Response To a Request,The name itself comes from a wonderful 1907 prose by Robert Walser, published in The Walk, trans. Christopher Middleton and others (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2013) pp. 19-23 orients itself towards one thing: providing a momentary plug-out that opens a space for concerted, vital, reflection, one image at a time. The request of the title is made twice; the first, from myself to the writer; the second, seemingly from the image itself. Over the course of the next twelve months, the hope is that these demanding images demand a lot.
The initial idea stemmed from a line in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980), where he, ‘resolved to start my inquiry with no more than a few photographs, the ones I was sure existed for me’. From such a position he asks, and this is what sucked me in; ‘why mightn’t there be, somehow, a new science for each object?' Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (London: Vintage Books, 2000) p. 8 The insistent clarity of this question roused me, still does.
Barthes’ question, and his refusal to systematise ways of looking, feeling, and writing, is instrumental to this project. There are no guidelines as to how an image should be answered. Instead, it is the image’s singularity, its particular demand, that will be emphasised. The text, in turn, will bear the imprint of its object. This imprint might be slight, or it might be dramatic, shaping its contours in very clear ways.
Another influence is T.J. Clark’s seminal A Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006). The book details the author’s prolonged response to two paintings by Nicholas Poussin. Over the course of this small book, the two artworks’ semantic generosity becomes clear, their seeming imperishability causing a somewhat incredulous Clark to return and return again. ‘Maybe,’ he muses, ‘we deeply want to believe that images happen, essentially or sufficiently, all at once... Maybe the actual business of repeated gawping strikes us as embarrassing at least when set out in sentences’. T.J. Clark. The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (New Haven & New York: Yale University Press, 2006) p. 5 But repeated gawping is exactly what he does: in The Sight of Death we have an account of an eminent art historian grappling with art itself, its inexhaustible nature pushing up against the limitations of any writing about it. And, though you’d think it might make a boring exercise, it’s not. Repetition, here, doesn't result in cynicism or ennui; there's more than enough in these two old paintings. To me that’s almost miraculous.
If it is nostalgic, Response to a Request is reflective, rather than restorative. Svetlana Boym. The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001) Instead of some luddite reversion, the hope here is to refine and complicate. Publishing excellent material means giving it the requisite space, and this demand applies as much to the image, as the writing. This slow looking and reflection stretches to accommodate a whole range of feeling; from dread, to boredom, to confusion, to love. The only thing known for certain is that slowness does not necessarily mean being slow. It might mean uncontrollable motion.
Response to a Request has been designed so as to provide an online space for this, and to eliminate extraneous reference points. The image remains visible at all times as you read the response, limiting the possibility for distraction. More than anything, though, the design tries to mime the work of the text, echoing the to and fro – from artwork to text - that helps it into being. The aim with this website is to create a similar kind of vacuum.
What will follow is a series of short texts, each in response to an image that is of particular interest or value to the writer. These responses will be available for a short period of time, and then disappear. There is no archive.
– Rebecca O'Dwyer
Bright light dapples through trees in what would appear to be spring or the beginning of autumn, the look of early morning. The freshness in the air can almost be felt; its warmth just about tangible despite the modest information left in this rudimentary offset reproduction.
In the 1940s a young artist, Harry Everett Smith, began assembling a large collection of brittle 78rpm records. During World War II, he worked mounting guns in the Boeing aircraft, doing what most could not due to a curvature of his spine. In the course of these activities, he rescued many of the records from a shellac-recycling project, a centralised war effort. Later, he collected eighty-four of these tracks to make up a three-volume set, the Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952. On its cover was an engraving by the 17th century mathematician and occultist Robert Fludd, which showed a monochord with a hand reaching down from the heavens to touch it. The ancient single stringed instrument is both a simple form of musical instrument and bathed in myth, with its invention even having being attributed to Pythagoras; what we do know, however, is that it appears as early as texts belonging to the Sumerian civilization. This American folk music, it is worth noting, would have held little interest for the mainstream of American society at that time, keen as it was to see itself leaving behind poverty and struggle, moving into post-war affluence and a sense of its new-found importance in the world. Whatever else this cover image seems to be about, it would appear to refer to a certain kind of unity: of ideas, music and culture. Inside the anthology, an unusual collaged booklet included little information on the music but instead quoted Aleister Crowley and Rudolf Steiner. Smith was overlaying a sort of diagram of ideas upon the music he had found, drawing out latent meaning in these ghostly songs. Later, Smith would go on to become a sort of professional collector as well as an artist and filmmaker. His collections of both paper planes and string figures are marvels of obsession.
An elderly man sits on a fold out chair with headphones on his ears. Lost in thought, he is operating a reel-to-reel tape recorder and surrounded by all manner of wires, heavy rolls of cable and electronic equipment. What appears to be some kind of notebook lies on the ground. On the right of the image, in the background, a woman stands with an elaborate microphone — in the form of a satellite dish — looking upwards to the sky or towards the tops of the mainly out of shot trees. Both figures are dressed in a work a day fashion: they have a job to do. He looks down and inward; she looks outward. Deep in concentration, she seems to be trying to receive, or tap into, something. To me, there is something of the ceremonial about her demeanour that recalls the figures standing in witness in Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery, London, which I have been looking at again while writing this text. It might be the odd mixture of the celestial and dirt that links that painting with this image of the two pilgrims in the woods: old Europe transferred to the not-so-new world. Of course, in the Piero della Francesca the Middle East is transferred to something like the Italian landscape. And in fact, the dappled light and the setting of the photograph could just as easily have been depicted by the great French painter Pierre Bonnard, if we swapped the recording equipment for an outdoor lunch at a garden table. Relatively ordinary people going about their daily lives.
Sometime in early 2011 I was in a warehouse space full of records and old books off a dusty freeway on the outskirts of Dallas. Leafing through the racks I pulled out several copies of Appalachian folk music and other oddities, and found a copy of National Network of American Bird Songs, Volume 1-2-3, to give it its full title: three Long Playing records, encased in a heavy card box, inside of which there was a faded three-page insert with liner notes and a list of the recordings on each of the three discs.
Around the time that Harry Smith was releasing the material that made up his music of the spheres, the couple in this image – Jerry and Norma Stillwell – sold their home and car, bought a trailer and truck and set off around the United States to record American song birds. The liner notes tell little else, other than Jerry Stillwell was a retired Chief Technical Editor at the American Petroleum Institute in Dallas, so geography might go some way in explaining the beautifully intact copy that I found. But their dedication and obsession is clear enough; and it is recounted that they often woke at 3 am to set up their many microphones and the parabolic reflector, as I learned the “satellite dish” is really called.
The birds themselves are like a list of paintings, an inventory of colour: Blue Jay, Brown Thrasher, Goldfinch, Painted Bunting, Bob-White and the Blue-Bird, the one that never flew over the White Cliffs of Dover.
The American composer and electronic pioneer (another frontier word) Laurie Spiegel recorded several pieces of music entitled Appalachian Grove in the early 1970s. Her stark, soaring, yet slowly building pieces used purely electronic means that seem to refer to, amongst other things, a legacy of American folk music: music which was itself deeply ingrained in the landscape it came from, almost sculpted by it. Spiegel made deep connections in her work between these American traditions and the systems in the music of Bach. Like Harry Smith, she made a potent confluence of European religious music and the sublime and expansive landscape of America.
Something about this image continues to draw me in, reminding me of times that felt full of potential; it may be recognition of the concentration, an image of listening to what we cannot see. They are lost in inquisitiveness, both listening to the world but somehow also apart from it. And, even though Harry Smith has nothing directly to do with this image, he never fails to come to mind when I view it. Both make me think of the nature of collecting and of the amateur in the true sense of the word. ‘Amateur,’ from the French, has always meant a lover of things, but sadly its meaning has been somehow lost along the way. Those we often see to be major figures in their respective fields are non-professional, with a deep love for the subject: amateurs, often working without acknowledgement and devoid of financial reward. For them, collection is an effort to hold onto a disappearing world shadowed by loss. Recently I have begun to make a small collection myself, of anonymous photographs, jugglers, magicians and acrobats and postcards of meteorites. These all depict something of the split second: a pole is balanced on someone’s head, a rock lands in the desert. Somehow these all connect in my mind with this image of a couple trying to capture the fleeting and ephemeral.
Fergus Feehily is an artist living and working in Berlin and Helsinki.