Philosopher Ian Bogost recently posted this lecture that he gave a month ago at the Third Object Oriented Ontology symposium held at The New School in New York. In the talk, he discusses the photographer Garry Winogrand, who is famous as a street photographer, documenting life in mid-20th century America through hundreds of thousands of photographs. Winogrand said of his own work that he took photographs “to see what the world looks like in photographs.” Unlike those who claim that his work is some sort of commentary on American culture, Bogost says that Winogrand in fact does something completely opposite to that. Bogost argues that Winogrand does not attempt to capture what he sees, but rather “to see what he will have captured.” Instead of his work being some sort of conscious social commentary or cultural critique, Winogrand captures things in pictures – the things in his pictures are there just because they are there. Bogost compares this approach to the approach taken by the philosophers working within an object oriented ontology:
It’s too hard for most viewers to take Winogrand’s project seriously, because they’re too busy looking for social commentary in his photographs to see them for what they are: pictures that help their viewers see things in pictures. The object-oriented ontology project is just as simple, yet still just as hard: to see things in pictures and everywhere else too. To see the world of things as things in a world, rather than our world, with things in it.
This approach, it seems to me, could be highly useful in an attempt to rethink some of the schemas by which we make museum exhibitions. Too often the things in the collections are used as representatives of whatever historical framework the curator is working to explain, which in turn means that their qualities as objects is often drowned in text and discourse.
And this seems counterintuitive to one of the core competencies of museums – putting actual things on display. Some of the best exhibitions are exactly those that help their audience to see things in exhibitions and everywhere else too, to paraphrase Bogost, and not just become better readers of stories. Furthering this aim means, I think, developing a much greater sensitivity towards the things themselves as material things and not just as carriers or representatives of whatever story we want to tell. One would hope that such an approach could point to some of the less obvious but no less pervasive relationships between things in the world, of which we are simply another subset.