Walead Beshty is an artist and writer born in London and currently living and working in Los Angeles, where he is Associate Professor of Fine Art at Art Center College of Design. Recent solo exhibitions include Production Stills at Thomas Dane Gallery, London, UK (2009) and Walead Beshty: Legibility on Colored Backgrounds at The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (2009).
Before one could address the questions above in good faith, one would need a serviceable definition of what “photography” (and here, its hypothetical exemplar, a “photograph”) is. Without veering into convoluted ontology, this “photography,” regardless of what might be argued to fall within its boundaries, seems best described as a type of “medium,” or “an agency or means of doing something,” and in its specific case, “the intervening substance through which impressions are conveyed to the senses or a force acts on objects at a distance.” Defined in this way, a medium is constituted by a dialectic of applied use and technological development, and is further defined by the conventionalization of the relationship between the two, a process that occurs over time and is in a state of constant revision. It would follow that a medium is never freed from its use, nor is it freed from its position between some agents in a transaction, and it is always steeped in the inertia of its conventions, for this is how, by analogy, each new relation between shifting technologies and new applications is self-historicizing and legible. This is the unending “crisis” of all media, the struggle between adherence to convention, and new relations between technology and use. This would describe the transformation of a series of relations between technology and use, to the becoming of a “medium,” in short, the institutionalization of these instances of negotiation, which is consummated by the use of its name in an abstract trans-historical sense, as in when its name is invoked in and of itself as a stable entity. The identification of a medium is an act of institutional reification par excellence, in fact, it is the institutional act, that which makes the institution concrete, like air made solid.
The means by which this conventionalization is distributed is either practical, such as vocational training or apprenticeships, or disciplinary, i.e. localized within — from the perspective of media — a meta-discourse such as the museum or art history (a hybrid form of these is reflected in most art school curricula). But the process of development, and institutionalization mentioned above is internal to the “medium” itself, and it would be appropriate to add that only an outside agent (a disciplinary agent) would be concerned with the nature of one medium’s distinction from other media, and in so doing, is attempting to situate that medium within a larger array which is specific to that institution. In short, a medium is always relational, and the attempts to isolate and treat it as discrete is to institutionalize it, and to further attempt to place it within a larger schema is to institutionalize it a second time, rendering it further abstract. While a medium is always a play between the spectral hold of its name, and the material minutiae of its development, the disciplinary must cling to the spectral alone, and make it tangible. This is always tenuous. So it seems safe to say that when we speak of a “crisis” in the way asserted above, we speak of the trouble in institutionalizing photography within a broader field as a discrete entity, here specifically the field of art, and whether or not this category, in and of itself, is still useful for these purposes.
So we have a question above that tacitly pertains to ontology, that points to the status of “photography’s” being — here of being “over” — and thus, it is not only “photography’s” position within a larger constellation of aesthetic production residing under the umbrella heading “art,” but the entire structure of differential media within the institution of art that is called into question. When we ask “what is at stake in seeing something as a photograph?” we ask that of all media (it would be just as sticky to ask the same of painting or sculpture). In other words, when we ask the value of the term beyond its provisional utility, and moreover, when we ask these questions from the perspective of the maintenance of the disciplinary institution of art (pertaining to taxonomic areas of study, and theoretical objects or objects of discourse) alluding to the need to reevaluate its parameters, we are implicating the categorical systems applied to all art objects, questioning the way medium specificity is applied on an institutional level. “Photography” becomes, in this instance, a way to name this institutional anxiety, and any perceived crisis is really that of the disciplinary structures applied to it. In the case of photography, this difficulty has inspired several admirable attempts at reconciliation which are germane to the current debate, from John Szarkowski’s foundational “The Photographer’s Eye,” to Rosalind Krauss’ “Photography’s Discursive Spaces,” to Peter Galassi’s “Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography,” to the more recent “Photography’s Expanded Field” by George Baker, all of which attempt to negotiate a position for photography within the museum or art history as a discrete and identifiable “medium,” one with a coherent identity, and in so doing, they constitute a defense of the institutionalized categorical delimiters of art historians, curators, or critics respectively.
The questions posed for this conference neither relate to practices which we might call photographic, nor do they point to the theorization of those practices, as these practices are all specific sets of relations and do not operate at the level of abstraction. Instead the condition of “crisis” is realized on the level of abstract institutional categories invented to delineate one set of practices from another, a crisis pertaining to whether or not the current structure of disciplines is able to identify and dutifully manage the traditions they are called upon to preserve and maintain; it is about creating a criteria for what is excluded and what is included in the hypothetical warehouse called “photography”. It is less a crisis for the medium, but more so a crisis of the institutionalization of art itself. Actually, it is even more mundane than that, when medium specificity is staged from within academia or museums, it is really a question of paying the bills, of funding lines, departmental autonomy, curriculum, intellectual fiefdoms, library tabs, allotted real estate, and canons wrapped in the guise of a broad philosophical conundrum. When these debates are realized on the level of abstraction, such as “what is photography?” or “Is photography over?”, the details of this bureaucratic topography are glossed over; we are reduced to the intellectual equivalent of theorizing empty filing cabinets, of treating the terminology and categories as fixed and searching for some hidden meaning within them. A more pointed question might be: How is the current means of understanding the institutionalization of these conventions useful for the maintenance of the organizational structure of cultural institutions? For example, why do photography departments exist in institutions alongside regional or historical specialties? Or why do we maintain photography departments within art schools, most absurdly graduate art programs, when these professional distinctions barely exist within contemporary art? We could also ask if these departmental divisions continue to serve any purpose, or if they are the institutional equivalent of the appendix, slowly evolving away. Is that what we are worried is “over”? Or, is it possible to leave behind the empty essentialization of categorical delimiters without sacrificing an awareness of historical development? These are not ontological questions, but questions of logistics, of bureaucracies and their historical development, of how the contemporary field is an accumulation of minute negotiations. These are the questions pertaining to the quotidian, and the incremental formulation of history, the same incremental formation implicit within the course of any medium’s, or discourse’s life. This would be a pathway from abstract argumentation to the real political stakes of the production and reception of aesthetics, and more so, a means to confront the widespread confusion of a disciplinary reckoning for a crisis in its object of study.