Friday, January 09, 2009
Kleptographia – or all photography is theft.
There is an old term from the days of sprocket holes and projectors called found footage; meaning either appropriated footage or literally bits of film discarded on the cutting room floor and then scavenged from the bins outside editing rooms. In the 70s you would have been able to find anything from snippets of earnest documentaries to porn if you knew outside which doors to look in Soho.
Of course you would be hard pushed to find anything so physical nowadays. The web however is just bursting with (mostly low res) digital clips and stills waiting to be found and recontextualised. Keen viewers of this blog will notice that that is pretty much what I have been doing these last few years. Starting firstly not so much with footage per se but with single photos, an accordion for A Rocco Din, a Harley Davidson engine for Engine Trouble, a pin-up poster of Marilyn for Kisser and so on. More recently I have been using short sections of classic films for the Chronocuts series and this has made this appropriation far more explicit indeed, even foregrounded.
In the Chronocuts series the viewer’s likely familiarity with the original footage is an important part of the process but more generally I am always happier working with someone else’s footage or stills. Or to put it another way there is always an unease about taking or originating either photographs or video. There is a sense in which all filming or taking of images involves a certain theft; a removal of something, which doesn’t belong to you.
I shall call this process Kleptographia. There is here something of a parallel with the idea held in aboriginal cultures of photography stealing the soul of those photographed but concept of Kleptographia goes much further to say that all photographic processes involve an illegitimate transference whether they contain people or not. What problematises that transference over say a process like drawing or painting is that nearly all commercially available camera equipment produce uncanny likenesses. Truer, sharper, blacker, brighter, richer colors and detail; the terminology of photography strives endlessly for perfect reproduction to act as some kind of seamless mirror reflecting a reality back to us. Or some illusion that passes for reality. The constant need to resist the illusion of reproduction becomes a time consuming process and can make it all but impossible to originate such material. Where does one look, brazenly through the lens as one swipes the scene? Easier to break a window and make off with a fur than stand on a street corner taking photographs.
So if unhappy to be a part of the Kleptographic process and steal the images in the first place why then happy to be a “fence”: a handler of stolen shots? With found footage and stills the anxiety of the original theft is lifted. The crime being subsumed by the supposed ownership of the image taker. The image or images do not of course belong to the original taker, the thief, they belong to the scene form when they were stolen. The thief’s claim on the images enshrined as it is in copyright law means the fence in this context is by handling the goods serving to release them from the thief’s grasp. Short of destruction and the death of all who have seen the pictures the theft can never be legitimized but in re-appropriating them there is a sense in which one can partially liberate them from the notion of ownership.