Essays and Texts
Ode à Oxford, Le magazine du Monde
Oxford: The Dark Interior
Russell Roberts, 2016
The colleges of Oxford are repeatedly photographed as a backdrop to the swathes of tourists that visit each year. A simple walk down Broad Street for example, can become a complicated dance as you duck and weave your way to avoid disturbing the countless scenarios where people stand momentarily to be pictured in relation to one of the oldest academic institutions in Europe. This visual connection with place that people make through snapshots is often a marker of a personal journey, but it is also a journey through the tourist imagination of Englishness embodied in the stone facades, quadrangles and passages echoed in countless postcards of the City. Such rituals and images are linked to the fast, uncomplicated consumption of Oxford as a particular kind of myth that tells us little about the inner life of its colleges.
In Joanna Vestey’s series ‘Custodians’, we encounter photography that is slower, meditative, photography that invites the viewer to think about tradition and the weight of history and, those who entrusted with or caught up in its preservation and values. Here we have a set of pictures that are both celebratory and on occasion, wry depictions of the world of work and belonging. Recently, Vestey has concentrated on more intimate forms of portraiture looking at young children on the brink of adolescence in Oxford’s Dragon School; they are tightly cropped, psychologically intense encounters between photographer and subject (Fig 1). Between both projects there is an interest in time, in the beauty, vulnerability and powerful presence of youth, and the passing of time where as individuals become more institutionalized and part of the furniture. The portraits of young children show them as appearing in their own space, in control of their performance for the camera. In contrast the ‘Custodians’ appear as extensions of their professional world in which they sit, stand and gaze into the surrounding space as passive agents of the bigger machinery in which they serve.
In ‘Custodians’, the individuality of the sitter is hard to see, they often recede into the middle ground, stand or sit obliquely to the camera revealing little. In short, these are portraits where individuals are quietly absorbed into the fabric of the buildings like the portraits and paneling that adorn the walls. The presence of ‘Custodians’ is deliberately small, overshadowed by the institution that they serve, they know their place, and Vestey exaggerates this in terms of perspective and scale but also in the quality of light she has found in these spaces. In certain pictures we see painted portraits, engravings, classical statuary, busts, a phrenological head and what appears to be a death mask hung on the wooden panels of St John’s College Dons Room. Faces, expressions and gazes from the past that actively shape the present. Indeed, these other forms of portraiture appear more dominant, clearer in some instances, than the faces of those who care for them again highlighting the importance of history in the contemporary life of the college.
The mythology of Oxford as timeless is seemingly reinforced in these pictures but there is space to consider the more human dimensions such as the mortality of the sitters. In the picture showing Emeritus Professor of the School of Anatomy we see the Emeritus Professor of the School of Anatomy whose pose echoes that of the skeletons he is surrounded by, and the blue covers that shroud the work benches surely conceal cadavers, the dark materials of teaching and research. He is surrounded by death but it is a biological truism in this room, nothing more, and the air of cool detachment, like the ice white and blue colour scheme of the room itself, reinforces the matter of fact purpose of what is undertaken here.
The colleges of Oxford have had a long relationship with photography since it was publically announced in January 1839. Here two different types of photographic process, one French, one English, competed to become the practical foundations of modern photography. It was the latter process devised by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) that was turned on the facades, quadrangles and doorways of Oxford colleges in the early 1840s in an attempt to distill the characteristics and possibilities of photography. Fascinated by the structural designs and texture of the stonework, some blackened by the by-products of industrial pollution, Talbot’s decision to focus on ancient architecture of learning in England can also be seen as a conspicuous act associating his invention with scholarly pursuit; an association that would lend gravitas to a process that was to be seen by many as mechanical, a product of industry rather than the mind. This was not the case, Talbot used the exterior of Oxford colleges to speculate on many things producing not only some of the more memorable photographic images of buildings from this period but also a philosophical reflection on how photography changes perceptions of time and space. In one of his photographs of Queens College (Fig 2) published in the first commercially book to be illustrated with actual photographs The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), he invites the reader to take up a magnifying glass to pour over the extraordinary detail captured in this fleeting image, drawing attention to a clock tower in the distance upon which the temporal moment of its recording can be seen. Photography then showed more than could be comprehended through natural vision, an excess of details, offering a document of the world but also pointing to that which is unseen, revealing its potential for unsettling what was thought to be known about the ‘real’ world.
In Vestey’s picture of the interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, we see its Director sat among the distinctive glass cabinets while seemingly lost in quiet contemplation. But, it is hard to ignore the totem pole and clock, markers of different temporal realms between past and present, the ‘here and now’ and the ‘there and then’, markers between cultures collected and displayed. Photography, like the modern museum and disciplines of anthropology and ethnography in the 19th century, dramatically changed ideas of human origins and endeavor, creating a world picture rooted in Empire. Such histories have been pulled apart and examined, both in academic circles but also in the temporary exhibition programme of the Pitt Rivers Museum. This is unashamedly a museum of a museum, retaining its 19th century classification, making clear its perspective on other cultures, preserving a museological moment that shows us a fascinating and politically complex relationship to the past. Similarly, this portrait preserves and questions what this collection and display might mean, its cultural histories and potential place in the present that the pensive expression of the ‘Custodian’ suggests. Again, in the Rhodes House picture, we are offered another visual historical connection with colonialism and a solitary painting of its patron, Cecil John Rhodes – the mining magnate, and founding member of De Beers, hangs on the wall while the ‘Custodian’ quietly looks on.
In these images of college interiors and their affiliated buildings, those who work on their behalf might be seen as institutional ‘types’, collected, preserved. However, to be a ‘Custodian’ can involve a healthy questioning of tradition rather than its simple, passive preservation and some of the poses adopted suggest a more reflective distance between the sitter and their institutional setting. In the following pages we discover the names and occupation of each ‘Custodian’ along with the setting. These include Bursars, Gallery Invigilators, Professors, Directors, Librarians, Curators and Stewards to more corporate roles suggesting a wider remit to the duty of care that reaches out towards the economic as well as intellectual prosperity of college life. It is widely know that the endowments of Oxford colleges reinforce their privileged status requiring the diligent attention of other forms of custodianship and patronage that sadly define much of the contemporary landscape of higher education in Britain.
The faces of ‘Custodians’ are not always fathomable in these pictures and Vestey deliberately positions her subjects at such a distance that is hard to see them, the figures are often marginal, few are central, none return our gaze, they ignore the camera, becoming absorbed in the interiors of the rooms they are or stood in, and more apparently in their own speculative wanderings as they look outwards, through windows, doorways, thresholds to an inner and outer world. What they are thinking we will never know but the implication here is that it is bound up with their institutional roles, beholden to tradition and history. But there is something in certain poses that suggests a disconnection from these spaces where the values of tradition and history might be taken less seriously, a detachment or boredom present in the duty of care perhaps. In short, the self-conscious poses and willingness to participate in a performance to reinforce their roles has on occasion a comic feel to it. After all tradition and a certain approach to history, with its constraints, needs to be poked and troubled from time to time.
Turning to Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ with its marvellous demolition of teaching methods and school ambition for pupils entering Oxbridge, the character Rudge shows a healthy disregard for the system while also working within it. Vestey’s project arguably venerates Oxford myths by continuing the air of the past that some might find stifling, but there is a room in these pictures, like Rudge, to not take it too seriously and to think about how such institutions are brought into being and how they continue to exercise their historical power in the present.
[At a mock interview for entrance to an Oxford college]
Mrs. Lintott: Now. How do you define history Mr. Rudge?
Rudge: Can I speak freely, Miss? Without being hit?
Mrs.Lintott: I will protect you.
Rudge: How do I define history? It's just one fuckin' thing after another.
[raucous laughter from the other students, but the interview board is appalled]
Mrs. Lintott: I see. And why do you want to come to Christ Church?
Rudge: It's the one I thought I might get into.
Alan Bennett, The History Boys, London, Faber, 2004
The Ready at Hand and the Book To Come: Joanna Vestey’s Negotiating an Absence
In his infamous analysis of tools, Martin Heidegger drew a distinction between the states of an object being ‘ready at hand’ and ‘present to hand’. His observation, that the ‘ready at hand’ object is one we use without a consciousness of its properties – we only notice a hammer when it fails in its duty – acutely mirrors both the photograph and the book. The technologies and supports of both image and text are things we ignore in the task of gathering information, looking at an image or reading. We might update Heidegger’s observation, however: the ‘ready at hand’ tool also emerges to us when it has been superceded by a new technology with a similar purpose. In the compulsion to see the new as superior, the properties of the old are also revealed.
Such technological updating aside, Heidegger’s tool is evident in the art historical notion of the support: here, only in the language of modernism’s medium reflexivity, have we considered it’s presence. In modern or concrete painting, the ‘support’ is the canvas or linen with its flatness and absorbent properties, which determines what is to be painted; in poetry, the white of the page is a space that is part of the poem’s reading and therefore its meaning. Elsewhere, the support or tool elides our consciousness. Supports do not only facilitate the reading or viewing of an image or text, but also frames the conditions of encounter: a support might be invisible, but the image, object or document may depend or rest upon it. It may shape the very means by which we see and use what we are to work with. It often takes a technological or epistemological break to bring such objects into view.
A book is held in the hands whilst the reader encounters what is laid down in a text. In our close attention, we hold it at a close yet comfortable distance. Between the resting of the arms and the limits of the eyes and neck, a balance occupies the body, in order to place the book at the centre. Given over to it, we are absorbent, enclosed with our upper torso folded around the object. Such a state is both receptive and semi-passive – the book enters the body or washes over us.
As much as this describes a romantic and intimate idea of reading, and the close attention that the book might have induced in us, it is only half the story of the book. The rarity of early codices, and the cost of building a collection meant that they were objects of communal study (and it is perhaps only a sign of our neoliberal times that community libraries are displaced by individual possession). When a book has historic or communal importance, our enfolding proximity to it changes – it is intended for posterity, and for many readers. The individual user’s gestures – holding the book to read it, cracking its spine, or marking the pages – become a threat to the long-term use that the book may provide.
When we are studying such a book, and using it in depth, the book has a different place in relation to our body. It is set on a desk, in our range of vision, but just to the side. If you are left handed (as I am), the book probably rests to the right. On the centre left, a notepad, or perhaps a keyboard, takes the other space. Here, the body can rest, and move gently from one side to another, as reading produces, as it does here, transcription – note taking, quotation, or analysis, or as the act of writing often requires, verification. We move between supports: from note paper or word processor, to the book and its support. Where the book is rare, valuable or fragile, it will be resting upon a support. New tablet computers come with just such devices, with the aim of orienting the screen towards our vision.
Staggered in layers, and made of inclined and flat planes, the book support is an object of utility with architectural forms. Whilst some are ornate, baroque or rococo, the majority are of a utilitarian international style, engineered with a form that follows function. Lined up, they are like the pitched roofs of terraced houses, rising and falling. Some are low lying whilst others are stepped or stacked steeply. Each plays with gravity and friction: just as the roof is designed for rain and snow to slide down its surface gently, the rest draws the book into its centre, to a join or well which collects the spine and allows the book to hold laterally by the foam’s friction. This form of the book support, familiar to researchers, originates in Oxford at the historic Bodleian Library, with the conservator Christopher Clarkson. It has been widely replicated, and is a familiar and now unquestioned sight.
Joanna Vestey has photographed the many book supports of the Bodleian, to produce a typology that reveals their subtle variations and architectural resonances. But whilst the forms of the supports are telling, the project is also an enquiry into the conditions of knowledge: Vestey’s project sees in the book support an object that reveals the specific conditions of both libraries and books as forms, at the same time as noting their seeming disappearance, or disappearance to come, under the conditions of digital knowledge. The support is a signal of the infrastructure and history of knowledge resulting from the form of the book – supports were developed as the ageing and wear of books became coupled with ever more sophisticated understanding in the field of conservation. Vestey presents a large array of such supports: they speak of, perhaps even stand for, the wide range of books and their subjects. They are an archive of what has been and an object that speaks of a knowledge to come. We look in detail at these utilitarian objects, and they reveal not specific use, but an accumulation of traces, similar to the apparition-like marks of a invigilator against a gallery’s white wall over an exhibitions long run. They reveal therefore, a deep history, whilst also prompting consideration as to whether the form of the book is truly going to change, as books remain absent from their waiting supports.
The materiality of the support draws our attention not to what any one book contains, but the uses of books more generally. Each support alludes to the many volumes that have rested upon it, and here the act of reading also becomes the gathering of specialized knowledge and its redistribution over time. Such knowledge gathered is not simply a collecting, but a restructuring of what can and should be known. Knowledge is used and circulated, valued by being made current, but also by being given space. In the act of reading from a book rested upon a support, information is received and re-articulated – as a note, a sentence or as a citation placed into the world – a knowledge becoming, in-formation. In our present, one piece of information quickly follows another: contemporary content is made to be redundant, and images and texts are quickly followed by others that quickly slot into their place. The seeming dematerialisation of this knowledge renders it placeless and leaves much of it without trace. Umberto Eco, who has frequently dismissed the claim that the book will be replaced by the digital copy, has asserted that “the Internet provides a fantastic store of information, but offers no filters, whereas education is about not only transmitting information but also teaching the criteria for selecting it.” Vestey’s images reveal something of that slowness, that choice that must emerge from mass. We move from image to image, in a comparative mode. Looking closely, and comparing, her images make researchers of us. What has been valued in the present is not the distribution of ideas, but the act of circulating, the quantity of circulation take place, as if mass equates to efficacy. Vestey’s typology of the book support shows us something different in the book’s material form: the distinct physical customization of the support reveals not only traces but also the bespoke accommodation of book and reader. Each support is tailored to hold a specific form of book, to allow it to rest, or to keep it tightly bound. It provides friction as opposed to rapid movement, and it calls for time to be taken – there is a labour in the ritual of preparing the book and its support, which encourages the making-worthwhile of that venture.
Alongside the labour that such a book encourages, it’s condition of display and its arrangement on our table gives up the book to its reader. A kind of hospitality or generosity that the book proposes is often referred to as a commonwealth, something that exists beyond mere possession. The knowledge inside a book is a commonwealth, whilst its paper and spine might be possessed. A book gives up its information as we stand in the library or bookshop and browse through its pages. As the transmission of digital information moves from being non-hierarchical to servicing commercial needs, and as books are controlled through digital licences prioritizing those with capital, we might wonder whether the spaces of digital communication will replace the book, but also close it behind virtual walls. To recognize this, we might have to detach knowledge briefly from its container. The physical book can be itself a commodity, of course – though this fetish is not for the words so much as the age of its printing – but its common form is more everyday: a copy at home, or the library book, or which has been passed from person to person. It encourages precise but continued exchange that produces and maintains the space of the social, into a commonwealth. We need not fear or valorize new technology – just as we should not be nostalgic for past forms – but we must question the efficacy of each technology in its fullest consequences.
In another of his essays on the subject, Umberto Eco recalls a parodic advertisement that he encountered, which applied a similar evangelical promotion to analogue devices as it did digital ones. Its effect is strangely leveling. Promoting the ‘Built-In Orderly Organised Knowledge’ device (BOOK), he recalls an object that can claim
“No wires, no battery, no electronic circuits, no switches or buttons, it is compact and portable – you can even use it while you’re sitting in an armchair by the fire. It’s a sequence of numbered sheets of recyclable paper, each of which contains thousands of bits of information. These sheets are held together in the correct sequence by an elegant device called a binding.
Each page is scanned optically and the information is registered directly in the brain. There is a “browse” control that allows you to pass from one page to another, either forward or back, with a single flick of the finger. By using the “index” feature you can immediately find the information you want on the exact page. You can also buy an accessory called a “BOOKmark”, which enables you to return to where you left off in the previous session, even if the BOOK has been closed.”
Eco’s account is a useful reminder as a step away from both nostalgia and technological positivism. It allows us to recall that technological advances are both necessary but are also, sometimes, false prophecies. Any such evaluation about the accumulation and dissemination of our knowledge requires a more lengthy and complex negotiation of what we know and how we come to use and apply that information. Vestey’s project captures the library in this very moment of its evaluation: whilst libraries digitize ancient tomes, they balance the demands and potentials of each decision. Negotiating an Absence is therefore also a study not only of the library and the book’s potentially disappearing form, but also the quandary of institutions of knowledge, which must necessarily look both into the past and towards the future. It echoes Stéphane Mallarmé’s project 19th century project ‘Le Livre’ (the book), in which the poet imagines a volume comprising “all existing relations between everything.” Mallarmé’s book was, he writes in 1866, going to be comprised of five volumes, though as Maurice Blanchot has pointed out, he arrived at this only after considering originally that it would be “many tomes”. Blanchot remarks on something important for Mallarmé’s thought, but also for the book in general: it is a multiplicity. Is not the book, like the image, both a thing and not a thing, an object that could be ‘ready at hand’ and ‘present to hand’, used and contemplated, in not one, but many forms? Is this not the very condition of knowledge, a logical paradox of the concrete and the fluid, of presence and absence at one and the same time? A useful analogy is to remember that the book is, both Mallarmé and Blanchot suggest, architectural. And so the architectonic panels of the book support tell us something: they both preserve knowledge whilst striking a curiously futurist note: they have hard edges and oscillating planes, but contain the classical knowledge of ancient texts. Is the future perhaps already in the book?
January 2018, London.
Bio: Duncan Wooldridge is an Artist and Writer. He is the Course Director of Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London (UAL).