Exploring the other Oxford: A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto

When we travel or relocate to a new city or country we inevitably arrive with expectations. We have an image in our minds of what it will look and feel like to be on the ground. Sometimes the preconceived experience bears a remarkable resemblance to the realized one. But sometimes reality blindsides us completely. Either way, any place we visit or live in can never experienced fully—engagement is always subjective on so many levels so that, even if you live in the same location all your life, you will only ever know a corner of it, or a series of images collected over a network of space and time.

In a sense that is the premise underlying this handsome photobook which came to me, in contrast to the title, without any expectations at all. I knew little of Oxford apart from a general awareness of the University and all the academic weight that it carries. As to any specific historical or visual detail—either about the University or the city that surrounds it—my knowledge was minimal. What intrigued me about Arturo Soto’s A Certain Logic of Expectations was the idea of experiencing the city through the eyes of a Mexican studying at Oxford during the Brexit years. I suspected he might have an interesting angle on such a storied place. I was not wrong.

Born in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico in 1981, Arturo Soto earned an MA in Art History from University College London and an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York before completing his PhD in Fine Art at the University of Oxford. His fondness for the grittier side of urban landscapes developed early. His first photobook, In the Heat (2018) focuses on Panama, but eschews the travel brochure side of the country and turns its attention to “banal spaces that people rarely consider, partially because of their familiarity, but also because they contradict conservative notions of progress and economic growth.” The same social and aesthetic impulses guide his new work.

A journal in a shop window with the legend Start Where You Are on its cover is the perfect maxim for projects that blend photography with psychogeography. Instead of wishing to document faraway lands, photographers should consider examining their immediate surroundings first.

Oxford is a city with multiple realities. The Oxford Soto engages with through his camera lens, contains none of the esteemed features of the University. He talks about it, yes, but I have to admit that the mention of such architectural landmarks as the Radcliffe Camera, the Magdelan Tower or the Bridge of Sighs brought no immediate images to my mind. I had to google them to find out what they looked like and, even then, I would not have recognized or placed most of them before making a point of looking. Oxford, the University, exists as much as an idea as as a place. Yet I was captivated by, and remain much more interested in, the working class Oxford Soto’s images record—the brick buildings, boarded up shops, back alleys, and strangely vacant streets. They tell their own stories, but they also project a certain anonymity. (A selection of images from A Certain Logic of Expectations can be found on his website.)

Weaving a path of sorts between the two possible Oxford’s is the text. Memories, observations and anecdotes drawn from Soto’s time in the city are presented as discreet descriptive passages, with no connection to any particular image. He considers the dynamics that have formed Oxford as a city, and talks about some of the idiosyncrasies of the photographic endeavour. He records scenes and interactions he encounters on the streets and reflects on the student experience, recalling friends, romances and favourite watering holes. Some of his remembrances have a photographic quality of their own:

A friend and I spot a naked girl through a basement window on Rectory Road. She is sitting down on the bed with her back to us. The basil green sheets make me think of Modigliani, whom I associate with that color. The room is brightly lit, making it hard to understand why she has not drawn the curtains. My friend is equally fascinated by the incident, and we speculate about the situation for a while. She keeps referring to the girl as beautiful, even though we did not see her face.

Oxford, as Soto describes it, is a city constrained by its own history—a history that is actually confined to a very small geographic space. Beyond that, its ability to renew itself is limited. A distinct separation is maintained between “town” and “gown.” As a student, Soto has full access to the college he attends (but not the entire University). For residents of the city with no connection to that side of Oxford, the hallowed halls of the educational institution and the world it contains exist entirely outside their lived experience. Two solitudes.

Soto’s camera brings the otherwise unseen Oxford into focus; his crisp, clear images highlight its absolute ordinariness. To his eye, and given his own background, even its “dodgiest” neighbourhoods appear orderly. His prose passages and vignettes are precise, admittedly subjective and charged with a deadpan humour. It all came together when I learned (also on his website) that his artistic practice:

owes a great deal to the work of the French writer Georges Perec, whose fragmentary and often absurd projects offer a methodology for the study of the infraordinary, the term he coined to describe the nothingness that comprises the bulk of our lives. Perec highlighted the complexity of micro-events and banal spaces, exposing the partiality and selectivity of our attention and making us question why we grant significance to certain things while overlooking others. Perec’s writings provide a fitting analogy for documentary images, which give a realistic impression of the world while also connoting an authorial vision.

In the background throughout this project looms the tensions around Brexit. Soto is a careful observer, noting, for example, party signs pasted up in a window. Yet, as an outsider, without a vote or a particular stake in the matter, it is still impossible to remain entirely neutral. He recounts a friendship that dissolves when he learns of the other’s political leanings. There is inevitably a spark in the air that one senses when in a foreign country at a time of voting or campaigning that fuels an interest and a disconnect at once. It seeps into the memories you take away. There may be a level of discontent in the air, but as Soto reflects on returning to Mexico as his studies draw to a close, he knows he will miss the freedom and safety he enjoyed on the streets of Oxford. That comfort also seems to inform his photographs and his observations such that this Oxford, the one that defies a certain logic of expectations, is perhaps one that can only be seen by an outsider open to all its possibilities.

A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto is published in a limited edition by The Eriskay Connection.

A special type of perception: Responses · Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář

I first encountered the work of Jiří Kolář (1914-2002), one of the most important poet/visual artists in post-war Europe—a man for whom the two descriptors very often went hand in hand—through A User’s Manual, first published in English translation in 2019. This intentional pairing of his so-called “action poems” written in the 1950s and 60s with collages from the series “Weekly 1967” was originally published together in 1969 and reproduced handsomely by excellent Prague-based indie press Twisted Spoon. Now, with the release of Responses · Kafka’s Prague, another of the Czech artist‘s idiosyncratic pairings, an intriguing overview of his opinions and reflections on the intersection of literature and art is set against a collection of his distinct “crumplages.” Again it makes for an unusual yet beautifully presented volume which also speaks to his creative processing as displayed in both this and A User’s Manual.

Responses is a sort of one-sided investigation, or what Kolář called an “imaginary interview,” a set of seventy-one answers without questions. Compiled in Prague and Paris in 1973, the topics covered include the development of his artistic sensibility, the writers, artists and movements that had an influence on him, and a discussion of technique. It has a thoughtful, conversational, musing-out-loud sort of feel and a sense of direction that is not explicit or artificial but gives the work a natural flow.

From the outset,  Kolář makes it clear that he sees art as part of the “general drive toward universal knowledge” and as such there can be nothing extrinsically new that is not a departure from that which is already innate to the practice. Art and literature are disciplines that do not create anything new so much as they create new ways of looking at (and using) what is already there, a “special type of perception.” As in science, artists are engaged in exploration and investigation, and those he admires, such as Mallarmé and those who followed in his footsteps, are those who become dissatisfied with the status quo. For Kolář this leads him to analyze and reflect upon what various poets were doing with language, and ultimately realize he had to dismantle language itself:

For me the destruction of poetic language followed the same path and the same type of perception as did a new and different perception in other disciplines. As I’ve already said, this is primarily the case in [modern] music and the visual arts. I was speaking about a type of perception — what I mean is that I couldn’t keep seeking poetry in the written word. I had to go beyond the written word. It meant finding another, living language.

There is a distinct restlessness to Kolář’s self-described poetic and artistic evolution, accentuated by the casual style of this particular discourse, but then he was working in trying times. Deemed publicly undesirable by the Communist government in Czechoslovakia he spent time in prison, saw the publication of much of his work delayed, and would eventually end up living in exile. Responses, however, is not concerned with political revolution, but rather with his artistic interests and endeavours, past and current. As translator Ryan Scott points out in his Translator’s Note, this work “should not be read as Kolář’s final word but as capturing a particular moment in time amid his creative flux.” Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting look into an original creative mind.

Kolář’s international reputation rests largely on his innovative collage techniques. He is so fond of printed materials—newspapers, letters, tickets, receipts—not only as raw materials but for the moment-in-timeness captured in them that one wonders how he would have adapted artistically to our increasingly digital environment. The present volume contains a series of “cumplages” constructed from photographs of buildings and landmarks in Prague, paired with brief quotes from Kafka’s writings. In these images, the shapes and angles of the structures are distorted, twisted and bent out of shape. The effect is quite striking and perfectly “Kafkaesque.” The process follows a specific routine, starting with moistened paper:

Crumpling must be done fast and carefully, and it’s difficult to predict results with this technique because it’s always the brother of chance. Because the moist paper is crumpled and the work has to be finished fast, hardly any adjusting can be done.

Later on he mentions that his “best crumplages were created from reproductions that readers had coloured themselves.” He delights in the touches human hands have left behind coming through in his art. Among the thirty-four images employed in Kafka’s Prague are buildings directly associated with the writer’s life, and other structures Kafka would have known well. (You can get a sense of the book here.) To have this work so beautifully reproduced in this book is a treat in itself, together with Responses it is an enriched experience.

Responses · Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář is translated from the Czech by Ryan Scott and published by Twisted Spoon Press.

A city no one ever sees unveiled: Documentary in Dispute: The Original Manuscript of Changing New York by Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland by Sarah M. Miller

When the 1939 World’s Fair opened in Queens, New York, its motto, “The World of Tomorrow,” invited visitors to look to the future, to embrace the wonders that technology was expected to deliver in the coming years. Of course, with the Second World War still in its early days, the horrors that technology would make possible could not yet be envisioned. Building on a theme conceived at the height of the Great Depression, the Fair’s forward-looking mission was focused on a dazzling world of exciting possibilities.

As one might imagine, a bevy of brochures and books were published to celebrate the event and tie into its theme. Of these, one of the best known is Changing New York, a stunning collection of photographs by Berenice Abbott paired with captions by her life partner, esteemed art critic Elizabeth McCausland.  It would serve as Abbott’s career defining work. However, the book that met the public was a faint echo of the project the women had proposed. Their visionary design, a visual documentary of the city’s changing face in image and text had, against their protests, been reworked to conform to the format of a conventional guidebook.

The fact that the publisher, EP Dutton, along with the Federal Arts Project, had interfered with Abbott and McCausland’s intentions was not a secret, but until now the original manuscript has never been released in full. Over eighty years after Changing New York was first published, art historian Sarah M. Miller has restored the women’s intended text and image selection, presenting it together with a thorough exploration of the motivations behind Abbott’s extensive and impressive photographic project and an examination of the factors that lay behind its ultimate fate. The resulting book, Documentary in Dispute, a co-publication of the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and MIT Press, is a detailed and fascinating work of artistic reclamation.

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Berenice Abbott (1898 –1991) moved to New York to study sculpture in 1918. There she met important members of the American avant-garde such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and others. These connections proved critical. In 1921, she headed across the Atlantic to continue her studies and would remain in Europe for the better of the decade. Here she made the artistic shift to photography while working as Man Ray’s assistant at his Paris studio from 1923 – 1926. Although she learned her craft there, she absorbed the foundations of her own creative philosophy from the Surrealist artists to whom she was exposed. However, it was in the work of French architectural photographer, Eugène Atget, that she discovered an understanding of documentary that would shape her vision and become the driving force behind her landmark study of New York—a city that was, during the 1930s, in a state of flux and change. MoMA has an good online collection of 75 of Abbott’s photographs, from early portraits (such as James Joyce) taken in the mid-1920s through to her abstracts of the late 1950s. The bulk of the images on the site feature her signature subject and include many of the photographs that appear in Changing New York and in the much more expansive, text at hand. (Note: I will link to images in collections rather than reproducing images that may be copyright protected.)

Documentary in Dispute is the latest addition to RIC Books’ series on the history and theory of photography. As a work of scholarly research, however, it is engaging and fully accessible for anyone interested in photography, social history or the politics of publishing. The book opens with a brief Preface wherein Miller outlines the fraught publishing history of Changing New York and the intentions and objectives of the current photographic project and the essays that comprise the study. Central to the reading experience is, of course, the reconstructed manuscript—the images of Berenice Abbott and the words of Elizabeth McCausland are presented as they proposed, made all the more fascinating and frustrating by the inclusion of the published captions, final book placement and, in certain cases, the point at which a photograph was eliminated.

Abbott’s approach to documenting the urban landscape is evident from the very first image in the intended manuscript, a photograph that holds its place essentially by virtue of its title, Brooklyn Bridge, Water and New Dock Streets, Brooklyn. Abbott insisted on ordering her work alphabetically by title within broader subject categories. This unusual practice introduces a certain randomness and avoids a tendency to fall into a contrived order. An immediate contrast to the desired guidebookishness that would ultimately transform the finished book where this same image is number 87. However McCausland’s text also speaks to the photographer’s vision. In the photograph the skyscrapers of the distant city skyline are framed by an older building, a segment of the bridge, and a construction project. The caption reads:

The taut cables of the first bridge to link Manhattan with Brooklyn visibly soar above the brick warehouse. Every molecule of steel in the fine-woven strands and in the interlacing girders and beams contributes to the perfect equilibrium of the suspension. At the same time, this tension (invisible to the eye, which scientists have been able to photograph at speeds of one-millionth of a second) is a living element in the picture. Between the power of steel and the pull of gravitation, the photograph achieves its own equilibrium, powerful and dynamic.

Here McCausland paints an unexpected organic image of steel—a material that fascinates again and again—while calling attention to the subject and to the energy within the photograph itself. What an opening! By contrast, in the published volume (where the image appears toward the end), the text begins with an accounting of the date and costs of the bridge construction—dollar and dates are detailed wherever possible—and then goes on:

Brooklyn Bridge is the technological ancestor of all the great steel cable suspension bridges which connect Manhattan Island with the world. The Roebling’s success in devising a steel cable strong enough to support the strain of its mighty spans opened the way for the Williamsburg, Manhattan and George Washington Bridges.

And that’s just the beginning. The original manuscript of Changing New York featured 100 photographs. Drawing on her interest in book design, Elizabeth McCausland offered a proposed layout that challenged the time-honoured conventions of photographic publications—one photograph per two-page spread with the caption on the facing page. In the end, of course, tradition won out over innovation. Some images were replaced; several others were removed in the final stage without replacement. It’s interesting to speculate about just what it was that inspired the publisher to pull an image. Too controversial, too political, too abstract?

The New York that Abbott uncovers is, intentionally, not the one most tourists, and many residents, never see. She captures humble businesses, vendors, neighbourhoods, many of which are on borrowed time. Modern skyscrapers soar above the city skyline, the point of interest is typically an older structure in the foreground or a feature in the distance. Statues survey their domains, in contrast with their backgrounds or, in one deleted image, stand shrouded, awaiting reveal. Simple scenes come alive through the play of light and shadow, seemingly insignificant architectural details are highlighted, storefronts are packed with goods, roads are often curiously quiet and, of course, bridges and elevated train tracks are approached from unexpected angles. If a bridge detail could be granted life, Abbott in her choice of subjects and McCausland in her captions did not shy away from social commentary or from expressing a sense of loss as architecture of the past (and the history it represented) was disappearing from the urban landscape.

However, the documentary imperative in Changing New York was not restricted to tracing a mutable city alone—the viewer was to be encouraged to see and understand what that might mean. Abbott, together with McCausland, imagined a work that would not only invite the viewer to observe locations they might not have ventured into, from perspectives unnoticed or unavailable, they wanted to illuminate the limitations, challenges and possibilities facing the photographer and her camera. Consider, for example, Broadway to the Battery: Manhattan, which looks down on the road from on high. The caption talks about how “20th century steel frame construction, skyscrapers” allowed a new elevated view of the city:

The human eye is more flexible than a camera eye, it makes an accommodation (psychological) which the lens cannot in this new vision, in this new range of sight, the 20th century artist—specifically the photographer—has a new world to conquer. Broadway to the Battery, by its inhuman perspective, distorts the scale of human life. The ant-like people in the street, the liner in midstream dwarfed to a fictitious tininess, the almost infinitesimal dots of human beings in Battery Park—these are the humanistic equivalents of the lens’ distortion imposed on the artist by the new morphology of the city.

This type of conversation elevates the manuscript, as intended, beyond what the viewers photographic books in the 1930s would have anticipated. The photographer’s dialogue with her subject, and the writer’s dialogue with her reader, would have promised an interactive experience sadly lost as the publisher stripped and shoehorned the envisioned project into the shape of an acceptable guidebook for the World’s Fair visitor. Apparently, “The World of Tomorrow” was not to apply to textual material.

The reconstructed presentation of Changing New York, is followed by a presentation of archival materials that shine light on the publication that Abbott and McCausland had envisioned, from the photographer’s 1935 pitch to the Federal Arts Project to sample commentaries prepared for the publisher, to a document that reveals the extent of the conflict over the design changes. Finally, the third part of the book is comprised of two generously illustrated essays. The first, “Archiving Abbott” by Julie Van Haaften and Gary Van Zante offers a look into the extensive amount of material Abbott collected and organized documenting herself. “She archived nearly every aspect of her career, from newspaper notices and reviews to drafts of talks and magazine articles, ideas for projects and inventions, and her business correspondence.” She was, it would seem, preparing for future biographers. She did not doubt her own worth. The second essay, Sarah M. Miller’s “Documentary in Dispute” is an in depth examination of Abbott’s artistic and philosophical development, the vision and aims behind the manuscript as originally proposed, and the editorial process that ultimately produced a volume deemed to meet the interests of the publisher and the FAP.

A slow, careful engagement with Abbott’s images of a shifting New York together with both the intended captions and the reduced, revised replacements is the best way to entertain this book. The essays that follow will then enhance one’s appreciation of Abbott as an artist and understanding of how and why Changing New York was itself changed in the process of publication. The final book was, it must be noted, met with great critical acclaim and stands as an important photographic text. Now, however, its creators original project can be appreciated, and full power of Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland’s documentary vision can be understood.

Art and poetry meet online: Ignite from with in the confines

In late September a wonderful artist friend of mine, Deepa Gopal, invited me to participate in an online exhibition featuring eight artists and eight poets. The past few months have  been rather dry for me creatively for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is this extended period of pandemic living. And that was the spark of inspiration for this unique show.

Each artist contributed five pieces of art inspired by, or in keeping with, the theme IGNITE-from within the confines. Each poet was then paired with an artist and asked to contribute five new or recent poems with at least one written in direct response to one or more of the pieces. I was immediately inspired by the work of my partner, Dubai based Peruvian artist German Fernandez and wrote four new poems, companions to specific images and added one more piece written earlier this year. It was a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing our work together, as well as the contributions of my fellow artists and poets as the show rolls out over the following eight days.

I hope you will come and see this unique collaboration. Links for our blog, Instagram account and YouTube channel are below.

SCHEDULE – IGNITE-from within the confines-
5 NOV to 12 NOV 2020 – 4 pm (UAE time/GMT+4 hrs) every day

ARTIST and POET profile on official blog (2 blog posts)

ART & POEM on YouTube (one video)
– one artwork and one poem –

will be published on Facebook and Instagram too

As of today, November 10, my poetry can be found here.
German Fernandez’ profile and artwork can be found here.

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Official Blog: https://ignitefromwithintheconfines.blogspot.com/
Official Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ignite.fwtc.2020/
YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClJQhklsmPqHkaU6FmMmhEA/featured?view_as=subscriber