I had a really great time in Dublin recently, after I was invited by Kasia Boyle to speak at the National College of Art and Design. The talk took place on 25th January, during the NCADSU’s Artist & Designer Development Week, and when it came to preparing for it, I was torn between trying to give some genuine “professional” advice or just talking about my disenfranchised vow of poverty. (And I’m only half-joking…)
I decided to read a reworked draft of a preface I wrote for my next book, Narcissus in Bloom, which ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor. I chose it primarily because it was an attempt to tell a story about how and why I went from being a “photographer” to a “writer”.
I think the talk went really well. People were wonderfully responsive. It was recorded, along with the Q&A, and that might appear at some point. (If it does, I’ll add it below.) But for now, I thought I’d share a version of the text I read aloud, because I doubt I’m going to do anything else with it.
(As a sidenote, I’ve left out my own introduction and the few things I had to say about what I’ve done so far with my life and the books so far published, so if this feels like jumping in the deep end, that’s because I have only included the text read out after we’d all gotten suitably acquainted. Also, I have some slight delayed embarrassment at how rambling it is, but talks always are a bit, when you read them back…)
Thanks to Luje Pendleberry at the SU for all the assistance and everyone who either came to the talk, just for pints afterwards or both. I really had the loveliest time with you all and hope I’ll be back again at some point.
Around fifteen years ago, if I told you about my dreams and desires, if I told you what I wanted to be, I’d have told you I wanted to be a photographer.
I was already, at that time, someone who photographs, and so, as a teenager with an undeniable photographic compulsion, I thought the best course of action was to go to art school.
In October 2010, I left my home in East Yorkshire to do a Bachelor’s degree in Photographic Art at the University of Wales, Newport. But on arrival, I found it difficult to fit in (at least with anyone apart from my two flatmates at the time, who were otherwise kindred spirits; it often felt like us against the world).
Although I felt like an active and even precocious member of the student body, my intentions always felt somehow contrary to others’ aspirations and standards. Though many arrived in Wales to study photography in order to become professional photographers, I eventually felt desperate to retain a certain amateurism — or, at the very least, a certain sense of naïve wonder with regards to the process that I loved. It’s as if I didn’t want to lose something in learning too much about photography. I didn’t want to make work that I thought was boring or predictable.
I eventually tried to affirm this through an understanding of photography as a kind of improvisatory practice. More than anything, I wanted to take photographs of musical performances that somehow reflected sound in their silence. Photography felt like an unlikely accomplice in exploring the sonic world in this way, but I found the images I wanted to make didn’t fit into how the medium was otherwise understood and utilised.
Instead, I found every music magazine to have a painfully conservative attitude towards its use of visual media, even when the music they were discussing was often the complete opposite! And it’s not like any of my images were wildly avant-garde. More often than not, they were playful or taken from the more explicit position of a punter — not unobscured and taken from the pit, but in the middle of the crowd, rocked by a broader atmosphere. I also liked photographs that were nearly overrun by colour and lights, as if sound itself had taken on a synaesthetic intensity when allowed to rattle a negative.
It was all seen as too amateurish, but these repeated dismissals betrayed, to my mind at least, a clear disconnection between the kinds of approaches to music that were respected and praised, and a disregard for comparable approaches to the visual arts within the same pages.
But perhaps the reasons for my lack of professional success were already obvious: though I made a few connections simply by being a gobshite who talked about how boring everything looked all the time on Twitter, the process was still too risky to be commercially viable. I was enthralled by photography’s innate relationship to chance, but that’s not to say anyone else wanted to be. They wanted results, not to fund a play date. But I never relented.
Eventually, I realised that perhaps the results weren’t even that important to me, and maybe that was the problem. I loved the process. I loved producing more than I loved the product. I liked looking at things and having the camera reveal, sometimes seemingly of its own accord, various other ways of seeing. I loved the moment of creation far more than the moment captured, sensing the discrepancies between the two and finding something uncanny in between. A gap was opened up between the individual and the social, and that’s where I fell and played.
Photography began to feel like a contradictory venture towards egolessness in this regard, which was nonetheless always grounded on its first-person perspective. My own inputs, my own presence, felt secondary. It was less a habit of documenting things as they happened and more about attuning myself to the world and its rhythms, accepting somewhat stoically the ways that photographers are at the mercy of light and contingency above all else. These risks can be accounted for, of course, but it felt far more exciting to leave as much room for chance as possible.
If I had any success with this approach whilst I was at university, I think it was due to the sympathies of the academic staff, who appreciated a love of the process above all else. One of my lecturers at the time, a wonderful photographer by the name of Magali Nougarède, later said this turned my photographs, and the ways I presented them, into a kind of poetry — a comment which resonated with me deeply, although it took many years for me to put my finger on why.
Like the modernist poets who gathered around the principles of “imagism”, what I liked about photography was the “images” themselves, having as much appreciation for the naïve photography of chicken shops and family albums as I did for the canonical photographers we learnt about in class. My own photographic series were often mundane in the same way, easily mistaken for a catalogue of errors. But I thought of them as enormous pictograms, telling strange tales of modern life. I thought of them as self-contained abstractions that nonetheless whispered to each other (and to us) in some cryptic language that was intuitively understood but which we couldn’t transpose into written language when any attempt was made to do so. Something mischievous was always lost in (and to) the process – it was this absence I was always left chasing.
I did eventually find a few photographers who shared an affinity with this sensibility, with one of my favourites being Hervé Guibert, whose book Ghost Image tells stories of all about the images he couldn’t, wouldn’t or failed to take. But whereas Guibert found solace in writing, at that time I actually resented the written word for its apparent inefficacy.
I felt there was always so much pressure to explain – to fix – the meaning of the images I presented to my lecturers and peers. It wasn’t that writing was somehow inferior to photography, but rather that one could never be fully resolved into or be concretised by the other. (Just like the impossible relationship between sound and vision was precisely what made it so enthralling — the gap in between was where so much beauty came to rest.) In the end, I simply refused to explain myself through writing. I rejected the necessity of the written word to scaffold another mode of expression. I resented the supremacy of an often-ridiculed “International Art English” that attempted to be philosophical and jargon-heavy but was always more than a little pretentious, with the meanings of many words used irrespective of a clear understanding of them (something so-called “professionals” did more egregiously than students, in my later experience as an exhibitions coordinator). In this sense, so much art theory began to feel like a kind of mask that undid the function of these images in themselves, and for that reason I wanted nothing to do with it.
Acting against this demand for linguistic contextualisation, I instead coupled images with other images, or with mixtapes and CDs containing songs or instrumental pieces of music that I felt resonated better with what was on display than my own still-adolescent waffle. (This is what I did at my undergraduate degree show, appropriating the lyrics to the Supremes’ song, “Automatically Sunshine”, when I couldn’t get away with a complete absence of displayed text…) Thankfully, I found the sentiment appreciated, somewhat, at art school. But once back out in the real world, outside the comforting space of education, it was never enough. The pressure to explain yourself, with words, was overwhelming.
After a time, I wondered if the problem was within myself. Perhaps the main thing holding me back was that I just wasn’t a very articulate writer. Since none of us are able to fully extricate ourselves from the demands of language, I began to feel like maybe writing was a worthy challenge, not as an accompaniment to art and photography but as a process unto itself. Soon enough, my developing love for writing soon came to rival my original love of photography, with the two mediums in constant conversation but never fully intruding on the other’s means of expression — again, much like sound and vision.
Fast forward a few years and I have perhaps leant too far the other way. With no further aspirations to “be” — that is, to work as — a professional photographer, I have found myself writing all the time instead. I still make photographs, often using them in books and blogposts, which no doubt makes them appear as if they have been demoted to textual illustrations, but to my mind they always fill the essential role of portals leading the reader outside the text.
I’ve since aspired to the sort of photographic writing mastered by a someone like W.G. Sebald, not so much stylistically but rather attempting to echo his apparent intent; his illustrated works, like The Rings of Saturn, could have all their text removed and still function as fascinating visual journeys. I wanted my first book, Egress, to be like that, laden with photographs taken during the time in which the book was written, implicitly reflecting two types of responsive process. But this decision was never addressed in the book itself. Indeed, by that time, I wrote about photography so rarely, I felt out of touch with it, like a once-close friend I now only ever exchanged pleasantries with.
It was for this reason, when I began writing by second book, Narcissus in Bloom, in spring 2021, I had the explicit intention of returning to photography, whilst leaving myself wholly out of my analyses of it. Having already written a book that dealt with my own experiences, hoping to make the personal impersonal, I set about trying to invert this way of working, making the impersonal personal again.
There was an exciting irony in turning to narcissism — the book’s underlying topic — in order to do this, whilst leaving myself wholly out of the narrative. But when an initial draft of this book was later submitted, the feedback from my editors was ironic. “Put more of yourself in the text” was the advice given. But in many ways, I felt I was already there in abundance. I’d just avoided saying “I”. I had hoped to obscure my personal concerns, but then the distance I desired was surely only illusory, with the desire not to appear in my own text revealed to be a narcissistic concern nonetheless.
Newly aware of this contradiction and the inescapability of one’s own subjective position, I found a new appreciation for what it is that conjoins writing and photography, albeit often discussed in negative terms. Indeed, the strangeness of writing and photography’s fraught relationship to the self and its environment often leads to a certain cynicism, as if any professional aspirations attached to these mediums are innately pretentious because we are all capable of engaging with them in one way or another on our own terms.
We understand that other mediums, like painting and drawing, require a high level of skill and dedication in order to master them, but writing and photography are perhaps two skills that are a part of everyone’s wheelhouse. And yet, I think it is for this reason that I love writing and photography the most. Each medium produces an innate tension between the individual and the social world in which we are embedded. Though we can argue this is true of art in general, it is arguably writing and photography that draw our attention to this contradiction above all others.
In his 2018 book, The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner attempts to describe “the noble failure at the heart of every great poem: the impulse to launch the experience of the individual into a timeless communal existence.” He writes that, “Since language is the stuff of the social and poetry the expression in language of our irreducible individuality, our personhood is tied up with our poethood.” But this is not some grand unveiling of poetry’s hidden truth; it is rather something that we all understand intuitively.
Explaining further what he means by this sense of a poetic intuitiveness, Lerner tells a story from his school days, when he was first introduced to poetry’s apparent universalism by one of his teachers:
“You’re a poet and you don’t even know it,” Mr. X used to tell us in second grade; he would utter this irritating little refrain whenever we said something that happened to rhyme. I think the jokey cliché betrays a real belief about the universality of poetry: Some kids take piano lessons, some kids study tap dance, but you don’t say every kid is a pianist or dancer. You’re a poet, however, whether or not you know it, because to be part of a linguistic community — to be hailed as a “you” at all — is to be endowed with poetic capacity.
To my mind, if we are in possession of any equivalent visual language, any equivalent visual community, it is surely that inaugurated by the ever-increasing ubiquity of photography.
This was definitely how I felt after writing my first book. Following the death of Mark Fisher in early 2017, writing and photography became more firm companions for me and for one another in this regard. Photography captured what was left of a particular moment as it was lived, but the writing was an attempt to capture what was otherwise made absent; what could not be photographed.
With Egress being a book ostensibly about community, whilst the writing process itself was isolated and isolating, the photographs soon felt essential to the project, in that they gave my own sense of community a more impersonal image, as if my perspective was transformed into a view from nowhere, hovering above everything, producing portals that welcomed the reader into a space and time that they may have otherwise not been privy to. Though the writing could not escape itself, I hoped the reader would feel more a part of the community described, entered into through photography.
When later reflecting on all that I wrote and photographed during that period, I felt my intentions were always akin to Lerner’s own poetic drive, fuelling that leap from the individual into the social. My personal experiences were, ultimately, all I could speak to, but I nonetheless wanted to dissolve them into a sense of community that didn’t privilege my own perspective but rather used it as a foundation for a broader sense of political solidarity. I think that is the overall intent of all my work to date.
The reality of Egress’s reception, however — that is, more specifically, the context of its appearing — undid this process in ways I could not have imagined or prepared myself for.
The book was published barely a week before the UK locked down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and so the book’s release could not have been more poorly timed. Although the book was reviewed favourably, on the whole, you cannot please everyone, and as I excitedly read every review that emerged, I later developed a depressively narcissistic self-concern in the midst of lockdown, with the few criticisms that were made of the book taken all too personally. Some readings felt oddly ungenerous or simply stupid, and feeling so deeply attached to what was a very vulnerable first project, I felt irrationally driven to respond to everyone, as these minor incursions were made within an already unsettled sense of self — something further compounded by the pandemic itself.
I can summarise the painful irony like this, perhaps: my name had entered the public sphere just as my body felt so disastrously removed from it. I was so nauseated by the disconnection that I didn’t know how or why I’d never write about myself in public again.
So, where to turn? Over the years that followed, I became increasingly aware that photography and I had unfinished business to attend to. For that reason, my next book attempts to tackle what I inadvertently left behind all those years ago, as a naïve photography student who thought writing about your work was distinctly uncool. I now understood that I only ever wanted to escape the sense of self I was necessarily entangled with, and so it is a book that reflects on photography as an contradictory medium, like writing itself, which is both painfully attached to but also strangely always escapes the author who produces it.
But of course, trying to explain this to anyone at the time felt pretentious and overwrought. “It’s not that deep”, I assumed the response would be from all quarters, but it felt that deep to me. Something opened up in me that was equal parts wound and portal, but again, I could not articulate it for myself — at least until Ben Lerner’s book on poetry came along and brought everything into focus.
Lerner notes how this same contradiction, found in the relationship between the individual and the social, can often reassert itself when you are invited to talk about your own work, in whatever context. He notes, for instance, how this is most apparent when one is forced to identity oneself as a professional poet (or, indeed, a photographer) to strangers who are probably not poets or photographers themselves. He writes:
The awkward and even tense exchange between a poet and non-poet — they often happen on an airplane or some other contemporary non-place — is a little interpersonal breach that reveals how inextricable “poetry” is from our imagination of social life.
The photographic equivalent of this will be familiar to anyone who has been asked “the wedding question” – “oh, you’re a photographer, so do you shoot weddings and stuff?” is something everyone is guaranteed to be asked at some point by a new acquaintance and a taxi driver. The shame that results comes, on the one hand, from a general awareness of the important social function of weddings. It is actually quite nice to have a job associated with what many will refer to as the best day of their lives. But at the same time, very few photographers I know actually like shooting weddings, precisely because of the inordinate amount of pressure they put on you and the fact it is also, despite this, a pretty thankless job. This is no doubt related to a general awareness of the job’s apparent redundancy, as it has long been in vogue to give every wedding guest a disposable camera, or otherwise let them use their phones to capture their own experiences of the day. We’re all photographers these days anyway, so why would you ever pay someone else a load of money to be one for you?
The same tension is found in poetry, Lerner argues. To discuss it as your “profession” is always an uncomfortable exchange. But why is it uncomfortable exactly? Lerner suggests the following:
Whatever we think of poems, “poetry” is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external: My capacity to express myself poetically and to comprehend such expressions is a fundamental qualification for social recognition. If I have no interest in poetry or if I feel repelled by actual poems, either I am failing the social or the social is failing me. I don’t mean that Mr. X or anyone else thinks in these terms, or that these assumptions about poetry are present for everyone, let alone in the same degree, or that this is the only or best way of thinking about poetry, but I am convinced that the embarrassment, or suspicion, or anger that is often palpable in such meetings derives from this sense of poetry’s tremendous social stakes (combined with a sense of its tremendous social marginalisation).
The same, again, is true of photography.
As potential early career artists of all types, you might feel this applies to your own practices as well, whether you use photography or not. You’re here studying at the National College of Art and Design, I presume, because you all believe in the importance of art’s social function, and yet in having to legitimise yourself and your life-choices to others – friends, strangers, family members – you may feel discouraged by the ways that art’s apparent social marginalisation undermines your own interest in it.
Everyone knows the arts are underfunded. Everyone knows someone in their life who feels that art just isn’t for them. But rather than feel discouraged by this kind of encounter, I think it is essential to affirm that being a “professional communicator” of any sort — poet, photographer, writer, artist, whatever — who engages with some form of expression that is, at base, seen by many as universal, is to feel this tension between the individual and the social and to embrace the chance encounters these same tensions are revealed to us.
Having thought about this for many years, I’m left wondering, what if we were affirm the insufficiency of our universalised modes of communication and the presumptions that emerge from our less-than-universal dedication to them? What is made possible by our awareness of this hatred of art, this discomfort when faced with the contingencies of any encounter with art, where its success or failure depends on how it falls within and is discovered at the intersection of two vast and formless hermeneutic concepts: the individual and the social?
When I wrote my first book, Egress, I was obsessed by this insufficiency and its social stakes, albeit as found in the individual and collective processing of grief rather than the production of a particular artform. But grief is an interesting counter-example to art, perhaps, in that it too is not actually an emotion easily shared. Though we will all sadly experience it at some point in our lives, we can find grief straining our social relations, as we come to understand the oft-repeated truism that not everyone grieves in the same way. Greif, as a universal reaction to loss, comes to mirror the sorts of social tensions that we feel in response to universalised acts of creation. It encompasses all the gaps in expression and meaning that keep thought, politics, philosophy and art moving forwards. This is what we are all engaged in: bridging the gaps between worlds that are revealed to us.
This is the point that I want to affirm in front of you today, because ultimately my preoccupation with loss and creation, sound and vision, memory and imagination, even questions of political economy, which infiltrate all of my thinking about art and philosophy, are integral to older questions I used to fret over all the time as an art student and, later, art graduate.
Many of you may be thinking about where to go from here, what to do when you graduate, how to deal with the tandem expectations of emboldening your own sense of individuality, as people and as artists, whilst at the same time fostering a sense of community, which comes so naturally whilst at university but is not always easily sustained on its outside.
This final point might be the disconnection that troubles you most. That was certainly the case for me. You end up asking yourself: what is it that gets in the way? It might be obvious: it is work; it is structural forces of oppression and servitude; it is the workaday mechanisms of capitalism. But it is also what produces this cleft, felt in encounters between poets and non-poets, artists and non-artists. This gap cannot be overcome overnight, but there is plenty we can do to make that gap productive.
To do that, we need only remember that, at the most fundamental level, and as Romantic as it may sound, all art is surely nothing more than a form of individual expression that hopes to connect and resonate with, as well as inspire, other people in the world around you. But the necessity of making plans for your own professional development can nonetheless lead to this foundation fading away into the background. So it is worthwhile reminding yourself of these awkward encounters and what they signify whenever you can.
Again, I might as well take myself as an example: you could all understand everything I’ve said so far, in its gaps and disconnections, as a long and rambling attempt to contextualise my own anxiety in speaking to you today. I am painfully aware that I don’t know any of you, nor your interests and artistic practices. If I had a better sense of these things, this talk would have probably been very different, as I would attempt to tailor my own experiences to each of your own. This is surely impossible in the time allotted, but I also don’t think describing and sketching the contours of the void between us is a useless exercise. I hope something amorphous and interesting might nonetheless emerge between us.
This is something I think about all the time, especially in the context of the arts university as an institution. When I was a student, particularly a first-year, lectures were often odd abstractions that seldom resonated with my own understanding of life and the world. Someone would speak for an hour, and their capacity to inspire you would generally be hit and miss, but then everything always seemed to come together when I’d go with my classmates to the pub afterwards.
It was only there that we’d collectively discuss what we’d heard and then reconstruct the poem uttered before us, adding together and contrasting each of our perspectives — and I do think there is a kind of poetry to be found in this simple act of making sense of the things that happen to you. It is the sort of work enacted by what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call the “undercommons”. This was a term I only learnt whilst studying for my Master’s degree, but it resonated with what I loved most about my time at university, and what I always missed when on its outside.
For that reason, it is the development of a sensitivity to various undercommons that feels like the foundation of my own art practice or writing practice or whatever you want to call it. It is what makes it a defiantly responsive and improvisatory practice. Every step of the way, all I’ve done throughout my own “career” is to find the best way to respond to whatever life throws at me and my friends, retaining something of the affective experiences (particularly the joy) that was often cut off from more “professional” modes of (re)presentation, instead working directly with those events as a way to make work that I found life-affirming but also political.
It’s something I’m exploring even more explicitly at the moment, as a PhD student in the philosophy department at Newcastle University, moving ever further away from an initial arts education. But there is a sentiment often shared by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze that I come back to repeatedly, which weaves a thread from my photographic art degree through to my doctorate in philosophy, and through all the spaces in between.
In his book The Logic of Sense, Deleuze insists that “we must make ourselves worthy of the things that happen to us.” I think that’s a good sentiment to live one’s life by, but also a good sentiment to use in the making of art. And if that sounds like a mundane point to emphasise, perhaps that is inevitable. It is not something that rests on the shoulders of professional artists alone, just as we’re all poets even if we do not know it. I think that’s all art is, at the end of the day. It is a sort of responsive relationship to the world as its changes around us — one that loses all efficacy when restricted to hip social circles or market contexts. Art functions best as a portal through which individuals and their differences meet and commune under the compartmentalised enclosures of everyday life.
Though something of a poeticism, and therefore hardly a concrete piece of advice to give you as students — who must necessarily, from time to time, demonstrate your own capacity for professionalism — I say this only to insist that you do not lose sight of the events, the loves and hates, the circumstances that have brought you here. And this is an important thing to affirm, because for me at least, it isn’t the tax returns and the funding applications and the residency pitches that are scary about the world outside of the university — which are often the focus on Artist and Designer Development Weeks (amongst other things, of course) — it’s the ways that community becomes far harder to sustain.
Again, we can ask ourselves why this is so. The answer is, again, mundane. Work gets in the way. Time starts to feel in short supply, as does your energy. We live in a world where the pursuit of art and culture is one that travels upstream, against the current, against a restrictive sense of social expectations. But the innately political lessons of an arts education are all the more important here. In understanding the value of these things, we arts students, past, present and future, are primed to fight for their sustainability. And, as grand as it may sound, this is something directly related to changing our present world order.
After Mark Fisher passed in 2017, a quotation from Capitalist Realism was stencilled on a wall by the library at Goldsmiths by some of my friends. The quotation reads:
Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.
Mark’s main point of focus in all of his writing was, really, capitalism. It’s a global system that we are seemingly incapable of imagining any alternative to, and we’re actively by that same system that it represent the best of all possible worlds. But the reality of late capitalism, Mark often argued, isn’t peace and free time, efficiency and convenience; it’s sad robots and broken self-service checkouts and, yes, for some of you, professional development weeks at neoliberalised arts institutions.
But what’s interesting is, when we start paying attention to how insufficient these things actually are when it comes to the fulfilment of our desires — beyond any reductive sense of professionalism, but within all those moments of failure and embarrassment, those weird and eerie instances where capitalism is revealed to be a system full of holes — we come to understand that those holes aren’t things we lack but portals and windows, revealing other possible worlds.
What if you didn’t need special training to manage the transition from art school to the real world, for instance? What if life and work could always be like this? Always creative, always with enough time to pursue your interests and express yourself? Always with an infrastructure of creative conversation and communal support? It’s ultimately up to us to not only drag these worlds out but also actively create them. Indeed, to imagine other worlds is a bit like trying to combine writing and photography, or indeed, photographs with other photographs, texts with other texts. Each can be qualitatively different to its other, so that these examples do not neatly overlap, but it is in the gaps left in between them that we find new forms of expression, new forms of self and new forms of world.
That is what art school teaches many of us, but we needn’t limit this kind of creativity to the material production of art alone. In fact, if art is to be sustainable beyond these walls for years to come, we must not accept the outside world’s limits on it, or on our time, at all.