Photography, Sound, Modern Conflict

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Installation view, Staging Disorder, London College of Communication. Image: Studio Hato

Staging Disorder, a new exhibition and book considering the relationship between photography, sound art and modern conflict launched recently at London College of Communication.

Although ostensibly documentary images, the exhibited photographs capture something rather less palpable, which, as curators Christopher Stewart and Esther Teichmann state in the foreword to the exhibition booklet, consists of ‘something real that has in itself been artfully staged to mimic a disordered reality’.

Staged not by the photographers themselves, but by the military, whole fake towns, aircraft and houses are constructed and used as training facilities for soldiers in order to prepare for future conflict. The photographers in the exhibition have investigated the status of these spaces – physically, architecturally and conceptually – in order to understand something about their relationship to what we might consider truthful, real or imaginary, in photography and in war.

Excitingly, the exhibition also extends its concept to cover sound art and writing’s ability to conjure sound and images and relate them to the psychological and environmental affects of modern conflict. Courtesy of staff in the Creative Research into Sounds Arts Practice research centre at LCC, three works by Angus Carlyle & Rupert Cox, Peter Cusack and Cathy Lane, and a text by David Toop, are displayed alongside photographs by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Geissler/Sann, Claudio Hils, An-My Lê, Richard Mosse, Sarah Pickering and Christopher Stewart. In the following interview, Daniel C. Blight speaks to the curators about the exhibition and its ideas.

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Installation view, Staging Disorder, London College of Communication. Image: Studio Hato

Daniel C. Blight: The relationship between photography and sound is an interesting one — what does this exhibition hope to draw out from these two forms of practice? Is the word “disorder”, which features in the exhibition title, key to this relationship in any way?

Christopher Stewart & Esther Teichmann: At the core of the exhibition are seven photographic series that document architectural spaces in different parts of the world, that have been utilised to prepare security forces for conflict. There is a temporal element here, in that the photographic works show mock domestic rooms, aircraft, houses and streets which are anticipatory spaces as opposed to the often ubiquitous depiction of the aftermath of war, found in much contemporary photographic practice. During our initial dialogue at London College of Communication (the venue for the exhibition) it became clear that there was a thematic resonance with a number of sound artists from the University’s Creative Research Into Sound Arts Practice research group (CRiSAP). However, the resonance here also encompassed a contrast in that the sound works ultimately made for the exhibition are more clearly about the echoes and aftermath of conflict and trauma, and we thought that this made an intriguing accompaniment to the photographic works which are mostly depopulated and are in that sense quite silent.

DCB: The photographic works often document already staged or fictional scenes, and as viewers we are asked to question the reality of those images, in their relationship to war and conflict. What does such an approach, existing in some sense within the realm of the fictional, say about the undeniable reality of war and conflict in the twenty-first century? Is this where certain forms of photographic representation play a crucial role in deconstructing the logic of, or perhaps criticising, war?

CS: The idea of the ‘readymade’ is inescapable here – in both a Duchampian and non-Duchampian sense. In contrast to studio constructed tableaux photography, that has been so central to the critical discourse of photography and the deconstruction of the photographic document for the last three decades, these spaces are not fabricated by the artists at all but are, rather, ‘found’ spaces that have then been documented. This is documentary photography of another person or agency’s notion of constructed and disordered reality – something which has been staged by others. The artists have of course recognised an interesting phenomenon here and one that we can link to the idea of modern conflict as something that is readymade in a more anticipatory manner. Baudrillard of course articulated the problem of this within his writings about the first Gulf War – a televisual war where the representation or war, its packaging and anticipation appeared to be divorced from its actuality. Of course, there is something very neat about war resembling a computer game but it masks the fact that wars are about real things – political, ideological, religious or territorial and that they result in real death and real destruction.

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Richard Mosse’s Airside, 2006-08. Image: Studio Hato

DCB: The sound works in the exhibition continue the themes of real and imagined future conflicts. For example artist Cathy Lane directly addresses this with the title of her work Preparations for an Imaginary Conflict. What is the relationship between photography and sound at play in this and other works?

CS: Cathy Lane’s work is very relevant here as the fragments of the voices in the sound element of her installation and the text on the wall both allude to a conflict to come – in this instance the sense of impending nuclear catastrophe and the attendant paranoia that accompanied the Cold War era. Her appropriation of politicians’ voices and the almost identical political language of fear down the decades, irrespective of any apparent political divide, highlights how over-determined the language of fear has become. Alongside this are the appropriated texts of government published brochures on surviving a nuclear war, that demonstrate how banal and normalised something like nuclear Armageddon could be made to sound. I think this sense of the domestication of conflict is also at the heart of the photographic elements of the exhibition. With the other two sound pieces – Rupert Cox and Angus Carlyle’s The Cave Mouth and The Giant Voice – a personal reminiscence of the bombardment of Japan, and Peter Cusack’s Sounds from Dangerous Places, which includes photographs and personal narratives from Chernobyl, we hear about the reality of war and disaster and how it has affected real lives. I think the way that the artists using sound have responded to the themes of the exhibition adds something more personal and intimate that, by the very nature of the subject matter, may be absent in the photographs.

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Cathy Lane’s Preparations For an Imaginary Conflict, 2015. Image: Studio Hato

DCB: Finally, David Toop concludes the exhibition booklet with a piece of text, and Rupert Cox and Angus Carlyle also contributed one, therefore completing a triangle of sorts: photography, sound and writing come together to present something more sensorially tangible, perhaps even complete, in the way we might consider the exhibition’s key themes of “the real”, architecture and modern conflict. Can you perhaps make a comment on the relationship of writing to photography and conflict, and indeed sound?

CS & ET: Martha Rosler summed up the limitations of autonomous representation in the title of her work The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems in 1974/5, where she was referring to both the photographic image and writing. Within a short space of time we also saw the publication of Sontag’s On Photography and Craig Owens’ two part essay The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism and really all these critical texts were deconstructing the notion of the autonomy of the work of art and more pointedly the humanist documentary photograph.

“…sound, however, added the necessary element of violence, the sharp reminder that appointments must be kept, responsibilities must be fulfilled and the observations of ritual will prevail” – David Toop

Whilst we’re not as weighed down with those questions in the way that we perhaps once were, there is quite a nice relationship that emerged in putting the exhibition together between photography, sound and writing and how they allow each other to be what they are – sometimes more objective and then sometimes more of a personal narrative, particularly with the texts. Ultimately all representation is inadequate in terms of its relationship to the real experience of conflict but in dialogue the works here come at the themes in different ways, hopefully without overly compromising each other.

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Curated by Christopher Stewart and Esther Teichmann, the exhibition was supported by Karin Askham, Dean of the School of Media, London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. The exhibition, designed by Studio Hato, took place alongside the release of a new book, Staging Disorder, through Black Dog Publishing, which contains writing by Christopher Stewart, Alexandra Stara, David Campany, Jennifer Good, Adam Jasper, Howard Caygill and Esther Teichmann, alongside work by the exhibiting photographers.

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