A few nights ago, I dreamt up a new app, literally. I woke from my slumbers with an idea, unusually rich in detail, for a new app for iPhones and other mobile devices that could help to revolutionize how we consume art and how we think about art–not necessarily in that order . . . and maybe not necessarily ‘revolutionize’. But I think it’s a decent idea.
I’d been thinking quite a bit about art and its relationship with modern technology in the several days prior to my dream–and, if that dream is any indication, maybe during the nights, too, while I was asleep. The week before, I attended the current main show at the Vancouver Art Gallery (or VAG), Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography. The night before my dream, because I was given an annual membership to the VAG as a Christmas present last year and because the proposed relocation and expansion of the Gallery is apparently still up in the air and I thought my input might help to quash this ill-conceived idea–or maybe, just maybe, some impassioned debate at the meeting would convince me I was wrong–I attended the Annual General Meeting of the VAG.
Ian Wallace, for those not familiar with his work, has been a central figure in the international photoconceptualism movement that developed in Vancouver, beginning forty or so years ago, sometimes referred to as the Vancouver School. Before attending the current show, I was relatively familiar with Wallace’s theoretical work. (About 20 years ago, back when I was doing my MA at Simon Fraser University and I did some temping to finance my studies, I had a temp job for a couple of weeks at the VAG transcribing tapes of lectures given at the Gallery by Ian Wallace and Jeff Wall, formerly a student of Wallace.) I was less familiar with Wallace’s actual art: as far as I can recall, I’d seen only a few of Wallace’s pictures here and there. (I recall having seen more of Jeff Wall’s work, including several of Wall’s large, staged, photographic images, and some of his smaller works mounted in light-boxes.)
Wallace’s work in the current show at the VAG is generally more playful than I had anticipated, and seemed somewhat at odds with the wordy, professorial, theorizing he used to talk about his work– at least on those tapes I transcribed. (Wallace was a professor at UBC until he retired from that position a few years ago.) A comment made by Wallace in an interview done relatively recently (I’d say within the past couple of years), a video of which was included as part of the show, suggested to me that Wallace himself recognized this disjuncture: Wallace mentioned in the interview that, in the creation of his art works, he effectively just followed his instincts and, only afterwards, did he figure out how he would talk about them. (These aren’t his precise words.)
Regarding the techniques employed by Wallace, Wallace seemed to take considerable pleasure in basic experimentation that stretched the boundaries of what we think of usually think of as photography. Incorporated in the show are images that combine photography and colour-field painting; images that incorporate superimpositions of photographs, or other materials superimposed on photographs (such as the pieces of plywood glued onto the large photographs from the forestry protests at Clayoquot Sound, on Vancouver Island, in the early ’90s); multiple photographs arranged in a narrative sequence to create one cinematic piece; images that employ what I call a “cut and paste” technique, involving taking visual material from one source and “pasting” it elsewhere (such as the many human figures in the monumental, around twenty-feet long, panorama of a verdant nature scene); and just the creation of basic panoramic views–which, when Wallace created his panoramas, involved taking multiple shots and assembling them to make one image. To me, Wallace’s exploration of technique was, for the most part, quite a bit more interesting than the strictly photographic content of these images.
While these techniques may have been enough to garner Wallace wide acclaim thirty or forty years ago, in the early days of his experimentation, or even ten years ago when he created the Clayoquot series, or maybe even just a couple of years ago, by now these techniques are very easy to achieve, thanks to digital technology, and they’re commonplace. Just for the illustrations I’ve created for the couple of posts in this new blog, using my iPad, that I’ve had for about a year, and my iPhone, that I’ve had for only a couple of months, I’ve incorporated some of these techniques–including superimposing images (for the header graphic and my picture of raccoons) and a panoramic shot of Crescent Beach, using a 99-cent app on my iPhone. I wasn’t thinking of creating great art when I was creating these images, but only of creating some serviceable illustrations to spruce up my blog. (There are many similar examples in my earlier blog, “The Tomatoes Diary.”)
(I had the idea when I was at Wallace’s show at the VAG of using the Panorama app on my iPhone to take a panoramic shot of Wallace’s 20-foot panoramic picture to use as an illustration in this post. Because there was a guard standing near the picture, I thought I should ask her first about using my phone to take a picture, which I did, and she said it’s against Gallery policy–even though I have seen other Gallery visitors using their phones to take pictures of artworks. Maybe it’s a good thing she stopped me, because I could have got into trouble for copyright violation.)
A much more interesting show, in my view, would have been combining Wallace’s work with some current digital art, including iPad and iPhone art, that incorporated some of the same techniques. (Maybe the title of the show could have been Ian Wallace and the Next Generation: At the Intersection of Analog and Digital.) But then, shows at the VAG probably are usually planned at least a couple of years in advance: even just two years ago, many of us (including myself) wouldn’t have realized that, by now, much of Wallace’s experimental photography work, including his panoramas, would seem passé.
(As I wrote in a blog post in “The Tomatoes Diary” about attending the show at the VAG last winter that incorporated some of Jeff Wall’s light boxes, in an age when we see so many visual images with back-lighting, including on computers, tablets, and phones, the same could be said about these works.)
Another comment made by Wallace in the interview to which I referred earlier struck me as quite sad. Commenting on the acquisition by the VAG of some of his works for its permanent collection, Wallace remarked that “generations to come” (his words) would now be able to see his work. This was an older man speaking, and I couldn’t help but think that he was concerned about his own mortality, and hoped to achieve a kind of immortality through his art, and its ongoing display at the VAG. But, frankly speaking, if the current generation of technologically savvy people is likely to now see his experiments with photography mainly as historical curiosities, I wonder if succeeding generations would be interested at all in this work. Although many of his works were undoubtedly highly captivating when Wallace’s work was novel, and the effects he produced were difficult to achieve, at present, using basic digital tools that are widely available, fundamentally the same effects can be achieved by amateurs with no special training or talent, in a fraction of the time that it probably took Wallace to create his more ambitious works.
Wallace’s show was still fresh in my mind when I attended the Vancouver Art Gallery Annual General Meeting the following week, the evening before I had my dream about a new iPhone app. I’ll be discussing that meeting, and my dream, in upcoming posts. (Sorry I couldn’t get it all into one post. That was my plan. Now you’ll all have to wait, digital devices at the ready, to find out about my ‘revolutionary’ app!!)