Gesturing towards the transformation of fences becoming tables, Annie MacDonell proposes that folders become frames, inserting a selected group of images from the Toronto Reference Library’s Picture Collection into A Problem So Big It Needs Other People. Four weeks in, these images, drawn from three related folders of the library’s vast and idiosyncratic storehouse (“Reflections,” “Mirrors,” and “Reflections—Mirrors”), mined from various kinds of printed matter over the last 90 years, will remain at SBC until the exhibition closes, a three-week period happening to coincide with the maximum borrowing time of the material. The 35 images of mirrors, replicated patterns and the world cast back at itself, represent the maximum allowable amount of borrowed materials, a second-run berth of images in relation to MacDonell’s photo series, On Originality and the Avant Garde, on the gallery walls that depict other images from those same Picture Collection folders, collaged and re-photographed on her studio walls. Though the plane of the collage is flattened through the photographic reflection, pencil scrawls on the studio walls place the five reframed collections in a specific and recurring space where their subject becomes not the animate and inanimate objects therein, but the act of framing itself.
Appropriation, quotation and sampling are common tactics used in contemporary art production, extending beyond any one medium, informing music, literature, sculpture and, in this case, photography. Meeting MacDonell’s images means negotiating between independent and related acts in order to make meaning: the first instance of photography; the librarian’s decision to extract the images from their original context and insert them into any one of the Picture Collection’s folders; MacDonell’s research and compulsion toward certain images; her collaging and re-photographing in her studio; and our looking in the gallery as part of an exhibition. MacDonell has said of her work that “with photography and film, we’re generally not creating new images, but instead working from the existing pool of images that reality offers up to us. The essential act then becomes one of framing those existing images in order to designate them for a special kind of attention. We get the viewer to look at them with an intent and intensity we don’t normally bring to the act of seeing. For me, presenting an image within an image is multiplying the framework around the image in order to bring attention not to the subject of the photograph, but instead the act of looking at a photograph.”
The creation of a new context is the potential for new meaning.
Emphasizing the ways we construct meaning through looking, art historian and curator Gabby Moser hosted a “looking group” entitled No Looking After the Internet at SBC, in collaboration with MacDonell. Utilizing these additional images from the Reference Library, collected on the table in a folder as a frame, the clippings circulated among those present that afternoon already stripped of the predictable information structures of gallery life: there were no didactic panels noting names and dates, and contextual information about where these images originally appeared is mostly already removed through the librarians’ acts of clipping (though in all cases there is something to be gleaned from turning the image over, inseparable as it is from the printed matter context of its other life). Moser says of the project that its aim is to “slow down our interpretive processes and to spend more time looking at images in a state of ‘not knowing’: trying to articulate what we want from images that are ambiguous or that withhold immediate interpretation, and being self-reflexive about how we respond to images—do we immediately try to ‘do’ something ‘useful’ with them by trying to put them to work or to learn from them? Do we have a tendency to try to project a narrative onto them to help answer questions the image raises?” And yet, our detective impulses are hard to shake. We wanted to know the factuals of the Reference Library’s own practices: Why does the Picture Collection exist? Who decides on the collection’s themes and logic? Who uses these images? What about the librarians is revealed through their collecting practices? Perhaps like images, the Picture Collection compels our attention because it is constructed. As a mirror of the world, a photograph can be said to have documented something, but it is in the deeming important to capture or in the placement of the frame (and what falls outside of it) that our human nature is revealed. MacDonell holds that this is what makes photography an enduring form of representation: not its pretense of objectivity, but its suffused bias.
Exhibitions are always about constructing relationships: between an artist and an institution, and between art works. In its making, a single work cannot predict the range of relationships it will find itself in. It is perhaps romantic or naïve, but in each of the relationships set up between works, or even in the regular ways that images and objects circulate, new meanings arise, and as these meanings accumulate, might something of the soul of an image be revealed? If, obviously, we are willing to admit such things exist, even just as intellectual provocations. And yet, an image can mean many things, but it cannot mean anything. There are natural limits to what a work can do.
In choosing to work with certain folders (“Mirrors,” “Reflections,” et cetera) , MacDonell was conscious that a reflection is always of something, which is a perfect metaphor for the mediation of the world through photography. There is no mirror without an image and no photograph of nothing.
In the spirit of No Looking, it is difficult to resist an analysis of the construction of the Picture Collection in order to look slower, look collectively and to consider what is at stake in and through looking at the material pictures at hand. But at least part of what is on display is power: to dictate which images are deemed interesting or worthy of archiving. On the one hand, there must be something biological at play, as when an image perfectly composed in a rule of thirds tweaks a pleasure circuit in our brains, but on the other hand, who is to say that that itself is not just another product of social conditioning? And though the Reference Library advertises that there are over 32,000 subject headings in the collection, no doubt certain subjects have been elided due to moral judgments or insidious sleights of hand that do not recognize their prejudice as such, alongside the inclusion of some subjects as activism, as when MacDonell stumbled upon a folder full labeled “Advertisements—Sexist.” This discovery lead her to her current work with the collection, which seeks to reframe it as one with a subtle feminist bias. A narrow understanding of photographic preservation considers photography as objects isolated from social and emotional ties. In MacDonell’s case, and in the case of No Looking, these social and emotional ties are both lost (from their original context) and rewritten (when gallery visitor’s with their own agendas look on). Like language cannot be reduced to vocabulary or recordings (as Susan Hiller’s film and Chelsea Vowel’s text point out), neither can photography be reduced to paper, emulsion and silver. The preservation of a photograph as an artwork is conceptually different from its preservation as a souvenir or in an archive. Perhaps the Picture Collection is not an archive of images, but an archive of collecting practices that needs an organization—the Reference Library—in order to exist.
And so, in this instance, the exhibition and the looking group need the institution of SBC to exist, framing the works and the conversations within the gallery’s focus program on sovereignty. The context has its own agenda for what it wants from images, here casting MacDonell’s photo series as the result of numerous negotiations between object, impulse and representation. And the context has its own agenda for what it wants from talking, that being the give and take of constructing understanding alongside another.