A Review on “Collectivity”


Abraham Adams (b. 1985, US), an artist and writer based in London, has generously reviewed our latest issue. His work has been exhibited internationally and published as various books, including Ambulance Chasers (MIT Press, 2022) and Nothing in MoMA (Punctum Books, 2018). He is a photography student at the Royal College of Art.

Is the first-person plural dead? Theorists have been looking for what some call a “non-hegemonic ‘we’” for decades. It is no longer clear that the word has acceptable use beyond designating a group of I, what Byung-Chul Han has called the “inferno of the same.” And yet it remains hard to imagine ecology, socialism, or the project of any religion other than capitalism without this word, in all its dangerous universalist power. We tend toward euphemisms, provisionally collective pronouns. Walking around an art fair recently, I kept overhearing the phrase “the artist”—the artist is interested in, the artist considers this work to be—until eventually it started to sound like they were all discussing the same person, and like each of us artists were there to play a cameo in the role, as when they breed large numbers of puppies to represent a single dog in different scenes of a movie. That “we” might be “the artist” is an especially dangerous thought for photography. From Photo-Secession on down, the embattled field has tried to distance itself from the image of a technical-aesthetic commons, insisting on stylistic individuation as proof of being an art form. The embarrassment evident in Ruscha’s commonly emulated term “an artist who uses photography”—rather than simply “a photographer”—comes from the dirty open secret photography must repress, the stigma of a collective agent that does not really allow us to make or take, but only to find, in its commons, a photograph. As a case of distributed curation that also suspends individual identification, Der Greif 15 proposes a socialized form of reading that stands in contrast with the all-too-prevalent spirit of projects like Documenta 15, with its degraded socialism of privatized reparations. Inviting us to inhabit the continuum of photography without proprietary interruption, as it appears in these pages, could not be more different, politically, from simply showing us representations of fantasies about political salvation. It is the difference between ethics and politics. It began to show itself, for me, in the simple affection I felt toward something called the artist, in reading these pages—a talented, versatile entity—no matter that it was actually composed of nearly a hundred different people. (The recurrence of certain images in the issue—the fact that, out of thousands, some of the same photographs were chosen more than once—here becomes evidence not of who is doing well, but of what is on our minds.) Strange times that these are, you can say what you want about humanist goodwill, although it can’t mean nothing that one might feel it for strangers . . . But the dispersal and suspension of personal identity in Der Greif 15 affords a rare relatively unencumbered encounter with something deeper and more specific as well: the ethically efficacious We that lurks within the structure of a photograph itself. Often regarded as a class of object, a photograph takes on existence as the union of something absolutely particular—the singularity of that picture plane—and something absolutely impersonal, the identical emptiness of consciousness that comes to reconstitute photographic form to the status of experience, like it does the form of our own personhood. This structure has inescapably pragmatic implications: that all particularity, including all action, is directed toward the same entity. This “we” is not dead; it is structurally innate. Of course, unfortunately, that guarantees us absolutely nothing, except in possibility.