Work in Progress
Linda Eerme, Robin Kinross / Domus #856 / 0|2|2003
The Endcommercial® project started in earnest in 1997 as the collaboration of three individuals (Florian Böhm, Luca Pizzaroni, Wolfgang Scheppe) who began making daily excursions into New York to photograph the residue of intense commercialization. Their digital images have come to form a constantly expanding database. To date, more than 60.000 photographs make up this dense visual archive. At first, the forays into the city were directionless, almost haphazard, exploratory. But symbols tend to reveal themselves through such an accretion of images, and themes emerge along with identifiable icons - empty milk crates used as improvised seating, A-shaped barricade supports, street vendors’ tables and paraphernalia, the remains of locked bicycles with their components stripped to paralysis. And so these symbols were actively sought out. The project, which began as an investigation of urban culture, now manifests itself in various forms. A Web site presents the near-daily acquisition of material, allowing us to see the work in progress, prior to any editing or culling. Beyond this, extracts from the archive find form in the more conventional presentations of photographic imagery: the exhibition and the book.
Work from the Endcommercial® archive has been exhibited in Europe and in New York. The movement has been from the display of individual images seen in isolation to the “exploded book”, with blow-ups of page spreads mounted on gallery walls, to a single-evening slide presentation. And now the Endcommercial® book has been published. This compendium of images is a conundrum: is it a photography book? Certainly it holds over 1.000 photographs with its 544 pages. The work itself owes something to the forerunners of urban photography - Eugène Atget, Berenice Abbott and Lee Friedlander come to mind - though the digital era facilitates a radically different method for the systematic documentation of “the city”. For his exhaustive record of Paris, Atget worked with cumbersome equipment, gradually building up an inventory of images over the course of 30 years. Later, high-speed film and smaller hand-held cameras allowed for “street photography” of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winograd and Friedlander, but nothing as extensive as this project could have been realized so quickly, and so economically, before the advent of digital photography. Yet the book is not made up purely of digital images; it also includes detail-rich photographs taken with a conventional large-format camera. As ideas coalesced, the editors recognized that certain subjects demanded more formal representation. Later on, video stills slipped in. But this thick book is more in the mould of recent monographs on graphic designers and architects, such Lars Müller’s Freitag or MVRDV’s excursions into urbanism. Is it perhaps a “design” book, or a visual sourcebook? While the publishers suggest that it is both a photographic and architectural title, rarely does a contemporary photography monograph run to such length or treat its images so brutally: bled off the page’s edge or abutted against one another, with sometimes as many as nine fighting for space. In some sequences, a single image gracefully inhabits a single page, bordered in white; elsewhere details are arranged in a grid, again with white borders creating a little calm. There are fullpage views, particularly of luxury storefronts, that demand the book be turned first one way for isolated, exclusive viewing and then the other for the facing page. Such a selfconscious design decision serves to slow down the “reader”, to stop what could become a quick canter through the densely illustrated pages. Similarly, the use of different page layouts precludes any monotony of rhythm. But here the decisions are those of graphic design. A conventional photographic title would present isolated images, edges intact, elegantly bordered. More often than not, the aim of such a contemporary monograph is to promote the work and career of the photographer - solidifying a reputation, encouraging collectors, generating sales. With Endcommercial®, it is hard to imagine what might be for sale, other than the book itself and a vision of the modern city. Not surprisingly, the designers of this book are also its editors, as well as the exhibition designers and principal photographers. And so the book becomes the main product of the Endcommercial® project. It is the distillation of an unruly archive into typological order. In this, the book seems a European view of American culture. Again, there’s an unavoidable echo of Robert Frank’s work, especially as it culminated in the publication Les Américains (1958). But the Swiss photographer’s vision had none of the typological imperative we find here. It presented a severe scrutiny of 1950s America, but one that relied upon the convention of narrative. Endcommercial® imposes a quasi-scientific classification system in the form of variously helpful organizational diagrams introducing the book and each section. A cartographic abstraction of Manhattan provides clues to rather marginal sites and to the ubiquity of urban elements. Beyond this, there is no text. Whether we understand this body of work as a “primer on the city” or an “artist’s project” depends on how we read the book. The accumulation of seemingly disparate observations, thematic chapters and meandering structure can be seen as a provisional way of understanding the chaos of urban life. However, the book’s trajectory - beginning with the letter A end ending with a panoramic view over a cemetery and a street sign reading “END COMMERCIAL” - draws directly upon a dark European vision of America, for which New York has always been an object of intense fascination, at once mesmerizing and repellent. And then there are glimpses of other cities, of San Francisco, Venice and beyond. The book is more than it appears at first glance.