2.13 / Review

As Yet Untitled: Artists & Writers in Collaboration

By Brady Welch March 6, 2011

SF Camerawork’s As Yet Untitled: Artists and Writers in Collaboration sets out with the intriguing proposition of exploring the relationship between photography and writing. It’s an understandably vague premise—Which relationship? What manner of writing?—but the exhibition posits itself as “an experimental proposition,” and as with any experiment, we might simply judge whether the results support or ultimately give question to the stated hypothesis.1

Group shows can be, and unfortunately usually are, uneven affairs. This is especially true when the governing rubric is overly ambitious, or as with As Yet Untitled, slightly unclear. Two ongoing “residencies” in SF Camerawork’s first gallery act as a synecdoche for the overall exhibition. The first, indicated by chairs and a table haphazardly covered with paper, pens, notes, and select photography books, is the project of Bay Area–based Nonsite Collective, an interdisciplinary group of merry pranksters who re-imagine traditional notions of pedagogy and common space. During the current exhibition, they periodically meet to discuss and parse abstract ideas like “access,” “excess,” and “good(s),” scribbling airy non sequiturs—including some in Korean and what I took to be Russian—on pieces of paper they then post to the wall below placards for each concept. I couldn’t quite tease out the purpose in the exercise, and since no Nonsite cadre was present the day I visited, it was unclear whether the entire project was intended for the paying gallery visitor, or simply for the benefit of Nonsite’s knowing members.

The second residency, located just behind Nonsite’s detritus-strewn table, is Colter Jacobsen’s Allone Co., subsidiary to Portland-based Publication Studio, a sort of mobile bookbinding and print-on-demand operation that acts as its own project within the exhibition and also produces a takeaway book for one of the show’s artist/writer collaborations. Jacobsen was there the day I visited, and he was busy at work cutting and binding manuscripts—his own, those for friends, and a handful of impromptu flip-books he assembled from leftover scraps. We talked about the minimal necessities of running such an operation—essentially a copy machine, bookbinder, and a heavy-duty paper cutter—and the $3000 or so needed to procure them. He showed me some of Publication Studio’s simple and delicate work, and we talked about the merits and pratfalls of the entire exhibition. The very fact of his being there provided Allone Co.’s residency with all the effective give-and-take that Nonsite’s lacked, and this overall lopsidedness extended to the five collaborative works in the show’s second gallery.

David Horvitz and Zach Houston. Volume South, 2011. Courtesy of the Artists and SF Camerawork, San Francisco.

Anne Colvin and Stuart Krimko. The Forged Coupon, 2011. Produced by Publication Studios, Berkeley. Courtesy of the Artists and SF Camerawork, San Francisco.

The artist Anne Colvin and poet Stuart Krimko offer a simple takeaway chapbook, produced and constantly refreshed by Jacobsen’s printing studio. Entitled The Forged Coupon (2011), their work is named after a Tolstoy novella that French director Robert Bresson is said to have used as inspiration for his last film, LArgent (1983). Utilizing images both literal and figurative from this movie and Lancelot du Lac (1974), another late Bresson film, Colvin and Krimko attempt to explore the subtle aesthetic and self-generative ideas of the director’s work. The result is a twenty-four-quatrain poem by Krimko that utilizes images from the movies, followed by a series of Colvin’s close-cropped black-and-white stills from the same films. While Bresson’s cinematic imagery unites the two, the sum of their parts does frustratingly little to address the filmmaker or any notions of filmic language and narrative experimentation.

Similarly underwhelming, and confusingly so, is the collaboration between artist David Horvitz and poet Zach Houston. Horvitz traveled the entire California coast, stopping to snap photos of picturesque sunsets, serene beaches, and towering dunes. The photos, not especially noteworthy and perhaps not meant to be, are attached with Houston’s typewritten and Beat-like ramblings. The entire presentation is off the cuff and without method, and beyond the literal connection of a person responding to an image through words, I couldn’t understand why it was included. Happily, in an adjacent work, Horvitz uses photos from the same road trip to create a humorous institutional critique of Wikipedia and user-generated content. The artist went to the encyclopedia pages of a number of the coastal towns he visited and uploaded contemplative Caspar David Friedrich–like photos of himself standing on the beach, calling into question the authority of any contributor’s version of objective fact. It’s a simple, thoughtful, and effective work.

Across the gallery is a bizarre and overly Photoshopped triptych by Mexican performance artist and MacArthur genius award winner Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Depicting himself and two members of the La Pocha Nostra troupe semi-nude and mysteriously ungrounded, the portraits are also reproduced as takeaway postcards coupled with Gómez-Peña’s stern yet dubious aphorisms about art and politics.

For a show predicated on exploring a relationship, however unspecified, between writing and photography, the most troubling aspect of As Yet Untitled is that so little of the writing or photography is actually evocative of any such relationship. Instead, the show presents a simple call-and-response, in which one medium responds to another in only the most basic give-and-take. Truly intriguing artistic experiments are so much more amorphous than that, and within contemporary art, they can be found now more than ever. The conceptual hijinks of Sol Lewitt or Joseph Kosuth, and even the fiction and poetry of Donald Barthelme and Christan Bök, respectively, speak to the kind of weird and adventurous invention that is implied by any interdisciplinary art. The “experimental proposition” that SF Camerawork seeks to create with As Yet Untitled instead suggests a set of hypotheses defined too narrowly.

 

As Yet Untitled: Artists and Writers in Collaboration is on view at SF Camerawork, in San Francisco, through April 23, 2011.

 

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NOTES:

1. http://www.sfcamerawork.org/exhibitions/exhibitions_Spring2011_AsYetUntitled_text.php

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