Last August, Clare Britt and Lauren Adams sat in sweltering darkness in the back of a converted bread truck as full-color images of Raleigh buildings and streets appeared on a photographic easel. There was no movie projector or video player, only a small pin hole lens punched in the wall of the vehicle through which light from outside refracted. What the two women had done was turn the truck into the simplest and earliest kind of camera–a camera obscura. The work from that summer day makes up the photo-a-go-go show at Rebus Works in downtown Raleigh.
Artists and astronomers since at least Aristotle have known of the effect captured by the camera obscura. By the 17th century, artists like Jan Vermeer had constructed portable box devices used as drawing aids to correct perspective, and in the 19th century, large camera obscura rooms were built for public entertainment. In this era of digital imagery and the cinema and computer screen, it’s easy to forget that this is all a photographic image is–the traces of a play of light in a darkened room.
Over the last four years, fabric design/installation artist Lauren Adams and photographer/sculptor Clare Britt have constructed four site-specific camera obscuras in North Carolina to photograph Andy Goldsworthy-esque earthwork/sculptural performances. Using a truck (owned by David Justus) for their latest project allowed them to explore the possibilities of work with a moveable camera. In addition to a display of large-scale prints and paper negatives, photo-a-go-go includes video documentation of the transformed truck-as-sculpture/camera and its travel around town, a collage display of selected prints, and a process journal giving insight into the collaboration.
Given the limited subject matter available to a site-specific camera obscura, it’s easy to see why Adams and Britt wanted to make a moveable version. However, in aesthetic terms, portability introduced new problems. Photography is always haunted by time–the image catches a moment that is always already gone. Their earlier site-specific projects explored the intersection of time and image by documenting impermanent earthworks. The temporary camera added to the overall projects by capturing the process of sculpted change.
The moveable camera brought new challenges as the subjects available to Britt and Adams–a whole world of images–were less under their control. They selected landmark architecture in Raleigh, hoping to capture evidence of change and transformation. However impermanent, buildings and streets are far more fixed than the temporary sculptures. Hence, one of the tradeoffs of the current show is that the documentation of change occurs more at the conceptual than visual register; the story of time is read in the juxtaposition of Victorian house and neo-metal skyline, in the graveyard, but the change revealed has already occurred and the images themselves are relatively static.
That said, the images stand on their own in formal terms with rich contrast and tone, and are good examples of the effects of the long exposures used with a camera obscura. These last include the elision of any fast moving elements (cars, people, birds) so as to produce a curiously emptied and iconic world, as well as blur and ghost effects produced by the movement of more static elements like waving grass or a momentarily stopped car. These subtle dislocations work against the tendency toward the iconic that haunts this show, and open up gaps to interrogate conventions of seeing and representation.
One of the stronger features of the exhibition is the inclusion of a journal that ferried back and forth between the artists’ current homes in Chicago and Pittsburgh. Full of marginal notes and scouting shots of spaces around Raleigh, the journal provides the reader with yet another window on time–in this case, the specific, autobiographical arc of the artists’ collaboration. Particularly useful is the evidence that Adams and Britt were concerned with justifying their use of primitive technology against the charge that they were indulging in nostalgia. So often one sees an exhibit where the artist includes several feet of explanatory text alongside an image on the wall, making it difficult to read the image itself. The use of a journal provided a nice differentiation between image and concept, and its dialogic feel is a welcome contrast to the usual monologue.
The process-oriented nature of the photo-a-go-go show is a good example of the kind of project supported by Rebus Works. Established in 2003 by Raleigh arts activist and educator Lee Moore and photographer Shonna Greenwell, it is a thriving example of the workshop-based arts forum. Located near the Bolyan Avenue Bridge alongside the arts collectives Ant Farm and BLAM! Studios in what was once a corner grocery store, the space serves as Moore’s office and houses Greenwell’s fine arts framing business, pH Seven, and a small exhibition space and storefront. Since Rebus Works opened, it has been a forum for a diverse range of projects, including shows of recent paintings by Lump Lipshitz and David Connell, group shows of local print artists and artists associated with the Penland School of Crafts, work by South American artists, and installation and print/paper design projects. The storefront and the walls of Moore’s office have served as a second display space for smaller shows of local artists and collectives including the Paper Plant and Team Lump.
Rebus Works is distinctive among the small, alternative visual art spaces of Raleigh insofar as the curatorial emphasis is on work and process instead of trend and theory. The exhibitions are not simply markets for selected artists, but are designed to give insights into the artists’ practice. This focus is reinforced by the fact that the gallery and the office/work space of the two women is not strongly visually demarcated. A visitor will (after meeting Greenwell’s dog) see Greenwell, bent over her framing table, and Moore’s office in the back. It is refreshing to move about the work displayed without the pressure of a gallery salesperson, allowing one to consider the pieces in ways that foreground aesthetic rather than commercial value.
Like other Rebus Works shows, photo-a-go-go works as a constellation of several small, jewel-like spaces. Each of the representational media–the 20-foot wall with its large format images, the video, the journal–open up specific worlds, and each is invested with the choices made by Britt and Adams. Set within the intimate work and display spaces of Rebus Works, the overall effect is to place the work, artist and viewer into an environment driven more by aesthetic inquiry than commerce or its near relative, spectacle. If the artists had hoped to change the way we see, this alone is a good beginning. But credit also needs to be given to Moore and Greenwell, whose intelligence has produced the forum.
One of the truths of work in the visual arts is that artists often have to support their practice outside of contemporary patronage systems. Many of the alternatives–the art collective and the atelier, craft-based business, to name two–have been around a long time, far longer, actually, than the gallery or museum. But these ad-hoc strategies tend to have varied life-spans, coming and going like colonies of wildflowers, cross-pollinating and, in some cases, enduring for several decades as the loci of local innovation and craft. The choices Moore and Greenwell have made are for the long-term rather than the fast buck, and that’s a good thing for artists in this area.
Rebus Works, 301-2 Kinsey St., Raleigh, is open Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-7 p.m. and Saturday 1-4 p.m. A gallery talk with Adams and Britt happens on Saturday, Aug. 27 at 4 p.m., the final day of the photo-a-go-go show.