Jeremy Ayer in conversation with David Campany
Jeremy Ayer, Organs of a Divided Labour, Mörel Books, London, 2022
David Campany: Jeremy, your book, Organs of a Divided Labour, is a series of still life studio photographs of manufactured industrial parts, mainly metal, sometimes plastic. A short text in the book tells us all the items are from the catalogue of the retailer Hans Kohler AG. Are you attracted to these objects? To industrial photography? To both?
Jeremy Ayer: I am attracted to this genre of photography and also to how images are fabricated, but what originally initiated the idea was an urge to get away from a type of photography encouraging semiotic lust and triggering signifiers. So I searched for this specific type of imagery which didn’t have these intentions and in my research I got hooked on a catalogue of tubes and fittings, with pages and pages filled with tiny black and white images of products on a white background. I used the catalogue of Kohler AG, a retailer in Zürich, as a reference. I ordered all the pieces from them and photographed them in my studio, the same way as there in their catalogue.
DC: I’m sure there are some people out there for whom tubes and fittings, or images of them are ‘lustful’ and ‘triggering’ (I think it was Georges Bataille who said no art lover loves a work of art as much as a fetishist loves a shoe). Nevertheless, that mix of attraction and ‘getting away from’ something leads you to a kind of mimicry, it seems. An imitation or ventriloquism of anonymous industrial photography and subject matter. There is a long tradition of this in photography, particularly among art photographers that do not want to appear ‘arty’ and instead step into non-art vernaculars. Your book has quite a strict feeling of cool anonymity (although it has your name on it). This keeps the range of possible interpretations quite wide. Who would you like your book to reach, and what would a good reaction to it be?
JA: I am sure some people would find my images of tubes and fittings triggering, especially with art because that’s what art history classes teaches us to do, that the artist is longing for the viewer’s interpretation. But what I mean is, the original catalogue images themselves aim to illustrate rather than to evoke something, and that’s what attracted me.
I am not only mimicking industrial photography but also a certain type of contemporary art photography, deadpan photography. Operating with the same tools and codes as it’s well-known proponents. So I think there is quite some humour to it, and that is something I would like the book to be perceived as. On the back cover, Leila Peacock wrote a text in which she amusingly reappropriated herself a technical sheet on stainless steels. The book is designed in a very minimal, objective and functional way, with listings of all relevant information. Presenting itself as it is and further implementing the deadpan aesthetics in its design. My intention was to create a book which is more a work of art, than a book of photographs. In that way, I think it needs a bit of art literacy to be grasped, so I believe it reaches more of an audience of photography enthusiasts, book collectors, or aesthetes.
DC: The photographic style here (well, it’s not really a style, more of a protocol) has been around for a century or more. Your book takes me back to that moment when photography became a significant Modern art, by embracing its non-art practices – the industrial image, the snapshot, documentary, and so forth. That was also the moment when various artists turned towards industrial manufacture, and away from willful subjectivity and the traditional ‘mark of the hand’: Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades and the highly technical labour of his Large Glass; László Moholy-Nagy giving instructions by telephone to a manufacturer for a series of ‘paintings’, and so forth. Such practices never actually get rid of labour. Rather, the artist’s labour is either outsourced to someone else, someone ‘professional’, or it adopts a professional character. The fact that this approach is still with us after a century is fascinating, and I think it tells us something about photography as a medium that will always belong and not belong to art. Its role in art is always in dialogue with its roles outside of art, perhaps because any and every photograph is potentially art and not art. There’s an excitement in that, but also a kind of anxiety, because while there has been such a struggle to have photography accepted as a legitimate art, the medium is always smuggling in its own unavoidable illegitimacy, and in fact this illegitimacy is precisely what photography has brought to modern art. It destabilizes itself and the category of art, and in doing so, it keeps things alive and interesting. Would you agree with this assessment?
JA: I agree, this anxiety about legitimacy as an art form is quite strong with photography but I also believe there is an overall anxiety in the arts as there are general concerns of the artist’s cultural responsibilities towards the art dialectic. However, photography participates in the dialogue by feeding it and feeding upon it at the same time. This constant turmoil seems to be inevitable, but yes also very stimulating.
DC: When the objects are photographed very close, we see the tiny little imperfections, but from further away some of them look so perfect that the images hardly seem photographic, like pure forms with immaculate surfaces. They resemble graphic illustrations, of the kind that catalogues from the 1920s or 30s would often prefer. That is quite a strange dynamic. The more perfected the image, the less like a photograph it seems, as if the ‘reality effect’ requires imperfection.
JA: This duality is something I wanted to reveal in the book. I like André Bazin, the film critic’s comparison of the process of image making to the practice of embalming the dead in ancient Egypt. In his words, the making of images no longer shares an anthropocentric, utilitarian purpose, nor of a question of survival after death, but of a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny. I see my book as a mise en abyme of its analogy, documenting the construction that underlies each image that is created every day. A construction that tries to create an ideal world from objects of all kinds.
DC: That’s interesting. The idea of creating an ideal world feels like it has something in common with the modernist photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch’s thoughts, in his short essay ‘Joy Before the Object’ (1928): “There must be an increase in the joy one takes in an object” he insisted “and the photographer should become fully conscious of the splendid fidelity of reproduction made possible by his technique.” Photography becomes a form of respectful homage, in service of the object, but in the process the object is transformed into an ideal version of itself. In your photographs you idealize and also show the process of idealization, framing some of the compositions widely so that we can see your technique, and how the ideal world is being created. But this too feels like a kind of homage… to the usually anonymous labour of this kind of image.
JA: It feels that way because OOADL was conceived in a manner to rest upon production traditions. Just photography book making itself is already part of a long tradition. But my intention is really to create an observation which can be perceived on different scales. The title “Organs of A Divided Labour” can be read literally, or also metaphorically. “Organ” can stand for the tubes manufactured by different labourers. It can stand for the tubes themselves having a specific function, all mounted in a system connecting water in buildings, themselves all connected to a water drainage system. “Organ” can stand for the worker, in a chain of production involving specific skills from many people. It can stand for the artist engaged in the enterprise of art. Or very simply let’s just say, anything part of something bigger.
DC: How do you feel about artistic labour as a photographer in relation to industrial labour? Obviously, art-making can be very hard work, very laborious, but it’s not the same as working in a factory.
JA: They don’t have much in common. My artistic labour only comes in bursts and for short amounts of time, so it is very exciting to me. It also plays a crucial role in the development of my work, in which I want to be conscious of the apparatus. I give myself the time to work step by step, learning the skill necessary for a project and also reflecting on the results. I rarely nail an image the first time I take it.
As far as industrial work is concerned, we live in the midst of a new industrial revolution involving more and more automated work. This automation relieves humans of repetitive tasks and leaves more room for creativity. In this sense, artistic creation acquires a new place.
DC: Do the images in the Hans Kohler AG catalogue differ from yours?
JA: As in the HK catalogue, I used the floating object technique, consisting of lighting the objects on a glass from underneath in order to eliminate the shadows, used the same object compositions, and tried to light the objects as similarly as possible. My images reveal the photographic space of white and black cardboards and are stopped before the prescribed completion of isolating the objects on a plain white background, which is as they are in the HK catalogue.
DC: Do you see your project as completely straightforward and uncomplicated or is it more enigmatic than that? How do you think the people at HK would react to your book?
JA: The process of OOADL involves a reduction to the full on aspects of automated labour by developing an art practice setup upon a system, setup by myself, consisting of ordering pieces from the retailer and photographing them again, in the same way. The system here is quite straightforward and uncomplicated. As the reasons for it are more enigmatic. What was your reaction the first time you had the book in your hands?
DC: A mix of things. The deep relation between photography and graphic design. Interwar modernism. Photographic labour and industrial labour. Plumbing. Art and non-art. But most of all, it made me think about the interesting ways that books of photographs can appeal to different audiences for different reasons. I remember once showing my sister’s partner a book of Stephen Shore’s photographs taken on the road in the USA. Looking through the book, he didn’t really make an aesthetic response, or an appreciation of the photographs, but he did notice quite a number of MGB cars in the images. It turns out Shore liked MGB’s at the time. His wife had one, and they recur in those photos. My sister’s partner noticed this because he used to be a car mechanic. And that is a perfectly legitimate response to those images. The meaning of photographs is usually determined by their context, but sometimes a book can present photographs very openly, allowing for very different responses. And of course, to a great extent each person is their own context. So as I held your book in my hands, I was imagining it being in the hands of many different people, all having different but perhaps overlapping responses.
JA: I always find it interesting to see how people flip through the book, some carefully turning each page and some others flicking with their thumb through it very quickly several times in a row. One thing which is always in the back of my mind, is how these images are sort of only existing in the future, as I haven’t really produced any yet and also never exhibited them. The book is it’s first final form. So in a way, the state of these images is still quite hypothetical and has been only recognized by a few people as potentially interesting. But I guess it’s a state intrinsic to every work of art, it’s futurity, something in the coming to be, and which only time can tell of how the social, historical and cultural space will allow it to subsist. How have your thoughts on the project evolved since the beginning of the conversation? Did you see it as enigmatic ?
DC: Well, there’s a paradox. In art, the most straightforward, objective-looking photography is often the most enigmatic or perplexing in art, because art has no explicit purpose or function. Art deprives functional-looking images, or objects, of their function, allowing matters of form and aesthetic response to arise more emphatically, while never overcoming that sense of potential function. That’s the lesson of Duchamp’s Readymades, but also of the industrial photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, for example.
A book being a “first final form” is interesting. Obviously the history of photographic art is full of examples in which the book was the first, and sometimes the only form. Photographs occupy the page like no other art form. When we look at a book of paintings or sculptures, we know we are looking at photographic reproductions of things that are elsewhere, perhaps in a gallery or museum, or studio.. That’s not the same with photographic art, which exists fully on the page. The viewer/reader of the photographic art book doesn’t imagine the ‘real’ images are somewhere else (generally speaking). Although, they may well imagine that the things or people depicted in the photographs are somewhere else…
JA: Yes, photography seems to be the art of documenting, no matter what.
We’ve mentioned the shift of contexts of the images, and the status that they acquire, but we haven’t really talked about the act of photographing itself here. When I take these photographs in my studio, re-performing a task which usually a commercial photographer performs and to invite myself to take part in a chain of production, this directly underlines or questions the role of the artist in society, and I believe becomes a political act. So the images are also the products of this performance.
DC: Can you expand on the politics of this gesture?
JA: By mimicking a photographic labour using artistic tools, I directly anchor the artist as a working force in our society. My work addresses the economic relations of value production in the process of artistic labour. As mentioned earlier, OOADL is an observation of the aesthetics of commercial photography, but also represents a reenactment of the work done to achieve it. The art market is a traditional capitalistic activity, but artistic labour has an entirely different relationship with capitalism. If one compares the capitalist mode of production, which is based on paid labor, to the artistic production system, a key principle is that artists have not yet become wage earners. OOADL is therefore an action, directly demonstrating these mechanisms.
DC: Perhaps artists have a complicated relation to wage labour because they are asking questions the labour system may not want to hear.
JA: Whether it is related to the meaning of work or to working conditions, the relationship between humans and work is a major topical issue. This question arises everywhere, whatever the level of economic development. The artist contributes to the debate and a positive reflection for a future improvement of the conditions and meaning of work.
DC: And when we get there what status will your book have? Will it return to the radical anonymity from which it came?
JA: Good question. Statistically speaking, most probably an old relic. Let’s hope for the best, though.
There will and have been so many artists by then, so many photographers, so many books produced that it will be impossible to keep up, and so, yes, sooner or later it will return someway to the anonymity from which it came.