Burgin Chapter 4

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S.R. So it's something like a circuit starting with the language, coming to photography, the question of the image and increasing it to the space and the interrelation between sound and the image and language? That was my understanding.

V.R. Although I wouldn't say I started with language. It's rather a matter of trying to hold the verbal and the visual in balance, trying to represent the constant simultaneity: the verbal and the visual, the visual and the verbal; a word gives rise to a mental image, and looking at something visual in the outside world, that may give rise to a word; so that's like a continual movement between those two registers; the movement of photography itself very largely had less to do with phenomenology and more with politics because in common with a number of other people, in the context of the late 60s which – to state the obvious - was a period of great political ferment; one thinks of the anti-Vietnam protest,one thinks of the resurgence of the women's movement, of the civil rights movement. A lot of politcal ferment ... it would have been very difficult not to have that dimension of the political present in one's mind, working in that period. You could turn away from it and shut yourself in your studio and ignore it. As I say, in common with a number of others I wanted to open the studio door, I wanted to inscribe that aspect of experience in the work. They became different ways of trying to do that, because there's always the danger – and no doubt I fell into it myself – of simply moving into a kind of propagandistic mode, which is fine if you are working for an organization, and I did all bits of work for trade unions and I was very happy to do that but in fact the circumstances here were such that there wasn't very much room for that; British trade unions were not on the whole very alert to issues of the image. I think that only entered British left politics with Thatcher's success, greatly assisted by Saatchi, and I think that's when the Labour Party in England woke up to the fact that the way they appeared, the image, that the phantasmatic, the imaginary fantasy actually is a moving force in politics. Whereas it was the conventional, certainly on the Left, to think of politics purely in terms of rationalistic schemes, of contractual negotiation, of rational protest, the revindication of wrongs and so on in which the phantasmatic, the image, never entered. So that the negotiation between the image, the political, and what's proper to this sphere of »art» – which again has to remain a kind of fuzzy concept – that was part of the work. The move to photography was a move away from painting – I have a first class diploma in painting from the Royal College of Art which means that I'm legally entitled to practise painting anywhere in the United Kingdom and I gave up that – for two reasons: one was certainly from my perspective in the late 60s there was nothing left to do in painting, technically there was nothing left to accomplish; the minute you picked up a paintbrush it seemed everything was over; just that act, just that gesture of picking up the brush brought with it so much that was so shackled to certain historical structures that politically I was not entirely happy with, so shackled to certain political structures, that one couldn't continue. So that's kind of politics of giving up painting also, but to turn to photography was to turn to a medium that was very much in the public sphere, that didn't intimidate anyone. So that was a kind of populist gesture towards photography. But also at the same time these kinds of decisions and moves in one's life, in the life of everyone, they're never that simple, even if you may try to represent it to yourself simply later on, or tell it simply as a good story; but actually I think all sorts of decisions are heavily over-determined with a lot of factors working at the same time; one is pulled towards something or pushed away from something at the same time. I was pushed away from painting for mainly political reasons but also for technical, historical reasons to do with the history of art and the perceptions that there was nothing left to do, a perception, which I still hold. And there was a move towards photography for populist, political, »left« kind of reasons, but not only for that. It's actually quite a fascinating medium, and I actually started to write about it because of the interest of the relation to the image, to the photographic image, the whole issue of the imaginary; that also was kind of intellectual interest, an aesthetic fascination but also a political reason for the move to photography and video.


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