Armory Center for the Arts
March 3–June 23, 2013
A musty, bookish cool flooded the visitor upon entering the Armory Center for the Arts during Tales of Tomorrow, Connie Samaras’ recent mid-career retrospective. Once inside, a labored breathing suffused the rangy, quiet galleries like a ventilator patient lying on a shaded bed. Calming and sad, the sound travelled on the edges of the galleries, lining its walls and misting from the rafters, as if to say the ghostly, bodily presence of the living defines the world from its supposed margins.
Tales of Tomorrow examined precisely such obscured marginalities—the nearly effaced evidence of humanity behind neoliberalism’s global exoskeletons. The exhibition featured forty-nine mostly large-format, color photographs and three digital videos, set in New Mexico, Dubai, Arizona, and the Antarctic. In each, Samaras captured aspects of the built environment—trailer homes, skyscrapers, guest worker barracks, landing strips, vapor trails—as seemingly straightforward formal encounters with the landscape. Here is the world’s tallest building under construction. Here are the trailers of an Arizona mobile home retirement community. Here is Francisco Street, where the 110 Freeway meets Olympic Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles, during the Democratic National Convention in August 2000. Here, incredibly, are the traces of Minutemen missiles crossing a nighttime Los Angeles sky, its oil-slick gradient moving from rust to rose to mauve. Specificity matters in Samaras’s photographs. From the dotted lights stringing far-off ridgelines and the ominously bright, looping contrail to the blackout profile of a palm tree crown and the prismatic, bursting aperture of an unseen rocket, discreet facets of history are excerpted in a kind of observational, everyday rhetorical tense. These fleeting, overlooked details come together as patterns, as phantom mirrors of one another. The concrete and the ephemeral, captured by the camera’s incredible capacity for representation, together form an accounting of irrational exuberance, power inscribed within the concrete world of the built environment turned visible, in contrast, by the fleeting traces that mark it.
As a survey, Tales of Tomorrow offered a visual map to understanding the deeply coded spectacle of global capital. Against convention, curator Irene Tsatsos inter-hung Samaras’s different projects, exchanging chronology for visually thematic argument. Not restricted to the conceptual integrity of individual series, the images instead described, or located, political actors and actions in chains of visual scrutiny via the clearly composed grammar of large-scale color photography. Made over into a slide lecture on infrastructure in the service of neoliberalism, they describe architecture, leisure, and labor both glamorized by and circulated as photographic images. As Charlotte Cotton notes in her essay for the exhibition catalog, Samaras’s end game is to deploy photography in a process-based investigation of subjects affected by the proliferation of global capitalism.1 Despite the images’ saturated color and large formats, the aesthetics of the medium are not the artist’s central concern. Their capacity of representation is seamlessly competent, doing little to trouble the photographic image as prosthetic extension of vision itself. However, what becomes clear in Tales of Tomorrow is how aesthetics—that much-despised term—not only comes to rest in the resulting photographs, but also governs our experience of them. It is, after all, by being imaged, by being brought into fixed form, that the tableaux admitted by her camera’s focus are knitted into a story beyond each bounded existence—jagged and colorful abstractions under the night sky brought into ineluctable dialogue with militarism and urbanism.
Unlike the recent work of artists who employ photography as the documentary caption to their deeply archival research (Trevor Paglen springs to mind) or as lyrically appointed grand landscapes in the tradition of painting (such as Edward Burtynsky or Richard Misrach), Samaras’s photographs picture the necessarily interwoven characteristics of physical, historical, and experiential place. In their aesthetic embrace of myth and sentiment, her photographs differentiate themselves from those of her fellow observers, embracing the descriptive potential of the incidental and commonplace while also isolating and extracting the politics embedded within. They are images at once idealist and materialist: narratively rich beyond the mere possibility of illustration, but not so enamored of aesthetics that they sacrifice criticality.
In this, Samaras’s work is reminiscent of simultaneously panoramic and discrete films, such as Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break and Exit (both 2008), Noël Burch and Allan Sekula’s recent epic The Forgotten Space (2010) or, further afield, Jia Zhangke’s 2007 Still Life, where the specificity of place functions as anchor for global connections.2 Whether the specific example of a naval iron works, a tracing of maritime transport networks, or the depiction of the daily life in a river village on the brink of dissolution, each focuses not on a headline, but on its materialist backside. And like these, Samaras’s photographs both linger and search, examining detail as evidence binding an alternate, under-enunciated reality.
Samaras’s photographs stage contemporary landscapes of capitalism as an ersatz- or counter-tourism—in the words of Dean MacCannell, “a ritual performed to the differentiations of society…a way of attempting to overcome the discontinuity of modernity, of incorporating its fragments into unified experience…even as it tries to construct totalities, it celebrates differentiation.”3 A collection of overlooked backsides, both the photographs and the landscapes they represent picture global capitalism, defamiliarizing it by showing its inner workings on par with, or in place of, its astounding monuments.4 No-fly zones, cordoned-off free speech areas, and guest-worker barracks are certainly the backsides of the spectacular visuality of the 2000s—the hidden infrastructure of vindictive nationalism, transnational conquest, and their bombs. But on occasion, these backsides appear more quietly, privately, in the form of an afterthought. Samaras’s photographs of a lesbian retirement community in the Southwest, Edge of Twilight (2011), present the quiet state of domesticity as a series of mobile units settling into their foundations. Garden gnomes and palm-tree Christmas lights accompany rainbow flags. In Samaras’s dispatches from Antarctica in the series V.A.L.I.S. (vast active living intelligence system) (2005–07), images of snowy plains become, as Juli Carson points out, aesthetic platforms upon which passages and activities can be traced.5 Indeed, the very act of their imaging constitutes a backside, a defamiliarization, in and of itself. Critique, in these photographs, seems possible even in the most isolated and abstract redoubts.
Samaras has called the focus of her work speculative landscapes, a term that bears examination. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, speculative, or speculation, has several definitions; each conveys a deeper sense of meaning to Samaras’s project. The first is perhaps the most concrete. Speculation refers to the purchase, sale, or holding of property in order to profit from the fluctuation of its market value as determined by context. Speculation strips its subject of materiality, reconstituting it as exchange-value, and thence as relational representation. Each subsequent definition elaborates this essential understanding of speculation as a function of relational representation: “the faculty or power of seeing,” “conjectural anticipation,” “a conclusion, opinion, view or series of these reached by abstract or hypothetical reasoning.” In other words, speculation, as a term, combines an intelligence of vision with the ability to predict a pattern, offering a conclusion based on essential, if intangible, evidence—based on value yet to be seen. In picturing “speculative landscapes,” then, Samaras hitches her photographic views of the built environment to a predictive, thesis-driven power of observation, heavily dependent on the faculty of seeing.
But another application of the term speculation is appropriate here too. In the large majority of cases in Tales of Tomorrow, such speculation focuses on the future perfect built environment. The snowed-over geodesic domes in Antarctica and glassed-in ski slopes of Dubai are equally follies in her camera’s lens—evidence of a quest for scientifically engineered perfection. Her photographs detail the strange science fiction that is techno-capitalism, excavated like a ruin and left to be pieced together as a representation of its culture after the fact.6 Which is appropriate, given that future history, a familiar trope of science fiction that imagines alternate futures in a narrative past tense, is also often known as speculative fiction. Using a variety of devices—from the fantastic imaginary of utopian societies to the arcane and convoluted deployment of custom linguistic systems and the displacement of social structure in non-normative parallel worlds—science fiction functions as, to quote Darko Suvin, a “literature of cognitive estrangement.”7 As a genre, it coordinates internal narrative and external social, economic, and political contexts as (speculative) mirrors, the one representing the other by means of heightened, artificial distortion.8 Science fiction, then, requires the excavation of representation for traces of its past, requires its own excavation as a speculative past gone wrong.9 Within this retrospective accounting of futurology, lodged in the landscape and economy of late capitalism, Samaras’s photographs reveal today’s landscape as a kind of science fiction, a foolish spectacle repeated over and over, a contemporary Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.10
Yet where does Samaras’s work diverge, then, from the painterly imaging of landscape spectacle practiced by contemporaries like Burtynsky, Misrach, or even Andreas Gursky? One answer can be found in the exhibition’s sonic framing, the video soundtrack audible throughout the exhibition space. The visceral, measured breathing emanated from a small vault at the rear of the exhibition space, where the video Untitled (Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica) (2005) was projected on a screen at the end of the darkened room. Untitled consists of a single tightly cropped shot: a perfect, circular hole in blue-thick ice with slushy water buoying and lapping its edges. Suddenly, the head of a little seal burbles to the surface, its nose testing the air, contracting and expanding with each intake and exhalation. It’s undeniably cute, but over the course of the video’s four-minute loop the seal’s deep pathos redefines the focus of the exhibition, another under-enunciation, this time of the fundamental, shared condition of humanity. The seal is the equivalent form of the viewer, guest worker, Antarctic scientist, passer-by—of the observer, participant, and subject.11 As articulated from Marx to MacCannell, it is by transforming the work of others into fetish, into amusement, into spectacle, and into attraction that we understand our relational positioning to a global totality. It is by framing, by mirroring the everyday as unfamiliar and strange that we understand the levels of substitution, abstraction, and representation that bind an individual to a network of meanings and significations.12 It is by externalizing ourselves that we gain a sense of perspective and placement, of relationality. The seal, the most embodied of the many living, breathing, subliminal entities in Tales of Tomorrow, returns Samaras’s work to allegory.
With its high rafters and boxy partitions, the Armory Center is a challenging place to exhibit and view art. Its quasi-clinical environment presents art as specimen. Recent shows, including Tsatsos’s Facing the Sublime in Water, CA (2012), have used or ignored the galleries’ spatial constraints, offering thematic takes on intersections between art and environment. Tales of Tomorrow had the potential to be another in such an earnest, if pedantic, series. But with the sound of breathing heavy on the air, the exhibition took a different turn, toward an examination of the presence or absence of humanity as a ground condition of globalization. Somatically framed by the sound of breathing, photographs such as Workers’ Mosque, Labor Camp, Jebel Ali (2009), Underneath the Amundsen-Scott Station (2005), and even Behind the Sphinx, Las Vegas (2003), became even more emphatically images from a lost world—archaeological ruins from a future history.
For the cool, controlled luxury of every Burj Khalifa, there is a warren of sweltering guest-worker dormitories, a place where the unscripted routines of community persist against their walled-in lives. For every Luxor Las Vegas there exist alternate kinds of utopia, whether the inauspicious twinkling of greater Las Vegas’s doomed sprawl, or the quiet, tidy promise of a queer-friendly desert mobile home park. For every remote research station, a seal is lying beneath, breathing, surfacing, whether someone is there to observe it or not. Every site of tragedy is accompanied by its phantom twin, a parallel reality just out of view. Samaras’s works deliver these contradictions: society made strange, represented, and seen anew.
Susanna Newbury is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art at Yale University, where she is completing a dissertation on art and real estate development in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles.
- Charlotte Cotton, “The Artistic Life of Connie Samaras,” in Connie Samaras: Tales of Tomorrow, ed. Irene Tsatsos (Pasadena, CA: Armory Center, 2013), 10.↵
- So, too, do Lockhart’s and Sekula’s work consider the historical role of the photograph in their original imagery—for Lockhart, the Lumière brothers’ films, and for both Sekula and Lockhart, the classic social documentary of Lewis Hine.↵
- Dean MacCannell, The Tourist (New York: Shocken, 1979), 13.↵
- Defamiliarized, I would argue, by the act of formal aestheticization, becoming in a sense decorative tableaux. Matias Viegener perceptively describes Samaras’s Dubai photographs as analyzing an aesthetic sensibility repositioned from the West “back to parts of the world that earlier were colonized to extract their resources.” Matias Viegener, “The Floating World of Dubai,” in Tsatsos, ed., 23.↵
- Juli Carson, “VALIS: Modernity’s Buried Present,” in Tsatsos, ed., 19.↵
- The term “future history” was coined in 1941 by the writer John W. Campbell Jr. in reference to the stories of the well-known writer Robert A. Heinlein. “[A]ll Heinlein’s science-fiction is laid against a common background of a proposed future history of the world and of the United States. Heinlein’s worked the thing out in detail that grows with each story; he has an outlined and graphed history of the future with characters, dates of major discoveries, et cetera plotted in.” John W. Campbell, “Editor’s Note,” Astounding Science Fiction (February 1941). Quoted in Damon Knight, “Introduction,” Past through Tomorrow (New York: Putnam, 1967), 10.↵
- First defined as such by Darko Suvin, “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre,” College English 34:3 (December 1972): 372, 375.↵
- Suvin, 375. Suvin argues that science fiction can be used as a supplement to technological imaginings of the future in sociology, technology, ecology and so on, but best as a “system of stylized narrative devices understandable only in their mutual relationships within a functional whole and not as isolated realities” (379).↵
- See Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).↵
- Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1555–58. Oil on panel transferred to canvas, 29 x 44 in. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Bruegel’s painting of the Ovidian myth of Daedalus and Icarus has often been used as a metaphor for the juxtaposed, if sometimes oblivious, phenomena of tragedy and everyday life, notably in W.H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1939), and William Carlos Williams’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (1960). As in Bruegel’s painting, each poem presents a descriptive reading of the myth as a confounded narrative, where the subject (Icarus’s fall to the sea) is obscured by the circumstances of his environment, and therefore the complicity of its inhabitants. For Auden, this predicament was especially poignant in the context of his 1938 visit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts (with Christopher Isherwood) on the brink of World War II. Williams’s more concrete, elegiac version instead mourns the scene, in the past tense, as a case of lamentable ennui. See: http://www.fine-arts-museum.be/fr/la-collection/pieter-i-bruegel-la-chute-dicare?letter=b&artist=bruegel-brueghel-pieter-I, http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15828, and http://english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/auden.html.↵
- On equivalent value, and abstraction as a fundamental conceit of representation, see Karl Marx, “The Value Form, or Exchange Value,” Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1976), 138–62.↵
- 12. MacCannell, 6.↵