Adaptation - Dr Ruth Pelzer


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A lecture on the theme of adaptation.

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  • My aim for this presentation is to find conceptual tools to begin to examine what is happening in ‘expanded printmaking’, a term now frequently employed in the critical discourse on contemporary printmaking. The phenomenon of an ‘expanded’ art practice is, of course, a familiar trope.
  • It refers to the widely (wildly!) practised interactions/cross-overs between (what were at certain points in the history of art more or less distinct) media, disciplines, genres, ‘styles’, as well as more recent, technical modes or objects and materials taken from the everyday environment. This is the phenomenon to which the ‘intermediality’ of the title also refers.
  • There is in printmaking the long established history of translation in form of the adaption of works which are were initially executed in another medium; painting and drawing and now photography and video. In contrast, the artists under consideration here employ modes of printmaking in combination with other media to create a work. It is the specific nature of those combinations that are the subject of this presentation.
  • While not necessarily representative of the most common expressions of such media combinations, the chosen artists are typical of the pervasive multi- or intermedial approach of contemporary art as it pertains to printmaking. Printmaking has always had this close affinity to being a ‘multi-medium’ or even intermedial due to its diverse manifestations as ‘printed matter’, such as illustrated books, posters and so on. Furthermore, in addition to translation, the notion of the ‘copy’ is built into printmaking. Printmaking’s ‘privileged’ correspondence with the copy is due to the various transfer processes that are involved in making a print and its final reproducibility. Hence, printmaking’s marginalisation in modernist art practice can still be felt. Recent combinatory print practices thus revisit printmaking’s always already multiple identities while further expanding them. Text in Avery’s piece reads: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.
  • I am following one prominent strand in translation studies that has been taken up in visual cultural discourse by authors such as Mieke Bal which defines translation ‘as a poetic, hermeneutic, political and experiential mode’ (Bal p 9). The word ‘translation’ denotes the activity of a translator, but also the end result of the process of translating, the translated text. This differentiation is important, as it places a certain emphasis on the production, the performative element that is the making of a work as well as the final ‘product’ and its relationship with the viewer. The consideration of the artist as translator and the art work as a translation is justified by Jakobson’s much-quoted ‘inter-semiotic’ possibility of translation which denotes ‘transformations and intersections … between any different sign systems’.
  • As already indicated, I am using the concept of translation in its broadest sense of transformation. Philosopher John Sallis (in his discussion of Midsummer Night’s Dream with its multiple translations) states: ‘Most obtrusively presented is the sense of translation as change in form, condition, appearance, or substance, translation as transformation, as transmutation ….’ (Sallis in Baker P31/32).
  • Despite different approaches and methodologies in various fields which are engaging with the concept, there is agreement as to ‘the definition of intermediality in its broadest sense. It refers to relations between media, to medial interactions and interferences’. Hence, ‘as a flexible, generic term’ it can be applied ‘to any phenomenon involving more than one medium’ and ‘thus to any phenomenon that – as indicated by the prefix inter - … takes place between media. Accordingly, the crossing of media borders has been defined as a founding category of intermediality’ (p 51/52 in Elleström).
  • Rajewsky is fully aware of the conceptual difficulty of the assumption of fixed media ‘with tangible borders’ (and the potential for essentialist media definitions) that arises out of this founding category. This is especially so, if one takes on board Mitchell’s (1994) and others’ questioning of the ‘premise of discernable media boundaries’ and his much-quoted assertion that ‘all media are mixed media’ (1994).
  • Given this theoretical critique and the tendency in art works of the last decades ‘towards … a dissolution of the boundaries between different art forms’ (p52), it seems, as Rajewsky notes, somewhat ‘démodé’ to debate intermediality. Yet, she asserts the necessity to speak about (media) borders, since ‘any kind of theoretical dismantling of the term “intermediality” is confronted with concrete intermedial practices in the arts for which … media borders and media specificities are indeed of crucial importance’ (p53)
  • Rajewsky proposes three intermedial categories ‘ medial transposition, … as, for example, film adaptations of literary texts’. ‘ media combination which includes phenomena such as opera, film, theatre …. Sound Art installations … or … so-called multimedia, mixed-media and intermedia forms’. ‘ intermedial references, for example, in a literary text to a specific film … qua medium (that is, so-called filmic writing), likewise references … in a painting to photography and so on.’ (p 55)
  • Implied in such operations is the presumption of ‘a priori, conventional delimitations of those media or art forms’ (p60). This means that ‘”the idea” of one or another individual medium can be, and … frequently is, called upon in the recipient’ and is equally available to the producer/artist (ibid). Obviously, any answer to what an ‘idea’ or conventional attributions of a medium/art form are ‘necessarily depends on the historical and discursive contexts and the observing subject or system’, including ‘historical and contextual variability’ (p61). Furthermore, as with translation, ‘the overall actualisation or realisation of the other medial system is impossible’. Put quite simply, ‘dance theatre cannot truly become painting’. ‘Here medial specificities and borders emerge, which make clear that certain basic medial constraints must be considered’ (p62). One could add, as Bal, has argued, that it is often precisely such differences, or even constraints, that are of interest to artists.
  • Marcus Boon (2011) maintains that, culturally, a comprehensive re-thinking of our attitudes to notions of the copy is necessary. This implies a questioning of the ‘very particular set of philosophical framings of copying, along with the paradoxes, aporias, and internal contradictions that sustain them’ as a result of ‘European and American histories’ while other cultures of copying are being ‘overlooked’ (p.6/7). Boon declares that ‘one simple way to put it is that a copy is a repetition’ (p81). He further places the copy in analogy to repetition by citing Deleuze’s much-quoted statement ‘that we can understand repetition only “once we realize that variation is not added to repetition in order to hide it, but is rather its condition or constitutive element, the interiority of repetition par excellence”’ (p81). Similarly ‘copia necessarily involves variation in the constitution of what we call “copies”’(p 81) My point is: While the concepts of intermediality/translation allow us to take a closer look at the differences/variations involved in intermedial art practices, we tend to emphasise variation/difference (often cloaked in terminology around ‘novelty’) over the copy/repetition factor. Therefore it strikes me as worthwhile to place the notion of copy/repetition right into the centre of the reflection on translation/intermediality.
  • All three artists ‘mesh’ different media or image modes and forms of production and display with printmaking an important constituent in each artist’s approach, even if only one (Baumgartner) can be called a ‘printmaker’. I will show the particular ways in which the ‘operations’ of the artists do indeed challenge conventional boundaries between the media they employ and moreover open out and ‘develop’ printmaking as a ‘virtual’ (Ryan) sphere and thus contribute to a debate on translation in the intermedial field.
  • The first work I will consider is that of Christiane Baumgartner. Her woodcuts of the urbanized landscape are based on and filtered through the medium of video. Baumgartner translates these two historically and technically diverse image technologies into an intermedial fusion or an ‘intermedial referencing’, in Rajewsky’s terms where only one of the media implied does manifest itself. This conflation sets both individual media in relief (pun intended), in other words, it allows a deconstruction of the ‘idea’ of their ‘conventional’ qualities (Rajewski) as well as ‘the accretion of meaning’ through translation noted by Fabbri.
  • Baumgartner invades the stilled, singular video image with dark and light lines. Although suggestive of the graphism of analogue video ‘noise,’ these lines may be inspired but are not actually caused by this familiar pattern. More often than not, such lines in Baumgartner’s prints are horizontal (see Kleinesw Seestueck, 2011), but in some works they assume a complex moiré pattern (see Luftbild, 2008/9). The image or scene emerges, ostensibly, in spite of this ‘noise’. But this is not so.
  • In Baumgartner’s case, it is really the ‘noise’ or interference in form of the horizontal (or patterned) lines which reveals the image/scene and not, as in the conventional woodcut, the contouring lines or areas. Only by alternating the width and texture of the line is the object/image represented. Ultimately, it is repetition or copying that reveals the object or scene. The object/image demonstrates Deleuze’s ‘principle’ of difference as constitutive of repetition. Further, Baumgartner’s lines operate, in addition to connoting the familiar signs of technical disturbance, as signs of themselves, of repetition itself. In the language of the woodcut, they expose its basic functioning as a mere alteration between or repetition of light and dark; of the black ink and the whitish colour of the paper. Simultaneously, in addition to the analogue video with its linear graphic structure, as we have seen, the underlying structure of the digital image with its binary on/off mode are referenced. Thus, the means of this particular intermedial fusion, of the digital/analogue video still and the wood cut, are foregrounded.
  • In iconographical terms the images exhibit a copy-character in two respects: at the level of the subject matter of ostensibly mundane ‘non-spaces’, such as the motorway in Lisbon I-IV (2001) or a generic looking, ‘fabricated’ forest (Deutscher Wald, 2007). And also, the apparently random, ‘artless’ framing with its ‘point-and-shoot’ quality further emphasises the copy character of the image as a multiple.
  • This is made particularly evident in a series like Lisbon I-IV, 2001 which does comprise of four nearly identical images.
  • Commenting on the paradoxical relation between the different temporalities of the instantaneous video image and its several-months-long laborious transposition into the wood cut, one writer (Coldwell, 2011) has labelled Baumgartner’s art ‘perverse’. In the context of translation theory the ‘transfer’ to which the word ‘translation’ alludes in the Greek etymological root of the word does indeed include ‘a sense that disturbs the otherwise smooth transition across an interval: to transfer something is also to change it … to alter it … to pervert it’ (Sallis in Baker p32). If this may indeed entail the ‘foreignizing’ aspect of translation and at times yield a ‘monstrous deformation’ (ibid), in this instance I would like to save the notion (including the element of copying) from its pejorative bent and instead stress the haptic, affective and conceptual transformation produced for both media involved in this intermedial fusion.
  • How do the three terms of translation, intermediality and the copy that have guided this investigation so far allow a mapping of Regina Silveira’s installation? In Mundus admirabilis (2008-10) and Rerum Naturae (2007-8) the Brazilian artist’s translation entails a literal transfer of small engraved printed images from 18th and 19th century entomological books into both a two-dimensional and three-dimensional format, ultimately the creation of an installation that relies on a telescoping of different orders of scale. The creation of a site-specific immersive environment with its viewer orientation occurs through
  • wall paper-like print and floor covering (via industrial printing mode of plotter, i.e. computer printed vinyl); 2) three-dimensional ‘design’ objects in the tradition of the altered ready-made (achieved via decal, the transfer of printed imagery from one surface to another – here china - aided by heat or water);
  • 3) and craft-oriented embroidery on the table cloth. Silveira’s piece fits the now firmly established category of installation art, as theorised by Claire Bishop (2005) and Rajewsky’s second category of ‘intermedial combinations’. Silveira exploits print’s reproducibility or copy character at different levels. Compared to the other two artists so far discussed, she engages in the most direct copying: The individual motifs are copied from multiple copies (namely books). Besides, as we have seen, they are repeated twice, as surface ‘décor’ on the walls and floor and on the table ware and table cloth.
  • Furthermore, the overall pattern of motifs comprises of multiple copies of individual insects.
  • At first glance, little translation seems to have taken place. But what appears to be a mere exchange actually entails a number of operations and changes in register and hence, in effect and cultural signification. Despite the historically potentially distancing element of the graphic as opposed to a photographic imaging style, socio-cultural associations which have been historically affiliated with insects remain present in the work. These could be summarily characterised by a sense of wonder on the one hand and utter denigration on the other. Both are linked to a positing of insects as wholly different from human beings. With regards to the fear of insects, the agglomeration of imagery, its sensory assault fits in with and ‘repeats’ one of the represented species’ most pronounced attributes, namely a ‘swarming’. Swarming is a signifier of insects’ multiplication and fecundity and signals an absolute disregard of inner or outer boundaries, as conceived by humans. Instances of ‘the abject’, they are usually met with aversion, if not disgust.
  • The reference to biblical and other calamities and its allegorical translation into the contemporary context of international and national warfare, corruption, environmental catastrophes, diseases and so on easily presents itself to the viewer. This is how both the artist and various writers have read the work.
  • Then there are the various changes in scale that mark the translation from small to big print. If insects in most environments might be compared to the cultural form of the ‘miniature’ and hence turn the human body gigantic, within Silveira’s installation the human body, if not exactly turning into a miniature, certainly becomes reduced and swamped. The gigantism of the imagery has further implications. A s Stewart has argued, ‘while the miniature represents a mental world of proportion, control and balance, the gigantic presents a physical world of disorder and disproportion’ (Stewart p74).
  • In Silveira’s intermedial translation not only are media boundaries of print challenged and magnified (literally and metaphorically) but also the conventional binary division between nature and culture becomes undone. If translation embodies the infective quality that Fabbri has noted and with it the ‘accretion of meaning’ (Fabbri in Baker 189), then Silveira’s translation of historical print forms fulfils this function particularly with regard to the contagious propensity of the print as copy. In addition to the popular reference to modern plagues, as suggested by some authors and Silveira herself, I would like to propose that her transpositional copying alludes to what Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe calls ‘mimetism itself’, ‘that pure and disquieting plasticity which potentially authorizes the varying appropriation of all characters and functions … but without any property than an infinite malleability: instability ‘itself’ (Lacoue-Labarthe in Boon p 90).
  • Adaptation - Dr Ruth Pelzer

    1. 1. Ignore the Gap?How may translation theories elucidate intermediality in contemporary works of art? Ruth Pelzer
    2. 2. Jessica Stockholder Of Standing Float Roots In Thin Air, 2006Installation: PS1 Contemporary Art Center. Long Island City, New York
    3. 3. Installation view of Francesc Ruiz, Newsstand, 2010 Eric Avery, Print Back, 2009
    4. 4. translation‘as a poetic, hermeneutic, political andexperiential mode’ (Bal p 9).Jakobson speaks of the ‘inter-semiotic’possibility of translation which denotes‘transformations and intersections …between any different sign systems’ (quotedin Schober, 2010, p166)
    5. 5. translation‘Most obtrusively presented is the sense of translation as change in form, condition, appearance, or substance, translation as transformation, as transmutation ….’ (Sallis in Baker P31/32).
    6. 6. intermedialityrefers to ‘relations between media, to medialinteractions and interferences’can be applied ‘to any phenomenon involving morethan one medium’ and‘thus to any phenomenon … that takes placebetween media’.‘Accordingly, the crossing of media borders hasbeen defined as a founding category ofintermediality’ (Rajewsky, 2010, in Elleström, p51/52).
    7. 7. intermediality
    8. 8. intermedialityAnton Henning at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, Summer 2011
    9. 9. Rajewsky’s three intermedial categories medial transposition media combination intermedial references
    10. 10. Gerhard Richter, Reader, 1994, oil on linen, 72 x 101 cm
    11. 11. intermediality Anna Barriball Untitled II, 2008 Ink on Paper 239 x 66 x 22 cm
    12. 12. copy
    13. 13. Christiane Baumgartner Regina Silveira
    14. 14. Christiane Baumgartner
    15. 15. Christiane Baumgartner Kleines Seestück I, 2011 Woodcut on Shiragiku Japanese paperPaper 62.0 x 92.0 cm, Image 47.0 x 80.0 cm
    16. 16. Christiane Baumgartner Deutscher Wald, 2007.Lisbon, 2001, woodcut, 98 x 128 cm Woodcut on Kozo paper, 28 x 35 inches
    17. 17. Lisbon (2001), woodcut, 98 x 128 cm each.
    18. 18. Regina Silveira, Rerum Naturae with Mundus Admirabilis, 2010glazed porcelain, embroidered linen, adhesive vinyl, wood and steel table.variable dimensionsMoore College of Art and Science, Philagrafika, Philadelphia, USA
    19. 19. Regina Silveira Mundus Admirabilis, 2008-10Plotter-cut and digitally printed vinyl, Installation View at Moore College of Art, Philadelphia as part of Philagrafika