The Archive is a Set of Relations, Not a Record of History: Thomas Ruff at David Zwirner

Thomas Ruff, "press++20.33," 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner New York.
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Pockmarked moons and missiles at launch, astronauts in profile, and dark-suited men eying fighter jets in take-off. Scrawled archival notes map the surface of each image, as well as typewritten captions, dates, sticks, and stamps signifying transmission of the AP wire service. The contextual content, which was taken from the backside of archival prints, overlays the pictures. A surfacing of relations, a glimpse behind the curtain at the process by which photographs are made distinct from the world that they represent. The incessant churning of an archive – subsumed today by the internet – at work.

In April, David Zwirner in New York exhibited the first dozen works of Thomas Ruff’s new series, press++. The iconography is similar to his Newspaper Photographs in that they were first published in newspapers during the Cold War. But unlike Newspaper Photographs, Jpegs, and Ruff’s other series that draw from mass media, the photographs of press++ have not been stripped of their context, nor has their compositional structure been magnified to the point of disrupting the representation. Ruff trades his interest in the “grammar of the media” for an interest in the metadata of the media – the tags and keywords, dates and relations by which some phantom committee places photographs in relation to each other.

Ruff doesn’t search far for the material that composes his photo-collages. Each work is composed by combining the front and rear of archival prints. The process of overlaying each side is similar to a digital version of Robert Heinecken’s Recto/Verso contact prints, in which the artist exposes opposing sides of magazine ads to the same silver-gelatin or color-reversal paper. In his project, Heinecken sought to depict, in some way, the scaffolding behind and relations between imagery within contemporary media culture. Ruff’s juxtaposition exposes different power relations.

“Press information is serious information,” Ruff said in a recent interview, “but press information is also manipulated by people who want you to think this and that happened.”

Thomas Ruff, "press++01.20," 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner New York.

Thomas Ruff, “press++01.20,” 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner New York.

By scouring eBay and vintage shops, Ruff collects archival prints from photo services and collections, some of which have become the works of press++. The archive is where relations are re-ordered, where images are taken out of the world and re-contextualized within the histories of art and photography. Ruff, though, sees his inclusion of archival context within the surface as a deletion of information, as it reduces the material to pure surface. “Normally if you add information to information, you have more information,” he says. “In this case, I destroy information, I would say, because the image is disturbed by the writings. In a way, they become pure imagery.” He believes the surface is disturbed not by the exposure of its compositional structure, but via its obfuscation by writing.

In his previous sourcing of mass media, Ruff omits captions, dates, and any information about the subject or event depicted. He has said that the idea behind his Jpegs series “was to create images or types of images that stand for 10 or 50 or 100 other images.” If the work is nothing but surface, then it can’t be restricted to a single, particular event that occurred as a result of complex, historical relations; rather, it only speaks of the phenomena. This is how Ruff came to see his photographs of 9/11 as standing “for any other building that was bombed in the last twenty years.” And by sourcing from mass media – the medium of photography’s incessant proliferation – he’s able to claim that his work also speaks to “a kind of grammar of the media.”

And yet, these two assertions – that his photographs are nothing but surface; his work is only about the medium of photography – are incompatible. He conflates a brief moment in the history of photography into a metonymical model for understanding our reading of images. The assertion that photographs can never be anything other than surface presumes that they exist in a vacuum, that the viewer cannot be allowed to read into them; or, in the case of press++, that the viewer must read the writing across the surface as surface, rather than words. Obviously, you can do so, or not, as you like.

But in its recto/verso manner, Ruff’s press++ clarifies his continued interest in the ways by which we excise images from the world, and view them as incapable of speaking to anything other than their own existence. The texts scrawled across the surface reflects the photograph’s ordering within the archive. The internet, through its use of metadata, has exacerbated this re-ordering by purely formal or superficial relations, but this is actually a tendency as old as the concept of the archive itself, which has always been subject to institutional momentum, rather than any sense of historicity. In On the Museum’s Ruins (1993), Douglas Crimp notes that when the history of photography was subsumed by the greater history of art, new categories were imposed on old photographs:

Books about Egypt will literally be torn apart so that photographs by Francis Frith may be framed and placed on the walls of museums. Once there, photographs will never look the same. Whereas we may formerly have looked at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs for the information they conveyed about the revolution in China or the Civil War in Spain, we will now look at them for what they tell us about the artist’s style of expression.

Ruff has expressed admiration for photographs that “cross over” and defy categorization. When he says his work is about the medium of photography, he does more than tie his work to formalist surface reading, or overwrought theories that argue that photographs are never about anything more than the mere appearance of things. This might have been true for the Newspaper Photographs, but here we see an acknowledgement that the history of the medium itself has never been anything other than a retrofitted narrative that depoliticizes photography by removing photos from their place in the world. And it’s perhaps because of the inevitability of this take-over – Crimp points to the ‘80s, the same decade as the rise in popularity of the Düsseldorf photographers, as the period in which photographs were reorganized under their own history – that Ruff is free to claim that his images are only ever surface. It’s a position that shirks meaning, because the meaning cannot live within the photograph alone—it is constructed, always, in relation.

In the age of data-mining and an incomprehensible daily proliferation images fed through supercomputers dedicated to surveillance, the period in history when the enemy was nameable, and the fruits of our defense funding brought us also to the moon, can easily seem like preferable times. Yet, this is when it began. The source images of press++ were originally printed between the 1950s and ‘70s, and are saturated with the iconography of the Cold War. Ruff himself, born in 1958, was only a boy at the time of their publication. The child’s view is an ahistorical one, and there’s certainly a sense of return to this outlook in press++. A sense of taking events for appearances, freeing them from steadfast relations, accomplishable, ironically, only when the context itself is brought forward, reduced to mere surface.

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