Julia Polyck-O’Neill

"Reconsidering the Photographic Encounter: Materiality, Conceptualist Photography, Sublimation, and the Subject"

Saturday, December 16 // 09.45h // Kunsthalle Mainz


If, following Sartre, the individual subject is “nothing but a series of enterprises, and that [s]he is the sum, organization, and aggregate of the relations that constitute such enterprises”, how can photography’s role in conceptualist art be reimagined as a set of negotiations and processes, beyond the binary notion of art’s ‘dematerialization’? In this paper, I examine conceptualist photography’s potential to affect and transform the subject according to Rosi Braidotti’s ethically conscious and affirmative theoretical and philosophical program, wherein the individual is conceived as a nomadic subject both embodied and embedded within the context of the contemporary situation, as conveyed in Nomadic Subjects (2011) and The Posthuman (2013). In comparatively analyzing photographic works by Ed Ruscha, Stan Douglas, and Jeff Wall, I uncover how historic and more recent theoretical and philosophical discussions and material practices in photography emerge from and import specific but variable sets of relations that effectively participate in the construction of subjectivity according to both individual and collective scales.

The idea that artistic practice, after the massive shifts initiated by conceptual art, takes into account, and is accountable to, the material reality of human relations suggests a radical reconceptualization of art’s social, cultural, economic, and political position and role. According to this reading, I consider how conceptualist photography has the capacity to contribute to such considerations to an even greater degree, by means of the dynamics of Lacanian sublimation inherent to the photographic encounter. With its unique epistemological and ontological bearing, such an encounter has the potential to proffer a significant phenomenological intervention: one that uses both evidential and abstract-conceptual information to simultaneously promote deep reflection and propose new perceptions of the world in relation to the self.

Julia Polyck-O’Neill is an artist, curator, critic, and writer, and is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Humanities program (Culture and Aesthetics) at Brock University (St Catharines, Ontario, Canada), where she is completing a SSHRC-funded interdisciplinary and comparative critical study of contemporary conceptualist literature and art in Vancouver. Active in the field of digital art history, she is a fellow of the Editing Modernism in Canada project, a HASTAC scholar, and research associate in Brock’s Centre for Digital Humanities. She teaches in art history and visual culture, and from 2017-18, is a Visiting Lecturer in the department of American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.