Andrew McNiven: Reflected or Deflected: photography, sound and the processes of display

It takes a great deal of time and thought to install work carefully. This should not always be thrown away... Otherwise art is only show and monkey business. (Judd,1986: 111)

The American artist Donald Judd (1928-1992) identifies here one of the central paradoxes inherent in the production of temporary exhibitions of all kinds. When an exhibition is over, the 'great deal of time and thought', the formal process of working not just with ideas, but with an exhibition space or site, is lost; only through the documentary conventions of installation photography does something of it become permanently inscribed. The physical evidence of work,

exposure to these conditions is often restricted to those with a professional involvement in exhibition production as distinct from an exhibition’s intended audience. reception and the critical evaluation of art and the material on display. Within the physical processes involved in the production of temporary exhibitions. In the manner that they are unwritten and in many respects unable to be written these 1 In 1991 I was shortlisted for the post of ‘Head of Art-Handling’ at the National Gallery in London. 1951) has stated that just as there are good performances and bad performances of a piece of music. of social. the production of meaning. It may be that these conditions are part of a tactile process.nationalgallery. 2001: 211) These conditions are significant because they operate between the work. These conditions emerge through the agency of those physically working with art objects. 1 They may be associated with a more attuned or involved approach to artists’ work or material. philosophical and spatial interaction. an installation can be "performed" well or poorly. Whilst not exclusively the domain of artists or museum curators and technicians. the site or space within which these are placed for the purpose of exhibition and the means and processes by which this is achieved. deriving from the kind of privileged intimacy and direct contact that only artists and technicians – sometimes called art-handlers in more traditional environments – are able to have.of endeavour. http://www. (Real. the terminology remains the same (Aug.org. The American artist Gary Hill (b. Twenty years on. is diminished. and by extension. 2010). conditions arise that are significant in the realisation of art and other forms of temporary display. of process. its site of exhibition or reception and the means of its production and arise within the final critical processes of tuning and testing an exhibit. depending upon the sensitivity and awareness of those responsible.uk/about-us/organisation/organisational-structure/ . framed and fixed from a single viewpoint and most subsequent knowledge of the work or exhibition is transmitted and mediated through installation photography. the exhibition space or processes of making and doing which are drawn together and inculcated by a practical art school education and an emphasis on heuristic learning.

and installation .conditions and understandings of process reflect a collective idea of ‘tacit knowing’ as defined by Polyani (1966) and expanded by Choo (1998). In this complicity installation photography compounds the shared denial that it is through the labour. the conceit of things just existing. This sense of ‘effortlessness’ frequently seeks to suggest that the objects displayed are in some way installed permanently and have always been so. almost prelapsarian state is notable. This usage seems to infer an understanding that links the two explicitly. In addition to this. transmit and archive exhibitions. that they are somehow part of an immutable and unchanging fabric of cultural production. but can be understood as both.1982: 373) It is unclear whether this refers to the process or result. Photography. as if they had always been there. how light may shift over the duration of a day. experience and knowledge of the (often invisible) gallery technicians which will have made an exhibition look ‘right’. That it records these in an optimised. Installation photography . as well as the temporal aspects. the installation photograph is the principal documentary form used to record. installation photography is complicit in what could be called the implicit ‘etiquette’ of the culture of making exhibitions and of the modernist art space in particular: a sense of ‘effortlessness’. will ‘fix’ a version of any work or exhibition in its final installed form.through its transmission and reproduction. and underlines the consistent and often useful interchangeability of the term.the inevitable documentary concomitant of temporary installation . unpopulated. aural. as well as much of the spatial and social experience of any exhibition. However installation photography excludes the non-visual sensory experience of an exhibition. An acknowledgment of these conditions is alluded to by the slippages in the use of the term ‘installation’ to refer to both a process and the consequence or product of the same process. for example. Despite these shortcomings. olfactory. Writing nearly thirty years ago the critic Germano Celant notes: ‘…[it] (installation) is in and of itself a form of modern work’ (Celant. It is an adequate visual medium to document some aspects of another principally visual medium.

clear from distractions. In its exclusion of people or time and its technical refinement the installation photograph further develops the idea of a perfect and definitive art space. 1976: 34) O’Doherty here defines both the success and ultimate problem of the installation photograph: its aesthetic comfort. It serves a certain set of demands supremely well: these are largely (and satisfyingly) aesthetic. A world within which. A professional installation image enhances and in some cases aggrandizes its subject and through its conventions. .” (O’Doherty. within which anything can reside on or near the same level as that which is established as ‘good’. As a specific form. In an installation photograph it is almost as if the art in the image exists timelessly in an ideal place. excludes knowledge of the processes outlined above required to produce the sense of ‘effortlessness within cultural reception. within a parallel (and better) world. This type of photography’s exclusion of the more contingent sensory environment that may surround an exhibition or installation only helps to serve the aesthetic demands better. the works of art are resolved. There is something splendidly luxurious about the way the pictures and gallery reside in a context that is fully sanctioned socially.photography in particular. installation photography has barely changed since being described in 1976 by the Irish artist and writer Brian O’Doherty as ”…one of the teleological endpoints of the modern tradition. at least. this form of photograph sanctions artists’ work or curators’ ideas in establishing a nearly perfect seamless context.

the priorities and impulses within the use of this type of photography are not aesthetic. and in this mode often records the disregarded and collateral aspects of exhibition production. New York However. within exhibition culture and practice another distinct form of photography exists. and as a consequence can provide a distinct set of viewpoints and contexts which are.(1) MoMA. Most of us now carry advanced digital cameras as a matter of course and use these in our lives in a similar manner in the transfer of information . as a form. notational in intent. rather they are either explanatory and/or notational. or even the gallery and museum context. Informal photography by gallery and museum staff is used widely within the field of exhibition practice and. Photograph by James Matthews Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art © 2008 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS). it is not exclusive to professional or experienced photographers. in the normal course of events and priorities. New York: Frank Stella. 1970. one that is informal. excluded from aestheticised professional formal installation photography.to photograph bus timetables or items at IKEA. installation view. In the world of exhibitions. They are often used to .

They could even be described as the delicious boudoir shots of art history. such as the removal of a complex work from its bespoke crate. some of which are concerned with aspects of art. and in some cases co-opting institutionally the material available. candid. or to record damage or changes in condition. unmediated state.improper. informal and unofficial form of photo-documentation has emerged in recent years through the proliferation of online photo-sharing services such as Flickr. 2 . they provide for an archive of the hidden histories of exhibition and works of art and a notional archive of artists’ work and exhibitions in an unprepared. In most cases they are held unofficially sequestered from public or non-professional gaze. notwithstanding copyright issues. These throw up a huge number of images. The online databases allow for these images to be organised according to virtually any taxonomic (or folksonomic) criteria. even. snatched quickly at moments of particular intimacy . and the impulses which produce them. and embracing. It is interesting to note that major institutions are becoming engaged in the potential presented by this form of photo-documentation. material culture and exhibition not covered through the conventional documentary photographic practices above. In their use.systematically record processes.2 A third. filed away like forensic or even intimate photographs.

This. or at least deflects photography. I employed my experience of formal and informal photography. in its 3 The author spent over ten years as both a gallery manager and installation photography technician. 2007. . 1944. alongside my knowledge and experience of the processes of exhibition practice 3 to corroborate something of the hidden or disregarded world of exhibitions. a phenomenon I sought to work with within my own practice and research. Polaroid photograph The erasing of traces of labour and process in the realisation of installations creates a visible spectrum that in many respects resists.(2) Andrew McNiven: Tate Store: Paul Delvaux Sleeping Venus.

another way of seeing the work (see 5). for example. a photograph of the floor of a gallery reveals a history of usages tracing the many temporary walls built at a particular point over many years with the spillages of paint or damage. similarly traceable to particular shows (see 4).simplest form. a few yards away is being used to hold together an elderly but tangible barrier(7) . the way that the chains cast shadows subvert the meaning of the painting. The same type of tape. through its projection onto a floor. the way that a work is lit in a particular way creates a shadow which may reveal. A photograph may reveal absurd compromises within exhibition practices: a strip of masking tape being used to delineate a notionally protected space (6). In a photograph of the chains used to hang a painting. involved a different way of looking. the contextual discourse of that display and the collateral effects of display. . a shifting of focus from that which is displayed to the means of display. a man nailed to a cross. In another example. (see 3).

Nice The conditions which arise through the processes of installation are often disregarded in the discourses around reception and are. Tate Modern. one can grasp the thrust of Staniszewski’s argument. 6/7.” (Staniszewski. Andrew McNiven: Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain. as a form of cultural production. 1998: xxi) Whilst perhaps referring more to the products than the processes of installation. under-researched. officially and collectively forgotten. The art historian Mary Ann Staniszewski has written of exhibition design and installation.3-5 (clockwise from top left)Andrew McNiven: Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Tate Britain. as having been “generally speaking. that a significant element. Judd’s ‘great deal of time . as a consequence.

My earlier experiences working within galleries involved spending protracted periods in spaces which were designed for relatively brief periods of occupation and short visits. It may be that there is a tendency (and complicity) within the practice of exhibitions to achieve a kind of condition of effortlessness or permanence in which traces of labour or evidence of process are excluded or diminished. It may be that many critical discourses around art have excluded the processes of production as these. a legacy of the idea of the discrete work of art. and one in which much arthistorical speculation and research is invested – and the perceived site of reception: the open gallery. inconsequential or immaterial transitional phase. installation photography also excludes the processes of reception. The ‘to’ in ‘A to B’. 4 Sound: ‘The eyes see what the ears hear’ (David Lynch) 5 In its exclusion of process. Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. for example. Relational Aesthetics. The idealised image bears no relation to the conditions of exhibition and exhibition spaces. apart form the product itself. one in which the final result is often of less significance than the process. in the case of the visual arts. This hiatus may be because the processes of making an exhibition is generally understood as the means to an end and distinct from the end in itself within most critical discourses. and therefore constitute some kind of simple. In terms of the significant documentation and transmission of artists’ work. are not held to be significant in the production of meaning. 2007 . this tendency is reflected in the propensity of installation photography to ‘fix’ a version of any work in its final installed form. I had 4 This is changing in some areas of art and critical thinking. makes process a discourse in itself. present within the production of meaning in art has been neglected in the discourse around the subject. excluding any evidence of process. embedded within the disregarded processes of labour. that these conditions fall between the perceived site of production: the studio. 5 The Air is on Fire.and thought’. It may be because.

become attuned to and aware of other ambient factors in the functioning of a space. one in which to capture the ambience or ‘feel’ of a space. I used my mobile phone to record the sound and listened back to this on an iPod. I started to make audio recordings of the galleries in which I was taking photographs in what I initially saw as a secondary or supplementary practice. Beyond light. the presence of gallery staff and other visitors. Spending extended periods of time photographing within spaces had brought me back to being sensible to the ambient sound of spaces.You have to take my word that this is what I say it . As this developed there was the intention of using this audio material to better describe the areas of display and to ‘illustrate’ or extend the possibilities of my photographs. I was at that stage unclear about my purposes in recording sound and my motivation was to simply accumulate material. (and dark) the most overwhelming ambient factor which affected the functioning of a space was the acoustic environment. its indexical veracity and ability to capture unrestricted a situation in its entirety provided a useful basis for a creative practice in which the condition of an object or situation was the subject. The idea of veracity is highly questionable as the location of a recording can only be asserted. with hard surfaces and little or no acoustic baffling or absorbing material. beyond its documentary qualities was informing and directing my research activities. Most art and exhibition spaces are highly acoustically reflective environments. a space and the acoustic environment which they share. In this process of separation or dislocation I became immediately struck by the relationship between an object. the temporal and the non-visual. such as the passage of daylight over a day and the material odour of particular spaces and objects within these. I found that my interest in the potential of sound as a creative medium. On one particular occasion I was particularly struck by the sound of a (necessary) dehumidifier next to a Mondrian painting in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. The very qualities it possessed as a documentary medium.

463-468 . symbol) depends on the kind of reference to the denoted object.Vol. index. No. The sound recording of an object and its situation does start to encroach on ideas of veracity. token. Peirce’s analysis and recently identified and applied tensions between artists and documenters6 create a set of factors that need acknowledgement within the context of sound. 31. mathematician and scientist. The first depends on whether the sign itself is a quality or an actual thing or a habit (tone. The third depends on the kind of reference which the sign will be interpreted as making. 2007: 1) The placing of sound recordings exclusively within Peirce’s definition of ‘icon’ seems unlikely – if anything it straddles both the ‘icon’ and the ‘index’ – or certainly field recording does. It is unverifiable.) (Chesler. its presence requiring that the listener simply accept or reject the word of the recordist or editor. The second (icon. is still unverifiable. an American filmmaker and theorist reworks Peirce’s second trichotomy with reference to sound. or not.is. The recordist can assert that it is where it claims to be. It is impossible to introduce the idea of indexicality without reference to the work of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) the American philosopher. which although based within film theory seeks to provide a useful framework for a semiotics of sound: Iconic signs (sound recordings) indexical signs (the dynamic relationship between the sound and the object that made it) symbolic signs (words/language used to describe an object or sound. Oxford Art Journal. however. 3 pp. Giovanna Chesler. The viewer is made complicit in the production of the work. The silent object. Peirce elaborated three central trichotomies of sign. logician. and certain auditory clues might serve to confirm or preclude this. Whilst not mapping directly or interpreting comfortably practices involving sound. However the issue of a recording’s veracity creeps in to any discussion in relation to indexicality and sound. (2008) ‘Photography and its Truth-Event’. This is in 6 see.You can choose to believe me. J. for example: Roberts. type).

‘life-size’ – neither over amplified nor exaggerated. or visual primacy is a cause of anxiety. a new body of ideas. defining modernist works including the painting by Piet Mondrian. in terms of practice. The work was installed in such a way so that the means of reproduction were invisible and the sound level was. the move away from the visual. to work well with factors that are relatively controllable and containable. My experience both as an artist and as a technician has allowed me a confidence in working spatially and visually. What was ‘visible’ or evident. or identifying it for my own purposes I thought of it as the ‘hum of modernism’. and in theoretical terms the assimilation of an entirely different register of thinking. as it were. requiring. sound feels expansive.contrast to photography where the indexical is in the direct visual relationship between the object photographed and the resulting image. 7 In describing the work. I re-recorded the space in Edinburgh with the Mondrian described above at a much higher quality and used this in the first work I exhibited using sound. ‘invisible’ both visually and culturally. The aesthetics of sound were wholly unfamiliar. The sound of a dehumidifier was prominent in the recording. At a comparable sonic scale it was almost unnoticeable. The work was an ambient recording of a room in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art containing early. as if there was a relationship between the uncompromising modernism of the room and the Mondrian and the machine sounds of the dehumidifier. In simple terms. This 7 Had I chosen to represent visually the room at a 1:1 scale it would have been overwhelming. its sonic veracity. and an area and set of activities which are unfamiliar and unrehearsed to the researcher. as was the distant sound of gallery staff talking and laughing. were the sounds of the museum. . The transition from the visual to the aural is a sea-change. however. The shift to sound is not simply a change in means. a function of its indexicality made it indistinguishable from its surroundings. entirely ‘overlooked’ by viewers until their attention was drawn to its existence. The work was unheeded. a reconfiguring of frameworks. In comparison. but at a kind of ‘natural’ sound level. slippery and undisciplined. Even then.

not simply through its temporality. . It was therefore also the sonic environment that the Mondrian was almost continually placed within and could be said to ‘experience’ itself. processes of reception. or at least distinct from the instant ‘moment-in-time’ of photography. In shifting from the plausibility of one visual medium (photography) to record another visual medium (art) to the implausibility of one which excludes any kind of visual perception one is aware of a testing the patience of any audience or viewer (even the terminology has to to exercise a shift. In using sound. The existing and continuous sonic environment in which works are placed is pertinent to ideas of their condition and the processes of display. but through its ability to represent and to side with the spatial dynamics and concrete qualities of objects. or at least bears examination). and the suspended dynamics of the installation photograph. but its own reproduction and ‘exhibition’ provides a plausible way of extending the sensorial register to elucidate something of the temporal and spatial processes of display.as in photography .was the ambient space ‘experienced’ by the viewer of the Mondrian. A distinctly different physical and philosophical process. Sound reproduced as a creative response therefore can be understood not as an extension of current installation documentary practices (photography) but as a medium parallel. spaces and processes of display. one captures not just that which is reflected .but that which is deflected. and by extension. That this condition is one that they could be said to ‘experience’ is questionable. something beyond. however. and in which the Mondrian exists. (and con-temporality) with its subject.

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