Undusting Vol. II: Virtual Space, between Dust and Pixels
When I was preparing research materials for a course entitled “Analogue as Meaning,” I learned that an exhibition entitled a Handful of Dust, curated by David Campany, would be featured in the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) main gallery from January to April 2020. The RIC, an internationally acclaimed centre for photography collection, exhibition, and research, is hosted in the School of Image Arts and provides extraordinary opportunities for students to study seminal works—both historical and contemporary—up close in real time. That show became the basis for the work produced in my class and featured here.
Looking for a metaphor and framework for thinking about the meaning of analogue photography, I found in a Handful of Dust the perfect object of study; accompanied by a beautiful catalogue, it provided a rich collection of photographs spanning some 100 years, beginning in 1913 and ending with works produced in 2017. Constructed around Man Ray’s famously strange Dust Breeding, a photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s masterpiece The Large Glass laid on its side and covered in a year’s worth of New York City dust, it also included video, magazines, books, military aerial views, vernacular images, paintings, and objects.
Having cut my teeth on analogue photography, using a range of cameras from Diana, Brownie, and 35mm to 4 x 5 large format, dust had been a constant companion—and enemy. From the Ilford anti-static cloth to ionizing brushes and canned air, I was always armed against and at war with dust, hiding in every crevice, clinging to film, lenses, and surfaces of all kinds. If careless changing film or working in the darkroom, one might spend hours “spotting” prints to rid them of pinpricks and dots, showing up in highlights and shadows alike.
In the age of digital, dust seemed a perfect metaphor for analogue photography, material culture, and the constant cycle of growth and decay encountered of virtually all life cycles.
Quoting T.S. Eliot’s prescient poem, “The Wasteland” in his title and essay, curator David Campany sets up a rich conversation between these ideas in the context of the 20th century— shaped by two World Wars, the atomic age, and ongoing Cold War schisms threatening humankind:
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The other major source of inspiration was a small book named dust by Micheal Marder, published as part of the “Object Lessons” series. Marder unpacks the meanings and etymology of dust, parsing its myriad associations and offering insights into what we might think of as a banal, seemingly “meaningless” blight. What a rich mix he reveals in this thing called dust! My objective was to introduce images, ideas, and objects that would compel students to think about the history of material culture and the impacts that photographic representations and processes have had historically, in the context of our present age. A preoccupation with virtual identities, spaces, images, and realities has become the norm, especially for today’s digital natives. However, to facilitate an exploration aimed for an exhibition—showing objects in real space, I asked each student to respond creatively—in any medium—to the themes and ideas in the class and a Handful of Dust. This simple premise gave rise to a whole new set of works that humour, jolt, question, confuse, warm, delight, and intrigue.
As we prepared to organise the project for exhibition in The Image Factory, a student gallery space in the Image Arts building, our world suddenly turned inside out: a pandemic, which seemed distant, crashed upon our shores and forced our classes to go on-line and our “material” work to go completely digital. We had to find an analogue for the physical space of the gallery—and the Web seemed most appropriate. Students “met” in Zoom “break-out rooms” to carry out the tasks of editing, organisation, design, and curation. It is a strange twist in a journey to define the meaning of analogue through seemly invisible particles that accumulate on shelves and in corners. Now our preoccupation with dust has given way to a virus—invisible but reshaping every aspect of our lives. Meanwhile, our empty classrooms accumulate the stuff…
This Web-based exhibition is the result of an educational and artistic endeavoUr, the fruit of collaboration and exchange between a group of engaged students in the Faculty of Communication & Design at Ryerson University. Made not for profit or sale, it is meant to serve as a record of that exchange and a testament to our own tracks along the dusty road of history.
School of Image Arts