Interview with Nick Scammell
by Lisa Stein
Nick Scammell maintains a practice where photography and literature collude. Fascinated by where the image meets the word, where the material meets the digital, he uses scanners to explore the performance of surface and the transformation of the tangible into digital rumour. Following his most recent exhibition That Burning Field, the Photocaptionist interviews the London-based artist about how literature influences his art practice.
Lisa Stein: I would like to begin by asking you about the formal elements of your work: can you tell me a bit more about your technique? When did it first occur to you to use scanners to investigate the relationship between photography and literature, and why?
Nick Scammell: I consider the scan a performance. A singular combination of speed, pressure, drag & direction. The scanner is a real-time drawing machine, and a turntable.
For the scanner, the ultimate destination is data. This is what it was designed for in the mid-19th century, as a method of copying and transmitting images down telegraph lines and, later, telephone lines. The scanner converted the image and sent it down the wire, enabling newspapers to show images from foreign correspondents still in the field. I want to undo that immateriality.
I first used the scanner as a way to crudely record arrangements of printed images. My attempts at holding images in place, by hand, were unsuccessful, but the resulting mistakes proved interesting and I became fascinated by the legion imperfections and the profound unknowability of the scan.
The scanner is a bridge between the tangible and the digital. Designed to scan printed pages, in many ways it’s a natural choice for literary creatures. Pure surface: like a page, it invites contact.
So, I started scanning single pages, then end papers, then finally whole books. Initially I focused on distorting lines of text, but quickly became more interested in the book as a vessel, a container of culture. Text felt like a distraction. I was interested in what makes the book possible.
Fundamentally, I want to participate in the material of the object, create a rumour or a performance of surface. While the object is lost to its own image, still I cannot step into the same scan twice.
LS: Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of your work, which investigates the relationship between, or the intersection of image and text, is your choice of titles. As you know, at Photocaptionist we appreciate captions and, true to form, I thought I would let titles of your individual series determine the content of this interview. I would like to start with Apokalypsis, the Greek word for revelation: from a purely visual point of view your works seeks to prolong, or draw out, what is usually an instantaneous process, i.e. the act of ‘taking’ a photograph or seeing one. Rather than a sharp image, we are faced with the movement of an image in space and time. Is this about creating a narrative, a revelation, as it were, in the mind of the viewer? If so, what do you think might be revealed to us?
NS: Titles are very important to me. They set a frame around the work that ideally fades, without ever quite departing.
Reworked for Apokalypsis, Durer’s woodcut, St John Devouring the Book (1497-8), is a formidable allegory for the power of the written word over the spoken. The angel hands the saint a book that he greedily forces into his mouth with one hand, while writing the Book of Revelation with the other. The book is ingested, not read!
Apokalypsis’ images retain their figuration at the edges, it’s in the centre that they extend, open into themselves, and the book becomes a kind of landscape.
I am deeply taken by the idea of the image revealing other possibilities for itself, suggestive of an interior immensity. I don’t think I am telling stories. I don’t see narrative. More the translation of an object into a digital signature, or an echo. I think I am interested in the enduring moment, or the moment put under some kind of pressure – braving time.
LS: In your description of the series Falling Volume you speak of the ‘beyond of the book’. Indeed, in much of your work there are traces of the book; we recognize its individual elements, pages, a spine, a warped cover. However, while a small number of images include what appears to be titles—I am thinking here of Nothing is Written and Scan_4.tiff—text is largely omitted from your scans. Further, some images are far more abstracted and appear more like records of some kind of electric activity; again, they seem to register a process. Does your notion of the ‘beyond of the book’ allude to the decline of print in the digital revolution? How does this relate to how you feel about photography?
NS: Edmond Jabes was an incredible, unclassifiable writer. It’s criminal he’s not as widely read as Bachelard or Blanchot. His idea of ‘the beyond of the book’ suggests to me the shaping void at the centre of all literary endeavour: the unknowable, the unreachable, the absence that ghosts all presence, close to Blanchot’s notion of ‘the thing as distance’.
I have tended not to want text to intrude on my images. That said, I am increasingly finding myself drawn to the challenge of revealing fragments of text without compromising the visual integrity or ambiguity of the work. I want words that suggest rather than explain. Words that open.
The decline of print as the principal media for sharing knowledge is obviously impossible to ignore, though when a medium becomes liberated from workaday function, as painting, the printed page, and still photography have, new freedoms always emerge. The page is open to be re-discovered and re-performed, with new emphases placed on its elements.
LS: The series Sculpting in Time takes its name from Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditation on cinema. For Tarkovsky, ‘the dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame’. While your images record movement, the end result is still an image. Stillness, or stasis still appears to be an important aspect of your work even though it is suggestive of rhythm, of the passing of time. How do the differences between cinema and photography, historical and theoretical, inform your artistic process?
NS: Yes, still a still image!
The scanner and the cinema screen are curious cousins, blind surfaces to which we look, planes over which the insubstantial passes.
For me, sculpture suggests the idea of edge, of acts as much as objects, which is something I try to confront with my scans: races against an edge in motion, with image the residue.
I’m drawn to the idea of a still image that endures like a film. I don’t want instants, I want unfoldings. David Campany has spoken of the stillness of photography as being something almost monstrous, that we can never come to terms with. I want what guards that mystery.
In fact, the series I am currently working on straddles motion and still photography, using sequential images made at the dawn of motion capture and display.
LS: Ritual for the Observances of Eclipses takes as its subject a tablet from Mesopotamia, where written language emerged for the first time. Can you tell us a bit more about your interest in the relationship between photography, literature and poetry and why it plays such a fundamental role in your work? For instance, one of your latest bodies of work, Exit Ghost, is named after a stage direction that famously features in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Why did you choose this particular title?
NS: The idea of the book is one that is under attack. Nevertheless, as we see in Hamlet, ghosts still do have agency and, appearing as disappeared, can intervene in the corporeal world.
The fading physical presence of media clearly represents a profound break with our past. I have sought to explore this decline by presenting medium minus message, questioning media as a physical entity and a cultural residue. The scanned image feels a little ghostly, a presence trapped by the searching scanner light.
You asked earlier for my thoughts on photography and I suppose I regard it as a conduit between literature and the visual. Wallace Stevens says poetry is a cure of the mind and a renovation of experience, and I believe him. For me, it is the bottomless reservoir, photography merely a pipe.
LS: Your most recent series That Burning Field, which was on show at Half.Life Projects in London this month, takes the ‘American poet Charles Wright’s notion of the negative sublime as raw material’. Wright once commented that his poetry emerges from this idea, that he ‘writes out of it’. Can you expand on the notion of the negative sublime, what it means to you and how it informed your most recent images?
NS: For my contribution to this two-person show I wanted to find a way to work directly with Charles Wright’s poems, to encompass a collection in a single image. Having made many scans of Wright’s yellow-jacketed third trilogy, Negative Blue, none satisfied.
However, I had previously inverted a yellow image and discovered it turned blue. That these two colours (gold and lapis lazuli, both precious) were exactly opposed was of great interest. With that in mind I began inverting my scans of Negative Blue, whose title seemed to invite such behaviour, and was immediately struck by the quality of the blue and the sense that it exactly matched the tone of the poems. Given that the cover of Wright’s latest collection, Bye and Bye, was blue, I knew that an inverted scan would render the book golden.
After image, latent image and sudden inversions are all features of Charles Wright’s poetry. I take Wright’s negative sublime to be the idea of something small that opens on to something enormous, of the potential of the everyday to act as a lever of transcendence.
LS: Finally, we would like to know what you are working on, or thinking about at the moment. What projects lie ahead for Nick Scammell?
NS: I want to expand the Sculpting in Time series, see how far I can go with a single volume. I have recently begun a series of scans of images by the French scientist, inventor and photographer, Étienne-Jules Marey. I am also working on an essay/meditation on the scanner as a tool for fine art, which will hopefully expand to include the work of other artists using the scanner, such as Alessandro Calabrese and Juan Carlos Covelli.