A postmodern documentary- Martha Rosler

For a moment let’s put Rosler on the back burner and concentrate on some background research… (I’m also waiting for a book to arrive with the Martha Rosler essay in) Dr. Mary Klages is an Associate Professor, English Department, University of Colorado, Boulder and her areas of speciality are:

American Literature
Cultural Studies
Gender and Sexuality Studies
Literary Theory

She has written an article on Postmodernism

The Tate Gallery, as per usual, has some information in its glossary for when I need to research certain topics.

Mary Klages was, and I do believe still is, an Associate Professor within the English Dept. at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She has written several books including Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Within this she has written an essay exploring Postmodernism. The next exercise is to read an article by Martha Rosler and makes notes on it in my blog.

Before doing that, I felt I really needed to get to grips with what Mary Klages had to say about Postmodernism. I have to admit to not knowing much about literary or art theory, so this is quite a steep learning curve, and although it can be tedious looking up new terminology and theorists, I have found the information enlightening and relevant to the photographers work I have been researching, as well as linking to some of the exercises and assignments that are within the coursework.

It didn’t start well when Klages acknowledged that Postmodernism was a complicated term and hard to define due to it being a relatively new concept, only emerging as an area of academic study within the 1980’s. I wondered – if ‘experts’ couldn’t define it what chance would I have? That taken as read, we are asked to note that each new era only develops as a direct link, be it causal or reactionary, to what has come before. This I agree with as we consciously or unconsciously, mimic the world around us – a prime example would be our up-bringing; we either choose to emulate our parents ideals or declare there is no-way we will follow in their footsteps or behaviours. The same could be said of art/photography; we study other artists, which has either a negative or positive impact on the exploratory direct of our own work.

It is also hard to define as it is multi-disciplined crossing into other areas of study/disciplines – as did Surrealism before it. The first thing I could relate to was when Klages spoke about the traits which Postmodernism favours. Having just seen Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s 20 min film at the Tate I can state, quite categorically, that this falls 100% within the Postmodern genre…as she outlines that it follows certain ideas: “rejecting boundaries, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony and playfulness. “It also favours “reflexivity, fragmentation, discontinuity, ambiguity, simultaneity” and further on comments that Postmodernism doesn’t “lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality or incoherence but celebrates that…” It has the attitude that “the world is meaningless..” so “Let’s not pretend that art can make meaning and let’s just play with nonsense.”

In Hermistos Children: Pilot Episode, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd does all of the above and more….I loved 2 reviews that I found on the film when first released…”The filmed performance was summarised by Adrian Searle as, “The young woman who rode to her own death on the dildo see-saw at the Sugar-Tits Doom Club,” and described by Richard Dorment as, “Silly beyond words and teetered at times on the edge of porn – but once you start looking at it I defy you to tear yourself away.” I sat there thinking WHAT am I watching (polite version for blog)…sadly a lot of the art references were lost on me…or am I that sad? I think I would be scared if I had understood it! Drugs, that’s what I blame it on, drugs, lots of drugs. (we should be getting some more information with regards to the film from the study day tutor. Once received I may have a more enlightened view which will be reflected in the write up when completed.)

However,  from the Tate blurb a more favourable review…”The art critic Tom Morton has also picked up on the multiple sources and connotations of Chetwynd’s work, writing that ‘the artist and her mummers’ band tell tall tales in a manner that recalls at once the theatre of Alfred Jarry and Bertolt Brecht, a disco at a science-fiction convention, and a primary school nativity play’ ” If you want your mind blown go watch it…

Klages goes on to  describe to us how ‘Modernity’ enjoys order and the rational, and society relies heavily on the binary concept of “order” and  “disorder.” In order for there to be ‘order’ (no pun intended) there has to be the opposite; if missing, something trundles along to ‘create/construct’ this ‘disorder.’ In Western society we are advised, “Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc) becomes part of ‘disorder’ and has to be eliminated…”

Which all links quite nicely to the exhibition I saw at the weekend at The Photographers Gallery, The Feminist Avant-Garde, women were supposed to be quiet, remain hidden, go stand in the kitchen… they decided to rebel against that.

New name to play with – Francois Lyotard – argued that “Totality, and stability, and order” are maintained by a “grand narrative” in which cultures tell  themselves about their “practices and beliefs,” the example given is that the USA tells the story that democracy is the most enlightened (rational) form of government” (not if Trump gets in!) I guess in photography, we use the medium to reveal the narratives that we know, reinforcing these ideals, or alternatively reject them and parody them in the Post-modernistic fashion, which Klages assures us is the “critique of grand narratives” as it is aware “that such narratives serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organisation or practice.”

Alec Soth, Danny Lyon, those working for the FSA, Diane Arbus…et al looked at social outsiders, those outside the norm, contradictions to these grand narratives; Postmodernism apparently rejects the grand narrative in favour of “mini-narrative” which are “situational, provisional, contingent” – if I am reading this right I guess these photographers also fall in the Postmodern genre. Especially as postmodernism’s “mini-narratives” are “stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts.” Cue assignment 1.

After a section relating to semiotics, ‘signifiers’ and the ‘signified’; a signifier being a sound/image and the signified the concept… I’ll look deeper into that one later…Mary Klage continues with the fact that Postmodernism is “concerned with questions  of the organisation of knowledge.” This knowledge is “equated to science”: Science:Good, Narrative:Bad (reminded me of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Four Legs: Good. Two Legs: Bad…unless you were a bird of course…) Bad being “primitive, irrational” and so linked to “women, children and lunatics”! – go the Feminists!

In our Postmodern society this acquisition of knowledge has become “functional”, learning things not just to know them but to employ that knowledge, that there is more “emphasis on skills and training” as opposed to learning for learning sake. This has become scarily relevant as more and more Arts Education courses are scrapped. The article comments on English graduates being asked “What will you DO with your degree?” which was echoed in a recent online blog post on PoisonandIce.com.

Working within the field of education it is very frustrating that there is STILL a huge problem of one size fits all, square peg round hole syndrome and not enough recognition of individual needs and differentiation…cue what I maybe looking into for my assignment 1…

After getting my head around all of that information, the next exercise is to read “In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)” by Martha Rosler in Bolton,R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press (p303). As mentioned above I have ordered a secondhand copy of the book and am waiting for it to arrive. Sometimes I try to source PDF files but I do prefer a printed page to highlight, they are also portable, but this essay comes from a book marked as essential reading, so thought it best to get hold of it.

Martha Rosler

Also I thought it a good idea to find out a little more about the person whose essay I was about to read. From her website.

Martha Rosler works in video, photography, text, installation, and performance. Her work focuses on the public sphere, exploring issues from everyday life and the media to architecture and the built environment, especially as they affect women.

Quite strange that having never heard of her before I saw her video, Semiotics of the Kitchen yesterday at The Photographers Gallery as part of the Feminist Avant-Garde exhibition study day which I will do a write up about, once I have caught up with a few more exercises and cracked on a bit more with taking some reference photos for my first assignment.

Will update this post once the book arrives…


As this post was fairly long I have created another to respond to the Rosler essay which can be found here


Martha rosler: About the artist (no date) Available at: http://www.martharosler.net/index.html (Accessed: 2 November 2016).

(No Date) Available at: http://www.poisonandice.com/tuesday-talks/lets-face-it-your-art-degree-is-going-to-get-you-nowhere (Accessed: 2 November 2016).

(No Date) Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/chetwynd-hermitos-children-the-pilot-episode-t13044/text-summary (Accessed: 2 November 2016).

Untitled document (no date) Available at: http://www.bdavetian.com/Postmodernism.html (Accessed: 2 November 2016).