Nobody Can Commit Photography Alone: Early Photoconceptualism and the Limits of Information

Article excerpt

"Positively, the effect of speeding up temporal sequence is to abolish time, much as the telegraph and cable abolished space. Of course the photograph docs both. It wipes out our national frontiers and cultural barriers, and involves us in The Family of Man, regardless of any particular point of view."--Marshall McLuhan (1)

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In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Marshall McLuhan observed how automation and information could become forms of resistance under late capitalism. Correspondingly, conceptual art emerged at this time, just as the ''information economy" (2) was gaining in currency and momentum and the aesthetics of administration (as articulated by historians such as Benjamin Buchloh (3)) were becoming increasingly important modes of addressing the prevalence and systemic power of bureaucratic structures in everyday life. Amid this context of postindustrial logic and ideology, many photoconceptualists were preoccupied with investigating the camera's power as a social and economic agent. Kynaston McShine's 1970 "Information" show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York was reflective of this context, and used photography to establish the contemporary ambivalence surrounding the concepts of "information" and "documentary," while ultimately underscoring photoconceptualism's emphasis on the contingency of meaning. Relying on a shared or public discourse in order to be read, work by artists such as John Baldessari, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Douglas Huebler, and N.E. Thing Co. advanced critiques of the logic of objectivity lied to the empirical notion of "information," as well as optimistic propositions for the Utopian potential of mass media. Looking for moments of countercultural activism in the works both as exhibited at the museum and in the catalog, and invoking McLuhan's theorization of the medium of photography as pointed out toward the world (linking artist and viewer) and thus taking into account their shared environment, this article argues for the inherent social meaning of media, or to quote McLuhan, the fact that "Nobody can commit photography alone." (4)

Reflecting the moment of their emergence, conceptual art practices were responses to, and manifestations of, an emerging globalism and an increasingly nomadic art world. Working during a period of intense aesthetic and political anxiety, conceptual art marked the first time photography took center stage as an artistic medium and an object of theoretical inquiry, in part clue to its uncanny ability to evade the categorical boundaries of medium specificity and borders. Photography purported an ease of transmission and access to direct information inextricably linked to the praxis of everyday life. Fascinated with the dynamics of perception and communication, conceptual artists were interested in exploring photography's ability to level all information onto a singular surface, while simultaneously extolling the sameness that could frame all difference. Envisioning these possibilities as inherently democratic, conceptualists saw photography as typified by its capacity to defy the edicts of conventional artistic media and modernist solipsism, and thus as uniquely positioned to engage with the role of the social subject through technological experimentation, hybrid methodologies, and a critical play on and with emerging fantasies of the global village.

"Information" exists as an elusive time capsule--both the concept and the landmark exhibition, The confusing omissions within the exhibition's archive and the catalog are but one example of its legacy of contradiction and experimentation. Standing on the edge of intense change, within the volatile social and political context of 1970, "Information" (according to the curator) sought not simply to document, but more importantly, to understand and intervene in those changes. Tellingly, the prevalent use of photography in the "Information" exhibition and catalog is one of its most striking features. …