Joel Kuennen

Joel Kuennen has a background in English Literature, German, Critical Theory, and Anthropology. His work has spanned such diverse practices as critical and creative writing, painting, installation, metalsmithing and digital video manipulation. He received a MA in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in May, 2010. His thesis at the School of the Art Institute Chicago explored conditions of subjectivity as constructed through spatial relationships. He currently lives in Chicago, IL and is a Senior Editor at and was an editor and contributor to Theorizing Visual Studies: Writing through the Discipline, 2012. Joel was the featured writer in issue N.5. Today we share the essay contained within issue N.5 for your reading enjoyment.



The Surface of Everyday Life

The artists in this issue share a common aesthetic lineage: Dada. A lineage that seems to present itself often in contemporary art, let alone photography – a contradiction which I shall address later. As a sociopolitical movement (for they were not only concerned with art but with revolutionizing subjectivity in general), Dada gave expression to a group of sensates who could no longer abide a life in contradiction. The totalistic ontology of the Belle Époque was shattered by the concussions of artillery during the First World War and the physical evidence that presented itself as mangled masses1 wandering the streets was too much for the Dadaists to ignore.

Since, our society has become much better at our own cosmetics, parsing out the injured and deformed so that a fine gloss remains (i.e.: “the norm”). Beyond this, we are increasingly more adept at reconstructing the previously broken.2 Our culture is one of surface, one where surface equals function. To retain the surface is the best we can do for now and is seemingly the natural reaction to a disruption. Yet, disruptions continue, they come from below, forcing ripples to interrupt the reflection of the surface. We are faced with contradictions.

An image in contradiction reflects a life in contradiction. The dissonance that the Dadaists represented through their work was in reaction to a consciousness of their own conscious ignorance. Through representing the unseen tumult of the modern psyche (the trajectory of which would be carried out through Surrealism), they marked a lack
of consciousness by bringing attention to 
it through practices that manipulated the surface of images (i.e.: frottage, collage, etc.) The disruption of surface in representation is, as well, an act that reasserts the surface over the variances and depth of reality. This is a necessity, both of representation as well as perception.

It is more and more necessary for the contemporary individual to ignore aspects of our daily practice that do not fit comfortably within our mores and ontologies. We are familiar with the term “crisis of conscience,” a phrase used to describe the supposed feeling of shame and guilt that strikes when we realize that our actions are not in sync with our principles and a choice must be made to either ignore our principles or to choose a different action. When is the last time I had a crisis of conscience? I cannot remember… and it’s not because my principles sync with my actions, it’s because of a choice to not live conscientiously. Yet, I am aware. This is conscious ignorance; to view reality as functioning smoothly, sans crisis. As the, now, tumblr adage goes: Keep Calm and Carry On3. Many postmodernists have pointed out that to view reality in such a way exists in dialectical relation to neoliberal system of global capitalism as well as our collective subjectivity. This causes one to perceive the heterogeneous as homogenous surface and to perceive ruptures as intended outcomes through a culture of production. Ruptures become opportunities to reaffirm the contemporary value system as opposed to opportunities to redefine that same system. Keep calm and carry on.

The photograph is itself surface. While some can beguile, the photo as document,
as register of a point in time and space that has been hems the medium into a mode of perception that is almost entirely concerned with the surface of things. The photograph flattens, it distorts by removing causation and registering the vortical index as a single, unidimensional point. This is what makes photography the medium par excellence
of modernity yet throws photography into crisis during postmodernism. The digital photograph has allayed some of these concerns through becoming an infinitely mutable document, once again alive through its ability to continuously become again.

Daniel Gordon, for instance, incorporates the virtual object, in this case fruits and flowers, into the distorted photographic image of the stilllife an apt subject. The virtual image is commonly taken as the perfect surface, despite the underlying code that reproduces or corrupts the image upon request. By inserting the virtual surface into the physical surface of the photograph, Gordon throws the image into a state of collapse in which the inadequacies of both photographic practices are brought to light.

The work of Anthony Gerace, on the other hand, reappropriates the Dadaist strategy of appropriation to deconstruct
and then reconstruct the photograph
into an aesthetic object only defying the practicality of surface. Trey Wright’s work practices something similar, confounding the surface of the photograph by interjecting multiple superficial dimensions into the press of the final photographic image. Through layering multiple planes into one photographic plane, Wright succeeds in causing a rupture in the practice of reading the photographic image. Echoes of its component shards ripple the image’s surface. By defying the surface, by allowing disruptions to disconcert us and break the harmony of everyday life, we may recognize them as opportunities to redefine everyday life.

Joel Kuennen

1 See the paintings of Otto Dix, specifically his 1920 painting Kriegskrüppel, and George Grosz.
2 Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh reported in December 2012 that a woman, paralyzed from the neck down, was able to move a robotic arm with the aid of microelectronic devices implanted in her brain.
3 Initially, a British propaganda poster printed
at the start of WWII in case of a major invasion by
the Nazis, it was never displayed publically but was rediscovered in 2000 by a book dealer. It has since been commercialized and found its way onto tumblr in the form of ironic one-liners; “keep calm and…” keep doing whatever you have been doing.