[Catalogue 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]


Even if the Dead Speak and the Living Listen It is Still Not a Conversation: Sharon Switzer's Falling from Grace


The 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 increasingly visual.



Switzer’s 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 flesh.

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 more.)

An 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. [1]

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.” [2] 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 Image:

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 dead.” [3]

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. [4]

Barthes’ wish 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. [5]

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 or another.

All 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.” [6]



I 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 dead.

Thank you for discovering me.

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.

Performing for you thrills me. Sometimes now, even when I’m alone, I put on a little performance and imagine your reaction. You are always pleased.

I finally realize how much I need you to objectify me.

I 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.



Let’s begin by describing the individual works in Falling from Grace.


Fall initially 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 rain falling.

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: from grace. 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 image.

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 now.)


The background 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


Little Town Blues

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 before. [7]

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. [8]

Lyotard theorizes 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.

Switzer’s 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.” [9]

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 Books, 2006).

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 between

Barthes, Benjamin, Proust and my mother, M.F.A. thesis (University of Western Ontario, 1997).