1.3 Appropriations

Appropriation has developed a somewhat specialized meaning in discussions of modern art: it means to place an object or image in a context with which it is not conventionally associated intending thereby to unsettle our normal expectations and lines of interpretation. One source of such practices was Marcel Duchamp's parade of "ready mades" (urinals, metal bottle racks, bicycle wheels mounted on stools) exhibited as art so as to place High Art in question. No text is involved in these cases, just the common objects and the gallery context, and the practice was oppositional in the sense that High Art could not see such objects as significant or beautiful shapes. A second source is political cartooning, in which the texts of politicians are parodically illustrated with the sense of "what this really means is ..." or "what will happen is this..."

The Butter is Gone

Figure 1.27
John Heartfield, detail of "The Butter is Gone" (1935)

At the left is a small corner of the very famous political photomontage of John Heartfield "The Butter is Gone" (1935) that gives a precise citation for the text (speaker, place, date). Here the text is folly ("Bronze has always made a nation strong; butter and fat at best make a people plump.") and the image is truth-telling. To be upended in this manner, the text must have some historical or social identifiability and reflect a recognizable viewpoint that is part of its original context. That is, the reframed object carries its original context with it to the extent that it too is subject to critique. So, here, Göring's words evoke a context of Nazi militaristic zeal that blinds them to the real needs of the people. Most of the time for Heartfield and the political cartoonists, the image shows the way things really are or will be and deflates or exposes the false representations, which are verbal.

The "will be" is an important distinction, however, since Heartfield's special technique of what we might call photo-caricature makes no use of the convention of the truth-telling image that exposes lies and impostures of political slogans and promotional fliers. Jefferson Hunter traces this convention in American social documentary photo-essays of the 1930s by Dorothea Lange, Laurence Stallings, Frederick Barber, Margaret Bourke-White, and Archibald MacLeish. This polemical use of photography subsided during and after the second World War, but was taken up again by the new radicals of the 1970s such as David Plowden and Victor Burgin. Burgin varies the convention in a number of interesting ways.

Victor Burgin: Life Demands a Little Give and Take

Victor Burgin: "Life Demands a Little Give and Take" (1974)

Victor Burgin resumed the work of appropriation in the 1970s in exhibits in England, Germany and the US. The image on the left follows the Heartfield pattern of placing a chunk of text in a context that makes its unrealistic assumptions evident. The text is place inside the frame of the picture so that some of the picture is visible behind the text and so is a "text over." Its language is that of High Fashion:

Evening is the softest time of day. As the sun descends the butterfly bright colours which flourish at high noon give way to the moth shades. The tones are pale, delicate. These are the classic Mayfair colours. White, naturally, takes pride of place, but evening white lightly touched with silver or sometimes gold . . . The look is essentially luxurious, very much for the pampered lady dressed for a romantic evening with every element pale and perfect.

I am not sure how readily the image would make sense with no context, but in a collection of pictures that deal with the contradiction between manipulative, obfuscating culture (ideology) and real material conditions (Burgin's Between), it is not hard to see this picture as an exposure of the racist overtones of pale=beautiful. That is, we have ordinary people waiting for a bus on a nondescript street corner in modern Britain, among whom the camera's gaze falls on a woman who is distinctly not pale and who does not qualify as one of the targeted audience of the fashion magazine spiel. Another well-known image from this series combines a text celebrating a recent Yves St. Laurent collection as "a ramble through Eastern Europe" with a picture of an Indian woman technician working on some sort of electronic switching array.

Victor Burgin: What Does Possession Mean to You?

Figure 1.29
Victor Burgin, "Possession"

In this his perhaps most famous piece from these series, Burgin reverses the formula to make the image one drawn from commercial advertising and the correcting context a verbal one, but integrating the text as if it properly accompanied the image in an advert. "Possession"was done at the time of an exhibit of contemporary artists in Newcastle. The Arts Council asked for some publicity posters, and Burgin responded with "Possession" 200 copies of which were pasted up on the streets of Newcastle. Burgin intended for the diametrical opposition of text and image to catch the gaze and trigger thought, but because the text is so visually integrated into the advert, it is possible that few actually read enough of it to grasp the wrenchingly dissonant content. Follow-up research indicated that not many passersby remembered what the posters said, much less what they implied. Burgin made a number of others after this pattern, giving them the look of commercial advertisements for such enticing commodities as Class Consciousness and Property.

Photographs, as noted, do not lend themselves to typification very well, and on the whole, Burgin uses his camera to capture bits of the material world as touchstones to rub against various fine languages such as fashion, tract developer talk, and English country home real estate puffery. That is, the formula is what Hunter calls "Smug Texts and Truth-telling Pictures" (Hunter, 17). Burgin's images evoke documentary: they are black and white, most appear unposed and taken with either daylight or available light, making them sometimes grainy and high-contrast. The exception is "Possession," which is obviously posed in studio with professional models and lighting. Rather more complicatedly, Burgin also evokes other languages more agreeable to his general politics but also recognizably abstract, theoretical, dogmatic and self-righteous, namely the languages of Left sociology, feminism, fetishism (commodity and otherwise), and psychoanalysis. These he also puts to the test. And too, some of the texts are snatches of narrative, even dialogue, but what all of these texts have in common is that the photographs that accompany them do not illustrate the texts in any conventionally direct way. And the texts are chunks of discourses floating out there in the heteroglossic soup. The juxtapositions are rarely so directly oppositional as the upending of glamorous consumerism by the inequity of property ownership in Britain.

Figure 1.30
Victor Burgin: Cordoba

In one way, the image to the left comes close both to typifying visually and illustrating the text (enlarge the image to read the text), namely, in the line of six business men that are walking diagonally across the picture (parking lot? cross walk?). They are, after, "in transit," quite plausibly from work to home. The dominant foreground image, however, is of predatory phallic assertiveness, of an existence defined neither by job nor by home but by a big shiny car, cigarette, and casual dress. If Chrysler didn't use the picture, they missed a good bet. But for greatest effect, the picture needs the text, which, with its unrelentingly grim portrayal of modern paternal role-modeling, makes the dude in the Cordoba extremely attractive. Perhaps Burgin expects us to see through this appeal, but all the visual values in the picture say "the dude is The Man." The text bears a title "OMNIPOTENCE" and reads:

Economically speaking, the father's authority in the home is an anachronism which recalls preindustrial times when he directed family-based production. In most cases today the father is himself merely a commodity in the labor market. His 'authority' now serves to reproduce in his children his own subservience to corporate and state power, providing them with the image of an ultimately benevolent controlling wisdom though which they will later tend to view all others who wield power over them. The objective authority of the father has collapsed into that gap which the factory opened between work and family-life. Simultaneously master-of-the-house and a servant in his place of employment, the identity of the patriarch as wage-slave is in perpetual transit between work and home.

This image pushes toward the unstable group, since it would be fairly easy to turn on the text and reinterpret it in the light of the picture—"Oh yeah? Well at least I don't have to listen to you, Professor!"

Victor Burgin: c. 1976

Figure 1.31
Victor Burgin: Marlboro

On the facing page in Between is another image of a man with a cigarette—the Marlboro Man—but in surroundings that are dark and shabby, perhaps a subway, the very opposite of the daylight and shiny metal of the previous image. The text is a little narrative, a mini-story

A dark-haired woman in her late-forties hands over a photograph showing the haircut she wants duplicating 'exactly'. The picture shows a very young woman with blond hair cut extremely short. The hairdresser props it by the mirror in which he can see the face of his client watching her own reflections. When he has finished he removes the cotton cape from the woman's shoulders. 'That's it', he says. But the woman continues sitting, continues staring at her reflection in the mirror.

The actual image on the subway wall is also idealized image —one the the great commercial icons of all time—but there is no viewer to look at it (other than us). It is economical to see a parallelism between text and image, provided we step into the position parallel to the woman customer. We are not told what the woman was thinking or feeling, and we too are left to our own thoughts, which may turn more in the direction of self-examination than socio-political critique.

There are quite a number of other pairings in these series from 1976-78 that set off text against image in ways that are comic or oblique in the sense that there must be some third term or context not accessible to the viewer that links image and text. When the relation becomes undecidable, we have left appropriation and entered the region of the unstable, which is dealt with in the next section.

Figure 1.32
David Plowden: "Statue of Liberty from Caven Point Road, Jersey City, New Jersey" (1967)

The image by David Plowden at the left appears in his Hand of Man (1971) collection and again in his retrospective Imprints (1997). On the facing page appears Emma Lazarus' famous "Give me your tired, your poor" sonnet. Jefferson Hunter reads this combination in relation to another in the book and concludes that they all can be ranged under the rubric of 'Glorious things we say/Crummy things we do' (not Hunter's words). And he notes that slaps upside the head like that grow less effective as they grow more frequent: "It is all too easy to turn language into a slogan and to replace argument with clashing juxtapositions" (18). Though it is hard to believe Jefferson's comments had much to do with it, Plowden dropped all ironic captioning in his retrospective collection Imprints (1997) which includes this and a good number of other, formerly captioned ones. More likely, as with McCullin, over time the photograph and how it may resonate are more important and more special than the slogans and self-righteous superiority of exposing the lies and the hypocrisy.

The example is complicated by the image itself exhibiting what film theorists call "montage within a frame (or shot)" of the "collision of ideas" type, where the two things to be read as contrasting occur not in a sequence of frames but within the single frame. So there is "contradiction" within the image and between the image and the poem. Most likely we have a truth-telling image played off against corrupted words, but what truth does the image tell? That there are dumps in Jersey City from which you can see the Statue of Liberty?

It is good for the image that it appears without Emma Lazarus's sonnet, because the sonnet, speaking as the Statue, suggests that the Statue and the American promise she represents has been somehow abandoned, forgotten, dishonored, betrayed or travestied, with the photograph as evidence. As an argument, that is very weak: dumps are not betrayls of the American promise. Reading it that way is not only reductive, but specious as well.

For within-the-frame montage to convey a contradiction ("collision of opposites," dialectic) the viewer needs to be primed by context, unmistakeable symbols, or overt polemic (Heartfield's Nazi bayonet through the dove of peace--although that also changed over time). If the contradiction is not obvious and familiar, the combination results in a looser, more evocative trigger for reflection. 11 In a textbook example of collision-montage within the frame, Herbert Zettl says of an image of the heads of an old woman and infant that it emphasizes the impermanence of man, but, absent any supporting context, it could as well emphasize the renewal and transmission of enthusiasm for life (320).

Esther Parada: Native Fruits (1992)

Figure 1.33
Esther Parada: Native Fruits (1992)

"2-3-4-D: Digital Revisions in Time and Space" is a set of image installations by Esther Parada that deal with the texts of colonialism and photographs of monuments and of contemporary life in Havana, Cuba. The typical installation has several panels with the earlier ones displaying components of the final large image. In the image "Native Fruits" (1991-2), two texts appropriated from the 1892 Columbus and Columbia: A Pictorial History of the Man and the Nation are placed around and over a composite image of Havana street life. Also superimposed over the street scene is a period etching depicting the land fall of the conquistadors and their welcome by natives bearing fruits. In the lower panel, however, the overlays of colonialism are removed and the people break through the screen of colonialist thinking. In others of the series, the youth of modern Cuba appear wearing the red scarves of young Communist Pioneers, to underline and affirm the break with the colonial past. (See the discussion in the Photomontage chapter for another from this series.) Here, as with the majority of these appropriations, the image is the privileged window onto the living present reality, the text is the window onto the (to our minds) preposterous thinking of the colonial past.

The ironic counterpointing of text and image is stable and quite decidable in the next example. Each issue of Wired includes a 4 page (2 double) spread before the Contents page which cites a line or two from a featured article later in the magazine and functions as a teaser (or highly graphic "abstract") for the article. The sentence to be quoted and graphicked is usually long enough to support the two stage setup (double page one followed by double page two), as for example additive or contrastive pairings, or cause and effect.

Usually Wired's graphic serves the bit of quoted text; the next example is unusual in its relation to the quoted words. Gary Wolf's featured article in June 1999 Wired profiles Sir John Templeton and his investments in religion, specifically in showing that good religion is good business. The two double-page spread is built on lines from one of Templeton's operatives (Charles Harper) and is neither explicitly endorsed nor derided in the text of the piece. In context, it both celebrates the triumph of world capitalism and outlines the next area for it to annex, namely the realm of moral values.

Market 1

Figure 1.34
Market 1

On the first two pages, the two spray cleanser containers on the right margin seem to express the result of the end of the struggle for markets. Photographed in hard focus and bright light against dead black with nothing but the text to support them, they illustrate what Kress and van Leeuwen call "hyperreal" modality, which in this case links to sensual pleasure focusing on the consumer object typical of food and drink adverts (p. 169). (see also John Berger, Ways of Seeing , pp. 140-141) When we match these pages with their text declaring the settling of the fundamental battle over the free market, it is hard to avoid the effect of severe understatement (or under representation) amounting to ironic deflation ("the late consumer capitalist market economy as epitomized by the choice of cleansers now dominates the scene"—with Bruce Springsteen's "57 channels and nothin' on" in the background).

Market 2

Figure 1.34
Market 2

In the second pair of pages, the two packs of cigarettes (on sale in Japan, I hear) fill the position of the cleansers and would appear to represent the not yet realized victory of the market in the sphere of morals. (And here they bear their own texts ("Peace" and "Hope") which push even beyond "Fantastic" and "Fabulous" as Orwellian perversions of the words.) The diminishing line of text, trailing off into a kind of visual mutter, says " but I don't think people have a sense that capitalism is the morally right way to do things." The image thus mock the words from Templeton's agent by reducing the grand phrases to their practical consequences in daily life: "capitalist marketing of morality would offer us immoral commodity choices packaged with positive words"—how backward can people be to withhold assent! In this display from Wired, the image, though a studio job and no documentary, shows the concrete material result of the victory of the marketplace and is even more deflating than Heartfield's dinner of iron, since it shows the present reality, not a possible future.

Figure 1.35
Geoff Broadway: Mirage (1997)

All of these appropriating works play off words against images in some sort of opposition or dialectic, the words being printed on or near the image. There are obvious limits to how far this can be carried, but appropriation is possible in more complex configurations such as the six images created by Geoff Broadway for his MPhil degree at the University of Derby (1997). These are exhibited on the Web as "The Glass"; one of them, "Mirage," appears reduced at the left. After a bit of study, we can see four relatively distinct images in the photomontage, three of them overlaying the background image (a 16th century Arabic compass) in the semi-transparent fashion of photomontage. Broadway identifies these images: one is an Etienne Jules Marey photo of an Arabian horse galloping, one of an Israeli soldier and a PLO suspect, and one—the flames—of an oil well fire from Operation Desert Storm. We can then track him pretty well when he says of the image "Mirage explores our perception of a land of exotic adventure with 'barbaric' and 'uncivilized' counter-currents, whilst covering a history of scientific and technological development which spawned the tools of western development." That is a rather heavy thematic load for an image, even one with four layers, to carry, but given Broadway's leads, it is fairly successful at touching four main threads of Western Europe's take on the Arabic world and suggesting a temporal depth spanning several centuries to those efforts at constructing the Arab.

"Mirage" first appeared with a white background in 1995; augmented with sound two years later as one of a set of six pieces that appear online as "The Glass" along with an introductory note by Giles Peaker. 12 These pieces include sound. Broadyway's general headnote says "Using reworked 'found' images and sounds, key aspects of the complex relationship between the west and the so-called third world - political, social and economic- is explored." The general theme is colonial exploitation and the method is showing the contradictions. Invoking Brecht's famous line about how photographs do not reveal social relations, Peaker points out that Broadway includes the contradictory parts as separate panels which overlay each other as aspects of the complex social situations; they are not necessarily resolved into a harmonized composite image, any more than the nexus of conflicting interests and perceptions which are the real object of representation can be resolved. As Peaker says about Broadway's use of photomontage in this set, "montage works to make us aware of those images as traces of reality - a reality which can't be 'pictured' but can be thought." Broadway also includes a link to his complete thesis, which traces the conceptual complex "realist montage" through the theoretical writings of Brecht, Lukács, and Benjamin and the practice of Heartfield, Léger, and Eisenstein.

Visually, the construction in five of the six pieces is that of three or four blocks arranged vertically with some overlap and linkage, but with no common frame or space. The overlaps, by using variable transparency, avoid the interruption of form typical of collage. The effect leans toward the diagrammatic rather than the scenic.

The six pieces of "The Glass" are not just visual, however, but audio-visual: each image has four or five sound clips associated with parts of it (roughly the separate layers) in a Director display that fades them in or out as the mouse moves over the image and allows several to be heard at once. This is a rather exact audio equivalent of photomontage ("soundcollage"). In the case of "Mirage," the clips are a bit of monologue on misperceptions of the Arab, a TV news report of the ticker-tape parade given to welcome US soldiers back from the Gulf War (complete with an interview with a soldier), a background droning as of aircraft engines, sounds of a well fire billowing flames, a newsreel commemoration of Israeli independence, and a few measures from the Lawrence of Arabia theme song. These clips greatly enhance the presence and specificity of the attitudes and events depicted, furnishing a partial answer to Sontag's point that "functioning takes place in time" and hence "Only that which narrates can make us understand." 13 The version with sound takes a long time to load and on my machines the sound has to be teased out somewhat, as if one were turning the dial of an analog radio tuner and receiving broadcasts from the mid- and later 20th century.

The power of these emblems does not arise from new or original "thoughts" about colonialism. It comes from the sheer intensity with which the "thought" is realized with a little work from the viewer. This work is especially impressive in that compared to Heartfield, say, there are no villians to hate (and depict)—no Hitler, Goebbels, Goering—and no swastikas, salutes, and goose-stepping. And let no one say that this is pure image: it is imagetext, though some text is heard rather than seen, some is in captions and background, and some is in the appended thesis itself.

Peaker's and Broadway's discussion of "digital realist montage" makes the useful point that images cannot literally show contradictions—not, at least, the profound and systematic ones that characterize late Capitalism and colonialism. The real on this view is abstract (which is not to deny that it is created and maintained by material bodies and forces), and so, given what is generally said about the anchoring of images, most especially photographs, to physical objects with contours, textures, and surfaces, they come close to representing abstractions. Broadway takes advantage of the loosened reference to the world that comes with digital images and montage. The parts of these images do not cohere in a single representational space: they cohere as aspects of a historical-political phenomenon; they are tokens for attitudes and events, signifying by synecdoche.

Ann Marie Rousseau: Macy's: the Benediction (1980)

Figure 1.36
Ann Marie Rousseau: Macy's: the Benediction (1980)

Images do not speak their contradictions. Even if on formal grounds, or on content, they seem to invite a reading in terms of oppositions, those oppositions can be articulated in any number of ways. Determination by text, Deleuze points out, is paradoxically endless, unless for some reason we choose to accept a particular reading as authoritative and final. This image appears in Susan Buck-Morss's The Dialectics of Seeing (1989) with the title "Shopping Bag Lady 1980" and enough text to fill up the rest of the page. She reads the image as montage within the frame. The commentary cites a description (dating from 1934) from Benjamin's Arcades Project of a bohemian woman sleeping under a bridge with her head bent forward, briefly describes bag ladies in the US and the irony of the bags suggesting a just completed shopping spree, and concludes with a reminder that being homeless and living in the street is a great oppression subjecting one to "state surveillance, public censure, and political powerlessness" (Dialectics, 347).

The image also appears on Ann Marie Rousseau's Web page with the title "The Benediction" and a paragraph describing how the photo came to be taken and what it means to her. It concludes:

The more privileged women (mannequins) on the inside advertise cruise wear in the dead of winter, and are portrayed half naked, bald and equally alienated. They bestow a blessing on their sister a world apart, yet only inches away on the other side of the glass. Both are in full view on public display and are at the same time, to the larger world, invisible.

This is so different from the treatment in Buck-Morss' book that it almost seems written to recapture the image from her, as if to say, "you focussed on only a part of the image," and to affirm and reconcile the alienated, rather than to rouse indignation at the oppression creating the homeless in our cities. (Buck-Morss also reproduces a similar photo by Brassai in the 1930s which shows "the contradiction" more directly and in the fashion of the times (271), where a tramp is sleeping on the street under a large poster of a dinner salad being made.) A cultural critic might dismiss Rousseau's account as a trivializing or exploitation of oppression—a prettifying "let's imagine"—but Rousseau refers on this and other pages to her decade of work in the shelters for homeless women, and it is likely she is well past the ironies of superficial contrasts. It is as if her image was hijacked, not by Buck-Morss, but by the tradition of Lange-Evans-Bourke-White style photographs of the homeless huddled in the doorways of banks and so on—the same tradition Martha Rosler was resisting in "The Bowery in Two Inadequate Representational Systems"--to which we turn next.