the fleeting mimetic moment. The artwork mimetically opposes or resists the pervasiveness of the spell of a stunted, deformed society.
What emerges is a realist photography that accepts that there is a plurality of sedimented content embodied in the photos: they are a force-field of tensions of social, cultural and economic forces of a historical moment bought together into a constellation; one that avoids the mass media with its newer, more exciting things and its promise of striving for a better way of life whilst fostering cheap comforts and the experience of boredom. The historically sedimented content of an artwork generates an excess of meaning that the artist photographer could never have controlled or rationally intended.
Though it is not possible to recover the sense of loss of social democracy by returning to the world of Dunstan we can look back on what has been in terms of recovery and reclamation. This is a remembrance of things past that have been forgotten, but recovered through an archival photography situated in the specific place of Bowden and Adelaide in the 1980s. Photography’s salvaging process in a post historical era is a search for a time lost, now partly regained, haunted by the ruined artefacts of the past in a present where there is no alternative to neo-liberal capitalism on the horizon. This is capitalist realism — the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it. Photography within capitalist realism is part of a critical turn to the object, is immersed in everyday life, and has a mimetic, reflective and conceptual character. It is a melancholy photography of sensuous form and embodied meaning that reflects on everyday life; in doing so it shows that, although the disciplinary everyday life in industrial modernity has the appearance of being fixed, both factory and the street undergo change, decay and eventually become part of the geological layers of history. The neo-liberal everyday is flexibility, deregulation, precarity, instability, depression. Despite the failed futurism of a better life spectral versions of those utopian ideas continue to haunt postmodernity.
In the world of neo-liberalism and culture studies in the 1990 the fate of a realist photography and philosophy as aesthetic theory is one of non-existence. Yet both are far from redundant. While artworks are indeed objects and commodities the truth-content of art is of the world while also offering critical reflections upon it. This truth content or universality, which is inseparable from sensuous particularity, needs to be interpreted by philosophy as aesthetics.This reflective and conceptual character of art is important since by the 1980s the modernist master narrative of art history about painting (and sculpture) had comes to an end. This does not necessarily mean turning away from the real towards the private and subjectivity, to a postmodern appropriation of trace and media images, or the dissolution of art into everyday life. In the post-historical era after the end of art history’s master narrative there is no single style of an epoch, possibilities for revising former categories and styles open up, and politics and art can take the form of the critique of everyday life. The end is also the beginning of a new era; a post-histo
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