essay for Sharon Switzer's touring exhibition Falling from Grace,
curated by Carla Garnet for the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton,
Ontario. ISBN 978-1-894088-72-5]
if the Dead Speak and the Living Listen It is Still Not a Conversation:
Sharon Switzer's Falling from Grace
task at hand is a discussion of Sharon Switzer’s most recent body
of work, Falling from Grace. I will approach these new works, even at
the risk of performing the sin of a teleological reading, in light of
her earlier work. My main argument is necessarily reductive, but I’ll
try to embellish it with expansive bits of nonsense. I’m beginning
with the assertion that Switzer has produced three distinct bodies of
work that constitute a kind of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Falling
from Grace is the synthesis. The first body of work: all image; the
second body: all text; Falling from Grace: a synthesis of text and image
— the images becoming more explicitly discursive, the text becoming
first body of work used various strategies to re-image the vintage photographs
of women she had been avidly collecting. In 1997’s Waltzing
in Now-time, Switzer employed a scanner to re-image her photographs.
Rather than merely placing the photographs on the scanner bed, she held
them. Her hands, pressed against the glass, are bright and fleshy as
they obscure, reframe, touch and assert ownership over the individual
photographs. The resulting images were further cropped into circles
with a diameter of about one inch. These image discs were placed into
metal holders that were in turn embedded into the adjoining walls, in
a seemingly arbitrary pattern reminiscent of a constellation or rash.
Approaching the installation, one initially saw an array of silver metal
discs, on closer inspection pink, round fingers and fingernails cast
in the intense light and vivid (if shallow) focus of the flat-bed scanner,
reproduced at about life-size. Then, on even closer inspection, whatever
scrap of photograph was not obscured — generally a woman’s
face — as a kind of background, flat and dead next to the vibrant
This particular installation has many of the hallmarks of Switzer’s
work at the time — the flat-bed scanner used as a camera, simple
digital manipulations, dispersion of the resulting fragments through
abrupt reframing/cropping, followed by a gathering together of the fragments,
either as a series, or constellated around an architectural space —
a surface evisceration of fetishized images.
Switzer writes about her work in her M.F.A. thesis, with particular
reference to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. (And she
writes about it extraordinarily well; one regrets she has not written
old photo is not a window into the past (I see no life, no change),
it is a piece of the past (which whispers impenetrable secrets through
its details). As the photograph ages or travels, and its relevant
biographical information gets lost or forgotten, what remains are
the details of dress, stance, light. Time and history also remain,
and sometimes the truth of an instant, not the instant of the photographer’s
flash, but the moment of present meeting past. For me, these aspects
of the photographs are a trigger for fantasy as my body merges with
details of perfectly still b&w smiles, poses, hairdos. My fingers
touch those figures, creating a bridge that allows passage (at a distance),
as I fondle, manipulate, and add, through my interactions, another
layer of contingency to the photographic images I collect. Each image,
held in the present by my hands, by my interaction (no longer lost
but repositioned, retouched) becomes lost again the moment I exhibit
it. My hands cannot protect it from the disinterest of the viewer.
In fact, there is so little left that is visible in the old photographs
I use, it is probable that viewers will not make their own connections
to the original (old) images. But I do not want viewers to identify
with these women, instead I want to locate them in the present in
relation to an active and thoughtful engagement with the past. These
images I am speaking about do not represent these women, but present
them in relation to me (specifically my hands), acting out our interaction.
Camera Lucida begins with the assertion that photographs are
primarily indexical, that they bear the stamp of whatever was in front
of the camera at that particular time. Barthes states, “It is
as if the photograph always carries the referent within itself.”
 This assertion, as many have noted, seems at odds with Barthes’
earlier, more rigorous semiotics. Certainly a sign, even one that is
primarily indexical, could merely point to, or refer, to its referent,
and not literally incorporate, or carry it within itself. But part of
the charm, power and persuasiveness of Camera Lucida is that
it abandons rigorous analysis and becomes a meditation on mortality
and photography. Specifically, Barthes ruminates on a photograph of
his mother as a child — the Winter Garden Photograph — as
part of the process of mourning her recent death. From Laura Mulvey’s
masterful new book, Death 24X a Second: Stillness and the Moving
Camera Lucida gradually reveals its emotional core. Barthes
uses his mourning for his recently deceased mother as the context for
his reflections on photography. The themes of time, of the photograph
and then of death come more clearly to the surface and are more closely
woven together. Not only is the essence of photography, the “this
was now,” subject to the passing of time within the course of
a life, but it then becomes, in Barthes’ words: “That rather
terrible thing that is there in every photograph: the return of the
The question remains, the return of what dead? And for what ends? Although
many photographs are reproduced in Camera Lucida, Barthes,
famously, refuses to reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph.
I cannot reproduce for you the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only
for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one
of a thousand manifestations of the “ordinary”; it cannot
in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish
an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would
interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you,
no wound. 
seems reasonable enough — mourning is, after all, a ritual in
which a great deal of privacy is sanctioned. Yet I can only imagine
that I would be wounded by the photograph. (The work of Christian
Boltanski, for instance, attests to the wounding power of anonymous,
archival photographs.) Barthes has described the image, and embedded
it within the kind of personal narrative that requires empathy of its
listeners, so I find his refusal justified emotionally, but not in any
other way. He is keeping the photograph to himself because it is not
merely a photograph. It contains a trace of his mother and he wants
that trace to be just for him.
One may say that all photographs, because of their indexical nature,
are in the past tense, asserting in perpetuity, “this once was”
while asserting in the given moment “this was now.” Still,
in some photographs, the “this” that once was may have personal
meaning for us, as in the case of family photographs. Artists use archival
photographs in a variety of ways. Some mine the biographical specificity
of images, either through some personal connection, or through social
or historical research. Others leave the biographical specificity somewhat
undetermined, but, through identifying social group affiliations, retain
or generate an empathic, wounding power for the images (Boltanski).
Others, by leaving both the biographical and social/historical referents
of the photographs undetermined, generate a more generalized nostalgia,
a decorative kind of mustiness. On occasion, Switzer’s work has
been mistakenly seen in this light. One reviewer compared it —
favourably! — to lavender potpourri. But Switzer is doing something
much more interesting than merely using her archival images for their
nostalgic prettiness. She is, in the language of Walter Benjamin from
The Arcades Project, attempting to produce images dialectically:
It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present
or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that
wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form
a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill.
For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal,
continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical:
is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. Only dialectical images
are genuine (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters
them is language. Awakening. 
Can the return of
the dead in photographs be rendered dialectical? Only under certain
conditions. Certainly not if the subject is known biographically; definitely
not if the subject is your mother. The subjects in these archival photographs
must be any-woman-whatever, which is not to say they are not prized
for their individual attributes. As Switzer says in her thesis, “I
am not interested in the personal, biographical history of any one of
my photographs, and yet I am obsessed with the history that each presents.”
The historic photographs in Switzer’s collection are fetishized
as objects, which necessarily involves the fetishization of the women
depicted (the referent adheres). They become objects of desire through
their singular, specific traits: a flower in a hat band, a mole that
appears slightly displaced, or the slight strabismus that was apparently
ubiquitous at the time. Despite their specificity, they are any-woman-whatever,
stand-ins, place-holders in an endless chain of possible photographs
and photographic subjects. They have no use for names or biographies.
Of course, one prefers — desires, empathizes or identifies with—certain
women and certain traits more than others, but there are always more.
Still, one must love each of these returned dead as a kind of de-biographized
individual. If one were completely indifferent to the specificity of
the referent, the photographic image would cease to operate indexically.
This is the case in works where vintage photographs are used for their
nostalgic flavour, as little wisps of slight uncanny potpourri. If it
is completely irrelevant who is depicted, the photographic subjects
begin to signify iconically rather than indexically. They no longer
depict individuals, but types or abstractions, stand-ins for some concept
artists, I think, must make their own kinds of Winter Garden Photograph
decisions, traversing the complexities of auto/biographical discourses.
Switzer’s repeated encounter of the fetishized photographs and
the artist’s hands on the glass surface of a flat-bed scanner
played itself out and that particular body of work drew to a close.
If I do not have a Winter
Garden Photograph, I do have many chance encounters with strangers (devalued
and forgotten women), that aid my attempts to unearth what is forgotten.
Nothing is remembered here, despite the fact that the tangible effort
is replayed, over and again. My work is an empty gesture perhaps, or
one that is too full, preserving the distance of what was the then,
while forcibly dragging it into “the now.” 
reproduce here the wall texts from Portraits (2003), the key
piece from Switzer’s second body of work. The work consists of
these texts, arranged spatially on the gallery wall as if they were
portraits. The title works against the viewer’s tendency to read
the texts as having a common narrator, as well as the inevitable suspicion
that the narrator is the artist speaking confessionally.
It is the dead speaking here, and not just any dead: the any-women-whatever
from Switzer’s first body of work find voice, though at the apparent
expense of making a visual appearance. And, as with all sado-masochistic
relationships, the interaction takes place between the living and the
Thank you for discovering
Sitting in my chair, suddenly I imagine you looking at me. Without ever
thinking about it, I straighten my back to make my breasts look better,
and tuck my hair behind my ears.
for you thrills me. Sometimes now, even when I’m alone, I
put on a little performance and imagine your reaction. You are
finally realize how much I need you to objectify me.
want to be a memory that you can’t suppress. Then, whenever it
suits me, I’ll remind you that I still exist. I think it
would be good for us.
by describing the individual works in Falling from Grace.
appears as a simple image of heavy rain falling into a body of water,
shot from perhaps a 60 degree angle, giving the surface of the water
a table-like solidity. There is also something about the image (from
a distance) that is reminiscent of early, silent cinema: it is monochromatic,
as if black-and-white stock were treated with a tincture of Prussian
blue, and it appears to be in the midst of an iris fade, that most
common of silent cinema transitions. The camera doesn’t
move, nothing (apart from rain) enters or leaves the frame, the oval
bright spot — iris — does not shrink or expand. Yet the
image is constantly changing.
It changes in two distinct registers: the pro-filmic and the filmic.
The simplest of these changes are the pro-filmic. The changes we see
are, presumably, changes that occurred in the world in front of the
camera as the camera was rolling. In this case, the camera merely
recorded whatever changes were taking place in front of it: shifting
intensities of rain, of waves and of light. From within the pro-filmic
register, the image is likely to be read as a quiet, slightly melancholy,
meditation on nature.
On approaching the image, spending some time with it, things become
more complex. The image gets chunky, and not with analog film grain,
that most pleasant and comforting of visual noises, but with something
decidedly digital. Moreover, the “digitalness” of the image,
its chunkiness, is in constant flux. This is the second type of change
the image undergoes, and it is a far more destabilizing one than the
pro-filmic. These changes are in the register of the filmic; the material
we are actually seeing, in front of us, without regard to origin or
reference. In fact, they throw into doubt the very existence of the
pro-filmic event we initially presumed we were witnessing. Could it
be that the entire image is computer generated? Or, is it simply that
images of rain were processed, digitally manipulated? We search the
image for visual clues as to its ontological status. What are we looking
at? Where did it come from? How was it made? There remains something
mesmerizing about it. Whatever it is, it still seems to have many
of the soothing qualities of rain falling. Perhaps the image is generated
from a computer model of rain, some complex algorithm, undoubtedly
incorporating chaos theory, which can replicate rain falling into
a body of water. This image, then, would have a mathematical, scientific
truth in excess of a simple film — indexical record — of
And what about the spotlight? It seems to gently ironize the whole
proceeding. It is, after all, a spotlight on nothing in particular:
one assumes the rain drops more or less evenly on the entire surface
of the water and that there is no particular reason for choosing this
particular spot, this particular shot, over another. The particular
framing, then, is arbitrary: any other chunk of water could be substituted.
Still, the camera — if there was a camera — must choose
a particular vantage point: the scene must be framed. The spotlight,
functioning as it does as a kind of double framing mechanism, foregrounds
the arbitrariness of the image’s framing.
So, the world may or may not exist, and the rain may or not be rain.
Still, we can rest assured that we know from where the rain falls:
In her text works, the basic unit Switzer works with is,
generally, the sentence. Text on paper will be a single sentence,
text on screen, likewise. There are, of course, other choices for
working with text as image. One could work instead with the letter,
syllable, word, paragraph, etc. as the basic visual unit.
In the works that feature multiple sentences, the question arises as
to how individual sentences are related. In much of Switzer’s
work there is a tension between the paragraph, which would suggest a
particular narrator and situation, and the list, in which utterances
are more dispersed and not necessarily attributable to a particular
narrator speaking of a particular thing. Hope is the least
dispersed, most paragraph-like of her multi-sentence works, so I present
it below reconstituted as a paragraph. Like all of the pieces of Falling
from Grace, Hope is constructed from familiar materials.
The text hovers between the confessional (as a paragraph) and a mere
recitation of clichés (if seen as a list).
Connecting the dots never works for me. When I try too hard I end up
lost. Pretending to be casual just gets me confused. I get distracted
and need to retrace my steps. I start to worry that I’ve
been wrong from the start. The big picture never looks the way
I hope it will. I prefer to move along blindly, feeling my way.
As a work of motion
graphics, it the most complex of the Falling from Grace series.
The basic image is a desert night scene, a traveling scene, presumably
from a car. It is unclear whether it is a series of stills or a video
image. These images are beautiful, blandly evocative in the manner of
cinematically familiar landscapes: this is a place in which something
might happen, but it is unclear what that thing might be. Intruding
on this image is a shape that rotates clockwise, a kind of foreshortened
plinth of light, greenish. It sweeps the visual field, somewhat like
radar. Its path is, of course, circular. Although the shape has some
indication of depth (the foreshortening) it is more or less flat and
operates as a purely graphic element that interrupts the surface of
The sentences are animated in a way that is referred to as “rubber-banding”
— as if each individual letter were attached to a rubber band
that operates at a ninety degree angle to the picture plane.
This is the simplest
piece of the series: text over a slowly moving image of a lovely cloudy
sky. The sentences here are a list, each item beginning “I once
won a free trip to heaven” (zooms out) and ending with a feeble
excuse for why the prize was not claimed “but I couldn’t
get anyone to water my plants” (zooms in). The tension here is
between a kind of lame populist humour, laced with a kind of psychologizing
moralism masquerading as inspiration, and the possibility that something
sincere is being expressed. In other words, the piece, like its companion
Gravity, hovers between a sweet, subtle satire and the more
horrible specter of kitsch as a bearer of truth. (Who’s laughing
image here is the kitsch equivalent to Fall, one of those signs one
finds in bars: a waterfall with rotating lights that make it appear
as if the water is falling. It is a crude animation in the form of a
lamp, or a beer advertisement. (I’ve been informed the waterfall
image comes from a gold-framed back-lit image with rotating coloured
cellophane, to which Switzer added any clips of small sections of Niagara
Falls to make the cellophane Falls look more real.) The image plays
endlessly, with no beginning or end. A relentless series of short sentences
— advice and inspiration — cycle through the screen.
you look a little tired / you need to relax / it could be worse / you
need a holiday / these things happen / don’t waste your time /
try getting out more / I worry about you / we all make mistakes / a
new hairdo will help / don’t be disappointed / maybe try meditation
/ you don’t seem happy / take it easy for a while / you could
smile more / make time for a walk / try not to dwell on it / work will
do you good / yoga does wonders / take care of yourself / don’t
bother with that / you need a real plan / it’s an important time
/ you should slow down / try to be more careful / you have such potential
/ you’re a real trooper / you can do better / don’t try
so hard / I see the problem now
A video is seen
though a round magnifying lens placed on a wooden box. It is a snow
globe of Manhattan that is wound and shaken. Snow falls, “New
York, New York” plays. The camera seems stationary, but the image
shakes — violently at first (to get the snow going) and then slightly
as it falls. The Statue of Liberty seems to be on Fifth Avenue, but
these inaccuracies just make the city more iconic. Reminiscent of Waltzing
in Now-time, the hand which shakes the globe intrudes into the
circular picture plane, in front of the globe. Also as in Waltzing,
there is no background: the snow globe fills the entire frame.
A New Song
This is a video/sculpture
like Little Town Blues. Two yellow mechanical birds are placed
on a floral cloth and, facing each other at about a 150 degree angle,
chatter away. They are shot from various angles and distances. The shots
leisurely fade together. It is an apparently endless, amiable conversation.
It may be a new song, but as it is also an empty song. With no beginning
or end, no resolution or outcome possible, this is pure repetition,
and as such the song is a form without the possibility of carrying content.
The animating force
behind Falling from Grace is, in fact, animation. Or, more
specifically, the figural, a concept D. N. Rodowick adopts from Jean-Francois
Lyotard in his (Rodowick’s) Reading the Figural, or Philosophy
After the New Media. The figural is the force that erodes the distinctions
between image and text, between looking and speaking. It makes images
speak; it opens them into discourse. It spatializes text, placing it
in the visual realm. For Rodowick, the figural is, pardoning the pun,
the animating force behind motion graphics, animation, and new media.
Computer-generated and manipulated images are now commonplace, of course.
But when these images began appearing in TV ads, music videos, and other
venues, it was impossible not to be astonished by how fluidly text was
spatialized, thus losing its uniform contours, fixed spacing, and linear
sense, and how presumably space was “textualized”; that
is, how the Euclidean solidity of the image was fragmented, rendered
discontinuous, divisible, and liable to recombination in the most precise
ways. Suddenly the image was articulable, indeed discursive, like never
Rodowick — following Eisenstein’s wish to “blow up
the Chinese Wall that stands between the primary antithesis of the ‘language
of logic’ and the ‘language of images’” —
presents the current opposition between text and image as an emerging
parallel to Enlightenment rationalism.
One direction insists that to the extent that an image has a meaning,
it must be echoed in linguistic description. In this view, meaning is
only possible as defined, expressed, or communicated through linguistic
properties. Alongside this view develops an equally strong tradition
in Western aesthetics that valorizes the image, either in its irreducibility
to a sense or as its transcendence of the univocal and prosaic qualities
of linguistic expression. In either case, word and image are strictly
defined in opposition to each other. Here words preserve the possibility
of a singular and unambiguous expression over and against the “nondiscursive”
properties of the image, which supposedly fails or exceeds the linguistic
criteria of rational communication. 
the figural as aligned with desire. It is neither primarily spatial
(image) nor discursive (text) but a force that erodes those very distinctions.
He disagrees with Lacan’s assertion that the unconscious is structured
like a language. Instead he returns to Freud’s comparison of the
dream to a rebus, a puzzle that combines visual and linguistic representations.
impetus in her first body of work, as exemplified by Waltzing in
Now-Time, was not to get the women in the photographs to speak.
Rather, it was to give voice to her own desires with, against and through
the magic fetish objects, the photographs and their still-adhering referents,
the dead any-women-whatevers. It is easy enough to ventriloquize, but
Switzer’s goal has always been a full, true articulation. That
is, an articulation that understands meaning as something that cannot
be limited to the linguistic. “Every discourse is haunted by the
perspective that in order to mean, it must refer.
Indexicality means that discourse is shot through with the visible:
the énoncé must point beyond its borders to objects
positioned in space with respect to it.” 
Like many (most?) artists, Switzer merely wants to articulate her desire,
her place in the world, but her images would not speak and her words
would not point to any solid referent. Her solution, then, was to empty
out the discourse and empty out the images and put them together; to
skate along the edges of kitsch and cliché, and open up a space
in which the figural might begin to operate.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York:
Hill & Wang, 1982).
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Boston: Belknap Press, 2002).
Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency,
the Archive (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2002).
Chris Gehman and Steve Reinke, eds., The Sharpest Point: Animation
at the End of Cinema (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2005).
Rachel Moore, Hollis Frampton: (nostalgia) (London, Los Angeles: Afterall
Laura Mulvey, Death 24X a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London:
Reaktion Books, 2006).
Jean-Michel Rabaté, ed., Writing the Image After Roland Barthes
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).
D.N. Rodowick, Reading the Figural, or Philosophy After the New Media
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).
Sharon Switzer, Waltzing in Now-time: the unlikely event of a correspondence
Barthes, Benjamin, Proust and my mother, M.F.A. thesis (University
of Western Ontario, 1997).