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Chris Andrews —
Touching the image softly: On Documentation Images and Artistic Labour

“The global art market’s capacity for care is somewhat, shall we say, limited.”[1]

The art market’s lack of care has been met by the leisurely pace of the art institution; searching for the right words to sign-off the email to the museum that will probably not be met with response. We get used to its familiar processes of inaction, but still labour for its recognition. Proposing to see yourself in the image documentation you begin to press your hand into each image, hoping it leaves an impression on each surface: a mark of labour, of touch. How do we bring touch, or care, back into the contemporary art market? As put succinctly in the introduction essay to What’s Love (or Care, Intimacy, Warmth, Affection) Got to Do with It? published by e-flux, love has everything to do with it: “Love is a commodity and a fetish but it is not often traded seriously enough on our intellectual markets or kept in high enough quantity in our theoretical stockpiles. We’d like to encourage a move toward bringing love back in.”2 Is there love in the images that scour the internet platforms for contemporary art? Delving into our interactions with images through the tender touch-screen, poking at the post-Internet environment that is filled with a steady influx of images, this essay wages the new currency and cultural value of documentation images. A critical inquiry into the post-Internet, post-care, even post-touch global art market, snapping into view are biopolitical concerns, issues of precarity, differing forms of ability, artistic labour, touch and the performativity of the touch­ screen.

Within the contemporary art world, the importance and value of photo documentation (installation images of exhibitions and works of art) has become increasingly prominent. This can be seen through the attention and cultural weight given to platforms such as Art Viewer and Contemporary Art Daily, where the cultural capital of these images has become hyper-valued. Problems surface in the lack inherent in these images: photo documentation is void of artistic labour. This lack is ever-present in the contemporary art world too, both in the representation and support of, artistic labour. To illustrate this absence is to make visible the labour that has previously been rendered invisible, or been continuously devalued. Proposing that how we view these images is perhaps some tender, intimate process with this soft touch: finger pads scroll the moon-face of the screen, this in turn further removes or distances any nitty-gritty or any sweat, any markings of labour that produced the image. Documentation images are thus precarious: instability seeps out, as they lack all of the components that hold them together, or, all the hands that assembled them.

Positions of Precarity, or, a Shaky Finicky Line Impressed into the Skin

Fracture, instability and shakiness have become a defining feeling of image-culture, but this performativity in the scroll of the touch-screen adds a new feeling of how to know an image through touch, perhaps restoring care with it. How do we, then, restore this care, acknowledge this labour, to the producer of the image? How does precarity play into these movements or negotiations?

Judith Butler’s update to her concept of gender performativity includes discussions of precarity and its positionings. This is important here as it leaves room to expand on the politics of ability and biopolitical concerns as they relate to precarity. “Performativity was, to be sure, an account of agency, and precarity seems to focus on conditions that threaten life in ways that appear to be outside of one’s control” (Butler 1). The threats, the infections, the things that impose or propose to harm the body are all present in agency, precarity is always present in agency, as if in some negotiation with the forces that push back on the movements of the body. Bodies differing from those typically represented, have become mirages in the biopolitical sphere through institutional deflection or even neglect. Their occupation of space causes visibility and invisibility to vibrate and shake, collapse and slip through finger pads.

As put in the first issue of MICE Magazine, it should be an obligation for us to see the labour (or precarity) of others from our respective positions. This act of seeing, might be labour in and of itself: “I think interrogating our own ways of benefitting from privilege is part of how we work toward causing less harm. To cultivate care, love, and trust is work.”[3] Identifying and acknowledging when others are laboring and working and making: these are the moments of recognition needed if we are to affirm the importance of emotional, affective, and artistic labour.

Imagine a pristine iPhone screen, but the remnants of touch on the screen from fingers, of grease and nerves and the seeping of the body to exteriority are apparent on its surface: if we can visualize and identify these markings of touch, moments of labour, this is a step towards bringing care back in.

Labour as a “Flash of Skin”:

“How does collective bargaining work when it comes to emotional labor? Should we organize a union or just call a general strike? Who is heading those gatherings up, and who will we find crossing the picket lines the next day?”[5]

As critic and curator Gabrielle Moser has claimed, in recent artistic labour environments the modes of working have become even more “abstracted”:

“It would be easy to argue that this desire [to erase any labour] is motivated by the appeal of borrowing the seductive powers of consumer capitalism (epitomized for me by that thrilling moment in a public talk when a speaker’s computer desktop-often crammed with PDFs of research and in-progress Word documents-is made public, briefly concretizing artistic labour as a visible object).”[6]

This moment, this image, described here could be thought of as a “flash of skin,” alluding to the excitement of seeing the “slips,” or moments of labour. The “flash,” as Jane Blocker explains, is a poetic metaphor of desire derived from Roland Barthes: the moment when skin is visible in between articles of clothing, to then disappear.

These moments of appearance and disappearance, or visibility and invisibility, are discussed by Moser in that when artistic labour does become visible it is often aestheticized. I would argue that this same gap in visualization, or a multiplicity of gaps, is too present in documentation images. Filled with touch-ups and crops, the field of documentation has become increasingly aestheticized and more void of touch, of any evidence that someone even placed these objects here. Whoosh! This gap acts as a void: these images lack the human, empathy, compassion, the viewer.

Freeports and the Image as Second Existence

Berlin-based writer Stefan Heidenreich’s “Freeportism as Style and Ideology: Post-Internet and Speculative Realism” delves into the phenomena of the freeport, vital in thinking about artworks as assets. Freeports are storage facilities in tax-free zones (the largest of these are currently in Geneva and Singapore) where artworks and the like are stored with the sole purpose of accumulating value. A painting can sit in a crate in a vast storage facility, where its existence is rendered closer to stocks in a technology company than of an artwork with “exhibition value.” They might move onto an auction to be sold if their value increases, or sold to another collector. Relevant here, is their “second” mode of existence as images on the internet or in database and archiving software – viewed only by way of clicks and scrolls. This alludes to the new processes of sales and what that looks like today, especially in a digitally-oriented contemporary system – the commercial gallery intern sends high-resolution images to potential buyers from their perch behind the desk.

Can support be present in a structure? Can care really emit from a platform? Or does it reside in the fluid, or otherwise free, aspects of society, in its gaps or openings? Often, structures are associated with limitation and seldom a system of support, despite their intention(s). Due to the flaws, lacks, and bureaucracy, such as the waiting list in the health-care system, the daunting and seeming inaccessible process of receiving arts-based financial assistance, structures could be seen as inherently negative. Acknowledging this lack in the systems of support in the contemporary art world is a step or slouch towards where they can hopefully be questioned or rethought.

What is the weight of the documentation image? In contemporary art practice, these images (documentation) have become something weighty, even a new kind of currency, whether cultural or economic. With these web-based platforms for art documentation gaining increasing popularity and cultural capital, this discussed “second life” of artworks has negotiated its importance with the first or physical interaction with artworks: a gap in intimacy between the viewer and the artwork, further, a gap between viewer and artistic labour. Let’s try for something closer to embodiment – work towards moving care into the contemporary art market, and softly touch the images that litter the biogs, the platforms, the spaces of social media.

[1] Aranda, Julieta, et al. “Preface: Missed Connections.” What’s Love (or Care, Intimacy, Warmth, Affection) Got to Do with It?, Sternberg Press, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Badger, Gina, and Nasrin Himada. “What Is Invisible Labour?” MICE Magazine. 2016.
[4] Jones, Amelia. “Authorship and Identity.” The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Preziosi, Donald, ed. Oxford University Press, 2009.
[5] Aranda , Julieta, et al.
[6] Moser, Gabrielle. “Always Working: Introduction.” Fillip. Fillip, Spring 2013. Web.
[7] Moser, Gabrielle. “Always Working: Introduction.” Fillip. Fillip, Spring 2013. Web.
[8] Rose, Jacqueline. “Sexuality in the Field of Vision,” in Difference: On Representation and Sexuality,The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1884.