The Grey Institute

This is the most dangerous place in the place …
Paul Grey

The Grey Institute is a practice-based research centre founded by Jane Birkin and Rima Chahrour, with kind support (explicit and implicit) from the Winchester School of Art PhD students, professors,  doctors and medical team. This project manifests as a re-institutionalisation force, facilitating and reconfiguring a fluid circulation of creative spheres towards an effective practice-based research function. Working inside and outside the institution, the Grey Institute turns the institution inside out. It operates as a productive entity charged with playful contradictions and dynamics of various processes of creation across the wider social and political dimensions of art, science  and theory. The centre shelters a range of entities in the form of reading groups and creative clusters, intersecting with and feeding off each other. These entities present different modes of intensive and radical artistic research in the form of social networks, sub-projects, support groups and personal professional development opportunities.

The Grey Institute produces a wide variety of courses, conferences, seminars and development programmes open to the public (see what’s on offer). Clinical and art practice, critical and clinical, is provided by the PhD Clinic. This is a free service offering diagnosis and innovative treatments and above all encouraging self-help and alternative therapies, within a more intellectual and less bourgeois setting than those normally offered through the National Health Services or private clinics.  The PhD Clinic is the number one pop-up one stop shop for all minor and major procedures. No job is too small.  The clinic is practically equipped with improved technology, increasing and accelerating the frequency of research methodologies. The self-help ethos championed by the clinic is augmented by the Institute’s Contemplation Space.

The institute believes that prosperity depends on enterprise and therefore it is imperative that the views of directors are heard. The Grey Institute exerts its influence in all matters private and public, by taking a position in the media (both nationally and locally); through practice-led and written responses to consultation documents; and through the production of research and policy papers, performances and  and objects. The main mission of  the Institute is to contribute to the achievement of a deeper understanding of the results from different missions. New requirements are constantly considered as part of the development of the Institute. To this end, and with best practice in mind, the institute has an open door policy and actively encourages contribution and support. Help us help you.

Paul Grey

To find out more visit:

Working with Images

Working with Images is a forum convened by WSA PGR’s in collaboration with Radical Media Forum at Goldsmiths College. The forum presented different theoretical and practice-based approaches to working with images in the fields of Art and Media studies. In the context of their academic research, practice-based postgraduates: Jane Birkin, Rima Chahrour and Nina Pancheva-Kirkova (WSA) along with theory-based postgraduates: Sarah Beck, Mihaela Brebenel and Phaedra Shanbaum (Goldsmiths University of London) discussed the different processes of working with images and what these operation pertain.

The event engaged audience in critical presentations and performances around the visual and mental activities images impose. Working with Images directly relates to Looking at Images: A Researcher’s Guide which is an AHRC-funded project, 2014, and will continue to develop within the frame of image related research.


Between Propaganda and Cultural Diplomacy

 Nina Pancheva-Kirkova’s doctoral research centres around a practice in painting,  focused upon issues of nostalgia towards Socialist Realism. In this post she reports upon a paper she gave at the Euroacademia conference,  Re(inventing) Eastern Europe.

As part of my practice based research on contemporary fine art in Bulgaria and its relations to our totalitarian past, I had the opportunity to take part in two of the conferences organized by Euroacademia, an experience which proved to be valuable for the development of my research project as it allowed me to share my work with other researchers, to receive helpful feedback and to obtain up-to-date information directly relevant to my work.

I presented my paper, ‘Between Propaganda and Cultural Diplomacy: Nostalgia towards Socialist Realism in Post-Communist Bulgaria‘, as part of the panel ‘Art as Cultural Diplomacy’ at the international conference Re(inventing) Eastern Europe held in Prague last November. In addition to the version of my paper available on the Euroacademia website, a longer, revised version will be published as a contribution to the book “Art as Cultural Diplomacy: European Perspectives” (ed. by Cassandra Sciortino, Cambridge Scholars Press). The book is due out in the summer, 2014.

Introducing aspects of my current practice based research, the paper focused on institutional and personal examples of nostalgic attitudes towards the totalitarian past, examined in relation to the functions of fine art as propaganda. I argued that nostalgia towards Socialist Realism is one of the impediments, which hinder fine art to function as cultural diplomacy; it maintains a sense of an illusory entity, which connects the post-communist artworld of the country to the monologue of the grand recit of communism. In my paper nostalgia was scrutinized with examples of strategies of display of Socialist Realist monuments and paintings, strategies that provoke images to be “read” as myths instead of being critically discussed, as well as in attempts to be institutionalized by private museums of communism. Critical views on nostalgia were explored in the works of the contemporary artists Nedko Solakov and Luben Kostov in attempt an alternative of the nostalgic notion of the past to be provided, supported by Tzvetan Todorov’s concept of fine art developed in his book “The Limits of Art”. The latter was discussed as an alternative both to the metanarratives of communism and the fragmentation of the post-communist artworld in Bulgaria. Discussing examples of debates on Socialist Realism and its status in post-communism, my paper sought to explore ways fine art to function as cultural diplomacy, ways that derive by an open dialogue on Socialist Realism beyond the political and by provoking free exchange of ideas.


Practices of Research


Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research
10 February – 16 March 2014
L4 Gallery, Southampton
Download Artists’ Statements [PDF]

The exhibition, Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research, was held at the L4 Gallery space in Hartley Library (University of Southampton). The exhibition presented the work of 16 PhD students and two members of staff from Winchester School of Art (WSA). Taken together the works offered a series of images, texts and objects, helping to think about different ways of seeing, thinking, writing and making. The School is dedicated to the exploration of diverse practices and creative research methods. Studio-based researchers in art and design work alongside those engaged in humanities and social science research, covering areas of art history, critical theory and curatorial practice, as well as the management and marketing of advertising, design, media, fashion, textiles and luxury branding. All researchers at the School are engaged in the critical making of new knowledge: each moving in and out of complex and disciplined modes of activity. Whether it is reading, writing, looking, making, coding, speaking, recording, and much else besides, each are forms of imaginative and critical engagement, developed and extended within the context of a collaborative and inter-disciplinary research community.

See also: Re: Making

RAW: 7th – 13th November 2013

RAW – an exhibition held at 5th Base Gallery – brought together the work of four WSA PhD candidates, Jane Birkin, Rima Chahrour, Jason Kass, Nina Pancheva-Kirkova,  The show examined the nature of practice within visual arts research. An underlying question in curating RAW was the degree to which the production and exhibition of artwork becomes repositioned when considered as part of academic enquiry.

Some of the works on show reflected the process of working with and through theory where the results may be unfinished and tentative, suggestive rather than conclusive. Other works developed and offered up their autonomy as moments of resolution and statements that challenge.





For the third session of The Seminar, we turned our attention to the role and practice of the ‘literature review’; and more broadly we discussed the practice of reading in academic research and writing. We looked at a couple of examples of literature reviews, published in book and journal article form. Our main focus – in the first half of the session – was the opening chapter of Ranjani Mazumdar’s Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City (2007). This is a book that is written primarily for a film studies audience, but draws upon literatures of Indian political history and also critical theory, particularly the writings of Walter Benjamin. We didn’t really want to get too involved with the ‘content’ of the book, but rather consider its form as a literature review. The chapter doesn’t list a great many books, but it does demonstrate the way key literatures can be handled to draw out the specific intentions and framings of the author’s own research.

A couple of paragraphs in, Muzumdar offers a dense, comprehensive paragraph that can be said to encapsulate the entire ‘project’ of the book:

Bombay Cinema attempts to enter the complex world of popular cinema by bringing together a range of cinematic practices and the urban experience. My purpose is to engage with the dynamism of popular cinema in the country’s sprawling metropolitan life. The city as a concept remained a crucial absence in much of  Indian nationalism’s history. The nationalists instead invested in the imagination of the village as one of the secure sites of citizenship, reflecting the social base of anti-colonial mobilisation. The interesting feature of Bombay cinema is that it has never been at one with the nationalist prioritization of the village. While cinema also looked at rural life, it is the urban experience that has dominated its landscape. The coming together of cinematic practices and the urban experience offers a useful way of transcending the imaginative limits imposed by nationalist narratives on culture. (Muzumdar)

There are a number of concepts and lines of enquiry that are raised by this single paragraph. We might want to challenge what is meant by the suggestion of an ‘urban experience’ and the ‘city as a concept’, but nonetheless, we can recognise a determined project to examine the screen life of Bombay cinema with a political, historical and sociological reading of India. There is a clear sense of an interdisciplinary approach. The author is concerned not only with ‘cinematic practices’, but also key concepts such as nationalism, citizenship, and colonial history. All of these areas of interest will need to be reflected in the literature review. Partly, as a means to define the key terms of reference. It is notable, later in the chapter, the term ‘globalization’ is used, yet it is not explained. We can infer a general understanding of the term, but it is a complex and loaded term, which ideally in a research project needs to be properly contextualised and argued for. Muzumdar does draw reference to a number of key texts, particularly in relation to the cinema and the city, and Indian nationalism. A number of her references to modernist writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin are really crucial to a definition of the urban experience, and its collision with the screen. These references are  well worn, not least in film studies. Muzumdar, however, argues the geographic and cultural context of Bombay cinema lends originality to the research. She uses a very neat phrase to get around the problem that her work is both squarely situated in an established (and much researched) area of film studies, yet equally offers its own individual import:

Bombay Cinema is in many ways both a departure from and an addition to the previous work on cinema and the city, while at the same time bringing a perspective from India (Muzumdar)

I would suggest in writing a thesis, this sort of formulation is worth holding onto. It is a line that is clear, confident and carefully contextualised, helping to navigate the need to situate your work in existing scholarship, yet offer something genuinely original. It is perhaps also worth noting how the use of the book title, Bombay Cinema, gives the author further authority; they are presenting you with a project that is articulated in the writing, but also is bound as a book in your hands. A PhD thesis won’t necessarily be able to play off a title like this, but there are ways of characterising your research beyond the stock phrases of ‘in this research’, ‘in my study’, ‘ this dissertation’ etc. Your research is a ‘project’, it has a life beyond being a technical document.

Of course, by making a close reading of Muzumdar’s chapter – particularly in terms of its form – we did highlight a number of potential problems. Indeed, examining anyone’s writing at ‘sentence level’ will reveal all sorts of complexities and issues. Nonetheless, the chapter helped illustrate a point: while academic writing can appear at times to be dense and intense, there is a clear process of drawing together established concepts and ideas, along with new inflections and directions. Muzumdar’s chapter, for example, develops a complex, layered account of India, Indian cinema, urban experience, nationalism, modernism, and globalisation. It goes without saying one has to concentrate when reading this kind of work. To use a phrase from Philip Davis, who recently published Reading and the Reader (2013), we have to engage in a form of reading that is of ‘immersed attention’. It is a very active process.  (You can hear Philip Davis talk about his book on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week)

The idea of reading as a deliberate and rich process was beautifully developed by Professor Ryan Bishop, who joined us for the second-half of the seminar.  Ryan suggested we think of reading during the PhD (and other research activity) as a means to ‘dwell’; and not least because, as we develop our careers beyond the research degree, we get increasingly get less time to read. We might say, not only should we occupy ourselves with reading, we also need to occupy reading! Yet, Ryan’s point was more nuanced than this, suggesting ‘it is as important to have a text dwell in and with us as it is to dwell in and with a text’; adding that we might at times ‘believe we read the text (and therefore control it), when the converse is also true (texts shape us and we become otherwise)’. Keeping this to mind – and with a brief allusion to slow cooking – Ryan played out a certain ethics of reading, and gave some great tips in maintaining a measured and engaged practice of reading. Here is a brief summary:

  • We are ‘reading’ all the time, whether it is a book, a space, a person, a situation, and that all these instances will provide different readings depending on your point of view, the context, the time etc.
  • Read first kindly, then re-read with a critical eye. In other words, first seek to understand a ‘text’ according to its own terms, before then challenging those terms. This allows you to make sense of a text and its context, which can, for example, aid writing up a literature review where it is useful to show the progression of ideas, even where those ideas are at odds with your own (or those of the texts you are more aligned with).
  • What you don’t read is as important as what you do read! We have to make choices about the books and texts we read and don’t read. It is useful to develop different modes of reading, fast and slow. You can skim a range of texts to understand a broader context, or indeed to satisfy yourself that certain references are not necessary for your work. Conversely you have to commit yourself to reading key materials at a slower pace.
  • Keep track. Reading needs to be an active process, and that includes keeping some records of what you’ve looked at. As your research develops you build an impressive bibliography, which will function both as a simple, technical list of materials, but also as an ‘archive’ of your research.
  • Write your way to thinking… A key line from Ryan’s is that we can all be readers should we wish, but ‘it is impossible to write (at all, not to even write well) without reading. It is through reading at all that we can even start to write’.

The seminar began by examining the literature review as a distinct element of one’s research, but perhaps more importantly what it reminds us of is the intricacy of both reading and writing. Read/Write: Together they form a virtual ‘space’ that opens up thinking. We can know what we want to write and put pen to paper, but our thoughts will be informed by a practice of reading. We can also surprise ourselves in our own thoughts as we write. Again, however, this writing is a product of distilling reading and engaging in an ongoing practice of writing. If you find you can’t get started with  writing, try reading first. And if the reading starts to then feel like it is slowing you down, it might be time to try writing again. And so it goes on…

If you would like to comment on anything from the seminar or wish to offer thoughts on a related topic, please join the Facebook Page:
 WSA PGR Seminar Group

The Practice of Theory

“He read for two hours straight without any training”

For the second session of The Seminar, we discussed two texts. Firstly, the opening chapter of Jonthan Culler’s neat little book Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Routledge, 2000). Secondly, a chapter by Nicholas Davey called ‘Art and theoria’ from Thinking Through Art: Reflections on Art as Research (Routledge, 2006). This volume, edited by Katy Macleod and Lin Holdridge, brings together a wide range of voices to consider what we mean and think we mean by ‘practice-based research’.  Perhaps a little unfairly, I suggested at the start of the seminar the book is an example of what happens when a (seemingly) new concept comes into vogue (as for example with past terms like the cyborg, or visual culture). In that period when no one quite knows what to say about the new terms of reference, what better than to edit a book to draw out some answers? More often than not, however, the result is a further set questions and ambiguities.  Thinking Through Art results in something like this, not least with the concluding chapter by James Elkins’ taking a highly skeptical line about practice being in any way a form of research (you can read Elkins on this topic in more detail from the book Artists with PhDs, much of which is online; a second-edition of the print version is due out soon).

One member of the seminar group suggested that the piece by Jonathan Culler played the role of a guide to the reading by Nicholas Davey, whose chapter draws upon the more unwieldy vocabulary of Kant and Gadamer. We began with Culler then, whose chapter, albeit pointing towards literature, presents a neat, and at times funny account of the term ‘theory’.

In literary and cultural studies these days there is a lot of talk about theory – not theory of literature, mind you: just plain ‘theory’. To anyone outside the field, this usage must seem very odd. ‘Theory of what?’ you want to ask. It’s surprisingly hard to say. It is not the theory of anything in particular, nor a comprehensive theory of things in general. Sometimes theory seems less an account of anything than an activity – something you do or don’t do. You can be involved with theory; you can teach or study theory; you can hate theory or be afraid of it. None of this, though, helps much to understand what theory is. ( Jonathan Culler, p.1)

I think perhaps we went through all these possibilities, discussing the importance of theory in our own research, considering whether we were involved in theory development or applying theory to gain new insights. We also discussed the idea that maybe theory sometimes uses three words when it could just use the one – in other words that theory is unnecessarily opaque. However, for Culler, theory needs to be difficult. Theory signals ‘speculation’ he suggests, yet it is no mere guess-work:

…to count as a theory, not only must an explanation not be obvious; it should involved a certain complexity […] A theory must be more than a hypothesis: it can’t be obvious; it involves complex relations of a systematic kind among a number of factors;  and it is not easily confirmed or disproved. (Jonathan Culler, p.2-3)

The idea that theory should not state the obvious seems on the one hand obvious, yet equally raises the concern that somehow it overly complicates matters. However, as Culler suggests, theory can be defined by its ‘practical effects’, by the fact it can lead to changes in people’s views.  ‘The main effect of theory,’ he writes, ‘is the disputing of ‘common sense’: common- sense views about meaning, writing, literature, experience’. The fact that theory intervenes in common sense thinking is precisely why it cannot be obvious from the outset and it is the reason theory can be treated with suspicion, or see as a destabilising force. Arguably, this is also why theory has no fixed discipline from which  it operates . As part of the practical effects of theory it is also frequently the case that its significance moves across a range of subject areas. Culler gives two specific case-studies, one relating to the work of Michel Foucault and the other regarding  Jacques Derrida’s philosophical writings. During the seminar we discussed Foucault at some length. His ideas about the construction of knowledge/power and discursive regimes (along with his genealogical approach to history) has enabled a great deal of critical and theoretical work to take place across a number of different fields, including law, education, medicine, and management. It is certainly worth re-reading Culler’s brief account and/or reading other overviews to get a grasp of how ‘theory’ is less a set of constructs and much more a mode of enquiry – it is a process rather than a set theory of ‘something’.

The chapter by Nicholas Davey similarly develops this idea of ‘theory as process’, though he does so by tracing our modern conception of theory back to the Greek philosophical terms theoria (contemplation) and theoros (participation). ‘Unlike the modern conception of theory’, he writes, ‘ which stresses the detached observation of a phenomenal event, the ancient notion of theoria emphasises the act of witness which … contributes toward the emergence of the event participated in’. Crucially, Davey is seeking to reawaken the term theoria as a means to step outside of a forced dichotomy of theory/practice. He suggests the term ‘offers a dialogical account of how theory and practice can interact in such a way as to mutually assist in the realisation of an artwork’s subject matter’. He develops his argument in relation to three claims about art: (1) that art addresses us, (2) that it has distinct subject matters as its content, and (3) that the ‘interface between ourselves and art is fundamentally dialogical.’ In this model, the artwork does not possess an intrinsic ‘truth’ claim, but does have a claim upon us – at its simplist, the artwork demands it be considered an artwork, to which the viewer must respond, even if it is to deny it such status. Davey’s account is built upon a close reading of Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy, which in turn requires careful study to do justice to the arguments being laid out. In brief, however, the ‘site’ of the artwork in Davey’s account exists in a network of readings or meanings that circulate through language, culture and art processes. A theoretical, or virtual understanding and engagement in this network can both clarify and produce artworks, hence Davey’s belief that the divide between theory and practice is a false one. Theoria, as a practice of contemplation gets us closer to an understanding of how we approach art – as objects and as an activity. As he puts it, ‘the act of aesthetic contemplation is not the artwork but it is an act which facilitates the ‘working’ of the artwork, an act of aesthetic midwifery which allows the work to ‘work”.

As a group we seemed to reach the view that Davey’s account was arguing for something we generally wanted to agree with – i.e. that it is fruitful to get beyond the theory/practice divide and to think of practices of theory and theories of practice as combined and complementary processes. However, there remained some resistance to the terms of Davey’s argument, and even his notion of the artwork, which it was felt ends up a reified object. There is certainly a great deal more to discuss on this topic, and we will surely return to it. In fact, four members of our group, Jane Birkin, Rima Chahrour, Jason Kass, Nina Pancheva-Kirkova, are due to hold a group show at 5th Base Gallery (7-13 November, 2013), which aims to consider the nature of practice within visual arts research. The exhibition asks, for example, ‘if the production and exhibition of artwork becomes repositioned when considered as part of academic enquiry’. An artists’ talk will be held between 4-6pm on Thursday 7 November, to discuss many of the issues raised above, and the  event will be recorded in preparation for the writing of a collaborative article. I want to suggest the event takes the place of our classroom seminar for that week, and that as many of us as possible attend and contribute to the discussion. The talk will be followed by a private viewing and wine reception.

A Preface to the PhD

If you were asked to make a  sketch of your research interests what would you draw?

In the opening session of The Seminar, we began by first hearing each other’s research interests. We are all at different stages of our research, and inevitably there is a wide range of research projects. Interests span from material narratives (of Stöffweschel [stuff exchange]), the Arab-Muslim doll, interface designs, mapping remains, game designs, the geo-cultural mapping of cultural producers, units of description, the motif of the monster vis-a-vis incidents of terror and war, creative communities, display of traditional clothing, the changing face of masculinity, and much more besides… (it is quite a list!)

It was wonderful to hear everyone speak about their own research and subsequently to share in a debate around the nature of the PhD, and the different kinds of engagement and approaches we each reveal.  I was particularly interested to foreground the word ‘philosophy’ in the title PhD, i.e. a doctorate in philosophy. What is this ‘philosophy’ that we will all end up sharing in obtaining the PhD? It is not that we are studying the subject of philosophy (though some of us will dabble with this domain), but technically, we are all engaged in a form of philosophy, as in a mode of enquiry, investigation and contemplation.

I talked briefly about the origins of the Western philosophical tradition, which arguably still underpins institutional rhetoric today. Philosophy is the ‘love of wisdom’, and Socrates and Plato, for example, took it to be an underlying enquiry into what it is to lead a ‘good’ life. I wanted to suppose this remains a integral part of what we do when undertaking doctoral research. We’re not just interested in a singular problem (i.e. our research topic/subject matter), but a wider set of connections and relationships. We are placing our research in a communal intellectual space. It might not always feel like that when we are working alone on our writing, reading, making, thinking; indeed the PhD can be lonely at times and/or require good doses of solitude. Nonetheless, there is a continuum of intellectual practice that we are part of, which is the ‘philosophy’ named in our PhD.

Ancient Greek philosophy was interested in objects, those that remain the same (plants, animals, seasons, stars etc), and those that vary (language, customs, laws, politics). Today of course, much of what we once thought ‘remains the same’, have proved highly changeable, and we have created the means to change such objects through our investigations (for good or ill!). The physis (nature, that which is fixed) has proved just as complex and changeable as nomos (culture), but we could never have known these things without some kind of investigation and experimentation. Aristotle adopts the terms theoria (theory, contemplation) and praxis (practice) to evoke the idea: (1) of the intellects ability to ‘take hold of’ and categorise the world around us, and to articulate ideas about it; and (2) voluntary human activity, whereby we choose to alter what can be changed. Today, we can all too often hear of a divide between theory and practice, yet this would hardly seem to pertain to the curiosity and inventiveness of those early days of philosophy.

The reading I gave for this first session was the introductory chapter of Woodhouse’s ‘A Preface to Philosophy’, which is a slim ‘textbook’ for someone taking a philosophy degree. It struck me this prompted some useful debate. On the opening page, Woodhouse asks the question, ‘What is it that makes a certain question or claim philosophical?’. As he adds, this is not an easy question to answer. I think, however, it is a useful question to have in your research toolkit. What is it that makes your work ‘philosophical’? By which I mean, what is it that makes your work questioning, critical and reflective? Woodhouse offers his own definition: ‘Philosophical problems involve questions about the meaning, truth, and logical connections of fundamental ideas that resist solution by the empirical sciences’. This was inevitably – and rightly – met with quite a bit of challenge among those in the room.  I think we are all attuned to countering the very notion of fundamental ideas. But what are the galvanising Ideas that we rest our work upon? What happens if we seek to challenge these ideas?  Perhaps your work needs to be sustained by certain key – if not fundamental – ideas. For example, what do we each take to mean as ‘society’ and the ‘individual’, or the notion of ‘experience’? Psychoanalysis pertains to specific notions of the individual in a way that is very different to Marxism. When these combine, particularly in the work of the Frankfurt School (in the early twentieth century), we get further configurations and complexities. Perhaps you might be working between such terms. You need to think about what this might mean and where it takes you in your thinking; equally we need to consider how we can suitably present our ideas to account for such collisions and reconfigurations. Of course, it might be in challenging certain ‘fundamental ideas’ in our own research that we find things become unstable, unworkable even! …this can be disconcerting, yet it can also be the opening towards a whole new depth and breadth to the work.

A further problem arising from Woodhouse’s definition was the positioning against ’empirical science’. I think there is something attractive for the areas of art and design that philosophy is somehow seeking to go beyond the immediate, the visible, the uniformly testable. But, I think we were in danger at times in our conversation to allow an unnecessary division between art and science. We did discuss this directly, which helped us keep on track, but it raises an important point about the way in which ‘knowledge’ has been turned into specific discourses of knowledge. The chapter by Woodhouse might feel to many of us as too prescriptive, too logical. Yet, I hope it served to keep alive certain ways of understanding how we approach ‘philosophical’, or research problems. It is useful to define how different ideas, elements, and engagements do or do not bear equivalence. Woodhouse talks in terms of ‘assumptions’ and ‘consequences’, for example. How might we understand the logical or ‘argued for’ distinctions between various assumptions and consequences in our own field of study? At the end of the chapter, Woodhouse provides a little ‘shopping list’ of the divisions of philosophy, which include: logic, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, politics, religion, science and history. These are rather ‘big’ terms, and I’m sure we’ll touch upon many of them in subsequent seminars, but for now it is perhaps worth keeping some of these terms to mind, to ask ourselves, not only what our research is about (and/or what it hopes to be about), but what kind of philosophy we bring to it, claim for it, and take from it…


Japan: Artists & Disaster

Japan’s tsunami of 2011, and the ensuing nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant, has weighed heavily on the minds of everyone in the country – not least its artists. A radio documentary of Japan’s contemporary art scene evokes the figure of Godzilla to characterise a certain inventiveness in trauma and disaster:

Godzilla, the giant green lizard which levels Tokyo skyscrapers with a sweep of his enormous tail, was the response of Japan’s film makers in the 1950s to the national trauma of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the wake of 2011’s Tsunami, the nation’s artists have been similarly inventive in turning the disaster into art. The “post 3/11 movement” takes inspiration from the devastating images of flooded cities, smoking nuclear reactors and grief stricken victims which emerged after the earthquake and tsunami (In Godzilla’s Footsteps, BBC Radio 4)

The programme takes in the views of artists who showed work at the Art Tower Mito’s 2012 exhibition Artists and the Disaster – Documentation in Progress. Installation artist Tsubasa Kato volunteered to help in the clean up  Fukushima. Working with 300 local residents who had lost their homes, Kato constructed a three storey lighthouse from the rubble of ruined houses and schools, which now stands looking out over the sea. The controversial collective Chim Pom, on entering the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in protective radioactive suits, held up referee red cards at the cracked dome of the nuclear reactor. While the video artist Kota Takeuchi actually took a job at the devastated nuclear plant. His video of a worker (presumed to be Takeuchi himself) pointing an accusing finger at the video camera (of a live feed by the plant company) gained a great deal of attention. He went on to hold press conferences to put pressure on Tepco, the operator of the plant. Another powerful work included in exhibition was Fuyuki Yamakawa’s ‘Atomic Guitar’. The installation uses radioactive soil taken from the the area of Fukushima and two Stratocaster guitars. Geiger counters transmit the radioactivity, which vibrates as an analogue signal, hitting the guitars physically and making them play. The ‘sound’ of the radiation (through the effect of the electric guitars) creates an haunting clang of guitar strings, at once ‘beautiful’ and disturbing.

Sutthirat Supaparinya, ’10 Places in Tokyo’ (2013), Video installation.

Work exhibited at the Tokyo Wonder Site, an art organisation dedicated to creating and promoting new art and culture in the heart of the Tokyo, further demonstrates the significance of 3/11 to contemporary art. The current exhibition at the Shibuya venue, Identities in the World, introduces works of five artists from their Exchange Residency Program; with each having taken up the themes of ‘energy’ and ‘identity’ to express our dependence on the environment.  ‘After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake,’ the exhibition points out, ‘all of us in Japan were forced to recognize just how much our day-to-day lives are influenced by the electrical power supply. At the same time, there is a current which is much larger than the power of any individual’. Sutthirat Supaparinya’s exhibit, ’10 Places in Tokyo’, is particularly noteworthy. In her own words, she explains how the work, ‘pays attention to the relation between the use of nuclear as a means of electricity generation in Tokyo and its use as a weapon such as the atomic bomb in Hiroshima’. As a video piece, showing the location of specific sites from static camera points, it combines ‘the effects of the first use of nuclear as a weapon in 1945 in Hiroshima with the top ten places in Tokyo that used the most electricity in 2010’.

IKEDA Tatsuo. ‘The Owner of the Fishing Fleet’ (1953), ink on paper.

Of course, in geological terms, Japan is highly prone to natural disaster and subsequently the response of artists to such events has a specific national history. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, has recently curated elements of its permanent collection to bring this history to the fore. Our Ninety Years 1923-2013 begins with the Great Kanto Earthquake and works through aspects of the World War, reconstruction and events leading to our present. The exhibition opens with the work of Takeshiro Kanokogi, whose large-scale painting, September 1, Taisho 12 (1923), provides a realist (if nightmare) scene of people exiting from a charred wasteland. The painting has always prompted debate due to the artist’s apparent clinical distance from his subjects, despite the shared devastation. The War period also prompts controversy, with numerous artists being drawn into the war effort,  pressured to produce works of a distinct realist and patriotic nature. Nonetheless, many artists, such as Tadashi Sugimata, worked secretly on surrealist-inspired paintings. The post-war period brings new difficulties and tensions for the artist community. Tatsuo Ikeda, as a former member of the Kamikaze squad, is troubled by the fading war memories, yet equally attacks the problems inherited by the postwar society. He produces ambiguous works of an unsettling nature.

Thomas Demand, ‘Kontrollraum / Control Room’ (2011), C-Print/Diasec

Included alongside Ikeda’s work are also examples of American pop art, with a work by Lichtenstein and Wesselmann on show from the collection – so adding to a jarring sense of history. As the exhibition moves closer to the present there is an inevitable dilemma for artists who do not possess an experience of events as participants. A work by Oscar Oiwa, a Brazilian of Japanese descent, provides a more analytical account with a double work, ‘War and Peace’, with each panel depicting the same area of downtown Tokyo in war and peace time. The sense of distance from an event is taken to a further extreme in the work of Thomas Demand, who is known for using photographs of historical sites as disseminated through the media to construct full-size models, which he then photographs (so re-mediting the site of an event). On show was his work ‘Control Room’, which re-presents the control room of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which circulated globally as an image. As the curators note:

[Thomas Demand] utilizes the reality provided by a place that is the center of worldwide attention, but which is in such a critical state that it cannot be touched or even represented, and working from a distance through a chain of indirect contacts, he reaches out to it. He does this in a way that is more obvious than that of Takeshiro Kanokogi [whose work opens the exhibition], exploring the distance that is predestined to exist between expression and reality, in what must surely be described as a critical act. (Museum of Contemporary Art Toyko, Curator’s notes, 2013)

Being for the Benevolence of August Sander

I recently visited Tate Modern’s collection display, Photographic Topologies, which brought together the work of artists whose use of photography presents a systematic, or ‘topological’ approach. Typically, these works show multiple images of similar subjects. On display were portraits of Thomas Ruff, Rineke Dijkstra and Paul Graham, and architectural subjects in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Through repetition these artists reveal subtle contrasts and similarities in their subjects.

Of course the typological method is most well known for its pioneer, the German photographer August Sander (1876-1964); whose work I specifically went to see. Examples ran along the central gallery, taken from Sander’s seminal ‘People of the Twentieth Century’, a vast collection of portraits documenting the society of the Weimar Republic according to profession and social grouping. It was great to see them up close. Many times I have looked at the ‘stiff’, ‘self-importance’ (to borrow Barthes’ words) of Sander’s Notary as it appears neatly on a page in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. The portrait shows a figure in a hat and buttoned-up coat, holding a cane. He stands before a brick building with a curved flight of steps and stares blankly away from the camera, perfectly perpendicular to that of a dog who stands before him. Given that Barthes in the relevant passage writes how the ‘Photograph of the Mask … [is] critical enough to disturb’ and that ‘[p]hotography is subversive …when it is pensive, when it thinks’, I have frequently considered the strict, cool-eyed work of Sander to relate in some kind of  ‘zero-degree’ seeing. Indeed, according to the curator’s notes, ‘Sander’s process of analysing and ordering his images was matched by the rigorous, objective style of the photographs themselves. All of his subjects are observed by the photographer with the same neutral distance’.

Sander, then, has always been on my list of artists to include in a study of ‘zero degree seeing’. As I stood there in the gallery, peering at the pictures framed on the wall, I was still inclined to link Sander to the Neutral, yet not in the way I had first imagined… Let me first state the case for my original thinking on Sander’s work. Before coming to Barthes’ The Neutral, I had long thought about how images, and particularly photography, might be considered to undo categories and structures of meaning. I’ve read the passage on Sander in Camera Lucida countless times and every time I seem to have come away with a slightly different view. Even in itself, this suggested to me something about how ‘the image’ unmoors our thinking in ways that are seemingly productive, even cohesive, yet without properly ‘fixing’ (the word here has a nice irony since photograph are – or at least used to – ‘fixed’ in the darkroom to stop them from simply fading away). At the close of Camera Lucida, Barthes suggests in an epic, final line that there are two ways to look at the Photograph: ‘The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality’.

Turning back to the passage on Sander, we can start by thinking that here is an example of pure, intractable reality. Barthes suggest this is in a sense the reason why Sander’s work was censored at the time, being ‘critical enough to disturb’. Sander’s photographs have no come-back. They are directly what they show. The notary, for example, is exactly as shown – yet in being shown, we suddenly realise we don’t know what this means. The code of perfect illusions is immediately revealed as a code and bursting through is the intractable reality of the man in the photograph, who we soon start to know less and less. Barthes remarks that in the commercial sphere ‘no meaning at all is safer: the editors of Life rejected Kertész’s photographs … because, they said, his images “spoke too much”; they made us reflect…’. The question is: does Sander’s work make us reflect? ‘Photography is subversive,’ Barthes argues, ‘not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’. I have always looked upon the Notary as the embodiment of this ‘pensive’ image. We do not know what the man is thinking, but we believe he is nonetheless. He stares firmly into the distance, though seemingly at a brick wall (which perhaps adds to the strength of his stare). His hands are clasped tightly too and the dog adds further ‘bite’ to the composition. The notary’s stare then becomes our own as we start to think about the meaning of the image; why it was taken, who this person might be and what significance he holds.

This, I feel, is the effect of moving between the pages of Camera Lucida, and in many ways has remained my way of thinking about Sander, whether I like it or not! Yet, looking again (and again) at the text, Barthes is actually quite clear. He considers him a ‘great mythologist’, but whose work ends up an aestheticisation of the political:

Sander’s Notary is suffused with self-importance and stiffness, his Usher with assertiveness and brutality; but no notary, no usher could ever have read such signs. As distance, social observation here assumes the necessary intermediary role in a delicate aesthetic, which renders it futile: no critique except among those who are already capable of criticism.

Not only then a highly constructed image, but indeed a ‘spectacle’ which we submit to the ‘civilized code of perfect illusions’. Surely then, too full of ‘paradigm’ for anything of the Neutral?

One of the prints in the gallery was Sander’s ‘Victim of Persecution’ (c1938). He is a neat, well-to-do man. There are no immediate signs of being persecuted (though of course that is what the picture questions in itself). The man is a little sullen, and the framing of the image (the upper torso and face turned slightly to one side, his eye-line a little raised) evokes for me a man in the dock (though perhaps I’ve seen too many courtroom dramas!), yet there is really so little to go on. Yet what struck me was the feeling of a certain benevolence. The directness of the photograph and the succinct title gives no reason other than to believe this person is who they say they are. The man looks benevolent and I feel similarly towards him. But what do I mean by benevolence in this case? The man is not ‘real’ for me and I will never have to prove my benevolvence. He is only an image. He does evoke reflection in me, though in no way is this something I can easily articulate. If it were simply a ‘kindly feeling’ I held towards the image/this man it wouldn’t necessarily be of interest. In The Neutral, Barthes distinguishes between ‘dry and damp’ benevolence. Damp benevolence is ‘on the side of demand: “kindness” … diffuse aura of amiability’; so being the more common-place meaning of the word. Dry benevolence, however, refers to Taoist thinking: ‘A stiff benevolence, because rooted in indifference. For the sage, everything is equal. Refrains from exerting a function’.

Looking at the series of the photographs in the gallery, what I saw was simply a ‘batch’ of photographs. The stiffness, the exactness, the pensiveness – all as we associate with Sander – was not matched in the physicality of these prints. Some lacked focus, others the edges were not strict. I did not feel in the presence of some ‘intractable reality’ – there was nothing to puncture my world. However, these were not ‘tame’ images either. At the close of Camera Lucida, Barthes complains of a consumption of images, as some kind of ‘nauseated boredom, as if the universalized image were producing a world that is without difference (indifferent)’. On this count, what I saw in the images – as refraining ‘from exerting a function’ – would seem to place them under Barthes’ critical eye, so as to ‘subject spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions’. But I would prefer to appropriate his reading of a dry benevolence. As I stood in the gallery, wondering what to make of the photographs, wondering if others around me could see more than I might, I tried to grasp at what the sage might see: a radical vision, in which ‘everything is equal’. Standing before these photographs perhaps many of us could repeat Barthes thoughts: ‘I feel this “benevolence” for people who are such strangers to me that I have no occasion for internal conflict with them = total and peaceable incommunication’.