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June 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Agency and Automatism
Photography as Art since the 1960s

Jeff Wall, A Sapling Held by a Post, 2000
Jeff Wall
A Sapling Held by a Post 2000
Tate © Jeff Wall
Thursday 10 June 2010, 18.30–20.00
Friday 11 June 2010, 10.30–18.00
Saturday 12 June 2010, 10.30–18.00

Despite attending to similar features of photography as an artistic medium, philosophers and art historians have drawn opposed conclusions about their implications. This conference brings them into dialogue around questions of agency and automatism in the photographic process.

Speakers include artist Jeff Wall, art historians Carol Armstrong, Robin Kelsey, Anna Dezeuze, Briony Fer, Susan Laxton and Margaret Iversen, philosophers David Davies, Nigel Warburton, Cynthia Freeland, Sherri Irvin and Diarmuid Costello.

Tate Modern  Starr Auditorium

This event is part of the AHRC-funded research project ‘Aesthetics after Photography’ directed by Margaret Iversen (University of Essex) and Diarmuid Costello (University of Warwick).  See the research project pages on the Univeristy of Essex website and Univeristy of Warwick website for more information.

Download the full programme (PDF)

Programme of speakers

Thursday 10 June

18.30 Welcome by Marko Daniel
18.35 Introduction by Margaret Iversen and Diarmuid Costello
18.45 Jeff Wall Agency and Automatism keynote address
Followed by Q&A chaired by Diarmuid Costello
20.00 Drinks will be served in the Starr Auditorium Foyer

Friday 11 June

10.30 Session 1: Chaired by Dawn Phillips
10.40 Carol Armstrong Automatism and Agency Intertwined: The Spectrum of Photographic Intentionality
My aim will be to address the different ways in which photography since the 1960s has joined, rather than opposed, the processes of automatism and agency. Beginning with an address to the manner in which photography works by way of happenstance more than other media, followed by a discussion of the historical convergence of post-sixties practices with anti-authorial discourse, I will argue that the photographic artist intervenes to make use of the aleatory event in an interaction that defines photographic intentionality.
11.35 David Davies Agency, Automatism, and the Possibility of Photographic Art
Appreciative interest in an artistic manifold is always interrogative, seeking to understand its ordering in terms of motivated agency. The automatism of the photographic process therefore challenges the artistic pretensions of photography. I examine different responses in recent photographic theory and practice to this tension between automatism and agency. I argue that an interrogative interest in the photographic image itself, and thus properly photographic art, requires that the image issue from a process in which they are mutually constraining forces.
12.30 Break
13.30 Session 2: Chaired by David Campany
13.40 Briony Fer Test-site
In Ed Ruscha’s book, Royal Road Test, a typewriter is mangled and so is narrative. The allusion in Ruscha’s title to Freud’s famous saying that ‘the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to the unconscious’ is explored in this paper as a comic gambit as well as a serious provocation. Ruscha’s image of the test-site is reconfigured as a means to put in question what or who is at stake in the work of the artwork.
14.35 Robin Kelsey Random Generation: John Baldessari, Photography, and the early 1970s
In the early 1970s John Baldessari investigated, spoofed, and dismantled photography’s often suppressed, sometimes mystified, truck with chance. In series such as Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line: Best of Thirty-Six Attempts (1973), Baldessari lampooned the decisive moment and the elevation of chance to a cosmic principle. At the same time, his engagement with random generation played off the contemporaneous rise of simulation in various cultural domains, from the military-industrial complex to the game industry.
15.30 Tea and coffee will be served in the Starr Auditorium Foyer
16.00 Session 3: Chaired by Jason Gaiger
16.10 Cynthia Freeland Icon and Index Revisited: Artistic Explorations of Medical Imaging Technologies
My paper explores a range of medical imaging technologies that challenge the icon/index distinction articulated by C.S. Peirce. These range from electrocardiograms to X-rays, ultrasounds, and fMRI images of the brain. I question the nature of realism in such images and examine the role of interpretation and aesthetic choice in their creation. Finally, I discuss work by various artists who have used “automatic” imaging technologies for creative purposes, including Robert Rauschenberg, Gary Schneider, Aline Mare, and Gabriele Leidloff.
17.05 Anna Dezeuze Photography as a Way of Living
By setting up a dialogue between the writings of Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau, I will analyse the kind of automatism mobilised by Richard Wentworth’s Making Do, Getting By series (ongoing since 1977). In its technique and subject matter, I will argue that this conceptual project stages a biopolitical continuum between nature and culture, body and technology, while exploring the ambivalent nature of the everyday as the intersection between the personal and the collective, between agency and instincts or reflexes.
18.00 End

Saturday 12 June

10.30 Session 4: Chaired by Simon Baker
10.40 Susan Laxton As Photography: Abstraction and Automatism in Gerhard Richter’s Overpainted Snapshots
Gerhard Richter’s exploration of painting “as photography,” repeatedly restaged as an engagement between photography, chance, and the suspension of control over the image, on one hand, and painting, aesthetic attention and the artist’s will on the other, becomes explicit in his overpainted snapshots. These works, composed entirely of dejecta, ask us to consider the possibility that, beyond the most obvious attributes of these mediums, lie their shared and repressed irrationalities – compelling us to look for meaning in the politics of heteronomy.
11.35 Margaret Iversen Analogue: On Tacita Dean and Zoe Leonard
It is significant that both Leonard and Dean have recently produced exhibitions simply titled Analogue. Current debates concerning artistic agency and automatism often hinge on the difference between digital and analogue photographic processes. This is so because some prominent contemporary artists produce photographs which foreground intentionality through digital manipulation. The debate is joined in this paper through the work of two artists who attach great value to the analogue image and the chance encounter.
12.30 Break
13.30 Session 5: Chaired by Wolfgang Brückle
13.40 Sherri Irvin Artwork and Document in the Photography of Louise Lawler
What makes a photograph an artwork, as opposed to a mere document? I reflect on this question in relation to Louise Lawler’s photographs of others’ artworks (usually in the context of an auction, gallery or private collection). Lawler’s work provides a fascinating test case for probing this distinction, since her central aim is to examine the institutional setting in which artworks are presented and understood, and that institutional setting is precisely what makes it possible for her own photographs to be artworks rather than mere documents.
14.35 Nigel Warburton Absence and Presence in the Work of Thomas Demand
For several decades analytic philosophers have focused obsessively on the alleged automatism of photographic media and especially on the consequences for pictorial realism. This rarely sheds light on actual photography. In contrast, in this paper I examine a series of Thomas Demand’s photographs from a philosophical angle and suggest some ways philosophers might contribute to the understanding of photographic art by sometimes beginning with the particular rather than the general.
15.30 Tea and coffee will be served in the Starr Auditorium Foyer
16.00 Session 6: Chaired by Margaret Iversen
16.10 Diarmuid Costello The Question Concerning Photography
This paper explores some surprising affinities between Martin Heidegger’s theory of art and Kendall Walton’s theory of photography. I suggest that photography, understood in terms of Walton’s ‘mind-independence’ thesis, mirrors the anti-subjectivism of authentic art on Heidegger’s account. Both are committed to an automatism thesis of sorts. If is right, I argue that Heidegger and Walton’s theories are equally contentious in so far as this commitment leads them to downplay the agency of artist and photographer respectively.
17.05 Closing remarks


Carol Armstrong is Professor of History of Art at Yale University, where she teaches and writes about 19th century French painting, the history of photography of both centuries, and feminist theory and criticism. Among her publications on photography are the October book Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843-1875, published by M.I.T. Press in 1998, along with numerous essays on women photographers in October, and pieces of criticism in Artforum. She is also a practicing photographic artist.

Simon Baker is Curator of Photography and International Art at Tate. From 2004 to 2009, he was a lecturer in Art History at the University of Nottingham, where he published extensively in the fields of the European avant-gardes (especially surrealism), contemporary art, and photography. Alongside a monograph, Surrealism, History and Revolution, his principal research projects have been contributions to exhibitions: Undercover Surrealism (Hayward Gallery London, 2006); and Close-up: Proximity and Defamiliarisation in Art, Film and Photography (Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, 2008).

Wolfgang Brückle worked as an assistant curator at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, and as an assistant professor at the art history departments at the universities of Stuttgart and Bern, where he also pursued curatorial projects. Since 2007, he has been Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Art History and Theory at the University of Essex. Brückle’s research interests focus on later medieval art, early modern art theory and contemporary art with a special focus on photography.

David Campany is Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster. Books include: Art and Photography (2003), Photography and Cinema (2008) and Jeff Wall in conversation with David Campany (2009). He has written for Tate’s ‘Cruel and Tender’ (2003) and Rewriting Conceptual Art (2009), Frieze, Aperture, Photoworks, Tate, Source, The Oxford Art Journal, Ojodepez and Philosophy of Photography. He curated ‘Current History: Photographs and Films by Hannah Collins’ for Caixaforum, and is co-curating ‘Anonymes’ for Le Bal, Paris. David co-founded PA magazine.

Diarmuid Costello is Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Warwick and Chair of the British Society of Aesthetics. He co-edited Photography after Conceptual Art, Art History, 32:5 (2009); The Life and Death of Images (2008); and Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers (2007). Recent articles have appeared in The British Journal of Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Critical Inquiry, Rivista di Estetica, and Angelaki. He is working on two longer projects: Aesthetics after Modernism and On Photography.

David Davies is Associate Professor of Philosophy at McGill University. He is the author of Art as Performance (Blackwell, 2004), Aesthetics and Literature (Continuum, 2007), and The Philosophy of the Performing Arts (Blackwell, forthcoming). He also edited a volume on the cinema of Terrence Malick. He has published widely on issues concerning photography, cinema, literature, music, and the visual arts, and is currently studying the nature and appreciation of artworks, like photographs and cast sculptures, that can have multiple instances.

Briony Fer has written widely on modern and contemporary art. Her books include The Infinite Line (Yale 2004) and most recently Eva Hesse: Studiowork (2009), which was written to accompany the exhibition of the same name organized by the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh and which is now showing at the Tapies Foundation, Barcelona. She is Professor of History of Art at UCL.

Cynthia Freeland is professor and chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Houston. She has published on topics in ancient philosophy, feminist theory, aesthetics, and film theory. Her books include Philosophy and Film (co-edited with Thomas Wartenberg), 1995; The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (1999); and But Is It Art? (2001). Her latest book, Portraits and Persons: A Philosophical Inquiry, will be published by Oxford in June, 2010.

Jason Gaiger is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at The Open University. His books include Aesthetics and Painting (Continuum, 2008), an English edition of Herder’s Sculpture (University of Chicago Press, 2002) and, as co-editor with Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Art in Theory: 1648-1815 (Blackwell, 2000) and Art in Theory: 1815-1900 (Blackwell, 1998).

Sherri Irvin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. Her research interests center on the philosophy of contemporary art, the relation between aesthetics and ethics, and the aesthetics of everyday experience. She is Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art editor of Philosophy Compass and has published articles in the British Journal of Aesthetics, the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Museum Management and Curatorship, and several anthologies.

Margaret Iversen is Professor in the Department of Art History and Theory, University of Essex, England. Her most recent books are Beyond Pleasure: Freud, Lacan, Barthes, 2007 and Chance. Her other published books include Alois Riegl: Art History and Theory (1993); Mary Kelly (1997) co-edited Photography after Conceptual Art for Art History, 32:5 (2009)and Art and Thought (2003). Writing Art History (co-authored with Stephen Melville) is forthcoming from Chicago. She is Director (with Diarmuid Costello) of the AHRC research project, “Aesthetics after Photography.”

Robin Kelsey is Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Harvard University. He has published extensively on the history of photography and received several awards for his scholarship and teaching, including the Arthur Kingsley Porter prize from the College Art Association for an essay on the survey photography of Timothy H. O’Sullivan. He is finishing a book on photography and chance and starting another on photography in America during the Cold War.

Susan Laxton is Assistant Professor of the History of Photography at University of California, Riverside. Her work on play in the visual arts can be found in October, Papers of Surrealism, and scattered among a number of recent anthologies. Currently she is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where she is finishing a book on the ludic strategies of the interwar avant-gardes.

Dawn M. Phillips is Research Fellow in Philosophy for the AHRC Project ‘Aesthetics After Photography’. In published articles she has critically examined the ‘mind-independence’ of photographic images and defended the significance of the causal provenance of photographs by presenting an original account of the photographic production process. Her current work includes a comparison between photography and music and her further interests lie in trace, transparency, testimony and time, which in various ways relate to photography as a recording medium.

Jeff Wall is one of the most influential photographic artists of his generation. He studied art history at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and at the Courtauld Institute, London. His work has been exhibited in numerous international exhibitions, including a touring solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Art, in 2007. He has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including The Paul de Hueck and Norman Walford Career Achievement Award for Art Photography (2001); Ontario Arts Council, Canada; Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (2002); and the Roswitha Haftmann Prize for the Visual Arts (2003).

Nigel Warburton is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University. He has published a number of articles on the philosophy and history of photography and edited a book about the photographer Bill Brandt. His other books include Ernö Goldfinger: the Life of an Architect; The Art Question and Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction. He regularly teaches courses on aesthetics at Tate Modern and, with David Edmonds, makes the podcast Philosophy Bites. For more information see

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