TARYN SIMON

THE CONSPIRACY OF WORD AND IMAGE

I’d like to begin here not with ‘An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’ (2007), but with an earlier series by Taryn Simon, ‘The Innocents’ (2003). It consists of photographic portraits of some thirty-nine men and one woman who had all spent long periods in prison, sometimes even on death row, after being convicted of crimes they did not commit. Simon photographs them now outside of prison after their original convictions had been overturned and they were subsequently released. She had first become aware of many of the cases while shooting photographs to accompany a newspaper story on the Innocence Project, in which lawyers appeal trials in which a manifest injustice appears to have occurred and evidence exists that would challenge the original verdict. In the particular cases Simon depicts, she selects only those in which a conviction was obtained on the basis of photographic evidence: in which the subject was identified from a photograph when they had failed to be picked out in a live line-up, or in which the police had shown the eyewitness an old photograph of the subject that more matched their description. The second notable feature of the series is that, after having first tried a neutral or objective style of portraiture, Simon decided to portray her subjects in a more personally significant context: either where they said they were at the time of the crime, where they were arrested or, on rarer occasions, at the actual scene of the crime with their supposed victim.

Of course, it is tempting at first to read The Innocents in terms of a rather banal self-accusation by photography. What is understood to give the work its specifically artistic significance and to take it away from its documentary origins is the fact that in each case it is photography that was involved in the wrongful conviction of these people. It is this that prevents The Innocents from being a mere celebration of the (eventual) triumph of justice, which was undoubtedly Simon’s initial motivation in taking her pictures. For, it might be asked, how could Simon claim for her photographs this purpose when it is also the medium that was used falsely to convict these men and this woman? At the same time as photography enables the declaration of these people’s innocence, it would also be photography that helped wrongly imprison them. This ambiguity is also to be seen in Simon’s second ‘intervention’ in the original documentary presentation of the material: her decision to depict her subjects either at the scene of their alibi, at the place of their arrest or where the crime was committed. For here too the same photography that is able to represent (and even to prove) the subjects’ innocence is also able to point to their guilt. To put it more rigorously, we would say that the same photography that is able to show the subjects’ innocence is also able to demonstrate their guilt (show them at the scene of the crime); the same photography that is able to demonstrate their guilt also represents one of the only ways of proving them innocent (show that they were not present when the crime was committed).

Simon herself speaks of the ‘neutrality’ of her pictures, the particular ‘distance’ she seeks to maintain from her subjects. This, she says, is not because she is unsympathetic to what happened to them, but because she does not presume to know how they might feel after what has happened to them (and even how they might feel after being taken back to places with such personal significance for them). But, more than this—and this accounts for the slight trembling we see in even the stillest and most introspective of the portraits—we feel that what is shown is the impossibility of definitively knowing the innocence (as well as guilt) of these men and this woman. This is ultimately nothing to do with anything Simon herself might believe, but is an effect of the medium itself. For what we have here is the very excess of the evidence of photography over any attempt to narrate it or reduce it to a truth. Photography is both, or alternately, innocent and guilty, in an oscillation in which each is the condition for the other, and in which each can only be exchanged for the other. Put simply, there is an evidentiary density to photography that goes beyond any attempt to evaluate it neutrally, so that any attempt to pass judgement on it is necessarily to leave out some aspect of it, is in the end to render an injustice.

•   •   • 

It is something like this that we see in ‘An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’. What is it that we have there? From Washington State, we have capsules of nuclear waste cooling in superheated water. From JFK Airport, we have the room in which items impounded by US Customs are stored before being destroyed. From New Jersey, we have two of the trans-Atlantic submarine cables that connect Europe and America. From the Harvard Medical School, we have a brightly lit vial of live HIV virus. And from Langley, Virginia, we have the abstract art collection of the original headquarters of the CIA. Following the words ‘hidden and unfamiliar’ in the title, it is tempting to suggest that what we have here is the classic documentary project of exposing the secret behind the everyday appearance of things. What Simon attempts to show us is what the authorities do not want us to see, what is normally legally or politically denied to us. This is the series’ admitted post-9/11 context: at a time of the serious curtailment of civil rights, Simon’s work can be seen to be embodying a democratic commitment to free speech, revealing the forbidden truth behind big government and large multi-national corporations. It is an impression strengthened by the reply of the Disney corporation—a corporation about which many of us have had doubts as to what lies behind the smiling public face—denying Simon the right to take photographs. It is a refusal that forms the coda to both the exhibition here at the Institute of Modern Art and the book based upon the series, as though it emblematises the resistance that Simon had to battle to take these photographs.

But, in fact, the letter from Disney reveals another truth: that Simon has exactly not taken these images clandestinely or without permission. On the contrary, what we see is the result of a long series of negotiations between the photographer and her subjects. Indeed, Simon in interviews will say that part of her work is these negotiations—this is why she includes the letter from Disney. She will even go so far as to say that what we are looking at is a kind of collaboration between her and her subjects. This is undoubtedly the meaning of the striking formality of many of her images (their frontality, even lighting, sense of composedness). It tells us that what we see is meant to be looked at; that, far from being secret or forbidden, what Simon photographs already virtually includes our gaze. Indeed, like the atomic fuel rods that arrange themselves in the shape of America, we might even say that what we see exists only in our gaze. Like the symbols scrolling up and down our computer screens or like quantum particles whose only reality is their being recorded, Simon’s work reveals its secrets only in our gaze: there is nothing behind what we see.

So where, we might ask, is the secret that Simon’s work seems to imply? Why does she want to photograph these scenes—actually to see them and to have us see them—rather than merely describe them (each photo has a detailed description accompanying it on the wall beside it in letraset)? How is the medium of photography being used here? In order to try to answer these questions, let us examine one or two of these mini-narratives. Next to the photo of the two modest-looking trans-Atlantic cables, Simon writes (I abbreviate):

These VSNL sub-marine telecommunications cables extend 8,037.4 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Capable of transmitting over 60 million simultaneous voice conversations, these underwater fiber-optic cables stretch from Saunton Sands in the United Kingdom to the coast of New Jersey. The cables run below ground and emerge directly into the VSNL International headquarters, where signals are amplified and split into distinctive wavelengths enabling transatlantic phone calls and internet transmissions.

And next to the small, translucent bottle of HIV virus mounted on the wall, we can read (again, I abbreviate):

This flask contains the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that is infecting human peripheral blood mononuclear cells and replicating. It will be used to study the neutralizing potential of antibodies against HIV, from individuals infected with the virus and from participants in vaccine studies. The HIV Vaccine Trials Network was formed when the federal government reorganized its HIV vaccine research program in 1999. It is a division of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

What is going on in each case here? Where is the secret to be found in each of these works? Obviously, what we have next to Simon’s photographs is more than a mere caption. Consistent with the documentary ambition of the work, it is an entire narrative, seeking to situate what we see within a wider context of cause and effect. Of course, all of this is of a piece with the idea that what Simon’s work attempts to reveal, as much in the exhibition as a whole as in the individual photographs, is a conspiracy, a vast interlocking network of mutually reinforcing interests, crossing the military, the government, the information and entertainment industries. Or this at least is the implication of the work, even if Simon does not intend it. Inspired by formal affinities, the way one image is hung next to another, we search for similar instances of the same underlying technology of surveillance, normalisation and social control (to take the example Bill MacNeill mentioned, we compare the black prisoner behind bars and the white tiger in his cage, or we compare the stack of sexual assault kits that await testing for want of resources and the printing of money by the US Treasury). And yet—this is the first tension or self-contradiction we see in the work—the more these written narratives go on, the more they move away from what can actually be seen in the photographs, and perhaps even from what can be rendered visible at all. Far from explaining the photographs, these narratives withdraw something from them, make it appear as though there is something hidden or not made clear in them. To use the language of The Innocents, the words next to the photographs introduce a generalised distrust in the image.

Nevertheless—this is the other tension or self-contradiction in the project—it must be asked why, with all of the words accompanying them, Simon bothers to make photographs at all? Why does An American Index not take the form of, say, a series of journalistic exposés of contemporary American life after 9/11? And the answer, of course, is that all of the words Simon provides would count for nothing except for the images that accompany them. Even the most detailed and complete description of what we see would not convince us without a photograph to provide evidence. And there is undoubtedly the sense, looking at Simon’s photographs—this is another effect of their formality and sometimes symmetry, which ‘closes them off’—that they are somehow tautological, need no other explanation, speak for themselves. When we look at those trans-Atlantic cables or the HIV vial, there is, as well as the sense that the image means nothing without its explanation, the sense that the truth they contain is self-evident, can never entirely be understood, represents a sublime excess of what can be seen over what can be said.

This is the profound ambiguity of Simon’s show, caught so well by its title, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. ‘Index’: the word means something that was once in touch or contact with an original, like a footprint, a signature or a religious relic. And it is frequently applied to photography in the sense that a photograph is a presentation and not a representation of its subject: the direct, unmediated recording of light and shadow. But ‘index’ also refers to classification, organisation and categorisation, as in something like a database or encyclopaedia. It is a division and perhaps even narration of material in order to make sense of it, to attempt to give a meaning to the overwhelming immediacy of the world. And it is both meanings of ‘index’ that are at stake in Simon’s work: we have both the immediate self-evidence of the photo and the mediating caption or explanation of the text. We have both an excess of image over text—what can be seen but not said—and of text over image—what can be said but not seen. And it is in just this double failure that the secret of Simon’s work is to be found. It is not simply something outside or before the work, which the work must discover, but something inside the work, brought about by it. The secret Simon’s work reveals is an effect of the work itself. This is the paradox of all testimony, all witnessing: that ineluctable excess of reality, which goes beyond any attempt to comprehend or narrate it, is in fact an effect of the work itself.

We see here, to conclude, something of the complex economy of all secrets: that far from it being a matter of penetrating a secret that is hidden or withheld from us, the secret exists only insofar as it has been broken or divulged. We can never have a secret without somebody else sharing it, or what is perhaps the same thing, without somebody denying that there even is a secret. All of which raises the question—the original ambiguity of The Innocents too—of whether Simon’s work is part of that same ‘hidden and unfamiliar’ that it seeks to expose, that same post-9/11 hysteria it attempts to demystify. For we have in her work the same suggestion that there is an effectively ‘terrorist’ conspiracy, even after it opens its doors to inspection. And the enigma is deepened, not dispelled, exactly insofar as we can say everything, see everything. For, as we have argued, something is not seen, not said, exactly in this. In this sense, the work offers that same invitation to enter it as do those government agencies, multi-national corporations and information and entertainment complexes that Simon documents. Ideology, the true neo-liberal ideology that prevails today, works by implying that there is a secret, some meaning hidden behind appearances that only it is privy to. Imagine for a moment a photo documenting the behind-the-doors dealings of a major commercial art dealer or, for that matter, a prestigious institutional art space. Or think of An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar as the updated, post-abstract art collection for a new 21st-century CIA. 

Taryn Simon, Live HIV, HIV Research Laboratory, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

This flask contains Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that is infecting human peripheral blood mononuclear cells and replicating. It will be used to study the neutralizing potential of antibodies against HIV, in both individuals infected with the virus and participants in vaccine studies. The HIV Vaccine Trials Network was formed when the federal government reorganized its HIV vaccine research program in 1999. It is a division of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

There are no documented cases of anyone infected with HIV developing sterilizing immunity. More than 42 million people worldwide are infected with HIV. At the current rate of infection, experts predict that 90 million people will be HIV carriers by 2010. A new infection occurs approximately every 10 seconds.

2006/2007. Chromogenic colour print, 37.25 x 44.5 inches framed (94.6 x 113cm). Ed. of 7. © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery/Steidl. 

Taryn Simon, Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility Cherenkov Radiation, Hanford Site, U.S. Department of Energy, Southeastern Washington State.

Submerged in a pool of water at Hanford Site are 1,936 stainless-steel nuclear-waste capsules containing cesium and strontium. Combined, they contain over 120 million curies of radioactivity. It is estimated to be the most curies under one roof in the United States. The blue glow is created by the Cherenkov Effect which describes the electromagnetic radiation emitted when a charged particle, giving off energy, moves faster than light through a transparent medium. The temperatures of the capsules are as high as 330 degrees Fahrenheit. The pool of water serves as a shield against radiation; a human standing one foot from an unshielded capsule would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than 10 seconds. Hanford is among the most contaminated sites in the United States.

2005/2007. Chromogenic colour print, 37.25 x 44.5 inches framed (94.6 x 113cm). Ed. of 7. © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery/Steidl. 

Taryn Simon, Transatlantic Sub-Marine Cables Reaching Land, VSNL International, Avon, New Jersey. 

These VSNL sub-marine telecommunications cables extend 8,037.4 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Capable of transmitting over 60 million simultaneous voice conversations, these underwater fiber-optic cables stretch from Saunton Sands in the United Kingdom to the coast of New Jersey. The cables run below ground and emerge directly into the VSNL International headquarters, where signals are amplified and split into distinctive wavelengths enabling transatlantic phone calls and internet transmissions.

2006/2007. Chromogenic colour print, 37.25 x 44.5 inches framed (94.6 x 113cm). Ed. of 7. © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery/Steidl. 

Associate Professor Rex Butler is a Lecturer in Art History at the School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.