Ancient Greek curse figurine and miniature coffin, 420-410BCE, Karameikos Museum, Athens.
I teach at the Royal College of Art and the University of Brighton. Below are some details of the subject areas on which I currently lecture and tutor.
Royal College of Art (postgraduate)
Critical and Historical Studies for Fine Art
The purpose of the CHS programme is to encourage debate, understanding, intellectual confidence and self-expression in the history, philosophy and criticism of the various disciplines taught at the RCA. Across an academic year, prior to the submission of a dissertation, I lead seminars and conduct group and personal tutorials to support postgraduate fine art students with their writing, which diversely includes experiments with the essay, art criticism, creative writing and fiction. Seminars are offered engaging form, style, genre, voice and other key concerns. Writers covered include Roland Barthes, Teju Cole, Maurice Blanchot, William H. Gass, Hito Steyerl, Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Georges Perec and others.
University of Brighton (postgraduate and undergraduate)
MA Photography: Contemporary Debates:
Agency, Politics, Race
Photography acts upon the world, and as agents in the world it incites us to action. It may be a form of picture making, but that practice always takes place between people, prompting different forms of investment, identification, and agency. A number of philosophers have tried to shift the discussion about photography away from a pure analysis of the image towards an analysis of the kinds of relationships it subtends. A key philosopher here is Jacques Ranciere who has attempted to rethink the way in which the idea of the aesthetic operates within communities to produce what he calls a ‘distribution of the sensible’. This offers a counter to the traditional modernist model of disengaged spectatorship. Spectatorship for Ranciere is part of a shared engagement in the process of the realization of the image. Ariella Azoulay has attempted to find a model for thinking about the relationship between the photographer and the subject, exploring the way in which the activity of photography produces us as citizens of the world, opening out spaces for action and critical thinking with respect to politics, subjectivity and race.
Linda Alcoff, The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique, 20: pp5-32, 1991
Ariela Azoulay, 'What is Photography?' in Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography, London: Verso, 2012
Jacques Ranciere, ‘The Pensive Image’ in The Emancipated Spectator, London: Verso, 2009
MA Photography: Contemporary Debates:
Expanded Stories and Imaginary Fictions
If, as many a philosopher will tell us, “truth” is a problematic concept, photography goes some way to aid this problematisation through the manner in which it vacillates between ideas of the document (an image’s relationship to “truth”) and fiction (the image’s construction of an imaginary world). In light of this, what is the photograph’s relationship to the nature of fiction and fictionality, storytelling and literature? How have photographic artists used methodologies borrowed from literature and fiction to tell us something important about the world?
Jane M. Rabb, Introduction to Literature and Photography: Interactions 1840 – 1990: A Critical Anthology, University of New Mexico Press, 1995
Terry Eagleton, ‘The Nature of Fiction’ in The Event of Literature, Yale University Press, 2012
MA Photography: Contemporary Debates:
Concepts of materiality are embedded in our understanding of the birth of photography – the epiphanic moment when light was trapped on paper and the fugitive moment was made material. The idea of the index – of the photographic image being a special kind of sign actually caused by an effect in the material world – has been a powerful one that has been the focus of philosophical discussion about the medium, not least because it implies that the photograph gives us a special access to the real, and maybe even to truth. The dark room as site of physical-chemical transformation has a powerful presence in our culture. However, photography is also nowadays bound into a digital currency that seems to celebrate a kind of immateriality, a mutable, fleeting, flow of information that is more liquid than solid. Or are these new forms also essentially material – just in a different way? How can we think the materiality of photography and how can we relate that to its philosophical force as an idea, with specific regard to the related concepts of materialism, immaterialism and the incorporeal? We will start by thinking about the concept of indexicality and then move on to thinking about the pressures upon that term by new developments in the technology, and in the culture and thinking that surrounds it. How have artists responded to these developments?
Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, reprinted in The Camera Viewed: Writings on Twentieth-Century Photography, Volume 2, ed. Peninah R. Petruck, Dutton, New York, p. 145. Also reprinted in Trachtenberg, A. Classic Essays on Photography, Leete’s Island Books, 1980
Elisabeth Grosz, Introduction to The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics and the Limits of Materialism, 2017
Graham Harman, ‘Materialism and Immaterialism’ in Immaterialism, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016
BA Photography: Photography, Magic, Technology
Is believing in photography as nonsensical as believing in magic? Photography’s relationship to the cultures of magic is continuous, intriguing and simultaneously problematic. The Kodak Brownie, the first mass-produced camera, was named after a poltergeist; ImageMagic, a popular software tool, “magically converts” digital image files from one form to another; and a number of essays on the medium compare photography to spirit, ghosts inside machines, and digital, spectral metamorphoses.
Like photography, magic might be seen as a literal or metaphorical vehicle for comprehending both the material world and for the creation of new, constructed ones. Photography and magic both grapple with ideas of truth and fiction and the complex relationships between scientific evidence and cultural interpretation. Through a discussion of the history and anthropology of magic, esotericism, spiritualism, surrealism, race, representation and visual perception, these lectures consider the connections between cultures of magic and cultures of photography historically – from Zoroastrianism to the algorithms of our globalised, digital age.
It is here suggested that whether one believes in magic or not, it is best understood as a series of emancipatory practices that might free us from various normative constrictions. These include binary conceptions of gender, the legacies of colonialism, false histories of white technological invention, the often dismissive attitude towards esoteric knowledge in the Western university, and photographic and scientific definitions of reality, representation and illusion as they relate to our perception and understanding of photography today.
Lecture 1: The Origins of Magic and the Origins of Photography:
What is magic? Accompanied by diverse images of magical happenings, this first session will introduce the origins of magic in the East, its movement to the West, and the notions of ‘the anthropology of magic’ and ‘esoteric culture’, concluding with a discussion of one of the inventors of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, and the way in which he referred to his discovery as “natural magic”.
Davies, O. (2012) ‘Anthropologies of Magic’ in Magic: A Very Short Introduction
Cotton, C. (2015) Photography is Magic, Aperture.
Blight, D. C. (2015) Photography is not Magic: Photographic Images and their Digital Spirit, American Suburb X.
Goodrick-Clarke, N. (2008) ‘Modern Esotericism and new Paradigms’ in The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction
Douglas R. Nickel (2002) Talbot's natural magic, History of Photography, 26:2, 132-140
Lecture 2: The Haunting: Photography, Spiritualism, Surrealism:
This session considers the relationship between photography and spiritualism in America and Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and how it came to influence avant-garde art practices such as surrealism, in which magical and esoteric photographic images played a crucial role.
Kaplan, L. (2003) ‘Where the Paranoid Meets the Paranormal: Speculations on Spirit
Photography’ in Art Journal, Vol. 62, No. 3 (Autumn, 2003), pp. 18-29
Bate, D. (2003) Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent
Breton, A. (2016) ‘The Haunting’ in Ades, D. (ed.) The Surrealism Reader: An Anthology of Ideas
Harvey, D. (2007) Photography and Spirit
Krauss, R.E. (1981) ‘The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism’. In October, Vol.19, pp3-34
Lepetit, P. (2014) ‘Surrealism and Magic’. In The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism
Lecture 3: Photographic Spectralities: Analogue Spirits, Digital Ghosts:
From Cromwell Varley, the part-inventor of the trans-Atlantic telegraph system, to the all- pervading internet, a kind of cultural magic inhabits the artistic use of machines, including the camera. This session traces some interpretations of what might be referred to as “haunted technologies” – in analogue and digital cameras, in servers and big data storage and pertinently in wireless networks, software and algorithms – offering examples of contemporary photographic and media art practices that are influenced by the “magic” of these spectral- technological forms.
Blanco, M. del Pilar and Peeren, E. (2013) ‘The Ghost in the Machine: Spectral Media’ in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory.
Fisher, M. (2017) The Weird and the Eerie.
Hui Kyong Chun, W. (2011) Programmed Visions: Software and Memory.
Manovich, L. (2013) Software Takes Command.
Waligore, M. (1995) 'Artist-Sorceress: Photography and Digital Metamorphosis' in Leonardo, Vol. 28, No. 4 (1995), pp. 249-256.
Lecture 4: Why are Ghosts White? Magic, Race and the Camera:
To what extent is photography racist? What role did colonialism and the camera play in the interpretation of non-western magical practices? Jean-Luc Godard famously refused to use Kodak film during an assignment to Mozambique in 1977, on the grounds that the film stock was inherently 'racist'. Kodak had designed the film in such a way that suited only the photographing of white skin. Photography, like technology itself, is bound to racist histories of invention. This session considers both documentary photographs of magical healing ceremonies in Africa, alongside contemporary art practices that critique the colonial and racist legacies of the camera, in order to consider the occurrences in which magic is used as a form of fearful accusation.
Fouche, R. (2012) ‘From Black Inventors to One Laptop Per Child: Exporting a Racial Politics of Technology’ in Race After the Internet.
Behrend, H. (2003) ‘Photo Magic: Photographs in Practices of Healing and Harming in East Africa’ in Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 33, Fasc. 2, Religion and the Media (May, 2003), pp. 129-145
Hui Kyong Chun, W. (2009) ‘Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race’ in Camera Obscura 70, Volume 24, Number 1.
Ranger, T. (2001). ‘Colonialism, Consciousness and the Camera’ in Past & Present, (171), 203-215.
Lecture 5: Photography’s Hallucinations: Constructed Reality and the Camera Theory of Vision:
Like studies of magic and race, photographic theory and practice continues to be concerned with the question of representation. What if, contrary to analogue photography which indexes and refers to the world, digital images instead refer to a series of simulations? What if, to complicate matters further, in the view of cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman or the provocative biocentrist researcher Robert Lanza, the world is itself a construction – an “atmosphere”, to put it in the terms of non-representational theorists Ben Anderson and James Ash. This session considers the relationship between photographic seeing and non- representational theory, and asks whether concepts of magic are a successful analogy for thinking, and seeing, photography as enchantment and material sorcery.
Hoffman, D. (2011) ‘The construction of visual reality’. In Hallucination: Research and Practice.
Rubinstein, D. and Sluis, K. (2013) ‘Algorithmic Photography and the Crisis of Representation’ in The Photographic Image in Digital Culture.
Anderson B. and Ash, J. (2015) ‘Atmospheric Methods’ in Vannini, P. Non-representational Methodologies.
Rubinstein, D. (2013) ‘The Grin of Schrödinger's Cat; Quantum Photography and the limits of Representation’ in On the Verge of Photography: Imaging Beyond Representation.