The Serial Attitude Redux

Kim Schoen

Edward [sic] Muybridge’s photographs, Thomas Eakins’s perspective studies, Jasper John’s numerals, Alfred Jensen’s poluptychs, Larry Poon’s circles, dots and ellipsoids, Donald Judd’s painted wall pieces, Sol LeWitt’s orthogonal multi-part floor structures.
—Mel Bochner1

In 1967, Mel Bochner wrote a piece that appeared in Artforum entitled “The Serial Attitude.” He began by listing artworks he felt exemplified that attitude. Given the visual dissimilitude of all the works mentioned, he asserted that “the serial” was therefore not inherently stylistic, but rather an attitude that employed serial logics.

Bochner’s first sentence sets up a crucial distinction. He writes: “Serial order is a method, not a style.” Serial order is directly counterposed with what he calls work “in-series,” which he quickly dismisses as falling outside his area of concern. He moves on to listing the postulates that define the serial attitude: systematic terms, order taking precedence over execution, and the completed work being parsimonious and fundamentally self-exhausting.

Bochner’s assertion leads me to examine what the serial attitude may be today, specifically in the context of photography. To work in a series is often taken as a given in photography, since the medium itself embodies repetition. The blank roll of film is a series of photographs yet to be taken. Print after print can be made from the same negative. Digital cameras store thousands of sequential images. Seriality may be embedded in the mechanics of photography, but what kind of attitude is employed in its engagement today? Could “the serial attitude redux” be considered the inverse of Bochner’s statement—a style, not a method? To begin examining this, we shall look more closely at those makers whom Bochner excluded in his definition, when he cited the examples of Morandi’s bottles or de Kooning’s women as “variations on a theme.”

In the 2006 edition of the national Portrait Gallery’s Photographic Portrait Prize catalog, winning photographs were selected for publication. Almost all of them list their titles, and then “from the series,” as in Charlene in her Caravan, from the series Somerset; Sophie Hannah, from the series Portraits of Poets; Untitled, from the series Uplands Allotments; and Vicky, from the series Londoners. “From the series” maps out a terrain, a terrain we can immediately understand through naming. From this linguistic gesture we can make a prediction, not about the image presently in front of us, but of what future photographs in the series might be. From the title Portraits of Poets, and the photograph Sophie Hannah, I can envisage another portrait of a poet, in a location that references the poet and his or her livelihood. I can predict the trajectory of the body of work, whether ten photographs or one hundred.

This is the type of work Bochner was referring to as work in-series—variations on a theme, or “multiple variants.” Counterposed to this were the artists Bochner described as working in the “serial attitude,” with structures that were not necessarily more intricate (think of Jasper Johns’s numbers 0 through 9, 1960) but whose limits were rigorously defined. Working with “permitted combinations” of elements belonging to systems truncated the possibility of never-endingness. They were closed systems—as Bochner posited, self-exhausting ones.

A variant of Bochner’s idea of the systematic self- exhaustion of the work was Joseph Kosuth’s conception of the analytic proposition. An analytic proposition curves the infinite into a tautology, which gives the work its finish. It is a proposition “presented within the context of art as a comment on art.”2 Indeed, Kosuth argued that art would be impossible to even speak of without speaking in tautologies to get at the condition of the art. Forming an analytic proposition stops the possibility of endless equivalences in its tautological game. It makes sense when the work finishes, since it is self-exhausting—its own end has been planned and reckoned with.

Kosuth described another kind of work besides the analytic in Art After Philosophy—the “synthetic,” or realistic art. Synthetic art, he declares, flings one out of “art’s ‘orbit’ into the ‘infinite space’ of the human condition.”3 The orbit of the analytic is a tautology, whereas synthetic art simply trails off into an infinite and unrecognizable horizon, relying as it does on human experience to verify its meaning. Because, as Kosuth argues, “realism’s synthetic state does not bring one to a circular swing back into a dialogue with the larger framework of the nature of questions of art,”4 the realistic forms a linear trajectory, an “unfinished” line of thinking. Therefore, we might think of each photograph in a series as simply one leading to another and another, where each relates to the one before and the one after, but without a teleology. A structure is present, but as Bochner would note, it is “a relatively uncomplex one” and it has no finish. Portraits of Poets could possibly go on forever, as long as there’s a poet to be photographed. As well, this kind of series prompts copies of itself: Somerset, Uplands Allotments, Londoners.

Kosuth disdained this “morphological” strategy because it became art only by virtue of its resemblance to other works of art, and embodied only a priori notions of art’s possibilities. Presumably, Bochner excluded de Kooning’s women and Morandi’s bottles because they were based on “mere” morphological similarities; their repetition simply goes on, a repetition of the same. This predictable repetition of what has come before, if not the self-same, does produce a kind of variant, a familiar resemblance.

“That is a naturally pleasant human thing, to like a resemblance. And does this naturally pleasant human thing the liking a resemblance make everything difficult very difficult. Yes, it certainly does.” –Gertrude Stein5

Resemblance bears all the weight of its religious vestiges, for example the idea of “man in the image of God.” In this sense, the attitude of resemblance could be considered to be devotional—after the original perfection of God, imperfect copies/strive to make good on their fortune of resemblance through devotion to the original. In resemblance we find secular devotion as well, performing an ardent affection rather than religious zeal. Thomas Mann, in his essay Freud and the Future, describes his devotion to the father in “this powerful influence of admiration and love, this childish identification with a father-image elected out of profound affinity.”6 Resemblances create these affinities; they name names, familiarize. They are familial linkages. They create, as Freud says, a family romance. Indeed, resemblances don’t necessarily need to run through direct genetic lineages. Resemblances create adopted families.

Tom Hunter’s photographs in Living in Hell and Other Stories work on this principle of resemblance. Woman Reading a Possession Order (1998) is a photograph based on a painting by the 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. The rest of the photographs in Hunter’s exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery in London in 2006 adopt their parents as well, resembling paintings ranging from the le Nain brothers’ Four Figures at a Table (c. 1643) to Paul Gauguin’s Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892). These sorts of resemblances effect a temporal contraction of the intervening centuries. A resemblance pulls two things together; therefore, both are called to mind at once. It is the active version of the Deleuzian passive synthesis—the essential and unavoidable contractions that allow forward movement in thought from past to future. This trajectory of understanding for a viewer is based on calling up what has come before through resemblance. In Hunter’s case, it lends the patina of a prior authority to the subjects of his photographs, the historical weight of Renaissance paintings conferred upon “the ordinary citizens of Hackney.”7

Resemblances contract time; this is a synchronic method of perception, rather than a diachronic method. One thing need not come after the other; rather, devotions can bridge centuries, or weeks. One can pick and choose among the ages to fall in love. one can be enamored with a face, or a facade, and form resemblances to them, since aesthetic or formal qualities persist even as the readability of their content or intentions flags. The groupings in Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art (1955) (love, birth, children, death, work, play, pleasure and pain, fears and hopes, tears and laughter) maximized this principle of resemblance via the photograph, stretching it into a presumed universality of the human condition.

But Adorno writes of Nietzsche’s warning “to perceive resemblances everywhere, making everything alike, is a sign of weak eyesight.”8 This cataract is apropos to a discussion regarding photography (and the clarity of the all-seeing eye of the camera). The camera does not choose its resemblances; rather, it reproduces what we perceive them to be faithfully. It is we who see the history in a landscape, or Olympia in a prostitute.

If we look at contemporary work in-series, we see that each image often resembles the others. Photographic techniques are used in order to bring about these resemblances between photographs. Rineke Dijkstra places her subjects in the daylight of an empty beach, and consistently uses fill flash to expose the vulnerable details of their young bodies. Massimo Vitali raises himself above the tide of people on beaches, so that each image takes a similar horizon line, and he underexposes his photographic prints to enhance the lightness of the beach sun. Every effort is made to create a repetition of formal choices, to enhance the similarities in the subject matter, and to increase the visual resemblances of each image to another in the series.

The in-series aesthetic employs uniformity, which lends a graphic quality to photographs, enhanced through repetition. We first see the “external envelope”9—the abstract visual effect of a similar image repeated, which gives the series an all-encompassing look, an appearance of unity. This unity is brought about through the photographer’s choice to perform the game of photography’s repetitive objectivity, and to accumulate repeated elements in a unified terrain. These series wear the uniforms of the photographer’s choices. They do not employ analytic propositions, and their ends are not conceived along with their beginnings.

In many cases, it is the titles of the series that create the territory and pattern the resemblances. Vitali’s series is called Beaches. There will be nothing in the series that is not on a beach, viewed with the camera at lifeguard-tower height. It is not a typology, even though the rigorousness of a simple set parameter allows us to compare and contrast. But Vitali could photograph any beach, in any part of the world. The contextual and historical details matter little, and so the attempt is not to exhaust a subject, nor to “learn” from comparing and contrasting, but to scan and to gaze. The movement of the eye over peopled beaches is what creates interest; the viewer may scan smoothly over the surface of the landscape of the photograph. The movement will be different in the next photograph, given the minute variances in pose and posture. That the eye keeps moving, that there is another and a next to scan over—this is the reason for the series: the scopophilic pleasure of scanning a terrain. And the more photographs of beaches there are, the more the terrain is set and associated with Vitali.

Martin Parr, FINLAND, Ferry between Helsinki and Stockholm, 1991.

Martin Parr, FINLAND, Ferry between Helsinki and Stockholm, 1991. From Bored Couples. Courtesy Martin Parr/ Magnum.

Martin Parr, FRANCE, Paris, 1992.

Martin Parr, FRANCE, Paris, 1992. From Bored Couples. Courtesy Martin Parr/ Magnum.

The resemblance in Martin Parr’s series Bored Couples (1993) is also to the name of the series. Each photograph refers back to its title; the title connects all the photographs together. Parr takes advantage of the camera’s ability to stop a moment, leaving couples in what appears to be a state of awkwardness; they gaze out over an ordered hotel breakfast, or are locked in a stiff embrace on a dance floor. His repeated gesture builds an argument for the phenomenon known as the bored couple, inviting the viewer to read into people’s poses the unbearable inner lassitude they allegedly feel. Never mind that this is achieved with the surprise of a bright flash and high shutter speed, and a devilish penchant on the part of the photographer to undermine the seriousness of a rigorous typology. In fact, one of the couples contains Parr himself, in a deadpan wink toward the staging involved.

Through an artist’s generalized area of attention, the series multiplies and expands. Making a series of photographs becomes a reach to multiply its resemblances until it can sufficiently make the proper claims of authorship: Morandi’s bottles, de Kooning’s women, Parr’s bored couples, Vitali’s beaches. The resemblances within the series make it a cohesive body of work. It may be exhaustive (although the hallmark of this kind of contemporary serializing is that it does not grasp for a totalizing sense of completeness) but it is not “self-exhausting” as Bochner described the work of the serial attitude.

The question of how many photographs are needed to “complete” the series is determined by the photographer’s internal goals and morphology. External constraints are also a factor; the final shape a series takes can be limited by its physical presentation (the amount of wall space in a gallery, the number of signatures in a book). Parameters that may have nothing to do with the internal structure of the piece can simply determine where a series “ends.”

It is interesting to note that the word “series” —sharing company with shambles and species—is used for both the singular and plural forms. One series, many series. The word series already implies a multiplicity within it, and the word stays the same no matter how many multiplicities are added. It is an ever-expanding term. In fact, it has an infinite capacity to signify an infinite number. Even the use of the word series has no limit. But resemblances within a series create a kind of territory. A series then becomes an entity, an entity that has value as a representation of the sum of its parts. The multiplicity becomes a singular unit, a quantity. The unit of the series allows for a metonymy that truncates the never-endingness of its production, so that the series may be shared as a finished work.

Because repetition within a series is so obvious and striking, it tends to camouflage what might be the larger structural repetition of its own form. Does the form of the series itself encourage a kind of bad infinity?10 In The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Rosalind Krauss held up the concept of the grid for scrutiny, arguing that its claims for originality were actually grounded in repetition and recurrence (via the “visual texts” that came before, from the perspective lattice meant to transfer three dimensions into two, or the matrix on which to chart harmonic relationships, or the “millions of acts of enframing by which the picture was reaffirmed as a regular quadrilateral.”)11 Let us briefly ask some similar questions about the series: does one return to the series, or does one begin with the series? Does the series exist a priori to the making of work, and does its structure determine the content of the work (i.e., is one merely filling in the blanks)?

As does the grid, the series has its inheritances. The legacy of the typology in photography can hardly be underestimated in our discussion of an in-series attitude. In-series repetition could be considered a kind of vestigial repetition—an echo—of the typology. The work of August Sander is possibly the most influential forebear in this regard. In “About Faces, Portraits, and Their Reality,” the introduction to Sander’s book Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time, 1929), Alfred Doblin called Sander’s work “sociology without writing.” (Sander said in a radio address in 1931: “More than anything, physiognomy means an understanding of human nature.”) But the vestiges of his legacy stray from his intentionality. Instead of Sander’s commitment to an understanding of the human subject and its social structures and activities through the systematic visual investigation of physiognomy, we find in the in-series attitude a detachment: the detachment that occurs when one gives up on the project of “writing sociology” with photographs. These echoes do not retain a belief in the possibility of a complete typology through the methodology or the scientific nature of photography. Contemporary “variations on a theme” misplace, forget, or purposefully ignore the intention for encyclopedic completeness, and become enumerative rather than totalizing. This attitude can easily become accumulative and territorial. But the concept of enumeration is more closely linked to compulsion and collecting, a gathering with no totalizing schema. Writes Georges Perec, “[T]hus, between the exhaustive and the incomplete, enumeration seems to me to be, before all thought (and before all classification), the very proof of that need to name and to bring together, without which the world (‘life’) would lack any points of reference for us.”12 Bernd and Hilla Becher’s process of photographing water towers, grain silos and other industrialist structures is an example of how this typological mode can carry a different intention, attitude, or, as Blake Stimson writes, “comportment” towards the systematic method of photographing.”[T]he cumulative effect of the typological method as it is applied in the Bechers’ life-project does not provide greater knowledge of the processes or history of their subject. Instead, the use of rhythm and repetition endows the buildings they photograph with the ‘anonymity’ or abstract form they seek rather than with scientific specificity (by divorcing meaning from original purpose and everyday social function) and, in turn, allows us to read them ahistorically and extra- socially and appreciate them as autonomous aesthetic objects or ‘sculpture.'”13

The repetition in in-series work enumerates. It points at something: it is there, it is there, it is there. The insistence stays present tense. Rather than the narrative of how it got there, we find: it is there.14 This compulsion to document what exists as unique and singular in the world offers a different perspective on how we may think of the repetition in the in-series attitude. Deleuze writes that repetition is necessary only in relation to that which cannot be replaced: “as a conduct and as a point of view [it] concerns non- exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities.”15

Photographers engage a repetitive attitude towards the singular, the irreplaceable specific that is loved in the act of photographing it.16 Adorno writes: “The specific is not exclusive. It lacks the aspiration to totality.”17 In this attention to a singular thing, we find myopia, a fixation both intense and loving. This attention is natural. It does not seek to totalize, encompass, infinitize, or idealize. It is the very irreplaceable that concerns us. The making of a representation, or a doubling of such singulars, attests to the intense attention given to the singular in the compulsion to hold present that which is not replaceable. Photography arrests and re-presents, in a kind of fort-da, and this play at re-enunciating permits the doubling to attest, to point to the singular.18 Deleuze writes that the head is the organ of exchange, but the heart is the amorous organ of repetition. The interiority and the heart of the image beat underneath, in an arrhythmia that gives force to the symmetrical repetitions we see. The singular is the amorous organ within the image. We love what cannot be replaced.

What cannot be replaced: the condensation on a window heated by a radiator, the small bubbles that have formed in a glass of water left on the sill overnight. Josef Sudek photographed his studio window and a glass with a flower in it over and again, at his leisure, for years. The stopped time of the photograph rubs against the quickening temporal trajectory of the life of a cut flower. We see the same in each image: sill, glass, flower. But then we notice that in this photograph the background is thrown out of focus, making a charcoal smudge of the tree trunk, whereas in this one the bark is scratched and clear. In this photograph the water level seems a touch closer to the lip of the glass. In another photograph, the flower changes from rose to cherry blossom. The photographs permeate us with sameness and difference at once. These photographs are not the same. But neither are they equal. In what appears to be the same, this other rhythm hides, pulsating with the interiority of that which has no equal or equivalent, “a more secret vibration which animates it, a more profound, internal repetition within the singular.”19

I awake each morning and there is again dew onthe glass. The miraculousness of the same. The photographer repeats a photograph to make what is photographed more manifest, and to make himself more manifest in his witnessing of the singular. More-more-more returns, not as accumulative and territorializing, but as an insistence on instances of presence, the photographer’s own. Richard Foreman, director of the ontological-hysteric theater, declared, “Most art is created by people trying to make their idea, emotion, thing-imagined, be-there more. They reinforce.”20 Some photographers engage repetition not in order to be self-exhausting, but to insist on what is there, what has not been exhausted.

…It is sometimes difficult to understand where it (art) all begins and ends…
–Jonathan Monk21

Kosuth pushed to further the conversation about art through the method of the analytic proposition. However, one might also argue that this is what occurs in a synthetic proposition as well, albeit in different shape and form, motivated by languages other than logic. Every artist is caught up in a conversation(transference, repetition, error, communication)22 with other artists—their contemporaries and their predecessors. Both the synthetic and the analytic are ongoing conversations about art that could lead to equally productive or unproductive ends. As well, the analytic proposition, once made, can only bear the remnants of its form. Every analytic work becomes synthetic at last. Kosuth acknowledges this when he says that a Cubist masterwork is no longer art now, it is “non-sensical, conceptually speaking.”23

The serial attitude Bochner wrote about in 1967 has been posed, postured, realized, lived, and now canonized. Of course, some artists continue to work with a serial attitude today. Jonathan Monk’s 1-50 (2003) uses the hermetic tautology of the analytic proposition, but brings a critical life to it by using photographs he found in a flea market picturing from one to fifty people. These “serialized” images question the dismissal of context in favor of system, in that Monk uses photographs of anonymous people, their personal contexts intact and on view. Despite being placed squarely within a mathematical structure, each image obstinately refuses to be emptied of its emotional content. It is the synthetic which returns to loiter around the angularity of the analytic in Monk’s work, the ghost of the “human condition” coming back to haunt the series.

Monk’s ever-changing serializations, Shirana Shahbazi’s recombinatory genres, Roni Horn’s fluctuating series, Dee Williams’s researched repetitions, Tacita Dean’s chance collections.

There are as many variants of seriality and repetition as our imagination allows. In fact, Deleuze argues that repetition is, in essence, imaginative. It is the imaginary that which has passed is held in, so that one may synthesize it with what is present; we call up in our imaginations the previous case in order to compare it with the present case. The imagination exists to draw something new from repetition; it exists to draw difference from it.24 Artists working with photography today are constantly imagining variations on the serial, producing a myriad of thoughts and movements within them. Persistence, stammering, amplification, and thickening are just a few of the rhetorical devices that make up the “multiple variants” of a serial attitude redux.

Shirana Shahbazi, [Sanaz-01-1998], from the series Goftare Nik/ Good Words, 1998.

Shirana Shahbazi, [Sanaz-01-1998], from the series Goftare Nik/ Good Words, 1998. C-Print on dibond, size variable, Ed. of 5. Courtesy of the artist and Bob Van Orsouw Gallery, Zurich. © Shirana Shahbazi

Shirana Shahbazi, [Sanaz-03-2001], 2001.

Shirana Shahbazi, [Sanaz-03-2001], 2001. Wall painting, size variable. Courtesy of the artist and Bob Van Orsouw Gallery, Zurich, and Salon 94, New York. © Shirana Shahbazi.

Gertrude Stein’s linguistic investigations into portraiture are useful in looking at the photographic work of Shirana Shahbazi. Stein made a distinction between repetition and insistence. Insistence is what attests to the active presence and vitality of a person acting upon his or her environment. Every emphasis in utterance is different, every utterance attests to ingenuity and difference, even though the topic may stay the same. In fact, there can be no repetition if there is insistence. (“…[I]f you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use the exact same emphasis.”25 Emphasizing remains an inventive ever-presence, which is anti-memory and anti-remembrance. We may see Shahbazi’s work in this light as an individual insistence on genre (the still life, the landscape, the portrait). Her images are specific and descriptive, yet hold a certain remove in that they are technically precise and coolly composed. She participates in the conventions of genre, but her sharp insistence is constantly shifting and re-ordering it. Shahbazi also invites the emphasis from other cultural productions into her cadence. In the book Goftare Nik/ Good Words (2001), her photograph of a mother in headscarf and camel-colored overcoat holding a child is repeated in a painted version, which is Shahbazi’s photograph in reverse, rendered by a local billboard artist. A portrait of a young woman (from the series Flowers, Fruits & Portraits 2003) has been translated into a knotted carpet, a time-consuming, handmade process of building an image. The use of these reversals, deferments, displacements of subjectivity, and constant re-imaging, all under Shahbazi’s insistence, keeps the emphasis in the present tense. For indeed the subject keeps changing. Her relationship to the series is one of continuous improvisation and combination.

Roni Horn, This is Me, This is You (details), 1998-2000.

Roni Horn, This is Me, This is You (details), 1998-2000. 96 c-prints, 12 1/2 x 10 1/4 inches each. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. © Roni Horn.

Continual improvisation also appears in Roni Horn’s This is Me, This is You (1999-2000). Horn photographs a young girl, Georgia, making faces close up to her camera lens. Georgia appears repetitively but not in direct sequence; undisclosed but obviously erratic lengths of time pass between shots. The series is rigid in its close cropping, but in tone it is slightly incoherent and spontaneous; the faces Georgia pulls are silly, serious, a changing babble. The apparent structural sameness of the repetition only stresses the singular fleeting moments contained within it. The shift of her expressions before Horn’s camera speaks of both the experimental nature of her young age and Horn’s more critical ideas on the mutability of identity. The photographs are hung in a manner that subtly heightens the sense of instability: a grid on one wall faces another grid on an opposing wall. The two grids appear to be symmetrical, made up of doubles of the same photographs, but in fact each correlated image is from a different moment in the roll of film from that day.

Annette Kelm, I Love the Little Baby Giant Panda, I'd Welcome One to My Veranda, 2003.

Annette Kelm, I Love the Little Baby Giant Panda, I’d Welcome One to My Veranda, 2003. C-print, 7 parts; 15 3/4 x 19 3/4 in. each. Edition of 5 + 2 Ap. Courtesy of the artist and Johann König, Berlin.

The instability of the same is obliquely referenced in Annette Kelm’s series of palm trees, I Love the Little Baby Giant Panda, I’d Welcome One to My Veranda (2003). It depicts one tree, repeated seven times, in what appears to be a series of sequential photographs. But we cannot be sure of this direct sequence; each image of the tree could have been made before or after any of the other moments, so uncertain are we of what a breeze might do to a thick of fronds. And the night could be obscuring or rearranging our sequence; Kelm’s weak flash is hardly sufficient to pin down the hay-colored wisps. Because it is shot at night (adverse to the clarity one might require to accurately describe in a photograph), and is actually of the same tree over and again (rather than photography’s typical usefulness in classifying similar objects according to their characteristics), the series produces a hovering, uncertain movement in relation to both narrative and typology.

Another kind of serial strategy based on repetition can be found in Dee Williams’s Untitled (Daguerreotype project) (2000). Williams photographed pages from twelve different books that published two almost identical American daguerreotypes from the mid-1800s, each depicting a scene in Massachusetts General Hospital. The images can be found in both photographic and medical histories as examples of the first use of documentary photography and the first use of anesthesia, respectively. The caption changes according to in which book it was found, and Williams rigorously charts the drift of agendas that accompany the scientific “truth” of the photograph. For example, in one reproduction the photograph supposedly depicts the surgery in “the instant that it happened,” whereas in another the photograph is credited as “a re-enactment.” Heterogeneous intentions shadow the repetition of these two (almost identical) images in publication.The photograph appears again and again—clouded with dust, blurred in some areas, sharp in others. The use of anesthesia and its implied loss of consciousness permeate every mechanical repetition of this image. The fade from consciousness to unconsciousness under the mask of ether suggests the sliding impossibility of a complete and total logic in the use of a photograph. The first surgery under anesthesia has no final image in Williams’s project; there are twelve in the series as of now, but still more are found in her research as time passes.

Tacita Dean, Floh, 2001.

Tacita Dean, Floh, 2001. Made in collaboration with Martyn Ridgewell. Published by Steidl Publications. © Tacita Dean.

Tacita Dean, Floh, 2001.

Tacita Dean, Floh, 2001. Made in collaboration with Martyn Ridgewell. Published by Steidl Publications. © Tacita Dean.

Tacita Dean, Floh, 2001.

Tacita Dean, Floh, 2001. Made in collaboration with Martyn Ridgewell. Published by Steidl Publications. © Tacita Dean.

Tacita Dean compiled the book Floh (2001) using photographs found in European and American flea markets. (“Floh” is German for flea.) In Floh, many different formats of photographs represent the history of twentieth century photography: daguerreotypes, large-format negative prints, Brownie camera snapshots, and Polaroids. We see a woman holding a parrot, grinning at it as one would grin at a child; a man holding a giant icicle, shirtless and blurred; and a woman in a cotton dress tipped into by the shadow of a man. These subjects are indeed people of the twentieth century, and more importantly, these photographs are taken by the people of the twentieth century. The point of view is thus fractured; what we see is only from the position of being within the flow of experience. One has the sense of an archive being compiled, but the images are not organized in chronological, or categorical, sequence. Each image sits alone in its bright white field. The single image as a fragment rests in relation to the infinity of others. Dean’s series speaks to the endless proliferation of the found—finished here, with the turn of its last page, but implicitly unfinishable.

The unfinishable, the unencompassable, the shifting. Attitudes driving serial work today are manifold, and in a sense themselves unencompassable.However, one can sense in certain serial works an exploration of the gaps and fault lines of systematic thought, something surprisingly shared with Bochner’s serial attitude (for as he himself has written, “it is through the malfunction of a system that it surrenders its transparency.”)26 one can also sense a move towards the singularity of repetition, with its power as the “differentiator of difference.”27 It is this potentiality, this singular power of repetition, which is hidden within the habitual return of the self-same—an empty, territorializing repetition based on resemblance and equivalence. As Deleuze writes, “one is repetition in the effect, the other in the cause. one is extensive, one is intensive. one is ordinary, the other, distinctive and singular.”28 To distinguish between these two forms is to discern the interior heart of repetition that unfolds as pure movement from the envelopment of the other form that is an abstract effect of the self-same.

The challenge thrown down by repetition in making serial work is to inhabit it, to manifest it as constituting the work itself. Without tautology or typology, serial attitudes today are engaging, and re-engaging, this possibility.

Kim Schoen is an artist and writer, working primarily in photography and video installation. She received her MFA from CalArts in 2005 and her Masters in Philosophy from the Photography Department of the Royal College of Art in 2008. She is also the co-founder and editor of MATERIAL, a journal of texts by visual artists, whose second issue will launch December 2009 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. This essay is excerpted from an on-going series on seriality.


  1. Mel Bochner, “The Serial Attitude,” Artforum (December 1967), 28-33.
  2. Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” First published in Studio International (London) 178, no. 915 (October 1969), 134-137; no. 916 (November 1969), 160-161; no. 917 (December 1969), 212-213. Reprinted in Art After Philosophy and After Collected Writings, 1966-1990, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 16.
  3. Ibid, 19.
  4. Ibid, 20.
  5. Gertrude Stein, “Pictures,” Lectures in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 85.
  6. This quote from Thomas Mann is taken from a passage of Harold Bloom, “Clinamen,” The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 53.
  7. National Portrait gallery: http://www.nationalgallery. org.uk/exhibitions/tom_ hunter/default.htm. Accessed 20 September 2007.
  8. Theodor Adorno, “On the Morality of Thinking,” Minima Moralia (New York, London: Verso, 2005), 74.
  9. The external envelope is a metaphor from Gilles Deleuze, “Difference-For-it- self,” Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
  10. Hegel’s conception of “bad infinity” rests upon the idea that there is an endless continuation of the self-same that holds a grip upon the modern consciousness. it is romanticized in nature and aesthetics (the endless waves, the sought-after sublime) and modernity (infinite progress), and he argues that this conception limits finitude itself and distorts other potentialities for infinity. For further inquiry, see G.F.W. Hegel, Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller (Amherst: Humanity Books, 1969) and Wayne M. Martin’s “In Defense of Bad infinity,” Bulletin of the Hegel Society of Great Britain 55/56 (2007), 168-187.
  11. Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Boston: MIT Press, 1986), 9-22.
  12. George Perec, “Think/Classify,” Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (Penguin: London, 1997), 198.
  13. Blake Stimson, “The Photographic Comportment of Bernd and Hilla Becher,” (London: Tate Papers, Spring 2004). httP://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/ tatepapers/04spring/ stimson_paper.htm. Accessed 25 August 2009.
  14. The “pointing” that a photograph performs relates to its assumed indexical capability. But the veracity of the index, the “proof” that something or someone was indeed there (this tense shift involved in a photograph is a subject for another essay) is a topic that I will not delve into here. Rather, what concerns us is that photographers repeatedly engage with the medium as if it were proof.
  15. Deleuze, “Introduction: Repetition and Difference,” 1.
  16. The singular is used here as Deleuze figures it—that which has no equal or equivalent.
  17. Theodor Adorno, “Morality and Temporal Sequence,” Minima Moralia, 79.
  18. Freud’s analytic tale of the “fort-da” (gone, there), where he finds a child purposefully throwing his toy away so that he can perform the action of retrieving it, functions here as a metaphor for the photographer who stops a thing via the arrest of the camera, then brings it back “to life” in a photograph.
  19. Deleuze, “Introduction: Repetition and Difference,” 2.
  20. Richard Foreman, “Ontological-hysteric: Manifesto 1,” Plays and Manifestos, ed. Kate Davy (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 77.
  21. Jonathan Monk interviewed by David Shrigley, Jonathan Monk: Until then…If Not Before (Bignan, France: Domaine Kerguéhennec, 2006).
  22. This conversation is indebted to Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence.
  23. Kosuth, 19.
  24. Deleuze, “Repetition for Itself,” 97. To further explain: “[I]magination alone here forms the ‘moment’ of the vis repetitiva from the point of view of constitution: it makes that which it contracts appear as elements or cases of repetition.”
  25. Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetition,” Lectures in America, 167.
  26. Johanna Burton, Mel Bochner: Language 1966-2006 (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2007), 18.
  27. Deleuze, “Repetition for Itself,” 97.
  28. Deleuze, “Introduction: Repetition and Difference,” 27.
Further Reading