Doug Hall: Photographs
For the last 25 years Doug Hall has made perceptual art that questions to what Michel Foucault has called "the order of things" by pointing out how the built environment in which we live encodes poser relationship that proscribe human behavior. Using media that forsake the handcrafted materiality of conventional "high" art - video, sound electricity, photography and live performances - he describes a tightly organized, authoritarian and largely impersonal architectural world that undercuts the familiar liberal, liberative rhetoric of modern design stretching from the Bauhaus to Martha Stewart.
To judge from Hall's work, we are all subject of a social order that can be disconcerted not only through the organization of public and interior spaces (his nominal subject) but also in the very nature of the camera lens (his means). The lens, after all, is a product and the embodiment of Albertian, single-point perspective. Originally considered a tool of humanism and enlightened rationalism by Renaissance artists, single -point perspective has since been critiqued as culturally biased, static and domineering. In any case, it is to fundamental to Western visual representation that we are largely blind to it. Only we are pointed in the direction of its influence, as we are in Hall's work can we begin to see it as a product of culture, not nature.
Hall's photographs accomplish this in part by maintaining a neutral, almost spectral point of view, as well as by accepting (and, in most cases, courting) the vast wealth of visual detail that large-format cameras and film can provide. The resolution his pictures offer is a far cry from the sketchy, transitory image supplied by video, and it allows us to develop a contemplative, rather than purely sensory, relationship to the picture. The use of the large-format camera marks a major change in Hall's work. Before turning to still photography as his primary medium some ten years ago, he was best know as a creator of visceral, emotionally engrossing video installations. These installations, together with earlier collaborative media and performance works done under the auspices of Ant farm and T.R, Uthco (the latter a Hall creation of the Seventies), also addressed issued o social and architectural spaces, but keyed to temporal experience.
"People in Buildings," a two-channel video installation by Hall that dates to 1989 led to the several series of photographs reproduced here. In the installation, collaged architectural facades are projected onto a front wall that contains a central doorway. Beyond it, in a second room, are projected images of people and activities inside the buildings. The idea that architectural spaces almost imperceptibly direct and define human activity is rooted in Foucault, who wrote that "The experienced of power consists in guiding the possibility of conduct and putting in order the possible outcome." Hall recognized, however, that the flow of video did not allow close scrutiny of the image. He yearned for an image "at a standstill," which he felt would substitute the possibility of allegory for the certainty of narrative. Thus the turn to what he terms "high resolution" photography.
Hall has found his photographic subject matter equally in "old world" Europe and the "new world" United States - and, most recently, in the even newer world of Asia's metropolitan centers. In his pictures taken in Italy, from the series "Rome/Naples: Storage and Display, the weight of tradition is signaled by an accumulation of books, bank journals and pictures, as well as by the classical architecture of the rooms in which these archives rest. In the series "Berlin (East): The GDR Project," the interiors of state buildings of the collapsed regime seem aimed at a revolutionary rupture with the historical order, yet they only reinforce the rigid, timeless hierarchy of the state. Ironically, these German institutional spaces are as empty functionally as they are human presence: all that remain are the trapping of control, with all seats facing toward a blank, totalitarian proscenium.
In contrast, what Hall as called the "institutional corridors" of his black and white "hallway photographs" (from his earliest series of still pictures, "California: Corridors and Non-Places") allow the eye transit though an intriguingly deep recession of space. But limits are present nonetheless: hallways end in the center of the picture, or elevator doors block passage. Although these spaces are exposure times, the users or inhabitants of the corridors are rendered invisible, making the hall as empty as the East German auditorium. In essence, Hall's interior diminish the importance of geopolitical differences, instead emphasizing that spatial politics, and the architectural tropes that support it, are embedded in a larger discourse.
Perspectival recession of an even deeper sort occurs in Hall's landscapes taken in the western United States in 1998. In these "Roads and Roadsides" pictures typically, a single ribbon of asphalt trails from a broad, expansive foreground into a vast and far-off distance. Presumably the images offer the eye relief of an infinite vanishing point, but only by suggestion; the highways invariably disappear into the bulk of a mountain or butte. Compared to the interior photographs, the landscapes seem less determined by culture (forgetting, if we can, the presence of the highway, but they are even more clearly about the proximate visual relationship of scene to viewer, which is itself encoded in the art-historical tradition of the landscape. As in all of Hall's photographs, they make us aware of our position as observers and implicate us in the construction of a visual field in which the viewer, by virtue of his or her central position within the single-point representational field, is an all-powerful, determining presence.
Hall's latest work, in the series "Leisurescapes" and "Cityscapes," loosens his camera's previous insistence on a target-like centrality and radial structure and also reintroduces human activity to a prominent place within the picture. Here Hall continues to excavate the notion of constructed space as a determinant of human behavior, but in the context of fluidity and flux. Water, in the "Leisurescapes," signifies this fluidity of capital, deposit us on the boundary of today's specialty overdeterminded world, directing the eye across water toward a distant Tokyo or toward high-rise construction sites in the "new territory" of Hong Kong.
Hall's work, whether in video or photography, is probably most accessible to those aquatinted with the idea s an methods of Michel Foucault, as well as those of Guy Debord, Jean Baudirallard, and other critical thinkers who address the relationship of individual to society in terms of structures of power and control. Foucault, in particular, as argued that the organization of visual experience is a means of social control; his most prominent example is the notion of a panopticon, an all-seeing vantage point that was incorporated into prison architecture in the late nineteenth century. More recently, Jonathan Crary, in Techniques of the Observer, as extended Foucault's ideas to identify the development of a new, subjective visuality during the Industrial Revolution. What binds these thinkers together, and Hall's work to them, is the insistence that visual experience is a discipline, both in the sense of needing to be learned and in the sense of being enforces and policed by the social order.
If these are Hall's philosophical cohorts, then his artistic cohorts might be said to include Bernd and Hilla Becher and their students - most prominently, in regard to Hall's work, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth. All of these German artists, using the still camera in their individual ways, have recorded built spaces in straightforward, highly descriptive fashion. Gursky and Struth, in particular, seem sympathetic to Hall's project, making large-scale color prints of interior spaces that speak to the organization of post-industrial society and to the conditions of contemporary spectatorship. In citing these artists, I do not mean to imply that Hall's work is in any case derivative, but rather to suggest that his interest and concerns resonate across a broad spectrum of contemporary art. Likewise, by noting critical theorist whose writings seem pertinent to Hall's visual art, I mean to claim that the concerns of contemporary art are rooted as much in the cultural discourses of our historical moment as they are in the idiosyncratic visions of individual artists. In this sense, Hall's photographs are messages of us all.
Andy Grundberg, 2001