Attempting to pick up from where I left off… Before Christmas, I picked up my film camera again and tried to get back into the habit of taking photographs daily. It worked for a while, although getting the film developed was quite expensive… Then my film camera broke, but the itch has since remained. So I recently bit the bullet on something that’s been at the top of my wishlist for about three years now and bought a Ricoh GR II. The results so far have been interesting. I’m having a lot of fun.
Losing photography as an almost constant companion has been a weird and sometimes depressing shift in my blogging habits in recent years, and this is not the first time I’ve complained and been sad online about it. It’s as if I swapped one discipline for another — that is, photography for writing — whilst still approaching them both the same way. You’d think that would make it an easy transition, but it feels like offsetting a chocolate addiction by taking up smoking. I approach both compulsively, and they scratch an itch to engage with the world and myself, but writing definitely feels unhealthier. It’s more isolated, less active.
That being said, the same skills are applied. A large part of how I write comes down to being observant, looking at things and sitting with them, thinking about moments and their significance and the thoughts they generate. Photographs used to be a form of visual note-taking within that process — a way of sticking a pin in the things that caught my eye but I wasn’t able articulated in words yet. Photographs have always been a sort of poetry for me, in that regard — more abstract and free-flowing in their visual language, although some would argue they express more in their condensation than these slabs of writing do. But whereas the brevity of photography might be more naturally offset by the longevity of cinema, it is writing that photography resonates with the most for me, in an almost Sebaldian fashion. Photography is the undertow of an otherwise writerly voyage.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Or since about late February, to be more precise, when I was invited back to the University of South Wales in Cardiff to take part in their photography alumni symposium. I was invited back, in part, to talk about my journey through the world of work since graduating from USW in 2013. After giving a talk to the whole cohort (recently shared on the blog), each of the five alumni speaking that day ran brief 40-minute “breakout sessions”, in which we could talk a bit more about shared interests and give more specific advice. I spoke to a smaller group of students in more detail about my transition from being a “photographer” to becoming a “writer” — although, I must admit, neither has ever comfortably paid the bills on its own, and so, as labels, these words seem contentious.
Nevertheless, I titled the session “Writing as Documentation” and defined it broadly ahead of time, in the hope I’d attract various kinds of student who may have an interest in writing alongside photography — whether that’s related to articulating their own art practice, honing the journalistic side of being a photojournalist or a fashion journalist, or whatever else. At the same time, I was aware that some might not have any idea why they want to write or what they want to write about. That’s what I was like as a final year student in 2013. I just knew I was a big nerd who’d really enjoyed writing his dissertation, and I also found philosophical ideas had a bit more meat on them than the ideas corralled together in your average art exhibition. In the end, I went on a bit of a rant about why I think it’s important for anyone to be able to articulate their own creative practice — not just so you can climb the ladder of industry by saying the right things, but by translating ideas across mediums so you can build communities and forge collaborative relationships that are artistically productive and philosophically generative.
This emphasis was an important one. It was missing from my old career days. For instance, I distinctly remember when I was in their position, we had a talk about doing art writing as part of a series of talks and workshops hosted by people who do different work within “the industry”. The writing talk was given by a professor in photography at the university and his overall message was, yeah, if you’re an academic or something, it’s part of the workload, but you won’t make any money from it alone. In hindsight, that’s unfortunately true, but as a way to participate in and contribute towards and engage with culture, it’s indispensable skill to have, if only because it helps you communicate better with your peers. Even then, the point is much simpler: some things are just more important and more life-affirming than what makes you money.
Unsurprisingly, this was a point made with more passion than reason, and this was compounded by my awareness of the fact that writing and reading are difficult for a lot of visual artists — who are often, unsurprisingly, visual learners, and so end up doing art degrees, if they end up going to university at all. I’ve always been somewhere in the middle. I’m a visual learner who has nonetheless learned, with a great deal of effort, how to read and write. And it was worth the effort, and sharing that sentiment, more than any insight into how it will boost your career, was my aim. Sod your career! It will further fulfil your creative life! Yes, it may be counter-intuitive to many, but writing and theory are not out of reach, because photography is already philosophical and theoretical. In fact, it’s less about learning how to read and be disciplined in your reading — though that helps — than it is about learning how to translate visual ideas into verbal ones, and vice versa. They’re both products of thought, at the end of the day.
This is always an interesting thing to talk about with visual artists, or indeed artists of any kind. But it’s quite unpopular. You’ll often hear the adage thrown at music and music journalists, for instance, that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I’ve heard that said dozens of times. And, yes, to an extent, it’s true. But I’ll tell you what — I’ve seen people dance about architecture before and it can be really good, actually. It’s even more expressive than writing about architecture can be. Dancing and music make a lot more sense together, of course, in that they are embodied and have a natural resonance, but it’s not an exclusive relationship. The arts are polyamorous. Photography and music, for example, are just as frequent bedfellows, and we’ve been writing about music and art for millennia. The overarching point is this: interdisciplinary skepticism comes, in my experience, from the fact that visual or physical learners will struggle with ideas written down that they might already understand quite intuitively in other ways. Photographing an idea, like dancing to music, might make a more intuitive sort of sense to them than writing it down. But making space for philosophy nonetheless opens up a whole new world. It’s just like learning another language. And soon enough you’re dreaming in French and you’ve got a whole new perspective on the world.
The irony is that, in being a theory bro now, that gets lost on this blog sometimes. Everyone likes to go on about how they’re into both theory and practice, cut from a special cloth that gives them a philosophy degree and a bit of community spirit. Artists, in certain contexts, scramble to catch up to them, overdoing it with the theory and trying to emulate a certain standard of intellectual. But half the time, they’re already doing it. It’s just a case of acquiring fluency between languages; between activities. That’s easier said than done, of course. Or for some people, it might be wholly natural, but they’ve had it beaten out of them by rote learning. That was almost my experience.
When I read something written down in theory, I have always started by imagining how it works in practice — not just when thinking about “political philosophy”, but anything at all. This used to make school really difficult. I wanted to do well and I also wanted to play to my strengths, but that often meant being too “conceptual” in GCSE art class, for example, and at the same time being too “practical” in English literature. I think people thought I was pretentious, but I loved both and couldn’t really do one without the other. I couldn’t paint, for instance, and had no technical ability at all when it came to drawing and painting, but I understood the ideas and the history better, and photography became a better way of expressing that. However, in English class, I was actually really bad at writing essays. On my first attempt, I got an “E” in my A Level English literature exam and had to resit it. Maybe I didn’t practice enough. (I’ve made up for that now, I think.) It just didn’t come naturally. For example, we had a reading assignment over the summer between the first and second year of A Levels. We were asked to respond to a book of our choice and then do a report on it. Standard affair. I didn’t know how to write about the books I was reading, though. I had a lot of ideas but they wouldn’t come out in words. I tried to do a “photo-essay” instead, after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Something about that scene where the father and son finally reach the coast, and the son finds the ocean as apocalyptic as the land. “Sorry it’s not blue”, the father says. I loved that. There was something about the anticipation and the disappointment and the hollowed out image of the sea that otherwise looms large in the American imagination. It was an image of a purposeless America, after Captain Ahab’s gone industrial and farmed whales to extinction. I could write 4000 words about that now. Back then, I could only take four pictures.
Though it felt like a handicap, this sense of translation was essential when approaching the first branch of philosophy to pique my interest: phenomenology. Being & Time (with a little help from Hubert Dreyfus) was the first work of philosophy I read from cover to cover, back in 2015-16. It took me 18 months. In hindsight, I don’t think I found it all that influential. I’m far from a Heideggerian. But I’ve since spoken to so many photographers who end up wanting to read Heidegger or Husserl or Descartes or Sartre for the same reasons I did. Because — or so my theory goes — they feel they are, on some level, almost predisposed to “get” it. And of course they are. This strange first-person medium is phenomenology in practice, with all of its intuitive gestures and its reductive flaws. It is the visual study of things as they appear. But then, soon enough, after scratching underneath the thin veneer of romantic realism that photography is often associated with, these photographers find the medium’s unconscious, which they have struggled to give a name to, where very few things are ever as they are. Soon enough they’re thinking about how a camera thinks and the pictures they see and make take on a nihilistic quality, not as slices of truth but as noumenal objects, halfway to machine vision and a world-without-us. Photography suddenly becomes a quandary for materialism and a process of abstraction. They eventually wonder what it’s like to be a bat, or see colours like a insect. Although many visual artists may feel like philosophy is not for them, or it’s just a crutch to pretentiously embolden and intellectualise what is not an “academic” activity, they are nonetheless often trying to articulate interests and ideas that philosophy also struggles with. Photography, like art more generally, is philosophy, albeit communicating in a language of its own.
Thinking about all of this led me to pour over my archive again. This is a process that I have engaged in periodically over the years, and it usually culminates in a post like this one, in which I reminisce about certain threads of thought that once used to trouble me greatly, but which I’ve realised I have since found a way to articulate without giving myself a headache. Because of this, this very post might already seem familiar to long-time readers. But it never ceases to amaze me how, just when you think you’ve turned over a new leaf and started walking down a new path, you find yourself still beholden to the same problems that set you off reading and photographing in the first place, albeit lying dormant and formless in your juvenilia. This familiar experience was all the more potent after talking to the students at USW, to the extent that I decided against just waffling on about old concerns, carefully selecting some of the least embarrassing examples of old work, and instead set about reconnecting the dots once and for all.
It took me quite a few days, spread out over a few weeks, and it drove my girlfriend absolutely mad with the repetitive clicking, but if you venture to the Xenogothic archive, or click the menu button (the three horizontal lines at the top of any page), you’ll find that all my old blogs have now been migrated to the xenogothic.com URL. As such, although this blog was born in early October 2017, the posts now stretch back to 2007.
In many ways, this mass migration has been a long-time coming. Last year, I shared this old photograph that my Dad took of me, sitting on a bridge along the abandoned Hull-to-Barnsley railway. It has always been an important picture to me, and coming across it again was a nice opportunity to reflect on old Noughties sensibilities. That abandoned space was magical to me then and, when I think back to it now, I am left with warm memories of my friends, my Dad, and the various albums I’d walk there just to listen to. But I realised recently that it has a further significance. Although I always think about my Dad’s photographs taken there, which are far better than mine, the photographs that I took on that day were nonetheless later used for one of my very first blogposts on my very first Blogspot.
To blog about an old picture and its magical atmosphere — an atmosphere I could not previously put my finger on — only to find out that that same location was the catalyst that got me blogging in the first place, was quite a nice feeling. Discovering this consistency anew made a lot of other things fall into place. I suddenly saw a through-line where I’d previously seen stops and starts and detours. Affirming that this blog thing and the various twists along the way have nonetheless constituted one long journey, from there to here, felt like some sort of revelation.
Every new blog has previously felt like a do-over. Starting a new one becomes an attempt to cauterise a certain period in my life, abandoning the baggage of well-trodden ground before starting up somewhere new with just the few lessons I’ve decided to hang onto. In reality, now that I’ve painstakingly gone through my whole archive, these periods are a lot less clear cut than they once were in my head. As a series of online imagoes, they were not thrown off as succinctly and cleanly as I’d once imagined. What felt like a series of distinct “eras” of self instead constitute a real mess of conflicting forces and interests.
But, despite the mess, there’s still some order to the chaos. Throughout, there are visual expressions of the same ideas I write about today. In going through every single post I published from 2007 to 2017 — a necessity, in case there was anything a little too cringe or personal revealed — I suddenly became attuned to those waves of development, starting in my teens. Each new blog became less of a “break” and more of an oscillation, demonstrated by my changing but nonetheless recursive subject matter. Post-gothic Yorkshire countryside gives way to inner city dance parties, which give way to Lynchian photographs of old factories and blown-out portraits, which give way to vibrant colours and peculiar objects, which give way to chasing fog all over Europe, which gives way to vernacular poetry, which gives way to visual jokes and puns, which give way to moody landscapes and abstractions. Time and again, as I reconstructed this blog archive, and no doubt bouncing around at the mercy of my own mental health, I found a bipolar engagement with the world. I found a xenogothic sensibility there from the start, bursting forth. A sensibility that was both melancholic and joyful in equal measure. In hindsight, the pivots are quite amusing. I click through posts full of photographs of crystals and lasers, channelling the neo-psychedelia of the 2000s, in which I, myself, am never seen. Then the camera is turned on me, frowning and depressed in a Burzum t-shirt…
World and self appear out of alignment. Same as it ever was. Affirmation and negation fight for primacy. Goth and disco sit side by side. Travelling forwards through to posts from May 2012, I find a project prematurely announced and never finished, in which I consciously try and turn away from my own habits: “I want to stop what I’ve been doing recently — looking for an ambiguous ‘joy’ in photography and the acts of looking and taking pictures — and go back to making something … heavier.” Almost ten years later, I’m still there, trying to counter my own moods, pulled between two seemingly incompatible tastes and tendencies. Rainbows and raves on the one hand; death and decay on the other.
But still, despite all that, there’s this sense of continuation. It’s affirming because I used to think this “xenogothic” tendency was a sort of fatal flaw. Non-committal, I am a cultural weathervane blown about by unfathomable feelings, never quite fitting wherever I decide to land. I used to like that, trying to bounce to the time signature of a given moment, whilst feeling unstuck and out of joint, staying abreast of the new with a medium that is as conservative (aesthetically and technically) as photography. I think that’s why I was first drawn to figures like Nietzsche, Deleuze and Bataille, alongside certain kinds of music. Art is a dice throw — it begins with chance but is followed through by a commitment to the result, whatever that is, and at least until you roll again.
I found this sentiment articulated with a single word, in a blogpost written in 2008. I was seventeen, listening to The Books and trawling Bradford Cox’s old blog of mixes, Deerhunter demoes and solo material. The cut-up lyrics for “Be Good to Them Always” have echoed around my head ever since, containing fragments of obsessions, from alienation to the American imagination, accelerationism and chance:
You know, I simply cannot understand people
Oh how sadly we mortals are deceived by our own imagination
This is not real life. This is, for us, aleatoric television
A mixed concert of soft instruments
I can hear a collective rumbling in America
I’ve lost my house. You’ve lost your house
I don’t suppose it matters which way we go
This great society is going smash
“Aleatoric” became the word I fixated on then, and a whole blog was christened in its honour. In the aftermath of my talk at USW, I found myself thinking about an aleatoric approach to photography with a new intensity. This, in turn, morphed into thoughts about blogging.
Earlier today, I was reading Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory, in preparation for the XG reading group. Dean critically discusses the blogipelago and the extent to which it is integral to, whilst always imagining itself outside of, the networks of drive that constitute communicative capitalism. She asks, “What fantasies, what possibilities, what kinds of subjects, do multiply intersecting and increasingly personalized media and communication technologies stimulate?” That was a question I hoped to ask with almost a decade of photoblogging, albeit never articulate so succinctly. Shifting interests and masks gave form to stimulated subjects, prodded and poked by affects from outside. Blogposts like this one, cutting together and sequencing disparate photographs, accumulated over a short period of time, told a story of stimulation. What sort of narrative emerges from this sequence of images? Something entirely other to the reality in which they were taken, that’s for sure.
Perhaps true to form, these notes were intended to be about something else entirely. I have a thought burgeoning at the moment about Althusser’s Philosophy of the Encounter. His “aleatoric materialism” seems so prescient, albeit coopted by communicative capitalism at large. There is pleasure to be found in the juxtapositions of mindlessly changing television channels, or subscribing to an unending stream of blogs, or scrolling through a horrendous torrent of tweets. But the algorithm only feigns chance. A game of content roulette, it hides the fact the game is rigged and the house always wins. What do we call that algorithm inside our heads that reacts to randomised affects from without? Writing on blogs can so often be overwrought. Does photoblogging seize upon relinquished ways of seeing, of a kind that Instagram has given over to the algorithm? Blogs seem to be coming back, as a primitive form of curation that Jodi Dean was previously troubled by and cynical of, whilst her own blog was nonetheless a major node in the network. Though we shouldn’t romanticise those times, since they clearly birthed the world we now know and struggle to love, now old-fashioned blogs make good on an old promise. The ads you see will still be determined by cookies, not be chance. But all the rest of it is aleatoric television.
More photoblogging soon.