A Matter of Life and Death

Philip Watkins, 2006

Photofile Magazine 78 Spring

Scot Cotterell’s The Life Death Oppositional, repeats the banal classifying tendency central to the structure of internet databases. Shown at Inflight Gallery, Hobart, in February this year, it consists of a series of 50 small photographic prints spread across a wall and a small black box in which they can be stored post-exhibition. The images are the results of two separate Google image searches using the terms ‘life’ and ‘death’; the only other criteria for inclusion being that the images were photographic and deliberately composed. Avoiding aesthetic decisions about each photograph, the resulting files were burned to CD and printed on Fuji crystal archive paper at a Harvey Norman self-serve digital photo-lab.

Clearly there’s an irony employed by Cotterell using an internet search engine to provide insight into such weighty human concerns. Especially knowing that a result, based on a simple alphabetical or numerical process of elimination, would only trivialise the history of human relations, life and death. And that the knowledge that philosophers and natural scientists have acquired, ordered and categorised over centuries would become scrambled by such DIY research. So it isn’t merely the images produced from such a search that the artist is concerned with.

The search engine’s un-human quality - its distinction from human subjectivity - is what makes it an authoritative research tool. A search may appear related to opening at random the pages of a sacred text like the Bible or the I Ching in search of divine revelation. and the machine’s systematic, disinterested process makes it seem more reliable. This machine, however, having become increasingly indispensable to us as an encyclopaedic resource, might hold the key to such profound questions, given its huge capacity to store information. Designed to satisfy our investigative independence, wouldn’t it be likely to contain overlooked evidence, given the billions of incidental moments captured and made accessible to us through its pool of digital photographic images?

Despite the extravagance of available images, the images in The Life Death Oppositional can be read within the perimeters of Cotterell’s initial search request and are infused with suggestions of a celebration of life or a brush with death. To a degree they can’t help but be answers to the search questions and drained of initial purpose, they become parasitic to their context. However, if this is so, what of the authority these images have that justifies such trust in an archive of image data? If it were simply a case of seeing what you’re looking for, wouldn’t the search be unnecessary? 

It may be true that you only see what you know, but hopefully there are ways of extending that knowledge through reliable data. The thrill of poring through a photographic archive is that these images never entirely transcend their temporal uniqueness and as such possess a disarming candour and directness. In viewing them there’s always an element of the treasure hunt; a search for the unseen, beyond the eye of the photographer, that by chance might be the key to something. They exist with pictorial convention in equilibrium with their specific moment. Despite being abstracted shells, which can be filled and emptied of meaning at whim, their form is bound to a particular time. This adherence to time is the anonymous originality of all photographs, and is quite distinct from their two-dimensional content. Because they arrest the incidental, which cannot be stopped (for the living at any rate), they take on an anthropological truth. 

Cotterell’s installation presents dispossessed images and although they are clearly not that old, they look as though they have been subject to an accelerated historical process of abstraction. Having acquired this quasi-archaeological status they become clues to hidden dramas upon which we can only speculate. Although they slip in and out of Categories, they are the leftovers from the repeated need to consciousness of being in a particular time and place with that such a time will be lost forever.

Philip Watkins was a contemporary arts writer and curator, and exhibitions officer at Contemporary Arts Tasmania.