Use/Re-Use: An Introduction

Liam Devlin, Ronnie Close

As an introduction to the ideas contained within this section of Either/And it seems fitting to start with an image. The image is a screen grab of a webpage, which means it has no direct referent, no indexical nature, as no object was positioned in front of a camera to produce it. Yet the image is still placed within a photographic discourse: when the cursor is dragged across the screen to select the proportion that is to be ‘captured’, the computer generated the sound of a camera click to signal the completion of the screen grab. The webpage does however contain a digital photograph of physical photographs, which we can consider as the series of photographic acts that led to the introduction you are currently reading. It is the use and re-use of photographic images that interests us here. The acts of photography from capture to dissemination have consequences, knock on effects. A butterfly effect in the relationship between image and action.

We want to tell you the story of an image, or a story of the journey of an image into the world, into many images. It starts with an event that produced a series of images that we cannot see, not in their original completeness at least. Sometime in the late eighties, towards the end of her reign as the leader of the Conservative Party, Margret Thatcher posed for a series of photographs with visitors to the old Tory headquarters at 32 Smith Square in Westminster. She was well versed in this activity and prepared herself to project the visual signals of a strong leader, a certain ‘look’ repeated in photograph after photograph as each couple or individual was called to be photographed with the then Prime Minister. We do not know whom the individuals were that Mrs Thatcher posed with, and perhaps it is unimportant. The images themselves were not deemed to be that important, as they lay abandoned, forgotten at the bottom of a cupboard in 32 Smith Square for more than a decade. Indeed, in 2004 when the Tory party moved to newer premises the images were left behind to continue their slow corruption and decline into oblivion.

This would have been the end of the story had it not been for the photographic artist Lisa Barnard, who was commissioned by the architects in charge of the building’s refurbishment to document the old headquarters. It was during her investigations of the building in 2009, that Barnard opened that particular cupboard, and found and rescued the abandoned and heavily damaged prints. As documents, the images no doubt contain a nominal historical value. However, it was Lisa Barnard’s treatment of the photographs that transformed them into images to think with. She re-photographed seven of the images, cropping out the various dignitaries, leaving the (almost) unchanging portrait of Margret Thatcher that was edged by the evidence of corruption and decay that the prints had suffered. The seven transformed prints of Margret Thatcher became emblematic of the socially destructive capabilities of the free market ideology that Thatcher espoused, and pointed towards the important relationships between ideology, power and representation.

That would have been the end of the story had it not been for an anonymous individual who knew of Barnard’s images from 32 Smith Square, who wanted to make a banner for the march against the sweeping Coalition Government cuts that took place in London in March 2011. The person found reproductions of Barnard’s prints, and cut three of them out of a photography magazine. Then, in a move reminiscent of the artist John Stezaker, they created a crude, angry set of montages melding the portraits of Thatcher with those of the politicians David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne. Text was added to the placard, to offer a succinct warning against the dangers of personality politics. The placard, that so cleverly entered into the politics of representation as a tool for the politics of the street, was intended as a very public statement. Yet it was not made to last, and may even have been discarded at the end of the day’s protest.

The story could have ended there, were it not for the prominence of social networking within the everyday. The site of protest has expanded from the actual into the virtual, opening up new forms of visibility and exchange, redefining public space. This virtual public space is still mediated by companies who sell the information generated to marketing companies (this is clear in the sponsored advertisement in bottom right of the image). Regardless of whether we pay any attention to the advertising that increasingly permeates our social fabric,it is the logic of the market that structures the interfaces through which we communicate. 

Our story continues as the placard was photographed and the image uploaded onto a Facebook page called ‘This is what democracy looks like’. In two symbolic acts the creators of this webpage sought to more actively implicate the act of photography into the nature of protest. Act 1 was set up to use the ubiquity of digital photography to democratise the representation of the mass protest. Participants on the march were encouraged to send their own images of the day to their respective MPs so that the sheer quantity of images would become an active aspect of the protest: ‘The photographs will form a critical mass, infiltrating the walls of parliament to stage a virtual occupation. It is our aim to create a democratic archive, existing in the minds of citizens and in the inboxes of coalition MPs.’ Act 2 encouraged participants to exercise their right to demand the images of the protest captured by the police, reclaiming not only a sense of ownership of the images but also of the state.

As evidence of the increased visibility and accessibility of imagery facilitated by social media, Lisa Barnard was able so see her artworks transformed into protest placards and in accordance with the main theme of this section, exclaimed that she was delighted her photographs were being put to good use.

This brief description of one set of photographic actions and reactions contains the main elements of the three essays we have commissioned, which explore the use and reuse of photographic imagery. David Evans will explore the shifting relationship between art and politics guided by the relationship between Berthold Brecht’s War Primer published in 1955 and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s recent appropriation or reuse of the project. Daniel Rubenstein’s essay will explore how the internet and social networking sites where photographs circulate mimics and comments on itself in an endless semantic flow, questioning the ‘invisible’ mechanism which lurks behind and structures this network. Finally, Liam Devlin uses images produced as a consequence of the ‘Occupy’ movements to claim an emancipated space from which to use and reuse photographs that rejects absolute authorial positions or claims to authority. These three main essays will generate a series of responses from writers and artists, intended to challenge, extend or enrich the insights offered. Readers are encouraged to further respond to the material, to participate in perpetuating the relationships between images and actions.