Visible Contamination

Bert Danckaert

In the 1930s and 40s of the twentieth century, Weegee (5) was photographing the streets of New York’s Lower East Side. With a large camera and flash he captured the turbulent nightlife in which crime and murder took center stage. He kept a police and fire brigade radio next to his bed (often arriving at a crime scene before the police). Weegee catalogued a bitter reality that in photographic print sooner looked like a film noir scene, perhaps inspired by the crime cinema that was particularly popular at the time and that Weegee enjoyed watching as a respite between the murders, fires, calamities, and domestic violence.

Weegee Working in the Trunk of His Chevrolet, 1942.

Through the frame of the camera each scene becomes a staging: a shift from raw reality to fictive photography.


Ouija board

The pseudonym Weegee is an onomatopoeia for Ouija, a kind of clairvoyant instrument. Weegee certainly had a gift for anticipating the exact location of where the dead bodies or crashed cars were to be found. Weegee also stems from the nickname “squeegee boy” given to the assistants who dried the prints with a rubber roller before they went to the editor’s office. The squeegee boy was at the bottom of the ranks in photography, and is where Weegee had begun his carrier.

Weegee, Their First Murder, 1941

Weegee was the creator of his own myth; during an exhibition he had at Photo League in 1941, he wrote half the comments in the visitors’ book himself (all of which were of course full of high praise), he also claimed to have a darkroom in the trunk of his car, which was not true. Though the trunk did house half an office, with a typewriter, cameras, flashes, and cigars. Despite the fact he had no artistic ambitions, Weegee’s work has had endless influence on many artists in later decades, such as Stanley Kubrick or Diane Arbus.

Diane Arbus, Elderly Couple on a Park Bench, N.Y.C., 1969

Today his influence continues to be widespread. In one of Weegee’s photographs Their First Murder from 1941, we see a group of people of both genders and all ages looking at a scene outside of the frame. The caption written beneath informs us that a murder has just taken place: “A woman relative cried … but neighborhood dead-end kids enjoyed the show when a small-time racketeer was shot and killed.” In one sentence (which appeared in the publication Naked City in 1954) Weegee describes the diverse emotional reactions of this group of people confronted with a murder for the first time. The woman in the center of the frame weeps, while the boys surrounding her peer nervously into the lens or elbow one another aside. A blond boy laughs looking longingly over the crowd at the dead man, who is not visible in this photograph. You could cut the tension with a knife; each individual has their own story and their own response to this all too emotional event. Weegee’s flash in the nightlight becomes a metaphor for this explosive moment.

Stanley Kubrick and Weegee on the set of Dr. Strangelove, 1963

By removing the subject, the subject’s reflection onto its surroundings becomes the key issue. Therefore, in the case of Weegee we can speak of visible contamination; a projection, like light on a film roll, is only a shadow of reality.

 

Overacting

Bert Danckaert

In a monotone and apparently bored, Priyadarshan instructed the technicians and told the actors where they needed to be when a particular part of the script was said, or how fast the camera, which was mounted on one of those rails, should be pushed forward. He didn’t grant the extras any eye contact. Every day brought a new load of tourists with expectations about a unique experience. The extras were of the lowest caste in this construction. Priyadarshan gave his instructions to the extras via one of the responsible staff members (like Mansoor) and even that was quite unnecessary; they were so well-rehearsed in their routine and preparation that their improvisations with the extras produced the exact effect the film required.

A microphone hung on a red cord around Priyadarshan’s neck, with a wireless connection to a sound system. A pair of glasses rested on his nose so he had a sharp view of the footage on the monitor. He smoked thin, kingsize cigarettes, incessantly. His asymmetrical face and lazy left eyelid seemed to point to a stroke. Given his impressive track record, Nair Priyadarshan must be immensely rich. While outside people perished and drowned in their own waste in slums, here, entertainment was casually in the making. The film studio was a black box in a reeking reality: a vacuum and an introspective illusion. There wasn’t a trace of “invisible contamination” here; this was a world of appearances, controlled from a to z—an unreality. It seemed the objects in this studio, as much as they were “fake,” could in fact be nothing more than what they simply were: a microwave was a microwave, a computer a computer, despite that nothing would be heated in the oven, and the computer would never run a program. Everything was dead here and referred only to the most uninteresting and perverse version of itself. Resolutely, Priyadarshan gave directions to his smartly dressed actors. Between shots, assistants were in and out with mirrors so that Anil Kapoor and his colleagues could see if their hair was still intact and there were no creases in their costumes. Everything revolved around control, perfection, and the image’s preservation. Mansoor entered the dark conference room again and picked out a number of extras. The plump Brit wearing stilettos, the slightly older German, and the photographer (or was it Stewart?) were invited to come on set. The actor had hidden himself at the back of the room and was trying not to think about how sick he felt. He had the least interest in this job, which he could perform back home as part of the highest caste.

The three selected extras were each handed a folder and positioned on set. Stewart was to walk through the frame while Anil Kapoor acted as though he was concerned about the terrorists armed with bombs. After four takes the shot was in the can. An assistant tapped on the photographer’s shoulder each time it was his cue to walk through the frame. He did his best to move through the studio in the most British manner possible. Although no one had explained this to him, he assumed he was a security officer with important information (the folder!) on his way to a colleague at the back of the busy control room. As soon as Priyadarshan deemed the shot to be good enough, the subsequent scene was prepared. Cameras were removed from tripods, actors shook their muscles loose (sometimes pulling ridiculous expressions with their cheeks and mouths), and assistants ran back and forth with props and makeup to be added or removed.

The photographer was grabbed by the arm and brought to a computer. His personal assistant demonstrated how his colleague would interrupt his diligent typing—the plump Brit sat next to him at another computer—pointing at important information on his screen. With a ball pen, he pointed at the computer that wasn’t even switched on. All sorts of information would be digitally rendered onto the screens at a later stage. The extras had to work with the illusion. While the scene was being recorded (apparently a tricky one as they had to retake at least ten times) the photographer became increasingly aware of his overacting. The more often they had to retake the scene, the funnier he found it. Eye contact with his British colleague became progressively dangerous, so as not to end up in a wildly inappropriate fit of giggles. But they were professionals, and took on their roles as though their lives seriously depended on it. This formed a bond; during the short break after this challenging take, the photographer fell into conversation with the plump Brit, who turned out to be called Diane. Not long ago she had been studying sociology in London and was now in India to work for an ngo. Volunteer work with kids from slums. She explained a bit about the water supplies and longterm plans. In the meanwhile, the slightly older German joined the twosome. Diane was blond and the Indian hairdresser had pulled her hair right back into a tight bun. She was staying in India for six months. Following her first two months of volunteer work she now had two weeks off. From Mumbai, where she would stay for just a day or two, she was planning to travel on to Goa. And then—again via Mumbai—she would fly back up to Delhi. She asked the photographer what he did. “I’m a photographer,” he replied. He briefly explained that he was working on a project about urban space, globalization, cultural identity and so on. That he traveled a lot. And that he—together with his brother, the actor—had infiltrated the studio to take photographs of the decor. He also explained that the studio set wasn’t exactly what he had imagined and that photographing the decor had seemed like a perfect idea beforehand, but in all practicalities wasn’t going to work.

The slightly older German, Herman, worked in it and had recently divorced. After winning a battle against cancer he had decided to do what he had always wanted: tour through India and Nepal for a couple of months to “find himself.” Mumbai was a temporary stop—a necessary evil—in transit. Herman (“John” according to his badge) had a lean figure. The photographer tried to imagine him without his British disguise, but wasn’t able to. Herman joked a lot—he was witty, not stupid. “Fantastic that you’re able to travel so much with your photography! You’ve done well for yourself there.” The Brit agreed. The photographer of course confirmed this and in turn made a joke, it was certainly easier said than done. After all, there he was in this stuffy studio without a camera or plan. He felt as though he no longer knew or could do anything, as though all of a sudden all his accumulated experience was no longer legitimate and had been a careless waste of time.

He had to get himself out of this negative spiral. The actor lay on the floor pale-faced and irritated by this charade, while the photographer was suffering from an acute existential photographer’s block.

Priyadarshan had finished reviewing the raw material and gave the signal to continue with the shoot. Everyone came back into action; the photographer picked up his folder and resumed his position, together with Herman and the Brit behind the computer. Ready for another dose of overacting.

Methods in Photography

Bert Danckaert

Unpacking one’s methodology is one of the key aims of a research. Contrary to the “ordinary” artist, the “researcher”—like a scientist—should demonstrate his acquired knowledge based on the methods he uses. It’s of course the case that those generating imagery don’t necessarily acquire knowledge. The aim of generating an image, for me at least, is not about acquiring knowledge. Rather, I experience it as an accumulation of rhetorical questions or as a slightly absurd existential visual reflex. As such, a particular vocabulary is employed, which can be subject to analysis: what, for example, are the conceptual effects of the distance from which my photographs are taken, most often between five and ten meters from the subject? Why do I emphatically avoid the human figure and why do I construct my images from horizontal and vertical lines, just as Piet Mondriaan composed his paintings or Mies van der Rohe conceived his buildings?


Piet Mondriaan, compositie met groot rood vlak geel zwart grijs en blauw 1921

What kind of knowledge might an artist acquire? And if certain knowledge has been acquired, to what extent is this relevant in regard to the produced image? And would the image-maker not rather avoid demystifying his process and keep the wonder of his intuitive methods intact? Or is that awareness of wanting to safeguard this instinctive process precisely the knowledge the researcher/artist acquires?


Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona Pavilion 1929

I initially began this project out of my astonishment that so many places around the world looked identical to one another, as though there were no longer space for cultural identity in our globalized world. So I went to Beijing to photograph an ikea parking lot because it looked exactly the same as the one in Ghent or Paris. Travel as a meaningless act: finding things I equally could have found around the corner; in this way, considering the impossibility of exoticism and the relativity of understanding distance and space in our overpopulated world dominated by virtual reality. I photograph traces and patterns produced by human activity. In 2007 I made two nearidentical photographs of a wall upon which a laborer had dusted off his work gloves, leaving behind a large painting-like image alluding to Altamira or Lascaux. I had taken one of the images in Frenkendorf, a village in Switzerland, and the other in Beijing, China. Both photographs show traces of human activity producing surprisingly similar images; Parallel worlds in entirely different geographical and political situations.

It wasn’t long before I realized that my approach to the notion of globalization was a naïve construction and that, alongside the ikea parking lots and commercial routes entering the world’s megacities, there’s a much more nuanced story to be found. I discovered that some places are indeed completely interchangeable and that there are images of the city that demonstrate the result of years of multiculturalism and the dominant force of the capitalist system: like a quintessential mixture, a flattened out hybrid of all races and ideas, a monster of equivalence.

But there were also aspects of the city that were so unique to themselves, quite far from interchangeable; some parts of Havana were so particularly Cuban and some parts of Shanghai so very Chinese that my construct was only partially valid. It became clear that my research question was too simplistic and that some nuance was imperative. I was curious to what degree political and social contexts filtered through my work: to what extent the communist system could be felt in my formal approach to Havana, or whether the tense social situation of Cape Town and its recent past apartheid could be seen in the streets and walls I photographed.

The thought reminded me of an experience I had as a student. On one of my many meanderings with camera in hand, I ended up in a village near a nuclear power plant. I directed my camera towards the gigantic cooling towers, but was unable to capture the physical violence and threat I experienced (it wasn’t long after Chernobyl). I turned 180 degrees and spotted a playground on the banks of a gray river. One of the apparatuses was a kind of high seesaw that looked more like a gibbet. By isolating the object from the rest of the playground (through an understanding of framing and distance), I produced an image that for me summed up everything that I had been attempting to capture about what was now going on just behind me. I came to the realization that a setting could project itself onto its surroundings, without physically being “present.”

Bert Danckaert, Orientations, 1991

I later often used this as a method or aid when I was overwhelmed by a situation. I would simply turn 180 degrees and subsequently try to work with what I—quite arbitrarily—was faced with. The eye guided by what is not seen. “Invisible contamination” seems to me to be a fitting description for the subtle reflections of fraught (political, social, …) situations upon such (arbitrary) locations. In the same way that light, in the analogue era of photography, forms a latent image on film: an invisible presence that only becomes apparent after its development.  

Tezz Film Decor

Bert Danckaert

While the actor was still getting suited up, the photographer headed down the stairs towards the main studio where today’s action would take place. The photographer was asked to leave his personal possessions in a secured storage room that would be locked shortly. He laid the clothes he’d put on that morning over a chair, as though he were putting himself to bed. He would now assume another role. He was called Stewart and wore a badge bearing his new name. The room was filled with metal flight cases. “Tezz, costumes Anil Kapoor” was written across one of them. Clothes hangers, police uniforms, props. The photographer left the room, his photography equipment in his rucksack on his back and tripod in hand. “You can’t take that equipment into the studio. It’s forbidden to take photos on set,” said Mansoor, responsible for the extras. “Why not?” asked the photographer enraged. “Because it’s secret. Nothing from the film can be released before the film is out. Even the name of the movie is secret.” And yet they all knew this picture was going to be called Tezz. The photographer decided not to enter into a discussion, so as to avoid drawing attention to himself. He’d get his chance later in the day. He left his rucksack and tripod alongside his sleeping alter ego and double-checked that the door would be properly locked. The photographer followed Mansoor through a series of shabby corridors and rooms with electric cables strewn across the floor. They followed the trail of cables that were leading like tentacles towards the motherboard, nervous system, and electrical hub, near the main studio.

Stark spotlights lit a large green wall with white markers. It was a socalled green screen, which allows filmmakers to replace the green background with other images during postproduction, whereby complex locations can be edited together. A second space had been built in the middle of the studio space. A room in a room, suspended with ropes from the ceiling and supported on each side by wooden constructions. The photographer peered inside through a window. It was the window of the control room from which today the actors would be following the trains as they moved across the panel in the form of led lights. One of the lights was the train carrying the terrorists: a moving bomb. The photographer was instructed to enter the control room. The voice of the director, Nair Priyadarshan, echoed through the loudspeakers. He gave instructions to the technicians and actors. There was a concentrated atmosphere. There were at least fifty people on set. The photographer was guided to the other extras. The set was comprised of three rooms. The first was a large control room set up with dozens of computers and a control panel displaying a schematic representation of the British railway system. Separated by a glass door was an adjacent cafeteria, with refrigerators, microwave ovens, and coffee machines. Several scenes would also be shot here. Finally, there was a large conference room with a meeting table. The desk of the director was also situated in that room. There was a photograph of his kids to demonstrate that he was a loyal family man.

It was in this last room that the extras were assembled. “You’ll be called when we need you on set,” Mansoor shared with us. The sharply dressed supporting actors gathered around the meeting table. The photographer sat in among them. The room itself was pretty dark, colored led lights flickered on the wall; around twenty dvd players, stacked up on one another against the wall, were there to give the illusion of some kind of complicated security system.

A number of water bottles had been set on the table for the extras. And soon they were also offered coffee. Conversations slowly started to pick up. It was a diverse bunch of Westerners aged between twenty and fifty. There were people from Australia, a couple of Germans, one Brit, one Dutch person, two French, one Danish, one Austrian, a Swedish couple … and two Belgians (in the meantime the actor had also arrived). They were all set to play the role of security workers for British Rail. And they all looked “very English.” It was strange to talk to each other in this artificial setting. It was difficult to place one another because they all looked the same—and equally ridiculous. Presumptions based on how someone was dressed or how their hair was styled were out of the window. They examined one another, with an undertone of empathy and solidarity. The only distinctions that could be made at this point were between males and females, young and old.

Mansoor entered the conference room with two other men. They scanned the room and subsequently picked out three extras. The Austrian, the Dutch person, and the female half of the Swedish couple was asked to come onto the set.

The photographer looked at the space, its appearance was really quite “real.” He wondered what the hell he could photograph here. And even if he knew, he didn’t have his camera with him … Previous tension made way for doubt. He came to the realization he was unable to work with this space. It was too dark, too full, and too real. He would have to come up with something else.

The Construction of the Image

Bert Danckaert

Thomas Demand started out as a sculptor meticulously building models of everyday situations. It became apparent that the photographs he originally made as documentation of the installations added an extra layer of ambiguity, and so they soon become the end result of his artistic process. Presenting the photographs (of, for example, a room of photocopiers, a stairway, or kitchen) in very large format created a sense of theatricality and dubious illusion that was simultaneously quick to reveal itself as a construction: meta-photography in its purest form.

Thomas Demand, Copyshop 1999

Because photographs always refer to reality without being reality, they are by definition always a construction. Scale models of the world we inhabit. The magic of photography lies in the process that leads to its construction. A lot of photographers knowingly work with this. There is a literal reference to the scale model in the work of Thomas Demand as everything in the photograph has been built with his own hands. The concept of staging can be seen in the second phase of the process through the physical act of the sculptor who reaches the definitive form of his work through the medium of photography.

What is staging? From the moment the photographer directs his lens towards the subject, he determines what will appear in the frame and what will not. In other words, the photographer determines the scene of the photograph—like a stage on which a real life situation is photographically simulated. Which is why so many photographers are fascinated with the notion of simulation and the relationship between reality, construction, and fiction.

The tension so compellingly present in Demand’s work is equally manifest—though using a completely different technique—in the photographs by the Canadian photographer Lynne Cohen. Since the early 70s, she has photographed interiors, inspired by the Pop Art and Minimalism of that time. Her preferred locations are overly constructed spaces such as laboratories, classrooms, or health spas. She also often photographs military installations or shooting ranges, where domination, power, and violence are countered with a hilarious absurdity, at times reminiscent of Jacques Tati films (4). Lynne Cohen photographs these spaces with a large 8 x 10 inch camera, rendering an incredible degree of sharpness and precision. It’s almost like a scientific instrument that produces a copy of reality for Lynne Cohen, sometimes in black and white though increasingly often in color. The objective and unerring frame Cohen employs renders the photographer invisible, as though these places have photographed themselves and the artist only had to remove the film from their cassettes and bring them to the lab.

Lynne Cohen, Untitled (astroturf) 2007

Like Thomas Demand, Lynne Cohen originally trained as a sculptor, and you can sense this in her sculptural approach to her subjects that appear like found installations or constructions that have been conceived by an artist. Only here the artist is the near invisible photographer who brings these constructions to life within the workings of her camera, without physical intervention. Cohen also plays with the construction of reality in her presentation of the work by framing the photographs in Formica frames made with materials predominantly used in kitchens. The imitation marble and granite in the Formica frames is produced through a photographic process: a real block of marble is photographed and then printed and laminated and turned into a kitchen surface, for example. The reference to photography as ersatz falls together beautifully with her Pop Art-inspired approach.

Both Lynne Cohen and Thomas Demand are acutely aware of the concept of staging defined as the construction of a set in which—through the construction of photography—a scale model is staged in the same way that decor in the theater represents a real location without actually being one.

Much has already been written about the relationship between theater and photography. This is undoubtedly the result of both disciplines’ ambiguous relationship with reality. Photographs always present a view of real situations; even when the situation is entirely constructed, the camera still captures what is in front of the lens. Reality is also staged in theater. We witness real life actors who breathe and feel as they perform. While everything is “real” and takes place in “real time”; neither the photograph nor the theater play are reality itself. Photography and theater are therefore both forms of ersatz; at best they present references or real life constructions. Both art forms are false realities and real falsehoods.

The works of Sarah Pickering also illustrate ideas about the relationship between the photographic image and its construction in striking way. Pickering photographs situations staged by the police or fire department for scientific investigations of crimes and fires. The concept of staging and reality are literally simultaneously at play here. We see burning interiors or street scenes during insurgencies, but the houses aren’t real, the blackened washing machines surrounded by false walls make it immediately apparent that these are exercise and test sites. The subjects of Sarah Pickering’s photographs openly play with construction: houses are just a facade and traffic lights aren’t fitted with bulbs. Their sole purpose is to indicate the space through which the training officers can navigate. Sarah Pickering adopts a strictly documentary style to depict these places. She uses the camera as a neutral observer to capture a clear registration: the estrangement is within the subject itself, rather than the approach. By printing the photographs on a monumental scale, the construction becomes magnified whereby the images gain a surreal undertone.

Sarah Pickering River Way (Roadblock), 2004

Photography and staging are inextricably connected, as every photograph is a construction (of seeing).

4 “I take my work to be social and political but there is no concrete message. Perhaps this is why I feel much closer in spirit to Jacques Tati than to Michel Foucault” Lynne Cohen. Interview with Lynne Cohen by William A. Ewing, Vincent Lavoie, Lori Pauli, Ann Thomas, in No Man’s Land, Thames & Hudson, 2001. London.

Metamorphosis

Bert Danckaert

Ironically, having arrived in the land of “New Belly” (with which everyone is immediately in internal knots) the actor had picked up a virus from back home. He had been vomiting all night. He was white as a sheet and in no state to perform the role of a lifetime. Even so, the brothers were filled with eager anticipation for what the day’s experience would bring. After a wild rickshaw ride they arrived at Mehboob Studios. They followed a passage between large buildings, passed several trailers with the names of the actors written across them, and were pointed in the direction of the make-up rooms upstairs.

“You will have to shave.” They were each given a disposable razor and directed to the restrooms where other men were attempting to remove their weekend beards with just a bit of water. The actor had recently started growing a beard for a role he was about to play in the Netherlands. He would be playing Uncle Vanya in a production of the same name by Anton Chekhov. Ten years back he had performed in the same play (with the same director) in the role of Astrov, the doctor. An idealist and ecologist avant-la-lettre. Now almost fifty, and certainly far from thirty, the actor had been given the role of Uncle Vanya, a washed-out grumbler who had laid his ideals to rest a long time ago.
Was that the group they were now associated with? The category “washed-out,” that had seen it all before and now no longer wanted to shake the tree?


Clean-shaven, they joined the other extras still in their tourist garb waiting to be seen by the dressmaker. Measurements were taken, costumes altered, hair combed. Slowly but surely they were transformed from T-shirts with baggy pants to men and women in business suits. Sandals and flip-flops were replaced with elegant black leather shoes and stilettoes. Loose hair was neatly pulled back into a ponytail, and the photographer was given a side parting like he hadn’t seen since he was ten. He took a couple of shots with his pocket camera, anticipating the real work he was already focused on and for which he had brought along his proper equipment. From the outset it was clear to him that he also needed to do something with the “extras.” He was thinking about a series of portraits of these oblivious tourists who had been transformed by a gay Indian “costumier” into an identity-less unity, fitting the picture they (Indians) have of Westerners. A preconceived, ideal image: a person as facade, empty packaging. Just like the buildings the photographer liked to photograph in the streets of sprawling world cities, or like the room of their hotel—islands of non-identity. Starbucks and Ikea. A clone of all genes.


They heard that the scenes they were filming that day would take place in a London branch control room of British Rail. No open-air decor, no lifesize imitation trains. Nonetheless, the photographer was already looking forward to seeing the hyper-constructed reality, like in the photographs of Thomas Demand. He picked up his rucksack and tripod, looking crisp in his brown business suit and sharp side parting, resolute that today he would take the most important photographs of his life.

Thomas Demand, Control Room 2011

A Doctorate in the Arts

Bert Danckaert

After seventeen years teaching students from the part-time art education course, (1) I was given the opportunity to become a photography professor at the academy where I had studied myself, around twenty years prior to this. My old teachers became my colleagues. There was a different atmosphere in the art school than the dark times I remember from the late eighties. The director was now referred to as head of department and the academy was preparing to “integrate” (in layman’s terms: to become a part of the university) within a relatively short time frame. We adopted the same Bachelor/Master system and the teachers were encouraged to carry out “research.” Substantial funds were made available for this and I was keen to take up the challenge. Although I—and everyone else taking on such a research—didn’t really know what research in the arts should be comprised of. I had heard about theaterprofessors from the conservatorium who rejected the trend to carry out “research” as they felt their artistic practice was already a form of research.

But was an artistic practice and the research that was inevitably part of it the same as a research within the academic context? And was the academic context of added value just a necessary evil until we were able stand on our own two feet, and shift from the academic context towards the academy context? (An apparent nuance, and yet worlds apart.) After a lot of meetings and stale conversations at the academy about the differences between artistic practice and artistic research, the initial outlines were drawn: a distinction was made between research “in” and research “about” the arts. 

Research in the arts could be viewed more or less as part of an artistic practice. The value of this research was its “communicability” and capacity to “reveal the applied methods” through which its feedback (or “nexus”) into the education program could be established.
Fantastic, right? I envisaged a radically different academy from the one in which I had trained: taught by tutors with a frame of reference as big as their belly button. I imagined an academy in which people would debate, a course with people working to a high standard resulting in a stimulating environment where people are constantly hot on your heels. A stark contrast to what the school had become: an arts graveyard where most of the tutors had barely lifted a paintbrush or held camera for years and yet knew exactly how the students should be instructed.
The American photographer Robert Adams, originally trained as an English teacher, has never wanted to give photography classes. In his book Why People Photograph (2) he devotes a chapter to “Teaching” and recites the well-known quote from George Bernard Shaw:


In this chapter he further discusses how dedicated teaching can bring an artistic practice into jeopardy. Of the seven people in the English department where Adams began his teaching career, two committed suicide as a direct consequence to being unable to strike the right balance between teaching and writing.

The Californian artist John Baldessari, the mentor of many a famous artist, sums up the paradox of art education in a more bearable light:

“It’s essentially an idea that you can’t teach art, but if you’re around artists you might pick up something”.

John Baldessari

Could research in the arts build the inconceivable bridge between teaching and an artist’s practice, or at least—if meaningfully structured— have a stimulating effect on both?
I decided to apply for a research fellowship and put forward a proposal based mainly on a photographic series I had recently begun working on, Simple Present. The book about Beijing I was about to produce would fit in perfectly as a “milestone” or “research outcome.” I was already on the job.
Several of my colleagues already had research posts. They were much laughed at (behind their backs), particularly by colleagues who didn’t carry out any form of research (due to laziness, lack of ambition, being too old, too radically against everything, or for other noble reasons). Teachers from other academies and colleagues from the art world were also derisive about research within the arts. The teacher-artist-researcher was possibly even more problematic than the art teacher.
I also wasn’t entirely without skepticism; just a few years before I took up research myself, I published an article in an arts magazine in response to the first PhD defense in the arts. The article was titled, “Mom, why do we do doctorates?” (3) Like other PhD defenses I witnessed around that time, the artistic achievements—which were the results of the research—suffered from a misconceived pressure to use academic language, leading to clownish accounts and dismal theses. It became apparent there was a fundamental flaw in the entire concept of a doctorate in the arts; the artists found themselves in a jam in which the academic expectations resulted in pseudo jargon and the presented artworks appeared to be an illustration of the research rather than an actual result.

6 Moeder waarom doctoreren wij, H ART, oktober 2006

The first Belgian doctorates in the arts had become fact and the tone was set: there was still a lot of work do to. At that time, every researcher was simultaneously a pioneer and cannon fodder. The title “Professor Doctor,” that many a fresh-faced doctor immediately added to their e-mail signature after graduation, was the slightly ridiculous consolation for the humiliation that went hand in hand with the doctorate research.
We were in search, all too often speaking a language that wasn’t our own—save for a few artists that could master the academic language (which, to be honest, often came at the expense of the scope of their artistic practice).
The academy was—through the forced academization process—looking for necessary progress. Merging with the university appeared to be of great value, at least if both parties were willing to learn from one another.

As soon as I was well underway with my research, the academy’s merger with the university was called off. We turned back to the arts and made plans to become a “School of Arts”; a merger between the conservatorium and another arts program was in the making. Our courtship display with the academic world evolved into a marriage of convenience with a prearranged divorce.

1 dko: part-time art education course (evenings and weekends).
2 Why People Photograph, Robert Adams, Aperture, 1994. New York.
3 “Mom, why do we do doctorates?”, <h>art #12, October 2006. The title refers to the novel Moeder waarom leven wij (“Mom, why do we live?”) by the Flemish writer Lode Zielens, published in 1932 and dramatized for a tv series in 1993.