- Scissors, Paper, Stone: Expressions of Memory in Contemporary Photographic Art
Martha Langford's study of the importance of memory in contemporary Canadian photographic art employs the terms of a children's game - Scissors, Paper, Stone - to suggest some of the ways in which ideas about memory are implicated in the production and reception of photographic images. Beyond their imaginative suggestiveness, these terms [End Page 458] act as a conceptual scaffold for readings of a diverse range of visual work and texts. This is an ambitious book with ambitions for Canadian art, examples of which are beautifully represented in a large number of high-quality reproductions. As such this book will remain an important point of reference for the study of Canadian art, photography, and new media for years to come.
Langford's selection of artists is bold, revealing the variety and richness of contemporary photographic work in Canada. What connects the various works of art gathered here, apart from their Canadian origins, is the way in which they are thought not just to thematize memory, but to reactivate it; as Langford insists, 'a rehearsal of memory must be conducted through the work.' What this means is articulated further when she states that she has looked 'for evidence that the activation of memory was anticipated by the artist and felt by others besides myself,' and further, that the 'spectator must be prompted visually to seek signs of mental activity and recognise the shift from the here and now into the realms of memory.'
Inevitably such ambition brings its own challenges. It is not clear how these threads of intentionality and reception can be woven back together again through the act of criticism. Langford attempts something like this through exegeses of a wide range of philosophical, sociological, and art historical scholarship juxtaposed with her own, more personal, speculative excurses. On page 73, after a discussion of Donigan Cumming's work, Langford cites Jonathan Crary's analysis of 'attention and distraction,' glosses Nietzsche's 'species of history,' refers to Linda Bishai's use of Nietzsche, and then moves on to William Connelly's call for 'critical responsiveness.' Such a compressed textual space is typical in a book that covers too much ground too quickly, leading to rather superficial analyses. More seriously, and despite the intention to problematize received ideas of the relationship between memory and photography ('those who equate memories and photographs are not sane'), memory instead risks being hypostatized: we are told that 'memory itself is at a crossroads'; we wander through the 'realms of memory'; 'memories' are 'expressed photographically'; 'memory is close to history, to truth'; 'the expression of memory . . . is the very picture of mobility.' It may be that these are just turns of phrase - ways of emphasizing the complexity whereby memory is conceptualized, but in a book that draws on a vast body of literature, nearly all of which could be said to be concerned with exposing the construction of meaning, identity, social agency, and gender through language, this tendency to essentialize memory is worrying. Furthermore, Langford's own glossing of the terms she is using remains imprecise: 'Photographic work can be defined as participation to the best of its capabilities in whatever is going on'; or again, 'unconscious emulation, otherwise known as memory.' [End Page 459]
Although the works themselves never become mere illustrations of philosophical theories, it is not clear in what way a desirable critical distance between the texts and work is created. A healthy disregard for aspects of the scholarly apparatus creates its own problems - the arbitrariness of the way in which texts and images are brought together only admits a partial coherence through Langford's authorial voice. This results in a seamless, open-ended, and yet curiously claustrophobic textual space in which the opportunity to open the discussion to broader but relevant issues is sometimes lost. While there is no mention in the title of the nationality of the artists - an omission that might lead one to expect the avoidance of narrow nationalistic categories - there is little...