Ever since the all too explicit dramatising and psychologising disappeared from Dirk Braeckman’s work, there has been a tendency to interpret it formalistically. It would seem that this is unavoidable. It is very hard to escape from the enormous gravitational pull of formalism. Experience teaches that all impatient resistance against it soon lapses into a naive realism or a no less naive theory of expression.
Naturally, the popular version of formalism, which was already casually formulated by Nietzsche, is indefensible. For the artist, form is supposed to be the real content of the work. Art plays with form for its own sake. Content only does service as an alibi. This type of formalism, which, incidentally, cannot be eradicated, is, in fact, no more than a kind of bourgeois aestheticism. Ostensibly, art would be about playing, as much as possible, on the aesthetic—literally: the sensory—registers contained in a medium.
Clement Greenberg’s art theory can be regarded as a strict, ascetic version of this formalism. According to him, each medium has its own aesthetic, which is to say a specific form of visuality, and it is the task of a medium, even its historic imperative, to discover this visuality for itself. Painting, for example, may not simply employ all of the formal procedures that it has to hand but, according to Greenberg, must restrict itself to the procedures that are specifically pictorial. We cannot simply dismiss Greenberg. He has seen correctly that the essence of modern art is its ‘auto-referentiality’: the medium is never merely a medium in the sense of it being a mouthpiece through which a reality can be represented. It has a reality of its own, on which it can perform a transcendental investigation. In fact, the medium invariably raises the question of itself alongside the subject it mediates. In the case of modern art, this ‘question raising’ is made explicit. The medium wishes to clarify its own opaque reality, which it has always neglected in the service of representation.
However, the problem with Greenberg is that he was all too easily satisfied that he knew what a medium is. In the case of painting: a flat surface covered with paint that does not want to show more than can be seen: a flat surface covered with paint. He believed the essence of painting to be something along the lines of a purified manifestation (due to its lack of illusion), a manifestation that represents nothing outside of itself: a manifestation without semblance. True painting is thus the cult of a serene visibility that evokes desire for nothing beyond itself, certainly not in terms of touching, holding, smelling or tasting, nor in terms of seeing more than what can be seen. In other words, Greenberg disguised the problematic character of auto-referentiality by immediately positing it as an auto-identity. In so doing, he also instantly put to one side the problem of representation. This appeared only to be a problem for ‘lower’ art forms, such as film and photography.
Nevertheless, a type of formalism is conceivable that does take the problem of representation into account. In this type of formalism, art would involve a transcendental investigation into the specific manner in which a medium serves as a medium, that is, as an intermediary or mouthpiece of what we call reality, as a membrane onto which that reality imprints itself. Everyone knows that, in general, a photograph informs us about reality in a manner very different to a painting or a video. Each medium has its own form of interpretation, reconstruction of reality and thus, inevitably, its own form and capacity for illusion. Therefore, the ‘transcendental’ painter or photographer would be that person who asks the question: in what way does a painting or photograph cause reality to appear? What does a painting or a photograph do with reality?
The question remains whether it is conceivable that the specific aspect of reality that is inevitably always depicted could be of no importance in itself to the artist; that the subject, as people have asserted about Braeckman, can sometimes be a mere pretext for an investigation into the formal structure of photographic representation? It is recognised that this motive of neutralising the subject, as a guarantee for the ‘autonomy of the image’, is the supreme modernistic motive.
The desire of the medium
Here, we enter a minefield where spurious oppositions in particular must be avoided. Against the ever-recurring, vulgar anti-formalism that has currently become repopularised, we must continue to argue that the idea that, in art in general, and in photography in particular, the medium itself is the only ‘message’, is not obviously wrong. The only problem is whether the meaning of this assertion is understood. First and foremost, the problem is whether one really knows what a medium is. Formalism, especially that of Greenberg, does in fact have the tendency to reduce the medium to a technical device, a device that reorganises the field of observation in a certain way. However, a medium such as photography is also a device of human desire.
The question is thus not only: what are the technical opportunities and limitations of photographic representation (in connection with the reproduction of colour, light, depth, movement, etc.), but also: what does the medium desire? How has the medium of photography shaped the structure of human desires? How has, since the last century, desire, that is, the human lack, found different standard forms of satisfaction or frustration in photography? Which phantasms (of appropriation and conquest, pervasion and dissociation, vitalisation and congelation, etc.) are connected with the medium of photography in terms of easily manageable, ‘democratically’ representational techniques?
We could discuss this in clinical terms. We know, for example, that the photographic device has obsessive-compulsive effects. The apparent ‘neutrality’ or ‘objectivity’ of the medium quickly turns it into a device that is driven by the anxiety that something is evading it: an obsession for registration and organisation, an obsession for information, documenting, cataloguing, systemising and creating hierarchies with respect to the apparent reality. On the other hand, due to the opportunities that photography offers to be there on the spot in any situation, it soon becomes invested with a hysterical desire: the cry for ‘reality’, ‘authenticity’, ‘intensity’, the demand that the image will take me to the very heart of the activity that it has registered. The image must fulfil me. We want the real thing and we want it now. The whole ‘human interest’ business that has been hollowing out the information sector for years, cultivates that hysteria.
The obsession with the neutrality of the information and the hysterical requirement that information be imbued with ‘warmth’ and ‘personalised’ go hand in hand. Both rest on a refusal to reflect on the device employed and thus, inevitably, on the lack that each device secretly prompts. Perversion, which can also make itself master of the device, can be considered a fundamental denial of this lack. This type of photography, which does not have to be explicitly sexual, cultivates everything that is eccentric. A strange expression, a bizarre, extremely tasteless piece of clothing or feature, or even a hopeless and marginal situation, play on the spectator’s fantasy of an unknown pleasure that transcends his own all too mundane pleasure.
In other words, there is a type of formalism in which there is truth. Art does indeed involve a medium’s reflection on itself, but it must be understood that the medium is always a device of desire and that, moreover, it is historically stratified. The medium taken up by the artist has its history or, more accurately, its histories, which, inevitably, continue to be ‘case histories’. Anyone who takes a photograph partakes of them, each in his own unique way.
Additionally, and in contrast to how Greenberg wanted it, it can be said that a medium is never pure. Thus painting and photography are not simply quite different media, each having its own history and internal logic, but they are essentially contaminated by one another. Everything points to the fact that the transformation in the perception of reality and in the desire to bring reality closer that have been brought about by film and photography, have had a substantial influence on the evolution of painting from the outset. And the evolution of photography is inconceivable without its complex relationship (of rejection and imitation) to painting. In that sense, there is no medium that is ever simply itself. It is a device of desire that is overdetermined. The ‘transcendental’ photographer would then be a person who ‘knows’ this, who ‘knows’ that his most personal desires are entangled in the historically evolved desires of an always impure device and that this is inescapable—that it is a matter, rather, of engaging in it with a certain lucidity, of tracking down the desire of the device. Only within this ‘objective’ desire, that is always the photographer’s own, willingly or otherwise, can the photographer try to adopt a personal stance.
Braeckman describes the passion of the transcendental photographer as follows: ‘For me it is all about exploring and playing with certain photographic conditions: the frame; the volatility of a 35-mm camera shot; the statement made by black and white or colour; what is out of focus; the light.’ In other words, it is about the elementary conditions of a particular photographic device. However, Braeckman talks cautiously about ‘exploring an playing’, whereby he suggests that these conditions, due to their historic stratification and overdetermination, ultimately remain elusive and closed to objectification.
The medium’s mechanism eludes the most experienced photographer and Braeckman feels that this is just as well. He continues: ‘I want [these photographic conditions] to keep on surprising me, never to become obvious.’ The framing, the 35-mm shot and the shades of black and white as formal conditions for creating the image can never be turned into the image’s theme just like that. These ‘conditions’ must occur anew each time, in unique fashion. The fact is that exploring and playing with the conditions, or reflecting on the medium’s structure, is not a process of knowledge that maps out its ‘theme’ further and further. Whatever is being investigated must continue to surprise.
In other words, there is a paradox here. In Braeckman, there is most certainly the transcendental, ‘formalistic’ desire to use his photography to identify what this idiosyncratic device, ‘photography’, actually is. From a mistrust of the naive desire of the device—of its representational wrath, of its all too blind oscillation between hunger for information and thirst for intensity—he wishes to comprehend its mechanism and thus, in a certain sense, paralyse it. However, there is also an opposing desire within him, which is that photography should remain an event: something that overcomes him, surprises him, something that, despite himself, emanates from a certain ‘innocence’.
Therefore, Braeckman wants to know what photography is and at the same time he does not want to know. He wants to be too clever for photography and at the same time he wants photography to be too clever for him. He wants the ‘transcendental photograph’ that he is looking for to fail, as it were, because it must fail out of necessity, because there can be no photograph of photography, a photograph of the ‘graphy’ that is peculiar to photography, a photograph that would fold photography back on its own fundamental conditions, on its essence, and that would, as a result, be completely ‘autonomous’ or ‘auto-referential’—a photograph, in short, that would have unburdened itself on the weight of the subject.
Formalism and event
The fundamental conditions of the device elude the artist because they are saturated with desire. There is simply no desire without being affected or touched by an object, without the sense of being gripped that always precedes grasping. If the device adopts a more or less stable structure, it has found an ‘efficient’ representational strategy, then this is always because it has reached an ‘amicable arrangement’ with this affectedness, which is impossible to represent in itself. The object that moves us retains a certain vagueness. If it could be outlined, defined or located it would not touch us. In fact, all modern art turns on this objectness that denies objectification.
Therefore, a certain degree of disassociation from the subject or theme that is so idiosyncratic to all modern art, and thus a ‘formalistic’ tendency to fold the medium back on itself, was never primarily motivated by a formalistic interest in the medium itself but, on the contrary, by the desire to have something appear that is more realistic than reality: an object that gets too close to the bone for it still to be treated thematically as the ‘subject’. This puts Greenberg’s purism in another light. His exclusive attention for the structure of the medium implies a suppression of the object, which is motivated by a fear of its ungovernable otherness. This object returns symptomatically with all its power of attraction and recalcitrance in the form of a strict obedience to the laws of the medium. In his ‘fight’ against it, Greenberg asserts, the artist must ultimately submit to the compelling ‘convention’ of the medium.
Greenberg’s enlightened, strict-modernistic demand to make the medium transparent coincides with the more obscure demand to submit to its fundamental opacity. Victory is only possible through submission. Since the formalistic discourse contains a suppressed nucleus, it is no coincidence that it often turns into a spiritualistic discourse. Ultimately, modern art is believed to be about ‘something invisible’: the ‘idea’, the ‘thought’ or, worse still, the ‘concept’—all of them idealistic terms that obscure the fact that it is actually always about a ‘material’ affectedness by an object, which immediately draws back from this ‘encounter’. The spiritualistic jargon that often develops around art, not least stimulated by artists themselves, conceals the fact that modern art is fascinated by the traumatic eventuality of an encounter that cannot be outlined in any way. Art wants nothing more than to take this quasi-vacuous eventuality seriously, an eventuality for which there is no longer any example, image, icon, allegory, symbol or story to hand.
This would be the way in which art is faithful to the essence of modernity. This essence is that there is no privileged representation that lends an ultimate meaning to the incomprehensible exposure of man to the eventuality of his mortal existence. Each representation that pretends to do so is false and is, by definition, kitsch. What really touches man, the core of what he calls ‘experience’, ultimately eludes him. That is why Nietzsche’s ‘Everyone is farthest from himself’ and Heidegger’s ‘The nearest is the farthest’ are the watchwords of modern consciousness, a consciousness, therefore, that concerns its own limit.
It is not only that there is something inconceivable about experience. There is a fundamental lack in experience itself. The eventuality that makes an experience an experience opens up a lack in the heart of the experience, and the discourse about the impossibility of representation—as with a considerable amount of contemporary discourse on the Kantian ‘sublime’—still acts all too much as an idealistic cover to conceal this lack. It concerns a lack that prevents experience from ever really getting round to itself and therefore deflects it towards forestalling its re-presentation. This explains why we have to invent prostheses called ‘media’. They arise from the desire to meet the lack in experience, but they cannot but repeat this lack themselves.
There will always be enough pragmatists and ‘communications experts’ to tell us that a medium is an instrument by which to convey experiences. In their eyes, the fact that the medium again and again exhibits a tendency to get lost in its own machinations and be, itself, the only message it conveys, is no more than a regrettable aberration that can be avoided in principle. However, if the medium is understood as a supplementary structure that is stimulated by a lack in the experience itself, if it is understood—at the limit of understanding—that experience, motivated by its own lack, is always registered from within itself in an external carrier (on a piece of paper, a canvas, a screen…), then it is no longer coincidental that the medium tends to forget its message and be ‘purposelessly’ involved with itself. For the medium is grounded in oblivion, the void that has already opened up in the experience itself.
Naturally, the medium only operates as a medium insofar as it forgets the void of oblivion. Its desire is yet to represent the experience in its fullness, or better: yet to realise it. Thus, the oblivion is nowhere to be seen, unless in the circumstance that the medium, in addition to the fact that it always has something or other to state, inevitably always communicates ‘nothing’ as well, to wit, itself.
However much the medium is able to develop that impression, for instance by increasing its informational content or its expressiveness, it never wholly succeeds in eradicating itself, its own supplementary nature. It can only convey something by also immediately conveying itself, the strategy of its mediation. Thus, there cannot be any ‘innocent’, completely spontaneous pragmatism or instrumentality of the medium. There is no level on which the medium ‘simply’ speaks about which it speaks. Jumping over the void of which it is a symptom, the medium always folds back on itself. Only in this fold, which represents nothing, does it ‘acknowledge’ that there is something that eludes its representational strategies; that something is dormant in the media-subjected subject that cannot be turned into a subject. The fold ‘refers’ to an eventuality that cannot be viewed because it divides itself.
However, if each medium is by its nature ‘auto-referential’, what is it then that turns a medium into ‘art’? Here, we can merely follow Derrida, whom we have been paraphrasing for a while, and ‘cut through the knot’ by stating that this is the case when a medium engages itself affirmatively in this fold, when it offers resistance to the radical erasure of the fold. In other words: art does not push the conditions of the medium, which both enable the transparency of the representation and disrupt it, to the background, but endorses them instead. Art is, as it were, not afraid of the formalism to which each medium invariably tends. But what does such an endorsement mean?
For Braeckman, it appeared to concern a transcendental desire to catch the mechanism in the representational strategies of the device, but in the knowledge that this ‘catching’ cannot be thematic. The fold is an occurrence that takes place quite inconspicuously. Thus, strictly speaking, ‘endorsement’ of the fold cannot be part of a conscious intent. The fold is not something that we can just will, but is first and foremost a fatality that precedes all conscious self-reflection, be it by the artist or by the spectator. Every attempt to portray this fold, for example through doubling (a photograph of a photograph, etc.) or an ‘alienation effect’ (interruption through auto-commentary), obscures the irretrievable pre-existing nature of this fold. The fold, that is to say that gesture with which the representation represents its own movement, escapes from the field of the representation, albeit never without leaving its mark.
The mistake of a particular formalism bearing the Greenbergian signature is that the auto-referentiality of the medium can be distilled down to a transparent identity of the medium with itself. It is the ideal of a medium that no longer shuts itself away in favour of the representation but instead lays its formal structure open and exposed on the table: a painting that might have drawn the conditions of the pictorial presentation completely into the presentation itself. Transparency such as this is possible for Greenberg because the structure of the medium is no more than a pure, ‘flat’ visibility. The ideal painting is thus the painting that is open about its flatness, a painting in which any tension between figure and background, between centre and margin, between the subject and the gesture of its representation is surrendered.
Yet perhaps auto-reflexivity is in fact always at stake, because we never see what we see and, consequently, desire to see more. Perhaps the visibility itself of what we have seen is something that already goes beyond the visible. If so, art would then be driven by the desire to render ‘visible’ the event of becoming visible itself. This event is that of a ‘seeing’ that has become a ‘being touched’. It can only ‘appear’ in the form of a gap in the field of the visible, a gap that forces the artistic gesture of ‘making visible’ to repeat itself in itself.
A dimensionless depth
Returning to Braeckman, the formal procedures with which he systematically ‘explores and plays with’ the photographic conditions do not boldly neutralise the subject in favour of the creation of an ‘autonomous image’. Such a reflection would have the photograph reveal something that lies beyond the subject and yet which is still not something else: the fleeting action of it becoming visible.
Braeckman’s subjects are spaces. That is dubious enough in itself. The actual thing about a space is that it affects us in a manner that escapes our attention. Making a space the subject of explicit attention—for example, by means of an overall picture—always implies an attack on the spatiality of that space. On the other hand, it is too simplistic to say that a space is something within which we are included. Certainly, Braeckman’s photographs testify to an experience in which one is taken by a space without being admitted to it. His spaces have an absorbing quality, something of an almost obscene palpability, but they do not enclose. They are not inviting. Rather, they keep the spectator at a distance. They remain opposite.
This impression of impenetrability, of the space’s inhospitableness, is sometimes evoked by the photograph’s blur but is evoked in particular by the systematic graininess of the focal plane, the result of the enlargement of the 35-mm shot. This graininess has the effect of dull grey wash that covers everything and neutralises details and contrasts. But the detachment this creates with respect to the subject is a complex, paradoxical movement. Although it makes the subject less distinguishable, one cannot say it is a bold neutralisation or abstraction. In a strange way, the haze that hangs over the image also brings the information closer, a closeness that has something stifling about it. This haze, which evens out everything, does not make the image lighter, more atmospheric or more enticing. On the contrary, it makes it heavier. We get to see everything at once. The whole photograph has already been fused into one block of image before we come to scan the image quietly and make a visual round trip within it. Braeckman’s photographs in no way invite us to revel in whatever there is to see.
Another procedure with which Braeckman, as it were, blocks off access to the space exists in the fact that he photographs the space frontally and deliberately not from a special angle, so that all of the elements appear to be located next to each other at approximately the same distance from the spectator. This frontality gives the impression of ‘objectivity’, neutrality, disengagement, of a disinterest in the depth and multi-dimensionality of the objects and their relationships to each other in the space. As with the blur and the graininess, this leads to a certain flattening of the focal plane.
It is strange, but at the same time understandable, that people should attempt to interpret this flattening within a modernistic paradigm for fear of falling into a psychologising or sociologising interpretation. This implies that the frontal shot, like the graininess of the focal plane, would be a procedure which Braeckman uses to strip the space of its spatiality. The photographed space would be a mere pretext for a concentration on the photographic plane.
However, how to imagine a spectator who perceives representations of the frontal, ‘flat’ appearance of the objects as the flatness of the photographic plane? An abstract perception such as this would require a superhuman ascesis. One can only imagine for this the gaze of some sort of indifferent god, relieved of all senses of being affected by what can be seen and only seeing the outer ‘skin’ of the photograph. The sovereign gaze of this god is the phantasm that has determined modernistic discourse on art to a great extent.
The blur, the grain and the frontal shot do indeed make the objects more difficult to situate in a space. Their proximity to and distance from each other and the spectator become less definable. This creates distance. However, this distance does not neutralise the depth of the space. Perhaps a certain flattening of the image is first and foremost a pretext for the suggestion of a depth that is no longer perspectival. The distance that is created is a dimensionless distance that might just as well be proximity. Since it cannot be located in terms of perspective and cannot be measured, this proximity is disarming and absolute. It takes authoritative possession of the gaze, fixes it, frustrates in advance any attempt to orient oneself within a space of comparable distances and proximities.
The flattening of the image does not make things dissolve in their formal, photographic treatment, but remains a manifestation of the space itself. It lends the space an obstinate, impenetrable ‘thingness’. It interweaves everything into a compact whole that, however desolately and meagrely furnished it may be, is of an astonishing ‘fulness’: not the fulness of specific things, but the fulness of a presence that haunts a place but is not incarnated anywhere. This presence does not allow itself to be either examined or classified. It can only be said of this presence that it is there: invisible and yet simultaneously of an all-too-great proximity that is almost obscene.
Braeckman’s doublings (photographs of photographs or of paintings or even of a photograph of a painting) do not work as an alienating effect that increases still more our distance from the subject by making us aware of the manipulative character of the representation. This doubling does indeed cause the spectator to realise that the quest to find depth is in vain, but it simultaneously heightens the feeling for another depth that draws them in through its indeterminacy.
Exercises in insignificance
The fragmentary nature of Braeckman’s framing is also worthy of note. He expresses the implacability of the photographic device: ‘this’ and, especially, ‘not that’. The framing appears to be mainly a negative gesture. He cuts away rather than focuses. Even though the field of vision is sometimes appreciably wide, the edges of the photograph are always sensed. The image always gives the impression of being too narrow, of having been painstakingly measured and cut off. This cut-off framing comes across as being extra arbitrary because there is nothing about the selected view that can claim any particular attention or fascination, not even for its banality or tastelessness, which never tends to the bizarre. Whatever appears in the photograph clearly owes that honour to something other than itself. Parts of the curtains, carpets, chairs and windows are often disrespectfully cut off and, consequently, the image does not cohere into a still life closed in on itself. Yet despite this incoherence and insignificance of what can be seen, the image, due to its narrowness, acquires an obsessive power of attraction that, combined with the impenetrable frontality of the display, leads to an impasse in viewing.
Yet if almost-nothing is shown to us in such a forceful manner, if, despite so much insignificance, a decision has so clearly and decidedly been made, nevertheless, to include this sofa, this part of a curtain or chair, then everything points to them functioning as kinds of screen memories (Freud): memories that have to cover up others, memories that all depend on erased memory.
It would seem in Braeckman’s world as if there are only these comfortless screen memories competing with each other in their insignificance, as if everything will remain covered for all time because it has ever been thus. The comfortless dullness and insignificance of a room that can be seen in its entirety are limited because they are surveyable. If we see merely a cut-off, for example of a hotel or rented room, a lift corridor or shower cabin, then we soon get the feeling that the insignificance of what we see could well extend over the whole world, that there is no open window anywhere in the universe, that the entire universe is made up of rooms, corridors, lifts and shower cabins that have all been plastered, whitewashed, wallpapered, taped or boarded up to ensure as much ‘privacy’ as possible, so that everything that happens, happens in such a way that it is simultaneously as if it did not happen, because what happens does not have any radiance, any radius of action, because each occurrence immediately sinks with no reverberation into these curtains, carpets, mattresses, tiled or upholstered walls, fibreboard doors and frosted windows, in which what has (not) happened only lives on like an invisible virus.
The very vague, under-the-skin paranoia that creeps up on us when seeing Braeckman’s photographs is the opposite of Hitchcockian paranoia. In the case of Hitchcock, the narrowness of the image suggests an invisible threat from without. With Braeckman, there is the vague anxiety that beyond the narrow borders of the image… everything is the same, that beyond this paved, tiled, wallpapered world there is nothing, that there is nothing that happens that cannot be smothered and noiselessly absorbed by the senseless ornamentation of a carpet or curtain at which we stare semi-comatose with boredom.
Dirk Lauwaert has already spoken about Braeckman’s muffling strategy. He muffles the image with a dull grey haziness, with a frontality that makes the image ‘superficial’ and with a fragmentation that has something carelessly calculated about it. This muffling is not just a photographic stunt in which the subject serves merely as a neutral pretext for the creation of an image closed in on itself. Neutral subjects do not exist. The choice of shower cabins, hotel rooms, rented rooms, lobbies, lifts, corridors and, more specifically, curtains, chairs, decorated walls, false ceilings, mattresses, blankets, tiling, frosted-glass windows and doors is anything but neutral. They cause us to feel—although it is more like an almost emotionless fascination—that the muffling, the covering, the cutting off, the concealment and the smothering are our life element. Braeckman’s formal muffling procedures strengthen this suggestion. The subtle haze that grainy black and white photography places over the image not only has a metaphorical connection with the ‘covered’ sense of the spaces but also has a very direct visual one: the photographic haze lies like a layer of ash on the displayed interiors.
As a ‘life element’, the muffling is just as much our ‘death element’. It is an element in which we only live because we have paid our toll to death. This dead life, this life about which Adorno once said that it does not live, is perhaps the real subject of Braeckman’s photographs, beyond any subject. It can never simply become a subject of photography because it is an element that governs photography itself, more than any other medium. Photography is the device in which the dead or rigidified announces itself in the desire to catch life in its liveliness for itself. This death is what Braeckman’s work is all about, the death that is at work in photographic desire, a death that, for that matter, is present wherever life wants to grasp itself, consider itself. Wherever life wishes to touch its own movement, it has already left itself behind and has become its own remnant, but also, in the same instant, its own promise. This living-dead missing and recapturing of itself, which has taken on so monstrous a shape in the form of the media, belongs to life itself.
The haze in which Braeckman covers the image, its flattening and its rather harsh fragmentation—with all these procedures, he mourns for the space as for a proximity that remains eternally distant, a proximity that is so oppressive precisely because it is indemonstrable and empty. Braeckman only seems to squash the space flat. He merely wants to be faithful to an extremely muted, matt experience, bordering on experiencelessness, of spaces through which we walk heedlessly, spaces that retain something of the untrodden about them though they have been walked through so many times.
In that sense, modern hotel rooms constitute such spaces sine qua non. They do not demand our attention. They contain what is necessary. They are spaces in which, once we have entered, we are drawn towards the television in order to disappear from them. They are used and employed with the greatest carelessness, absent-mindedness and indifference. They have already been forgotten while we yet stay in them. Perhaps this is the reason why Braeckman in his own words photographs ‘from where he stands or sits’. It is as if he wishes to make an impossible movement with this calculated nonchalance, namely, to return consciously to the thoughtlessness, the vacant cursoriness with which he treats a space and, especially with which the space treats him.
To return to insignificance without wanting to give it significance at any cost, without wanting sentimentally to show the value of that to which nobody ever pays attention, without behaving nostalgically or even simply mysteriously about something that has never been; to embrace the insignificant in its insignificance, in its fatal mutedness, mattness, lifelessness—bearing witness to something one has not even experienced oneself. It is a strange passion, but possibly, since Manet, a passion that is essential to art.
Reflexivity of a spot
There is a certain simulation of innocent amateurism in Braeckman’s work. The frontal shot seems uninspired, the blurring is apparently clumsy, the fragmentation is that of the simple soul who zooms in one section without being able to give a vivid suggestion of the whole. Yet the coquettishness of the snapshot, of ‘bad photography’, is completely alien to Braeckman. He does not fetishise the rapidity and innocence that always clings to the photographic act. His attitude is complex. For example, the spot of the light from the flash in some of his photographs testifies to a type of quasi-innocence, of an innocence that reflects itself, as it were. In this spot of light, the photographic act exposes itself. The flash is displayed as an invalid operation, as a moment in which the lighting cancels itself. For at the point of the light spot, the device renders what it illuminates invisible. As if becoming snarled in its own gesture, it becomes an obscene parody of itself. There is the sense of all lighting being ultimately in vain and thus also the sense of the recalcitrance, the invisibility of what is given.
The glints of the flash on a sofa, a table leg, the painting of a mountain and a frosted-glass window are all stuck there motionless, like a sick spot in the image, a spot where the image displays a kind of burn hole where it wishes to realise itself with its greatest intensity. The light at this spot is doing exactly the opposite of what it should do: making itself invisible, spreading itself unseen over the surface of the objects and gently pushing through. The light implodes. It drops dead against the subject as if against a wall and just lies there like a squashed eye, something dead glistening, enclosed in the rigidity of the photograph.
In the same way as the whole device, of course, can only work to the extent that it erases its mechanism, the flash can only cause the subject to appear, give it an ‘aura’, for so long as it stays invisible itself. If the flash is visible, it also shows up the action of showing, of appearance—in which case it fails and closes in on itself. In that sense, the mark of the flash is anything but a ‘random’ stroke that lends ‘expression’ to the cool anonymity of the photograph. Rather, it is the apogee of expressionlessness, according to Benjamin the essence of art, of its ‘veracity’.
The rigid reflection of the flash robs the photographic representation of its semblance of trueness to life by folding that representation back on its own movement. The device shows how it wrests the light emanation from its subject and thus forces the event whereby the object yields itself up ‘from itself’. This explains why the Barthian punctum, as indisputable evidence of a sense of ‘having once been there’, has been disincarnated in Braeckman’s work. It is not shown in some kind of fascinating detail or subject, but instead in nothing: in a blind spot that the device leaves behind. The gleam in which a past here-and-now ought to present itself only gleams in itself. There seems to be no such thing as a pure responsiveness to the irreplaceable uniqueness of what is appearing; there is always a device that operationalises this responsiveness and therefore erases it. The spot of light is the empty spectacle of this operationalising, the place where the device marks its own movement and is thus ensnared in itself.
Wherever the device reflects its own representational movement, it also simultaneously defers that movement. The device then becomes an allegory of itself, an allegory of that mixture of naive impatience and cool calculation, of hot-blooded lust for conquest and skilful control with which, each time, it wishes to capture a piece of reality and to capture it alive. It is as if the device wishes to confess and pay the price for its foolhardy desire for representation in this dead glistening where its light is reflected.
‘Confession’, ‘paying the price’… Is this about a type of self-criticism of the device motivated by a bad conscience, an attempt by it to indict itself for its own blind violence or, as in a catharsis, to purge itself? Or is it in fact about an ultimate confirmation of itself, a realisation of its essence that would exist in becoming transparent to itself? Is the representation queering its own pitch here or does the representation not in fact achieve ‘itself’ in that—literally—stupid spot of light, liberated from every obligation to represent anything more concrete? Put simply: are Braeckman’s spots of light disruptive to form or are they not in fact the apotheosis of a pure formalism? Without doubt, the truth does not start where we might choose.
The spot of light does indeed achieve, if you will, the ‘representation itself’. It is the point at which the representation denotes its own movement. However, contrary to what Greenberg wished, this point of ‘auto-referentiality’ has nothing about it of a pure appearance that is resolved in itself. Where the representation refers to itself, it undermines the very naturalness and the continuity of all appearance. This is where the appearance precisely does not converge with itself, but, instead, endlessly diverges from itself. This is the paradox: where art is auto-reflexive, it does indeed recognise in itself a moment of ineluctable non-transparency. Any art that does not bear with this paradox does not deserve to be called art.
In other words: the expressionless spot, in which the visual strategy of the medium folds back on itself, is the opposite of a pure visibility. In that spot, the representational capacity of the medium reveals itself, if anything, to be the reverse of an incapacity: the incapacity ever to see what cannot be seen, to converge with its own seeing. This spot alludes to a blind moment in every instance of seeing with which the representation is compelled to erase without ever fully succeeding. This reflection by the medium on its own blindness can be understood each time as a critical self-exposure. Yet, in each instance, an ‘exposure’ of this sort is not a conscious distancing of any kind. As though the medium were an instrument that the artist could strip down in order to expose its mechanism. No, the artist is his medium and shares its desires. He does not distance himself from it but hyper-affirms it to the point of being blinded.
To use Nietzsche’s words, the auto-reflexivity to which art forces the medium is not ‘reactive’. The point is not that the ‘transcendental’ photographer, out of his scepticism with regard to the medium, intentionally interrupts or lets go of his grasp on the subject because it always slips away anyway. On the contrary, in a type of over-identification with that grasp, he marks its excessiveness. Thus Braeckman’s flash spot marks how photography, in making a grasp for the subject, grasps excessively beyond the subject. In the spectacle of such an excessive, emptied grasp, the desire to grasp ‘acknowledges’ its impasse, and yet in so acknowledging it the medium affirms that its desire to grasp was ever rooted in a sense of being grasped by a retreating object. In that spot, in which the medium ostensibly loses touch with its subject, the medium affirms that it has always already relinquished its grasp on the subject, that its ‘true’ desire has never been representation but rather the impossible encounter with a fascinating object.
Each device is motivated by a truth that it must deny in order to function. That truth is that seeing is an event that always comes to soon and to which we thus, having come too late, are always already returning. Seeing precedes each act of looking and is in that sense something for which the subject is not prepared. Media are there to cope with this lack, or, put another way, to cultivate the fantasy that they are able to do this.
From this it would seem that ‘art’ is thus that idiosyncratic practise that performs a quasi-nothing, that is to say it explores in depth the lack of any medium. Art ‘reveals’ that where the medium appears to remove this lack, that where seeing really appears to occur, a blind spot continually forms that fixes a boundary to our sight. This spot is not simply an obstacle. It is in this spot that seeing occurs. Seeing occurs at a boundary by which the eventuality of seeing has always already been divided. This division causes seeing to be an excessive event, an event that ever desires itself, must ever register with itself—an event that, precisely because it is blind to itself, wishes ever to be its own witness and thus ever remains its own promise.
Art affirms how the medium, if it wishes to represent something, has always already been folding itself back on that representational movement. Thus surrender by the artist to (the desire of) the medium is indeed involved, as seen with Greenberg. However, in contrast to what Greenberg wished, the medium does not become fully transparent to itself in that auto-reflexive movement. At its moment suprême of self-awareness, when reaching the apogee of its ‘transcendental investigation’, it runs up against its boundary, against a blind spot within itself. When folded back on ‘itself’, the representational movement then becomes opaque to itself. The representation emerges like something looming up from the emptiness left behind by the necessarily failed encounter with the object. The transcendental investigation into its own conditions forces the medium to the affirmation of a no less transcendental blindness.