errant wandering after 9/11

The public realm - both as a physical and virtual space - has increasingly and insidiously become a privately owned and managed environment where under watchful and anonymous eyes, the activities and behaviours of the public are both monitored and controlled. Loitering or meandering generates a suspicious glance; the gathering of groups is perceived as a threat; desire lines must be hastily overwritten with pathways that tow the agreed and official line.

Photographers lurking  in the ambiguous shadows and darkened alleyways away from the corporate branding are a special target of security guards and police in the public domain.  They are targeted under wrongful suspicion in relation to the anti-terrorism legislation enacted after 9/11; wrongful suspicion of anti-social behavior when there‘s no legitimate evidence to support the suspicions and accusations that result in the photographer being stopped for being a potential terrorist.

The law and legislation provided to the police are being pushed and misused to the extent that it is creating a hostile environment for public photography. Members of the public and media do not need a permit to photograph in public and that the police and security guards do not have the power to stop them from filming or photographing incidents or police personnel. 

Yet photographers have been stopped without having any reasonable suspicion on the grounds that  taking images  could be constituted as antisocial behavior.Taking a photograph in the public space is  deemed to be  risky and potentially threatening to the authorities.

The resurgence of interest in the act of walking or 'wandering', within contemporary artistic practices,  with their  roots in the Surrealist errance and Situationist derive,   can be viewed as a critical tool or conduct  through which to challenge or subvert the logic of the various surveillance systems.

‘losing oneself in a city'

One of the ideas within the surrealist strand  of modernism that resonates is the idea of  ‘losing oneself in a city’. This  can be framed as a craving for the unknown, the unfamiliar, or the strange in both oneself and one’s surroundings. It is a seeking to dissolve the boundary between self and other, as well as melting which might differentiate the body from its urban environment. It is a sense of abandonment and a relinquishing of rational cognition.

This deportment reaches back to the European surrealists who encouraged a wandering haphazardly in the city to allow the eruption of unconscious images into consciously perceived space. The ‘aim’ of surrealist idea  of  'errance' was to puncture the surface of what was consciously ‘seen’ to allow dreamlike revelations to emerge in the cracks and fissures between the different layers of reality.

Emma Cocker in Desiring to be Led Astray in Papers of Surrealism (Issue 6 Autumn 2007)  says:

In one sense errance can be understood as part of a tradition of spatial navigation and urban geography; an act of wandering through the newly bourgeoning city space that follows in the footsteps of Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur; Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd (1850), or is echoed in the writing of Walter Benjamin, whose reflections on the city have subsequently informed a critical interpretation of surrealist practice ...  Such practices have been framed by a later discourse that asserts the critical value of the pedestrian experience of the city, as both a politically resistant and playfully disruptive gesture. For Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), walking is read as a tactic for challenging the dominance of the map or grid.

This sense of errance as  aimless wandering was developed by the Situationists with their idea of the dérive (drift or drifting) that reflected the pedestrian’s experience, that of the everyday user of the city. Users could for themselves experience, ‘the sudden change of atmosphere in a street, the sharp division of a city into one of distinct psychological climates.

One popular interpretation of this by contemporary photographers is night photogrpahy which involves nocturnal wandering. This urban nightwalking  can be seen as specific model of errance, through which to de-stabilise or blur the line between self and one’s environment.  This is an example of contemporary photographers  using 'wandering' as a critical tool through which to explore temporary, multiple and contrary readings of place.

the streets of Adelaide

I have stumbled upon some photographs of,  and about, Adelaide

One was on the ABC's By Design program. Their  Streets of Adelaide over Time referred to the 1936 work of Gustav Hermann Baring's  Progressive Adelaide: As It Stands Today,  and the rephotography of this work by Mick Bradley and writer Lance Campbell in their book City Streets: Progressive Adelaide 75 Years On. This  showed how the buildings and the streetscapes have changed—or haven't.

This body of work is a systematic exploration of the buildings along specific streets in  the CBD and so quite different in approach to my fragmentary focus on individual scenes.  

I'd also come across Ian North’s exploration of the streets of Adelaide in his  recent photographic series the Adelaide Suite (2008-09)  done in an anti-aesthetic style of amateur photography.  I'll trace down the catalogue.

What is missing from this is any sense of what photographic modernism in Adelaide was from the 1940s to the mid-1970s. I don't know the art photographers of that period or how  photographic modernism was understood by them. It's a black hole.

Though modernism was never a coherent, unified entity--it was a series of different constructs----I presume that there was a  core understanding  of photographic modernism in Adelaide  from the 1940s to the 1980s. This  was along the lines of a formalism that insisted on the uniqueness of the photographic image as an autonomous art, that is, as a medium with its own art history.

This basic modernism  in Australia was given an American interpretation based on the Beaumont Newhall's influential text, The History of Photography,  its institutionalization in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and its refinement by John Szarkowski in The Photographers Eye. This strand of modernism held that photography possesses unique formal properties; it is exceptional in the sense that no other artistic medium can address these specific properties and representational problematics as well as photography can.

There is, however,  another modernism  in Adelaide though--one that emerges from the constellation of Surrealism,  the Angry Penguins, European expessionist abstraction and the post war European migrant artists. The Greenbergian modernists, of course, dismissed surrealism as kitsch and surrealism was repressed in late modernism. 

returning to Port Adelaide

I mentioned in the Introduction that my photographic roots were in Bowden and Port Adelaide--the industrial  or manufacturing side of Adelaide that was developed in the 1950s. It was a low skilled, low tech   form of manufacturing  that was indifferent to the environmental consequences of the pollution of the commons caused by industrialization.

The old tidal swamp along the Port River estuary was developed into Port Adelaide and it became  the site of much heavy industry and shipping and pollution. What was damaged from pollution, ie., heavy metal contamination,   was the Port River, which was  more or less treated as a sewer. 

The river and the ocean were seen  as  spaces  that business  could  discharge the  stuff they didn't want anymore without paying for  polluting the environment. It was the state's job--socialising the losses.

The progressive  state Labor Governments under Don Dunston and John Bannon had difficulty dealing with the environmental damage. Consequently,  working class people lived in a polluted environment and their health suffered as a result.   

drifting in the city

Though I spend a lot of time exploring the urban skyline from car park roofs,  I also wander the city streets as a  photographic  flâneur in the tradition of the Situationists.

This tradition makes no appearance in the texts on Australian photography---eg., Anne Marsh's  Look: Contemporary Australian Photography since 1980 (2010)--despite the Situationists being   in the modernist  tradition of avant-garde agitation to which movements like Dada  and Surrealists belonged.

The Situationists have been written out of Australian photographic writings, even though the photographic practice of  many Australian photographers is one of  exploring the nooks and crannies of the city in unpredictable ways.They are modern day flâneurs.

The Situationist's  concept of the dérive---an unplanned walk or drift, was defined as the 'technique of locomotion without a goal'.  To dérive was to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires, and to seek out reasons for movement other than those for which the urban  environment was designed.

Sadie Plant in her  The most radical gesture: The Situationist International in a postmodern age says that the Situationists held that:

If modern society is a spectacle, modern individuals are spectators: observers seduced by the glamorous representations of their own lives, bound up in the mediations of images, signs, and commodities, and intolerably constrained by the necessity of living solely in relation to spectacular categories and alienated relations.

The aim is to negate the seductive glamour of the spectacle through  gaining an immediate experience of the world, and transforming the everyday into a reality desired and created by those who live in it. 

If  the avant-garde had failed to deliver the transformation of everyday reality it promised, then so had the modernist city planners. Sherman Young in Morphings and Ur-Forms: From Flâneur to Driveur in Scan (2005)  argues  that the romantic figure of the flâneur in nineteenth century Paris is arguably impossible in Australia's  automobile city,  and  it has instead morphed into digital-camera toting tourist-flâneurs. Australia's cities--eg., Sydney--are metropolises of drivers, or  driveurs. 

Their city is a cacophony of road rage, billboards advertising escape, talkback radio and traffic reports;  a city represented by traffic jams, bus lanes and fellow drivers.  It is a world of tollways and tailbacks, traffic lights and street signs. 

opening the past to an outside

A recent survey of contemporary Australian photography since the 1980s by Anne Marsh indicates that very little photography is being done to represent  the changes to our capitol cities long the lines of Eugène Atget in Paris, Bernice Abbott in New York, or Thomas Struth in Berlin. 

We can  infer from this absence in the Marsh survey of contemporary Australian photography  that do not have a body of images being produced that open  the past to an outside; an opening  which  becomes a threshold between past and present. This threshold enables us to recollect what has been and it transmits the disquiet of the past to the future.

The subject is history and time:--the object photographed is not just a play of forms, as these are  countered by the forces of history that traverse it. Form is a "sedimentation of content", as Adorno puts it in Aesthetic Theory.  Content is all that happens in the dimension of time.

the mirror as memory

Modernism in industrial capitalism was born with a strong sense of repudiating the past as an anachronism that needed to be dumped into  the trash to make way for the progressive new art. If the trash became the archive of the past in an era of increasing instability and rapid social change, then the camera became a device to  represent and preserve the fragments of the past. It could back the tide of oblivion.

What is  new in the economy is continuously replaced by evacuations, demolitions, removals, temporarily vacant lots and  new buildings. Since the early 1960s, in the metropolitan centres of Australia , city fabrics largely inherited from the nineteenth century are  being overlaid by the twin development of the freestanding high-rise and the serpentine freeway.

The  everchanging shops  result in the old being so completely displaced, that  the old appears as if it never existed at all. So the past is dislocated from the present, and with the cultural forgetting,   our history  becomes a series of fragmentary memories. Forgetting is built into the very capitalist process of the modern production of urban spaces and the repeated destruction of the built environment. 

Memories counter the sense of historical loss and cultural amnesia associated with forgetting. As our capital cities are made and remade, memory  of place becomes  ever more important. It is a memory of life based on shared memories in a history of  place: a house,  city street, suburb, or a bio-region such as the river country around the mouth of the River Murray. These are memories of the spatial layout,  habitial memories associated with bodily preformances of say riding a bike,  and  personal memories.

If the camera promised to be perfect memory machine for preserving the past,  it also corrupted or destablized the positivist objectivity of vision by exposing the partiality and mutability of its own supposed clear and distinct  representations.

We are left with memory traces---eg., Kodak's golden memories--- that enable our identity. These traces  are important  for to be without memory  is to risk being without identity.

Our built environments change and we are left with our memories of what once was.

Architecture as history

One way of becoming aware of Adelaide as a historical city is through reading its architecture as if  the built form was  a cultural text.  The urban build form is part of our visual culture. and it gives us a sense of history that acts as a counter to the functioning of the  media's 24 hour news cycle  as a mechanisms for historical amnesia.

Architecture embodies the ideologies involved in its inhabitation, construction, procurement and design. It displays the thinking of the individuals involved, their relationships and their involvement in the cultures in which they lived and worked. In this way, buildings and their details are cultural artefacts that can be read for the history they embody. 

We can interpret buildings and landscapes as cultural artifacts with historically specific meanings that can  be understood in particular context over time.  A first cut highlights  the large number of nineteenth century buildings scattered amongst the modernist ones of the 20th century.  Adelaide  slowly became modern--ie.  a shift from low-rise to modernist high-rise.

Modernism now surrounds us. It is familiar.  We realize that modernism in architecture and urbanism touches on, and is touched all at once, by all spheres of human life.  It signifies an industrial Adelaide; one that is slowly receding into the background with the emergence  of, and the shift to,  a service and informational economy.  

Modernism also meant  centrally-planned development regarding the  regarding the “city as a machine”. In Adelaide that basically meant a  car-centric suburban development, where walking from one place to another is not feasible any more. The characteristics are familiar: money-oriented development governed  by loose controls produced building forms whose disadvantages have been widely discussed: skyscrapers with plenty of sellable floor space but whose form destroys the urban fabric, cookie-cutter housing that does not really fit anyone’s needs, office parks that are not close to where the workers actually live.

A  second cut would highlight the spaces or the  voids between the  building’s forms. They are defined by (and define) the relationship between these forms and the movement of the people on the street.  They help to define the experience people  have on the street. It is this embodied experience that helps to make the inner city a pleasurable space to live in. 

Often the the relationship between these architectural  forms and the movement of the people on the street  takes the form of a nostalgia for the old and a desire to preserve the old architecture as heritage.  

embodied knowing


The concept of 'embodied knowledge' is  based on knowing a place from the personal bodily movements through the city over time (pre-reflective, bodily existence),  as opposed to a theoretical knowledge---knowing a place  through film, books, paintings  and photographs. We are in the world through our body, and insofar as we perceive the world with our body.

We  learn not just by thinking about things in a university but also by doing them. Embodied knowledge developed through self-discovery in the body’s contact with nature (e.g. walking in the Adelaide parklands with standard poodles),  and practical knowledge developed through apprenticeship in the body’s contact with artifacts (photography).

It is a situated knowing from being in the world. Hence the importance of the lived body. Our awareness doesn’t emerge from a disembodied mind floating somewhere beyond physical reality, but is part of an active relationship between us and the world. The ‘I’ that knows is tangled with what is known--we are “nested” in contexts that include relationships with people as well as with objects in  the world. These bodily movements and practices build up memories of being in the same location at different times.

If we relate this to large format photography,  then we have  the  notion of an integrated set of skills poised and ready to anticipate and incorporate a world prior to the application of concepts and the formation of thoughts and judgments. This kind of embodied poise or readiness is “habit,” or preconceptual capacities or dispositions that sketch out in advance and so structure our awareness of objects.

Habitus is  the outcome of the sedimentation of past experiences, shaping the photographer's  perceptions and actions of the present and future and thereby moulding their artistic practices.

remembering Australian modernism

This is looking back to the work of Wolfgang Sievers and more specifically to his photographs of the Adelaide Festival Theatre.  Sievers was a modernist Australian  photographer who specialized in industrial photography and whose design roots lay in the Bauhaus.  Sievers wanted to show that Australia was an advanced industrial nation rather than a producer of raw material and agricultural products;  that industrial technology could be humanized; and that the craft work of photography produces art objects that express the vision of the artist.

Siever's work, along with  other Australian modernists in the visual arts, is usually interpreted in terms of a narrative or discourse which positions  Australia as 'provincial' and whose culture has been derived from elsewhere. 

Historically, Australians, living in a settler colony,  lacked their own cultural traditions,  and so they  created their local or national culture by  appropriating bits or fragments  from the  cultures of the imperial centres. The next step was to find a possibility of originality in Australia within this relationship of dependency between centre and periphery. 


The key text here is Bernard Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific. In this text Smith argued that  European  generated concepts and visual design are not simply imported and assimilated,  but are also transformed by the experience of the regional culture into a hybrid form, which in turn informs the national tradition. The originality lies in the interpretation of the overseas influences and concepts as expressed in the work produced  within Australia.

Unlike the US no  institutional offshoot of the  Bauhaus was established in Australia,  and so  the worn-out  pre-modern design clichés of traditionalist Australia remained locked into place. The modernist style--- that is, geometry of  form, clarity, sharp angles and straight lines--- only emerged in the 1960s. This was  40 years after the Bauhaus was first established in Weimar Germany by Walter Gropius, with its emphasis on founding a  new utopian language of colour and form. 

Hence the sense of Australia as being a provincial and conservative culture hostile to modernist art by those migrant artists fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany in the early 30's and soon after from most of Europe.   Hence their  need to ‘de-provincialise’ Australia  by providing expanded cultural horizons through responding to an emerging industrial Australia by  embracing an international modernist  art (abstraction) with a universal language. 

According to this vision of modernity Australian culture was to be made continuously modern, Australian photography could become part of the art institution,  and Australian visual culture  could be internationalised. This European modernism, with its contempt for the aesthetic forms of the past and its celebration of the machine, envisioned a world cleansed of traditional forms and hierarchies of values. Modernism celebrated the romance of cities, the healthy body and the ideals of abstraction and functionalism in design.

The American formalist  modernism of Clement Greenberg overlaid this 'new way of seeing' with an emphasis on the  concept of medium specificity. In his texts Greenberg argued that there were inherent qualities specific to each different artistic medium, and part of the modernist project involved creating artworks that were more and more 'about' their particular medium. Abstract  modernism in the higher arts (ie., painting and sculpture) represented a withdrawal from reality to pursue their self-reflexive exploration of formal problems, whilst  photography was left to get on with its routine (pre-modernist) task of picturing the world.

John Szarkowski argued the modernist case  for art photography as a specific medium by outlining the specific characteristics of the medium in The Photographer's Eye. These unique characteristics---the thing itself, the detail, the frame,  time, and vantage point---- differentiate the photographic medium  from other visual art-forms such as painting or printmaking. Photography for the American formalists was a specific type of medium with its own seeing and aesthetic. 

This formalism  offered  straight photography a bridge into the art gallery and art market; into a world where style was the means of histyorical evaluation  and  the autonomy of art was translated into a space constituted by discrete objects linearly hung on austere white walls to be  viewed by the gaze of  the disinterested  spectator.  Modernism became the official culture of the art institution--galleries, magazines, market, academia--- and it defined the agenda for institutional collecting, exhibiting, research and scholarship and histories.