Science & Fiction, with a text by Tom McCarthy


Front cover image: ©Katarína Hrušková

Each year the Royal College of Art’s MA Photography programme, in collaboration with Black Dog Publishing, release a book on the work of its graduating students. Instead of a mere catalogue of images, which reproduces the final work of the students, these pages are conceived of in their own right, edited by artist and Reader in Urban Aesthetics Rut Blees Luxemburg, with a number of writers invited to contribute to the project. What follows here is a series of photographs of spreads from the book, accompanied by a text written by acclaimed novelist Tom McCarthy, describing and expanding upon photography’s relationship to fiction. Through the channels of science and fiction—science as data, image algorithms and the surrender to technological temptations; and fiction as invention, construction and critique—these emerging photographers address the questions and tensions that surround the current state of the photographic image.


Tom McCarthy

‘Well, almost any photoist worth his chemicots will tip anyone asking him the teaser that if a negative of a horse happens to melt enough while drying, well, what you do get is, well, a positively grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values and masses of meltwhile horse. Tip.’

So writes James Joyce in Finnegans Wake. For all the verbal acrobatics going on here, all the neologisms, the tempo-animo-thermo pilings up or collages being massed and mashed, the word that stands out for me most, the instrumental word on which this passage hinges, is, simply, negative. Joyce’s speaker is drawing on a basic and (by 1939, when the book was published) universally recognizable photographic process whereby an image, and the entire world that it calls into being, are grounded in its negative. If the negative is messed with, world mutates, metamorphoses, melts.

It may seem quaint or anachronistic to look, as though in the rear-view mirror of our own digital moment, to such analogue-settings and paraphernalia as darkrooms and celluloid and developing liquid for analogies: a regression to incunabula, a chemi-cot age of the medium. Yet this mise-en-scene, this mechanism, remain, now more than ever, the prime element of what, for me, seems to be fundamentally at play, or at stake, in the practice of photography. I speak as a non- and never-has-been photographer, a novelist, for whom, since as long as I can remember, photography has stood as an abstract, almost Platonic notion bearing directly, and I mean directly, on the act of writing.


What I mean is that photography – the idea of photography, this esoteric thing that happens somewhere secret, in some black room or black box whose workings are always hidden, even if you’re holding them right in your hand – has, for me, always dramatized the logic and the generative power of negative-ness; brought into view, even as it screened it off, a space not of presence but of absence – charged absence, in which what’s absent is for that very reason present as possibility; a murky sea through which some black rather than white or white rather than black whale looms as it takes on form and resolution; an a- or omni-chromal space in or from which, to borrow another of Joyce’s formulations, figments, like pigments, are framed up; this framing in turn giving rise to nothing less than the reality which then emerges as the inverse of its own inversion, negative of its negative.

In this context, to talk about the medium’s past or future, or those of the world, makes no sense, since these categories belong to the linear timescale of Enlightenment. But we’re talking endarkenment here; unshaped plasma in which pixels drift, collide and separate in prehistoric or pre-figurative frenzy; noxious fluid mulch where pasts, futures and presents, all composted, lurk as potentiality and immanence – that is, as fiction.

Tom McCarthy was born in 1969 and lives in London. His first two novels, Remainder and Men In Space, have been published internationally to much acclaim. Remainder, winner of the Believer Prize 2008, is currently being adapted for film by FILM 4.  Tom’s latest novel C was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010 and went on to win the highly valued new Win Windham-Campbell award in 2013.

The publication features texts by acclaimed creative director, designer and brand strategist, Michael Salu; Moscow-born novelist and critic Zinovy Zinik; artists Mark Aerial Waller and Olivier Richon; and philosopher Alexander García Düttmann, and is available through Black Dog. The book was designed by Xavier Fernández Fuentes. The MA Photography exhibition opens to the public as part of the Royal College of Art‘s graduate shows from 18 – 29 June 2014, at the Battersea campus.

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