REVIEW | Photography between the panorama and the detail

Photography in Vancouver during the 1980s passed through an experimental phase. Practices associated with Vancouver’s artist-run culture in the 1980s sought to destabilize the false dialectic imposed on the medium: neither a distinct, reified museum picture, nor a common, ubiquitous document placed carelessly in circulation. As an extension of an advanced and experimental aesthetic culture, the practice of photography became preoccupied with its own materiality, embracing its reproductive, serial and discursive qualities. A snap shot of this history is currently on display at the group exhibition c.1983 at North Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery. Artists included in the exhibition — Marian Penner Bancroft, Stan Douglas, Elizabeth Vander Zaag, Laiwan, Michelle Normoyle, Ellie Epp, Ken Lum, Kati Campbell, Arni Runar Haraldsson, (save for Ian Wallace) — critiqued the commodification of the art object through the expansion of the powers and capacities of the photographic image.

Marian Penner Bancroft “Two Places At Once: Transfigured Wood, Part 4” (1986)

The highlight of the exhibition is Marian Penner Bancroft’s Two Places at Once (Part 4 of the series Transfigured Wood) (1986). The piece is an installation of a panoramic artist book, punctuated by an unframed photograph of Vedder Crossing in Chilliwack. As the panorama unfurls, a text appears atop its fleeting landscape, denoting previous memories of the site. These textual sketches are fragmentary — resembling something like field notes — but they are also more knowingly poetic, inscribed like spume on top of stilled images that act as place-fragments of a larger, discordant narrative. The fractured words can be thought of as “memories of a fantasy of a life remembered,”  to use a phrase from the country musician Harlan Shore.

Take the first stanza, placed at the right edge of the panorama and found bubbling-over the inner harbour of English Bay:

impossible stratagem approach this shore
do not land keep freighters at bay behind
filled with lumber coal and hay
remember moment of something equal
amphibian scape.

Marian Penner Bancroft “Two Places at Once” (detail – text found on bottom right of the image) (1986)

The phrases reach out beyond the transformation of the land by Capital and ask directly: How to deceive the log-barge or oil tanker? How to build a poetic anti-monument capable of scuttling commerce? These words are charged with a displaced militancy that measures its force against the brutality resource extraction. It is Penner Bancroft’s medium, a combination of poetry-with-photography, that performs the work of countermemory: a memory that is haphazard, makeshift, punchy.

Continuing with the middle passage from Vedder Crossing:

the first remembered dream located
Vedder Crossing bridge blocked by native
Indians green army cots redhaired woman
rides black and white cow
down burning mountain the other side
oneiromancer one for you

The “oneiromancer” is the sorcerer of dreams like a necromancer, the one who speaks to the dead to predict the future. But the oneiromancer speaks to dreams (oneiros) to access a prophecy (manteía), like the position of the analyst in psychoanalysis. In Freud’s formulation, the Dream is a product of wish-fulfillment, but also an object tracing-out the past — a product of the dream-work of condensation and displacement. As Penner Bancroft suggests, however, memory is just as much made up of a serial chain of disjunctive sequences agitated in the present, filled with gaps, caesuras and fissures in perception that sometimes hint at a future constellation.

Marian Penner Bancroft “spiritland/Octopus Books Fourth Avenue” (1987)

The other piece of Penner Bancroft’s in the exhibition is spiritland/Octopus Books Fourth Avenue (1987). The panorama, comprising five unframed silver-gelatin prints, re-interrogates the place of public civic memory. The piece depicts the now-defunct business, Octopus Books, an alternative left bookstore on Fourth Avenue now relegated to an empty lot. In the words of Ed Ruscha, just another “real-estate opportunity.” In a way, these blank spots are the voids in the social field that disrupt the manipulated clarity of the visual terrain, similar to the distressed lines that Elizabeth Vander Zaag searches in Through the Holes (1981). With great attention paid to the detail of the screen’s honeycombed perforations, meaning begins to deplete and scatter while the interval of everyday experience is endowed with a fresh but hazy horizon.

Elizabeth Vander Zaag “Through the Holes” (1981)

“Our space is that of intervals” as Freud once wrote to Wilhelm Fliess in 1896. In the present formation, the interval is a point of tension — a space of contradiction but also maybe the space of harrowing connections. It is the site where memory becomes corporeal. This is especially true with Laiwan’s slide installation, she who has scanned the flowers of the world… (1987) in which flower petals are pressed onto a slide mount and gradually fade in their contact with the projector’s fierce light. Eventually, the memory-fragment is proposed as ‘no-thing’ — nothing but the scalding light that burrows a hole in knowledge.

In the installation, the photograph of Octopus Books is placed alongside the last lines from Jack Spicer’s Imaginary Elegies [“Goodbye from us in spiritland, from sweet Platonic spiritland. You can’t see us in spiritland, and we can’t see at all.”]. According to Robin Laurence, the whole piece feels like a lament. However, when read with the first lines from the poem, [“Poetry, almost blind like a camera / Is alive in sight only for a second. Click, / Snap goes the eyelid of the eye before movement / Almost as the world happens. / One would not choose to blink and go blind / After the instant”] poetry and photography are understood as a type of blindness, but one that is also figured as a unique form of sight. We should in fact hold on to this point, and thus frame memory as a persistent act of vision. Crucially, at our historic conjuncture when time is annihilated by space, memory is required as a means to remember something else: to activate an unrealized history. What perseveres in such memories is the potentiality of the present itself, figured as subjectivity within the destitution of every present-space.

Read alongside Stan Douglas’ rarely circulated Residence (1983), the land moves from its obscene underside to its sublime overside: Vancouver imagined as a solitary and rotating condo tower. Installed as a slide projection, with the incessant (hum) “click” (hum), photographs rotate around the tower as a uniform, becoming-panorama of Vancouver — the mythic City of Glass.

Stan Douglas “Residence” (1982)

Just as the panoramic view from your penthouse naturalizes the upturned relations of the commodity form, the photographic panorama exists as a means to commodify nature. In this formation, ‘nature’ is something you can own, relegating conversations to empty statements such as: This is my own slice of paradise, or, “That’s a nice sunset you have there.”[1] A city imaginatively supported by the heroic grandeur of commercial real estate subjectivity figured as a sublime force contemplated from the comfort of your patio.

But as Penner Bancroft reminds us, we are armed with “something equal.” Her photographs recall that the act of poetry is the exposure of a rupture — or an interval — in the structured ordering of the world.  It is our task in the present to subjectivize this gap, to either build a poetic anti-monument capable of cutting the feet out from the world called forth by the condo tower and private property, or instead, dissolve our subjectivity into the arresting emptiness of the cosmos.


c.1983 is up until 11 March 2012


[1] Jeff Derksen “But Could I Make A Living From It,”  Transnational Muscle Cars, Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2003.