Studies in Photography
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Interview | Antonia Laurence-Allen in conversation with Wendy McMurdo
ALA: You trained as a painter; do you still consider yourself a painter to some extent?
WMcM: I think that my early training – essentially five years spent looking closely at historical painting, modernist and then post-modernist practice – really taught me how to both understand and construct an image. It wasn’t until much later, however – when I discovered the potential of photography – I really felt I had found the right tools to explore the themes that interested me. I began to work with photographs when it was possible (thanks to the computer) to work with images in a very new way. I think it was this coming together, of my ideas and new technological tools, which really informed my work at that time.
ALA: Your initial work explores how the digital universe has transformed children’s play and will change how they behave as adults. Where did this curiosity about the effect of computers on children’s development emerge?
WMcM: In the early 90s I had become very interested in the writings of people like Sandy Stone, Donna Haraway and Jonathan Crary – all of who were writing at that time on the potential impact of the emerging techno-sphere. Their ideas really excited me and I wanted to explore similar themes through photography. One of these emerging themes was the impact of the rapid growth of the web, so I began to think about this idea. It made sense to work with the image of the child at this point, as it was children, after all, who were to be the first to be affected by these changes, almost from the earliest stages of their development.
ALA: Yes, I am interested in how your work reflects Lacan’s ‘mirror-stage’ theory that suggests children embed unconscious perceptions about their identity at a very early stage in their lives when first encountering their reflections in a mirror. Do you suppose photography adds to the complexity of this notion?
WMcM: In Return of the Real, Hal Foster (who I was lucky enough to be taught by at Pratt) talked about how both art and psychoanalytic theory ‘relate repetition and the real to visuality and the gaze’. This theory of repetition – that its use represents both the traumatic and our complex relationship with the real – was very important to me as I was beginning to work with early experiments in the digital world. With In a Shaded Place, I began to use the theme of mirroring to express the complex issues at play in the act of looking (and being looked at) in the late 20th century. Later – with The Skater project – I wanted again to consider the theme of mirroring and mimesis but seen now through the prism of computation. How had mirror theories, for example, changed since the introduction of computation? Where do we find our reflection now? Where do we look for the real?
ALA: Could you explain how significant Freud’s notions of the uncanny are to your work?
WMcM: Freud’s theories on the Unheimliche were one of the most common reference points for the In a Shaded Place project. Although, when I was making this work, I focused as much on the motif of the double, as it is embedded in the history of photography, as on the theme of the doppelgänger, as embedded in psychoanalytic culture. However, it seemed to me that the theme of the double or the ‘perfect’ copy had new resonance at the beginning of the digital age, so it seemed a good point to revisit this particular theme for a new digital paradigm. In an interview with Sheila Lawson for Creative Camera in 1995, I discussed the idea of the unheimlich, or the ‘unhomely’, as being a key interest in my work. It was after making In a Shaded Place, that Freud’s text became important, for I was trying to understand exactly why the images worked in the way they did.
I remember there were quite a few shows – and certainly lots of writing on photography – at that time, which referred specifically to the notion of the uncanny. This interest seemed to reveal itself in various ways: either as a preoccupation with the supernatural (I took part in an exhibition in Birmingham at the Ikon Gallery in 1999 called ‘ESP’, where Susan Hiller also showed PSi Girls, and in ‘Unheimlich’ curated by Urs Stahel for the Foto Museum, in Winterthur near Zurich, in the same year). There was also as a renewed interest in spirit photography (in 2005, there was a large survey show called The Perfect Medium at the Metropolitan Museum, NY). It was this interest in photography’s ability (or inability?) to conjure up the invisible, which acknowledged the significance of the new, and then largely unknowable, space being opened up by computation and the arrival of algorithmic photography.
ALA: I have tended to view photography as a schizophrenic medium; both truth teller and liar. I wondered how strongly you felt this and how you tease this peculiarity out in your current work?
WMcM: I think it is clear that photography now bears little relation to what photography was 25 years ago. Certainly, much contemporary photographic practice bears little resemblance to that which went before it, pre-computer. A new generation of photographers is choosing to work in a way that often excludes the use, for example, of photochemical processes. Many of these artists work in an abstract way, some use the darkroom as a laboratory, others employ software to create images whose source is often ambiguous rather than clearly defined.
As a technological medium, photography makes visible our changing relationship to the ‘real’ and also to the world around us. This – for me – is one of the most exciting things about this medium. In a recent essay called ‘How the real world finally became an image’ theorist Daniel Rubenstein described photography as ‘the visual figuration of a new layer of consciousness – in which new relationships to space and time and therefore new categories of thought, play, art, and agency are emerging’. So the potential for the medium now is huge, and in many ways photography has been reinvented or at the least, reinvigorated by these new relationships.
ALA: This is true, and makes me think of Geoff Dyer’s concept of a photograph being an ‘on-going moment’. He looks at repetition to theorize how photographs extend moments into narratives that can play on perception. This makes me think of your project The Loop. What is your goal with The Loop?
WMcM: The Loop (co-directed with Paul Holmes) was my first short film and part of a larger project called The Skater, where I wanted to explore the influence of digital play on older children. Certainly for adolescents, technology clearly played a large part in identity formation. Engagement with digital games, with the Internet and with mimetic systems in general, encouraged a particular type of play – play that involved an extended and often unseen set of players where the self was often ‘decentred’.
For The Skater, I had photographed a group of young figure skaters who’d provided the motion capture data needed to produce avatars of their skating selves. In The Loop I wanted to use dual screen moving image to explore the relationship of a young girl to her skating avatar.
ALA: What projects are you working on now?
WMcM: Now, I am working with objects – toys and playthings from early childhood – looking at the shift from the physical object (the toy) as a site of fantasy and projection to the more disembodied, phantasmagoric play that characterizes the web. As children migrate to the Internet as a major source of game and then role-playing, they enter an all pervasive and potentially ‘always on’ world of make-believe, where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are often blurred. I’m trying to photograph real objects and imbue them with the sense of dislocation that I see presented in digital play, with all of the interesting associations and questions that this throws up for children’s identity formation in this digital age.
See more: Wendy McMurdo website