Yours truly and ICP Head Librarian and Archivist Matthew Carson participated in the recent panel From X-Files to The Matrix: Reality Disintegrated, held on Sunday, March 4 at the ICP Museum.
In the words of organizer Claudine Boeglin:
The 90s. It was an era of hope bracketed between the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the fall of the two World Trade Center towers (2001). New aspirations of politics, technology, and culture gradually vanished, prefigured by the dark conspiracy theories of The X-Files and The Matrix, where the known world is an illusion.
In an active roundtable, moderators and speakers will introduce different angles and stories around the theme of reality disintegrated. Through references to pop culture, counterculture, and activism, they will rebuild the zeitgeist of an era in an oblique, improvisatory fashion. This conversation will offer a post-modern magnifying glass in which to reflect upon the times we live in. In an effort to activate this exchange, the audience will be invited to participate through responses, comments, and suggestions.
- Matthew Carson, ICP Head Librarian and Archivist
- Bernard Yenelouis, Artist, writer, library staff, ICP
- Aron Morel, London-based indie publisher
- Janette Beckman, photographer
- Nick Waplington, artist and photographer
- Cathy de la Cruz, writer and member of the riot grrrl movement and Sister Spit
- Avram Finkelstein, artist, writer, and activist
- Carlo McCormick, senior editor of Paper
- Guy Martin, photographer
Given the unstructured approach to the afternoon, the moniker “moderator” is best understood as a placeholder at best in terms of our participation. There were multiple layers of conversations, the highlight for me being a critical presentation by Avram Finkelstein, discussing images in relation to propaganda, capitalism, and colonialism.
I had neither hope or inclination to “rebuild the zeitgeist” of this specific era, except as a method to understand present times. The notion of such an action brings me back to Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Concept of History (1940).
The ninth thesis reads:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.
I will also pull these fragments from the seventh thesis:
once one asks the question, with whom does the historical writer of historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time. This says quite enough to the historical materialist. Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. In the historical materialist they have to reckon with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage [Abkunft: descent] which he cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses, who created it, but also to the nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another. The historical materialist thus moves as far away from this as measurably possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.
And the eighth thesis:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency.
The melancholic, “negative” aspects to Benjamin’s theses remind me of a comment I heard by the historian Iain Boal, at an academic conference on anarchism at Cornell University, that negativity is important to sustain in the positivist world we live in.
How can we deconstruct the ability of photography (and all subsequent image-based media) to support and sustain this veil of positivist illusion of reality and its uses as propaganda and advertisement?
For Finkelstein there are only principles of propaganda and advertising at work, echoing constant political tensions underlying mass media in relation to, and as examples of forms of power. For the younger participants, 1990s photobooks were a physical link to an analog childhood that has vivid retrospective lines and colors in contradistinction to the abstractions of virtuality that have colonized our sense of the everyday.
The photograph informs us of what we want and how we want it. How can we disturb the neat sequences of the picture press, which make disasters appear temporal, recognizable in simple strokes, and as unimportant as any commodity? Where happiness needs to be a thing seen and owned? Where vision is equated with possession? Does it have to be like that?
Looking at the books pulled from the shelves one can see that publishing had a different tenor to it. Given ICP’s long ties to documentary and photojournalism one can see an emphasis on these forms, while practitioners were shifting from magazine assignments to books, exhibitions and other forms associated with the art world. That shift is even more extreme now. Fashion was also moving to a similarly curated sphere. Among the books we could not locate which we would deem as important to this time period were Wolfgang Tillmans’ first book from Taschen and Nan Goldin’s The Other Side. And the library does not own a copy of Zoe Leonard’s The Fae Richards Archive. We all agreed that there were not enough women or races represented in this snapshot view. By the same token, the erratic selection is not meant to be a shopping list either, but a consideration of possible tools for looking backwards.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that these books were acquired when ICP was still located uptown in the former Willard Straight house, where the library was a small room filled with books and there was no catalog of its holdings or a trained librarian. Books were acquired sporadically, most often when requested directly for a class. With such constraints in place a library could still evolve and emerge.
The 1990s revisited – books from the library brought to Critical Jamming:
Nobuyoshi Araki, Sentimental Journey TR654.A73 1991
David Armstrong, The Silver Cord TR680.A75 1997
David Armstrong & Nan Goldin, A Double Life TR680.G65 1994
Richard Billingham, Ray’s A Laugh TR681.F28.B55 1996
The Boston School (ICA) TR680.B67 1995
Sophie Calle, Double Game TR179.5.C35 1999
Larry Clark, The Perfect Childhood TR681.Y6.C53 1995
Contemporary German Photography (Taschen) TR646.G3 C66 1997
Douglas Crimp & Adam Rolston, AIDS DemoGraphics TR820.C75 1990
Corinne Day, Diary TR820.5.G7.D39 2000
William Eggleston, Ancient and Modern TR647.E27 1992
Jim Goldberg, Raised by Wolves TR820.5.U6.G55 1995
Paul Gorman, The Story of The Face TR146.G676 2017
Paul Graham, End of an Age TR680.G73 1999
Paul Graham, Empty Heaven TR647.G73 1995
Eikoh Hosoe, Meta TR647.467 1991
Will McBride, Coming of Age TR681.B6.M37 1994
Boris Mikhailov, Case History TR820.5.U38. M53 1999
Mark Morrisroe, Mark Morrisroe TR676.M67 1999
James Nachtwey, Inferno TR820.6.N33 1999
Camilla Nickerson & Neville Wakefield, Fashion TR679.F37 1998
Gabriel Orozco, Gabriel Orozco TR140.076 2000 & TR140.078 2000
Martin Parr, The Cost of Living TR820.5.G7.P37 1989
Gilles Peress, Telex Iran TR820.5.I7.P47 1983
Jack Pierson, All of a Sudden TR654.P54 1995
Jack Pierson, The Lonely Life TR654.P54 1997
Eugene Richards, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue TR681.D7.R53 1994
Gerhard Richter, Atlas TR647.R53 1997
Joseph Rodriguez, East Side Stories TR820.5.R63 1998
Joseph Rodriguez, Spanish Harlem TR820.R641 1994
Martha Rosler, If You Lived Here TR187.R67 1999
Cindy Sherman, The Complete Untitled Film Stills TR681.W6.554 2003
Stephen Shore, American Surfaces TR647.S36 1999
Larry Sultan, Pictures from Home TR681.F28.S85 1992
Nick Waplington, Living Room TR681.F28.W36 1991
Nick Waplington, The Wedding TR819.W36 1996
Brian Weil, Every 17 Seconds TR820.W45 1992
Carrie Mae Weems, The Louisiana Project TR647.W44 2004
David Wojnarowicz, Brush Fires TR140.W65 1994
David Wojnarowicz, Tongues of Flame TR647.W65 1992