Category Archives: photography

Erica Baum’s Sightings

I wrote some time ago about Erica Baum’s ‘Dog Ear’ and now an intriguing outfit called onestar press published ‘Sightings’ in 2010 which sells at 35 euros but can also be downloaded as a pdf.

Before we go any further I think I’d better describe my current feelings about conceptual work. Kenneth Goldsmith has defined conceptual poetry as material that’s more interesting to think and talk about as an idea than it is to read. I can see how this might apply to some of Goldsmith’s output although I do remain an occasional but avid reader of his ‘Traffic’.

I’d like to draw a distinction between this kind of ‘pure’ conceptualism and the kind that does start from a conceit (in the sense that Spenser used it in the letter to Raleigh) but consists of work that can and should be read as well. The work of Vanessa Place falls into this category and I’m making the same claim for ‘Sightings’.

I’d also like to make a case for appropriation, i.e. the practice of using already produced material as the text for the poem. In some circles this is also frowned upon because it undermines the notion of the poet as the solitary creator of carefully crafted and original lines. I think that this misses the ‘point’ and doesn’t give sufficient weight to the process of selection, it also carefully avoids the fact that all poetry is an echo of the poems that have been written in the last three thousand years and that some of our very best poetry is soaked though with what has gone before.

This is what Baum has to say about ‘Sightings’-

Prose poems depict witness descriptions of ufo encounters. Figures and shadows loom suggestively. Newsprint collages attest to the variety of odd occurences. Is the evidence of an alien invasion all around us ? The transparant and elastic meanings in ‘sightings’ suggest a transformation of ordinary facts, an absurdist archaeology of the everyday.

To produce an ‘absurdist archaeology of the everyday’ is an ambitious goal and I’m not sure that Baum achieves it. What I do know is that the juxtaposition of words and photographs of words and photographs that may or may not depict ufos seems to be a very successful way of saying complicated things about the uncanny and about the way things come to an end.

The most accessible parts of the text are the prose accounts of ufo sightings. I am old enough to recall a time when such events were treated much more seriously than they are now, particularly in the US. It seems to me that this kind of fevered paranoia was a neat ‘fit’ with the cold war angst about the ‘red menace’ presented by the Soviet Union. None of the accounts here appear to have any kind of ‘literary’ merit and read as authentic- the tone is reminiscent of the media reports of the time.

Of course, extra-terrestrials can be considered to be the ultimate Other in that we can attribute to them any attributes that we choose but these aren’t descriptions of alien life forms but of the craft that carry them- which have been the focus of conspiracy theories ever since. It may just be my optimistic perspective but I find it hard to conceive of a film like ‘Close Encounters’ having the same success now. UFOs aside, the other textual material relates to phrases and parts of phrases photographed as if the pages have been placed in a filing cabinet. Some of these phrases are only partially visible which means that a few are difficult to read. It is possible to read the legible lines as verse, albeit absurdist verse-

That Trouble
falling into a ravine of moths or butterflies
us inside a space meant to evoke packed with
stars that wobble under the influence of

Their are other photographs depicting what appear to be the edges of books so that parts of images and text are visible. Other images are of clouds, shadows and what might be ufos.

So, what I’m trying to say is that this is the kind of collection that might be labelled as ‘conceptual’ but also has serious and thought-provoking content. Here we have a series of points being made about the way we have thought about and imagined the strange / Other and the relationship between cognition and only partial or occluded phenomena. There’s also something about the end of things in this post-analogue, post soviet world.

Incidentally, the ubuweb site has a collection of Baum’s earlier stuff in pdf- I’m particularly fond of ‘The Naked Eye’ and ‘Card Catalogue’ both of which are equally startling but in very different ways.

Olson and past and present

past in the present

I was directed to the above by the indispensable Wood s lot where I found a remarkable series of images put together by Sergey Larenkov. I can’t read Russian but he appears to have taken pictures from World War of several European cities and ‘mixed’ these with pictures taken this year of the same scene. This shot was taken in Leningrad during the siege and carries this incredible juxtaposition of dead bodies, crumbling buildings and contemporary  pedestrians trying to cross the road.

Coincidentally, I’m still trying to write something intelligent and coherent about Olson for the Ardutiy project and my mind leapt to his views on the relationship we have with the past. I’m aware that the ‘past in the present’ thing is a bit of a cliché and doesn’t do justice to the complexity of Olson’s thinking on this but the fact remains that Maximus makes great use of archival material and Olson is deeply aware of the history of Gloucester when he writes about himself in its landscapes.

Reading Maximus brings home to me both the importance and complexity of this awareness and has changed the way that I experience my place in the world (I live in a fading resort town on an island off the south coast of England).

These images should make us reconsider our relationship with the tragedy that was World War 2- they certainly have this effect on me.

Erica Baum on ubuweb

I’m not normally a fan of conceptual/concrete poetry and Erica Baum isn’t a poet but what she does with photography is both stunning and poetic. As I intend to demonstrate, her work is both witty and confrontational. Some of her work can be found on the ubuweb site and I want to draw attention to two of these ‘pieces’.

‘Dog Ear’ consists of a series of images of pages which are folded in such a way so as to produce text which runs from top to bottom as well as from left to right. This sounds fairly simple but the experience of looking at these images is such that they force the viewer (reader) to question the nature of language and its relationship to communication.

What (literally) struck me first about ‘Dog Ear’ is the amount of violence that it does to the eye. By this I mean the amount of damage that is done between seeing the image and trying to make cognitive sense of it. I don’t think that this is due entirely to the fact of juxtaposition (text going in one direction, more text going in another) but also due to the immense roadblock that this simple act (the folding of paper) can create in our/my understanding of how language may be used.

We now come to the words and fragments of words (and letters) as they appear on the folded page. The first image begins on the left-to-right side with the page number (174) and then- “Yes? / Yes / How”, the first line is followed by a long gap and then “MI” followed by part of what looks like a capital ‘S’,the last word is followed by part of what may be the letter ‘l’ but this is purely guesswork on my part. The top-to-bottom side of the fold begins with the page number (175) and then- “I? I would not do that / differently. There is a huge gap between the first and second line so there may be further words that are hidden from us.

I will notice that I am writing about this image as if it was a poem. This may say far more about me than Baum but I feel as if I have to make some kind of sense of what is before my eye. These could be randomly selected pages from yellowing second-hand books but I don’t think this is the case- I’m guessing that you’d have to spend a long time in the selection process before arriving at what is presented here.

The second image that I’ve chosen begins (left to right)- “threw his elegant solution into di / red tape held thing up. Peopl / with their successors didn’t / front concentration ca / heavy snowfalls. Pow / Rail lines were b / of uncertainty / At his / His rec”. We then go top to bottom- “round sort of clearing. Surrounded / gigantic well. Sunlight shoots / illuminating the ground at / sit down in the sunlight / a chocolate bar from / ll over again how / ach second of / sness I felt / he sun’s /path”. I’ve avoided the temptation to include the letters that are partly hidden by the fold- there’s a letter after “concentration ca” that could be an ‘m’ but could also be an ‘r’. As a reader of poetry I’m fairly familiar with allusive stuff and find myself rushing to fill in the gaps with this image, putting together ‘solution’ with ‘Rail lines’ and wanting ‘concentration ca’ to be ‘camp’ when it could be anything.

As I said at the top of this piece, I’m not a great fan of fucking about with text but ‘Dog Ear’, in its own quiet way, has taught me that even tired old sceptics like me can still be jolted out of long-held prejudice and this is surely a Good Thing.

The other Baum piece that I really like is nowhere near as clever but still has a kind of grainy, spectral wit. ‘Card Catalogues’ is a series of images of library card catalogues which mostly show the index headers protruding from the files. I think it’s safe to say that this is primarily about juxtaposition which others have commented on (especially ‘Subversive activities / Suburban homes’ image) but it’s also a historical document. ‘Card catalogues’ was produced in 1997 at a time when we were beginning to move our indexing processes onto servers (which is now the norm) and these images stand as a reminder of what life was like when knowledge / information / data wasn’t readily available via the click of a mouse.  In terms of the images, there’s one shot of a open filing cabinet drawer that just has the word ‘God’ protruding and another is the front of an old wooden drawer which is labelled ‘Jersey City – Jesus’ both of which made me smile a lot.