Catherine Harty: 600 a Month Max.

Tom Barry’s, Cork

Here is a typically brazen story that Slavoj Žižek tells to illustrate  the  system  of  tacit  laws  that  regulate  our  symbolic order:

In  academia,  a  polite  way  to  say  that  we  found  our  colleague’s intervention or talk stupid and boring is to say:  ‘It  was  interesting.’  So  if  instead  we  tell  our  colleague openly: ‘It was boring and stupid’, he will be fully  entitled  to  feel  surprised  and  to  ask:  ‘But  if  you  found it boring and stupid, why didn’t you simply say that  it  was  interesting?’  The  unfortunate  colleague  is  right to take the direct statement as involving something  more,  not  only  a  comment  about  the  quality of his paper but an attack on his very person.

(Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan, 2006)

With a series of 14 photographs entitled 600 a Month Max. (2010), on show at Tom Barry’s till the autumn, Catherine  Harty  gives  visibility  to  the  unspoken  hostility that greets potential tenants of low­‐cost housing in Cork City. The works are made using a basic digital camera to photograph a computer screen onto which  some  unusually  dismal  pictures  have  been downloaded from a well­known property website. It is not  just  that  these  low‐end  flats  and  bedsits  are  unappealing; it is the frank declaration of the zero effort  that  has  been  taken  to  render  them  even  minimally attractive. Their casual and blatant ugliness speaks  very  clearly  of  an  utter  disregard  for  the  aspirations and subjective life of the potential tenant.

Catherine Harty: 600 a Month Max. (2010). Digital photographs on transparencies, each 29.7 x 21cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Catherine Harty: 600 a Month Max. (2010). Digital photographs on transparencies, each 29.7 x 21cm. Courtesy of the artist.

One image of a shadowy bedroom, taken from outside in  a  dingy  corridor,  would  easily  stand  in  as  a  convincing crime scene photograph. In another, a stained  mattress  neighboured  by  a  wretched  little  pine table and set against a blank grey wall seems destined  to  become  the  dreary  arena  in  which  the  endgame of some deep depression will soon be played out.  Or  again,  in  another  image,  we  are  presented  with a pair of orange armchairs, brighter this time and actually arranged as if to be viewed; they do not retain this  veneer  for  long,  though,  as  we  soon  notice  how  the photographer has neglected the low sloping ceiling that would painfully cramp the space that one’s head would occupy if we were to sit down. Sometimes such  neglect  is  signalled  by  a  particular  incongruous  detail: the absurd dangle of the unplugged chord of a kettle;  or  the  faintly  obscene  way  the  empty  fridge  door has been left hanging open; or an empty, unlabelled  green  plastic  bottle  that  has  been  left  behind to proudly rule the kitchen work surface, competing  only  with  the  raw  white  glare  of  the  camera’s flash reflected back from the ceramic tiles behind.  Harty  writes  of  the  deep  sense  of  ‘hopelessness and despair’ that attended her trawl through  these  dismal  living  options,  and  this,  we  imagine, might be no exaggeration. Especially in a visual culture so saturated by endlessly airbrushed and eroticized  advertisements,  these  photographs  constitute veritable emblems of cold disregard, symptoms of a complete withdrawal of care.
Why  is  it  important  that  Harty’s  photographs  are  not  simply prints of JPEGs downloaded from the Internet? What  is  the  effect  of  the  mechanical  interference  of  her camera, which has evidently struggled to focus properly on these images on screen? What additional meanings are produced by the contingent distortions, striations  and  other  pixellated  variations  that  result?  For me, these chance effects suggest the affective background  against  which  the  everyday  reception  of  such images takes place. Computers do not process meanings,  but  rather  code;  they  do  not  get  upset  by  hostile moves made within our specifically human symbolic structures. By contrast, a person looking for a place  to  live  attends  to  and  invests  in  such  photographs: they are visions of a potential home, and they  need  to  sustain,  on  some  level,  the  projections  that will attend this idea. The sophistication and success  of  Harty’s  series  has,  then,  partly  to  do  with  the way in which this affective dimension has been registered:  as  a  friction,  disturbance,  or  distortion  on  the surface of the image itself. The camera’s blind, automatic  struggle  to  capture  the  image  from  the  screen can be allowed to signal something of the flathunter’s  stung  incomprehension  at  having  this  indifference served up with such excessive bluntness.
Harty’s  series  concisely  figures  a  harsh  knotting  together of point-­and-­shoot photography, economic division,  the  Irish  property  market,  and  a  subjective  world of aspirations and vulnerability. In terms of artistic  strategy,  her  project  makes  sense  within  a  trajectory of conceptual practices directed towards the  critique  of  institutions  and  ideologies:  Dan  Graham’s Homes for America (1966-­7), Hans Haacke’s: Shapolsky  et.  al.  (1971),    or  Martha  Rosler’s  The  Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974­‐5), to name three crucial precedents. The artist selects, appropriates and re-­contextualizes in order to produce new meanings from existing material. In large part,  such  gambits  succeed  insofar  as  the  logic  and  effects of specific systems (economic, architectural, semiotic,  aesthetic,  etc.)  are  given  new  visibility.  The  apparently blank, anonymous or deadpan presentational mode is one way to reserve a space for both  fascination  and  indignance,  whilst  avoiding  the  (innumerable) traps of rhetorical cliché and righteous posturing.
Much  recent  (and,  indeed,  not  so  recent)  theorising  about art has championed its potential to perform assaults  upon  the  smooth  functioning  of  dominant  symbolic systems; art can interrupt the seamless surfaces  of  a  reified  world  and  render  its  familiar  objects strange again. This programme becomes particularly  resonant  when,  as  here,  the  disturbance  of art’s formal, semiotic and aesthetic conventions is united with a registration of the cold negligence with which  basic  social  bonds  are  cut  by  the  continuing  proliferation of the currently dominant economic system.
Catherine Harty: 600 a month max. was on view at Tom Barry’s summer-winter 2010.