Vito Acconci

Above: Detail from Acconci's 1969 conceptual work Follow Piece. Credit: MoMA/Fair Use.


There are a lot of misconceptions and confusions around the term "conceptual photography." Maybe it stems from journalists picking up the phrase and applying it to any-photo-at-all that they want to aggrandize, or denigrate.

The essential centre of conceptual art-and-photography has traditionally been the sheet of A4 paper. In the Golden Age of conceptual art (the 1960s and 1970s), a new conceptual artwork generally existed initially as a typed-up text on a sheet of paper. Historical books and shows of conceptual art often include numerous tattered examples of these. Two of the greatest conceptual artists Michel Asher and Chris Burden had many works at their deaths which had never been realized--these exist typically as a set of instructions on a sheet of A4 paper. These are still artworks (they are not merely ideas for artworks).

The point-and-purpose of conceptual art is that the idea or "concept" for the artwork is neatly separated off from its realization; something which, in fact, becomes quite optional. The conceptual piece has, above all else, the status of an instruction.

The conceptual artwork has a status similar to a song written down on a sheet of music manuscript: the song exists regardless of whether I actually perform it ever. And within reason anyone can perform it. If someone says to you their art is "quite conceptual" then this should then be demonstrable by the existence of some language-based, or text-based system for schematizing their art practice--if no such thing exists then it's not really concept- or ideas-driven.

Here's an example from Vito Acconci from 1969: "Each day pick out at random a person walking in the street. Follow a different person everyday; keep following until that person enters a private place (home, office, etc.) where you can’t get in."

Probably the most famous example--and one that many have heard of--is Ed Rusha's 1966 conceptual photography instruction: "Photograph every building on Sunset Strip [in the city of Los Angeles]." Which resulted in his celebrated book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip.

The point is that with conceptual art the photographer becomes really only a machine for realizing the work and this being the case much of their innate subjectivity is stripped away and becomes superfluous. The requirement is not to make a pretty picture but only to carry out the instruction.

For the conceptualist, the stripping-out of emotion, nostalgia, talent, craft, mood, etc., is typically rather welcome and desirable--the cerebral attitude can be seen as an artistic strategy which often privileges aloofness, intellectualism, distance, separation.

(16 December 2018)