Lacuna / Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brazil, 2015
Press release/ August 15 – September 25
Ordinary Language Photography
Thinking about the works in this show, I began to ask myself: What does it mean to have an experience of the ordinary? Are our thoughts, images, and words attuned to everyday existence, or do we live in a constant state of misapprehension? How, especially, might visual misapprehensions affect our understanding of politics and how we participate in the public sphere?
I thought back to Walter Benjamin's early writings on photography. Benjamin had found in the medium a repudiation of our assumptions about vision: "Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms)," Benjamin wrote in 1931, "we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person actually takes a step." We had previously believed that our ordinary vision could reveal to us what the world looked like, but photography suddenly showed us that we had no idea at all – perhaps most famously with Muybridge's photos of equestrian movement. This does not mean that photography reveals the inner essence of things so much as destroy our fetishistic relationship to them. We do not in fact live in the world of the ordinary, but have already interposed a relationship of distance between ourselves and reality. That photography can rupture this relationship and return us to the ordinary is what Benjamin famously called "the emancipation of object from aura." More than this, it can open our eyes to objects we have neglected: those that are "unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift."
And then I began to think about a parallel questioning of our experience of the ordinary, one that was being performed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his work on language around the same time as Benjamin – in lectures delivered between 1933 and 1935. Wittgenstein argued that major philosophical problems existed not because they were inherent in the universe, but because we did not properly understand our language and its ordinary usage. Wittgenstein chose as his example Socrates' investigation of knowledge. For Socrates, there is an abstract general term, and it alone is the true form of knowledge. For Wittgenstein, knowledge is a historically-changing concept, with many-meanings, none of which is the ultimate, true one. The philosophical problem of "what knowledge truly is" is dispelled, and a pragmatic investigation into how we use knowledge, how it informs our life, how it changes, and how it ought to change, can begin. This philosophical stance was often called "ordinary language philosophy," since it began from the premise that meaning was in our everyday use of language, not somehow hidden behind it.
And finally I began to wonder, what if we thought of Runo Lagomarsino's artworks as being engaged in a practice of "ordinary language photography"? What I mean by this is a combination of Benjamin and Wittgenstein: that photography can reveal for us the possibilities obscured by our normal vision, and that in so doing it can help us repose problems in our visual language. With regard to Lagomarsino's work, I find this especially with regard to our visual language of politics. As with ordinary language philosophy, this investigation of the ordinary does not create some magic solution to our problems; it simply allows us to see if some of our problems are created because of mistakes in our visual grammar.
At the same time, this work is not strictly analogous to ordinary language philosophy. Images do not pose questions like "what is knowledge?" to begin with. If there is such a thing as ordinary language photography, theorizing it will require first stating, as clearly as possible, how our visual registers mislead us. For Benjamin, as we saw, photography enabled us to both see the ordinary better, and to open our perception to what within the ordinary we had discarded. I think, to put the problem a bit crudely, our visual language suffers today not from lack, but from excess. But when I say that the photographic condition today is one of excess, I do not only mean the quantity of images. I mean also the excess of responsibility that they impose upon us. There is something alienating about the idea that any of us is called on to completely stop the problems we see. This is not I think because, as Susan Sontag once suggested, there is something inherently passive and distancing about photography. But rather because certain modes of photography make it seem as if we could solve the world's troubles by simply obliterating what we see before this.
This is the false problem that Lagomarsino's ordinary language photography might help us repose. In our normal vision, we see a world on fire, and we see ourselves with but a glass of water. Then we ask ourselves: is it hopeless? Or, if not hopeless, are we reduced to the unachievable fantasy of everyone tossing their measly glass of water at once, in a collective moment of will? But even if this were achieved, what if the water were not enough? What if the fire just kept burning?
These are the kind of poorly posed questions that haunt our visual language of politics. Hollywood films like V for Vendetta, or The Matrix, or Mad Max, guide us to envision politics as this kind of spontaneous, collective overtaking. They care little about the gritty details, about the internal difficulties, about the need for deep, enduring, collectively-willed revolutions that the tradition of the pedagogy of the oppressed teaches us. Nor do they care about the slow, tedious, contingent, and unpredictable labor of the actual activity of sharing power in society. What I see in Lagomarsino's visual language is a re-ordering of the visual grammar of politics. Rather than a climactic arc from oppression to event of change, he asks us to see reality as it really is: vast and calm, turbulent and punctured, seemingly unbreakable and yet open to rupture, teeming with the fantastic, the absurd, the grotesque, and the until-this-moment-impossible.
The room you are standing in will not solve the question of debt and the monetary crisis. It will not give you a quick stand to take on the problem of immigration. It will not unsteal the world's treasures. But it might remind you that posing politics in such terms is bound to fail. See political life, instead, as a blind currency fumbling to order our shared production, as a beautiful ocean filled with dead bodies, as an entire history of oppression and hope that is as strong as stone and pliable as sand. See it, in other words, as it actually is. This world, steel and air, atoms and void, pleasure and rupture, collectivity and despair. Build your politics on that world, and then you might have a chance. As the slides turn in the Sea of Grammar, and the holes accumulate, what do you expect to see at the end? The blinding light of truth? The disappearance of a problem? That is too easy. You will see what you always do: that you do not know, at any instant, where the next lacuna will appear, and whether through its gates will come the wretched or the blessed. But if you expect both, you might just know what to do in either case.