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