Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 9, 2010
“Feeling Photography”
Munk Centre for International Studies
University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario
October 16–17, 2009
College Art Association.

In October 2009, the Toronto Photography Seminar and the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of the United States co-sponsored Feeling Photography, an international, interdisciplinary conference convened to investigate photography’s relationship to affect, emotion, and feeling. Conference presentations engaged and extended recent critical discussions of affect, which address aspects of human experience that have been largely under-theorized, ignored, or excluded from discourse. Put simply, affect foregrounds the body’s responses to stimuli at the moment when these responses meet cognition and enter into language as thinking-feeling states that move across historical distinctions separating mind and body. As such, discussions of affect privilege an embodied participatory beholder for cultural phenomena and art’s objects. The conference, which can be framed within this larger context of what has been referred to by contemporary theorists as the “affective turn” in the sciences, arts, and humanities, focused on those capacities of the photographic image that are excessive, refuse certainty, and have until recently resisted interpretation; in each presentation the image-affect relationship was positioned as an inimitable opportunity for looking anew and seeing otherwise.

I want to establish from the outset that one of the inherent challenges of the conference was that its theme required a certain translation across disciplinary histories and interests. For instance, theories of photography generated in aesthetics, art history, and visual culture studies employ distinct vocabularies and theoretical constructs that do not necessarily, or easily, carry across to other areas of study. Alternately, affect theory as it has been developed in relation to the bio-sciences, for example, both draws on and lends itself to radical re-workings of aesthetic models that propose a dynamic understanding of existence. Care must be exercised, then, in the use of a construct such as “affect” lest it become ubiquitous and lose its specificity and impact as a tool by which a more precise and accurate scholarship can obtain. It is useful to keep these qualifying statements in mind as I make my way through the following observations of what was at the time, and remains in retrospect, a richly informative and productive gathering.

That the conference elicited strong interest across disciplines and institutions could not be doubted: it was oversubscribed a full six weeks ahead of its commencement. In addition to excellent attendance at the sixteen sessions, each of the eight plenary presentations saw the University of Toronto’s Campbell Conference Facility filled to overflowing. Conference delegates were invited to participate in discussions that were wide-ranging, representative of a diversity of area studies, and connected by an abiding concern with the historical and contemporary applications and implications of the photographic image. The significance of the theoretical reach of the idea of the photographic was evident in the range of media taken up by conference participants: analogue photography, film and video, digitized and electronic images were all investigated, as were topics encompassing genres as seemingly distant from one another as official school photographs and the images used in neurological diagnoses. The list of plenary speakers included scholars who have been widely influential in shaping recent photographic discourse across the disciplines: David L. Eng, English, Comparative Literature, and Asian American Studies; Diana Taylor, Performance Studies and Spanish; Marianne Hirsch, English and Comparative Literature; Leo Spitzer, History; Christopher Pinney, Anthropology and Art History; Shawn Michelle Smith, Visual and Critical Studies; Lisa Cartwright, Communication and Science Studies; and Ann Cvetkovich, English and Women’s and Gender Studies.

In the context of this review, it is not possible to do more than briefly describe and situate a few of the papers and attempt to provide a sense of the tenor and shape of the event as a whole. To do that I will take a closer look at one of the panels and three of the plenary presentations. Happily, a selection of the conference papers is currently being prepared for publication by two of the conference organizers, Elspeth Brown, Director, Centre for the Study of the United States, and Thy Phu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Western Ontario. I would also direct readers to Photography and Culture’s recent special issue on “Affecting Photographies” (2, no. 3 [Fall 2009]). Edited by Toronto Photography Seminar members Phu and Linda Steer, the issue contains papers by several of the Feeling Photography conference participants.

The conference began on Friday morning with a plenary presentation from Eng of the University of Pennsylvania. His paper, “The Feeling of Kinship: Racial Reparation in Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory,” examined the affective force of Tajiri’s short film, aptly characterized by Eng as a “documentary of affect.” Eng portrayed the way in which the film, which focuses on the constitution of memory in the presence of collective trauma, moves post-structuralist understandings of the relation between affect and language (or affect and cognition) away from an oppositional stance and toward the expression of a cleaving that works “through ‘pictures’” in order “to transform our sense of history” (emphasis added). Eng’s investigation of the transformative potential of affect is consistent with wider discussions regarding the significance of the affective turn and the manner in which a focus on affect makes possible new ways of looking, seeing, showing, and knowing. Throughout his talk Eng mapped some of the important philosophical shifts that a concentration on affect makes possible. Positing affect as history’s supplement—a supplement that activates a Heideggerian “worlding” or the process of “returning one to the world in a different becoming”—Eng firmly removed affect from regimes of representation and showed its constitutive capacities in formations of identity and notions of subjectivity. In other words, what Eng claims for this film is that it introduces an embodied understanding of the object of investigation. It is an understanding that is of the body rather than one arrived at primarily through cognition; as a result, it performs an undoing of conventional historical accountings to precipitate healing and return one to the world with a renewed sense of self, history, and place in kinship structures. Eng’s presentation resonated with Tajiri’s film: the scholarly analysis and the filmic object circling around each other in exactly the same “worlding” as Eng claims for the film itself. This was no small accomplishment and a stimulating beginning for the conference.

I was pleased with the organizers’ choice to schedule the session “Digital Affects: Public Intimacies” on the conference’s first day. This session’s investigation of digitalization and affect foregrounds some of what is at stake in theories of photographic meaning. Session discussant Kelly Wood, University of Western Ontario, referred to Jeff Wall’s seminal 1989 essay “Photography and Liquid Intelligence” (Jeff Wall, Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007, 109–110) to highlight important ideas addressed by presenters. Registering the immanent shift away from analogue and into the digital as an event of consequence, Wall establishes that the particular material conditions of production that comprise photography’s systems work with the affectivity of the “natural” world and are ineluctably tied to photographic meaning. Wall’s point is one that can be used to advantage in thinking about how photographs function as they morph across media. The “Digital Affects” session proved fruitful in just such a way: the crucial importance of media specificity and difference raised in this session provided a gentle counterpoint, as the conference proceeded, to the often unspoken assumptions of essential photographic coherence that formed a kind of unconscious limit to otherwise vital discussions. Presenters in this session addressed some of the ways in which new web platforms are transforming the use of photographs on social networking sites. Papers detailed how emergent virtual relations anchored by photographic imaging push modernist categories of the public/private binary to the point of collapse and in the process substantially alter felt experience in collective/personal realms. The outcome seems to be the initiation of a dispersive and dispersed sense of self no longer adhering to—or ethically governed by—the interiority of Enlightenment individualism, along with the relocation of cultural memory in a distributed present marked by an economy of “prosumption” (simultaneous production and consumption). Clearly, if Wall’s understanding of photography and “liquid intelligence” is correct, the introduction of the digital into contemporary experience offers fresh possibilities for the creation of aesthetic models able to engage twenty-first century existence in all its radical alterity and complicated divergences. This session nicely framed the terms of engagement, overtly manifest or otherwise, governing the conference proceedings as a whole.

On Saturday morning the first plenary of the day was delivered by Christopher Pinney, University College, London. Pinney’s presentation, “Coloring Time and Space: The Painted Photograph in India,” discussed vernacular photographic practices in Central India through Paul Virilio’s concept of the dromosphere—that “speed-space” occasioned by the instantaneity of a technologically enabled world. Pinney cited the establishment of the London-Indian telegraph in 1865 as an early technological disruption of time/space relations. By 1874 the photographic image was figured as an ever-present adjunct of the telegraph. Evoking Heidegger’s notion of a world-conquering representation, Pinney claimed that India was conquered by the camera and the “dromospheric potential of photography” every bit as much as by military means. He went on to convincingly demonstrate how popular practices that entailed painting on photographs and obliquely insisted on the presence of the beholder allowed the “heavily palimpsestic photo-paint images” to function as chronotypes capable of reasserting hierarchies and relations of value deleted by the camera. Reading between the lines of Pinney’s analysis reveals that this insistence on the “presence of the beholder” signals the emergence of affect as an important element in how these photographs come to make meaning differently.

The last plenary presentation on Saturday afternoon—Ann Cvetkovich’s “Photographing Objects as Queer Archival Practice”—carried the conference’s dynamic sense of vital engagement through to its closing minutes. A professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Cvetkovich explored two recent exhibitions, both of which posit the photographic “object as an archive of feeling.” Speaking first about New York artist Zoe Leonard’s Analogue (1998–2007), a collection of nearly four hundred photographic images documenting life on New York’s Lower East Side, Cvetkovich drew connections among the works of Eugène Atget, Walter Benjamin, and Leonard regarding the documentation of street life as a way of registering the emotional and affective substance of the city. Cvetkovich said that Leonard began documenting photographic objects as a diary of her neighborhood and came to realize the archive as a consequential document able to offer up “the history that is embedded in the non-spectacular.”

Cvetkovich next turned her attention to photographer Tammy Rae Carland’s 2008 exhibition An Archive of Feelings (its title taken from a book of the same name published by Cvetkovich in 2003 [Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003]), bringing the conference proceedings full circle. The archival sensibility of her analysis of Carland’s images and exhibition installation connected with the plenary talks delivered by Eng and Diane Taylor in the conference’s opening hours. Both Eng’s and Taylor’s presentations dealt with singular affect in the figuration of collective trauma; Cvetkovich returned to an understanding of objects as potential “archives of feeling” in her discussion of Carland’s work. The photo/objects of Carland’s Archive document the specificity of the “ordinary” trauma entailed in the intimate topographies of grief traversed when one experiences the loss of a parent.

The organizers’ decision to place these papers at the opening and closing of the conference reaffirmed a sense of the larger shape of the event. The resonant refrain of the earlier presentations in Cvetkovich’s talk further brought the function and feeling of the archive into sharp relief as a mechanism of individual and collective becomings.

Joy James
Associate Professor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design