The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

© Generali Foundation Collection—Permanent Loan to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Photo: Werner Kaligofsky

Martha Rosler

The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974/75

Photo installation 45 black-and-white photographs, baryta paper (prints 1999), 21 images and 24 photographed typescript texts, mostly in pairs dry-mounted on 24 black cardboards, 20.2 x 25.3 cm each, framed in 24 frames 26.8 x 57.3 cm each Edition 4/5 + A. P.


Artwork text

Inside, around and about, and later thoughts (on documentary photography) 1. The Bowery in New York is the archetypal skid row. It has been much photographed in works veering between outraged moral sensitivity and sheer slumming spectacle. Why is the Bowery so magnetic to documentarians? It is no longer possible to evoke the camouflaging impulses to “help” drunks and down-and-outers or “expose” their dangerous existence. How can we deal with documentary photography itself as photographic practice? What remains of it? We must begin with it as a historical phenomenon, a practice with a past. Documentary photography has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery (though its roots are somewhat more diverse and include the “artless” control motives of police record keeping and surveillance). Photo documentary as a public genre had its moment in the ideological climate of developing state liberalism and the attendant reform movements of the early-twentieth-century Progressive Era in the United States and withered along with the New Deal consensus some time after the World War II. Documentary, with its original muckraking associations, preceded the myth of journalistic objectivity and was partly strangled by it. We can reconstruct a past for documentary within which photographs of the Bowery might have been part of the aggressive insistence on the tangible reality of generalized poverty and despair—of enforced social marginality, and, finally, outright social uselessness. An insistence, further, that the ordered world of business-as-usual take account of that reality behind those images newly seen, a reality newly elevated into consideration simply by “being photographed” and thus exemplified and made concrete. 2. ...the victims, insofar as they are now victims of the camera—that is, of the photographer—are often docile, whether through mental confusion or because they are just lying there, unconscious. (But if you should show up before they are sufficiently distracted by drink, you are likely to be met with hostility, for the men on the Bowery are not particularly interested in immortality and stardom, and they’ve had plenty of experience with the Nikon set.) 5. The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems is a work of refusal. It is not defiant antihumanism. It is meant as an act of criticism; the text you are reading now runs on the parallel track of another descriptive system. There are no stolen images in this book; what could you earn from them that you didn’t already know? If impoverishment is a subject here, it is more, centrally the impoverishment of representational strategies tottering about alone than that of a mode of surviving. The photographs are powerless to “deal with” the reality that is yet totally comprehended-in-advance by ideology, and they are as diversionary as the word formations—which at least are closer to being located within the culture of drunkenness rather than being framed on it from without. There is a poetics of drunkenness here, a poetry-out-of-prison. Adjectives and nouns build into metaphoric systems—food imagery, nautical imagery, the imagery of industrial processes, of militarism, derisive comparisons with animal life, foreignisms, archaisms, and references to still other universes of discourse—applied to a particular state of being, a subculture of sorts, and to the people in it. The words begin outside the world of skid row and slide into it, as people are thought to slide into alcoholism and skid to the bottom row. The text ends twice, comprising two series: First the adjectives, beginning with playful metaphor to describe the early, widely acceptable stages of intoxication and moving toward the baldness of stupor and death. A second series begins with nouns belonging firmly to the Bowery and not shared with the world outside. Occasionally the texts address the photographs directly; more often, if there is a connection, it is the simultaneous darkening of mood as two systems run along concurrently. The photos represent a walk down the Bowery seen as arena and living space, as a commercial district in which, after business hours, the derelict residents inhabit the small portal spaces between shop and street. The shops range from decrepitude to splendor, from the shabbiest of ancient restaurant supply houses or even mere storage spaces to astonishing crystal grottoes whose rapt cherubim entwined in incandescent fixtures and whose translucent swans in fountains of fiber-optic tubes relentlessly dripping oil blobs into dishes radiate into the street. Above the street, the now-infrequent flop houses and their successors the occasional, unseen, living lofts (numbers 98 and 110, for example) vary from mean raw space to constructed tropical paradises; indoor boweries whose residents must still step over the sleeping kids. None of this matters to the street, none of it changes the quality of the pavement, the shelter or lack of it offered by the doorways, many of which are spanned by inhospitable but visually discreet rows of iron teeth— meant to discourage sleep but generally serving only as peas under the mattress of a rolled-up jacket. While the new professional-managerial urban gentry devour discarded manufactories and vomit up architected suburbiana in their place, the Bowery is (so far) still what it has been for fifty years and more. Bottles, and occasionally shoes, never flowers, are strewn on the Bowery, despite its name still describing its country past. The photos here are radical metonymy, with a setting implying the condition itself. I will not yield the material setting, though certainly it explains nothing. The photographs confront the shops squarely, and they supply familiar urban reports. “They are not reality newly viewed.” They are not reports from a frontier, messages from a voyage of discovery or self-discovery. There is nothing new attempted in a photographic style that was constructed in the 1930s when the message itself was newly understood, differently embedded. I am quoting words and images both. (Martha Rosler)

Lending history
2021 Vienna, AT, Leopold Museum 2008 Prague, CZ, Langhans Gallery 2005 Munich, DE, Haus der Kunst 2005 Rotterdam, NL, Nederlands fotomuseum 2005 Zagreb, CRO, Galerija Klovicevi Dvori