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March 19, 2018 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Rule and Exception

A weekend ago, I went and listened to Teju Cole speak about his photo book Blind Spot. I have learned a lot from Teju Cole already— his collection of photography is one that I read paragraphs out of for people close to me, and sometimes strangers, all the time. I have a deep appreciation for the way his thoughts trail so digressively, tumbling into each other, but still seem structured, organised.

Towards the end of his conversation with Paula Morris, Teju Cole brought up the notion that we set rules when creating art. Sometimes we assign these rules to a certain project, and call it a brief, or perhaps we have rules flicking the back of our arms all the time — this persistent, but guiding pain to remind us who we are, what we do. It is a foreign idea to invite rules into your work. It is much more attractive to perpetuate a notion that visual art comes very organically, instinctively, spontaneously.

What rules does Cole work under? What rules are acceptable to confine oneself within? He begins to outline them, and he begins in an unexpected way: no filters, no cropping, scanning in three different ways, minimal contrast adjustments; for Blind Spot, shooting only on 35mm film. These are technical rules, relating the production of a negative into what Cole wants us to see in it. This is the curious thing about photography, the way it balances so awkwardly between the technical and art form, not fitting comfortably in either realm. His methods do not appear artistic, but at the same time they are. The difference in the resulting positive if just one of these technical considerations is altered will change the stylistic reading of it, what hides in the shadows, what detail is blown out by light.

Rules, for Cole, are the reason “why your kid could not do it”. Kids’ art practice is naïve, and by nature, not bound by any rules. It is the act of setting rules that differentiates the work of Cole’s and other artists’ from all the other paintings, drawings, and photographs created by children or otherwise. These rules are not prescriptive, but instead something that I suppose Cole has at the back of his mind, steering his photographic choices.

In Blind Spot, Cole consciously avoided images of cars or people, and the collection is largely free from both of these things. But here! a boy with his head bowing below the red rail of a boat; again, the same boy, scanned by a negatives scanner a third or fourth or even a fifth time, now with his eyes looking, no longer in shadow. And here! a car, its bonnet protruding from a garage, bursting from the metal seams that someone wanted to contain it in, like bread dough rising past its tin. Small rules like these, which belong only to the creator, allow the creation of the exception— of something extraordinary that justifies shifting your personal rubric. The self-made rule is arbitrary, but it is essential to form the rule anyway, in order to realise what is most valuable.

So, the production of the photograph becomes a thing in limbo again, between a rule and the destruction of rule— a suspension in exception. There is something sneaky about an exception. It is the grey area, the fringe of permission. The fringe often dictates what will become the centre, and the exception becomes the norm, and a new exception is made. The rule and exception is crucial in considering personal practice, and how your work will mutate and develop. The rule is still what influences who we are, what we do, but also: what will we be, where will we go?

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