William E. Jones: “Killed” at the St. Louis Art Museum
The most immediately striking aspect of William E. Jones‘ 2009 video Killed is the extent to which it fascinates on purely aesthetic grounds, quite apart from any appreciation of its contents’ origins. Flickering relentlessly and silently in the St. Louis Art Museum‘s Gallery 301—the usual nook for exhibits in the institution’s New Media Series—Jones’ work is comprised of a flurry of of black-and-white still images assembled into a one minute and forty-four second loop. Upon rounding the partition that conceals Killed from the sight of passers-by, the viewer is assaulted by a conspicuous hyper-photographic element: a solid black circle that partially obscures each image. The size and placement of this eclipsing roundel varies with the individual photograph. In some images, it is a stray, marginalized blemish, a cigarette burn in a white tablecloth; in others, it devours almost the whole frame, like a dark, swollen sun.
The photographic subjects begin to resolve themselves after a few moments of inspection, although they often cycle so rapidly that the overall effect is almost impressionistic. Images of historical Americana abound: streetcars and locomotives, farms and cinemas, anxious-looking children and hard-bitten adults. One can observe vintage window signage, a towering gasometer, a bedroom wallpapered in newsprint, horses, dogs, pigeons, a mine, a bus, a beach, and rumpled cloth in florals and gingham checks. Some elements blink by so quickly that they seem phantasmal. Was that a painting of a schooner in the corner of the frame? A blind man begging with tin cup in hand? This blizzard of imagery transforms familiar Depression-Era visual tropes into a work of four-dimensional abstraction, one marked by a vaguely ominous insignia. That damnable, occluding spot mars each image, frustrating the viewer’s close inspection of the individual images with its jittery, remorseless presence.
While the visceral effect of Killed is undeniably potent, apprehending the nature of its blemished still photographs does not rob the work of its beguiling audio-visual character. SLAM’s placards and an installed copy of the video’s accompanying 2010 book from PPP Editions provide the background: Los Angeles-based filmmaker and multi-media artists Jones culled the images from 35mm negatives in the Library of Congress archives. Each of the images presented in Killed was originally rejected by the photographic program of the New Deal’s Farm Services Bureau, which provided documentation of government-assisted rural development. The program’s politically savvy and editorially imperious head Roy Stryker personally reviewed tens of thousands of negatives produced by consummate American photographers such as Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and John Vachon. Negatives that did not meet Stryker’s exacting (and at times opaque) standards were “killed” with a hole-punch. Jones succeeding in scanning a selection of these vandalized negatives and resurrecting them, although the obtrusive presence of Striker’s punch has branded the resulting images forever.
The act of curation-cum-censorship becomes an object of study in Jones’ video, which offers a stark illustration of the ways in which political narratives are established and aesthetic standards are policed through exclusion. Particularly in an age when photographers have access to SD cards with capacities measured in terabytes, the process of sorting through images and selecting only those that are artistically meritorious is arguably an essential endeavor. Without discrimination, an exhibitions of works devolves into a raw data stream. Nonetheless, the application of any sort of “REJECTED” label also represents a troublesome gatekeeping act that governmental, economic, and cultural elites often employ in order to exert control over thought-space. Editorial banishment to the virtual (or actual) waste bin becomes a means of staying on message, protecting a brand, and constricting the bounds of public discourse.
Jones’ exhumation of slain negatives from the FSA’s collection represents a reversal of this banishment, a figurative unfolding and smoothing of the waste bin’s contents. Or an outing of the closeted, if one prefers. Cunningly, Killed glorifies the suppressed image while also criticizing the lazy pitfalls of such glorification. The video’s mingling of lost photographic marvels with utterly unmemorable visual flotsam highlights the folly of the knee-jerk counter-cultural urge to elevate anything that has been banned or dismissed by the dominant tastemakers. Simple inversion of conventional wisdom is mere inane contrarianism, not genuine radicalism. In this way, Jones draws attention to the role of curation in Killed itself, which features only a handful of the countless rejected images and thereby creates a sub-category of “double-killed” negatives that remain in digital purgatory.
Relatedly, it is perversely ironic and amusingly fitting that Killed be exhibited at the culturally conservative St. Louis Art Museum, and in particular that it be consigned to the cramped New Media space. Tucked into the customary film installation ghetto just above the cloak room, Jones’ piece is awkwardly isolated in space from the remainder of the museum. It’s a strangely appropriate placement, given the stigmatization of its found images via the hole-punch. Jones has long exhibited a fascination with queer images, both as a distinct cultural reservoir and as a porthole through which the mainstream world can be perceived, and Killed represents a meeting ground of sorts for “photographic queerness”. Once applied, the exclusionary mark allows the negatives to be dismissed by the reactionary with a tautological hand-wave: They are aberrant because they have the mark, and they are marked because they are aberrant. As unearthed and illuminated in Jones’ piece, the FSA’s discarded images present a bent view of a familiar historical America, one that is ever so slightly out-of-focus and off-center. Without evincing smugness at its own ambiguity, Killed slyly asserts that such a view is both intrinsically valuable and amenable to clear-eyed artistic skepticism.