Spatial Captioning

Spatial Captions

In In/Different Spaces Victor Burgin applies the spatial theories of Henri Lefebvre to the problems of representation. Lefebvre’s concepts of mental space as opposed to social space are applied to the comparison of “images of reality” and reality itself. It is common sense to accept that the intangible world of images is not reality; yet, when we blame the problems of real societies on media generated images we encounter the great divide between mental space and social space. Fantasy is taken to be the opposite of reality. In mental space, things are individuated, private, and internal. Social space is public, physical, and ultimately political. Burgin postulates that transactions between these two spheres can only be explained through psychoanalytic theory. The interaction can be approached through theories of the unconscious—the scene between “perception and consciousness”

Burgin notes that the surrealists conceded that their work be best worked out in psychological terms. However Burgin does not address the question of how such “transactions” between mental and social space actually occur. Lefebvre describes the theoretical project of the surrealists in this way:

The leading surrealists sought to decode inner space and illuminate the nature of the transaction from this subjective space to the material realm of the body and the outside world, and thence to social life. (Production of Space)

Rather than examining the “nature of the transaction,” psychoanalytic criticism actually is at its best describing the motive or result of the transaction. Central to the surrealist approach to images is the caption or title of the work. It is in the interaction between text and image that the real work occurs.

Surrealist captioning of otherwise realistic images works to decenter the work as a whole—to create a sort of engine for thought brought about by incongruity. Walter Benjamin comments on this effect in “A Short History of Photography,” noting that the effect of captioning fragmented or counter-intuitive photographs with names of the cities they were taken in acts to undercut the otherwise stable notion of those real locations. For Benjamin, the presence of a caption was essential:

But isn’t a photographer who cannot read his own pictures worth less than an illiterate? Will not captions become the essential components of pictures? Those are the questions in which the gap of 90 years that separates today from the age of the daguerreotypes discharges its historical tension.

Daguerreotypes were normally produced without captions. The historical tension of these now anonymous images is the same sort of tension between the mental space of a person reconstructing a reality without concrete linguistic reference and the social space of images which carry with them the accretion of specific identifications, intents and purposes, defined through the caption. It is a tension between the private history of a viewer who contemplates the image of a loved or hated one as a likeness without social mediation, and the viewer who views an image thrust into a social context and is expected to interpret it in a culturally specific way. Captioned images become public histories rather than private ones.

The “aura” of an unfamiliar image, an artifact of a time long past, can only be an intensely personal moment. The image of public history, the captioned image, is subject more intensely to the constraints of social space.