Interview with Joanna Zylinska - PART II

January 2019

Andrew Dewdney is a research professor at London South Bank University whose current research is focused upon the intersections of art, media and technology.

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Last July, Andrew Dewdney interviewed Joanna Zylinska for Unthinking Photography, on the occasion of her recent publication ‘Nonhuman Photography’ (MIT Press, 2017). Zylinska talks about her research on the nonhuman, its relation to photography and its politics, while she reflects on creative as well as institutional practices in the age of the Anthropocene.

In this second excerpt, Zylinska and Dewdney address questions around post-photography, representation and extinction.

Andrew Dewdney

The way you talk about technology gets us back, to some extent, into the territory of the mode of technological advancement and its relationship to extinction. At times it feels like extinction is happening, which actually of course it is in many ways, but at other points in the book extinction reads as a conceptual way of rethinking time. Where is the emphasis here, is it on an environmental politics that set up the agenda for your practice?

Joanna Zylinska

For me extinction does function on these two levels: actual and conceptual. On the one hand, the book deals with the extinction of different species. I’m engaging with Elizabeth Kolbert’s argument about how we’re supposedly going through the Sixth Extinction now. Other scholars have claimed that we’ve continuously been experiencing extinction, which sometimes intensifies. At the same time, I’m thinking about Stanisław Lem’s Summa Technologiae, which I had the pleasure to translate a few years ago for the University of Minnesota Press.

This beautiful 1960’s philosophical treatise talks, in parallel, about biological and technical evolution. This parallel is to some extent a metaphor, which Lem uses to look at what he calls the pre-decline blossom of dying evolutionary branches. For him, the last zeppelins of the 1930s could be compared with the giant animals of the Cretaceous period. Similarly, the steam-driven freight train became huge before it was made obsolete by diesel and electric locomotives. You can see a follow-up of this logic with cameras. There are so many devices on the market now, with very similar names, all doing the same thing. When people ask me ‘Which camera should I buy?’, I usually say ‘Well, buy any one you like, they’re really all good’, with only minor differences between them – although looking at the whole genre of equipment reviews you wouldn’t think that.

The photography industry borrows from evolutionary narratives to justify its own belief in technological obsolescence, yet it forgets that evolution is not a linear and orderly process. For Lem, evolution doesn’t have any advance plan of action. It moves in a series of jumps that are full of mistakes, false starts, repetitions and blind alleys. The state of the photographic (and, more broadly, electronic) industry exemplifies this chaos very well! Yet the industry remains oblivious to it, instead naturalising its own marketing imperatives as the right course of action – which is only upwards. It then makes us feel that there is something wrong with us if we don’t upgrade our devices regularly. And even if you oppose this push towards regular upgrades, they will do it for you anyway because at some point they will block the old version of software on your phone or camera. So in my book there’s this concern about extinction as part of the broader evolutionary and ecological agenda, but there is also a desire to map out the rhetorical and material intertwining of the technological and the biological, and see if we can rethink this relationship.

Andrew Dewdney

I’m quite interested in the way that you take John Tagg to task in his 2009 ‘Mindless Photography’ essay. I think probably many other people might agree with your criticisms of Tagg when you say that he draws back from the logic of his own argument, which is as you say to go with, rather than against, the digital recalibration of the image, although to some extent he’s trying to get to the same place as you, isn’t he? In his much earlier and very influential work, The Burden of Representation, Tagg defines the founding moment of photography within a very specific historical time, essentially a capitalist, industrial kind of time. Whereas you very interestingly want to keep the semiotic part of photographic theory, clearly you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but in a sense you don’t reference or want to keep the kind of attempt at a materialist history. If you want to keep the semiotic in the mix, why not the understanding of photography as defined by its institutional formation?

Joanna Zylinska

I can maybe answer it broadly by saying that what this project is trying to do, alongside my other work on the Anthropocene, is attempt to think a different form of left politics in times of the global eco-eco crisis. I am aware that in Nonhuman Photography I stop short of articulating a clear political project, but I hope readers will be able to see that underlying political commitment. The lack of a clear articulation and the search for a more ambiguous, less certain mode of thinking and writing are intentional. The book arose out of a sense of disappointment with the traditional discourse of left politics and its impasses, which is why I took Tagg to task for his mode of argument and its underpinning certainty. But you’re absolutely right that we end up in the same place – and probably start from a similar place too. Nonhuman Photography is shaped by my wider concern about the structuring of the world, about its material arrangements. But maybe, coming from a different generation than Tagg, I also look for hope in other places – while also recognising the pleasure that this mechanical and reproducible practice of photography carries for many. As discussed earlier, I’m also somewhat wary of the kind of analysis in which the critic does the great unveiling: you will analyse injustice and others will see it and then go and do a revolution. So I’m seeking of ways of doing left politics and left theory otherwise, in media res, so to speak.

Andrew Dewdney

So for instance, yesterday I went to The Barbican and saw the Dorothea Lange exhibition. What would somebody armed with having read your book could take from that, when looking at photography?

Joanna Zylinska

I would like to think that they would look at photographs, both present and past ones, with a certain depth. I mean ‘depth’ not just on the semiotic level, or the material level of the image, but also in terms of trying to reconnect those old images to the digital flow of here and now, remediate them and maybe find new life in them. There is a danger sometimes of seeing photographs from the past as belonging firmly in the past. So I am trying to develop sets of relations between images and practices across time, across species, across technologies, and identify certain old tropes that are returning today. I would like to think that my mode of looking, which involves placing images along those deep-historical lines, is also a way of showing why photography matters. Because I do think that photography is vitally important. To some extent we can argue that it’s the most important medium today. But to understand this medium, to read it really well and not to drown in it, we need to slow down and look at these historical images, and also to ask why people were taking images then. What were they trying to do?

Andrew Dewdney

And that seems to be connected to the other section in your book where you talk about Photomediations, an open book and the whole question of the archive.

Joanna Zylinska

Yes, you are right.

Andrew Dewdney

So what will we collect in the future?

Joanna Zylinska

I am trying to figure out precisely that. I am also interested in exploring which archives we draw from now – and how archives of the future, especially photographic archives, will be constructed.

Andrew Dewdney

Thinking of the new Photography Centre that recently opened at the V&A, do you think that your book has something to offer the curators of the museum in terms of addressing the question of photography, not only in terms of what you collect of the history of photography but photography in the future?

Joanna Zylinska

I’m a great admirer of the work done at the V&A around photography. And I totally accept the need for more, shall we say, conventional histories of photography, because, to go and play with the genre, we need to know the genre in the first place. But maybe the book could encourage curators to also narrate alternative histories of photography and to revisit not just photography’s kinship with other media today, but also its link with deep-time past? What other narratives and other lines of connection can we establish? Could we make links between photography and jewellery, for example?

Andrew Dewdney

But are there practices outside of our main cultural institutions, thinking of the online and your own practices, where we might have a new sense of audience or a new critical perspective through either online practices or collective practices?

Joanna Zylinska

We’ve covered so many different topics in our conversation and you have very generously pulled out all these different threads from my book. But I’m also slightly nervous about making too big claims about my argument and its ambitions. At the same time, I do believe that Nonhuman Photography is not just about photography. Or rather, it’s a book that uses photography as a lens that gathers all these different concerns of today. So if we are in agreement with the proposition that the 21st century is a photographic century, and that we need to understand ourselves and the world through images, then the book becomes a way of providing tools for anchoring that understanding. And it’s not just about being able to read images, it’s also about being able to read ourselves as constituted with or in relation to images, and also as being image produces, users and senders. So the idea is to invite everyone to stop and think: Well, what does it mean? What are we doing? What are we participating in? But, very much in line with Trevor Paglen’s thinking, I also want people to consider another question: What happens if the majority of images made today are not made for the human? Rather, we have a plethora of images made by machines for other machines: QR codes, all these images that go into big databases that train Artificial Intelligence. So that question of nonhuman photography, the fact that the images we deal with, whether we see them or whether they pass us by on the Facebook timeline, are still a small percentage of all these other images that are out there, aimed at nonhuman agents.