The bets are off on whether Paul Seawright’s latest series of photographs marks a major departure in his practice. The subject is the studios of TV news broadcasters under the series title Making News: Things Left Unsaid; the occasion is a selection from the series shown last spring at The Model in Sligo. To make the series Seawright acquired access to TV studios in the United States and in Ireland, and the photographs that are the outcome of these visits are exhibited with a statement which poses the question of the role and power of this media in making ‘the news’. With this as an objective, the photographic outcome is surprisingly surreal.
Given these responses, a brief recap of Seawright’s work is useful before turning to the latest photographs. He remains best known for work which obliquely signifies sectarian violence in Belfast and its environs. Sectarian Murders, his early series from the late eighties, is photographs of locations of murders or locations where bodies were dumped during the worst period of sectarian violence in the 1970s. The viewer is made aware of the significance of the site not by anything within the image but, in the language of news media, by the ‘caption’, which is a short, blunt account of the murder as reported at the time by the Press. Seawright had extracted reportage from archives and photographed the sites as they stood in the late 1980s. The ‘caption’ is necessary in order to render the image meaningful to more than an extremely local audience who have memory of the outrage; it is a means of indicating a place of some broader significance which is heightened by the accumulation of these sectarian murders and their intended effect as terror strategy. This use of text perhaps reaches a climax with a series that is concurrent with Things Left Unsaid and is titled, The List. Seen solely as a series of photographs, The List is of apparently inconsequential views of urban by-ways, houses, garage, and so on. The text that accompanies the series provides the rationale: ‘the list’ refers to the sex offenders list as operative in the United States. Those on the list are prohibited from crossing the prescribed distance from institutions or places where children gather, the effect of which is to create not just zones of exclusion but by extension of clustering in areas already socially deprived. Seawright’s photographs mark these boundaries though there is nothing within the photograph to indicate demarcation, or to suggest what the logic of the photograph might be. Purpose is gleaned through reading the accompanying text.
If some photographs in The List, seen as stand-alone images, lean in the direction of the aesthetic—patterns on walls or trees against sky—the same cannot be said of the photographs in Things Left Unsaid. At The Model they were displayed with minimal spot-lighting which served to reinforce the enveloping darkness surrounding the news presenters. One photograph shows a presenter behind her desk; she is bathed in light but she looks out onto a black void which comprises approximately 70 per cent of the picture space. Another is of the back of a male head and shoulders where the most eye-catching part of the picture space is the coil of the audio wire on the back of his neck. But the majority of the photographs are of electronic hardware and backdrops. In these, cables seem to have a life of their own, cameras hang purposelessly from overhead rails, and trips and switches look ominous. The ethereal atmosphere is created through the combined effects of the dark space of the studio, the TV lights, and Seawright’s flash. The Model’s gallery statement refers to these images as erotic but some are of nauseating hue in which artificial light exaggerates the green of a green wall to sickly levels.
In Seawright’s other series the rationale for the photographs, and their significance for the audience, lies in a tangible connection between the text and the scene recorded. In Things Left Unsaid the connection is pushed beyond the limits of that logic; here the studio is an artificial environment, its function to filter transmissions, a place essentially without a physical essence. Seawright raises a problem of contemporary art photography which is its limits in what can be recorded through the aperture. The catalogue essay accompanying Things Left Unsaid celebrates photography’s ability to capture light, but what cannot be rendered visible through light seems to be more the issue. The series may be said to confront the advance of the Digital Age illustrated here as transmission of what is deemed to be news; Seawright’s still camera images the hardware but this equipment serves merely as conduits and, as highlighted here, they are as fetishes. On the flip-side, the ostensibly rational side, Seawright asks the question on what or what doesn’t pass through. This too is double-edged because while TV news continues to be powerful in what is presented and how (why else would the most powerful entrepreneurs want to acquire such companies?), rolling 24-hour news as developed in the United States in the eighties with the assistance of satellite technology is to some extent superseded by newer technologies so there is a degree of irony involved in Seawright’s enquiry into the news studio using a still camera, itself an older technology. Yet the power of TV companies in making and framing ‘the news’ is still very potent.
Where the role and power of TV news is posed as a rhetorical question, there was another piece of text at The Model and it was centrally positioned in the installation. In red letters across an expanse of grey painted wall, Seawright used a quotation from Paul Virilio: ‘The Gulf War is the first total electronic war … current conflict no longer plays out only on the line of the front of a given geographic horizon, but first of all on the monitors, the control screens of televisions of the entire world.’ In retrospect his referencing of Virilio seems obvious. Seawright’s work has included the paramilitary, sub-military, and military, respectively, Ulster’s paramilitaries and Orange Order, and war in Afghanistan. Virilio identifies himself as a military critic whose contribution was in his articulation of the transformation of the nature of war through developments in digital technology and in the effects of new technology on society and culture generally. Virilio’s main complaint about the electro-optical economy is the instantaneity of everything, of relevance here, the news market. One of Virilio’s key concepts is that of disappearance, that is, in a world of endless flow duration disappears. If Virilio’s belief in the virtue of the time involved in representation as opposed to the instant presentation that prevails in the contemporary and in art is somewhat nostalgic, Seawright’s delirious take on that contemporary world could offer richer pickings.