towards the serial

Here is a paper I wrote this semester for a course in art theory. For the past 5 months I have been focusing on the disruptions that occur in semiotic comprehension and cohesion within serial art works, whose language is evolved from the history of archive creation, a scientific and taxonomic method of working vested in structures of power and authority. For me, the intersection of the aesthetic object ( meant to provide personal pleasure ) and the power structures inherent in serial taxonomies (meant to provide authority and control subjects and objects) is a territory rich in contradictions and fascinations. By investigating the work of serial killers who also happened to make photographic archives, I am straining towards an new territory where serial work can potentially be held for questioning and eventually liberated.

Note: this essay references the photographic archive of Rodney Alcala, a part of which can be downloaded, along with a hard copy of this essay, here

Relentless Representation:On Serial Photography and the Archive


The invention of photography: For whom? Against whom?-Jean Luc Godard

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,

end anyone and hacks her body up and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing
(John Berryman, Dream Song 29)

All photographs are memento mori”-Susan Sontang

In March 2010, the contents of a storage locker in Seattle, Washington belonging to Rodney Alcala, a California based serial killer that had been imprisoned in 1979 for the murder of five young women and girls, were released to the public by the Huntington Beach Police department. In this locker, along with the pearl earring belonging to one of his victims, were 2,000 photographs of young women(and a few young boys), part or all of Alcala's personal photo archive. It is believed that Alcala, an amateur photographer who studied film under Roman Polanski in the 60s, would approach his subjects by introducing himself as a fashion photographer looking for models. A few of the women he approached became his victims. Most did not. The minor hysteria that accompanied the release of ninety of these photographs, a move ostensibly motivated by an attempt on the part of the police department to identify undocumented and un-recovered victims and to resolve “cold cases” potentially linked to Alcala, is one phrased in the panic that circles around organizations of law and order when they are challenged with that thing that they are designed around-- namely, the documentation, and by extension, control of political and cultural subjects. Alcala's archive, and our response to seeing it (the photographs were published in various media outlets for free public consumption), is one that both mirrors and complicates the aims of the institution that provided it for consumption. Our looking is one rooted both as subjects of institutions and subjects who consume aesthetic objects. Looking at photographic archives such as Alcala's illustrate the two-pronged machinery of thought that underlie our understanding of archives as a general mode of production, and leads us to the problematic question of

Photographic archives: for whom? By whom?

Looking at Alcala's archive, we experience the body of work in two ways. On the one hand, we are appalled and saddened-- the proper response, one that is expected and programmed for us. As normative political and cultural subjects, our response to the creepiness of such an archive is one that is bound up with a complicity with the aims of the organizations of law and order, whose presentation of the archive as a trespass guides us towards an understanding of these photographs as documents that function as evidence, objects to be handled towards a practical goal of resolution. We are instructed to identify, an action that places us within the context of the law as up keepers and affirmers of it. This action marks our cooperation as subjects within that sphere. Our moral indignation is a response coded as subject-formation here. When we look, we are tools of the organization which asks us to mimic the processes that define it; thus, our look is motivated, regulated, bound up with those processes of identification, judgment and documentation. We are empowered- that is, granted the authority of law- by this aim1 Like the eyes of a security camera in a modern day panopticon, our eyes no longer belong to us, but to the law.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of Alcala's archive, at least for us as subjects of the law and most certainly for the arbitrators of it, is the mimicry and appropriation of the language of the law by the lawless in this case. The serial killer, one who is firmly situated outside of and in opposition to the organizations of power,who wields his(and it is almost always a man)power in secret, in motel rooms and personal living spaces, in the unregulated spaces of the private sphere,is a perversion of the functions that define the law: systemic repetition(the seriality of the murders), organization(the selection of victims and processing of their bodies),violence, power. The output of these functions is the archive. Alcala has made a body of documentation exactly akin to those made by governmental organizations (prisons,police departments, human resource bureaus, etc), whose documentation of subjects is remarkable in its emphasis on the systemic repetition. The photographic archive,echoing the structure of taxonomic classification systems and rooted in the empiricism of documentation, is turned on its head with the existence of sinister archives of personal violence such as Alcala's. But it is precisely this type of archive that serves to ground an exploration of an archive's supposed empiricism and objectivity.

What defines the archive? Defined, an archive is a collection of “primary source
documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization's lifetime.”2 The archive is rooted in systemic accumulation, and its objective, beyond that, can be understood to service documentation in some form or the other. The element of the serial enters in to the understanding of the archive as a body of things defined by sheer numbers, repetition, chronology. The personal is sublimated in favor of the general-the mass. The documents of an archive become anonymous when placed in this context. Even if they are, like most objects, rife with specificity, by virtue of being inserted in a series of other objects that are connected through systematized representation and organization, they are scrubbed of a priori meaning. The objects in an archive inevitably beg (or, indeed are required) to be considered together, as a greater whole, lending the body a homogenized quality. Because the archive presents itself and its aims as documentary, it is understood to pay service to neutrality. When the archives are photographic, an additional element of neutrality enters into the way we are to read the body of documents. Photography, already a form rooted in empiricism, the representation of “reality” in a visual form, lends the archive another layer, a patina of indifference. Our question, as consumers of the photographic archive, is, how neutral? How indifferent? Photographic archives “establish a relation of abstract visual equivalence between pictures.”3 These relations form a visual and semantic territory. Because of the pre-supposed objectivity of archive work, it is easy to forget that someone-an author- has, if not created, then directed the archive and created this territory. Within this space, the indifferent documents begin to speak to each other. They are there for a reason, and each image connects to another and back to the whole in some way. Here we have a challenge to the empirical quality of the archive: meaning. Archives are created for a reason, and they exist to be read. Alcala's obsessive snapshots serve perhaps( and we can never know, for he has never admitted his intention in creation)as a file of his intended victims, prey he was stalking, or simply and in a more complicated way, as aesthetic documents that captivated his attention and led him to an industry of accumulation. In an archive, meaning is transferable. Not just metaphorically, either; because of the supposed neutrality of the body of documents, the entire archive may be literally transferred and re-appropriated. For example, an archive of photographs depicting cars according to manufacturer may be sold or re-possessed by a governmental body to gather data later for varying purposes, some of which may never have been intended by the original creator/curator of the archive. Authorship trades hands, and intention is re-formed according to those hands, those eyes.


The archive, then, is a contradictory form: it insists on its neutrality and discredits authorship, presenting itself as a truth, while within the archive itself, meaning is negotiable, transferable, mutable and subjective. In the history of photography, Bernd and Hilla Becher, German artists working in the 60s and on, popularized a “straight” style of photography that insisted on the accumulation of images of similar things(industrial objects, buildings and spaces), presented together systemically in an un-elaborated and deliberately un-gorgeous manner. They are credited with the formulation of “Serial Photography” as a mode, one which relied on the bureaucratic language of the archive to subvert the insistence of aestheticism and narrative in visual art. Their intention is to “make families of objects, . . . [or, on another occasion] . . “to create families of motifs’ – objects or motifs “­that become humanised and destroy one another, as in Nature where the older is devoured by the newer.”4 The Bechers acknowledge here the violence inherent in repetition, and the erosion of the subject that occurs in repetitive representation. The Becher's mode of production adheres closely to the tradition of photography as social and scientific documentation, a tradition the medium struggled against from its inception in attempts to prove its validity as fine art. In part, the Becher's work is a response against that struggle, defining itself through a return to the aims of the work of a photographer such as August Sander, the German social documentarian of the 1930's, whose large-scale photographic archive project attempted to categorize Germans of every social milieu and profession before World War II interrupted not only his work, but the very society he was attempting to document. The camera is a scientific tool in the hands of the early social documentarians, and the work being created is intended for the filing cabinet, the organizational storage device of the bureaucracy5. When Hilda and Bern Becher photographed as if for the filing cabinet but displayed the images on gallery walls in grids, instead, are we to understand the photographs as documents? Evidence? Art? Unlike August Sander and other photo-realists producing archival social-documentary bodies of work, the Bechers acknowledge their interest in repetition as an aesthetic statement. Their serial, sequential photographs have a link to Walter Benjamin's conception of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, in their deliberate stripping away of the “aura” or poetic transcendence of their aesthetic production. Speaking of Eugene Atget, the early 20th century French photographer whose repetitive images of empty Parisian streets are like “scenes of a crime”, Benjamin writes that these images are “photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence . . photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance”6 The semantic territory of the images is created by repetition and standardization, creating a text where the repetition and not necessarily any single image itself provides our access to understanding and reading the work. Benjamin uses a crucial word in this description: “hidden”. Like the self-described erosion of subjectivity the Bechers spoke of in their serial work, the erosion of implicit significance that occurs in repetitive representation allows for new meanings to emerge from nothing more than the form-the repetition- itself. Where this erosion becomes fraught is where the repetition of the serial refuses to acknowledge its power to erase- and to remain silent. Because the archival mode of representation says to the reader, “I am true”, all the while saying “I am inherent”, the link between knowledge and power is submerged. This is an insidious message, one that opens the reader to the manipulation of the author/artist(hidden) and that discredits the subject(s) of the archive. Because it claims itself as an aesthetic statement while appropriating the bureaucratic language of power and control that is inherently coded into the history of the archival methods of photographic realism, serial photography can remain silent while it silences.

Susan Sontang has commented on the
predatory nature of photographing someone, saying :“to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have;it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”7 In Alcala's archive,we can see the sinister nature of the question of INTENTION and authorship that is denied by the serial photography format. Alcala's archive, like many archives (personal or bureaucratic) will not reveal its intention in the accumulation of its subjects. Because Alcala went on later to violate the law by committing murders in the serial fashion with which he photographed and compiled his photographs, it is normal for us to feel uncomfortable with viewing his archive. With any other archive, however, this discomfort(the discomfort of knowledge) is not accessible to us. Blindly, we accept the implicit authority of the empiricism presented by the archive's organization and seriality, not questioning the authorship and intention. The photographer becomes, contradictorily, both an authority and a cipher. This mode of consumption of aesthetic objects is troublesome to me because the viewer is silenced by the hidden authority of the presentation of the body of work. Because repetition is aestheticized and intention is subverted by accumulation, the work acquires its power through the silencing-the semantic killing-of its subjects. This becomes more or less troublesome depending on the subject(s) of the work. If all photographs are memento mori, then we must consider the archive to be bound up with the same violence of representation that it discredits by proclaiming to remain neutral. Rodney Alcala's personal archive, a body of work that runs counter to the processes of organizational control, can be appropriated, placed outside of a context of personal aesthetic pleasure, and become a tool of affirmation of the sphere against which it is posited and created. If all photographs are memento mori, the archive is a living sphere of shifting control, controlled secretly and presenting itself neutrally so that we,too, may be controlled by whomever takes possession of it. We must view with suspicion and with a critical eye any body of work that utilizes the functions of the archive(to silence, to command, to break the link between power and knowledge)and aestheticizes those functions, and view all of this type of work with the same approach we take in viewing the archive of a serial killer, both in and out of his hands. When we do this, we liberate the archive and can begin to re-claim it.

1“Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces,lights,gazes;in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce
the relation in which individuals are caught up . . . there is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disquelbrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power.
” Michel Foucault,

3Allan Sekula, “Reading the Archive,” in Blasted Allegories, ed. Brian Walls(New York: The New museum of Contemporary Art, 1987), p. 118.

4Bernd Becher in conversation with Jean-Francois Chevrier, James Lingwood, Thomas Struth, in Another Objectivity: June 10–July 17 1988, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1988, p.57. Bernd and Hilla Becher quoted in an exhibition statement for ‘Distance And Proximity (Germany), Bernd & Hilla Becher / Andreas Gursky / Candida Hofer / Axel Hutte / Simone Nieweg / Thomas Ruff / Jorg Sasse / Tomas Struth / Petra Wunderlich’, http://www.photosynkyria.gr/98/ex/ex48_en.html.

5“In short, we need to describe the emergence of a truth-apparatus that cannot be adequately reduced to the optical model provided by the camera. The camera is integrated into a larger ensemble: a bureaucratic-clerical-statistical system of “intelligence”. This system can be described as a sophisticated form of the archive. The central artifact of this system is not the camera but the filing cabinet.” Alan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive”, in The Contest of Meaning, ed. Richard Bolton (Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1992), p. 351.

6Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, (New York: Random House Inc. , 1968), p. 226.

7Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New York:Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1977), p. 14.

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