The latest issue of the Griffith Review is no 55, is called State of Hope and it is about contemporary South Australia. It is edited by Julianne Schultz and Patrick Allington and the issue consists of short essays and memoir, fiction pieces and poetry, and photo stories. Authors include Robyn Archer, John Spoehr, Peter Stanley, Angela Woollacott, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Chris Wallace, Dennis Atkins, Nicholas Jose, and Ali Cobby Eckermann. This is an Adelaide and South Australia as primarily seen by those working within a literary culture that includes print journalists in the mainstream media (i.e. Murdoch’s Advertiser no less).
The Griffith Review is a leading literary magazine in Australia that sees itself as a “high quality, agenda-setting, quarterly publication, delivering insight into the issues that matter most in a timely, authoritative and engaging fashion”. Griffith Review peer reviews the submissions to its various issues and nearly all of the members of the expert panel academics in universities in the eastern states. Previous issues have been devoted to Tasmania and Queensland.
What is presented in these texts is the public role of writers as public intellectuals. Writers, it seems, have a role to to challenge and arouse the nation–ie., to speak truth to power— given the pressures of the new media technologies and the forces of globalisation on Australia’s literary culture—and, thankfully, the old split between between academe, creative writer and critic is absent.
The market blurb to the State of Hope text says that:
As the industrial model that shaped twentieth-century South Australia is replaced by an uncertain future, now more than ever the state needs to draw on the strengths of its past in order to move ahead. Now, on the cusp of change, the state needs to draw on its talent for experiment and innovation in order to thrive in an increasingly competitive world. State of Hope explores the economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges facing South Australia, and the possibilities of renewal and revitalisation.
This is a reasonable assessment. South Australia is undergoing extensive de-industrialization that began in the 1970s and an uncertain post-industrial future does loom. However, South Australia is not alone in this–eg., witness Victoria. The process of de-industrialization and an uncertain future also applies to Australia as a whole after the mining boom. I also concur that the big shift to renewable energy in South Australia, as noted by some contributors, is an indication of the shape of a new future for the state.
One characteristic of State of Hope that I found surprising was the heavy doses of nostalgia with respect to the subjective memoirs of childhood and youth remembered in Adelaide in many of the literary contributions. This nostalgia about the good times in South Australia’s past—-eg., when South Australia under Don Dustan could claim to lead the nation in politics, culture and civic virtue— does not engage with the contemporary revitalisation of urban life in the CBD.
Contemporary Adelaide, which is undergoing rapid change–not just decline– is overlooked by the looking backwards to the golden days of cheerful, suburban life in the 1960s and 1970s. That is 40-50 years ago. So what about now—everyday urban life in contemporary Adelaide?
My second surprise State of Hope was the failure of the contributors in the literary culture to engage with the visual representations of Adelaide–eg. with Alex Frayne’s pictures in his Adelaide Noir series. These representations of contemporary Adelaide were published in a book by Wakefield Press and the work is are widely known. Or to engage with the even more widely known body of photographic work by Mark Kimber that is about Adelaide. Or Trent Parke’s Black Rose?
These contemporary images, with their distinctive set of discourses and practices, show a different Adelaide to the conventional, negative representation of Adelaide and South Australia that is popular in the eastern states. South Australia is fly over country; if Adelaide, as a city of Churches has disappeared into the dustbin of history, then it has been replaced by Adelaide as a boring, provincial city with a history of grotesque murders. The national narrative about Adelaide is one of decline from a golden past.
To be clear, this surprise isn’t about there being just two visual art contributions by visual artists–eg., the photos in Lost geographies by Annette Willis and the Wadu Matyidi photo essay by Buck McKenzie and Eva Horning. I accept that the contributions depend upon the submissions, and presumably, and presumably there weren’t many submissions from Adelaide photographers. If so, then fair enough. But we don’t know whether that was the case.
The surprise is the failure of the literary texts to engage with the contemporary photography about Adelaide. I find this a strange way to conduct a public conversation about contemporary Adelaide’s future in the public domain, given the centrality of the internet and the blog to Australian public life. Doesn’t the visual, with its gazes and technologies, have a pre-eminent place in everyday life?
Is this failure to engage with contemporary photography about Adelaide an indication of the insularity of contemporary literary culture–an inward looking literary culture? Contemporary photography is not on its horizon, as it were. Is it because contemporary photography is not taken seriously–that it is not quite good enough to engage with? Or has it to do with the inherent limitations of photography as an upstart medium? Or is it another example of the neglect of our visual culture? Or the result of turf wars? The lack of academic regard for photography? Or a deep scepticism about the value of photography by those in a literary culture?
I don’t know the answer. I’m just puzzled, given the pictorial turn, the emergence of a visual culture in our contemporary culture with its shift in people’s relation to images, the penetration of photographic images into the fabric of everyday social life and the centrality of photography to our understanding of visually every twentieth century form of visual culture (film, advertising, photojournalism, and amateur or vernacular photography. I would have thought that if you we’re going to write about South Australia and Adelaide you would engage with the contemporary representations and visual experiences of its noted practitioners, given that it is central to our modernist understanding of seeing and knowing.
I doubt if the failure to engage means that we are dealing with that old chestnut about art (a literary culture) v non-art (photography) premised on intentionality, or that a literary culture is cooked history whilst photography is raw history? Could it be that the visual technologies of photography are too associated with consumer culture? Is it because a literary culture is non-visually orientated? Or because Australia is predominantly a literary culture? Or maybe it is because photography isn’t treated with that much respect in terms of a deep engagement with issues that are important to a particular Australian state?
I honestly don’t know the reasons why.
If we go back to the Tasmanian issue (No.39, 2012, entitled The Tipping Point) we can see that few photographers or visual artists are included, even though the issue is about Tasmania as a unique place. Yet Tasmania has photographers with national profiles (eg., Olegas Trichinas and Peter Dombrovskis) who have represented Tasmania as a place in significant ways. The inference from this exclusion of a visual culture is that a literary culture does not see Australian photographers as public intellectuals; or that they are seen to have not produced books that have have spoken out out publicly on social issues; or they have not contributed to sustaining a vibrant political life of a republic of equals. Or that photography does not have the potential to function as a boundary defying, transgressive force that is averse to hegemonic and monolithic political categories? Or that public intellectuals are linked, one way or another, to the university whilst photographers are not seen to be so linked?
What I also suspect, given the absence of, and lack of engagement with, a visual culture–even architects or film makers aren’t included— in both The Tipping Point and State of Hope issues is that there is an ambivalence about the autonomy of what is visual from what is linguistic; that is to say, the autonomy of the image from the word. I am guessing that this is an ambivalence that based on a classical mistrust of visual images. Pictures appear to currently form a point of friction and discomfort in our contemporary digital culture. Maybe this is due to the declining faith in the capacity of photographic vision, or the camera gaze, to deliver new or informative insights? Or that a trajectory of crisis in the belief of subjective visual transparency results in the denigration of vision?
What I do know is that we need to discuss what criticism is. I suspect that a literary culture, which defines itself through its antagonism to market-orientated logic of its popular others and its acquisitive aspirational culture, includes photography in the latter group. The mass produced images and popular culture make images transparent while a digital culture renders the image consumable. This visual control in the commodification in our hyper-visual culture reduces the individual to passivity within flows of cultural meanings. If this is so, then this position ignores that art photography has also traditionally based itself on the market-refusing logic of art that holds out the promise of human freedom? So why is that those in a literary culture can transcend the market’s reducing experience to an objectified representation but not those in art photography or other practitioners in a visual culture such as designers, architects and film makers?
The other side to this critique of the insularity of Australia’s literary culture is that maybe art photographers in the context of the internet and social media are non traditional public intellectuals who are outside The Griffith Review with its traditional network of literary public intellectuals bringing big ideas to an eager public. If so, then there is a gap between photographers (and designers) glowing self-image as vital shapers of the contemporary visual landscape and the reality of their position, or rather their lack of position, in the social and political debates that influence matters of public policy. If so then the overriding challenge for photographers (and designers) and those committed to photography’s (and design’s ) possibilities is to establish connections outside photography (and design).
The challenge is to publish photography and writing that pushes beyond the boundaries of photography (and design) as a discipline.