Spring 2016: Shannon Abstract

The Recording Machine: Cameras and Facts, 1968
Joshua Shannon
Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies,
Department of Art History & Archaeology

University of Maryland

This talk seeks to understand what it identifies as a factualist tendency suddenly pervasive across the visual arts of the late 1960s. In particular, it aims to discover why so many western European and North American artists in this period appeared to reject any efforts to uncover essential truths in favor of mere (and often photographic) accumulations of unsynthesized information. (“My pictures,” one artist declared, “are simply a collection of facts”; “What is good about a picture,” another wrote, “is always factual.”) The talk takes up especially the complicated case of the American serial photographer Douglas Huebler, whose quasi-random systems dictated that he trip his shutter, for example, at every mile marker while driving, at mathematically decreasing intervals of time while walking, or at the moments he believed (while listening with his eyes closed) that pedestrians were crossing the street. Such works seemed to prize data over conclusions, and facts over truth, but they also slyly insisted on the absurdity of their quasi-scientific procedures. They drew on contemporary rhetorics of objectivity, randomness, and quantification—rhetorics bound to such public phenomena as the rise of information science, Robert McNamara’s statistical management of the Vietnam War, and the problem of interpreting espionage data. The talk interprets the works as ambivalent inquiries—undertaken in the context of technocracy—into the feasibility and morality of disinterested reason.

Return to The Status of Facts.